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Children of the Stars

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Orion Black regretted many things about his life. 

Orion regretted being born the Black Heir every second of every day.  He regretted being painfully shy and socially awkward no matter what he did to combat the issues; he regretted being so terrified of women after that incident with that horrid mudblood that his father was forced to quickly marry him off to Walburga to spare the family shame. 

Orion regretted that his habit of hiding behind Walburga and her steadfast convictions were what eventually drove her to believe that her word was law.  Orion knew it was his fault that she had slowly sunk deeper into her insanity, as Walburga had needed a partner who could argue with her and make her change her mind occasionally, but Orion simply couldn’t abide the shouting or the insults.

The two boys that Walburga had blessed him with were his pride and joy, but yet again he’d failed them when he’d allowed Walburga to dictate their lives.  Orion had managed to stand up for the boys a few times, but not nearly often or steadfastly enough for him to feel any sort of pride as their father. 

Orion was the single greatest blight to have ever graced the Black Family tree and he was intimately aware of his lifetime of failures.

However, the look on Reggie’s face when Orion appeared with Thimble- Orion had known of Kreacher and Reggie’s plan, he was the Lord of the House by magic- on that small island surrounded by Inferi almost made the man feel as if he’d actually accomplished something.

Orion quickly stunned his son and shoved him towards the teary-eyed, but resolute Thimble.  “I love you, Reg.  Tell Siri that I love him, too.  I’m sorry…for everything.”

Regulus Black’s last view of his coward father was of the man bravely facing death to buy time for Thimble to take Regulus somewhere safe.

Orion had been smiling- warm and bright and triumphant.

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When Regulus Black had awoken in the safe house that his father had prepared for him it had taken him nearly a week to properly wrap his head around exactly what had happened.

Regulus had grimly gone to retrieve the Horcrux.  He’d ordered Kreacher away.  He’d seen the Inferi converging.  He had known he was about to die.

Father had come with Thimble.  Regulus still didn’t understand exactly how.

Father told him that he loved him.  And Siri.

Then he’d willingly walked to his death.

Father was gone.

So was Regulus’ Dark Mark.

“Father….”  Regulus choked out brokenly as he raged on the inside.  “Father why?”

Why did you save me?  Why did you leave me?  Why didn’t you come with me?

Later, when he’d spent all of his anger and his tears, Thimble came to him.

“Young Master Regulus, sirs,” Thimble said solemnly, her spindly fingers curling around Regulus’ clenched fist and gently prying it open before she deposited a small stone against his palm.  Once the stone was secure Thimble gently wrapped Regulus’ fingers back around the small item and tenderly patted his hand before withdrawing.  “Master be tellings Thimble that’s Young Master Regulus would be knowing how to opens this when the time is being right.”  Thimble blinked her tennis-ball sized eyes slowly and smiled warmly at Regulus.  “Thimble is not havings much times left, Young Master, but she’s be wantings to tells yous that Master Orion really dids be lovings you boys…”  Thimble trailed off and her bat-like ears drooped so low they nearly kissed the floor.  “Master just not beings ables to believe in himselfs, is alls.”

Regulus swallowed convulsively and nodded at the small female Elf- Kreacher’s mother- and she gave the teen one last, impossibly fond, warm smile before she straightened ad disappeared with a sharp crack.

Regulus bowed his head and broke out into fresh, (unbecoming of a Black Heir, he could almost hear his Mother say), raw sobs when he felt the tendril of magic that connected him to Thimble slowly vanish.

Hours later, with red eyes, a raw throat, and more than one shattered-then-Reparo’ed breakable, Regulus hurled the stone that Thimble had given him against the nearest wall.

Dammit, Father!  I’m not strong enough to do this on my own!

There was a small hissing sound and then a projection of Orion appeared above where the stone had fallen.  “I know I’ve left you, Reggie, but you’re not alone.”

Regulus slowly sank to the floor and let his father’s words wash over him.  By the time Orion had explained everything, Regulus felt hope flare in his chest.

I wish I had known this side of you all along, Father.

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Sirius Black stared at the lines he’d painstakingly etched into the unforgiving stone walls of Azkaban with his fingernails listlessly.

No one was coming for him.

Sirius let his head loll back, ignoring the way his tangled, matted hair caught on the rough-hewn edges of the stones as he barked out a crazed, bitter laugh.

Bad blood will out, huh?

Sirius’s clouded grey eyes stared sightlessly out into the dark, forbidding corridor just beyond the bars that held him back from escaping.

Didn’t even rate a trial, in the end.

Sometime later- it could have been hours or days, really-Sirius felt the Dementors’s aura creeping up the hallway and he hurriedly shifted into Padfoot.  Almost immediately he felt the effects of the Guards of Azkaban’s presence diminish as the animal’s survival instincts shifted his emotions deeper and away from the greedy wraith’s purview.

Padfoot whined and whimpered as the cloaked Guards rattled the bars to his cell threateningly, enraged that they were being denied their full due.

I deserve this…….

“It’s not like you to give up, Siri.”

“Oh, great.”  Sirius laughed bitterly at he gazed at his new ‘visitor’.  “I’m being visited by dead people.”

The visage of Regulus Black smiled sardonically.  “I’d be much less attractive if I were a corpse, Siri.”

“Now I know I’m hallucinating.”  The elder Black Heir mumbled grouchily, even as his eyes misted over and he greedily drank in the sight of his younger brother.  “Because Reggie would never lower himself to make such an unbecoming joke.”

“You have no idea, big brother.”

Sirius tried to swallow around the sudden lump in his throat.  How long had been since Reggie had called him that?  “I wish you were real.”  Sirius managed after a long moment.  “There were so many things-“

“This is great, Siri, but we’ve really gotta go.”

(It took Sirius nearly a week to realize he’d been rescued and then a month before he’d let Regulus out of his sight without panicking.

Fortunately for Sirius- who had several impulsive moments that could have ended truly terribly- Regulus had a plan.)

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Augusta Longbottom was many things.  Austere, a member of the Old Guard, a fierce opponent-

-but she was also a mother, and more to that, a grandmother.

Her son- her, precious, precious Frank- and his wife- lively, fierce, lovely Alice- were catatonic, locked so deeply within their own minds that they would never recover, short of a miracle.  Her husband- her strong, steady partner of more than seventy years- was newly dead and the vultures were circling about her and her irreplaceable Neville.

Neville, who was shy and smiled only at her.  Neville who had listened to his parents scream that awful, horrific night and still had nightmares about it sometimes, sending the young child tumbling into her bed and crying into her chest as he tried to push back the feeling of being utterly, completely helpless.

Her beautiful, priceless, kind-hearted Neville who was the perfect mix of all the people she’d loved so fiercely and had lost too soon-

Those bastards want to kick Neville out or change him‘It won’t do for the House of Longbottom to spear to be weak!’ my foot!  She seethed as she stalked down the halls of Longbottom Hall in more than a bit of a temper, having just come from an ‘emergency Family Council’.  Over my dead body!

Augusta stormed into her room and dug out the small card that she had received nigh a year ago from a man she’d thought to be dead.  She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose in thought as she turned the card over in her free hand.

It was insane, a plan truly worthy of the Blacks and there was the Bellatrix angle to consider, but it might be-

“Gran?”  A soft voice called, causing Augusta to look up and smile warmly at her grandson. 

“Come in, sweetheart, don’t dally in the hallway.”  She ordered him briskly, earning her a shy smile and the obedient shuffle of small feet as Neville quickly came in, shut the door behind him, and quickly crossed the room to be swept up into his Gran’s arms.  “How are you today, little bear?”  August asked after a long moment of pressing tender kisses to Neville’s sable hair- as always it smelled of baby, sunshine, and earth..

“….ok.”  He said softly after a long moment, his tiny fingers curling uncertainly into the expensive fabric of her robe.

Augusta drew back and tilted Neville’s chin up so she could see him properly.  “Just o-“  Augusta’s mouth snapped shut when she saw the bruise on Neville’s cheek.  “Little bear,”  She said as evenly as she could manage.  “What happened?”  Because she would have known if Neville had had an accident, Aspy would have informed her.  The only way her little bear would have gotten a bruise like that and she wouldn’t have been promptly informed as if-

“Uncle Algie.”  Neville murmured softly, his golden-hazel eyes filling with tears as he buried his face in her robe.  “He said that it would not have happened if I had magic.”

Augusta drew in a shaky breath as her arms went around her precious grandson and she tried to tamp down on the maelstrom of fury that raged within her breast.  “I won’t let this continue, little bear.”  She murmured to him as he started to cry in earnest. 

I won’t.

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Harry looked at the man with the dark hair and the kind eyes solemnly.  “Why?”

The skin around the eyes crinkled lightly as the man smiled at him in a way that reminded Harry of the way Uncle Vernon sometimes smiled at Dudley.  “Because you’re family, kiddo.”

“So are they.”  Harry made a fluttery hand gesture that roughly implied the sleeping Dursleys were family too.

A warm, calloused hand came down onto Harry’s hair and the man’s fingers gently scratched the boy’s scalp before he allowed his hand to drop onto the boy’s thin shoulder.  “No, they’re just people you happened to be loosely related to.”  The man corrected warmly.  “I’m talking about being family.”

Harry smiled shyly and ducked his head so that his wild hair would hopefully hide the creeping blush and his teary eyes.  “Promise?”  He asked hesitantly.

“I promise.”  The man agreed warmly.

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“Are you all absolutely sure?”  Regulus asked the assembled seriously.

“If you don’t quit stalling, Black-“

“Alright, well.”  Sirius butted in cheerfully from his spot to the right of the rather irate Augusta.  “Let’s do this!”

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Minerva did not often interfere with the lives of the mortals- or even the Cetra, truth be told- but the bright souls who had cast themselves before the mercy of the Creator called to her in a way that she was nearly powerless to resist.

“What do you offer me in exchange for Sanctuary?”  She asked, hooded and cloaked as they were tossed about in the Seas of Chaos, the barrier between all worlds and dimensions that kept the multi-verse from collapsing in upon itself.

“Everything but the lives of the children.”  They responded instantly.  Humbly.  “As long as they are found and can live, you may take everything from us.”

Minerva’s lips curved into a small, fond smile and she flicked her hand at them.  In the green that twisted out from her fingertips she heard the voice of the Planet- of Gaia- sang out brightly as the souls of the Golden People rejoiced.  The Lifestream reached out and embraced the travelers wholeheartedly and Gaia’s blood fairly burned as She accepted Her new Children, wrapping them in layers upon layers of Her Blessing as the Golden People’s melody rang out all the clearer as their new Hope was forged.  Not exactly Cetra, not exactly WEAPONs, but something between the two and yet neither.

The melody reached its crescendo.

Yes, Minerva thought as she folded back into her small space outside of space and time where she observed the worlds she was tasked with guarding.  I think that this is for the best.

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Chapter Text

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The first thing that registered with Sirius Black was pain.

Sirius had been in a great deal of pain before- either from lessons or from back-firing pranks or as a result of being locked up in Azkaban- but this new pain he was experiencing was entirely unpleasant on a whole other level.  His muscles ached, his head throbbed, his stomach felt inverted, and damn it all if his very blood didn’t feel flash fried and utterly miserable. 

Sirius was contemplating just falling back into sweet unconsciousness until, you know, time ended when he heard a small whimper from nearby and his grey eyes snapped open.

That’s right, the boys!

It took several blinks to get his stubbornly hazy vision to properly focus, but once he got his eyes to function he spent a brief moment admiring the snowy landscape.

Of course, that was about the time he heard another whimper- a more keening one this time- along with a few other signs of life from his nearby companions.  Also, since he could now see that he was lying in snow his traitorous body had apparently decided that now would be a good moment for the full weight of the artic chill to sink into his very bones.

Bloody ’ell.”  Sirius murmured exhaustedly as he forced his limp muscles to support his weight as he wriggled around onto his belly and began to crawl towards his softly whimpering Godson.  “I’m coming, Pronglet.  Don’t you worry, kiddo.”   Sirius was relieved to note the suspiciously Regulus-shaped lump stirring nearby and the formidable Augusta Longbottom was also crawling towards her grandson, who was lying just beside Harry in the snow.

“Hey, now, Pronglet, everything is going to be alright.”  Sirius soothed as he jerkily forced himself into a semi-upright position and shakily- but gently- extracted his Godson from the snow and wrapped the small child up in his arms.  Sirius shrugged out of his jacket and wrapped around his Godson, letting the boy burrow his cold nose into his collarbone despite the unpleasant chill that sparked up Sirius’ spine as a result.  “Shh, Pronglet.  Uncle Paddy’s got you, kiddo.” 

Sirius was unsure of precisely how long he sat there, rocking his whimpering Godson back and forth until the child fell asleep, but by the time he looked up Neville was equally unconscious against Augusta and Regulus had not only managed to force himself upright, but also had gathered up their meager belongings.

“Well-”  Sirius huffed with a laugh as he slowly climbed to his feet, grimacing as the dreaded pins-n-needles sensation went roaring through his extremities with a vengeance, nearly knocking him back onto his arse.  “-that went better than we had hoped.”

Regulus’ glare was just a shade shy of homicidal.

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It seemed that the hooded and cloaked figure had taken their magic as payment.

That was alright, they had guessed something along those lines, actually.  It was one of the ‘better’ scenarios, really, as then they would still be alive and able to care for the boys.

The boys were exhausted and slept fitfully against Augusta and Sirius, respectively, for most of that first day.  They were woken up a few times in order to eat, drink, and relieve themselves, but for the most part they slept.  After a long day of trudging through snow and trying to get their bearings, they stopped for the night inside a small, mostly dry cave that offered them a decent amount of protection from the elements.

“So, what do we know?”  Sirius asked that night as the adults- the children still in their arms- huddled around the small magically-heated log that acted as a sort of smokeless campfire.

“Well.”  Augusta started briskly, nodding her head at Regulus who stood ready with a pencil and a spiral-bound notebook.  “We know that our wands have been rendered inert.”  It was a testament to her staunch constitution that Augusta’s voice did not waver in the slightest as she all but admitted that her wand was useless.  She clutched Neville a bit tighter, but there was nothing but stubborn resolve in her eyes as she stared fiercely at the Black brothers. 

Sirius nodded his head slowly at the woman, somewhat awed by her doggedness and dedication.  “Agreed.  They cannot cast spells any longer.”  His voice wavered just a bit and his arms tightened a bit reflexively around his precious Godson, but the eldest Black brother was determined to be just as strong as the fierce sharp-eyed woman across from him.

Regulus scribbled something in the background, but his hand was a bit too tense as he, too, resolved to be as strong as the fierce Longbottom Matriarch.

“However.”  Augusta continued after a long moment.  “Our packs, which were enchanted the old way- with Runes and blood woven into their very material instead of a Charm or Charms being applied by magic after their initial creation- seem to be holding fast.  I would wager that the tents are still operable as well- as they were crafted in the same manner- but after out few encounters this afternoon-“  Augusta’s lips twisted into a concentrated frown.  “-I do not believe that we should risk using them just yet, despite the rather unfavorable conditions that we’ve found ourselves in.”

“I agree.”  Regulus sighed heavily, reaching a hand up to rub at his shoulder with a grimace of pain.  The younger Black brother shot Sirius a crooked grin.  “Seems Mother got one thing right, brother.”

“Amazingly enough, I agree.”  Sirius shot back with his own answering, silly grin.  “Who would have thought that the traditional Heir’s lessons in learning to wield a blade as part of the Rites of Passage would actually prove to be useful?”

Regulus’ lips twitched and an amused noise slipped past his careful guard.

By Regulus’ side sat an impeccably crafted short sword, its polished, leather padded pommel fitting snugly into the black, dragonhide sheath.  Regulus’s hand drifted towards the blade for a moment before he shook himself out of his amused musings and pressed forward.  “The monsters- for they certainly weren’t simply wild animals- dissolved into a green sort of vapor after I managed to deal them a killing blow.  Afterwards we found a few items that seem to be akin to Potions and what seemed to be a currency of some sort.  I am assuming they were swallowed by the monster at some point and were unable to be digested, but I will have to perform a few tests to substantiate my hypothesis.  I also can still feel something that feels almost like my magic when I concentrate on trying to find my core.”  Regulus made a face and scowled down at his notes.  “It feels….different.”  He admitted after a moment of thought, his brow furrowed in concentration as he tried to put the newest sensation into coherent words.

“-almost as if, instead of being concentrated solely inside yourself, the magic comes from all around you and allows you to use a fraction of it.  Somehow.”  Sirius finished for his brother, his lips pursed into a pronounced frown as he, too, tried to relate the new sensation that had seemed to displace the familiar thrum of his core’s normal magic.

Well, his former magic.  As that thought struck home, (that his magic, which had been with him since birth, was lost),Sirius swallowed harshly a few times and blinked rapidly to keep himself from breaking down and crying.  It’s worth it.  He told himself harshly and cradled his precious Godson closer as he pushed his thoughts forward.  “Well.”  He said with forced cheer.  “At least we’re alive, somewhat healthy, and have our belongings.  It’s more than what we dared to hope for, so there’s that.”

“Indeed.”  Augusta replied with a small, approving smile on her lips.  “I imagine that as we acclimate to our new home we will encounter many obstacles, but we will overcome them so that our boys can have better lives.  Lives worthy of the sacrifices their parents made for them.”

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It took three days- during which the boys thankfully slept- for the group to be discovered by a local trapper.

“Wha’ in the name of the goddess are ya’ll doing out in this weather?”  The man had asked sharply resting his well-padded arms on the lip of his sled, his eyes fixed on the two boys; his dogs obediently settling down to wait.

Regulus and Sirius spoke enough Latin that they could understand the man, but they weren’t sure precisely how to answer him.  He seemed to be speaking more of a Gothic Latin as opposed to the Gaul Latin they were more familiar with.   Fortunately the dialect he was using was close enough to the Gothic Latin- Augusta had been a Hatstall, with the dratted thing nearly putting her in Ravenclaw for a reason, after all- that  Augusta had been able to- mostly smoothly- take over the conversation.

“We’re from a small village that was recently decimated by monsters.”  She replied crisply.  “We mostly lived in the mountains, but as we-“  Here she gestured to her companions.  “-were all who managed to survive we felt it best to try to find somewhere new to start over.”

“Aah.”  The man had sighed, accepting the woman’s story with a sad look in his eyes.  “There are few of the Old Settlements left.”  He sympathized.  “The monsters have been getting’ more and more vicious as time’s gone by.”  The man had shook his head sadly before seeming to come back to himself.  He gestured towards the west of them.  “Icicle Inn is mostly a tourist trap, but you’re only about half a day’s walk, if’n the weather holds.  Tell them Ol’ Bard sent ya at the Inn and they’ll set you right.  I’d take ya meself, but I have traps that need tendin’.”

“No need, we are hardy folk.”  Augusta replied evenly.  “Thank you for the directions, Master Bard.”

The man had grinned then, showcasing his gap-toothed smile.  “I believe ya, Ma’am.  May the grace of the goddess follow you on your journeys.”

“And with you on yours.”  Augusta replied with a small smile, gently ushering the other two into motion.

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When Harry blinked his eyes open he was surprised that the soothing murmurs from his dreams remained.  They weren’t overpowering, just a low, pleasant hum in the back of his thoughts as he stretched like a cat and glanced about anxiously in search of something to quench his thirst.  He yelped a little and nearly tumbled off the comfy bed he was on when he felt something move behind him.  A glance to the side and down- as he’d twisted to sit up on his knees a little- showed that it was just Neville, who was also stretching like a cat and blinking sleep out of his eyes.

“Morning, Harry.”  Neville greeted softly, his words carefully enunciated- Uncle Regulus had explained it- as always.

“H-ey, Neville.”  Harry responded with a small smile of his own, only for his first word to be broken up by the massive yawn that made itself known.

Neville giggled quietly.  Harry blushed a little and rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly.

The door to the room swung up, and soon enough Sirius Black bounced into the room and individually swept each boy up in an enthusiastic hug.  “You’re awake!”  He crowed excitedly.  “We were starting to get worried!”

“Black, do unhand my grandson before you drop him.”  Augusta drawled in amusement, swooping in to claim Neville as soon as he was free of the elder Black brother’s grasp.

Sirius pouted a little and snuggled his Godson a bit closer.  “I was just saying hi.”  He grumbled into his Godson’s messy mop of hair, only to wrinkle his nose a little.  “Phew, kiddo, we need to get you cleaned up.”

“Let the boys eat and drink something first, Black.”  Augusta chided as she swept regally out of the room, leaving Sirius to make faces at her back and follow.

I can see you back there, Sirius Black.”

Sirius’ guilty expression made both Neville and Harry giggle loudly.

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The rag-tag group of travelers spent about six months at Icicle Inn, all told. 

Regulus, who had always been adept at Potions, apprenticed to the local Apothecary and earned the title of Journeyman Apothecary in just three months.  Augusta had been taking tea with the local ladies, trying to glean any useful information she could about the new world they had found themselves in.  Sirius, who had always been a tinkerer, had taken to helping the local Carpenter- whose son had suffered a nasty injury, and was therefore out of commission while he recovered- with repairs and such, proving to be a dab hand at woodwork and building things.  The Carpenter had been so impressed with Sirius’ skills, actually, that he’d given the eldest Black a Writ of Endorsement, quite the high praise as the man came from a long line of woodworkers and was not easily impressed.

As an additional nod of thanks, since Sirius had been such valuable help to his father, the Carpenter’s son- who was confined to the house, but was a cheerful man with plenty of patience- had taken to teaching Harry and Neville things that small children native to Icicle were normally taught.  Being children it wasn’t difficult for them to pick up the local dialect, and they were soon getting into all sort of mischief- though they were rather well-behaved overall.

Neville and Harry had both turned five during their stay at Icicle and despite their different colorings were often mistaken for twins, especially when the fact that the boys shared a birthday was mentioned.  After a few long, late-night talks the adults had decided that perpetuating that myth would be for the best.  Especially considering their flimsy fiction of being from an extremely small Old Settlement, a story which could unravel quite easily with just a few innocent answers from the boys. 

In order to prevent them from garnering unwanted attention, it was decided that Sirius would be ‘Uncle Siri’ to both of the boys, and Augusta would be introduced as their maternal grandmother- their mother’s mother- making her ‘Gran’ to both boys.  Regulus, of course, would be ‘Uncle Regulus’.  “We’ll wait until they’re old enough and remind them of the truth.”  Augusta decided firmly, her delicately stitched handkerchief clutched tightly in her slightly trembling hand.  “We want them to be happy, first and foremost.  That’s what’s truly important.”

When it came time to talk to the boys, they had tried to explain to the boys that they repeatedly assured them that they weren’t trying to make them forget their actual parents, but that just confused the two young children. 

Neville and Harry had mostly scrunched up their noses- rather adorably- and glanced at each other before looking back towards the solemn adult. 

“So.”  Harry said slowly, having been coached in speaking carefully like Neville.  “I’m sharing Uncle Sirius with Nev and Nev is sharing Gran with me and we’re cousins even though my Mummy was Lily and Nev’s Mummy was Auntie Alice and they weren’t actually Gran’s daughters?”

“Yes.”  Sirius answered them.  “The story is that Frank- who is Neville’s actual dad- took the Longbottom name because Alice was older than Lily- and therefore the Longbottom Heiress- in order to keep the family name active.”

“But the only thing that we’re not telling the truth about is my Mummy and Harry’s Mummy being Gran’s daughters, right?”  Neville asked, sharing another confused look with Harry.

“Yes.”  Sirius answered again, trying to figure out where this was going, and if it was going to hurt the boys, and dear Merlin he was bad at this and James, Lily, Frank, and Alice were going to murder him dead and-

“But.”  Harry protested, breaking into the tense silence with his adorably confused voice.  “You said that our Mummys were friends, right?”

“Yes, dear.”  Augusta answered, tossing a fleeting, worried look towards the rather panicked Sirius.  “They were in the same year at their boarding school and were quite close.”

“So, they were kinda like sisters like me and Nev-“

“Nev and I, Harry dear.”  Augusta corrected gently.

“-Nev and I-“  Harry echoed obediently.  “-are cousins.  ‘Cause we didn’t come out of the same tummy but we’re bestest friends and have the same birthday and everything.  So that makes Gran, Nana; Uncle Siri, Uncle Siri; and Uncle Reg, Uncle Reg.”  Harry tossed his small hands in the air in exasperation.  “I don’t get how we’re not being honest or forgetting our parents or anything!”

“Me either.”  Neville admitted rather shyly.  “I mean I understand the part about not always correcting people who ass-ume that we’re brothers ‘cause we have the exact same birthday and that is a strange co-in-ci-dence but I don’t get how we would be forgetting anybody or anything like that.”

The adults were rather shell-shocked for a moment before Sirius barked out a short, joyful laugh.  “Yeah, we’re being awfully silly, aren’t we, kiddos?”  He said warmly, sweeping both boys- who promptly squealed delightedly- up into a hug and twirling them both around.  “We just don’t want you to forget that your parents loved you both more than anything.”  Sirius told them as he set them down and crouched down so he could look them both in the eye.

“We know, Uncle Siri.”  Neville assured the man with a brave smile.  “They left us with you and Gran and Uncle Reg, after all.”

“Yeah.”  Harry added with a bright, wobbly grin.  “Even if they can’t be here like they wanted to, they left us with the best Uncles ever.  And then there’s Nana, too!”  Harry drooped a bit and shot Augusta a shy glance.  “You don’t mind if I call you Nana instead of Gran, do you?”  He asked bashfully, his fingers fiddling with the hem of his sleep shirt.

“Of course not, Harry dear.”  Augusta reassured them with a warm smile and shimmering eyes.

Harry grinned brightly and turned to look at Neville.  “I’ll share my uncles with you if you share your Gran with me!”  He said faux-seriously, (it was bloody adorable), thrusting one of his hands towards Neville.

Neville rolled his eyes and reached out to shake Harry’s proffered hand.  “Silly.  We share a birthday and our Mummys were like sisters, so that makes us more like brothers than just cousins.  We’re supposed to share!”

Sirius reached forward and snatched them up into another hug and the rest of the evening went fairly smoothly, buoyed by the cheerfulness of Neville and Harry referring to each other as ‘brother’ as many times as possible.

“Wait!”  Harry exclaimed just before they were getting ready to go to bed, making everyone freeze.

“What is it?  What’s wrong, puppy?”  Sirius asked, looking around for a monster or a sign of the Apocalypse.

“Nev and I were born on the same day, so which one of us is the big brother- er, cousin, like Uncle Sirius?”  Harry asked, eyes impossibly wide.  Neville make a small sound of acknowledgement and also looked extremely expectant about the answer.

“Uhm, well, ah-“  Sirius stammered helplessly, glancing desperately towards Augusta and Regulus, who were just as thunderstruck.

“Hmph.”  Harry grouched after a couple of minutes of stammered platitudes from the adults.  The dark-haired boy crossed his arms and looked at Neville crossly.  “Looks like we’ll have to find our own big brother.  Why do we gotta do everything ourselves?”

Neville shrugged and both boys crawled up into the bed.

“Uh, Uncle Siri?”  Neville called a few moments later.  “Where’s our bedtime story?”

Sirius spluttered indignantly.  “You can’t just break my brain and expect a story afterwards!”  He accused the patently amused children.

“But it’s such an easy task, big brother.”  Regulus teased from behind his the safety of his chosen book for the evening.

Augusta nearly inhaled her tea in quite the unladylike manner.  Regulus snickered from behind his book.  The boys sniggered loudly, high-fiving each other as Sirius stared at his brother in a comically betrayed manner.

“No respect.”  Sirius grumped, crossing his arms and sulking- though his lips twitched rather traitorously and his eyes betrayed his own amusement.  “None, I tell you.  None.”

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Chapter Text

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The discovery of Materia and its many, widely varied applications was an incredible boon to the travelers. 

While Icicle sold Materia, it wasn’t actively used by the average person.  Materia was more of a folk legend to the average person, while mercenary monster hunters and those who travelled off the Shinra-patrolled paths were generally aware of Materia’s existence and there were a small number of people who could also use them somewhat proficiently. 

The average person preferred Potions or Elixirs, they had found.

Shinra, they had come to realize, was Gaia’s monopoly energy provider.  Well, Shinra had their fingers sunk deep into every market, but the source of their control came from the empire they had built on being the place to look for cheap, sustainable power.  People were hesitant to speak of the dissatisfaction of the corporation too loudly- apparently Shinra didn’t take kindly to dissenters.  People who questioned Shinra’s policies or procedures too loudly tended to mysteriously disappear or suddenly change their tune- but the general opinions about the company weren’t overly positive, despite the company having been overwhelmingly popular just a couple decades before for launching their Mako Reactor Program- a program that provided cheap, sustainable energy with none of the detrimental effects of traditional sources such as coal, fossil fuels, or steam. 

According to the whispers they had picked up- mostly by Augusta, who endured hours of gossip each day for the sake of gathering information- the company had been barreling down a slippery slope concerning their policies since the announcement of the SOLDIER Program nearly a decade ago.  There were rumors of involuntary experimentation, ghost towns, major cover-ups concerning preventable accidents or the detrimental effects of Mako power, and other terrors that were kept covered up by the company’s shadowy cover-up group- colloquially called ‘the Turks’- but as time dredged forward more stories about such horrific things kept trickling out of Midgar- Shinra’s crowing jewel.

There had been enough stories that the adults had resolved to only go near Midgar if there was no other option

At any rate, it had actually been Regulus who had discovered the existence of the glorious little orbs of crystallized Mako first- as he was an Apothecary, and they tended to be a bit more knowledgeable about exocentric things than the average civilian.  There were several Elixirs that required water that had been boiled and then sent through a doubled cheesecloth that held a specific Materia between the folds.  The Materia needed to be active for some especially tricky recipes, but could simply remain dormant for others recipes, but the very idea of Materia and how it could be used in Potions fascinated Regulus. 

Well, Apothecaries could make Ethers, Potions, Elixirs, Flasks and several other named Potions, but it was all Potions to Regulus, regardless.

Regulus’ Apothecary Master- Apothecary Trandon- had actually learned quite a bit about Materia, how they was formed, properly using them, and other tidbits of rather hard-to-come-by knowledge from his wife, Hanna, who was born and raised in a place named Cosmo Canyon.  Apothecary Trandon met her at the main inn of Cosmo- the Shildra Inn- where she worked as a waitress when he had been traveling as an Apprentice Apothecary with his Master.

The stories about the Lifestream and the Planet being sentient greatly intrigued Regulus- and, by extension, the other adults of the party- due to their own experiences with the hooded being and the way monsters collapsed into green vapor when killed.

When time came for them to move on- Icicle was nice, but not quite the place they wanted to settle just yet- they decided to head for Cosmo Canyon.

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Merlin’s hairy bollocks, I never want to see another forest again in my life!”  Sirius Black burst irately out as he slumped down against a boulder next to his brother, gratefully catching and then greedily drinking from the canteen an equally exhausted Regulus chucked at him.

“If we didn’t need the bloody gil….”  Regulus’ statement trailed off into incomprehensible- yet obviously vexed- mutters.

The two brothers were currently hacking and scheming their way through what was locally known as the ‘Forest of Many Frogs’. 

Sirius had decided it would be forever called the ‘Forest of Many Annoying Status Effects With Far Too Many Bloody Amphibians’.  He grimaced as he stretched, trying to keep his muscles limber and thought back on how, exactly, they’d gotten into this bloody deathtrap in the first place as a way to distract himself from the pain his body was currently wailing at him about.

Reg might know his Potions and be bloody wicked with the Materia he’d managed to collect, but those Status Effects some of these monsters were throwing out bloody well hurt like the dickens!  A few of the monsters that he- and Reg, who had usually tagged along to gather Potion ingredients or hone his own skills with his blade- had had what was generally referred to as ‘Status Effects’, but not nearly as many as they had encountered in the month since they had left the Northern Continent behind. 

Due to rumors about the already strained tensions between Wutai and Shinra being ready to spill over into full-out war, they had taken a ship from Snowflake Port- the Northern Continent really needed more original names for their smaller cities- to the equally tiny- and equally boringly named- port town, Harvest Port.  From there they had meandered down the line of the mountain range that split the continent- depending on whom you asked, the range had about six different names- by foot for several days.

One evening the boys had wandered away a bit- exploring- and came trotting back with a pair of obviously untamed, but docile Green Chocobos.  The bloody things looked like a cross between a horse and a chicken to Sirius, but the two that had come back to camp with the boys- who were promptly sat down and given a very thorough talk about safety and trusting strange animals by a internally panicking Sirius and a visibly petrified Augusta- were bloody brilliant.  Sirius had noticed that monsters seemed to steer clear of the horse-chickens, which was a relief for everyone, because there had been several close calls in the first few days of their journey.  They had passed a small village about a day or so later- Sirius hadn’t bothered to learn its name, but Reg had written it down, the Ravenclaw- and had managed to not only buy some grooming tools for the horse-chickens, but a little old lady had been quite taken with the boys and had shown them- and the adults by extension- how to properly care for the things.

She’d also given them the news that they were a breeding pair, but a bit too young yet to properly reproduce.  The adults had been relieved, as the boys were already greatly attached to the birds and they hadn’t wanted to have to leave them behind somewhere because the bloody things decided to have a horse-chicken baby.  The lady had also explained that baby Chocobo also weren’t always the same color as their parents and had treated them to a lengthy dissertation of the abilities most closely associated with the different colors of Chocobo.

The boys and Regulus had listened eagerly, but Sirius was pretty sure that Augusta had been as bored as he’d been- not that the woman would ever admit such a thing.

Augusta- who had been trying to teach the boys about different shades of colors- had accidentally been party to the male being named ‘Emerald’, while the female was graced with the name of ‘Juniper’.  Given the two-hour debate that it had taken to change the twos’ minds about naming the male something other than ‘Pickle’, the adults had decided that ‘Juniper’ was perfectly fine for the female mostly out of sheer self-preservation.

At any rate, the Chocobo had sped things up because while the boys and Augusta were the only ones riding them, they no longer had to either carry the boys or walk at their pace.  The lack of monster attacks also helped things considerably.

They had taken their time, though, pointing out things to the boys along the way and trying to teach them as much as they could.  Regulus had also been stocking up on Apothecary supplies like a madman- some of the enchanted bags that they’d brought also had stasis enchantments, so Reg was taking full advantage of that- and before long they’d made it to the small village of Tuponga.

That, in Sirius’ humble opinion, was where everything went horribly bloody wrong.

There had been a traveling merchant there who had stuck up a conversation with Augusta- Sirius was nearly ninety-nine percent sure that the chap had been trying to flirt with the woman- who had lamented the fact that some of the supplies he needed came from animals that were native to the ‘Forest of Many frogs’.  The man had gone on to complain that even Shinra wouldn’t go in there with anything less than a regiment of Infantry or a squad or three of SOLDIER Seconds, which made the price of the parts that much steeper.

Sirius had known he and Reggie were doomed as soon as Augusta had smiled charmingly at the trader before looking over at them.

Thus, Sirius and Regulus had set out- bright and bloody early- the next morning, fully equipped to spend at least a week in the forest, but they had enough supplies that they could last ‘comfortably’- Sirius snorted at the memory of Augusta proclaiming that- for two.

Regulus raised an eyebrow at him.  “Pondering your life decisions?”  He asked lightly, sipping from the canteen that Sirius had tossed back to him at some point.

“Oh, yes.”  Sirius replied sarcastically, forcing himself to sluggishly rise to his feet and stretch a bit.  “Particularly how I never want to see this bloody forest again once we leave it.”

Regulus let out a huff that could have been an agreement or a laugh- Sirius was going to count it as a laugh, anyways- and rose to his feet as well.  “Yeah, well, if that Trader was right we should be able to make enough selling the parts that I can afford to take the Apothecary Exams in Costa del Sol to become a Master Apothecary, which will make finding somewhere to settle down much easier.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”  Sirius sighed as he re-strapped the two-handed broadsword he favored to his back.  “And we need to find somewhere to settle.  Partly for the boys, so they can get their schooling in, but mostly-“

“-for Aggie, she’s not as young as she once was.”  Regulus finished with his own sigh.

“Yeah.”  Sirius said, scuffing the toe of his sturdy, steel-toed boots on the wiry grass.  “She hides it well and does an amazing job of adapting, but she spent her whole life in the Scottish Highlands with all the comforts of magic.”

“Essentially.”  Regulus agreed, also standing and re-arming himself.  “I think she also needs to have a house to make into a home.  Frank and Alice passed just before we left, and she lost her husband not too long before that.  Then we jumped bloody worlds and she hasn’t had a place to call her own since.  I think it weighs on her.”

“I hadn’t thought of that, actually.”  Sirius admitted as they made their way out of the small clearing, falling in to step with his brother as he did so.  Keeping sharp eyes on their surroundings while Reg navigated, Sirius elaborated.  “I mean, I’ve thought about it some, just not quite in those terms, I suppose.”  A few small monsters appeared and Sirius made quick work of them.  “I think we need it, too, really.”  He mused as they resumed their trek.  “I mean, I had only been out of Azkaban a month before the jump, and you’d been trying to put everything into place with everyone thinking you were dead.  It’s been quite a while since either of us had a home, too.”

“True.”  Regulus acknowledged after a long, companionable silence had passed.  “I hadn’t really thought about it all that much in terms of us, either.  Everything has been about getting to this point- the original plan had just been for you and I, after all- and then we actually made it here and then we’ve been working to establish ourselves, so….”

“Yeah.”

“With the gil we’ll make from coming here and my Apothecary license, we’ll be able to slow down a bit, though.  So there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”  Regulus was quite proud of the fact that he hadn’t had to consciously remind himself to not use a Wizarding idiom.

“…..I’m still never coming back to this bloody place again.”  Sirius swore resolutely.

“Agreed.”  Regulus sighed as they came to another area positively infested with amphibians.

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Chapter Text

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Cosmo Canyon was dry and hot.

The heat made the boys cranky.  All of them.  Augusta was also not fond of the heat, but she dealt with it with all the grace a woman of her age and breeding was expected to.

Harry and Neville had played a bit with some of the other Canyon children, but even with sunblock salve their fair skin tended to burn.  Augusta’s husband and Frank had been like that before they had gone through puberty, and she remembered that Harry’s mother had had red hair, so she assumed that something similar had happened with Lily.  After they had matured, Frank- and his father before him- had still been sensitive to the sun, even with sunblock salve, but they hadn’t turned lobster-red and peeled after a day in the sunshine, either.

Meanwhile, Augusta was stuck with a pair of peeling, overheated five-year-olds.

“Merlin help me.”  She whispered as she heard Harry start whimpering, causing her to set aside her needlework and go see what aid she could offer the poor lad.

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Harry bit his lip as he tried to not whimper loud enough for Nana to hear.  He was trying to be good, honest!  It’s just he hurt!  Everywhere!  And his skin was all dry and itchy and peeling- like an orange!- and hot and he felt like he was going to die and-

“I miss the snow.”  Harry whimpered as Nana came and put a cool, wet washcloth on his head.

“I know, baby, I know.”  Augusta murmured, fussing with Harry’s pillows for a moment before moving on to Neville’s side.  “How are you, little bear?”  She asked gently as she place a wet cloth on his red, angry forehead.

“It hurts, Gran.”  Neville told her miserably.  “I want the cold.  And snow.”

“Icicles.”  Harry interjected longingly.  “Ones as long as my arm.”

“Hmm.  A whole igloo, like Mr. Randoc used to tell us stories about.”  Neville agreed wholeheartedly.

“Eme and Juni could handle the snow.”  Harry proclaimed solemnly.  “They don’t like this heat either.”

“I wanna go visit them.”  Neville moaned.  “But I feel like if I move to much my skin will crack and all my blood will escape.”

“Neville!”  Augusta spluttered, having been fussing over them while they talked.

“It’s true, Gran!”  Neville defended himself, his arms twitching lightly as if he wanted to move them, but refrained from doing so at the last moment.  “It’s scary!”

“But still-“  Augusta spluttered at her grandson.

“I feel that way, too, Nana.”  Harry admitted miserably.  “When are we leaving?”

“Soon, dears, soon.”  Augusta sighed as she noted the position of the sun through the open window and decided it was late enough for their next dose of medicine that Regulus had left them.  “I’ll go get your medicine, sit tight.”

“We will.”  The boys chorused obediently.

Augusta hadn’t quite made it out of earshot when Neville whispered.  “Mostly ‘cause I wanna keep my blood inside me.”

Neville Longbottom!”

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It took the boys nearly a month to recover from their terrible sunburns- two weeks for all the peeling to stop and two weeks of hit-or-miss bouts of feeling under the weather.  Augusta had used the salve to prevent infection religiously, but the boys were quite young and the burns had been second-degree bordering on third-degree in some places, so they had still had quite the time recovering.

Now whenever the boys went outside they wore pants, long-sleeved shirts, and floppy, wide-brimmed hats on top of having been slathered in the highest-grade sunscreen salve Regulus knew how to make.  While most of the other children were quite kind about it- some of the older ones had been the ones who had gotten Augusta in the first place, as they had noticed how red the young two’s skin was turning- the outfits made the boys stand out.  The somewhat embarrassing  outfits and lingering fears of getting burned again kept the two boys mostly indoors.

Due to their reluctance to go outside and play, the two had tagged along with Augusta when the elder woman went to take tea with the Canyon Elders.  It was sort of fun to go up to the Observatory- the rounded dome of the building with the gigantic telescope on top of it being quite noticeable among the humble, mud-bricked homes that were carved into the cliffs that made up the wide, circular Canyon.  Small bridges connected the different tiers of the Canyon, as the homes were built into the rocks incrementally, so as not to destroy the integrity of the individual mountain-esque columns.

So, the boys had plenty of fun, and Augusta had been quietly glad- and not for the first time!- that she had shed her usual proper attire for smart trousers and a fetching blouse paired with study, dragonhide boots their first day passed the divide that led to the Canyon.

Truth be told, Augusta wished for snow and icicles, too.  Hang those who spoke of warmer climates for older people, Augusta missed the bloody cold winters of the Highlands!

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Harry and Neville were sitting quietly, whispering about the planets and stars that were projected onto the interior of the ceiling- the roof could be opened up to show the sky at night- and enjoying the climate-controlled air while Augusta- along with Elders Bugenhagen, Hargo, and Bughe talked.

The Elders were all older, dressed in flowing robes with white hair and welcoming smiles.  Augusta felt quite at home with them.

The most pressing issue- the one that they got right to after the pleasantries had been exchanged- discussed the possibility of Sirius taking out- or assisting with- some monsters that had been giving the Canyon Guardians trouble.   Since the travelers intended to stay while Regulus traveled to Junon to take his Apothecary Exam, (the Exam administered in Costa del Sol was considered ‘subpar’ to the one administered in Junon, they had found out recently), it wouldn’t be much of an issue.  Cosmo Canyon operated more on the ideals of a collective economy, as opposed to a consumerist one, which was why the Elders were interested in seeing if Augusta- and Sirius- would be interested in exchanging services, as opposed to simply being given money, as such a thing would be much more comfortable for the Elders and the Guardians.

“Well.”  Augusta hummed as she sipped at her tea- it was quite good, she was impressed.  “Regulus believes that it will take roughly two weeks of travel- round trip- to Junon, with anywhere from twenty to thirty days for him to sit his Exams and then an additional week for him to receive his results.  He set out the day before yesterday, so we are just shy of a month left here in the Canyon, for certain.  I believe he intended to pick up adverts and keep an ear out for any towns who were looking for an Apothecary as well, so we might be here a bit longer than that if he doesn’t have any luck.  There is also the time for him to be interviewed and accepted to take into account as well.”

“I’m sure he won’t have any trouble- with the Exams or finding a position.”  Elder Hargo said with a smile.  “He’s quite knowledgeable and his calm demeanor is very reassuring.  It won’t take long.”

Augusta smiled at the other woman- the only female Elder- warmly, pride for Regulus reflecting in her eyes.  “He is quite talented, that one.  I think-“

“Nana?”  Harry’s voice cut across the Observatory uncertainly.

“Excuse me.”  Augusta told her companions before she turned to face the boys.  “Yes, Harry dear?”

Harry made a weird, scrunched-up face and exchanged a glance with Neville.  “Well-it’s just- ah-“

“Yes?”  Augusta asked patiently, with a raised eyebrow, wondering if Harry had fallen ill again.

“Uhm, well, is there a lady around here somewhere?”  Harry asked shyly after a long moment of spluttering.  “It’s just, Nev and I can hear her voice and she sounds so nice.”  Harry cocked his head to the side and smiled softly.  “She sounds like I always imagined my Mummy would have.”

Augusta furrowed her brow and began to rise from her chair.  “I don’t hear anything, Harry dear, are you sure-“

“The Planet.”  Elder Bugenhagen breathed, bouncing a bit in his seat as he learned forward interestedly.  “Oho ho ho!  Can you hear Her, children?”

Augusta sat back down- well, she sank back down into her chair when her legs nearly gave out on her- but gestured for the boys to come to her, which they obediently did.  “What do you hear, darlings?  Do both of you hear something, or just Harry?”  She was trying to be patient and keep an open mind, there was talk of the Planet having sentience, and these two were rather special, after all.

“I-I hear a woman’s voice, too, Gran.”  Neville told her shyly, the boys having come up on either side of her and curling into her sides as she slipped her arms around each of them in turn.  “Like Harry said, she sounds really nice.  Like she’s got warm cookies and a blanket with a storybook on a snowy day.”  Neville smiled shyly up at Augusta for a moment before he burrowed back into her side.  “It’s like she’s humming a song and I can’t quite make out the words…..”

Harry nodded along with Neville’s narrative, the shifting of his dark strands all that Augusta could see as he hid his face deeper into her side.

“Tell me, young ones-”  Bugenhagen addressed them with barely-contained excitement.  “-have you ever heard stories about the Cetra?”

“The Cetra?”  Harry asked curiously, peering cautiously at Bugenhagen with one bright green eye.

“Hmmhmm.  The Cetra.  The Ancients.  The people who once cared for the Planet and kept Her thriving.”  Bugenhagen told them warmly.

“Can you tell us about them, Elder Bu-gen-hag-en?”  Neville asked politely, his golden-hazel eyes peeking out from over the top of his Gran’s forearm.

“Will you, little bear.”

Will you tell us about them, Elder Bu-gen-hag-en?”  Neville repeated obediently, earning a warm chuckle from the two male Elders and a cooing sound from Elder Hargo.

“Of course!”  The Elder agreed excitedly, wriggling around in excitement a little before he tapped a button and the ceiling showed an obviously-animated projection, and a calm, pleasant female voice began to narrate in time with the animated images.

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Two thousand years ago, the nomadic Cetra wandered the Planet, performing many duties that ensured the Planet’s success and health.  The daughter race of the Cetra- the humans- revered the Cetra and were honored to host them in their cities.  It has been discovered, mostly through studying recovered Cetran texts, that when a Cetra passed they returned to the Planet- the Lifestream- to continue in their quest to safeguard the Planet.

The Lifestream is a topic of much debate, as today’s Mako power is made from ‘Liquid Lifestream’.  Green, vicious liquid- which most Lifestream experts believe to be a expressed form of the Lifestream all living things return to upon their death- can be found in abundance by digging down into the Planet’s core.  There are also sections of the Planet- particularly cavernous regions- where there are ‘Liquid Lifestream’ springs, where naturally formed Materia- or ‘Crystallized Lifestream’ are usually found. The ‘Liquid Lifestream’ harvested from deep within the Planet is then processed into Mako in Shinra Company’s, Mako Reactors.  When Mako flows through a Mako Reactor and is thusly converted into practical energy it is exhausted, which reduces the amount of Lifestream available to the Planet.

According to the reports released by Shinra Company, the Por-Mako faction reports that the constant use of Mako is not detrimental to the Planet in the long run.  The Mako-Neutral faction- those who believe that Mako power is made from the Lifestream, instead of Mako simply being a spontaneous alternate energy source- usually puts forth the opinion that people, animals, and monsters die consistently and return to the Planet, so the Planet, in this regard, the Planet continually recovers what it loses in the Reactors.  Anti-Mako activists say that using Mako power strips the Planet of the vital resource that keeps Her vibrant and healthy, and that by depleting the amount of Lifestream available to Her it causes Her to ‘cut corners’ and allow area of the Planet to grow barren as there is no longer enough Lifestream active within those areas to support the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

Without the guidance of the Cetra, it is unlikely that we will find conclusive evidence on this side of the Lifestream’s flow.

The Cetra were more commonly known as the Golden People- partly due to their talents in cultivating the land, their expertise in healing, and a number of other professions that were deemed ‘woth their weight in gold’, or ‘worth more than all the gold of the Planet combined’; but also due to their habits of wearing long- yet quite maneuverable- flowing, golden robes.

Some researchers believe the practice of fully realized, adult Cetra donning golden robes was a way for them to pay homage to the goddess Minerva.  While the name of the Planet, when spoken about in the recovered Cetra texts, is Gaia- or Gaea, depending on the translator’s opinions- the goddess Minerva seems to be a separate entity.  Whether she is an ancient Cetra who grew into legend or an actual deity is unknown, but the color gold is closely associated with practicing Cetra throughout the Planet’s recorded history.

Researchers estimate that the Age of the Cetra reigned anywhere from six thousand to ten thousand years.

One day, however, a meteor struck the northernmost continent of the Planet, and the Cetra set out to investigate. 

Not much is known beyond that point, but the Cetra’s numbers were quickly and ferociously devastated by the Calamity From the Skies.  Some of the research gathered at dig sights suggest that the Calamity had the ability to shape-shift as well as mimic the Planet’s voice, but that information was only recently confirmed by a team of researchers near Ickle Inn.

Eventually the remaining Cetra managed to band together and seal their foe away into the same crater that the Calamity made when She arrived, but by then the Cetra were far too few to celebrate their victory.  The Planet, attempting to seal the wound left from the initial impact of the meteor and keep the seal on the Calamity strong, began releasing massive amount of spirit energy to heal Herself.

That is the true reason behind the bitter cold of the Northern Continent.

The surviving Cetra scattered, blending into the human populations.  There were a few families who remained behind to watch over the Calamity’s seal, however, and they founded a small settlement that is known as the Bone Village by today’s maps.  Time passed and the numbers of the Watch dwindled, and eventually the Cetra, their mighty deeds, and the history of the Planet’s Golden People’s desperate battle against the Calamity From the Skies faded into myth.

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Harry and Neville were wide eyed and sniffly when the normal lights of the Observatory same back up, both boys having clambered onto Augusta’s lap and some point so the elder woman could hug them.

“Is that the end of the story?”  Harry asked after he’d been prompted to blow his nose and take a sip of water.

Bugenhagen sighed and shook his head a little, the light causing his bald head to gleam a little as he tried to phrase his next words.  “….a dear friend of mine played a part in freeing the Calamity from Her prison by accident, believing Her to be a Cetra.”  He said eventually, running a hand through his snow-white beard in thoughtful reflection for a few moments before he continued.  “I am unsure of what happened to Her beyond that point, but I know that Gast now resides in the Lifestream and seems deeply troubled, though I cannot hear him clearly enough to understand the how or why.”  Bugenhagen’s bushy white eyebrows twitched and he bounced a little in excitement, effectively shattering the gloomy atmosphere and causing the boys to focus on what he said next.  “But although I can sense the Planet’s Voice, I cannot properly hear Her.  But from what you two are describing……”

“Do you have other stories about the Cetra?”  Augusta asked after a few moments’ pause, not wanting the boys to dwell on the Calamity’s part of the story.

She’d spit glacial Fiendfyre before she let some alien, shape-shifting bitch harm a single hair on either of her precious grandson’s heads!

“Of course!”  Bugenhagen exclaimed animatedly.  “I’ve been studying them since I was just a boy!”

“Very well, then.”  Augusta said briskly.  “Sirius would be happy to assist your Guardians if you allow us access to your information and promise to keep the fact that the boys can hear the Planet to yourselves.”  Augusta’s eyes were sharp by the end of her statement, and there was no doubt in the Elders’ minds that this woman would bring the Canyon down its very bedrock if she ever dreamed of them painting a target on her grandsons’ backs.

The Elders liked her even more, for that.

“Consider the bargain struck.”  Elder Bugenhagen proclaimed cheerfully.

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Chapter Text

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Sirius and Augusta were sitting around their humble table, in the small house that they had been lent, both deep in their own thoughts.  It had been about a week since that afternoon in the Observatory.  It had been quite the informative week, so while they were now much more comfortable with the idea of the Planet being sentient and said Planet being able to communicate with the boys, they were still somewhat unsettled.

They were magicals from Old Families- so the idea of an outside force being able to slip inside their boys’ heads was……disquieting.

It eased their fears a little bit when they realized that they- and most like Regulus, but he was still gone so they would have to wait for him to return to test their full hypothesis- were more sensitive to their environment than most of their fellow Canyon residents.  Sirius, if he concentrated, was nearly as sensitive to the Planet as Bugenhagen, although Sirius couldn’t make out actual words, he just received strong impressions or projections of thoughts.  Augusta was less sensitive- as she didn’t even receive the impression of strongly projected thoughts- but she was still strangely in tune with the flow of things and had been able to sense the presence of other people, animals, and monsters if she concentrated hard enough.  Augusta hoped to refine the talent so she could use her ability more gracefully, but it was a great help to her already as an exercise to help center herself after a long day.

She and Sirius hypothesized that the cloaked figure had taken their magic and replaced it with this Cetra-like ability.  If that was the case, it would make sense that Augusta’s ability would be the weakest, while the boys’ would be the strongest.

“Well.”  Sirius said at long last, scrubbing a hand through his shaggy hair and leaning back in his chair.  “I would still like to teach them about Occlumency when they get a bit older, just in case they ever need to keep the Planet or Her bitchy…….friend out.”

“Hmmm.”  Augusta murmured as she swirled her tea a bit.  “I agree.  It certainly couldn’t hurt.  It might help them keep their languages straighter, too.  We’re lucky that this Planet’s most common language has its roots in something close to Latin, though from Regulus’ letters, the Western Continent leans more towards having its roots in an Asiatic language.”  Augusta sighed.  “I cannot wait to have a place to call our own.  There is so much that needs doing that we cannot do while we are constantly suspended between where we’ve come from and where we’re going!”

“Not much longer now, Aggie.”  Sirius replied warmly, gently reaching over and squeezing Augusta’s free hand before sliding to his feet and pausing to yawn widely.  “I have to go fight with Mickey and Minnie in the morning, so I’m going to bed.  I’m knackered.”

Augusta nearly snorted her sip of tea quite inelegantly.  “Sirius Black!”  She chided him sternly, wiping at her face with her handkerchief.  “If Minerva McGonagall could hear you now….”

Sirius laughed all the way to his and Regulus’ room.

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The Bonfire that sat in the heart of Cosmo Canyon was lit every night, and most Canyon residents came out to all eat dinner together and fellowship.  The Guardians of the Canyon, Nanaki and Deneh- two quadrupedal feline-like creatures with dark red-orange fur, thin brown manes, and wispy flames for tail-tips- would walk among the people, the decorative beads and feathers in their manes clicking and clacking softy as the children of the Canyon ran curious fingers over them.

The Bonfire was the heart of the Canyon, the place where the children learned about the Planet and the Lifestream at the knees of the Elders.

Elder Bugenhagen stood, addressing the assembled.  “There are only a few announcements tonight!  Firstly, congratulations to….”  The Elder ran through a few birth announcements, achievements- personal and business related- and a few other odds and ends announcements, pausing slightly to accommodate the cheers of the crowd when necessary, before coming to his final point.  “I am pleased to announce that Mr. Regulus Black is now a Junon-Certified, Platinum-Rated, Master Apothecary!”

There was a roar of approval from the Canyon residents, as the Black brothers, Augusta, and the two boys were well-liked by most everyone who knew them. 

“Unfortunately this means that the Black family will be leaving us, as they will be relocating to accommodate wherever Master Regulus decides to practice, but I hope that they will always remember that they are welcome here in the Canyon.”  Bugenhagen smiled at the crown for a long moment, his eyes sweeping over the Black family kindly.  “And now-”  He said gleefully, bouncing a bit in place.  “-let’s eat!”

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By the time he had returned to the Canyon, Regulus had a pretty good idea of where he wanted to practice as an Apothecary.  The Exams hadn’t been nearly as troubling as he thought they would be, and the rating that he’d been awarded- Platinum- pretty much meant he’d get whichever job he decided he wanted.

Gaia had few ‘major’ cities, he had found.  There were small towns scattered just about everywhere, but the huge cities were few and far between.  

That was just fine with Regulus because, while he wanted his business to succeed, he knew that both Sirius and Augusta would be better suited for small-town life.  Sirius still had issues from Azkaban and being cast aside by all the people he’d loved and cared about and fought for and Augusta was just enough of a Highlands woman that she would wilt being constantly surrounded by the buzz and bustle of city life.  The boys would most likely do better in a smaller town as well, especially with the subtext of the last few letters- he didn’t find out everything until he returned to the Canyon, but he’d pieced enough together to be concerned.

Regulus himself still had nights where he woke up abruptly with a scream on his lips, thinking that he was about to be devoured by Inferi, so he had his own personal reasons to want a quieter place to settle.

Not to mention……

Well, Regulus had been raised by Walburga Black.  Seeing that Shinra was rotten to the core and dangerous to his adorable little nephews and his big brother was child’s play.  Their propaganda campaign was quite smooth, but Regulus had spent a day in Midgar, and a few hours Below the Plate and….well, he was a Scion of the House of Black.

So, small towns.

“Alright, so.”  Regulus said to his companions the night after the Bonfire Announcement.  The boys were in bed, so it was time for some brainstorming.  “I’ve read adverts from just about everyone and everywhere at this point, but I want something in a smaller town, so I’ve only included the ones from moderately-sized to tiny …settlements.”

“I would prefer a smaller place as well.”  Augusta sighed, the tension seeping from her shoulders so quickly she nearly drooped.  “No, no, I’m fine.”  She told the concerned brothers, “But I am glad that we will be settling somewhere small.”  She hesitated a moment before tentatively adding.  “Even the bustle of the Canyon is a bit too busy for me at times.”

Sirius smiled warmly at the elder woman and reached over to gently hold her hand.  “You’re important to us, Aggie.  We want you to be comfortable, too.”

Regulus made a sound of agreement and reached for Aggie’s other hand.

“Thank you, dears.”  She smiled gently at them before squeezing their hands and moving her hands to her teacup.  “I don’t mean to be a bother, but….I’m old.”  She smirked mischievously at them from over the rim of her cup.  “And you know what they say about us stubborn, old Highlands women.”

Sirius barked out a laugh before settling back against his chair and Regulus chuckled as he scattered his newspaper clippings and carefully-written notes on their rather large, unfolded paper map of Gaia.

There were nine locations that Regulus had tagged as ‘possibilities’, and five of them were quickly ruled out.

“The boys are positively dying to see snow.”  Augusta told the two men.  “Neville was trying to convince Harry to help him ask the Planet to make it snow here the other day!  I had to explain about ecosystems and such to them!  You should have seen their disappointed little frowns!”

“Ok.”  Regulus said with a quiet chuckle, absently agreeing with Sirius that he wished he had a picture of the boys’ faces.  “So those five are gone.”

“Hmmm….”  Sirius said slowly after a few moments, his eyes focused intently on the map and the four remaining possible locations.

“Hm, what, Siri?”  Regulus asked after a long moment of contemplative silence passed.

“What?”  Oh!   Just thinking!”  Sirius said quickly, shaking his head sharply and sliding a cheerful smile on his face.

“No, you weren’t.”  Augusta snorted, folding her arms under her breasts and giving Sirius the Minerva McGonagall inspired ‘tell-me-right-now-before-I-turn-you-into-a-mouse’ glare.

Regulus just cocked an eyebrow in interest and settled back against his chair, also crossing his arms and giving Sirius and unimpressed glare.

Sirius deflated after a few moments.  “Well, it’s just-“  The elder Black brother ran a hand through his hair before moving that hand to rub at the back of his neck as his cheeks tinted a bit pink in embarrassment.  “-I just have this….theory that I want to test.  And one of the places is near some natural Lifestream Springs, according to the maps at the Research Station.”

“Oh?”  Regulus asked, his other eyebrow lifting in interest.  “Care to share?”

“Well- it’s….it’s kind of stupid, when I really think about it.”  Sirius admitted sheepishly, flushing a bit deeper and fidgeting.

“Yes, well, you have a habit of taking the preposterous and making it possible, so do spit it out, Sirius.”

Sirius preened a little under Augusta’s back-handed praise and straightened a bit, his eyes lighting up with excitement.  “Well, Materia is only used when it is formed fully into a Materia orb, right?”  He said, moving his hands in broad, sweeping gestures to emphasize his excited chatter.  “But I think that if the ‘useless shards’ were arranged properly- say, by someone who has experience with Runic Arrays and Arithmancy- they could be used as alternate power sources.”

Augusta and Regulus looked curious and thoughtful, not disapproving, so Sirius hurried to continue.  “I did a whole bunch of carpentry work for the Research Center and they paid me by teaching me a whole bunch about solar panels and wind mills and, well- renewable energy sources, and I just thought that since, you know, Mako Energy  is so bad for the Planet and we have a rather unique perspective, I could make something new.”  Sirius squirmed as he waited for the judgement of his brother and Augusta.

“The idea….has merit.”  Regulus said slowly after a long moment of thought.  “Materia is thought of very- well, linearly, so I suppose that either no one has thought of such a thing or-“

“-they lacked the proper sort of mindset or information to make it work.”  Augusta finished with a small, proud smile in Sirius’ direction. 

“Living somewhere near a known series of naturally recurring Lifestream Springs would give you plenty of material to work with. Monsters tend to converge in those areas and to get to them they must be defeated, so most of them are essentially untouched, even by Shinra- who I have heard prefer to make their own artificially.”  Regulus mused, his attentive eyes drifting over the map.  “This town-”  He said after another moment of thought, tapping a particular job offer and his attached notes.  “-is nestled right at the base of the Mount Nibel- the tallest mountain on Gaia.  It has about a thousand people living there.”

“Mountains.”  Augusta sighed longingly.

Regulus chuckled and continued, trading grins with the nearly bouncing Sirius.  “It snows so badly during the winter that the town is completely inaccessible by air or ground travel for nearly three months out of the year….the rest of the year sort of reminds me of Hogwarts, actually.  Basically, exchange a lot of the Hogwarts Rain Season for snow.”

“It sounds perfect.”  Sirius said with a lopsided grin.

“Indeed.”  Augusta commented, dabbing at the corners of her eyes with her handkerchief.  “They most likely won’t be thrilled about outsiders, but I suspect that some of that dislike will be mitigated by Regulus being an Apothecary.”

“A Platinum-Rated Master Apothecary.”  Sirius interjected with a grin, earning a twitch of the lips from Augusta and a roll of the eyes from Regulus.

Sirius had been mentioning that as often as possible since he’d read it off of Regulus’ official results.

“I would think so.”  Regulus agreed wryly, removing the other job offers from the map.  “They’ve been looking for an Apothecary for nearly a decade.  Right now they have to either use pre-made Potions or wait for a courier to come from Rocket Town.  It usually takes a week, at the fastest.”  Regulus furrowed his brow a bit and scowled. “I’m not sure of the town’s actual name, unfortunately.  It’s a small port town that is mostly Shinra-run and serves as their major air presence for the war against Wutai    Shinra’s Space Program is building a huge rocket there so everyone just refers to it as Rocket Town.  At any rate, most of the Apothecaries are on Shinra’s payroll, and from what I gathered they tend to use lower-quality ingredients for non-Shinra employees.  Especially now that war has officially broken out between Shinra and Wutai.”

“So those poor people have to depend on pre-made Potions or half-arsed ones that come a week late?”  Sirius asked, horrified.  Then something else seemed to dawn on him.  “And you said it was inaccessible during parts of the year!”  He nearly squawked.

“Exactly.”  Regulus replied, nodding his head in agreement with Sirius’ outrage.

“Hmph, well, it seems it has been decided.”  Augusta sniffed regally before pausing to look over at Regulus.  “Do you wish to practice there, dear?”

“Nibelheim is perfectly acceptable to me.”  Regulus told her with a smile.

“Then it’s settled.”  Augusta declared formally.  “We will settle in Nibelheim.”

“Hear, hear!”  Sirius barked out delightedly, jumping to his feet and giving both Regulus and Augusta exuberant hugs before proceeding to do the dorkiest happy-victory dance that either of them had ever seen.

Sirius.”  Regulus choked out around his swallowed laughter.  “Don’t quit your day job.”  By the end, Regulus had pressed his head firmly to the table, seemingly trying to merge with it.

“Sirius, do control yourself.”  Augusta sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose with her forefinger and thumb.

Sirius just grinned at them unrepentantly.

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Regulus shook the hand of the town doctor- an ancient, stooped little old man with wispy white hair, round glasses, and snarled hands- with a smile. "It'll be a pleasure to work with you, Doctor Gentry."

"Now, now none of that, son!" The cheerful man scolded Regulus lightly, shaking a gnarled finger at him in jest. "It's just Julian, to you!"

"Alright then." Regulus demurred with a small grin- the man was nearly impossible not to like. He was one of those rather eccentric old men with train collections and stories about 'the good 'ole days', but in that fun, storytelling way that made you want to listen. They were sitting in the good doctor's office, the window overlooking the main square of the sleepy little mountain town of Nibelheim. "But only if you call me Regulus- Reg for short."

"Alrighty then, Reg!" The old man agreed amiably. "Well, the old Apothecary store is pretty banged up- as you saw when we walked by earlier, no doubt- but it is right next to the office. There's an apartment over it that's fairly good sized, too."

"Ah, well, that'll be nice for the late nights." Regulus informed the man easily. "But I'm actually planning on moving the rest of my family here."

"Oh?" The doctor asked curiously- they had really only spoken about Regulus' status as a Master Apothecary and Regulus had had to make a few Potions to prove that he knew his stuff. The little man had been so excited about actually having a practicing Apothecary that they hadn't discussed anything personal. "Do you have a missus and some anklebiters, then?" The man cast a quick, fleeting glance at Regulus' left hand, but his expression remained open and curious.

"No, no!" Regulus replied with a laugh, crossing his left ankle over his right knee casually and leaning his cheek to rest against his braced fist. "Just my brother- my elder brother, actually- and myself for the immediate family." He explained with a smile. "But my brother's best friend- honestly those two were closer than he and I for the longest time- and his best friend's wife died a few years back, and my brother stepped in to take care of his Godson as his own. Unfortunately, his Godson's aunt- his mother's sister, you see- and her husband died shortly thereafter, leaving that boy- the boys were born on the same day of the same years, they're only hours apart!- in the care of the maternal grandparents. Unluckily the grandfather died not too long after that, and so it's myself, my brother, his Godson, his Godson's first cousin, and their maternal grandmother." Regulus grinned and shrugged his shoulders a bit as he uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, loosely clasping his hands in front of him. "We're a strange bunch, but, well, we're all we've got."

The cheery old man just smiled sadly at Regulus. "Yes, life is full of all sorts of ups and downs. Some of the people in town might give you grief for being 'outsiders' or because of your family's slightly unusual assortment, but it'll be easy enough to ignore them, sonny!" The man's grin took on a mischievous quality. "And as our Apothecary, you can just tell 'em to get out and not come back! See how they feel about their high-n-mighty opinions then!"

Regulus laughed loudly and rose to his feet. "I like that. I might post a sign or something to that effect."

"If you do, please let me know so I can be sitting by the window to watch for the reactions!"

"I most certainly will keep you informed, Julian." Regulus agreed graciously, sharing a rather conspiratorial grin with the tiny old man. "Now, does Nibelheim have a sort of real estate agent or something to that effect? I'm supposed to purchase our home and then send word back to the family to come. We were fairly certain that I'd be hired, but we didn't want to be presumptuous."

The old doctor snorted a bit, but his grin warmed slightly. It was always so nice to see young people who knew their worth, but were still humble. "No real estate agents here, I'm afraid. The land has been owned by families for generations, but I know who you'd need to speak with to be able to buy up one of the vacant homes." The man hopped to his feet and started for the door, gesturing for Regulus to follow him. "Nibelheim actually used to be quite a bit bigger than it is now, though it's never been what you'd call a city. Still, we used to be more of a town than a village.”

They were outside the sturdy two-story that served as the doctor's office by now and the doctor was nodding and waving to people as he spoke all the while smoothly guiding Regulus towards their destination. "With all the people in your family, though, your best bet would be to speak with old Miriam Hester- she's a spinster who is the last of her family and runs the Schoolhouse, has for nearly half a century now- as her family was one of the largest a handful of decades ago, so there are several old homesteads that she holds the Titles for."

"I noticed the power lines, how does the town stay supplied with power?" Regulus asked after a few moments passed and the old man didn't continue. They had passed through the square and had turned down one of the side-streets.

Nibelheim was quaint, their main road led directly into the town's center, which was centered around a rather pretty fountain. The entrance to the town was also its beginning, with the residential districts setting behind the nearly perfectly closed circle of commerce. There were other streets that branched off from there, and the aerial picture of the mountain town showed that it looked rather like a sloping series of slightly misshapen ovals, as some of the homes were set up into flat areas at Mt. Nibel's sprawling base.

It was….charming, in its own way. Regulus could see how the design would work better for a small community that often had to be entirely self-sufficient for parts of the year, as the houses in each 'oval' were positioned in such a way that they could be easily traversed during inclement weather, and all the main roads led back to the town's center rather neatly. The only road truly built for traffic was the road that led into town, the roads that branched out from there were obviously locally maintained and didn’t see much in the way of automobiles. The homes were actually spaced out fairly well and there were a few stretches of flat ground that was obviously used exclusively for farming or cattle.

It threw Regulus off a little because Mt. Nibel was truly massive and the slope was so gradual that everything seemed sort of squished together when you first drove in, but it was more like an optical illusion while you were actually walking through it and your destination ended up being a lot further away than you had originally assumed.

However, there were power lines, and while Regulus knew that there was a Mako Reactor somewhere along Mt. Nibel, he wanted to get a better idea of its general location so he could buy a home as far away from it as possible.

"Oh." The old doc grumbled, breaking Regulus out of his thoughts. "Well, when they first discovered how to use it for power, Shinra was using the mansion over yonder to do a lot of their research. They built the first Mako Reactor here, and we got free power for about a decade because they used it to work out all the kinks and e'rything." The doc's lips twisted into a scowl. "I don't care what anyone says about 'em, I was glad to see the backs of those bastards when they left, even if they did save the town a heap of money by not havin' to cart in coal from Corel or bring in wood from the Midlands for the steam powered equipment." The doc glanced at Regulus for a moment as they came to a stop outside of a small house that reminded Regulus more of a cottage. "The ones who go up high enough- the old manor house that Shinra owns is pretty far up the trail, off the beaten path- say that the place is haunted." The man gave the prettily painted door a few solid thumps before turning back to Regulus with a dark expression on his face. "No, I don't care that we haven't lost power since Shinra built the damn thing, I'd sooner still be using coal than deal with those nutjobs."

Regulus was prevented from replying by the door swinging open. A tall, rather austere woman that reminded Regulus of a cross between his Aunt Cassiopeia and Professor McGonagall was standing just beyond the threshold. She even had the tartan. Regulus experienced a very long moment of déjà vu. "Is there something I can help you with, Julian?" The woman asked the doctor severely, but her light blue eyes remained fixed on Regulus.

"Now, don't be that way Miriam." The doctor told the woman dismissively, waving a hand towards Regulus. "This here is Regulus Black, a Junon-Certified Platinum Master Apothecary. I've just hired him as the official Apothecary for Nibelheim."

The woman's brow rose in query, her eyes finally leaving Regulus and turning to look at the town doctor. "Why would a Platinum-Rated Apothecary some to Nibelheim, you old fool?"

"My family." Regulus replied, cutting off whatever the doctor had been about to say and meeting her challenging gaze head on. I was raised by Walburga Black, lady, you're going to have to do better than that. "My brother's Godson's grandmother was raised in the mountains and doesn't do well with extreme heat or the hustle and bustle of a city. My brother is responsible for his Godson and his Godson's first-cousin due to an unfortunate series of circumstances, and truthfully I like the idea of a quiet place for me practice and further my craft."

The woman's lips twitched ever-so-slightly and even the old doctor was shooting Regulus impressed looks.

"Very well then." The woman replied, opening the door a bit wider and gesturing for them to enter. "I suppose you are here to see if I will sell you one of my family's properties."

Regulus was no fool, he waited until she had closed the door behind them and ushered them to the table before he replied. "I would like to see the homes that you have available, and if they prove to be conducive towards my family's needs, I would like to speak with you about the possibility of you selling that home to me so I might relocate my family as expediently as possible."

The woman, who had simply sat down in her chair and had not offered them tea, gave Regulus one more long, hard look that he met evenly before she tipped her head back and laughed. "Oh, I adore you already, young man. Not many of the youths of today know how to properly converse with an old-timer such as myself." She turned to the doctor, "Julian, you may return to your office- it's the middle of the afternoon, you old goat!- I'm sure that young Mister Black and I will be able to conduct business just fine without your mediation."

The doc blinked owlishly a few times before he grinned broadly at the two of them. "Excellent!" He sang out merrily, hopping up from his seat and all but beaming at them. "Welcome, to Nibelheim, Reg! Good day, Miriam!" With that, and one more handshake with Regulus, the doctor left, whistling a cheery tune as he did so.

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“We’re gonna live in the mountains?”  Harry asked excitedly, hopping from foot to foot as he watched Augusta pack.

“Yes, Harry dear, we are going to live in the mountains.”  Augusta replied patiently- for the sixth time in as many minutes.

“Real mountains, with snow?”  Asked Neville hopefully, also for as many times in as many minutes.

Augusta turned around and put her hands on her hips, her lips set into a firm expression.  “Go help Uncle Sirius.”  She told them firmly.

“I heard that, Aggie!”  Sirius Black hollered back at her, but the boys had already started running towards the room the man was working in.

I know.”  Augusta called back smugly, her haughty expression turning gleeful as she heard Sirius muttered complaints over the sounds of the boys’ laughter.

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Chapter Text

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“Well, this is going to be our home from now on.”  Augusta said, clutching the boys’ shoulders tightly as she looked around the house that Regulus had picked out.

The four of them had arrived via Chocobo just a few hours before. 

The horse-chickens- as Sirius persisted in calling them- were actually being housed by the woman who sold them the house at the moment. 

The absent members of the Black-Longbottom family had caught a ride out of Cosmo Canyon to Rocket Town and then they had caught another ride from Rocket Town to Nibelheim.  Once they had reached the town they had borrowed a cart from Miriam- she and Augusta had sized each other up and engaged in a series of short, curt remarks beforehand- and hitched it to the Chocobo who had then pulled their belongings up to their new home.  They had been introduced to a few people, but the Mayor had been absent- apparently an emergency had come up that had needed his attention- so there hadn’t been any fanfare.

Nestled on a small plane about a half-to-three-quarters of a mile passed the majority of the residential clusters of Nibelheim, the three-and-a-half story home was quite charming.  The interior had clearly been neglected for quite a while, but the structure had obviously been built by master craftsmen as it was still standing tall and proud, despite Regulus having informed them that the home had been sitting empty for nearly thirty years.

The staircases- there were mirrored ones- were wrought iron, and Augusta was nearly positive that they would gleam once polished up a bit. 

Most of the home was still set up to be run off of coal or wood which had been something that Regulus had liked, as it meant that they would have plenty of excuses for not being hooked to the Shinra-controlled power grid.  Hooking up to the grid would have meant safety inspections and there wasn’t actually all that much wiring in the house at the moment, which would have meant a whole bunch of work and far too many Shinra employees poking around the house. 

The electricity generator could be fed through the consumption of wood or coal via the outside furnace.  The furnace really was spectacular and was made in such a way that they could use either-or as there was a side for wood and a side for coal. Not only could the furnace power the generator it could keep the entire house warm as well; there were masonry ducts that ran through the interior of the house that vented out in carefully planned intervals like a central heat sort of set up, so the house had truly been built by forward-thinkers, despite its lack of wiring except to the ancient television, stove, and washer and dryer.   All of the light fixtures were set up to be run on either kerosene oil or coal oil, though.  They were the antique-looking ones with the glass shields, which were somewhat comforting and familiar to the Purebloods, but Sirius still swore that his first ‘Shard Project’ would be making lights.

As for the décor, the house had been sitting entirely empty for nearly thirty years.  It had taken the others about a week, so Regulus had already gone through and piled up all the half-rotting mattresses and burned them.  There had been quite a few bed frames, chairs, and other odds and ends that had been too heavy or gaudy to be sold that he had shoved into one of the rooms on the second floor that he had cleaned out.  The library had had a quite a few books in it, and Regulus was positively itching to read them, as Miss Miriam hadn’t wanted any of them returned to her.  The rooms were mostly wallpapered, and there were some that were much more……tasteful than others. 

Most of the floors were hearty, handsome hardwood and Regulus had been fairly certain that they’d be beautiful once they had been re-stained and polished, even with the mild damage that wear, tear, or neglect had left in some spots.  The countertops in all of the bathrooms, the kitchen, and a few of the other rooms that had apparently been significant for some reason were made from soapstone, a smart choice that Miriam had waxed poetic about while showing Regulus the house.

“Soapstone doesn’t require yearly sealing- though wiping them down with mineral oil will keep them looking pristine.”  Miriam had told him conspiratorially, a fierce sort of aching pride in her eyes.  “Most folks would go with marble or some other fancy stone, but my family were always the practical sort!”

Like the floors, most of the cabinets were made from sturdy wood, though they obviously needed some tender loving care.

The home did have indoor plumbing, for which Regulus was eternally grateful.  Well, he and Sirius both had been grateful that not only was there indoor plumbing it had been shut down properly, so Regulus had already gotten the house’s water flowing and the drains unclogged.

Regulus was a Potion’s Master

Also, neither he nor Sirius wanted to ever have to replace the piping- especially not the sewer lines!- so Regulus had done what all Purebloods did: he poured potions down the drains in a specific order and then let them cure.  It would be at least a hundred years before they would need to be done again, barring a major catastrophe.

During the tour Regulus and Sirius had taken one look at the gleam in Augusta’s eyes and decided that they would let her make all the household decisions that didn’t pertain to their own set of rooms.

The rooms mostly held tall, wide windows that looked out over the rather breathtaking view, though they were the older style that opened with a crank and lifted up, so they didn’t have screens in them.  The kitchen held rather a rather old stove, but Regulus hoped it still worked.  The bathrooms would definitely need updating- though Augusta swore, the moment that she saw them, that she was keeping the lovely, claw-footed tubs, even after they added the more modern showers.  There was a whole, wide room for the laundry and despite the ancient looking washing machine and lack of a dryer, Augusta was fairly thrilled with the idea of having a dedicated place to wash her own clothes.

Then she’d laughed about how different her priorities were nowadays, making the others laugh as well.

The first floor held most of the common rooms, while the second floor held the second story of the library- it was anchored on the first floor and was part of the rounded curve of the west end of the house that was encased in floor-to-ceiling glass panes that looked out towards the mountains- and rooms that were likely studies, drawing rooms, or informal receiving rooms, though any of the rooms- other than the library- could obviously be used for bedrooms.  The third floor held the bedroom suites- the home had obviously been designed to host a multi-generational family- and the final floor- or half floor- was just a large space with a rather sturdy, handsome hardwood floor.

The grounds weren’t expansive by any means, but there was plenty of room for the greenhouses that Regulus wanted to build, not to mention a small shop for Sirius to be able to tinker in.  There was even an abandoned forge- though it was quite the sorry sight- and Miss Miriam had warned Regulus that they only had about six or seven weeks before the winter storms started, and they would want to have plenty of heat and food prepared beforehand, because the almanac was calling for a pretty rough season.

Fortunately, Regulus had sent out a request for coal shortly after purchasing the house and had received an affirmative reply from the supplier, so they would be able to use that for this winter, at least.  He would have liked to have gotten wood, but he figured that the coal would keep better, at least for this first winter.

Their new home ended up being on the same side of the mountain as the reactor, but given the incline- as the Shinra-owned mansion and the Reactor were both a couple thousand feet above where the new Black-Longbottom Manor stood- Regulus hoped that it wouldn’t pose a problem for them.

The boys were looking around curiously, eyes bright with wonder as they squirmed a bit under Augusta’s firm grip- the tour having done nothing but whet their appetite to go exploring- but they seemed to be fine.  Regulus couldn’t sense anything and a quick glance at Sirius proved that he couldn’t either, so Regulus momentarily closed his eyes and hoped for the best.

“Well.”  Sirius said after a long moment had passed.  “Let’s get to making this place home.”

“Indeed.”  Augusta said briskly, finally letting go of the boys and casting a wary eye over their piled luggage.  “We shall have to use the tents until we make this place habitable, and we can use the facilities and kitchens in there.  Since Regulus will be working out of his home lab until next spring- when the town will be refurbishing the Apothecary shop- our first priority is picking out a place for him to work and setting it to rights.”

“Actually, Aggie, there is a basement.  It needs to be sealed up a bit- it has some water in it at the moment- and vented, but it was carved out of the mountain and then the house was built over it.  Normally this would have made the foundation unstable, but the Stone Masons who did the work were actually brilliant.  They made pillars of stone that keeps the house from settling too much, so you can sort of see the beginning lines of the basement’s ceiling where the soil has worn away from near the outside of the foundation.  The basement ceiling is also quite sturdy, so with a little work it’ll be the perfect place.”

“Well.”  Augusta said, a small smile tugging at her lips.  “I’m certainly no expert in building a mountain home, but if you say it is alright, then I believe you.  I am sure that the Runic Arrays that we made and prepped to shore up our chosen home will also keep anything terrible from occurring.”

“Just a minute.”  Sirius said suddenly, causing everyone to turn and look at him in query- even the boys who had been inching towards freedom.  “There’s water in the basement?  How are we getting that out?”

“Funny you should ask brother.”  Regulus all but purred.  “Because the answer is by hand.”

Sirius groaned.  Loudly.

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“I can’t feel my arms.”  Sirius groaned as he flopped face-first onto the sofa in the tent.  Regulus groaned from nearby, probably face-down on the sofa opposite of him, Sirius surmised.  Sirius grunted a bit as he felt the boys climb onto his back, but he didn’t have the energy to do any more than that.

It was the end of their first day and it had been a doozy.

The first few hours of the day it had just been Regulus and Sirius trying to bucket out the basement.  They had a small cheat in that they had buckets that could hold a great deal of water while maintaining the weight of a normal five-gallon bucket full of water, but the basement was still full of nearly three feet of water. 

Had Sirius mentioned that the basement stairs were on the opposite side of the house from the pond?  The pond which was in the furthest southwestern corner of the little plane their property was settled on?  It was part of a stream that flowed down the mountain, so there was a small waterfall as the water came into the reservoir and then it went over the edge of the ledge to form another waterfall.  The pool was fairly large and crystal-clear and would make a fun place for the boys to swim once some safety measures had been put into place.

Serious safety measures.

At any rate, the two had to fill the buckets, trudge up the basement stairs, cross the length of the house and exit through the back door, and then travel the full length of the grounds to the pond.

Sirius had whined about just dumping all the water out onto the ground, but then Regulus reminded him that they wanted to keep the water out of the basement and that Sirius would be constructing the greenhouses in the mid-part of the grounds starting tomorrow.

Building on overly saturated ground was not a good idea, so the pond it was.

Sirius still complained regularly.

After the first couple hours, however, Augusta and the boys had shown up, and since the boys wanted to help they formed an assembly line.  They made sure to rotate the boys and keep an eye on them, to make sure they weren’t over exerting themselves, but all three adults spent at least five minutes wishing they had half as much energy and enthusiasm as the five-year-olds.

It had taken most of the day, but they eventually were left with just about an inch to eight inches of water covering the floor that was too shallow to be able to be scooped up into buckets.

But that was alright, because Regulus and Sirius had a plan.

It wasn’t the safest plan nor the smartest, but the brothers had been practicing- well, there were plenty of moments for growth during their misadventure through the ‘Forest of Far Too Many Amphibians’, not to mention their time in Cosmo Canyon- and they were fairly certain it would work.

Augusta was skeptical and prepared- which was why she had remained standing about halfway up the stairs with an equipped Materia at the ready in the brightly gleaming bangle that the two brothers had unearthed in the forest.  It seemed to be the most responsive of all the bangles they had picked up thus far. 

They had learned that much like how wands had once been used to help them shape the magic they possessed on Earth into spells, bangles- or weapons made out of certain metals- with slotted little holes in them helped them connect with the Materia and use whatever type of power had been crammed inside of it.  A lot of the Materia theory didn’t make sense to the former wizards- and witch- but for now they accepted the ideology that Materia held a single effect, spell, or supporting enchantment.  They had learned in Cosmo Canyon that as a Materia ‘matured’ or ‘leveled up’ it darkened until it reached the point of being ‘matured’ or ‘mastered’, at which point it might possibly spawn a new Materia, but that Materia would always be weaker than its ‘parent’. 

At any rate, trying to use a Materia ‘unequipped’ was akin to trying to cast wandlessly and wordlessly.

The ability to do so existed, but there were a number of factors that went into a person’s rate of success, meaning that many- if not most- people could not, in fact, do such a thing.  Most Apothecaries used a metal apparatus to hold a Materia in place and folded the cheesecloth around it as they were unable to activate the Materia without support, but Regulus was a Black and they had a thing about being bloody perfectionists.

Stubborn Black pride was why the Black brothers stood in the basement holding onto their respective fire-natured Materia- the orbs had started out as light green, but the more they used them the deeper and more varied the color became- fully prepared to summon their strongest fire spell and hold it just on the edge of being cast to dry out the rest of the basement.

Needless to say, Augusta’s Materia were all ice natured.

“Are you two sure?”  Augusta had asked warily, keeping a sharp eye on the boys who were sitting obediently on the top step, watching avidly.

“It’ll be fine, Aggie!”  Sirius had chirped cheerily before turning to his brother and offering him a wide grin.  “Let’s do this!”

Then there had been heat.

In the end it had worked, evaporating the water and sucking a lot of the excessive moisture out of the air and stonework.  However it had taken nearly two hours and by the end both Sirius and Regulus were white as sheets, soaked in sweat, and mildly trembling.

They hadn’t actually set anything on fire, though, so they had been rather proud of their victory, even as they’d guzzled down the Ethers- they were basically like Pepper-up Potions- that Regulus had pre-prepared for them under Augusta’s utterly exasperated glare.  It had taken a while for them to drudge up the strength to ascend the stairs and enter the tent and then they had each picked a boy and gone to take a shower.

Now, laying on the couch and desperately wanting food, Sirius wondered if it had been worth it.  “My head hurts.  So much.”  He muttered pitifully.

“Mine too.”  Regulus replied, his voice muffled by nature of his face being shoved deeply into the sofa cushion.  “I think I sort of understand what they meant by ‘mental strain’, though.  I have a few ideas on how to improve the Ethers I make.”

Sirius just groaned out nonsense and slipped off into sleep.

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Day two had been the start of the ‘housework merrymaking’, as Augusta had termed it. 

Sirius spent the morning with Regulus, helping his brother seal up and vent the basement, but after lunch he was out in the yard, mapping out the greenhouses locations- Regulus wanted a big one for his normal potions ingredients, a smaller one for him to experiment in, and then one for them to grow vegetables in year-round.  Regulus, meanwhile, set about pulling all the lab equipment that he’d gathered- either on Earth or since he’d come to Gaia- and set about setting up a personal lab that would have made Severus Snape jealous.

Augusta and the boys, however, had rolled up their sleeves and started at the top of the house.  They swept, mopped, polished, and toiled until the half-story gleamed.  That had taken most of the day, even with the boys’ enthusiastic help, but the last thing they did before dinner was bring up all the luggage to the cleaned floor and set up the tent up there.

“We really need to learn how to cook.”  Sirius said as he bit into his portion of the food that had been brought from the Canyon.  “I mean we can make really simple things- I, in particular, excel at sandwiches- but we’ve mostly been surviving on things we’ve bought or traded for and then stored in stasis-bags.”

“I agree.”  Augusta said thoughtfully, chewing carefully and absently reminding Harry to use his napkin, not his shirt.  “I can bake- baking was considered quite the ladylike activity when I was a girl- but that will only take us so far.”

“I learned a little while I was preparing, but I definitely don’t know how to skin and cure an animal.”  Regulus interjected tiredly.  “The town has a butcher though, so we should be able to buy meat from him.  We can convert one of the smaller rooms off the kitchen into a cold box.”

“Like a refrigerator Uncle Regulus?”  Harry asked curiously.

Regulus nodded at Harry.  “Yes, Harry.”

“Oh.”  Harry blinked slowly a few times before shaking his head and going back to eating. 

“Gran?”  Neville asked a few minutes later, interrupting the silence that had fallen over them.  It was mostly a ‘we’re so tired we can barely think’ sort of silence, so he didn’t feel any guilt for breaking it.

“What is it, little bear?”

“Are Harry and I gonna have to clean every day?”  He asked mournfully.

“Not all day like today.”  Augusta told her grandson with a badly-hidden smile.  “Uncle Sirius and Uncle Regulus will need your help sometimes, too.”

The boys drooped a little bit.

“Don’t worry, kiddos!”  Sirius interjected with all the cheer he could muster, waving his fork around while he spoke.  “We’ll get this place straightened out in no time and then we can go on adventures while your Gran drinks tea and does Gran-things and Uncle Reg plays with his Potions!”

Neville and Harry grinned a bit at their eldest uncles and nodded.  “Sounds like an awesome plan, Uncle Siri!”

“Of course it is!”  Sirius exclaimed in mock outrage.  “I came up with it!”

The boys snickered into their supper.

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Sirius and Augusta had been to town a few times to pick up some last minute things that they needed right then and the two natural networkers had made sure to emphasize how much work there was to be done on their new house and promised that once everything was finished they’d host an open-house sort of party so that everyone could come and see what they had done to the place.

Regulus had somewhat gotten his home lab up and going, but he wanted to get the Apothecary building fixed up and operational sooner rather than later. 

Technically, by the employment contract, Nibelheim was responsible for making the repairs he needed, but if they waited for the town to pay for everything it would be spring before he could open, as the town hadn’t budgeted for it since Nibelheim had been lacking an actual Apothecary for a decade.

There really weren’t all that many issues with the building, though, so he and Sirius had been spending half a day at home and then half a day at the store.  Regulus was still making Potions at home for the moment, but they had been following that schedule for about a week- the had officially been in Nibelheim for two weeks at this point- and he and Sirius figured that after another week of work and then a full week for Regulus to finish brewing up what he needed to be able to open and have a decent amount of stock available the Nibelheim Apothecary would be up and running.

This was why it was Augusta who had had to explain to the boys- who were quite unhappy with the thought of so many strangers traipsing through all their hard work- that it would be better for their reputation- and Regulus’- in the long run if the party happened, since they had heard Sirius and Regulus talking about it on their way out that morning.

“These people now depend on your Uncle Regulus to make Potions for them.”  She explained to the boys after they had been properly disciplined for throwing a fit an acting out.  She ran her hands over each of them, gently brushing back their bangs from their tear-reddened eyes and cupping their cheeks gently.  “While it is a bit silly, if they see what we’ve done for the house- how clean it is, how much work we put into it- it will ease a lot of their fears about him not being good at his job.”  She’d held up her hand for silence, as she’d seen the mulish expressions on their faces and could fairly accurately guess what they were about to say.  “I know that to us that seems silly because we know Regulus and how talented he is, but think of it this way:  Uncle Sirius is really, really sick and he needs medicine that has to be made exactly right.  You can buy it from a known source and have it mostly work or you can trust a total stranger who you know nothing about.”

“But Uncle Regulus-“  Harry started to say.

“Imagine if we didn’t have Uncle Regulus, Harry dear.  Would you be inclined to trust the total stranger?”  Augusta addressed Harry but was staring sternly at both of them.

“…..no.”  they muttered unhappily after a long moment.

Augusta nodded approvingly, going back to fussing over them.  “Now, if you know that that stranger- and their family- moved into a big, old house and all by themselves fixed it up all nice and let the whole town come and see it, wouldn’t you feel a bit more comfortable about them making Uncle Sirius medicine even if you didn’t know them?”

“….I can see what you’re saying, Nana.”  Harry mumbled miserably, his hands fisting into his pants as he leaned forward and started sniffling.  “I’m sorry I acted bad.”  He whispered.

“Me too.”  Neville cried despondently, leaning his head on Harry’s shoulder and squirming a bit on the hard, wooden chair.

“I know, darlings, I know.”  Augusta soothed, gracefully kneeling down in front of them and allowing the two to bury their faces in the juncture between her neck and her shoulder.  “Shh, shh darlings.  It’s alright.  You’re not bad boys, you’re extremely good boys, you just reacted poorly.  Remember this and then next time you get upset take a deep breath and calm down so Gran doesn’t have to punish you again, alright?”  She ran her hands up and down their backs and gently patted them.  “Gran doesn’t like punishing you, either, so remember this, ok?”

They both nodded, their tears mostly dried up.

Augusta pulled back and wiped both of their faces with her thumbs.  “There now, go splash some cold water on your faces and then we’ll get started on Uncle Sirius’ study, ok?”

Both boys nodded bashfully and took off towards the stairs.

From her place on the floor Augusta wearily sighed.  She really hated punishing them- because they were such good boys almost all of the time.  They got a little too mischievous sometimes, but they were both very, very sweet.  Unfortunately that meant when they were actually blatantly disobedient or disrespectful it was all the harder- for her and for them.  Augusta had never ascribed to the ‘wait until your father hears of this’ method for young children, though, because she felt that it was better for them to be punished immediately so that the consequences of their bad behavior had an immediate response.  Unfortunately Sirius and Regulus were both in town working on the Apothecary building this afternoon, so she had been the only one at home.

Still.  She thought as she grabbed onto the chair to help lever herself up.  I really hate having to punish them at all.

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“Hey, Nev?”  Harry asked softly later that night as he snuck into his brother’s bed.  “You awake.”

“….yeah.”  Neville said after a moment, shifting around to that he and Harry could see each other in the almost darkness of their room- the door was open just a crack.

While they had been punished by Gran they had gotten another talking to when Uncle Sirius and Uncle Regulus had come home.  Since Gran had already punished them Uncle Sirius and Uncle Regulus hadn’t done more than that, but the fact that they’d been bad enough to need such a talking-to had made them cry all over again.

Harry snuggled closer to Neville and bit his lip in thought.  “Do you…do you think we’ll ever find a big brother?”  Harry asked quietly, sniffling a little.  “A big brother would keep us from being bad like today, right?  ‘Cause they’re older and they know better.”

“I think that’s how it works.”  Neville whispered back, his voice trembling with tears.  “I don’t like upsetting Gran!  I was just so angry…..”

“Me too.”  Harry admitted with a nod.  “I was mad that we were going to invite a whole bunch of people into our house when we just got here!”

“But what Gran said makes sense.”  Neville pointed out sadly.  “And then I felt extra bad because she was just trying to help Uncle Regulus.”

“I know.  I felt so stupid and so…so…mean.”  Harry sighed and shifted around a little, swiping at his eyes and glaring at the wall.  “I want a big brother, Nev.  Someone who can tell us to stop being stupid before we upset Nana or Uncle Sirius or Uncle Regulus.”

“It would be nice.”  Neville whispered back, blinking harshly a few times and trying to keep himself composed.  “Then we could have someone to explore with- someone older than us but not an adult.”

Harry grinned a little, his bright eyes shining with excitement and the final remnants of his tears.  “It would be so cool!”  He said, remembering to whisper at the very last second.  “And we could say stuff like ‘that’s my big brother’ to any other kids who are mean to us!”

“Yeah!”  Neville shot back excitedly.  “And we could have prank wars with Uncle Sirius and Uncle Regulus, ‘cause it would be three kids against two adults.  It would be so much more fair!”

They heard the conversation in the living room stop, and both of them quickly shut their eyes and pretended to be asleep.

By the time Augusta came in to check on them, they had both fallen asleep, smiles etched on their faces.

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Chapter Text

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Augusta was incredibly thankful that Regulus was such a brilliant Potioneer.  She was also incredibly grateful for Sirius’ ingenuity.  Between the two of them and lots of hard work from her and the boys- who had been especially motivated after their little meltdown- they had finished cleaning the house about the same time the two men had completed work on the Apothecary shop.

To be fair, Augusta and the boys did nothing but work on the house all day.  They did their best to make games out of it and have fun, but it was their only project.

Regulus not only had to make all their cleaning supplies- otherwise getting the ancient wallpaper off the walls would have taken years- and then supplies to do things like polish the floors; he also made the ‘paint’.  It was actually a sealant that made the floors shine and did a whole laundry list of other things as well, but the especially beautiful part for Augusta was that she could use tape that he’d soaked in, (yet another), solution to divide up the walls or ceilings or whatever and then use just a few drops of color- while the sealant was still wet- to literally dye the sealant the color she wanted the wall to be.  If she didn’t like the color when it dried she could simply have the boys place another coat on the wall and try again.

Regulus made a paint that allowed five-year-olds to paint walls and have the walls still look as if they were painted by a professional.

Sirius, on top of building the greenhouses before going with Regulus to get the Apothecary up to code and ready to open, had come through in the form of a squeegee and a water gun.

The water gun allowed the boys to squirt the sealant all over the walls and floor before using the squeegee to spread it all around and make it look all level and smooth.

Honestly, the longest portion of time was spent taping or Augusta changing her mind about colors.

As far as the floors went, the sealant worked on them, too; Regulus just had to make a slightly different ‘dye’.

As she stood in the foyer of her new house with its cheery yellow walls- by the time Augusta put up pictures and whatnot, the color wouldn’t be quite as overpowering- gleaming banister, and sparkling windows Augusta actually felt like she could come to call this place home.

“It’s so cool!”  Harry whisper-shouted to Neville, causing Augusta to glance back at them and smother a smile.

They were still in their slightly-too-big ‘work’ clothes that were rolled up to the knee, showcasing their bright white socks.  They were both slightly sweaty but visibly pleased and Augusta really wished she could summon the camera from upstairs because they were adorable.

“Well, boys.”  Augusta said brightly, causing them both to look up at her curiously.  “What do you say we put together your bedrooms first?”

“The ad-ad-adjacent ones on the third floor?”  Neville asked hopefully.

Augusta gently ruffled Neville’s hair and then Harry’s, too, for good measure.  “Excellent use of our word of the day, little bear!  And yes, you two can have the two adjacent rooms on the third floor.”

The boys cheered.

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Sirius groaned tiredly as he leaned back against the counter in Reg’s shop, his equally exhausted brother sliding down to join him on the floor.

“Not bad for a couple of Purebloods, eh Reggie?”  Sirius asked, looking over the shop with a definite sense of pride.

Regulus bumped his shoulder into Sirius’ gently.  “Not bad at all.”  He agreed, also looking over his store with a strong feeling of achievement.

Despite not having been planning on becoming an Apothecary- the whole thing had been more of a spur-of-the-moment thing back at Icicle- Regulus was quite happy with how things were going.  Granted, he still had to open and probably hire someone to tend the counter eventually so Sirius could do his own thing, but having something happen all because of his talent well…….

….it felt pretty great, to be honest.

No one here knew who he was- in that, no one knew he had been born into the oldest, purest, wealthiest family in all the continent- so all that he had accomplished had been entirely on his own merit

It was pretty humbling and motivating, really.

Regulus snuck a glance at Sirius and his smile turned a bit warmer.  One of the best things about Father’s crazy plan had been having his brother back.  Not in a ‘picked up where they left off’ sort of way, but to have the sort of relationship that he’d had with his brother before Hogwarts, Gryffindor, and James Potter.

All of a sudden Regulus had to fight to keep the smirk off of his face. 

After all, no one sent his brother to prison without so much as a trial without retribution.  Especially not his brother’s so-called friends or the man who Sirius had chosen to fight for over his own family and definitely not the rat who had faked his own death in order to hide like a coward.

Regulus sincerely hoped the Wizarding World had enjoyed his heartfelt parting gifts.

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Sirius snuck a glance at Regulus and saw that the younger Black had his ‘I love it when a plan comes together’ face on and snorted softly.

Regulus had always been the patiently devious one.

Grey eyes dimmed a bit as Sirius’ most frequent regret- the one just after allowing the rat to have the Secret- flared to life causing a lance of pain to tear through his chest and all but steal his breath.  Sitting here, side-by-side with Reggie and looking out over what they had built together only drove home the fact that Sirius could have changed everything had he just been a decent big brother instead of a cheeky little prat with an inferiority complex, (Lily had mentioned that, on more than one occasion).

Sirius didn’t regret being James Potter’s best friend- not even a little- but when he thought about Peter- the traitorous rat who they had befriended even when he was all alone and useless- and Remus- who had all the support in the world from them but refused to believe in himself, in their brotherly love and sense of camaraderie- and then Professor Dumbledore- who was the Leader of the Light and the Chief Warlock who hadn’t even come to question Sirius, not in all of the long days that he had sat, patiently waiting in his cell in Azkaban for someone to remember him, remember how loyal and protective and dedicated he was, how he’d left behind his own family-

Sirius closed his eyes and took a few deep, deliberate breaths.  No sense dwelling on it now, Sirius.  He told himself firmly.  You have Reggie, Harry, Neville, and Aggie all depending on you, now.  You’re the man- the patriarch- of the house.  Either step up or step out.

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The day before the Apothecary was set to open; the entire Black-Longbottom clan went down into Nibelheim for the first time since they had moved in.

Augusta was putting some finishing touches on the décor and the boys were with Sirius and Regulus, respectively, helping stock the shelves and chattering excitedly about finally being almost done at home and waxing poetic about all the adventures that they wanted to go on.

“Nana, I’m hungry.”  Harry called over to Augusta, who checked the position of the sun and noted that it was more than likely lunchtime.

“Alright, Harry dear, just let Gran finish up and we’ll go get some lunch.”  Augusta told him- and by extension everyone else- that they’d be eating soon.

“Are we going to go to the Inn?”  Neville queried curiously.

Augusta hummed a bit in thought.  “Sirius, Regulus?  You two know better than I would, the Inn or the Café?”

“The Café serves better tea.”  Regulus offered.  “But I think they share a kitchen.”

“Well, then we’ll go to the Café.”  Augusta decided, climbing down the stepladder and dusting off her hands as she eyed her handiwork critically for a moment before nodding approvingly and spinning on her heel.  “Ready?”

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Claudia Strife had lived in Nibelheim most of her life. 

She had left Nibelheim once upon a time and gone to Corel, then to Junon to University, and then had finally landed in Costa del Sol.  Of course, this had been back when her mother and father had still been living.  While she had been in Junon she had taken business classes- though she never graduated and obtained a degree, she’d been far too poor for that- and after working in Costa del Sol for a few months she had been hired as the manager for the Villa Cloud, one of President Shinra’s lavish vacation homes.

It had been while she was there that she had met that man.

He had made her feel special, validated- significant.  He had been so charming and polished that she’d forgotten herself and in doing so she had ignored all the warning signs.  Truth be told, she had only graced his bed once- but it was one time too many.

Claudia had always had a sixth sense about people and she’d always followed it and she never had figured out why she’d been so utterly enamored with someone she barely knew. There had been several others who had been far more handsome and kind and what she had actually wanted to find in a partner that had never elicited such a reckless reaction within her.

Unfortunately- or fortunately- she had received word from her mother the very next day- while she had been huddled in her apartment, nauseous and disgusted- that her father had taken ill and they did not believe that he would make it.

She had slipped the paper with her neatly typed resignation under the door to the Villa’s office at three in the morning and then had left without looking back.  Claudia had arrived in Nibelheim just two days before he father passed, and then just two months later her mother had been gone as well.

It had been a week after her mother’s funeral that she had found out that she was pregnant.

Claudia had always been strong, had always been comfortable walking her own path, but she had been teetering precarious at her absolute breaking point by then.

But there had been a ray of sunshine through the storm, though it wasn’t precisely good news.  The boyfriend who she had dated for nearly six months in Junon- they had broken up with the understanding that he would come and find her once his job was over and see if she had changed her mind- had died doing construction on Midgar and he had named her as the beneficiary- as his wife

She had cried like a baby and then she had dried her eyes and prepared to become a single mother in a small town.

It hadn’t been easy- it still wasn’t- but her little Cloud was her whole world.  Her baby was bright and kind and cheerful and shy and adorable and utterly and completely flawless.

Living next door to the Lockharts was….not ideal.  She had never gotten along with Titus Lockhart to begin with and Maria Lockhart had been a thorn in Claudia’s side since their first meeting.  Maria was prim, proper and the perfect girl for the Mayor’s son, while Claudia had loved numbers, adventures, and had had big dreams about leaving Nibelheim in her dust.

However, Claudia had persevered for her little Cloud.  Her sweet baby didn’t deserve a bitter Ma who let stupid people dictate how she treated him, so Claudia embraced her son and all of his quirks.

Which was why she was headed towards the town Café, her Cloud in her arms, to yell at the woman who thought she had the right to drag Claudia’s son by the arm- hard enough to bruise him!- out the back of the Café and then proceed to tell Claudia’s little Cloudy that ‘his kind’ wasn’t welcome there because the new Apothecary was having lunch with his family.

Claudia threw open the door and barely glanced around- or noticed everyone’s conversations stop- before she started unloading on the bitch who hurt her baby.  “Maria Lockhart!”  She bellowed, her bright blue eyes narrowed to slits and the sun glancing off her hair from the open door wreathing her in an almost ethereal light.  “Who d’ya think you are?!”

“I-”  The dark haired woman simpered, her eyes flashing towards the seated Black-Longbottom family for a brief instant before coming up and trying to drag Claudia towards the back.  “-am just trying to uphold the standards of Nibelheim.”  Maria looked Claudia up and down with a disgusted grimace.  “Unlike some people.”  Then then woman sniffed disdainfully.  “Honestly, it’s no wonder-“

“Is there a problem here.”  A smooth male voice cut into the conversation easily, though the tone was rigid.

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Sirius Black had watched the adorable little blonde boy wander into the Café with a small grin.  The little boy- who looked about the same age as Harry and Neville- looked around at everything with curious, but intelligent eyes.  He was really pale and had the most adorable little freckles across his nose.

He had nearly stood up when the woman from behind the counter had come over and dragged the boy into the back and then returned to her post without him, but he’d clenched his jaw and turned back to his Godson and Neville, but a quick glance confirmed that Regulus and Augusta had seen it too.

When the door was thrown open- and damn near popped off its hinges- and an older, wonderfully female version of the adorable little blonde had come storming in, bellowing at the woman who stood behind the bar, Sirius knew he was in trouble.

She was like an avenging angel with her long dress, apron, and defiant stance.

Sirius had already vacated his chair and walked over to the two women- the one from behind the bar had come out to try to drag the angel away- before he’d really realized it.  “Is there a problem here?”  He asked in best ‘I am a Pureblood, bow to me’ voice.

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Claudia stiffened, but unlike most men who tried to defend her to get into her pants- or dress- this man didn’t edge her out of the way or try to step in front of her; he stopped just at her shoulder and levelled a truly impressive unimpressed glare at the blushing, stuttering Maria.

“No, of course not Mr. Black-“ The wife of Mayor Lockhart stuttered out, horrorstruck.

“I hardly think that this is an acceptable conversation for a child to bear witness to.”  A stern, feminine voice spoke up from Claudia’s other side, and she turned to see a woman who very much reminded her of Miss Miriam just behind her.  “Come now, dear, let me have your boy and I’ll take him over to the table while you talk this out.”  The woman’s sharp eyes cut to Maria, with nearly enough intensity to bore holes in the woman.  “The boys were going to say hi to him earlier but he disappeared.”  The way her lips were pressed into such a tight line spoke volumes about how displeased she was about the matter.

And before Claudia was truly aware of it she had been relieved of her Cloud and was watching the woman walk him over to a table with two other little boys about his age.

Her normal reaction to Cloud making acquaintances was fear, because children tended to emulate their parents and that usually didn’t end well- or fairly- for her baby.  But these people were new and for all their reported wealth they had purchased one of Miss Miriam’s properties and didn’t seem to be overly attached to the status quo- just yet at least.  So Claudia sent a quick plea towards the Planet that her Cloudy would be able to make and keep friends and resumed glaring ferociously at the woman who hurt her son.

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 “Well, now!”  Sirius said cheerfully, clapping his hands together and breaking the spell that everyone had seemed to have fallen under.  “Let’s go talk.”

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At the table Cloud was trying to hide his face in the strange woman’s shoulder.  He didn’t usually like strangers at all but something about the woman sort of reminded him of his Ma.

That didn’t mean that he wanted everyone to see that he’d cried like a baby, though.

“Look at me buddy.”  Someone said from beside him and Cloud was just curious enough to peek around the lady’s shoulder and look. 

Kind grey eyes were staring back at him, and weirdly they belonged to a guy.

None of the guys were ever nice to him, ‘cause his Ma refused to be ‘nice’ to them, whatever they meant by that.  Cloud was pretty sure that what they thought was ‘nice’ and what he thought was ‘nice’ was way different, though, because his Ma was all kinds of nice all the time!

“My Ma’s not gonna be ‘nice’ to you just ‘cause you’re being nice to me.”  He ended up blurting out, much to his abject horror.

The man looked surprised for a second but then he just laughed.  “That’s alright.”  He said with a good-natured smile, rolling Cloud’s sleeve up a little and frowning at the bruise that was forming there.  “I just want to make sure you’re not hurt.  I saw you wince when Mrs. Lockhart grabbed you earlier.”

By that point Cloud was really confused.  Most of the time, once he said that, the men usually backed off really fast or got really, really mad.

Cloud ‘eeped’ a little when the woman sat him down in between her and the other man, and it was only then that he looked across the table and saw two curious pairs of eyes staring back at him.  “What are you lookin’ at?”

The boys just glanced at each other and scooted forward a bit.  “How old are you?”  The dark haired one asked seriously.

Cloud frowned at them both.  Did they think he was a baby or something?  “Six.”  He thought for a moment.  “And a half!”  Then he yelped as something cold touched his arm.  “H-hey!”  He squawked indignantly at the lady.

“It’s a bruise salve.”  The man informed Cloud piling some food on a plate and setting it in front of the blond.  “I’m Regulus Black- the new Master Apothecary- and it’s something I make.”  The man’s eyes crinkled lightly as he grinned and leaned in a bit towards Cloud.  “I have to keep some on me all the time because those two-“  He pointed at the two boys sitting across from them. “-are always getting into mischief.”  Then the man ruffled Cloud’s hair and gestured towards the plate.  “Eat up.”

Cloud was confused, but he was also hungry so he started to eat slowly, a bit unnerved by the situation and the avid stares from the two boys across from him.  “What?”  He mumbled as he shoveled some bread in his mouth. 

Cloud figured that they were in the Café and Ma had actually left him with these people, so they were okay……for now.

“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”  The tawny-haired one asked Cloud suddenly.

“No, it’s just me and Ma.”  Cloud responded with a small scowl.  What was their deal?

To his confusion that answer only seemed to make them happier.  “Cool!”  The dark haired one cheered.  “I’m Harry and that’s Neville-“  He pointed to the other boy, who waved.  “-and you’re sitting by Nana- well, Neville calls her Gran and Uncle Regulus and Uncle Sirius call her Aggie, ‘cause her name is Augusta- and we- oh!- Uncle Sirius was the one who went back with your Mum to talk to the other lady and-“

Breathe, Harry dear.”  The lady who had taken him from his Ma said with small smile, causing the boy to blush like a tomato and the other boy to snicker at him.

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Sirius was sure of two things at this point.

One- the Mayor’s wife needed a major attitude adjustment; Two- he was pretty sure that he was in love.

The blonde woman- her name was Claudia, but he was going to keep calling her Angel- obviously took no shit and was willing to stand up for her son.  She was single- bless the Planet- and she had no need for his, Mrs. Mayor’s Wife, nor anyone else’s opinions and so help her if one more idiot tried to lay a hand on her baby.

Yeah, Sirius was pretty sure he was in love.

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By the time Claudia and Sirius returned to the table the boys- as in Harry and Neville- were busy regaling Cloud with a story about Cosmo Canyon and the evilness of sunburns.

“Is everything well?”  Augusta asked mildly, sipping at her tea and gazing expectantly at Sirius.

“Of course!”  Sirius replied cheerfully, his hands on his hips and a goofy smile on his face.  “Angel had it handled.”

“Who are you callin’ Angel?”  Claudia asked heatedly.

Sirius’ eyes went wide and he waved his hands about wildly.  “Nononono- it’s just, when you came in the door was open and the sunlight hit your hair just right and you sort of just…..looked like an avenging angel?”  He finished with an uncertain smile and a nervous laugh.

Claudia harrumphed and quickly looked away to try to hide the blush that wanted to crawl up her cheeks.  That had been a sincere compliment and about something other than her curves or eyes or breasts……

you sort of just……….looked like an avenging angel?

“Are you ready to go home, Cloudy?”  Claudia asked her son as she firmly pushed the turmoil from her thoughts.

Cloud shrugged.  “Sure.”

“But-but we weren’t done telling you our story yet!”  Harry cried in distress.

Cloud looked a bit startled and looked to his Ma for help.

Claudia looked from her baby to the two absolutely crestfallen little boys across from him.  They looked absolutely heartbroken that Cloud was leaving, and they’d only just met him!  “You can play with them later, Cloudy, we need to get home and get supper started.”

“Ok.”  Cloud said as the lady next to him moved so he could get out of the booth.

“Augusta Longbottom, you may call me Gran or Madam Longbottom, either will do, dear.”  Augusta said as she held out her hands towards the blonde woman.

“Claudia Strife.”  Claudia replied easily, shaking the woman’s hand and being pleasantly surprised by her firm grip.  “Audi or Claudia is fine, Madam Longbottom.”

“Very well then, dear, thank you for allowing us the company of your boy, he’s quite well-behaved.”  Augusta said loud enough for everyone to hear, smirking a little at the murmurs that went through the eavesdroppers when she did so.  “Also-“  Augusta continued, accepting a small tin from Regulus and handing it to the blonde.  “-this is for the bruise- no, no dear, I insist- just rub it on the bruised area every couple of hours and it’ll be gone by tomorrow afternoon.”

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Chapter Text

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By the time the Black-Longbottom family had even made it back to the Apothecary that afternoon, news of the altercation at the Café was already circulating through the sleepy little town.

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Some tongues were highly disapproving- quite displeased about the sort of company that their new Apothecary seemed to be the type to keep.

"Only a matter of time before they show their true colors." Madelynn Lockhart, the mother of Titus Lockhart, the most self-righteous of the vicious busybodies criticized during her afternoon tea and needlework get-together with the rest of the town's 'upper crust' ladies. "Those young men will get theirs- you know what I am talking about, dear- and then they'll be done with that Strife girl and her boy. Why, I bet they've left dozens of girls' hearts a mess. Griselda, you had best watch out for that granddaughter of yours. Then they'll come knocking on our doors, to try to find a proper Ma for those little boys." She huffed contemptuously.

"I heard that Miriam only sold them that house because they offered her free medicine, and you know how she's been feeling poorly recently." Regina Manning- Maria's mother- condemned just as viciously. "I bet that that ….heathen's certificate is fake and he just bamboozled Doc Julian into hiring him. You know how the doc is getting up there in years, and I think his mind is starting to go…Miriam is getting up there in age as well, come to think of it."

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While the more neutral factions of the town whispered somewhat hopefully about the new Apothecary upsetting the status quo for the better.

"I've never understood why people have been so mean to Claudia and her little boy." Miriam Hester told her circle of friends staunchly without looking up from the quilt block pattern she was sewing. "Claudia was always an attentive student, if a bit of a tomboy. Her little Cloud has never been anything but polite, as well!" She squinted her eyes at her fabric scraps for a moment before selecting one and trimming so she could add it to her current block before continuing. "I think it's high time this town had an infusion of new ideas- now, don't give me that look, Mary! I met with Apothecary Black myself and sold him one of my family's properties!" She lifted her eyes to glare heatedly at her audience before she sniffed and turned her attention back to the fabric in her hands. "I would have never done that if I thought that he was one of those uppity outsiders, you know more better! Why, as soon as they get the house fixed up I fully intend to invite Madam Longbottom to join us!"

"I, for one, am reserving judgment." Miriam's friend since childhood, Julia Bradford spoke up in agreement, also keeping her gaze firmly fixed on her sewing. "And if Miriam thinks that Madam Longbottom would be a nice addition to our circle, then I say we reserve judgement and see what happens! Besides, if this Madam Longbottom has impressed Miriam of all people, I really don't think that her boys would be the type to leave a trail of uncared for children in their wake!"

"Well, if you two think so." Karen Gentry- Doc Gentry's wife- chimed in supportively. "After all, the town's social hierarchy hasn't really been shook up since Shinra built that Reactor and most of the elder generation died off. Personally, I think that some people have gotten a bit too comfortable up at the top." A murmur of approval went up from the other women. "So maybe this'll end up being a good thing? After all, an Apothecary of Black's caliber is hard to come by, and he must have a good head on his shoulders- or at least be willing to listen to Madam Longbottom's advice- if he chose a town like Nibelheim to raise his family in over one of the big cities with their shiny cars and inflated paycheques. Julian has had nothing but good things to say about Apothecary Black and his talents. The fact that he and his brother have already fixed up the Apothecary store and have it ready to open- all without any money from our dear Treasurer, mind you- speaks more for their character than Maria's personal crusade against Audi."

"Especially so considering that means the boys and Madam Longbottom are likely doing the dragon's share of the renovating." Julia agreed as she carefully tied off her line of stiches and reached for a new spool of thread. "A woman capable of instilling that sort of work ethic into young children- especially considering that they must be fairly well off to have bought such a place- speaks quite highly about the type of people they are."

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The pessimists- honestly, most of them were the ones who had been turned down by the lovely Claudia Strife- just muttered about how the family were outsiders, and they would always be outsiders, and the sooner those people figured that out and left, the better.

"Figures that she'd pick an outsider with no idea how to live on the mountain to shack up with." Trenton Manning- Maria's brother- spat viciously to the other men who had gathered for evening beers at the Inn. "She picked an outsider to father that bastard of hers too. I caught him lookin' at Tifa the other day, hadda chase him off."

"They'll see her worth pretty quickly if'n they have any sense at all." Gavin Grisham, Mayor Lockhart's best friend since childhood spat back. "I tried to help her out once and the crazy bitch screamed at me and threatened me with her kitchen knife!"

"Be better if they just went back to wherever they came from and we continue on as we have been for the past decade." Another man put forth raucously. "We don't need no big city types comin' in and try'na change things! This is Nibelheim and we do things the same way our fathers and their fathers did before us!

The other gathered men nodded in agreement, and the conversation continued along that vein as they fell deeper into their cups.

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Back at the Apothecary shop the Black-Longbottom family were discussing their future plans.

"Now I want you two to listen to me and listen well, alright?" Sirius was saying, having crouched down in front of the two children.

"Ok, Uncle Sirius." They told him, eyes beight and curious at their normally playful Uncle's somber mood.

"That blonde boy that you were talking to-"

"His name's Cloud!" Harry interrupted cheerfully. "Isn't that a cool name?!"

Sirius grinned and ruffled Harry's hair. "Don't interrupt me, brat!" He teased his Godson lightly, earning a blush from Harry and a giggle from Neville. "As I was saying-" Sirius paused to send an exaggerated mock-glare to Harry, who laughed at him. "-before I was so rudely interrupted, that boy doesn't have a dad, and because of that some people here in town don't like him very much. There might be adults that try to tell you not to play with him or the like just because it's just him and his mum."

The looks on the boys' faces were three parts outrage and one part confusion.

Sirius nodded approvingly. "Excellent." He said while running a playful hand through each boy's hair. "We're Blacks, Potters, and Longbottoms- we don't let anyone else do our thinking for us!"

"Precisely." Augusta said sternly, coming to stand behind Sirius and giving the boys a fond, approving stare. "Our family makes their own judgements about people based on how they treat us and how they treat others. To accept someone else's opinion- other than mine or your Uncles', as we are your elders and for the moment you are children in our care- as fact without doing your own legwork is a sign of ill-breeding and being weak of heart." Augusta's eyes fairly blazed as she stared at her grandsons fiercely. "And we are many things, darlings, but weak of heart is not among them. Frank and Alice- and James and Lily, as well- stood up for they believed until the bitter end. Your Uncle Regulus and Uncle Sirius both had to go against the grain as well- they had to fight." Augusta smiled and stepped forward, Sirius sliding out of the way so the woman could gather up her grandsons in a hug. "As much as Gran would love to keep you with her- keep you sheltered and safe- I know that you're going to be fighters. Just like your parents, just like your uncles, just like your grandparents." Augusta tipped their chins up until they could meet her steady gaze. "But never, ever let someone else dictate the path you choose to walk. You are Scions of the Houses of Black, Potter, and Longbottom and we bow to no one."

"Hear, hear!" Regulus said, giving both boys an understanding look. "Trust me, Harry, Neville; there is no joy- no peace- to be had in having someone else dictate your life. Sirius and I learned that the hard way and we refuse to let history repeat itself, understood?"

The boys nodded. Their caretakers had told them all about the Blood War and Blood Prejudice and how Uncle Regulus had been a Death Eater and how Uncle Sirius had been sent to Azkaban without a trial.

"So if you want to be friends with Cloud." Sirius spoke up from beside them. "Then be friends with him because you want to and don't let anyone else tell you differently." Sirius gave them a grin. "Some people might not like you two very much either, because you don't have a 'normal'-" Sirius made air-quotation marks with his fingers, making the boys laugh. "-family, and it'll be upsetting. But just remember- when you allow someone's words to affect you, you give that person power over you. Now, you can still get upset because they were being mean, but wait until you're at home or with us, ok? Not showing that their words affected you and not rising to the bait of arguing with them enough times will show those watching that you mean business. It works, trust me."

"Besides." Regulus interjected dryly, moving towards the rack he'd been working on before they had gone to lunch. "Grandfather always told me to 'never argue with a fool, because they will drag you down into their manufactured foolishness and then attempt to drown you in it'."

Sirius also began to move back towards where he had been working before their eventful lunch. "Is that anything like Uncle Alphard's 'if you cannot dazzle them with your brilliance then baffle them with your-"

"Sirius Black!"

"Ow, ow! Bloody hell, Aggie!"

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At the Strife home, Claudia and Cloud were talking while they went through the preparations for the evening meal.

"So did you have fun with those boys, Cloudy?" Claudia asked her son, gently running fingers through his wild blonde hair as she stood behind him, keeping a sharp eye on the paring knife that Cloud was using to- somewhat clumsily- chop vegetables to go in the stew.

Cloud shrugged a bit and kept his eyes on his hands. "They were alright. Kinda confusing, 'cause they talked so much, but they were nice."

Claudia hummed lightly and for a few minutes there was only the sounds of the tuneless song she was humming and the rhythmic tap of the knife on the cutting board. The blonde mother made sure that Cloud was keeping his fingers away from the blade and that he was holding the knife steady as she swayed lightly, her chin nearly buried under the soft spikes of his hair.

"Hey, Ma?" Cloud asked after a few minutes of silence, just after Claudia had taken the chopped vegetables away and put the next vegetable on the cutting board in front of him.

"Hmm?" Claudia replied, returning to stand behind her son.

"D-Do- you-" Cloud closed his eyes for a moment and just breathed before he released the knife and turned to face her, his height on the stepstool he was standing on meaning that he came up to her collarbone so she could see the hesitant look in his eyes.

I hate that look. Claudia thought mournfully as she reached behind him and moved the knife away while simultaneously pressing a kiss to his forehead. "What is it, Cloudy-cub?"

"It's just-" Cloud trailed off again and twiddled his fingers for a moment before he found the courage to continue. "-do you think that they'll wanna talk to me again? You know, after they meet the other kids?"

Claudia's heart forgot how to beat for a moment, the wounded look in her sweet baby's eyes stealing the breath from her lungs and igniting a fire in her belly that never led to anything good. "I think." She said carefully, not wanting to lie even though all she wanted was for Cloudy to have one friend, one other person who could see his worth and appreciate him like she did. "That they are…..different from most of the others around here, Cloudy. I hope-" She smiled at her baby through the tears that wanted to fall from her eyes as she fussed with his hair before gathering him close to her- so that she could shield him from anything and everything bad. "-I hope that they understand how wonderful you are, Cloudy. They seemed to really, really like you though."

Cloud nodded slowly and rested against his Ma for a long minute before he pulled back and gave her a bright, brilliant smile that made his whole being seem to glow. "I hope so!" He chirped. "I liked the new Apothecary guy and the older lady who carried me over there to them!" Cloud grinned up at her and stood up on his tiptoes to kiss her cheek, needing to brace his small hands against her shoulder to do so. "Besides." He said when he pulled back, a bit of mischief edging into his expression. "That other guy called you an angel! I like him!"

"Cloudy!" Claudia complained as Cloud burst out into giggles, but she was smiling and her face had turned a nice shade of scarlet.

I liked him, too, Cloudy.

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Regulus had decided that the Apothecary shop- at least until business picked up- would only be open in the mornings. This would free up Sirius or Augusta from needing to man the front counter, and then Regulus would close the shop and brew stock potions until five or six in the evening before returning home.

The store was still pretty barren compared to what Regulus wanted it to be like, but then again Regulus hadn't really been overly impressed with Apothecary stores since he'd come to Gaia, so his store would probably be the best one there was once he was completely satisfied with it!

Part of Regulus worried about overextending the store's budget- he didn't want to have to rely on what he and Sirius made from killing monsters and such to keep the store afloat!- but Nibelheim was actually a prime position if he could build up a solid reputation. Granted, he wouldn't make much money during the deep parts of winter, but Nibelheim was actually a lot easier to get to from a lot of the other small settlements that dotted the mountain ranges all the way down to the coast- certainly easier to get to for them than Rocket Town. Much like Nibelheim a lot of those smaller settlements didn't have Apothecaries and relied on medicine to be brought in, so Regulus could potentially be in a good position to set up a chain of Apothecary stores if he played his cards right.

Regulus was a Black; they tended to dream big- for good or for ill.

However, as Regulus ran a critical eye over his shop he was pleased with what he'd managed to accomplish thus far and sent a quick plea to whoever might be listening that he would succeed.

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Just about everyone in Nibelheim found an excuse to go to the Apothecary the day Regulus opened the doors.

Augusta had sent some baked goods with them for the early birds, and just for the first day he was staying open all day instead of just half, but in that time Regulus and Sirius had gotten the measure of a fair few people.

"It's like there's five groups in Nibelheim." Sirius remarked over dinner that night. "There's the Inclusion Fanatics." He continued after he had swallowed his bit of shepherd's pie.

They had picked up some meat the day before at the Butcher's Shop, so Augusta had been able to throw it together for dinner, much to her delight.

"They are pretty much the Walburga Blacks of Nibelheim." Regulus interjected dryly from his seat.

"So, they think that everyone should marry their cousins until they have to marry their own siblings 'cause there's nobody left?" Harry asked innocently, causing Augusta to sigh and glare at Sirius.

"I still cannot believe that that was how you explained Pureblood relations." She muttered darkly.

Sirius, naturally, was delighted and quite proud, puffing up his chest and nearly roaring in laughter. "Exactly." He agreed cheerfully. "Group number two is the Inclusion Realists. Care to take a stab at what that means?" Sirius winced as Augusta kicked him solidly in the shin under the table, making Regulus nearly choke on his food.

"Uhm, people who understand that marrying your own cousins will eventually lead to ruin so they know they need outsiders but they still don't like them?" Neville tried after some whispering back and forth with Harry.

"Ding ding ding, we have a winner!" Sirius cheered, having tapped on his glass with his fork to mimic the sound of a bell chiming. "They are slightly politer than the Nibelheim Walburga Blacks- het we should totally call them the NWBs, no one would ever know- but you can still tell that they think you are not worthy to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors." Sirius' voice had gone all deep and serious at the end, causing the boys to giggle, Augusta to roll her eyes and grumble into her wine, and Regulus to smirk.

Augusta was going to take this conversation out of Sirius' pride somehow, Regulus just knew it.

"The third group are the People Who Could Care Less." Sirius continued as Augusta and Neville- Harry had helped set the table before dinner- rose to go bring in desert.

They generally ate their meals in what had either been a breakfast nook or the servant's table, as it was far more comfortable to eat in than the actual dining hall. Especially now that the dining hall had the antique Longbottom family dinner table in it- that thing was massive.

"These are the people who don't care as long as long as we leave well enough alone." Sirius continued with his enthusiastic speech- sans the fork-waving because Augusta had snatched it out of his hand.

There were certain lines she would not cross now that they had their own home, and eating desert with a salad fork was one of them!

"That isn't to say that they are mean or hateful people." Regulus interjected mildly. "Just that they are people with a very low tolerance for dramatics and things that won't really matter in the long run."

"Precisely." Augusta nodded approvingly.

"The fourth group is the malicious gossips." Sirius continued with a grimace. "These are people who have a major sense of entitlement- for whatever reason- and make themselves feel better by finding fault with everything and everyone around them. They will shred a perfectly reasonable, honorable person's reputation to tatters on just the barest wisp of a rumor just because they can." Sirius gave the boys a solemn stare. "A lot of the Purebloods back on Earth were this way. It's no way to live, in my opinion. A lot of people from the first two groups end up in the fourth through natural progression. Of course, anyone can be a mix of the groups, it just helps me to think about them if I make categories."

"It's an old Black Family tactic, taught from a young age." Regulus agreed. "You make general categories to classify people with so you don't waste your time on the wrong person." Regulus gave the boys a nostalgic smile. "A lot of Blacks used this technique for all the wrong reasons, but I don't that that the technique itself is a bad one."

"I agree." Augusta chimed in agreeably, delicately swallowing her sip of wine before she continued. "We possessed magic on Earth and we now know that it was exchanged for a similar ability when we crossed over to Gaia. I was always taught that one's magic is nearly an extra sense and that the very first impression you have of a person is the rawest, truest snap judgment you can make of them." Augusta took another bite of her dessert and thought for a moment. "It is quite the split second judgement as it happens before your mind catches up, so to speak, and muddled your senses with rationales and other thoughts. Once you learn what that feels like always trust it."

"Agreed." Sirius said, giving the boys another serious stare. "My first judgement of the rat was of him being …wrong, and I rationalized that gut instinct away and tried to forget it." Sirius sighed and smiled at Harry, his grey eyes full of regret. "I wish I would have listened, kiddo."

Harry just smiled gently at his Godfather. "It's ok, Uncle Siri."

"Now, we don't want you getting all judgmental and never giving people a chance." Regulus broke through the rather depressing moment efficiently, steering the conversation back on track. "But we want you to keep in mind that you magic- or whatever we're calling it- has a primal connection to the world around you and it reads things far differently that we do, so you should always take that into account."

The boys nodded affirmatively.

"Now, the last group is my personal favorite." Sirius said, bouncing a little in glee. "They are those like our very own Aggie-" Sirius gestured grandly towards the woman who merely nodded her head regally and sipped at some more wine. "-those who have raised families, seen eras come and go, have loved and lost, and have had their worlds shaken up a few times and managed to come out all the better for it." Sirius grinned and leaned forward a bit, his eyes dancing with amusement. "These are the people you want to be your mentors. They don't put up with whining, but are wise enough to know that sometimes you just need to cry it out. They'll never let you stand still when you should be moving forward, and they'll tell you the truth even when it'll sting and-or brass you off. They're your rock when you feel like you're going crazy and you shelter when you feel like you can't take the storm anymore."

"They're the best." Regulus interjected.

"Amen." Sirius agreed, turning warm eyes onto the slightly touched Augusta. "You pray every day that they'll be there the next, but one day you'll wake up and they'll be gone." Sirius' gaze snapped back to the boys. "'Treasure them, always,' was what Lily used to tell me, I never really understood until I lost Uncle Alphard and by then it was too late to tell him how much he meant to me." Sirius' eyes misted over and it was suddenly difficult to speak around the lump in his throat.

"I still have a good few years left in me yet." Augusta said with a fond smile and a gentle pat to Sirius' clenched hand. She turned warm eyes onto the boys, who were looking thoughtful but not scared, which puzzled her little before she was reminded that they had already lost their parents- so naturally they would understand death as something more than just a dark, shadowy specter. "Now, weren't you two going to pick out the next book? I believe it is you Uncle Regulus' turn to do the nightly reading."

The boys grinned, hopped up and hugged everyone, and then took off towards the stairs.

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Chapter Text

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Sirius wasn't sure if 'normal' people could abuse the Mini spell as well as he could, but between hitting the materials with a Mini effect and then stuffing them into the enchanted bags he'd had plenty of 'cheats'.

Thankfully, due to this fortuitous sets of circumstances, he been able to start work on the greenhouses during his free time at the Canyon- having bought the lumber on a short trip he and Reggie had taken into the Midlands just after Reggie had returned from his Exams, but before Reggie had gone to interview in Nibelheim- as he had always known that they would need at least two greenhouses, so that ended up saving him a great deal of time. The work ethic of the Canyon also helped, as he'd had several people helping make the frames and such as trade from him teaching them how to do it properly.

Elder Bughe- not to be confused with Elder Bugenhagen, Sirius really didn't understand the Canyon's naming schemes- had given Sirius plenty of the quasi-plastic panels that had been part of an early failed attempt to make solar-panels from some of the Canyon's accrued salvaged materials. Mostly as a thank you for being such an enthusiastic and thorough teacher. The panels, Sirius had to admit, were rather wonderful as insulation, as the panels were able to absorb sunlight and radiate a great deal warmth- they were simply 'failures' as they didn't properly convert that warmth to usable energy.

They were going to be spectacular as greenhouse panels, however. If they worked well Sirius had every intention of returning to the Canyon and helping them make better greenhouses, they desperately needed them.

In the end, this meant that Sirius had the ingredient greenhouse completely finished, and the vegetable one almost finished.

Well, the exteriors at least. The framing of the beds and the dispersion of the dirt and other unmentionable thing that Sirius was definitely not thinking about were part of Regulus and Augusta's purview.

Sirius stood and stretched- he'd taken a short break in the shade- mentally preparing himself for the last leg of greenhouse number two, but happily turned his back on it when he heard Augusta call him.

"Sirius!" Augusta's voice carried easily, despite her not actually shouting. "Please get to a stopping point and come here."

Since he was already on break he just jogged languidly towards the house, noting that he should probably go fight some actual monsters sometime soon. He and Reggie had been running through their fighting stances every morning and tried to spar every few days- Sirius had picked up several new moves in the Canyon and just from observing- but he definitely didn't want to get rusty.

"What's up?" Sirius asked as he entered the backdoor, shaking the crud off his boots as he did so.

Augusta was slightly scary about tracking dirt in all over her floors.

"Oh, good." Augusta said as she entered, in one of her smart trousered outfits.

Sirius quirked a brow at her.

Augusta smiled at him, but there was an edge of deviousness and scheming to it. "We need to go to town." She said by way of reply. "It's early enough that we can stop by and see Regulus and then get what we need."

"Uh huh." Sirius said, wholly amused and ready for whatever craziness Augusta was planning on throwing his way.

"We leave in ten minutes, the boys and I will meet you out front." She said as she turned to leave. "And don't you dare track dirt all over my floors, Sirius Black!"

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The walk down to Nibelheim proper was full of lively chatter and many reminders to the boys about straying too far ahead.

Once they had reached the town, Augusta had grabbed Sirius and dragged him towards the Apothecary shop after gently ushering the boys towards the crowd of playing children near the fountain.

"You sneaky witch." Sirius muttered just loud enough for her to hear as Augusta half-dragged him away.

"I try." Augusta shot back with a crafty smirk, nearly preening.

Sirius laughed all the way into the Apothecary shop.

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Harry and Neville were sort of excited and sort of nervous about introducing themselves to the group of children, but it had gone alright. After their travels they were somewhat used to playing with new kids a lot of the time but it was obvious that the kids from Nibelheim did not share that experience, if their slightly hostile or outright rude remarks and actions were any indication.

"If you want to play with us you have to play by our rules." One boy- the apparent leader- declared, his ashy blond hair glinting in the early morning light.

"Yeah, just 'cause you live in a big fancy house on the hill doesn't make you better than us." One of the others spat borderline-hatefully.

Then there was-

"It's really nice to meet you, but we really don't have room for two more people in our game." One girl said to them rather snootily. In Harry and Neville's humble opinions, she looked anything but actually contrite.

Still, Gran and their Uncles had raised them right and it wouldn't do for them to react inappropriately.

However, the fact that they didn't really want to be anywhere near the other kids only added to their delight when they caught sight of bright blond hair.

"Cloud!" Harry and Neville both nearly squealed, abandoning the fountain-crew and all but bounding over to Cloud and his mum. They stopped just short of the two and grinned brightly at the two fair-haired Nibelheim natives. "We're so glad we caught you!" Harry belted out happily, all but bouncing in place.

"Yeah, we wanted to know if you wanted to come over and play!" Neville chirped cheerfully, before both boys remembered their manners and shifted guiltily. "Um, sorry ma'am!" Neville squeaked abashedly. "We didn't mean to be rude!"

"Yeah, sorry." Harry hastily apologized as well, straightening up a bit and nodding at the lady in his best approximation of Uncle Regulus' regal nod. "It's nice to see you again, uh, Cloud's mum." Harry reached up to rub the back of his neck embarrassedly. "I kinda forgot your name, sorry."

The woman, who had been looking at them as bemusedly as her son had, finally broke out into a bright, sweet laugh. "You're both adorable." She cooed. "I'm Claudia Strife, but most people call me Audi."

"It's nice to meet you Miss Audi." Both boys said in unison.

Claudia laughed again and patted Cloud's shoulder gently with her semi-free hand- she was holding a rather bulky package wrapped in brown paper and tied neatly with a bit of twine. "Well, you both already know my Cloudy."

They turned their bright grins back to their hopefully-friend. "Heya!" Harry greeted.

Neville had just opened his mouth to say something when a most unwelcome voice broke in. "Hey." The girl from earlier came over with Mr. Play-By-My-Rules just behind her. "We have room for you both in our game, but just you two." She finished with a nasty look in Cloud's direction. She turned back to Harry and Neville with a bright smile, gesturing to the eagerly waiting kids near the fountain. "So come on, we know all the best places!"

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Cloud hadn't known what was happening. One moment he'd been walking next to his Ma on their way to drop off Mrs. Dentson's patched clothes and the next the two boys from the Café had come bounding over, babbling at him and smiling.

The poor blond hadn't known what to do! No one had ever been that excited to see him before, except his Ma! Actually, no one else had ever been excited to see him at all except his Ma.

His heart had sped up and his breaths had gotten shorter as the stupid hope he'd never quite managed to leave behind after every time someone was nice to him one day and then turned him away the next started to warm his insides pleasantly. Cloud wasn't stupid, he knew that he and his Ma weren't well-liked or even reasonably-liked, and he had no idea why! It had to be him, he figured, during the nights when the jeers and taunts echoed through his mind and kept him awake. He'd watch the moonlight dance across his ceiling and wonder how much happier his Ma would be if he'd never existed, because Ma was perfect. She was kind and sweet and beautiful and patient and amazing and he-

Well, it was obvious that everything bad that happened to Ma was his fault.

So, with these two brightly smiling boys in front of him and his Ma laughing Cloud wanted to get it right- for both himself and his Ma. He had wanted to say something- to smile or just do something but his brain just sort of shut down. Just when he had managed to gather his thoughts, though, and had opened his mouth to at least say hi, Terra Manning had come over with Trenton Jr. and Cloud had known what was about to happen.

He wanted to scream or cry or close his eyes as Terra smiled at the other two boys all pretty and perfect as she invited them to play with her and her friends, because Cloud knew how this worked, how it ended and there was no way-

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Harry's green eyes narrowed and his hands clenched into fists, but he took a few deep breaths like Gran had told him- he felt Neville do the same. There was a time when Harry had been shy enough he would have folded and gone with the girl and the rough-looking boy because he'd just wanted to fit in, but now-

Now he had Neville and Uncle Sirius and Uncle Regulus and Nana and he wasn't about to let the boy that he and Neville picked out as their potential big brother get pushed aside by such an ugly, selfish little brat.

"I think." Harry said in his best impression of Nana at her most terrifying. "That you should go back to your friends now."

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The expression on the girl's face turned angry and a hot flush crept up her cheeks. "Now listen here!" She nearly screeched. "This is your one chance to be one of us and if you-"

"We don't want to be one of you, then." Neville spoke up from Harry's other side, glaring fiercely at the girl and the boy who was now doing his best to intimidate him and Harry.

"Yeah." Harry said, in full agreement with his brother. "We don't want to associate with petty little girls who try an' use people to make herself feel better."

"We're better than such things." Neville agreed, standing tall even as the girl grew angrier and the boy grew more aggressive. "Cloud is better than such things. Go back to your friends- who didn't want to play with us all of three minutes ago- and leave us alone, you-you manipulators."

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What?

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They had been watching, so they ducked back when the girl let out a screech and lunged for them, unfortunately that meant they took their eyes off of the boy for a moment and it was all the time the angry child had needed to ball up his fist and send it hurling towards Harry's head.

Harry cried out, because he saw the fist but he just couldn't-

A head full of bright blonde hair burst into Harry's line of vision and though he let out a grunt at the extra weight falling on top of him, he never felt the hit connect.

"Cloud!" Neville yelled, scrambling to his feet to try and get in between his friends and the two tantrum-throwing jerks.

However, that proved to be unnecessary as at that moment Augusta, Sirius, and Regulus arrived along with several other adults.

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"You little bastard!" Trenton Manning (Sr.) screamed as he came barreling out of the Hardware store's front door, heading straight for the downed Strife boy-

-only he never made it that far because before he could reach little Cloud he found his way blocked by a very angry Sirius Black.

"Problem?" The eldest Black brother drawled lazily, his muscles loose and ready and looking entirely disinterested, save for the cold light in his grey eyes.

"Yeah, I got a fuckin' problem!" The father of Trenton Jr. and Terra Manning screamed, spittle flying out of his mouth. "I'm gonna beat that bastard bloody for-"

"For what, exactly." Sirius asked, his eyes icing over further as a sneer tugged at his lips. "Because from where I was standing the altercation happened between my Godsons and those two-" Sirius gestured towards the Manning children. "-and little Cloud stepped in the way of a blow meant for Harry. So why don't you tell me, pal, why exactly you feel as if you have the right to lay a finger on that child."

Manning roared and cocked his fist back, but by then the Sheriff had come out. "What's going on here?" Sheriff James Bradford asked sharply.

Manning whirled to meet the man. "I'll tell you what's going on here!" He roared, pointing a meaty finger towards Sirius. "It's these fuckin' outsiders and them getting' all cozy with the whore-"

Augusta's hand clamping down on Sirius' arm is the only thing that kept him from punching the asshole's lights out, as it was though, the Materia slotted into the bangle he was wearing started to glow brightly anyways.

This caught the attention of several people.

"Everyone not directly involved needs to return to their business." Sheriff Bradford barked sharply, causing the crowd to disperse quickly. "Now then." He said when it was just the Mannings, the Black-Longbottoms, and the Strifes. "Why don't we head over yonder to my office and talk about this situation." The Sheriff kept his hard gaze on the elder Manning until the man snarled something and gestured to his children before storming off in the direction of the Sheriff's office- which was just across the street from the Apothecary- the Hardware story being just across from the Doctor's office. "Mr. Black, I'd feel a whole lot better if I could hold on to that there bracelet while we talk." The Sheriff said, pointedly glancing to the glowing Materia in the bangle on Sirius' wrist.

Sirius blushed a bit. "Sorry. I really didn't appreciate his commentary. Give me a second." Sirius closed his eyes and concentrated, but the glow didn't fade. His eyes snapped back open. "Sorry, Sheriff, I need to bleed off the spell, I can do it straight up, but it'd be best over the fountain."

James knew less than nothing about Materia except that some people could use them, so he nodded and tilted his head for Sirius to get on with it, which Sirius complied with.

Standing just in front of the fountain- that now was devoid of playing children- Sirius held his arm up and released the pent up energy that he'd accidentally fed to the Materia.

Bright, brilliant flames shot straight up into the air, painting the chilly morning air an array of vivid reds and dazzling oranges. The spell lasted nearly a minute before dying down into a gentle wisp of flames that faded out into nothingness after about fifteen more seconds. Sirius waited a few more moments- just to be certain he had really released all of the energy- before he turned around to smile at the obviously gawking Sheriff. "Sorry." He belted out cheerfully. "What he said really made me mad." Sirius clapped his hands together before all but springing forward, "Let's go talk, shall we?"

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Chapter Text

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By the time they had all filed into the Sheriff's office, Sirius had managed to relieve Claudia of her package so she could have both hands free.

The Sherriff's office was fairly simply arranged. It was essentially one large room when you entered. There were two desks which set side-by-side and both desks were equipped with comfortable looking chairs and a half-wall that ran nearly the length of the room which separated the 'office' portion from the side with Nibelheim's four detention cells. The floor on the 'office' side had been built up so that while the personnel could clearly see the holding cells, the persons residing in said cells could not do the same. There was a leather couch and a leather chair on each end of the aforementioned couch on the 'office' side of the wall.

They were mostly used for napping, honestly.

There were two hard, plastic chairs that were bolted to the floor and were held together by a thick metal bar that were usually used for suspects or handcuffed prisoners. The chairs were positioned to the left of the desk with the Sheriff's nameplate and faced the half-wall that obscured the view of the cells.

Once inside the office the Mannings sat to the door's left- on the only comfortable seats available- while the Black-Longbottoms stood so that Claudia and Augusta could sit on the two sturdy, yet supremely uncomfortable-looking chairs 'potential prisoners' chairs. Sirius and Regulus stood behind and to the side of the two women with Cloud being right beside his mother. Sirius- who was standing behind Cloud- put a warm, firm hand on the boy's shoulder in silent support, just as he did for Harry, who was standing right next to Cloud.

(Claudia didn't say anything, but that was sort of the moment that she kind of fell in love with Sirius Black. No one- especially no man- had ever so readily included her little Cloud like that. Her baby had always been an outsider, no matter how hard he tried or how polite he was or how much crap he took with a smile just for the smallest scrap of affection.

To see this man- handsome and powerful yet kind- it touched her heart in a way that she'd never known.)

"Now." The Sherriff said once he'd entered, leaning against the front of his desk instead of sitting behind it and crossing his arms over his chest. "What happened."

The two Manning children immediately burst out into their tale with lots of commentary from their father.

Black-Longbottom-Strifes stood silent and merely listened- Claudia and Cloud mostly out of the long-ingrained knowledge that fighting against the Mannings never worked out, because for all that Sherriff Bradford was a fair, just man, Mayor Lockhart definitely played favorites. Nibelheim's law enforcement only prevailed if the management agreed.

By the end of their version of the tale, Claudia knew she should be scared- Trenton had always been a bit off but his family had always covered it up. If he got it in his head to hurt her and Cloud though….

Claudia opened her mouth, her heart in her throat, as she went to take the blame, and more than likely alienate the only people who had ever treated her Cloudy with kindness. Her eyes misted and her hands began to shake, but she couldn't risk what happened with the Yearwoods happening with them because Cloudy was all she had and-

A warm, weathered hand slipped into her own and she turned her head to meet compassionate, steady, kind hazel eyes that reminded Claudia of her Grammy.

Augusta smiled at the young blonde woman, trying her best to tell her to just wait. It was all going to be alright.

Just then the door slammed open and the Manning-Lockharts piled in and Augusta's hand was the only thing that kept Claudia grounded.

"After all we've done for you!" Former Mayor Lockhart bellowed at Claudia. "This is how you repay us!? You would have frozen to death if we hadn't let you borrow against your house two winters back!"

There it was. Claudia's darkest secret and she just knew it was all going to fall apart and she could feel Cloud's eyes on her because you were nothing in Nibelheim if you didn't own your home and-

"Excuse me." Augusta's stern voice cut through the cacophony efficiently and her glare was sufficient to glower them into silence. "I believe that we have only heard half the story."

"Yes, well everyone knows-" Maria Lockhart began, her face twisted up into an expression of ugly malice.

"Everyone knows that it is crass to bring up confidential financial information in an unrelated dispute." Augusta rebuked sternly, her glare ratcheting up a notch. "It is a sign of ill-breeding." Augusta raised one eyebrow in challenging query and smiled thinly when the group went to respond, creating a mass of shouting and screaming. "I see." Augusta bit out crossly. "Sherriff….Bradford, was it?"

"Yes ma'am." The Sheriff responded, somewhat wary.

Smart man. Augusta Longbottom had been the Lady of the Most Noble and Most Ancient House of Longbottom for nearly as long as she had been married to her beloved husband. This rabble did not intimidate her in the least. Truthfully, she reveled in the wary and apprehensive lights that were in the eyes of the smartest people of the room.

Anything you can do, I can do better. I can certainly accomplish my goals with far more class than yourself and this mob mentality you're bemired in.

"It is my understanding that we came here to resolve a situation. I can tell you everything you need to know." Augusta glared the room into silence and rose elegantly from her seat- like a regal queen among peasants- tugging Claudia with her. "I brought my grandchildren into town today to meet some of the other children before I was going to make my way over to Audi's house. While there I was going to suggest that she and her young son, Cloud- who my grandchildren have been particularly excited to see once again- to accompany me to Miss Miriam Hester's home. Once there I intended to have Miss Hester mind the children- and visit our Chocobos, who Miss Hester is graciously hosting for the time being- while I presented Audi with a business proposal."

"Now listen-" Mayor Lockhart began, his face a particularly unattractive shade of puce.

"Instead." Augusta continued firmly, her stare coolly dismissive of the people in front of her. "I was forced to watch as my grandchildren were shunned by the children whom they politely introduced themselves to; it was shortly thereafter that my boys spotted Audi and Cloud, who they then went to greet." Augusta's presence suddenly seemed to fill every inch of the room. "At that point those same children- who had previously had held no interest or inclination to play with my grandchildren- tried to play my boys for fools and in the process of doing so attempted to hurt a lovely young child that my grandsons have decided they wanted to be friends with. When my grandsons made it perfectly clear to them that they were far above such pettiness the intruding children reacted in a particularly vulgar, despicable manner, causing young Cloud to be injured in the process of defending my grandsons."

Augusta's presence was so oppressive that the two other children were whimpering- though Augusta held no pity for them, because those were crocodile tears if she'd ever seen them- and the slower adults were beginning to realize that perhaps they shouldn't have poked the sleeping dragon.

"Immediately afterwards." Augusta continued in an entirely calm, though clearly uncompromising manner. "That behavior was compounded by that man-" She raised the hand that wasn't holding on to Claudia's and gestured towards Trenton Sr. "-barreling out of the Hardware store screaming about his intention to cause physical harm to a child." Augusta's words were so heavy they nearly had caused a corporeal impact as they were uttered in that same slow, uncompromising manner. Augusta stared at the Lockhart-Mannings for one more extended, firm moment before turning back to the Sheriff. "At that point you arrived, Sheriff Bradford. Now, is there anything else you wish to discuss?"

"I have something!" Maria interjected snidely, pointing at the ashen-faced Claudia. "By the terms of the contract you signed with my family's bank, you cannot make more than a certain amount-" Maria glared nastily at Augusta. "-a month. So no matter what happens you still are going to be owing us money for a long time."

"I imagine you wish you would have stayed on your family's homestead instead of selling it so you could afford your little addition." Regina Manning sneered condescendingly.

Claudia shook; half out of fear, half out of rage.

Sirius' steady hand was all that kept Cloud grounded. Well that and firm, solid hold the green-eyed boy had on Cloud's wrist. It wasn't tight enough to hurt, but it was certainly tight enough to let Cloud know that the boy was not going anywhere.

Is this what it feels like to have friends?

"Figures that you'd be a kept-" One of the Manning-Lockharts started to spat towards Claudia, only to be abruptly cut off by a positively incensed Augusta.

"How dare you." Augusta hissed out, her face showcasing the depths of her anger for the first time. "How dare you insinuate that I or my family would be party to prostitution in front of my own grandchildren." Augusta's eyes blazed brightly as, unknown to her, the Planet's presence within her surged with her temper causing her eyes to nearly glow. "You are self-righteous hypocrites who will reap what you have sown." Augusta rebuked soundly. "But this family will not be party to your sins." Augusta turned to Claudia, her eyes warming and fading to a gentle sort of light that made Claudia remember her best memories.

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Ma's delighted face when Audi scored highest out of all the other children at the Schoolhouse. Daddy's smile when she would run up to greet him when he came home from working at the mill in the Midlands. Holding Cloud for the very first time and seeing that her father's eyes would last yet one more generation, even though he had returned to the Planet.

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"I intended to do this privately, but that is, sadly, no longer an option." Augusta said to the blonde woman. "I am getting a bit up there in age, you see, and my boys will soon be learning the trades of their families as well as getting their schooling. I understand that not only are you a rather gifted seamstress, you are quite the cook, and went to University for business."

Claudia nodded a bit unsurely, her gaze fixed on the woman's incredibly kind- yet fierce- gently glowing eyes.

I feel like I'm in the presence of one of the Ancients or something. Claudia thought somewhat dizzily.

"I would like to hire you as a part-time housekeeper and as Regulus' business takes off, a manager for him as well. Now, I don't wish to be presumptuous, but I would like to extend the offer for young Cloud to join the boys in their lessons. My grandsons are quite taken with him." Augusta said calmly, steadily. She smiled at Claudia. "I realize that this is quite sudden, dear." Augusta shot a truly frightening glare towards the gaping Manning-Lockhart members. "I wanted the upcoming open house that we're preparing for to be a sort of test run and for you to have a bit after that to make up your mind- but it seems as if you are in an untenable situation at the moment."

"We reserve the right to call in your full debt if you seek other employment. Especially if you choose to remarry." Tanner Manning, the president of the Nibelheim Bank and Trust- the only financial institution for nearly a hundred miles- sneered hatefully at Claudia. "Your contract was made under the terms of the State of Emergency that we were under five years ago after those storms ripped through the mountains during the off season, because we take care of our own." He nearly spat the last word out towards Augusta, obviously meaning it as a grave insult.

Augusta laughed at him. A full-out, genuinely amused laugh. "Mister- Manning, wasn't it?- my family, before our village was attacked by monsters in the dead of night, spent nearly thirty generations as the Watchers on the Wall." Augusta was doing her utmost to mix truth and fiction, but the boys were attached to Cloud and Claudia reminded of Augusta of Minerva as she could have been. If Minnie had married that man and history had repeated itself or he'd left her all alone with a baby because he couldn't handle the truth of magic-

Augusta had always had trouble standing back and witnessing injustice. Especially when it affected those she loved.

"They died." Augusta said with steel in her voice and fire in her eyes. "They died on that wall and we are all that is left, but the fact that we precious few managed to persevere and make it out means that they succeeded because none of the other Old Settlements of the North can boast the same. And for you to belittle us- to belittle them- with your asinine insinuations and tricks and shoddy manipulations is an affront to myself, my grandchildren, and every Longbottom, Potter, or Black that has ever fallen in defense of the family." Augusta took a fiercely controlled breath and glared stonily at the cretins who dared to threaten what was hers. "Should she wish it, Audi would be a more than welcome addition to our family, but until then my grandsons have claimed Cloud as their friend- and perhaps the elder brother they have always wanted- but we will deal with that as a family." Augusta held the man's gaze for a long moment before she sniffed contemptuously and turned back to the Sheriff. "Unless you have anything you would like to discuss with us, Sheriff Bradford we are done here."

The Sheriff quickly shook his head. "No, no charges, just a warning to keep a cool head should this happen again."

Augusta nodded curtly. "We will endeavor to do so." She replied before sweeping towards the door, tugging the still shell-shocked Audi along with her. "We will go to Miss Hester's." She murmured just loud enough to Sirius and Regulus to hear as she passed.

They had made it out of the door and into the street when the door to the Sheriff's office was pulled open and Trenton Manning came out, his face twisted with rage. "You're nothing!" He bellowed so loudly it rattled the shopfront windows. "And that's all you'll ever be! Outsider trash! You'll never be real men! Real citizens of Nibelheim! My family will see you on the streets where you belonged before we took pity on you and that little bastard, Claudia Strauss!"

"You might have power at the moment, Mr. Manning." Harry said, his green eyes intent and unwavering as he clutched Cloud's wrist firmly and twisted to look over his shoulder- and Sirius' arm- at the man, the light falling over his face like a veil, wreathing him in an almost ethereal light. "But we're taught that the measure of a man is how he chooses to use the power at his disposal." Harry shook his head sadly and turned away. "You don't look much like a man from where I'm standing- none of you do, 'cept for Sheriff Bradford."

Harry turned around and continued with his family.

The sounds of their footsteps echoed through the deathly silent street.

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By the time they had reached Miriam Hester's house, Claudia had slowly begun to come out of the sort of perma-shock she'd been in since those two wretched little children had come up and interrupted the two boys who had been trying to talk to Cloudy.

Claudia accepted the tea that Miss Miriam handed her absently, wrapping her hands around it almost desperately. Cloud was still squished between the two boys- who hadn't let go of him since they had crowded around him when they went to leave Sherriff Bradford's office. Even through the chaos in her mind and rage within her breast there was a fierce sort of joy that sang joyously inside her very soul.

Cloud had made friends.

Real friends. With boys who weren't cowed by social pressure or the idea of fitting in.

Boys who had been totally prepared to fight for the right to be Cloudy's friend.

("Should she wish it, Audi would be a more than welcome addition to our family, but until then my grandsons have claimed Cloud as their friend- and perhaps the elder brother they have always wanted- but we will deal with that as a family.")

"Cloudy." Audi said an indeterminable amount of time later- though she knew her tea had been refreshed at least once. "Why don't let Miss Miriam take you and the other boys out to see the Chocobo while I speak with Madam Augusta."

Cloud gave her a long look, with a stare that seemed to be far wiser than his physical age suggested, but he nodded and Miriam rose swiftly from her seat to see the boys out to the shed.

Once they were gone, and she and Augusta were alone she uttered just one word. "Why?"

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Augusta wanted to do nothing more than to snatch up the girl and hug her while she had the breakdown that had obviously been a long time in coming. Augusta had stretched out her senses while in the Sherriff's office and the woman and her boy were so bright- almost as bright as her grandsons- and there was something within Augusta that wanted to shelter Audi, to take her under her wing and teach her that it was alright to be fierce and independent and beautiful.

That it wasn't a crime to want more and still be content with where you were.

When the poor dear had finally spoken there had been pain and rage and loneliness and heartbreak and loathing- for herself and for others- and yearning- so, so much yearning; like a bird with a broken wing who only ever dreamed of the sky- and fear- the primal, feral kind that digs down deep and never lets go-

"I had only one child." Augusta said in response to everything that Claudia hadn't been able to voice. "A brilliant son after many years of trying- many years of watching others bless their husbands with multiple children while our home remained untouched by the miracle of a child." Augusta leveled a steady, warm gaze at the younger woman. "I grew bitter sometimes and threw myself into work that benefitted the other members of the family, trying to make myself feel useful. It only worked for brief moments before the depression would return with a vengeance as I'd watch all the others with their children and I'd remember that I had been unable to provide my beloved husband with an Heir. I had given up all hope and planned to take my own life so that my wonderful husband could marry another and have a proper heir." She exhaled a shaky breath as she dug for the courage to continue. "He found me one night, sitting in front of my grandmother's vanity, toying with the vial of poison that would free him from my cursed barrenness."

Claudia sucked in a sharp breath and Augusta smiled sadly at her.

"He took the vial from my motionless hands and sat it down on the table and then he cupped my face in his large, warm, work-roughened hands and gave me the most tender, loving kiss since our very first. 'Miracles happen Gus.' He said to me, his eyes as gentle as they were stern. 'Stay here with me and that will be the only miracle I'll ever ask you for. Please.'" Augusta's lips trembled and her eyes filled with tears and Audi came around the table to sit next to the woman who was telling her something so deeply personal and dark. Augusta scooted their chairs together and let the blonde woman lay her head against the curve of her shoulder. "Two weeks later I found out I was three weeks pregnant with my Frank." Augusta whispered and she wrapped a comforting arm around Claudia's shoulder as the younger woman's warm tears began to soak into her shirt. "If I had given up like I'd wanted to- because it was the most reasonable, logical course of action- I would have killed my miracle with my own two hands."

Claudia's body began to shudder as her crying turned into all-out weeping.

"Let it go, dear." Augusta murmured comfortingly. "Even the strongest of us need a windfall sometimes." Augusta smiled a little and huffed a laugh. "My husband always told me that broken women who learn to stand back up are the most beautiful, the most dangerous, and the most magnificent." Augusta hooked a finger under Claudia's chin and gently coaxed the weeping woman to look up at her.

Claudia knew she was a mess of snot and tears and red cheeks- she was ghost pale, dammit!- and that she was quite possibly the single most unattractive person in the history of ever at that exact moment. Not to mention broke-indebted, actually- and the single mother of a child she'd gotten pregnant with from a one-night-stand-

"Even if you never marry one of my boys, dearie, I would very much like to be your Gran."

Claudia all but threw her arms around the elder woman and, for the first time since she had left Nibelheim to chase her dreams, let go.

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The children had been sitting around in silence, intuitively aware of the fragility of Claudia's state of mind. That wasn't toast that they had been entirely still, however.

Cloud had mostly been looking down, his shaggy blond hair hiding his eyes as he berated himself for causing his Ma trouble- he knew how careful they had to be around the Mannings, dammit!

Harry and Neville, on the other hand, had been exchanging worried, hopeful looks while trying to get Cloud to look at them. They had barely made it past the back door when Harry and Neville rounded on cloud, causing the blond to stop short and finally life his head.

"We're sorry!" Harry burst out, wringing his hands nervously and nibbling on his bottom lip with his teeth. "We didn't mean to get you and Miss Claudia into trouble! We didn't mean for you to get hurt, 'cause of what we said! Really! We just-

"-we just couldn't let those….those jerks get away with what they were trying to do!" Neville added his eyes teary as he sniffled lightly, reaching for Cloud but hesitating just short of actually touching him. "We just thought you were really cool, you know!"

"Yeah!" Harry butted in semi-cheerfully, a half-smile tugging at his mouth even as his eyes pooled with tears of his own. "You were really cool at the Café and we just-we just wanted you to be our friend!" By the end of his statement Harry couldn't look at Cloud anymore- not knowing that he'd unintentionally hurt his new friend and Miss Claudia- and now Cloud probably wouldn't want to even talk to them ever again and-

"It's alright." Cloud spoke up softly, as if he was unused to speaking. The blond shifted slightly as he spoke, causing his hair to flutter and catch the sun just right to cast a slight glow around him, deepening the blue of his eyes. "I-" Cloud's hands balled up as he tried to dredge up every last bit of his courage. "I wanted to be friends with you guys, too."

There was a heartbeat of silence, during which Cloud grew uneasy and he began to think of all the ways that he was wrong and how he should have known better and of course-

Then there were two small sets of arms around him, knocking all three of them over into a tangle of elbows and knees. There was another moment of silence and then they all glanced at each other and laughed.

Miriam watched as the slightly hysteric laughter tapered off and the trio of boys transitioned into more natural sounds of mirth. She smiled softly as she took in the wide grins that painted their lips and the blushes that decorated their cheeks and she knew, right then and there, that these three boys would do great things- together.

I simply must invite Augusta to the next get-together. Miriam decided as she ushered the still-giggling, euphoric boys towards the barn. She has truly fascinating grandchildren. The schoolteacher's smile turned fond without her permission as she watched the two younger boys begin to teach Cloud how to groom the Chocobo- who were very glad to see the two younger boys and gamely accepted the appearance of the third; Juniper, especially, seemed to be doting on all three of them- as she watched the foundations of the newly formed friendships begin to solidify as they took turns laughing and showering the Chocobos in honest, pure affection.

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Chapter Text

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Sirius sighed heavily and tried to push back the absolute exhaustion that weighed on his mind and body. Even as tired as he was, he still grinned as he walked further into the house- sans his soiled boots- and had to dodge a small child, the exasperated forms of his Godson, Neville, and Cloud being just behind the grinning, naked, giggling toddler.

It had been three months since the altercation with the Manning-Lockharts and things had escalated quickly. Thankfully Claudia and Cloud had stayed the night with them as Claudia's house had 'mysteriously' caught fire the next time she had gone to use her hot water. Sirius- having accompanied the boys while Augusta went to have tea with Miriam Hester and the lady's other friends- had managed to put the small, visible portion out, but by then it had been in the wiring.

The boys hadn't batted an eyelash at the news that Claudia and Cloud would be staying with them for a while- that had been Augusta's firm proclamation, once she had been fetched, thankfully Miss Hester only lived a few streets over and a bit to the left. Claudia had protested, but all of the elderly women- they had all accompanied Augusta- had been absolutely firm about the matter, so the young woman had really stood no chance.

Sirius- and Regulus who had been alerted and had returned to the Black-Longbottom home to grab a few of the empty enchanted satchels- had braved the fire-trap to rescue as many of Claudia and Cloud's things as possible. Sirius had been doing his best to smother the fire with ice-natured spells, so they did manage to salvage most of the Strife's belongings, even if the house ended up being a total loss. Augusta and the other ladies, meanwhile, had rolled up their sleeves and had begun to transplant the Strife's garden and other yard decorations up to the Black-Longbottom greenhouses via wheelbarrows.

The kids had been a tremendous help.

During all of this the Manning-Lockharts had been prowling around the edges, but the presence so many other people had kept Claudia and Cloud insulated against most of their neighbors' condescension.

The Strifes had been set up on the second floor, right below the boys' rooms and the very next day Claudia had woken up bright and early to start earning her and Cloud's keep.

By the end of that week, Claudia would feel far less insecure about herself and be far too busy to be worried about what any of the gossips might be saying about her, her baby, or the family that had taken her in.

Having been denied the Strifes the Manning-Lockharts had gone after other members of Nibelheim who owed money to the Bank as a petty form of revenge or self-indulgence, Sirius still didn't entirely understand. Most of these people were already too poor to be able to afford to send their children to the Schoolhouse, being barely making the ends meet and needing every able body to work the fields or the livestock so they could keep themselves fed and clothed.

Abel Yearwood, the stooped patriarch of the Yearwood family had gone to the Apothecary shop with his head hung low and had gotten down on his knees and begged a shocked-to-stillness Regulus for help. Apparently the Yearwoods had been able to scrounge up the money that the Mannings had unexpectedly demanded from them, but the family could no longer afford the medicine the man's youngest granddaughter and his wife needed to last the winter.

Regulus had hauled the broken man off the floor and had asked to be taken to the Yearwood homestead, where he had been further incensed by what he'd seen.

By the end of that day the Black-Longbottom Manor had not only been hosting the Strifes, but the Yearwood and the Stanley families as well. These were families that ranged from grandparents to great-grandchildren soon the large Manor house had been positively full of people. Regulus had been incredibly busy brewing a variety of medicines and Augusta had been insistent that all of the children be looked over by Doc Julian, so then the good doctor and his wife had been in attendance as well, preferring to sleep in one of the guest rooms as the doctor had been unable to properly see to all of his patients.

The Introduction-slash-Housewarming Party that they had held roughly a week after the introduction of new members into their household had revealed even more people who needed aid.

"They're not even looking for a quick fix or a handout." Sirius had ranted in distressed exasperation to Augusta and Regulus down in the Potions Lab after the Party had ended, utterly incensed at what he'd witnessed. "These are proud, stubborn folks who have lived their entire lives on this mountain who have literally been bled dry because the 'upper management' has wholly lost touch with reality!" Sirius had nearly been in tears by the end, utterly aggrieved and disgusted. "It's bloody maddening!"

"So we'll change things. That is, if you boys are up to the challenge." Augusta had replied placidly from her primly perched position on one of the Lab's brewing stools but her eyes had been fierce and both Regulus and Sirius had grinned- Black family sharp and vicious- in response.

The very next night, Augusta, Regulus, and Sirius had sat in the boys' new room- the three of them having volunteered to all share Neville's original bedroom among the three of them when they saw all the people who needed a place to sleep; their respective parental figures had been so damn proud of them- with Claudia as their Secretary, plotting their next move.

(The Potions Lab had had a few delicate Potions brewing, so they had needed to improvise.)

Because it was obvious to them that Nibelheim needed fixing and they not only had the will, they also possessed a way. Monster hunting was quite lucrative, as not many had the fortitude to take out the biggest, meanest monsters- not to mention the gil they had made just from Sirius and Regulus' expedition into that nameless forest, so they hatched a new plan.

Sirius persisted in calling it the 'We Don't Like Your Shitty, Smarmy Malfoy Attitudes So We're Taking Over And Doing Things Our Way Plan', personally.

No matter how many times Augusta rapped her bony knuckles upside his skull.

For now- until they could finish work on the actual Bank building that they had purchased from Doc Julian's lovely sister-in-law - Regulus' Apothecary shop was also doubling as the business address for the newly-formed Longbottom Bank and Trust. The building they were going to use for the Longbottom Bank and Trust had been a bank once before during Nibelheim's Mako Reactor Rush, so while it was going to take a lot of work it wasn't going to be from the ground up.

The region's rules for founding a Bank were sketchy at best, and after their massive brain-storming session it had taken Sirius twelve days to get to Costa del Sol and back- he had positively spoiled the smug Emerald with affection for being so bloody amazing in cutting the expected travel time nearly in half- with their shiny new Certificate of Authentication as well as a letter proclaiming their entrance into the Banker's Guild- a Gaia-wide recognized guild of upstanding banks and bankers.

The Mannings- and most other small-town banks- were not on that list.

Sirius, however, had impressed the Guild's Council with his business acumen and intelligent, sharply worded answers. The fact that the Longbottom Bank and Trust were starting from solid capital that they had on hand had also endeared them to the Board Members. Sirius had explained that they were only interested in helping out a few local families and possibly providing a safe place for people to store money and or valuables, so they were classified as a 'Hometown' banking operation, which freed them from a lot of the restrictive regulations that other banks faced.

Sirius' Writ of Endorsement from a highly-acclaimed Carpenter and Regulus' Apothecary Certification accolades had gone quite a long way in establishing them as trustworthy, educated applicants, truth be told.

The Guild's Representatives would be coming by Nibelheim during the latter part of the next summer to inspect the bank itself, and then they would either earn a rating- Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum- or the Guild would drop them.

What this had meant was that barely two weeks after the initial incident near the town fountain, Longbottom Bank and Trust had been able to legally buy out the contracts that several families had held with the Mannings'- well, their Bank- and then turn around and have the people sign new contracts with the Longbottom Bank and Trust.

That wasn't to say that the Mannings were happy about such a thing- they weren't, at all- but Longbottom Bank and Trust had made sure to do everything precisely by the book, and as an accredited Bank with the Guild the Mannings had been forced accept defeat.

They did not do so gracefully. It made Sirius want to cackle every time he thought about some of the meetings.

In the midst of all this the coal that Regulus had ordered had arrived from Corel- Sirius had really liked that Dyne guy, he had been sarcastic and bloody hilarious and Regulus had learned that part of the reason why their order had been filled so quickly and so close to the beginning of Nibelheim's deep winter was that Barrett's wife- Myrna- needed medicine that was hard to come by in the Midlands and damn near worth its weight in solid gold in the cities.

Regulus- because Sirius' little brother was a bloody genius- knew how to make the higher-end version of the medicine that was not only more potent but lasted longer- both in the body and on the shelf- so the men had stayed an extra week in Nibelheim while Regulus made enough to last Barrett's wife the full, projected length of Nibelheim's deep winter.

Sirius had been incredibly grateful- as he had just arrived back from Costa del Sol; he'd actually helped guide the Corel folks up the mountain- as the Yearwoods and the Stanleys were staying with the Black-Longbottoms for the winter- Augusta had flat-out refused to allow any of them to go back to the pitiful shacks they called home, especially since three of the women were expecting and most of the elderly members of the family were in delicate-to-poor conditions of health- so the men had been busy trying to cobble together shelters for the animals, while most of the women were transplanting the gardens to the finished greenhouses.

They had had another small miracle in the form of Miriam Hester's childhood friend, Julia Bradford- Sherriff Bradford's mother- whose maternal grandparents had lived about three lots over and two lots down from the Black-Longbottom family. After seeing the work of art that they had turned Miriam's old family home into Julia had proposed that they house the animals on her family's property for the winter- and until proper shelters could be built the following spring and summer- if the Black-Longbottoms would assist her in restoring her parent's old home so that she and her husband could retire there. Apparently Sherriff Bradford's son- Julia and her husband's grandson- was getting married in the spring, and the woman would rather leave her home to her son and his wife, who could then leave their home to her grandson and his new bride then having the newly-wedded couple buy an all new house.

"I wouldn't have considered it as more than a pipe dream." Julia had confessed with a shimmering smile as she sipped at her tea. "But seeing how you all managed to fix this place up while keeping it true to its roots- well." She laughed a little and swiped daintily at her eyes. "I'd like to retire to a place that reminds me of the home I grew up in." She confessed with a soft smile. "There's so many memories I have of that house- almost all of them good!- and since you were able to do such wonderful things with this place- well, I'd like to take the chance."

Augusta, naturally, had preened for a few moments before committing Sirius and the rest to the cause.

Sirius was mostly amused. He'd already done one house, and with all the help he'd have from others who would want to log hours to help work off their debts- they had added a Canyon spin to their Bank contracts, but only to a certain point- to the bank or to learn more about the carpentry trade, it wouldn't take all that long.

When deep winter had hit, though, it had hit the mountain with a vengeance.

The children were being taught by Augusta when she was free or Claudia if Augusta was busy and everyone was doing their darndest to prepare for spring, when things would get really hectic. Among the tasks of minding the children, working in the greenhouses, and working with the animals everyone kept busy.

(It was pretty rewarding to watch the elderly begin to regain some of their vitality as the winter wore on and the medicines Regulus kept giving them began to take effect. It happened slowly, but their shoulders and backs began to unbend as the tautness and burdens they had been carrying for so long slowly bled out of their- previously- stooped, gnarled frames. To be able to watch as the people found a niche and began to learn- whether it was sewing or cooking or gardening or numbers- and their eyes regained the spark of life that had been absent when they had first arrived.

Cloud, Harry, and Neville were alone in their age group- there were either toddlers and babies or teenagers- but the boys were sources of joy for so many of the people who were staying with the Black-Longbottom family. The children's genuine kindness and enthusiasm in everything from helping give the younger children baths to sitting near the downstairs fireplace and raptly listening to stories from their elders- much like Harry and Neville had grown used to doing at the Canyon- added a warmth and aura of lightness that helped keep all of the occupants looking forward instead of back.

Sirius loved those kids. So very much he felt his heart would stop sometimes because it shouldn't be possible for one person to love this much.)

Regulus and Sirius especially so.

Regulus, ever the forward-thinker, had somewhat taken on a couple of apprentices. They were extremely far behind in terms of basic education, but both of them were quite sharp and eager to learn. There was the fourteen-year-old tom-boyish, sharp-witted Steph Yearwood and the nineteen-year-old shy, soft-spoken Ashley Stanley. Steph was a girl- for all of her tomboyish tendencies- but Ashley was a six-foot-two broad-shouldered male. Both of the teens suffered from being needed on the homestead instead of having time to go to the Schoolhouse, but they were both incredibly driven. Steph did better with ointments and salves while Ashley was a dab hand at just about anything Regulus put in front of him.

Regulus had high hopes for both of them.

There was also the twin Yearwoods- Shelly and Susan- who were married, but their husbands had taken their name due to some scandal that Sirius had never fully understood- mostly out of a lack of caring about such a thing. Regulus and Augusta had taken them to the greenhouses on the first morning after the Yearwoods had moved in and they had needed to be nearly physically pried out of there nearly every evening since then. The two women were quite adept at gardening and were absolutely awed by the idea of being able to grow things year-round.

Regulus was insufferably smug about it all, too.

Sirius, on the other hand, was busy with everything that Augusta or Regulus weren't doing, making him the jack-of-all-trades or the-guy-with-way-too-much-to-do-and-so-little-time-to-do-it-in.

Still. Sirius thought with a grin as he made it to the living room and saw that one of the teenagers had finally managed to wrangle the giggling, dripping, and naked toddler, swaddling the kid in a nearly comically large towel. Once we get all of this settled I'll be free to start my Materia Shard research and the boys will be able to help me search the caves because they'll be a little older. Sirius' smile warmed as he greeted the elderly couples who were sitting near the fireplace as he crossed the room, intent on arriving at the kitchen and finding some food.

This is my favorite part. Sirius thought with a dopey internal sigh and a fond smile curling his lips as he watched Claudia- her blonde hair up in a messy bun and her pale cheeks flushed from laughter and the heat of the stove- dance around the others who were helping her to press quick kisses to Cloud, Harry, and Neville's hair as she listened to them regale her with the story about how Joey hadn't wanted to take a bath again.

Watching her, standing in his kitchen in her cotton dress and apron Sirius was once again struck by just how much he had come to love the blonde woman. Especially as her hands fussed over all three pouting boys easily, as if she had been there from the beginning, had always had three boys instead of just one. Judging by the way Cloud was leaning easily against Harry with a friendly arm slung around Neville; the blond boy had no problems sharing his Ma with the other two. Her bright blue eyes were extraordinarily warm and when she glanced up and accidently met Sirius besotted stare all Sirius could see was a little girl with Claudia's coloring and his grin as he tried to school his expression into something far less….dopey.

"So." Sirius said cheerily, sweeping forward to scoop up the boys for hugs in order to regain some of his composure. "What's for dinner? Betsy got out of her pen and I had to chase her halfway down Mount Nibel. I swear she's part cat."

The boys all giggled before ganging up on Sirius to wrestle him to the floor. "Help me, Audi!" Sirius whined dramatically as Cloud snatched Sirius' hair tie and help it up to the other two hellions as proof of their victory.

"Hmm." Claudia drawled in amusement that turned into a full-out laugh when Cloud presented the broken hair-tie to her with a flourish bow. "I think you'll be fine." She said before she turned on her heel and went back towards the stove and her giggling helpers.

Sirius groaned dramatically and tried to hold back his grin. He had his eyes covered so he totally missed the way the three boys all shared secret grins as they glanced among Sirius, Claudia, and each other.

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Cloud grinned as he hopped over the last step on the right-hand staircase, hearing the soft thumps that signaled that Harry and Neville were right behind him, though Harry shot passed both Cloud and Neville the moment they were all on solid ground.

This past winter had been the best winter of his young life. Granted, it hadn't started off that way- what with being thrown out of the Café and then that scene at the Sherriff's Office and then he and his Ma's house catching fire.

No, not a great start at all.

However…

"Clooooooooooud!" Harry said, dragging out the 'o' in Cloud's name exaggeratedly. "We're gonna be late if you don't hurry, slow poke!"

"I'm coming!" Cloud called back as he finished lacing up his boots and headed out to the porch, sharing an amused glance with Neville as he did so.

Harry's always so impatient to get started. Cloud thought with a grin as he stepped onto the porch and was promptly pounced on by an energetic Harry. "We're going to start working on the Yearwoods' house today!" Harry all but yelled in the blond's ear, earning the dark-haired boy a few not-so-gentle pokes in the ribs, causing him to yelp and release Cloud.

Cloud felt a hand on his mass of blond spikes and grinned up at the equally grinning Sirius Black. "We'd better get moving before Harry spontaneously combusts." The elder man informed Cloud wryly.

"I'm not gonna explode!" Harry shot back indignantly from where he stood on the ground, rocking back onto the heels of his boots impatiently. "And even if I did I'm make sure not to do it anywhere near Nana's floors!"

The face Sirius made was beyond amusing, causing Cloud and Neville to laugh, but Sirius had taken off to chase Harry so they were free from retribution- for now.

As the group congregated and then began to make their way down the still-iced and snowy path Cloud returned to his thoughts.

Even though we've had so many people staying in the house it's still been a lot of fun. Cloud thoughts as he absently reached out an arm to help steady the lady just behind him, seeing Neville do the same a heartbeat later. The elder woman- the Stanley family matriarch who was fond of telling the children Nibel folk legends- gave both boys a gentle smile and accepted their help gratefully. Staying with Neville and Harry has been the best part, though. Cloud thought as he shared a long-suffering grin with his friend as the lady started chattering at one of the nearby men about how she wanted the house's porch to function.

Being friends with Neville and Harry was laughably easy for Cloud. They just all fit together, even when they got mad at each other- which happened occasionally, but always ended with them making a pillow fort and reading storybooks together by the light of the flashlight Sirius had given them. Cloud knew that there were some things that they couldn't tell him, but that was ok. Besides, the boys had been doing their best to try to get Sirius and his Ma together so they could be real brothers instead of just friends, and the other two had promised to tell Cloud everything after they accomplished that.

Now, Cloud wasn't dim-witted enough to try to press his Ma to be with someone she didn't actually like- he'd never even thought about it at all, actually- but even a kid like him could see that Sirius Black thought that Claudia hung the moon and hand painted the stars and, well, Cloud kind-of wanted a dad and the only man who was even somewhat worthy of his Ma was Sirius Black.

That wasn't to say that Cloud didn't like Regulus- because Cloud did, very much so. But Regulus was more of an uncle than a dad and Sirius would treat Ma like the goddess she was- hell, the man already did that.

Still. Cloud thought as Harry came bounding up to him, cheeks flushed with the cold and excitement, babbling animatedly about something that Cloud couldn't even begin to decipher, but he grinned at the other boy anyways. It'd be nice if we could all be a proper family.

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Fixing up the houses had gone quicker than Sirius had anticipated.

A lot of that had to do with how quickly most of his work force learned and how motivated they were, Sirius knew, but it still surprised him that it had only taken a month into almost-spring for all the major work to be done. It hadn't even finished snowing yet!

"Well." Sirius said from his seat on the Black-Longbottom family porch, gratefully accepting the cup of tea that Claudia handed him. "All of the homes are finished- I mean there is some inside cosmetic work that needs doing, but all the families are adamant about doing it themselves. They've also done enough carpentry work by now that they are planning on fixing up their barns and whatnot themselves. It would probably be a good idea to order up some lumber from the Midlands and resell it to them, though."

"Hmm. I suspected as much." Augusta murmured from over the rim of her own cup of tea.

It was just Augusta, Claudia, Regulus, and Sirius on the porch, watching the darkening twilight. The air was brisk, but they all had lap blankets so they could sit and enjoy the sounds of the rushing water- all of the streams and such were swelled with the excess water that came from the spring melt- and the awakening of the mountain's wildlife as the fireflies and the crickets began to emerge from their hiding places to embrace the warmer weather. The three boys had had a long day of moving the last of the Stanleys back into their newly-fixed-up home, so they were all passed out in a tangle of limbs on Neville's bed upstairs.

"We should probably go monster hunting a few times this summer to supplement our income." Regulus mused, pulling a face as he exchanged a long-suffering glance with Sirius. "That means retuning to-"

"Don't say it!" Sirius yelped, nearly sloshing the tea out of his teacup. "I know we'll have to go back so we can make enough money to keep the bank in good standing and ourselves fully secure until we start getting our money back, but that doesn't mean I want to hear that place mentioned, specifically."

Regulus smirked and drained his teacup, exchanging sly glances with Augusta, who did likewise before standing and reaching a hand out towards Regulus. "Escort an old woman to her rooms?" The elderly Longbottom Lady asked Regulus with a shrewd smile.

"Of course, Gran." Regulus replied with a grin, holding out his arm in a gentlemanly manner and ushering the Longbottom matriarch into the house, leaving Sirius and Claudia alone on the porch.

There were a few moments of not-quite-comfortable but not uncomfortable silence on the porch before Claudia rose to her feet and began to tidy up the teacups. "Cloud and I should probably start to look for a place soon as well, now that there aren't so many people here." Claudia mentioned lightly, her back turned to Sirius as she began to fold the lap blankets in preparation to take them back inside.

"What?" Sirius spluttered at her back, his eyes unable to truly appreciate the view as the thought of Cloud and Claudia leaving sank into his thick head. "Bu-why?" He asked in a voice that was dangerously close to a whine.

Claudia threw him a stern, confused look over her shoulder, her hands stilling in their motions. "We're not a charity case, Mr. Black." Her tone was far sharper than she intended, but the thought of this man thinking that she was someone to be pitied made her blood boil and her heartbeat echo in her ears.

Especially since…..

"No, why?" Sirius asked again, more firmly and with an edge to his voice that Claudia couldn't place as he crossed the porch and came to a stop just short of her, his arms twitching as if they wanted to move but then didn't.

I love you. I love Cloud. You can't leave. Not now.

"You've all been very kind to us." Claudia said, turning to face Sirius but not quite having the courage to meet his eyes. "But now there's not the need for us to be here-"

"'Need for you to be here'?" Sirius echoed hollowly. "I thought you understood-" He cut himself off and shook his head sharply, his newly trimmed shoulder length hair swirling with his movements. "I love you, Claudia." Sirius confessed rawly, the words coming from his soul as the thought of this woman leaving made the depths of his stomach turn to ice. "I love Cloud. I don't want you two to leave."

Claudia smiled sadly, her eyes shimmering with tears as she finally looked up at Sirius and side-stepped the arm he tried to reach out and touch her with. "No you don't." Claudia said brokenly. "You barely even know me. I'm just convenient. You've never even approached me in that way. You love the thought of me, but you'll figure out that I'm just Claudia Strife and you'll get tired of me and I can't do that to Cloud-"

Sirius' eyes darkened to pure grey as her words filtered into his mind. "You think so little of me?" Sirius asked tightly, crossing his arms to prevent himself from reaching out and kissing the ridiculous woman senseless. "Yes, it's been convenient to have you here, but that is not- dammit, Audi, I love you." Sirius ran a hand through his hair and turned away from her. "I love the way your hair curls up whenever it gets too humid in the house. I love the way your brow furrows in concentration when you work on the finance sheets. I love the way- the way you look at all three of the boys like there's always been three of them instead of just one." Sirius licked his lips and closed his eyes, determined to at least get it all out in the open. "I love the way your smile lights up your entire being, Angel. You can't- you can't just leave." Sirius clenched his hands into fists and bowed his head in defeat.

"How can you say that?" Claudia's voice was whisper-soft and the confusion in it made Sirius want to punch something.

"Because it's the truth." He replied simply, silent tears sliding down his nose and dripping down onto the porch. "I never wanted you to feel pressured- not even a little. But you've crawled under my skin and into my heart and taken over my mind and I don't want to wake up without you and Cloud here. Hell, I want to wake up beside you instead of a floor apart, but if you don't want that- don't want me- then I won't-"

A soft, but firm, hand was placed on Sirius shoulder and it invoked nearly a full body shudder in the man. "Sirius…." Claudia whispered gently.

"If you want to move out, I won't stop you." Sirius said, swiping at his eyes but keeping them closed and his head bowed. "But I'll still pursue you unless you tell me to shove off. I'll bring flowers and take you on dates and do whatever it takes to prove that I'm being brutally, terribly honest when I say that I love you and I want you and Cloud here."

With gentle nudges Claudia turned Sirius to face her and when he finally worked up the courage to look at her the fragile look in her eyes made him want to punch something.

Preferably a Manning, but he'd settle for a Lockhart.

"I don't understand." She said helplessly, letting her hands slide off his shoulders only for him to catch them and bring them to his lips.

"I can help you, if you'll let me." Sirius murmured before he pressed a tender kiss to her fingers and very reluctantly let them go.

"I-" Claudia's mouth snapped shut and her jaw tightened and Sirius' heart plummeted further than seemed humanly possible.

There was a long, drawn-out moment of expectant silence.

Then-

Claudia's shoulders straightened and her chin tilted upwards in defiance. "Kiss me." She ordered Sirius, snapping back to meet his gaze head-on, her bright blue eyes fairly blazing. "Kiss me and prove it."

Sirius grinned crookedly. "Gladly." He said bringing his arms up and gently caging her.

Claudia slipped her arms around him in response. Storm-grey met wild blue for a moment but then Claudia's eyes slipped closed as his lips gently covered hers and all the thoughts inside her mind seemed to simply vanish.

For a moment they simply stood like that, simply enjoyed standing so close to one another that they could feel each other's body heat and fairly drown in each other's scents, but then Claudia- always one to pick her own path- boldly pushed back against Sirius' mouth and the elder Black brother was more than happy to rise to the challenge.

By the time they needed to separate for some much needed oxygen Claudia found that her back was against the wall to the house and her hands had become tangled in the back of Sirius' shirt. Sirius found that one of his arms was braced against the house while the other had wrapped around Claudia's waist and was holding her flush against him.

Sirius gazed down at Claudia's flushed face and smiled gently, releasing her just enough that he could slide the hand from her waist up to cup her cheek. "I love you, Audi." Sirius told her warmly, gently catching her kiss-swollen lips in a gentle, languid kiss before he stepped back from her.

"Y-yeah." Claudia managed, blinking owlishly as she tried to get her brain working properly. She also was acutely aware of how disappointed she was that Sirius was no longer in her personal space.

"Just, think about it, yeah" Sirius told her with one last, somewhat wobbly grin before he slipped inside the house, the door closing softly behind him.

Claudia stayed out on the porch long into the night, trying to come to terms with everything, but by the time sunrise came around she was ready.

"Nothing ventured, nothing gained." She whispered to herself as she squared her shoulders and went to face her future.

After all, Claudia had always been a romantic at heart. Had always believed in happily-ever-afters and what kind of example would she set for Cloud if she was so scared of what those stupid people thought of her that she let this wonderful, deliciously appealing and talented with his tongue- Planet help her- man slip through her fingers?

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Chapter Text

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It had taken Cloud, Harry, and Neville about eight minutes into breakfast to understand that something had changed between Sirius and Claudia, but they had just grinned excitedly at each other over the rims of their breakfast bowls.

Augusta and Regulus had serenely pretended that nothing was amiss, but the boys caught them smiling smugly at each other one they had exited the kitchen, headed back to their room to dress properly for the day.

Sirius had been so caught up in the blissful aftermath of Claudia's morning greeting- a fierce kiss when he'd been the first downstairs to breakfast, he hadn't really slept, actually- that he'd spent breakfast sending the blonde woman ridiculously besotted glances. Claudia returned some of them shyly and some of them challengingly, but she had been pretty lost in her own little dimension of bliss as well.

"I bet you they get married by next winter." Harry put forth cheerfully as he pulled his long-sleeved shirt over his head.

"I bet it'll be fall." Cloud countered, already mostly dressed.

"I bet that this time next year Miss Audi gives Gran a new addition." Neville said with a teasing lilt as he walked out of the bathroom that attached Neville's room to Harry's original one.

"Hmm." Cloud said with a small smile and a creeping blush.

"What?" Harry asked, barreling into his friend and knocking them both over onto the bed.

"Well- it's just-" Cloud's cheeks grew redder as the bed dipped on his other side, signaling that Neville had joined them.

"Just what?" Harry probed again, draping himself over Cloud's abdomen and glancing up at the blond with curiously bright eyes.

"Well." Cloud grumbled a little as he tried to trop himself up on his elbows. "That'll make my Ma our Ma, wouldn't it?" He asked tentatively, biting his lip a little and looking away shyly.

There was a moment of silence and Cloud's tummy felt like it would fall through the floor all the way into the laundry room below them. He was ready to open his mouth up and take it back- because he didn't want them to think that he was trying to take over or edge them out-

"Stop that." Neville said in amusement, poking Cloud in one of his ticklish spots and grinning at the startled yelp he received as a reward.

"You're such a drama queen, Cloudy." Harry teased from the other side, having snagged a pillow and gleefully whacking the blond with it. "I was just thinking." Harry murmured after a moment. "That if Miss Audi can be our Ma- cause our Mums will always be our Mums- then Uncle Sirius would be our Da, right?" Harry rushed to continue, his own cheeks coloring. "It's not that I don't wanna remember my parents, 'cause I do! They'll always be my Mum and Dad, but Uncle Sirius and Miss Audi…"

"Yeah." The other two echoed softly, as they all looked away from each other and tried to let that thought sink in.

"Well." Came Sirius' amused drawl from the doorway, causing all three boys' heads to snap up and see the softly amused Sirius Black and the teary Claudia in the doorway. Seeing he had all of their attention, Sirius gently dragged Claudia into the room and both of them sat on the rug in front of the bed- prompting all the boys to scramble off of said bed and sit down in front of them.

Like adorable little ducklings. Sirius cooed inside his own mind, his insides still twisting with pleasing warmth from all the good things that had happened thus far that morning.

"We were just coming up here to talk with you three." Claudia said with a warm smile, the hand that was clutched in Sirius' own squeezing gently as she tried to convey how overwhelmed she was by the sheer affection she felt for all of them. "Sirius and I have decided that we are-"

"Courting." Sirius broke in cheerily, giving Claudia a saucy wink before turning back to the grinning, wriggling boys. "I fully intend to marry Angel." He proclaimed boldly, bringing the two joined hands up to his lips to bestow Claudia's fingers with five separate, tender kisses.

Claudia flushed, her pale skin turning a rather fetching shade of scarlet as she tried not to showcase the shudders the action wrought.

Sirius turned back to look at the boys, who looked three parts ecstatic and one part resigned. They had gotten pretty used to watching the married couples who had stayed in the Black-Longbottom home be affectionate, even if they still thought girls were more annoying than pretty.

"But we wanted to talk to you three." Sirius continued after a moment. "Because we don't want you to feel neglected or left out."

"Huh?" Harry asked, his nose wrinkling in confusion.

"Well, sometimes when things change people get scared." Claudia told the boy with a warm smile. "Because change is different."

"But change can do a lot of good!" Neville said, glancing at his co-conspirators and back o Claudia and Sirius in confusion. "Just look at everything that's happened since we got here."

"Yeah!" the other two put forth.

"You three are forever going to be contrary little hellions, aren't you?" Sirius groaned theatrically, draping himself over Claudia while moaning. "Save me from the confusing midgets, Angel!"

Claudia rolled her eyes at Sirius and primly pushed him off of her, blithely ignoring his complaints as he lay in a heap on the floor. "At any rate." She said over the sounds of Sirius reciting his desire for a tombstone that read 'confused, but devastatingly good-looking'. "Sirius and I…coming together-" Her blush ratcheted up a few notches and Claudia did her best to ignore that for the moment. "Would mean that I-"

"-will be our Ma?" Harry asked hopefully, turning pleading verdant green eyes onto the blonde woman. "And Uncle Sirius would be our Da?"

Underneath the weight of Cloud's hopeful bright blue stare, Neville's soulful gold gaze, and Harry's heartbreakingly expectant green gaze Claudia crumbled. No amount of words about her from the mouths of the townspeople would ever be worth disappointing these three adorable little boys. Especially not when she turned to meet Sirius' warm grey gaze and it finally clicked that she didn't have to make room inside her heart for Sirius because he loved these boys just as much as she did. Rather Sirius just wanted to exist around the love she already held for them, strengthening it and buoying it. Claudia's mind sort of broke as she fully accepted the fact that Sirius didn't want to be the main event in her life- he understood that that place belonged to Cloud- and Harry, and Neville.

A bit shaken- because she lived in Nibelheim; what were the odds of her ever finding a handsome, caring man who not only loved her but fully embraced stepping into the role of being her Cloud's Da?- Claudia turned back to the boys and smiled gently. "We'll never try to take the place of your Mum and Dad, Harry, Neville. But if you'll have us, Cloudy and I would like to be you brother and your Ma."

The boys grinned brightly and threw themselves at the adults, knocking them all over into a tangle of limbs. Tears were shed promises were made, but when it was all over the boys' eyes were even brighter than they had ever been before.

"We gotta tell Nana!" Harry cheered, sniffling a little and grabbing his brother's hands and dragging them out of the room. "Nana! Uncle Regulus! Unc-" Harry cut himself off and shook his head a little as the three rounded a corner and nearly knocked over a highly amused Augusta.

"Yes?" She said with a warm smile, the light from the window behind her wreathing her in gentle light.

"We're real brothers now!" Neville told her with a bright, but somewhat bashful grin. "Uncle Sirius and Miss Audi are going to be our Ma and Da, so that makes us real brothers!"

Augusta's breath hitched for a second, but Cloud caught the fleeting look that passed through her gaze and gently cut her off before she opened her mouth. "Uncle Frank and Aunt Alice will always be Neville's Mum and Dad." He told her firmly, but kindly. "Just like Uncle James and Aunt Lily will always be Harry's Mum and Dad."

"Yeah!" Harry said excitedly. "We'll never, ever forget them! But this way we can make the most of what we've got, right Nana? Like how you're Nana even if it wasn't always that way."

Augusta smiled wetly and sank gracefully to her knees opening up her arms and gently wrapping all three of her precious grandchildren into a firm, fierce hug. After a few moments of holding tightly to them, she raised her teary gaze to look at the somewhat nervously anxious Sirius and Claudia. It took a long moment, as it always did, to work past the agonizing ache that the absence of her Frank and the beautiful woman that he had loved left inside her heart, but when she smiled Augusta put all of her hopes for the future into it. "Yes." She said, holding her grandchildren all the tighter as she spoke to the young couple in front of her. "I think that the best way to honor them is to live our lives to the fullest, so that we'll have plenty to tell them about when we see them again in Glory."

Sirius dragged Claudia forward and dove into the hug dogpile and they all basked in the warmth of it for a moment before Regulus rounded the corner further down the hall and ground to a halt. "If you think I'm joining that disgraceful heap then you are sadly mistaken." The man had said in a perfectly flat, deadpanned voice.

The boys wriggled out of the holds on them and took off after Regulus, who had turned around and started walking away as soon as the boys were free.

"No running in the house!" Augusta and Claudia yelled after them in tandem, causing the women to look at each other for a moment before they both threw their heads back and laughed.

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It probably should have been difficult, those following days, but it wasn't, not really.

With the Stanleys and the Yearwoods back in their own homes and setting to the fields and such as spring fully moved in there was plenty that needed doing.

It had only taken a few days of work to properly clean up the new bank building, especially with all three boys there as well as Augusta's new circle of friends who dropped by for tea or just to chat with her for a spell because they 'happened to be nearby'. Because of this the elder ladies also got to know Audi a bit better, as before they had had no real reason interact with her much.

Once the bank building was cleaned up the routine shifted a bit.

"I realize that you are in a- rather committed- relationship with my brother." Regulus told her, sitting behind his rather handsome desk inside his office at the store. "But until such a time as the idiot convinces you that putting up with his brand of ridiculousness for life is actually an attractive option-" Regulus had rolled his eyes expressively and Claudia had laughed, a bit of the tension seeping out of her as she relaxed a bit into her chair.

Regulus got along with her well enough, but he was far more reserved than Sirius. Which somewhat made sense as she was currently involved with Sirius and to be overly friendly with his brother would just be plainly inappropriate. Due to his rather distant relationship with her- though he was always polite and pleasant- she had been afraid that everything was about to come crashing down around her ears, seeing as Regulus had requested a private meeting with her at his office the day after they had finished cleaning up the future bank building.

Regulus smiled kindly at her, as if he'd guessed her thoughts. "-until then I would like to formally employ you here. Not so much as to keep your personal and professional lives separate, but so you have your own, solid source of income. You are already paid for work as a housekeeper, and other than your contributions towards household expenses we will not accept you paying 'rent', as you- and Cloud- living with us is advantageous for us due to the nature of that type of work. By formally employing you here, however- especially since your new contract with the Bank doesn't have those ludicrous stipulations- you will be able to maintain your financial independence, and should things not work out between you and Sirius- because sometimes life does not go as planned- then you will have your own nest egg with which to move forward."

As she smiled and bent to read over the terms of the employment contract Regulus handed her, Claudia was once again struck by just how much she respected this family and how much she appreciated their integrity and their dedication to upholding their moral values even though they did not have to. They had more money and power than the likes of the Mannings after all, and look at what they had already chosen to do with it?

'We're taught that the measure of a man is how he uses the power at his disposal', indeed.

With Claudia spending mornings at the Apothecary store, the boys would spend the morning being taught by Augusta. Normally this would be rather offensive toward Schoolmistress Miriam as the Schoolhouse had opened once again. However the other lady had admitted that with the formerly too poor families being able to afford to send their children to the Schoolhouse she had all the students she could handle for the moment.

Sirius would then be able to use that time tying up odds and ends that needed doing. Regulus, of course, was at his Apothecary store. The two Yearwood women also came by to tend to the greenhouses- the money that Augusta positively insisted they be given for their time helping the family find their financial footing as well as freeing up members of the Black-Longbottom family from having to do the chore themselves.

Not to say they were slacking off, of course- not with Augusta at their helm- but they were quite busy themselves.

Regulus would close up the front of the Apothecary shop promptly at noon and they all had lunch together before gearing up for their afternoons.

Augusta, Sirius, Audi, and the boys would then spend the afternoon working on Julia Bradford's parents' house. Sherriff Bradford's son, Bryan, and his to-be wife, Sarah-Nicole, were supposed to be married in just under four weeks, as they had wanted their wedding to be while Nibelheim's spring was in full swing and so had planned a bit later to be on the safe side. Julia had expected her son and his wife- "Natalie, but she generally answers to Nat!"- to have to stay with her and her husband for a small time while the newlyweds moved into her James and Nat's current home since her parents' home would not be done in time and both Bryan and Sarah-Nicole still lived with their parents.

However, Augusta was nothing if not ambitious.

"Julia, darling, we will be ready before the wedding." Augusta had assured the woman on their first day inside the house.

It was a mess, truly worse off than the Black-Longbottom home had been, and the wife of Sherriff Bradford had looked at Augusta dubiously.

"Trust me." Augusta had told the woman with a sharp grin. "All will be well."

Sirius had groaned tiredly somewhere in the background and the boys had laughed at him.

They would work through most of the afternoon, stopping to take mid-afternoon tea to sustain them until supper. Speaking of supper, after tea Claudia would take her leave to go back to the Black-Longbottom home and begin preparations for the evening meal as well as to do some light housework.

By the time everyone had cleaned up and had supper the boys were usually pretty tired, as the hard work combined with silly games- that were usually also educational- made them ready for bed by eight most days. Regulus usually retreated to the library or his lab after dinner- which was the time that everyone used to bring the others up to speed on their day and share amusing or silly stories- but Augusta had put a twist in the boys' usual bedtime routine as the stately lady had insisted that Sirius and Claudia spend some time with the boys by themselves.

"We're all in this together, but the two of you are taking the role of parents, so they need to have a bit of special time with you both. They won't be this young forever, after all. Embrace this while you can." Augusta had told the young couple with a soft, sad smile.

The boys- who were all still perfectly happy to be in the same room for the moment, they swore it was akin to having an extended sleepover party- would either be read to or regaled with stories about people that Sirius and Claudia once knew. The boys hung on their every word when it came to stories about their parents, and Sirius and Claudia were more than willing to reinforce that talking about James, Frank, Lily, or Alice was entirely alright and something that they encouraged. Claudia even worked up the courage to tell Cloud about his father- or the man whose name he bore. Occasionally they would ask questions and end up on silly tangents, but it quickly became memorable moments for all of them.

(Looking back, years later, Sirius and Claudia would be perpetually amazed at the depth of Augusta's wisdom and her remarkable selflessness.)

Once the boys were asleep Claudia and Sirius either spent time together alone- usually by going for a walk around the yard or chatting on the porch- or they went to join Augusta in the library or drawing room. Sometimes they engaged in their own projects somewhere near each other and-or Augusta and Regulus.

It was fast-paced and crazy and more than a little stressful sometimes, but the family embraced them- together.

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"I." Harry said emphatically as he dropped his head onto Cloud's unprotected stomach, eliciting a muffled groan from the other boy. "Am so tired. I think my tired is tired."

"Right?" Neville groaned, dropping to the floor a bit more gracefully and laying his head on Harry's stomach. "But we did it."

"It looks awesome." Cloud put in helpfully, his voice tinged with well-deserved pride. He was laying on his back on one of the rugs that they had moved in to the newly-refurbished home of Sherriff and Julia Branford.

True to Augusta's prediction the house was finished. Not only finished but the elder Bradfords were moved in.

Which was why they were all so tired.

"Ugh." Harry groaned as his stomach let out a sound that would be more appropriate coming from a Nibel Wolf. "I don't wanna do any more houses."

"Agreed." The other two chimed in in full supportive agreement.

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Claudia yawned and stretched her neck, lacing her fingers together and arching her arms and back upwards before letting out a happy hum as her bones cracked satisfyingly.

She was seated on the porch, her papers weighted down by random objects as she watched the boys play around in the yard. The adults had all decided that since the boys had done such a good job- from being so good all winter, then helping fix things up and move the Yearwoods and Stanleys out, and then working overtime to finish the Bradford home- that they would give them the afternoons 'off' for a week or so before tackling another project or structured activity.

Sirius was using the afternoons to work on the Bank so that they could have it ready when the Guild representative came.

(Sirius, Augusta, and Regulus had also been layering runic wards and such over everything they could without drawing attention- they were especially sure that the Bank and the Apothecary shop needed to be fully prepared for anything, especially right before the representatives were set to arrive.)

This was beneficial to Claudia as well, as she needed to go over how much gil they had left, how much gil they would need to have to live comfortably until next spring, how much lumber, firewood, and coal needed ordered from the Midlands, and how well Regulus' Apothecary was doing as a whole- income versus expenses and the possibilities of expanding operations. It was difficult work that required a great deal of creative thinking, logic, and preventative planning. Augusta was also teaching Claudia how to reconcile the Bank books- what with the Canyon Rules threaded in and the special circumstance- and it was methodical, intricate work.

Claudia relished it.

On the personal front Claudia was a bit less upbeat. Not because things were not going well between her and Sirius, because things were going great, despite the couple of silly arguments they had had! Both incidents had been resolved peaceably- though they had asked Augusta to mediate the more serious one because neither of them could think straight long enough to resolve it properly- as neither Sirius nor Claudia had the intention of fighting over miniscule things that did not matter in the long run. The two of them had seen too much to become caught up in petty matters that distracted them more than assisted them. Claudia most frequent personal gripe, however, was that the damn man had a will as strong as Mt Nibel itself! Claudia knew she was pretty- it had been spat at her often enough by spurned men and jealous women- but Sirius was adamant about not going further with her than some intense- Sirius called it 'snogging', Claudia thought the word was atrocious- moments before she agreed to marry him.

In hindsight she should have expected the ridiculous man to be that way after she had fearfully confessed the truth behind Cloud's parentage.

Claudia had spilled her secrets to Sirius after he had admitted that he had been quite the skirt-chaser in his youth. Sirius had bashfully told her about his fears that no woman worth a damn would ever truly want him because of his family's reputation and how he operated on the love 'em and leave 'em basis to protect himself from rejection. Once she had shared her story with him the man had been adamant about being 'different' and making her understand that he was in this for the 'long haul'.

It was sweet- nearly nauseatingly so- but damn if it didn't sting her pride every time she failed to get him to go further.

(A voice in the back of her heart whispered that that same willpower was what was slowly chipping away at her desire to not be beholden to a man.)

A loud shriek of laughter broke into her thoughts and Claudia glanced up to see Cloud running towards the porch, a strip of cloth in his hands, with the widest, most joyful grin on his face.

"Ma!" Cloud hollered at her gleefully, hitting the steps of the porch without breaking his stride. "You gotta save me, Ma!" With that said Cloud ducked behind her, peering over her shoulder at Harry and Neville who came stumbling up the steps a few moments later.

"Maaaaaa~." Harry whined playfully, his green eyes bright with mischief. "Tell Cloud he can't just decide you're base 'cause he's the oldest."

"Yeah!" Neville agreed cheerfully, edging closer to her side in a blatant effort to attempt to slip behind her and nab Cloud.

Claudia's heart still melted a little every time one of the boys called her 'Ma' or Sirius 'Da', as they wavered between familiar titles and the still somewhat newer ones, and her smile was warm when she cheerfully replied that that was what they got for wanting an older brother.

Cloud cackled behind her ear and then yelped as realized that the other two had trapped him, blocking his way out on either side.

"Ma!" Cloud hollered with a laugh.

"That's what happens when you try to pull rank on your little brothers, Cloudy-cub." Claudia informed him superiorly, sniffing a bit at the end as he shot her a mock-betrayed look and bolted for freedom, the two younger boys hot on his heels.

As she watched the boys laugh and tussle for a while longer before returning to work Claudia internally sighed.

Dammit at this rate that ridiculous man will actually convince me to marry him before winter!

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Late in the evening later that same week Claudia reported her complied findings to the others while they were sitting on the front porch enjoying the only slightly-chilly breeze and ambient sounds of nature. "If Sirius and Regulus can recover the same amount of materials from-"

"Don't say it!" Sirius yelped, twitching a little as Claudia grinned evilly at him and Augusta and Regulus rolled their eyes in united exasperation.

"As I was saying." Claudia said with no small amount of amusement, side-eying Sirius in haughty faux-exasperation. "If they can recover the same amount of materials from that place." She paused to raise an eyebrow at the still-twitchy Sirius. "In the Midlands known as the Forest of Many Frogs." She rushed to say all at once, preening at Sirius' theatrical response and Augusta and Regulus' badly-stifled snorts of amusement. "Then we will be perfectly fine, and that is without factoring in the payments that we will begin receiving once harvest comes and the Yearwoods and the Stanleys are free to begin to start paying the Bank back."

"Excellent." Augusta stated approvingly, raising her glass of wine slightly as an acknowledgment before she sipped at the perfectly aged red daintily. "We structured the contracts to give them ample time to pull themselves up after being at the bottom for so long."

"I'd like to go back to the Canyon, pick up some more of the 'failed' solar panels and build a few greenhouses. I know the Bradfords were asking me about getting one like ours." Sirius mused contemplatively, swirling his white wine around in his glass before he drained a decent portion of it as he mentally plotted. "If we headed down to the Canyon first, then came back up to that place-" He paused for a moment to glower at the entirely unrepentant Claudia petulantly. "-then we will have plenty of time to clear it before heading on to Corel to put in our coal, lumber, and firewood order before hiking up to Costa del Sol. Reg, you had business there, right? Oh, and we need to take Barrett's wife-Mary, or whatever?- her medicine, last letter Barrett said she was almost out. Well, Dyne said that Barrett said."

"Yes. Also, most likely, even if I did send quite a bit with them." Regulus replied, sipping at his brandy on the rocks. He preferred brown liquors over wine, to be honest. "The place is a vacation destination and the contraceptives they keep in stock are horrendous. The Apothecary promised me quite the deal if I came back through after my Certification. Truthfully I need to return to Junon or Midgar and grab a few ingredients so I can improve a few other recipes that have been irritating me."

Sirius snorted and topped off his wine glass before moving over to do the same to Claudia's own half-full glass. He caught her slightly shy eyes and gave her a bright grin and a saucy wink to cheer her up. He knew she did not regret having Cloud, but contraceptives were still a rough subject for her. "Brother dear, all of your potions are a thousand times better than the normal ones. Do check your ego."

"I will when you do." Regulus shot back with a lazy grin, which fell a moment later when Augusta rapped him sharply on the head with her bony knuckles. "Bloody hell, Aggie! Those things are dangerous weapons."

"Don't be crass." Augusta stated primly, eying Regulus high-handedly for a moment before smiling encouragingly at Claudia. "Do continue, dear."

"At any rate." Claudia continued dutifully. "As long as you two are back before mid-July everything should be fine, as the Guild finally sent word that they will be here the first week of August."

"Gives us time to shop for the boys!" Sirius exclaimed cheerfully. "Harry and Neville turn six on the thirty-first of July and Cloud is the eleventh?" He finished with a questioning lilt to his voice.

"No, it's the nineteenth." Claudia corrected with a smile. "He was due on the eleventh, but the paperwork got mixed up and since it takes so much effort to correct it- you have to take documents all the way to one of the bigger cities and if you forget one they won't do anything- I just left well enough alone."

"What day do you celebrate it, then?" Augusta asked curiously.

"I usually let him pick dinner every night from the eleventh to the eighteenth and then we celebrate on the nineteenth." Claudia said with a small blush. "It's always been our favorite joke."

"I like it!" Sirius cheered, slightly tipsy. He tugged Claudia closer and wrapped an arm around her.

"Well, this year, since he has the other two I'll just ask him which day he wants to celebrate." Claudia said thoughtfully, leaning a bit deeper into Sirius' warmth.

"Well, we will discuss it later." Augusta said as she finally drained the last of her wine and rose. "It's late. I think that Sirius and Regulus should head out Saturday morning which would give them nearly six weeks to travel around and do business before needing to be back for the boys' birthday." Augusta turned to Regulus. "I assume that you've built up stock for us to have on hand at the store while you are gone?"

"Yes." Regulus said, also draining the last bit of his drink and rising, offering an arm to Augusta as he did so. "I've already spoken with Julian, as well, so Saturday will be fine."

"Then it's settled." Augusta said as she turned to leave, turning back to glance at Sirius warmly. "I know we've kept you awfully busy, Sirius dear, but you and the boys should be able to go on an adventure or two this fall, and then you'll be able to start your own projects."

Sirius grinned brightly, but didn't move from his comfortable position. "I'm pretty excited about that." He admitted easily. "But I'm totally ok with waiting a bit, seeing as how I landed myself an Angel." Sirius turned and pressed a kiss to Claudia's loosely tied blonde hair, grinning when she pinned him with a one-eyed mortified glower.

Claudia flushed brightly and groaned embarrassedly, but Regulus and Augusta simply laughed and turned to leave. "She is quite heaven-sent, isn't she?" Augusta said just before they slipped inside the front door and Sirius' ringing laugh followed them inside the house.

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As Sirius was doing his last minute check of his packed supplies for he and Regulus' trip an uncomfortable sensation slid down his spine. Thinking about it for a long moment he made a detour to the storage room and spent about a half hour digging around until he found James' Invisibility Cloak. Sirius and Regulus had nabbed it back from Albus when they had snuck into Hogwarts to deal with Ravenclaw's Diadem.

(Really, they were Blacks. Voldy was comfortably rotting in hell about now, though Sirius sincerely hoped that the shitty piece of trash enjoyed his bit of Black family vengeance.)

Sirius smiled dopily as he remembered how Claudia had handled learning the truth about where he and the others came from and how they had sat down and talked with Cloud and the other two about it. It had been a lot of talking in that twenty-four hours, but Cloud was excited to be finally let in on the secret and Claudia had spent an entire winter listening to folk tales and the like, so between the stories, evidence- from both Earth and the Canyon- not to mention the backing of Regulus and Augusta, Claudia and Cloud had mostly adjusted after a few days.

Planet he loved his Angel.

Sirius knew an amazing jeweler in the Canyon, and he had painstakingly designed the fasting wristlets that he wanted to give Claudia- both as engagement and at their wedding.

Nibelheim folks did not usually exchange rings, he had found out. Usually they exchanged wristlets or necklaces, as both were able to handle the wear and tear of mountain life better without obstructing their ability to work. The engagement wristlet- or necklace- was a single strand. Engagement wristlets were worn on the right wrist only and engagement necklaces were generally a solid, ungarnished strand. Wedding wristlets were multistring and were worn on both wrists, though the man only wore his on his left. Wedding necklaces were either multi-strand or they had charms or decorations on them. A few even bought rings to be worn on the wedding necklaces, but that was more of a younger-generation habit than the true traditionalists.

At any rate Sirius intended to ask her for real when they returned.

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Chapter Text

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Sirius sighed happily as he tucked away the wristlets he had commissioned for Claudia into his jacket. It was an enchanted jacket that helped him deal with the heat- especially after a long winter in the bloody mountains!

They had turned out even better than he had expected.

Thus far the trip was going well. Regulus was off doing Apothecary-mastermind type things while Sirius had gone and traded his designs- plus the notes he had made of how the panels functioned as greenhouse insulators- for more 'failed' panels.

Emerald and Juniper had been a bit antsy during the first day or so of travel, but by the time they had reached the Canyon the two Chocobo had calmed considerably. Sirius felt for them, really. While the barn they were housed in was generous and the boys took them out for runs around Nibelheim when Augusta went to take tea with Miriam there was nothing quite like a long day's work to work out all the kinks from a long winter.

Grinning as he reached the Inn and waved at the Innkeeper, Sirius took the stairs up to his and Regulus' room two at a time, intent on finalizing the rituals he wanted to perform on the wristlets before they left the Canyon. Sirius had noted, and Regulus had agreed, that his 'Planet-senses' were much stronger here. While it probably wouldn't make much of a difference in the end, Sirius wanted to perform the rituals somewhere with the highest concentration of Lifestream possible. One of Sirius' most intense winter projects- one that had spilled over into spring, honestly- had reimagining a few commonly used Pureblood rituals to pull from the Planet's power instead of his own innate power, as originally intended. The reverse engineering and time-consuming recalculating had taken him nearly three months to plot out; tying the bloody Map to the ancient Wards of Hogwarts had been easier!

Nothing but the very best for his Angel, after all.

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It was strange the boys decided, to not have Regulus or Sirius around.

While both men worked hard and weren't always within arm's reach their absence was acutely noted at dinner, a time when both of the men made an effort to be present even if they did not take the other meals with the family.

"I miss Da." Cloud blurted out one night at dinner, having been poking at his food without really eating much of it.

"Me too." Harry said softly, also pushing his food around on his plate more than eating it.

"It's really strange to not have them here." Neville also agreed in a subdued voice.

As much as they tugged at her heartstrings and as much as she also missed Sirius and Regulus, Claudia thought that the three boys were positively adorable in their gloom. Even their hair seemed mopey. The blonde woman shared an amused glance with Augusta before she went about comforting them. "Well." She said in a cheery voice, causing all three of them to look at her in varying degrees of moping. "Then since you're all sad perhaps we shouldn't tell you?" She trailed off questioningly, and just like she had planned their curiosity perked them up despite themselves.

"Tell us what?" Harry asked curiously.

"Weeeeeeeeell." Claudia said teasingly, dragging the 'e' out exaggeratedly. "I dunno, you three seem awfully mopey."

"Ma." All three boys said in unison, with varying degrees of exasperation put into the vowel. "Tell us!" There was a heartbeat of silence during which both Augusta and Claudia quirked expectant eyebrows.

"Please tell us." They hastily amended, blushing a bit in embarrassment.

"Better." Augusta broke in briskly after another moment of letting the three squirm. "I suppose, since you asked so nicely, that we can tell you. Don't you think, Audi dear?"

"I suppose." Claudia agreed, hastily hiding her widening grin behind her glass of water. "Would you care to do the honors, Gran?"

Augusta nodded regally before she straightened and pinned all three boys with a firm, proud look. "Because you three have been so well-behaved and such a great help to us through all the changes that have gone on recently we have decided that you are fit to begin to learn how to fight." Augusta's glare kept the boys from cheering, but they positively wriggled in their seats. "Understand that this is a great honor; for to know how to fight is to know when to fight. If we even suspect that you are using your skills uncouthly there will be terrible consequences, do I make myself clear?"

The boys nodded solemnly, but their eyes were still bright with excitement.

"Now." Augusta said in a gentler voice after pinning them with her fiercest stare for another long, few moments. "Why don't you three put your plates away and go entertain yourselves until bedtime."

The boys left the table as quickly as they could while still remaining polite about it- they were taking zero chances of the offer being rescinded.

Once the boys had cleared out Augusta and Claudia glanced at each other for a moment before they both began to chuckle.

"Think we should have told them about all the flexibility, stamina, and reflex training you're planning to have them do first?" Claudia asked, highly amused.

"Let them have their moment." Augusta said with a devious smile tugging at her lips, rising from the table and heading for the kitchen proper. "They will learn that there is no such thing as quit come tomorrow."

Claudia's chuckles turned into full-blown laughter as Augusta regally departed the room.

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"Just in case you were wondering." Sirius grunted out as he shoved a newly-dead monster off his blade and swiftly turned to meet the one he could sense was aiming for his other side. "I hate this place just as much as I did last time. Maybe a little bit more, even."

"Noted and approved." Regulus grumbled disgustedly as he hopped over a dispersing monster corpse and met the next one head-on, shifting slightly to the side at the last second and neatly separating the thing's head from its bloated, disgusting body. "Never. Again."

"Amen, brother." Sirius agreed fervently, finally finding a moment to catch his breath and grimacing at the amount of ick on his blade. A quick, controlled low-level fire spell and his blade was much cleaner- just in time for the next round of 'let's try to end the Black line' to start. "Never ever." Sirius groused zealously as he rushed to meet them.

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"I feel like an overcooked pasta noodle." Cloud groaned miserably as he lay on their still-shared bed boneless and beyond exhausted, his still-wet from the bath hair even drooping pathetically. Near him Harry and Neville were also in various stages of misery.

"When Nana said we were going to learn how to fight, this is not what I pictured." Harry moaned as he tried- and failed- to rise from his prone position.

"I really think that my muscles are made of that wiggly jelly stuff that Gran makes sometimes." Neville added, his voice half slurring and muffled from where his face was buried in the pillow Cloud had haphazardly handed him at some point after they had dragged themselves to their room after their 'evening flexibility' training.

Their mornings now started with toast before a nice jog around the property- Augusta's words, not theirs, incidentally. After two laps around the circuit Augusta and Claudia marked out it was time for stretches.

Except Augusta's stretches were far different than any type of stretching they had ever seen. They had decided that if monster hunting did not work out they could always try to be like the circus performers that they had heard about- well, Harry and Neville had seen some in Costa del Sol.

After an agonizing hour of that they went and showered and had breakfast before starting on their schooling. They repeated the process before lunch- they were given a mid-morning snack now- and after getting cleaned up and eating lunch they rested for at least an hour before they went to do their 'afternoon activity'. They had been told to choose something they wanted to learn how to do and stick with it. So for the next few hours Harry tried to learn how to write all fancy- "It's called calligraphy or pen mastery, dear."- while Neville went out to the greenhouses to tend his newly minted personal garden plot- "Alice loved to garden and Frank loved to sit and read while she tended her flowers."- while Cloud learned to take apart and put back together some simple things with moving parts- "So you want to learn how to build a motorcycle like Sirius?".

After a few hours of that they were told to put their projects away and go play until supper.

After supper they went through another grueling hour of stretching, but different from the other two times as Augusta called it 'meditative stretching' and they started by 'clearing' their minds and were supposed to try and keep their minds completely blank while they went through the weird poses.

It was hard.

And not nearly as exciting as they first thought, but they knew better to complain and Augusta assured them that both Sirius and Regulus had begun the same way before they moved on to actual fighting techniques, they just had to be patient.

"If we last until Da and Uncle Regulus gets back without turning into pretzels I'm asking them how in the name of the Planet they survived." Harry groaned miserably, his voice wavering as he teetered between sleep and semi-lucidity.

"Same." The other two agreed.

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Corel was just as lively as ever and Barrett and Dyne had been beyond pleased to see them. Especially Barrett when Regulus produced a new batch of medicine for his wife- turned out that her name was Myrna, not Mary; whoopsie!- and allowed Barrett to credit that amount towards their order instead of making the man pay Regulus in gil right then.

Sirius was pretty sure that Regulus had made a life-long friend. Or fan. Maybe both.

Either way Dyne and Sirius had had a heck of a good time drinking together- Corel Beer was amazing- and Dyne had even introduced Sirius to his new wife, Eleanor.

They hadn't really spent too long in Corel though, heading up to Costa del Sol after just a few days of recovering from travel and that place.

Costa del Sol had been amusing, but not nearly as much fun as it had been with the boys. Most of their time there had been spent trying to get all their business completed before the ship they had been able to book last minute- thanks to the daughter of one of Regulus' clients needing to cancel and allowing them to buy her previously-booked ticket- to Midgar.

Trying to cram at least a week's worth of business and shopping into three days was most emphatically not fun. The worst part was trying to find a reputable stable to take care of Emerald and Juniper.

Those Chocobo were far too wonderful to be left in less-than-amazing accommodations!

They managed to make it though, and the morning of their fourth day in Junon they boarded the ship bound for Midgar. Well, Sirius preferred to call it the 'hag's crack of the witching hour', but Regulus frowned on that sort of phrase, so he tried to keep his grumbling to himself.

Tried.

Regulus still gave him exasperated looks as they stowed their cargo. They had made sure to bring decent sized trunks to prevent awkward questions or unwanted attention during their little expedition.

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After three weeks- minus Sundays- the boys were starting to feel slightly less like overcooked noodles by the end of their day.

Slightly.

Of course, that's why the morning of their fourth week Augusta changed the routine.

"Now we can really dive into things." Augusta had proclaimed with a wide smirk that should be illegal at seven in the morning.

The boys whimpered distressingly and shared commiserating, despondent looks.

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"This place is dirty, disgusting, and smells weird." Sirius muttered grouchily as he and Regulus threaded through the stalls in the Wall Market in Midgar.

"I hear ya." Regulus replied, equally as quietly despite the noise and chatter of the crowded streets. Both men were thankful for the enchantments woven into their packs and jackets as no less than five pickpockets had 'mysteriously' fumbled while trying to rob them.

Sirius had to respect their skills- they were smooth. He had only noticed two before the enchantments had kicked in and saved his stuff.

"How much longer are we going to be here, Reg?" Sirius asked tiredly as they stepped inside a stall that caught Regulus' eyes. "I just want to go back to the hotel and sleep until our ship leaves in two days."

"Not much longer Sirius." Regulus murmured reassuringly to his brother, wanting to be out of the foul city just as much as Sirius did. Midgar had bothered him when he had visited last year, while he had been waiting for his results from his Exam, but it was somehow a hundred times worse this time around. Regulus didn't know if the Reactors were sucking up more Lifestream- Mako, whatever- or if there were now more of them actively siphoning off the green life energy of the Planet, but the effect they were having on the Lifestream's flow in the area- and he and Sirius as a result of them being attuned or sensitive to the Lifestream- was distinctly horrendous.

They had been in Midgar for nearly four days and in that time they had seen a distinct upsurge in headaches, irritability, and their general mood being negatively affected.

Fortunately Regulus had been able to find and procure most of the things he had come looking for- and a few things he hadn't- and even Sirius had unearthed a few amazing finds that he was sure to appreciate more when they were no longer in this wretched place.

After another hour of looking around Regulus decided to call it a day and they headed back towards the train station that would take them back Above the Plate.

With their senses so muddled and their tempers fraying more and more by the second it should not have shocked them that in their spat about who was correct about which direction hey needed to turn at the corner with the extremely tacky fluorescent-colored shutters and particularly compelling LOVELESS graffiti that they ended up at the wrong train station…..three hours later than they should have been.

"How the hell did we manage to end up at the Sector Seven train station?" Sirius grumbled, leaning his head back against the grimy glass of the waiting area with a sneer curling his lips.

"Because we're both tired and borderline irrational." Regulus said tiredly, wanting nothing more than to curl up and sleep.

Despite all of the hustle and bustle around them the station itself was pretty quiet. Regulus guessed that that made sense considering the hour- it was early enough that the night crowd wasn't out yet, but late enough that the normal workday rush had subsided. The sound of squealing metal and the shaking that began to rattle just about everything in the vicinity clued Regulus in to the approaching train, prompting him and Sirius to rise and stand ready to board so they could get the bloody hell out of there.

Then the door opened and everything went sideways.

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"I really kind of think." Cloud grumbled as he tried to raise his chin up above the bar one more time. "That they're actually trying to kill us."

"Ag-re-ed." Neville puffed out between sit-ups as Harry dutifully counted them for him before calling out the switch.

"Less bustle more hustle!" Augusta's voice washed over them like a whip and all three boys hurried to finish their newly-assigned calisthenics regimen.

"I just wanna swing a sword." Harry panted breathlessly as he tried to raise his chin above the bar the required five times. "And kick monster butt."

"This'll help us." Cloud encouraged as he did his own sit-ups, Neville counting them out for him.

"Yeah, we wouldn't be able to lift them otherwise." Neville agreed, wiping the sweat out of his eyes with his soaked shirt sleeve and grimacing as he tried to remember if he had missed one of Cloud's sit-ups while doing so. "Besides we need to make sure our muscles are flexible enough not to be damaged when we make mistakes."

"Yeah, Gran said that that was the whole point of this stuff-" Cloud stubbornly grit out as he rhythmically rose to touch his forehead to the hand Neville was holding level with Cloud's bent knees. "-was to make sure our bodies don't end up permanently injured cause we twisted wrong or something."

"Well, the 'learning to fall' part after lunch is way more fun than the stupid stretches." Harry relented grudgingly, managing the five required chin-ups and going for a sixth.

"I still can't wait for Da and Uncle Regulus to get back." Cloud groaned as Neville called the switch and they all obediently moved.

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When the red lights flashed and the door to the train opened the last thing the brothers expected to see was an empty car- well, Shinra ran all the trains on a timer around the clack, so maybe not that surprising, in retrospect- save for an extremely unhealthily ashen-looking woman and a small, terribly frightened girl.

Both of them had eyes that reminded Sirius rather suddenly of Lily and Harry, though they both had earthy-brown colored hair.

"Please, take care of my daughter." The woman begged, blood slipping passed her lips as she ushered the girl closer. "Please. I don't have much time left, but she cannot be found by Shinra. Please."

Sirius and Regulus gently bullied the two back into the car and triggered the door to slide shut.

The woman grew frantic. "No!" She begged them, her eyes wild and haunted. "Please no! My daughter- they can't- Shinra will-"

"Always knew they were dirty." Regulus grumbled as Sirius set down the bags and the train lurched into motion, carrying them back towards the surface.

Regulus held up the bracer he had on, the Materia in it glowing softly as he directed his spells towards the crying, mumbling woman despite her pleas.

"Hey." Sirius said gently to the frightened, wide-eyed little girl, stopping just a little ways away from her and crouching down to be at her eye level. "I know this is probably really scary for you, but I need you to do me a favor, alright?"

The girl's green eyes- two shades brighter and about four shades lighter than Harry's, Sirius noted absently- studied him intently for a moment, looking back towards her now unconscious mother before nodding hesitantly at Sirius.

Sirius smiled and made sure to move very, very slowly. "We're heading back up to the surface and I imagine that it would be bad if those jerks found out about you and your Mum being on board, right?"

The little girl nodded slowly, her eyes still wet and wary.

"This is a special blanket." Sirius told her, holding out the silky cloth of the Invisibility Cloak towards her with another gentle smile. "It'll make sure no one but my brother and I know you and your Mum are here, ok? But I need you to be really, really quiet while you have it on, because people can still hear you, ok?"

The girl nodded once again and Sirius glanced out the window. "Ok, we gotta do this, kiddo, ready?"

In the next few minutes Sirius and Regulus wrapped the woman and the girl up in the Cloak and situated them in Sirius' arms, tucking the Cloak securely so their feet didn't show or anything. They then piled some purchases on top to make it look like Sirius was carrying packages instead of walking around with his arms out like an idiot.

They breathed a sigh of relief when the security check passed without incident- Sirius hadn't actually been entirely sure it would work, honestly- and then they carefully made their way passed the searching Shinra troopers, praying that the Reflect spell Regulus had cast would keep any of the SOLDIERs from sniffing out their passengers by their heartbeat or scent. Neither Sirius nor Regulus were precisely sure what SOLDIERs were capable of or if the Reflect could even shield such signs of life, but they just really felt that letting Shinra get their grubby paws on this woman and her daughter would be a bad idea.

It was a tense walk back to their hotel- a ten minute walk that ended up taking them nearly forty-five and being stopped by no less than three groups of Shinra lackeys- but eventually they made it back inside their hotel room- and cast a Barrier spell just in case- and were able to uncover both the woman and the little girl.

The woman's color was a little better, but her face was extremely sweaty and her breathing was labored. Sirius set her down on the bed and stepped back, letting Regulus flit around and grab supplies.

One does not plan an expedition to that place and not plan the medical kit accordingly, after all.

The little girl sat next to her mother, her green eyes scared and wary as she carefully watched Regulus work. "Are you going to use needles?" The little girl asked in a sweet, quiet voice as Regulus began to tear away the woman's shirt to get to her wounds.

"No, I'm an Apothecary, dear. We are far too sophisticated for such barbaric methods." Regulus told her with a gentle, reassuring smile before going back to his work, his hands swift and precise.

Sirius made a triumphant sound and pulled out a stuffed dog toy that he'd bought for Claudia- Audi loved dogs and the one he had found looked just like his Padfoot form- and he approached the little girl slowly, extending the stuffed animal to her with a reassuring smile. "Here, it always helps to have a friend, and don't worry, Reggie's got a bit of an ego, but he's the best Apothecary ever."

The little girl glanced from Sirius to the proffered stuffed animal then back to Sirius. Her frightened green eyes flickered over to her mother and Regulus one more time before they finally settled back on Sirius. After a long moment of intense staring she reached out tentative fingers and curled them in the dog's furry mane. "A friend?" She asked slowly.

Sirius gently pushed the toy towards her until she finally wrapped her arms around it and slowly brought it to her chest, her guarded, hopeful eyes remaining avidly affixed on his own all the while.

After giving the little girl a few moments of peace as she finally looked down at the stuffed animal and began running curious finger over its soft material, Sirius nodded primly and planted his hands on his hips while plastering a silly grin to his face. "Yep!" He chirped cheerfully causing her to look back up at him curiously. "Everybody needs a friend!" Sirius grinned at the little girl and leaned forward a bit. "I'm Sirius." He told her intently, pointing to himself faux-importantly- prompting a smile from the little girl that only made him smile wider- before he pointed at the still distracted Regulus. "And that's my little brother Regulus, but I call him Reggie. Or Reg. Or the-prat-who-ate-the-last-tart. Whatever works." Sirius planted his hands back onto his hips and leaned forward a bit more, the girl unconsciously mimicking him- it was darn cute- and he smiled a bit brighter at her. "So what's your name?" He asked earnestly.

"Aerith Faremis." She said shyly, hiding part of her face behind her new toy. "And that's my Mommy. Her name is Ifalna."

Sirius smiled brightly at her and rocked back on his heels. "Lovely names for lovely ladies!" He chirped cheerfully. "But now your new puppy needs a name, too! What are you going to call him?" Sirius canted his head to the side and quirked an eyebrow at the girl, making her giggle. "Or is your new friend a her?"

"Hmmm." Aerith hummed as she turned her puppy around and stared hard at the little stuffed thing- Sirius really wished he had a camera- and thought hard for a few minutes. "Minerva?" She offered shyly after a few minutes of intense thought.

"Like the goddess of the Golden People?" Sirius asked curiously, trying to not think about how funny it was for a stuffed dog toy to be named Minerva.

Aerith nodded vigorously, her face lighting up in a bright smile. "Yes! You know the stories about the Golden People?"

Sirius tipped his head back and laughed. "Why of course, little lady!" Sirius glanced at Regulus and the younger Black shook his head slightly, the interaction taking only a fraction of a moment, so Aerith missed it. "I tell you what." Sirius offered the girl with a grin. "Why don't we sit on the floor- I'll dig out some food and drinks for us- and you tell me all about the stories you've heard and I'll tell you if I know about any ones that you don't already know about!"

"Um…." Aerith said nervously, glancing sidelong at her mother and biting her lip anxiously.

"Don't worry." Sirius assured her quickly his hands fluttering around as he tried to illustrate his point. "We'll just be right here beside the bed- you'll still be able to see her and everything- but Regulus needs a bit more room to work, ok?"

Aerith stared at Sirius for a long moment before she reluctantly nodded and slipped off the bed, Minerva clutched tightly to her chest.

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When Ifalna next opened her eyes it was to a slightly cracked ceiling and she experienced a moment of absolute disorientation before the final memories before she slipped into unconsciousness came rushing back with enough force to give her an instant headache and make her nauseous.

"Ah, you're awake." Regulus said from nearby, causing the woman to startle badly and glance around frantically for her daughter. "Aerith is with my brother in the next room." Regulus told the woman, guessing her thoughts. "I'll go fetch them as soon as you take the medicine I've prepared for you." With that Regulus held a small vial filled with a cheerful feeling liquid up for her to take.

Ifalna wasn't in the habit of taking medicine from strangers. Yet between the way she felt- the fact that she was even alive and not back in Hojo's clutches- along with the bright, clean feeling she could feel coming from the proffered medicine made her open her lips and allow the medicine to be steadily poured into her mouth until it was gone. A moment later a glass of water was pressed to her lips and she gratefully drank from it.

"I'll go get Aerith and Sirius now. I'm Regulus, by the way. Regulus Black, Master Apothecary." Then Regulus turned and exited the room.

A few moments later Aerith came flying into the room, a stuffed animal clutched in her hands as she clambered up on the bed and buried her face in her mother's neck.

For the longest time Ifalna's only awareness was of Aerith. Aerith who was here in her arms- dressed in clean and soft though obviously not made for her size clothing- and not screaming from whatever madness Hojo was inflicting on her that day. Ifalna sat there and rocked her baby back and forth until Aerith's sobs subsided into sniffles and the girl sat back on Ifalna's lap and grinned brightly at her.

"This is Minnie!" Aerith chirped brightly, shoving the stuffed animal- it was a dog, Ifalna finally noticed- towards her mother as Aerith wiped the drying tear-tracks off her cheeks. "Well, her name is Minerva, really, but Sirius said that he used to have a teacher that liked cats that was named Minerva but his friend called her 'Aunt Minnie' 'cause she was his Godmother and-"

"Aerith, slow down." Ifalna said with a happy but bewildered smile, wiping her own drying tear tracks off her face as she tried to catch up with her daughter's excited babble- and how long had it been since Aerith had been this excited?. Ifalna reached out and pat the stuffed animal softly on the head before she smoothed back Aerith's- clean and slightly flowery scented- hair. "Now what?" On second thought, Ifalna's head whipped up quickly, but she couldn't see either of the men who she vaguely remembered from the train station.

"Oh!" Aerith said, bouncing a little as Ifalna finally noticed that they seemed to be on a ship as her surroundings were actually moving. "Do you want me to get Sirius or Regulus?" Correctly interpreting her mother's blank gaze as only a child could, Aerith launched into an explanation about magical blankets, stories, and sneaking onto a ship like a super-amazing ninja.

"What?" Ifalna said as Aerith finished, entirely confused.

There was a knock and the two turned to look at the dark-haired man who was carrying a tray of food. "Sirius!" Aerith chirped brightly, grinning widely and waving excitedly at the man.

"Why hello there, little lady Aerith." Sirius greeted cheerfully before he turned warm grey eyes onto Ifalna. "And to you as well, Aerith's Mommy Ifalna." The man walked further into the room and set the tray on the nearby bedside table while the other man entered and smiled and waved at Aerith before directing his gaze towards Ifalna.

"I'd like you to eat some of the soup." Regulus informed Ifalna when he turned to look at her. "I can give you some more stomach soothing elixir if you need it, but you really need to get some nutrients into you that come from actual food, not the Sustenance Potions I've been coaxing down you the past few days."

Ifalna blinked owlishly a few times and tried to reconcile everything she had heard and seen since she had awoken. "Why are you helping us?" She blurted out anxiously.

It was then that she realized it.

They're connected to the Planet. Ifalna comprehended suddenly, her eyes widening in shock as she sent her senses out and tried to feel out just exactly what they were. They weren't WEAPONs, but they weren't precisely like her and Aerith, either. They were still connected to the Planet, to the Lifestream and the sudden release of tension that Ifalna felt at no longer being alone nearly caused her to slip back into unconsciousness. "I didn't know they was anybody like me left." Ifalna managed around the lump in her throat.

"Well, we're…..unique." Sirius said with a grin, handing a small, square-cut sandwich to Aerith. "As to why we're helping you-" Sirius trailed off and shrugged. "We can, I suppose. And you and little lady Aerith needed help."

"Where are we going? What's going to happen?" Ifalna's heart dropped abruptly and she nearly started crying. "How are we ever going to live, hiding from Shinra." Ifalna peeked up at her rescuers. "You do know they'll hunt us to the ends of the Planet." A sudden thought occurred to her and her remaining hope curdled. "We'll be putting you in danger. We should-"

"I realize that we might not look like much." Regulus cut in smoothly moving over and fussing with the soup before firmly pressing it into Ifalna's hands. "But I assure you that we are very capable people."

"We're also under the leadership of a rather scary lady-dragon who would murder us and then use our bones to make some sort of war banner if we did not help two ladies who obviously need it." Sirius blinked a few times at the wall before turning back to look at Ifalna. "Besides, Reggie is a genius and we have a plan. At least to get you back on your feet." Sirius glanced around shiftily and then leaned forward a bit. "And I'd rather stay on Angel's good side. I'm trying to convince her to marry me."

Aerith giggled, spewing crumbs all over Ifalna- and Ifalna's soup- before she clapped her hand over her mouth and quickly swallowed. "Angel is Miss Audi." Aerith informed her mother, her eyes dancing with amusement. "Sirius is going to ask her to marry him when they get home. He's been practicing."

Regulus groaned. Aerith giggled louder. Sirius flushed.

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By the time they reached Costa del Sol Ifalna had been convinced that no, she wasn't back in the labs having a delusion; yes they were really serious about taking her and Aerith in; and no they weren't going to take no for an answer before Ifalna at least agreed to meet Augusta.

Aerith adored Emerald and Juniper and marveled at the sky and the ocean and everything else that was so different from all the lab equipment and torture and screams she had been surrounded by up until then. As a precaution Aerith and Ifalna traveled under the Cloak, but air still flowed freely though it and it was incredibly lightweight, so it wasn't too much of a hassle for the mother and daughter.

As the days moved forward and the men stayed the same- still helpful and courteous, though far more cordial to Aerith than herself- Ifalna began to hope that things would turn out alright.

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When they entered Nibelheim they went straight to the Black-Longbottom home, nodding and gently deflecting questions and conversation traps from their fellow Nibelheim residents in an effort to get home quicker, the two strategically loaded Chocobos that were also carrying Ifalna and Aerith trotting obediently behind them.

(Emerald and Juniper had refused to budge until Sirius and Regulus had removed their makeshift leashes that first day after they had retrieved the two Chocobos from the stable in Costa del Sol. The two brightly colored horse-chickens had been smugly trailing behind them sans any sort of tether ever since.)

It still took them far longer than they wanted to reach the plane their home was located on.

The boys were in the yard and Augusta and Claudia were on the porch when they rounded the final bend to the house and Sirius was quickly buried underneath a dogpile of children. By the time they had actually reached the edge of the porch- where Claudia and Augusta were good-naturedly waiting- Sirius had finally managed to peel off his leeches, (mostly because he told them he had something really important to ask Audi), and had managed to work himself up into a panic.

Standing there in front of the blonde woman that he had missed every moment of every day since he had left, Sirius was even surer of his decision. With shaking hands he pulled out the small box and knelt down before his Angel- on both knees because he knew he was entirely undeserving of her- and he prayed to everyone he could think of that she would say yes.

"Angel, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"

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When the boys had started hollering like little hellions before tearing off towards the newly materialized forms of Sirius and Regulus, Claudia had been relieved. Augusta had told her that something had happened that had stirred up the Planet's normally fairly quiet murmurs in the back of her mind, and then had sighed and said it probably had something to do with Sirius.

When Sirius hadn't come running up to greet her or even had moved to kiss her Claudia had started to get worried, all of her old anxieties and fears rushing back and reminding her that of course he'd change his mind once he went back out and saw that he deserved so much better than her and-

"Angel will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?"

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There was a long, heartbreaking moment of silence were the tension sang to a fever pitch before Claudia nodded slowly and managed to croak out a quiet. "….yes."

Sirius' face broke into a wide grin as her answer filtered into his brain and he eased the small velvety box open so that she could see the wristlet he had designed for her. Rather shakily he reached out and lifted her right hand before his brow furrowed and he glanced over his shoulder at the teary, ecstatic boys. "Cloud, boys, come 'ere."

The boys walked over to him, Sirius directing Cloud to his left side- so that Cloud was on her right side- before he handed the box off to Neville, who was next to Cloud. "Well, what do you think buddy?" Sirius asked Cloud with a weaker smile than normal. "You gonna let me marry your Ma?"

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Claudia was struck once again, by just how much she loved this man. Her little Cloudy looked at Sirius for a long moment before nodding solemnly- he looked so serious!

It was adorable!

Claudia's breath caught when she saw the wristlet clearly for the first time- she had been in shock or in the middle of a panic- and once again her heart melted at the sight of the clearly custom-made, simply elegant braided silvery piece of jewelry. Sirius had to help Cloud put it on her- as the clasp was part of the infinity loop that blended in with the design, making the wristlet seem to be an endless loop of endless loops.

After it was secure properly Cloud grinned up at her and gave her a quick hug before Neville and Harry stepped up and hugged her from either side before stepping back beside Cloud.

During this Sirius had finally risen to his feet and stepped forward to finally give her the 'I'm back' kiss she had been waiting for.

Sort of.

After a moment of simply resting his lips gently against hers she growled in exasperated frustration, causing his lips to curve into a wicked smirk against hers before he finally gave in and kissed her properly.

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Chapter Text

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Claudia came back to herself as she felt the boys come crashing into her and Sirius. The unexpected arrival of the boys causing her and Sirius' heads to butt into each other rather unpleasantly and for Sirius to accidentally bite down on her tongue a little harder than could be considered 'playful'.

The two drew back from each other with bright, fond grins despite their smarting appendages as they wrapped the boys up with them in a family hug.

Claudia relished the moment, wanting it to last forever.

"We need to go around back; we picked up some unexpected cargo on our trip."

Regulus' voice was level and even but Claudia couldn't help but side-eye Sirius. "Does anything ever go as planned when you're involved?" She asked him dryly.

"It's a conspiracy." Sirius whined as he followed after her- Claudia having spun on her heel and headed towards the back of the house. "I swear. Angel? Angel?"

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"In Midgar- the Slums, to be exact- we ran across a woman and her daughter who needed help. They had previously being held against their will by Shinra's Science Department. Shinra was quite keen on reacquiring them and they had nowhere to go, so we brought them back here with us. This is Ifalna and her daughter, Aerith." Regulus announced to the family once they had all trekked to the back of the house where they would not be seen or easily overheard. Regulus gestured towards what seemed to be empty air above Emerald's back but shortly after his hand gesture displayed the forms of a little girl and a woman who could only be her mother holding a silky cloth in their hands.

Claudia could admit that she felt a moment of black, irrational jealousy when the beautiful woman had been revealed. Claudia had not even registered the little girl; her eyes locked on the woman's nearly ethereal features- the woman's flowing, lustrous earthy colored hair and her luminescent, nearly iridescent, green eyes.

The potentially black moment passed when Claudia's eyes locked firmly onto the woman's own and Claudia could see Ifalna, not just the stupidly beautiful woman Claudia's soon-to-be-husband and his brother saved in the Midgar Slums.

She's a desperate mother. Claudia realized with a start. She's being pursued by the most influential company on the Planet and she has no one to turn to for help.

In a cleansing rush of light that flooded her being and banished the dark thoughts that had tried to take root inside of her, Claudia felt compassion, empathy, and kindness towards Ifalna and little Aerith. Because now that she could think straight she could see the exhaustion, the fear, and the lonely grief in Ifalna's eyes.

Claudia could remember a time- had it really only been less than a year ago?- that she had felt the same. She also remembered how Augusta Longbottom had reached out a hand to help her, even when Claudia had been a complete stranger and the stately, elderly woman had had no reason to do so. Augusta was Claudia's mentor. The woman who had shown Claudia a way out of her lonely existence and had helped the younger woman find the courage to embrace her chance with Sirius.

Straightening her shoulders- and missing the affectionate, proud smile Augusta directed her way- Claudia reached out and casually whacked Sirius on the shoulder before she stepped forward, a welcoming smile stretched across her lips. "That's plenty enough for right now, Regulus, but for Planet's sake let's get them inside and comfortable, there will be time for a full explanation then." Moving a bit closer Claudia reached up a hand towards the woman and little girl. "I'm Claudia Strife but you both can call me Audi, welcome you two." Claudia directed a cheerful, kind smile towards little Aerith- who was hiding behind a stuffed dog toy. "I made some apple tarts just this afternoon. Do you like apples, Aerith?"

Aerith smiled shyly and nodded her head, looking back at her mother briefly and receiving an encouraging smile before she wriggled around and gingerly dropped into Claudia's outstretched arms. Aerith was gently lowered to the ground and she smiled brilliantly up at Claudia.

"Did you know that Sirius practiced asking you to marry him every day Miss Audi?" Aerith asked the woman in a quiet voice, but with eyes that positively danced with delight.

"Little lady Aerith!" Sirius squawked at the girl, utterly mortified. "You weren't supposed to tell her that!"

Claudia's heart melted a little, filling her chest with tender affection for the man who had won her heart. She flushed slightly as she helped the laughingly apologetic Ifalna down from Emerald. "I didn't." Claudia said as she turned and smiled gently at the little girl, ignoring Sirius being lightly teased by the boys in the background. "But thank you for telling me."

The dazzling smile little Aerith gave her warmed her all the way to her toes.

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Aerith smiled shyly at the three curious boys who were looking at her expectantly. "I-I'm Aerith." She told them softly, tugging Minnie closer as they continued to stare at her.

They had eaten a snack and then the four children had been ushered out of the kitchen so that the 'adults can talk'.

The blond boy with the bright blue eyes stepped forward a little, a kind smile on his face. "I know Ma told you already, but I'm Cloud."

Aerith giggled a little and then clapped her hand over her mouth in horror. "I-I sorry." She stuttered, horrified.

Cloud just laughed a little and smiled encouragingly at her. "It's alright." He rolled his eyes pointedly. "It's not as if I don't hear enough cloudy jokes from these two." He held his half-curled fists out in front of him, the thumbs pointing in opposite directions on either side of him. "Golden-eyes is my younger brother, Neville, but we just call him Nev. Green-eyes is our youngest brother Harry. We usually call him Trouble."

"Hey!" Harry protested with a pout, halfheartedly swiping at the now-laughing Cloud. "How come I'm the youngest? Nev and I were born on the same day!"

"That just means you needed an official older brother." Cloud replied with all the wisdom of a six-year-old. "However, now that I'm here I get to decide these things." Cloud nodded importantly. "Also Gran said that Nev was born half an hour earlier than you." He tacked on after a moment, which set Neville into muted hysterics at his other side, while the blond stared down his nose at Harry.

Harry puffed up in offended indignation and opened his mouth to refute such a claim but was cut off by Aerith's sudden laughter.

All three boys grinned and turned to the laughing girl, her peals of laughter echoing off the walls of the living room joyfully. "So." Harry asked her after a moment, leaning forward slightly, his eyes alight with interest. "How old are you, Aerith?"

"Eight." She admitted from behind the safety that Minnie provided. "My birthday was in February." The girl's expressive eyes dimmed a little and her face took on a pained expression as she tried to push back her memories of the labs. With everything that had been happening she had mostly been able to keep them pushed to the far corner of her mind, too busy reveling in the new experiences she was having.

Warm arms came around her gently and soft, silken blond spikes brushed under her nose and against her cheek. It took Aerith a moment, but slowly her arms came around the slightly shorter blond and soon she was sniffling into his shoulder, but when she tried to apologize and pull away he just pulled her closer and murmured that everything was going to be alright now. Eventually Aerith's tears ran their course and when she pulled back she was smiling. "Thanks." She said shyly, wiping at her eyes a bit timidly and fretfully inspecting Minnie for any damage.

Cloud just smiled at her, Neville and Harry not too far behind. "It's alright." Cloud told her as he gently guided her towards the living room table, Neville and Harry peeling off to go grab a few of the board games from the cupboard before rejoining them. "Everybody needs to cry sometimes." He gave Aerith one more gentle, reassuring smile before he gestured towards the games Harry and Neville grabbed from the cupboard. "Now, do you wanna play Clue, Scrabble, Jenga or Monopoly?"

"We have to play the educational ones 'cause it's still the afternoon." Neville explained to the slightly puzzled girl.

"I've never played any of them before." Aerith confessed as she slid down to sit cross-legged on the plush rug like the boys.

"Well, Clue is kinda like a detective game." Harry explained to the puzzled girl as he and Neville arranged the boxes so she could see them all. "Sirius and Ma drew pictures on the cards we use to keep score to help us to be able to play. Monopoly has a lot of math. Scrabble is all about spelling words, and Jenga is about critical thinking according to Nana."

"You're our guest so you get to pick. Ma and Gran said so." Cloud hurried to tell her as he saw her shrug uncertainly and open her mouth.

"Hmmm." Aerith said as she reluctantly settled back down and surveyed the games intently. "I kinda like the Monopoly one or the building one." She said eventually.

"Brilliant!" Harry chirped brightly gathering up the other three games and setting them aside. "Jenga it is!"

"You just like setting it back up after you make the tower wobble and crash." Neville said dryly as Harry began to enthusiastically show Aerith how to set up the game.

Harry maturely stuck his tongue at his brother.

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Seated around the kitchen table the adults began their discussion.

Conversation over lunch had mostly been Sirius and Regulus filling the chatter with stories about their travels. Once the children had been shooed out of the room, however, they got down to the how and whys of Ifalna and Aerith's plight.

"The former Head of the Shinra Science Department was Professor Gast Faremis, my late husband." Ifalna began tiredly. "Shinra was looking into stories about the Cetra and the legends of how they managed to power such an advanced society with no signs of using fossil fuels or otherwise limited fuel sources." Ifalna slumped down into her chair, exhausted in a way that belied her body's age.

After a few moments of patient silence with the clinking of teacups on their respective saucers or spoons stirring the tea inside the aforementioned cups being the only noises inside the kitchen, Ifalna continued. "Unable to get passed the cold boreal Sleeping Forest or Crystal Forest, depending on which translation one uses, the scientists- led by Gast- skirted the edges of the Forest and wound up near the Northern Crater."

"Question." Sirius broke in when the woman hesitated for a moment. "I thought that the hole the Calamity made when The Crazy arrived went so deep that it nearly touched the Planet's Core." Sirius glanced around before he returned his gaze to Ifalna. "The Cetra couldn't find a way to damage the Calamity to the point where The Crazy's cells lost all cohesion and didn't corrupt the Lifestream. Like, Crazy-infected cells from infected animals and plants that were killed accumulated in the Lifestream like an infection until the Calamity started to gain awareness inside it. To preserve the Lifestream's integrity and to prevent having to fight a losing war on two fronts the Crazy-infection would be forcefully ejected from the Lifestream. The ejected part of Crazy would then be damaged enough that they would be unable to gain true Crazy Awareness without coming into contact with fresh Crazy. However the Cetra could not find a way to do that with the main Crazy and that's why they sealed Crazy in ice made from dry energy- like the Forest- instead of directly within the Liquid Lifestream?" There was a questioning lilt by the end of Sirius' long-winded explanation.

"I had forgotten you had been to the Canyon." Ifalna commented with a small smile that fell away as she looked down and started fiddling with her teacup again. "I wish I had been able to speak to Gast before they had started digging."

"Begging your pardon, but why weren't you?" Augusta asked evenly, her eyes not judging but quizzical.

"The Watch was set up by the Cetra nearly two millennia ago. However, there were too few Cetra left in the Watch to successfully perpetuate our numbers, so we've surreptitiously kept track of lines that we had married into, so that when we needed to find a partner- or to just conceive a child, honestly- outside of our own numbers we picked partners with the highest potential." Ifalna smiled sadly at their pinched looks- the former magicals having been uncomfortably reminded of the 'Blood Purity' of the world they had left behind. "I know it sounds terrible, but without regular maintenance- as in every decade or so- the Cetran Seal would begin to degrade."

"Unless there was outside interference." Regulus noted evenly.

"Unless there was outside interference." Ifalna sighed, pausing slightly and perking up briefly when she heard Aerith's bright laugh echo through the house. "I had been traveling, my brother having returned to the Planet shortly after we have performed our duties to the Seal." Ifalna's voice shook as she spoke the next part, the words raw and aching as she admitted what was probably her greatest shame. "I had always resented being different. I was born with barely any ability to do more than dream of the stories of my people. The stories varied greatly in terms of when and where they happened; taught to me by faceless beings of green who imparted not only the facts of the stories but the emotions that accompanied them. It made me angry to have to carry so much sorrow and pain." Ifalna fiddled with the handle of the cup and stared into the liquid's depths sightlessly. "I did not know that it was my own emotions that called out to the memories of likened events. By the time I managed to get my head on straight and listen it was nearly time for me to return to the North, however….."

"Crazy had broken out." Sirius input helpfully.

"That is one way to put it." Ifalna said with a small smile. "I stayed at Icicle, in the home that I had spent so much time resenting my gifts and the Planet; absolutely lost and confused." Ifalna's smile grew softer, though pained. "Eventually Gast came, having left Shinra. He told me of the Calamity- Shinra had designated… Crazy-" Sirius let out a delighted bark of laughter. "-as JENOVA. It has many possible meanings, depending on which language or dialect you translate the name from, but Gast chose it as it relates to someone who is 'courageous, honest, original, and creative' due to him mistakenly believing Crazy to being the last Cetra, preserved by the Planet so that one day the Cetra might return." Ifalna's lips twisted into a snarl even as she flinched reflexively. "Hojo liked to wax poetic about how the name can be dissected to mean something along the lines of 'god like' and then relating to a supernova-type event wherein a cataclysmic event occurs and then something is 'born anew'."

"That guy should have been a poet or something." Sirius muttered with a huff.

"He would have starved." Claudia rejoined with a half grin.

"More's the pity." Augusta said archly.

"He really enjoyed hearing himself talk." Ifalna said with a half-smile that was more pain than pleasure. "At any rate Hojo found where Gast and I were hiding less than a month after Aerith had been born. Gast had handled Crazy's samples quite a bit as the Head of the JENOVA Project, after all, and he had inadvertently acquired enough for them to 'call' to the main part of Crazy, which Hojo then followed to us, having become infected himself." Ifalna held up her hand and smiled sadly. "I told you that most of my gifts reside in learning the Planet's history when I dreamed, remember? With the part of the Calamity purposefully hiding I did not know that there was an issue." Ifalna's lips turned downward once again. "Hojo took great delight in gloating while he injected me with JENOVA-tainted Liquid Lifestream." Ifalna's eyes turned fierce and shone with pride. "But my Aerith was able to neutralize the Calamity that he injected into her. I think she inherited a talent for healing. A talent that was able to capitalize on the amassed knowledge of the Golden People who had returned to the Planet before her on an unprecedented level due to the Liquid Lifestream that Hojo used. Hojo would inject her with Liquid Lifestream and the Calamity cells and her body would reject them within twelve to fourteen hours. It drove him mad." Ifalna furrowed her brow in thought. "She cannot do it consciously, however."

"Makes sense in a strange way." Claudia offered after a moment. "You said earlier that the Lifestream would reject Crazy's cells after a certain point so perhaps that is what she unconsciously based the ability on."

"That would make sense." Augusta chimed in as well, having started a new pot of tea during the exchange. "I imagine that over the centuries the cells that have been summarily rejected by the Lifestream grow weaker and weaker and eventually are only a mild annoyance. It would certainly explain why the monster population has positively exploded over the past decade or so and why so many new monsters are beginning to appear. Freshly unearthed parent material would be far more potent than successively recycled cells that have been continually worn down from trips to the Lifestream. Especially as the Golden People learned from their mistakes and their knowledge of how to fight the Calamity joined the Lifestream as they returned to the Planet over the consecutive generations. The Lifestream would able to better protect itself over the centuries."

"The new and improved monsters would also lend public support for super-soldiers." Regulus noted with a frown. "Whenever there is a legitimate problem it becomes easier to hide secondary or tertiary motivations. Especially if Shinra is actively contributing to the heart of the issue."

"They make monsters to fight monsters." Sirius said with a scowl. "Fighting fire with fire and all that. But what happens when these SOLDIERs find out the truth?"

"I have no idea but I am rather terrified to find out." Ifalna said with a sigh, accepting her newly refreshed tea with a thankful smile. "I know-Gast informed me- that the original goals of Project JENOVA was to imbue a human with Cetra powers to lead Shinra to the fabled 'Promised Land'- which is what the Lifestream was called in the Golden People's children stories."

"Children in Nibelheim are taught that when people die they 'climb the mountain'." Claudia said with a contemplative hum.

"We always told children that their loved ones had gone to help Mother Magic." Augusta offered as well.

"Essentially the same thing." Ifalna admitted as she stirred her sugar into her tea. "When Shinra first found the Calamity they also found that Liquid Lifestream exists deep within the Planet- beneath the oil and coal- and not just in tiny little reservoirs. It took them less than a year to use it as an energy source, mainly due to the tinkering of one of their engineers at the dig site, according to Gast."

"They built the first Reactor here."

"Most of the experiments that Gast worked on were done here as well- in the Manor Shinra bought." Ifalna told them with a sad smile. "There was a little boy that Hojo's wife allowed to be injected with Calamity cells in utero. Gast said that the poor boy was never even held by the woman, that Hojo said it would 'damage the specimen'. She disappeared into the mountains before Gast left, but Gast heard something about the Turk who was assigned as her bodyguard having a falling out with Hojo over his- Hojo's- treatment of the child as being inhumane."

"You mean to tell me." Claudia said in a dangerously controlled voice, her hands curling into fists as her voice rose without her realizing. "that those people took a little boy and raised him as a lab rat?!"

Ifalna nodded miserably. "His name was Sephiroth. Lucrecia Crescent was the woman scientist's name. She was the protégé to Grimoire Valentine. Grimoire was Gast's former partner before Gast took over as the Head of the Science Department. Grimoire's research was heavily focused on stagnant Liquid Lifestream while Lucrecia had been quite taken with the study of the stars and the cycle of the Planet. There were two other children born as a result of utero therapy as well. Gast said that Hollander- Hojo's research partner, Gast always said they had been bitter rivals-ran that Project- titled 'G', for the name of the woman who volunteered. That Project used material that had been rejected from the Lifestream as opposed to directly from the source."

"Children." Claudia said again, so angry she shook. "They used children."

"I am quite displeased as well." Augusta proclaimed, her nostrils flaring as she very deliberately set her teacup down on her saucer. "At some point that Manor will go up in flames. I will not have a place so tainted by misery and the blood of innocents anywhere near my grandchildren."

"Nor will I." Sirius added, grey eyes alight with fury as he stared at the last member of the Watch. "There's probably as much nightmare material in that place as there was in Azkaban."

"Places exposed to such things must be purged with fire." Regulus agreed in just short of a snarl. He took a few calming, bracing breaths and looked to Augusta. "The Golden People could not destroy the….Thing." A dark smirk crawled onto his lips. "But I am a Black. Leaving my enemies as less than ash is in my very blood. I will find a way to create a fire so intense it makes Fiendfyre seem cold and then we will use it to cleanse that wretched prison and the Reactor that fueled it."

"I will assist you, brother." Sirius told Regulus with an answering dark smirk. "For once we'll do something that would make Mother proud."

"Invite us, won't you dears?" Augusta asked with a placid smile and smoldering eyes. "I do love a good bonfire."

"I'll make Eggnog*. We can sit on a ridge and enjoy it. Maybe use that cloak to hide under. It wouldn't do to be suspected, after all." Claudia offered with a pleasant smile and fierce eyes.

"The Cetra couldn't destroy the Calamity. It was why they sealed it." Ifalna said hesitantly, looking back and forth at these people warily even as the part of her that had seen what evils Hojo and those like him were capable of rejoiced.

"With all due respect, dear." Augusta told the woman with a smile that did not make her look any less intimidating. "We are the Black-Longbottoms and this Calamity's taint dared to linger near our pride. That will not stand."

"Agreed."

As scared as she was of their collective resolve and the depths they would go to eradicate an enemy, Ifalna was relieved.

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"Don't worry." Cloud told Aerith as the tension from the kitchen reached the living room.

"Yeah!" Harry chirped cheerfully, his eyes avidly affixed to Neville's careful, strategic wiggling of the block her was moving. "It's just Ma and Da and Uncle Reg and Nana!"

Aerith shifted uncomfortably but then the tension broke. The swirling rush of emotions that washed over the children were….nearly indescribable. It was like being wrapped up in a fiery blanket in the cold; or sipping a cold drink of iced tea on a hot day; or seeing the sky for the very first time in all of its sprawling, extraordinary glory.

"Oh." Aerith said as she smiled- warm, bright, and brilliant. "Oh."

The boys grinned at her in return.

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"Alright, so!" Sirius said with a wide grin as he clapped his hands together and smiled at the children.

It had been a few hours and more than a few games of Jenga, followed by a rather hilarious game of Monopoly- as Aerith had to correct the boys' math a few times. The adults had come in and gathered the children together and then they had all adjourned to the library- which had a circle of comfy chairs in front of a set of tall, wide windows that were part of the curved edge- and Sirius had just started to explain the reason why. Augusta and Claudia had disappeared off into the shelves and Regulus was sitting at one of the nearby handsome wooden tables scratching away at some parchment with an old quill, occasionally dipping it into a pot of newly-opened ink.

"You boys know that we've always told people that your Mummys were sisters, but you were being raised as brothers- right?" Sirius waited until he got nods from the boys.

Ifalna, who was holding Aerith half on her lap, whispered that she would explain later.

"Now, since you both have the same birthdays we've always told you to not correct people who think that you are brothers- even twins- as their assumptions allow for another layer of security." Sirius turned and gave Harry a smile. "Since Ifalna and Aerith have green eyes like you, we have worked up a story that capitalizes on that. All of the pictures we have displayed show that Aggie's mother had light green eyes, while Aggie's husband had hazel-green eyes. The pictures also show that Lily had bright green eyes and that Harry inherited them."

"We've always explained away the fact that our pictures only show the older girls with their husbands because the trunk containing the pictures was damaged during our flight from the village." Augusta added as she emerged from the shelves with a sizable stack of books in her arms. Books which were promptly deposited at the table with Regulus as she sank down into one the of the chairs to his right, nodding at Claudia- who had been trailing after her with her own armful of books- who sat down across from her, to Regulus' left.

"Now Aggie's husband did have a sister who married a foreign man and the family lost contact with her for the most part due to distance and family-related issues. What we are going to do is alter the records and show Ifalna and Aerith as the woman's daughter and granddaughter, respectively." Sirius scrubbed a frustrated hand through his hair as he smiled tiredly at the boys. "I really hate the white lies we're telling, guys, but it would be safer for the two of them if people who know associate Ifalna and Aerith's eye color to Harry as opposed to them standing out on their own."

"I don't mind." Harry said with a small smile. He canted his head to the side and looked at Sirius with all the kindess and certainty of a small child. "From what I've heard about my Mummy, she was someone who helped people whenever she could. I don't think she'd mind if we use her eyes as a way to help Miss Ifalna and Aerith."

The pride and affection that swelled inside of Sirius' chest as the other boys bobbed their heads in agreement nearly made the man stumble. Planet, I love these kids.

"Gran always said that Grandad upheld the family values as best he could. Being a Longbottom means standing up against injustice and helping those who can't help themselves." Neville added after a moment's pause. "My Dad and my Mummy were that way too. They fought against that Dark Lord guy, even when he'd been on the verge of winning."

"That is correct, little bear." Augusta said briskly, a fierce sort of pride etched on her face as she looked at her boys. "We must always remember, of course, that 'with great power comes great responsibility' and that 'power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely' so that we do not slide off the narrow path of the righteous. Always remember that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and fight to maintain the balance of what is right and what is just. Many great men and women have fallen from grace because they lost sight of what's truly important and tried to impose their own will and values upon others without remembering how it feels to be powerless."

"Kinda like the Mannings?" Cloud queried somewhat hesitantly.

"Like the Mannings." Augusta replied with a sad smile. "They have lost touch with how it feels to be the worker instead of the leader- they've turned into bosses. That's sad for them and the people that they devalued, because it makes them villains to those who should be their supporters."

The boys were quiet as they absorbed that lesson.

"At any rate, we're going to say that the family was from Mideel." Sirius said after the moment passed. "The story is that the family moved to Midgar to work with the construction crews due to the town's jobs being hard to come by. Ifalna's father passed away as a result of a fall from his work site. Ifalna married a Shinra scientist in her twenties and her mother passed away shortly after that. About a year or so ago Ifalna's husband passed away and Ifalna scraped enough money together to journey to Icicle, hoping to return to her mother's village.

"Of course, once she arrived at Icicle she heard about the village's destruction and was directed to Master Trandon.

"Regulus' former mentor allowed Ifalna and Aerith to stay with him and his wife for a while, hiring Ifalna as an extra set of hands. When she had saved enough money she had set out for Costa del Sol, eventually ending up in Corel as she and Aerith made their way towards Cosmo Canyon- the last place Regulus had been when Master Trandon had received a letter. While in Corel Ifalna went to look for work. Eventually she found herself employed as a cook for the Miner's Guild and Ifalna told one of her coworkers about her plan to travel to Cosmo to look for the last remnants of her family. One of her coworkers happened to be Myrna Wallace, who then insisted that Ifalna and Aerith stay with her and her husband until Regulus and Sirius came back through Corel on their way back to Nibelheim."

"But they were under the Cloak." Harry pointed out reasonably. "How do we explain how they got here?"

"I'm getting there." Sirius said with a small grin, reaching out to ruffle Harry's dark hair. "The story has so many twists and turns in order to throw off anyone who might try to reconstruct the trail. Master Trandon wouldn't speak to anyone about Regulus' business and the Corel guys will be coming up with the first of our orders soon enough. Both Barrett and Dyne would be happy to help, especially if it sticks it to Shinra."

"But what if there are pictures of them?" Cloud asked curiously.

"Ah-ha!" Sirius said as he pointed a finger in Cloud's direction. "That is also an excellent question!" Sirius turned to Regulus. "You wanna take this one Reggie?"

"Certainly." Regulus said as he looked up and smiled at the boys- and Ifalna and Aerith who were still listening and watching intently. "Hair usually darkens and then lightens as you age, while eye color can deepen. I will supply Augusta with the proper materials, but we plan on working in some reds and blonde's into both Ifalna and Aerith's hair. We're also going to add some temporary 'natural' curls to little Aerith- as her hair already has some natural wave to it. Different parts and some strategic trimming of the hair will drastically affect the way they look without actually changing the ladies themselves all that much. Some temporary eye dye that makes their eye colors closer to Harry's- and Lily's before him, just with a bit more of a blue tint, I think- that we slowly allow to transition back into Ifalna and Aerith's natural colors will also assist in hopefully making them look different enough that no one will connect them to any wanted posters."

"Wow. Potions can do all that?" Neville asked, impressed.

Regulus grinned slightly at the boy. "I have access to a lot of information and a considerable amount of skill. It will be challenging, not impossible." He replied simply before nodding at Sirius and going back to his former task.

"Basically we're going to change Ifalna and Aerith's looks enough for them to not match their posters without making them look….outlandishly different. Hopefully by the time the appearance-altering stuff has been phased out enough time will have passed that they will look different enough from any pictures Shinra might have- or make with digital imaging- that their resemblance will be attributed to the family instead of the fugitives."

"The best part of all of this is that Miss Ifalna and Aerith are going to stay!" Harry piped up cheerfully. Honestly he had lost the plot about halfway through.

"Now we can play games that are more fun with four people even when the adults are busy!" Neville agreed chirpily, tossing a grin towards the also-grinning Aerith.

"I see how it is." Cloud also chipped in, his eyes full of playful delight. "You just like that Aerith is better at the math in Monopoly. Her corrections in your adding were how you started winning."

"Truth." Harry agreed without an ounce of shame, causing Aerith and the other boys to burst out into giggles.

"At any rate." Sirius said with a fond grin. "The bottom line is that Ifalna and Aerith are now part of the family and will be staying with us for at least the next year or so while the heat of the search for them cools. Ifalna is going to help Regulus at the Apothecary with Audi as the Bank will be opening soon, so Audi will be splitting her time between the Apothecary shop and the Bank. Aerith will be joining you boys in your lessons."

"That's awesome!" Harry cheered excitedly. "Now can we go back to our Monopoly game? I was winning!"

The adults laughed and allowed the children to scamper back off to the living room.

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Chapter Text

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Regulus sighed and extinguished the fire under his cauldron. He properly bottled, labeled, and stowed away the milky-blue paste that was his latest failure in trying to create an even more potent medicine for Abel Yearwood's wife- Anna- and the man's youngest granddaughter- Michela. The condition that the two females shared was puzzling to him and Regulus was bound and determined to at least find a better treatment regimen to administer to them, in order to drastically improve their quality of life.

The man sat down at his lab desk and made notes in the notebook that detailed the steps he had performed, the results, and his observations on what went wrong or could be improved upon.

Methodically writing, his tired mind went back over the events of the past few weeks.

Ifalna and Aerith had successfully stayed out of sight until the arrival of Dyne and Barrett. Well, Sirius had managed to catch the men before they made it up the mountain and explain the basics of the situation to them, and as predicted Dyne and Barrett had been more than happy to assist in the 'Stick it to those Shinra bastards' plan. Smuggling Ifalna and Aerith out had been tricky, but doable- especially as the two females had already had their hair fixed and Regulus had finished the eye-dye.

So 'Lana'- as Ifalna was hardly inconspicuous- and 'Aeris'- which was just Aerith's actual name pronounced with a Mideel influenced accent- had entered Nibelheim with the Corel men to be 'reunited' with the Black-Longbottom family.

Regulus snapped his Yearwood Research Journal shut and slipped it back into its proper place on the shelf behind him before running his fingers down the line of neatly organized books to his newest Research Journal. Regulus smiled sharply as he took in the elegantly etched words on the front.

The Atonement Project.

The first page held only a single line.

"Atonement: satisfaction, reparation, or expiation given for an injury or wrong."

Regulus' sharp grin settled into something that was softer, yet no less dangerous as he flipped through the pages of information that he had compiled from all the resources he had at his disposal. Considering that Regulus had most of the Black Library- copies made by his Father or not- not to mention the Potter Library and a decent portion of the Longbottom Library, he had quite the number of resources. Naturally, while he had been making preparations for his departure, Regulus had 'liberated' a few things that he felt certain people no longer needed, so he had a wealth of information at his fingertips.

His project was to engineer a fire that burned so intensely hot that it ended up feeling icy cold. Of course, he also wanted his fire to transcend the physical plane to burn away at the very soul of an object- or alien entity that was capable of wiping out entire worlds before riding their empty shells through space to do the same to another world- so he was quite happy that he held that much information at his disposal. Had Regulus still possessed his Earth magic he would had just used Fiendfyre- as he had used that on Tom Riddle's soul containers, so he knew that it most likely transcended the physical plane- but Regulus wanted to take no chances of the Calamity reforming in the Lifestream.

Because Regulus was a realist, and he knew that the hooded figure most likely allowed them to pass on to Gaia with relatively little cost in the hopes that his family would be able to take care of the Calamity-issue. Even if the Being was truly just that altruistic, Regulus did not have any intention of leaving such a dangerous enemy at his back. Especially not one that had the ability to wipe out all life on Gaia. The fact that the Calamity was in the hands of a greedy, dirty corporation that willingly used unborn babies as lab rats did not exactly inspire any feeling of safety and security inside him.

The younger Black brother also wanted to ensure that nothing akin to a Dementor ever came into being here on Gaia. Granted, Regulus readily admitted to himself that he was probably being silly in that regard, but he had seen what Azkaban had done to Sirius.

Still. Regulus thought as he flipped through the pages- written in a hybrid of English and French that only he or one of the other Earth-born adults would be able to readily translate- jotting down notes in the margins and highlighting random bits of information that seemed especially important. I would rather be safe than sorry.

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Claudia shared a grin with Ifalna as Aerith went bouncing out of the kitchen with a plate of cookies in hand.

"Sirius calls them 'biscuits'." Claudia confided to the other woman as she turned back to the counter. "It makes me laugh every time and then he gets all huffy."

Ifalna laughed as she went back to the Apothecary store related work she was working on at the table in the little nook just off the kitchen. "That would make me think that they were something to be given to an animal." Ifalna mused aloud.

"That's what I said!" Claudia rejoined cheerfully, wiping her hands on her apron after she dumped the cut vegetables into the large cookpot. "He just tells me that I couldn't understand the proper magnificence of having a proper biscuit."

Ifalna giggled along with the highly-amused Claudia, the women falling back into companionable silence. Well, sort-of silence as Claudia randomly hummed bits of tunes as she opened the bread cupboard and Ifalna shuffled her papers around every few seconds. Claudia pulled down the covered bowls of doughs to check and see which doughs were properly leavened and which needed more time to rise. "Hmm." Claudia mused as she took stock of the doughs.

"Problems?" Ifalna asked curiously without looking up from her scattered papers.

"The buttermilk breads aren't rising properly." Claudia said as she floured her hands and poked at the aforementioned doughs experimentally. "They've raised enough I can probably make them into bread pudding, but I don't think they'll make good casserole bases and I don't feel like making crackers."

"If you wouldn't mind, Audi dear." Augusta said as she swept gracefully into the room, clad in one of her favored dresses and slightly heeled ankle boots. "I'll teach you how to make pluck-it cake with cream cheese. The batch of cream cheese I made a few weeks back ended up a bit sweeter than I liked, but this would be a good way to use it."

In short order Claudia had agreed- always interested in learning new recipes- and Ifalna had been invited to join them. Clad in aprons and wrist deep in their respective attempts at making pluck-it bread, the women chatted amiably.

"So, Audi dear." Augusta said as she gracefully scooped her cream cheese mixtures into one of her pre-cut strips of dough before deftly rolling it into a perfect ball and placing it in the wavy-edged bundt pan and moving on to the next strip. "Have you and Sirius set a date yet?"

Claudia groaned half-playfully, half-exasperatedly. "Yes. That ridiculous man has convinced me to marry him before the winter!"

"Oh, my." Augusta said with a small laugh as she helped the giggling Ifalna rescue her rather overstuffed, somewhat sloppy globule of cream cheese-filled dough. "That won't give us much time to plan."

"I know." Claudia moaned in protest as she shaped her own slightly-misshapen orbs of cream cheese mixture filled dough blobs, enviously eying Augusta's deft movements and perfectly shaped dough-encircled balls of future deliciousness. "But Sirius insists and I really don't want to wait until next spring." Claudia cursed her pale complexion as she flushed bright red.

"I see." Augusta hummed evenly even as her eyes danced with amusement. At Augusta's other side Ifalna tried to tamp down on her hilarity, rather unsuccessfully. "And the date?" Augusta prompted after a few moments of Claudia's blush steadily intensifying and Ifalna's chuckles becoming full-blown laughs as the Cetra woman tried not to look at the red-faced future Mrs Sirius Black.

"We've decided to marry during the Harvest's End festival- it's on the twenty-second and the twenty-third of September." Claudia managed after a few moments of trying to get her blush under control. "But we're having trouble deciding on the ceremony itself. We don't really want something huge, but…" Claudia trailed off with a grimace. "Well, we'd like to include things from both of our backgrounds. We'd also like for the boys to be involved as well."

"Back home." Augusta said delicately as she continued her work. "There is a dinner the night before that nearly everyone is invited to. The invitations themselves are all handmade by the bride, her mother, and the mother-in-law. In the case of remarriages, the children involved usually assist as well. The dinner is when the guests would bring gifts for the couple, and those gifts would be stored in a room and opened after the honeymoon. The ceremony itself would take place after dawn but end before noon- there was a superstition about afternoon ceremonies being bad luck, you see- and then there would be a brunch. The ceremony only included the immediate family or very close friends, but the brunch would open with the presentation of the new couple by the member of the clergy. The couple would take their leave partway through the brunch, but the family would continue to entertain and celebrate far into the evening."

"Cetran weddings were actually sort of similar." Ifalna chipped in with a smile at the other two women. "They were held in the mornings as well, but that was mostly so the couple could open the gifts and thank people before the guests departed, since the Cetra moved around quite a bit. There was a dinner for just the families the night before."

"I know we witnessed the Bradford wedding not much more than a month ago, but how true was that to traditional Nibel customs, Audi dear?"

"Hmm." Claudia hummed as she narrowed her eyes in contemplation. "In traditional Nibel terms, the Bradford wedding was a bit modern. Tradition usually dictates that the couple is led to the bridal couch- usually one that has been inherited and used in successive generations by either the bride or groom's family, preferably the groom's family. They say their vows- and exchange either their necklaces or wristlets- while seated on the couch after the presentation of the Ribbons. The Ribbons are made of the Nibel Runes- the written language of Old Nibel; I believe it is similar in principle to print and cursive writing, from what Sirius has explained to me- the couple chose and are presented to them by the elders of their respective families." Claudia paused and sniffed the air for a moment before she whirled away to check the stew. She fussed over the pot and added a few things to it before returning to the counter where they were working on the pluck-it cake.

"Ribbons?" Augusta gently prompted the young woman when Claudia returned.

"Ah, yes. The Ribbons." Claudia said with an excited smile. "There's different meanings to the colors of threads that the elders use for them, based on which Rune the couple picked and whether it was the bride's Rune or the groom's Rune- but at any rate the ribbons are usually three inches wide and nine inches long. They are then laid around the couple's necks- the bride's on the groom's and the groom's on the bride's- and the clergy presents them. The placing of the Ribbons is rather symbolic of the family's approval. Anyways, after that they are escorted to the feast- most Nibel weddings take place in the morning as well- and begin the Day of Celebration. There's traditional Nibel foods along with oodles of Nibel Mead. In the evening the couple are escorted to their home by several family members bearing torches, we've always called it the Trail of the Witnesses. The Ribbons are taken from around the couple's necks and tied to the door. The marriage isn't considered 'consummated' until the groom emerges and burns them with one of the- usually relit- torches left by the Witnesses."

"How interesting." Ifalna said as she peered around Augusta and smiled warmly at Claudia. "I had no idea Nibelheim had so many interesting traditions! Even Gast never mentioned them!"

"No offense, Lana, but Gast was an Outsider." Claudia told the other woman with a smile that took the sting out of her words. "No native would have ever told someone who worked for such a progressive company about the Old Traditions."

"True." Ifalna hummed as she thought about it, carefully tipping the cinnamon mixture Augusta had helped prepare over her globules of cream cheese filled doughs. "But then I never told Gast everything about Cetran traditions either, and I married him, so I can understand."

"Be as that may." Augusta said after they had efficiently finished, placed their culinary creations in the oven, set some tea to boiling, and then retreated to the table. "I think we have plenty of traditions to work into a rather satisfactory affair for everyone."

"I agree." Claudia said with a bright smile as another flush started to creep up her neck. "I rather like the idea of handmade invitations. Anna Yearwood told the children a story this winter about a family that sent invitations to a celebration feast on the inside of a pie container. It was a story about star-crossed lovers, but I rather like the idea of using food and handmade invitations."

"That's a lovely idea, Audi dear!" Augusta agreed with a warm smile. Augusta leaned forward with twinkling eyes. "Let's get to planning, shall we ladies?"

Claudia and Ifalna giggled like schoolgirls.

Then again, Augusta's giggles really didn't sound all that much more mature.

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"That looks great, Aerith!" Claudia complimented the little girl as she looked over the invitation that Aerith had finished up. Aerith grinned happily up at the blonde woman before she carefully passed her finished project over to Cloud, who was seated on her right. "You guys are all doing such a great job! Keep up the good work!"

Claudia, Ifalna, Augusta, Aerith, Cloud, Neville, and Harry were sitting around table Sirius had hauled into the drawing room. It was a bright, clear day- the day before the boys' birthdays, actually- and the open window allowed the pleasantly scented late-morning breeze to coil lazily through the room. The group was hard at work on the invitations for Sirius and Claudia's wedding.

The invitations themselves were rather intricate. The envelope was made from high-quality parchment that Augusta had produced from somewhere. Claudia had the unenviable task of making each one unique and tailored for whomever the recipient would be. She used a lot of Celtic knot patterns from books that Augusta had in the library as well as Rune Poems in Old Nibel. The main body of the invitation was made from fairly hefty linen cardstock that had been carefully cut to look rather aged and tastefully jagged. Harry and Cloud were in charge of that as each invitation had to be individually cut from the larger sheets with special shearing scissors. The cut invitations were then passed to Augusta who penned the words in her rather stunning calligraphy. Once the ink had properly dried- they had been working on the invitations for about four afternoons now- Aerith and Ifalna artfully attached the neatly pressed, dried flowers to it. Neville would then fold the decorative sleeve made from paper-thin, decorative rice paper around the completed invitation and slip it carefully inside the envelope.

"No offense, Ma." Cloud said wearily as he passed one of the last invitations to Augusta. "But I don't want to see another wedding invitation ever again."

"Ditto." The other two boys said.

"We're happy that you're marrying Da." Harry hurried to add. "But this is really….."

"Repetitive?" Neville offered sheepishly.

Claudia and the other women laughed. "We agree." Claudia confided to the boys. "But this way we all get to spend more time together!"

"Indeed." Augusta said briskly as she set an invitation aside and stretched languidly. "The Bank will be opening the day after tomorrow, so our time together during the week will become a bit scarce."

"It's going to get pretty busy, huh?" Harry asked a bit mournfully.

"It won't be so bad, dear." Claudia assured the children gently. "Once the Inspection from the Guild Representatives is over and the wedding comes and goes things will settle down into a more reasonable pace. Your lessons will still be in the mornings, after all, and we will all still gather for dinner. I promise that we'll get to go on an adventure soon, though, ok?"

"Okay." "Yes, Ma."

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"I'm sorry." Aerith told the boys shyly as the children laid down for their nap a little while later.

"What for?" Cloud asked confusedly, tilting his head to the side as he looked at her funny. Both Harry and Neville had paused in rolling out their nap pallets to look at her as well.

Aerith clutched Minnie a bit tighter and looked down at the floor. "It's just- well, if Mama and I-"

"Hey." Cloud said gently, walking over to wrap Aerith in a warm hug. "It's not your fault. Things are just a bit crazy right now."

"Yeah!" Harry piped up as he and Neville came over to join in the impromptu group hug. "It's not your or Miss Lana's fault at all!"

"But-" Aerith sniffled as she burrowed a little deeper into Cloud's shoulder, her fingers curling into the soft fabric of his shirt firmly as she soaked up the comfort he readily offered. "-you guys even had to cut down your training 'cause I'm a girl-"

"Don't let Gran hear you say that!" Neville yelped as if he'd stepped on one of Cloud's tiny moving parts from the blond's latest mechanical project.

"Yes, please don't." Harry said, his voice slightly muffled by the cloth covering Aerith's shoulder. "I choose life."

"Aerith." Cloud said soothingly, pulling back a little and giving the girl a kind smile before he tugged her over to the nap pallets and gently pushed at her until she curled up on the one that was fully set up. "You know that Gran reduced the amount of what we were doing so you don't get hurt. She said that it'll take a few months for Uncle Regulus' potions to replace what your body doesn't have 'cause that Hojo guy was a jerk."

"Indeed." Augusta's voice washed over the children unexpectedly causing them all to look up and over at her. "And the boys don't mind waiting a bit longer, Aerith dear." Augusta said as she moved further into the room and helped them finished setting up for their naps. "Besides, the soul of a fighter has no gender. Whether you fight with your fists, a blade, with your words, or as the mender of wounds of all types it is your will that defines you, child. Nothing so paltry as being a girl or a boy." Augusta had hooked her finger under Aerith's chin about halfway through her statement, forcing the sniffly young girl to look up at her. "I know you feel helpless and scared sometimes- anyone who has been through what you have would- but it is because you have seen such darkness that you can burn so much brighter and bring light to others in whatever path you choose to walk." Augusta smiled gently at the girl and hugged her briefly before she let Aerith curl back up against Cloud.

They are such good boys. Augusta thought as she watched the children settle down and she gently tucked them in. With all the work they had been doing it didn't take long for them to fall asleep. Augusta sat with them for the next while, carding gentle fingers through their hair and gently tracing their features as she contemplated just how thankful she was to have been blessed with such sweet, kind children to call her own. Oh they squabbled sometimes and were occasionally selfish, but all it took was a stern word or a firm hand and they quickly corrected their behaviors.

Aerith had been assimilated into the household a bit more readily than Ifalna, but that was partially due to Cloud's firm insistence that Aerith join the boys in their activities. Augusta's smile turned a bit fonder as she recalled how Cloud had argued for Aerith's right to train with them and how he had gracefully accepted the restrictions and extra wait period that had been imposed as a result of Aerith's body not being ready to handle a weapon. Cloud had been insistent, however, that Aerith not be left behind.

"She just got out of that scary place and she feels helpless." Cloud had told them, having snuck out of the boys' shared room to speak with the adults late in the evening. "I think it would help her to know how to fight back, even if she doesn't really like to hurt people and wants to be a Healer. Please? I-" Cloud had looked down for a moment, but then he had clenched his fists and nodded sharply. "We'll even wait to do anything with a real weapon until she's ready, too! That should prove that I'm serious enough about this, right?"

Yes, little Cloud had quickly grown into his role as the eldest brother and Augusta saw so much of her late husband in the little blond boy she wondered at the universe's sense of humor.

Eventually noting the time, Augusta reluctantly slid to her feet after giving each child one final, fond hair tussle.

You'll go far, my little angels. Just don't forget to fly back and say hello to Gran every now and again, alright?

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Trenton Manning stole through the quiet streets of his hometown efficiently, a bag slung over his shoulder. It was less than a week to the New Moon so it was pretty dark and the streetlights were cut off at ten in the night to save money- as most people weren't brave or stupid enough to wander around Nibelheim late at night. The Bar had a bright set of lights on its porch, but that was at the opposite end of town from his destination.

Those Outsiders have meddled here long enough! Trenton snarled inside the safety of his mind. This town belongs to the Mannings! To my family! I won't let the Outsider Scum take anything more from my family! From my birthright!

His hands swiftly went to work as he arrived at his destination, even as he internally raged about the injustice of it all.

Since the creation of the Longbottom Bank and Trust the previous fall the power that the Manning family had long held in Nibelheim had been steadily waning. Whereas last summer the Mannings- well, their Bank- had held the mortgages on nearly eighty percent of the occupied homes- it was amazing how far people would go to keep their shameful little secrets- now they held less than twenty mortgages in all. There had been an increasing number of folks who had been steadily draining their accounts at the Bank- steadily enough it had taken his father a while to cotton on to what was happening- and the stores of Nibelheim had been slowly tapering off the services that they used at the Mannings' Bank.

It had barely been three days since his father had announced that if all of the people who had drained their accounts and all of the businesses who had been tapering off in the services they used opened accounts with the Longbottom Bank then the Mannings' Bank would go under in less than a year. Not only that, but then nearly all of the capital of Nibelheim would be passing through the Longbottom Bank, which would impair the Mannings' ability to hold on to the position of Treasurer, which was partially how they ensured that the Mayor Lockhart stayed Mayor Lockhart.

"The Bank has been borrowing against itself, to put it in the simplest terms." Trent Manning had informed the assembled Manning- Lockharts grimly during Sunday dinner. The children, of course, were at the children's table through the doorway, just inside the kitchen itself so it was just the adults gathered around the dining room table. "Most of our revenue is generated by interest or fees for services. If those sources of income dry up then we will be stuck in limbo and slowly slide into the negative as operating costs continue the same and the generated revenue tapers off to basically nothing."

"But can't we just call in loans early? That's what we usually do when the Bank runs into trouble?" Timothy Manning- Former Mayor Lockhart- asked pointedly.

"No." Trent replied with a sigh, twirling his expertly cooked roast around on his fork while his gold rings glinted in the dining room's cheerful afternoon sunlight. "We could do that before because we were the only Bank and so the people had to comply with what we said because there were no other options. If we were to employ those same tactics now there is a chance that they will go to…..them, and then we would receive a settlement for the contract. The settlement would be a fair sum of money, of course, but we would lose yet another customer."

"So we freeze their accounts." Regina Manning had scoffed as she took a sip of her imported Junon white wine.

"Have you heard nothing I've said, woman?!" Trent had roared at his wife irritably. "The Longbottoms are Guild backed! If we were to try to pull a stunt like that on a Guild Certified Bank we would be ruined for generations!"

"But don't they have that Inspection coming up?" Titus Lockhart had asked a bit uncertainly.

"Yes. That's when they will get their rating." Trent said with another heavy sigh, slumping back into his chair. "From what gossip I've picked up on the building will have no issue passing the inspection- much like the damn Apothecary shop passed. I had hoped that we could call one of our inspectors to do the inspection on it- and therefore use it as leverage against those Outsiders- but that blasted Black had one of his Examiners from Junon here in May and Julian has signed off on the scheduled continuing inspections. None of the ones we have connections with have the clout to counter that sort of official inspection results. The bastard already has connections everywhere, and for every rumor one of our associates start two more stories of how positively saintly 'Master Black' is crop up." The man's voice had dropped to a snarl by the time he had finished his statement.

Trent had gone on to explain that the family finances would fare a bit better, but they would not be able to continue the lifestyle they had been enjoying for the past fifty years or so. A lot of the fallout depended on the Guild Inspectors and what rating the Longbottom Bank ended up with. If they did not do well or lost their Guild backing then a lot of the customers would come back to the Mannings' Bank and then the Mannings could impose extra fees and such to supplement their net losses.

However the fact that these Outsiders posed any threat to his family was unacceptable to Trenton.

Which was why he was carefully lining strategic areas of the Apothecary shop and the Bank building with powder that would begin to burn as the sunlight shone on it and caused it to smolder. Underneath the first powder he placed another powder that would help accelerate the reaction; he also smeared the accelerant on the wood of the exterior of the businesses. Hopefully the combinations would help the first powder roar into a nice inferno.

As he stepped back and surveyed his work Trenton felt a brief flash of pity for the Nibelheim stores that were between his targets, but it passed quickly. They were some of the ones who had been tapering off business with the proper Bank of Nibelheim, so it would serve them right to have to come begging for forgiveness from his family!

His tasks completed he quickly gathered up his supplies and headed back home.

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The morning of Harry and Neville's birthday saw a giggling Aerith and a sneaky Cloud carefully making their way downstairs. Claudia turned from the stove and smiled warmly at the two children. "Why hello there!" She said with her own bright grin. "You two are up awfully early!"

"It's Harry and Nev's birthday, Ma!" Cloud announced cheerfully with a bright grin, bouncing on his sock-clad toes in excitement. "They'll turn six today!"

"I think Cloudy is more excited for their birthday than the other two boys are, Angel." Sirius mumbled sleepily as he stumbled into the room and sidled up behind Claudia, burying his face into the side her neck for a moment. After enjoying the warmth of his Angel for a long moment Sirius gently kissed the side of her throat before he withdrew and propped his chin on top her blonde hair, arching an eyebrow at the blushing Cloud and the giggling Aerith. "And I suppose you two want to help make them their birthday breakfast?"

"Please!" Both children chorused.

Sirius grumbled half-heartedly about losing precious 'Angel time', but he ruffled both of the children's sleep rumpled hair with a soft grin and helped them both up onto the island stools so they could begin the tasks that Claudia set out for them.

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Augusta believed that birthday presents should be useful or hand-made. She had never been one to spoil her child with material things because she was well aware of the fact that money could not truly buy happiness. She had found allies in Claudia and the Black brothers in her way of thinking, though they agreed from entirely different perspectives.

That was why the boys received their blunt edged training swords- they were essentially weighted dummy swords- along with their training swords' sheaths and care kits from all of the adults instead of just Augusta or Sirius. "These are called training swords for a reason, dears." Augusta told them after they had opened their gifts simultaneously after breakfast. "From now on you will wear them during your exercises and whenever you leave the house- those some exceptions can be made for when you're going to play. Treat them well, for your weapon is an extension of yourself."

The boys had thanked the adults profusely, but had been just as thrilled by the small slingshots Cloud had made them and the flower art Aerith and Ifalna had made them.

As the excited children raced out of the room to go outside and play- sans their training swords, they had not been properly acquainted with them just yet- Augusta shared a small, pleased smile with Regulus.

They're such good boys.

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Chapter Text

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Sirius and Regulus surveyed the damage done to the buildings on either side of the Bank and the Apothecary shop with unimpressed scowls.  The kids had barely made it into the backyard to play when Sheriff Bradford had knocked on the Black-Longbottom front door, and both Sirius and Regulus were annoyed.  Not only that someone had tried to burn down the Apothecary shop and the Bank building, but that the jackass had done so on the boys’ birthday, of all days.

“The damage to the stores you two own are superficial at worst and nonexistent at best.”  Sherriff Bradford told them calmly while reading his small notebook that was dotted with notes from the investigation.  “Unfortunately the damage to the buildings on either side of them weren’t quite as fortunate.”  The Sheriff sighed and ran a hand through his hair tiredly as he gestured the men forward and into the Apothecary shop.

“Officially.”  He said once the three of them were inside and the door had been securely shut behind them.  “We’re still investigating.  Unofficially, however…”  The sheriff trailed off a bit hesitantly.

“Unofficially?”  Regulus prompted after a moment.

“Look.”  Sheriff Bradford said, looking Regulus dead in the eye.  “I like you folks.  You don’t look down on no one here, but if you see an issue you don’t sit by and watch, you step in an make a difference.”  The Sheriff waved his hand towards the direction of the Bank with a helpless shrug.  “That Bank of yours has helped bring more life back into Nibelheim than I’ve ever seen and the Apothecary shop has been Planet-sent.  Anna Yearwood not only lasted the winter she has more good days than bad, an’ I haven’t seen her so hearty in at least a decade.  Little Michela was out playing by the fountain the other day.  I’d never seen that before!”

“But not everybody is happy with these changes.”  Sirius put in mildly, his eyes intent as he scrutinized the Sheriff’s expression.

“Exactly.”  The Sheriff agreed with a sigh.  “It upsets the balance of power.  Personally, I’ve benefited from the upset- both professionally and personally.  However I can tell you that from what we’ve gathered in our preliminary findings that this matches the same modus operandi of several other incidents.  Unfortunately the findings of the Sheriff get reported to the Town Council.”

“Hmm.”  Sirius hummed lightly, his eyes darkening.  “Refresh my memory on the Councilmembers, again?”

“There’s the Mayor, Titus Lockhart-”  Regulus interjected before Sheriff Bradford could speak.  “-and then the Town Treasurer, Trent Manning.  I’m pretty sure the Clerk is Madelynn Lockhart.”

“The other positions- Councilors, we call them- are mostly made up of extended members of the Manning-Lockhart clan.”  Sheriff Bradford said with a grimace.  “I can only present the evidence, but technically my Office is neutral and has no say beyond investigation and being called in for questioning.  Any criminal trials take place before the Council.  Civil ones, too.  There is nine of them- including the Mayor, Clerk, and Treasurer- overall.”

“I see.”  Regulus said mildly.  Beside him Sirius made a small noise of acknowledgement.

“Now, I’m a man of law and I normally wouldn’t imply so much to the victims of a crime.”  Sheriff Bradford informed them sternly.  “But you men have been nothing but upstanding, and not in that overly shiny I’m-hiding-behind-my-self-righteousness sort of way.  I trust I can count on your continued moral behavior?”

“Of course, Sheriff.”  Regulus managed to sound offended and amused at the same time.

“Have you met our matriarch?”  Sirius muttered under his breath at the same time.

The Sheriff nodded and bid the men goodbye before he left.

Sirius and Regulus looked over the shop to see if there was any major damage before they went to see what aid they could lend the others affected by this act of petty jealousy.

“I really wanted to spend the day with the boys.”  Sirius muttered as they trudged back up towards home to inform the kids and the women that they would be busy for the rest of the day.

“I know.”  Regulus said with a gusty sigh.  “I did, too, Siri.  I don’t get to see them nearly as often as I’d like to.  But we’ve got to set good examples for them.”

“I know, Reg.”  Sirius told his brother with a small smile as they rounded the last bend before home.  “I just wish our time with the boys didn’t have to suffer because of the actions of other people.”

“Agreed.”

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Augusta stepped back from the wall, admiring the shiny plaque that displayed the Longbottom Bank and Trust’s Guild Rating with a critical eyes.

“It’s straight, Nana.”  Harry informed her, his voice full of mirth.  “You’ve fixed it, like, a dozen times now.”

“Hush, you!”  Augusta growled with no heat as she playfully swatted at her cheeky grandson’s head, the aforementioned grandson dancing out of the way with a laugh.

It was just Harry with her at the moment, as Sirius was spending time fixing up the forge with Cloud and Claudia while Neville, Aerith, and Ifalna were working in the Ingredients Greenhouse together.  The Guild Inspection had gone off without a hitch, despite the scoundrel who had tried to burn down the Bank building and the Apothecary shop having put a damper on her grandsons’ birthdays.  Not that the boys had really let it get them down, but it was the principle of the matter to Augusta.  At any rate, since their official rating had been announced Augusta and Claudia had been twice as busy as they had originally planned on being.

The original plan was for Claudia and Ifalna to alternate mornings in the Apothecary shop and then Claudia would open the bank in the afternoons.

However with the Bank now handling most of the banking needs of Nibelheim’s shops- as well as helping the smaller one or two man operations that had not been able to use Banking services before- the Bank really needed to be open all day long.  Therefore Claudia’s employment contract had been redone and Ifalna had also been formally employed by Regulus at the Apothecary.  Regulus’ two almost-apprentices would be formally employed at the Apothecary after the year’s crops had been harvested, their families being unable to spare the two teens until then.  Augusta only came to the Bank in the afternoons so that she could still teach the boys and Aerith in the mornings.

Things were still fairly hectic at the moment- especially with the upcoming wedding- but Augusta knew that by next spring at least four other Stanleys or Yearwoods would have caught up enough in their basic education to begin apprenticeships. 

That left Augusta the question of what to do once things had settled down a bit.  It might seem strange for her to be plotting for something that had not happened yet, but Augusta was a woman of action- had always been that way- and there were Elections coming up in the spring…….

“Nana, are you ready to go to Miss Miriam’s house yet?  I really want to see Emy and Juni!”  Harry asked, hanging off of Augusta’s arm like a leech as he turned his best ‘puppy dog’ expression onto her.

“Been taking notes from your Da, have you?”  Augusta asked her grandson with an arched brow and a small smile.

Harry had the grace to blush, but he grinned cheekily up at her anyways.  “Did it work?”  He asked hopefully.

“No.”  Augusta said with a wider grin- no need to give the little imp ideas, after all.  “But I am ready to go see Miss Miriam now.  Just let Gran lock up, alright?”

“Yes!”  Harry crowed excitedly, doing a clearly Sirius-inspired happy dance as he did so.

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Cloud wanted to go exploring for his birthday so the family had decided to go camping the sixteenth and seventeenth of August, as the nineteenth was a Tuesday.

The expedition had consisted of everyone but Augusta, who had been more than happy to stay behind in the comfort of her own home.

It had been a fun learning experience as Claudia had guided them on the lesser known trails.  They ran into some monsters, of course, but nothing that Sirius and Regulus hadn’t been able to handle.  They made sure to stay away from the Reactor and low enough that they shouldn’t- and fortunately didn’t- run into any dragons.  Claudia did show them the Materia Caves that all Nibelheim residents knew about, though.  The boys had found a few Materia and everyone had carefully helped Sirius collect the Materia Shards for his side-project.

“The really impressive caves are in the range to the southwest.”  Claudia told them as they sat around the campfire and made s’mores.  “Nibel folklore says that the range was made when the goddess Minerva wept over the loss of the Cetra.  Her tears soaked into the earth and the Planet raised the mountains to protect the tears from those who sought to use their power for ill.”  Claudia glanced over at Ifalna with a smile.  “I suppose you have a different version?”

Ifalna smiled at the blonde woman who had quickly become her friend.  Ifalna greatly admired Claudia.  The blonde woman’s strong will and ability to rise above her own fears to reach out and help total strangers was inspiring to the last member of the Watch.  Even though Claudia was younger than her, Ifalna often felt as if the blonde was more of an elder sister than just her friend.  “I don’t know any stories about those mountains.”  Ifalna admitted freely.  “But I rather like your version.  It’s very…poetic.”

“That’s my Angel!”  Sirius crowed, tugging the blonde closer to him and giving her a chocolate-and-marshmallow tinted kiss.  “Isn’t she amazing?”

Claudia just pushed the man off of her with a laugh.  “Flatterer.”  She muttered as her blush climbed up her neck and sprawled out onto her fair cheeks.

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“Audi, dear.”  Augusta said as she entered the kitchen and went to wrap the crying blonde woman in a hug.  “I love you as the daughter I was never blessed with, but you need to go take a walk and clear your head.  I will handle dinner.”

Claudia nodded against Augusta’s shoulder, internally chiding herself for bursting into tears over a dropped potato.  “I’m sorry, Gran.”  Claudia sighed as she pulled back and tried to clean herself up a bit.  She was thankful that the boys were with Sirius in the forge and that Ifalna and Aerith were in the Greenhouses.

“Your wedding is in two days, dearest.”  Augusta said with a smile.  “You’re a bundle of nerves, which is understandable.  Compound that with running a household, managing an Apothecary shop, and being a Banker and you have plenty of reasons to need some time to yourself.”  Augusta shooed the woman out the front door, pausing only to grab a light jacket and shove it into Claudia’s arms.  “Now I don’t want to see you again before dinner.”

And then Augusta firmly shut the door in Claudia’s bemused face and headed back towards the kitchen.

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Claudia had been walking for nearly an hour before the stress finally started to seep out of her.  By the time she reached her destination- a clearing near her parents’ old homestead- she was nearly feeling like herself again.  The little clearing had been where young Claudia had gone to play-act out her dreams of leaving Nibelheim and becoming somebody.  The rocks had been her fans and the trees had been her admirers as the young Strauss child had allowed her imagination to run wild.  As the familiar scents of her sanctuary filtered through her nose Claudia nearly sagged in relief. 

It was just as she reached the inner edge of the ring of trees that hid the clearing from view that Claudia was finally able to place the strange sound she had been hearing for the last little bit.

Someone was crying.

No…not crying, weeping.

Claudia stood, shocked to statue-stillness as her eyes took in the crumpled, shaking form of Maria Lockhart inside her [Claudia’s] childhood sanctuary.

What……?

It took several minutes of stunned staring- as Maria Lockhart had never been anything but cool and superior to Claudia, so seeing her so broken was rather earth shattering-before Claudia’s mind rebooted enough for her to realize that she should probably leave.  Just as she turned to do so, however, Maria must have looked up.

“What are you doing here?”  Maria spat at Claudia’s back, the hoarse tone of her voice taking the normal superior edge off of the familiar words.

Claudia whipped around to give Maria a piece of her mind- they had been rivals-slash-enemies since early childhood, after all- but the words dried up on her tongue as the blonde took in the ugly, discolored bruise that took up nearly the entire left side of Maria’s face.  “What in the name of the goddess happened to you?”  Claudia breathed in stunned horror as she took a step towards the other woman.

“Like I’d tell you.”  Maria spat as she wobbled a bit drunkenly to her feet and staggered towards the motionless blonde.  “You’re probably going to go back and tell those Outsiders all about how you found me crying, aren’t you, Strauss?  Bet you’re happy to see me like this, does it make you feel powerful?”  Maria reached Claudia and snapped her hand across the blonde’s face.  “Does it make you feel bigger to know that my brother beats me and my mother does nothing to help?”  Maria was practically screaming n Claudia’s face, tears and snot trailing down her red, puffy, bruised face.  “Does it make you feel triumphant to know that you left and came back with a bastard and then met a man who honestly loves you!  Do you know how often I’ve tried to tempt him away from you?  He won’t even look at me!  Yet he looks at you like you’re perfect!”

Maria brought her fists up and brought them down hard on Claudia’s shoulders as she ground out her next words.  They were wrapped in self-loathing and dripped with scorn and humiliation.  “Do you have any idea how it feels to know that you are the only thing standing between your daughter and your abusive bastard of a brother?!  My Daddy ignores my brother- hell sometimes he’s been just like Trenton!- and my Ma pretends that it’s my fault that he gets so mad he hits me!  Do you know what happened to Trenton’s wife?!  She didn’t die she ran away!  From him and from fucking Madelynn Lockhart and Regina-fucking-Manning and this fucking town.  I’m all that stands between Tifa and her living my life all over again!  Titus is too scared of potentially disappointing his parents to even stand up for his child!”  Maria stepped back and glared at Claudia through her tears.  “Do you know that that man of yours has shown more kindness and compassion towards my daughter than her own father?  Huh?  Do you?!”

The slap had stung but the pounding of the other woman’s fists against her shoulders hadn’t really hurt.  At any rate Claudia was so horrified and disgusted by what she heard that she couldn’t grab on to the normal loathing she felt for Maria.  Claudia wanted to be angry that this woman tried to tempt Sirius away from her- she was angry, actually, she just couldn’t properly hang onto it- along with a host of other negative things, but she found herself wrapping the other woman in a sincere embrace and letting Maria scream into her neck.

Maria struggled against the firm but gentle hold for a few minutes before she slumped bonelessly against the blonde woman and cried like a baby.  Claudia staged a bit under the weight and carefully lowered them so they were sitting on the grass, but she didn’t let go of Maria.  Claudia rocked the distraught woman back and forth and ran soothing hands over Maria’s back as the woman brokenly told Claudia of all the darkness behind the shiny exterior of the town’s most powerful families.

Claudia shed a few tears of her own as Maria blubbered about how she had always hated the blonde because the blonde was strong and brave and had left Nibelheim when Maria had been so scared of her brother and her father that she hadn’t dared even think about such a thing too loudly.  Because her father would have disowned her and Trenton very well might have tracked her down and killed her.  Maria told Claudia of how Regina blamed Maria for the two men’s behavior, saying that it was Maria’s own fault and that if she just listened….

Maria spilled her deepest fears of Tifa following in her footsteps, and how Maria hated and loved the Black-Longbottoms for displacing the balance of power.  Hated because her family was falling from grace and that meant that her father and brother were looking for targets.  Loved because that meant that there might be a chance for Tifa to have a better life if only Maria could find a way how to make that happen.

Eventually Maria cried herself out and the only sounds in the clearing were of the forest denizens preparing for twilight as the sun began to fall behind the sturdy forms of the taller mountains.

“Why don’t you say something?”  Maria rasped eventually, curing herself for being unable to extract herself from Claudia’s gentle hold.

“I don’t know what to say.”  Claudia replied honestly, her bright eyes fixed towards the darkening sky.  “You’ve always been ‘perfect Maria Manning’ to me, I never knew that…….”  Claudia shook her head and marshalled her thoughts in order.  “Augusta is thinking of running for Mayor in the spring.”  Claudia said after a few moments of silence.

What?” 

“Hmm.  Yes.”  Claudia hummed as her finger idly played with Maria’s hair.  “If that happens- because Augusta prevails at everything she does, that woman is like a force of nature- you could potentially ask for Tifa to join the children for lessons.  Aerith could use a girl friend to play with.”

Maria tore herself out of Claudia’s embrace and sat back on her behind, her eyes wide.  “Why would you even suggest such a thing?”  She asked with wide, wounded eyes.

“I don’t like you Maria.”  Claudia told the other woman with a sigh, holding eye contact for a moment before reaching down and plucking at some of the clover weeds and piling them into her lap before she began twisting them together into a chain.  “Especially not now that you’ve admitted to trying to tempt Sirius away from me.”  The blonde sighed gustily and kept her eyes affixed on her self-appointed task.  “But what’s happening to you is wrong.  I can’t make it stop and you’re in a pretty delicate situation.  But I can sympathize with you as a mother.”  Claudia side-eyed the still statue-like woman to her left.  “I don’t think that little Tifa should have to suffer just because we don’t like each other.  Who knows?  If you mention that Augusta is thinking of running for Mayor than maybe by spring you will have planted enough doubts to move forward and get Tifa some playdates with my babies.”

Claudia laid out her flower crown on the grass and rose, stretching like a cat as she did so.  “Look.”  She said to Maria as she turned to go back home, (back to her vibrant, cheerful children and her almost-husband with his bright smile and cheesy compliments and her almost-brother-in-law with his quiet wit and gentle eyes and her mentor with her iron will and compassionate heart; back to her friend with the weary eyes that lightened a bit more day by day and back to little Aerith with her sunshiny innocence despite the hell she had spent most of her life inside).  “We will likely never be friends, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not willing to help you or little Tifa.  Just…..think about it.”

Then Claudia walked away, her heart strangely light despite the confusion inside her mind.

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The Black wedding Ceremony would actually end up being quite the trendsetter.

There was a dinner the night before with close friends and family- including a few out-of-towners such as the Wallaces, the family of Apothecary Trandon, along with a few Canyon residents.  As an after-dinner bonding activity the children had helped decorate the covers for the lanterns- which they were using in lieu of torches- and it had been quite the merry gathering.  In the morning, at about half passed eight, a bench that had been passed down through Claudia’s family was seated outside, near the town fountain, which had been prettied up just for the occasion.

The storefront had been the alternate location, just in case the weather had gone badly.

At any rate there were flowers, streamers, and generally everything one would expect to announce the holding of such a ceremony.  Not to mention the charming backdrop of the mountain and the quaint storefronts.

The clergyman had opened the ceremony and then Augusta and Miriam Hester- whom Claudia had asked to stand in in lieu of her own family- had presented the Ribbons.  They had then exchanged vows- and wristlets- and been presented to the town of Nibelheim- invited guests and onlookers alike- as ‘Mr. and Mrs. Sirius Orion Black’.

Then the lanterns had been lit and the guests and wedding party had made their way up to the Black-Longbottom home, with the wedded couple on the backs of Emerald and Juniper.

That was when the Celebratory fest had begun.

It was just after two in the afternoon when the couple took their leave- once again on the backs of Emerald and Juniper- to the small cabin that Sirius had fixed up for them to use for their honeymoon.  The Witnesses had followed, hanging the lanterns on the hooks that had been installed just for the occasion, before they returned to the Celebratory Feast, sand the couple and their lanterns. 

The plan was for two Witnesses to return in the morning and Witness the burning of the Ribbons before bringing word back to the family.  The ashes from the Ribbons would be placed in the hands of the fountain- which didn’t have any water running through them- and be left to whisked away by the cooling fall wind, as a symbolic act of how what had been joined together would never be undone.

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Cloud sat on Gran’s balcony with his back against the beautifully polished twisted iron rails.  The early evening air was chilly, but he had his jacket on- one that Da had picked up on the trip he and Uncle Regulus had taken in the early summer- so he wasn’t cold.  Below him the guests were enjoying the Celebratory Feast, as his Ma and Dad had gotten married that morning.

By now Ma and Da were at the little camping spot they had gone to for his birthday in one of the special tents that Gran had brought from Earth.

It was strange, to know that Ma wasn’t within hollerin’ distance.  It wasn’t bad really, not when he knew the rest of the family- not to mention Miss Lana and Aerith- were not but a stone’s throw away, but it was still different.  Not really a hurt but there was a bit of pain knowing that he was not the only man in his Ma’s life anyone.  There was Da and Neville and Sirius and Uncle Regulus and, really, where did that leave Cloud?

He’s known this since long before the wedding, of course, but now it just felt…..final.

Deeply immersed in his rather maudlin thoughts, Cloud didn’t hear the balcony door slide open, but he did feel warmth as the boys who had become his brothers settled down on either side of him, Aerith trailing after them.  Aerith critically eyed Cloud for a moment before the nodded to herself and bounced over, spinning around to sit on the floor between his slightly parted legs and wriggling backwards until her back was pressed up against his front and her soft head of hair rested against his shoulder.

For a while the only sounds were the children’s breaths and the tuneless song Aerith hummed softly as she played with her partially unraveled braid.  Slowly Harry’s head came to rest against one shoulder while Neville worked Cloud’s arm around himself with a pleased sound of success before the tawny haired boy cuddled up rather securely against the blond’s side.

It had been a long day, so Harry’s breathy sighs that signaled that he was deeply asleep were soon tickling his ears, while Nev’s nearly silent snores were filling his other.

That was when Aerith tilted her head back further and gazed up at him with her bright, wide eyes.  “They were worried.”  She almost-whispered.  Experience told them both that the other two would be bothered by whispers or loud noises, and so they kept their voices between the two extremes, at just barely less than a normal tone of voice. 

“About Ma and Da?”

“No, silly, about you!”  Aerith giggled a little and shifted to where her side was what was pressed up against him as opposed to her back.  “You’ve been getting quieter and quieter since Uncle Sirius and Aunt Audi left.  They were worried that you’d changed you mind and didn’t want to be their brother anymore.”

Cloud’s face must had showed how ridiculously confusing he found that statement because Aerith had to press her hands to her mouth to stifle her giggles.

“They really love you, Cloud.”  Aerith said once she had composed herself.  “They really care about what you think and how you feel.  They feel like they don’t do enough for you.”

“They’re my little brothers!” Cloud protested sullenly, shifting slightly- though not necessarily gracefully- and tugging his brothers closer to him. 

Aerith reached up and gently smoothed out the furrow that had developed in Cloud’s brow.  “And you’re their big brother.”  She said wisely, the glittering knowledge of her People simmering just behind her iridescent green gaze.  “No one’s opinions matter more to them than yours does.”  Aerith pressed a finger to Cloud’s mouth to prevent him from answering.  “You’re the only one of us kids who can’t hear the Planet and I know that bothers you, but the truth is….”

“It’s why we need you s’ much.”  Harry mumbled into Cloud’s shoulder, hesitant green eyes- just a little darker than Aerith’s, but no less bright- peeking up at the blonde shyly.  “We know that we can’t get lost in our thoughts or lose ourselves.  Not when you’re here.”

“You know us.”  Neville murmured sleepily into Cloud’s other shoulder.  “You can keep us from getting distracted, and when we do get distracted we know that you’re there to keep anythin’ bad from happenin’ to us.”

“Me too.”  Aerith agreed with a slight flush.  “I know that Mama and I aren’t really related, but I know you, Cloud.  You’d never let anything happen to us that you could prevent.”

“And then he’s go all Nana on whatever did try to do bad things to us.”  Harry mumbled with a sleepy chuckled.

“I think I’d be more scared of a Cloudy-wolf than a Gran-dragon.”  Aerith giggled into Cloud’s chest.

“Tough call.”  Neville added helpfully, still on the verge of sleep.

As the words washed over them Cloud felt something inside his chest spark to life.  Slowly at first, but then as it fed on his self-doubts and insecurity that small flicker of flame became a roaring fire and then an inferno.  One that swept through his veins and did irreparable harm to every part of himself that said he wasn’t good enough and that good things don’t happen to people like him.  Because if Neville and Harry and Aerith thought he was important- that he mattered- then he could not let what stupid people thought impair his ability to be a good big brother.

The freedom and lightness the epiphany invoked was a heady thing.  A drug that brought him above his fears and allowed him to see how paltry they were when weighed against the trust and love of those who believed in him more than anything.

Cloud tugged his family closer.

“I love you guys.”  He whispered, afraid to speak too loudly and shatter this moment of crystal-clear clarity.  Cloud kissed the tops of Harry and Neville’s heads and- after a brief pause, wherein he look in the loneliness and aching desire to belong inside Aerith’s eyes- kissed the top of her head too.  “All of you.”  He said firmly and leaned his head forward to rest it against Aerith’s own as his brothers smiles and tears of happiness were felt through his cloth-covered shoulders.  “Gran said you and Aunt Lana were family.  So you’re family.  We Blacks-“  Cloud’s breath hitched as he remembered that conversation with his Da, but he pressed forward.  “-we don’t go back on our words.  So if you don’t want us, better speak up now, Princess.  Otherwise you’re never getting rid of us!”

Aerith’s bottom lip quivered and her eyes filled with tears for a moment before she whispered shakily.  “Promise?”  And there were so many unspoken fears behind that word, so many doubts and she didn’t-

“Promise.”  Cloud said firmly, his eyes dry- sincere, open, honest- and his resolute gaze bore through her own with resolve in a way only a brother could.  Then Aerith launched herself forward and clung to the blond, noting peripherally that Neville and Harry had joined in as well.

Then it was just four children on a balcony, brought to this moment from separate paths, but no less family for it.  And as Regulus watched his nieces and nephews from the shadows- having come up to check on them as they had all been listless since Claudia and Sirius had departed for their ‘honeymoon’- a fierce sort of pride bubbled up within him.  This, this was what family was all about.  Not about blood and bonds of responsibility- but of heart, of conviction, of pure unadulterated love.

Agape.  Regulus vaguely recalled the Greeks called it.  ‘The highest form of love, charity; especially of brotherly love.’  Because the bond these children shared was more than just one of being born together- which they hadn’t been – and raised together- which they were doing.  No, this sort of unconditional affection was the type of love that would lead a single man against an entire army just to save one.

As he watched their tears turn to giggles and then deep, even breathing, Regulus stood watch, utterly transfixed.

For there had been many moments that he had doubted Father’s plan- had doubted how he [Regulus] had deviated the original, which had just been for Regulus and possibly Sirius.

Standing here, however, and witnessing such a moving moment, Regulus let go of the last of his doubts.  He resolved to spend more time looking forward, instead of lying awake in bed at night- or staying up until nearly dawn in his lab- and questioning whether or not he’d done right by his family.

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Chapter Text

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Augusta announced her decision to oppose the current Mayor in the Elections that were held every third spring by posters going up in the windows of the Apothecary shop and the Longbottom Bank and Trust the second Monday after the Black wedding.

She had honestly been undecided.  However, during the Celebratory Feast she had learned that the businesses that had sustained damage when those imbeciles had dared to attempt to set fire to Black-Longbottom properties had been heavily pressured to be bought off.

That was unacceptable!

Therefore she and the boys- in addition to Lana and little Aerith- had spent the week of Audi and Sirius’ honeymoon making up posters and writing up targeted pamphlets after fully immersing themselves into the history of Nibelheim.  Miriam Hester, Julia Bradford, Karen Gentry, and a few others of Augusta’s tea-time acquaintance were also instrumental in helping her ready her campaign.

Arriving home from their honeymoon, the newly wedded Black were mostly amused.

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Life after the wedding was quite surreal for a bit, as the Black-Longbottoms were busy with Augusta’s newly announced campaign and preparing for Nibelheim’s deep winter.

During all this Aerith was finally cleared for moderate exercise and Sirius increased his efforts to fully restore the forge, so that the winter could be spent experimenting with his Materia Shards.

The adults had noticed Cloud’s sharper mindset, and Aerith’s new nickname of ‘Princess’, but the children seemed happy, lighter and so the adults left well enough alone.  They did, however, start trying to get the kids to use separate rooms.

The boys ended up begging to share what used to be Neville’s old room while Aerith officially moved in to Harry’s old room.  Before she had been sharing with her mother and sneaking into the boys’ room occasionally.  The rooms were connected by the bathroom between them, but the next few rooms over were essentially just storage rooms.  The adults cleared out those two rooms next to the boys’ current shared room and had another bathroom installed, just in case the boys changed their mind in the next few years.  The Yearwoods- who were contracted to do the work- were quite willing to do the work, even on the rather short notice.

Therefore October passed quickly and before the family truly realized it, deep winter was upon them.

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Neville blinked bemusedly as he took in the goupy substance that was supposed to be a gel-like salve.

“Well.”  Regulus said from behind the boy’s shoulder, his voice suspiciously amused.  “I’ve seen worse first attempts.”

“Really?”  Neville sounded extremely skeptical as he poked at the weird-looking substance with his stirring rod irritably.

“The first time my friend made a Boil-Cure Potion it exploded.  And he had been practicing in Myrtle’s Bathroom back at Hogwarts.  He was fine, the next few young ladies who used that particular loo….not so much.  The school never did realize what caused the mysterious outbreak.” 

Neville nearly choked on his laughter and peered up at Regulus suspiciously.  “No way.”

Regulus nodded emphatically and patted Neville encouragingly on the shoulder.  “One usually learns more from mistakes than successes.  Take me back through your steps and we’ll figure out what went wrong, alright?”

Neville growled frustratedly at his failure and complied.

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“Hit the deck!”  Sirius yelped in alarm as he yanked Cloud down with him to the floor of the forge just as the array they had been tinkering with exploded.  Not a moment later there was a bright flash of light along with a rather worrying bang, but fortunately the debris hit the shield that Sirius had rigged up.

“That was….interesting.”  Cloud ventured mildly as he and Sirius crawled out from underneath the reinforced workbench and surveyed the damage their latest attempt had wrought to their surroundings.

“Hmm.”  Sirius muttered thoughtfully as he absently reached out a hand to hold Cloud back while also solicitously toeing at the debris pile with his boot.  “Were the Shards too large or were they arrayed incorrectly?”  He muttered to himself, only to jump back- and taking Cloud with him- when the fine powder he had been toeing caught fire.

“Maybe we’re thinking of this all wrong?”  Cloud offered a little bit later, sitting up on the newly cleaned workbench and munching on a sandwich his Ma had packed in the picnic basket she had sent with them before they had left the house that morning.  Cloud had just finished chronicling their latest attempt in his notebook, so he had sat it down beside Sirius’ open one and glared rather petulantly at the words and diagrams.

“How so?”  Sirius asked inquisitively around his mouthful of sandwich.

“Well, we’re trying something new right?”  Cloud said slowly, chewing between words as he furrowed his brow in concentration.  “But we’re using what’s known to try to power the arrays.”  Cloud reached out and snatched up his notebook and scribbled something before turning it around so Sirius could see.  “What if it’s not lightning, specifically, that we need to generate electricity, but just a stable sort of energy?  We could use the fire arrays for that!”

Sirius’ mouth dropped open and Cloud laughed at the dumbfounded look on the man’s face.  “That…..you could be on to something, kiddo!”  Sirius quickly finished his food and started scribbling in his own notebook.  “Maybe we’re thinking too linearly when we need to widen our horizons a bit!  Like, the heat produced from the fire arrays could take the place of what we’re trying to do with the lightning ones, but then we’d have to redirect- but would that work?”  Sirius reached over and ruffled Cloud’s blonde spikes affectionately.  “Good job, buddy!  Let’s get to crackin’ on this next attempt!”

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“Don’t tip your chin, Harry dear.”  Augusta prompted gently, reaching out to tap the boy’s pale appendage playfully.

Harry tried to contain his giggles and regain his ‘detachedly interested’ look that he had been practicing prior to Augusta’s correction.  “Like this?”  He asked Augusta once he had readjusted.

“Almost, dear.”  Augusta said with a quiet laugh, rising smoothly from her seat and gliding towards her grandson in order to fix a few mistakes in his posture. 

“Nana, what’s so important about how I sit?”  Harry asked once she had stepped back to survey her work with a critical eye.

“Hmm.  Harry dear, what does the word ‘diplomacy’ mean?”  Augusta replied instead of directly answering his question, sliding gracefully back into her own seat.

“Diplomacy?  Well, it means ‘the art of dealing with people in a sensitive and/or effective way’.”  Harry recited obediently after a short pause.

“That’s one of the technical definitions, yes.”  Augusta said with a small, secretive smile playing about her lips as she brought her tea to her mouth daintily.  “But my teacher when I was a girl had a slightly different opinion.”

“Oh?”  Harry tried his best not to fidget as Augusta’s eyes stayed steadily locked onto his own.

“Yes, Governess Callidora always told me that practicing the art of diplomacy meant; ‘telling people to sod the bloody hell off while having them looking forward to the trip, once they’ve asked you for proper directions’.”  Augusta imparted regally before taking a sip from her tea and trying to suppress her twitching smile as Harry fell off his chair in his mirth.

“That’s amazing, Nana!”  Harry gasped as he tried to climb back onto his chair but failed due to laughing so much. 

Augusta set her tea down and leaned forward a bit.  “That, my dear Harry, is the secret to the Longbottom brand of diplomacy.  “To understand that you are saying exactly how you feel, but in such a way that it only makes the family seem even more prestigious.  Why, I cannot recount the number of times I had those old Wizengamot biddies eating out of the palm of my hand.  All without lying- those there were many misdirections- and without compromising the Longbottom family honor.”

Harry finally managed to climb back up into his chair and mostly reposition himself, though his eyes were bright with mischief.  “It’s like we’re playing a prank on everyone else!” 

“That’s the spirit!”  Augusta encouraged with her own secretive grin.  “Now, that’s enough posturing for today.  Did you want to help Gran with her next set of pamphlets?”

“Yes!”  Harry crowed excitedly.  Learning diplomacy was fun and all, but Harry loved helping Gran make stuff for her campaign!

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“It is with great pleasure that I announce out new Mayor, Augusta Longbottom!”  Sherriff Bradford proclaimed to the assembled townsfolk half a second before the enthusiastic cheering began.

“Thank you, Sherriff Bradford.”  Augusta said graciously as the sash that proclaimed her as the Mayor was laid over her shoulder, the silken edges dancing in the April breeze.  “I look forward to working with you, Sherriff.”  She declared smartly, shaking the man’s hand firmly before stepping up to the podium to make her acceptance speech.

It had been a rather long road to here, for all the little time that had passed.  There were threats made to voters, a few fires, and a host of other unique issues that had been aimed at obstructing the Longbottom campaign.  However, it seemed that the people of Nibelheim were more than ready for a change in leadership as they had doggedly turned out for the Election Polls, despite all of the challenges that had tried to prevent them from doing so. 

Augusta had won the position of Mayor by a landslide.

The Mayor of Nibelheim was elected every third spring, along with two other Councilors.  The Elections rotated so that every year a ‘main’ position and two other supporting Councilmembers were re-elected or replaced. 

It had taken them all by surprise when Karen Gentry and Miriam Hester had decided to be Augusta’s running mates.

Not so much when they were installed as Councilmembers with Augusta.

As she stood at the podium, preparing to upset the status quo for good, Augusta had never felt more alive. 

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Regulus smirked as he watched the gel-like substance immolate the organic material so thoroughly not even ash was left behind.   The younger Black brother carefully manipulated the flame over to the special vat of cooling solution he had prepared.

The idea was to encapsulate the flames in tiny spheres that would erode naturally and cause a fire while he and the rest of his family had air-tight alibis.  The creating a fire part had gone a bit quicker than expected- well, not really, since he was heavily basing it off of Fiendfyre and a few Dark potions and spells- but the secondary part of the experiment was even more challenging than the first!  Regulus had taken the idea from the Materia orbs and an art project he had seen back on the muggle side of Earth that involved liquid aluminum and water.

Regulus quickly doused the flames when the newest batch of cooling substance failed and thoughtfully hummed as he jotted down the results and observations in his notebook.

Magnesium burns slowly when exposed to air but even brighter when immersed in dry ice- the solid form of carbon dioxide.  Regulus thought as he carefully eyed the remains of his experiment and twisted some of his Gaian Mana to activate the Runs that would ensure the fire was well and truly quashed.  My Solid Fiendfyre could use an accelerant, as it burns through oxygen fairly quickly due to the massive amount of heat it gives off.  Perhaps if I wrap the flames in dry ice-like substance and then inject a core of magnesium just before they are deployed?  Or just in every third one or so?  To augment the fire’s ability to spread and ensure maximum efficiency?  It bears investigating, at least.

“Uncle Reg!  Dinner’s ready!”  Aerith’s voice came from the top of the lab’s stairs, though muffled by the thick door.

“I’ll be up in just a few minutes!”  Regulus called back as he swiftly began tidying his area- checking to ensure that, yes, the fire was really, really out- before he switched off the lights and scaled the stairs.  As he opened the door the wonderful scent of stew assaulted his nose along with the lighter scents of fresh bread and pie.  Regulus grinned down at the rather flour-covered Aerith, his eyebrows rising slightly in his amusement.  “Rough day?”  He asked the little girl blandly.

“Terrible!”  Aerith groaned dramatically, raising a hand to her forehead theatrically.  “The boys and Uncle Sirius helped!”

“I heard that!”  Sirius Black bellowed, only to squawk in offense a moment later.

Regulus guessed that either Augusta or Audi had whapped him for ‘uncouth behavior’.

“Aunt Audi says that Uncle Sirius is a menace in the kitchen.” Aerith imparted to Regulus without an ounce of shame, bouncing a little on her toes and leaning towards him in her excitement.

“Indeed.”  Regulus replied, finally losing his battle with his grin and causing Aerith to whoop with delight as she took off in the direction of the stairs- presumably to clean up for dinner. 

“Cloud!  Harry!  Nev!  Uncle Regulus laughed!”  Aerith giggled as she took the stairs two at a time.

“Regulus!”  Sirius moaned pathetically from the direction of the kitchen.  “You’re supposed to be on my side!”

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“I think that my arms are going to actually fall off.”  Harry groaned miserably from his spot on the soft, newly-arrived spring grass.

The air was still a bit chilly and winter wasn’t entirely gone yet, but Gran- with much assistance from the other adults, aka ‘The Traitors’- had gleefully restarted their ‘training regimen’ and all the children felt like overcooked noodles.  Their physical states probably had a lot to do with the rather inspired obstacle course they had just finished.

For the third time that day.

“Ditto.”  Neville muttered from his spot nearby Harry, though he was lying on his back with an arm thrown over his eyes.

“I vote that we pray to the Planet for Aunt Audi to have a baby so the adults have less time to devise things like that obstacle course that we’re not talking about which closely resembles the stories we’ve heard about certain amphibian infested forests.”  Aerith whimpered from her spot on Cloud’s exposed stomach.

“Do you think it would work?”  Cloud muttered, shifting around a bit and managing to prop himself up onto his elbows.  “Cause if it’ll work…..”  Cloud trailed off as his arms trembled and gave out on him.  “Oof.”  He grumbled miserably as his back made contact with the ground once more.

“You’re not done yet!”  Gran called from the back porch, her crisp voice washing over the foursome with far too much cheer that they, personally, felt was acceptable for the moment.  “One more set of stretches, two sets of calisthenics, and then two laps around the land!  Get to it!”

As the children staggered to their feet to comply, Cloud muttered.  “Right, we’ll ask tonight.  Agreed?”

“Agreed.”  The other three chorused.

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The children sat around the smaller table in the drawing room, putting their heads together and sharing new things that they had learned in their respective lessons with each other.

“The Runes that Da knows are so cool!”  Cloud was saying to his siblings, his eyes bright with excitement.  “We sort of had a breakthrough on the Shards- we realized that we weren’t thinking about the energy right.  Like, a catalyst is ‘a substance that increases the rate of a-“

“-chemical reaction without itself undergoing any change’.” Neville finished with a grin.

“Exactly!”  Cloud replied with his own wide grin.  “So we were thinking- like, when you turn on a light switch and whatnot?  Like, turning on the switch and causing the light to come on is the hardest part.  It takes, like, the same amount of energy as running the light for nearly five hours- by our calculations, anyways.  But what we were thinking was- what if Shard energy is different?  Like, instead of needing that huge upsurge to turn on the light, what if the energy is always there?  What if turning on the light was more of a natural extension than the current schemes that waste energy?”

“So, like, the light always being ready to use?”  Aerith queried curiously, tapping her lip in thought.  “Wouldn’t that cause a fire or something?”

Cloud shook his head, his blond spikes flying every which way as he turned his notebook around so the others could see.  “No!  Well, not if we do it right.”  Cloud amended after a moment.  “The power of the Shards come from the Planet and the Planet itself- Herself, whatever- is always ‘on’.  So really, all we need to do is find the correct array to ‘sync’ with the Planet’s energy and then relay that energy throughout a home or business.  Then the energy would always be primed for use, but any excess energy that built up would be bled off by the Planet Herself.”  Cloud finished with a triumphant grin.

“That….would be really amazing, if you could get it to work.”  Harry said after a long moment of thought.  “I mean it would be truly clean, reusable energy.”

Cloud drooped a little and his grin turned a bit sheepish.  “Yeah, well, getting it to work is going to be hard work.  Not only do we have to get the arrays right we have to find the best possible material to make them with.”

“It’s still a pretty amazing goal!”  Aerith cheered cheerfully.  She wrapped an arm around Cloud and beamed up at him.  “I think it’s awesome!”

“Us too!”  The other two boys agreed optimistically, grinning at Cloud proudly. 

“I mean, it’s never been done before, not really.”  Neville said with a grin.  “The really ancient Cetra used entire Materia orbs, not Shards and a lot of that knowledge has been lost over the years as the memories are displaced by that of newly-returned Cetra.  The Lifesteam can only hold so many separate entities at a time, and knowledge about defeating the Calamity probably took priority over how to make a Cetran toaster oven or something.”

“Cetran-“  Harry started with a rather confused- yet entirely amused- look on his face.

“-toaster-“  Aerith parroted rather bemusedly.

-“oven?”  Cloud finished incredulously, tilting his head to the side and making himself look similar to Juniper when the female Chocobo wanted ear-scritches.

“Hey!”  Neville laughed after a long moment of trying- and failing- to look affronted.  “The Cetra needed toaster ovens, too!”  He insisted with a bright grin and a slowly-creeping flush.

The children all dissolved into cheerful, animated laughter.

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Maria Lockhart held her head high as she ushered her daughter into the Longbottom Bank and Trust.  The spring thaw had seen to the end of the Bank of Nibelheim.   The Manning had been family unable to keep the Bank open when all the non-locals from smaller areas came to Nibelheim and officially transferred to the Longbottom Bank.  It didn’t help their situation that Augusta Longbottom had been made Mayor and the well-respected Karen Gentry and Miriam Hester had become Councilors alongside her.

For the moment the Manning-Lockhart clan still held the majority of positions on the Town Council, but they were intimately aware that that could very well change in the upcoming two Elections.  Especially with the improved quality of life and the increased amount of education that was occurring among the town’s denizens.

Nibelheim was actually the largest of a small chain of mountain towns that dotted the Nibel Mountain Range.  Their place at the base of Mt Nibel making them the easiest point of contact for the isolated towns- and the local folklore about the superstitions of such a place being a ‘seat of power’ also adding to their fame-infamy.

At any rate the Manning-Lockhart star was waning and they could no longer hide that fact.  When paired with the superstitions about the mountains- Mt Nibel in particular- they were wavering on the edge of being outcasts among those they had long since decided that they were ‘above’.  That was why Maria was casting aside her pride and walking into the Longbottom Bank to ask Claudia Strife about setting up play dates for Tifa and the Black-Longbottom children.  Had the Black-Longbottoms been anything akin to the Manning-Lockharts Maria would not have bothered- she knew damn well how cruel her family and in-laws could be to people they saw as ‘lesser’- but the dark-haired woman held onto her faith that the family her old rival had married into was different.

Maria had to, or she would have nothing left to push forward towards.

So, standing in front of the blonde she had hated, Maria forced her lips to form the words that would give Claudia Strauss the power to break her if the blonde chose to.  “I noticed that little Aeris is a bit outnumbered by the boys at your house.”  Maria managed to say rather smoothly, despite the small quaver in her voice under the steady blue gaze of the other woman behind the Bank’s counter.  “I thought that maybe she could use some girl company.”  Maria lifted Tifa up so the girl could turn shy, curious eyes onto the blonde woman her mother way speaking to.  “Aeris is a bit older than my girl, but Teef just turned seven and she’s pretty clever for her age.”  Maria’s mouth snapped shut as she finished her statement and she prayed with all of her might that Claudia Strauss was a better woman that she, herself, had been.

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Of all the things Claudia had expected to happen that day, seeing Maria Manning-Lockhart and having the woman ask for play-dates with the Black-Longbottom children in public wasn’t even on the list.

As Claudia stood there looking at the mother and daughter, though, she only felt sympathy for this woman- and doubly as much for the little girl caught in the middle of such a shitty situation.  “Aeris turned nine this past February.”  Claudia found herself saying with a warm smile directed towards the little girl, despite the blonde woman’s lingering distrust towards anything related to the harpy who had made Claudia’s life miserable for as long as she could remember.  “But the boys are seven- they turn eight in July- and my Cloudy is eight- he turns nine in August.”  Claudia’s smile turned fonder without her permission.  “So I think that little Tifa would fit right in!  The children have lessons in the mornings with Augusta, though, so it would have to be in the afternoons.”

“Sounds good.”  Maria said, a touch too breathily to truly be taken for simple relief.  “After lunch, then?  Or closer to mid-afternoon?”

“Hmm.”  Claudia said with a thoughtful him.  “Does Tifa like climbing at all?  The kids have an obstacle course and exercise regimen that they do in the late-mornings- it’s part of teaching them how to defend themselves- then they have lunch and rest for a bit before their afternoon activities.”

Tifa’s eyes lit up and she turned her bright, hopeful gaze towards her mother.  “Please?”  Tifa asked sweetly.

Maria bit her lip anxiously.  Titus wouldn’t like it, but Tifa….  “Sounds good.”  Maria said after a long moment of thought, mentally pushing back her fears at her brother or father finding out. 

“Great!”  Claudia chirped brightly.  “Why don’t we try just two days a week at first- maybe Tuesdays and Thursdays?  You can drop little Tifa off about a half hour or hour til noon and then come pick her up about dinner time?”

“Sounds like a plan.”  Maria replied, the cold knot in her chest loosening slightly as Tifa grinned brightly and thanked Claudia profusely.  “So, tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow.”  Claudia agreed with a smile.

“We’ll be there.”

Thank you, Claudia.

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“Tifa!”  Aerith squealed excitedly as the elder girl bounced down the steps of the porch to wrap her friend in a hug.

“Aeris.”  Tifa whined playfully as she pretended to struggle against Aerith’s gentle hold.

“Hush, you!”  Aerith mock-commanded as she grabbed Tifa’s hand and dragged her around towards the back of the house, tossing a cheery wave towards Tifa’s mom as she did so.  “There’s this rumor I heard about us being against the boys today on the course!”

“Really?”  Tifa asked excitedly, bouncing along after her friend eagerly.  “Even Cloud?”

“Oho?”  Aerith asked with an evil smile as she skid to a stop and turned to face her friend with a smug smile.  “Is that a crush I sense on our resident Chocobo-headed blond?”

“N-No!”  Tifa spluttered vehemently, though the flush creeping up her neck said otherwise.  “I just think that he’s…a tough opponent.”  Tifa crossed her arms and glowered at her grinning friend.

“Uh-huh.”  Aerith replied blandly in her best approximation of Uncle Regulus’ ‘I’m so not buying it’ voice.  “I’m really convinced over here.”

Tifa’s face turned even redder and her splutters grew more indignant.  “Are too!”

“Am not!”

“Are too!”

“Most definitely am not.”

“Are-“

“What are you guys waiting for?”  Cloud called as he peeked around the edge of the house and gave the girls an exasperated look.  “If you don’t hurry we’ll be late!  And Uncle Sirius is the one supervising today!”  Cloud’s face scrunched up in confusion as he rounded the house and held a hand out towards the red-faced Tifa.  “Are you alright, Tifa?  Your face is really red-“

“I’m fine!”  Tifa squeaked out in an embarrassingly shrill voice.  “Let’s go!”  Then the younger girl grabbed her laughing, traitorous friend’s hand and sprinted towards the backyard.

“Well, that was weird.”  Cloud muttered to himself as he jogged after them, Aerith’s gleeful laughter ringing through the air.

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“An expedition!”  The boys cheered nearly simultaneously when asked what they wanted for their birthdays one night at dinner, early on in the month of July.

“An expedition?”  Claudia asked in puzzled bemusement just before she put away some more of Augusta’s positively divine shepherd’s pie.  “To where?”

“To the Tears’ Range!”  Cloud nearly crowed, wriggling around in his seat in excitement.  “We want to see the really awesome Liquid Lifestream Fountains!”

“Yeah!”  The other children chorused excitedly, even Aerith.

“Well, we could take pictures, gather Shards and possibly a few naturally occurring Materia.”  Regulus mused as he sat back and thought about such a thing.

“Oh!”  Harry cheered excitedly.  “I hadn’t even thought about taking pictures!  We could even sell copies of the really cool ones, couldn’t we?”

Taking pictures and learning how to develop them were Harry and Neville’s newest side project.  Cloud and Aerith helped out with it, too, but it was mostly the two boys.  Cloud was currently immersed in all things motorcycle when not cramming the knowledge of various Rune Languages and Earth Arithmancy into his blonde head.  Meanwhile Aerith was dabbling in a bit of everything.  The young girl was also learning to draw out her innate Cetra talents and used them to great effect on the greenhouses as she tried to figure out exactly what she could do with her inherited gifts.  Aerith was practicing on the plant life first to see what she could do and hone her control before attempting to move on to healing animals or people.

Still, the kids were all dabbling in new things.

“Well.”  Augusta mused after a moment of contemplative silence.  “I’m sure that Lana and I could hold down the fort while you all go on a one or two week adventure.”  Augusta gave the attempting-to-protest Regulus the gimlet stare.  “You need a vacation and I’m sure there are ingredients or soil compositions there you would like to study.”

Regulus subsided with a scowl, causing Aerith to giggle into Claudia’s side.

“Well, if we set out on the boys’ birthday- it falls on a Friday this year- we could potentially be gone until the fourteenth of August- which would be two weeks later- and still have Saturday and Sunday to recuperate.”  Sirius mused after a moment of staring at the kitchen calendar.

Regulus side-eyed Claudia for a moment but she shook her head negatively, so he just sighed and turned back to the others- only Augusta having caught the small exchange.  “That would be fine.”  He admitted to the group at large.  “I would have enough to ensure my stock is properly squared away and Steph or Ashley can handle any low-to-mid level requests on their own at this point.”

“Oh?  Your little ducklings are doing well then?”  Augusta inquired curiously, spooning a bit more dinner onto Cloud’s plate before setting it back in front of the blond with a stern look.

Cloud pouted a little but started eating obediently.

“I estimate that Ashley will be ready to take the Journeyman Exams next spring.  I plan on hiring him as my licensed assistant and having him set up a satellite store in Corel or something, depending on where he wants to settle for a bit.”  Regulus said as he refilled Harry’s plate and nudged it towards the boy with a knowing look.   “Steph will probably need another year as she struggles a bit with being able to multi-task, which is one of the Journeyman requirements.  After that she can either stay on here in Nibelheim and I can travel a bit or she can take another satellite store.” 

“Still, for them to have come so far already is a credit to both the teacher and the students.”  Ifalna said with a smile.  “You’ve really expanded my knowledge of being an Apothecary as well- and I was fully licensed once upon a time!”

“If you weren’t wanted by a multi-national corporation you could sit the Exams with Ashley.”  Regulus teased the woman lightly, prompting laughs from everyone.

Regulus often bemoaned the fact that Ifalna was unable to take the Exams and it had become a bit of an inside joke.  Unfortunately Shinra had no given up on locating Ifalna or Aerith, despite the war with Wutai being in full swing and so many other things occurring.  Granted, Shinra’s photos of the two- even the digitally altered ones- were a far cry from the two females that were sitting in the black-Longbottom kitchen, but there was no reason to tempt fate, not just yet anyways.

“So, an expedition to the Tears’ Range the first two weeks of August?”  Harry piped up hopefully.  “Emy and Juni’s baby should be born by then, right?”

“Miriam believes they’ll have their new baby sometime this next week.”  Augusta explained patiently.  “Now, I want you children to spend the next few nights planning your trip for practice and then we’ll help figure out what you need from there.”

“Can we use the Earth tents?”  Neville asked hopefully.

“You may.”  Augusta said with a smile at her grandson.  “Now, shoo.  No clean up duties tonight!”

The kids cleared their plates, took them to the sink, and thanked the adults politely before tearing off towards the stairs.

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Chapter Text

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 “Have fun!  Make sure to take lots of pictures!”  Ifalna called from the porch towards the slowly moving group of adventurers, waving cheerfully at them as they ambled forward slowly.  She smiled softly as she noticed how Aerith was wrapped around Cloud like he was the only thing holding the girl upright.

A morning person Aerith Faremis was most certainly not.  Then again, poor Harry didn’t seem to be much better off.

Ifalna snickered to herself.

“Be safe!”  Augusta added on the heels of Ifalna’s statement, waving regally from her position beside the brown-haired woman on the porch steps.  Augusta and Ifalna waved at the rest of the family’s departing backs until they rounded a bend and disappeared from their sight. 

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The sun hadn’t actually risen yet- and wouldn’t for a least another hour, as it was just half-past four in the morning. 

However, the trip was to be made without the aid of Emerald or Juniper who were still bonding with their chick.  The two faithful Green Chocobo had produced an adorable little bluish-green chick.  Miriam- who had superior knowledge about such things- had declared that the chick would likely grow to be a Blue Chocobo.  Miriam had gone to explain that Blue Chocobo were known for their ability to walk across rivers and streams as well as being able to handle somewhat rougher terrain like the Green Chocobo, just not quite as well.  Cloud had been given the duty of naming the chick and he had decided to call her- they wouldn’t actually know the gender for a few more weeks, but until ‘she’ was a ‘her’- Cobalt.

Due to the lack of Chocobo, however, the group had decided to set out extra early so they could have a better chance of making it to Renan- a small town at the base of the Nibel Range- before nightfall.  The plan was for the group to sleep at the Inn and recover for a day or so before either renting Chocobo or finding someone to drive them to the foot of the Tears’ Range.

“Alright guys!”  Sirius chirped after they had been walking or about a quarter of an hour.  “Let’s get to moving!  We’ve got lots of ground to cover if we want to have plenty of time to explore the Materia Caves!”

“What do you suggest we do, brother?”  Regulus growled irritably.  “Sing?”

“That’s a great idea!”  Sirius crowed delightedly, spinning around to walk backwards- his eyes bright with mischief.  “Now, there’s this awesome song-“

“You just had to get him going, didn’t you Regulus.”  Claudia muttered grouchily as her husband babbled happily and began to teach the now-awake children some sort of song for them to sing while they walked.

Regulus’ strangled, defeated groan was a balm to her annoyed little soul.

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They did, in fact, made it to Renan by nightfall-

-without Claudia strangling her husband.  Mostly due to Regulus slipping a Calming Draught into her afternoon cold, sweet tea without her knowledge.

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Four days into their journey they were hiking up the narrow trails of the Tears’ Range and the group was a whole lot more chipper.  Claudia was able to show off her knowledge of reading the mountains as she showed the rest of the group how to pick up small cues that signaled a path or warnings were in place to warn savvy travelers of danger ahead. 

“That’s my Angel!”  Sirius would mutter rather dopily every time she showed them something new.  The elder Black had also taken to kissing Claudia senseless as often as she would let him.

Regulus was grateful that he and the kids were in one tent while the sappy couple had one all to themselves.  There were certain things he did not want to find out about his brother and his brother’s wife, thank you very much.

The kids were highly entertained and took lots and lots of pictures to show Augusta and Ifalna.  They giggled over the fact that they likely had just as many pictures of the three adults and their various antics as they did of the amazing landscape!

They had found several Materia Caves- that was to say, caves that held stagnant pools of Liquid Lifestream- which could be determined due to the darker hue of the pools as well as their pungent, acrid odor.  The odor had attracted more than a few monsters, so the group had needed to battle their way through more than one rather tight spot.  It seemed their relatively quiet travels up until that point had come back to haunt them as Regulus and Sirius had been quite busy taking on the various monsters that had been encountered since they had begun their ascent up the Tears’ Range proper.  The children were allowed to be support, but were firmly warned to not engage a monster directly unless they had no other choice.  By the time the end of the fifth day came, though, each of the children defeated a few lower level monsters and spent pretty much all of day six quietly contemplative over the idea of having killed something.

They didn’t like it, they decided that night when they were all cuddled together in the living room of their tent, but they were not going to allow anything to hurt their parents or each other, either.

And that was that.

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“Do you think Claudia has broken the news to them yet?”  Ifalna asked Augusta from behind her cup of evening tea.

The two women were sitting on the front porch, enjoying a moment of peace before they returned to the kitchen table to complete the paperwork that still needed doing.  Without Claudia, Regulus, and Sirius around it was quite the task for just two of them- what with the Bank, the Apothecary, and the Mayoral duties to attend to- but they were managing.

“I hope Regulus takes pictures.”  Augusta replied gleefully, a wicked smirk curling at her lips.  “Sirius’ face is bound to be priceless.”

Both women giggled conspiratorially as they lapsed back into comfortable silence and gazed out at their scenic view.

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By the time they set up camp on the ninth day they had finally made it to the inner part of the Tears’ Range, and with it the truly amazing Materia Caves and Liquid Lifestream Springs.  The closer they came to the heart of the range, the more Liquid Lifestream Springs they encountered.

The Caves were beautiful in their own way, of course.  Charming even in their stagnancy, or perhaps despite it.  There were many Materia Shards gathered from the Caves, but very few whole Materia.

“Perhaps the Materia grow so large that they splinter?”  Regulus offered thoughtfully as they combed the large cave for clues to its secrets.  “Because there is no way for the Materia to move away from the Liquid Lifestream and it eventually gathers so much energy it simply shatters?”

Regulus- ever the eager almost-Ravenclaw- was busy taking samples of everything and making a detailed map for future expeditions.

“I can feel……approval, maybe?- from the Lifestream, Uncle Regulus.”  Aerith offered hesitantly, her small hand tangled in the hem of Cloud’s shirt as she tried to decipher the individual whispers that had grown easier to hear, yet more indistinct, the deeper they traveled into the heart of the mountains. 

“Hmmm.”  Sirius muttered as he kept a close eye on his footing, making sure his foothold was solid before he stepped even closer to the vicious green pool of liquid; his nose was firmly covered and Claudia was keeping the children near her, closer to the mouth of the Cave.  “Perhaps it tries to ‘spawn’ and it fails because it isn’t actually ‘mature’ or ‘mastered’ just…..overfed?”

“We’ll have to test it back home in my lab.”  Regulus hummed attentively as he carefully measured out a new sample before he quickly stoppered it and scrawled a designation on it and stowed it in his kit.  He noted the important facts of the sample in his notebook for later reference and then moved on to the next.

The Liquid Lifestream Springs, however, were utterly mesmerizing.

The Springs were fairly teeming with life.  Sparkling streams of shades of twinkling, kaleidoscopic greens despite there being no added source of light from the sun or moon.  The threads of multicolored jade were deceptively beautiful; breathtaking in the same way a furious storm seems like freedom despite its unrestrained ferocity.  They flowed over crystallized rock and into pools that had obviously been eroded into their current shapes over many years of constant wear. 

While the Caves had been rather frustrating for Aerith- for the murmurs had grown louder, but less distinct- the Springs were the opposite.  Harry and Neville- to whom the Caves had mostly just given nasty headaches- could hear the murmurs of the ‘woman’s voice’ nearly as clearly as they had been able to at the Observatory in the Canyon.  What the boys heard seemed to differ from what Aerith heard, but all three children agreed that it was nice to hear actual voices and not simply psychic racket.  The fact that they could hear caused them to be a bit inattentive at times, though, so they stayed near Cloud or Claudia- who were carefully ensuring that none of the three ‘Planet whisperers’ fell into a pool or something because they were distracted.

Regulus and Sirius’ senses were a bit sharper due to the presence of the Liquid Lifestream, of course, but they had been raised as scions of the house of Black.  Therefore they were able to use their long-ago taught Occlumency exercises to keep themselves from being distracted, unlike the children who had not yet progressed to that point in their mental training. 

The adults did make a note to move the children forward in their mental exercises once they returned home, though. 

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“Miss Lana!  You need to go home!”  Steph bellowed as she burst through the door to Ifalna’s office.  The teenager’s eyes were wide with fear.  “You need to leave now!”  She repeated once more, casting a wary look towards the door of the shop.

Ifalna blinked a few times and rose from her chair.  “Steph?”  Whatever-“

The teen had already snatched up Ifalna’s carry-on and was pressing it into the woman’s hands.  “Go.”  Steph pressed the woman urgently.  “Take the back door and go.  Gramps had Ma call us.  Said he an’ Da went up to check on a strange noise and saw Shinra ‘copters headed towards the ol’ mansion.”  Steph gave the brown-haired woman a fierce look.  “I know that Master Regulus and Mister Sirius lied.  All of us Yearwoods and Stanleys do, but they ain’t gonna hear nothin’ from us!  No sir!”  Steph grinned sharply at Ifalna.  “We don’ care who ya are or where ya came from.  Master Regulus and Madam Gus took ya in and that’s all we need to know, but there ain’t no sense in temptin’ fate, yeah?”

“The first two weeks.”  Ifalna whispered, her heart beating loudly in her chest and her hands shaky.  “They saw us, back before Regulus made the potions.”

“There’s not a single one of us that would breathe a word to the contrary, Miss Lana.”  Ashley spoke up from his position in the doorway.  “But we’d rather be safe than sorry.  Go on home, Steph and I can handle things here.  I’ll go next door and tell Madam Augusta what’s happening on my lunch break.  We’ve got you covered.  It’s the least we can do, really.  After everything the Black-Longbottom family has done for us.”

Ifalna gave Steph a quick, fierce hug, crossing the room quickly and sweeping the tall, broad-shouldered Ashley into one as well.  “Thank you both.”  She whispered tearfully as she headed for the back door.  “Thank you both so much.”  Tears trembled on her lashes and her heart felt like it would explode from the sheer depth of the gratitude she felt towards these two.  Then she turned on her heel and headed for the back door, praying to the Planet that she would make it home safely.

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 “Cloud!”  Sirius barked over the roar of the torrential rain.  He was in the lead, doing his best to power a Barrier spell to break the force of the rain and to help the kids keep their footing.  They had hiking links attached to each of them- the kids actually had harnesses on them-  in case someone fell.  The lines were loose enough that one person falling wouldn’t yank the adults off their feet, but they could stop the line from continuing to lengthen and haul the fallen person back up.

“Here!”  Cloud’s rather miserable grunt was a mirror to Sirius’ soul at the moment.

“Aerith!”

“Still here!”  Aerith chirped, though far less cheerfully than usual.

Well, we have been walking for nearly three hours, since the cave we had managed to hole up in started to flood.  Sirius thought dourly as he called Neville’s name and received a response. 

The weather had changed suddenly and violently.  Thankfully they had been meandering down a bit and had been near a non-Lifestream inhabited cave when the storm had hit.  Unfortunately the cave hadn’t exactly been whole and undamaged, thus their need to evacuate in the midst of such distressing circumstances.  They had been through a couple other tight weather-related spots during their adventure, but this storm had taken even Claudia by surprise.

Sirius squinted and then very nearly fell onto his arse as the winds abruptly changed direction.  The storm broke apart swiftly, allowing the previously-missed sunlight filter through the rapidly disappearing clouds and causing all of the travelers to stagger a bit as the past three hours caught up to them.

“Bloody hell.”  Sirius grunted, whipping out his binoculars and then hooting in excitement.  “I see a valley!”  He called back to the others.  “It’s got a lake and a falls- so it shouldn’t flood- and it had a flat area that we can pitch the tents on once we hit it with some fire to dry it a bit!”

“Thank the Planet.”  Claudia wheezed as she went to move forward.  “We need to get the kids into the shower and dry clothes.”

The group quickly- but carefully- made their way down the trail.  When they came to the small, canyon-like valley Sirius whooped again.  “It even has an overhang!”  Sirius babbled excitedly as he detached himself from the others and bounced over the saturated ground towards their future campsite.  “Fire in the hole!”  He hollered cheerfully as he switched out Materia and brought forth a bright stream of fire.  Regulus- apparently just as excited for a shower and dry clothes- was only half a heartbeat behind him.

The brothers had barely finished when Claudia and the kids moved forward to put up the tents.

“I’m glad the weather held out as long as it did.”  Cloud muttered to the others as they sat huddled in their fluffy, fuzzy towels, waiting for the shower to be free.  “But I’m really glad we’re almost back down to the town.”

“I know.”  Harry moaned miserably, shaking his head a little- much to Cloud and Neville’s displeasure- and hunkering down further into his towel.  “It’s been fun and everything, but I really just want to go home.”

“I wanna see Cobalt.”  Aerith chirped as she bounced into the room clad in her pajamas.  The girl bounced over to Cloud and sat down in front of him, tipping her towel-clad head back and fixing him with her most pleading look.

“Fine.”  Cloud muttered as Claudia exited the bathroom and tossed her son a hairbrush with a grin.  “You two go on.”  He told Neville and Harry, both of whom eagerly moved forward to take their turn in the shower.

“You could just let Ma braid your hair.”  Cloud muttered soulfully as he unwrapped the towel and began to carefully brush Aerith’s wet hair.  “She’s better at it, anyways.”

“But I like it when you do my braid.”  Aerith pouted outrageously, gamely tilting her head whichever way Cloud prompted her to with light taps of his fingers or the hairbrush.

“It always falls apart before morning when I do it, though.”  Cloud muttered with a blush creeping steadily up his neck.

“It just means you need practice!”  Aerith chirped cheerfully as she felt him begin to section her hair.

“Whatever you say.”  Cloud grunted as he fell silent, focused firmly on the task of braiding Aerith’s hair.

Sirius stood in the corner and snapped pictures with a wide, dopey smile on his face.

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“Oh?”  Augusta said archly to the pompous buffoon that had been blathering on for the past ten minutes.  “And this affects the citizens of Nibelheim, how, precisely?”

“Well, you see.”  The reedy little man continued to blather self-importantly, either unaffected or unknowing of Augusta’s weighty disapproval.  “It has been quite some time since the rates have been adjusted and Shinra feels that…..”

Augusta kept her peripheral vision trained on the two smartly outfitted, subtly menacing ‘escorts’ that had come with the idiot.  Said idiot had shown up nearly an hour after Ashley had stopped by the Bank to inform her of the news that Shinra helicopters had been spotted landing near the old mansion.  Shinra usually only sent people to Nibelheim twice a year- once in late April or early May and then again in late October or early November- to do maintenance on the reactor and calculate Nibelheim’s bi-yearly energy bill.  Shinra arriving so clandestinely and sending a representative to inform her of Shinra’s abrupt decision to raise the cost of Reactor-generated electricity by nearly thirty-percent sent all sorts of alarm bells off inside her head.

The fact that she knew what had gone on in that mansion in the past made her stomach twist itself into knots. 

Augusta was not only concerned about Ifalna and-or Aerith being discovered, she was concerned about the boys being taken.  It was an outlandish thought, but Augusta had enough knowledge of the truly dark aspects of the operations of Shinra Electric Power Company to feel justified in believing that those bastards would take her precious boys if they caught the slightest hint of what her precious babies were capable of.  Compounding those fears- and her unease with the situation in general- was the fact that the man in front of her was wearing a lab coat. 

The people who came to do maintenance on the Reactors and calculate the costs never wore lab coats.  As a matter of fact they were part of a department called ‘Urban Development’, if she was understanding her notes correctly- the former Mayor had not been truly courteous or gracious when he exited office, so she had quite a few gaps in her knowledge of some aspects of her new job, unfortunately.

Augusta knew from having tea with the ladies that the technicians occasionally came with a few lads from the Shinra Infantry and always needed a guide.  However, they hadn’t mentioned scientists being active at the mansion since Shinra had left for newly-constructed Midgar nearly twenty years ago!

So why was a scientist sitting in her office blathering on about ‘increased consumption’ and ‘obligatory recalculations’?  Especially as he had informed her about a ‘small contingent’ of scientists planning on using the mansion for a ‘short while’ and had pretentiously announced that she needed to make arrangements so they could have food delivered?

I don’t like this at all.  Augusta thought sourly even as she thanked her lucky stars for her long experience as a politician and a noble Lady.  She wanted to give those ‘escorts’ absolutely nothing.

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It was their last night around the campfire.  They had departed from Renan earlier that day and decided to camp out for one more night instead of staying at the Inn and doing the all-day walk thing from insanely early in the morning thing again.

They had started a proper fire and had scavenged sticks to whittle the bark off of and use to roast marshmallows.  Of course to go with the marshmallows they had such goodies as chocolate and graham crackers.  They had spread out blankets and were having fun making silly little games out of trying to see who could roast the ‘perfect’ marshmallow or make the ‘perfect’ s’more.

Claudia grinned at her blond son- she did have three of them now, after all- who had chocolate smeared along one side of his mouth.  Cloud didn’t seem to mind though, he was far too busy giggling and trying to keep Harry or Neville from moving his marshmallow-adored stick from where he wanted it.  On the other side Regulus and Aerith were pretending to be above such nonsense but Aerith occasionally slipped out of her ‘mature’ guise and giggled helplessly, leaving Regulus to rescue her marshmallow from a particularly blackened fate.

Sirius was currently being used as Claudia’s chair.  Well, sort of, she was sitting with her back to his chest, between his legs.  If she glanced out of the corner of her eye she could see her husband’s relaxed form, his back against a tree and his arms around her waist.  Occasionally Sirius would whine until she stuffed food into his mouth- sometimes just a marshmallow, sometimes and entire s’more- and then he would flail a bit as his cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk and make everyone laugh with his playful grumbling.

Planet, she loved this man.

They had been at it for a few hours and the kids were starting to droop when Claudia decided it was time.

“Ok guys.”  She said as she straightened up a bit and looked at her children, grinning a bit when Regulus stealthily acquired a camera.  “I have something to tell you all before we turn in.”

“What is it, Ma?”  Cloud asked curiously, tilting his head to the side inquisitively as his eyes narrowed a bit in concentration.

Claudia was tickled when she noticed Regulus taking a picture of it.  Her Cloudy was such a mama Chocobo!  “Weeeeeeeeell.”  She said teasingly, stretching out the ‘e’ and feeling Sirius wriggle impatiently behind her.  “This time next year, our Harry won’t be the youngest anymore.”

There was absolute silence for a moment before Aerith squealed excitedly and bounced to her feet.  “You and Uncle Sirius are going to have a baby?!”  The girl gasped delightedly.

Claudia nodded, though she was a bit concerned by the stiffness in Sirius’ body and his absolute silence.

We hadn’t talked about it and I was on birth control.  She thought worriedly as the boys began to come alive as well, the children all tangling together into a happy pile of limbs as they began to chatter excitedly among themselves.  I forgot that dose- I had meant to take it at lunch but then a customer had come into the Bank and I didn’t remember until a week later, when I found the flask still in the drawer, unopened- and then Regulus made me take the test before he would make another one and what if-

“Angel?”  Sirius rumbled lowly into her ear.

“Yes?”  Claudia whispered her voice eerily quiet and heavily stained with her sudden surge of insecurity.

Sirius’ hand moved to her abdomen and his fingers splayed open, causing heat to pool there that had nothing to do with the fire or the summer’s heavy air.  “We’re having a baby?”  Sirius whispered quietly.

Claudia swallowed harshly.  “Yes.”  She whispered back; soft and uncertain.

“We’re….”  Sirius’ voice trailed off and Claudia closed her eyes, tears forming on her lashes as the sounds of her children’s joy were drowned out by her fears and insecurities and she should have known-

Then Sirius was laughing jubilantly; scooping her up and twirling her around and around as he babbled happily about having a baby and how he hadn’t thought it could happen because of his time in Azkaban and how excited he was and how he and the kids were going to make the best nursery ever for their newest addition.

Claudia’s eyes had snapped open the moment he had picked her up and she’d watched; utterly transfixed, as her husband smiled so incredibly vividly even as he cried tears of joy.  Then she was laughing- brightly, elatedly, and joyously.  Suddenly Sirius tripped and fell onto one of the blankets, landing on his back with her on top.  In the next moment she was surrounded by her children and small arms found her neck and waist, curling around her body affectionately and filling her soul with so much love she thought she might drown

Claudia pulled her family closer and allowed their excited babble to chase away all the doubt, all the uncertainty.  When she opened her eyes she met the warm gaze of her brother-in-law from across the fire and all she could do was laugh helplessly and smile wider despite feeling that her face might get stuck that way if she didn’t tone it down some.

“I love you Angel.”  Sirius whispered in her ear, his breath warm and his tone threaded with carnal promise.  “I love you so much more than I knew was even possible and I’m so excited that you’re blessing me with another child.”

Planet, I love this man.  Claudia thought as she tried to push away the urge to cry.  She tugged the children closer and rocked a bit deeper into Sirius’ embrace as she tried to compose herself, but it was a lost cause.  Tears coursed down her cheeks despite her laughter as his words rang through her mind over and over again.

Another child.  Not ‘our’ child-  just another child.  Claudia buried her face into the nearest head of hair- Cloud’s hair, incidentally- and she tried to compose herself.

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Chapter Text

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Regulus sighed as he carefully measured out doses of the new and improved pain reliever elixir he had finally perfected.

It was nearing the end of October, but Regulus was ready for spring already.

Despite hiking the energy rates thirty percent and making nuisances out of themselves by demanding outlandish food requests, the Shinra contingent had mostly kept to themselves.

Mostly.

Unfortunately- it would have been fortunate in just about any other scenario- Regulus’ reputation as an excellent Apothecary had seen his shop perused by more Shinra folk than he felt strictly comfortable with. 

The scientists were easy enough to deal with as their desire to speak with him or his staff waned whenever the Apothecary staff- minus Ifalna who had been  moved to doing bookwork at the Bank for the time being- began to wax poetic about quality over quantity.  If the scientists were being truly annoying Regulus would up the ante by spouting off lengthy opinions about soil composition and how it and the climate affected the quality of the herbs or how what the animals were fed and housed affected the quality of their harvested parts.  Regulus had a monologue or two prepared about monster parts and how those monsters were defeated affecting the quality of the collected ingredients, but thus far he had not needed to use them.

Given that the scientists were more interested in shortcuts and-or attempting to wheedle data out of him that would reveal the secrets to his improved or ‘new’ recipes, that sort of conversation would see them scurrying back to the Shinra mansion and not returning.  Well, the same scientists never returned more than once, but there seemed to be a staggering number of scientists in supply, as he had at least three new ones per week.

However, the escorts- which Regulus was uncomfortably assuming were the ‘Turks’ that he had heard tales of- were always silent.  Always watching.  Carefully observing him and his staff as they went about their business.  Their observant, weighty stares made Regulus feel like he was back at one of Mother’s Pureblood gatherings, with the Death Eaters waiting in the wings.  Or back at Hogwarts, caught between the judgmental stares of the Headmaster from his golden throne in the Great Hall and the vindictive gazes of the upper year Slytherins everywhere else, leaving him with nowhere to hide.  It didn’t matter that these escorts had never said a word to him, they made the hair on the back of his neck stand up and his hands twitch reflexively for his wand.

Compounding his anxieties was the knowledge that he did have something to hide.  Something- someones- that he would brave the depths of Tartarus to keep out of the clutches of power mad scientists playing designer.

Regulus had always been uncommonly even-tempered for a Black, but the thoughts of what would happen to his brother, his nephews, Aggie, and Ifalna and little Aerith should Shinra’s scientists take an interest in them made his blood boil perilously as rage pressed in around him.

I won’t let them.  Regulus thought savagely as he checked the labels he had made carefully before beginning to meticulously place them on the correct containers.  I’ll drop the whole damn mountain range on Shinra’s head and then raze Midgar down to its bedrock if they even think about it.

Claudia’s progressing pregnancy- though she and the baby were both healthy and hale at the moment- was a concern that kept the brothers up many a night, making contingency plans just in case things went wrong.  Aggie and Ifalna had sat in on more than a few of the meetings, but poor Claudia usually fell asleep against Sirius by the time the adults finally finished all their own work and could sit down to plot properly.

Aggie had her hands full trying to wrangle Nibelheim’s best interests out of the opposing Councilmembers, as the Treasurer and his supporters were trying ever they could to paint the Black-Longbottom family as the source for Shinra’s presence and the increased rates.  It was ludicrous, of course, but the Manning-Lockharts hadn’t stayed at the top as long as they had by playing fair, so Aggie and her supporters were constantly busy putting out fires and doing their level best to circulate the facts.  Unfortunately, fiction is usually far more tantalizing and scandalous than fact and thus the biggest obstacle of all: public opinion.  Fortunately the Black-Longbottoms had a lot of goodwill and stalwart support on their side, so they were slowly gaining ground in the metaphoric war of attrition, but it was still a constant, exhausting battle.

Even the children were affected.  Aerith was positively terrified to leave the house.  As a matter of fact she would only run to the inside of one of the greenhouses if the boys ran with her; well, one of the boys would have to hold the door open and the other two would run with her.  Aerith tried, she really did, but without the boys next to her and an open door to the greenhouse to focus on, otherwise she would get to the doorway and just stop short of stepping over it.  If she stood there long enough she would start to cry and then shake uncontrollably, sinking down to the floor and huddling in on herself until she either cried herself to sleep or was given a Calming Draught.  Even one of the adults being beside her didn’t help- she only felt really safe with the boys around her. 

That was not even taking into account the fact that Harry and Neville had been experiencing constant low-grade headaches for nearly a month.  Occasionally they would develop a low-grade fever and flu-like symptoms as well, but the headaches were constant.  It left the boys snappish and snippy despite them really trying to be patient. 

Poor Cloud was stuck trying to keep the peace and keep everyone occupied.

Regulus smiled a bit as he thought of the little blond boy.  Cloud had really come into his own in the last few months.  Cloud used to have a worrying tendency to blame himself for everything that went wrong around him, but with lots of support he had started to come around to a more healthy way of viewing things.   His actions in the past few months had really showcased his growth.  Sirius was so damn proud of him- the rest of the adults were as well, Regulus included- for being such a Planet-sent help during this crazy, stressful time.  Cloud helped diffuse situations and keep his siblings happy without blaming himself when one of them had a ‘moment’.  The blond would just ride the moment out and then help pick up the pieces, even when part of that was helping enforce whatever punishment had been assigned.  It was usually an extra chore- as the there really were extenuating circumstances that was causing the errant behavior- but Cloud would step in and help without taking over and coddling.

I’m pretty sure those kids are going to take over the world someday.  Regulus thought fondly as he picked up the case and headed upstairs.  Once he had reached the door to the lab he paused, turning back to look at the slowly simmering cauldron that he would need to come back and tend in a few hours.  Spring.  He reminded consolingly himself as he turned to leave.  I just need to make it until springThen I can make sure that Shinra won’t be able to pull this bloody shite again.

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“I’m so sorry!”  Harry cried into Cloud’s chest miserably.  “I don’t mean to…it just hurts!”

“It’s alright.  I know.”  Cloud soothed as best he could.  Harry was doing his best to meld with Cloud on his right and in the front while Neville had firmly attached himself to Cloud’s left side.  Aerith was curled up on her knees, facing him, with her head wedged under his chin in a position that had to be uncomfortable for her.

Cloud did his best to hold all three of them.

“It’s not alright!”  Neville sobbed into Cloud’s shoulder.  “I don’t like this!  I don’t like being bad!”

“I don’t like being such a bother.”  Aerith whispered wetly as she brought her hand up and fisted it in the hem of Cloud’s t-shirt.  “I want to play with Tifa again and go outside and-“  Aerith broke off as fresh sobs erupted from her mouth and she burrowed deeper into Cloud’s embrace.

“Ma’s having a baby and we can’t even take care of ourselves!”  Harry cried as he tried to snuggle further into his brother’s hold.  “And-and we’re always getting in trouble!  And you have to fix things!  And I don’t like it!”

“Hey.”  Cloud said gently, pressing a kiss to Aerith’s hair and briefly tightening his arms in order to reassure his upset siblings.  “I’m your big brother- yes, even you Aer, I braid your hair- and I know it’s not fun right now, but it won’t be like this forever.”  Cloud rested his chin on Aerith’s head and tipped his head to the side, so it was resting near Neville’s head.  “The baby is gonna be here in March.  The snows are due to start sometime in the next month.  Gran said that Shinra is going to be gone by the time deep winter hits, so we got less than a month of them skulking around to wait out.   And do you guys really think that Da and Uncle Reg are going to let those Shinra scientists have a lab so close to Ma and the baby?”  Cloud gave Harry his most deadpanned look and was immensely proud when the boy broke out into giggles- albeit watery, weak ones.  “The only reason that place was still standing to begin with was ‘cause Da and Uncle Reg didn’t think that those bastards would come back- they haven’t really been in Nibelheim since Midgar was built enough to house them.”

There was silence for a moment before Aerith started giggling.  Then the giggling progressed to full-out laughter and she started laughing so hard she clutched at her middle and gasped for air.  The boys- sans- Cloud- had started giggling with her- apparently it was infectious- and Cloud finally grew exasperated enough to ask.  “What in the name of the Planet is so funny?”

“Gran……dragon….”  Aerith gasped out after a few minutes of trying- and failing- to speak.

Cloud blinked a few times as his mind processed the abrupt change in topic but once his rather vivid imagination caught up to him, he joined in with the laughter.

Claudia watched the children from the shadow of the door with a fond, but unhappy smile.  I can’t wait for Shinra to be gone.  She thought viciously as Cloud reached up to wipe the drying tear-tracks off of Aerith’s flushed face.  I’m so very proud of all of them- especially Cloudy!  He’s been such a good big brother!- but I want them to be able to be my carefree babies for a little while longer. 

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Augusta was not thrilled with the plan, but she agreed that it needed to be carried out.

“Be safe.”  She told the brothers in resigned acceptance.  It was nearly one in the morning on the first day of February.  The snow was still thick and deep and there was the promise of another storm on the winds.  However, Regulus was convinced that now would be the best time for them to plant the Fyre Capsules in the Shinra mansion.

True to what they had said, Shinra had vacated Nibelheim not a week into November.  However, whatever they had been doing was either still at the mansion or left enough residue behind to keep the children feeling out-of-sorts.  Regulus’ improved elixirs helped a great deal, but everyone still wanted whatever the source of the corruption was gone for good.

In Nibelheim the second of February was a holiday.  The Earth-born residents likened it to the Norse holiday of Disting- which was a celebration of the waning of winter and a time for counting cattle and preparing the land for spring- but the actual Nibel name for it was the Feast of Astral Harmony. 

The name came from the peak of Mt Nibel being ‘aligned’ with brightest star in the wolf constellation, Fenrir.  In Wutai the key points of the constellation of Leviathan lined up with peaks of the Royal Pagoda.  According to Nibel lore Fenrir had gifted the mountain with wolves long ago, just as Leviathan gifted Wutai with the water serpents.  However a war broke out between the wolves and the serpents; a bloody, savage conflict that spanned many years and spilled over into the human settlements, causing them to plead for assistance from the Cetra.  The goddess, answering the prayers of the Cetra on behalf of the humans, descended from the sky and created to Sea of Leviathan as a boundary between Fenrir’s children and the offspring of Leviathan.  However, on the Nibel side of the Sea, stranded children of Leviathan were unable to return home and the goddess took pity on them, transforming them into Nibel Dragons, so that they might continue to live.  In Wutai the stranded children of Fenrir were transformed into the Thunderbirds.

What all of that lore meant to Regulus was that a disaster occurring would lend itself more towards retribution from Fenrir among the locals.  Mountain folk were a suspicious lot to begin with and that superstitious mentality would add more than a few layers of protection and misdirection on top of the lack of physical cues they would not be leaving.  Sure, Shinra would send out people to investigate- most likely Turks- but with the locals being in a tizzy from such an event occurring near or on an important holiday and the Black-Longbottoms being present at the Feast at the Town Hall, it would make tying the actual perpetrators to the crime nearly impossible.  Especially if it stormed like the almanac said it was supposed to and it took a while before Shinra found out and were able to send people to investigate.

However, none of that changed the fact that it was Regulus and Sirius going alone in the middle of the night with no one the wiser save for Augusta.  They had the Potter Invisibility Cloak and enchanted clothing as their fail-safes.

They prayed it would be enough.

“Right.”  Sirius said after a long moment of staring longingly towards the room where his wife was sleeping peacefully.  “So, we’ll be back later.  Story is the Runes were activated on the shops and we had to go investigate.  Ad libbing from there depending on when we finish?”  He trailed off questioningly, looking between his brother and Augusta a bit uncertainly.

“Precisely.”  Augusta replied firmly, her lips pressed into a firm line that spoke more of worry than disapproval.  “Be safe.”

“We’ll be home before you know it, Aggie.”  Regulus reassured her as he opened the backdoor and stepped out.

“You had better be.”  Augusta muttered under her breath as she watched the gentle glow of the brothers’ flashlights fade out into the infinite darkness.  There was thick cloud cover so there weren’t even any stars out tonight.  “You had better be.”  She repeated as she clutched her shawl tighter and took a moment to pray before resolutely turning her back on the newly-closed door and making her way towards the kitchen.

There was no way she would be able to get any sleep this night.  Might as well do some baking.

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Regulus and Sirius were exhausted, cranky, and generally over the entire undertaking by the time the lazy sun decided to shed its light on the mountainside.

Not that Sirius or Regulus could see aforementioned sun, as by that time they had cleared out all of the rooms of the mansion proper.  That had been more than enough excitement for the two of them, what with the monsters that had taken up residence over the past few months and the traps that had been left behind.

Sometimes a combination of the two.

Regulus had gathered up samples of that monstrosity that had come barreling out of a safe and nearly took Sirius’ head off.  The younger Black brother fully planned on studying the remains at such a time as he could appreciate the monster’s rather ingenious defenses and not be brassed off that the bloody thing existed.

Their path to victory was further compounded by the fact that they were layering Misdirection matrixes everywhere, just in case of audio or video surveillance that had survived the mansion’s power supply being fried by a cheerful Sirius and a lightning Materia.  Fortunately, they did not need to redraw the matrixes over and over- as they had been making them up all winter in preparation for this excursion- but the act of laying them down and giving them time to fully activate still hampered their efficiency a bit.

However, no matter how tired they were or how much they wanted this to be over already, both men agreed the extra protection was worth it.  They wanted to make the fire look like an act of vengeance from the protector of Mt Nibel, after all, so blatant clues of human interference would be a very bad idea.  They also had no idea if the- possible- surveillance equipment was backed up on at an independent station, so absurdly cautious was the name of the metaphoric game.

Meticulously combing through any written information they found by names Ifalna had noted to be scientifically sound- like her late husband, Gast Faremis- also took up a decent amount of time.  Books, papers or other miscellaneous bits of information that came from seemingly decent sources were secreted away into an enchanted satchel.  Everything else was primed for immolation.

Thus, by the time the sun had finally risen the brothers had triumphantly located the entrance to the labs that lay under the mansion itself and descended down into the belly of the beast.

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“I’m sorry, Reggie.”  Sirius gasped out between his ragged sobs.  “It just-I can’t- I’m so sorry, Reggie….”

“Sirius!”  Regulus snapped, grasping his brothers arms firmly and forcing Sirius to look him in the eye.  “It’s alright.”  Regulus told his brother calmly one he had Sirius’ attention.  “Go back to the top of the stairs and circle around and make sure we didn’t miss anything.  Set up a watch.  Break things.  Plant extra Fyre Capsules.  I can do this myself.”

Sirius’ gaze turned haunted, despite the tears streaming down his face.  “You shouldn’t-“

“I did not spend nearly half a decade in Azkaban Maximum Security Wing and thus have most of my natural mental defenses eroded.”  Regulus said firmly, pulling his brother to his feet and firmly turning Sirius towards the exit.  “Go.”

Sirius had made it through about half of the labs before he completely broke down.  Regulus was affected by the stench of decay, death, and misery as well, but Sirius had been white as a sheet and trembling before they even made it halfway down the stairs. 

Actually, given the amount of effort it was taking to keep his own metal shields shored up, Regulus was damn impressed that Sirius had lasted as long as he had.

Especially considering what was inside the recently-abandoned labs.

Pod after pod of eerily glowing, vicious green fluid- because even thought it was presumably Liquid Lifestream it looked so very, very different from the Liquid Lifestream in the Pool or the Springs- with bodies floating helplessly inside them.  Some were entirely unmoving, save for the light bobbing of their bodies as the fluid moved around them, others were crazed, beating at the thick quasi-glass shields in various stages of coherency.  There were some who seemed nearly lucid and then others who were more akin to a rabid animal than a human being.

Regulus and Sirius were not sure what to do or even what they could do.

The Planet’s presence all around them was wholly despondent.  Not anything like the gentle humming that usually buzzed around the edges of their awareness. 

Her shameful grief at Her helplessness to interfere.  The blind wrath of a mother denied the comfort of her children.  The anguished screams of a victim after their virtue was stolen from them without care, without cause.

It made the brothers hurt, deep inside their souls.  Not just hurt, but ache.  The sort of ache that throbs, propagates, and eventually rends tender hearts asunder with its all-consuming savagery.   Like a dull knife settled against a person’s neck or a jagged, rusty nail slicing through the flesh of a person’s extremities, the ache built with each new grisly discovery, with every inch of virtue lost.

To know that people were taking the lifeblood of the Planet- a realized form of the thoughts, dreams, and love of all those who had come before and then returned- and twisting that pure essence into something so blatantly evil.  It cut, tore, and ripped at their hearts, their minds to know that there was the capacity for that sort of treachery in the world.  It made them livid- rage filled, really; the sort of fury that swells and crests and shatters; a righteous fury- when they thought of how such depravity had persisted so close to their precious family.

(Some of the bodies were about the same size as-

No.  Don’t think about it.

-the children.  Who were more than likely stumbling down to breakfast.   Teasing each other.  Laughing.  Living.

Stop.  Just stop.)

Therefore, when Regulus uncovered the man in the coffin with the guilt complex, he was far from sympathetic.  It had been nearly an hour after he had sent Sirius back topside and he just wanted to go home.  Regulus did not care about the man’s past, his failures, or his personal history.  Regulus either wanted him to get the fuck out of the damn coffin or be prepared to burn, because Regulus did not give a Bowtruckle’s knob by that point in time.

“You bastard.”  Regulus seethed, the hood of his cloak thrown back as his stormy blue-grey eyes narrowed to slits.  “You arrogant bastard.  What good is locking yourself within your own nightmares going to do the woman you loved?  To the son she couldn’t save?”  Regulus stepped forward and fisted his hands into the front of the shocked man’s red cloak and twisted the fistful of material harshly.  “What good is this atonement doing anyone but you!?”  He spat, his face not an inch from the man’s own.  “If you truly wanted forgiveness you’d do something.”

“I am a danger-“  The man started to say, his voice low and rumbling as something inhuman tinged his tone.

“Bullshit.”  Regulus snarled releasing the man and stepping back a few paces, a sneer planted firmly on his lips.  “Fucking bullshit.  My brother used to be able to shapeshift.”  Regulus was not feeling charitable enough to accept his logical thought of ‘to a dog’.  “And he still fought.  Even when he had to turn his back on his own family- on me- my brother pushed forward.  Then when they all left- either by death or desertion- it was my coward father’s plan that saved us.  Saved me.  When I was set to die because there was no way out and no correct decisions.  So spare me your self-serving platitudesThe only thing you’re doing is feeling sorry for yourself.”  Regulus clenched his teeth together and turned to leave.  “If that’s really what you want, then stay in there and burn.  I don’t bloody care”

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Vincent Valentine blinked slowly as the door to the room he had been imprisoned within slammed shut, leaving him once again in total darkness.

That had been….unexpected.

Vincent blinked a few more times before shoving the cover off the coffin he had called ‘home’ for so long- causing it to clatter to the floor with a rather resounding clang- and gracefully jumped out, smoothly landing on his feet.  Vincent’s red eyes surveyed the room as he thought carefully about his next course of action.

Part of him wanted to pick up the coffin lid and go back to sleep.  Back to his nightmares- because at least he could still see her in them; even if she was just tormenting him- and his solitude.

But the rest of him was primed.  Spiked with the sort of adrenaline he used to associate with tricky missions.  Excited and interested for the first time since he had discovered that the woman he loved more than anything only saw him as the shade of a man Vincent had thought he had long since left behind. 

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He had never told Lucrecia that she had called him by his father’s name that time they were together in the shade of his favorite tree. How she had sighed ‘Grimoire’ and Vincent had known

How he had still pushed forward with their relationship- because being second fiddle was better than not being in the band at all.  Then had come the afternoon he had walked in to her lab while she had been going over old data- because they were supposed to go on a date that afternoon- and she had known that he knew about her connection to Grimoire Valentine and she had shut him out. 

Out of her bed, out of her mind, out of her heart entirely- and he had allowed her to do so, even when he knew it hurt her.  Because he was angry at her.  Angry at his father.  Angry at the world because she-

That was Vincent’s sin.  Allowing her to run to Hojo because he had pushed too far, even when he had known it wasn’t him that Lucrecia was in love with.

Then Hojo had shot him when Vincent had gone to take the vile man to task- because Lucrecia was sick, and her child in danger and that was entirely unacceptable.   Then it was all a haze of pain, blood, and screaming until he woke up in the basement, surrounded by all of the other sinners, as a beast.

A demon.

Lucrecia and her child were both gone.  One forever and the other on the other side of the world in the possessive hands of a mad scientist.

So Vincent had gone to sleep.  Had closed his red eyes and stayed in the Grimoire-inspired outfit he was fairly certain Lucrecia had dressed him in- right down to the ridiculous shoes his father had once worn as a joke.  

Grimoire had worn them as a joke to his sister’s wedding, when the woman had married Lestat Vidal, before Vincent had even been born, but the shoes had been a staple story at all of the family dinners, because she had never fully forgiven her brother for breaking the dress code she had set.  She had once told Vincent that she had named her son’ Verdot’ to irritate her brother, but then the man had started dressing in wine-red just to turn the joke back against her.  She found it to be especially hilarious because Vincent had ended up with red eyes, like her mother- Vincent’s grandmother.

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The man’s words had been harsh and emotionally-charged, but that wasn’t what had captivated Vincent.

It was the look in his eyes.  The fire that had flickered behind the silvery-blue depths.

The man’s eyes had not been that of a civilian but those of a soldier.  One who had walked through the fires, been burned, and then had tamed the flames despite the scars they had seared into his skin.

Vincent wanted to see what made the man tick- what gave him the strength to carry on and accept such a grim duty as cleansing the Shinra mansion.

Against his will, Vincent’s mouth kicked up in the slightest curl of a smirk.

All this pondering about fire and I’m about to leave so I don’t burn.  He thought as he took his first step towards the door.  What a delightful hypocrite I’ve become.

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Regulus was standing in front of a tank that held the a little girl who seemed to be about the same age as Aerith when Vincent made his presence known.

“So what do you plan on doing?”  Vincent asked, his deep voice void of inflection as he leaned against the doorway to the procedure room.

“I take it you are somewhat enhanced?”  Regulus asked evenly, his eyes trained on the tank in front of him resolutely.  “Meaning you have more strength than typically accessible at your disposal?”

“Yes.”

“My brother is upstairs.”  Regulus said as he turned to meet the man’s steady red gaze full-on.  “It is supposed to snow again soon, and we need to be present at the Feast tomorrow.  You, however, have no pressing matters to attend to.   If I supply you with the materials, will you take those we deem…salvageable into the upper caves and keep them comfortable until a better plan can be formulated?”

“Upper caves?”  Vincent asked curiously as he came to stand directly in front of Regulus.

“Yes.  They are a set of caves that my brother and I planned on utilizing this next summer for some of our more volatile projects.”  Seeing the man’s face darken, Regulus hurried to explain.  “I am an Apothecary by trade and my brother and I have a keen interest in using Materia Shards as an alternate energy source.  However, some of the projects are too risky to attempt at our home, so we located and cleared out the caves in our spare time.  It’s just been….hectic, lately.”

Vincent held Regulus’ gaze for a long, hard moment but then he nodded slightly in acceptance and asked.  “So, how do you propose we accomplish this.  Also, what about the Reactor?”

“What do you mean ‘what about the Reactor’?”  Regulus snapped somewhat irritably, running a hand through his hair tiredly.  “It supplies power to the entire town!”

“The Reactor-“  Vincent elucidated slowly, as if speaking to a small child.  “-houses whatever it was that Shinra excavated from the Northern Crater.  The Ancient.”  Regulus sucked in a sharp breath and his hands clenched into fists, but he did not interrupt, so Vincent continued.  “I was not privy to all the details, but I am reasonably certain that if it is still there Shinra will likely either rebuild this lab or simply relocate the Ancient. I remember there being a lot of talk of how it was too risky for it to be moved, but that was a long time ago and technology has surely evolved in the time I was sleeping.  If you truly want to accomplish something, then the Reactor needs to burn with the mansion.”

Regulus grit his teeth, let his eyes slip shut, and tipped his head back as he weighed his options.  What truly made him sick to his stomach was the knowledge that now it was not even a question of if he should destroy the Reactor, but rather how he was going to respond to the fallout.  No matter that some people might die from the cold- as it was still winter- but his family came first.  Regulus felt slightly sick, but he knew he had already made his decision, and dithering would not do anyone any favors.

I’m sorry.  He thought to those who would suffer from this decision as he straightened himself and looked back towards coffin-man resolutely.  I’m sorry that I have to do this but I pray you don’t forgive me because I do not regret it.  “Let’s go touch base with Sirius- my brother- and then we will flesh out the plan.  I’m Regulus by the way, Regulus Black.”

“Vincent Valentine.”  The red-cloaked man said as he fell into step bedside Regulus.

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Chapter Text

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Sirius marveled at Regulus’ inner strength sometimes.  He wasn’t even jealous of it, just in awe.

Sometimes Sirius would wonder if it would not have been better for Sirius to have gone to Slytherin and Regulus to Gryffindor.  It would never have worked, he knew logically, not back then, not with how things had been.  Yet sometimes Regulus showed courage enough to put a whole pride of lions to shame and it made Sirius so very, fiercely proud of his little brother that he just wanted to burst.

This is what happens when the best of the Black family comes together inside one person.  This is the best of us, personified.  He thought as he watched his brother flit around the cave system gracefully, applying Runic matrixes to things while he and Vincent set up beds and did other odds-and-ends things. 

Vince- that was what Sirius was calling the man, no matter how many glares it netted him- had taken to the idea of Runic matrixes fairly well.  Well, as far as Sirius could tell, at any rate. 

Sirius had trudged back down the mountain to get the supplies from home while Vincent and Regulus had returned to the labs to do the culling.  

That wasn’t really the right words for it, but the fact of the matter was most of the people who had been left behind had mutated beyond recognition or had gone completely, clinically insane and had to be put out of their misery.  There were a few who were lightly coherent, but most were either completely mad or comatose, from what Regulus had said.  The ones who were unresponsive to external stimuli- Regulus’ words, not his- but still breathing were removed from the tanks.  They all needed baths, but time was of the essence, so that would have to be done once everything was settled.  Right now they were preparing the caves, hopefully well enough that any investigators would miss them.

Of course, Reggie was a paranoid little genius, so the little makeshift infirmary was in the middle of the little system, with the outer ends being set up to look like the project spots they would eventually be used for.  The middle section was being layered with Runic matrixes and just about every other pseudo-enchantment they could think of to simply seem to be solid stone. 

Of course, in order to confidently sell the fiction, Vincent needed enough supplies to keep himself fed, along with anyone else who might or might not wake up and decide to join the party. 

It would have been a great deal easier to add in assistance from Aggie, but they really wanted her to have plausible deniability for the Reactor bit.

So Sirius had snuck into Regulus’ lab at home and swiped all of the potions that Regulus had listed. 

The cold was a major concern, but the matrixes would actually alleviate that to some degree, once they were fully charged.  Most of the matrixes the brothers had taken with them had been charging off the ambient energy of the Black-Longbottom home.  However, these new ones would take a little bit to fully charge up and even then they would not be enough to do more than ward off the very worst of the chill.  Fortunately, despite being failures in providing electricity, Sirius and Cloud had managed to make a Materia Shard Heat Source.

They were still working on their naming capabilities. 

The Heat Source was more like a smokeless campfire or fireplace, but it was stable as long as it was treated with respect and not given flammable things to eat, so it should be fine.

In theory.

Sirius had still provided Vince with a bangle full of ice-natured Materia just to be on the safe side.

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The connecting tunnel from the mansion to the Reactor obviously needed to go as well, but Regulus did not want to set the Fyre Capsules until after they made sure the Reactor would be fully destroyed.

“I’m really ready for this to be over.”  Sirius sighed from his right, giving Regulus a sad little smile as he tried to dredge up some of his usual cheer.

Regulus gave his brother a small smile for his efforts.  “Me too, Siri.  We’re almost there.  Then we can go home.  Maybe you can event talk Audi into taking a nap with you.”

“That’s an idea!”  Sirius said brightly, a grin stealing over his face as he thought about his lovely Angel.

“Audi?”  Vincent asked curiously, his eyes tracking every movement the brothers made.  They made a rather fascinating duo, after all.

“My wife.”  Sirius cheered with a grin as they neared the door that Vincent said would lead to the reactor.  “She’s amazing!  She’s also pregnant and about to have a baby.”

“Your first?”

“Ah, nope!”  Sirius announced cheerfully, gritting his teeth against the encroaching migraine that he could feel forming outside his mental shields.  A quick glance netted him a terse nod from Regulus, so apparently something was up and it was not just Sirius’ exhaustion talking.  “We have three- well, four really- others.”

“They’re not all the fruits of Sirius’ loins.”  Regulus broke into the conversation dryly as they stopped at the door and began prepping to move past it.  “But they are very much all his children.  They delight in giving me heart attacks.”

Sirius’ explanations took them passed the door and into the heart of the Reactor.  The metal skeleton stairs were somewhat treacherous, and the continually swelling migraine that the brothers were suffering from did nothing for their temperaments.  However with Vincent’s directions they were able to navigate the place fairly well. 

They had been attacked by several suspiciously humanoid-type monsters by the time they came to the inner sanctum of the Reactor- where the Liquid Lifestream was supposedly refined and converted into electricity.  Vincent could see fairly well thanks to his inner demons and Hojo-or-Lucretia inspired enhancements, but both Black brothers were incredibly grateful for their flashlights and slightly Planet-enhanced senses.

There were more pods- more people twisted into monsters by madmen- and they were somberly disposed of even as the group was unexpectedly attacked a few more times.

There was a raised dais with a long pipe coming out of it that seemed to be some strange hybrid of a shrine and a processing operation in the heart of the Reactor.  A strange bluish liquid illuminated the dais and there was a vaguely humanoid looking woman- well, the figure seemed to have feminine-looking breasts from their point of view- with a metal mask at the very center.  As if she was some sort of guest of honor or something.

Something about her made their blood freeze even as it roared.  As if their very essence rejected her.

“Reggie, my head hurts so badly I can barely remember how to breathe.”  Sirius grunted as they stood on the platform just under the strange dais.  It was just the brothers, Vincent had been left behind a few platforms ago as he was straining to control his ‘houseguests’, as Sirius referred to them.

“Mine….too.”  Regulus panted out, his hair slicked with sweat and monster remains.

“Think that’s….her?”  Sirius asked through the pain, dropping to his knees as the pain and his exhaustion threatened to overwhelm him.

“I hope so.”  Regulus grunted, digging deep and finding the last dregs of his energy as struggled to his feet through sheer willpower and took a step forward.  “Almost there.”  He panted as he took another step.  It was one of the most difficult things he had ever done.  Regulus momentarily entertained the rather amusing thought of likening what he was doing to walking across the floor of the ocean.  It felt morbidly accurate, given the way the way his muscles groaned and screamed in protest even over the cacophony of racket inside his head. 

This is for Sirius.  Step.  For Aggie.  Step.  For Harry

Regulus staggered a little and nearly fell- there was nothing under him; save for the Liquid Lifestream many, many feet below him.  Possibly a few steel support beams.

Regaining his balance after a brief struggle, Regulus gritted his teeth and clutched the strap of the bag with the Fyre Capsules in it so tightly his knuckles turned white.  For Neville.  Step, he was almost at the masked shrine now, the lights from the nearby control panel blinking mockingly as the sounds of the equipment’s quiet operations irritated his migraine.  Regulus wondered if his ears were bleeding.  For Cloud

Almost there, just a few more steps.  For Ifalna.  A bright lance of agony seared through his mind but he shored up his mental shields and bared his teeth.  For Aerith.

He was on the dais now and wasted no time in sinking to his knees and opening the pouch.  For everyone who has been lost to the Calamity From the Skies.  His vision was dangerously blurry and he tasted blood in his mouth, but he doggedly commenced placing the Capsules in methodically placed increments.

Overkill increments, but increments all the same.

As he worked his migraine intensified.  It felt as if his mind was splintering, scattering into a thousand shards that would never be put back together.  Yet Regulus pushed through it with a single-minded tenacity that would have made his Mother weep.

The younger Black brother placed nearly four times as many Capsules than were strictly necessary, emptying the bag completely, despite knowing they needed to save some for the tunnel.  Regulus was so far exhausted and ‘ow my head hurts’ that he did not give the slightest bit of a damn

Regulus staggered to his feet and turned away from the strange shrine.  He was halfway down the pipe when he slipped, pitching precariously to the left and slipping off the pipe with a startled yelp.

The sound had barely escaped his mouth when a hand snapped out to grab onto his wrist and he found himself staring up into Sirius’ concerned eyes.  “’m tired, Siri.”  Regulus mumbled as his body began to shut down, his eyes slowly slipping shut against his will.  “’anna go home.”

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Sirius was once again in awe of his baby brother.  His ribs protested as he put more weight on them- he absently noted that one of them might have cracked- but Sirius ignored all of the pain his body was whining about and focused solely on the limp form of his baby brother.

“I’ve got you, Reggie.  I’ve got you.”  Sirius kept reiterating over and over as he slowly but surely hauled his brother up.  There was more than one heart-stopping moment wherein Sirius feared that Regulus was going to slip from his grasp, but eventually Reggie was safely in Sirius’ arms and out of immediate danger.  “Let’s go home, Reggie.”  Sirius muttered as he picked up his brother’s exhausted form and began to carefully make his way back down the various stairs and walkways of the Reactor.  “Let’s go home.”

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“It’s so good to see you!”  Steph cheered excitedly as Regulus entered the Town Hall, his arms laden with goodies that the family had spent the better part of the day making.

“I did not realize you were so attached to my presence.”  Regulus teased his second apprentice lightly.  “I shall endeavor to be more accommodating in the future.”

Steph burst out laughing- well used to her Master’s dry wit- even as she whisked some of his burden away.  “You’re an ass, Master Regulus!”

“Your student knows you so well.”  Sirius faux-sniffled from just behind Regulus.

Regulus stomped on his brother’s foot- causing Sirius to yelp and nearly drop his burdens, which earned him a scolding from Claudia- and elegantly flounced away.

Not that Regulus would ever actually admit to flouncing, but he might have added a pinch too much caffeine to his newest recipe of Pepper-Up.

Soon it seemed the entire town was inside the Hall.  The women were gossiping and setting the tables, while most of the men were playing cards and bantering mostly good-naturedly.  The children were either underfoot or playing in groups on the sidelines and everything was warm, cozy, and generally pleasant.

Dinner was pronounced ‘ready’ at half past six and by half-past seven everyone’s bellies were full.  The Schoolhouse then stole the show by setting up the stage and performing the yearly ‘Ballad of Fenrir, Guardian of Nibel’ play.

The play had just reached the mid-point- the part where the humans contacted the Cetra- when the lights shuddered.  They flared really brightly for a moment and then there was complete darkness.

Then the explosion sounded from outside.

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The citizens stood outside, near the town fountain, staring out in transfixed horror as the mountain glowed green. 

Well, the flames that were billowing out from the mountain glowed green, but parts of the fire were white, red, and blue.

“That’s….up by the reactor.”  Someone muttered in horror and that was all it took for the mob mentality to assert itself.

What are we going to do?!  Without the Reactor, we have no power!”

“I always said that that Reactor was a bad thing!  And look!  Fenrir’s done wiped it out!”

“My daughter has been ill!  What is going to happen to her now?!”

“This is all those Blacks’ fault!  Coming’ in here with their new ideas!”

“Oh, hush!  If it’s anyone’s faults, it’s those Lockharts!”

“Enough!”  Augusta roared in the wake of the sharp whistle Sirius let out.  “Now that I have you attention.”  The stately lady began, glaring her loudest detractors into silence.  “Sherriff Bradford?”

“Ma’am?”

“I’m going to need your assistance.”  Augusta stated briskly.  “Now.  Who here has a home with the capability of running on wood, coal, or oil?”

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The next two weeks after the ‘Vengeance of Fenrir’ were pure chaos.

Well, more like pure hell.

There were some bright spots, however.  With a disaster as impactful as the Reactor blowing the town had come together under Augusta’s firm, calm leadership.  There had been some dark moments, when her detractors had attempted to actually overthrow her, but Augusta’s staunch refusal to be cowed ended up solidifying her position as the leader of Nibelheim.

Families were crammed together in houses that actually had heat and Sirius had tentatively offered up his Heat Sources as a way to hopefully prevent water lines from freezing and bursting. 

Sirius had been hesitant because the Sources were not fully tested, but he had been convinced to offer them to people by the rest of his family.  He did refuse to take any form of payment for them, however.  Officially it was because he did not feel comfortable with profiting from such a terrible event.

Unofficially….well, he knew it was his fault.

Regulus was even worse, however.  Working himself into the ground making everything he could think of that could be helpful and useful.

It came to a head the day he was brewing in his lab at the Apothecary shop and turned to grab an ingredient only to pass out mid-turn.  Thankfully Ashley had been there and had prevented Regulus from ending up face-first in his cauldron, but that had been the day that Augusta had put her foot down about his behavior.

“I don’t want to know the details.”  Augusta told him sternly from her place at his bedside.  “But I know you Regulus.  I know your mind, and more importantly I know your heart.”  Her wise eyes had pierced right through him without even needing to be told the whole story.  “We will survive this and be stronger for it.  Because you had the courage and the grace to make the decisions that you made.”  Augusta’s eyes had gentled and she had reached forward to enfold him in a warm hug.  “Your nieces and nephews are terribly worried.”  She whispered softly.  “Lay the blame where it belongs and come back to us.”

Thankfully just a few hours after the explosion the storm that had been promised swept through.  It made certain things-like relocating and all the other people-oriented things- more difficult, but it had helped freeze the Mako that had been spewing out of the remains of the Reactor.  The quick scabbing of the Mako-filled wound also prevented too much of the wildlife from being infected. 

Once the storm had passed a major concern was for the water supply, but thankfully when the melt happened it started further up.  This meant that as that snow and ice turned to water some of the loose rock- and boulders that were more like hunk-of-mountain than simple rocks- came with it, and by the time March rolled around the area where the Reactor had stood was fairly filled in with rocks.  Well enough that the entire former Reactor site was a giant plane of mostly solid rock.

This also had the added happy effect of pushing the Mako ice and snow down into the earth.  So while some of the melt was seriously tainted with Mako from the explosion, it ended up being far, far less than what it could have been.

Of course there were still some Mako-crazed monsters popping up here and there that needed to be dealt with before they bred or attacked the town itself, so Sirius had been taking some of the sturdier village men out monster hunting.  All in all, so the townsfolk were incredibly busy as spring finally began to settle.

Naturally, that was when Shinra showed up to investigate.

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Augusta sighed tiredly as she watched the Shinra delegation roll into town from the window of her Mayor office, already feeling the headache from the oncoming verbal clashes.  She took a moment to send up a thankful prayer to whoever might be listening that the rest of the family had departed for the Canyon already.

She, Ifalna, and Claudia had finally gotten the whole story from Regulus and Sirius not a week ago.  Oh, Augusta was certain that there had been details that had been skipped, but the women now knew enough to better understand the strange sense of guilt the men had been experiencing.  As well as a better understanding of just where Regulus’ mysteriously disappearing nutrient-type potions were disappearing to.

However, with the clearing of the trails they knew that Shinra would soon be coming to call.  There had been helicopters and such flying over on the particularly clear days, but Nibel weather was nothing to be taken lightly.

The brothers had had the man that had been held prisoner at the mansion- Vincent, if she was recalling correctly- emptying the satchels of anything mansion-related inside the little safe space in the middle part of the caves.  None of the ‘rescues’ were awake and-or coherent yet, but there were signs of improvement.

“We should go to the Canyon.”  Claudia had said, late one night when the children had already fallen asleep.  The blonde’s hands had been planted firmly on her hips and her expression had brooked no argument, though her very pregnant belly had made her look rather cute overall.

Augusta smiled as her heart sang with an exultant sort of joy as she remembered that her grandchildren had been healing since the night the mountain burned green.  They smiled extra bright, laughed time and again, and seemed to love each other even more fiercely than before.

“Think about it!”  Claudia had barked out sharply, her voice rising to be heard over the protests.  “We have a legitimate reason to head to the Canyon- alternate power sources.  Even if Shinra decides to build a new Reactor, that would take years.  And they won’t be doing that until they know for sure what went wrong with this one.”  Claudia’s eyes had gentled at the terror-struck look painted across Sirius’ face.  “Look.”  She said gently, reaching out and grasping her husband’s hand firmly. “This is my second pregnancy, and we all know that Lana is not only Regulus’ unofficial apprentice, but she’s been through childbirth, too.  It would keep her and Aerith and the rest of the children away from Shinra’s eyes while they investigate and I’d be plenty safe.”

“We could hide the victims on a cart, since the Chocobo could go.  Cobalt wouldn’t be able to pull a cart, but Emerald and Juniper could.”  Ifalna added after a moment of thick silence.

“I don’t like it.”  Sirius muttered unhappily as he gently ran the pad of his thumb over Claudia’s knuckles.  “But, it is a solid plan.”

Regulus had stayed, wanting to make the family’s absence look less suspicious, but he sent Ashley in his stead as a way for the quiet Stanley to build up some confidence before the Exams in Junon.

Still.  Augusta thought as she straightened her spine and put all of her breeding, training, and experience into play as she transitioned into ‘Mayor Longbottom’.  I hope that everything goes well.

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“Colby is such a baby!”  Aerith giggled into Cloud’s side as she and the blond sat on the back of the cart, their legs swinging idly.  They were entertaining themselves by watching the young Chocobo bounce around the grassy field they were traveling through like an excited little kid.  Neville and Harry were the ones currently on ‘baby duty’ and so they were responsible for ensuring Colby did not wander too far from the two-cart caravan.

Aerith tilted her head back to look at the sky, shifting her floppy-brimmed hat as she did so.

“Don’t move it too much, munchkin.”  Cloud teased her gently as he tapped on the hat until it shaded her face.  “You don’t want to end up looking like a lobster.”

Cloud was dressed in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt- like the other children- but Aerith was wearing a cute, spaghetti-strap styled sundress that Ashley’s sisters had snuck into his luggage to give to her.  There had been four of them altogether- two with t-shirt styled sleeves and two with the spaghetti-strap styled ones.

It had been love at first sight for Aerith.

Normally she stole clothes from her brothers, but there had been something about the dresses that had drawn her in.  It really was not all that surprising as most of the women of the house usually wore dresses when not needing occasion-specific clothing.  At the same time, Tifa was the only girl Aerith’s age that she had regularly spent time around- Tifa’s playdates still had not been reinstated, though Gran promised she was working on it- and Tifa preferred to wear shorts, so Aerith had just gotten used to dressing like the boys most of the time.

However, something about the soft, somewhat worn but cheerfully pattered dresses had called to Aerith and she had been wearing them exclusively throughout their trip.

Her new sundress habit certainly did not spare her from the wide-brimmed floppy hats that everyone had been issued, though.

“You don’t think I‘d look good as a lobster?”  Aerith tried to pout at Cloud, only to burst out into giggles when he reached out and tapped her nose.

“Pull the other one.”  Cloud told her with a grin.  “I’m building up a resistance to your pouting.”

“Lies!”  Aerith parried cheerfully.  “You can never resist my pouts!”  She flexed her left arm and laid her free hand over her bicep as she winked at him.  “Never!”

Cloud rolled his eyes at her but grinned.  “Let a man dream, alright?”

Aerith grinned impishly. “There’s a man around here?  Where?”

Munchkin!”

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“So you won’t mind if we poke around a bit?”  The man in the glasses was saying with a smarmy smile.  He was not a wholly unattractive man, but Augusta had heard enough about Professor Hojo to last her a lifetime.

“Of course not.”  Augusta replied serenely after taking a sip of her tea.  “The Reactor failure has been quite traumatic for the citizen of Nibelheim.  I am most interested to see the results of this investigation.”

“Failure?”  The man sneered condescendingly at her as he rose from his chair and attempted to loom over her.  “From what I hear it has brought great fortune to your family.  Perhaps-“

“I would choose my words wisely if I were you.”  Augusta interrupted his rant smoothly, ice coating her words and a thin smile on her lips as she rose from her chair to glare balefully at the interloper in her domain.  “My family has incurred great personal cost due to this malfunction.”  The emphasis on the last word left no doubt to those in the room as to whom she felt was responsible for the loss of the Reactor.  “We have done our utmost to support our fellow townspeople during this time of crisis.”

“We understand that miss-“  One of the ‘escorts’ began only to be cut off by Miriam Hester, who was sitting to Augusta’s right.

“Mayor Longbottom, if you please.”  The Schoolhouse matron said politely, but there was steel in her tone that had been refined in her thirty-plus year career as the sole educator of Nibelheim.

“Of course.”  The blonde escort- a woman with short hair and a firmly professional attitude, Augusta noted approvingly- placated diplomatically.  “My colleague meant no disrespect.  However, would you be willing to answer a few questions about the absence of your family?”

Augusta arched an imperious eyebrow at the woman.  “What is there to tell?”  She asked shortly.  “My grandsons, their Godfather and his wife who is expecting, along with my great-niece, my grand-niece, and Master Apothecary Black’s apprentice are all currently enroute to Cosmo Canyon.  They plan to inquire about alternate energy sources as well as hire some craftsmen to return and assist in some repairs that need doing due to the failure of Shinra Company’s Mako Reactor which supplied power to the entire town.  Young Apprentice Stanley will likely be exchanging some of his expertise in lieu of monetary payment, as the Canyon prefers to trade services that benefit all instead of merely being handed money.  My great-niece also has considerable skills as an Apothecary and a Nurse.  My grandson’s Godfather is a Carpenter with a Writ of Endorsement from a renowned Master Carpenter, so he was sent as our emissary, though he did not wish to leave his heavily pregnant wife behind and miss the birth of their child.  As his wife is quite a talented homemaker and bookkeeper, it made a certain measure of sense to have her accompany him. The children accompanied them so as not to miss the birth of the baby and to assist in message-running.” 

Augusta’s voice never wavered, it was polite and conversational, but her tone brooked no argument as she stared down the woman, unflinchingly.

“Which is all well and good, but as I understand it your home escaped unscathed.”  The man interjected snidely.  “Convenient, hm?”

“I hope you are not implying what I believe you are implying.”  Augusta said coldly, a smile that had made lesser men tremble stretching across her lips.  “Because if you are attempting to accuse me- and my family- of being anything less than victims of this catastrophic failure then I assure you, Professor, this meeting will have taken a darker turn.” 

Augusta did not fear this man.  He could attempt to take her away, but her boys would rip him to shreds even if Hojo managed to kill her.

Not that the bumbling buffoon would make it that far.  Augusta Longbottom had been born a Bones.

Augusta’s confidence was also secure in the arrays that the Black-Longbottoms had been weaving into the natural ‘ley lines’ around Nibelheim since shortly after their arrival.  Once Shinra had left last winter many more new arrays had gone into place.  Since the Reactor had been taken out the arrays had been collecting power at an accelerated rate.  She would love to see what would happen should Shinra decide to harm one of hers.  The arrays had been based heavily on Old House traditions- meaning, we can kick around our own, but heaven help the outsider fool who tries to do the same!

More ice seeped into her voice as she continued.  “I am sure the Guild would enjoy hearing of your unprofessional manner.”  The woman’s eyes flashed with satisfaction as the man began to falter.  “Were you not aware that the Longbottom Bank and Trust was rated Platinum by the Guild?  That Master Apothecary Black has been invited to join the Apothecary League as one of their ten Apothecary Grand Masters, despite his youth?”

Augusta went in for the kill.

“Now, I would appreciate it if you and your team-“  She gestured to the two tense, wary escorts.  “-would stop wasting my time and go out there and investigate.”  Augusta seated herself gracefully and picked up her pen as she turned back to the paperwork on her desk.  “And one more thing.”  She purred as the man reached the door, causing him to spin around and face her angrily.  “Our family home had not been added to the Shinra grid yet mostly due to its age and my personal preference for energy sources that are under my direct control.” 

Augusta’s already sharp grin turned a touch feral as she watched the outraged flush creep further up the man’s neck as he whirled back around and stormed out, his escorts following after him much more sedately.

“Damn Aggie.”  Miriam cackled gleefully once the front door to the Civil Services business office closed a few moments later.  “That was beyond brilliant!”

“Thank you, dear.”  Augusta said with her feral smile firmly in place.

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“It’s so hot.”  Harry groaned miserably as he and the others sat in the shade, taking a break from helping Sirius lead up materials.

“Right?”  Neville gasped out from beside him after he finished taking a long drink of his water.  “I miss winter in Nibelheim already.”

“Ughn.”  Cloud moaned miserably, his face buried in Harry’s exposed stomach.  “Clouds evaporate in this kind of heat.”  He groaned pitifully.

“Poor Cloudy.”  Harry said with a laugh as Neville tipped some of their cool water onto Cloud’s sweat-soaked head, earning a happy sigh from the disappearing blond.

Aerith’s laughter drew their gazes and they all grinned as their foster sister walked alongside Elder Hargo’s eldest granddaughter, Melina.  Melina was almost fourteen to Aerith’s newly-turned ten, but both girls were quite interested in growing things and that common interest bridged their age-gap nicely.  Part of the bargain that had been struck was Sirius assisting in the construction and-or remodeling the Canyon’s current Greenhouses, so Aerith was having lots of fun with her new friend.

The boys had been a bit jealous at first, but they were mostly just happy that she had a girl friend to hang out with.

Cloud was still her go-to person for braids, though.  He was currently holding out against Aerith’s desire to share his braiding talents, but both Harry and Neville expected him to cave soon.

Like, tomorrow.

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Gun sighed tiredly and stretched like a cat as she finished writing up her thoughts for the day on her work notepad.  She kept one to help her keep details straight when she returned from a mission and had to fill out the after-action reports. 

The observations and notes were all in her own code, though, and she doubted anyone could make much sense out of them, save for maybe her father or her little sister.  On top of the strange code she also usually referenced her favorite parts or lines from her secret guilty pleasure trashy romance novels.  The paperback kind with more porn than plot, but she doubted that anyone who broke her code would expect her to be referencing page ninety-seven of ‘Shades of SOLDIER’.  What with its silver-haired protagonist and the ridiculous amount of male-on-male action with his entirely coincidentally red-haired subordinate.

The normally staunchly professional woman grinned as she stood and began her before-bed checks.  I have a photographic memory, might as well use it however I want occasionally.

Her check came up clean, but her amusement was short-lived.  As she lay down on the rented bed Gun’s thoughts whirled, depriving her of the sleep she knew she needed to be getting in order to deal with Hojo and Rod all day tomorrow.  The blonde woman had needed to exercise a great deal of self-control in order to restrain herself from choking the condescending bastards at least four times already, and they had only been in Nibelheim a week!  Gun prided herself on her professionalism so the need for her to consciously exert so much effort just to remain operation-neutral was vexing to her, a grave insult to her professional pride.

Gun tossed and turned as she thought about all the things that just did not add up.

Hojo himself coming to Nibelheim was alarming, first and foremost.

Midgar had received word that there had been a catastrophic failure in the Nibelheim Reactor the second week of February- nearly two full weeks after the incident.  However Nibelheim’s harsh, unpredictable weather during the transition between winter and spring prevented them from getting anyone out to Nibelheim any sooner than they had managed.  The roads were far too treacherous for Shinra-made land vehicles- as the mountain paths in the Nibel range were some of the most dangerous roads on the face of the Planet, doubly so during winter- to pass on during the spring.  Hell, had it been going into winter it wouldn’t have been an issue!  The roads would have been treacherous due to ice and snow, true, but the ground beneath them would have been frozen solid.  On the opposite end of that, however, came the risk of sinking, sliding, and generally getting fucked over be the land, as Shinra was far too cheap to do something like pave the roads or even maintain the ones they had put in back when the Reactor had been built.

Air had been an option they had considered, but when Hojo demanded that he be part of the investigation- as in the first person to be on the ground- and the President had granted the request the situation had changed.  Risking the Head of the Science Department in the air when it was an hour’s flight up the mountain to the landing pad once they started their ascent up the mountain was bad enough.  The fact that Nibel had storms that formed, raged, and then dissipated within the span of twenty minutes during this time of year with little to no warning just made Hojo’s inclusion even better.

However, and order from the President was an order from the President.  Whatever Hojo had said to convince the President to authorize such a thing had the elder Shinra spending nearly a full week at the Honeybee Inn, so it must have been something far more important than just the loss of a Reactor in a backwater town, even if it was the very first Reactor.   The Turks were bound to see the order through, even if it meant waiting nearly three extra weeks to get people on site.  At least they had been able to bring plenty of extra personnel for the drudge work, having had to wait for the roads to clear thanks to Hojo accompanying them.

Gun did feel a little bad about them having to make camp, as the Inn did not have enough rooms and the mansion was entirely gone.

From the first whiff of trouble the Turks suspected a terrorist attack.   Nibelheim’s Reactor was remote, fully automated, and it had not had a significant mechanical issue in the past fifteen years.  The fact that they had only recently vacated the Shinra mansion after taking the survivors from Kalm there for treatment was just another mark towards suspecting sabotage over critical failure.  At least the Turks had managed to get agents placed in watering holes all around the area of Nibelheim, looking for clues as to which anti-Shinra group might be behind the incident, but all that really opened up were more questions.

First off, most people thought that the green ‘fireworks’ on the night of February second were from Nibelheim’s Feast of Astral Harmony, not a Reactor meltdown.  Then, it had taken nearly a week after the incident for any of the anti-Shinra groups with the proper sort of manpower, operatives, or objectives to start taking credit for the incident.  Gun had to hand it to a few of the groups- they certainly knew how to spin a story- but none of the details matched any of their other information.

Those details matched even less when compared to ground zero.

Ground zero was a crater with boulders the size of small mountains plugging the massive hole left behind by the absence of the Reactor.  There was actually very little Mako on the surrounding ground. 

After seeing the rock formation that marked the former Reactor site, Hojo had ranted and raved for nearly three hours about Turk ‘incompetence’ and how he wanted whoever had done this in his labs in Midgar yesterday.  Then he had begun spouting off orders nearly too quickly for the turks to keep up with.  A lot of the order contradicted each other, which only made things worse for the operatives.  The man had been acting increasingly mentally unbalanced ever since he laid eyes on the former Reactor site; Gun was honestly surprised that he was not frothing at the mouth just yet. 

One of the orders was to start digging, to see if any of the internal components of the reactor survived, but they could not do that without a survey from Urban Development or they risked bringing that entire shelf of the mountain down on their heads.  Hojo had even ordered them to interrogate the townspeople, but kept changing his mind about what he wanted done with them and how he wished to go about doing the interrogations.  There was also the issue of where, exactly, they would hold any prisoners, as apparently whatever had happened at the Reactor had blown through the connecting tunnel to the mansion and caused a disaster there as well.

Well, that was Gun’s theory- and Rod, wonder of wonders, agreed with her- because they had managed to clear out some of the ash and discovered that the connecting tunnel still somewhat intact, but just like the Reactor, the mansion was just gone.

It unsettled Gun greatly, if she was being honest.  There were no metal bits scattered around from the behemoth Reactor structure, no bits and bobs that had escaped the mansion fire buried underneath the soot and ashes.

It was all just ash.  Wet ash that had had plenty of time to begin to clump together and harden, but ash nonetheless.

Bizarre was the first word that came to her mind, but after that was fear.  Because she honestly did not know of a substance or mixture that could burn that hot, that fast.  All their information said the fires- or ‘fireworks’- had lasted about two hours.  Three hours tops.

Gun sighed heavily and threw an arm over her tired eyes.

Then there was the Black-Longbottom matter to consider. 

Hojo had majorly fucked up when he had tried to go up against Mayor Longbottom.  Not only were the Black-Longbottom family well-liked and respected, they were Guild and League backed.  Both of those organizations were older than Shinra and far, far more powerful than most people even dreamed.  The Shinra personnel’s reception had also grown considerably chillier after Hojo had mouthed off to the Mayor, which had only been another annoyance for Gun to try to hurdle as getting information out of already pissed off, taciturn mountain people had been hard enough without that asshole adding fuel to the fire.

The absence of the Mayor’s family would be investigated, but the reasoning for their being gone was incredibly sound.  With the loss of the Reactor, there was an immediate need for ways to generate electricity.  The fact that it had taken over a month for Shinra to get their act together and start the investigation would be the perfect reason for Nibelheim to seek out alternative options to Shinra-supplied power.  Especially as the Mayor’s family had passed through the Canyon before settling in Nibelheim.

Dutifully following a tip from one of the villagers that Master Apothecary Black might have the necessary knowledge to create the sort of firepower needed to make such an intense fire, Gun had cross checked pictures from several different sources to confirm the Apothecary’s alibi.  The Apothecary was in a fair number of them, along with the various members of his family.  The Mayor’s great-niece looked a bit familiar for some reason, but Gun chalked it up to the pictures of the Mayor’s daughter that the Mayor had had in her office. 

The little girl and the grandson with the green eyes looked almost like twins; it was easy to believe that they were cousins.  Hojo had stared hard at the pictures every time they were in the Mayor’s office and he had accused the woman of lying about the girls’ identity, but Gun had managed to smooth the situation over before Hojo’s arrogance managed to screw them over even more.

The girl looked nothing like escaped Specimen A-F.  She was too comfortable around the other children to be a stranger; not to mention that she looked far too much like the others to be entirely unrelated.  Perhaps they were lying about the degree of relation?  Hojo himself had declared Specimen I dead from a fatal wound to the abdomen by a Sentry during the lab breach!  The last thing Gun wanted was for Hojo to accuse Mayor Longbottom of anything else crooked- especially when the woman had presented evidence to back up her claim that the two females were members of her family.  Letters, photos, family trees- it had taken up nearly half an afternoon and Gun had seriously considered just shooting Hojo so he would stop chasing tails and get back on task.

The reception among the Nibelheim natives had grown even chillier after that.

Anyways, the pictures of the night of the incident.

Either in the background or off to the side as Apothecary Black was not the focus of all the photos- but he or his family members were still clearly in attendance at the Town Hall that night.  Gun had considered the ‘photos being doctored’ angle, but the sort of effort, time, and meticulous attention to detail it would have taken to doctor all those photos would have been Turk-level.  Like Veld or Reno’s level of expertise in subterfuge of Turk-level, with them having full access to Shinra’s facilities.  Nibelheim had been having a massive power shortage despite some houses being able to be run on alternative energy sources, so the very idea was ludicrous and had been firmly dismissed.  Master Black and his family were in the Town Hall that night and had been for a few hours.  They had come laden with food to help celebrate the Feast.  Gun had even double checked that Manning who had a flare for arson according to the Sherriff’s case files, but none of the stuff he had on hand would have been able to produce the sort of fire that had razed the mansion to the ground.

Well, below ground, as the fire had thoroughly destroyed the labs as well and they were built under the foundation of the original house.

Gun almost wished that bastard Legend was here, but he had been called out to Wutai unexpectedly and it would be at least another week before he could make it to Nibelheim.  She would have him sniff around Apothecary Black’s haunts, as Legend was their resident explosives expert.  So if there was anything to find, he would find it.

Though Gun sincerely doubted that Apothecary Black had time to hike halfway up the mountain and destroy the source of the town’s power, given the amount of hours he put in to brewing and trying to help keep everyone healthy.

Unlike Kalm, some of the people here in Nibelheim had friends in high places that could not be bought.  They also could not just go pull desperate volunteers from the Slums to play act like nothing was wrong if Shinra tried to take all the residents into custody- either to keep them quiet or to give them to Hojo as a peace offering.  These people here in Nibelheim who had friends in high places who could not be bought had very complex jobs that even Hojo’s scientific mind-fuckery could not replicate well enough to hold up to inspection.  Even arranging an ‘accident’ to befall the town would do more harm than good, as word had spread far and wide about the Reactor and Shinra’s actions were being watched very cautiously.

While President Shinra and Hojo liked to believe that Shinra ruled the world; that was actually pretty far from the truth.  Actually if people had an alternate energy source and the SOLDIER Program fell apart Shinra would be fucked.

The Infantry had numbers, but they were only loyal to Shinra because Shinra was protecting their families and keeping those families comfortable by providing all their creature comforts.  If that ceased to be the case- because the Turks could only plug so many leaks at a time- then the fragile veneer of absolute control Shinra lorded over the people would shatter.  It would be a bloody fight, but SOLDIERs could only take so much damage before they died and some of the best snipers in the corps were the most dissatisfied with the company’s practices.  Mass defections, loss of trust, internal fracturing because the upper echelon of Shinra were very much self-serving bastards instead of respectable managers or human being who actually were concerned about the overall wellbeing of their employees- it would be a bloody, violent nightmare.

Add in an anti-Shinra faction that could turn Shinra’s very first Reactor to ash with such tactical proficiency even the Turks had no suspects or leads?  No leads on where they got their supplies or learned to make the stuff or managed to fall back to without leaving any traces at all? 

Just poof, gone.

Even if the destruction of Hojo’s favorite non-Midgar lab had merely been incidental, it was a major blow.  That same lab had birthed the SOLDIER Program.

Toss in the war with Wutai going splendidly and stirring up even more anti-Shinra sentiment and Gun just really wanted to go home and hide under her covers until things started making sense again.

Unfortunately, the blonde had the sinking sensation that things were going to get much worse.

Much, much worse.  She thought as a knock sounded on her door and she realized she had not managed to get any sleep at all.

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Chapter Text

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The kids had been kept plenty busy with all the odds-and-ends that needed doing which gave them the added bonus of hearing plenty of gossip.  Since it had taken the two-cart caravan nearly two weeks to reach the Canyon to begin with, Claudia’s due date loomed ever closer.  So not only were the kids kept busy running errands they were constantly slipping back to the house to see if they needed to go get Sirius because the man wanted to be there for the birth of his child.

On the topic of go Canyon gossip, the Canyon’s looser tongues had been buzzing with gossip about Elder Bugenhagen having a major falling out with his former apprentice even before the arrival of the Nibelheim contingent.  Tite Fuhito had not been present the last time the Black-Longbottoms had been to the Canyon, but they had heard about the man.  Especially about how the man had been starting an anti-Shinra group that went against all of the principles of the Canyon and had sparked a major point of contention between the young man and his former Master.  Apparently the disagreement had come to a messy conclusion that had ended with the former apprentice and Elder Bugenhagen officially parting ways. 

Rumor had it that the group was relocating to Wutai, to help the small island nation in their war against Shinra.

About a week after their arrival at the Canyon, Harry, Neville, and Cloud had played messenger boys between Sirius and Elders Bugenhagen and Bugen, who were usually found in the Canyon’s Observatory.  On one of those trips the kids had run into the man of the hour himself.  Fuhito had been nothing but pleasantly polite, but Harry and Neville had both mentioned feeling ‘weird’ to Cloud.

“It’s like the lights were on but nobody was home.”  Neville told Cloud and Harry once they were safely away from the Observatory.  “Like he’s missing something important.”  Neville’ lips twisted into a strange half-grimace.  “Like he was just going through the motions of being a person or something.  It was really creepy.”

“He just felt wrong to me.”  Harry shrugged as the boys made their way across one of the Canyon’s many connecting bridges.  “It made me feel weird.”

Cloud had fully intended to tell his Ma and Da about the incident that night, but when they went home to prepare for dinner, Ma had started to have the baby.

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 “She’s so little.”  Cloud whispered as Sirius laid the fussy, wrinkly pink-swaddled bundle in his arms.  Cloud’s eyes carefully traced the baby’s nose and took in her pretty blue eyes; he grinned when the baby opened her mouth and made a strange sort of cooing noise.

“You were that little once, Cloudy.”  The exhausted by extremely happy Claudia informed her son. 

Harry peeked over Cloud’s shoulder to look down at his new little sister.  “So, she’s going to have dark hair, like Da?”

“Actually there’s a chance that her hair might fall out and grow back blonde or even just lighten as she grows up a bit.”  Sirius told the children with a soft, silly grin on his face.  “Much like her eyes will mature over the next year or so.”

“Cloudy was born with black hair.”  Claudia told them with a smile, chuckling a bit at their bamboozled expressions.  “It all fell out about two weeks after her was born- it about scared me half to death!- and then grew back blond.”

“And now he has hair the same color as a golden Chocobo.”  Neville input cheerfully, having snuck up behind Cloud’s free shoulder.

Since he was holding the baby Cloud merely stuck his tongue out at his brother.  “Brat.”  He muttered petulantly.

“Do you two want to hold her?”  Claudia asked the other two boys curiously.

Harry and Neville shook their heads and backed up a bit.  “I’d rather wait until she’s not quite so….squishy.  And new.”  Harry said rather warily.

“Same!”

Claudia laughed a bit but looked over towards Aerith.  “Would you like to hold her, Aerith dear?”

Aerith- who had helped Ifalna and the midwife, Norah Dreher, during Claudia’s labor- beamed at the blonde woman.  “Please Aunt Audi!”  The next few minutes consisted of getting Aerith settled with the baby one Sirius had gently extracted the newly born little girl from Cloud’s gentle hold and helped Aerith arrange things properly.  “What’s her name?”  Aerith asked curiously once she had ahold of the newest Black.

“Well, Sirius’ family had a tradition of naming their children after stars.”  Claudia explained tiredly, her eyelids getting progressively heavier as she struggled to stay awake.   “So this is our little Carina.”

“Carina?”  The children queried curiously.

“Carina was the name of a constellation back home.”  Sirius replied as he fussed with Claudia’s blankets busily, earning him a part-annoyed, part-fond look from his tired wife.  “It was originally part of a larger constellation that was said to be the ship that an ancient Geek man named Jason, and his companions the Argonauts, used while they searched for the fabled Golden Fleece.”  Sirius smiled at the children’s interested looks.  “The Golden Fleece was viewed as a sign of authority and kingship, though later stories said that it had untold powers of healing.”

“So, basically.”  Cloud said with a grin as he watched his Ma slip off into sleep.  “It was basically like a grown-up Aerith?”

Aerith pouted at Cloud, but Neville and Harry laughed, which caused the baby to wake and begin fussing.  Claudia woke to the sounds and Sirius was quick to whisk his new daughter away from Aerith and settle little Carina carefully into Claudia’s arms.

“The Golden Fleece of the Golden People.”  Harry managed to get out through his chuckles.  “That is never going to get old!  It’s even better than Princess!”

Aerith tried to glare at them some more, but she just ended up giggling.  “Th-that’s terrible!” 

“Whatever you say, Fleecy!”  Neville chirped cheerfully, causing Sirius to bark out a laugh and setting all of the others off again as a result.

“Now, shoo.”  Ifalna told the children with a smile.  “Out, out all of you!”  She whirled around to glare playfully at Sirius.  “And you, Mr. Black!  You’ll be going the same way if you don’t start behaving!”

“I give!”  Sirius yelped as Ifalna wagged her finger at him and fixed him with an amused glower.  “Bloody hell, woman, I give!”

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Much to Aerith’s exasperation, the nickname persisted.  Though, she really did not have all that much time to truly contest it in the following weeks, as life with Carina caused their already packed schedules to positively overflow.

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Sirius was run absolutely ragged trying to get everything ready to move back to Nibelheim.  They had departed from Nibelheim early in the morning on the sixth of March, a month and a few days after the loss of the Reactor.  It had taken them a little over two weeks to make the journey to the Canyon, and Claudia had had the baby just shy of their first full week of being settled back into ‘their’ house. 

However, by that point Nibelheim had been without a steady source of electricity for nearly two months.  An eternity to people who were used to the convenience that stable electricity afforded them!

Due to Regulus’ dogged commitment to serving the community, Nibelheim had not lost anyone due to the cold or cold-exacerbated reasons.  However, Nibelheim was the heart of commerce for all of the smaller villages that dotted the Nibel Range.  Without electricity businesses took longer to order and receive stock, which affected the region’s farms, livestock, and general living conditions.

One of the biggest issues Sirius had to address- the one which had taken the longest to sort out, quite honestly- was which renewable energy source would be the best choice for Nibelheim to use.  Solar, wind, biomass, geothermal- there were several choices, but Nibelheim being surrounded by mountains made the subject that much more difficult.

Fortunately, the Canyon engineers and Sirius had managed to cobble together a good plan after a few weeks.

There was a small pass that opened up to a flat, treacherous plateau- a bit up and to the west of the former Reactor site- that was far too windy on any given day to be of much use to anyone.  Locals called it ‘Shiva’s Breath’ or ‘Shiva’s Pass’, because conducted air from the upper part of the mountain.  The air currents tore hazardously through the small pass and then off the small plateau with incredible force no matter what time of year it happened to be.  The area beyond the plateau was fairly open, the stone on the other side presumably having been worn away by the constant beating of the somewhat compressed air currents and soil erosion from the melts.

The plan that they had come up with involved placing wind turbines on the small plateau- the labor costs were going to be astronomical!- as well as pushing further up the mountain and placing solar panels on a few other plateau’s that were relatively useless for much else.  The energy would then be collected at a Relay Station, which would be built a little closer to town than the Reactor had been. 

The Relay Station would have two purposes.

The first would be rather obvious- it would serve as the place where the energy was converted into electricity and then sent through the existing power grid.  The second purpose would be for the excess energy not in demand to be relegated to a sort of back-up battery that would, in hopeful theory, cover any shortages that might occur due to lack of wind or sun, damaged equipment, or anything else that could- and would most likely- go wrong.

Sirius, having a good relationship with the Canyon’s Research and Development Director, Felix Dreher, along with the man’s sons, Jonah and Liam, had shared some of his Materia Shard research data with the Canyon’s resident Research and Development heavy-hitters., Sirius and Cloud were both looking forward to comparing notes with them come next summer, because the Dreher family were nothing if not passionate innovators. 

Jonah’s wife, Alina- who was quite the deft hand at anything mechanical- had been quite interested in all of the talks about the different metal combinations and how the research was partly based on the need for Bangles.  Liam’s wife-to-be Mei was incredibly interested in Sirius’ Materia Shard research as well. 

Come to find out, Mei’s family- the Yáo family- had been thrown out of Kangxi nearly fifty years ago when they could not produce a stable energy source that ran off the Planet’s ‘chi’ in response to Shinra’s discovery of Mako power.  Mei had explained to the somewhat stunned Sirius that the Emperor had feared Wutai having a Reactor built and then gaining a definite upper hand in the long-standing conflict between the two nations despite the past century having been fairly peaceful.  When the Yáo house had failed to present a solution in the timeframe the Emperor had given them, they were stripped of their titles and sent away in shame.

Kangxi was the name for a series of nine city-states that ran along the backside of the mountain range that divided the island that housed Wutai.  The city-states were actually quite prone to local disputes- barring the Emperor’s seat of power, Xinjiang- but banded together in order to successfully fend off conflict with Wutai every few generations or so.  The sea that separated Mideel from the island that housed the two similar, but quite conflict-prone cultures, was known as the Sea of Turmoil.  While the first thirty or so nautical miles off the coasts of either island were fairly easily navigated, the deep ocean beyond was positively treacherous.  With opposing currents that would tear even the most stalwart ships apart in minutes and weather that made air travel a madness at best, the sea was what kept Shinra from simply sailing across the open waters and invading from the Kangxi side of the island.   

Sirius had not even known that were was another nation on the island! 

When he had said as much, Mei had laughed at him and told him that most people who did not hail from the island simply assumed that Kangxi’s people hailed from Wutai, due to their seemingly similar appearances.  People from either nation could easily distinguish difference, she had informed him, but with the entire island having been nearly wholly isolated for such a long period of time it was not that much of a surprise.  Mei had even informed Sirius that the southern-most port that the Canyon their southern-island business with was run by the Honorable Guī family of Jiangsu, under the authority of Kangxi.  The Wutaiin port was further north, on the eastern side of the steep, jagged Huaiyu Range; the aforementioned range taking up a great deal of the southern-most portion of the island, creating quite the immaculate natural barrier between the two ports.

Mei’s brother, Ling, who was more of a scholar than an inventor had traded many stories that his family had passed down about the Planet and how they believed that the Planet had its own form of energy.  The Yáo family had been the guardians of the Blessed Caves since time immemorial.  So if the Materia Shard projects turned out to be viable and stable, the Yáo family could possibly reclaim their lost honor and return home.  The mere possibility was incredibly exciting and motivating for the entire family.

Sirius had promised all of them that if they- collectively- found a way to make the Materia Shards work the way they were hoping to, that he would accompany Mei and the Yao family to Kangxi himself so they could present their findings to the Royal House and restore the honor of the Yáo house.

At any rate, the whole discussion had come about when they had been attempting to calculate the necessary amount of electricity that they would need- at minimum- to keep the lights on in Nibelheim.  The light fixtures that were sold by Shinra were incredibly wasteful in terms of kilowatt hours and how much electricity they needed just to be turned on.  However, without an apparent solution to the issue, they had added the two plateau’s-worth of solar panels and the battery to the Relay Station, praying they would be producing enough energy to keep things running smoothly.

It should be enough.  But should and does are sometimes worlds apart in real-world application!

With that all sorted out, Sirius needed construction crews, on top of the repairmen he had originally set out to find.  Fortunately, the Dreher-Yáo clans were more than happy to help out- and Norah, Felix’s wife, got on quite well with Claudia and Ifalna. 

Norah had been the midwife who had delivered Carina, actually.

By the time Carina was three weeks old, the finer points had all been hammered out regarding payment and whatnot. 

Ashley, who had proved his prowess as an Apothecary quite splendidly, was going to stay in the Canyon until fall.  He would be leaving to take his Exams in Junon, but would be returning to the Canyon directly afterwards.  Ashley’s skills and his patience while teaching some of the Apothecary hopefuls had earned them quite a bit of credit, actually.  The Canyon’s current Master Apothecary was old, grouchy, and more than a bit abrasive.  Ashley would only be a Journeyman Apothecary after his Exams, but he would be able to set up shop and do business properly afterwards- as the licensed Journeyman to a Master Apothecary- which would assist the Canyon residents tremendously.

Of course, they had needed to provide for all of the comatose people who had been found at the Shinra mansion, but Elder Hargo had stepped in and quietly found places for them on their first day at the Canyon.  She had explained to Sirius later that Fuhito had been heard praising Hojo when he thought no one was within hearing range, and while she trusted Elder Bugenhagen, she did not trust his former apprentice.  Ashley had been spending a decent chunk of time with the extended Hargo family as he made the medicines that Regulus had prescribed for the victims.

Sirius was also fairly certain that there was a major crush developing between the shy Ashley and Elder Hargo’s eldest grandson.  Sirius had been sure to take Ashley aside and reassure the young man that consensual love between two people old enough to make their own decisions was not anybody’s business but their own.  Ashley had blushed horribly but had thanked Sirius quite sincerely.  The young man had admitted that the Yearwood family had been apprehensive about approaching the topic, as Steph’s parents were actually both women.

Sirius had barked out a laugh and mentioned that Regulus’ younger apprentice was certainly bossy enough to have been raised by two women, which had nearly caused poor Ashley to nearly choke on his tongue.

Sirius and Ifalna’s work on the Greenhouses had been another major selling point.  The kids had all helped out as well, keeping complaints to the minimum when they had needed to go north and fill up the carts with soil to be brought back to the Canyon’s Greenhouses, as Canyon dirt did not grow much of anything.

So, just shy of a full month after Carina’s arrival the Black-Longbottom contingent was nearly ready to leave the Canyon.

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Vincent’s wardrobe had undergone changes since his introduction to the Black brothers.  He was currently sporting a white dress shirt, rolled up at the sleeves, with dark dress pants and rubber-soled boots that managed to be both outfit-appropriate and rugged.  His bright red, high collared cape had been exchanged for a rather sleek-looking wine-red trench coat with a suitably high collar.  His hair had been neatly combed and pulled into a rather loose tail, though his bangs invariably escaped and framed his face.  Aerith had somehow found a pair of glossy, maroon red sunglasses and had pouted at him until he took to wearing them.

Of course, his gauntlet was bound to the thick metal band of his fingerless gloves and the smallest application of Mana would see this clothes shifting into the ones he had been adorned with by Lucrecia.

Vincent appreciated being able to blend in without having to constantly be clothed in the eye-catching, Grimoire-inspired garb, though.

The man did not have a specific job, but he did not wish to part with the Black-Longbottom family just yet.  Thus he had taken to unobtrusively playing bodyguard for random members, counting down the days until their return to Nibelheim.

Cosmo Canyon was hot.

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Claudia groaned when she checked the laundry detergent holder and saw that she had apparently already packed up the baby-friendly detergent.  The blonde woman scowled at the container in betrayal, as all of the packed up supplies had been stacked neatly by the door and she had zero desire to go through and unpack things simply for one load’s worth of detergent.  Claudia bounced the slightly fussy Carina lightly as she hummed and tried to decide what she was going to do. 

Then she heard the front door open and she grinned.

“Who is it?”  Claudia called as she carefully maneuvered past the mess towards the living room.

“Harry, Ma!  I forgot my hat!”  Harry’s voice drifted back to her, tinged with exasperation.  “Cloud made me come back and get it!”

Claudia rounded the corner and nearly knocked Harry over.  “Hi!”  She chirped cheerfully as he righted himself after flailing rather hilariously for a moment.  “Would you do your poor Ma a huge favor?”

Harry gazed at her suspiciously.  Claudia had suckered him in to learning how to change diapers with that same smile.  “What is it?”  He asked cautiously, shooting the door a furtive glance.

“I just need you to run to Elder Hargo’s house and ask her if she has a load’s worth of baby laundry soap I could borrow.”  Claudia told him with a grin, reaching out to tousle his hair playfully.  “No diapers this time.”

“Oh.”  Harry’s body drooped a bit in relief.  “Ok.  I can do that!  Just one load’s worth of laundry soap?”

Claudia laughed at him and tousled his hair again.  “Just one.  I need to get the rest of Carina’s cloth diapers washed before we set out tomorrow.”

“Ok.”  Harry wrinkled his nose a bit and shot her a betrayed glance.  “I thought you said there were no diapers involved this time?”

“None that you have to deal with personally.”  Claudia told him with a grin.  “Though if you’d like for me to change that…….”

“Nope!”  Harry yelped, twirling and fairly sprinting for the door.  “I’ll be right back!”

Claudia snickered and looked down to see Carina sticking her tongue out.  “Your brother is so funny.  Are you hungry baby?  Let Ma sit down and she’ll feed you ok?”  She gently rocked the baby on her way towards the rocking chair, not terribly surprised when Carina began to exercise her lungs and sing the song of hungry babies everywhere before she managed to sit down.

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Harry had safely delivered the soap to his Ma and bolted as soon as politely possible.

Intent on catching up to his siblings- they were on messenger duty today!- Harry missed what his intuition was attempting to tell him and his world went dark before he even realized he was in danger.

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Sephiroth swiftly made his way through the dense foliage, his shoulder-blade length silver hair whipping behind him sharply as he ran far faster than any human could ever dream.  His cat-slit, glowing, poison-green eyes intently analyzing his surroundings for clues about the path his targets had taken.  He had been accompanied by several other SOLDIERs up until about an hour ago.  They were good, Sephiroth admitted freely to himself, but the party they were tracking was a small scouting party and Sephiroth had been confident in his ability to dispatch them without any difficulty.

Fortunately the Captain that had been with the SOLDIERs had worked with Sephiroth several times previously and was quite smooth at ironing over any missteps Sephiroth made unintentionally, as he was quite unintentionally socially awkward.  So, when Sephiroth had mentioned having the men make camp when they had stopped for a brief moment of respite, the good Captain had hurriedly stepped in and smoothed things over before the men could feel demoralized.  Sephiroth had made certain to mention that he had been duly impressed with their endurance thus far, and that had earned him happy grins from his men and a proud smile from the Captain.

Having left the others behind, Sephiroth had allowed himself to access his true speed and had rapidly been closing the distance between himself and his quarry, despite his quarry’s attempts to misdirect him.  He had known that there was another group presumably moving through the area, but that did not quite prepare him for the altercation he burst into the middle of.

Unsheathing Masamune in an elegantly fluid motion, he leapt into the fray.

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Sirius and Vincent had been tracking the soon-to-be-dead idiots who had taken Harry without any substantial rest for nearly five days.  Sirius had never been more grateful for the somewhat broody, red-eyed man than he had the moment that Vincent had popped up at the Observatory- where Sirius had been finalizing plans to leave the Canyon- and announced that Harry had been taken.

It had taken Sirius a few moments, but once his mind had wrapped around the fact that his son had been taken a strange new sort of fury had been ignited somewhere between his ribcage and his gut.

Sirius had gone ahead and set orders for the rest of the party to finish up and depart- he certainly was not going to leave his family in the Canyon, not when it was no longer safe- before he had set off to find his son, Vincent a silent but reassuring presence at his heels.

The eldest Black brother had been more than happy to follow a combination of his own intuition and Vincent’s suggestions.  They had run across a few of the formerly Canyon-hosted AVALANCHE members about a day into their journey, seemingly covering the tracks that they had been following. Sirius felt exactly zero remorse for their fates, once he had confirmed their involvement with his son’s kidnapping.

Mother would have been so proud, but Sirius held no compassion for those who stole a child from his family.

With the intent of cutting him open and experimenting on him, no less!

Yes, Sirius was going to have words with Elder Bugenhagen next summer about what the man wrote in his Planet-dammed diary.  Next summer, because he was going to get Harry back and head straight for the rest of the caravan, where he knew his wife and other children were waiting anxiously for Harry’s return.

Sirius had been entirely approving of the rather cruel methods that Vincent had used to extract a great deal of the story from that Kyneugh fellow.  Sirius had no idea what, exactly, had been done to the man by that nutjob Fuhito.  But the fact that the bastard had felt that Sirius’ son owed it to the freaking Planet to be used as a lab rat left Sirius utterly impassive as Vincent wrenched information from the man’s bloodied, battered, mildly mutilated form.

Sirius at least ended his suffering swiftly, in the end.  Sirius was also slightly mollified by the swell of rage he felt from his ‘Planet senses’ when the man had been spouting his obviously pre-written propaganda.

“Do you not fear becoming a monster?”  Vincent asked him quietly, red eyes intent as he deftly cleaned his small knives while Sirius set the blood-stained area ablaze.  “That your crusade will lead you down a path that you cannot pull out of?  That you will become what you hunt?”

“No.”  Sirius replied forcefully, his form wreathed in the light of the rising sun as his nearly entirely grey eyes bore into Vincent’s own with pure, unadulterated conviction.  “I did not instigate this.  I am not fighting for my greed or my pride or for some twisted sense of satisfaction.  These monsters took my son.  They took him to use him for their own ends.  I can fight- and I will- but I will not leave them alive to do this to some other family or to even try to come after my children again.”  Sirius looked down at the charred ground and increased the intensity of the fire he was using for a moment before beginning to bathe the area in ice.  “There are many occasions for mercy, even in war. However, I have learned that there is a thin line between peacemaker and enabler.”  Sirius turned to face Vincent fully, standing tall and proud as he dusted off his hands and re-attached his sword.  “I’m perfectly capable of the former, but I will never become the latter.  They.  Took.  My.  Child.”  The wind seemed to snap in tandem with Sirius’ temper.  “They will never again have such an opportunity.  They can apologize from the bloody Lifestream.”

“They could argue that they were doing their work for much the same reasons.”  Vincent tried to play the devil’s advocate a bit.  “Trying to fight fire with dire.”

“Bullshit.”  Sirius seethed as he stalked forwards; back straight and his fists clenched into tight fists at his side.  “Bullshit.  A monster does not appear simply because a person is ‘not fully human’.  There are plenty of perfectly decent people who are a little different than the average Jack.”  Sirius glanced over his shoulder and pinned Vincent with a fierce look.  “A monster emerges when someone places their wants or desires above another’s inherent right of free will.”  Sirius’ face snapped forwards just in time to swerve around a tree and hop over a small crevice in the hot, cracked earth.  “Anyone who would usurp another’s free will and right to choose their own path due to that person’s vision of a ‘perfect world’ or a ‘flawless society’ has already become a monster.  It is our choices that define us and to take that fundamental right away from someone is the highest form of depravity.”  Sirius had flapped a hand casually and allowed some of the tautness to seep out of his frame.  “I’m not talking about raising a child or anything like that.  I’m talking about what that Hojo did to that poor kid or what he and that lady scientist did to you.  Freedom to choose, man.  It’s what makes us people.  Only a monster would strip that away from someone.”  Sirius grinned a bit sadly.  “After all, free will allowed my cowardly father to die a bloody hero.”

Vincent glanced at Sirius hesitantly.  “And if one of my demons-“

“Vince.”  Sirius huffed with a rather fondly exasperated sigh.  “I know you’ve got this whole ‘I need to atone’ or ‘I’m gonna lose control’ thing going on, but listen.”  Sirius had slowed enough that they were walking side-by-side and he clapped Vincent on the shoulder with a smile.  “You’ve been around my kids, man.  Been around my pregnant wife and then my newborn baby girl.  I swear that if you ever go off the deep end of the pier, I’ll make sure to send you back to the Planet, ok?  But until then, you’re just a man with some grumpy houseguests.  Drink coffee, play with Carina, help Cloud outsmart the two younger brats.  You are not a monster, my friend.  These people who have willingly thrown away their lives in the service of a madman are.”  Sirius’ hand slipped off of Vincent’s shoulder and his eyes turned dark as he faced forwards again.  “Trust me.  Reggie served a madman once, and it was our cowardly father who saved him.  If he believed you were the slightest bit of a threat to his nieces- plural now!- and nephews, he would have never allowed you to make it out of that mansion.”

Inexplicably, that knowledge made Vincent feel better.  Settled his fears a bit and allowed him to take another baby step towards reclaiming his life.  Towards living instead of just existing.

Suddenly his normal ‘reasons’ seemed….deficient.

They ended up needing to cross to the Guī-run port town, but Sirius had been able to use a small red-and-gold tasseled little charm Mei had gifted him to gather information from one of her family’s old business partners.  After spending a few hours napping at the Inn- purely due to Vincent’s insistence that they had nearly caught up and Sirius would need to be properly rested in order to fight- that had set out.  They skirted the edge of the Huaiyu Range and headed towards the Wutai-controlled side of the island.

Eventually they ran across a fresh campsite and knew they were close.  Less than an hour later they heard the sounds of weapons clashing and sped up, drawing their own weapons as they did so.  Vincent his gun and Sirius his broadsword.

Sirius had charged into the small clearing with fiercely focused eyes and a nearly visible aura swirling around him as he bore down on his opponents with all the force of a hurricane.  Vincent had stood back a bit and analyzed the situation. 

There were the AVALANCHE people they were looking for as well as a dirty, but apparently sedated Harry.  There were only four of the AVALANCHE members, Fuhito unfortunately being absent.  Then there were roughly half a dozen people in scarlet and gold embroidered uniforms of some sort.  There was another group of about twelve that were dressed in deeper reds, black, or darkly-hued green, though they wore purple sashes around their waists that proudly bore the Wutai crest.

Vincent took a wild guess and assumed that that last group was from Wutai and the red-clad group was from Kangxi.  All that mattered to him was defeating the AVALANCHE members, retrieving Sirius’ son, and then getting them all out of there.  By the time Vincent had finished assessing the situation, Sirius had managed to wound the AVALANCHE member holding Harry and was standing over the sleeping boy, defending furiously.  The possibly-Kangxi group were attacking the clearly Wutaiian party, so Vincent settled for sniping the AVALANCHE members once he had ducked around a tree and was in a better position.

The presumably-Kangxi party glanced at him warily.  Vincent did his best to gesture to the downed child Sirius was still standing over protectively, so they returned to attacking their original opponents, no doubt keeping Vincent in their peripheral vision.

The sounds of battle were essentially white noise as the groups engaged their opponents furiously.  Blood, saliva, and the groans of maimed or dying people filled the clearing, but none of that mattered to Vincent as he took careful aim and fired swiftly.  Sirius took several mildly concerning hits while refusing to budge from his position of protection over his son’s prone form, but between his strikes and Vincent’s shooting, the AVALANCHE members went down relatively quickly.  Of course, by that time the Wutaiin attackers had clued in to Vincent and Sirius’ goals and were redoubling their efforts to get to the child.

The Wutaiins were far more skilled than the AVALANCHE members.

The battle’s tide started to tilt precariously in the Wutaiin’s favor.  One of the Wutaiin blade wielders slipped around a freshly downed Kangxi member and drove a wickedly curved dagger into Sirius’ shoulder, causing the man to bite off a scream and nearly drop his weapon.  Vincent had to hastily switch between the man who had injured Sirius to the Wutaiin who was sneaking up behind him and the former Turk had reluctantly begun internally debating shifting into one of his beast forms when yet another person burst into the clearing.

Vincent never stopped firing, but his heartbeat echoed in his ears as he watched the silver-haired teen with the long, black sword begin to decimate their enemy.

Sirius dispatched his opponent during the distraction the teen had offered.  Harry was wrapped up firmly in Sirius’ trembling, bloody arms as the elder Black brother limped towards Vincent, who was still steadily firing.  Sirius sheathed his sword and began casting a series of Cure and Restore spells on the downed possible-Kangxi, which definitely helped their injures party members.

“Is it just me or does that kid look like you?  Like really, really looks like you way more in the flesh than in the newspaper?”  Sirius remarked rather loudly, after having gotten a good look at the newly-arrived teen’s face.  “’Cause I’m pretty sure he’s essentially your mini-me in every way except coloring.”  Sirius grinned a bit at Vincent, his bloody teeth sort of ruining the leer he was going for.  “You did say that you and his mom were close.  You know, before your accident and pleasant decades-long nap and everything.”  By the end Sirius’ words were slurring, but he was doing his best to inject cheer into his voice while he clutched his son greedily.

Vincent grunted and kept firing.

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Sephiroth’s head snapped up to look at the two men he had largely dismissed, as they had not shown themselves to be a clear and present danger.  Sephiroth only had time for one really good look at the man who had been playing sniper for the other, the dark-haired man having stood back quite a ways to better cover the area, the silver-haired teen logically assumed.

But that one look that he got of the man………

Inky black hair hung over the man’s forehead in an eerily reminiscent manner to Sephiroth’s own.  The facial structure- though Sephiroth’s was a bit softer- the way the man’s bright red gaze flicked to his companion in irritation.  Even the way the man seemed to radiate controlled power reminded Sephiroth of himself.

Deep inside his soul, something hummed pleasantly.  Something he had long buried under ice, logic, and practical evidence tentatively unfurled and sang out in breathy, fragile excitement.

Because the other man- the one holding the child- had mentioned Sephiroth’s mother and a decades long nap and accidents and Hojo went together and this could mean-

Sephiroth’s attention snapped back to the battle he was still engaged in.  When his enemy was defeated Sephiroth spun around again, intent on asking questions and finally finding answers, but the two men were gone.  Sephiroth’s lips twisted into a snarl as he realized there was no time to pursue them because the scout team’s backup had arrived and the scarlet-clad people had vanished.

Yet in his mind, Sephiroth vowed that he would find those men someday and then he would ask them the questions that had plagued him his entire life.  The ones he had always been scared of really exploring because according to Hojo-

(Am I really a monster?  What makes me so different from all the failed specimens?  Do I even deserve to live?  Is there more to me than just being Hojo’s prized experiment?  Is there any value to my life, just for it being mine?  Do I deserve love?  What is love?  Is there a way to fill this ache in my chest?  The one that Hojo says is just my imagination?)

Well.  At least now he knew there was hope, even for someone like him.

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Chapter Text

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Harry’s return journey to consciousness was slow and disorienting.  It had actually taken a full day for whatever he had been given to mostly run its course, plus another full day or so for it to totally dissipate!  By the time Harry had fully awoken with reasonable use of his mental facilities, Sirius and Vincent had already made it back to the Nibelheim continent. 

They had managed to make it to the small town of Tendan, which would put them directly in the path of the Cosmo Canyon group.  Even given the use of the Black family’s various ‘cheats’- such as liberal Mini abuse and enchanted satchels- the caravan had been expanded from a two-cart affair to a twenty-seven cart affair.  Some of the Chocobo had been bought, but most of them had sauntered up to one of the children at some point and refused to leave.

It gave the locals heart attacks, as wild Chocobo were known to attack people quite viciously.  The kids, being the little imps that they were, spun a story that involved Cloud’s hair and his braiding abilities, much to the blond’s exasperation!  Sirius was just thankful that he had thought ahead and brought plenty of materials to make their own Chocobo stable, though he would be leaving the hiring of staff for aforementioned stable to someone else!

So, even though a week had passed since Harry had been kidnapped, they had actually outpaced the Canyon party.

Harry, himself, was mildly alarmed about having been kidnapped, but he was far more worried about Ma or Cloud blaming themselves for it happening. 

Sirius was torn between despair at Harry’s sense of self-preservation and pride at his boy’s selflessness.

Actually, it seemed that the kidnapping was affecting Sirius much more than harry, as the boy had turned to him on the second day after he had awoken and made this statement.

You came and got me, didn’t you?”  Harry exclaimed in aggravation, throwing his hands up and looking helplessly at the previously trying-to-mitigate-lasting-trauma Sirius.  “Look.”  Harry said at his Da’s positively bamboozled expression.  “Someone nabbed me, it could have been bad.”  Harry’s green eyes turned warmer as he gazed at his still-exhausted parent.  “But you came and got me, Da.  I’m fine.  You said that you’ll be upping our training about listening to our intuition and stuff, but you guys have always told us that you can’t prevent bad, you can only prepare for it.”  Harry shrugged and glanced at Vincent for a moment before looking back at Sirius.  “I’m worried about Ma.  And Cloud. And Nev.   And Fleecy.  And Carina.  And Cobalt.  And- well, you get the point.  Anyways, I’m worried about everyone else, ‘cause I don’t gotta worry about me.  They nabbed me, you came and got me.  End of story.”  Harry shrugged again and pointed towards Sirius’ half-eaten, forgotten sandwich.  “Are you gonna eat that?”

“But-“  Sirius garbled helplessly.

“But what?”  Harry asked after he swallowed a bite of his stolen food.  “I’m fine.  I basically got to sleep for a week.  I feel bad for Ma.  She probably hasn’t slept at all and I know Cloud is gonna be all ‘it’s my entire fault’ ‘cause he’s the one who made me go back for my hat.”  Harry chomped on the sandwich again, looking entirely unfazed.

“But-but-ho-uh-“  Sirius spluttered for a moment before he puffed up and pointed indignantly at his son.  “You’re supposed to be all worried and freaked out while I’m all calm and adult-y.  You’re not following the script!”

From his seat, Vincent snorted in amusement, though he quickly pretended that he was entirely impassive when Sirius rounded on him.

“Well.”  Harry said slowly, after blinking owlishly at his Da for a few moments.  “I can try to act like Widow Froggate whenever she comes to pick up her medicine at the Apothecary shop.  Would that make you feel better?”

Vincent nearly choked on his drink and Sirius’ level of indignation only grew. 

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“I’m so sorry-“  Cloud cried once he wriggled into the tight hug his Ma had wrapped his brother in as soon as she had seen him only for Harry to sigh melodramatically.

“For that last time, it’s nobody’s fault, Da and Vince found me and I’m ok!”  He huffed loudly.

Claudia sniffle-laughed into Harry’s messy hair and pulled back a bit; running her hands over his face and through his hair as if she was trying to imprint him into her memory.  “You’re right, of course!”  She supposed as Harry wrapped Cloud in a tight hug and the other kids came up to join them.  “I just-“

Sirius’ arm slithered around his wife’s waist and he kissed her cheek lightly.  “I know.”  He commiserated as he gently bounced Carina, who was snugly tucked against the curve of his free arm.  “He’s been like this all week.  It’s driven me positively mad.”

Claudia tipped her head back and laughed in blissful, exultant relief, the tears slipping from her eyes freely despite her best efforts to quell them.

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Cloud slipped out of the tent and sighed heavily as he rubbed his tired, aching eyes.

“What are you doing awake?”  A deep voice rumbled from his right, causing Cloud to jump and bit and whirl around quickly.

Vincent eyed the boy’s wild-eyed expression and the way Cloud had intuitively settled into a defensive stance, covering the opening of the tent quite well considering the child’s small stature.

“Oh.”  Cloud muttered a bit sheepishly, relaxing a tiny bit as he realized he was not under threat.  “Hey, Vince.  What are you doing awake?”

“I could ask you the same question.”  Vincent rejoined knowingly, stepping a bit closer and gracefully sinking down to sit on the grass, looking out on the circle of tents and sleeping bags that had been arrayed for the night.  There were a few shuffling sounds, so Vincent was not entirely surprised when he felt Cloud settle down next to him.

The both of them spent a while, just looking up at the partially cloudy night sky in companionable silence.

“I couldn’t sleep.”  Cloud muttered eventually, casting his gaze downward and idly pulling at the grass with his fingers.  “I know it’s been a week since we met up and saw that you and Da had got Harry back, but-“  Cloud’s throat nearly closed over, but blinked his eyes harshly and tried to push through it.  He wanted to get these thoughts out of his head and he had the feeling that Vincent would be able to understand.  “But sometimes I can’t see him for a minute or two during the day and I panic.  Then Harry gets all exasperated, because it really doesn’t bother him much- he was asleep the whole time.  But I just remember lying with Fleecy and Nev at night, listening to Ma cry while she rocked Carina and thinking that it was all my fault.”  Cloud was crying now.  Quiet, bitter tears filled with self-loathing and a sort of deeply primal fear that comes from having someone you love nearly ripped from your grasp unexpectedly.  “And I just- what didn’t I go with him?  Or go get it for him?  Or have Nev go?”  Cloud hiccupped a bit and pulled his knees up to his chest before burrowing his head in his arms.  “I know what he says, but I’m the eldest.  It’s all my fault!”

Vincent hesitantly raised a hand and slowly- ever so slowly, because what the hell was he doing?!- placed it on Cloud’s back before he began to rub soothing circles as the child quietly sobbed.  The red-eyed former Turk let the child cry for a while before he worked up the nerve to speak.  “I have learned.”  Vincent said slowly after a time.  “That when one only looks back on their mistakes and all of the ‘what ifs’ involved they lose sight of the present and all the moments of ‘I can’.  Learn from the past, but do not live there.”  Vincent half-smiled at the boy as blue eyes peeked shyly up at him.  “It’s something new I’m trying.”

Cloud’s grin was slow, but no less warm.  “Yeah.”  He sniffled, wiping his eyes dry and slowly rising to his feet.  “Yeah.  That sounds right.”  Cloud’s smile grew wider, fonder and he darted in and gave Vincent a quick, bewildering hug before rattling off a hasty ‘night!’ and disappearing back into the tent.

Vincent blinked slowly and pressed a hand to his chest in wonder.  He hugged me.  The man thought dazedly.  He touched me and he did not recoil when he felt my scars and my monsters did not emerge and harm him.  He hugged me.  The puzzled expression slowly melted away and Vincent smiled softly.  I suppose that this is proof that I’m not a total monster.  Vincent snorted a laugh as he rose, strangely light with forgotten warmth slowly creeping through his veins.  Maybe- maybe helping this family.  Finding a way to tell Sephiroth of his mother.  Of how she did love him, despite her faults.  Maybe that will be a better atonement than locking myself in my nightmares?  He thought as he left to make the nightly rounds, wary of AVALANCHE sending more minions to try to take one of the children.

As the thought crossed his mind, a cacophony of roars reverberated through his mind and Vincent paused. 

Only-

These roars were not snarls of prisoners seeking to escape; to destroy.  These snarls were made of protective, possessive fury.  The thunder of a dragon defending its hoard or the rage-filled screech of a Chocobo as it safeguarded its nest.

Oh. Vincent thought as he began to walk once more, his brow furrowed as he tentatively tried to listen.  Oh.

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From his place in the shadows, leaned comfortably against a tree, Sirius Black smiled.  We’ll break though that thick shell of yours yet, Vince.

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The Canyon party’s return to Nibelheim was chaotic and lively.  The Black-Longbottoms were hosting some of the workers, other townspeople some others, and yet a great deal of the workers were camping out in backyards.

However, before the workers could begin, the final negotiations needed to take place between the town and the workers.  Especially as Nibelheim was supposed to pay for the installment of everything, even if the Black-Longbottoms were ‘donating’ or ‘loaning’ a number of things to move things along a bit quicker.  Officially the power sources were to belong to the town, not the family, so the town needed to finalize the arrangements.

Since Nibelheim had been in a State of Emergency after the Reactor meltdown the Elections- which were for the Treasurer and two new Councilors- had been pushed back to the fall.  This meant that Augusta was still dealing with Treasurer Trent Manning.  The Mayor Longbottom was pleasantly surprised when he gave little resistance and actually offered a few helpful suggestions during the final bit of negotiations. 

“I am certain part of that was because I am Mayor.”  Augusta had informed her fellow pro-Longbottom Councilors over tea the morning after everything had been finalized and the work had begun.  “However, should he maintain this sort of attitude and continue to show this sort of aptitude, I really see no reason for him to be replaced.”

“His wife, on the other hand.”  Miriam Hester broke in with a scowl.  “Definitely needs to go.”

“Hear, hear!”  Karen Gentry cheered, her eyes alight with amused irritation.  “I thought I was dealing with an unruly adolescent, not a nearly half-century old woman for a bit!  Honestly!”

“Well, Regina never has liked to come down and shake hands with reality.”  Miriam interjected dryly, her lips twisting into a dry sort of smirk.  “She was that way as a girl, as well.  She has her view of the world and refuses to accept anything that contradicts it.”

“But she’s always been quite easy on the eyes, hm?”  Augusta rejoined archly, sipping at her tea with a small smile.

“Indeed.”  Miriam said with a small grimace as she shuffled her papers busily.  “She had that whole generation of boys in an uproar before she settled down with Trent Manning.  Though Trenton came early, if you know what I mean.”

“Ah.  That explains quite a bit.”  Augusta admitted as she drained her tea and eyed the massive pile of paperwork distastefully.  “Really, if we simply hold the Clerk election and rid ourselves of Regina Manning and Madelynn Lockhart, the Council would be in quite good shape.  Not all of them would hail from our camp, of course, but a little competition never hurt anyone.”

“Hmm.  I agree.”  Miriam hummed agreeably as she extracted a stack and handed it to Karen before turning back to her own stack of papers.  “I think that Claudia would make a lovely Clerk, but she is no doubt quite busy with the baby and the rest of your grandchildren, Aggie.”

“True.”  Augusta agreed absently as she carefully read through the documents in her grasp.  “Though Ifalna is quite adept at that sort of thing as well.  Unfortunately, I think she is perfectly happy at the bank and the Apothecary shop.”

“Pity.”  Miriam and Karen muttered as the women lapsed into silence.

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Gun pursed her lips in irritation as Hojo continued  his loud, angry tirade about Nibelheim, their Mayor, how Shinra needed to stop this nonsense and- his favorite topic- Turk incompetence.  She shared a commiserating look with Rod, who was positioned by the door, catty-cornered from her window position.  The three of them were in Hojo’s room at the Inn, waiting out Hojo’s latest tantrum.

Well, the Turks were.  Hojo was just shouting and occasionally throwing things.  He had grown even more unreasonable as time ticked by and they could not begin digging at the Reactor site due to Urban Development being so understaffed.  The President refused to send the Director, Reeve Tuesti, and all of the man’s engineers were occupied with Reactors Seven, Eight, and Three in Midgar, due to either construction or complications.

The President was also refusing to send those men, as Midgar’s Rectors were the backbone of the city.  Even President Shinra knew that Shinra Company could not afford a Reactor failure or accident in Midgar itself at this point.

It had been about two weeks since the return of Mayor Longbottom’s family- which had put them in Nibelheim for over two months by this point, as June was just around the corner- and Hojo had not stopped his heated raging since their arrival.  Whether he was spewing vitriol about the town’s decision to terminate their contract with Shinra and pursue alternate energy sources or he was storming the Mayor’s office to bombast her about Shinra owning Nibelheim; Hojo was quite simply being a complete and utter menace.

As a matter of fact, Gun was eagerly anticipating the order to subdue and return the man to Midgar by any means necessary from Veld.  Not only had Gun been chronicling Hojo’s increasingly erratic behavior meticulously, but the Apothecary League had been to Nibelheim to inspect Master Black’s shop and Hojo had opened his fool mouth to them.

Not on purpose, but Hojo had found a willing audience when Gun had been settling the check for their lunch with the Inn.  Rod had been sidelined with an inane Hojo demand and had met up with her a few moments before they finally made it back to their charge.

Their charge- who, with his crew of seven other like-minded scientists- had been eagerly raging to two men who were quite obviously not from Nibelheim, which had sparked a great deal of alarm in the two bodyguards’ minds.  Alarm which turned to panic once Master Black had emerged from his shop and greeted the newcomers by name.

Gun’s stomach had dropped all the way down to her ankles, even as her heart had leapt into her throat.

The Turks were the absolute best at what they did, but there were some opponents that were far too entrenched into the daily lives of the people to be silenced or disappeared.  High-ranking League members were on that list.  Even Shinra depended on the League’s approval and recipes, despite Shinra’s technological superiority.  With all the money going to Weapon’s Development, SOLDIER, and the Science Department one would assume that Shinra would have the best Apothecary-related advances, but that was a dirty, filthy lie.  The type of people who were good at that sort of thing were highly sought after and usually intimately aware of their own worth.

More importantly, to reach that level of skill one needed to be ‘in’ with an existing Apothecary League member.  And the League had its own enforcers who took their jobs very, very seriously.

Occasionally there were geniuses like Master Black, but there were maybe two or three of him every century or so.  Veld had been quite keen on getting Apothecary Black to sympathize with the Turks before Hojo had shot that plan all to hell.

Veld was positively furious with Hojo over that.

There were maybe twenty Master Apothecaries on all of Gaia with Master Black’s rating and all the others were firmly entrenched in the League's rules and regulations.  Most of those Masters were also well into their fifth decade by the time they reached their ‘Platinum’ rating, so for Black to have rated Platinum fresh off his Mastery Exams was extraordinary.  Black was a unique, one-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Turks and Hojo’s temper tantrums had blown it.

Apothecaries of Black’s talent could do things that normal Apothecaries- even Master Apothecaries- would not even dream of doing.  Having Master Black even the least bit sympathetic to their cause would have been worth more than the entire medical staff of the best hospital on Gaia.

Veld had taken this information to the President- the man had always been infuriatingly tolerant of Hojo’s lunacy- and had finally gotten the man to consider bringing Hojo back to Midgar.  By force if necessary.

Everything was piling up and with two Turks- or more, Legend had been here for a week or so, so had a few other agents at different points- constantly tied down with babysitting the tantrum-throwing Head of the Science Department the investigation was more than stalling, it was dead.  Not to mention the SOLDIER injections were seriously behind schedule- because only Hojo knew how to make the doses!- along with a laundry list of other, smaller fires that needed to be put out before they turned into wildfires.  The situation in Wutai was growing grimmer by the moment.  Word of a new anti-Shinra group being offered sanctuary in return for supporting Wutai against Shinra was starting seem like more of a fact than just nasty rumors, by the latest reports coming from the frontlines.

Gun tuned in to Hojo as his phone rang, but lost interest when he just began screaming again.

The very last thing we need is for Hojo to do something stupid here in Nibelheim and ignite this entire side of the continent with anti-Shinra sentiment.  She thought to herself as Hojo continued to yell at whomever he was on the phone with.  Nibelheim is the seat of power for this entire region and too much time has passed for a true cover-up to happen.  Everyone is watching this situation.  Especially the League and the Guild now that Hojo has put his foot in it.  Not only would it be time-consuming putting down anti-Shinra, pre-rebellions, it could threaten our hold on Rocket Town!  As if the Wutai War does not have enough logistic issues!  We cannot ‘disappear’ an entire continent of people no matter what the President and Hojo think!  There would be full-out civil war!

“Gun.”  She answered shortly before the first ring even completed its little tune.  Veld’s voice came through the line and Gun’s lips curled into a wicked smirk.  “Understood, sir.”  She snapped her phone shut with a satisfied expression and locked eyes with Rod.

I’m going to enjoy this.

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“Isn’t she adorable?”  Aerith gushed to Tifa excitedly.

The two girls were playing with Carina in the Black-Longbottom’s living room.  A soft, fluffy blanket had been laid out and the baby was amusing herself by rolling around, doing what seemed to be baby-pushups, and slobbering on just about everything.  Claudia was nearby, of course, but the girls were more than happy to entertain the baby, so the older blonde was attempting to try to catch up on housework.  Their houseguests were quite mannerly, but there was still plenty to be done.

About a week after their return to Nibelheim the kids had been quite excited to learn that Tifa’s play-date privileges had finally been reinstated.  Actually, Tifa came over nearly every day now, much to Aerith’s delight.  Ifalna was manning the Bank with Augusta, so Aerith and Tifa usually stayed at the house with Claudia and tried to help the blonde woman with whatever they could.

Minding Carina was one of Aerith’s favorite activities!  She was also plotting out flower beds and such to be installed after the guests left, but that was part of her afternoon project, mostly done while Carina was asleep.  Tifa was a bit more wary of the baby, but she was slowly warming up to the idea of the tiny little girl.  At first Aerith had been a bit miffed at Tifa’s lack of enthusiasm towards Carina.  Aerith had taken it pretty personally, actually.  Claudia, having anticipated something along those lines, explained to Aerith that Tifa was the youngest, so it would take the other girl some adjustment to get used to not being the ‘baby’ anymore.

After that Aerith had been much more patient with the younger girl and it seemed to be working, as Tifa was seemingly enjoying being around the baby more nowadays.

The boys were excited about Tifa’s return to their daily routines too, but they were helping out with small tasks around the work sites.  Not to say that the girls were any less competent, but Tifa was sort of sheltered and given the near-miss with Harry during their time at the Canyon, they wanted to make sure that nothing happened to Tifa accidentally.  Especially as Tifa did not have near the amount of training the other children had received.  The adults had made sure to reinforce the fact that just because the girls were not at the work sites did not mean that the what the girls were doing was any less important.  The last thing any of the adults wanted to do was make any of the kids think that certain jobs were ‘lesser’ or only work that a particular gender was ‘supposed’ to do.

The Black-Longbottoms were all about equality, after all!  The adults made sure to stress the equality part, too. 

“Equality is not putting someone else down until you felt better about yourself.”  Augusta had informed the children sternly during that first luncheon, when they had been divvying up the kids and tasks.  “Rather, equality is extending the same respect to others that you, yourself, expect to be granted.”  Augusta had pinned each of the children with a firm stare.  “Just because someone is a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ does not mean anything.  Women can fight, men can cook, and everyone needs clean laundry.  Do you all understand me?”  Augusta nodded sharply and delicately lifted her tea to her lips.  “That being said, not everyone believes the same, and that is alright.  Other persons behaving like idiotic barbarians is not license for any of my grandchildren to do the same!   I do not care how old you happen to get, you will never be too old for Gran to take by the ear and assign penalty runs through the obstacle course! Do I make myself absolutely clear?”

None of the kids had felt brave enough to point out that, technically, Tifa was not one of Gran’s grandchildren.  That would have been cheeky and cheekiness meant muscle soreness when aforementioned cheekiness was presented out of turn.

Of course the lingering fear of one of the children being taken remained, so each of the boys had each been paired up with an adult.  Cloud was usually with Sirius, as the young blond was able to do simple construction tasks and had the attention span for such a thing.  Neville was usually with Regulus at the Apothecary shop, trying to help Regulus and Steph with what he could since Ashley was still at the Canyon.  Harry was usually paired with Vincent and played messenger, running between work sites with messages as the mountains interfered with most radios and none of the other communication devices were energy-efficient enough to be worth using for smaller messages.

So, really, the beginning of July and Carina coming up on her fourth month was to be expected, even if it seemed as if they had hit a time-warp somewhere along the way sometimes!

“She’s tiny.”  Tifa said wonderingly, reaching out and patting the baby’s belly softly, tracing a finger up to tap Carina’s nose lightly, making the baby coo and gurgle out happy sounds.  Carina wriggled and eventually managed to flip back over onto her tummy.

“She was tinier when she was born.”  Aerith informed her friend cheerfully as she picked up a nearby stuffed bunny and began to make it dance for Carina’s amusement.  Carina had recently discovered that she had hands; which meant that the baby was glorying in reaching out and latching onto things.

Carina still had some trouble letting go, though, so Aerith made sure to keep her hair far away from the curious little baby!  She had learned her lesson!

Tifa flopped down onto her tummy and set her chin on her hands as Carina sort of drug herself closer to the bunny and made grabby-motions towards it.  “At first I wasn’t sure how to feel about her.”  Tifa admitted after Aerith relinquished the toy and Carina promptly shoved a fuzzy bunny ear into her mouth.  “But now I kind of wish that I had a little brother or sister.”  Tifa’s pretty reddish-brown eyes dimmed.  “My Ma and Daddy aren’t like Aunt Audi and Uncle Sirius, though.  They….don’t get along very well.”

“Hey, you’ve got us!”  Aerith reassured the younger girl as she, too, flopped down on the blanket on her tummy.  The older girl kept half an eye on the baby- who was now drooling on the bunny’s nose and seemingly trying to bounce in place- and nudged Tifa reassuringly.  “Besides, Uncle Siri says that everyone’s marriage or partnership is different, because people are individuals.  Gran says that if you try to judge your partnership with someone else’s standard you’re just borrowing trouble.”

“What’s that mean?”  Tifa asked curiously, absently reaching out to support the bunny when Carina moved on to the thing’s foot.

“Hm.”  Aerith hummed as she considered what to say, her cheerfully yellow sock-clad feet swaying idly behind her as she pondered the question.  “I think it means that since we’re all a little different if we try to judge our partners like someone else does we’re sort of taking the easy way out because we’re not finding our own solution.”  Aerith hummed again and canted her head to the side a bit.  “I mean, Uncle Reg says that it’s disrespectful to try and make someone be something they are not just because it would make you happy.  So, judging your parents on Aunt Audi and Uncle Siri’s behavior is sort of disrespectful to all of them, because they’re all different?”

“I hadn’t really thought of it like that.”  Tifa admitted, pulling her hand back and grimacing at the layer of baby-drool on her hand, prompting Aerith to giggle and scuttle off to grab a baby wipe.  “I just sort of wish they liked each other a bit better so I could have a baby sibling, too.”

“I don’t think that that is disrespectful.”  Aerith contemplated with a hum, hopping up to dispose of Tifa’s used wipe without being asked.  “We all have dreams and wishes, after all.  But just because your parents aren’t the same as Aunt Audi or Uncle Siri doesn’t mean you won’t ever have a baby sister or brother.  Besides.”  Aerith grinned mischievously at her friend as she flopped back down on the blanket and picked up a plastic ring of brightly colored keys to try and tempt Carina with.  “I’m sure that Uncle Siri and Aunt Audi will have plenty of babies for you to play with!”

“I hope you’re not volunteering me for another pregnancy, Fleecy dear.”  Claudia teased gently as she swept into the room.  Carina saw her Ma and started to gurgle happily and reached out her arms in an adorable plea to be picked up.  Claudia obligingly came closer and sank down onto the blanket as she swept her daughter up, unbuttoning the well-hidden snaps in her top as she did so.  Once Carina had been settled, Claudia looked back up at the other two girls.  “This woman is quite done with pregnancy for the next few years.”  She announced stoutly.

“So you don’t want your own army?”  Aerith queried with a pout.  A pout with devolved into excited giggles at Claudia’s horrified expression.

Planet, no!”  Claudia choked out; aghast.  “Why would you even say something like that?!  Do you have any idea what it is like to have to roll off of the couch because you cannot simply stand up like the average human being?”

Aerith and Tifa continued to giggle helplessly, leaning on each other for support, as Claudia continued to rant about ankles, bathroom breaks, and the agony of childbirth.  There might or might not have been some subtly placed threats towards Sirius’ general state of health and wellbeing somewhere in there, as well.

Especially if Sirius truly intended on having his own army.  Because that would not be happening.  Ever.

That night at dinner Aerith took one look at Sirius and once again collapsed into giggles.  Leaving Sirius confused, doubly so when he caught the dirty look his wife leveled at him.

“Did I do something?”  He asked perplexedly, glancing between Aerith and Claudia in confusion.

“No.  Just no.”  Claudia declared firmly as she turned back to her dinner, resolutely ignoring her husband and the still-laughing, giggling, gasping Aerith.

Aerith nearly drowned in her mashed potatoes.

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Sirius watched the gauges in the relay Station intently. 

This was it.  In a few moments the wind turbines would be released and power would begin to flow to the Station.  Once the batteries collected the proper amount of initial charge, then electricity would begin to once again flow through the Nibelheim power grid.

That was, if everything went the way it had been planned.

There was a sophisticated system in place in case of a single turbine’s failure or damage done to a particular cluster’s relay lines.  The Relay Station would eventually house up to seven batteries, which would store enough energy to power the town for up to a month in the event of a- well, another-catastrophic failure.

That was, if everything went according to plan.

Sirius realized that he had actually been holding his breath when Alina poked him in the side, causing him to yelp and flail a bit.  The dark-haired woman grinned unrepentantly at him when he leveled an accusatory glare at her.  “Calm down, hoss.”  She told him with an impish grin, one of her hands braced against her hip. “Either it’ll work, or it’ll almost work and then we’ll fix it!”

“And we have made sure to check the lines in the houses already.”  Jonah called from the other side of the Station.  “We’ve got crews ready to inspect things when we go live.”  Turning back to the Station’s intercom- one that connected to the Wind Farm Outpost, Jonah spoke into the mic.  “Wind Outpost this is the Relay Station.  You have the green light.  Repeat, Outpost you are clear to commence operations.”

“Acknowledged.”  Felix’s voice was slightly crackly, but his words were clear enough through the Station’s speakers to be heard by everyone.  “Outpost commencing operations in t-minus five.”

A few minutes later the notice that operations had commenced successfully came through and then it was a waiting game as the Station’s gauges whirred to life.  Sirius went back to apprehensively watching the master gauges as the power level went from ‘disaster’ to ‘critical’.  The Station would not prompt them to feed power into the grid until the power level of the backup battery’s charge went through the progressive stages of ‘imminent failure’, ‘critical’, and ‘emergency’ to reach the ‘stable and background charging’ stage.

“And it’s not like we’re turning everything on at once.”  Liam pointed out as he popped up from underneath one of the half-finished monitoring stations.  “We’ve divided the town into nine units and we are going to inspect each district as they go live.  Our teams are good at what they do, you know that.  And you’ve made them replace most of the original wiring because you are super paranoid.  Really, Sirius, calm down.”

Sirius took a few deep breaths and tried to center himself.  Of course, then he turned back to the master gauges and saw that they had passed into the ‘emergency’ stage and were nearly up to ‘stable and background charging’ one.  “Ok.”  Sirius said into his mic with a calm he definitely did not feel.  “Someone send up the green flares so that the inspection teams know that we are almost ready to go live to unit one.”

Alina gave him a cheeky salute and grabbed the flare gun from the storage locker.  She double checked the flare color that was loaded and grabbed an extra before she skipped out the door and they heard to loud pops of the gun being fired, along with the somewhat louder explosion as the flare reached a certain altitude and exploded.

Sirius’ little brother was a bloody genius.  Granted, Vince had helped a lot, too.  Between the two of them it had only take about two weeks to perfect the flares, though, which was damn impressive in Sirius’ humble opinion.

The needle of the gauge finally edged fully into to the yellow area and the rest of the gauges continued to build in power.   Sirius took one final, bracing breath before he walked over to the master breakers on the far wall.  The metal-covered breaker boxes were neatly labeled and even had little maps to indicate which areas of Nibelheim they supplied with electricity.  Sirius stood on the rubber mat for a long moment before he straightened his spine and steadily reached out and flipped the manual switch to ‘on’.

Then Sirius had no more time to be nervous as things began to move much more quickly.  There were some last-minute fixes that needed doing and then some of the Shinra lackeys showed up- thank the Planet that Hojo guy had been hauled off weeks ago- presumably they were ‘curious’ and ‘interested’.

Sirius felt zero shame in abandoning them with the cheerfully terrifying Alina.

Later that night, an exhausted but triumphant Sirius returned home.  As he filled the family in on all the details over dinner, he grinned.  “Now.”  He concluded wryly as he waved a chunk of beef about on his fork.  “We just have to figure out how to solve the communication issues.”

“Oh, yeah.”  Harry said after he hastily swallowed his bite after he noticed that Nana was giving him the evil side-eye.  “The Mako-based devices only work on Mako electricity or Mako-batteries, right?  ‘Cause they don’t have their own, separate lines?”

“Essentially, yes.”  Sirius nodded, grinning dopily at Claudia and kissing her cheek sweetly when she refilled his plate for him.  “The theory is a bit fuzzy to me, but I know that the Shinra-made portable handheld communication devices are much the same.  I think it has more to do with the Liquid Lifestream-derived energy and its attunement to the Planet’s essence, more than anything.  At any rate, we will need to find a solution and we might as well go big, right?  I mean, house devices would be great and all, but communication devices that can be taken anywhere are even better.  So we’re going to work from that angle as opposed to the purely home-bound communication device angle.”

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With all the insanity that had been happening that summer, the boys had been more than happy to combine their individual birthday celebrations into one party.  They had insisted that Aerith have a small slice of the party-attention as well, given that her birthday had been mostly overlooked, given that it was in February and February had been rather wild in its own right.

Aerith had turned ten in February, the boys turned nine at the end of July, and Cloud would turn ten on the nineteenth of August.

They held the combined birthday party on the sixteenth and had made it an all-day event.  Most of the town showed up at some point, and the first halves of the winter orders had come in from the Midlands, so Dyne and Barrett’s families were there as well. 

The kids had tons of fun eating cake and then running around and playing games that were organized by Augusta, Miriam, or a combination of the reigning Nibelheim tea-ladies.  This cycle repeated several times over the course of the day.

Much to the delight of everyone, since one of the construction projects had been a stone partition being constructed at the edge of the lake, the kids were able to play in the water of the Black-Longbottom family’s naturally formed pool.  The stone basin that served as the bottom of the pool had been worn away over the years, so the bottom was smooth.  Given that the water came mostly from melted snow from further up the mountain, there really was not any fish life to speak of until the falls joined the actual river a few plateaus down.

Naturally Sirius and Regulus had added extra protections to the stones that were used to construct the partitions, but they were keeping mum as to why anyone under the age of thirty lost interest in the falls-edge of the pool at roughly twenty feet away from aforementioned edge. 

The stone partition was nearly five feet wide and extended nearly seven feet high, if not for the curve that arched towards the falls that fed the pool.  The curve had been installed for shade and also as an extra safety measure.  Mostly because Sirius had always had an active imagination and as a parent that sometimes worked against him.  There were plenty of little openings in the structure for the water to flow through, but none of them were much larger than the average piece of water piping. 

Plenty of room for the water to flow through, not nearly large enough for a kid to fall through.  It made the other side of the falls look quite pretty, actually.

There was a pavilion nearby, though it was not entirely finished just yet.  Eventually it would be quite the cozy little place for one of the adults to be able to relax and read in while still being close enough to be able to mind the children properly.

The children had lots of fun, though, and really, that was all that mattered.

The day of the party was also used as day for the adults to mostly relax and catch up.  They had all been working extremely hard to get everything up and running before winter.  There was plenty of work for the extra crew members to do even after the major renovation projects were completed.  Farms were working overtime to try and make up for lost time, due to equipment malfunctions or supply shortages.  The animal populations had suffered a bit as well, so every little bit counted.

What had come as a bit of a surprise to Sirius was just how many of the workers were considering staying in Nibelheim.  Well, they planned on returning to the Canyon just long enough to gather up their belongings and miscellaneous family members before returning.

“What do you think Sherriff?”  Sirius asked from over the brim of his spiked drink.  He, the Sherriff, and Trent Manning of all people were seated on the back porch of the Black-Longbottom home, looking out over the grounds as they contentedly wound down from a pleasant day. 

The children- well, quite a few people actually- were spread out on blankets listening to the likes of Anna Yearwood or Tori Wellington- Miriam’s cousin or something, Sirius lost track after a bit- storytelling.  Most of the women were either minding children, bustling about the kitchen, or had congregated in the half-finished pavilion across the way.

“I think I’m going to need more people.”  Sherriff Bradford sighed as he sipped his drink.  “I’m like to have enough people to set up some security on the Station.  The Outpost and the Planes are far enough out I’m not particularly worried- it would take some sincere hard work and dedication to get to them- but Shinra hasn’t left yet and that makes me nervous.”

Trent grunted noncommittally.  “They still haven’t given us a reason for the Reactor failure and rumor has it that Hojo fella is coming back.”  Trent shook his head and sighed.  “I admit I don’t like most Outsiders, but he seemed to be personally offended about the Reactor failure and was pretty unreasonable when we told him Nibelheim wasn’t interested in another one.”

“I know the nicest thing Aggie had to say was that he enjoyed hearing himself talk.”  Sirius supplied, causing both men- and their eavesdroppers- to chuckle.  Sirius turned to Trent.  “Do you think we could afford to expand the law enforcement budget?  I mean, I was thinking that we might need to make one of the Councilor positions like, a Utility Manager or something.  That way Nibelheim could hire the Station operators.  Then the Utility Manager and the Sheriff-“  Sirius gestured with his drink towards Sherriff Bradford.  “-could work out the details for safety and inspection between themselves.”

“You’re not going to be the Station operator?”  Trent asked, a bit more snidely that he had intended.  Unlike most of his family, Trent had been raised right and he had taken the whole ‘family business going under’ as a humbling, learning experience.

Trent had always been more practical than most of his family.  Truthfully he let his wife and her friends do whatever they wanted, mostly because when they were bothering others they were leaving him alone.  Trent had needed to face a lot of ugly truths in the past few years, but he was trying.

“Nope!”  Sirius belted out cheerfully. “I have many other projects to do.  And my Carina is growing up so fast!”  Sirius sobered and pinned Trent with a steely glare.  “I just want my kids to grow up happy and healthy.  I don’t mind being an innovator.  To be the person who gets the ball rolling and all that.  But I don’t really care for power, or recognition, or fame even.  I just want them to be safe.  To be happy.”  Sirius’ features softened and he looked towards the half-finished pavilion. 

In the flickering, soft light of the small sun-powered water lilies that floated cheerfully on the surface of the nearby pool, Claudia’s blonde hair seemed to nearly glow.  There were a few strings of rope lights strung haphazardly around the pavilion- also solar powered- but Claudia and her cluster of women were at the far end and thus nearest to the water.  Sirius watched as Ifalna said something and the nearby women- Claudia, Myra, Eleanor and few others Sirius vaguely recognized- laughed.  But Sirius’ eyes were only for his wife and the tender expression on his face as he watched her laugh as she absently rocked Carina was far more convincing to the men around him than Sirius’ previous words.

“You know.”  Trent murmured as he raised his own glass to his lips, a strange pang of something zinging through his chest as jealously crept up from the depths of his gut like ivy.  It was a black, dark, and vicious feeling.  Toxic words and thoughts churned inside his mind and he clamped his lips together tightly to prevent any of those treacherous feelings from spilling forth and ruining the sanctity of the moment.  Trent took a few steady, carefully measured breaths through his nose before he opened his mouth and sipped his drink as casually as he could manage. 

When Trent looked up he met the observant eyes of Sirius Black.  It was strange, Trent thought a bit dazedly, for such a young man to have such a weighted, heavy stare.  Trent did his best to maintain end of the staring contest, and eventually a smile curled his lips and the younger man raised his glass in a pseudo-salute and took a long drink.

“At any rate.”  Sirius continued after a moment.  “I think Nibelheim needs a few more civil officers.”

“I agree.”  Trent found himself saying, and though the words were far different from everything he had wanted to say, somehow he felt as if his message had still been heard.  “Now, the budget actually has some play, because………”

From his seat Sherriff James Bradford snorted lightly into his own drink as he watched the impossible unfold right in front of his own two eyes.  Never a dull moment.  He though amusedly as Trent Manning and Sirius Black started plotting out new positions, budget adjustments and potential new city employees; Regulus Black appearing out of nowhere at some point and promptly joining them.

Definitely never a dull moment with the Black-Longbottoms around.  James thought as he walked into his house later that night.  It was actually his parents’ old home and he still felt a bit strange walking into his childhood home without his grandmother’s vase being in the entryway. 

Even though it was beyond late, James’ wife Amy was waiting up in the living room, a pot of tea on a warmer on the end table and a book open in front of her.  Amy smiled at her husband as he came into view, immediately peppering him with questions about what she had missed once she had taken her leave.  Amy’s once brilliantly auburn hair was lightly peppered with grey, but her deep blue eyes were only accentuated by laugh-lines that framed them when she smiled.  The woman was fairly tall –an oddity in Nibelheim- and her shoulders were starting to hunch with age and her hands were weathered from years of long, hard work.

James just smiled gently at his wife and walked over and kissed her full on the mouth.  “I love you.”  He told her after he broke off the kiss and leaned his forehead against hers lovingly.  “I’m so happy that you’re my partner.”

Amy’s laugh-crinkles creased further as her smile turned fonder.  “Oh, hush you.”  She snapped at him with a playful light in her eyes.  “I’m still not letting you adopt one of those damn fluffy Chocobo!  You’d never clean up their messes!”  Amy brought out the accusing finger, shoving it in his face and causing him to snap his teeth playfully at it.  Naturally that earned him a whap to the shoulder and a follow-up statement.  “I remember how often you needed to go do paperwork when our boy was a baby, mister James Bradford!”

James laughed- lively, gently, and exultantly- and kissed her again.

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Chapter Text

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Hojo snarled as he pushed back from the microspore.  The man debated tossing the thing against a wall for a moment before deciding that banging his fist on the countertop was the better course of action.

He had already destroyed three microscopes this week as it was.

Hojo scooter a bit closer to the counter so he could pillow his head in his hands. 

How, in the name of his benevolent Jenova, had it come to this?

A year ago Hojo had been unstoppable.  The maintenance crew brought back fresh J-Cells from the Nibelheim Reactor twice a year. 

Well, the Urban Development flunkies were under the impression that the cases of automatically generated processed Mako-J-Cell mixed vials were part of an ongoing study concerning Mako Reactors. 

Which was sort of true if you looked at it sideways and upside down.

The pre-mixed solution had been carefully calibrated by Hojo.  Too much Mako and the J-Cells would become impaired, though not irreparably damaged.  Too little Mako and the J-Cells would not have enough to feed on so they would begin to cannibalize other J-Cells.

The first was a major problem, as the SOLDIER who received those injections suffered from nearly instant Mako Poisoning and catastrophic organ failure within two-to-three hours after the Poisoning occurred.   The second caused unexpected mutations in the SOLDIERs who received those J-Cells as part of their injections, though how quickly those mutations developed depended on the degree of J-Cell cannibalization that took place.  The second was not a major issue because then the SOLDIER would be moved to the Deepground facility for further experimentation and therefore was not a complete loss.

Hojo had plenty of processed J-Cells at his disposal, so he could continue the SOLDIER injections for quite a while yet.  In the Deepground facility Hojo had four of the tentacle-like appendages that had sprouted near Jenova’s waist.  The extra appendages that had been harvested were the longest ones Jenova possessed- there were longer than she was tall, actually- so there were plenty of J-Cells available in them.  The tentacles were suspended in the same artificially melted dry ice from the Extraction Site that Jenova’s main body had been in Nibelheim, guaranteeing their potency.

However…….

However, the loss of Jenova’s body was still crippling. 

For all that the individual J-Cells acted like a virus, they still needed a goal to work towards the goal that Hojo wanted them to work towards.  J-Cells introduced to a prime breeding ground- say an animal or even an unenhanced human- would form together into clusters and attempt to take over the body. 

However, the cells all possessed the intrinsic desire of finding the ‘home’ cluster of cells and being reabsorbed into the whole.  Therefore this instinct dictated the smaller clusters’ individual actions. 

Part of the reason why Jenova had been housed in Nibelheim was because of the harsh terrain and the isolation the Nibel Mountains provided.  With the thousands of pounds of steel and other building materials in addition the large amount of Mako the Reactor required to operate, the psychic call of the ‘home’ cluster was disrupted.  Though because the main body still existed as a whole the J-cells still retained their most primitive instincts, which drove them to continue to mutate and take over stronger lifeforms in order to reach a point wherein they could divine the location of the ‘home’ cluster.

The easiest accessible second-best source was the Midgar Shinra Company labs.  It was partially why there were so incredibly many monsters in the Midgar Wastes and the Slums.  The labs were on the basement levels, which meant they were- physically- in the Slums.  Hojo had labs on some of the higher floors, but none of them contained a significant amount of the authentic J-Cells.

The usual SOLDIER injections did not actually contain J-Cells. 

Third Class and Second Class SOLDIERs received injections of a solution that was three parts Reactor-processed Mako and one part J-Cell waste Mako- or Mako that had been consumed and then excreted from the J-Cells before the J-Cells were filtered out of the solution.  Those who could not receive the injections and instead were submerged or went through the Mako showers moved to a more balanced solution- two parts of each- but active J-Cells were not a part of the injections at all.

SOLDIER First Classes- excepting Hojo’s prized specimen, Sephiroth- were given G-Cells.  Cells from the woman, not that failure experiment of Hollander’s!  The dosage of G-Cells was relatively low, but they quite visibly boosted the abilities of the SOLDIER Firsts.

Hojo huffed angrily as he pushed up from the counter and headed back towards his office.  The official lab one, not the Deepground one where he kept his more sensitive files.  After yelling at a few interns, making an assistant cry, and intimidating an Infantryman, Hojo slipped inside his office and sank into his chair with a stressed sigh.

At least Sephiroth is still far above the rest.  Hojo thought proudly as he scrutinized several secret Turk reports from Wutai concerning SOLDIERs and Sephiroth’s performances.

Sephiroth was the only SOLDIER who contained S-Cells.  Well, immediately after injections he contained S-Cells and J-Cells as it took the boy’s body anywhere from twenty-four to thirty-six hours to absorb the newly introduced J-Cells and for those J-Cells to metamorphose into S-Cells.

Technically the cells could be called L-Cells, Hojo mused as he woke up his computer and he began the irritating task of sifting through his e-mail inbox. 

Whereas Hollander had injected Gillian Hewley with inert J-Cells- which she then passed on to her son naturally, and Genesis Rhapshodos received in utero- Lucrecia had been injected with live J-Cells and then Sephiroth had been injected with even more J-Cells as Lucrecia’s pregnancy progressed.

Hojo snorted in amusement, idly tapping out an irate reply to the Urban Development Director as his thoughts wandered.

That woman had her head planted firmly in the clouds.  Or the stars, as it were.  Really, even I knew she was in love with a dead man!  And using the man’s son as a replacement.  Hojo shook his head, sent the e-mail, and then began tapping out a response to the next.  Really, if the woman had asked I would have informed her of my inability to sire children.  Hojo’s lips thinned as he remembered the infection that had caused the scar tissue which prevented that particular ability.

Wutai did not care if their bastard children lived or died, after all.  It had taken that devastating illness or Hojo to work up the courage to leave the pleasure house he had been dropped in by so-called family and follow the wandering monster hunter who passed through his village.  The monster hunter- after several days of trying to trick Hojo into going ‘home’- had eventually taken pity on Hojo and had dropped him off in an orphanage in Costa del Sol.

At any rate, the infection that had ravaged his body let him rather susceptible to illnesses and permanently sterile.

Until Jenova had restored him.  Hojo’s benevolent queen had been able to reverse all the damaged except his infertility.

Hojo had gotten injured during the early days the extraction process.  The ice had given way unexpectedly and sliced through his glove and then he had slipped and landed on a newly exposed tentacle.  The barbed ridges of the tentacle had easily fit through the hole the ice had torn into his glove. 

Due to his rather weak immune system Hojo had known that the right thing to do would be to report the injury and possibly be taken off the crew.

Yet Hojo had not.  He had swapped out gloves- he had a habit of warming a pair up with his body heat and then swapping out pairs when he fingers went from ‘numb’ to ‘icicles’- and had continued working.  At the end of his fifteen-hour shift he had gone back to his assigned tent only to discover that his wound was mostly healed.  It had taken a few years to realize that Jenova had chosen him as the one to rebirth the Cetra, but by then he was already entirely loyal to her.  Jenova wanted to reclaim the Planet from the idiots who could not appreciate natural selection and progress, which aligned wonderfully with his own goals.  The fact that she spoke of things in a scientific manner as opposed to the magic mumbo-jumbo that some people espoused only made her words make even more sense.

Jenova was an advanced being, Hojo reasoned had reasoned to himself, so the idea of her having left an impression of herself behind before she sealed herself away to wait for an advanced enough society to reclaim her and resurrect the Cetra was not beyond the realm of possibilities.  After all, her cells were essentially a virus, so she was not truly alive, merely a roadmap to reclaiming a lost civilization.

Still, the fact that Hojo had used the sample obtained from Valentine’s routine Turk physical- the man was a Turk, he should have known to read the fine print every time he signed a contract- to impregnate Lucrecia only made Valentine’s end more amusing.  Doubly so in that Lucrecia had used the man’s Hojo-enhanced body to complete her Chaos Research.

Hojo had actually appreciated Valentine’s work and had been rather sad to see his time as a Turk end.  However, Hojo could not allow Valentine to interfere or potentially discover the actual male-DNA-contributor to Lucrecia’s child.  Valentine had been the best, so once he had stopped behaving the red-eyed man had needed to be dealt with.

Pity, that.

Where was he?  Oh, yes.  The L-Cells that were passed on to Sephiroth naturally from Lucrecia merged with the J-Cells that were imbued into the child in utero and that resulted in Sephiroth’s unique S-Cells.

S-Cells were perfect.  They were the next stage of evolution after the J-Cells.  Hojo’s plan had been for Sephiroth, once he had seen just how horrid humanity was, how fickle they were, to be introduced to his true mother, Jenova.  Hojo had purposefully fed the boy misinformation whenever the child had asked about his family.  All the statements had been- and still were- carefully calculated to ensure that Sephiroth developed a mindset that would allow him to rise above the rest of the populations like the might higher being he is once he had met his mother and discovered his true purpose.

Now all of those plans were ash because some upstart had had the nerve to reduce his benevolent queen to ash!

Well, Jenova might have survived- she was a higher being, after all- but since Urban Development kept coming up with excuses to stay in Midgar, it would likely be next spring before they would be able to conduct their entirely unnecessary survey.

Hojo sighed and slipped his glasses off his nose so he could massage his temples.

There was a time when the President understood the need for necessary risks and inevitable sacrifices for the sake of advancement.  Hojo growled inside the mind as he move his massaging hands towards his neck, in an effort to ward off the migraine that was building.  He had been getting them increasingly often as of late.  Brought on by stress, no doubt!  But now, since those incompetent Turks could not do their jobs properly and find the persons responsible for the Disaster he has decided to cower behind ‘rules’ and ‘regulations’.  Hojo snorted and rolled his shoulder, letting his hands slip down and pick up his glasses before he slid them back into place.  As if the man gives a Chocobo’s tailfeather about rules, regulations, or anyone but the Honeybee employee currently servicing him.

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Regulus ran his eyes over the information in his hands with a proud grin edging its way onto his lips.

Ashley had passed his Journeyman Exams with distinction and a few honors,  Not that Regulus had expected anything less, but a few of his acquaintances at the League had written him glowing reviews, along with thinly-veiled requests for him to at least hold a few seminars in Junon.

They had pretty much given up on asking him to move by now, so they were angling for the next best thing.

Regulus shifted the papers around until he came upon Ashley’s latest letter.

According to his licensed apprentice’s politely-worded letter the heat was making him irritable, his missed his family, and the Canyon just did not feel like a safe place after Harry’s abduction- short as it might have been.

Regulus carefully marshalled his frigid fury over that incident to the corner of his mind.  It would do him no good to dwell on that situation.  Sirius and Vincent handled it and there was far too much work to be done for Regulus to take a sabbatical to Wutai and set that bastard Fuhito on fire.

I might be developing a small, entirely justified case of pyromania.  Regulus thought amusedly as he continued to scan Ashley’s neat handwriting.

From what Regulus could tell, most of Ashley’s ire stemmed from either the heat- which Regulus could fully appreciate- or the young man’s personal outrage at the idea of Regulus’ nephew having been kidnapped due to Elder Bugenhagen’s negligence in safeguarding his journal.

Regulus was torn between amusement and a fierce sort of pride.  Logically Regulus understood that Elder Bugenhagen had been betrayed as well, but that did not stop the sense of resentment that the young Black brother felt towards the old man.

Blacks had a thing about grudges.

The man sighed and shunted those thoughts off to the side again before he stretched and leaned back, yawning as he did so. 

I still have trouble remembering that we have been here nearly three years.  Regulus thought as he gazed up at the ceiling of his home office.  Actually, Sirius has nearly been married for two years, already, which seems impossible.  Regulus’ lips twisted into a warm, fond smile as he thought about his nieces and nephews.  I love those brats so much more than I ever thought I’d be able to, considering my history with Mother and Father.  But now they’re just as important to me as Sirius.  Then there’s Aggie, some days it feels as if she has always been a part of my life, I don’t know how I survived without her!   Then, of course, Regulus remembered the newest stunt the kids had pulled and he scowled.  Though I’d be much happier if those brats would quit giving me heart attacks!

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“Well, that almost worked.”  Cloud offered with a weak grin.

Harry’s unimpressed glower was a work of art.  “Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”

“Where did you hear that?”  Sirius asked, popping up from where he had been covering Claudia and Carina.

“From one of the new Station operators.”  Harry capitulated cheerfully.

“He is quite the salty fellow, isn’t he?”  Sirius mused as he stroked the slight goatee he had grown recently.

“Ah!  Dah!”  Carina belted out happily.

Sirius spun around and hugged his wife and their youngest.  “She said Da!”  The man cheered excitedly.

“She’s been saying that for, like, two weeks now Da.”  Neville informed the man blithely.  “Those are pretty much her ‘I’m happy and contributing to this conversation’ sounds.”

Sirius released his bundle, stuck his tongue out at Neville, and then bounced over to the failed prototype.  “Alright.  So.”  Sirius murmured as the boys came up to circle the now-defunct devices.  “Cloud was correct in that we nearly had it right that time.”

Cloud preened.

“But we need to find a way to either loop the energy or bleed it off safely and effectively.

Cloud wilted.

“You look like one of the Chocobo babies when you do that.”  Harry snickered after giving Cloud a friendly punch to the arm.

Of course, they were hitting their physical training even harder now, so the muscle soreness Cloud felt from the friendly love-tap was anything but light.

At the same time, Sirius groaned.  Loudly.  “Having two Chocobo was alright.  Three, ok.  We now have our own herd and they are going to be in the barn all winter with nothing better to do than-“

Sirius Black!”  His wife called warningly from somewhere behind them.

“-make Chocobo babies.”  Sirius recovered smoothly.  “So next summer we will have a herd and a half.”

“You guys do realize that we spent most of the spring helping out on the farms, right?”  Cloud muttered dryly.

“What is that supposed to mean?”  His mother queried curiously.

“It was spring, Audi.  The season of new life and mating among our animal kingdom pals.”  Sirius interjected in an entirely deadpan voice.

“Oh.”  Claudia replied meekly.  “I had somehow edited that particular fact about farms out of my mind.”

“We’re still not clear on all the details.”  Cloud admitted as he turned back to the failed prototype.  “But Da said he would tell us all about those when I turn thirteen if it did not come up before then.”

“We already had the super-fun muscle soreness, you’re-going-to-feel-like-a-clown-for-awhile talk.”  Sirius informed Claudia sunnily.  “I think the average age for the ‘fun stuff’ is around twelve to fourteen, but I distinctly remember James being a First Year when his voice broke the first time.”

“Was it embarrassing?”  Harry asked with a grin.

Sirius nodded emphatically.  “Yup.  He was in the middle of reading a list as to why the lovely Lily should agree to become his wife- after they ran away and found a suitable castle sans the scary dragon, naturally- and his voice cracked entirely unexpectedly.”  Sirius shook his head and pushed himself up.  “James being James immediately recovered and claimed that it was Magic’s way of approving their glorious union.”  Sirius tapped his finger to his lips and canted his head to the side in deep thought.  “I think Lily dumped her pumpkin juice over his head and stormed off.”

“My kind of lady.”  Claudia interjected with a playful sniff.

“Ah!  Dah!”  Carina agreed enthusiastically, reaching her tiny arms out pleadingly towards her Da.

“Ah, yes.”  Sirius said as he swept the baby out of his wife’s arms and raised her up so he could blow raspberries on her belly.  “We shall have to teach you, young princess.”  Sirius explained seriously as he settled Carina against his hip and made for the door to the forge.  “How to ignore any and all potential paramours until you are at least eighty.”

“Eighty?”  Neville mouthed to his brothers.

“Potential paramours?”  They mouthed back.

“After all.”  Sirius continued his monologue blithely as he bounced across the backyard.  “I don’t want to leave any potential loopholes.”  “And really,”  Sirius continued as they made it to the back porch.  “Women are very, very pretty so I couldn’t blame you for your tastes.”

“Yes, well.”  Claudia began as she reclaimed her daughter and made her way towards the kitchen.  “I couldn’t blame you if you liked men.”  She turned and winked at the boys.  “You lot, either!  Really, I think I’d prefer son-in-laws I could potentially whap with my frying pan over any of the Regina Manning wanna-bes.”  Claudia shuddered slightly and then twirled gracefully and resumed making her way towards the kitchen.

“I really think we have the coolest parents ever.”  Neville whispered to his brothers.

“And don’t you forget it!”  Claudia called back loudly.

“She heard us.”  Cloud deadpanned over Sirius’ chortling, the boys having been working in the greenhouses a bit before their experiment and therefore needing to removed their shoes before proceeding.  “How does she always hear us?”

“Because mothers know everything!”  Augusta’s voice rang out from further inside the house.

“It’s like mother-only magic!”  Harry exclaimed in exasperation.

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Doctor Mark Hollander was, at his core, a healer.

He had lost his parents and both of his siblings- an elder sister and a baby brother—to complications after his hometown had been ravaged by a ‘expulsion plague’ when he was a young child. 

Truth be told, Mark had barely survived his seventh winter.

‘Expulsion plagues’ were the slang term for whenever large amounts of monster ick built up unpredictably in a water supply or infected crop-bearing earth.  People would start falling ill unexpectedly and their health would continue to decline until a simple cold or a mild infection would be enough to send them back to the Lifestream.  It was only after a large amount of people would fall sick unexpectedly that scientists would converge on an area and attempt to pinpoint the source, so the information they possessed on how such an event came to be was sketchy at best and fallacy at worst.

The event happened sporadically enough that there was currently no model to predict such an event and since the locations of a recorded event only went back about a hundred or so years they also had no idea on how to predict an event’s location.

However, after being taken in by one of the scientists that had come to study the plague, Mark had wholly devoted himself to learning the art of healing.  His adopted father and scientific mentor had been more interested in the study of geological sciences as opposed to the study of medicine and people, but had supported Mark wholeheartedly, nonetheless. 

Mark’s dream was to ensure that no other seven-year-old boy had to lose their father, mother, sister, and baby brother all in the same month.  The memories of that winter had never left him; the emotions that he felt when he had woken to find his father slumped over his dead mother and dead baby brother never faded.  Sometimes Mark could almost smell the vomit from when he had woken up to find that his sister had passed during the night, curled up against him and her face peaceful.  She had been half-returned to the Lifestream by then, but the feel of her ice-cold fingers twisted in the tattered fabric of his nightshirt still gave him shivers sometimes.

Mark had loved hearing stories about the Cetra and their amazing healing abilities from his town’s Storyteller and his interest in the Cetra and their methods only increased as he aged.  His obsession with them was why he had accepted Doctor Gast Faremis’ offer to come work for Shinra.  Professor Gast had been the one to inform Mark that they were heading for the Northern Continent to scour the remains of the Cetra home continent and Mark had been positively giddy at the idea of reclaiming even a fraction of the Cetra’s legendary healing abilities.  Even with Materia there were things that the current medical community simply could not touch in terms of finding cures.

Granted the ‘official’ reason why Shinra had an interest in the Cetra was because the President believed that the Cetra held the key to the fabled ‘Promised Land’, but Mark and Professor Gast were well-acquainted with having to work around the agendas of greedy corporations in order to garner funding.

It was the hazard of being a scientist.  Going along with the party line in order to pay the bills and keep the lights on.

When Mark had submitted his thesis to start Project Gillian- named for his lab assistant and lifelong friend, they had been the only two children to make it out of their tiny village alive- Mark had been so excited. 

This was it.  He had thought to himself back then.  This is where we begin to truly make forward strides in medicine and healing.

Mark had done everything correctly.  He had had two control experiments, had meticulously logged his daily data sheets, and he had made extra sure to take painstaking records of the lab samples, recording every slight deviation among the women.  There were plenty of volunteers, but finding four other women with the correct backgrounds and all other manner of details had been positively exhausting.   Mark had even had the five women- one of whom was injected with the G-Cells that had Gillian’s unborn child received naturally, and three other who were injected with placebo shots- keep diaries of what they ate, how much physical exercise they participated in, and other possible variables. 

The children had all been conceived naturally, as well,   Mark had made sure to research the backgrounds and family medical history of the fathers, all the way up until at least the third generation removed, if at all possible.

Matching up all the details and finding viable candidates had nearly made him go completely crazy.

Then the children had been born- Gillian’s boy first, and then the others all within two weeks of each other- and Mark had begun compiling all his data to turn in to President Shinra.

However, during those mad weeks of prepping his final thesis, Professor Gast unexpectedly left Shinra and then just a few weeks later Project S had been declared the successful strain of the JENOVA Project.

Mark had not event turned in his final thesis by then.  The G-Project itself was not even due for another six months!

The young doctor had watched helplessly as Hojo was promoted to the Head of the Science Department, the SOLDIER Project cropped up from out of left field, and operations were officially moved to the newly-finished labs in Midgar. 

Mark had felt as if he had been watching someone else’s life as he went through the next couple of years.  Mark had had the children in his Project to think of, and he had eventually set them up with families in Banora, as Gillian was the only woman to keep her child after the Project had ended.   Banora had originally been slated to house a Mako Reactor, but those plans had been scrapped when the crews digging the series of tunnels had uncovered a large, green entity encased in a strange ice-like substance.  The town of Banora had actually been built to cover up the tunnels- as it had been cheaper to build a small town and staff it with retired or injured former Shinra employees than to fill the tunnels back in or reveal what they had found while digging the suckers- and since it was such a beautiful location, the town itself flourished.  By the time operations moved to Midgar- Mark had been working out of a lab in Junon- the town had already been less than a blip on the overall Shinra radar, so Mark had felt confident that the children who had been involved in his Project would grow up happy and far away from Hojo’s poisonous influence.

Professor Hojo.

That was a sore topic for Mark to ponder.

Hojo had once been a pseudo-friend.  The type of friend who you hung out with at office parties because he made snarky comments on everything and anything- whether or not they were appropriate.   With an incredibly quirky sense of humor and a rather loose view of morality, there was a time Hojo had been fun.

Mark knew that Hojo had been born a bastard to some high-and-mighty family in outer Wutai.  The boy had been a servant in a pleasure house until he had up and left, following a mercenary monster-hunter one fall night.  The mercenary had eventually taken pity on the boy and had left the boy in Costa del Sol.  From there the boy had studied hard and eventually was accepted to Junon as a scholarship student.  He had floated around as an independent researcher for quite a few years before he had been hired by Professor Gast.  Mark had met Hojo on his first day at Shinra and the two had worked well enough together.

Then Hojo had started changing.

Comments that had once inspired witty, dry comebacks and snarky snippets became the catalysts to major blow-out fights.  In the course of a year the two men had gone from being almost-friends to mortal enemies.

Mark just wished he knew what had changed.  What had caused the man to snap and become the monster that Hojo had become?

Many times Mark had watched Sephiroth being marched around the labs like some sort of prized pony- especially when the SOLDIER Program had been in its infancy; so moreso right after they had moved everything to Midgar- and the way that Hojo had looked at the silver-haired child had made Mark’s skin positively crawl.  The boy had been so curious, so smart- yet the way Hojo snapped out answers made Mark want to take a blunt object to his fellow scientist’s head. 

On more than one occasion Mark had seriously considered doing so. 

Mark knew that Hojo had read his thesis- and Mark knew for a fact he was missing at least three vials of blood he had harvested from Gillian during the latter stages of her pregnancy, no matter what the damn manifests said- and was doing some experimenting of his own along the same vein.   But given what Mark had recently postulated, that was okay.

Because if Genesis ever lost a significant amount of blood and received a transfusion from a fully healthy donor, there was a very high chance of his body falling into rapid state of synthetic progeria.

Angeal- having inherited the inert Jenova Cells from his mother naturally- could absorb information much like the Cetra was said to have been able to do so.  At an earlier, more innocent time, Mark had postulated that the ability was a precursor to manifesting full-on Cetra-esque abilities.  He had foolishly dreamed of a healer who could mingle their blood with that of a sick person and have the healer’s blood overcome the sickness.  The cells could then be reintroduced into the healer and the patient, giving the healer a vaccination and the patient a template for their body to defeat the sickness with.

However, Angeal’s blood was thoroughly stable, unlike Genesis’, which edged closer and closer to critical failure as he grew older.   Mark doubted that Angeal, who along with Genesis had newly made SOLDIER, realized that part of his ability to learn came from him unintentionally absorbing cells from his opponents.  Normally the cells of another would simply pass through the body- though there were all sorts of things that could happen if it was blood of the wrong type or was infected with a disease- but Mark knew that Angeal’s cells would copy the information contained in the intruder cells before expelling them, giving the teen an unexpected bonus.

Cells held a nearly ludicrous amount of information, after all.

So if Hojo could find a way to heal Mark’s fuck-up, Mark was more than willing to let the man gloat about it.  Gloating was definitely something the new-and-not-so-much-improved Hojo would do, after all.

Yet Hojo had been uncharacteristically panicked about the Nibel Reactor meltdown and had been away from his labs for an incredible amount of time.

Hojo had his own ‘playground’, of course.  Everyone knew that.  Actually, Hojo had several, not just the lab levels under the medical floors like all the other Shinra scientists.  But Mark had been around long enough to know that even if Hojo was using his lab assistants as specimens, there was an awful lot of activity near the ‘incomplete’ labs on the northern end of the second-highest basement floor.  That end of the facility had not been finished quite yet, but it very conveniently was on the end of the building that was nearest to the Sector Eight Slums.

Sector Eight’s Slums had the highest crime and ‘disappearance’ rate of any of the others and was constantly being besieged by ‘new’ monsters.

Mark knew how Hojo worked.  Now and before.

The man clicked his teeth in irritation and stood, stretching languidly and wriggling his toes inside his sandals.  He never wore his sandals in the labs- not when he was actually experimenting and such- but he liked to air out his feet whenever possible.  Well, that and wearing his brightly patterned Costa del Sol button-ups irritated the Ifrit out of Hojo and Scarlett; which sort of counted as a double-win in Mark’s secret book of one-upmanship.  If Scarlett could walk around nearly nude- because most of the material in her outfits were more strategically made to bare her skin as opposed to cover it- then he could damn well walk around in sandals and cheerful shirts. 

Mark shook his head sharply and headed for the door of his office, intending to grab a bite to eat before going back to his Shinra-supplied apartment before his thoughts slipped down a road that only led to anger, despair, or both.

After all.  Mark thought grimly as he made his way towards the elevators, nodding cheerfully at his coworkers as he passed them.  Mark was the Assistant Director of the Science Department, and truthfully he dealt with the majority of the Department’s day-to-day operations, which meant he was quite well-liked by most of his coworkers.  Everyone knows that people go into those labs, but only monsters come out.  Mark thought somewhat bitterly as he reached the elevator and swiped his card.  The question is, do I really have the guts to try my luck?  Or do I just leave well enough alone and hope that Genesis never triggers his latent condition?

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Sebastian Rui hummed approvingly as he noted down the important information in the Station’s Log Records.

He still had trouble believing that his family’s new life in Nibelheim was not some sort of delirium-induced dream, even though they had been here for nearly half a year already.

Sebastian had been born to a couple who had left Wutai to seek better fortunes elsewhere.  Eventually, Sebastian’s father had landed a job with Shinra during their massive expansion following the discovery of Mako Energy and the man had eventually ended up in Modeoheim, as one of the many technicians employed to watch over the operations there.  Sebastian had largely grown up in Modeoheim- having been born elsewhere and the family having moved around quite a bit when Sebastian’s father first began working for Shinra- and had met and married his wife, Niska, there.

Niska had blessed him with their only child- a son- nearly exactly nine months after their honeymoon at Icicle Inn.  Their son had been named, Shura, and he had been their whole world.  Sebastian studied mechanical engineering- like his father had- and had earned a degree in it through Shinra’s virtual partnership with the University of Junon.

Then Shinra had suddenly began laying folks off without any warning and just a few months later Sebastian’s parents had gotten sick and passed on, since the family could not afford the elder couple’s medicines. 

Then Shura had fallen ill.

Sebastian had packed up his family and lied, cheated, and stole their passage onto a ship bound for Costa del Sol.  Once there Sebastian had worked wherever he could find the opportunity, but Costa del Sol was a tourist town, and there were not many open jobs available for a man who had spent his entire adult life as a Shinra technician.  But they scraped by, if only barely.  Shura’s sickness never went away, but they were able to manage it with medicines.  Eventually he found a lovely young woman and the two had quickly gotten married.

At the time, Sebastian and Niska had worried that their son had moved too quickly, but in the end they were grateful.  Shura’s wife had died shortly after the birth of Sebastian’s youngest grandchild and Shura had passed away just a year ago.

Sebastian and Niska believed it to be a combination of his long-term illness and grief.

The loss of their son and daughter-in-law was a heavy ache, but the elder couple were incredibly grateful for their granddaughters.  Shalua, the eldest, was ten, while Shelke was almost five.  Both girls smart as a whip and the epicenter of Sebastian and Niska’s existences.

But the poor girls’ story had nearly gotten even more tragic, if not for what Sebastian swore was divine intervention from the goddess herself.

About five months before their son had passed, Niska had also fallen ill and her health had been rapidly declining.  However, one day late last summer when Sebastian had wearily made his way towards the Apothecary nearest to the tiny flat the entire family shared, a different young man had been behind the counter.  Tall and built like someone who knew what a hard day’s work felt like, the man had smiled kindly at the shabbily dressed man and gestured him off towards the side, once Sebastian had identified himself and said what he was there to acquire.

“My name is Ashley Yearwood, I am a Journeyman Apprentice Apothecary.”  Ashley’s purple eyes were warm as he addressed Sebastian, not seeming the least bit judgmental towards him, despite Sebastian’s ragged state of dress.  “My Master- Master Apothecary Regulus Black of Nibelheim- received a letter from Master Varela concerning your wife’s potion regimen.  My Master is interested in providing your wife with an improved version of the potion if she agrees to take part in his study.”  The young man had shown Sebastian several neatly typed out questionnaires.  “She would need to fill out one sheet daily, a slightly different one weekly, and then see my Master once a month.”

Sebastian’s heart dropped and he began to shake his head.  “I’m sorry but we-“

Ashley merely smiled and pulled out a small pamphlet.  “My Master’s brother went to Cosmo Canyon to find alternate energy sources.  You have heard about the Nibelheim Reactor Disaster, haven’t you?”

“Who hasn’t?”  Sebastian asked wryly.  “It’s all anybody talks about whenever they don’t see a Shinra mook nearby.”

“Yes, well, the alternate energy sources needed quite a bit of crew and some of them are planning on returning to the Canyon only long enough to pack up their things and family members before permanently relocating to Nibelheim.”  Ashley explained patiently.  “Due to this, my Master’s grandmother- the Mayor- put together a list of positions that Nibelheim will be needing to fill, preferably before winter and the roads becoming obstructed for months at a time.  Due to his keen interest in your wife taking part in his study, Master Regulus is willing to assist you in relocating.”

Sebastian’s hands had shaken when he had opened the pamphlet and seen the neatly listed jobs therein.  Then his breath had caught as he laid eyes on a particular entry.  “Relay Station Operators?”  He mumbled in surprise.

“Ah.  Yes.”  Ashley replied with a smile.  “Originally Nibelheim was only going to have one, but with the restructuring of the budget they decided on having three operators and the manager, at least initially.  They need a Station Manager, and then three Station Operators.  The Manager will be in charge of the operators and maintaining the equipment or making repairs as needed.  Of course, the Manager will need to cover some shifts as well- as Nibelheim would like to keep the Station manned at all times- and they are only hiring three operators at the moment.”

“After the way their Reactor went I don’t blame them.”  Sebastian muttered lowly, his heart beating so loudly he was afraid the other man might hear it.

“Exactly.”  Ashley agreed smoothly.

“Do you-“  Sebastian had started haltingly, terrified he was going to wake up and find out he had fallen asleep at one of his many jobs.   He cleared his throat and tried again. “Do you think I’d have an honest shot?  I’m a mechanical engineer, graduated from the University of Junon, via their partnership with Shinra, back when I still worked for the bastards.”  Sebastian sighed and forcefully brought himself back down to reality.  “I imagine there will be lots of folk jumping at the opportunity though.”

“Not necessarily.”  Ashley rebutted gently.  “The pamphlets aren’t being widely distributed and having a degree is a pretty good start, especially if you’ve got some experience to back it up.”  The man had gotten a rather considering look on his face, and eventually added.  “My family was so poor they could not afford to let me go to the Schoolhouse for more than a year.  Mostly learned at home, after a day spent in the fields, but that all changed about three years ago when Master Regulus moved his family to Nibelheim.”  Ashley smile at Sebastian, something knowing and companionable in his purple eyes.  “If you really want to work, then I’m sure my Mater will find something.  Even if it’s shoveling Chocobo pens.”  Ashley’s grin tinged turned mischievous.  “My sister’s last letter said that my Master’s brother returned with nearly thirty of the fluffy menaces.”

“I’m not picky or proud.”  Sebastian had admitted as he ducked back down to look at the pamphlet, mind going in about a million different directions.  “But if your Master is willing to help us get there….”  Sebastian trailed off, his brows furrowing.

“Ah, yes.  Well, there is a party from Corel that will be heading to Nibelheim in a month, to make the last delivery before winter sets in.  Master Regulus pre-paid a crew from Corel to come down and help your family pack up, so that you can then be hauled to Nibelheim as part of the Corel party.”

And that had been that. 

Two weeks later a burly dark skinned man had knocked on the door to his family’s shabby little flat.  A month later the family arrived in Nibelheim, and had been informed that a whole house had been set aside for them.

“The first two months’ worth of rent has been paid for.”  Master Apothecary Regulus Black had informed the adults while the girls were being minded by a cheerful young lady named Steph.  “As have the utilities.  In return for participating in my study, Mrs Rui will receive her medicine at a reduced cost, but the first two months are free of charge.”  Master Black had reached into his desk and pulled out a sealed envelope.  “Take this envelope to the Longbottom Bank and Trust- just a few doors down, you can’t miss it- and hand this to whichever lady is at the counter.  She will give you information on immediate job openings, how to apply for permanent positions, and answer any other questions you might have.”

At first Sebastian had felt ashamed of what he had done, of letting Niska take part in an Apothecary study just to make ends meet.   But as time went by there were so many stories of the Black-Longbottom family giving helping hands to folks who were willing to work.  Not just the Mayor’s family, but other families had followed their example and it was a heady feeling to be a part of such a compassionate community.

Oh, there were typical small-town shortcoming and a few rough patches here and there, but for people like Sebastian who had been working three or four jobs for peanuts, it was a damn miracle.  Not only their living and financial situation, but the girls were able to go outside and play.  One of the projects that the ‘transitional jobs’ had undertaken had been the construction of two playgrounds.  One on the left side of the town divide and one on the right.  The Rui family lived less than a block from the right-hand playground and Niska- because she was improving under Master Regulus’ care- enjoyed watching the girls play there, even in the snow.

Yes, Sebastian thought as one of the operators called out and he moved to assist them, I really do think it was divine intervention that brought us here.

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Chapter Text

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Augusta smiled at the gathered townspeople.  “Thank you all for coming!”  She greeted loudly, signaling for those gathered in the Town hall to settle down into the available folding chairs or to find a comfortable place to stand.  “Thank you all for coming.”  She continued once the noise had settled down to a dull roar.  “I know that it is spring and there is much to be done, so I will be brief.  Due to the unprecedented disaster last spring no Elections were held.”  Augusta let the crowd murmur for a moment before she continued.  “However, due to our new sources of electricity the Council has undergone some changes.”

A gesture from Augusta had Trent Manning switching on the projector, which was set to project onto the bright white curtain of the stage.  It was not the most elegant solution, but it was workable.

“The slide that Treasurer Manning will be showing you in a moment-“  There was a rustling sound as Tent placed a transparent sheet with neat writing in black permanent marker on it on the projector’s display.  “-is the Council as it has been for nearly the past fifty years.”

“Since Shinra left?”  Someone from the crowd called out.

“Yes.”  Augusta affirmed as she continued.  “Once the Reactor was built there was a small recession resulting in many folks departing from Nibelheim due to lack of work.  With our new energy sources and the new employment opportunities they present we are seeing folks migrating back to Nibelheim.  A good thing as it fills our empty homesteads and assists us in moving forward, while also remaining firmly grounded in Nibel traditions.  Something I feel quite strongly about, myself, even though I do not originally hail from Nibelheim.  This town is now my home, my family’s home, and I hope that Nibelheim will continue to be gracious in her growth.”  Augusta smiled at everyone and gestured for Trent to change the slide. 

“The former Council consisted of three senior positions with six supporting Councilmembers.  The Council presided over all trials- civil and criminal- and the Sherriff’s Department had no voice in the Council or the Council’s trial progress other than presenting the evidence to the Council for consideration.”  Augusta explained to her constituents, pausing a few times to account for the noise level of the packed room.  “Under the new model the Council will operate with six senior members.  The Mayor, the Treasurer, and the Clerk will still preside over trials.  However the Utility Administrator, the Emergency Response Coordinator, and the General Counsel- all newly added positions- will not take part in trials but will be responsible for presiding over policy amendments, budget allocation, and other Council duties.”

“What about the other Councilmembers!”  Someone asked over the murmurings that broke out in the wake of Augusta statements.

“The Councilmembers ratio will remain the same- two Councilmembers to each senior Council position- and the junior twelve members will act as the jury in trials.  The senior Councilmembers will not vote unless there is a tie, in which case the Mayor shall cast the tie-breaking vote.  The main purpose for the senior Councilmembers is to ensure that due process is followed in each case, regardless of popular opinion or hearsay.”  Augusta pinned the room with a fierce look.  “The position of General Counsel was created not only to preserve Nibelheim’s interests but to ensure that Nibelheim’s citizens have adequate protection in the court of law.”  Seeing the incomprehension on most people’s faces, Augusta elaborated.  “General Counsel will oversee operations from a legal standpoint, but the two positions under the Counsel’s purview will be the prosecuting attorney and a defense counselor.  We hope that as we stretch our wings, private barristers will become available, but I firmly believe that no man should face a court of law without reasonable access to an advocate.”

Trent switched slides again and Augusta pressed forward.  “The Utility Administrator will be responsible for managing our resources.  From the Relay Station, to equipment repairs, and slowly seguing into ensuring that the roads are clear during winter.  One of the positions below the Administrator will be held by the Station Manager, unless they are one in the same, in which case there will be an open position that will need to be filled.”  Augusta made a gesture and the next slide appeared.  “The final new position is the Emergency Response Coordinator.  While at the moment this position seems superfluous we, the Council, believe it to be a wise investment.  As the seat of power Nibelheim has always enjoyed a great deal more creature comforts than our nearby neighbors.  With our new energy resources we are hoping to spread the love, so to speak.  In order to prepare for that we need to be prepared to provide emergency relief or law enforcement services.  One of the positions under the Coordinator will be the Sherriff, while the other will be a Disaster Subdivision which shall host firefighters or paramedics.”

“There was a pretty bad fire a few years back, took out half of Hvaleyrr’s crops ‘fore anyone got it under control.”  Someone said as Augusta paused to gauge her people’s responses.

“That is precisely why we feel this addition to the Council to be so vital.  It might not directly benefit us at this very moment, but the long term investment is firm.”  Augusta added after a few moments of pausing for reactions.  “They will also be able to rescue folks who get lost on the trails and other such things, so they might not be immediately needed, but their services will become invaluable.”

“So,” Titus Lockhart said, his voice causing an expectant silence to fall over the people.  “You’re essentially doubling the number of people on the Council.  Can Nibelheim afford that?”

“Or is the Longbottom Bank making yet another donation?”  Madelynn Lockhart added slyly, her face the picture of vicious intent. 

Augusta drew in a controlled breath and prepared for war, but before she could speak, someone else beat her to it.

“Now, Madelynn, I didn’t realize you doubted my abilities as Treasurer.”  Trent Manning said pleasantly, his eyes cold. 

The air went eerily still and Augusta valiantly resisted the urge to smirk victoriously.

Checkmate you useless cow.

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Do you see that?!”  Cloud crowed excitedly, bouncing on his toes as he leaned as far forward as the shield would allow him to.  “Do you see it, Da?!”

“I see it, Cloudy cub!”  Sirius whooped excitedly as he snatched his eldest son up in a triumphant hug.  “We’re frickin’ geniuses!”

“What on Gaia- oh, wow!”  Harry had entered the forge with a rather grumpy look on his face, but that look had quickly turned to excited awe when he caught sight of what the other two were hollering about.

On a testing station a stable light array was steadily producing light.  There were no flickers or imminent signs of doom, either!

“We did it!”  Sirius crowed again as he finally let go of cloud and bounded closer to the stable array.  “I can’t believe it was that simple, in the end!”

“What was simple?”  Harry queried curiously as he walked over to join his brother and his Da.  By that point Vincent, Aerith and Tifa had appeared as well, which was not much of a surprise as they had been working on the frame for a flower bed Aerith wanted to put in just a little ways away from the forge.

“Well, we were trying to make everything from scratch, but we were having tons of issues because things would get too hot, short out, or about a million other problems.”

“Like exploding.”  Tifa muttered with a grin.

Cloud maturely stuck his tongue out at her before he continued.  “But Da finally got the idea to correlate the arrays based on numbers.”  Cloud gave his brothers a knowing look.  “We figured that green Materia- magic, that is- would be the best Materia to make the arrays out of.”

“There’s what- six, seven types of magic Materia?”  Neville put in, his brow crinkling as he tried to remember what he had learned about the little orbs.

“There’s four elemental magic Materia,”  Sirius said, turning to look at the kids with a big, goofy grin on his face.  “Fire, Ice, Lightning, and Earth.  Then there are the healing magics Materia- Restore, Heal, FullCure; I always think of Revive as a time Materia as opposed to a healing one, personally.”  Sirius shook his head like a dog before continuing, complete with grand hand gestures to emphasize his points.  “Of course there are others- there’s Barrier Materia, Mystify Materia, Shield Materia- and more that we haven’t likely run across yet or I’m forgetting.”  Sirius walked over to one of the work tables and picked up a green sliver-shard and held it in the palm of his hand before swiping a magnifying glass and gesturing the kids forward.

Cloud stood back and watched, grinning proudly as the still stable light as he did so.

“At first we were trying to treat all the Materia based on their natures and- well, I won’t bore you with the details as you saw the results.”  Sirius grimaced and the kids giggled- some of those explosions had been pretty awesome.  “Anyways,”  Sirius continued after a moment.  “Eventually we- and by we, I mean Regulus- mentioned something about ‘nature versus nature’ and inspiration struck.”  Sirius paused for dramatic effect.

“Dramatic-“  Harry stage whispered, clutching at his chest theatrically.

Pause.”  Aerith finished with a giggle.

Sirius made a silly face at them, but obligingly continued.  “Cloud and I rushed out here to put our ideas on paper, but the end result is that each Shard is assigned a number based on its subclass as opposed to its individual ability.”

The kids turned to look at Cloud. 

Sirius pouted.

“What it ended up meaning was that we are still using the same arrays, we just changed which shards we made them out of.”  Cloud explained patiently.  “They still have Lightning and Fire and magic Materia in them, but now they also have slivers of Support, Command, Independent Materia as well.”

“It makes more sense after you’ve dedicated a couple years of your life to the cause.”  Sirius informed the others breezily.  The man placed the shard back down and picked up a prototype array, holding the magnifying glass over it so the kids could see the different colored shards that made it up.  “The shards are embedded into a mould- kind of like Gran showed you her ceramics are made from, we have so got to get her kiln working soon or she’s gonna start painting the walls instead of dolls, but I digress- and then we pour a Regulus-inspired mixture into them and seal ‘em up tight and let ‘em sit for about a week.”

Cloud hurried over to another work table and brought over what appeared to be a sealed up rock.  Sirius set the prototypes down and gestured for the kids to gather around the table.  “Now the slivers are embedded into a silicone piece that was made from yet another mould- making those things is a pain in the rear, even with Reggie’s help, let me tell ya- while this mould is made from heavy duty concrete with rubber seals on the outside that keep it good and airtight.  We use ratchet straps to keep it good and snug until we can put the weighted plate over the top of them.”

“We moved it earlier, since this set is ready to be opened.”  Cloud explained helpfully.

“Yep!  And I have a good feeling about these Cloudy!”  Sirius chirped as he undid the ratchet straps and set them aside.  “When it’s good and set- about a week of being left alone- we open ‘er up like so.”  Sirius carefully lifted the top straight up until it was free of the bottom- and the gel like finished product- before setting it aside.  “Now- let me put my gloves on, ok!- now, this-“  Sirius carefully wiggled the floppy array to emphasize his point.  “-isn’t quite finished just yet.”

Cloud had once again darted off to grab something, this time he came back with two pieces of metal.

“Thank ya kindly, Cloudster.”  Sirius said distractedly as Cloud loaded the rigged pressing device for the final part.  “Now, the last step is to carefully align it with the metal bracket- the bracket has some pathways and other things that require a freaking doctorate or years of trial and error to understand so I’ll skip those- and once the gel-like array is put into place like so.”  Sirius very carefully placed the gel like array onto the metal bracket, fussing with it until it was aligned perfectly. 

“Yes, that is the old waffle iron, the one Ma brought from our old house ages ago.  It always got too hot so Ma finally decided to give it up.”  Cloud informed his puzzled audience.  “Da an’ I rigged it to get about a hundred times hotter- that’s why it got a stone facelift- but other than that, yeah, it used to make our breakfasts some days.  Ma also used it for breakfast surprise squares, too, I think.”

“Yeah, she did.”  Sirius grunted distractedly as he critically eyed his handiwork.  “My favorite ones were the sausage and egg ones she made from leftovers.”

“Those were awesome.”  Harry mentioned soulfully, rubbing his stomach absently.  “We should ask her if she’ll make some.”

“Agreed.”  The other Black children chorused, Tifa looking at them curiously but deciding not to ask.

“Alright, so.”  Sirius said as he stepped back and grabbed onto the handle after putting on some garishly colored safety glasses and a heavy duty apron.  “Everyone take a few steps back and grab a mask- yeah, that’s far enough, make sure the mask covers your nose, too!- and watch.  When I pull the lever down Cloud will start the timer.  These babies are gonna roast for about three minutes before I open it back up and take the tray out.  Once I take the tray out I will open the up the tank to my left, which has liquid nitrogen in it.”

“Liquid nitrogen is super cold in its liquid state.”  Cloud piped up with a grin.  “The tank is actually Uncle Regulus’, he ordered it from the League.  It keeps the nitrogen in its liquid state and has a bunch of safety features to keep it from going boom.”

“Because we all know you two don’t need anything else to tempt fate with.”  Neville cracked with a grin.

Cloud laughed.  “That’s pretty much what Uncle Regulus said after Da mentioned using water.”

“Oh, let’s do this!”  Sirius chirped as he quickly closed the lid to the former breakfast appliance before his kids could think of anything cute to say about his extremely dumb comment.

The kids were quiet as the smell of burning something filled the air and they were grateful for their masks.  They nearly jumped when the timer went off and Sirius quickly popped the lid to the rigged device open, causing even more burning something to fill the air.  Sirius popped the nearby- it was probably about three feet away- cask open and carefully removed the tear away plate with the molten metal and former gel array from the bastardized waffle iron.  Sirius then held the precious cargo steady and dropped it directly into the clear liquid nitrogen.  Steam erupted and there was a short wait before Cloud called out “Time!” and Sirius used a pair of badly abused tongs to lift the tray out.  The tray in hand- or glove-Sirius turned to deposit his finished product on the nearby drying rack.

Sirius closed the cask and checked the former kitchen waffle iron before shucking off his protective equipment and turning to grin at the kids.  “Once it’s completely set- we usually let them air out for a full day- we will take it over and test it.  Usually metal gets really brittle and can shatter from being exposed to such a cold temperature, but we leave it in there just long enough to force the metal to bond irreversibly to the gel array.”

“Materia is damn near impossible to break by normal means.”  Cloud put in as he collected the masks from his siblings- plus Tifa- and put them away.  “Because it’s made out of Liquid Lifestream.  We have to make things hot enough for the Liquid Lifestream mixture to adhere to the metal but then we have to cool the metal down before all of the arrays etched onto the metal disappear.  Then there was the issue of getting it to come off the rack, which was only solved by a Barrier and Reflect Materia accident.  And- well, it was….tricky, finding that balance.  To say the least.”

“By tricky you mean explosive, right?”  Harry drawled in amusement, causing Cloud to give his brother a friendly punch to the arm.

Jerk.”

“But there were explosions, right?”  Aerith giggled as she danced away from Cloud’s playful swats.

“At any rate.”  Sirius said over the playful squabbles of his kids.  “Once it dries out completely it’s damn near unbreakable.  It takes a serious amount of heat to begin to melt, too.  Instead of needing a fixture and a light bulb, you just need the….we don’t really have a name for it, we need to work on that.  We’re hoping to find a way to make a Liquid Lifestream insulated wire, as then it would take even less electricity to run.”

“We have to do actual tests- cause this is the first light to actually work the way we wanted- but we think that our lights- if used throughout an entire household- would only use about thirty-five percent of the electricity that a single Shinra light uses per day.”  Cloud informed them glibly as he went back towards the still-steady light.

“Wow.”  Tifa breathed out in surprise, her red-brown eyes wide with wonder.  “That would be a lot of extra electricity!”

Cloud grinned broadly and gestured towards his Da- and therefore missing Tifa’s blush.  “Yeah!  Da thinks that we should be able to get the smaller villages power.  Right now they have to use generators with coal or wood to get their electricity, so most of them have to ration their use carefully.”

“And Shinra makes most of the generators.”  Sirius put in with a frown as he wiped off his hands and double checked everything.  “And most of them are horrendously inefficient. If the smaller villages had small wind farms or solar panels the quality of life would sky rocket. Not to mention a lot of people who left the little towns for the bigger cities would be able to come home and still have a life outside their livelihood.”

“What’s that mean, Da?”  Harry asked curiously, shifting slightly restlessly when he glanced at the clock.  He only had fifteen minutes before he was supposed to meet Vince!

“Well, a lot of people leave their small villages to go find work and then get stuck because their paycheck is all that keeps the family afloat.   Apothecaries, doctors, bankers- all of those people need electricity to run a profitable business, something that is impossible in a town that only has generators to rely on.  If we can change that then people could leave home and still be connected- because then we could put in towers for phones- because with Gran and Lana’s help those are coming along nearly faster than the light project- or they could move back home and be able to work from there.”

“Wouldn’t that hurt Master Regulus’ business, though?”  Tifa asked a bit hesitantly as she peeked up at Sirius shyly.

Sirius grinned brightly at her, reaching forward and ruffling her hair to show her he had taken no offense to her question.  “Not really.”  Sirius admitted cheerfully as he began to usher the kids out of the forge.  “It’ll just give my dear brother an excuse to litter the mountain range with his minions.”

The kids giggled as they made their way towards the house, prompting a curious Claudia to quirk an eyebrow at them as they reached the back porch.  Carina, safely settled on a fluffy blanket, was amusing herself with her bright toys just off to the side while Claudia darned socks.  True to Claudia’s prediction, Carina was a blonde like her mother and eldest brother, only she had more grey to her eyes as she grew older, giving her blue eyes more of a cool look.

Whatever the elder blonde was going to ask was derailed by Sirius’ wail of, “Come to Daddy baby girl!”

“Dah!”  Carina gurgled happily, bouncing her chubby baby appendages wildly as she gave her father a toothy grin.  “Dah-ee.”

“She said Daddy!”  Sirius sobbed dramatically as he hopped the stairs and snatched her up and began to coo at his youngest in a decidedly dorky fashion.

“I gotta go meet Vince.”  Harry informed everyone brightly and without an ounce of shame; smiling cheekily at the betrayed look on his brothers’ faces as he turned tail and ran.

Traitor.”  He heard Cloud and Neville mutter, but Harry didn’t dare turn back around.

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 “Well, that went about as well as expected.”  Augusta informed her family members- sans the children who were in their rooms, except for Carina who was asleep in her mother’s arms- smugly over the rim of her victory glass of red wine. 

Vincent had even joined them that evening, having been bribed by the promise of an excellent wine by a particularly crafty feeling Regulus.  After all, post-Election day only came once a year.  Let alone an Election like the one just passed, installing so many new Councilmembers at once.

“I take it your plans went off without a hitch and other people thought it was their idea?”  Sirius asked somewhat wryly.

“Precisely.”  Augusta preened without an ounce of shame, swirling her wine around regally before taking a measured sip.  “Trent Manning was easily reelected as the Treasurer, which suit me just fine as he actually has quite the head for numbers when he’s not being a pompous buffoon.”

“I never thought I’d say this, but he’s actually somewhat decent human being nowadays.”  Claudia interjected sardonically.  “Five years ago, if someone had told me I’d say that and mean it I’d a pushed them off the Widow’s Trail.”

“Yes, well.  Much has changed since Augusta took over.”  Ifalna offered with a smirk as she sipped at her own white wine.  “Not that I would have expected anything less from the fierce Gran-dragon.” 

“And don’t you forget it!”  Augusta snarked to the amusement of the others.  The venerable Lady Longbottom raised her glass in a salute before draining it and holding out the empty glass for Regulus to refill for her.

“Uhmhmmm.”  Sirius hummed obnoxiously as he sipped at his own drink.  “This is why I stay out of politics.”  He said with feeling after a moment of silence.  “You meet forces of nature like our Aggie.”

“That’s such a delightful thing to say, Sirius.”  Augusta accepted the statement with all the regal grace of a queen.  “Thank you.”

“At any rate.”  Regulus interjected, noting the slight flush on Aggie’s cheeks.  Given the coup she had scored she had every right to be a bit tipsy.  “Trent Manning retained his position as Treasurer.  Randall Stanley- Ashley’s father, actually- was elected as the Emergency Response Coordinator, as he has long led groups of locals up the trails whenever a child is lost or a fire breaks out.”

“I, personally, had had no idea a fire on the mountain could be so devastating.”  Sirius admitted from his comfy position beside Claudia, the blonde woman having snuggled up closer to her husband as the conversation progressed and the spring night grew chillier.

“Indeed.”  Vincent drawled from his position, perched on the porch railing just behind Regulus.

“To the surprise of no one-“  Regulus continued before Sirius could say whatever he had opened his mouth to say.  “-Sebastian Rui was elected as the Utility Administrator.”

“He’s done an admirable job of handling the hiccups that have come up with the Relay station and the equipment.”  Augusta commented idly as she sipped at more of her wine.

“Indeed.”  Regulus agreed as he, too, paused to take a sip of his own drink before continuing.  “Mathias Yearwood- the eldest of Abel and Anna’s children- was elected as the Clerk.”

“He is much like his father, patient and sweet-tempered.”  Claudia informed them around a yawn.  “He was always kind to my parents and I and never changed even when I became a single mother.”

“An excellent disposition for someone charged with recording the proceedings.  Reduces the likelihood of the transcripts having too much of a personal slant to them.”  Sirius commented thoughtfully.  “There’s always some, but he sounds like the type to attempt to keep his personal feelings out of the transcripts.”

“The General Counsel position was filled by Caleb Gentry.”  Regulus continued smoothly after topping off Vincent’s drink.  “He’s Doc and Karen Gentry’s eldest son.  He studied law in Junon and has been a practicing barrister for nearly twenty years.  Caleb is actually a Professor of Law at the University of Junon as well.  He’s moving back to Nibelheim sometime within the next month, as he has a few more cases to take before the Junon courts before he can relocate properly.”

“Fortunately young Professor Gentry is quite willing to teach the basics of law to some of our youth.”  Augusta input rather cheerfully.  “The prospect of teaching students with genuine interest in the complexities of being barrister is part of what attracted him to the position, according to Karen.”

“I imagine that teaching in Junon means teaching many ah, privileged students.”  Sirius mused with a lopsided grin.

“Indubitably.”  Augusta murmured with a smirk just barely visible over the rim of her glass.

“The other positions were filled by individuals who provide even representation to virtually all of Nibelheim, which is pleasing.”  Augusta commented as Regulus refilled her glass again.  “I am incredibly pleased.  It is quite the coup considering that two years ago the town was firmly under the control of the Manning-Lockharts.”

“Hear, hear.”  Claudia toasted with a grin as Carina began to stir, causing the blonde woman to peck her husband on the cheek and rise from the loveseat.  “Only you, Aggie dear.”

“Thank you, darling.”  Augusta replied graciously.

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“Sometimes I feel like the odd one out.”  Harry admitted to Vincent as he cleaned the rifle he had been using to shoot at targets that Vincent had set up.  “I mean, Aerith and Neville are gardening geniuses, not to mention Nev’s been learning under Uncle Reg, too, and Cloud’s a genius with just about everything he can hold in his own two hands, but-“  Harry checked the part he had finished cleaning for any damage before setting it aside and reaching for the next one.  “I just, I dunno if I’ll ever find something like that.”

“Hm.”  Vincent hummed as he watched his young protégé work.  “What do you enjoy doing?”  Vincent asked after a few moments of companionable silence.

“Lots of stuff.”  Harry replied promptly.  “I like learning diplomacy with Gran.  I like practicing my pen mastery.  I like helping Ma with household stuff.  I like going with you and learning how to track and shoot and stuff.  There’s just- I mean there’s not really one thing that I’m really good at like the others.”

“My father was a scientist.”  Vincent informed Harry a few moments later, his red eyes staring sightlessly over the little valley they were in.  “He was one of the best in his field.  Many of the discoveries that led up to the Mako Reactors were due to my father’s research.  My mother was his research assistant and eventually she grew sick and passed away.  In her memory my father wanted nothing more than for me to follow in their footsteps and continue the family tradition.”  Vincent snorted lightly and shook his head, causing his neatly tied back inky hair to slide over his shoulder and into the embrace of the light breeze.  “He was ever so disappointed that I was entirely uninterested in science, despite being rather good at the methodology.  When I chose to follow my cousin, Verdot, into the bodyguard profession he informed me that I was no longer any son of his.” 

Vincent’s eyes darkened as he stared out over the valley but Harry was avidly listening, nearly too enthralled to remember to breathe.

“He apologized, of course, it was said in the heat of the moment but our relationship went from ‘strained’ to ‘nonexistent’ after that fight.”  Vincent’s lips curved into a sad smile.  “In the end it was all the skills that made me different that saved the life of the woman I came to love.  I was alerted to my father’s distress and sent to supervise the extraction team.  She…Lucrecia was in shock and did not realize I was there.  I handled the investigation to my father’s death. When I was assigned as her bodyguard a few years later I let her assume that Shinra had assigned me to her randomly.  In truth I wanted to see what sort of person my father died to protect.  In the end, I failed her, too.” 

Vincent’s jaw clenched as his voice trailed off, but Harry stayed quiet and waited patiently for Vince to continue.  Vince always had a lesson somewhere in his stories, Harry had just learned to listen for it.  Of course Harry didn’t blame the man for going off on tangents, poor Vince had been in that coffin for longer than Harry has been alive!

“My skills are what caused the division between my father and I, but it was my failure to use them that landed Lucrecia’s child in the sole care of Hojo.”  Vincent snarled the name and Harry nodded his head agreeably.  “Never allow yourself to be so consumed by someone else’s passion.  Be it professional, as Lucrecia’s decision to use her child in an experiment; or personal, such as my inability to tell her that I could accept being second in her life, that I knew.  Never let their decisions override what you know is right in your own heart.”  Vincent stood abruptly and glanced at Harry before looking back towards the horizon.  “Come, we should go.  Miss Audi will have dinner ready shortly.”

“You know,”  Harry drawled as he scrambled to finish packing away his practice rifle.  “Ma’s told you to call her Audi about a thousand times.”

Vincent gaze Harry a half-smile.  “I know.”  He said smugly.  “Her exasperation at my continued formality is….amusing.”

Harry laughed so hard he nearly went head-first down the slope they were situated on.

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Fuhito narrowed his eyes at his Ravens.  “What do you mean you failed?”  The man asked in a pleasant tone of voice that belied the coldness swirling in his chocolate-colored eyes.

“There’s something about that mountain.”  The non-Raven spokesperson said nervously.  “We’d plan everything out, but something prevents us from completing the objective.  It’s as if the mountain itself is against us.”  The man shifted nervously as Fuhito’s eyes narrowed even more.

“The mountain itself?”  The man murmured as he looked off to the side thoughtfully.

They were interrupted by a series of knocks on the door.  “Fuhito?  Lord Kisaragi is here to see you.”

Fuhito sighed heavily, waving an absent hand to dismiss the others- they obediently and efficiently exited through the secret side door- as he noted something down in his journal before calling out for the delegation to enter.

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