[Shattered] Dreams 50

Chapter Fifty: Sephy and Mr. Tseng (Or Ways to Torture Your Commander 101)

The keening cry of the Chocoboro was loud and ear-splitting, but that did not deter Rude in the least as he executed a deathblow, slamming a fist into the monster’s side and immediately encasing it in a solid block of ice. The azure creature looked even more bluish within its icy prison, and the bald Turk grunted as he changed hands, blasting into the block with a strong blow and effectively shattering it and the deceased monster within into far too many pieces to count.

They rained to the ground, faintly reminiscent of snow as Rude shook out his hand and took a step back, casually adjusting his sunglasses. In front of him, Reno idly clapped and shook his head at his friend. They had just spent the afternoon wandering the streets, cleaning up the monsters and catching up on old times. The Chocoboro was the latest enemy they had encountered, not that it could stand up to the might of Rude’s newly discovered icy abilities. It turned out that having an anima brought more than just an annoying sidekick.

Then again, he couldn’t help but wonder if their efforts were really worth it. Most of the people in Midgar had already left. They were willing to try and survive after Meteor, but once Balaam had started attacking, they began to call it “cursed” and had moved on. The city was quickly becoming deserted, and Rude pondered if there was anyone left to protect.

Reno sighed as they started back on their path, leaving behind the shattered remains of the monster corpse and icy puddles in their wake. “How many of those damn things did Hojo make?” he questioned aloud. It seemed for every brand of chocobo, there was a Chocoboro to match. He had heard about the trouble the black had given Cid in Cosmo Canyon and wasn’t sure if he should be glad they hadn’t run across a gold yet.

Rude shrugged, tightening his gloves and flexing his fingers. Remarkably, he didn’t feel fatigued in the slightest, despite having cast something strong enough to be an Ice 4, if there were truly such a magical attack.

“Maybe they are self-reproducing,” he commented. “We know for certain that they are evolving.”

The scarlet-haired man sighed again, aquamarine gaze darting to the sky where he immediately noticed the fading sunlight. “It’s dusk, yo,” he said, running a hand through his damp and sweaty hair. “Most everyone’s either home or gettin’ drunk.”

The other Turk lowered his gaze and peered at Reno over his sunglasses. “One last round of the bars then?” he questioned.

Reno nodded. “Yeah, then I have to get home, yo.” He idly tapped the Electro Rod against his right shoulder.

Rude agreed, understanding him completely, and he turned his gaze back towards the darkened and empty streets before them. “We’re supposed to have dinner with Elmyra and Barret tonight. Of course, Aeris will be there as well.”

Reno made a face, one that implied the somewhat ongoing feud he was having with Barret, but Rude still wasn’t certain what that was about. “You do live there, yo.”

The dark-skinned man made a neutral sound in his throat, not really replying verbally. Still, after being partner with Reno for so many years, he knew that the younger man could understand him just as easily as if he had spoken aloud. The redhead would certainly interpret his wordless grunt as an affirmative.

The two Turks reached a crossroads and turned towards the seedier section of Midgar where they knew most of the bars were located. As it was, these establishments were notorious for anonymity. The patrons went to disappear and not be found, obviously trying to hide. The only truth that mattered was gil, and if someone had it, then they would be left alone. Names weren’t important, and neither were secrets. What happened in the slums, stayed in the slums so to speak. And considering the events recently, Rude had a feeling that they might just see someone they knew, so he made it a point to stop by there before they turned in for the night.

The darkness was quickly creeping in around them, barely pierced by the dim lights of the streetlamps, and a light wind seemed to pick up the trash in the street and swirl it around. The slums were certainly a dismal place, and Rude forcefully pushed away all thoughts of his partner ever having lived there. He couldn’t even begin to imagine what it was like or what had made Reno into such a strong person.

As they walked, Reno blathered on, the younger Turk hating the sound of silence. Rude had come to learn that about him, not that it mattered if he actually responded. The redhead was just content to know that Rude was at least listening to him.

“You notice how weird Reeve’s been acting lately, yo?” the other man questioned, momentarily breaking into Rude’s silent thoughts. The bald Turk inclined his head in the red-haired male’s direction but didn’t respond. It wasn’t necessary, but he did make sure he was paying attention to whatever the younger man was currently babbling on about.

Reno continued, unabated, “I think I everything is getting to him. He’s been distracted and kinda broody in a Valentine sorta way, know what I mean?”

Rude made an affirmative sound in his throat. He had noticed but decided that they would sort it out on their own. Reno and Reeve were notorious for having small fights and quickly making up.

“So… how’s Shera?” Reno asked unexpectedly.

“Fine,” inserted the bald man, thoughts of his wife warming his heart, even as he looked at his partner over his sunglasses.

The scarlet-haired man nodded. “Ah, so the baby’s fine?”

“Doctor called. Everything’s well,” Rude replied, casually darting his gaze into the nearest darkened alley. He detected nothing moving, however, and directed his gaze back to the path in front of him, idly noting out of the corner of his eye that his partner had started tapping his weapon on his shoulder.

Reno grinned. “Have you picked out a name, yet?” There was a brief pause before he went on, “Can’t agree, huh? I kinda like Dominic, yo.”

This comment caused Rude to pause in his almost silent listening, shifting his gaze so that he looked directly at his red-haired partner in confusion. Reno lifted up his hands and shook his head.

“Not that I’ve been considering names or anything. Elena made me look through those damn baby books with her.”

The dark-skinned Turk raised a brow. “Reeve hasn’t said anything about kids?” The question tumbled from his lips before he could respond in his usual silent way. Sometimes, it was just simpler not to speak.

Reno appeared deep in thought as he frowned, considering the other man’s question. He opened his mouth to reply when his sharp eyes latched onto what seemed to be most familiar fluttering, black hair. His eyebrows instantly furrowed in worry and slight aggravation.

“Is that Tseng, yo?”

Immediately, Rude looked up, instantly spying what his partner had referred to. “Dammit, not again,” the bald Turk cursed under his breath as he idly adjusted his sunglasses. He bit back a growl and shook his head. Wordlessly, the partners exchanged glances.

As they had unfortunately suspected, they were right in coming here, and an unhappy look took over the paler male’s face. “Shall we?” he asked with an exasperated sigh.

Rude grunted in response as Reno tapped his Electro Rod on his shoulder again, the movement more jerky and arrhythmic. They waited a moment before going inside the bar, unfortunately named The Cock’s Walk. At the familiar look they were given, everyone knew how a Turk dressed, the two were immediately granted entrance by the bouncer. But the moment they walked in the door, the smell of rotten beer and piss greeted them along with the heavy stench of stale sex. The air was thick with smoke of dubious origins and raucous laughter could even be heard over the country-sounding band crooning in scratchy voices on the stage at the far end of the room.

It was packed, the dance floor filled with two types of people: emaciated druggies or overfed gluttons that twisted and writhed to a beat only they could hear. People were already latched onto each other, some making out in corners that were not quite dark enough to hide their actions. The bar was crowded as well, all types of humans yelling out their drink orders and spending what little gil they earned on getting wasted for the night, only to wake up in the morning and start the whole suicidal process all over again. After all, there was usually very little escape for those that lived in the slums.

Reno had been lucky.

After a moment of searching the crowds, the two finally spotted their quarry. Tseng was at the bar, some ill-formed stranger already attached to his side. Around him, their Commander was already being eyed by several other drunken men, who were just waiting to get their chance.

Rude was the first to spot him, softly touching Reno’s shoulder and gesturing in the direction of the bar. The other man followed his gaze before shaking his head, shoulders tightening unconsciously. Rude was thinking the same thing. Tseng shouldn’t be doing this again.

As one, the two Turks made their way through the crowd, idly noticing that they were getting some of their own appreciative glances. Unlike many in this Kamiforsaken bar, they were clean, obviously well-educated, and just by looks, most knew they had money. Some of the deadened gazes around them reflected a voracity that slightly perturbed the steadfast Rude, but he kept his eyes on their destination. Minutes later found them standing behind Tseng, silently observing and catching the tail end of their conversation.

“-I ne’er had one of yer kind ‘for,” drawled the obviously inebriated stranger, making a bold move at running a hand down the Wutaiian’s arm, but Tseng made no attempt to brush him off. “Hear ya love sumthin’ hard ‘n hot up ya ass,” the man went on, grinning and revealing a set of teeth in bad need of a dentist.

Reno shook his head, distaste plainly written on his face. He hated these places, and he especially hated having to drag his boss from them. And as they approached, he spoke out of the corner of his mouth to his partner.

“The punk’s mildly attractive, but he seems to have only one working brain cell, if any at all. Surely, Tseng isn’t that desperate, yo.” He noticed another brave touch by the man and frowned deeply. It almost appeared as if Tseng was actually considering the loser’s offer, which caused the redhead to involuntarily shudder. “I’d offer first if he’s that desperate. I think Reeve would understand.”

“He’d probably offer the same,” Rude responded, face managing to remain impassive, though inwardly he was cringing. “Hell, I would, and I’m straight,” he added, knowing that it was true. He would rather test his sensibilities than see Tseng subject himself to the attentions of that… thing.

Reno sighed, and as one, the both of them moved directly behind their friend, crowding in on his space. Almost immediately, their Commander realized they were there. His shoulders stiffened, and he made an irritated face, looking much like the kid who had gotten his hand caught in a cookie jar. Yet, he remained silent, idly thumbing the dirty glass of liquor that sat near one of his hands on the bar.

Unfortunately, Mr. One-Brain-Cell seemed to notice as well, and he turned, scowling in an attempt to be rid of their sudden shadows. “Get lost!” he snarled. “Ain’t you see that we talkin’ o’er here?”

Reno was not impressed. He tapped the loser on the shoulder with his Electro Rod firmly and gestured with his head towards Tseng. “He’s with us.”

The man glanced drunkenly from Rude to Reno, noticing the greater height of the bald man and the formidable weapon of the redhead. He gulped loudly.

“Whatever,” he murmured before sliding away from Tseng and slinking away. He thought the Wutaiian was cute but definitely not worth the trouble.

The two partners turned their whole attention on their boss, noticing that the other patrons had chosen to look away as well. It seemed no one was considering the Wutaiian any longer. Tseng had yet to face them, however, his gaze towards the bar as he sat on the stool.

“Go away,” came his low and icy demand.

Rude shook his head. “No, we can’t do that.”

The red-haired Turk nodded, adding to Rude’s statement, his tone almost chastising, “You promised you wouldn’t do this anymore. Don’t make us have to cause a scene.” As it was, the bartender was already eying the three of them; worried about the mess he might have to clean up.

Tseng exhaled, frozen in place for a moment as he considered his options. There were actually very few. He gritted his teeth, narrowed his eyes, but finally slid off the stool. Without a word, he strode towards the door, expecting the two would follow him. Once outside and in the relatively fresher air, Tseng quickly crossed the street into a less crowded area on the opposite side. Rude and Reno were right on his heels, both with grim expressions.

He raised a brow at them before shaking his head and turning away. “All right,” he snapped. “Now that you’ve dragged me out, I’m going home.” He didn’t expect them to argue.

However, Rude shook his head negatively; he didn’t like the look on Tseng’s face or the almost desperation he had caught back there. “No, you’re coming home with me.” It was a spur of the moment plan, but he was determined to go through with it.

Again, a brow arched elegantly. “Don’t you trust me?” the Wutaiian questioned, half turning to face them once more. It was a strange, almost twisted situation; the two subordinates giving orders to their boss.

Reno snorted. “Didn’t you trust us enough to say something about the voices, yo?” he retorted, almost angrily. It appeared that the redhead was still hurt about that little tidbit. He had thought they were closer than that.

Tseng shook his head and waved a hand of dismissal, effectively attempting to brush off him and his words. “I don’t have to listen to this. I am your Commander.”

The bald man grunted, narrowing his eyes, though Tseng couldn’t see the movement. “Right now you’re our friend,” he stated firmly before eying the dark-haired male. “You can’t keep doing this.”

The Wutaiian snorted, a distinctively inelegant thing as he angrily glared at Rude. He strode towards the taller man, standing directly before him and raising himself to his toes so that he could look Rude in the eyes. It was an attempt at intimidation that failed miserably.

“I can do whatever the hell I want.”

Reno scoffed. “You know when you do that, it’s not very intimidating,” he commented, still continuously tapping the Electro Rod against his shoulder, as if it was a nervous twitch.

Furious silver eyes turned in the redhead’s direction, which caused Reno to take an unconscious step backwards from the sheer venom held there. He held up his hands as if to ward off a blow.

“We’re just saying,” he protested.

Rude reached out to put a calming hand on his boss’ shoulder, but the Wutaiian sidestepped before he could do so, an unreadable expression on his face. “Are you coming with me, or are we going to have to use force,” the taller male questioned with a sigh.

Tseng frowned, staring at a nonexistent object but refusing to look at either of them. He was clearly contemplating Rude’s question. The dark-skinned man could practically see him weighing his options. Knowing their boss, Tseng was comparing how quickly he could run versus how fast they could move. Rude had almost a foot on him in height and most definitely more weight. Nor would the Turk Commander appreciate having to be tackled to the street by Reno with witnesses around. It would not be dignified.

Resignation took over the Wutaiian’s features, quickly replaced by frustration. Tseng exhaled heavily, brushed a lock of hair off his shoulder in an irritated gesture, and scowled the entire time. Having been in his command for a length of time, Rude had long learned that this movement represented the man’s capitulation.

The two partners exchanged glances over the head of their shorter Commander, and the three started to move in silent agreement towards the Strife household. Aeris and Cloud had been so kind to allow Shera and Rude to live with them being as their true home was miles away in Rocket Town.

There was a tense silence between the three Turks, awkward a word almost too light to describe the situation. Tseng was silently seething, and Reno knew better than to try and say anything. Rude himself was just naturally quiet, and as they walked, he recalled why this particular situation was so familiar to him.

Back when he had first become a Turk, he had found out about the habits of their Commander. Tseng shied away from all close relationships, but every once in a while, maybe once a year, he would carouse the bars in the slums and bring home a random man to screw into the mattress… or perhaps to screw him into the mattress. Rude couldn’t be certain, and he honestly never wanted to know. Reno had found out about their boss’ little habit as well, but at the time, they hadn’t felt it was their place to say or do anything.

And until the events at Nibelheim, it really hadn’t been a problem. Rude had been away in Rocket Town at the time, but Reno had related the story of Tseng’s murderous rampage that night. Afterwards, their Commander had begun to sneak down to the bars once or twice a week. The bald man remembered all too well dragging him out before some random loser finagled to get his hands on the Wutaiian. Still, they had somehow contrived together to get Tseng to eventually stop, and he had quit his carousing for a time. However, when reports of Sephiroth’s reappearance surfaced about a year ago, he had started back up again, almost as if he had never ceased. It had been back to the slums for their Commander, and due to the insanity following those events, the other Turks hadn’t had the time nor the means to speak to Tseng until after the Meteor crisis had been resolved. Once the world was saved, they had managed to wrangle a promise out of Tseng that he wouldn’t do it ever again.

To them it was a self-destructive path. There was something inside their Commander that made him feel that he needed this, the meaningless and random one night stands, to drown himself in liquor. It was like the loss of control was a drug to him. Once upon a time, it hadn’t made much sense. Yet, considering what they had learned, Rude felt he was beginning to understand why Tseng desired this and why he was such a damn happy drunk. The liquor had to obscure the voices, make it so he was free for a time.

Regardless, above all things, a drunk Tseng was to be avoided at all costs, or so they had quickly come to learn. While he could at times be amorous, he usually tended to be horrifyingly happy, in a very Yuffie-like manner. It was something Rude did not want to even consider, much less actually see, and it only served to highlight how unhappy Tseng seemed the rest of the time.

Still, even knowing why Tseng was suddenly finding it difficult to cling to his promise, there was no way Rude was going to allow him to revert back to his old habits. It was not healthy, and their friend definitely deserved far better than what he was allowing himself, even if it was his only respite. Rude felt it was something akin to a drug. Sometimes a little intervention was needed.

The bald man looked up from his inner contemplations to find that they had arrived at the Strife household, Tseng already faintly skittish. At an exchanged glance, he and Reno drew closer to their Commander as they headed for the door. Rude was the first to enter, Tseng following him with Reno bringing up the rear, ensuring that the Wutaiian could not escape. The door opened easily, and the three Turks stepped into the foyer just inside.

The sound of children’s laughter greeted them instantly, quickly followed by the familiar voice of one Zack Loire. Another far quieter voice answered the former SOLDIER, and although they couldn’t discern the owner, there were very few options. Zack rarely went anywhere without his General shadow.

Silvery eyes widened immediately at the sound, and without second thought, Tseng turned around to make his escape, something Rude noticed immediately. Reno, however, stood in the doorway, casually leaning against the jamb with his arms crossed over his chest. He shot the Wutaiian a look and held up a warding hand, which Tseng promptly ignored. He continued to move forward, intent on leaving, but Rude’s arm shot out, grabbing their Commander’s shoulder in a firm grip and ceasing his retreat.

The red-haired male shook his head. “Uh uh. You’re staying.”

Tseng glared heatedly at Reno, narrowing his eyes before his face suddenly went completely neutral. The Wutaiian seemed tempted to beg, obviously considering it. His subordinate instantly realized this, and it was a feeling that made him distinctly uncomfortable. He shot Rude a look beyond Tseng, and he was about say something. Yet, before his mouth could even open, he caught sight of Aeris waddling towards them. Apparently, the Ancient had heard the door open and had come to investigate.

Surprise registered on her pretty features as she noticed them. “Rude! You brought the others,” she added after a minute, clearly delighted.

Reno waved a hand at her, flashing one of his most charming grins. “Yeah, but I’ve got to head home. Must go see the hubby, ya know,” he commented, slowly backing out of the foyer.

Tseng took a step forward, as if to follow him, but the grip Rude had on his shoulder was unrelenting. The larger Turk squeezed lightly in warning, dragging the dark-haired man to a halt.

Reno shot his Commander an almost amused glance. “But Tseng here wanted some of Elmyra’s home cooking.”

“Isn’t that right,” Rude inserted, giving another rough but not quite bruising squeeze to Tseng’s shoulder, right on the sensitive region at the juncture of his neck and collar bone.

The Wutaiian clenched his teeth and half turned back towards Aeris and Rude. “Yes.”

“So nice seeing ya, Aeris. You’re looking well, yo. Goodnight,” Reno said in a hurry as he guffawed to himself and completely backed out the door, making sure to shut it solidly behind him.

The flower-girl beamed at Reno’s abrupt departure, turning the kind gesture on the Turk Commander. “I’m sure Elmyra won’t mind feeding one more. Why don’t you come into the living room while we wait for supper? Marlene’s here, and she’s been asking about you. She just loves her Mr. Tseng.” Aeris chuckled to herself at the last bit.

Rude nodded and made a confirming noise in the back of his throat. He sidestepped until he stood behind Tseng, still holding a hand to the Wutaiian’s shoulder. The older man was now forced to face Aeris, and Rude wasted no time in putting a hand discreetly on the small of the other Turk’s back, goading him forward into following the Ancient. They trailed after her down the hallway, but as she turned into the sitting room to her right, she tossed an idle comment over her shoulder.

“Oh, by the way,” the auburn-haired woman inserted mischievously seconds before they crossed the threshold. “Zack and Sephiroth will be joining us.”

Silver eyes widened once more as Tseng completely froze, boots digging to a halt against the wooden floor. Rude shook his head with an aggravated motion and gave his friend a shove into the sitting room, perhaps using a bit too much force. As a result, Tseng stumbled inside, ending up standing besides Aeris in a very undignified manner. He gave off the aura of a deer caught in the headlights as Rude entered at a normal pace, a shadow of a smirk on his face.

As one, all those present in the room turned to look at the newcomers. Aeris simply beamed, and Rude was certain that if it was anyone else, Tseng would have twitched. But the Commander was very good at his stone-face and managed to look only slightly perturbed.

Marlene was the first to notice the Turk Commander, immediately jumping to her feet from where she sat next to Barret on the couch. “Mr. Tseng!” the child exclaimed as she darted forward with a huge grin on her face and threw her arms around him, enveloping him in a huge hug.

He awkwardly patted her on the back, looking slightly alarmed. However, before he could say anything, she latched on to his arm and began to drag him quite forcefully in the direction of her toy box. Tseng couldn’t help but note that she had quite a grip for being such a young girl, even as his head whirled from her incessant chatter, words pouring out of her mouth so quickly that he couldn’t get any of his own in edgewise. Truthfully, she reminded the dark-haired Turk vaguely of Reno.

“Do you want to color?” Marlene questioned excitedly, pointing to all her toys and such. “Let’s play Go Fish. Can I play with your hair like I did last time?”

In the background, Rude mouthed to Aeris, “Last time?” But she just shook her head.

Barret’s laughter echoed through the room as he took in the flustered appearance of the Turk Commander. Aeris chuckled, while Elmyra and Shera exchanged amused glances. Zack smirked as he slid off the couch where he had been seated next to Sephiroth, whom Denzel had attached himself to. Rude watched the ex-SOLDIER approach him, mildly interested in what he had to say.

The crystalline-eyed man sidled up to him, leaning in so that their conversation couldn’t be easily overheard. “Babysitting Tseng?” Zack questioned, teasingly. Rude briefly noticed that Sephiroth and his Commander had glanced at each other but were now distracted by the children. He smiled inwardly at the two before returning his attentions to his companion.

The bald Turk lifted a brow. “Babysitting Sephiroth?” he countered easily.

Before Zack could respond, Marlene’s voice cut into their conversation, echoing loudly over the others in the room. “How about a tea party,” the young girl suggested, obviously delighted to see her “Mr. Tseng” once more.

Elmyra laughed at this. “Oh, no, not the illustrious tea parties,” she chimed in, shooting her daughter a glance. The Wutaiian shook his head silently, his right eye beginning to twitch in a most familiar way.

Aeris giggled as she observed the slightly embarrassed tint to Tseng’s cheeks. “Don’t you remember how much fun we used to have when you and I would have them?” she questioned the Turk, even as his face went stony, the other eye twitching.

“When you would force him to do it,” Elmyra commented, rising from her seat. “I’m going to check on dinner.” She headed off towards the kitchen, a laughing Barret tagging along. He, at least, was thoroughly enjoying watching the Turk Commander getting increasingly flustered.

Rude couldn’t help but exchange a look with the naughty flower-girl, a full smile on his usually impassive face. He mentally filed away the information about the “hair braiding” and the “tea parties” as something to tell Reno about later. He was certain that the scarlet-haired man would find them particularly amusing.

Shera chuckled as she rose to her feet, immediately attracting Rude’s attention. “I’ll be back,” she explained with a light wave, heading towards the hall. He nodded in understanding. She was probably heading towards the restroom, her pregnancy significantly affecting all of her systems.

For a moment, everything was calm, the mild laughter quieting as the children continued to distract their unfortunate adult friends. Denzel was softly chatting with a somewhat attentive Sephiroth, and Marlene had indeed involved poor Tseng in a tea party, the Turk sitting there looking mildly strained and rather mortified.

Zack leaned in towards Rude once more, trying to keep his voice quiet as an impish tone settled into his voice. “Did you know we were here?” he inquired. “Is this part of some plan?”

“What are you talking about?” Aeris interjected, giving them both confused looks. Apparently, she had overheard Zack despite his efforts.

The spiky-haired man grinned. “Sephy and Mr. Tseng have little crushes on one another.” He paused, considering the statement. “Well, more like they are totally hot for each other.

Immediately, the flower-girl emitted an almost diabolical laugh. “Really?” she asked, and for a moment, Rude was slightly frightened by the literal cogs he could see turning in her head. He almost pitied Tseng then, knowing for certain that Aeris was now going to conspire against him… almost.

He nodded in response. “Yes, and I’m sure Elena has already latched on to this.”

Aeris chuckled again, a slightly frightening sound. Her quick “mom” eyes snapped to the two other men, noticing that they were currently shooting surreptitious glances at each other, all but ogling one another in an oh-so-obvious way. They kept sneaking occasional glances. However, that was only until they managed to catch each other, which caused both full grown men to quickly look away, as if nothing had happened, faint blushes staining their cheeks.

She snorted in amusement. “They’re like teenagers,” Aeris cackled deviously. “They are adults, and they can’t even look at each other.”

Zack shrugged. “Well, for one, Seph is shy.”

Rude blinked, not believing the dark-haired man for an instant. Aeris didn’t seem convinced either, shooting him a skeptical look.

“He is,” insisted the former SOLDIER, waving his hands for emphasis. “He just covers it up well. Would you have good social skills if you were raised by Hojo?”

Before either of them could answer the loaded question, the sound of the front door opening could clearly be heard. It was actually more like the door slammed open, the edge hitting the opposite wall. Booted feet clomped noisily in as the door shut with a bang. Seconds later, Cloud stumbled into the living room, looking both exhausted and clumsy. It took him a moment, but he finally seemed to notice that there were a lot of people in his home. He couldn’t help but gape in surprise.

“Aeris?” he questioned in shock as he directed a confused glance to his wife. “Are… are we having a party?” He racked his brain as he rubbed a hand through his hair, trying to remember if she had already mentioned it. His eyes traveled from Sephiroth to Tseng to Zack and back again, still entirely uncertain.

The Ancient laughed. “No, sweet heart, we’re just that popular tonight,” she explained, shooting a meaningful look to both Rude and Zack, one full of mischief. For a moment, it almost had the Turk pitying his friend again. However, it was then that she noticed Shera coming back from the restroom and immediately latched onto her new friend’s arm. “I’m going to go help mom in the kitchen,” Aeris announced with a wink towards Rude. “Why don’t you come help me, Shera?”

For a second, the brunette was confused. However, she quickly caught the devilish glint in Aeris’ eye. Despite not knowing why the flower-girl was so devious, she was perfectly willing to go along. Whilst Elena and Aeris were accomplices, it had been Shera who was guilty of aiding and abetting.

“Of course,” the engineer agreed brightly. With that, the two women disappeared into the kitchen, leaving a slightly bewildered Cloud behind.

Rude, who had not moved from his position since he had entered the house, bit back a sigh and directed his attention to the sitting room, noticing immediately that Cloud looked lost. For a moment, he almost believed that the blond had peeked behind a couch, as if searching for something. His mako eyes were peering about, confusion plainly obvious. Rude wasn’t about to comment, but that didn’t stop Zack from saying anything.

The dark-haired man grinned. “Looking for something, Spike?” he chirped.

Cloud looked up from his perusing of the window, still very much lost. “Reno and Elena aren’t here?” He frowned.

The crystalline-eyed man laughed and ran a hand through his hair. “Is this supposed to be a Turk reunion?” he queried with a shrug. “It’s not much of one without the gunslinger.” He was, of course, referring to Vincent, but very few of them actually got the reference, the somewhat clueless Cloud not included.

The blond pursed his lips in thought before suddenly blinking, seeming for the first time to notice just exactly what Tseng was doing. He peered at the Wutaiian Commander, unsure if he was seeing correctly. Mako eyes blinked again before Cloud looked up in confusion at his friend.

“Is that Tseng… having… a tea party?” he questioned, clearly wondering why the former assassin was doing such a thing.

Before anyone could respond and therefore also stopping Zack’s mirthful laughter before it could begin, Elmyra’s voice echoed from the dining room, ringing much like a bell. “Dinner!”

Like a heard of starving bovine, everyone leapt to their feet and headed towards the dining room. The children, more excited than the adults, latched on to their respective friends and pulled them towards the table, as if the food was suddenly going to disappear on its own. As a result, Sephiroth and Tseng were nearly involved in a head-on collision, almost trying to squeeze through the doorway at the same time.

Ahead of them, Rude had been the first to enter, having been the one standing closest to the dining room. Four seats were already full, Barret and Elmyra having taken the two heads of the three tables pushed together to accommodate them all. The food had already been laid out and was steaming nicely, the rich smell of home cooking filling the air. Rude immediately caught his wife’s look and sat between her and Barret, knowing that in some fashion, she and Aeris had conspired. Woe be unto him if he should somehow deviate from their plans, even if it was unintentional.

Cloud managed to elbow his way past Zack and moved to plop himself down between his wife and Elmyra, but she quickly waved him on to the empty seat on the other side of her. Zack paused for a second by the door, attempting to decide where to sit. However, Aeris quickly came to his rescue, mouthing “Sit here” and pointing to the chair the blond had just attempted to take. He did so, seating himself just as the last four people entered the room.

Marlene bullied Denzel out of the way, dragging Tseng through the door first with an iron grip. It was amazing how truly strong the child was, especially to Tseng.

“Where should I sit, Daddy?” she questioned happily, beaming brightly. It had been a long time since she had truly had time to hang out with her “Mr. Tseng”, the two of them having become close when he had been injured and Elmyra and Marlene had cared for him in Kalm.

Shera inserted hastily, “Why don’t you sit next to your father.”

The little girl nodded and did so at the same moment that Denzel came in, Sephiroth right behind him. They entered in a more dignified manner, the boy not needing to drag on his savior’s arm but somehow managing to tether the older male nevertheless.

“Denzel, honey, you come sit next to me,” Elmyra put in swiftly. The child obeyed and immediately plopped down before any more words could be said. This left the unfortunate former General and Turk Commander the only chairs remaining, right next to each other and sandwiched between the kids. It was a set up, of course, and a brilliantly laid plan at that. Or at least, Rude thought so.

He watched in idle fascination as the two grown men paused, not moving, as if frozen to their spots. Realization washed over Tseng’s face as he shot his subordinate an odd look. Yet, neither of them moved. The same expression was echoed on Sephiroth’s face and directed candidly at his best friend. Shera and Aeris merely smirked; infinitely proud of themselves, whereas Cloud was confused as to why the pair hadn’t sat down yet.

“C’mon, Sephy,” Denzel encouraged quietly, gently tugging on the older male’s shirt. “You can sit next to me.”

“Yeah,” Marlene chimed in, grinning widely at her friend. “There’s room here, Mr. Tseng.” In the face of such innocence, the two could do nothing but nod their heads and take their seats, albeit a bit stiffly and as far away from each other as humanly possible.

A moment later, the table was calm as silence fell. As one, everyone bowed their heads, only Sephiroth left looking mildly confused. Was there some ritual he knew nothing about? Small hands tugged at his shirt, and he looked down to see Denzel smiling lightly at him from beneath brown bangs.

“Like this, Sephy,” the child encouraged in a loud whisper, lowering his head in explanation and putting a very serious look on his face. Sephiroth blinked but humored him, copying the motion. It wasn’t until Aeris started speaking in her soft voice that Sephiroth even realized what was occurring. They were praying… over their meal. No wonder he hadn’t understood it. To Hojo, that would have been a trivial motion at best.

The prayer was brief but wholehearted. Afterwards, heads were raised and dinner was set to begin. At the head of the table, considering himself in charge since he was older than Cloud, Barret picked up the first dish, frowning when he realized it was a plate of cheesy mashed potatoes. He glared at the food with intent distaste, decided he didn’t want any, and quickly passed it to Rude on his right (1). In this manner, the food was slowly served.

For a moment, there was silence until the Ancient smiled, eager to begin conversation. “So, how was everyone’s day?” she questioned pleasantly, spooning some of the potatoes onto her plate. She tended to have cravings for starchy foods.

At first, no one seemed to want to offer a comment. Tseng stared at the table, firmly keeping his mouth shut, not wishing at all to relate where he had just been. Rude made a noncommittal sound in the back of his throat, silently thanking Kami that Reno had gone home.

Cloud was the one to pick up the conversation, shrugging nonchalantly. “The usual,” he replied, inspiring them all with his witty words.

“I helped Elena with choosing decorations for Reeve and Reno’s wedding this afternoon,” Shera chimed in a moment, thereby saving them all from an awkward silence.

“That’s right, mom,” Aeris commented, her eyes gleaming, as if suddenly struck with an idea. “Weren’t we going to have your wedding at the same time?” She stoically ignored Barret’s embarrassed stuttering.

The older, more gentile woman inclined her head. “Yes, I believe it was Elena that came up with the idea.” Forks clinked on plates as more food was passed around, the sound of idle chewing a background din to the strange dinner party.

Zack snorted, reaching for his glass of water and silently wishing he had something more filling, like Tequila for instance. So long as Sephiroth didn’t have any, everything would be fine.

“Pssh,” he muttered. “Weddings are for girls.”

Aeris sniffed, turning to stare at him. “You’re still coming though, right?” she questioned. “You know you’ll need a date.”

The dark-haired male smirked and waved a hand of dismissal. “Maybe I already have one,” he hinted.

Elmyra smiled slightly at this, turning her innocent gaze on the Wutaiian Commander. “Tseng, I know you somehow wrangled your way out of being best man for Reeve, but I know you’re still coming. You have to bring a date as well.”

Tseng blinked, silvery eyes paused for a moment, trying to come up with a good lie but completely drawing a blank. He had been caught off guard by her straightforward question. Thankfully, he was saved by Aeris… though in a moment he might not consider it something to be grateful for.

“You’re coming too, aren’t you, Sephiroth?”

The former General spooned some Mimett greens onto his plate, looking up with mild surprise registering in his eyes. “I’m invited?” he returned, unable to keep the shock from his voice. He wasn’t aware that they had wanted to include him in such a fashion, believing that they were merely tolerating his presence until the battle was done.

Barret opened his mouth to make a snotty comment, but before he could do so, a foot kicked him under the table, solidly connecting with his shin. He narrowed his eyes, trying to discern who had done it. His soon-to-be wife was on the other end of the table, after all. Still, he was effectively cut off from the retort he had about to say.

“Of course you are,” Shera insisted softly, giving him one of her kinder smiles. “You’re part of our family now.”

The gun-armed man snorted. “Though whether or not that’s a good thing, I can’t really say,” he muttered under his breath, only to yelp when another violent kick assailed his already bruised shins.

“Is everything alright, panda bear?” his soon-to-be wife inquired, eyes turning to him in concern. At her words, Zack started snickering loudly, amused by Barret’s pet name. Cloud laughed as well, unfortunately forgetting that he was currently eating at the same time. He started to choke, prompting his friend to beat him firmly across the back.

Barret gritted his teeth. “Just fine,” he choked out, eyes slightly watering.

“You’ll need a date, Sephiroth,” Aeris went on, easily asserting herself over the chaos that was beginning to build

As her words echoed around them, Rude looked across the table and caught sight of Marlene seeming in very deep thought. It was almost like wheels were turning in the little girl’s head as she looked thoughtfully at her companion. Shera shifted beside him, and he sensed that his wife was about to say something. However, he laid a discreet hand on her thigh and squeezed gently, inclining his head towards Marlene. At the same moment, the child seemed to come to a sudden realization.

She beamed brightly, exclaiming loudly, “Why don’t Sephy and Mr. Tseng just go together, like Mr. Cid and Mr. Vinny?”

It was as if a Stop materia had been used, the entire table freezing, including Cloud with his spoon paused halfway to his mouth. Zack’s face was hidden by his cup, but Rude could tell that the man was laughing. He began to feel mildly sorry for Tseng, who resembled someone facing imminent death or torture, and again thanked Kami that both Reno and Elena were at their own homes rather than here, further embarrassing their almost shy Commander.

Completely oblivious to the frozen state of all the adults, Denzel couldn’t help but comment in a quiet voice, “That’s a good idea.”

Marlene nodded enthusiastically, turning with beaming eyes towards the Wutaiian. “So what do you think, Mr. Tseng? Huh? Huh?” she pressed, barely giving him time to respond.

The Commander shifted in his seat in a very uncharacteristic gesture, taking a deep breath as he faced the excited child, racking his brain to come up with a suitable response. “I think, Marlene, that Mr. Sephiroth-” He paused, flushing slightly as he realized how he had just addressed the great General. “That Sephiroth probably…” He hesitated again, not knowing what excuse he could say. “He probably has someone else in mind,” the Turk clarified, having spoken the entire statement very slowly.

Before the former General could even open his mouth, Zack clunked his drink down on the table, grinning widely. “No, he doesn’t,” the spiky-haired male remarked.

Denzel nudged the man next to him, speaking in a more subdued tone than his fervent friend. “Well, Sephy, what do you say?”

The General was at a loss for words, not even able to form a coherent sentence as his mouth opened, closed, and then opened again, still nothing emerging. He shot Zack a glare that was partially one promising death and partially pleading for help.

Deciding that they had tortured the somewhat self-conscious man enough for one night, Zack came to his pal’s rescue. He shrugged and looked directly at the children, a grin creeping into the corners of his mouth.

“I’m sure Sephy and Mr. Tseng will have a lot of fun when they go together.”

Marlene cheered, despite the stern glance her father sent her. “Yay! You can sit next to us!” Her declaration was followed by Barret clearing his throat and everyone attempting to return to their meal.

“So when is the wedding again?” Cloud asked, unintentionally relieving the uncomfortable silence.

“Saturday,” Shera explained, squeezing her husband’s hand underneath the table. “It’s at Elmyra’s house in Sector 5, if you remember.”

The blond shrugged. “I didn’t… but thanks.”

“I would have reminded him,” Aeris insisted, smiling cheekily. It appeared that everyone was finally giving the two men a respite, allowing Sephiroth and Tseng to let out their held back breaths.

The conversation easily flowed around him, but Rude didn’t seem to mind. He casually looked up from his plate, just happening to catch a humorous and yet pitiful event from behind his sunglasses, which he hadn’t even removed for dinner. They were all used to seeing him with them on anyways. Not to mention that they hid the fact he was all but staring at his boss, but it wasn’t like the usually observant man noticed. He was too busy trying not to touch or even look at the person sitting next to him, an action that had Rude shaking his head sadly. Sephiroth and Tseng, with their almost teenager-like actions, were similar to watching a train wreck. He didn’t want to see it, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away.

The former General accepted a plate from Elmyra, took one glance at the food, and decided he wasn’t partial to biscuits. As a result, he passed it on to the next person, Tseng. But as it were, the Turk Commander was paying very little attention to where he was reaching, and their hands briefly touched beneath the dish. For a second, they turned to look at each other, a faint flush staining both sets of cheeks until they quickly looked away, Tseng now having a firm grasp on the plate.

Rude sighed under his breath afterwards and dejectedly shook his head. “Hopeless,” he murmured. “They’re completely hopeless.”

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