[Shattered] Children 29

Chapter Nineteen: Euphonious

“You’re avoiding them.”

Sephiroth blinked at the odd statement, turning away from the vending machine in the lobby to find Tseng standing just behind him, gil in hand. The machine thunked as his choice dropped to the bottom. A candy bar, dinner for the masses. He hadn’t time for anything else.

“Who?” he asked, shifting back to retrieve the chocolate-covered nut confection. It seemed paltry in the face of his hunger, but Sephiroth had suffered longer on less. It would suffice for now.

Tseng stepped past him, shoving gil into the machine and snapping fingers over his own selection. “Your habit of pretending ignorance can be annoying at times,” he commented, but it was said with a small, sideways smile. “Kadaj and his brothers, Sephiroth. Have you even spoken to them since the battle?”

Feeling something twist uncomfortably in his belly, Sephiroth concentrated on the candy bar, slowly peeling back the wrapper. “I’ve been busy.”

“An excuse.” Extracting some bag of salty snack, Tseng turned towards him, arching one brow. “You’re trying to convince yourself you have nothing to do with them.”

“I don’t-”

“You’re brothers,” Tseng stressed, following along as Sephiroth headed away from the machines and to the small area of couches in the lobby. Food on the go, such was the life of a WRO employee. And Sephiroth especially.

The former general frowned, distracting himself with a mix of caramel and nougat, both slathered in thick dark chocolate. “We share half blood and a history of torture and experimentation. That is all.”

And Sephiroth couldn’t even be certain they shared that half blood. After all, he didn’t know whether to acknowledge Hojo as his blood father or not. He would prefer not.

A faint flash of disappointment flooded Tseng’s gaze. “You have a bond with them, Sephiroth. Whether you like it or not. Just what are you afraid of?”

He wouldn’t exactly call it a fear. Reluctance perhaps. But not a fear. Tseng was perhaps right in that Sephiroth was avoiding them. He didn’t know what to say to them. Apologize for failing Hojo and being the impetus to further experiments? Apologize for being himself? Cry on each other’s shoulders for the things they’ve suffered? No, they were what they were, just as he was what he was. They were strong. They did not share woes over suffering.

They became strong, just as he, and they fought to live.

He shook his head, lowering himself into one of the plush couches that sought to suck him into the fluffy depths. “There’s nothing to fear,” Sephiroth murmured. “I simply wouldn’t know what to say.”

“You could start by informing them of their newfound freedom.” Tseng landed beside him, crunching quietly on a pretzel. “Provided Archer hasn’t done it for you.”

“No one’s told them yet?”

Tseng shook his head, silver eyes catching Sephiroth’s gaze. “I told Reeve to leave it to you.”

Aghast, Sephiroth stared at Tseng in betrayal. “Why would you do that?”

He popped a few more pretzels into his mouth, swallowing before he spoke again, keeping his voice quiet as a few office workers passed by behind them. “Because you can’t avoid them forever. And talking to them is the same as facing your past. You said you were ready, didn’t you?”

“To tell you,” Sephiroth argued, candy bar forgotten. “Not to go facing three clones of myself who suffered the exact same thing!”

Tseng just looked at him, as if that was reason alone, and rose to his feet. “And I’ll still hear it. But first, they are waiting to hear the results of our decision. Don’t stress them further.”

And then his lover was gone, pretzels serving as his only meal, leaving Sephiroth to stew on the couch. He chewed on his candy bar, unwilling to call his emotion anger, but definitely sensing agitation and reluctance. Sephiroth couldn’t quite explain why those three boys made him uneasy, just that they did.

Sephiroth knew that Tseng was right. And now it was up to him to tell those three their fate since Tseng had helpfully dumped the task on him.

Sighing, Sephiroth tossed the last bite of the candy bar in his mouth, threw away the wrapper and headed for the elevator. He hadn’t intended to visit, yet he still knew where they were being kept.

When he emerged on the proper floor, the two guards at the main door instantly saluted. Sephiroth waved off the formality.

“That’s not necessary, gentlemen,” he said, already moving to pass them. “You’re relieved of guard duty. Report to Commander Tseng for further instruction.”

“Yes sir!” They snapped to attention, saluting once more, before leaving. That, at least, Sephiroth was familiar with – military obedience.

Sephiroth continued into the main hall, an unusual silence greeting his ears. That was, except for the sound of voices at the far end. He passed by empty rooms, even ones that he knew should have been occupied, until he came to the last. He heard four separate voices – Archer was here already. He should have known. The engineer must have been here since the previous day.

Steeling himself, unable to explain the fluttering in his belly, Sephiroth stepped into the doorway, wrapping his knuckles on the frame to announce himself.

Immediately, the voices ceased and he was treated to the sight of three nearly identical boys looking up at him, one currently pressed against Archer’s side.

“Sephiroth,” Archer greeted warily, probably thinking him a messenger of Reeve’s of some negative kind. “Have you news?”

“It’s nothing different than what you last heard,” Sephiroth answered, taking that as invitation to come inside. He realized he was avoiding looking at the brothers and forced his gaze their direction.

Silver hair and green eyes, pale skin, Jenova was strong in them as she was within Sephiroth. No matter what their blood parents resembled, Sephiroth and they would only ever look like that calamity from the skies. Her DNA dominated all others, one reason why he could never tell the identity of his parents, though Vincent had mentioned on numerous occasions that he resembled his moth- Lucrecia.

They returned his look evenly. It was unnerving.

“Then…?”

Sephiroth inclined his head, wishing for somewhere to sit but finding no empty chair. They had apparently dragged in a few from other rooms.

“The three are free to go though they are still to be kept under observation.”

Kadaj snorted, flicking hair out of his eyes with a toss of his head. “Not exactly freedom, but I suppose we’ll take what we can get.”

“It’s better than execution,” Yazoo commented, his eyes downcast to the floor.

“Is it?” Kadaj retorted. “Is this life even something to celebrate?”

Loz reached over and ruffled his youngest brother’s hair, prompting a look of annoyance from Kadaj. “Stop talking like that, Kadaj. You’re too negative.”

Rolling his eyes, Sephiroth was treated to the almost belligerent glare of the youngest brother. “So? Who gets to be our babysitters?”

Sephiroth felt the urge to sigh, and he wasn’t even sure why. No wonder everyone spoke of teenagers being a force to be reckoned with. “Reeve and Reno have volunteered to take in Yazoo. While Vincent and Captain Highwind have spoken for Loz.”

“And you are in my care,” Archer added with a grin, his fingers reaching for Kadaj’s hand and holding it tightly.

Kadaj allowed the affection, leaning just a bit closer to his boyfriend? Lover? Sephiroth didn’t know what to name them. In fact, he preferred not to.

“The observation is merely a precaution,” Sephiroth assured them. “I was placed under the same when I first returned. It is only to be sure that Jenova is truly gone.”

“Didn’t your boyfriend tell you as much?” Kadaj demanded, rather hostile. “He certainly picked at our brains long enough.”

Sephiroth’s eyes narrowed as he bristled on Tseng’s behalf. “Tseng was only trying to ascertain the possibility of Jenova’s presence. And as I recall, he had your permission.”

“Did we have any choice?”

“The very fact that you are alive now proves that you had a choice,” Sephiroth retorted, and tension racketed up in the room as he and Kadaj traded glares.

From the side, he caught sight of Archer’s wince. “Come on, you guys. You’re brothers, aren’t you? You shouldn’t be arguing like this.”

Sephiroth’s gaze flickered to him briefly. “Who’s arguing?”

Loz outright laughed, elbowing the second brother in the side. “It’s like when two alpha dogs enter the same territory, isn’t it?” he asked.

“Archer is right,” Yazoo inserted quietly. “We are family. The only one we’ve got truthfully. What use is there in fighting?”

“We have each other. That’s enough,” Kadaj retorted, his eyes flashing. “We don’t need him.”

Deathly silence filled the room. Sephiroth fidgeted and told himself he wasn’t, inwardly cursing Tseng. The Wutaiian had been wrong and Sephiroth still didn’t understand why it was necessary he come do this. Kadaj was right; they didn’t need him. Sephiroth didn’t even know why he had come.

Some vague idea of family? Some half-hearted thought that maybe here he could be of some use?

It was foolish, that’s what it was.

“Kadaj!”

“Ow!”

Blinking, Sephiroth looked up, staring as Kadaj rubbed at his head and Loz lowered his hand. “You’re acting like a brat!” Loz chastised, for once sounding like an older brother in a position of authority. “Stop blaming Sephiroth for things that aren’t his fault.”

“He’s still just a kid,” Yazoo said by way of apology, making Sephiroth blink in surprise yet again. “Even though he would like to thank otherwise. I’m sorry for his behavior.”

Kadaj glared at both of his brothers, his eyes hot enough to spout poisonous fire and the sight of it made him look just a child that had been scolded. And Sephiroth, who had been trying to hold onto his composure, found a chuckle escaping him.

Kids. They really were just kids. A trio of orphaned children, just like himself, desperately searching for something to ease the loneliness inside of them. To chase away the darkness. Just like himself.

It clicked into place then, suddenly chasing away all of the unease and the anxiety.

And now the four of them were looking at him as if he’d lost his mind, Kadaj scowling as he rubbed at his head, Loz somehow managing to appear stern, Yazoo the concerned brother who promised a dire retribution later for their behavior. And Archer, equally bewildered.

The words were easier than he expected.

“I didn’t come here believing you would accept me immediately,” Sephiroth said, his laughter easing off though he kept a light smile. “If you even did at all. I am not trying to usurp any position you carry, or make myself out to be some sort of leader.”

Kadaj snorted. “Could’ve fooled me,” he muttered under his breath.

Sephiroth casually ignored him, finally recognizing his actions for what they were. It almost made the youngest brother cute. Almost.

He continued, finding himself amused when Yazoo clapped a hand over his brother’s mouth with a strict look. “We are family, even if only by half-blood, and I don’t wish to abandon that. I would hope that you wouldn’t either.”

“We don’t either,” Yazoo confirmed, and there was a look in his eyes, something a lot like relief.

“Yeah,” Loz agreed, with a wink and a thumbs up, the both of them heedless to Kadaj’s lack of agreement. “It’s better than being enemies.”

Sephiroth nodded, feeling a strange calm sweeping through him. “Indeed it is.”

The tension eased, and somehow, he knew know was the time to make his exit. They knew of their freedom, and he’d said what he needed to say.

“I came to let you know that I am here and I am willing. You need only ask.” Sephiroth resisted the urge to bow as it was unnecessary. “I’ve taken the first step. I’ll wait for your response.”

And with that he left, feeling much lighter than he had before. Tseng had been right, annoyingly enough. There was a bond between the four of them, and Sephiroth had only to wait until they learned not to fear it as well.

Remembering the look in Yazoo and Loz’s eyes, he had the feeling his wait would not be long.

“It’s not much,” Kadaj commented, looking around the modest apartment with a raised eyebrow. “I can see why you never invited me over.”

Archer rolled his eyes, shutting the door behind him and throwing the lock. “Size had nothing to do with it. Your appearance, however, did.”

Pausing in the hallway, Kadaj turned to look at him, green eye assessing, silver hair shielding one from view. He looked older somehow – the dark circles, the lines of fatigue, his cast carrying too much knowledge for Archer’s comfort. And dressed casually, without the clinging battle leathers and sheath which he had not been allowed for the moment, he seemed a different person.

But he was still Kadaj. And the more Archer looked at him, the more something inside his chest managed to simultaneously squeeze and sigh in relief.

“You suspected something? Even then?”

Archer dragged fingers through his hair, thinking longingly of a shower and warm dinner, tumbling into bed beside Kadaj and possibly sleeping forever. The idea had much appeal to him, and judging from Kadaj’s appearance, he wouldn’t argue with it.

“I had an idea,” Archer answered, and he shifted uncomfortably, thinking of his attempts to lightly question Reeve on the possibility of there being anyone else resembling Sephiroth in the world. “Not that it matters now.”

“No, I don’t suppose it does.” That haunted look returned to Kadaj’s eyes and he shifted his gaze back to the emptiness of Archer’s apartment.

Admittedly, Archer hadn’t spent much time here since moving in. The loneliness of it bothered him, and so he slept in the office on occasion, or accepted the traveling requests from Reeve just to not be alone. It had been quite pathetic.

But he wasn’t alone now. The mysterious darkness that had lain between he and Kadaj had been thrust into the light. There was no reason for Archer to hold back, despite the lack of approval from Reeve and the others. He knew good and well what he was getting into, and if he got hurt, the only one to blame would be himself.

Archer was prepared to take that risk.

He said nothing as he swiftly crossed the floor, kicking off his shoes behind him and leaving his coat a crumpled mess in the middle of the hall. Kadaj turned at his approach, but Archer gave him no time to run away, pulling the silver-haired man into his arms. A hand buried in the metallic strands, Archer pulled Kadaj’s head back and sealed his lips over Kadaj’s, molding their bodies together.

Shower. Dinner. That could all come later. Right now, Archer just wanted Kadaj. Here, in his bedroom, on the floor, it didn’t matter.

Archer’s free hand pressed against the small of Kadaj’s back, urging him closer. His mouth worked at Kadaj’s, tongue slipping inside, tasting the lingering flavor of the tea Kadaj had been drinking. Something with mint and honey, sweet and tempting.

Heat sang through his veins, washing slow and steady over Archer’s body. He remembered times like this, before all the recent madness. Laughter in green eyes and teasing touches and a gradual feeling of happiness seeping into his life. Archer deserved this, he knew that he did. No matter what the others said.

He broke off the kiss to drag his tongue up Kadaj’s throat, curling the wet appendage around the younger man’s ears. “I’m going to take you into my room and make love to you until you can’t leave the bed,” he murmured hotly, lust and other emotions colliding inside of him until he couldn’t distinguish one from the other.

“Pervert,” Kadaj accused, but lust colored his voice as well, one hand clutching onto Archer’s arm for balance.

“Damn right,” Archer returned, his fingers sliding from Kadaj’s back to squeeze buttocks encased in loose cotton, feeling Kadaj harden against him.

Suddenly, his room wasn’t close enough, and Archer broke away from Kadaj long enough to grab his arm and pull the younger man down the hall alongside him. His heart beat wildly inside his chest, threatening to escape from its bony confines. He couldn’t remember a sense of want and need as powerful as the one that swept through him now. He asked himself why, but had no answer.

You love him, don’t you?” Reeve’s words echoed in the back of his mind and Archer considered them, even as he threw open the door to the bedroom and pulled Kadaj in after him.

Kadaj didn’t resist, actively curling an arm around Archer’s neck and pulling him into another heated kiss. His tongue pushed into Archer’s mouth, causing him to groan in want, his hands exploring cotton-covered pale skin.

And maybe Reeve was right. Perhaps Kadaj had already taken his heart. But Archer couldn’t be bothered to care anymore.

Archer reached for Kadaj’s shirt, stripping it off him quickly. Kadaj shivered in the air-conditioned air, wafting against his skin from the quickly turning ceiling fan. His nipples stiffened and Archer rubbed a palm against one, treated to Kadaj arching into his touch. A flush of arousal stained pale cheeks and Archer groaned, herding Kadaj back towards the bed.

He fell onto it and Archer wasted no time in stripping Kadaj of the rest of his clothes. They fell to the floor behind him and Archer lowered his hips against Kadaj’s, pleased to find an arousal eager to meet his. His lips kissed a path up Kadaj’s flat stomach, towards his peaked nipples.

Hands buried in his hair, Kadaj’s hips eagerly thrusting against him. “Why are you still dressed?” Kadaj demanded, voice thick with want.

“An error I will remedy soon enough,” Archer promised, lapping his tongue over one pink nub. Kadaj’s skin tasted clean, smelling faintly of the soap he had used.

He pulled back long enough to strip off his own clothing, breathing a sigh of relief once his shaft was released into the cool air. And then Archer covered Kadaj’s body with his own, curling fingers in silver hair to bring Kadaj’s lips in perfect range. His tongue lapped over the other man’s mouth as he ground against Kadaj, their cocks rubbing wonderfully together.

“You’re never leaving my side again,” he said fiercely.

Jade eyes peeled open to regard him thoughtfully. “Are you going to lock me up?” Kadaj questioned. “Confine me to a cage? Chain me down?”

Such words shouldn’t have made his stomach tighten the way it did, but Archer couldn’t stop the rush of emotion and heat that raced through him. “Not with anything physical,” he retorted, his warm breath brushing over Kadaj’s lips. “I don’t think I have any chains that could keep you.”

“Then how do you expect to stop me from leaving?”

Archer couldn’t tell if Kadaj were only teasing him or not. He could only remember the pain in his heart when he had thought Kadaj was dead. When he realized he was condemned to loneliness once again and that he would never see that hesitant smile again. When he realized that he was as useless now as he had always been.

Heart aching, he leaned his forehead against Kadaj’s shoulder. And if his hold was painfully tight, Kadaj didn’t utter a word of protest. Perhaps he could sense the violent trembling Archer’s body had taken.

“Stay with me,” he said, and he honestly couldn’t tell if it was a demand or a request or even a desperate plea.

A hand found his hair, fingers soothing through it carefully. “Idiot, when did I ever say I was leaving?” Kadaj muttered. “What happened before was not by choice.”

Archer drew in a shuddering breath, wondering when their roles had switched and he became the child. “You haven’t exactly said you weren’t either,” he reminded.

“Are you going to make me say it?”

His hold on the younger man tightened. “Please. I need to hear it. Not just assume it. I can’t claim to understand you, Kadaj.”

For a moment there was a painful silence, and all Archer could hear was the sound of Kadaj’s breathing and the even rhythm of his heart. And then Kadaj sighed.

“I may not know the meaning of the word, but if the feelings I have inside of me are love, then that must be what I have for you,” Kadaj finally said, his fingers stilling in Archer’s hair and forcing the engineer to look at him. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Before Archer could completely absorb the words, Kadaj kissed him and Archer lost himself in the intensity of the embrace. Something inside of Archer finally eased, loosening where it had tightened, allowing him to breathe again.

Kadaj loved him. All was right with the world. Because Kadaj loved him.

“Yuffie!”

The sound of her name echoing along the corridor was the only warning Yuffie received before a laughing mass barreled into her. Grunting, she staggered against the wall, only recognizing an armful of brown-haired human that clutched at her. The voice, however, was distinctly familiar.

Yuffie gaped. “Illiana?”

“In the flesh!” Her closest best friend grinned up at her, eyes sparkling with relief and worry. “I caught a ride on the Valenwind. I was worried about you.”

Blinking again, Yuffie disengaged the clinging arms from around her waist so she could breathe. “Worried?”

Illiana nodded, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “It’s all over the news. Everywhere!” Hands waved around in a dramatic display. “That huge thing attacked Junon and then I saw you guys fighting it! Of course I was worried!”

Yuffie’s lips twitched into a smile, her heart warming even as she felt amused. “You were worried about a giant monster attacking Junon so your first thought was to come here, where the monster was?”

It took a moment for Illiana to digest Yuffie’s words. And then, the look of relief abruptly blooded Illiana’s face as she paled, covering her mouth in her shock.

“I hadn’t thought about that.”

Yuffie laughed, slinging an arm around her dearest friend’s waist and turning her towards Nanaki so they could greet each other properly. “You’ll never change, will you?”

“The monster’s gone, isn’t it?” Illiana demanded worriedly, forehead drawn with concern. She ignored Yuffie’s question.

Nanaki lifted a clawed hand, amusement curling his lips. “Afternoon, Illiana. I trust your journey was uneventful.”

Yuffie did a countdown in her head, but didn’t even make it to three before Illiana launched herself at Nanaki, drawing him into an excited embrace. It had taken weeks for Yuffie to assure Nanaki that no, she wasn’t jealous and yes, that was just Illiana’s manner. One that had thoroughly exhausted her more restrained parents. No, Yuffie didn’t think her childhood friend would ever change.

Nodding, Illiana detracted herself from her clinging hold on Nanaki. “Captain Highwind allowed me to ride in the bridge provided I kept my mouth shut. I heard him say something to Mr. Valentine about my lack of yakking all over the floor.”

Yuffie felt her cheeks redden even as Nanaki chuckled aloud. “Does Cid think all Wutaiian’s are uneasy with flight?” he asked, directing the question at Yuffie herself.

Huffing, Yuffie crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t know and I don’t care. The old man was just being mean.” She frowned. “He never lets me watch from the bridge.”

“Probably because the smell of your distaste for flying would linger for longer than he’d like to endure,” Nanaki teased, making the high spots in Yuffie’s cheeks darken.

“Nanaki!”

Chuckling, he drew her against him, planting a quick kiss on her lips. “I’m only teasing. Didn’t we have somewhere to be?”

Illiana rolled her eyes. “Do you guys have to be lovey-dovey in public?”

“No one asked you to watch,” Yuffie retorted before eying her childhood friend, even as she resisted the urge to tackle Nanaki into the nearest empty room. She knew there were a bunch of them around. Had nearly walked in on Vincent and Cid utilizing one. “How long are you staying?”

Illiana shrugged, scratching a finger over her chin. “It’s not like I have anything important to do at home.”

“Good, then you can come with us,” Yuffie said cheerfully, locking elbows with the other woman. She dragged Illiana with her, as she and Nanaki continued to their original destination. “Since you have nothing better to do.”

“Your parents discussing marriage interviews again?” Nanaki asked, likely correctly identifying the true matter.

It was confirmed as Illiana made a face, dragging out an exaggerated groan. “If you’re not going to do anything with your life, you could at least marry well,” she mimicked in a patronizing tone of voice. Her eyes rolled again. “I can’t be like my elder siblings. Their disappointment is a heavy thing.”

Her tone drifted into melancholy, and Yuffie felt her insides swell with sympathy. Illiana had always been held to a higher standard, enough that Yuffie and she had always gotten along. Their parents had – and still did in Illiana’s case – demanded so much of them, never paying much attention to what the two women wanted for themselves.

In the next moment, Illiana buried the sadness beneath a cheery smile. “So… what are the two of you doing here anyways? Now that the monster is defeated. Are you going to return to Wutai?”

“Today in fact,” Yuffie confirmed as they found an elevator. Her finger jabbed the button as she prepared for the wait. “But first, we have another companion to pick up.”

“Someone’s coming back with you?”

Nanaki nodded. “Yes. Temporarily. Vincent volunteered but we’re stuck with babysitting duty.”

The elevator donged surprisingly quick, letting them all inside. As they stepped into the metal box, Yuffie selected the proper floor, several levels below them.

“It’s better than being stuck with Kadaj,” Yuffie corrected, wrinkling her nose. “I can just see Archer following along after us like some kind of prince trying to rescue a princess.”

Despite himself, Nanaki chuckled. “He is rather determined.”

Brown eyes darted between the two of them, confusion etched into Illiana’s features. “Babysitting? What are you two talking about? Did you decide to adopt?”

Yuffie burst into laughter. “By the gods, no!” Tickled, she shook her head. “Though it might seem like it when you meet him. I really don’t think he’s that much of a danger.”

The elevator jerked to a halt, the doors sliding open. Illiana cast both Yuffie and Nanaki another confused look, but they ignored her. Yuffie would let Illiana come to her own conclusion after she met Loz. Despite knowing what the elder sibling was capable of, Yuffie wasn’t afraid of him. Loz seemed the least… fearful of the bunch. Simple-minded perhaps? Either way, Yuffie wasn’t worried she couldn’t handle him. Besides, Nanaki had her back if things went sour.

The doors were no longer guarded or locked, and as Yuffie walked down the hall, her best friend and her lover trailing after her, she noticed that Yazoo and Kadaj’s rooms were empty. Unsurprising. Archer had no doubt whisked Kadaj away at the first opportunity. And Reis’ infatuation with Yazoo was just adorable.

Stopping at an open door, Yuffie was the first to enter, rapping her knuckles against the door to announce her presence. “Your chariot awaits,” she called cheerfully.

From within came the sound of something crashing to the ground, shattering on impact. “Dammit, not again,” a male voice cursed.

Yuffie chuckled, unsurprised. “That’s seven years bad luck, you know.”

A body appeared out of the bathroom, rubbing a hand over his face sheepishly. “I’d offer to pay for it, but I don’t have any money,” Loz said by way of apology, looking younger and less menacing in a pair of light blue jeans topped with a t-shirt with the name of some rock band splashed over the front of it.

“It was just a mirror,” Nanaki added from the other side of the door. “I think we can eat the loss.”

Loz grinned, looking more like an amused child than the eldest brother of a trio of dangerous criminals. “What happened to the guy in red?”

“Vincent?”

“Yeah, him.”

Yuffie shrugged. “He’s otherwise occupied. We get to be your babysitters.”

Loz’ lips curled into a wider grin. “Sounds like fun.”

“Care to introduce us?” Illiana suddenly inserted, appearing between Yuffie and Nanaki. Her eyes greedily tracked over Loz’s face, a high spot of color dancing on each of her cheeks.

Intrigued, Yuffie felt a kernel of deviousness building inside of her.

Urging Illiana forward, Yuffie grinned. “Illiana meet Loz. Loz meet Illiana. I think you two will get on famously.”

Nanaki cast a glance at her, questioning her motives. But Yuffie just winked, watching with intrigue as Loz blushed mightily when Illiana shook his hand vigorously, a sparkling smile turned Loz’s direction.

“I love your hair! Is it naturally silver?”

The blush deepened. Loz still hadn’t released her hand. “Err, yeah. Do you always smile that much?”

Illiana practically glistened with glee. “Better than frowning, right? Say, have you ever thought about having kids?”

They still shook hands, staring each other down with frighteningly identical smiles.

“I love children!”

“Me, too!”

A perfect match.

Oh, yes. Yuffie felt quite devious indeed. And Nanaki beside her was quite amused, lightly swatting at her behind with his fiery tail. Shaking his head at her spontaneous matchmaking. Elena would be proud.

If someone would ask her later if she felt ashamed of herself for thrusting Illiana upon a potential madman, Yuffie already knew her answer.

Clearly, they hadn’t met Illiana. It was Loz they should truly be concerned for. Repentant? Not in the slightest.

Only time would tell.

In his dreams, she called to him. Logically, Yazoo knew that Jenova was no longer present. He couldn’t feel her and neither could Kadaj. But the night bred his fears and he tossed and turned on his comfortable bed, staring blankly into the darkness.

In the night, she taunted him. That their freedom was only temporary. That she would return to reclaim Kadaj and them. And once again, Yazoo would be powerless to do anything more than succumb to her poisonous clutches. He would be forced to hurt others, to see fear in the eyes of strangers, and to feel blood on those hands.

Thoughts such as those bolted Yazoo from the restraints of his covers. Made him tug self-consciously on strands of long hair as he swung his legs over the side of the bed. He told himself he wasn’t shivering. Even if his hands betrayed him.

He hoped that nightmares such as his didn’t haunt Kadaj. He sincerely hoped that his younger brother wasn’t suffering. If taking those dark dreams was the only thing Yazoo was capable of doing, then he would suffer them alone. To make up for all the time he had been unable to do anything for Kadaj. And he knew Loz felt the same way.

Imagine two elder brothers incapable of protecting their younger and being protected by him instead. They were failures in more ways than one.

Dragging a hand down his face, Yazoo pushed himself up from the bed. Sleep would be impossible at this point. He glanced at the clock. Just a little after five in the morning. He’d grasped a grand total of three hours asleep. He’d ran on less.

Heart thudding an odd rhythm in his chest, he swept his hair out of his face and escaped the confines of the small bedroom. Outside, the hall was dimly lit by a night-light, not that Yazoo needed it. Jenova’s genes had granted him excellent night vision. His feet took him somewhere unconsciously, Yazoo unsure of what he searched for until he stood directly before it.

Reis’ piano. The only place Yazoo had ever found solace, both within the music and her presence.

His eyes flicked to the hallway, down which her door was shut tight. She had said that her apartment was soundproof. He hoped that proved true. His fingers twitched to lay against the keys, if only to calm the restlessness inside him. Something was squeezing his throat, trying to take his breath. He longed for the melody to calm him.

Yazoo didn’t know where the tune came from. Certainly his mother – if that was what he thought of Hojo’s wife as – had never sang to him. And music had always been absent in the laboratory. But the melody was there in the back of his mind anyways, desperate to pour from his fingers.

He sat on the bench and lifted the lid, revealing the gleaming white and black keys. Yazoo dragged his fingers across them without applying pressure, making no noise. Dust hadn’t set a single foot upon them. He wasn’t surprised. Reis cared very carefully for her instruments.

Closing his eyes, his fingers found the proper placement without even having to look. A mournful chord to stop it off, and then the rest came easily. Slowly at first, just a few notes at a time before the rest of the melody followed, gradually growing in strength. The chords came to him as though he had memorized them, but Yazoo couldn’t explain how he knew the notes.

He didn’t even have to look to follow the melody. Somehow, it worked to ease the tensions inside of him. The music vibrated through his fingers, loosening the knot in his chest, making his breathing even out. The darkness building gradually bled away, though Yazoo doubted he would be sleeping anytime soon. The quiet was too much for him.

“Yazoo?”

His fingers hit a discordant note as he startled in surprise, eyes popping open. Yazoo glanced over his shoulder, finding Reis standing at the end of the hall, biting back a yawn.

Yazoo immediately stopped playing, guilt flushing his face. “Did I wake you?”

She shook her head, stepping further into the room, looking sleep rumbled but still rather cute. “I didn’t mind,” Reis answered instead, moving to sit beside him. She scooted closer to him, until their legs touched. “You always play this song. Why?”

“It’s the only one I know,” he answered, his hands falling into his lap.

Reis hummed thoughtfully. “Can you read music?”

Yazoo could only give her a blank stare. Tifa had done nothing more than teach him the proper notes and the placement of his fingers as well as a few simple tunes that weren’t useful for extended playing. He’d figured out this song on his own and that was the extent of her lessons.

Grinning, Reis urged him to stand and Yazoo did so because she asked. He watched as she flipped up the lid of the piano seat, revealing a secret compartment filled with sheafs of papers in colorful bindings. Reis’ mouth twisted with concentration as she selected a few, placing them above the keys.

“If you can learn to play without it, you can definitely learn to play with it,” Reis informed him, sitting back down.

Yazoo slid in beside her. “It’s that simple?”

“Well, no. But I’m pretty sure you can pick it up.” She grinned at him, amber eyes sparkling.

His gaze flicked to the papers, full of lines and notes scribbled on them. Yazoo had seen music sheets on occasion, but he hadn’t lied when he said he couldn’t read them. It might as well have been written in another language for as much as he understood them. But the prospect of learning to play something else, another song just as beautiful, excited him like nothing else.

“You’ll teach me?” He couldn’t stop the eagerness in his tone, despite trying to cling onto his stoic exterior.

Chuckling, Reis nodded. “Yes, I will. If you’ll have me as a teacher.”

“I could think of no one better.” Yazoo spoke before he thought, and was surprised when his words provoked a staining of red in Reis’ cheeks.

Her eyes skittered away from him like a frightened doe’s, though she didn’t move from his side. “You should be careful when you say things like that,” Reis said softly, swallowing thickly. “You might encourage a woman to think things you don’t actually mean.”

She spoke in a voice filled with sadness and something tugged at Yazoo internally. He had always treated Reis like a precious friend, but in that moment, he took another look at her. Different than how a friend would treat another. He saw a beautiful, kind woman. One who had never seen him for the monster he feared he truly was. And his heart beat strangely in his chest.

His hand rose of its own accord, taking hers into his. Yazoo looked. Her hand was smooth and soft, uncalloused. Lacking scars. She was no fighter like he and his brothers. Reis had not seen the horrors he had seen. He liked that about her.

“And what would a woman think I mean?” Yazoo asked quietly, still admiring the elegance of her hands.

A moment of silence followed his question and he looked up at her in surprise, wondering what had caused her quiet. Reis was looking at him strangely, and then her free hand lifted towards his, cupping his chin gently.

“Something a bit like this,” she murmured, and then she leaned forward, slanting her mouth over his.

Yazoo’s eyes widened in surprise, the softness of her lips pressing against his. She smelled of something sweet – strawberries and cream – and her mouth was warm and soft, pliant against his. The stunned moment passed and he reminded himself he needed to participate before she drew away. Before she thought it a rejection.

Suddenly, he wanted as he had never dared to desire before. Reis and himself, a white picket fence and two and a half children and peace. Complete and utter peace without a shadow hanging over his head. With his brothers nearby and happy and a future, stretching out before him.

These thoughts and more danced in Yazoo’s head, even long after the kiss had ended and he sat staring at Reis dumbly, as though he had never seen a pretty girl in his life before.

“You…?”

“Would like to do that again,” Reis confirmed, her thumb stroking over his cheek. “As often as possible if you’d let me.”

Yazoo blinked, surprised by the sudden shift in their relationship. “But-”

She shook her head, cutting him off before he could even start whatever he was going to say. Not even Yazoo was certain of his own words. “I can pretty much guess it, so don’t even start. Let’s not worry about the past and what you are or aren’t or any of that. We’ll just worry about right now. Like say, are you going to let me or aren’t you?”

For some reason, Yazoo had had it in his mind that females were delicate, dainty creatures that waited for men to swoop in and rescue them. Perhaps his belief had been tainted by fairy tales, things he had thought life should be rather than what he knew it to be. Reis was nothing like those fainting princesses who waited. She was determined and honest, and he liked that.

He liked it a lot.

Yazoo answered by being bold, by closing the distance between them and kissing her again. She surprised him by sliding her tongue across his lips, than pushing into his mouth, strengthening the sweet taste of strawberries.

And the next thing he knew, he was being nearly tackled against the piano bench, his back hitting a string of discordant notes that jangled through the air. Reis didn’t seem to notice, her arms curling around him, her body soft against his. And all the dark things fluttering in the back of Yazoo’s mind vanished, replaced with sweet skin and gentle desire and an armful of Reis.

He could only hope that her brother wouldn’t kill him for it.

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