"Heart attack, apparently."
Cloud ran his fingers through sleep-tangled hair and checked the time on his cell phone. Barely five AM. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, wishing he could have slept a little longer before getting the news. What time was it in Wutai? He didn't know.
"Oh... Poor Yuffie. That's..."
Cloud nodded, head bowed. Of the whole Avalanche gang, she'd been the only one to still have family; Tifa's father and Cloud's mother were gone with Nibelheim, Bugenhagen had passed on a year or so ago, and even if Cid still had relatives, by now they'd been estranged longer than not.
"She's still so young..."
Cloud had been younger when his mom died, but drugged as he'd been, he hadn't fully realized he was an orphan until he was about the age she was now.
It was always a little strange to remember that Yuffie was almost twenty-one. For them she was still a bratty teenager, the baby of the group. Still acted like it, too, all rashness and impulsive decisions. Cloud wondered if she would act like that again from now on.
His phone beeped; he checked the screen, frowned. "The Shera will be in Kalm to get Barret in five hours, it leaves us one hour to get ready before we have to drive over." He glanced at Tifa, voice quiet. "If we're both going with the bike. If you take the van, you should probably leave earlier."
He wasn't sure he should go. On one hand, Yuffie would need emotional support, and Reeve wanted them there as fast as possible. On the other hand, Tifa was better at comfort and he didn't want to be a continent away if Sephiroth woke up. Zack... Cloud remembered him from his teenage days as awe-inspiringly strong, but he had no clue how that measured up to the levels Cloud and Sephiroth were at, now. And he didn't know much about Aeris's magic.
But Yuffie wasn't just a grieving girl. Now that her father had died, she was Lady Yuffie, Shogun of Wutai.
Reeve had mentioned that. Almost offhandedly.
It wasn't something that should have had a place in a conversation about a mourning friend. Not if the mourning part was the only thing they had to care about.
Cloud frowned and left the bed, turning on the ceiling light. He didn't follow Wutai politics all that closely, but everyone knew Yuffie had done her very best to dodge her father's attempts to groom her as his successor the way he saw fit. Lord Godo had taught her some, but not nearly as much as he could have. Her way to help Wutai was to roam the world, looking for things to bring home, and to train its children in martial arts so they wouldn't be powerless if attacked again; Cloud couldn't imagine her sitting on a throne, doing paperwork, or dealing with ministers. She wasn't patient or subtle in the slightest.
She was going to need someone to watch out for the sharks in the water, just as much as she would need friends to comfort her.
"... Mmh. I was just thinking about politics." He pulled on the shirt he'd taken off, only a few hours ago, and stepped back into his shoes. "It wouldn't hurt to show that she has powerful friends..."
"Ah, I see." Tifa looked even more worried now; evidently it hadn't been her first thought.
"Reeve won't be able to stay with her long. He has WRO to take care of..." Cloud went through their list of friends in his mind. Cid would offend and scandalize every single nobleman in Wutai before a week; Barret would prompt them to demand a duel by the end of the first day. Red could be wise, but he had little experience with human politics, and people would see him as more of a talking guard dog than as a sharp-minded advisor -- which could be an asset, but only if Yuffie had someone else to rest on more visibly, to discourage people from even trying. Vincent, maybe, if he could be found in time...
And maybe Yuffie's father had been smart and had perfectly competent advisors ready to step in and support her to the end. It was hard to trust outsiders, though... But from their point of view, Cloud was probably the one who was an outsider.
And they had Sephiroth in the attic to worry about, too.
God, he couldn't even really wrap his mind about that one. His thoughts kept skittering away from it.
"I'm going to wake up Zack and Aeris," he said. Perhaps they would have insight -- perhaps not, but they needed to be told anyway.
When he opened Tifa's bedroom door, he was faced with Zack, who was already peering through Cloud's own bedroom door, bleary-eyed and his hair just as much of a mess as Cloud's own. He seemed to have helped himself to a pair of Cloud's boxer shorts.
"Was that a phone?"
Even now, with so many pressing worries, his voice still made a little thrill of shock go up Cloud's back. Zack was real. If Cloud reached out, his hand would find sleep-warm flesh. He didn't reach, even though his history of vivid hallucinations still insisted he needed to make sure.
"Yeah. Yuffie -- one of our friends, her father just died."
Zack gave him a commiserating look and stepped back, allowing Cloud to stand in the doorway. Aeris was curled up on her side in the middle of the bed, her long hair strewn in waves over Cloud's pillows. Cloud wanted to laugh a little, imagining her slender body relegating big strong Zack to the edge of the mattress. It was surprisingly easy to see.
It made him wish he'd forgotten about their stupid argument and spent the night watching them sleep. Even with the knowledge that today would be exhausting no matter what he chose to do, he couldn't feel like it would have been time wasted.
He blinked and looked at Zack. The man stood with his hand on the doorjamb, head tilted expectantly.
"--Ah. I'm just woolgathering. Tired."
Zack nodded, and then slung an arm around Cloud's neck without warning. Cloud twitched and had to force himself to relax.
"I'm gonna have to train you all over again, I see," Zack said with a little too much good cheer for this topic and this hour of the night. Cloud sent him a half-hearted glare, which he undermined some more when he didn't even try to get free.
"I'm not that bad anymore," he said, rueful. Granted, he still had a healthy sense of personal space, but that was nothing like how averse to physical contact he'd been when he joined the army.
Zack was just as warm as Cloud had suspected. Solid, too. Cloud wished he could just bask a little longer, but there was precious little time to waste. He shrugged his shoulders; Zack sighed, and ruffled his hair affectionately before letting go.
"What are you gonna do?"
Cloud ran a hand over his face, futilely trying to kickstart his brain. "I don't know. It's not like I can just decide not to go -- it's her father's funerals. She might forgive me eventually, but I'd never forgive myself. But..."
Zack rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well, where is it? If it's not too far, you could hop over and come back..."
"Did I mention Yuffie is Lord Godo's only heir, or even family?" Cloud asked with a touch of cynicism. Zack's wince turned into a full-blown grimace.
"You've got interesting buddies... Aw hell, so there's all that stiff upper lip business on top of it. She's gonna need friends even more." Zack sighed. "But it's not like you can stuff him in a crate and bring him along. Pretty sure the Wutainese wouldn't be too happy to have a grumpy, half-awake Silver Demon doing a jack-in-the-box impression in the middle of their court."
Cloud groaned, in full agreement. "Taking him along is right out." He had visions of a riot in the city, people trying to throw the sleeping man on Lord Godo's funeral pyre... "Yeah, definitely out."
Zack nodded. "Okay, so Seph stays in his tower."
Cloud blinked at him. What...? -- oh, right. Sleeping princess. The thought of the Demon General in a pretty dress awaiting true love's kiss startled a small chuckle out of him, mostly because of how brain-breaking it was.
"... If I stay here to guard him, everyone is going to demand to know why. Yuffie doesn't need the stress now. But if I go, I'll never be back in time if anything happens."
"Aeris and I can't go anyway," Zack said with blunt practicality. "It's not like a funeral is the best place to go 'heya! We just returned from the dead, how'd you do'."
Cloud grimaced faintly. "That... would probably be bad." And wasn't that an understatement.
"So there you have it. We stay, you go. Tell people afterwards."
Cloud tried not to look too skeptical, but from Zack's vaguely offended glare he didn't succeed. "Aeris isn't an offensive fighter, and I'm not sure you can win against him on your own."
"I could hold him back long enough for Aeris to knock him out again, if he wanted to run. We make a good team." Zack yawned, stretched his arms over his head, muscles rolling under tanned skin. You would think being dead for so long would leave him out of shape, Cloud thought confusedly. But then again it wasn't really Zack's body...
"See something you like?"
Cloud jerked, tearing his eyes away from Zack's chest. The man was laughing silently, shoulders shaking with mirth.
"...You're not conceited at all, are you."
"Aw, poor tired, zoning-out Cloudypoo."
"Cloudypoo?" Cloud got a headpat for his troubles, and halfheartedly batted Zack's hand away. "Will you quit it already. I'm twenty-six, not sixteen."
Zack seemed sincerely taken aback for a second. "... Really? Wow. My baby is all grown up."
He sobered up, crossing his arms over his bare chest and leaning against the wall. He gazed up at the ceiling, a frown on his face.
"Not sure what kind of security measures we could take that would satisfy you..."
"He's resilient to magic, if I recall right," Cloud said. "I'm not sure the Sleep spell will hold long. Maybe pills..."
"Nah, a chocobo dose would only keep him down for a few hours, and when he'd wake up he'd have a drug hangover to take out on us."
Zack had said the last bit as a joke, but Cloud couldn't help but visualize it happening, and he grimaced. "Mnh. I might find restraints that would hold him in Hojo's old lab in the Shinra tower ruins..."
"Shit, Cloud." Zack stared at him, visibly pained. "Are you sure you really want to do that?"
Cloud felt a little sick at the very mention of the labs, of the possibility he'd have to return there, but he made himself consider it anyway, forcing past his visceral reaction. No one deserved the labs. Not even Sephiroth? Used as punishment it made him feel dirty -- as if Hojo was looking over his shoulder being proud, shit, either kill him or don't, he didn't torture people. But in everyone else's best interests... He didn't know. It wasn't like he planned to cut Sephiroth open, and the examination tables were built pretty sturdy, with lots of straps to distribute the pressure and keep from digging too sharply into flesh...
He imagined falling asleep in a dusty attic and waking on gleaming metal. Strapped down flat on his back, all that strength useless. And the scent, Hojo always had everything cleaned with manic precision but the stench of chemicals and fear never went away. He could almost smell it now; if he inhaled too deeply he feared he'd be there again.
"... I... No." Cloud chuckled a little, though the sound held little actual amusement. "Hell no. If he isn't crazy now, he would be if he woke up like that."
Zack nodded, opened his mouth to say something else, but then Cloud felt his barrier pop like a soap bubble and stiffened.
"Get Aeris," he said as he darted in his dark bedroom to get a sword and a handful of Materia from the rack. "Tifa's in the shower. Get ready to move them. Barrier's down."
He went to the staircase without waiting for an answer, stalked up to the attic. He didn't know whether Zack would have asked to come with him, or told him to relax; both were unacceptable. As far as he knew Sephiroth had woken up refreshed and ready to mow down a crowd of civilians or two before breakfast. If Zack tried to follow, Cloud would just kick him down the stairs.
At first glance he could see no one in the attic. The window was closed; the latch was on the inside so if Sephiroth had slipped out through there it should have been left ajar. The thought came to Cloud that perhaps Sephiroth had just moved in his sleep; it didn't look like he had left, they would have crossed paths in the stairwell. Cloud slowly moved across the wooden floor, sword ready, stepped around the chest of drawers blocking the view.
Sephiroth sat on the edge of his mattress, long legs crossed loosely, one of them extended over the planks just far enough to pierce the barrier.
Cloud came to a stop just beside the chest of drawers and watched him.
It was -- strange. Strange expression on Sephiroth's face, almost absent, eyes unfocused; strange position, as if he'd deliberately popped the barrier to warn Cloud he was up.
No -- not 'as if'.
He could have left. He hadn't.
Cloud wondered if Sephiroth had come awake with the thought that it was time to die.
"Strife," the man said, looking up at him.
When he gave a faint nod of greeting, Cloud couldn't help but nod back, polite, his sword still held firm and ready.
Sephiroth ignored the weapon, looked up at the skylight with a neutral expression that didn't, to Cloud's eyes, manage to hide a trace of wistfulness. Outside a couple of stars melted away into the first blush of dawn.
"You'll have a better view if you get up," Cloud said quietly, and even to himself couldn't tell why.
Sephiroth looked at him then, surprise lurking in his strangely solemn eyes. Cloud wanted to cross his arms defensively, say he could still change his mind and would Sephiroth prefer that? But it might have... he didn't know. Broken something, ended it. So he stood quiet and waited.
Sephiroth slowly unfolded his legs and climbed to his feet, picked his way through the clutter. He didn't try to open the window. He didn't look at Edge or the ruins of Midgar -- just at the sky.
It was a little surreal. The strange backdrop of the attic, the civil behavior, that proud and lethal almost-god standing barefoot and shirtless in the dust for the privilege of taking in the view of rusty Edge through a dirty window.
"It's early for a phone call."
Cloud frowned, startled out of his thoughts. "That's what woke you up?"
"Yes." Sephiroth glanced sideway at him. A hint of humor sparked in his green eyes and went into hiding again. Cloud arched an eyebrow, prompting him; while Sephiroth still didn't look directly at him, he did keep talking. "That ring tone..."
Heh. It did sound similar to the one assigned to President Shinra's personal line. "Afraid of another callgirl emergency?"
It was only when Sephiroth turned to meet his eyes that Cloud realized he shouldn't have known about the time a prostitute left with the content of Shinra Senior's personal safe. Shouldn't have remembered Seph's execrable mood when he stalked in the mess hall and growled in clipped words that he'd spent half the day at Don Corneo's and the rest combing the slums for a whore he hadn't even found in the end, and good riddance to her; that would teach Shinra to call the police next time instead of an army general. Shouldn't have known what that ring tone sounded like, because he had never heard it.
Shouldn't even have understood, from so many silences, that the little ups and downs of Sephiroth's ordinary Shinra days were even still remembered, after he'd tried to ascend to godhood and everything that ensued.
Sephiroth's eyes narrowed, staring at Cloud as if trying to guess how much he knew and how. But if there was a list of things Cloud didn't want to discuss with him, that unexplainable moment of understanding was probably close to the top.
"Phone call was from Wutai," he said, not even knowing why he bothered to tell him except that he needed a distraction. "Lord Godo Kisaragi just died."
Sephiroth arched an eyebrow. "Assassinated?"
Cloud was taken aback. "Not to my knowledge." But now the possibility was a little more present in his mind. There were poisons that could make it look natural -- especially in Wutai.
Sephiroth's thoughts had followed a different direction. "It seems an internal matter. Why were you called?"
Cloud arched an eyebrow. Yuffie had been there when they crossed paths -- but then again he probably hadn't really made the link, or cared to remember. "Yuffie Kisaragi was part of Avalanche."
"Ah. I see." By his faintly puzzled frown it was obvious he couldn't place her, though.
"Scrawny brunette with a boomerang. She whacked you a couple of times."
The frown didn't change. "... If you say so."
Cloud snorted quietly, amused despite his best judgment.
"Who is next in line after... Lady Kisaragi?"
"Why on earth do you want to know?" Cloud asked, instantly suspicious.
Sephiroth turned to face him, neutral, almost blank. "Would she be desperate enough to commit suicide?"
Cloud stiffened. "Hell no she wouldn't. What --"
Sephiroth lifted a hand to ask for a little more patience; Cloud didn't know why he granted it.
"Is her public persona such that her subjects could believe it of her?"
"...What are you implying?"
Sephiroth crossed his arms loosely, head tilted with casual elegance. "That back when his wife died, Lord Godo spent a lot of time avoiding well-meaning attempts to help him join her. Not all of them came from Shinra." Cloud stared; Sephiroth sent him a cynical look. "Wutai politics owe a lot to their status as a warrior nation."
He couldn't be serious. Could he?
"Warrior," Cloud said. "Not politician. How is that even comparable?"
"The only difference between politics and war is that in politics your hands have to look clean while you bury your enemy six feet under. The burying itself need not be metaphorical."
Cloud hissed between clenched teeth. "Enough. I get it. Why are you telling me that?"
Sephiroth nodded his head toward the window and the lightening sky outside.
A warning in thanks for being allowed to see a sunrise? Damn it, the bastard wasn't allowed to make him feel guilty. Cloud grunted an acknowledgement and leaned on his sword, pretending not to care, not to notice the General's face as his eyes roamed over the rough landscape. From the window Cloud knew you could only see a little of Midgar's ruins and the old reactors; then there was Edge and its salvage-built houses, and the half-dead plains stretching far behind.
"I do have a noted tendency to paranoia," Sephiroth allowed.
Cloud had one too; and now with some corroborating facts his own paranoia was flaring up. "They wouldn't believe it," he said. "Not Yuffie. She's too... No. She's very public about her opinion on giving up."
"Then for the moment at least she is safe. It would look too suspicious if she had an accident so soon."
Cloud shook his head in disbelief at the whole situation. Sephiroth was being so polite, it was so wrong. "You're trying to mess with my head, aren't you," he said, and didn't even know how serious the comment was, how much he actually believed it.
Sephiroth arched an eyebrow at him in that aristocratic, 'beg pardon?' way. "... I assure you I'm not."
"Uh huh. Right, so--"
Aeris's voice rang from the staircase. "Cloud?"
A jolt of pure adrenaline ran through his veins at the thought of her coming into the danger zone. It didn't even matter that she'd been fine for hours before he found them yesterday, or how civil Sephiroth was acting at the moment. Cloud stiffened and called back, "Stay where you are! I'll be there in a minute."
The moment was definitely over. He didn't have to tell Sephiroth so; the man just turned away from the window and sat on the mattress, legs crossed.
Cloud stood in front of him in silence, and then shook his head at his own soft-heartedness and said briskly, "You might wake up again. Whatever happens, don't leave the room. I'll take it as a breach of our agreement." They both knew what would follow if that happened.
"That was always understood, Mister Strife."
The hint of mockery in his voice made it easy for Cloud to cast, dropping him like a stone with no warning. Sephiroth's eyes fluttered closed and he toppled backwards on the mattress, folded legs slowly relaxing, dragging on the wooden floor.
Under the dirt, the bottom of his feet was crisscrossed with half-healed slices and puncture marks.
Sector Five. The field of rubble and glass he'd crossed barefoot. He'd never mentioned it, of course, never showed it on his face. Damn him.
None of it looked infected -- it wouldn't get infected easily, not with his mako levels, but the wounds were still dirty. Growling under his breath, Cloud reached for a healing spell -- and then he paused. His first instinct was to fix him, because it was wrong to let someone go without treatment, prisoner or not -- but this was Sephiroth. Slaughterer of many, threat to the human race and the Planet as a whole, cold-blooded enemy of everything that lived. Of course he hadn't complained, he had known Cloud wouldn't pity him for a few scrapes.
Cloud still didn't pity him. And even then it was still wrong.
He threw a healing spell at him, the knitting flesh pushing out the debris, and then in quick succession cast two layered bubble shields around the mattress, and a spell of Silence on top; Sephiroth had no Materia at hand anyway, it didn't matter if he was made unable to cast, but Cloud knew from experience it would muffle sounds, make them harder to comprehend or pay attention to, and perhaps the waking town wouldn't disturb the man again. After that he turned around and stalked out, and he didn't look back.
Aeris woke up more exhausted than she'd been when she fell asleep. Things were dark and heavy, and oh, she was so tired.
"...ris, babe, wake up."
The world wasn't green and entangled and there. She shivered, confused, sought the voice that was a million voices, found nothing. The silence -- the absence -- was deafening.
"Aeris, c'mon, hon. Cloud and Tifa need you."
An image, Zack leaning over her. No presence. So strange. She opened her eyes again, and squinted at Zack's face ... fuzzy around the edges until she blinked him into focus, and then he was solid and clear as he had never been back in the -- "Oh."
Aeris closed her eyes, took in a deep breath of slightly musty man-bedroom air, and laughed.
"... Um. What? Do I have something on my face?"
It was so strange not to feel him -- his personality, his mind, his soul. So strange not to communicate that way, half deliberate words and half entangled edges-of-self. But his warmth, his voice -- they were better than her memories. Grinning up at Zack, she reached to pat his cheek. Her hand was heavy.
"No, seriously, what's so funny?"
She poked his nose with a finger and nudged him back to give herself the space to sit up. When she stretched her arms overhead, her muscles ached all the way down her back. It was marvelous. Her head wouldn't clear, though. She yawned. "I hope you have a great reason not to let me sleep."
Zack sobered up; so did she, smile falling away. Had something happened with Sephiroth?
"Yuffie's dad passed away."
Aeris's first reflex was to say 'no, he hasn't,' Because she would have known, wouldn't she? "Are you sure?" she asked instead, fingers curling in the blankets on her lap.
Zack gave her a surprised look. "Cloud and Tifa are expected for the service, so... Yeah, kinda."
Aeris shook her head, surprised despite herself. She knew better than to count on her gift -- it had always been erratic. She didn't know Yuffie's father that well anyway, they'd only met once; it wasn't such a surprise that she hadn't felt him cross over. Perhaps it was the tides, the closeness of the Lifestream waning, pulling away from her... She wasn't in the Lifestream anymore; of course the all-present knowing would stop.
Back when she was alive the first time, she had known for her mother's husband that she had never met, known before Elmyra Gainsborough did, because Elmyra's husband was connected to Elmyra, and Elmyra was connected to her. She had known for Zack, even though at the time she hadn't been able to put a name to that sudden, unprompted sorrow.
"Hm. It can't happen all the time, I guess," she said quietly. Zack tilted his head and gave her an inquisitive look.
"What can't happen all the time?"
"Ah, nothing important. Woolgathering again." She slipped out of bed, wobbling, and leaned on Zack for a second, for warmth more than for balance. She'd forgotten how touching someone felt. How heavy and solid, so little like touching minds in the Lifestream and yet so much more comforting in a strange, animal way.
"Cloud's upstairs with Seph," Zack said quietly. "Trying to decide whether to stay or go. Told me to get ready to move you and Tifa out."
Aeris winced. "I see." She needed to make sure they weren't arguing. "I'll be right back," she told Zack, and slipped out of the bedroom.
"Wait for Tifa," she said without turning back. She stepped in the staircase.
The attic was silent; she didn't know whether that was a good sign.
The answer came back right away, tense and stern, making her wince. "Stay where you are! I'll be there in a minute."
Aeris hesitated. She would have liked to see Sephiroth, exchange a few words perhaps, in the rare event that he felt sociable. In the end, though, it would hurt Cloud's feelings if she disregarded his warning. She didn't want another argument.
Cloud came along after a short time, a sword propped on his shoulder, his expression already weary. But he smiled at her anyway, eyes lingering on her face, drinking her in. She smiled back. Oh, Cloud. She wished she hadn't had to drag up all those old hurts.
She preceded him down to the corridor, bare feet light on the floor. The sensation was strange, distracting. She splayed her toes and smiled.
"... What are you doing?"
Aeris chuckled and turned to face him. "Wooden floors. I missed them."
She couldn't help but laugh at his bemused expression. "I missed everything."
"Oh," he said quietly, and nothing else, so she stepped closer and leaned against him, her side to his chest, her head on his shoulder.
"Everything. But you and our friends the most."
He breathed out in her hair, an arm coming up to hug her shoulders briefly. "...I missed fresh-baked bread a lot, when I was in the labs."
Aeris huffed and poked him in the chest with an accusing finger. "Of course you say that in the middle of the night, when all the bakeries will be closed."
Cloud chuckled softly as he leaned away from her. She allowed him to put some distance back between them, her own smile growing more subdued.
"I want you to promise me he's going to stay asleep."
Aeris blinked and tilted her head, not sure how to read that. "Well, of course. Isn't that what we agreed on? The neighborhood will be safe, I promise."
Cloud shook his head, allowing her to see exactly how tired he was. "I don't want you to promise that the neighborhood will be safe, Aeris. I want you to promise that you will keep casting those Sleep spells, and he will stay under, and at no time will he wake up."
For a second she was a little hurt that he was looking at her like that -- as if he couldn't quite trust her to be on his side, to respect his decisions. But there was precedent, wasn't there? She hadn't asked anyone's opinion before going to pray for Holy either. She still didn't regret it.
"I admit it might be... tempting," she said quietly, "to sit him down at a table and feed him, or allow him to take a bath. Or look out of a window."
She caught a strange expression on Cloud's face, but it was gone too fast for her to read it. She tilted her head in question, but he was impassive once again.
"... I know you'll be the one who has to kill him if I'm wrong." She didn't think she was wrong, but she knew that wasn't the sticking point.
"I do trust you," Cloud said, a bit fast, like he'd been rehearsing it and he wanted to be sure, sure she got it. "But ... I'm the one he gave the right to judge him. That means I'm responsible."
She placed a hand on his chest, fingers spread open. "I know, Cloud. I won't let him wake up. I promise."
Cloud gave a slow nod, shoulders relaxing. "And you won't let Zack wake him up either?"
She rolled her eyes at him, amused. "How many copies do you want that contract in?"
Cloud snorted quietly, and his eyes softened.
"Because I'm sure we could get Reeve's legal team on it, if we ask nicely..."
Zack emerged from the corner of the corridor and peeked at them. He was smiling, but Aeris could tell he was worried.
"I'm going to Wutai," Cloud said decisively.
"You are?" Zack blinked, taken aback. "-- I mean, okay. Of course you are. Ah, but don't worry, we'll hold down the fort!"
Aeris chuckled. Subtle way to pretend they hadn't noticed something had made Cloud Strife change his mind. Not really.
"That's what I'm worried about," Cloud muttered, and accepted another Zack Fair hair ruffle with minimum grumbling.
"Don't be like that. Everything will go just fine."
"Yeah, about that," Cloud said, nudging him in the ribs with an elbow. "Like I told Aeris, I'll be much obliged if you don't wake him up. At all. For any reason."
"What if there's a fire?" Zack asked, not quite managing to make it sound like a joke.
"He'll burn," Cloud retorted, but it didn't even sound angry. Defensive, yes, but it was more like a memory of anger, the awareness that he perhaps should have been. "... Shove him in a potato sack and drag him out if you really have to. Just don't wake him. I know the spell will wear off, but... Just cast again. Please."
Zack sighed, surrendering. "Aye-aye, sir."
"How about you go tell Tifa and take a shower?" Aeris suggested to end the uncomfortable conversation. "We'll make you two something to eat; you're going to be in transit a while."
"That'd be great, thanks," Cloud said, and walked off down the corridor, still looking preoccupied.
Zack followed Aeris down the staircase, though he gave the ascending flight a lingering look.
"Don't push it right now, Zack," she cautioned.
"I wasn't going to. It just kind of sucks, you know."
Aeris smiled at him over her shoulder. "Sometimes Cloud does need nagging, but where Sephiroth is concerned, I guarantee things will go a lot faster if we let him convince himself. Case in point..."
Zack blinked, nodded thoughtfully, and gave her a little smile.
Her kitchen was full of dead people.
By full of course Tifa only meant two, and neither "dead" nor "undead" sounded quite like the right term -- formerly deceased? -- but they seemed to command all the space nonetheless.
Well. Aeris did. The only part of Zack's anatomy Tifa could see from the door was his ass, as he folded in two to check the contents of the bottom of the fridge; and while it did attract some attention, she wouldn't have called it 'commanding', exactly.
Then she noticed the bruise-colored shadows under Aeris' eyes and the faint tiredness in her smile of greeting, and then the girl stopped looking so otherworldly.
"Good morning," Tifa said, smiling crookedly.
She stepped into the kitchen, glad for the towel she was twisting around her wet hair, keeping her hands busy. Zack waved at her over the fridge door and then plunged back in. Tifa was rather glad for that too. She didn't have the faintest idea what to say to him.
She didn't know what to say to Aeris either, except a quiet "Thank you" when Aeris picked up the coffee pot and waved it toward the cups meaningfully.
Damp towel across her shoulders, Tifa sat, watching the black liquid pour in. It gave her the strange feeling of being a guest in her own kitchen, but that only added a little disquieting, embarrassed note to the rest of the confusion.
"Yes, please. ...The top shelf. Thank you."
"Aha! Ham," Zack exclaimed, brandishing the paper-wrapped slices, startling her.
"... Yes?" Tifa inquired, blinking.
"It's to make the two of you sandwiches for the road. You'll be in transit for a while, right?"
"I'm sure Cid will have food onboard his ship, though..."
Zack looked disappointed for a second, almost enough to make her want to apologize; but he just put the ham back in and started rummaging again. Tifa took a sip of coffee. The kitchen felt full of things unsaid.
In one way, she felt like she knew him -- from the little Cloud had shared, from the lot he'd implied, or assumed, or had nightmares about. Zack had been part of her background for so long. In another, much more concrete way, to Tifa he was a virtual stranger, an acquaintance at best. But he behaved in such a casually friendly way...
"Chocolate okay? -- oho, strawberry jam."
Tifa smiled a little, though that was mostly politeness, an acknowledgement of his efforts. "That would be nice. Thank you."
Yesterday's argument weighed on her mind still, unresolved, souring the wonder she should have felt. And then there was Yuffie, the grief she must be dealing with... Tifa was just glad the two of them seemed to be content with empty platitudes, content to put deeper matters on hold until next time.
Cloud wouldn't be long. Tifa drained the rest of her cup decisively and picked up the PHS recharging on the counter. No messages. She thought for a second, then entered Denzel's number. It was late -- early -- but if she woke him up he could always sleep in Cid's ship...
She got the answering service.
"Tifa? What's wrong?"
Tifa realized she was chewing on her lip and glanced at Aeris. "Denzel put his PHS in sleep mode. He's not answering."
"Do you think something happened?" Zack said immediately, straightening up as he stared at her face.
Tifa realized how tense she was, and let her shoulders relax with a long sigh. "No, no. I mean, the three of you, plus Yuffie's father, plus some unrelated enemy who would know where to find him, it would be a bit much for one night. I just thought he'd want to come." That, and she couldn't help but want him far away from everything Sephiroth-related if Cloud wasn't around to keep an eye on things.
Zack nodded slowly and leaned a hip against the table. "Just go and pick him up, then."
"I would if I knew where he was staying," Tifa replied with some frustration.
"...Huh. You don't know?"
Tifa turned away from him and started fussing with the toaster. "No. He has his PHS and I know he's safe, that's good enough."
It made her sound like a bad parent, even though she trusted Denzel fine; she knew he had a roof over his head and a responsible adult that she likely knew personally keeping an eye on him -- she had made sure to meet all his friends' parents, just in case.
She hadn't wanted to know with which one of his friends he had chosen to stay, because if she didn't know then no one could force it out of her. She didn't want to say that; it sounded so dramatic.
A toast popped out. Too early. She pushed it back in with her fingertips and reset the timer. Cloud had fiddled with it again, she could tell.
"It's alright, he can join us later -- Cid's freighter planes do a couple trips a day, we'll arrange something. I'll ask Elmyra if she can drive him, send Denzel a message to get in touch with her..."
She paused as the quality of the silence behind her shifted, and then realized.
Aeris was standing by the counter, a strange smile on her face.
It was easy enough to fake Aeris's default attitude: her serene, self-assured friendliness. But the girl Tifa had known had been so much more than the impartially benevolent goddess some people painted her as, afterwards. So different.
She'd been the most horrible kind of tease; and even though she rarely spread any gossip, she sure liked to hear it; and she loved to play armchair psychologist; and when you were sad or discouraged she was more likely to prod you to get back up on your feet than comfort you -- she'd been human. She looked human right now, lost in a too-large shirt and with that smile on her lips that failed to be quite as confidently reassuring as it aimed to be -- too shaky. Too true.
"It's okay, I just -- Mom." She gave a watery chuckle. "Is -- is she well?"
Oh. Tifa stepped closer slowly, heart constricting in shared pain. It was a good pain, though, she could tell -- a hopeful kind of yearning. "She's fine. She still lives in Kalm -- Barret and I drive there every other weekend with the children. Marlene calls her Grandma, you know," she added quietly.
Aeris closed her eyes, steadying herself, and gave a little chuckle that was only slightly less shaky than the previous one. "I bet she likes that."
"A lot." Now it wasn't so hard to reach out, touch Aeris's shoulder, give a soft, understanding smile. "When we come back... I'll drive you there, alright? She'll be so happy."
Aeris let out a little sigh and leaned against Tifa's shoulder, eyes still closed. "That would be really nice. And I think your toast is burning."
Tifa blinked, but Zack was already leaning over the table to get to the toaster, so she didn't have to step away from Aeris. She blushed a little; she'd forgotten the man was there for a short moment. Even now he was trying to be unobtrusive, which wasn't very easy when you were juggling hot toast and yelping. Tifa chuckled, and Aeris too, when she opened her eyes to see what was funny.
"... I'm fine. I don't know what came over me..."
Tifa nudged her gently with an elbow. "Yes, I really don't know, I mean, it isn't like she's your mother or you haven't seen her in years and thought you never would again or anything..."
Aeris gave a little huff, and then one of those brilliant grins that always startled Tifa with all the life they packed. "Alright! I'll hold you to that. It's good you offered, because I like the idea of a personal chauffeur, and I am not riding with Zack."
"Oi!" he protested. "I don't drive that badly! Like you can talk anyway, you're a menace on the road."
"Yes, and whose fault is that, teacher?"
Cloud appeared in the doorway, arching an eyebrow at the lot of them in confusion. "Driving where?"
"Oh," Tifa said as she watched Zack and Aeris bicker, "to see Elmyra."
Cloud's expression softened in understanding. "I see. Good idea."
He stepped in, took the abandoned piece of toast from the table, then made a face and started scraping off the well-toasted parts with a knife.
"I called Denzel, but he must have his PHS on sleep mode," Tifa told him, rolling her eyes a little as she put in another slice of bread in the toaster. "I think he'll want to come, but..."
Cloud nodded thoughtfully. "Can't wait. We'll coordinate from the road."
She frowned. So he'd decided to come, but... "Are you sure? Cid has a ship crossing the ocean every six hours, we could catch the next one..."
"Reeve said he needed to talk to us, and he won't have time if we arrive late. Denzel shouldn't be at the wake anyway. He might as well get there the next day."
Tifa nodded slowly, more because she didn't have any solid argument against it than because she felt extremely convinced. She thought about staying instead, waiting for him and then going together in the morning. But Yuffie, alone and orphaned...
But Denzel, in Edge, with Sephiroth nearby.
"Cloud," she said quietly. "What are we going to do about Sephiroth?"
He paused with the half-eaten toast raised, then put it down and looked at her. Aeris and Zack had stilled as well, expectant.
It wasn't ... dismissive, wasn't 'whatever, he can wait! I won't hurry for him'. It was closer to 'it's alright, he said he'd be patient'. Tifa blinked at Cloud, a little shocked, more than a little confused. Cloud had a faint frown on his face; he gazed at the table without really seeing it. He was probably remembering the talk, but Tifa didn't understand the expression, not connected to Sephiroth. It was thoughtful when it should have been defensive or suspicious.
"He could have escaped. He didn't know I'd be leaving, so as far as he knew that was the only opening he would get. So..." His frown deepened. "Whatever his game is, it demands him to play it straight for now. He'll wait."
Tifa released tension she hadn't been aware she was gathering. It had just felt strange at first, when she started wondering if Cloud actually trusted his word. Because Cloud trusting Sephiroth, just like that, meant she couldn't trust Cloud anymore. Cloud hadn't had behavior or memory issues in a very long time, but then again Sephiroth had been dead a very long time, too ... talk about an interesting coincidence.
Cloud downed a cup of coffee, grimacing faintly at the taste, and stole a glance at Zack. "Anyway. You two should go back to bed."
"Oh, we definitely will," Zack replied with fake innocence. "Mm, fluffy pillows, warm soft blankets, sleeping in until noon..."
Cloud scrunched up his nose in similarly fake annoyance. "Ass."
Zack turned back to the counter with a chuckle and finished saran-wrapping his jam sandwiches. "Yep. But you like me like that. Here's your snack, Cloudypoo."
Cloud blinked at the plastic bag he was now holding. Tifa smothered a giggle at his nonplussed expression.
"Zack, I told you..." he growled tiredly. "Oh, never mind." A sigh. "We need to get going."
"Wait a sec." Tifa grabbed a Thermos bottle from under the sink and quickly poured in the rest of the coffee. "Alright, I packed us overnight bags, I don't think we'll need anything else... Oh, the bar."
"We can take care of it!" Zack exclaimed, a little too enthusiastic for her peace of mind.
"... Have you ever worked in a bar before?"
"Well. No. But it can't be that hard, right?"
Tifa winced. On one hand, losing a whole day of work would make her checkbook harder to balance, especially with three more adults to feed. On the other hand... She'd feel better if Zack worked with one of her usual temps first, and there was no way she could get one on such short notice.
"It's alright, there's no need. There's a closed sign, put it on the door and leave it locked -- and there's a delivery coming in at noon but it's all prepaid, you just have to sign the sheet and bring the boxes in."
What other advice did they need? She was sure she was forgetting something...
"Tifa, I'm sure they'll survive," Cloud said dryly. "Let's go."
She dumped the towel on the back of a chair and followed him out, quickly braiding her still-damp hair. "Yes, yes -- ah! Cloud's PHS number is on the emergency contact list by the bar."
Cloud crossed the doorway connecting the stockroom to the garage and went to his bike. Zack and Aeris had followed them; Zack slipped past her to go open the garage door, but Tifa couldn't move to join Cloud. Stopped in her tracks on the threshold, she stared at Aeris helplessly, the surrealism of the situation hitting her once again. To think that she was here, that she wasn't a ghost or a memory -- alive, breathing, standing somewhere she'd never been, somewhere Tifa had never thought she'd be.
Aeris wrapped her in a quick, tight hug, and almost immediately released her; Tifa's arms stayed frozen in surprise and uncertainty, half-lifted to return it but not daring to complete the gesture before the moment was gone.
"Be careful on the road. And... I wish you could tell Yuffie, I'm so sorry about her father."
"We'll tell her -- I promise, when the moment is right." Tifa made a faint grimace. "It's just not going to be an easy moment to find."
Before she could lose her resolve again Tifa turned away and took the helmet Cloud held out to her. Her jacket was there too; she slipped it on, and then she straddled the saddle behind him. Zack was standing by the garage door, admiring the bike.
When Cloud started the engine and drove the bike out they were both waving, Aeris's slender frame leaning against Zack's side. Tifa kept them in sight until they turned the corner, and then she leaned against Cloud's back and stared at nothing as he drove.
He didn't speak at all until they were halfway to Kalm.
"Doesn't feel like any of it was real, huh."
Aeris in her kitchen, tears in her eyes because of her mother. Zack making sandwiches.
Sephiroth in her attic.
"No," Tifa said. "It really doesn't."