[Shattered] Children Epilogue

Epilogue

~500 Years Later~

Dust rising, heart thrumming in her chest, breathing a little more difficult now that she was so much older, but Yuffie ran anyways. Behind her, several pursued, their laughter echoing in the air. She sucked in a breath, tasting fresh and clean, and oddly of rainfall. Her eyes flickered to the sky. Yes, it was definitely going to rain later, but for now, the sky dawned blue and bright.

Tail flickering behind her, Yuffie raced forward, climbing the high bluff and following the trail as it wound across the dusky landscape. She could just see the edge ahead of her, a small stand of trees lingering strongly against the elements, swaying lightly in the winds. And Yuffie skidded to a stop, sending dust and rocks skittering, some of them tumbling right over the edge.

She couldn’t help but grin, admiring the view that spread out before her. Midgar – or what was left of it to be more precise – covered in greenery. Old reactors little more than broken pieces of metal and debris, completely taken over by vegetation. Five hundred years later, it had almost been completely swallowed by nature. Yuffie had to admit she liked it better that way.

“Yuffie!”

Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the little ones finally catching up to her, Nanaki trailing a few meters behind. Not out of lack of speed but concern, ensuring that they didn’t lose any grandchildren along the way. With four cubs to to keep track of, they would need all four of their eyes and a good portion of their attention. Especially rambunctious little ones as theirs.

“Getting slow in your old age,” Yuffie teased, turning away from the view to pad quietly to his side. She rubbed her head against his affectionately.

Nanaki rolled his eyes, playfully nipping at her and missing when she danced out of reach. “And five centuries later, you’ve yet to mature.”

“It’s what keeps me young.”

“Why’d we come here?” one of their grandchildren, Malik, inquired inquisitively, his brothers and sisters crowding around him with the same question in their lupine eyes.

Nanaki trotted past her, gesturing towards Midgar below them with a flick of his tail. “So you could see this,” he explained, sitting back on his haunches and tracing the view with his own eyes. “Once, long ago, there was a city there. It has since been reclaimed by the planet.”

“And for the better,” Yuffie murmured, more to herself than to Nanaki. She planted herself down at his side, and they watched as their grandchildren crowded to the edge, ooh’ing and aah’ing over the scene. Her tail twitched behind her, not as bright and hot as it had been in her youth, but still going strong.

Various shades of orange, red, and brown decorated the furs of their grandchildren. Fire-lit tails flaming brightly, reflecting the exuberance of youth. Malik and Yoshino were twins, brothers in blood. Reto was an only child, while Skyla’s younger sister had been too young to accompany them on this trip. So many grandchildren, and yet, Yuffie would be happier with quite a few more.

“Wahh, it’s pretty,” Skyla said, tail wagging in interest.

“It’s boring!” Reto complained, already twitching restlessly. He looked over his shoulder, brown eyes pleading. “Can we go somewhere else now?”

Nanaki sighed with the patience of an adult who had dealt with children for most of his natural life. “You may play if you wish,” he granted, much to the excitement of the cubs.

They yipped and laughed as they danced around each other, thankfully away from the edge.

“But stay in sight,” he added as the four young ones bounded back to the flatter, safer ground, tackling one another and mock fighting.

Yuffie rolled her eyes and rose to her feet, padding softly away from the edge herself. “You spoil them,” she teased, idly stretching with a satisfactory groan and eying the stand of thick trees. She was most interested in the shade they offered, a relief from the heat of the high sun bearing down on them.

“No more than you, Yufs,” Nanaki retorted, following along after her, looking quite distinguished with the streaks of grey that sifted through his air in sporadic intervals.

“I’m less obvious about it.”

Nanaki chuckled, playfully swatting at her with his tail. “You’re still no better than a cub yourself. Look at you, already wanting a nap.”

Snapping her mouth shut over a cropping yawn, Yuffie tossed a look at her mate and plopped down on the ground under the blessed shade. The wind that stirred through her was much cooler and she sighed in relief. Ah, nothing could get much better than this. Her old bones were grateful for it and as she stretched to get comfortable, old scars pulled and tugged in familiar ways, bringing with them the memories.

Nanaki circled until he plopped down behind her, too close for the heat of the afternoon sun. But she liked having him near. Ah, a conundrum.

Without warning, Yuffie melded back into human form, something she did far more often than Nanaki. “This is more comfortable,” she sighed to herself, leaning against his fur-covered bulk which made for a nice pillow. Her hand found his fur, stroking the softness of it.

He nosed at her side, a nuzzle if she ever saw one. “It’s strange how you got more used to the shifting than I did.”

“Well, maybe I’m just more adaptable to change,” Yuffie answered, snuggling against him and easing her body into rest mode. She kept one awake and alert eye on their grandchildren, who happily amused themselves. The lazy heat was making her rather sleepy, the gentle peace settling into her bones and blood.

Nanaki snorted but settled down, letting the clinging heat seep into him as well. His tail swished lightly against the ground, much older than her but still distinguished.

She leaned against his softness and pondered, the image of Midgar covered in vegetation still strong in her mind. “You know,” Yuffie began, stretching her legs out in front of her. “Being here is pretty nostalgic.”

“Now you sound like an old woman.”

She playfully elbowed him. “Shut up. I’m being serious here.”

He breathed out, and she felt the warmth of his breath on her skin. “I know. I miss them, too. It’s been many, many years for us.”

“But it won’t be long now. Before we join them, I mean,” Yuffie commented, because even she could feel the age catching up on her.

She wasn’t as fast, wasn’t as agile. It took her longer to wake in the mornings, and sometimes, she lay in bed staring up at the ceiling for hours, sleep an impossibility. There was a restlessness to her spirit that had nothing to do with peace, and everything to do with increasing age.

Nanaki hummed in agreement. “They’ve all been waiting for quite some time.”

“We are the last,” Yuffie mused, a smile tugging at her lips as she thought of their friends and how many years – centuries and decades really – it had been since they passed.

After the final struggle against Jenova, a remarkable peace had swept through their planet. Other than the disagreements between man itself, the world had settled into an easygoing harmony. No more threats from beyond. No more men bent on world destruction. No more demi-gods dissatisfied with their lives. It was just a calm, and uneventful existence. At once, the heroes could finally breathe.

Shera went on to have two more children with Rude, the two of them living together until the end. And true to suspicion, all three of their kids turned out to be remarkable. Brilliant and strong, but raised much differently than Sephiroth had been. They were happy, satisfied with their lives. Her eldest daughter had followed in Shera’s footsteps, and Dominic had pledged service to the WRO. And their youngest eventually became a famous chef, known for new and inventive dishes.

The old man and Vince spent the rest of their days aboard the Valenwind, with Cid eventually obtaining an apprentice or two to spread the knowledge. He retired in Rocket Town where he spent the last of his days designing one more rocket and lived long enough to see it reach space.

Reeve and Reno patched things up with Reeve’s parents and soon had not just one daughter, but two to spoil into pretty princesses. Their youngest admired Reis to the point that she, too, became a doctor, but Revan – despite both her father’s protests – pledged allegiance to the WRO and eventually inherited Reeve’s position. It flourished after that, becoming the type of company Reeve had always dreamed of.

Barret continued to rebuild North Corel, turning it into a massive extension of Gold Saucer and by proxy, a tourist town. It might not have been what he intended for North Corel to become, but the people were happy and that was all that mattered to him.

Sephiroth and Tseng – once they worked out their relationship to both of their satisfaction – officially adopted Denzel as their son. They never worried about any other children, and both remained in the military until reaching an age such an occupation was no longer possible. And later, they celebrated Denzel’s graduation and marriage, ever the proud papas.

Of course, Sephiroth was also uncle to many children himself. Yazoo and Reis’ eventual marriage resulted in three beautiful offspring, all boys, giving poor Reis quite the handful. But they turned out to be good kids, real charmers at school. Yuffie never envied her for her brood. Loz and Illiana’s only child – a beautiful young woman – turned out to be of genius level and helped usher in a new age of technology. Yuffie had never seen prouder parents.

Archer and Kadaj never really worried about children. They had enough nieces and nephews to spoil as it were. Yuffie had just been glad to see Archer smile for once, rather than the sorrowful cast that he’d always carried.

Zack and Aeris remained only friends for the longest time, many, many years after Elena’s death. It was only later that they realized there was no better way to honor their loved ones than to be happy together. And when Midori was nearing her teen years, she was treated to a half-brother, whom all three blindly doted on.

Lucky for all three of them, the threat of Jenova never returned. She had been completely wiped from their planet. And all that remained was the shards of her left within Sephiroth and the brothers, though thanks to Tseng, they had all been carefully locked away.

The wars were over. Peace was actually a possibility, and their family – their mottled collection of thieves and killers and soldiers and ninja and demi-beings – were all thankful for it. They flourished in it, in a world that didn’t swim in strife.

It seemed poetic to think of it now. Five-hundred years later, when all those that Yuffie knew and loved had passed. Their legacy remained, as did the memories. But more often than not, Yuffie missed them, even the later additions to her family. She missed all of them, and she knew Nanaki did too.

She loved her current life, her grandchildren, everything in it. But even so, she was ready for the next step. The Lifestream and her family waited for them. It was their last adventure.

“Do you ever regret it?” Nanaki asked, nuzzling against her side, his warmth a soothing and comforting presence.

Yuffie furrowed her brow, fingers slowing in their slow motion. “Regret what?” She turned to look at him, meeting golden eyes evenly.

“Giving up your human lifespan.”

It was a fair question. Yuffie pondered why he hadn’t asked before. Perhaps he had been too afraid of her answer, which was silly. Yuffie loved Nanaki; there was never any question in her mind about that. And honestly, she would never forgive herself if she died early and left him behind. What would he do without her, the great ninja Yuffie?

“Perhaps if I’d been lonely, I would,” she answered softly, tilting her head back to watch the wind as it made the branches sway. “But I was here with you. That makes all the difference.” Her fingers picked up their motion again. “So you better not leave first.”

Nanaki chuckled, his tone incredibly relieved. “I wouldn’t leave you behind,” he murmured, and his tail fell back against the ground as he relaxed.

She smiled. “It’s kinda nice. Lazy days like this.”

“Strange to hear you say that, Ms. Adventure, herself.”

“Hey! Did you happen to forget I fought in like three wars?” Yuffie grinned, closing her eyes and enjoying the gentle banner. “I think that’s enough adventure to last a lifetime.”

Nanaki hummed in agreement. “Peace is nice, in it’s own way.”

Out of nowhere, Skyla leapt onto Yuffie’s belly, causing the ninja to let out a whoosh of air as she struggled to catch her squirming grandchild. “C’mon, Nona. Play with us!”

Yuffie laughed as Skyla’s tail waggled through the air, the other cubs bounding up to join her. “Nona’s too old to play,” she said, even as Reto tackled her as well, larger than Skyla and much heavier.

“Play with us!” the two urged in chorus.

Behind her, Nanaki abruptly stood, losing Yuffie’s backrest. She tumbled backwards, under the weight of her grandchild, and watched as her husband stretched languidly. Grey-tinted fur gleaming in the speckled half-light under the tree.

He growled playfully, snatching Skyla up by the back of her neck and pulling her away from Yuffie. “Popa has enough energy for the both of us,” Nanaki assured them, dropping Skyla to the ground and bounding away.

Laughing, Skyla scrabbled to follow, prompting Reto and the others to do the same, their glee echoing into the blue afternoon.

Shaking her head, Yuffie rose to her feet and shifted her body back into Iyatokan form, something that had become more like instinct over the years. She was not old yet! She would show those impertinent cubs!

Feeling the happiness surge inside of her, Yuffie pounced after her family, surprising all five of them by tackling Nanaki mid-stride. They tumbled across the dusty ground, laughing like a bunch of little children, their grandchildren joining the pile of furry limbs and flaming tails.

It felt like peace, like a world finally moving on again. And Yuffie wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Nothing at all.

The End

[Shattered] Children 30

Chapter Twenty- Bring the Columns Down

Time passed, as it was wont to do. And before Sephiroth knew it, two weeks had gone by since the last battle with Jenova. The world moved on. The people began to rebuild, to put their lives back together. Sephiroth rarely left Junon, too consumed with his duties in the WRO. And Tseng was much the same, enough that they seldom found time to spend together, much less alone.

The promised discussion, the promised answers, they’d had little time to pursue either. And their schedules clashed so terribly that one rose from the bed as the other lay down for what little rest they were allowed. Sephiroth tried to divide his time between his lover and his best friend, but Zack was being noticeably absent. Devoting himself to work, no doubt, and demanding whatever Reeve could give him.

Burying his pain in layers of responsibility, anything to keep himself from thinking. Sephiroth understood that feeling all too well. He didn’t blame Zack one bit.

Sephiroth found himself engaged in activities occupying more time than he had to give. Spending time with Denzel, watching over him, assuring him that Marlene’s fate was not his fault.

Speaking with the three brothers whenever the occasion granted him, confirming that there were few things that differed in their shared pasts, cultivating a steady hatred for their father.

Monster extermination when there was something the soldiers themselves couldn’t handle. There were dozens of them, drawn by the scent of death and destruction, sneaking into Junon and attempting to find themselves a meal.

And on one occasion, Sephiroth had even found himself in Reeve’s office, forging the president’s signature and filling out the dreaded paperwork.

It was altogether exhausting, which was why he felt relief crashing over him. It was still early yet and he was already heading home, or to Tseng’s apartment to be more precise. It was the only way they managed to connect, by staying in the same space.

Eating a cooked meal – even if it was take-out – at a dinner table felt even more so. Though he wasn’t appreciative of the stark silence in the apartment. It left him too much time to think. Taking a shower felt like a luxury, the warm water beating at the back of his shoulders and easing some of the tension.

Sephiroth looked forward even more to the soft comfort of his bed, though remembering that Tseng would not be returning tonight dulled his enjoyment.

The sound of a key turning in the lock surprised Sephiroth, who glanced quickly at the hall clock. Only nine in the evening. Far too early for Tseng to be returning. Wasn’t he supposed to leave for Wutai with Yuffie tonight?

Sephiroth’s hands fell from his hair, dropping the towel across his shoulders as the door opened. Sure enough, Tseng stepped inside, and nearly dropped his key in his surprise.

“Sephiroth? I thought Reeve had you on a mission?”

“I thought you were going to Wutai?”

They looked at each other for another minute more before Tseng’s lips curled into a slow smile. He closed the door behind him. “Yuffie took one look at me and decided I would be better served coming here. Practically pushed me off the Valenwind.”

Interesting.

Sephiroth watched as Tseng stepped out of his shoes and stripped out of his suit jacket, hanging it on the hook near the door. His swords and sheath quickly followed.

“Reeve sent Zack after the creature instead,” Sephiroth answered, the enormity of the moment suddenly striking him.

They were together and alone at the same time. Together and alone without the fatigue of a long day hanging over them and the possibility of free time tomorrow. It was almost as if there were other forces at work to ensure this. And were Elena still alive, Sephiroth would have suspected her. But perhaps this was the work of another devious female. Suddenly, Aeris’ offer to take Denzel for the night didn’t seem a coincidence.

The distance between them suddenly seemed minute, and Sephiroth remembered the promise in their last conversation. Implicitly stated, but present nonetheless. He recalled his own determination and though the pall of grief still lingered like a particularly distasteful smell, Sephiroth was resolute to overcome it.

“I’m sensing a plot,” Tseng commented, the same conclusion Sephiroth had drawn. “At least it explains the string of giggles that followed me after Yuffie pushed me off the Valenwind’s ramp.”

“She actually pushed you?” Sephiroth asked, incredulous.

The Turk inclined his head, moving past Sephiroth to the interior of the apartment. One finger tugged at the knot of his tie, loosening it. “A great shove. Right off the ramp. Nanaki didn’t even try to stop her.”

The thought of Tseng’s cousin shoving him off the Valenwind made Sephiroth chuckle. “You can’t tell me you’re disappointed.”

Water ran as Tseng splashed it over his face, his tie lying loose around his neck, shirt untucked. “No, I’m not.”

Tseng paused, glancing at Sephiroth using the reflection in the mirror which he had wiped to clear of fog from Sephiroth’s shower. The single look was full of meaning and it made something inside Sephiroth’s gut simultaneously tighten and heat all at once.

Swallowing thickly, Sephiroth felt his cheeks burn and he edged out of the doorway. “I’ll… uh… let you get cleaned up,” he muttered, suddenly self-conscious.

And before Tseng could say anything otherwise, he slipped down the hall, heading for his own bedroom. He knew that Tseng would eventually join him and the thought produced a trill of anticipation to run through his veins. But of what he wasn’t entirely certain.

Sephiroth rubbed the towel over his hair one last time before tossing it into the basket in the laundry room as he passed. Running his fingers through his damp hair, he stepped into the bedroom. It was in serious disarray, the bed covers rumpled and tossed every which direction, along with various articles of clothing. Considering he’d only had time as of late to wake up, throw on clothes and race out the door, it seemed almost neat.

He set about cleaning up at least some of the mess. Not that it would bother Tseng. But he needed something to do. Something more than sitting on his bed, blushing like a young woman on her wedding night, waiting. His ears caught the sound of the shower cutting on, granting him a measure of relief.

Sephiroth straightened in silence, refusing to think deeper. What would happen would happen and he’d let it rest like that. It was almost hard to believe that a little under three weeks ago he’d been roaming the entire planet, lacking purpose… forgiveness… understanding. Cursed by Geostigma, he hadn’t known what else to do.

And now… things were so much different.

Now he was about to try having sex with his boyfriend. And damn if the thought didn’t make him blush unnecessarily. He was too old to be acting like this.

A sound in the doorway made him turn and look, Tseng standing there, wearing nothing more than a pair of loose pants, drawn tight by the string. They sagged low, revealing the knobby bones of his hips and a thin line of dark hair from navel to where it disappeared beyond the hem. Sephiroth felt something inside of himself tighten at the sight.

It wasn’t that he’d never seen Tseng nude or even half-nude – because he had – but that it had never come with such expectation hanging on the air. Sephiroth’s eyes drank in Tseng’s appearance, and realized that for the first time, he consciously desired this man. It wasn’t just a lust borne entirely by lecherous touches, but an intended sexual thought. Everything inside of him wanted to press fingers to tanned skin and run lips over the flattened discs of Tseng’s nipples. He wanted to watch Tseng flush in arousal, to hear sounds fall from Tseng’s mouth.

To watch Tseng come undone all because of him.

At just the thought, Sephiroth’s breath caught, and Tseng must have read the heat in his stare because he returned Sephiroth’s gaze without flinching. He crossed the floor in only a few steps, discarding the towel to the floor, smelling strongly of his shampoo and soap, making Sephiroth’s nostrils flare.

“We should take advantage of this chance,” Tseng murmured, silver eyes full of heat. “Don’t you think?”

Sephiroth inclined his head, forcing himself to breathe. “Wouldn’t want to waste it.”

Tseng licked his lips, holding his gaze as he reached for Sephiroth’s hand, drawing it up to his mouth. Sephiroth’s fingers twitched as he felt warm breath ghost over his hand before a tongue lapped over his palm. Tingles drizzled down his spine as Tseng turned it over, his tongue tracing the lines of the much hated tattoo.

“Join me on the bed?” Tseng requested, nibbling at the tip of Sephiroth’s fingers.

For all things Holy, Sephiroth would not say no. He wordlessly nodded and followed Tseng as he was led to the bed, climbing first onto the mattress with Tseng crawling along after him. Tseng perched over Sephiroth on all fours, his lips seeking out the tender skin of Sephiroth’s throat.

Gasping, Sephiroth threw his head back, letting that hot mouth do as it will, the sound of their breathing overly loud in the room. He felt his cock lengthen within his pants, straining at the cotton confines. Tseng’s knee pressed against his groin, providing something for Sephiroth to arch against. Heat sizzled across his skin and Sephiroth dragged his hands down Tseng’s bare skin, fingers skittering over long-healed scars.

A hand crept under Sephiroth’s shirt, palm sliding against his flat abdomen. Prickles raised across his skin, a low noise banking behind his lips. Tseng’s breath was hot against his throat as the hand moved further, dragging the cotton higher.

Heart thudding in his chest, Sephiroth gripped Tseng tightly. There was a pressure building inside of him, his cock filling with blood and pushing at the confines of his sleep pants. His hips thrust raggedly upwards, rubbing against Tseng’s leg, desperate for relief.

Tseng panted, teeth dragging a light path. “You’re killing me,” he groaned, drawing back enough to yank off Sephiroth’s shirt, tossing it somewhere over his shoulder.

Sephiroth’s skin prickled where the cool air washed over his bare chest. Tseng’s knee nudged against Sephiroth’s groin, applying perfect pressure to his desperate length. He growled low in his throat.

“Dying is not preferable,” he muttered back, fingers reaching up and tangling in Tseng’s hair, dragging him down for a tongue-tangling kiss.

The Turk lowered himself, their hips colliding, bare chests flush together. Tseng rolled his hips, grinding against him, and Sephiroth arched up to meet his thrust. Heat flushed Sephiroth’s body and he shuddered, feeling the cloth of his pants dampen. Tseng was hot and hard against him, and for once, the feel of being beneath the Turk didn’t alarm him as it used to.

Sephiroth reached up, more an active participant this time, his free fingers finding the hem of Tseng’s loose pants, the only thing he had pulled on after his shower. Sephiroth’s hand slid beneath the band, finding the heat of Tseng’s length. His fingers curled around it, and at the first stroke, Tseng moaned. His rhythm faltered.

“Nnnn, don’t,” Tseng panted brokenly, dotting a trail of kisses across Sephiroth’s bare collarbone. He mouthed the bone beneath the skin.

Sephiroth froze, insecurity lashing at him. “You don’t like it?”

The Turk pulled back, silver eyes regarding him heatedly even as Tseng’s cheeks flushed. “I’m too close,” he admitted with some embarrassment.

Understanding dawned, and mischief replaced the undercurrent of anxiety. Sephiroth ignored Tseng’s requests and picked up his rhythm again, swiping his thumb across the dampened head of the Turk’s cock.

It pulsed in his grasp, Tseng unconsciously thrusting into his fingers. “Sephiroth!” he groaned, his word a plea for more and less all at once.

Sephiroth felt emboldened by Tseng’s reaction, less the inexperienced man that he was and more the man he should be. “To take the edge off,” he murmured lustfully. “You don’t think you can recover?”

It had to be another man saying those teasing, taunting things. Because Sephiroth couldn’t remember being so bold. Strange what strength his freedom from Her could bring. And yet, he wasn’t going to think of that creature right now. Not for a single moment. Because Tseng moaned at his words.

“I take it back,” Tseng returned, his tongue tracing a hungry circle over Sephiroth’s bare throat. “Please continue.”

Thusly encouraged, Sephiroth stroked Tseng skillfully, truthfully one of the only things he hadn’t needed an embarrassing query or research to learn. His fingers encircled Tseng’s hard flesh, feeling each pulse of the Turk’s heartbeat. Precome beaded at the tip and Sephiroth swiped his thumb over it, using it to slick his way.

Tseng’s body became a force in motion, alternately grinding down against him and thrusting into the tunnel of Sephiroth’s fingers. His mouth settled hot and heavy over whatever of Sephiroth’s skin he could reach, one hand clutching onto the rumpled bed covers for balance. The other scraped fingernails lightly over Sephiroth’s chest, dragging across a peaked nipple and making his skin raise in goosebumps. Pleasure flooded Sephiroth’s body, causing his own cock to stiffen painfully.

He hadn’t lied when he said he was already close, and it wasn’t long before Tseng groaned, spilling heat over Sephiroth’s fingers. Tseng’s mouth sought out Sephiroth’s, their lips messily colliding as Sephiroth milked every last spark of pleasure from Tseng.

Tseng broke away from the kiss, leaving a trail of licks across Sephiroth’s jaw. He muttered something under his breath, but Sephiroth didn’t quite catch it, too busy admiring the flushed tint to Tseng’s cheeks. He watched as the Wutaiian stretched his body to reach over the side of the bed, tugging open the drawer to remove a small tube of lube and grabbing a tissue from the handy-dandy box.

Sephiroth felt his heart rate escalate as Tseng returned, crawling over him with erotic intent. Hands roamed, flitting touches designed to arouse, removing the last of their clothes, and Sephiroth sucked in a breath, his body arching towards each faint touch. A tissue wiped Sephiroth’s hand clean before it was discarded over the side of the bed and Tseng’s lips returned, distracting Sephiroth with a particularly deep kiss. He groaned, something fluttering in his belly.

Silver eyes pooled with lust. “Round two,” Tseng growled lowly, nudging Sephiroth’s head back to attack a pale throat with gentle nips of his teeth.

He was pleased when the former General’s body arched up to meet his, hard cock pushing insistently at Tseng. The attraction was shared, a gratifying thought. And Tseng felt he could at least think clearer now. The heat of the prior moment had eased with his first orgasm, and he was glad to take the edge off.

Of course, his arousal hadn’t faded in the slightest, though the sense of urgency had passed. Even now, his cock nudged against the soft skin of Sephiroth’s inner thigh, sensing an eventual destination. And just the thought of it made Tseng twitch with want.

Ten years. He’d waited ten years for this.

Tseng nibbled abdomen, tracing defined muscles. He purposefully ignored Sephiroth’s leaking cock, only giving it the occasional stroke as a part of him enjoyed seeing the silver-haired man on edge. Pale skin flushed in want.

Sephiroth seemed relaxed and Tseng took a chance, drizzling oil over his fingers. He distracted Sephiroth by lapping his tongue across the former General’s peaked nipple and then slowly circled Sephiroth’s entrance with one oiled digit.

When bloodshed didn’t immediately follow, Tseng pressed for more, his own breath short and rapid in anticipation. His finger rubbed across puckered muscle, not yet breaching, his other hand rubbing soothingly across a bare thigh. A fluttery moan escaped Sephiroth’s lips, causing heat to pool thickly in Tseng’s groin.

It wasn’t until he dared push beyond the ring that he felt it, a subtle wash of uncertainty trickling on the edge of his senses. On the outside, Sephiroth seemed perfectly fine. Were it not for Tseng’s ability, he wouldn’t have ever known.

Despite himself, Tseng sighed inwardly. It seemed Highwind had been right, though he was loathe to admit it. And even more embarrassed to remember that particular conversation, wishing to never, ever repeat it for the rest of his existence. It just… no, there were no words to describe that kind of disturbing talk. He was best off pretending it never happened, even as he lightly admitted that it had come into use.

Tseng kissed his way up the planes of Sephiroth’s chest, moving to nibble on a collarbone. His probing fingers shifted to the safety of Sephiroth’s thigh, stroking over pale skin, begging to be marked. There was plenty of time for that later.

“We can always turn things around,” Tseng murmured, his tongue tracing the ridged lines of a visible scar, though he wondered what could have possibly scared Sephiroth. “I’m open to change.”

Sephiroth shook his head, letting out a slow breath, a touch of annoyance in his tone. Directed at himself and not Tseng. “I want to do this,” he insisted, shifting his hips upwards in show, his seeping cock obvious proof.

He had expected as much. There was no doubt in Sephiroth’s leaking emotions. He did want to do this. The lingering uncertainty was entirely unconscious, and Tseng suspected it wouldn’t have emerged outwardly until an inauspicious moment much later. Considering what he had unintentionally gleaned of Sephiroth’s past, it was only to be expected.

Once again, Highwind’s advice rose to the forefront of Tseng’s brain. Reluctantly, Tseng bowed to the wisdom of the pilot’s words.

He pulled back, ignoring the look of annoyance that briefly crossed Sephiroth’s face. “All right,” Tseng agreed, and shifted. “Then get up.”

Confusion replaced the agitation, but Sephiroth obeyed, sliding into a sitting position. Tseng wasted no time in occupying the space where Sephiroth had laid, his bare back pressed against the warmth Sephiroth left behind. He could smell Sephiroth’s scent against his sheets, mingling with the scent of his own soap and cologne. And Tseng couldn’t help but breathe it in, the mixed scents shooting straight to his cock.

A shudder of want wracked his body, and Tseng struggled to hold onto his control, reaching over himself and tucking it below his head.

Sephiroth’s confusion had not eased. “What are you doing?” he demanded, hair falling around his face and across his shoulder in a wave of black and silver.

Despite himself, Tseng couldn’t control the burn that entered his cheeks. He hesitated, eyeing Sephiroth carefully. “This doesn’t go outside the bedroom.”

Blinking, Sephiroth shot him a look that the Turk couldn’t quite interpret – a mix between exasperation, confusion and concession. “Tseng?”

Tseng allowed the sigh he had been bottling free and gestured Sephiroth towards him, pleased when the former General took the suggestion and crawled over his reclined body. Sephiroth straddled him on hands and knees, face lowered to press their mouths together. Elegant angles and hard lines and pale skin, stained with arousal. Sephiroth was truly an arousing sight to behold.

Nibbling at lips already reddened from kissing, Tseng forced himself to speak. “I was cornered by one Cid Highwind not too long ago,” he reluctantly admitted, his hands finding Sephiroth’s hips and silently directing Sephiroth where he intended the former General to be.

Sephiroth scooted upwards, until his knees sat to either side of Tseng’s hips, looming over Tseng like some ancient god carved from soft alabaster. Incredibly enticing as his cock bobbed from between spread legs, rosy with need.

Distracted, Tseng licked his lips and continued, “Who, consequently, was sent by Valentine. I was offered… advice.”

Above him, Sephiroth’s jaw worked soundlessly, brow wrinkling. “Er…”

“Father and son share some of the same scars,” Tseng murmured quietly, his hands leaving the safety of Sephiroth’s broad but well-shaped hips.

Fingers smoothed over Sephiroth’s skin, dancing lightly over a few visible scars. “Inside and out,” he added, more to himself than to Sephiroth.

A moment of stunned silence filled the room, though it didn’t seem to damper Sephiroth’s arousal at all. He blinked. “So you’re trying to tell me that Captain Highwind gave you … sex tips?” Sephiroth demanded, trying his damnedest not to snort out in laughter and also vaguely horrified by the thought. He just didn’t like to equate the two – Highwind and sex – into the same sentence, even if a part of him were aware it happened.

“As I said before, this doesn’t leave the bedroom,” Tseng muttered, trying to stop the flush of embarrassment in his cheeks. “The point I was trying to make is that Highwind believed it was a control thing. Which is why I suggested we switch things around. This is the next best thing.” His fingers flexed on Sephiroth’s hip even as his free hand curled lightly around Sephiroth’s cock.

Sephiroth groaned at the soft touch, his hips unconsciously pushing forward. “I see,” he said shakily, breathing quickened.

Tseng’s fingers danced over Sephiroth’s cock, the former General unable to resist thrusting into his loose hold. He leaned over, pressing his lips to Tseng’s, their tongues tangling sloppily. The heat in the room was tangible, putting up a mighty battle against the ceiling fan lazily turning above them. Tseng clenched his hold on Sephiroth’s hip, grinding up against him. His libido seemed undaunted by his earlier release.

“You recovered quickly,” Sephiroth panted, dragging his fingers through Tseng’s hair, sensitizing his scalp.

Despite himself, Tseng felt a blush flare to the roots of his hair. Sephiroth was supposed to be the so-called virgin here! And yet, Tseng acted as if this was the first time a man’s stripped for him!

“Yes, well…” Tseng trailed off, unwilling to admit the truth aloud. Not quite yet.

He distracted himself by reaching for the oil again, putting it in easy reach. He patted his chest pointedly, catching Sephiroth’s gaze. “Come here.”

Sephiroth lifted a brow. “I’m already here.”

There was something to be said about a lack of experience that was intoxicating. And Tseng wasn’t a strong enough man to deny how very sexy it was. To accrue innocence on a man like Sephiroth seemed unthinkable, and yet there was an untouched part of the man that proved its existence.

“No, I mean scoot up,” Tseng clarified, heart thudding in his chest from anticipation alone. It should have been awkward, but it wasn’t at all. Thank kami for that.

Though obviously confused, Sephiroth did as asked. He shifted until his knees straddled Tseng’s chest. Tseng’s fingers stroked the organ in his grasp, treated to an aroused shiver, as he licked his lips pointedly, the musky smell of Sephiroth’s arousal trickling to his nose. Indeed, every part of him was beautiful.

Only then did Sephiroth seem to get the point and Tseng leaned forward just as Sephiroth pushed towards him. Tseng’s tongue slipped out, lapping across the tip of Sephiroth’s cock and catching a bead of fluid. Sephiroth was rigid with need, leaking copiously, his breathing emerging in harsh, controlled pants.

Tseng looked forward to seeing him abandon that control. He began to suspect that he contained a slightly sadistic side. Sephiroth nearly trembled as he dragged his tongue across Sephiroth’s cock, making Tseng’s own desire surge through his veins. The former General emitted a restrained mood, body shaking from the effort of holding himself back.

Looking up at Sephiroth, Tseng’s tongue made another round of the seeping tip. “Lean forward, hold onto the headboard for me?” he asked, locking eyes with Sephiroth, whose own had darkened with want.

Sephiroth didn’t hesitate, a fact which pleased Tseng greatly. As he stretched over Tseng, the Turk was all too eager to draw Sephiroth into his mouth, wrapping his lips around Sephiroth’s rigid arousal. To his delight, Sephiroth groaned, an incredibly erotic sound that was mix of breath and moan.

Ten years. He’d waited ten years for this. And damn but Sephiroth was worth it.

Tseng’s hands moved to Sephiroth’s hips, squeezing and soothing, as his mouth worked Sephiroth’s shaft. He traced veins and flicked the flat of his tongue against the sensitive head, feeling Sephiroth shudder above him.

Glancing upwards, Tseng found Sephiroth’s eyes had closed. His head hung, hair curtaining his face. But his grip on the headboard was white-knuckled tight, and his hips had already begun a subtle rocking motion. Perfect.

Tseng loosened his hold on Sephiroth’s hip and reached for the oil. Distracting Sephiroth with his mouth, he drizzled more over his fingers. And then he carefully brushed his oiled fingers lightly over Sephiroth’s puckered muscle, nearly holding his breath in expectation.

Sephiroth tensed briefly at the unexpected touch, but relaxed again when Tseng sucked strongly on Sephiroth’s cock. His tongue danced over the seeping slit, distracting Sephiroth wholly. So far so good.

He massaged his fingers over the muscled ring. Sephiroth moaned lustily, pushing back towards the teasing touch.

Encouraged, Tseng opted to press a finger, groaning low in his chest when the single digit was clamped in heat. The anticipated flash of uncertainty didn’t come, and Tseng had to admit that Highwind was most likely right. It did have something to do with control. In the past, Sephiroth had none. But now, he had the capability to call things to an end if he wanted, to pull away and leave. And that made all the difference in the world.

Grinning around his mouthful, Tseng shallowly thrust his finger in and out, pleased that Sephiroth rocked back and forth between the heat of his mouth and the pressure of his finger. Sephiroth gasped in a breath, sweat coating his forehead, his cock swelling in Tseng’s mouth.

“Tseng…” he groaned, fingers flexing against the headboard. “I can’t…”

Recognizing the sound for what it was – a warning – Tseng did not pause, drawing Sephiroth deeper into his mouth and stroking his tongue over the rigid flesh.

“I-” Sephiroth suddenly broke off, shuddering as his restraint snapped and he spilled himself in Tseng’s mouth, the taste of him washing over the Turk’s tongue. The headboard creaked as Sephiroth’s grip tested its durability.

Tseng swallowed him greedily, muscles clamping around his finger. Sephiroth panted, his pale skin flushed quite attractively. He carefully laved his tongue over Sephiroth’s cock as the last of the spurts faded, gentle as he knew the former General was quite sensitive.

As Sephiroth lingered in a hazy aftermath of sizzling pleasure, Tseng took the opportunity to press in another finger, relieved when there was no protest. His own need had reached greater heights, undone by the sight of Sephiroth losing himself to pleasure. It left him faintly dizzy with want.

Muscles loosened around his fingers, still gripping, but not with the same restrictive force as before. Sephiroth had relaxed, his body keyed to the pleasure Tseng provided him.

Dragging his free hand around, Tseng skirted his palm up Sephiroth’s flat belly, fingers splayed across the former General’s chest. He found a peaked nipple, twisting it gently in his fingers. Sephiroth hissed, pushing back towards Tseng’s fingers, his body easing.

“Ready?” Tseng asked, licking his lips in anticipation.

Grey eyes wandered down to him, dazed from his release and drunk with pleasure. “Ready?” he repeated, in confusion, before understanding dawned on him. “Of course I am. I won’t break, Tseng.”

Not quite believing, Tseng gave him a once-over. Sephiroth certainly looked ready, his cock hardening beneath Tseng’s look. His muscles had loosened around Tseng’s fingers. And most of all, there was a complete lack of doubt in his thoughts, they were steady and smooth, like a stream flowing over rocks, though beneath the surface stirred an eddy of desire.

Nodding, Tseng set his hands on Sephiroth’s hip. “Good. Then scoot back for me,” he murmured, only to add a belated, “Please.”

Cheeks reddening, Sephiroth inclined his head, slipping backwards until he hovered over Tseng’s cock, purple with need.

Tseng drizzled oil over his fingers, nearly spilling it as his hands shook with want. He really was acting like a virgin who’d never tasted another before. He grit his teeth as he dumped the lube over his aching shaft, and placed one hand on Sephiroth’s hip.

Looking up, Tseng licked his lips, clearing his throat noisily. “This sounds contrary,” he began, breathing noticeably uneven. “But push out as I push in.”

Sephiroth nodded, and slowly sank down. Tseng groaned, his hand clamping on Sephiroth’s hip as he struggled to hold onto his control. He felt the head of his cock press against the slick ring before it breached, pressing into incredible heat. Throwing his head back, Tseng fought not to come then and there.

He groaned, fully encased inside Sephiroth and thanking Kami and all who would listen. “Okay?” he gasped, hoping desperately that Sephiroth was fine because as it were, all of his senses had short-circuited and he couldn’t sense a damn thing.

“Please don’t ask me that,” Sephiroth returned tightly, but the look on his face didn’t project overwhelming pain, so Tseng supposed all was well.

He curled his fingers around Sephiroth’s cock, giving him an encouraging stroke, and watched as Sephiroth arched into the touch. It was a simple matter for Tseng to withdraw, and then push up into the other man again, tossing his head back at the pleasure that assaulted his senses. It felt like Sephiroth was gripping him, and his strained libido breathed a great sigh of relief.

Tseng wanted it to last. He held romantic illusions of staying buried in Sephiroth’s body, of their skin sliding together and their lips tangled. He wanted to remember this. But the intentions of his mind were no match for the desires of his body.

He felt it building up inside of him, a wave of heat that flooded his systems only to pool in his belly, coiling tensely. His rhythm became more ragged, his control fading as he greedily took in Sephiroth’s expression, aroused by the red that stained his cheeks and the glisten of sweat over pale skin. Sephiroth was close, too. He could feel it in every throb of the man’s cock, and every twitch of Sephiroth’s muscles around him.

Tseng’s release built up inside of him, a massive tidal wave battering at the dam of his control. He sucked in a breath, clinging to restraint, determined to hold out. He swiped his thumb over the head of Sephiroth’s cock, slamming up into the other man. He wanted to Sephiroth come undone first, to feel the former General clenching around him before he released.

Sephiroth groaned, leaning forward and placing both hands to either side of Tseng’s head. He lowered his mouth, sealing his lips against Tseng’s. His tongue shoved insistently past Tseng’s lips, tangling sloppily, and Tseng groaned. He loved Sephiroth being aggressive as much as he loved Sephiroth panting and writhing above him.

Fluid seeped over Tseng’s fingers, the cock in his hold as rigid as steel and swelling with impending release. Tseng thrust upwards, his arousal rubbing insistently at Sephiroth’s prostate. Tseng pushed deeper and deeper into that clenching heat, unable to stop the blaze that worked its way through his body.

Tseng peeled open his eyes, silver darkened with want as he broke away from the kiss to press his lips against Sephiroth’s throat. The other man swallowed and Tseng felt the bobbing of it against his mouth. So sexy. So hot. He couldn’t hold on much longer.

“Come for me,” Tseng murmured, half-plea, half-request and all ardent desire. He dragged his lower lip between his teeth, chewing on it desperately in effort to hold himself back. His hips had a mind of their own, churning relentlessly upwards.

“Tseng, I-”

He watched, captivated, as Sephiroth gasped, body arching, every movement sleek and defined. Sephiroth shook, a low groan building his chest, rattling through his throat, and falling from his lips. Sephiroth’s fingers clenched onto the coverlet as he ground onto Tseng’s cock, rocking between the penetrating shaft and the stroking of Tseng’s fingers. Inches away from release.

Sephiroth’s lips parted, as though to say nothing more, but the word degenerated into a rattling moan as his hips snapped and he shuddered. Release spilled over Tseng’s fingers, some splattering onto his belly as Sephiroth’s body tightened around him.

Tseng’s restraint snapped, the coil of heat in his belly bursting. His fingers clenched on Sephiroth’s hip, chomping on his bottom lip as he succumbed to the pull of Sephiroth’s body. He spilled within that clamping heat, hips raggedly pushing upwards as Sephiroth slumped bonelessly over him, face pressed to Tseng’s neck.

Tremors of pleasure still tingling through his body, Tseng dragged his relatively clean hand upwards, threading fingers through dyed hair. He tilted Sephiroth’s face upwards, sealing their lips together in a slow, languid kiss, heart gradually returning to a normal rhythm in his chest.

Sephiroth ended the kiss, grey eyes seeking out Tseng’s. “I’m all sticky,” he admitted, grinding his hips down emphatically.

Tseng sucked in a breath, the motion too erotic. His libido, which should have been sated by now, gave a twitch of interest. “Join me for a shower?” he suggested, a slow slurry of desire beginning in his groin, only to radiate elsewhere.

He was treated to the sight of a Sephiroth smile, small but definitely there, and recently low in abundance. “No holds barred, is that what you’re telling me?”

Tseng’s hand curved over Sephiroth’s buttocks, despite the release still covering them. “You’re the one that gave me the opportunity.” His lips pulled into a lecherous smirk. “I’ve years to make up for it.”

“I don’t think my body can handle that,” Sephiroth groaned, but even so, Tseng felt Sephiroth’s cock twitch against his hip.

“It can handle more than you think,” Tseng returned, though he took a moment to return to all seriousness. “Thank you for trusting me.”

Embarrassment darkened Sephiroth’s cheeks, his eyes skittering away. “That’s really not something to thank someone for,” he muttered.

“Fine, then I won’t.” Tseng pressed his lips to Sephiroth’s bare throat, licking over flushed skin. “Join me for a shower?” he asked again, though his body seemed to have a mind of its own, hips rolling up against Sephiroth’s.

“If we even make it there,” Sephiroth responded with a teasing groan, though he didn’t pull away from Tseng.

And that, right there, was encouragement enough.

The funeral was held a few days later, on a cool morning where the sun peeked through scattered clouds and the air smelled sweet and fresh. Like a new day. But not even the good weather could break the shroud of sorrow that clung like a wet blanket to the mourners.

Several spoke. Flowers were lain in offering, a brilliant array of colors. Faces were dry, expressions solid and controlled, but only Tseng could tell the truth of the emotion. Even then, he was too absorbed in his own grief to pay much attention to anyone else’s.

Three graves stood in stark contrast to the blue and white sky, one already present, two recently crafted.

And Sephiroth stood, slightly away from everyone, but present nonetheless, wishing he could erase the guilt but knowing it was something that would take time. Logically, he knew he shouldn’t blame himself entirely. He had been told as much from several of those closest to him. But he couldn’t help the stabs of guilt, and he doubted they would ever leave him.

A part of him relished that strong emotion, because it meant he had broken from the mask of SOLDIER that Hojo had trapped him behind. It meant he was the most human he had ever been.

He watched as one-by-one, his friends and family left, wandering back towards Kalm. There would be a night of drinking for the adults, early bedtime for the children. A night of reminiscing and amusing stories to ease the tightness of grief. And in the morning, they would wander their separate ways, still connected by their bonds, but slowly moving on.

The people of Gaia were nothing if not durable.

Tseng was one of the last to leave, his face dry, but his eyes a mask of emotions. His grief had not ended despite the time, but he had grown to bear it better.

Their gazes met briefly, a silent conversation passing between them. Tseng would wait for him at the bar, though he wouldn’t indulge. He understood, without Sephiroth needing to say, that there was one conversation left for Sephiroth to hold.

Zack still stood, his back a solid presence, seeming entirely composed. And Sephiroth had never felt guiltier for being unable to help his best friend.

He waited until the others had left, bonding together in their sorrows. Only then did Sephiroth move from his spot, walking quietly to stand beside Zack, watching the three headstones that marked the burial spots of their friends’ remains.

Their spirits weren’t here anymore, but it was the closest connection any of them had to what was lost.

“Zack-”

“I’m sorry,” Zack said quickly, interrupting. His voice raspy, Zack noisily cleared his throat before continuing. “I just thought I would say it first before you could.”

Shaking his head, Sephiroth shifted his gaze to look at Zack. His best friend could have been carved from stone for all the emotion he showed, an expression dangerously resembling the one Sephiroth used to carry. Sephiroth didn’t like the look of it all.

“And what are you apologizing for?”

Zack shrugged. “Whatever you think you need to apologize for. It’s not your fault. It’s not mine. And yet, apologies keep flying around.” He closed his eyes, tilting his head towards the sky. “When are we going to realize it doesn’t ease the pain any? Only makes it worse.”

“I should have been there for you,” Sephiroth said, pushing on despite Zack’s words. He considered this a different guilt than the one surrounding Elena and Marlene’s death. “Since you have always been by my side.

Zack peeled his eyes open, glancing at him from the side. Warmth touched crystalline blue, and something inside Sephiroth sighed with relief. His best friend was still in there, behind the mask. It was just his manner of grieving.

“You sent Aeris, and honestly Sephiroth, she’s the best comfort a guy could get. No offense. But you’re just not soft in all the right places.” Zack’s lips quirked into a wry grin, a shadow of his usual humor, but enough to ease Sephiroth’s tensions a bit further.

His shoulders laxed, a wind rising and stirring Sephiroth’s hair around his face. “Then I am relieved. I… I worry about you, Zack.” Voicing his emotions, something so terribly simple, but nothing was ever simple for Sephiroth. It took more effort than anyone would know to say it so plainly.

Zack looked at him, actually turned to look at him fully, a bit more of the stone mask melting away. “It’s grief, Seph. And yeah, it hurts. Yeah, I’m feeling pretty damn depressed right now. But I won’t drown in it. I promise. So don’t worry. You’ll give yourself ulcers and then where would we be?”

“Hopefully, happily enjoying your lives,” Sephiroth returned easily, hardening his shoulders against the cold. “I think I speak for all of us when I say I am tired of fighting. If I never see another battle again, I will be much relieved.”

Zack turned, rubbing shoulders with him, encouraging Sephiroth to follow. His eyes tracked Sephiroth’s face. “You’re different somehow,” he commented. And at Sephiroth’s confused look, Zack elaborated. “Not wholly a bad thing, but different. Stronger.”

“I have settled some things,” Sephiroth admitted, thinking with a hint of a blush to everything he had finally come to accept. There was a peace inside of him, and he luxuriated in it.

The wind ruffled black spikes. “Settled some things,” Zack repeated, and his lips parted in a true grin, a sharp bark of laughter escaping him. “Just say it like everyone else, Seph. You got laid.”

Eyes widening impossibly large, Sephiroth nearly choked on his next breath. “Zack!”

“No need to hide it,” Zack chirped with a cheer that was – in part – forced, but also wholly honest. He clapped a hand on Sephiroth’s shoulder. “It’s about time. Poor Tseng must have been ready to combust. I’m surprised you’re in one piece.”

Sephiroth found himself completely speechless, his mouth opening and closing but no words emerging. In truth, he did feel a bit… wrung dry for lack of a better word. His ears and cheeks burned with embarrassment, though he ought to be used to this by now when it came to Zack.

It was a return to the normal, though sorrow still ran like an undercurrent, and Sephiroth relished it. Which was why he endured the teasing as they headed back to the bar, and why he returned it in full.

Zack was hurting, but he would get better. Just like the rest of their motley, assorted family. Things would heal with time, and they would move on, just as they had times before. Life continued, even if it seemed otherwise, and this second chance had taught Sephiroth that.

Life was meant for living.

[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.

[Shattered] Children 28

Interlude Nine: Melody of Memories

Warm breath ghosting over his ear. A rough hand grazing down his spine. Vincent stirred from a dreamless sleep, unconsciously tilting towards the lips nibbling at his ear.

“Morning,” Cid whispered in his ear, voice gruff from whatever he had been doing prior to waking Vincent.

Peeling open his eyes, Vincent languished in the shivers that pricked his skin. “It’s early,” he murmured, glancing at the clock. “Especially for you.”

Cid slid into the bed beside him, fully clothed and smelling of morning dew. “It would be early if I’d managed to sleep,” he answered, pressing against Vincent from behind and burying his face into black hair.

“You don’t sound sleep-deprived.”

Indeed, Cid was practically vibrating with energy. Even Vincent could sense it, the vigor seeping into his own languid senses and stirring Vincent to full wakefulness.

Lips pressed against the back of his neck. “Come with me. I’ve somethin’ to show ya,” Cid urged, though his fingers spoke another request, creeping around Vincent’s front and splaying across his bare abdomen.

“Not another supply closet I hope.”

Vincent’s wry comment was received with annoyance, which Cid displayed by playfully biting the back of his shoulder, leaving the faint impression of teeth behind. “No, this is important. C’mon, Vince. Get up.” His tone was very nearly a whine.

“You sound as giddy as a child,” Vincent commented, though his lips curled upwards in a smile. The captain’s energy was infectious.

Vincent.”

Chuckling to himself, Vincent forced his body to rise, dislodging the clinging arms of his bedmate. “I’m up, Highwind.”

He looked over his shoulder, dark hair hiding his expression as he took in that of his lover’s. Cid looked tired, but still radiated energy. A grin stretched his lips, even as he sat there in rumpled clothing, even a cute streak of grease – from some sort of engine no doubt – across one cheek.

Vincent arched one brow. “And what have you been diving in?”

Cid grinned, blue eyes sparkling. “Come with me and I’ll show you.” He very nearly bounced in place, just like a child.

Honestly, he was too old to be acting as such.

“Give me a minute to put on some clothes,” Vincent said, sighing loudly as though making some great acquiescence, though in all honesty he was curious. He knew Cid was involved in a pretty big project, and as such, hadn’t seen much of his lover. Perhaps these were the final results?

A hand reached for him even as Vincent rose from the bed, narrowly missing a pale hip by a scant few inches. “You don’t have to,” Cid leered, licking his lips pointedly.

“I do if this thing you want to show me is in public,” Vincent retorted dryly.

The captain just laughed and launched himself from the bed, wagging a finger at him. “Fine, get dressed. I’ll wait in the living room or I’ll just be tempted to take advantage of you.”

As if such a thing were possible. They both knew good and well who the stronger one was here. Shaking his head, Vincent waved off his lover and idly listened as Cid left the room.

Vincent dressed quickly, staring distastefully at the brightly colored clothing that Cid had bought and replaced most of his with for the sake of their “vacation”. It revealed too much for his skin, but it was also too hot to wear layers. He relented for the sake of comfort, though he vowed to make every article of palm-printed material disappear the moment they left Mideel.

And every last sandal.

Lastly, Vincent pulled the length of his hair into a low ponytail and left from the room without bothering to check his appearance. It was just before dawn and if there were anyone awake to see and mock him, he didn’t bother enough to care. It was only an hour or so before his usual waking time, yet it somehow felt too early.

Cid paced back and forth in the living room of the guest house they had rented out for an undetermined period of time. He had taken the time to at least change his shirt and splash water on his face, looking a bit less sleep-deprived. Energy vibrated in every motion.

“Vince! You wore the shirt!” Glee filled his voice, and a hint of teasing.

Looking down at himself, Vincent realized with horror that he had indeed grabbed the one item he loathed out of the entire collection. Of course, the pink and green palm tree print was Cid’s favorite.

Refusing to rise to the bait, Vincent eyed his lover. “Wasn’t there something you wanted to show me?”

Cid moved to his side, latching an arm around Vincent’s and bodily dragging him along. “Yeah, there was. C’mon. It’s not far.”

He followed as Cid lead him from the guest home and into the cool morning, the sun rising on the horizon, a dawning of oranges and reds beneath the lid of grey clouds. Mideel was a town gently waking, a few citizens rising to open windows and welcome the morning chill before the afternoon heat forced everyone indoors.

Vincent didn’t know why, but something was making him bathetic. Perhaps it was the air.

He followed Cid as the captain led him out of the main thoroughfare – where the welcome sign had been recrafted and reposted – and into the wild jungle of the Mideelan island. Vincent recognized the path. It was the same they had initially taken in their search for elusive ruins… only to stumble upon a hidden machine beneath the dirt.

He knew that Cid had been devoting time and effort to restoring the alien device, but Vincent wasn’t expecting much out of the rusting heap of metal. Who knew how long it had lain buried? And who knew just what kind of electronics comprised the thing? There was no guarantee they could get it uncovered, much less up and running. But Vincent was not one to protest Cid’s excitement.

“Okay? Close your eyes.”

Vincent sighed. “Cid-”

Hands lifted, covering his face and shielding his eyes from whatever the dawning sun sought to illuminate. And yet, they still moved steadily forward, though Vincent was decidedly more cautious in each placement of his foot.

“Would it kill ya to play along for once?”

Squaring his jaw, Vincent obediently closed his eyes. “If I trip and fall in a ditch I will never participate in one of your surprises again.”

Cid merely laughed, and Vincent patiently bowed to his whim. Just this once as it seemed to make Cid happy.

He could not see, but his ears worked just fine. And soon he detected a sound, that of a low hum, the gentle whirr of blades cutting through the air, like a helicopter but much less fierce. Vincent frowned, trying to place the sound; he wouldn’t quite call it noise as it was pleasant to his ears. Much quieter than the Highwind had been at any rate, and definitely softer than a helicopter.

“I thought it would take longer,” Cid started to explain, raising his voice a bit to be heard, but not having to strain. “Surprisingly, there was little left for me to do but attack it with soap and a scrub brush and replace a few fuses.”

“Cid, what are you talking about?”

The pilot chose that moment to stop, prompting Vincent to stop as well. “Open your eyes and see,” Cid urged, and Vincent could practically hear the grin in his voice.

Humoring his lover, Vincent opened his eyes slowly, only to blink in astonishment.

An airship stood silver and solemn against the morning sky, its rotors turning quietly in the breeze. It was massive, an impressive example of machinery, similar in design to the Highwind, but much sleeker. It was likely faster, more agile, capable of trickier maneuvers. It gleamed in the early light, patiently awaiting its first flight.

For one of the few times in his life, Vincent found himself speechless. He knew Cid had been working on a project, but had thought that his lover had given up on the buried aircraft. He had thought Cid deemed it improbable, but here it was, in all its glory. At least, Vincent assumed this was the buried ship. He couldn’t think of another way for Cid to build one within a month’s time.

And then his eyes tracked to the freshly painted icon decorating the side, where the ship’s name was emblazoned in bright red, a swirl highlighting each letter.

Valenwind.

“You…” Speechless, Vincent found no words.

Cid just grinned, practically brimming with pride. “You didn’t think I’d get it working, didja? Well, I did. And it’s going to be even better than the Highwind. My masterpiece.”

“It’s beautiful.”

“Aye.” Cid nodded, curling one arm around Vincent pulling him forward, where a ladder waited to give them a lift to the upper level. “Even more so inside.”

Interested despite himself, Vincent followed Cid up the ladder and onto the first deck of the Valenwind. He chuckled as he recognized the lady from the Highwind painted on the floor.

“You couldn’t resist, could you?”

Cid grinned. “She’s my Lady Luck.”

Shaking his head, Vincent gestured to the far doorway. “Lead on, Captain. Show me what you’re so proud of.”

And Cid did, guiding him through long hallways and open space, and a room filled with computers that Cid admitted not even he was sure what they did. Past humming engines and interesting rooms, and even a glimpse of the captain’s quarters, sparsely furnished at the moment and only waiting on their belongings.

Lastly, Vincent was taken to the cockpit, where he was treated to the sight of the sun rising in all its glory, every inch of the dawn in view thanks to the entire wall of glass windows. Several consoles were scattered throughout the broad room, presently unoccupied, and on a higher dais the captain’s wheel stood prominent.

It was absolutely incredible.

“She’s three times as fast, twice as maneuverable, and doesn’t run on mako energy, but something else. Something called jet fuel. I don’t understand it properly, but I will,” Cid assured him, pulling Vincent up the steps to the captain’s wheel.

Vincent shook his head. “In less than a month, you managed all this? It seems unbelievable.”

His lover laughed, scratching at his chin. “You’d be surprised how many people were willing to join my crew. And like I said, there actually wasn’t much more for me to do than dust it off. It’s like the technology was just sleeping, waiting for someone like me ta come along.”

Vincent stood behind the wheel, lifting his hands and tracing fingers over the well-crafted wood, completely smooth. The entire vista of the Mideelan landscape stretched out in front of him through the windows, and from here, the rest of the consoles of the Valenwind waited patiently. It really was amazing.

“Have you given up on the stars then?” Vincent asked, well remembering Cid’s desire to return to space since his previous visit had been unplanned and unexpected.

The captain stepped up, arms encircling Vincent from behind. “The technology in this thing’ll probably teach me a better way to get there, but until then, this thing is already perfect.” He felt Cid’s face press against the back of his shoulder, not quite tall enough to lay chin atop his shoulder.

“It is fascinating,” Vincent murmured. “But I am more interested in the fact that you can fly again. Cid Highwind does not seem the same man without his wings.”

The arms around him tightened. “Was I that different?” Cid asked, a strange note to his voice.

“Only to someone who knows you as well as I do,” Vincent reassured, and shifted in Cid’s arms, turning until he faced his lover. “I could tell that you missed the sky. You were not meant for the ground.”

Again, the bathetic feeling penetrated Vincent’s thoughts and words, turning him unnecessarily sappy. He wasn’t too bothered by it. For all his bluster and bluff, Cid was actually a man who enjoyed hearing such things.

“Heh.” Cid laughed lightly. “And only you know me so well. What say you we end this vacation then?”

Before Vincent could even formulate an answer, or compose something witty in return, the sound of a ringing cell phone filled the silence of the morning. Vincent knew it wasn’t his own – he kept it on constant silent – and judging by Cid’s annoyed curse, it was not only his, but the caller was Reeve.

Cid only cursed like that when Reeve called, because nine times out of ten, the president of the WRO wanted something impossible made possible.

Another muttered curse and Cid pulled away with obvious reluctance, reaching for the jangling phone. He flipped it open and answered, eyes narrowed with annoyance.

Vincent didn’t bother to listen in; Cid would explain later. He simply smiled softly and returned his gaze to the beautiful view. Everything was in its proper place, as it should be.

And something which had started to tighten uneasily in his belly without him realizing it, sighed in relief.

Yuffie woke to the smell of something cooking, and pleasant sounds of the same emanating from her open doorway. Her stomach growled in appreciation and she smiled as she rose from the bed, stretching languidly. The sun shone pleasantly through half-open blinds, giving a cheery cast to her bedroom.

She threw on a t-shirt and some shorts, splashed water over her face, and then headed towards the kitchen, her nose her guide. Rubbing sleep out of her eyes, Yuffie stepped into the cream and yellow kitchen, searching out the source of an obvious breakfast. She smiled, catching sight of Nanaki standing at the stove, tail twitching back and forth as he cooked.

He was even wearing an apron. She was pretty sure she’d never seen anything more adorable in her life. Giggling to herself, Yuffie crept across the floor – an easier feat to the lack of shoes – and promptly threw her arms around him from behind.

“Mmmm, what’cha cooking?” she asked, rubbing her cheek against his broad, bare back. He smelled good, beyond the scent of what seemed to be frying meats and potatoes. He smelled like Nanaki, all strength and intelligence and oncoming autumn.

He didn’t even startle at her approach, having long heard her coming. “Breakfast. Hungry?”

“Very,” Yuffie purred, her fingers splayed over his bare abdomen.

Her palm pressed against flat muscles, index finger tracing the line of hair that disappeared into the band of the sleep pants he had pulled on. They were specially designed to suit his tail, the whole wardrobe a gift from Reeve and some rather expensive tailors. Not that Yuffie was complaining. He looked great in them.

Nanaki laughed as Yuffie felt heat coil languidly in her belly. “For food or something else?” A spatula scraped in a pan as he reached with a second hand to grab the shaker, sprinkling salt over his potatoes.

“Definitely both,” Yuffie murmured, pressing a kiss to his shoulder blade.

She couldn’t seem to stop touching him. Ever since they had reconciled, recognizing what they were to one another, she couldn’t seem to keep her hands away. She wanted to run her hands over him everywhere, to cover his body in kisses. To experience that blinding rush of pleasure all over again.

One hand traveled lower, her palm pressing against his groin, cupping it gently. She was gratified to find that he was half-hard beneath her fingers, and stiffening by the moment. Grinning, Yuffie deviously palmed him, stroking him through the thin cotton. She heard Nanaki’s breath hitch, even as she gently bit the skin over his shoulderblade, loving the taste of his skin.

“Yuffie, I’m trying to cook,” Nanaki protested, but it was weak. A protest more for the sake of, because even she could hear the want in his voice.

She pressed more firmly against his length, which rose to strain against the confines of his pants. “No one’s stopping you,” she teased, feeling her belly tighten. Yuffie wondered if she could tempt him enough to turn around and kiss her. She was determined to try.

Nanaki’s willpower was usually far greater than hers. But she’d learned a valuable lesson. When it came to resisting temptation, he couldn’t resist her. And it was a heady power, but one she learned to use sparingly. He wasn’t her toy after all, but her beloved one. And she would treat him as such.

Her lips found the line of his spine, a sensitive spot for him, and her tongue followed the path of it, as far as she could reach. He shivered, and she counted the seconds – only a few – before the spatula was set to the side and Nanaki whirled.

He crushed her against him, covering her lips with his and pushing his tongue into her mouth. She moaned, grinding against his stiff length, curling her arms around his body. The edge of the table collided against her lower back as Yuffie deepened the kiss, dragging her nails lightly down her back.

Nanaki broke away from her with a gasp, his mouth latching onto her throat. Her teeth gently scraped her bare skin. “You little minx,” he growled, tongue lapping over a small mark and making shivers race down her spine.

She gasped when she intended to chuckle, one of his hands finding her breast through the fabric and running his palm over it. “The kitchen table? That’s different,” Yuffie teased, wanting to strip off his clothes then and there.

A single lift of one clawed hand had her sitting on the edge of the table, thanking Dao-Chan and whatever god was listening that it had sturdy legs. Nanaki’s mouth lowered, mouthing her nipple through cloth and Yuffie groaned, throwing her head back. Her legs encircled his hips, drawing him close and against her. Their clothed groins collided; she could feel the heat of him through the thin cotton.

Yuffie desperately wanted.

And she also smelled something burning. Her nose twitched and her eyes popped open as she stared horrified over Nanaki’s shoulder.

“Breakfast!” she near-squeaked in shock.

“Yeah, that was the general idea,” Nanaki retorted, his lips closing over her ear lobe and tugging gently at it.

Yuffie ignored the trill of pleasure that raced through her, giving his shoulder a hearty push. “No, I mean your breakfast is burning!” she argued, a distasteful smoke rising heavily in the air.

Golden eyes widened before Nanaki abruptly released her, nearly causing Yuffie to tumble from her precarious perch on the table.

“Damn,” he cursed, hissing when he nearly burnt his fingers in an attempt to remove pan from stove. He almost dropped the skillet as he reached to turn off the burner and switched on the stovetop fan.

Yuffie, despite the heat still tingling in her veins, couldn’t help but laugh at him.

Nanaki tossed her a baleful look, tipping the skillet enough that she could see the ruined mass of whatever it was inside of it. “This is partly your fault you know,” he grumbled, staring mournfully at his ruined creation.

“Can you blame me?” Yuffie asked, purposefully licking her lips. Her nipples were rubbing against the cotton of her shirt and it was maddening.

“Yes. Yes, I can,” Nanaki said, abandoning the ruined mass of something burnt to the side. His tail twitched behind him as he advanced on her, trapping her between his arms. “Looks like we’ll have to go out for breakfast.”

She looked up at him, heart thundering in her chest. “Later,” Yuffie insisted, lifting one foot to rub it alongside his leg.

“Much later,” Nanaki confirmed, and slanted his lips over hers again.

He heard loud music before he even arrived at the apartment, and Tseng cocked an eyebrow. What on Gaia was going on?

Stepping down the hall, he found the door to Zack and Sephiroth’s shared apartment wide open, the heavy beat and invoking lyrics of some rock band pulsing in the air. He didn’t see either man immediately and Tseng sighed, shaking his head.

He doubted Sephiroth was here in this noise, but he thought he would check anyways.

Tseng rapped his knuckles against the door because it was polite, but didn’t actually expect anyone to hear it. Not over this racket. He stepped into the apartment, peering briefly into every room before following the source of the noise.

Only to stop in the entryway to the living room, a chuckle escaping his lips. There was Zack, doing of all things, vacuuming as he rocked to the music pouring from the speakers from the overly large television. He didn’t know why the former SOLDIER thought it necessary to do so with the door open. Perhaps they had merely forgotten to close it?

Zack whirled, vacuum jabbing under a nearby table, and spotted Tseng mid-jab. “Tseng!” he exclaimed, the machine giving a whirr of distaste as it sucked up something that it didn’t like.

He jabbed a toe forward, cutting off the machine and the light noise associated with it. “How long have you been standing there?”

“Long enough,” Tseng answered with amusement. “It’s a little late for spring cleaning.”

Zack tossed him a look. “I suppose if I made as much as you I could hire someone to do this for me,” he replied dryly, and reached for a remote, clicking mute on the television and filling the room with blessed quiet. “Looking for something?”

“Sephiroth.”

“I should have known.” His hand raked through black spikes and Zack stepped around the couch, towards the kitchen. “He’s not here. He escaped the minute I said something about cleaning up the mess.” Zack gestured vaguely.

Mess? Tseng turned about in a near circle. It was spotless, other than the lingering dust from running the vacuum. He couldn’t even see evidence of a former mess. Or was Zack just a closet neat-freak?

“I see,” Tseng commented dubiously. “Any idea where he went?”

“The library,” Zack suggested, face buried in the fridge as he moved items around to locate a soda in the back. “And if I know my best buddy, he’s in the furthest corner, behind a dusty stack of history books.”

Tseng hummed, not surprised. “Not entirely unexpected. Thanks, Zack. Good luck with your cleaning.”

Head tipped back as he sucked down a soda, the former SOLDIER gave him a thumbs up, leaving Tseng room to excuse himself. As he stepped into the corridor, heading into the elevator, his exit was marked by a return of the loud music. He wondered if their neighbors would complain, but then, there probably weren’t too many other residents on this floor.

The library was located nearly in the basement, just a single level above the archive where aging paper records were kept. In this day and age, most everything was documented in a massive computer database, but old records were still kept. Tseng rarely had occasion to enter the archives, and honestly, he hadn’t much reason to visit the library either.

It was only a library in the sense that it held masses upon masses of books, but it didn’t stock all kinds. It was literally a huge storehouse of history and science, nothing fictional lining the shelves. There was nothing here to capture Tseng’s interest, especially since much of it was tainted by ShinRa’s outlook on the past, rather than the truth of what occurred.

His nose twitched as he was assaulted by the scent of dust and aging paper. Tseng nodded curtly to the single soldier manning the desk and scanned the visible aisles. No Sephiroth in sight. Not that he would have expected to find the former General lounging in plain view.

Tseng wandered, his steps markedly noticeable in the quiet. There were no other patrons either, not that he had expected any. Most came here to find a book for research purposes, not linger.

He found Sephiroth as Zack had suggested, hiding in a faraway corner, tucked behind several large and stout bookcases. Sephiroth was curled up in a large, stiff-looking chair, a single lamp lit behind one shoulder. To Tseng’s surprise, a pair of small-framed glasses perched on his noses as he read from a book placed in his lap.

It was more adorable than Tseng could find words to say. Imagine, the great General wearing glasses to read like some child stumbling upon a fantasy book of epic proportions.

Casually crossing his arms over his chest, Tseng leaned against a nearby, stout bookshelf. “I didn’t know you were glasses.”

Sephiroth startled, nearly dropping his book. His gaze whipped up, catching sight of Tseng standing there. An obvious moment of trying to regain his composure immediately followed.

“Only on occasion,” Sephiroth explained slowly. “Fine print is difficult.”

Tseng felt his lips twitch upwards into a smile. “And here I was thinking you were perfect.”

“Isn’t it better that I am not?” Sephiroth murmured, and his gaze slanted to the side, taking on an obvious air of distaste.

Perfection was definitely a landmine; Tseng wisely sidestepped it. He was still learning the boundaries with Sephiroth. And Kami, were there many of them.

“What are you reading?” he asked instead, moving further into the empty corner, far from the desk and what few prying eyes there might be in the nearly forgotten library. Honestly, even Tseng had forgotten it existed.

Sephiroth tilted the cover towards him. On the cover was a barely dressed woman, her bosom threatening to burst from the ties of her bodice. She was in the arms of a bare-chested man, dressed like a pirate no less, and they were looking into each other’s eyes as though nothing mattered in the world but each other. The title read My Lover, My Pirate and was distributed by the well known publishing house Sweet Temptations.

Tseng’s eyes rounded. “Is that…?” Words escaped him. He suspected that Sephiroth liked to read but romance? And trashy romance at that? Where on Gaia had he gotten it?

He was treated to a sour look. “Don’t blame me,” Sephiroth said stiffly, thumb carefully marking the page. “Zack was the one who said I should expand my horizons.”

Well, that at least explained the origin of the book. Tseng had just begun to picture Sephiroth in a bookstore, buying the novel and it was a scene that pretty much broke his brain.

“Yes, but Sweet Temptations?”

Sephiroth snapped the book shut, embarrassment warring with indignation. “Were you looking for me?” he demanded, putting the matter of the book aside.

Amused, Tseng inclined his head. “Reeve forced me to take the afternoon off,” he answered, moving closer to Sephiroth until they shared nearly the same space. “I thought we could make use of it.”

He leaned over Sephiroth, one hand balanced on the arm of the plush, royal-red chair, glad that the man was sitting because it eliminated their bothersome height difference. Sephiroth smelled intoxicating, a mixture of old books and whatever soap he used, something clean and inviting. Tseng wanted to bury his face in Sephiroth’s throat and lick him all over. The thoughts entered his mind suddenly, and he felt the heat flushing through him.

It was so quiet. One could hear a materia drop. More than that, he could hear Sephiroth’s breathing, more rapid than it should be for only reading. Perhaps his choice in reading material had affected him more than Tseng initially thought, though he was pretty sure Sephiroth’s interests lay in men and men alone. He watched as grey-green eyes flexed briefly, dilating with interest at Tseng’s proximity.

“You’re under the assumption that I have the afternoon free as well,” Sephiroth returned mildly, but Tseng was far more experienced than Sephiroth. He detected the hitch in the former general’s breathing, the way his cheeks slowly flushed.

His hand settled on Sephiroth’s leg, and when he wasn’t rebuffed, Tseng squeezed gently. “Don’t you?” he asked, lowering his tone, making it husky.

There was something incredibly erotic about daring to do this here, where anyone could walk by, even if the library was deserted, even on a good day. And they were in the far back corner. The fact that they had to keep their voices down only heightened the sense.

Sephiroth unconsciously licked his lips. “I might. But then you are assuming I would spend my free time with you.” However, he didn’t shift away from Tseng’s presence.

To the Turk, that was most definitely progress. Sephiroth, for all his badass General persona, was infinitely shy, and it had taken weeks to get Sephiroth to stop blushing like a schoolboy anytime Tseng casually touched him.

“Are you saying you don’t want to?” Tseng asked, leaning nearer, until his breath puffed warm across Sephiroth’s mouth, though their lips didn’t touch.

And there it went, Sephiroth’s chronic shyness, his eyes skittering away from the advancing Turk. “Tseng-”

Restraint lacking, Tseng kissed him. He figured if Sephiroth hadn’t pushed him away by now, then he was in the clear to do so. True to his assumption, Sephiroth didn’t resist, his mouth falling open against Tseng’s kiss and letting Tseng’s tongue slip inside. He coaxed a response out of the former General, encouraging Sephiroth to participate, their tongues gently tangling. And Tseng’s fingers tightened on Sephiroth’s leg, a moan threatening to bubble up in his chest.

Somehow, Sephiroth always had this effect on him. Turning his restraint to nothing more than pudding, and his self-control made non-existent.

Gloved hands threaded through his hair, making Tseng’s scalp tingle. The touch was hesitant but determined, and the perfect mix of both set fire to Tseng’s blood. He ended the kiss with a nip to Sephiroth’s lips, barely restrained from disrobing the former General here in the back corner of this library.

Those glasses were incredibly sexy, Tseng noticed. He said so aloud, and was gratified by the subtle darkening of Sephiroth’s cheeks. He cleared his throat noisily, reaching up to remove the pair and fold them properly.

“Zack picked them out,” Sephiroth informed him, tucking the glasses safely away.

Tseng was determined to see them again. Perhaps later.

He tipped his head to the side. “About that afternoon? Are you certain you can’t spare it for me?”

The book was set aside, to join a stack balanced precariously along one arm of the plush chair. “I might have a few hours to spare,” Sephiroth murmured, licking his lips pointedly.

Tseng was practically giddy with excitement, mind awhirl with possibilities. He coaxed Sephiroth from the chair, entertaining thoughts of dinner with dessert to follow in the bedroom. He couldn’t help but think that Reeve’s offer – or order more like – to take the day off couldn’t have come at a better time.

And he was going to enjoy every single minute of it.

[Shattered] Children 27

Chapter Eighteen: Second String

“It’s too fuckin’ quiet,” Cid muttered, his voice echoing forlornly in the abandoned hallways. “And it’s like a damn ice box in here.”

Vincent shook his head. “Eloquent as always, captain. They are in mourning.”

“Yeah, well, they didn’t have to make it so fuckin’ obvious,” Cid retorted, rubbing his hands over his arms.

One hand lifted to his forehead, only to remember that he – technically – had given up that habit. He covered up the aborted motion by scratching under his goggles.

“Where the hell is everyone?”

His steps sufficiently muffled, their approach was marked by the almost violent thud of Cid’s military-style boots. “Scattered to the four winds. Elena and Marlene’s death hit everyone particularly hard.”

“Bunch of bullshit is what it is,” Cid muttered with a sigh, frowning deeply. “I’m getting too fucking old for this.”

Vincent’s lips twitched. “Finally admitting your age?”

An elbow jabbed him in the side, digging right between two ribs. “Oy. I’m still younger than you, Mr. Slept-In-A-Coffin-For-Thirty-Years.”

“Not by choice.”

“Bah, excuses, excuses.” The blond waved a dismissive hand, only to point one finger at his taller lover. “The point is, I want a vacation. Another one.”

“Hoping to find another piece of inexplicable machinery?”

Cid rolled his eyes and dug a hand into his pocket, pulling out a small box of toothpicks. One was immediately placed between his lips; a counter-measure against his cigarette needs. Vincent suspected that his lover simply had an oral fetish that needed to be assuaged and that it wasn’t about nicotine at all.

Not that Vincent hadn’t capitalized on said fetish many, many times before.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to get that lucky again,” Cid muttered, chomping down on the carved wood. “But my Valenwind… she sure is a beaut.”

Vincent was only half-listening to his mumbles, his thoughts suddenly taking an entirely different course than their current conversation. It had been a good week or so – a tense, battling, bloody week – since he’d really managed to spend any solitary time with Cid. And while it didn’t seem to be bothering his lover much – either that or Cid hid it really well – thoughts of toothpicks and oral fetishes had only reminded Vincent of that fact.

He tracked his gaze around as Cid managed to snag one of the WRO’s few visible pencil-pushers and grill him for information regarding the whereabouts of their friends. The building really was pretty deserted, though Vincent suspected that would change over the course of the next few weeks. The residents of Gaia were nothing if not sturdy, capable of bouncing back from any calamity.

They would mourn. They would grow angry. And they would stop to take a breath again. And then they would rebuild. Better, higher, stronger. The people of Gaia were resilient.

“-cent, are ya even listenin’ to me?”

Blinking, Vincent looked at Cid who had a distinct expression of disgruntlement. The toothpick shifted from one corner of the mouth to the other. “Brooding again?” Cid demanded on the end of a grunt.

“Just thinking,” Vincent returned, noticing that Cid’s prey was making a quick getaway, no doubt happy to be free from the madman. “What did he say?”

Cid shrugged, flicking a hand through his hair, flecked with grey but only making him look more attractive. “Scattered about. Reeve and his boytoy are holed up in their apartment, not going there. Barret had a hissy fit so he’s brooding somewhere. Archer and Reis for some reason I don’t even want to contemplate are in the detention hall.”

Vincent’s brow furrowed in confusion before clarity dawned. “With Kadaj and Yazoo, I imagine,” he commented quietly, a small smile tugging at his lips.

Cid stared at him. “How do ya know these things? It’s fuckin’ ridiculous.”

“I watch,” Vincent replied, and his smile widened when he found an open doorway to an unoccupied room. He paused to investigate, Cid in the middle of muttering to himself and stopping without questioning why. “Did they say anything about Sephiroth?”

“Why? Ya worried ’bout him? Not like anythin’ can take that brat down. He’s indestructible.”

“Everyone has a weakness,” Vincent murmured, pleased by his discovery.

It looked like an office, one that had never been used. No name decorated the plate, and it lacked the paper mess of an office in use. Everything looked new and untouched, and the couch in the waiting area was of particular invite. Of course, the desk and chair weren’t too bad either.

Cid snorted and spat out his mangled toothpick, his aim managing to land it in a nearby trash can. “Well, if yer that curious, then Sephiroth and his boytoy disappeared some time ago and I’m not going after them. Yer more than welcome to.”

Shaking his head, Vincent stepped into the office. “No, if they are together then there is no reason for me to be present,” he responded.

He had briefly worried about Sephiroth, but it seemed that concern was unfounded. Sephiroth was strong, perhaps much stronger than Vincent himself had been. He pulled himself together and fought against his demons, even if he had to do it alone. Sephiroth didn’t need someone worrying over him, especially not Vincent.

“And here I thought that was jes lingerin’ feelings of fatherhood tryin’ to catch up to ya.”

Vincent paused, a chuckle escaping him. He turned, leaning against the desk. “Cid… are you jealous?”

“Jealous!” He spluttered, but Vincent noticed that the blond’s cheeks darkened anyways. It was really kinda cute. “Of a brat!”

He inclined his head, grabbing Cid’s hand and dragging the shorter man towards him. “So it seems,” Vincent murmured, glad that Cid had enough foresight to close the door to the office behind him. “Don’t worry, Chief. You’re still number one.”

The flush deepened, much to Vincent’s amusement. “I knew that,” Cid grumbled and his free hand skated up Vincent’s side, briefly skating over a spot where the Geostigma had once been. “So it’s really gone, huh?”

“Completely,” Vincent reassured him, slipping a knee between Cid’s legs, the silence of the office highlighting every slide of cloth and every breath.

The pilot rolled his eyes, though he didn’t refuse the embrace. “Everybody’s grievin’ and you wanna do this now?”

“What better time to remind us what we have to live for?” Vincent posed, staring pointedly at a few spots of blood on his lover’s shirt. The wounds had been healed, but he could still remember the stark reality that had been there.

Defeating the two brothers had been no easy victory.

“And now you wanna get sentimental.”

“Call it a curse of old age.”

Cid rolled his eyes and tangled his fingers in Vincent’s hair, suddenly dragging him down for a kiss. Stubble scratched at Vincent’s skin, but he hardly noticed, their bodies molded together. It became obvious that Cid was only protesting for the sake of, the length pressing against Vincent’s upper thigh self-explanatory.

Vincent curled his arm around Cid, exploring fingers finding the gap between shirt and waistband and slipping beneath cotton. His hand splayed across Cid’s back, moving upwards, hoping to convey his intent.

It worked as Cid pulled back from the kiss, licking across his lips. “Sentimental ain’t so bad sometimes,” he commented, and before Vincent could get another word in, Cid kissed him again.

“Sephiroth’s worried about you.”

Zack paused in the midst of shoving things into a locker, closing the door and looking beyond it. Aeris was standing there, arms crossed over her chest as she leaned against the wall, watching. Her eyes conveyed sympathy as she tracked his ragged expression.

Fully closing the metal door, Zack clicked the lock into place. “That guy… he should worry about himself,” he murmured, lifting the towel over his shoulders and rubbing it over his head.

Three hours of sword play. More hours of working out and strength exercises. Twenty minutes in the shooting range before it became too much. Zack still felt keyed up and ready for action, despite the fatigue that he knew he should be feeling. But he didn’t want to close his eyes.

“Sephiroth is doing fine,” Aeris returned, moving a step closer and sitting down on the bench in front of him. She swiveled her legs around, almost resembling a school girl as she straddled the bench. “You’re the one who’s not.”

Rubbing water droplets from his skin, Zack turned away from her, unable to meet Aeris’ knowing eyes. “Where’s Midori?”

“My mother is looking after her for the moment. I had to come take care of another child.”

He just knew she was smiling. Aeris had always enjoyed teasing him like that when they had dated those countless years ago.

Of course, Elena liked to tease him, too.

Zack sighed, his hands dropping from the towel as he left it draped around his neck. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Well, I won’t tell you that I’m sorry. Or that it’ll get better. Or that you should try being happy because that’s what she would have wanted. Hephaestion knows I didn’t want to hear it either.”

He heard her hand pat the bench. “But I will ask if you’ll sit with me.”

“It’s different with you and Cloud,” Zack muttered, but he obeyed anyways. He’d learned it was better to do so when a woman made a demand. “You loved him.”

The moment he sat, Aeris grabbed his arms, pulling him backwards into her embrace. He was surrounded by the soft, sweet scent of honeysuckle and Zack closed his eyes, a pang of sorrow rushing through him. There was a lump in his throat no amount of swallowing could pass.

Cushioned against her front, he felt the rumble of her words as she gently set her cheek against the top of his damp hair. “You didn’t love Elena?”

“I don’t know,” Zack answered, allowing himself to soak in her comfort like one would a hot, steaming bath. “I cared for her a lot. But love? Do I even know what that means?”

“You can’t blame yourself for not caring as much as you think you should,” Aeris murmured soothingly. “Otherwise, you would just be lying.”

There was a tightening in his chest no amount of breathing would ease. “I should have,” he returned, spitting back the same he had thrown at Sephiroth.

Zack felt guilty for that, pushing away his best friend when Sephiroth had only wanted to help. But there was a strange part of him that didn’t want to show his weakness to Sephiroth because he was so used to being the strong one that never fell apart. He was always the one who smiled and laughed, who forgave.

Who picked up the pieces and put them back together again.

“There’s no such thing as ‘should’,” Aeris retorted softly, her arms a warm comfort.

He remembered this from long ago, the soft smell of flowers that always surrounded her. The general feeling of peace that she exuded. Zack had remembered even then thinking that she was too pure for someone like him. But he relished in that purity, bathed in it as though it would heal something broken inside of him.

Elena wasn’t pure at all. She was a ShinRa employee through and through, just like him. Perhaps even worse since she was Turk. She had seen just as much as Zack, and again, probably worser things. She smelled of blood and smoke and thunder. And it was no better, no worse. It was Elena and that was all that mattered to him.

She was spitfire and passion and though they didn’t need each other – not like their best friends needed them – they had each other and that was what mattered. It was comfort and familiarity and yes, sex, but more than that, too.

But love?

The heat behind his eyes wasn’t going away. And the more Zack thought about her – blue eyes and blond hair and quiet gasps in the night and smirking lips – the tighter his chest grew. He squeezed his eyes, but they came out anyway, sliding one by one down his cheek.

What happened to being strong?

“It’s not a weakness,” Aeris murmured, and it took that long for Zack to realize that he’d said the last aloud.

He didn’t respond; he didn’t have the words. He sucked in a breath, drew his bottom lip between his teeth, but once they started, the tears wouldn’t stop. They came, like opening a floodgate, dampening his cheeks and sliding down the sides of his face. Into his ears and down his neck, eventually caught by the towel.

He missed her. By Kami, he missed her.

It had only been a day or so. Perhaps more. But her absence was already felt in his life. He felt it so acutely, as though she had been gone for weeks or months. And maybe that was because they rarely found time for just one another. Zack didn’t know. But there was this hole inside of him where all his regrets about what he never managed to do or say echoed loudly.

“All the time in the world,” he managed, cursing himself inwardly. “But really, no time at all.”

Aeris leaned over him, her face pressed against his, heedless of his tears. She shushed him, silently giving him permission to cry. And Zack gratefully heeded the approval.

He wept.

They were here because Reeve had called them. And though he was only president of the WRO, he carried a sense of command and most of them were soldiers. So on they came, trudging along, a motley group of heroes.

Sephiroth was among them, though his own emotions felt pulled through a wringer. Judging by the expressions of his friends – his family – they felt the same way. But Reeve had a point. They couldn’t force those boys to sit in confinement forever. A decision had to be made and it wasn’t fair to make Reeve take responsibility for that alone.

Though it wasn’t exactly a merry bunch of heroes that gathered in the conference room. They trudged inside, dropping into their seats with a complete lack of enthusiasm. Several were missing – by choice – and one normally occupied seat was all the more obvious for its lack of resident.

A single glance at the chair was all it took to spiral the mood in the room further into sorrow.

Sephiroth could practically taste the gloom on his tongue. He winced, feeling cloaked by the desperate emotion. He understood the necessity of the meeting, but it still felt too soon to him. They all looked exhausted, as though they wanted nothing more to do with war and politics. And Yuffie and Nanaki were noticeable, if only for their absence.

Tseng – in particular – was tense, sitting stiffly in his seat with a severe expression. Sephiroth hadn’t had chance to talk to his lover before this meeting, Tseng having disappeared a few hours prior without explanation. Not that they required intimate knowledge of each other’s whereabouts at any time of the day. He suspected it had something to do with a request from Reeve; Sephiroth didn’t ask and Tseng didn’t volunteer.

His eyes wandered to the window as the seats were filled. It was grey just beyond the half-drawn blinds. A grey, gloomy morning. Sephiroth suspected it would rain today. Those darker clouds looked to mean a storm.

“All right, Reeve. Get this party started,” Cid said gruffly. “Some of us got work to do.”

Though lacking tact as always, Cid’s demand cut through the low murmur of conversation and effectively called the meeting to order. Internally, Sephiroth was grateful that he was there to speed business along. He couldn’t deny that he wanted nothing more than to finish his own responsibilities and crawl into bed, to sleep forever if possible.

The president cut his eyes at the pilot, repressing a sigh. “This is work as well,” he reminded Cid before turning to the others. “I would have put this off longer but I felt the matter needed to be dealt with sooner rather than later.”

“We understand,” Vincent assured him, while his lover snorted, but wisely refrained from commenting. “Just explain. Cid is right in one thing: we are all tired.”

“It’s about Kadaj and his brothers, isn’t it?” Aeris questioned softly, her presence surprising Sephiroth because – admittedly – she had been left a little out of the loop as of late. Mostly in deference to her need to care for the children, including her own.

Reeve nodded slowly, reluctance seeping into his expression. “They have submitted without complaint to imprisonment for the better part of a week. And though they have committed several crimes, it is unfair to force it without making some sort of decision.”

“And you are reluctant to execute them,” Sephiroth stated with sudden understanding, otherwise Reeve would have done it already. But he knew the president, just as he knew those surrounding him. They would not kill in such a manner.

Perhaps Reno would be capable of such a thing if ordered to do so. Tseng, yes. Sephiroth himself and Zack as well. If such an action were demanded of them. But the others were softer, less militarily inclined. Sephiroth already knew where this meeting was headed, not that he was against Reeve’s probable suggestion to free them.

Their situation mimicked his own in too many ways for his comfort. He would be hypocritical if he tried to judge those three boys for their actions.

Reeve shifted, remarkably composed for the tension rising in stifling degrees around the table. “I would prefer not to invite more death,” he admitted. “Though I will not make this decision alone.”

“Let’s skip past the point of what they’ve done, everyone knows that,” Archer suggested, a strange look in his eyes. Only vaguely did Sephiroth remember that he seemed to have some connection to the one of the brothers. “What do you want to do?”

“They’re dangerous,” Reno retorted, lazily dancing a gil over his knuckles, as though bored with the conversation. But it was clear he was paying close attention. Apparently, husband and husband weren’t entirely in agreement. “That can’t be denied.”

“I’m not so sure,” Reeve began slowly, and when several incredulous looks turned his way, he held up a hand, continuing, “I’m not denying their abilities as they were altered much like Sephiroth. They are strong, and were clearly not completely within their own minds. Were being the operative word here.”

Cid arched one brow, pulling a toothpick out of nowhere and jamming it between his lips. “Who’s to say they’re not still plum-fuckin’ nuts?”

As though expecting the question Reeve turned towards the Wutaiian, fully composed. “Tseng?”

There was a moment of hesitation before Tseng inclined his head, shifting in obvious discomfort. “There is no trace of Jenova within them.”

The president nodded, gesturing vaguely. “That’s one point in their favor,” he murmured, rubbing fingers across his chin.

Sephiroth’s brow furrowed, his eyes darting between the two men as understanding grew inside of him. “You had him invade their minds?” he demanded, voice coming out an annoyed hiss. His fingers curled into fists.

Tseng winced at the term. “Not exactly,” he corrected quietly, the reason for his discomfit suddenly much more obvious. “I asked for their permission first. They agreed.”

“Like they had a choice,” Sephiroth retorted sharply, fighting back a stab of betrayal. “Those boys aren’t stupid. They know what it takes to be given freedom.”

Reeve’s fingers tapped against the table, the others in the room holding their breath at the discussion that bounced between the three men. “And what you have me do? Loose those three boys back on the world without taking every precaution?” He shook his head, expression firm. “I am not subjecting the people – my daughter – to that risk.”

Sephiroth resisted the urge to bang his fist on the table as it would do nothing but provide an immature expression of his anger, even as he sat forward in his chair. “You’ve no idea what it’s like to have someone invade your mind,” he snarled, remembering all too well Jenova’s poisonous fingers, her sibilant whispers, her pressing demands…

No, he would never understand.

The president flinched, and swallowed thickly, sharing a brief glance with his lover. “On the contrary,” he argued, significantly more softer than before. “I do, courtesy of Kadaj. I don’t know what he intended, but that glimpse into madness is more than I plan to ever suffer again.”

Uneasy silence slipped into the conference room, anger briefly darkening Reno’s face as he recalled the instance in the office where Kadaj had attacked Reeve. He still bore a grudge for that. And it was never good to let a former Turk carry a grudge. They knew all the particularly nasty tortures. Or at least, the more humiliating ones.

Vincent was the one to break the quiet. “Thanks to their cooperation, we can come to an agreement,” he said with a pointed look towards Reeve. “Is that not what you were implying?”

The president inclined his head. “Correct. I propose we release them into our custody. That way, my concerns for the people will be assuaged, and they will have a measure of freedom. Despite my reservations, I do feel uneasy about limiting them to a life of confinement.”

“Babysitting,” Cid muttered with disgust, kicking out his foot. He chewed on his toothpick with a disgruntled expression. “S’what it sounds like ta me.”

Amusement curled Reeve’s lips. “Precisely. Reno and I will look after Yazoo. For Reis’ sake since she has pleaded on his behalf.”

“And I will watch over Loz,” Vincent inserted, despite his lover’s wide-eyed look and prompt disagreement.

As they argued quietly amongst themselves, with Valentine clearly coming out the victor, Archer was quick to volunteer himself. “And I will take Kadaj,” he announced.

Reno rolled his eyes, leaning back in his chair. “Yeah, I’m sure you will,” he muttered, with a cutting look towards the engineer.

Red flushed Archer’s cheeks. “I didn’t mean it the way it sounded,” he returned.

“Is he even qualified?” Reno added, displaying an unusual amount of force in this matter.

The engineer drew pack a pace, looking to launch himself from his chair and only barely restraining him. “What the hell-”

Surprisingly, it was Zack to cut into the conversation. “He will be if I help, too,” Zack inserted quietly, surprising Sephiroth with both the offer and the words. He hadn’t spoken much and Sephiroth cut a glance at him, silently apologizing for being unable to help his best friend.

Zack didn’t seem to notice, and Sephiroth lost the chance to attract his attention when Archer grew more agitated with increasing accusation.

“He’s not a child!”

Reno snorted. “Yeah, keep telling yourself that,” he muttered, leaning back in his chair with a dangerous air about him.

Reeve shot both his husband and Archer a warning look, the face of the president formidable. “Enough! This is neither the time nor the place for that particular discussion.”

Which, of course, implied that it would be continued at a later date. Sephiroth had a feeling it wouldn’t involve everyone in their group, not that it was the sort of thing that should be debated at all. Honestly, that was the one thing he did hate. Their propensity to stick their noses in everyone else’s business.

“Oh no. I think now is the perfect time for this,” Reno countered, a strangely hostile note in his tone. Of all people to disagree, Sephiroth wouldn’t have expected it to be the red-haired Turk who had less than stellar morals…

Archer twisted his jaw, the flush in his face deepening with increasing anger. “My personal life is not up for debate.”

“Archer, he’s a child,” Reeve pressed, resigned to the fact that they seemed determined to discuss this here and now, rather than in private as he had originally intended. “You’re over twice his age!”

Archer glared, shoulders bristling. “You’re one to talk,” he growled, his eyes cutting from president to Turk. “Reno was the same age when you two met.”

“And the difference between us then was only ten years,” Reeve countered, though he paled in remembrance. But then, it had been hard to think of Reno as a child, Reno having been forced to grow up quickly on the streets. “Are you that desperate-”

Desperate!” Archer repeated, dangerously approaching a shriek.

All other matters were apparently forgotten as the other members of the group watched this heated discourse between the three men, two of them close to being best friends. Sephiroth himself had no opinion as he didn’t think it would matter. But to him, Kadaj was no more a child than anyone in this room.

Archer hauled himself to his feet, violet eyes blazing. “What kind of person do you think I am?” he demanded. “You have no idea of the agony I faced over this! You think it was easy?”

“And yet you couldn’t say no,” Reeve retorted.

A bevy of emotions flickered over the engineer’s face, his fingers turning white-knuckled over the table. Archer twitched, and then stilled, his entire body drawing eerily still.

“Fine,” he forced out through gritted teeth. “I don’t expect you to understand. And I’m not going to bother to try either. I’m done here.”

With that, Archer whirled away from the table and stormed from the room, letting the door slam shut behind him with a loud, defining bang.

Reeve flinched and sighed, lifting a hand to rub it across his forehead, looking very much the defeated man.

“Well, that went slightly less than well,” Cid muttered, chomping down on his toothpick and spraying bits of wood across the tabletop.

Amber eyes tossed him a glare. “I didn’t see you making an effort to disagree,” Reeve retorted.

The pilot shrugged, leaning back in his seat and propping a boot on the edge of the table. “Cause I couldn’t care less what Archer chooses to do. He’s a grown-ass man. And as far as I can tell, so is Kadaj. Ain’t nothin’ child-like bout a brat like that. So I don’t know what you think you’re protectin’.”

“You should be more worried about Archer than Kadaj,” Vincent inserted, tucking a loose strand of hair behind his ear. “He’s the one who has the most to lose.”

Reeve let out a slow breath. “All that is a moot point anyways. He’s not going to listen to anything we say.”

“Then that’s his decision to make. It’s his life, not ours,” Tseng commented. “We have far more important things to worry about. Such as the fate of the three brothers. Are we agreed on allowing their freedom?”

“I don’t see why we gotta care about a bunch of murderers!” Barret snarled, rising to his feet with a fist pounding the tabletop. “They killed Marlene! You just gonna let ’em get away with that?”

His words rang through the room, reminding everyone of the pall of gloom that still lingered. A week had passed, but it was not enough to ease the thick grief. And Barret had a valid point. There were too many in the room who should wish for the deaths of the three brothers, rather than their freedom.

“Shall we become murderers as well?” Reeve countered, his voice strained. “We all loved Marlene, Barret, but even you should know that we would be no better by executing them, because that is what you are asking for, an outright execution.”

“Imprisoning them forever works jes fine, too,” the gunman retorted, crossing his arms over his beefy chest. “I don’t want them loose in the world, decidin’ to go all freaky just ’cause Mama comes callin’ again.”

Sephiroth wanted to argue, to rise to his feet and defend those three boys, but the words would mean nothing coming from him. Barret despised and blamed Sephiroth as much as he blamed Kadaj and his brothers. His words would only increase Barret’s ire, and even Sephiroth knew that the man had a valid point. They had killed.

But then, so had Sephiroth. So had half the people sitting in this room. Reno had destroyed the entire sector five plate in Midgar on ShinRa’s orders. Valentine had been an assassin for the Turks. Zack and Sephiroth were SOLDIERs, with numerous Wutaiian deaths under their belts. Even Archer and Cid had done a stint in the army and air force respectively

None of them were blameless or innocent. And Sephiroth knew for a fact that Barret had probably killed someone before, too. He was the original mastermind behind Avalanche after all. How many had died when he destroyed the reactor? Had he ever stopped to consider that?

Oh sure, it was history, but that didn’t mean it should be discounted. If Barret wanted to start pointing fingers at murderers, he needed to start with himself.

Fortunately for Sephiroth, someone else understood the very same points he had been debating.

“Barret, have you even looked around this table?” Aeris said quietly. “Have you even seen who you are surrounded by? Have you looked at yourself?”

The large man paused, blinking in confusion. “What’re you-”

“How many people do you think I’ve killed?” Reno interjected, strange to hear it from him, who had every reason to hate the brothers. “Or Tseng? Or Reeve even? Do you think that even I can count them anymore?” A haunted look entered his blue eyes, shadowed by memories of the past. “We’re all murderers in one way or another. And look where it’s gotten us.”

Barret blanched, a sizable feat considering his skin tone, and backtracked a step. “But-”

“I should feel the same as you,” a voice inserted softly, startling everyone because Zack had been mostly silent throughout the extent of the meeting. “Because of them, Elena was killed. So I should hate them just as much. I should want nothing more than their deaths.”

Zack paused to catch his breath, letting his words sink in. Sephiroth looked to his best friend worriedly, but Zack’s eyes burned with sorrow and determination both. Aeris’ kindness had indeed helped to ease his pain.

His hands clenched slowly, shoulders slumping. “But I am just as guilty as they,” Zack continued, and he looked up, meeting Barret’s eyes evenly. “And so are you.”

Barret spluttered, words lost to him at Zack’s soft accusation. He twisted his jaw, a proper response escaping him.

Aeris sighed, leaning back in her chair. “We could sit here and argue all night. We could place blame and demand justice and grow angrier in grief. But it will get us nowhere. The cycle must end. Can’t you see that?” Jade eyes gazed imploringly around the table, beseeching Barret thoroughly.

The gunarmed man muttered a curse, dropping back into his seat. “That’s not fair, Aeris. You can’t look at me like that.” He covered his face with his palm, looking defeated. “Just what am I ‘sposed ta tell Marlene, huh? How am I ‘sposed ta face Dyne?”

“That is something you will have to solve for yourself,” Reeve said, though he was not without sympathy for the grieving man. “But I do know that demanding blood isn’t the best option for any of us.”

Barret slumped, letting the action for itself. He offered no other comment.

“So… we’re letting them go,” Reno said slowly, voice approaching a drawl. “That’s what your gettin’ at, yo?”

“Do you see any other option?” Tseng asked pointedly, and no one had anything else to say. “We won’t kill them. We can’t lock them up indefinitely. There’s no choice but to release them into our custody.”

Vincent inclined his head, grey eyes solid and firm. “As much as we wish to hate them, I can’t find it in me to do so. I pity them more than anything.”

It’s not their fault. So don’t hate them, Mr. Sephiroth. They just wanted to be loved like anyone else. And they need someone to protect them.”

Marlene’s words rang in the back of his mind. Sephiroth wished he wasn’t the only one to have heard them.

“That damn Hojo’s a piece of work,” Cid muttered darkly, lips twisting into a scowl. He held no love for the mad scientist. There wasn’t anyone in the room who would disagree.

“If it comes down to it, we’ll just take them down again,” Reno agreed, though the gaze he exchanged with Reeve proved the conversation wasn’t over.

Tseng inclined his head. “Indeed. It is the only thing we can do.”

He spoke with a sense of finality that there was no choice but to settle the matter as concluded.

“There is one more matter requiring our attention,” Reeve said quietly, gathering their attention just as Cid began to rise, thinking it over. The pilot dropped back into his seat with a sullen look.

“It has been several days,” Reeve continued, “I know this is difficult for everyone so I arranged everything myself.”

“The funeral,” Tseng realized aloud, proving that he had not been one of the president’s conspirators. No, likely Reeve had sought Valentine’s help, or Highwind’s, wanting someone who wasn’t as emotionally involved.

Or perhaps this explained Nanaki and Yuffie’s absence.

Reeve nodded, rubbing fingers briefly over his face, highlighting his fatigue. Sephiroth couldn’t help but wonder if the president had even bothered to rest yet. Knowing Reeve, that was unlikely. He wouldn’t allow it until everything had been solved. Or Reno knocked him over the head and forced it. Whichever came first.

Sephiroth highly suspected it would be the latter. And tonight, if Reno’s concerned look was any indication.

“We must say goodbye,” the president explained. “I’ve set it for tomorrow afternoon, should the weather hold, in Kalm.”

“By Cloud,” Aeris murmured, taking in a slow breath. “That’s a good idea, Reeve. Thank you.”

“I took the liberty of purchasing the entire plot,” Reeve continued, his eyes tracking over all of them. “For the far-away future.”

Well, they all hoped it was far away. With Gaia constantly stricken with strife, it was difficult to say how long this peace would last. Personally, Sephiroth hoped it never ended. He was tired of battle and blood and pain and watching grief take over the lives of those who meant most to him.

“Always looking to the future, that’s Reeve for ya,” Cid inserted, and rose to his feet with a languid stretch, shattering the lightly-tense atmosphere. “Was that all, Mr. President? ‘Cause frankly, all of us look to be asleep in our chairs.”

A quick glance around only proved the captain’s point. Zack looked to have been pulled out of bed, judging from the dark circles under his eyes, and Reeve himself seemed no better. Reno lacked his spark of energy and Sephiroth himself wouldn’t mind a night’s sleep without the emotional strain that accompanied the last few.

Reeve waved a hand. “Yes, Cid, that’s all. You’re free to go.” A touch of amusement curled his lips.

Sephiroth stood with the others, just as relieved that business was concluded. He hadn’t gotten two steps out the door before Tseng appeared at his side, something hesitant in his eyes. Which was unusual. Tseng rarely hesitated about anything.

“I didn’t say anything because I knew you would object,” he explained, diving into conversation without so much as an acknowledgment.

“I’m not angry,” Sephiroth assured him, though admittedly, he had been.

Unfortunately, he could understand their worry. Once upon a time, he had been infected with madness as well. Once upon a time, he hadn’t been trusted. He shouldn’t fault them for trying to ensure that the three boys weren’t a threat. And the fact that permission had been sought was a point in their favor.

Still, it bothered Sephiroth. But he wasn’t angry.

Tseng looked at him, silver eyes solidly assessing. “You aren’t exactly pleased either.”

“It’s not something I’d like to argue about,” Sephiroth retorted. His eyebrow twitched. “It’s my own personal demons.”

Tseng wasn’t quite convinced, but he was the one who could sense tiny nuances in emotions, not Sephiroth. Sooner or later he would understand.

He inclined his head. “Very well.” He paused in the hallway, causing Sephiroth to pause as well. “I have to discuss deployment with Reeve. But… dinner?”

They almost sounded like a real couple. And that thought made Sephiroth smile just a tad. He nodded. “Yes. Dinner is fine. Eight?”

“Sounds good.” Tseng turned as if to leave before hesitating and shifting back towards Sephiroth.

The former General had no warning save for a faint gleam in silver eyes before Tseng grabbed him. A mouth fell over his, lips pressing urgently, and a tongue quickly followed. Sephiroth’s back hit the wall, an armful of Tseng nearly climbing into his hold, before it was over as swiftly as it began.

Tseng drew back, ever the picture of composure, tucking a stray lock of hair behind his ear. “Tonight,” he said again, and turned to stride down the hall.

Leaving Sephiroth to stare after him in stunned disbelief, his lips tingling and his body heated with no relief in sight.

[Shattered] Children 26

Chapter Seventeen- Crashing on the Shore

Pen scribbling over paper. Hand swiping over his brow. Palm digging into his eyes to stay awake just a while longer. And the phone rang again. Reeve reached for it without looking, tilting his head to notch it between his ear and shoulder.

“Tuesti here,” he answered crisply, and dully listened to the voice on the other end. More reinforcements, more supplies, more dead bodies, more destruction. He wished he could be surprised.

Every member of WRO had been called to active duty, pulled from all over the globe. But they couldn’t get here fast enough and Reeve had innocent citizens dying in the street because he couldn’t get the help to them in time. Cid was putting the Valenwind through its paces just to pick up and distribute the forces, but it wasn’t enough. Still, Reeve tried.

He ended the call several minutes later, the news only allowing him a brief breath. The reinforcements from Cosmo Canyon had arrived, spilling into Junon and hopefully, helping to tend the wounded. He was still waiting on those from Wutai that Yuffie and her cabinet had promised. But they had a longer journey to make.

And papers spread in front of him. Stacks upon stacks of reports. A good portion of the buildings were merely rubble, nothing salvageable except perhaps after months of digging. It had rained everywhere, reports of Geostigma being pulled in from the entire world – his one saving grace. And through it all, three men sat in cells in headquarters because no one was quite willing to decide what to do with them yet.

The phone rang again. Reeve blinked to add some moisture to his parched eyes, and reached for the jangling noise filling the silence. Someone else’s hand got their first and his fingers touched warm skin, jarring him from his rhythm.

Reeve blinked again, looking up to see Reno watching him, his own expression as tired as Reeve’s must have been. “I’ve got it,” was all he said, and Reeve let him answer the phone, Reno unsurprisingly reliable. He never would made it as second-in-command otherwise.

His husband’s voice soothed straight through him and Reeve drew a breath, glancing down at the papers in front of him. The words were starting to blur again. He rubbed his palm over his eyes. There was a click as Reno returned the phone to the cradle.

“And?” Reeve asked, fingers tightening around his pen. The second he’d gone through in the past day? Two days? He wasn’t even sure anymore.

Reno shrugged dismissively. “It stopped raining.”

“Did it?” Reeve lifted dull eyes to the window, where indeed, the sight of falling water had ceased.

It rained for quite some time, but then, there were many people infected with Geostigma. Reeve didn’t know what the weather had to do with fixing it, but decided he’d just go with it. Stranger things had happened.

Reno inclined his head and placed his palms flat on the desk, lowering himself until he was eye to eye with his husband. “Reeve, when was the last time you slept?”

The president paused, tapping the end of his pencil against the desk. “When did the rain start?”

“Twenty-four hours ago. At least, the third times anyways.”

“Then sometime before that,” Reeve responded, and shook his head, glancing down at the blurring numbers again. “I honestly can’t remember.”

Reno rounded the desk, and his warm arms coming down around Reeve from behind felt like a blessing. “Have you even given yourself time to grieve?”

“Would that I had time,” Reeve responded, and unwound cramped fingers from his pen, letting it clatter to the desktop. “But there’s too much to do. Too much to take care of. Too much-”

A hand covered his mouth as Reno pressed against him, all hard angles and heat, smelling faintly like rain and gunpowder and blood. “Come to bed with me. And don’t give me any bullshit about havin’ too much to do, yo.”

Reeve knew that his husband was right. The tensions running through his body ached, and he couldn’t concentrate anyways. He’d been staring at the same piece of paper for twenty minutes, unable to decipher the writing on it as it faded in and out of clarity. His head pounded with his skull, his stomach so empty it no longer complained. He would collapse soon, by choice or not.

He lifted a hand, placing it on Reno’s arm, and squeezed. “I can’t get up if you won’t let me.”

“Just a minute,” Reno mumbled, his face pressed against the back of Reeve’s shoulder, his arms tightening in their hold.

Reeve understood. Reno hadn’t had time to grieve either. And losing Elena was like losing a sister to him, a piece of his family. Marlene’s death had also struck particularly hard, as she was young. So very young. And they had all failed to protect her, every last one of them. Reeve couldn’t even imagine what Tseng suffered.

“There’s nothing you or I could have done,” Reeve murmured, closing his eyes and letting Reno soak up the comfort. He could use some of it himself. “And I’m saying it because I actually believe it, not just for your benefit.”

“I know,” Reno said, his voice thick with unshed emotion. “Elena’s one of the best Turks we ever had. It’s just…” He broke off, unwilling or unable to finish his sentence, but Reeve understood all too well. That it didn’t seem fair remained unspoken. It was the same that had crossed their minds after losing Cloud to the Chaos War.

Reno sighed softly, tilting his head to press a warm kiss against the side of Reeve’s throat. The phone rang again, and amber eyes opened to glare at the offending object, the sharp jangling noise piercing his senses.

“Ignore it,” Reno urged. “The world can take care of itself for a few hours, yo.”

The president wanted to agree with him. Every fiber of his being ached, and he wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed with his husband and sleep for the longest time. To bring his sister and his daughter home and to kiss Revan on the forehead and soak up the comfort of family.

He lifted his hand, his arm feeling like dead weight. “It could be important,” he muttered, and told himself that his fingers absolutely weren’t shaking. Even if they obviously were.

“Or it is probably just someone giving you another report about something you could stand to know in a few hours,” Reno corrected, grabbing his wrist and pulling it away from the phone. “Ignore it.”

Reeve considered listening to his husband and obeying, but the phone had the unique ability to penetrate into his brain, signaling its urgency. Phones and bad news had become synonymous in his eyes and ears. And a part of him didn’t want to know what else had gone wrong, or how many more bodies had been found, or what else was collapsing. His heart couldn’t take it.

The door to his office chose that moment to burst open without so much as a knock or a signal to the person’s presence, though admittedly there were few capable of getting to this level of headquarters. Reeve looked up to see his sister entering, burdened down with several bags of necessary supplies and one infant, who immediately gurgled on sight of her two fathers.

“I want to see him,” Reis stated without any hesitation, slightly out of breath, a hint of red to her cheeks. Her amber eyes were ringed in shadows.

Reeve rose to his feet, Reno at his side, as they helped relieve Reis of all her burdens. The president took hold of the mass of wriggling that was his daughter, tucking her into his arms.

“Who?” he asked, utterly confused. “And how did you get here?”

She waved a hand in dismissal, only to drag fingers through her slightly disarrayed hair. “Caught a ride on the Valenwind with Aeris and the others, but that’s neither here nor there.” Reis paused to take a breath, looking as if she’d run the entire distance from one continent to the other. “And by him I mean Yazoo. He’s alive, isn’t he? I want to see him.”

Several thuds echoed in the office as Reno dropped the bags she had brought in, casting her a stunned look.

Reeve, for his part, lifted his free hand and rubbed it against his forehead. He could feel the aching already, and hated himself for forgetting that brief phone call where Reis had revealed she knew Yazoo somehow. In the aftermath of the battle, and finding Elena and Marlene, he’d let it slip his mind completely.

“How do you know him?” Reno demanded, speaking when Reeve could not.

“Between you and Archer, I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself,” Reeve added, more of a murmur to himself than anything else.

His family, his friends, hiding their associations to a bunch of Sephiroth-lookalikes. How could none of them see the danger in that? Reeve struggled to think of anyone else he knew that could possibly have a connection to Loz, but none came to mind. He supposed only time would tell to see what other secrets slipped out.

Reis shook her head. “That doesn’t matter. I want answers, brother, and I want them now. What’s going on?”

Reeve felt the sudden need to sit down and he wandered to the couch, plopping down on it as Revan made a noise of disapproval. His arm automatically took up a swaying motion to comfort her. “Yazoo is one of the three brothers who, under Jenova’s influence, tried to destroy the planet. He is one of Hojo’s last experiments.”

He told her the truth because she was old enough to understand. And because she had to know what she was getting into, how near to danger she had been.

“He’s not exactly stable,” Reeve continued, feeling something tug deep in his chest at the look on his sister’s face. “We don’t even know if Jenova’s completely gone from them, or what. Right now, he’s imprisoned in the lower levels.”

The words had barely left his mouth before Reis was turning, heading towards the door. No doubt straight for the lower levels. She knew where to go.

Reno quickly caught her arm, stopping her progress. “Whatever ya think you knew of him probably didn’t really exist,” Reno said, the same that Reeve would have said if he didn’t feel so very tired. He wanted to stop Reis, he honestly did, but he also knew his sister and her stubbornness. She wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.

“I don’t care,” Reis said, in a tone of voice that implied there was to be no argument. “You don’t know him.”

“And you don’t either,” Reeve interjected quietly, ignoring the heated look his sister tossed at him, amber eyes flashing with fire. “It’s impossible to say what Hojo’s madness has created.”

She worked her jaw, letting out a harsh exhale. “If you treat him like a monster, then he’ll become one. But he’s the same as Sephiroth, Reeve. I’m sure of it. Let me see him.”

“I’m not trying to stop you. I just don’t want you to be surprised when you see him again.” He knew far better than to try. He could forbid until his face turned blue and his lips fell off, but she would just sneak in at the first opportunity.

Her eyes flickered to Reno, who finally released her arm. “Let us be a bit concerned for our precious sister, ne?” he said, with a tight smile. “It’s been a long few days.”

“And probably even longer for him,” Reis returned quietly. “Which room is it?”

“502.”

She inclined her head and was gone, before either he or Reno could say another word, the door clicking shut behind her. Reno let out a huge sigh and dropped down into the couch next to Reeve, reaching over trace a finger down Revan’s cheek.

“Hey sweetheart,” he murmured, Revan turning towards the touch and opening her eyes briefly, eyes the same shade as her reckless father.

Reeve leaned over a bit on Reno’s bony shoulder, feeling older than his years. “I think I’m ready to go to bed now,” he muttered.

His husband chuckled quietly. “Yeah, me too.”

Restless, Aeris put aside the book she had been reading and stared at the far wall, covered by a lovely painting. She had long since memorized the details of it, still feeling a restless urge inside of her. Midori was asleep finally, the emotions and stress of the day wearing thin on her infantile body. And with nothing to do, Aeris could only sit and think.

Her own emotions were frazzled. It had been good to see Cloud again, very relieving, but also bittersweet. It had been much harder to watch him leave for the second time, even if she could still feel him inside her. His warmth and kindness, his love, they resonated through her. She didn’t feel alone – honestly, with all their friends how could she possibly – but she missed him.

Aeris breathed out slowly, lifting a hand and rubbing at her temples out of habit alone. Grief hung like a heavy pall in the air, thick enough to breathe. Aeris herself felt numb, Marlene’s death spearing her through the heart. She had been responsible for the little girl and look what had become of it. And Tseng! She knew it had to be tearing him up inside. And Elena’s death had caused the WRO employees to walk around in a daze – Reno and Rude especially, who felt as if they had lost a sibling.

One of their family indeed. That was what they had all become. A group of former terrorists, orphans, intellectuals, soldiers – truly eclectic – and yet nothing meant more to them then each other. The bonds that war would weave.

Someone knocked lightly on the door, pulling Aeris from her thoughts. It could be any number of people, and she rose to her feet, easily avoiding furniture in the dimly lit resting room. She suspected it would be some time before she would return home to Rocket Town. There were things that needed to be done here.

Opening the door, Aeris had only a moment to recognize Sephiroth – and all his haggard appearance – before the man launched into speech without so much as a greeting.

“I need your help,” he said, shoulders slumped and eyes darkened an uncountable surge of emotion.

Aeris blinked. “I… what?”

Lifting his shoulders and spreading his hands helplessly, Sephiroth elaborated. “It’s Zack. I don’t… I don’t know how to help him and he needs it and there’s nothing I can do.”

In a moment, Aeris understood. She stepped aside, gesturing him within. “Let’s not talk about this in the hallway.”

He nodded and moved to enter, before looking at her hastily with a tip of his head. “Ah, I apologize for disturbing you at this hour.”

Her lips twitched, very close to a smile. “It’s three in the afternoon, Sephiroth.”

Inside, his gaze swept the room, truly a soldier’s habit, and he fidgeted as he stood in the middle of the clear floor. “Is it?” he murmured, dragging fingers through his hair. She politely didn’t notice that his fingers were trembling.

She let the door shut and flicked on the lights, though she used the dimmer to keep them low so as not to wake Midori. “When was the last time you slept?”

“Yesterday?” Sephiroth returned, obviously hazarding a guess. The room now lit, he located what was possibly the most uncomfortable chair in the room and lowered himself into it. “Or the day before that? I’m not entirely sure what day it is, to be honest.”

“Understandable.” Aeris returned to her chair, by Midori’s borrowed bassinet, and let her eyes wander back to Sephiroth. “You look as if you could use some rest.”

He sagged in the chair. “Probably, yes. But circumstances never make things so simple.” And Sephiroth fidgeted again, only proving his fatigue.

Aeris dropped a hand into Midori’s bassinet, gently stroking her fingers over Midori’s back. “No, they don’t, do they?” she responded quietly, thinking of Cloud in that moment. “You asked for my help?”

Inclining his head, Sephiroth rubbed a hand across his eyes, trying to wipe away a week’s worth of weariness. “What do I know about this kind of thing?” he asked in a roundabout manner. “I was made a soldier. How am I supposed to comfort someone?”

Sympathetic, Aeris listened, understanding Sephiroth’s dilemma. It was hard enough for the former General to come to terms with his own emotions, much less someone else’s. And to worsen matters, he had three grieving persons on his hands – his best friend, his lover, and his adoptive son. No wonder he was overwhelmed.

“I think you’ll be better at it then you know,” Aeris assured him. “It doesn’t take much. It’s enough to let him know you’re there.”

Dragging a hand through his hair – it was kind of cute that Sephiroth had such an aggravated habit – Sephiroth breathed slowly. “You might be right. But I’m only one person; I can’t help them both. And I can’t abandon them either.”

“What would you have me do?”

“I’m worried about Zack,” Sephiroth explained, leaning forward and placing his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands together. “He’s just bottling it up, taking it out on the equipment in the arena.” He paused, looking crestfallen. “He wouldn’t talk to me. He just wanted to be alone.”

To anyone else, it would seem unreasonable for Sephiroth to be upset about that sort of thing. But an outsider wouldn’t understand the connection between the two – how very close Sephiroth and Zack were, like brothers without blood ties, family members who loved each other wholly without the sexual connotations. Sephiroth was worried, and the helplessness showed. He wasn’t used to not knowing what to do.

Midori stirring, Aeris reached in and pulled her daughter into her lap, mismatched eyes blinking up at her sleepily.

“Understandable. Elena’s loss has hit him strongly and guilt colors his sorrow,” she commented quietly, feeling similar pangs in her own heart.

Elena was a dear friend to her, and Marlene like her own child. She only held her strength visibly because she couldn’t afford to fall apart. And there were others who felt the pain deeper. She needed to be strong for them, just as she had needed to be strong for Midori. Aeris would take her time to quietly grieve later. For now, she had to help the emotionally stunted soldiers.

Tucking Midori close, she continued, “Have you been to see Tseng?”

“I saw him briefly this morning, but we separated earlier,” Sephiroth answered, his hands clasping tighter.

“You should find him. He doesn’t need to be alone right now.”

Sephiroth’s head bowed, shoulders slack with defeat. “I know that. I…”

“Don’t worry about Zack.” Aeris rose to her feet, moving Midori to her shoulder where the infant stirred before murmuring something and settling again, no doubt disturbed by the emotion thick in the air. “I’ll try and lure him away from destroying Reeve’s important equipment.”

Relief and gratitude instantly shone in grey eyes. “I… thank you, Aeris. I really appreciate it.”

“I couldn’t go off and leave him on his own, could I?” she returned playfully, hoping to ease some of the tension for Sephiroth. “Besides, it is likely just that Zack doesn’t want to burden you.”

“I wish he would,” Sephiroth murmured, rising to his feet as well and stepping nearer, lifting a hand and gently stroking over the soft hair on Midori’s head. It always amazed Aeris how very gentle he could be with the infant. “I want to return all he’s done for me.”

She laid a hand on his shoulder, unsurprised by the subtle tremble his body had taken. “I’m sure he knows,” Aeris murmured, and gave him a comforting squeeze. “Now find Tseng. I’ll take care of the rest.”

An uneasy restlessness gave speed to her limbs and Reis hurried through the halls, a part of her anxious, a part of leery. She knew her brother was right. That Yazoo might not be the same. Even so, she could not abandon him. Something in him called to her, and she felt that if she didn’t, no one else would. They were friends, weren’t they? And Reis chose to believe in him.

The detention floor – a little more extravagant than an outright institution, but still, essentially, a prison – was guarded by two soldiers in WRO uniforms. Reis whipped out her name badge; it granted her access to pretty much anything in the building except for the higher laboratories, the weapons storage as she had no need for them, and the true prison cells. Flashing her picture, one guard nodded and stepped aside, pulling open the thick door and letting her through.

She heard the music before anything, confusion floating into her thoughts. Music? Here? Did they even allow instruments in the detention hall?

The door closed behind her with a loud and defining clunk, and she was treated to the sight of a hallway lined with doors, all with viewing windows. Each door had its own personal guard, who turned to look at her immediately. One door down the hall in particular had three guards clustered around it, talking to each other in low tones.

A glance nearby gave her a number. 512. Numbered backwards it appeared. Or, it was more likely she had simply entered on the wrong end of the hall. Reis resisted the urge to peek into the windows, not wanting to know who else might be in here. She had come for Yazoo alone.

A door to her left opened and she paused, blinking as Archer stepped out.

“Reis?”

She offered him a smile. “If you’re going to ask me what I’m doing here then I’ll have to turn the question back at you.”

Violet eyes shifted hesitantly as he pulled the door closed behind him. “Same as you. Visiting a prisoner.”

Reis lifted a brow. “And who would that be?”

A tinge of red flushed Archer’s cheeks. “Kadaj,” he admitted, though it was clear he didn’t really want to.

“The youngest brother?” she exclaimed, shocked. She knew enough thanks to Yazoo. “He’s like… twelve years younger than you!”

“Twenty, actually,” Archer said quietly. “And trust me, I’ve heard enough lectures from Reeve to last me to the end of my lifetime. I know how bad it looks. And I also know I’m not going to give him up.”

She had never seen such determination on his face before. Archer was serious. He would fight like hell if anyone tried to separate them. But… if Kadaj were himself, then perhaps Yazoo was as well. Though she did remember Yazoo always mentioning that his little brother was the strongest of them.

“I wasn’t going to lecture you,” Reis said. “I was just curious.” She smiled softly. “I am here to visit Yazoo myself.”

Archer blinked. “How did that come about?’

“My secret to keep.” Reis waved dismissively, and headed further down the hall. “We’ll catch up later, okay? There’s no telling how long I’ll actually get to talk to Yazoo before Reeve comes storming down here to rescue me.”

A short laugh escaped the engineer, dissolving the tension in the hallway. “You do that. Good luck, Reis.”

It would have sounded strange to anyone else, but she understood the gesture. “You, too.”

Archer was already gone, and Reis focused on her destination. The closer she drew to the cluster of guards, her ears detected a faint, soft noise. Like music, fingers elegantly moving over the keys of a piano. She passed by room 502, but was more drawn to the mournful melody.

“He’s been in there for hours,” one of the soldiers muttered to the other, shaking his head.

“I didn’t even know these freaks could do something like that,” the other commented, craning his neck to peer through the viewing portal.

Reis’ eyes narrowed. “Something interesting?”

In tandem, both uniformed soldiers startled and whirled towards her. She was pleased to notice that their hands immediately leapt to their weapons. Their reaction time was good, even if it was obvious their behavior wasn’t acceptable.

“Ah… you…?” One stuttered, trying to match her stern voice to her face, which wasn’t exactly recognized.

She flashed her card again, and was gratified in seeing both soldiers pale when her name was revealed. Tuesti. Pretty powerful stuff here. “Who’s in the room?”

“One of the rem- prisoners, Yazoo,” the second soldier corrected after an elbow in the side from the other.

Interested, Reis moved to the door, peeking through the glass. “It’s protocol to allow prisoners access to an instrument?”

“President Tuesti approved it.”

She smiled softly to herself. Her brother really was sympathetic on the inside, even if he didn’t show it. “Let me in.”

They hesitated, but remembering her name badge, drew out a keycard attached to a stretching chain. Soldier One swiped it through the lock, and a series of quick key presses later granted her access, and encouraged a spill of music into the hallway. The sound flowed through her and Reis briefly closed her eyes in face of it. Beautiful.

“Feel free to lock it behind me,” she murmured, already entering.

Reis didn’t give them a chance to answer, stepping quietly across the tiled floor. The room itself was empty, except for the piano. A large window allowed gleaming light into the room, casting it in an ethereal glow. Yazoo sat with his back to the door, hair drawn into a low ponytail by a familiar red band, his fingers moving smoothly across the white and black keys. The melody was haunting and soft.

He had to have known she was there. Reis was not skilled in walking silently and his senses were too militarily attuned. Even when they were just friends, before all this craziness, she had noticed that about him. So Reis made her way across the floor, and slid into the empty seat beside him. He tensed, ever so subtly, one note hitting a mite flat, before he continued without pause.

She watched him in silence for several moments, feeling the heat of his body next to hers, watching the elegance of his fingers as they pressed key after key. He was too talented a musician to be wasted as whatever Jenova had wanted to use him for. There was a shadow of a bruise on his face, but even it was healing quickly. By tomorrow, no doubt there would be no hint of it. And without the leather she was used to seeing him wear, he looked younger. More boyish.

Handsome.

Her cheeks flushed briefly with that realization. Well, that sort of understanding could come later. Right now, she just wanted to talk.

Holding her breath, Reis lifted a hand and gently laid it over Yazoo’s left hand, covering his fingers and halting his song mid-note. “I’m glad that you are not injured,” she murmured, her voice carrying in the soft silence as the last tone echoed.

Yazoo drew his right hand into his lap, but didn’t shy away from her touch. She considered that encouragement. “I apologize for not telling you.”

Her fingers curled around his, longer than her own, and very elegant. “I understand why you couldn’t,” Reis assured him, and her eyes raked over his features again. “Is she gone?”

“I don’t know.” Green eyes – a soft celadon rather than the vivid, ethereal jade – cast towards the ivory keys. “I can’t feel her anymore. But then, she had always been a distant voice to Loz and myself. Kadaj was the only one who actually heard her speak.”

“A blessing and a curse.” Her fingers carefully stroked over his palm, wanting to reassure him of her presence, and their friendship. “I will talk to my brother. I don’t know what he’s planning, but I won’t let him kill you.”

Yazoo subtly cringed and only then did he take his hand back, sliding off the piano seat and raking a hand through his hair. It was caught on the tie, and he jerked it free. “You shouldn’t bother. Whatever the president decides is probably for the best. We are not good people.”

She twisted around on the seat, watching as he paced slowly across the floor, agitated and trying to fight it. “Once upon a time, neither was Sephiroth. And yet, here he is. Alive with his second chance. And so are you.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“It’s as simple as you choose to make it,” Reis returned, hoping that her words would get through to him. She considered Yazoo a dear friend – perhaps even more. “I don’t want to watch you die.”

He paused mid-step, and for the first time, actually looked at her. As if seeing her for the first time. Loose strands of hair framed his face, softening his features. He really was an attractive man, but more than that, he was intelligent and talented. And he actually listened to her music, paid attention to it, valued it for a different reason than her parents ever did.

“You really think we’re worth something.”

“Every human life is,” Reis returned, the answer very personal to her in her occupation. She was never one to simply let a patient die.

She patted the empty seat beside her, offering him a gentle smile. “Play that song for me again?”

Yazoo gave her an odd look, probably confused as to why she would ask for something like that at this time. He moved across the floor, steps still silent, like some sort of graceful assassin, and lowered himself onto the seat.

“You actually like it?” he asked quietly, lifting his hands and running them over the keys without making a sound, just warming up his fingers.

Reis avidly watched his hands, wishing her own were as skilled. “Of course.”

The melody poured through the room, so familiar, but gradually shifting into something else. Even as she watched, he altered the tune, the notes easing from melancholy to an encouraging lilt. And he made the changes so seamless, without any real effort. Reis envied his talent.

He played softly, and she closed her eyes, losing herself to the melody. Reis leaned to the side, laying her head on his shoulder, felt the heat of him through her cheek. And though he briefly missed a note, Yazoo continued without protest.

And Reis couldn’t help but smile softly to herself.

Instinct and intuition had always served Sephiroth well. Now was no exception. In his search for Tseng, he headed to the Turk’s quarters, once shared with Elena. It seemed the last place Tseng would be, but Sephiroth had a feeling it would also be the first place he would go. Even if the memories were too strong, the memories were at least there, and Tseng would wallow in them.

He was even more sure of himself when he arrived and the front door was unlocked. Tseng was too controlled to forget – even in grief – so it had to have been planned. Sephiroth stepped in, throwing the bolt behind him. The apartment was darkened as though no one was home, but it didn’t feel empty. Tseng was definitely here.

Toeing out of his boots, Sephiroth stepped lightly down the hall, noticing that Elena’s room was tightly shut. The kitchen and main room were empty, the bathroom as well. Leaving pretty much only one place for the Turk commander to be.

Tseng’s door was open, and Sephiroth considered it an invitation to enter. His eyes already adjusted to the dark, he quickly spotted Tseng on the other side of the room, sitting in a chair before the window. A bottle of something sat on the sill beside him, but it appeared untouched.

The Turk turned his head towards the door as Sephiroth entered. “I’ve not touched it,” he explained quietly, voice lacking the slur of inebriation. “Elena wouldn’t approve.”

“No, she wouldn’t.”

One hand toyed with the bottle. “Denzel’s sleeping in her room. Elmyra brought him here when she couldn’t find you.”

Good to know. But Sephiroth couldn’t help but think it was a distraction tactic. If Denzel was sleeping, then he was fine. Right now, Sephiroth was more worried about Tseng.

“Why are you sitting in the dark?” Sephiroth asked, feeling as if he’d thrust himself into another situation where he didn’t know what to do. How did he fix things? He was a soldier, a fighter, known for tearing things down and destroying. Sephiroth didn’t know how to fix.

“Didn’t really need the light,” Tseng answered, and he rose to his feet, the chair creaking behind him. In the half-light given by the streetlamp pouring through the limbs, he was all shadows and angles, but behind his placidity grief grew stronger and stronger.

Emotions squeezing his chest, Sephiroth stopped trying to dance around it. He didn’t know, he wasn’t going to guess. “Just tell me what to do,” he murmured into the dark, drawing closer to Tseng. “What do you need from me?”

There was a creak as Tseng dropped down to the bed, raking a hand through his loose hair. Suit and tie had been lost long ago, buttons loosened, belt abandoned, shoes kicked off to the side. He set his elbows on his knees, back bowed under an imaginary weight.

“Gift and curse, this ability of mine,” he said softly, voice barely carrying through the dark. “I had a feeling. I think I knew it before everyone. I just didn’t recognize the feeling. I thought maybe it had something to do with all the worry. I didn’t realize it was time ticking down.”

Sephiroth lowered himself beside his lover, pressed against Tseng’s side. Though barely touching, he could feel the chill around Tseng. His face was shadowed by the falls of hair, but even emotionally-inept Sephiroth knew that he was upset. All Tseng had was his strength, and he clung to it, but the grief was stronger and gaining ground. No wonder he had retreated to the safety of his own room.

“Tseng, I don’t know what to say.”

“Words are useless anyways,” the Turk murmured, and his body gave a light shudder, the emotions breaking free before he locked them in again. “At least in this situation. If I have to hear one more “I’m sorry” or see another sympathetic look, I’ll shoot myself to save the irritation.”

Sephiroth winced, knowing that Tseng didn’t mean it. Or at least, hoping so.

He thought desperately of the words Elena and Marlene had left him in that strange dream or reality he had visited. Sephiroth wasn’t inclined to dismiss it too quickly. The planet and the Ancients worked in odd ways, and he wouldn’t reject their mercy. Seeing the two one final time had been a grace.

“They told me to take care of you,” he murmured, and gave a little sigh of disbelief, shaking his head. Something hot grew behind his eyelids. “Marlene made me promise to make you happy, though I had already carried that intent.”

Beside him, Tseng stilled imperceptibly and then his forehead fell into his palm, a bark of bitter laughter escaping him. “Sephiroth, I’m trying my hardest here not to fall apart. You’re not making it any easier.”

“I’d apologize, but I wouldn’t mean it.”

Tseng’s fingers tightened. “You want me to break?”

“No, I want you to grieve.” Sephiroth turned towards his lover, forcing Tseng to look at him. In the gloom of the room, the Turk’s silver eyes were pools of emotion. “I couldn’t help Zack. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to be useless here as well.”

He closed his eyes, dragging in a slow and steady breath. “We are soldiers. We are fighting, kill-”

“That’s bullshit and you know it as well as I do. Don’t spout that nonsense at me.” Sephiroth’s words were fierce, probably more than he intended, but even he knew that if Tseng bottled this up, it would only hurt more in the end. “They were worried for you, Tseng. Even in that dream world. Don’t dishonor their care for you with that sort of ShinRa bullshit.”

Silence echoed in the room and Tseng’s head bowed, no fight left in him. He didn’t even try to break free from the hold Sephiroth had on his shoulders.

Sephiroth sighed and let him go, rising to his feet. “Come on,” he ordered, moving to the head of the bed.

He pulled off his extra shirt, tossing it to the side, and throwing his belt atop it. Extra accessories joined the haphazard pile until he was clad only in a sagging pair of pants and his undershirt.

“What are you doing?” Tseng asked, voice thick, as he looked up.

Sephiroth crawled back onto the bed, stretching across the covers. “Join me?”

Confusion furrowed Tseng’s brow, but he followed Sephiroth’s example, and the moment he came close enough, Sephiroth snatched an arm and pulled him close. “I don’t really know what I’m doing,” Sephiroth continued as Tseng made a small noise of protest. “It just seems the right thing to do.”

“Taking lessons from Zack, I guess,” Tseng muttered, but he gradually relaxed anyways, pressing against Sephiroth until his cold body shared Sephiroth’s heat.

“Aeris, actually,” Sephiroth returned, burying his face in long strands of black hair, a very familiar scent emanating from it. “Trust me?”

Tseng’s body gave a faint shudder, imperceptible if they hadn’t been so close. “Sometimes, I hate how well you can shield your emotions from me,” he murmured, voice thick with emotion. And for his sake, Sephiroth hoped he was allowing those tears free. “But right now, it’s a blessing.”

Sephiroth said nothing, his hold unconsciously tightening. He both felt and heard Tseng draw in several slow, hitching breaths. Struggling to hold onto his composure and failing in the wake of his emotions.

Silence filled the room, words unnecessary. And Sephiroth hoped that in the end, he had helped in some way. Watching his loved ones grieving so strongly made something inside his own chest squeeze painfully. As though the sorrow were his own as well.

Time dragged before Tseng’s grief was overcome by his exhaustion. He slumped into Sephiroth’s arms, giving in to sleep. And Sephiroth allowed himself to gradually relax. His arm was gathering pins and needles, but he didn’t dare move.

He was just beginning to doze when his soldier senses clicked to life at the sound of the door opening. He tensed, but recognized the tread of small feet across the floor. He said nothing as a small body crawled into bed on the other side of him, cuddling against his back.

Denzel needed the comfort, too.

And a part of Sephiroth was warmed by that need, cradled by two very important people in his life.

Small hands clutched onto the back of his shirt, a wet face pressing against him, but Sephiroth didn’t complain. If his presence were enough, he wouldn’t say a word. He would just be there.

[Shattered] Children 25

Interlude Eight: Heaven’s Not Enough

“Hurry, catch it!”

A shout. Laughter. Breath puffing in cold air. Feet skidding over gravel and dead grass, brown with the onset of winter.

“To the left! The left!”

The sound of a ball falling into someone’s hands filled the air and a rousing cheer echoed from the children gathered.

Loz grinned, shooting them all a thumbs up. “Great catch,” he said, nearly out of breath, wiping a bead of perspiration from his forehead. “Now toss it here. I’ll throw it again.”

“Okay, Mr. Loz!” One of the neighborhood kids, a chubby-cheeked brat with curly hair practically sparkled at him with pride. He heaved the ball as hard as his chubby little arms could manage, which actually wasn’t very far.

Luckily, Loz had guessed the trajectory well, and managed a fancy looking catch that saved the both of them from looking like fools. And well, even if he had to skid across the ground in a slide to do it, the children were entertained. For some reason, the dirtier he got, the more amused they were.

Rising to his feet, Loz dusted himself off, spitting out a small clump of grass. The children’s grins were infectious as they scattered, waiting to see who he would throw to next. But before the ball could even leave his fingers, Junon’s great clock rang loudly, announcing the time.

High noon. Lunchtime for kiddies, especially during winter break. Sounds of disappointment echoed through the park, children turning with slumped shoulders and trudging back towards their homes.

“Eat well!” he called after them as a series of small hands waved goodbye and a chorus of “Bye Mr. Loz!” and “See you later!” and “Thanks for the game!” followed in their wake.

Loz couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed himself. He lifted his shoulders and raked a hand through his hair, dislodging a few bits of dirt and ice that had gathered there. His rumbling stomach decided he should probably head home as well.

Tucking the ball under one arm, Loz snagged his abandoned jacket from the ground and jogged out of the park, still full of restless energy. He supposed he had Hojo to thank for that. Nothing was ever enough. Not play, not food, not anything. He felt as if he were spending his existence constantly searching, and never finding anything.

The park was only a block away from their shared apartment, a little rundown and far from comfortable, but the only thing they could rent at the time lacking suitable identification. That had since been remedied by Yazoo’s computer hacking skills but at the time, housing had been a first necessity. Loz didn’t personally care himself, only glad that the apartment looked nothing like their sterile, cell-like quarters in the lab, and that he didn’t have to face countless painful tests everyday. He was too enamored of his freedom to care what package it came in.

He took the stairs rather than the elevator, passed the kind elderly couple from the first floor that liked to bring them baked sweets, and juggled his keys out of his pocket. Only to find that the door was unlocked. Loz frowned. He’d told them time and time again to keep it locked. It didn’t matter that they could protect themselves or that they really didn’t have anything of value, it was the principle.

A wash of warm air smacked him in the face – Yazoo always did complain of being too cold while Loz and Kadaj sweltered in misery. “Oi! You guys didn’t lock the door again!” Loz hollered, stomping his feet to clear out the mud before kicking off his boots.

“That was your fault!” A voice called from one of the rooms down the hall – Kadaj’s, he was sure. “You were the last one to leave.”

Loz pondered, slinging his coat over the rack. It was possible. Bah, he let it slide. “What’s for lunch?” he asked instead, peeling off his sweater too. He was already feeling the immense heat.

Yazoo appeared in the doorway to the kitchen, tossing a pack of instant ramen at him. “Have at it,” Yazoo said, vanishing back into the kitchen.

“Awww.” Loz looked forlornly at the package of chicken-flavored noodles. It was never enough, not one or two packages. He wanted meat, not powdered seasoning. “I’ll just cook something myself then.”

“Stay out of the kitchen!” came Yazoo’s surly response and Loz cringed, the sharp note of annoyance in Yazoo’s tone enough to cause him to back away slowly. Very well then, on to the rest of the apartment.

He passed by Kadaj’s room, where his youngest brother was propped up in a chair reading a book that looked way too boring for Loz’s tastes. “He got hit on by a man again today,” Kadaj said without looking up, blandly flipping another page. “I had to clean up another mess.”

Loz scratched at his chin. “That explains the ‘tude.”

“Kadaj, shut up!” Yazoo hollered from the kitchen.

“Cut your hair and maybe they wouldn’t mistake you!” Kadaj shouted back with a smug grin, smirking behind his book.

No answer came, but even Loz could tell that Yazoo was fuming. It really would be best if he stayed away from the kitchen for the moment, despite his growling stomach.

Kadaj’s eyes flickered to him. “Playing with the children again? You’re too old for that.”

“Not like I ever got to be a kid before,” Loz reminded him, a conversation they’d had many times before.

Besides, he liked children. There were innocent and pure, knowing nothing of strife. Loz often felt that spending time with them helped leech out the darkness inside of him. He thought that in another life, he could have been a teacher or something similar. Though with the way his thoughts sometimes disconnected such a thing was impossible now. His brain simply wasn’t up to it.

Loz promptly banished those depressing thoughts. They were only an invitation for that bitch to stick her fingers in his mind and he liked thinking for himself. Even if it was only fleeting.

“And what about you? You’re going to ruin your eyes if you keep reading like that.”

Kadaj snorted, flipping another page. He was probably just skimming since he’d already read that book before. “If that were possible for us, I might actually welcome it,” he replied quietly, and Loz noticed the way his hands tightened in their grip on the book.

Of the three of them, Kadaj heard her the most, and suffered the worst. Loz knew it all too well, and he wished there were actually something he could do about it. He was supposed to be the eldest, but most of the time, Yazoo and Kadaj looked after them. He had big hands but they were useless. He was helpless in front of her. All of them were really, but it was always Kadaj who held out the longest. He was her favorite and Loz didn’t envy him for it.

He wished he knew the answers.

Loz shifted uncomfortably in the doorway, words failing him as they usually did. He didn’t know how to comfort Kadaj because he didn’t know how to comfort himself. He didn’t know the right words to make it better. Or the right actions.

Kadaj sighed and glanced at him over the top of the book. “It’s fine, big brother, no need to cry about it. Go eat something. Your rumbling stomach is scaring me.”

“I’m not crying!” Loz retorted sharply, eyebrow twitching. Geez, lose control of his emotions one time and neither of them would ever forget it!

Still, he was relieved when that induced a small smile from his youngest brother. Practically the only time he resembled his age. Kadaj really ought to smile more.

“Whatever. Leave me alone so I can finish this chapter.”

“Hai, hai. Whatever little brother commands,” Loz said cheerily and turned away from the door, idly scratching at an itchy spot on the back of his neck. Some mud flaked off, reminding him that he needed to bathe. Perhaps he should do that before he ate.

His belly rumbled again. Or maybe after. He was really hungry. Even if all he had to look forward to was a cup of ramen.

Loz decided to brave the kitchen and crept towards it. Pans clattered. Water ran. And Yazoo muttered under his breath, ripping open a bag of rice and pouring it into the pan. Loz winced at the outright violence in the motion. It really bothered Yazoo when he was accosted like that. Some would say he should consider it a compliment, but such actions went hand in hand with memories of Hojo and tests and utterances of “failure”.

Yazoo was too pretty. Too delicate. His body, while fast and sleek, agile and flexible, simply couldn’t take the same kind of beating that Loz’s could. And he lacked an intimidating aura. Of the three of them, he carried an artist’s spirit, and Hojo had wanted a warrior. Yazoo had been trash, even before Loz had been.

And it didn’t help that at the moment, Yazoo happened to look very girly. He had his hair pulled up with some sort of bright red scrunchie that bared the nape of his neck. And that apron! Loz had to cover his mouth before he burst out laughing. Still, a chuckle slipped by him and Yazoo whirled at the sound, spatula raised.

That was it. Loz snickered loudly, unable to help himself. Of course, that didn’t help Yazoo’s temper either.

“Want some advice from your big brother?” Loz asked, pushing his way into the kitchen to dump some water on his ramen. “Don’t ever go out like that in public.”

Yazoo rolled his eyes. “Great pearl of wisdom there. I’ll lock it away with all the other ones I’ve gathered in the past few months.”

A few beeps and he popped the noodles into the microwave. Loz tried to peek into whatever Yazoo was cooking, but apparently, he wasn’t allowed to see yet because he was quickly intercepted.

“You’re just in the way,” he muttered, elbowing him out of the way.

Loz grinned, reaching up and poking his brother in the cheek, though it was a lot like tugging the tail of the tiger. “You know, you really look like some kind of parent right now.”

Yazoo smacked his hand away. “And you’re the child I never would have wanted.” Finally, his younger brother looked at him and made a face. “Playing with kids again? You’re filthy.”

Loz laughed again as the microwave dinged.

“Shit!”

Both Yazoo and Loz turned towards the door where Kadaj flew past it in a flurry, nearly stumbling over his own feet as he careened down the hall. Arching a brow, Loz ventured back into the corridor to see Kadaj struggling to pull his hair back into something relatively presentable. Yazoo followed him, peeking out the doorway.

“Where are you going?” Yazoo called out as they watched Kadaj grab his coat from the pegs and throw it over his shoulders.

“Out,” Kadaj answered shortly, tugging on a scarf as well though he didn’t reach for his gloves. Souba was noticeably left in its sheath by the door and not attached at his side.

Loz grinned, leaning against the wall. “Oh? To do what?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest.

“None of your business,” Kadaj snapped, his cheeks flushing, and for a moment, looking like the teenager he really was. “I’ll be back later.”

And the door slammed behind him.

“Aww, he’s really growing up,” Loz cooed, amused at Kadaj’s reaction.

Wouldn’t it be nice if they could spend the rest of their lives like this? Like real people? Without worrying about the dark presence slithering in the back of their minds? Loz thought about that sometimes. He never voiced it aloud, because that was too much to hope for, but sometimes, he wondered.

Yazoo rolled his eyes and stepped back into the kitchen where he was in the middle of burning their dinner. They had insisted on splitting the duties, but really, Loz was the only one could cook anything worthwhile. Still, Yazoo tried and Loz let him because he thought it was kind of cute.

“Take a bath. You’re dirty,” Yazoo muttered, and it was soon followed by the sound of running water and the fan over the stove clicking on.

Shaking his head, Loz stretched his arms over his head and realized that yeah, he was pretty dirty. He wondered how long this freedom was going to last as he wandered back to the bathroom. Just the three of them. This tiny apartment. A city large enough to get lost in. And Jenova hovering in their psyche, like a scar that would never heal.

And Loz honestly, desperately prayed to whatever god would listen for fate to have some mercy on them. For Kadaj’s pure heart and Yazoo’s gentle spirit if anything else. And maybe, if there was a bit left over, spare some for him as well.

Paperwork, paperwork and more paperwork. Archer wasn’t sure when he signed up for all this, but he was damn tired of looking at it. He scribbled Reeve’s signature onto another document and shoved it aside, hurriedly reaching for the next. His eyes glanced at the clock and he cursed under his breath. He would never finish at this rate.

A hand came down in the middle of his paper, blocking where he was supposed to sign. “You seem to be in a hurry,” Reeve stated jokingly, looking ready for a hard day at work with his sleeves rolled up and his tie loosened. “Hot date?”

Archer stilled, as the description was and wasn’t accurate. He didn’t dare call this a date, but it wasn’t something he wanted to miss either. “Something like that,” he answered, and didn’t meet Reeve’s eyes because the president was far too adept at garnering the truth.

Reeve arched a brow, skeptical. “Really?” he prompted, keeping his hand in place and preventing Archer from continuing his work.

Rolling his eyes, Archer poked his pen at the tanned hand in his way, leaving an ink mark behind. “Kami, Reeve, you make it sound like I’m some kind of eunuch!” He tried to nudge the paper out from under the president’s hand. It threatened to tear.

Finally removing his hand, Reeve flicked fingers at him, dropping behind his desk and into his own chair. “For a while, I almost thought you were.” He snorted. “Go, get out of here then. Maybe this ‘hot date’ will help that surly disposition.”

“Thanks, boss,” Archer retorted sarcastically, and was out of his chair in a flash, grabbing his coat and slinging it over his shoulders.

There was a stack of papers remaining but Reeve could get Reno to sign those if he really wanted. No one was as good at forging as Reno. Good thing he was on their side.

Reeve waved off his gratitude, already immersed in his own stack of important documents. It didn’t really pay to be the president of a major company. Especially at times of mergers and funding requests and rebuilding and all that not-fun stuff.

He reached the door in record time, but it was opened by another before he managed to grab the handle, and Archer encountered a very pregnant Reis. He scrambled to get the door for her, Reis casting him a grateful look, one hand placed over her bulging belly.

“Thanks. That door just keeps getting heavier.”

“It’s not the door, it’s your stomach,” Archer teased, wincing as she smacked his arm playfully, practically glowing with pride. “Not much longer, ne?”

She grinned, looking relieved. “Two more weeks,” Reis returned and entered the room behind him, waddling all the while. She looked near to bust; it was hard for Archer to believe there was just one baby in that belly.

“Good luck!” Archer called after her and practically sprinted down the hallway, glancing down at his watch. He was already running late, and he prayed to some deity that his date wouldn’t leave.

The fact that he was rushing to see a teenager bothered Archer on several levels. He knew that there was a line there, and he shouldn’t cross it. To be honest, he hadn’t. They’d done nothing more than chat with each other since the moment they had met for a second time, bumping into each other randomly. It had been Kadaj to suggest they meet again that time, and Archer had been unable to find sufficient reason to deny him. Or, to be honest, a part of him hadn’t really wanted to.

Kadaj was beautiful, and strong, and there was a look in his eyes that spoke of loneliness, that screamed to be saved. Archer was drawn to him inexplicably, as though the youth exuded some type of pheromone to draw him in. It was wrong, so very wrong, and he needed to stop this before he got in too deep. Yet, here he was, careening down the hallways of the WRO, frantically pressing buttons on the elevator, and plunging into the cold streets of Junon, still tugging on both gloves and winding his scarf around his throat.

They had promised to meet at the fountain in the middle of Junon, one of the few places the both of them could recognize that wasn’t directly near the WRO building. Archer mentally apologized as he pushed his way through the crowd, fighting his way to the fountain. A few protested, but Archer ignored them.

He heard the fountain before he saw it, a steady stream of falling water above the noise of traffic and hundred of people crammed into wide sidewalks. And when he broke through the crowd, he spotted Kadaj immediately, that head of silver hair pretty distinguishable. Something inside Archer sighed in relief, even as he noticed that many were giving Kadaj appreciative looks that he didn’t seem to notice.

The soft spray of the fountain suited Kadaj, giving him an almost otherworldly looked as he gazed into the distance. He was burrowed in a thick coat, appropriate for the winter weather, his hair pulled back into a short ponytail. He looked unaccountably young at the moment, and lost as well, a deep sadness in his eyes.

Man, he was such a kamibedamned sap sometimes.

Sucking in a deep breath to calm his rapid-fire breathing, Archer slowed his frantic pace to a more refined walk and stepped into the courtyard. His breath puffed out in front of him, and a glance to the sky proved that it could possibly snow at any moment. Something to look forward to.

Kadaj seemed to sense his approach, because he looked up, those startling eyes instantly focusing. “You’re late,” he said, rising to his feet and scowling.

“We adults do have work you know,” Archer returned, and then grinned, idly loosening his necktie – a must when working with the president of the WRO. “But I see you waited. I thought you said you wouldn’t.”

The cute spots of color on Kadaj’s cheeks made him feel all squirmy inside and Archer fought to dampen the utterly wrong reaction. “I was about to leave,” Kadaj retorted sharply, tucking his coat around him. “You’re lucky I didn’t.”

“Yes, yes, very lucky indeed.” Archer waved him off, trying his hardest not to grin. “So how about lunch? It’s too damn cold out here.”

Kadaj shrugged, drawing alongside behind him and garnering the two of them some very varied stares. “I don’t mind the cold.”

“Somehow, I thought you would say that.” Archer had always gotten the feeling that Kadaj was much like winter. His pale skin, his silver hair… and seemingly cold on the inside.

Those eyes looked at him questioningly and Archer lifted his shoulders. He couldn’t explain himself if he tried. At least, not without sounding like an utter pervert. And though a part of him couldn’t deny Kadaj’s attractiveness, his rational and moral side had planted a big, fat “Keep Away” sign on the teen’s forehead.

“Never mind. I know a shop down the way. Small and out of the way, but it makes the best soup.”

Kadaj shot him another look, his lips twitching. “What? An old man’s bones can’t take winter?” he teased, walking alongside Archer as they braved the crowds and the slick sidewalks.

“Hey! I’m not that old yet,” Archer argued, each little reminder of his age like a tiny stab to his moral fiber.

“True. You certainly don’t seem like a fort-”

“Shh! We don’t say that around here,” Archer insisted, and glanced around pointedly, this routine something they go through every time. “I’m still four years away from that mark.”

In all honesty, he hated admitting that he was almost forty, unmarried, and childless with not even a lover to his name. And what had he done in the past four decades? Saved the world a couple of times? Big deal. What did that net him for his future but a life of loneliness, surrounded by happy friends and a bunch of children who weren’t his own but would call him “uncle” all the same. It sounded incredibly lonely and Archer didn’t relish the thought of it at all. But he didn’t want to seek a lover for that reason alone either.

Kadaj lifted a brow. “Delaying the inevitable, Kyle?”

“Only where it counts.” He winked slyly, a small tease that never failed to get a rise out of the other man. “And what do you do with yourself all day while I slave away at paperwork and whatever master tells me to do?”

“Is that what you call the president?”

He noticeably lowered his voice. “When he’s not looking.”

Kadaj shook his head. “You’re more of a child than I am.”

“It’s what keeps me young,” Archer joked, shoving his fingers into his pockets as a gust of wind stirred, blowing icy air over him. “Well?”

Kadaj sighed, shrugging dismissively. “Not much. Mostly looking for the occasional odd job and such to help out my brothers.”

“School?”

“I don’t need something like that.”

“At your age-”

Green eyes cut at him, Archer’s words ending mid-thought. “If you’re going to start with that kind of adult bullshit I’ll just walk away now. I’ve heard it enough.”

“Okay, okay.” He held up his hands in surrender, moments like these enough to make Archer ask himself why again he was doing this. Why he was letting this boy crawl under his skin and into his life. Why he wasn’t just walking way before he was in too deep.

“Fair enough. Then why do you want to spend time with a geezer like me.”

“Nothing better to do?” Kadaj returned teasingly, a hint of lazy nonchalance in his tone.

Archer blew air out of his mouth. “Smart ass.”

“Hey, you asked.” The youth tucked a stand of hair behind his ears, his hands uncovered by gloves and giving Archer a glimpse of them.

They were rough, calloused, not at all like he would have expected. More of the mystery surrounding Kadaj’s existence. Archer made a mental note to subtly inquire into the missing persons database for anyone fitting Kadaj’s description. There had to be someone out there who missed him. There had to be.

“Besides,” Kadaj continued. “Not everyone can say that they get to spend time with a hero.”

Archer snorted before he could stop himself, Kadaj unknowingly stepping on a landmine. “I was just along for the ride, Kadaj. It’s not like I did anything special.”

“Hmm, I’ll bet your friends think differently.”

As if they had the time to worry about a bachelor such as myself,’ Archer remarked internally. But he was not a bitter person at heart, so he shoved those kinds of thoughts away, to the deepest pits of his subconscious. He knew it was just jealousy over their happiness, jealousy over the fact he couldn’t seem to gain any of his own.

He hunched his shoulders against the cold, somehow suddenly stronger to him. “So… do you think it’ll snow today?”

Kadaj twisted his jaw, making a noise of discontent. “Oh, smooth there Kyle. A subtle way of changing the subject.” He tilted his head back to look at the sky, bangs falling to frame his face. “I’ll let you slide this time since you seem so depressed over it.”

“Depressed!” Archer practically spluttered in indignation. “Che. What would a child know of that sort of thing?”

He meant it as a joke, as a tease, but it was clear from the look in Kadaj’s eyes that he’d taken the words as something else. “More than you would think,” Kadaj murmured, and gray-jade took on a sheen that made a slight chill run through Archer that had nothing to do with the weather.

There was a coldness there, a harsh, stark reality that echoed too much of the same look he occasionally caught in Sephiroth’s eyes. Ones that had seen too much in a short span of time. Things that Archer himself would never bear witness to, that brought nightmare upon nightmare, strong enough to drive a man mad.

“And I’m not a child,” Kadaj added quietly. “I’m not sure I’ve ever been one either.”

Archer looked at him, taking in his youthful expression, his face a cast of darkness. “You’re only sixteen-”

“Seventeen tomorrow,” the youth corrected, possibly even softer than before, as if admitting it by mistake alone.

He blinked. “What? Really? Why didn’t you say anything sooner?”

“Or we could have done something? Is that what you were going to suggest? Or do you still celebrate your birthday at your age?”

There was a sense of aggression in Kadaj’s words, and Archer had the feeling birthdays were never something to be celebrated in Kadaj’s life before. As if they meant something other than joy. And once again, Archer was struck with the thought that this boy might be more similar to Sephiroth than just in looks. He had a feeling he was already in over his head.

He dragged a hand down his face to clear his thoughts. “And this would fit in the realm of topics for you that should be subtly changed,” he muttered quietly, watching Kadaj from the corner of one violet eye. “Moving right along.”

Kadaj went quiet for a moment, his gaze determinedly set on the crowd around them as they meandered towards the shop. Archer would admit that they were taking the long way around, but only to himself. There was a shameful part of himself that wanted to extend how much time he spent with Kadaj. In just a short while, the boy had crawled under his skin.

“I think it really will snow,” Kadaj said after a minute, taking a deep breath of the crisp, damp air. “Smells like it.”

And Archer couldn’t help it, he chuckled, his own mirth causing a small smile to tug at Kadaj’s lips. “Aye, that it does. Snow and perfume and far too many restaurants crowding a narrow strip of sidewalk.”

Kadaj laughed softly, a sound that Archer wouldn’t mind hearing again and again, his insides doing a strange flip-flop, warming reaction. “And here I thought I was the pessimistic one.”

“I just hide it better.”

“So I see.”

The sound of Archer’s cell phone ringing cut through their conversation, managing to both make a loud noise and vibrate annoyingly in his pocket. Archer wanted to ignore it, but feared the repercussions of doing so. Kadaj cast him an askance look as he pulled the device out of his pocket, grimacing at the readout.

“Important?”

“Maybe. It’s the boss,” Archer replied, going through a quick internal debate about answering it once more. Well, Reeve knew he had plans, so it had to be important since he doubted Reeve would interrupt for anything that wasn’t. “Do you mind?”

Kadaj shrugged, waving him off as they moved out of the pedestrian traffic and to the side of the walk. He leaned against the side of a building as Archer pressed a button to answer the call.

“Yeah?”

What came next was a garbled string of words, all said too quickly for Archer to identify them. Reeve didn’t sound like himself at all, words in a rush, frantic and excited both.

Archer winced. “Reeve, calm down. Say it slower.”

He literally heard the president take a slow and long breath. “Reis has gone into labor,” Reeve stated carefully, speaking each word as if it were Archer’s fault he hadn’t understood the first time and not Reeve’s.

A surge of excitement rippled through the engineer even as he fought down a stab of jealousy. “That’s great,” he replied, and he meant it. “So-”

“We’re taking her to the hospital now but you know Reis, she’s being stubborn about it.”

Archer still wasn’t entirely sure why Reeve had called him. “Well, she is a doctor, I think she would know these things. It can often take hours for a baby to be born, Reeve. Especially for first timers.”

There was a moment’s pause where he could practically see his best friend’s eyes narrowing in accusation at him. “And how would you know?”

Archer sighed. “Reeve, would you just tell me what you need me to do. I’m kind of in the middle of something here.”

From the corner of his eyes, he caught sight of Kadaj pulling out a piece of paper and scribbling something on it. He tossed the boy a questioning look but Kadaj just shook his head, focusing on his writing.

“What’s more important? Your date or my daughter?”

“Reeve, she’s your daughter. Not mine. I can come later, can’t I?” he asked, wondering why the proud papa demanded that everyone be present. He was pretty sure the waiting room would be chock full of their friends. They didn’t need one more body.

There was a noise of a phone being fumbled, and then Reno’s voice poured through the receiver, sounding only marginally more composed than Reeve’s. “Are you saying you don’t want to be here when your cute niece is born, huh? You’d rather have some floozy?”

Archer, never in his life, would have thought to ever hear Reno use a word like floozy. In fact, the very thought of it was laughable.

At the moment, Kadaj appeared in his field of vision, one hand grabbing Archer’s free one and pressing what felt to be a piece of folded paper into his fingers. Archer looked down at it, confused, when suddenly a pair of hands – cold from the weather – grabbed his face and pulled him down to meet a set of very warm lips. Soft and pliant as they pressed against him, insistent and wanting. The scent of Kadaj surrounding him, something like juniper and honey, sweet and seductive.

And then Kadaj was drawing away, something a bit like mischief dancing in his eyes. “Rain check, hmm?” he murmured, and turned on his heels, vanishing into the crowd before Archer could utter another word.

He glanced confused at both the paper, his lips tingling as heat flushed his entire body. What… the hell? Not that he was disappointed, but… did people normally kiss others they just met and walk away like that! Archer glanced at the paper, unfolding it carefully.

There was a phone number listed there, pretty much a blatant invitation for him to call Kadaj once more. Perhaps he had sensed from the conversation that Archer would have to reluctantly end their plans.

“Archer!”

He blinked, coming back to himself. “I’m here,” he responded with a sigh, already turning back towards the WRO headquarters and the adjoining hospital. “And I’m coming. Though you owe me.”

“Yeah, well, put it on my tab,” Reno drawled. “See you in a minute, buddy.” And the line went dead.

Archer rolled his eyes, tucking the phone back into his pocket. And then, on second thought, pulling it back out to store Kadaj’s number in it. Just in case.