Chapter 8

In the end, there wasn't that much yelling, past the initial 'you're kidding me's. Apart from Barret's bellows, and Cloud had practice tuning them out.

Barret had mellowed out a lot since Shinra went down, so he didn't even try to punch Cloud with his metal hand, which would not have ended well for anyone. Cloud tried to convince himself it was a good omen. Nanaki was just sitting there, nodding slowly, which was all the confirmation Cloud still needed to be sure Nanaki had indeed overheard the other side of those phone calls. Hearing like a SOLDIER; Cloud would remember. Cait Sith's AI was limited without Reeve piloting, and after the first startled jump-and-flail and the "Are you sure?" he'd fallen silent.

A litany of swear words ran out of Cid's mouth like a river, but in an almost normal speaking tone, so that the effect was more vaguely put out than truly surprised. "Shiva's icy tits," he concluded. "Sephiroth's alive again. That what you call 'not an emergency' and 'it can wait'?"

Cloud sighed quietly. "Yeah. Situation's more complicated than that, though."

Cid's eyes narrowed as calculations started going in his brain. "... Where is Sephiroth alive again?"

A "Son of a bitch!" burst out of Denzel's mouth, and everyone jerked and turned. Even Barret stopped growling long enough to stare at the boy. Tifa even managed an admonishing "Denzel!" which, considering how dead-tired she was, was something of a feat. Denzel wasn't paying attention, though, too busy looking as offended as possible. "'Oh no, he's not a clone' -- that rat bastard!"


Denzel ignored Barret and stared at Cloud, incensed. "He's at the bar, isn't he? He's upstairs. That's why that Zack guy--"

Alright, and there went the yelling. Cloud sighed and took a couple of steps back, found himself a seat on the rocks. "Guys?" he said. "The point of coming up here was so the whole of Wutai wouldn't hear us."

Barret snarled at him. "You keep bein' a smartass, I'm gonna punch your lights out. This is goddamned Sephiroth, you don't get to be all 'whatcha flippin' out for'!"

Cloud looked away. Barret paced around, looking incredulous and incensed.

"He's at the bar? Marlene stays at the bar! Tifa and Denzel stay at the bar! What the fuck he stayin' there for, lying in wait?!"

"I believe we will know once Cloud explains it to us," Cait Sith interjected, voice bland. Yeah, they'd definitely exceeded the AI's ability to cope with the emotional content of the conversation.

Ifrit take him, Cloud wished he could be anywhere but here. Even in the attic with Sephiroth. At least the bastard didn't talk much, and if he decided to stop being all civil and restrained Cloud could just go ahead and put a sword through him.

He owed them all, though, so that was it.

"I don't remember if I ever told you guys much about Zack Fair."

"Name rings a bell," Cid said, frowning. Barret glowered at him, but waited for more, arms crossed on his chest.

Cait Sith scratched his chin and went "Aha! SOLDIER First Class... whoa, that's a lot of 'classified's. PHS network's working fine so if you'll give me a minute with the database, I'll just pull the records out--"

"Or I could just tell you about it," Cloud interrupted before Cait Sith bogged himself down with too many downloads.

He looked at Denzel next. He didn't hesitate, really; he'd known Denzel would likely hear the story at some point, instead of vague references here and there and the quick, pared-down summary of the Sephiroth problem they'd given him after the clones attacked when he was ten year old. Still, he paused for a second to choose his words.

"When I was sixteen," he said, more for Denzel than any of the others, "I was an infantryman in Shinra's regular army. Zack was a SOLDIER who'd just recently made First Class, youngest ever. He was good, but he wasn't stuck up about it. We were -- I looked up to him."

Denzel watched him, brow furrowed in concentration. "You were friends?"

"Friendly," Cloud rectified. "He was friendly to everyone, and I was just a scrawny kid from the mountains, but he was really nice."

"God," Barret grumbled under his breath. "Alright, we got it, you had a crush."

Cloud tilted his head a bit as he looked at him and replied blandly as possible, "Yeah, guess I did."

Tifa spluttered; Cid choked on his cigarette. The look on Barret's face had them laughing; Cloud allowed himself to crack a smile, until Tifa started wheezing and then he forgot the brief moment of amusement.

"I'm okay, I'm okay. Go on with the story."

Cloud paused for a second, not sure how to interpret her expression. Sure there was amusement in it, but something else too, less comfortable. Unsure.

"Story, Spike," prodded Cid.

"Okay, fine. Anyway, Zack and I were sent on the mission to Nibelheim with Sephiroth. You heard about that part." Denzel nodded. "Hojo grabbed him too, afterwards."

He couldn't speak of the five years in between. He turned away, face to the downward slope. The landscape was gorgeous from there, peaceful and grandiose both, so far from ceramic floors and glass-walled cells and artificial lamps.

"He broke us both out. I was -- kind of messed up. He..."

He was fine, Zack was fine, Zack was home right now, laughing around with Tifa's customers, probably fondling Cloud's swords, Zack was fine.

"He got us back to Midgar, almost, and then Shinra caught up. Shot him dead. I guess I was so fucked up I wasn't worth a bullet."

A pause for breath. A bird of prey was swooping down in the distance, all elegance and precision. He followed its flight until it disappeared between the trees, then turned back around, squared his shoulders. This wasn't time to indulge in a little funk; he had a report to make.

"Anyway," he said, brisk as he could be. "Denzel found him in the church, the evening before we got Reeve's phone call." Denzel confirmed with a nod, eyes still a little wild as he assimilated the new info. "When I went to the church, Aeris was also here. They..." They'd held on to him and breathed with him and they were warm and solid and made noises and smiled and... "They were alive again. Corporeal.

"Sephiroth was waiting upstairs.

"I charged him, but he just kept evading, he didn't -- he didn't fight. He had no weapon on him, not even materia, it was weird. And then Aeris tackles me and goes 'I didn't bring him back just so you could kill him again.'"

"... The fuck," Cid summed up after a long moment of collective stunned silence.

"Yeah. So I... hell." This didn't get any easier to think about; if any it only got more confusing. "He's not acting like the last time we saw him, he's not... He's acting like a sarcastic asshole, but not like a crazy megalomaniac. Least he didn't show it. And even the fact that he would bother to hide that, that's... strange."

"And you believed it?" Cait Sith asked, his little head tilting in mild bewilderment. He was only expressing what everyone else was thinking -- even Cloud himself.

He sighed. The more they talked about it -- the more he had to explain what he'd done and why, and the more ridiculous it sounded. He could barely buy his own explanations. "The point was that I don't know what to believe. Aeris and Zack tell me he's -- not alright, but not completely crazy. He behaves like he's not completely crazy. He even -- that Wutai vet who told me how to fix Tifa, that was him."

Cid bit through his cigarette. He took it out, spat out the butt; Cloud found it funny all of one second. "Huh."

Tifa clenched her hands, hid them in her lap like suddenly she couldn't deal with the fact that they weren't shaking. Cloud looked away.

"...But he's still Sephiroth. So, I decided I couldn't make that call, and I'd get you guys to come and we'd decide together, only then Reeve called."

There. Done. The whole chain of half-assed, hurried decisions, and now he could just sit here and let them hash it out, because the gods knew he couldn't. He knew he couldn't, he was biased in so many ways and directions he wouldn't have known what 'objective' ought to be if it smacked him in the face.

"So you left him waiting at the bar?" Nanaki asked, slowly stringing the words together like he was afraid of getting one of them wrong -- like getting them all right would make it all make sense somehow. "With Aeris and your friend?"

Oh, wait, no, there was still one boneheaded move to explain. Cloud groaned, ran a hand over his face. "They weren't worried about him attacking them, and he --" the fuck had he been thinking, the fuck "--said he would wait, so I put him under a sleep spell and we left."

Nanaki's head tilted to the side quizzically. "But when you asked for help with Tifa..."

"... He was awake. Yeah." And Aeris could put him under as often as she wanted, if he could pull himself out of it at random it was pretty much useless as security measures went.

"That was a really shitty plan," Cid said, perfectly casual but for the way the tip of his brand new cigarette flared red from the forceful drag he'd taken.

"I know, alright? He was --" Nice really didn't work; as for sane, he didn't have a clue... "--Reasonable. What else could I have done?"

"Put him down," Barret retorted, mouth twisted bitterly. "He's a mad dog. Sad for him, I don't give a shit. Too dangerous."

"Barret, not helpin'," Cid growled back.

Cloud found himself a rock to sit on, and watched them. He missed Vincent and Reeve' cooler heads right now; swear-happy and easily irritated as he was, Cid was good at being objective and planning things out when he had to, but obviously he could have done with a few minutes to bitch up a storm first. Tifa wouldn't participate, keeping her thoughts to herself; no doubt they weren't positive, anyway. Nanaki couldn't help but see it like the long-lived scholar he was -- a little detached.

Barret was furious. Cloud got that. He would have been furious if the situation had been flipped over.

It felt like such a relief to have it all out in the open, even if it didn't make him feel any less like he'd handled everything all wrong. He still couldn't bring himself to truly believe he should have killed Sephiroth without hearing him out first -- part of him wanted to, wanted to deal with him and be done, but Aeris and Zack would have been so disappointed ... would have been hurt, and yeah, okay, he should be a responsible leader and consider the good of the whole world but they were Zack and Aeris and they'd been dead. They could ask him to put on another dress and pole-dance in the middle of Edge and he'd barely pause to ask about music to dance to before he did it. They could ask him pretty much anything and he'd at least strongly consider it. He hoped they wouldn't figure that out, or he'd be in deep shit.

(Part of him wanted to believe in it, that it wasn't Sephiroth's fault and he was sorry and now things could be okay again, like saying sorry fixed anything. It didn't, but it seemed Cloud had an eight-year-old in his head who didn't quite get that.)

"Hey, Spike."

Cloud looked up; Cid was standing beside him. The rest of the group seemed to be done talking, for now; they stood apart, varying from lost to deep in thought to frankly brooding.

Cid raised a hand and knocked his knuckles on the top of Cloud's head. "How're you doing in here?"

Cloud tilted his head away halfheartedly, though he couldn't find the strength to even mock-glare. "Normal enough, but like I'd notice if I wasn't..." He paused, brow furrowing. "I think -- if he did make plans, they involved me in charge, even if he's not actively controlling me. Cid--"

Cid gave a slow, thoughtful nod, and then a more decisive one, shoulders straightening. "Alright," he announced. "Relieving you of leadership."

Cloud ran a hand against the back of his neck, embarrassed. It wasn't like he was an actual leader, no matter what Sephiroth assumed; they were all equals in the group, just sometimes he ... aw, hell, yeah, he was the battlefield leader, and he supposed this situation was enough like a battle to count. "Mmh. Thanks."

Better if they didn't take their cues from him. He sat, elbows on his knees, spine loosening, shoulders relaxing as if the weight of that responsibility had been a physical thing. He could see them looking to Cid, silently asking 'what next?' and he knew it meant he could afford not to have an opinion yet. When all this was over he would owe him a dozen drinks at least.

"Alright. Can't leave Yuffie on her own. We need ta find Vince and ask him what he thinks of her security, how many of us oughta stay. Cait, Reeve knew Sephiroth before he was bugfuck, ask him if he can come and you can stay. If he can't, s'fine, but I'd like it better that way. Tifa, how you feelin'? Think you'll be able to haul ass by tomorrow?"

She frowned, gave a reserved nod. "I'll stay if Yuffie needs emotional comfort, but..."

"Hm. Noted. Barret, you coming?"

Cloud -- and Cid -- expected a growled 'hell yes', but instead Barret turned to stare at Cloud, and then at Tifa. "Whatcha gonna do with Denzel?"

"Ah. We -- I didn't think about that." Tifa bit her lip, sneaking Denzel and Cloud little looks. "He's not really going to be safe at either place..."

"Hey -- no, wait, I want to come with you guys!" Denzel protested, but from the chagrined look on his face he seemed to know it was a lost cause already.

"I'll drop him at Elmyra's with Marlene and join you guys at the bar. One of your freight ships leavin' soon, right?"

Cid checked the place of the sun in the sky, and then his watch. "Half hour. Okay, that works." He directed a fierce look at Barret. "If you get to the bar before us, don't confront Sephiroth on your own. Just take a walk around the block or shoot the breeze with a neighbor. Okay?"

Barret gave a terse nod, otherwise not saying a word. Cloud winced. He'd really fucked up if Barret had gone from loud complaining to this kind of steely-eyed restraint. The first was just Barret blowing off steam. The second was deeper, longer-lasting.

"Say goodbye, kid. Gotta haul ass."

Denzel heaved a loud sigh, but complied, going to Tifa to hug her and then going around the group to shake paws with Cait Sith and exchange 'it was nice seeing you's with Nanaki. Cloud ruffled Denzel's hair when he came in range, flicking him a little smile. "We'll call you as soon as there's news."

"Yeah, do it on the landline," Denzel replied, grouching but not managing to hide his worry. "Phone reception gets shitty back home."

"It's always been like that."

He didn't know what else to say, so he just ruffled Denzel's hair again. This time he didn't even bother looking offended.

"Call me. Yeah? You promise. I'll let all the air out of your tires otherwise, I swear."

"Promise. Now hurry up, or Barret will have to pick you up and carry you."

Rolling his eyes, Denzel waved goodbye at Cid and jogged to Barret, who waited by the path. His hard expression broke briefly to direct a smile at the boy, but it didn't last. He addressed a curt nod to the rest of the group, and they left.

"Now... Cloud, I'm real tempted to leave you with Yuffie." Cid scowled, deep in thought.

Cloud stiffened, and almost protested, but he forced it down, swallowed it somehow, even though he wanted to yell no, say that he wouldn't, couldn't stay behind. This was why he'd handed over leadership; he had to mean it, he couldn't disagree whenever he wanted.

"... But if Sephiroth is really playing us, we're gonna need heavy-hitters, and Tifa's still sick and Reeve ain't that. And if he is fucking with us, and especially fucking with you, then we're probably not that much worse off against the two of you rather than just him alone. It's not like there's levels in 'totally fucked'."

Cloud snorted, but relaxed slowly, joints aching as his fingers opened again. Maybe he should be wary of how hard he wanted to come back home and tell Cid he'd rather stay, at that -- but if he started second-guessing himself he'd never stop.

But. "We still need a plan to stop me," he said, eyes lowered. "Just in case."

Nanaki's tail twitched. "I dislike suggesting this -- but, Cloud, do you remember your drug tolerance?"


"A sleep spell might fail, or be thrown off with no ill effects in a fairly short time. Knock-out drugs would leave you slower and more unfocused even if you didn't fall asleep. But with your peculiar metabolism it's better to make sure of the dosages. Do you remember?"

Cloud closed his eyes. He could tell by his solemn eyes and quiet voice that Nanaki knew what he was asking. He'd been gassed a couple times since then, had been sick, knocked out, passed out from blood loss, but the last time Cloud had been deliberately drugged into unconsciousness had been at Hojo's. "... Yeah. When we're back in town I'll help you look."

"Okay, people. Anything else? No? Then we're going back down. Cloud and Red, you do that thing. Cait, you get Reeve to meet us, and ask him to get our things loaded on the Shera. Tifa, you get yourself a cabin and rest. I'll go find Vince. We meet at the Shera in two hours."


The bathroom was small, a little cramped. His legs barely fit in the tub.

It wasn't a camp's bucket of cool water behind three flapping sheets. (He wouldn't have minded if it was. Damp, rapidly cooling skin, goosebumps, gritty earth and loose pebbles between his toes. Rough old towel. The heavy twist of his wet cold hair slapping against his shoulder blades. He remembered.)

It was strange to have a body again. The sheer ... physicality of it, the heartbeat and the inflating-deflating lungs and the way his stomach was starting to send out small, barely noticeable 'I don't know if you remember, I'm empty right now' queries. A little light-headed. Maybe it was the hot water in the little tub, his legs folded and pressing on his chest, keeping his breathing shallow.

He could have kept standing and taken a shower instead, Strife's bathroom was set up for that much.

He wasn't in that much of a hurry. He'd taken showers in his apartment in the Shinra tower, never baths, because he was always ...

Because his old bathroom had been a wide-open, sleek, highly efficient thing in chrome and sober lines, and he'd always found it strange that the latest fashion amongst the much-too-rich mimicked the stainless steel of a lab's decontamination area.

A corner of the tablet over the sink was taken up with colored little bottles in fancy sizes and fancier shapes. Some of the tiles didn't match. Razors and toothbrushes, hairbrushes, hair bands. Lived in, this bathroom. Nowhere he'd ever been.

He let his head fall back. The ceiling was painted a weird off-pink color; he could still see brush strokes.

Nowhere he'd ever been. Or thought to be. Life might be full of those things, from that point onwards. If he lived. If they allowed him to.

It was a very noble impulse, to allow himself to be judged, something he owed, something the person he was trying to be wanted to pay. But losing this again? He lifted a hand out of the water, watched it -- spread fingers, tendons and joints, veins blue under the skin. The tugging feel of stretching muscles.

He'd pay anything but that.

He thought Strife had to know it.

Through the door he could hear light steps on the wooden floor, someone (Miss Gainsborough; when trying to be quiet Zack didn't glide so much as stalk like a hunting cat) opening the dryer in the small room next door. His loaned clothes must be clean. She puttered for a minute, cloth rustling, and left again. Past the bathroom, down the corridor -- a door being nudged open... She wasn't coming to get him yet, she or Zack.

Sephiroth had only been granted leave to wash himself. Perhaps this was their way to be kind, letting this brief moment stretch out. Perhaps they'd just wait for him to come out on his own, let him have as much time as he could steal.

And then Strife would come home to find him pickling in his tub and be oh so pleased by this flaunting the spirit of his rule while giving lip service to the letter. Sephiroth thought that wasn't half as he would be displeased in himself for hiding in a tiny bathroom grabbing all the minutes he could take -- it seemed to him that the only reason to do that was a strong, fear-based belief that he would not be alive to grab them afterwards.

Defeatist. Surrendering without even having laid eyes on the battlefield. He could feel his upper lip curling up in disdain; he was grabbing the edge of the tub and hauling himself up in the next second. Water cascaded down his body, louder than he expected as it splashed and danced in the tub. He stepped out onto the rug.

At worst he would retreat to fight another day. He refused to envision the future otherwise.

He picked up a towel, started rubbing himself dry. It chafed a little, the feeling almost negative but not quite, leaving his skin awake with blood-rush warmth. Reddened, a little. Alive.

Alive. He breathed, eyes closed, feeling the slow beat of his heart resonate through his whole body. How long until he got used to it again, until it faded into the background hum of his awareness?

'If I kill you again, you'll be awake,' Strife had promised. Sephiroth felt inclined to believe him. He wasn't the only person in his group, though, and perhaps one of his friends would decide to take matters into their own hands. He couldn't count on being able to wake himself in time. Sleep spells might not reliably hold him but even when he managed to wake himself they still made him slow, lethargic; he couldn't break them in a second the way he woke from ordinary sleep.

Frowning at himself in the fogged mirror he kept rubbing, working the cloth between his fingers and behind his ears and into crevices he was sure he never used to bother with. His bangs dripped cooling water onto his cheek, his chest.

He needed a strategy. Something to slow them down even as he lay there unconscious -- ideally several interlocking strategies, since he wouldn't be awake to see them through to optimal resolution. He'd learned that in Wutai, how they never bothered going against a column of Shinra armored cars straight on; instead they would puncture a tire here, siphon motor oil there, shift a little stream to make dirt roads into swamps -- they broke the column's momentum piece by piece.

Zack, he acknowledged quietly, would be his first line of defense.

(He had long since lost the right to give that order. He didn't even need to ask.

He didn't get it. He didn't ... he didn't deserve it.

Even so.)

Miss Gainsborough would be rational, reassuring, convincing, but that only helped if people let themselves be slowed down enough to be talked to. If someone broke past Zack somehow, slipped around him... well, there would only be a few seconds until Zack caught up, but a few seconds might be all it took.

What to do about it, Sephiroth mused, as he wiped some more dripping water off his chest. What could be done, put in place as he slept. Boobytrap the attic? Strife would not be amused, not to mention there was nothing in there heavy or lethal enough to be a true hindrance.

How to shock them into slowing down, he wondered, watching himself in the mirror, hands on the sink, leaning forward. How to jar them out of their path, when they saw him lying there, and they hated everything he represented.

... Oh.

Porcelain chipped under his fingertips, a radial pattern of cracks in the glaze. His pupils tightened into lines. His first reaction was a swift, jaw-clenching no. One that went 'how dare you' and 'this is mine', and he wasn't giving anything away.

Not even to prove his good faith, because how dare they, because why did he have to, because -- he closed his eyes tight, breathed out between gritted teeth.

Because pride was apparently more important than survival? (Yes it was, he wasn't humbling himself before anyone, he refused to bend his knee and beg and if he truly wished to... there was materia in the house, he knew there must be, and weapons and

if he was going to go that way, why not do it now, take what he needed, retreat, get back in top shape for the inevitable confrontation. Kill Strife, this time around, kill his little band of annoying friends, take care of the last Shinra and his dogs, and then he could live free, live however he wanted.

Why not. He just had to leave Zack and Miss Gainsborough behind. Make liars out of them, fools. Who cared.

He cared. Damn it.)

'You ought to start as you mean to go on, boy.'

Being ruthless -- seeing what needed to be done and taking the straightest path there, no coddling, no time wasted beating around the bush, no pity -- was a fine, useful trait, but only if one wasn't too self-indulgent, too cowardly to turn it on oneself. He started rummaging through the drawers.

Five minutes later knuckles rapped lightly on the door, pulling him away from his staring contest with himself. "Sephiroth, may I come in?" Miss Gainsborough inquired. "I have your clothes."

There was no reason to put it off. "Feel free," he replied.

The next second when she paused in the doorway and blinked at his body he remembered that the only towel he was wearing was currently across his shoulders.

"My apologies," he said, briefly irritated at himself for the lapse in etiquette -- Cetra or not, in this world she was a young lady, not a fellow soldier or a lab tech. He grabbed a second towel off the rack, but by then her gaze had shifted higher up his body and the playful grin blooming on her lips had died.

"Oh. Oh, Sephiroth."

His shoulders tensed and he didn't even mean them to. He wanted to turn away, break eye contact. Pretend nothing was wrong and could she go away now.

The back of his neck was cold, too bare to expose. She might see right through him.

She would see right through him nevertheless, so he may as well meet her upfront.

They stared at each other for another second or five, Sephiroth defensive and still angry, and her looking ... he wasn't sure, too something that he thought leaned a little too much toward pity.

He felt like a child caught just past a fit of pique, precisely in that mortifying time between being angry enough to do something ridiculous and being calm enough to get rid of the evidence. A flippant 'I've been meaning to change my image for a long time now' would only make it more obvious. His... his ridiculous emotional reaction to shedding a bunch of useless dead cells was much too see-through already; it wasn't worth the bother.

"... This is ... not the neatest job I could have done," he forced out. "Might I ask--"

"Oh, Sephiroth," she said, teasing with her voice and with her eyes all soft and not teasing at all. "Giving me permission to play hairdresser? This is like asking if I would please eat all your chocolate."

"There isn't a lot left to play with."

"Pshh! Quality, not quantity. Sit down here, you're too tall," Aeris said briskly, waving him to the edge of the tub.

He turned to sit sideway, one knee up, tugging on the towel to fix the gap. Aeris hummed in a falsely solemn way and raised a hand to touch the end of a gray lock that hung just a little over his bare shoulder. He'd hacked it all off in three or four big snips; the ends were jagged.

He could see her hand from the corner of his eye as she combed the locks smooth. The first thing he'd seen, the first thing he'd touched in this world, small and narrow and soft as it caught his own hand and pulled him into life.

He'd killed her before. She'd been a threat. She was a threat. One he owed several debts to, and the only thing she seemed to want to do about it was to do him more favors, huge and small, seemingly just because. He didn't think he would ever fully understand her.

"You're not going to ask why."

She paused for a second in mid-brush, tilted her head. "No, I'm not." She started brushing again, more cautious than he would have bothered to be. "If you want me to know, you'll tell me."

"You already know. Don't you?"

A faint chuckle. "We're not in the Lifestream anymore, and even in there I wasn't omniscient, you know!"

"Weren't you?"

"You flatter me."

Still unruffled, and still artfully dodging the question. She never did let him ruffle her, stayed pleasant and polite and sometimes it reminded him of his own masks, his own distance at board meetings, in public galas. Sephiroth chose to be cool and she chose to be warm, as befitted their respective natures, but it didn't mean either facade was genuine.

"So how short do you want this? You do have a very nicely-shaped skull," she added, laughter at the back of her voice. "You could probably afford to have it as short as you want."

'...You have to admit, the lines of his skull are singularly striking.'

'Like the rest. What does it matter? He was made that way. Are you done with the hair clippers yet?'

"... I don't think so," he replied, very politely.

Miss Gainsborough didn't answer, hands coming to a stop, sliding out of his hair. "Oh," she said. Sephiroth's shoulders tensed up; when he turned to meet her eyes he wasn't surprised to find that look in them, uncomfortably compassionate. Knowing.

He shifted to the side to get up; she placed a hand on his forearm and he stopped moving, though his hand was curled into a fist.

"I didn't see anything. It was ... a feeling. No details."

A feeling. His feeling. He closed his eyes briefly, breathed out. Even without details, there were few enough things she hadn't seen in the Lifestream.

"I don't do it on purpose. It's just... sometimes things come to me." She hooded her eyelids, more thoughtful than apologetic. "I think perhaps you and I are close enough to the Lifestream that I feel you better than most. I can't hear Zack at all anymore."

Perhaps he liked cool analysis better than apologies, at that. They would only require more reminders of things better left forgotten. He frowned slightly, thinking back. "You seemed to interact on the same level you always do earlier."

"That's mostly because we've known each other a long time. We have enough background to guess." A small smile. "Also, good body language skills. Sometimes there isn't much of a difference."

She smoothed her skirt down her thighs, watching him, head slightly tilted. He didn't have the first idea how to interpret that. He was obscurely grateful when she shook herself, blinked, and then smiled, all traces of remote scrutiny gone.

"Shall we continue? I think I've got an idea. A bit shorter than jaw-length alright with you?"

He'd seen himself in the mirror; he (looked too much like (kadaj) someone he didn't know) didn't want to go out like that. He gave in with a quiet sigh, allowing her to position him and start fiddling with the brush and his hair again. She was saying things about layers and feathered tips and he didn't even pretend he had a clue. The scissors came back up, snipping a small lock here, a dozen hairs there, a meticulous, slow-going job.

"I don't suppose you want to keep some length in the back. That'd be kind of mullety. Can I shorten things on the back of your head? Here," she added, finger trailing in a horizontal half-circle from ear to ear. It tickled a little.

So long as it wasn't a buzz-cut. "Go ahead."

Snip, snip. His hair was mostly dry; when she put down the scissors and the brush to give it a quick rub with a towel he could have told her what would happen. He didn't even need to look to know she would be biting her lips, trying not to laugh.


"Yes," he said dryly, "I was blessed with inordinately powerful follicles."

"It's all spiky. Oh, Gaia bless."

Sephiroth ran a hand through his still-slightly-damp hair, raking the towel-tangled locks backward. He truly didn't want to know how close that first ruffled look was to Strife's own chocobo impression. Swallowing her giggles, she attempted to help, fingers darting in to tuck this or that strand in a more advantageous place.

"Alright -- alright, that's better," she said, still giggling. "I should have guessed it would do that, though -- your bangs... I bet growing your hair so long in the first place was at least half self-defense."

Hearing herself she went still, her hands in his hair, cupping his temples, and for a brief instant she winced.

Her eyes were green just like his own, but the shade was different, leaf versus LED. And he owed her everything.

"... The benefits only came to me afterwards," he said, a little too quiet, before she could apologize for fishing, for joking about it. "At first I just didn't have the time to deal with it."

She teased a lock free from behind his ear, smoothed it along his cheek so it would frame his face. The gesture was strange, too soft. Too -- he'd seen her touch Zack like that, he'd seen mothers in the streets touch their children like that, careful and. Gentle. Tender. It was -- it felt --

"Stop," he breathed, eyes closed. Her hand lingered for a second and fell away.

They kept silent and still for another too-long moment, until Sephiroth couldn't stand thinking-trying not to think about it and got up from his perch.

She seemed tiny when he stood, the top of her head barely reaching his chin, shoulders narrow, wrists almost frail. Physically she was no threat. He felt boxed in anyway, relieved when she decided to take a step back out of his space. He took the towel off his shoulders, shook the cut hair off it and into the wastebasket.

In the mirror at first he barely recognized himself. His bangs came to a point underneath his cheekbones, making them seem sharper, freeing the line of his jaw. His eyes, by contrast, seemed more shadowed than the rest of his face, stood out slightly less (only slightly; short of colored contacts and shades nothing would ever obscure them completely.) His neck and shoulders were more visible as well -- it was strange how such a small detail could impact things so much.

It was faster and easier while forcing a way through the swamps to tie it all back and stop worrying than to hike all the way back to base camp and sit for an hour as someone he didn't necessarily trust much stood behind him and used a razorblade on his head.

(It wasn't faster or easier to politely tell Hojo to fuck off, that he didn't much care whether long unbound hair was unpractical -- like he could talk, and if it was good enough for greasy scientists it was good enough for their experiments. It wasn't faster or easier but in the end it made things clearer between them -- Sephiroth might have left for Wutai his project, but he had come back a celebrated General, and they would have to put him in a coma first to ever get him back into a surgical gown.)

He narrowed his eyes at himself in the mirror, tried to ignore Miss Gainsborough who was crouching on the floor to gather long shed locks. If he didn't put a stop to this childish tantrum she would likely overhear again.

He'd made his choice, for solid tactical reasons. It would grow back. In the meantime there was still that small, white line over the end of his collarbone where he'd broken it as a pre-teen; rough, raised patches on his knuckles, in the crescent of flesh between his thumb and index, from hours and days of sword practice. Most of his wounds had happened on the battlefield, instantly healed, and due to his immediate plunge in the Lifestream Strife's attack in Nibelheim had left no traces; the biggest scar he still wore was a slice along his thigh, where the geisha had tried to slash through his femoral artery. The poison on it had made it heal red-purple and knotted, raised over the skin. He rubbed it through the gap in his towel, feeling the tug on the skin.

Still his body.

He wasn't pleased (he hated it) but he had to show he was willing to compromise, to sacrifice some. And he doubted Strife had long black leather coats in his closet, so that was two trademarks gone, two things his friends couldn't blind themselves with to avoid seeing the person underneath.

He scrutinized himself a last time. Yes, that would buy him a bare minimum of five whole seconds, if only for the potential assailant to make sure they had the right person. It would have to do.

"I'll get dressed and join you outside," he told Miss Gainsborough, who smiled and swept out. No more hiding in the bathroom. Time to go.