Chapter 5

Phi was one of Denzel's best buds. He was a total dork of unequaled dorkitude, and at least one person a day threatened to knock him out if that would stop his incessant fidgeting -- but he was also the kind of guy who, when one of his friends told him "hey, someone might be gunning for my family again and I gotta jet in case they want to use my bleeding and battered body to send Cloud a message," he just said "dude, haven't they heard of texting!" and barricaded you in his own bedroom, where he would generously feed you half his secret stash of pilfered candy.

He hadn't even complained about how depressing it was to share a room with a brooding Denzel. His mom had been pretty nice too, fed him a good solid meal, and hadn't even said anything about the slight risk of said potential homicidal maniac tracking Denzel down and going through her family to get at him. So Denzel wasn't about to repay them by taking Phi with him to discreetly check on things back at the Seventh Heaven, no matter how cool Phi thought it would be to ninja through the streets and set up surveillance. The guy had all the street smarts of a newborn chocobo.

Denzel had had a family most of his life -- his biological parents until he was eight, and then Cloud and Tifa when he was almost ten. Twelve years and a bit, total. But a year and a half in the street had changed him in ways he couldn't undo.

Sometimes it was even useful.

Tifa was right, his hair was getting a bit long; but when he combed it flat on his head he could tie it into a little ponytail. Then he'd started smiling a little vaguely, in an absent-minded way, and slouched. Nothing to see here, just a daydreaming dork trailing past the end of the street, and if he gazed at the Seventh Heaven as he crossed the intersection on the next block it was purely by accident--

What the hell.

There was a guy standing behind the bar. A guy who wasn't Cloud. From a block away Denzel couldn't see any details, but he could tell that much -- Cloud's shade of blond was pretty distinctive, and this really wasn't it. He forced himself to keep walking and not stare too long.

Black hair, yeah. And just doing his thing behind the counter, not the hurried, look-over-your-shoulder behavior of a bad thief. Then again good thieves knew all about acting natural.

Denzel checked his PHS again. Still no new message.

The last he'd gotten was a 'we're okay, stay put' that came across as 'this might not end in a fight after all, but we really don't know for sure yet'. He'd gone to bed somewhat reassured.

But it was almost nine in the morning, and Denzel had a hard time picturing Tifa sleeping in so late. Possibility one, they'd talked so late in the night she and Cloud were too exhausted to wake. It was still relatively early, after all, and on any other weekend Denzel himself wouldn't have emerged for another couple of hours...

Possibility two, the peace talks had backfired.

But the bar was open.

But Cloud and Tifa weren't in it.

He turned left at the next corner, to approach the Seventh Heaven from another angle. Dialed Cloud's PHS as he went, but once again he was shuffled off to his voicemail.

(On the way he passed old man Zeller and Mrs. Jenseny bitching each other out about a truck with a peppering of brand new little holes in it, but then again they'd been bitching at each other for as long as he'd known them and probably longer, so he didn't spare it much thought.)

From the opposite sidewalk, he could see there were already a couple of regulars inside the bar. The stranger was making them laugh, an elbow propped up on the counter in a casual way as he waved his other hand expansively. Denzel frowned harder.

... Black hair, shoulder-length in jagged spikes. Pale-ish skin. Young. Legs much longer, probably, to be that tall, but chest and shoulders roughly the same size as Cloud. And Denzel knew that tanktop; he'd carried it to the appropriate drawer along with a pile of Cloud's other freshly-laundered tops just two days ago.

Denzel swerved with no warning, stalked his way across the street, and shoved the door open.

"Welcome!" the man at the bar said, before he even turned to look. And that voice -- yeah, that was all the confirmation Denzel needed. The church guy didn't even blink when he saw Denzel; his smile just became a little wider. He'd recognized him. "Hey, what are you doing here?"

That felt a little past simply recognizing him from the church. The surprise that Denzel would be here -- he didn't know, it sounded like it assumed more background knowledge. Denzel scowled, gave another glance at the other patrons, and stomped his way closer. "I should be the one asking you that," he growled under his breath. The guy chuckled like he'd heard him perfectly well.

"I didn't introduce myself yesterday," the guy said, picking up a glass and a towel. "My name's Zack. You're Denzel, right?"

"That glass was already dry," Denzel pointed out, countering his friendly expression with an unimpressed glare.

"--So it was." Zack put the glass back behind the counter, and his expression sobered up slightly. "Just figured you'd prefer my hands to be busy," he said, voice pitched so the patrons wouldn't hear.

Denzel tensed a little, because he did prefer it, at that. Meant a second of delay to drop the glass before the guy tried to grab him. "...Yeah, because you having a heavy projectile in hand is way better," he drawled.

He was starting to get strange looks from Mr. Staunton for the way he stood all stiff and wary almost two meters away from the bar, so he reluctantly walked up to it and propped an elbow on the countertop. The guy -- Zack -- smoothly stepped away from him and plunged his hands in the sink, feeling around the bottom for things to wash.

"Oh yeah, kitchen knives, good idea," Denzel said.

Zack let out a snort. "Okay, now you're just griping for the fun of it."

Denzel refused to dignify that with an answer.

Damn, but the guy was good at acting trustworthy. Even the regulars were already relaxed, joking around when he stepped away for a minute to check on them.

"Where's Tifa and Cloud?" Denzel asked when he came back to the sink. He stayed tense, watching closely for any telltale twitch, any misdirection.

One of Zack's eyebrows quirked up in (possibly well-faked) surprise.

"Wutai. I thought they'd told you?"

... What.

"Run that by me again," he said slowly. "Wutai?"

"Well, right now they're probably still en route --"

Denzel kept staring at him. Yesterday his guardians had been all 'don't come here it might be dangerous' and today they were supposedly all 'how about we go on a trip halfway across the world in the middle of the night'? Yeah, sure. "You can't be serious."

Zack gave him a wince. "Okay, it does sound kind of dodgy."

"Kind of, he says," muttered Denzel.

Zack's hands were in the water again; he stared down at the coffee cup he was washing for a few seconds, gathering his thoughts (or pretending to, Denzel wasn't ruling that out yet.)

"You know Yuffie's dad?"

"Heard about him, yeah."

"Seems like he had a heart attack and passed away last night. They went to the funeral, a guy named Cid was gonna pick them up."

"Yeah, yeah, you can drop names," Denzel retorted with a scowl. "Doesn't tell me why they went without waiting for me."

"I'm gonna drop another one. Elmyra's supposed to pick you up and get you there, if you wanna go. Tifa was supposed to arrange it?"

Denzel gritted his teeth. He'd had no call from either woman, but he wasn't gonna confirm that. He didn't need to, apparently, because Zack seemed to read it on his face, and had the gall to look understanding and even perhaps a little compassionate.

"Why don't you call her to check?"

"I think I will," Denzel threatened. He took his PHS out of his pocket and dialed.

Ring... ring... Voicemail. Denzel told himself they were out of range, even though nowhere on the Planet seemed to be out of range. He'd gotten phone calls from the Bone Village in Northern before, for Odin's sake. Maybe they were too far up in the sky. Cid liked to push his ships to their limits.

But when he tried to dial Phi, who lived maybe ten blocks over, he got the same result, and he knew for a fact that Phi slept with his PHS tucked under his pillow, since he used it as an alarm clock.

"-- Fuckdamnithell."

"Tifa know you swear that way?" Zack asked. His teasing smile melted into a frown of concern almost immediately, though. "What's wrong?"

Denzel waved his concern off with an irritated flick of the hand. "PHS. Not working. It's telling me I have signal but -- nrgh."

"Huh. That's weird."

"You too?" asked a patron as he walked up to the bar. Denzel tried not to startle too visibly. "Network must be down again. It was doing the same thing last week."

"Aw, sh--crap, I mean."

The man laughed, dropping a big hand on his head and ruffling his hair vigorously. "I won't tell Tifa if you don't. And don't fret, it'll fix itself in a hour or two." He turned to Zack, allowing Denzel to step away. "Alright, give me another coffee."

"Last one for the road?"

Denzel kept his eye on the two men as he went around the end of the bar and reached for the wall phone. It was an old salvaged thing, dating back from way before Meteor; it even used cables and everything. Maybe it would work when the PHS network didn't.

Ring, ring --

"Yes? Who is this?"

Denzel's first reaction was an intense wave of relief. Elmyra's curious voice was like a reminder that he wasn't alone, that he had adults out there who he knew for sure were ready to drop everything to help, and her easy tone said she had heard of no hint of foul play about his adoptive parents.

His second reaction was to remember that, tough as she was, Elmyra had never been a fighter; that she lived several hours away, too far to do anything in time but worry; and that she was getting older and didn't need the stress. "Hey! It's Denzel," he said, smoothing the tense suspicion out of his voice.

Turned out she'd gotten Tifa's message by early morning, but only two hours later had been just as unable to leave Denzel a message of her own to set up a pickup time and place. Danged PHS network, and wasn't it a good thing that he had thought to call her on the landline. Denzel decided not to mention Zack. She hadn't.

He hung up, slightly reassured -- at least the Wutai thing was legit, weird as it seemed. But the situation was still weird in general, and that Tifa hadn't told Elmyra she had people over was just plain strange; Elmyra would have been happy to come check on them and probably even cook them a good meal, standing in for the host Tifa couldn't be at the moment. Elmyra had firm opinions on how to treat your guests, and abandoning them in your house as you wandered off wasn't it.

"So? How did it go?"

Denzel twitched a little, even though he'd seen Zack drift closer. The man kept facing the room, allowing Denzel to stand almost at his back.

The talk with Elmyra had contributed to relax him. But he didn't want to let Zack off the hook yet. "How do you know Tifa?" he asked, bypassing Zack's question.

"I don't really, I know Cloud. Only met her once at Nibelheim, way back in the day."

"... So you don't know her. So why the heck are you working at her bar?" He gave a critical look to the mess that was starting to pile up by the sink and the open floor-level cupboards just waiting to trip a hurried barkeeper. "Because you probably shouldn't. Just saying."

Zack gave a laugh that sounded vaguely embarrassed to Denzel's ears, and then promptly changed the subject. "Listen, I'd be happy to answer all of your questions, but Tifa and Cloud should be the ones to tell you what's really going on here."

"Because you don't know what I'm big enough to hear?"

"No." Zack turned to face him, leaning back on the counter with his hands on the edge, and for once he looked totally serious. "Because if I tell you, you'll think I'm bugfuck crazy."

Denzel met his eyes for a few seconds head on.

Something big then. Something really weird. Cloud was a weirdness magnet, so Denzel had a hard time deciding what kind of weird Zack was. There were so many possibilities. At the very least it was much more convincing than 'Oh, I'm just his totally mundane drinking buddy from Kalm'.

He sighed. He wasn't going to learn more right away, and at least he was now pretty convinced that Zack wasn't dangerous to him for the moment, and perhaps at all. The guy hadn't kidnapped Denzel yet, at least, and -- well. He felt sincere, even in -- especially in -- his refusal to say more.

Denzel refused to pass for easily won over, though.

"Not to destroy your illusions," he drawled, "but I already think you're bugfuck crazy."


"Oh well, I'll show you how to hold a bar properly. Do you even know how to do mixed drinks?"

Zack blinked for a second, and then grinned in honest delight. Denzel reminded himself firmly that he was harder to charm than that. Really, he was.

"Well, mostly the ones I like."

"Great." Denzel rolled his eyes and threw him an unconvinced sideway look. "Budge over. Only got a few hours to make sure you don't embarrass us."

"Aw, phooey." Raking a hand through his hair, Zack seemed torn between laughter and awkwardness. "...Denzel..."

And that was the 'I'm sorry, kid, the Tooth Fairy doesn't really exist' tone. "What?" Denzel snapped, voice coming out more annoyed than planned. It was just that after a whole chat being treated more or less as an equal it rankled to hear that too-gentle, careful note.

Zack opened his mouth, seemed to consider, closed it again. Watched him. Denzel scowled, chin held high.

"... Alright, alright. But can you do me a favor? Can you set up your meeting with Elmyra elsewhere? Don't have to tell me where, just not around here. Tifa is going to kill me hard enough for not telling you to leave right away, I don't really need the cherry on top of her killing me for Aeris's mom too."

Denzel's brow furrowed. He knew who Aeris had been, of course -- Elmyra had pictures, and Tifa had told him a few Avalanche tales -- but no one referred to Elmyra like that very often anymore.

"If I ask why, you're gonna tell me I've got to ask Tifa, aren't you?" He gave the guy a cynical look.

"Yeah, sorry." A sigh. "Okay, me and my girlfriend -- well, there was a third guy with us, and he's kind of... Uh." An uncomfortable look. "Long story very short Cloud and Tifa won't like the idea of you being around him and he's got nowhere to go, and... Okay. He's upstairs. So if you want clothes and stuff, I'll have to get them for you, because Cloud'll have my balls for earrings if I let you in any farther than this."

... Oh. That was all?

"He a recovering druggie or something?"

"Ooor something, yeah."

Denzel narrowed his eyes. "A clone?"

Zack fumbled the glass he was half-heartedly drying and narrowly managed to rescue it before it hit the ground. Yeah, with reflexes like that, like hell he was a normal Joe off the street.

"-- uh. Oh god." And cue laughter, but not the 'this is hilarious' kind. More like ahahaffuuuck. "No. Not a clone."

Denzel's eyes narrowed some more.

"And that's enough for now -- no, seriously, it is. Call Elmyra to set up that meeting before she leaves, and then I'll get you clothes for the trip -- and if you nag me again I swear I'll get you nothing but girl clothes."

Denzel huffed, crossing his arms, and glared at the finger Zack was pointing at his face. This time he looked firm and determined. Denzel weighed him up... no, pushing wouldn't get him any farther. But he was going to be with Cloud and Tifa soon, and then he'd know. They better not even think of not telling him everything.

"Fine," he said, uncrossing his arms slowly. "Budge over. Time to see if you'll be worth anything as a bartender."


Cloud slid down the last few feet to the ground, the rope ladder zipping through his gloved hands. His feet landed on paved stones with a solid thump.

"Thank you for coming so quickly, Mr. Strife," Reeve said, taking a step forward and offering a hand to shake.

Face blank, Cloud shook, observing him and the subdued town square. There were very few passersby, all with their heads hanging low and talking in hurried, uneasy whispers. A couple of stern, grim-faced Wutainese officials in white traditional costumes waited a few steps behind Reeve. That might have explained Reeve's textbook-proper posture and his reserved greeting.

"Thank you for calling us," he replied, cautious.

Tifa landed behind him with a little oof and turned to face them, giving Reeve a smile that was still half-awake at best. She'd slept for the last five hours of the trip, only waking up a few minutes before Cid threw the ladder over to send them down.

"Miss Lockhart."

"... Mr. Tuesti," she replied, visibly a little confused but willing to play along.

Reeve guided them a few steps away from the dangling rope ladder, as a few of Cid's employees climbed down to take care of the crates being lowered to the ground. There was nowhere big enough for his ship to land inside the city; Cid himself would come join them later, when everything with his cargo was sorted out.

"May I introduce Councilor Kanemoto and Mr. Leuang, his secretary. They are in charge of the guests."

Cloud nodded a greeting. He almost offered his hand for Kanemoto to shake, but seeing the dry little bow he was given, and the expressionless stare going right through him, his hand would have been ignored. Kanemoto seemed old, maybe sixty or maybe ten years more, steel-gray hair pulled back in an old-fashioned topknot that even Yuffie's father hadn't been prone to wearing much. A traditionalist. Leuang was younger, in his thirties maybe, but he obviously took his cue from the old man.

"Thank you for taking care of us," Tifa said, smiling, though it was her reserved, polite smile and he could tell she also knew that more would have been wasted.

Well. He had known before coming that they would be seen as outsiders, hadn't he.

Kanemoto had a little spiel ready as he led them to the Kisaragi estate -- that it was a honor to host friends of Lady Kisaragi, that if they needed help they should not hesitate to call for Leuang, who would be able to find anything they might require. They exchanged condolences as well. Then silence fell. Cloud let it.

He would have liked to go to bed soon, but there was still the wake to go through. He'd napped in the ship, too, but he hadn't managed to catch much more than a half-hour of shut-eye here and there.

Despite her best effort, Tifa had fallen asleep at about eight AM Edge time, and he had told himself that of course Denzel would still be in bed, especially if the boy had stayed up the previous evening out of worry. Then the network had gone down. There was nothing they could do from the ship but fret, and he could fret just fine alone, so he had let Tifa sleep. Thankfully at some point the network went back up and so when Tifa woke up he could reassure her right away; Denzel was safely with Elmyra, getting ready to take the next ship over. He'd be there early morning tomorrow, Wutai time.

It let them entirely free to fret about other things instead. Cloud had forbidden himself to think about the Sephiroth situation, though, considering how fruitless and unhelpful that would be. The thought kept ambushing him at odd times regardless, but he did his best to let it slide.

They passed a gate with guards who scrutinized their faces, and then they were in the first inner courtyard of the Kisaragi residence... or estate, or castle, or whatever they called the sprawling interlinked buildings and their inner gardens.

"Leuang will lead you to your bedrooms, so that you may change into appropriate clothing," Councilor Kanemoto said, giving Cloud's sword harness and Tifa's leather jacket a disapproving look. "Mr. Tuesti..."

"I believe I will walk with them," Reeve said with firm politeness. "I need to change as well. Thank you for coming, Councilor."

The old man stared at Reeve for a few seconds, and then at Cloud, eyes flicking quickly over Tifa before he gave a sharp nod and turned on his heel to leave.

"This way," Leuang said, and started walking.

They followed as he led them to the gallery that ran along one of the inner courtyards, and then back inside the building, a wing Cloud hadn't visited before. It had obviously been refurbished since the war, though traces of it still showed -- cracked tiles, empty nooks, the faded outline of a disappeared tapestry. Servants hurried past, pretending not to notice them.

Cloud glanced at Reeve a couple of times, but the man didn't meet his eyes even once, staring ahead with grave thoughtfulness. Alright, Cloud could take a hint. They weren't supposed to know each other all that well.

"This is my stop," Reeve said; Cloud memorized the door. "I will see you later."

A nod, and he was gone.

"Your rooms," Leuang said, stopping a few doors down and pushing it open. "Miss Lockhart," he indicated. The next down the corridor; "Mr. Strife." He gave them a short bow and then he was gone as well. Cloud traded a look with Tifa, shrugged, and went to dump his backpack on his bed. There was a sword rack, though it was made for slender katanas and wouldn't have fit his huge broadsword. He propped the handle against it, eyes traveling over the bedroom.

Slippery, mirror-polished wooden floor, scrolls hanging from the walls that he lifted to check for hidden surprises. The window was round, screened with intricate latticework, welded shut. He could kick his way through if needed, but it would leave obvious tracks. In a corner there was a folding screen hiding a sink and an old-fashioned wooden tub; no shower (or anyone hiding in the tub either). The second screen hid a door. Hmm.

"Hey, Tifa," he said, peering through at her bedroom. It was about identical; only the color scheme had a little more red to replace his own cream and black.

She'd taken off her jacket and stood in the middle of the room, like she was still trying to decide what to do next. She looked at the door with a faintly puzzled expression, and then laughed. "Oh, look, we have a polite fiction door."

"... A what?"

She took his sleeve and tugged him in, and slid the door closed. Seen from this side it almost melted into the wall.

"You know, we're not married, so there is no reason to be in each other's bedroom? And we would have to go out in the corridor to visit, and if that happened too often people would notice... It'd be kind of shocking."

"They could have just asked if we wanted to share," Cloud replied, tilting his head in confusion. He felt along the wall for the hidden latch and slid the door open again. "Kinda weird to give us separate rooms and then a sneaky way to go from one to the other."

Tifa let out an amused little huff. "Hence the polite fiction part. It's not polite of them to ask, it's not polite of us to flaunt it, so they're giving us the sneaky door and then we can do whatever we want with it."

Cloud shrugged. "That or they don't have a lot of rooms left for guests." He leaned against the doorjamb, so he could keep an eye on both bedrooms. "What kind of clothes did you pack?"

Tifa sighed and sat on her bed to open her own bag. "Well. I brought our best formal clothes but you know, after seeing the councilor... I'm not sure they'll work." She nibbled on her lower lip, lost in thought. "Maybe we should buy something--"

A knock rang at her front door; before she or Cloud could move it was pushed open. Reeve peeked through, flicked them a quick smile, and stepped inside, closing the door after him. He was carrying long silk-wrapped packages draped on his arm.

"Reeve? Are you... not supposed to be here?"

He let out a rueful laugh, laying the packages on the bed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you so wary. No, of course I'm not forbidden to be here. I'd just rather not raise too many questions. I'm only supposed to be one of Avalanche's political associates, remember."

They'd found it more practical to hide that Reeve wasn't just a supporter but a full member. Some people weren't happy with Avalanche's old, violent means; no need to tar Reeve and his organization with the same brush, to make people think he condoned the worst of Avalanche's methods. Being one of their allies gave Reeve the positive boost of being a politician who shared their ideals and their pro-Gaia stance without marking him a ruthless, cold-blooded terrorist.

Reeve raked his hand through his hair, smoothing it back. Cloud saw a few gray strands amongst the dark. His goatee was as neatly trimmed as ever and his suit showed almost no wrinkles, but Reeve looked tired too, when he let himself show it.

"It's good to see you," Reeve said, more quietly. "The atmosphere here has been pretty tense."

Tifa moved to him, rested a hand on his shoulder. "Tense how? Is Yuffie alright?"

Reeve sighed. "I haven't spent a lot of time with her. I'm not sure how she's taking it. When I saw her there were so many people asking for her input, and she was... Well. She wasn't chatty. Proper, mostly. I don't know if she even truly believes it's happening yet."

"Stiff upper lip," Cloud said quietly, remembering Zack's words.

"That's a good word for it. She was sitting with her legs folded like they do here and her back straight, wearing at least a dozen layers of kimono all spread out around her. I'm not sure she could have slouched even if she'd wanted to." He raked a hand through his dark hair again. "She reminded me of a doll on display more than a person. It isn't right."

Tifa made a little distressed noise. Reeve nodded his agreement.

"... Anyway. As a political representative, it's alright if I come wearing a suit instead of traditional clothes, but as her personal friends you probably shouldn't."

Reeve pointed at the silk-wrapped packages. Cloud lifted one of the edges, arching an eyebrow at the white woman's kimono he had unveiled. "That, and you already knew we'd have nothing appropriate, huh."

He relaxed a little when Reeve's weariness disappeared briefly and a teasing smile flashed through. At first meeting, the man always looked exceedingly proper and soberly understated, but when you knew he was the brain behind Cait Sith's flamboyant performances your expectations changed a little.

"Well. Yes."

"Got one for Cid too?" Cloud asked, briefly amused at the thought of the coarse blond in traditional Wutaian clothes.

"Of course. I even have a set for Vincent."

"That's not necessary," replied said Vincent, standing calmly by the folding screen in Cloud's bedroom. Cloud twitched in aborted reaction, hand groping for a sword he wasn't carrying.

Vincent glanced at him, but he didn't smile at having successfully taken Cloud by surprise. Half of his face was lost in his eternal cape, the rest of it just as hard to read as it had been back when they got him out of his coffin. Huh.

"Yuffie?" Reeve asked.

"Still secure."

"Got bodyguard duty?" Cloud inquired, and got a nod in reply. "Who's taking over?"

Vincent frowned faintly. "None of ours. But she seems to trust the kunoichi shadowing her."

Cloud didn't reply, allowing his raised eyebrow to express his disbelief that Vincent had left Yuffie even so.

"...Purification ritual. Staying wasn't appropriate."


Alright. The baby of their group taking a ritualistic bath -- it wasn't something Cloud especially needed to witness either.

"Are things really so risky?" Tifa asked. "I mean, maybe I could go if she really needs help, but... They wouldn't be happy with me barging in on a ritual either. Is it really...?"

Reeve watched Tifa in silence for a few seconds, weighing his words. Cloud stayed silent. His paranoia kept feeding on Vincent's and Reeve's, but he had no more solid proof than Tifa did.

"You have to realize that right now, even with Lord Kisaragi's untimely death, Wutai's government is in a better state than ours. They lost the war several years ago, yes, but they surrendered, they weren't utterly destroyed -- they got to keep most of their rules and traditions, and most importantly a lot of their traditional leaders and infrastructures, even stripped of executive power. And... without Shinra, ours is almost completely gone."

Tifa's brow furrowed.

"The only organization that spans continents is WRO, but WRO is dedicated to rebuilding and organizing healthcare and food distribution, not governing. We can't fall back to a pre-Shinra system because it was completely destroyed to put Shinra's in place. Several city-states and their vassal villages didn't even have their own mayors anymore, but Shinra-instated governors. There have been elections, and a surprising number of the winners are even competent, but at best they have five years' experience, and at the moment they're all concentrating on their own areas. We're not an empire anymore, we're a bunch of city-states with vaguely friendly relations, but who can't even all afford to help each other much because our own need is too pressing, and we keep having to reinvent new protocols and figure out new treaties."

"I... can see that, but... What's the link with Yuffie?"

"The timing is ideal to get revenge for the last war," Reeve said simply. "The only thing that's stopping the Wutai nobility from starting preparations is that Yuffie has friends outside of Wutai and that she supports world peace, and right now she's in control."

"But she's also a kid who doesn't know anything," Cloud concluded.

Reeve nodded, visibly tired once again. "She also stands in the way of another family ascending to the throne -- and several of them are related closely enough to pretend to it -- and she stands in the way of the Progressive party which wants to do away with the whole feudal system. I'm not sure if they're all planning to take action against her, but even just one of the three would be enough."

Cloud's shoulders tensed. He'd known it would be awkward; he hadn't really allowed himself to believe it would be that bad.

"Wutai politics really are cutthroat, huh," he said under his breath. Damn. Sephiroth hadn't exaggerated.

Reeve nodded grimly. "A bit too literally, too. From what I've gathered, funerals are an especially dangerous time. Wutai traditions have it that committing suicide to join your loved ones is something noble and tragically beautiful, so when you're distracted by grief you're vulnerable both from without and from within. Even if you don't personally want to imitate those traditions, your enemies have a built-in excuse should you have a convenient blade-related accident."

Tifa made an angry noise in the back of her throat, fists clenched. "That's not right. Yuffie should be busy grieving, not -- that's just not right." She started unwrapping her kimono, a scowl on her face. "I'm going to get ready."

"You won't see her before the wake starts," Reeve cautioned. "They won't let you."

"Well then, I'll be the first at the wake."

Cloud nodded slowly and went to the bed to pick up his own kimono. "Might as well." He paused, frowned. He had to admit that Yuffie's situation looked slightly more urgent right now, but... He had other things to watch out for, too. "Reeve, Vincent?"

Reeve blinked at him, curious. "Yes?"

Vincent gave Cloud a long, piercing look, glanced at Tifa's suddenly tense shoulders, and his eyes narrowed. Cloud was suddenly tempted to just tell him everything right away. But... no. He didn't want to have to say it again when Cid and Barret got there, he didn't want to have to argue it out a half-dozen times. It wasn't safe anyway, not here where they couldn't be sure who might wander by the door or under the window at exactly the wrong time.

"Stick around after the funeral. Something to tell you." A tense silence, to tell Reeve and confirm what Vincent already suspected, and then, abrupt, "Don't tell Yuffie."



Zack would have taken the money the customer handed him without a comment if the guy hadn't been grinning so widely. Intimate with wide grins of all kinds, Zack could tell this one was of the 'haha, please don't notice the wool I'm pulling over your eyes' variety.

He looked down at the couple of coins in his hand. He had no idea what a gil was worth nowadays, in a city still in the process of rebuilding itself, and the basic cup of coffee the guy had asked for was such a staple Tifa hadn't bothered writing down the price anywhere.

So he just arched an eyebrow (the other one followed it upward a bit, he couldn't pull it off as well as Seph naturally could) and inquired with dubious politeness, "Are you sure that's right?"

A couple of "oh, oops, sorry, I didn't notice!" excuses later and a sheepish hand rose to add another coin, more than doubling the total. Zack discreetly committed the amount to memory.

"It's alright," he replied with a little laugh, not meaning it one bit. "Everyone gets distracted sometimes. Have a good day!"

The man slunk out. Zack dropped the coins in his rapidly-filling pocket -- he didn't have the cash register's key -- and went back to the sink. The room was almost empty; he could afford not to pay attention.

It was crazy how much dishwashing you had to do in a bar. He was going to lose all his calluses at this rate.

He looked down at his wet hands, soap bubbles clustered in his palm.

Maybe it would be a good thing. They didn't have the right callus patterns anyway. It would probably throw his sword-grip off.

He didn't even know what Aron Bergsten had specialized in. Fists? Nunchuks? Pole arms maybe? Zack closed his eyes, trailed his index along the bumps at the base of his other hand's fingers, trying to feel out the shape of it. Not broadsword, at any rate, definitely not epee. Maybe ninjato -- he had no clue how the reverse hold would shape a hand.

When he opened his eyes it looked like his hand anyway, a swordsman's hand, the palm rough, tendons apparent even at rest. When he touched Cloud he knew that was what Cloud felt. He wasn't sure cold steel would be so easily fooled.

The last customer was getting ready to leave, folding her newspaper as she puffed away on her pipe. He didn't think she'd want to stay and chat, keep him distracted. But he supposed he couldn't avoid thinking about stuff forever, anyway, so he summoned a smile and yet another "have a good day", and followed her to the door so he could lock it closed and flip the sign.

The cup joined the rest of its brethren in the full sink, for approximately ten seconds before he clenched a bit hard and porcelain cracked.

"Aw, shit, not again."

Sighing, he fished around for the pieces and threw them away with the other two broken glasses and the one knife he'd managed to fuck up somehow. Alright then, never mind. He'd let it all soak for a bit.

It was like rising to First Class all over again. Hell, sometimes it was like rising to Third, because in First Class he'd had precedent to give him an idea of what he was in for. At least his senses weren't acting up as well; it was just his fine motor control going kind of iffy.

Zack sighed to himself, dried his hands, and walked out of the bar, turning off the lights as he went. He emptied his bulging pocket in a convenient box, coins and bills carpeting it quickly, and dug in the fridge for sandwich fixings. Maybe he ought to get Aeris, have a real lunch with her -- but no, she'd want to stay in the attic with Seph, in case he woke up.

Well. Two sandwiches, then. He wasn't sure he remembered her tastes, but it wasn't like there was a lot of choice anyway. He picked them up and went upstairs.

He couldn't resist pausing on Cloud's threshold and watching the array of swords lined up against the wall. It was just... Whoa. Claymores, sabers, bastard swords, a couple of katana... One of them looked like it was made entirely out of crystal, of all things. Maybe materia? He couldn't even imagine how much gil it was worth, or what had possessed someone to forge it. His fingers itched with the desire to pick up a sword, give it a couple of testing swings.

Yeah, and then Cloud would come back home to a newly aerated bedroom, fashionable slashes through the walls letting in the invigorating cold winds! It was a little frustrating. Zack had no idea how he'd handle a sword, where the body he was wearing would show stress, what kind of pace he would be able to sustain for how long. What he wouldn't give to go out, find a yard, and practice old basic drills for a couple of hours... The second Cloud came back, Zack would drag him out and they'd spar.

... The second Cloud came back, he'd bring all of Avalanche along and it would be trial time. Zack sighed, raked his hand through his hair, and trudged up the last flight of stairs.

"Hi, babe."

Aeris had found an armchair in the clutter and curled in like a cat, as if cold. Her eyes were closed. Zack blinked and stepped closer, nudging her shoulder.

"Hey. Asleep?"

Aeris raised her head and blinked thoughtful green eyes up at him -- no confusion, no sleepiness. Zack tilted his head.

"I was just thinking."

He sat on one of the chair's padded arms and held out a sandwich to her. "About?"

She took the offering, staring at him for a second before nibbling delicately. "The Planet. I was so used to being right in the thick of it, I think I forgot how it really was to be outside. It all feels strange." She flicked him a smile. "Or maybe it's just being two floors up from the ground."

"Heh. I keep breaking glasses," he confided, commiserating. "We should have expected some weirdness, I guess."


They chewed on their sandwiches in silence for a few minutes. Zack's eyes drifted to the body on the mattress, laying straight on his back with both hands resting on top of the sheets. Sephiroth had the most unnatural sleeping position ever. Zack didn't know anyone who wouldn't even just turn their head to one side or bring a hand up. Made him look like he was anesthetized rather than asleep... Which -- alright -- right now he was. But even when he wasn't knocked out he slept like that.

It was sort of reassuring, actually. A little bit. He could almost tell himself the General was just taking a nap.

"Zack? You're frowning."

"--ah." He rubbed at the line between his brows reflexively. "It's kinda weird to see him asleep when people are so close," he said quietly.

Aeris spared him a little shoulder-pat. "It is the best solution, you know, Zack."

He let out a little throaty growl. "Yeah. Believe me, I really do understand their stance. It's just... I'm kind of bummed there's a 'us and them' thing in the first place."

They sighed in unison, and then blinked at each other and laughed a little -- then laughed harder for how identical their reactions had been. For a second it was so familiar and comforting and -- and familiar -- he couldn't breathe.

"I guess we're still connected," Aeris commented, smiling a little too much. "Even if I can't --"

Zack tilted his head. "Can't what?"

"... Can't feel you the same way, I suppose." She nibbled on her lower lip, eyes unfocused. He only blinked again.

"How d'you mean that?" He walked his fingers up her arm, just because she was in reach.

"In the Lifestream, of course. Don't you remember? Sometimes it was like we shared one mind."

For a second he totally blanked on what she meant. Of course he was aware they'd been dead and had decided to come back together, but...

He saw her eyes widen and her pupils tighten and maybe she paled a little, and then -- click. The Lifestream. While they were dead. They'd been together -- had felt each other, had... traveled together...

He couldn't say much more, except that "together" was a gigantic understatement.

He remembered the shape of her mind, of her very self. He couldn't put it in words or images, and it was so vast he realized he was forgetting the edges already, like a crystal-clear dream fraying away upon waking. He thought of multi-dimensional snowflakes, knowing that this was the closest he would get and that even so it still wasn't right.

He knew he had a strange look on his face, but he couldn't help it; he wasn't even sure what he felt. Surprise, bemusement, worry... Confusion, mostly. "It's funny," he said slowly, measuring his words. "I know what we talked about when we were there. I know about -- your childhood, and Seph's first mission, and stuff like that. But I don't remember it. I can't remember you telling me. The reason why we talked about it in the first place, the words you used. I'm... just aware."

For a long moment she just stared at him. He stared back, a little lost, stomach clenched.

"I think I was remembering more before we went to bed, but then we slept and... I don't know."

"What's your mother's middle name?" she asked, hands grasping the chair's arm.

"Lobelia, she hates it," he replied without needing to think. "What...?"

"First pet?"

"A baby fuzz-snake I found, it was the cutest thing, but then it ate my cousin's dog. Aeris, what's wron--ooh, shit." He grabbed her upper arms, moved off his perch to crouch in front of her, leaning into her space. "No, babe, no, I'm fine -- you put me back just fine, I swear, it's just the Lifestream I forgot."

She cupped his face in her hands, eyes blazing as she stared straight into his own -- straight into his soul, he would have said if he felt like being poetic, but then he remembered that with Aeris it wasn't necessarily a metaphor, and gave a little nervous laugh.

Aeris closed her eyes and sank back against the cushions all at once, suddenly boneless. He felt her hands shake in reaction in his grasp.

"Ah. Heh. For a second I just... I thought you were -- coming loose."

She forced her eyes open, attempted a smile -- he pulled her in his arms. She melted off her chair and on his quite unsteady lap, and then he was sitting on his ass on the wooden floor with Aeris straddling his thighs and clinging to his neck, and that was fine with him. He rubbed her back, feeling guilt tighten his throat for scaring her so badly.

"I'm fine, I'm all here, I'm all me, and even if I was missing a couple memories here and there, so what? If I can't notice them missing, they must not have been important. I know all I need to know." He kissed her white neck softly. "I know I love you. I know I love your sneaky, evil sense of humor and I love flirting with you and I love that you talk to your flowers like a crazy cat-lady. I know your mom is like a dragon protecting her treasure and I have to find a different way past every time I visit, and I love your mom for loving you that much and for being such a hard-ass about it, I swear she'd give Sergeant Dobner hard-ass envy."

"You're babbling," she replied, smiling against his neck.

"I love babbling too. Oh, and I love swords, and I love Seph, and I love Cloud, and that bike of his is pretty sweet, I'm gonna love borrowing it. And did I mention swords, I friggin' adore them."

His hands kept running up and down her back, through her long tangles of hair. She was warm, and curvy, and soft. He nuzzled her hair and breathed in, reveling in his senses. He wanted to squeeze, hold her so tight there was no inch of space left between them, but he still remembered the coffee cup and he didn't want to risk misjudging the amount of strength he could apply safely.

"Silly," she called him.

Zack gave a falsely offended huff and maneuvered them both into the armchair, which creaked alarmingly under their combined weights. Um, well. He supposed there must be a reason why it was relegated to the attic, but as long as it didn't break under them just yet... They'd just have to move elsewhere when things became more vigorous.

If things became -- well. Because he didn't trust his control, and, well -- Aron Bergsten. It was a little weird to use someone else's body to have sex with his girlfriend, even if the guy was long dead and moved on. Turned him off a bit, to be honest, but when he had Aeris in his arms it was really easy to...

... Wait a minute. Shit, he couldn't --

"Zack?" Aeris asked, staring at his face.

He stared back for a second and then laughed, embarrassed. "Aw, hell, nothing, I had a stupid moment."

"What about?"

He could feel his cheeks heat up. "Uh, promise not to laugh... For a second I was all 'oh, shit, I can't remember our first time together!'"

Aeris blinked slowly and tilted her head, eyebrows furrowed in puzzlement. "... Zack. My mother was a dragon, remember?"

He laughed again, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. "I know, I remember we've never gotten to, to penetration," she'd been sixteen when he disappeared and he'd been older and he didn't want to pressure her, though oh sweet Frigga how he had wanted to, "but it just doesn't feel that way at all -- so for a moment I was kinda... 'Shit, I can't believe I forgot that.' Well duh, it hasn't happened yet."

Aeris stifled a snicker and gave him a mock-serious look. "I understand -- I guess that all that mystical my-mind-in-yours we were having in the Lifestream was pretty much brain sex anyway. It's too bad you forgot, it was pretty sexy, all those synapses... You have a very nice frontal lobe, you know."

"Oh, urgh, the mental pictures!" he protested, imagining two soggy lumps of gray matter attempting to get it on.

The she-devil gave him the most serene smile ever, like she had no clue about his trauma.

"...Well. Your mother isn't around now." Zack gave Aeris a speculative look, his arms still around her waist.

"She isn't," Aeris repeated in a noncommittal voice.

"But she'll be around soon, and once she's around it'll be -- understandably -- damn hard to pry her off."

"That does sound likely, knowing her."

Zack waited, but Aeris just blinked at him cutely and didn't add anything.

"... We should totally have sex while we still can. Say, right now?"

"That does sound like a fascinating idea, Zack, but..." She pointed at the still form on the mattress behind them, breathing slow and steady, not a single silver hair out of place.

He sent her back her polite, thoughtful, earnest look. "Well, yes, I agree we should have sex with him too, but maybe we should wait until he's awake."

She laughed, like he had hoped. He expected her to mock-punch his shoulder or otherwise protest his dirty joke; but of course he wouldn't have been half so in love if she wasn't kind of awesomely crazy.

"There's a nice suggestion," she said, looking way too serious. "He is awfully pretty..."

Zack grinned. "He really is."

There was a second where he expected to feel a pinch of jealousy, maybe the awareness that it was a fine thing to joke about but he couldn't have his cake and eat it too. Neither came.

Neither would come.

He remembered love. Aeris's love for him, his love for her, how their selves meshed together, echoed each other. Soulmates.

Aeris's love for Cloud. Bittersweet and sheltering, totally different from her feelings for Zack -- and not taking away any of it.

Zack loved Cloud too, after all.

And Sephiroth. He was greedy like that.

"I suppose I've had a fair amount of brainsex with Sephiroth as well, as we count those things..."

"--Aeris, urgh."

He wrapped his arms farther around her. She smelled like soap and an aftertaste of ozone and rain, like the pool in the church that should have been stagnant water instead of a crystal-clear spring.

There was nothing that said he couldn't have several cakes anyway. Even if they never allowed themselves to be eaten. His fridge was big enough for everyone.