Chapter 73: Ready to Dream Again (Epilogue)

There were only sixteen eyes to watch the fading of the sunset, sixteen voices to murmur a soft goodbye to a man who had been friend, husband, and leader to them. While it had been for a short time, they had all eventually grown to love him and were now saying their final farewells. There was nothing to bury of him but their grief for his passing. They laid flowers of the very same kind that had once been gifted to him, at the etched stone on a high bluff overlooking Fort Condor.

Aeris managed to stand stoic, her eyes dry but her heart breaking with every passing second. Midori shifted restlessly inside of her, also mourning her father's death but there was nothing Aeris could do. Cloud was truly gone, joined with the Life stream, and there was no coming back for him.

She could feel it on her heart, a slow and tremulous gripping feeling. It was the grief, expounded greatly and reminding her that she was alone. She had her friends, her dearest companions, but there was no one to love her as Cloud had, with his goofiness and his confused attempts at everything he tried. Yet, he had found in his peace in the end and Aeris couldn't fault him for that. He had wanted to make sure his wife and child were safe no matter the cost, his desire to protect those that mattered to him intrinsic.

And she knew that the others would miss him as well.

No one knew where Cid and Vincent were. The two men had simply vanished sometime during the night after the victorious return. It was rumored that one of the fort's military helicopters disappeared as well. But that was only an idle gossip. No one was really surprised either. They had been through hell and back to find each other and deserved a little rest and relaxation.

But all others were present. The Turks had come, one by one, saluting the headstone and paying their respects to a man whom they had grudgingly come to admire. Rude, especially, was grateful, since it had been Cloud's bravery that had ensured the safety of his own wife and son. In his mind, he made a careful promise to help watch over Aeris. He owed her greatly.

Denzel stood side-by-side with his adopted father, little hand grasping desperately onto his as he tried not to cry. In his heart, he still felt that he was to blame for Cloud's death, despite the fact that the adults were assuring him otherwise. He missed Cloud's smile and how the blond had always been there to explain things in words he could understand.

Sephiroth himself held shadowed eyes, guilt warring inside of him with a ferocious hunger, taking away all relief he might have felt for their victory. His purpose in reviving had been to help protect the world, to right the wrongs he had forced upon it. Now he had more failures to add to the weight on his heart.

Cloud had trusted him and paid for it. There were things never said, questions never answered and Sephiroth would never be able to voice them. He had the feeling that if Cloud had lived, they might have become friends. He had hoped to make up for destroying Cloud's life after the war, but now, it was far too late.

Opposite from him, Reeve was whispering his own silent farewells, quietly thanking a man who had given him a second chance when no one ever wanted to trust him again. He was grateful for the fact that Cloud never pried and never demanded answers. And his hand, intertwined with Reno's, was all the comfort he would need.

Zack was solemn, a strength by the side of his two best friends, one hand clasped warmly around Aeris' to offer her comfort. His presence helped keep Sephiroth calm as well, lest the man shake himself to pieces. In his heart, he too, was saying goodbye. To a boy he had helped before, a rare friend in a place that seemed to breed only enemies.

It seemed wrong that Cloud should have been the one to die when Zack had only been restored to life. But the Planet had spoken, and the former SOLDIER knew that Cloud was not coming back.

No one had spoken at the funeral; there really was no need. Everyone had spoken their silent goodbyes without a single shed tear then promptly turned and filtered back into Fort Condor until only Aeris remained, staring dry-eyed at her husband's memorial stone.

It was a paltry symbol to a man that had given so much, but she knew anything grander would have made Cloud uncomfortable.

"They loved you, you know," she whispered softly, her voice carrying no further than her own ears. Still, she knew that Cloud would hear her. "You never thought you would have any friends but now… here they are, mourning your loss."

Her hand rested on her belly, rubbing across the mound comfortingly as she swallowed thickly. "I don't know how we're going to do it without you, Cloud, but we're strong, so don't worry. I've enough worried friends right now that I'm suffocating in them," she commented with a light smile, enough to pull a bit of a laugh with her lips.

A wind stirred, carrying on it the scent of the fresh flowers that had been laid there. She had requested they not pick them, so several flower pots had been scrounged and flowers planted in them. They were bright and scraggly against the grey of the stone, but she couldn't deny how much they suited Cloud.

Aeris took a deep breath, swallowing over the huge lump in her throat and blinking back the warm tears that threatened to spill from her eyes. "I'm going to miss you, Cloud. You're irreplaceable to me and Midori both and I wish that you were here, with us. But I know that's impossible and I've accepted that."

Her eyes lifted upwards, to where the sky was darkening gradually as if a storm was impending. A fitting end to the day she thought. Her gaze turned back to the stone, tracing the letters of her husband's name.

"I love you, Cloud," she murmured quietly. "And I always will. Rest well."

With that, she pressed a kiss to her fingers before transferring it to the stone. Midori shifted inside of her, bringing a smile to her mother's face, as Aeris turned and walked away from the gravestone. It was the last official goodbye she would give.

The pain would never leave and he would always resonate inside of her, but dwelling was something he would never allow her to do and so she would not. She was determined to find a measure of happiness for her and her daughter, for Cloud's sake if not her own.

And when he came to the place where the wild things are, they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws--

The well-used page turned with a quiet swish.

--til Max said "BE STILL!" and tamed them with a magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.

"And now," cried Max, "let the wild rumpus start!"

"Seph?" The voice was sleepy and slurred as Denzel lifted drowsy brown eyes to the man he had attached himself to. He squirmed slightly in his warm position tucked beneath Sephiroth's arm, trying to look into the older male's face.

Gray-green eyes shifted from the child's book between his hands, down to the small child perched on the bed next to him. "Yes?"

Innocent eyes stared back at him. "Are you going to leave?" the boy asked.

Sephiroth blinked, surprised by the question. "I…" he trailed off, not wanting to lie, with his heart pounding in his chest.

Somehow, he had gotten attached to the child in the short time he had known him. He was used to hero worship from his days at ShinRa academy but the devotion that Denzel displayed was something entirely different. And the unconditional love and trust that Denzel radiated helped to cleanse him of the tainted feeling that had settled inside of him recently.

If someone as innocent and open as a child could stand his presence, then maybe there was something of worth left in Sephiroth after all.

The look on the kid's face was full of hope; he honestly hoped that Sephiroth had the right words to say to him. The former General sighed.

"Denzel, I will try," he responded, lifting his hand from the book to ruffle it through brown locks.

His touch appeared to placate the boy, but only for a moment. A look of serious concentration crossed his face, which was actually quite amusing before Denzel raised his hands and reached for something around his neck. It took several seconds for Sephiroth to realize what they were.

"I forgot to give them to you," Denzel mumbled as he struggled to detangle the military tags from his shirt, and failed miserably.

Sephiroth quickly covered Denzel's hands with his own and stopped his fumbling. "Keep them," he said softly. "You need them more than I do."

The smile he received in response would have lit the world. Sephiroth wondered if it was sane of him to be so grateful to someone who was only a child. Denzel nodded happily and snuggled closer to his adoptive father, eyes already half-sliding shut.

"You finish the story now?" he asked, his gaze falling on the colorful pages.

Sephiroth couldn't help but grin slightly in response. "Yeah," he responded warmly, ruffling the brown hair again. Clearing his throat, he lifted the book and attempted to pick up where he had left off.

"And now," cried Max, "let the--

"You read that part already," Denzel mumbled groggily.

"Right. I remember now."

"Now stop!" Max said and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper. And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.

Then all around from far away across the world he smelled good things to eat so he gave up being king of where the wild things are.

But the wild things cried, "Oh, please don't go—we'll eat you up—we love you so!"

And Max said, "No!"

The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws but Max stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him.

And it was still hot.

The book closed with a quiet thump as Sephiroth pondered the children's tale internally. It was rather odd but if Denzel liked it, then he supposed he could endure. His gaze slid to the child, who unsurprisingly, had fallen asleep against him, murmuring softly in his slumber. A smile graced the former General's lips before he laid the book on the nightstand to his right then slowly eased out of the bed, moving carefully to slide Denzel down into a comfortable position.

He froze when the boy made a sound of protest, but when he merely twitched then fell silent again, Sephiroth slipped him beneath the covers and managed to escape from the bed. He ruffled brown hair once more, the only sign of affection he knew, before clicking the lamp next to the bed and slipping silently from the room. A nightlight dimly glowed on the far side of the room behind him, cascading star shapes onto the ceiling.

Outside, Sephiroth closed the door to the room with a quiet click. Aeris looked up when she heard the sound, calmly marking the page in the romance novel she was reading by lamplight in the relatively small common area of the room the residents of Fort Condor had loaned to her. They had been remarkably supportive when the friends had come to them for help.

"Thank you for the story idea," Sephiroth commented as he stepped further into the room, pausing by where she sat curled up in a chair, dark shadows lining under her eyes. "It put him right to sleep."

She smiled at him and rose to her feet, though somewhat laboriously due to her pregnancy. "It always works. My mother used to read to me," she replied, stepping past him and heading for the small mini-fridge that had been brought to their room.

Sephiroth nodded somewhat distractedly, bothered by the look of fatigue on her face. Given that the funeral for her husband had been not but a few hours earlier, it was understandable. The guilt flared up again, railing loudly in Sephiroth's heart and he belatedly realized that he had yet to apologize for his part in Cloud's death.

His gaze slid to the floor, not strong enough to meet Aeris' perpetually strong gaze. "Aeris, about Cloud…"

She shook her head and touched his arm as she passed, squeezing it gently and forcing him to look up at her. "You've nothing to apologize for," she said delicately, jade eyes warm and accepting. "Cloud trusted your judgment and made his choice. I do not blame you."

"Trusted me," Sephiroth repeated quietly before sighing. "I fear that there is some big secret about Cloud that I don't understand. Why did he trust me so much? Why admire me so deeply… beyond that of the typical recruit?" It was something he had never understood about the blond.

The flower girl regarded him curiously, as if surprised by the question. "Sephiroth… can't you recognize love when you see it?" she asked softly.

Gray-green eyes widened and Sephiroth took an unconscious step backwards, dislodging her grip from his arm. "Love," he repeated in complete shock, surprise evident in his features. He clearly hadn't been expecting that, not to mention that it was Cloud's widow who was telling him this information.


Aeris watched him for a moment before elaborating. "Cloud's heart has always been divided between what he wanted and what he could have." A small smile, somewhat sorrowful, graced her lips. "I never felt second best or that I was a consolation prize. I know he loved me. There was just a part of him that always loved you, too."

"Do you know how hard it is for me every time I look at you?"

"How hard it is when I remember you're alive?"

"Am I truly that beneath your notice?"

Suddenly, the last time he had fought against Cloud, the words the blond had spoken before he handed over his leadership to Sephiroth began to make sense. Cloud had been trying to tell him then, that he had loved Sephiroth all along. And he had wanted Sephiroth desperately to notice. Yet, even then, the former General remained completely oblivious. No wonder Cloud had reacted so strongly when Sephiroth returned out of the blue.

Still, Sephiroth hadn't known prior to the events of six years ago. "Why didn't he say something?" the former General asked, completely bewildered. He had known of the admiration but love… that he couldn't comprehend.

Her smile was sad. "Would you have been able to?" she asked as she turned towards him. "Consider who you were, Sephiroth. Cloud was too awed of you to even think he had a chance."

It was decidedly awkward, to hear of Cloud's love for him from the mouth of the widow he left behind. His gaze fell to the floor. "You're right. I would have kept my secret as well." Never mind that he had already done that exact same thing with his crush on the Turk commander. In that much, Sephiroth could sympathize with Cloud.

Aeris stepped forward and patted his arm again. "Don't worry. Cloud was happy. He had Midori and I after all."

Sephiroth raised his gaze and nodded somewhat distractedly, still bewildered by what he had learned. "Yes, of course," he responded before noticing a strange look crossing her face. "Are you all right?"

Her hand moved to her belly, rubbing it gently. "It's just Midori kicking," she answered with a smile. Then her face turned mischievous. "Want to feel it?"

Sephiroth blinked in shock. "What?"

Aeris grinned as if she held some big secret. "It's really neat, I promise," she explained as she took several steps forward and grabbed his slack hand, lifting it up to her belly. "See?" And before Sephiroth could even think to pull away, she pressed his palm to her belly.

Gray-green eyes widened in surprise as he felt something move beneath his touch. The life inside of the flower girl was moving, little taps against the inside that he could easily distinguish with his fingertips. Aeris released his wrist, yet Sephiroth couldn't help but move his palm over her stomach. It was incredibly fascinating.

He didn't even notice when the flower girl watched him, incredibly pleased with herself for showing him something far better than the violence and bloodshed ShinRa had accustomed him to. "You ever think about having kids, Sephiroth?"

The question surprised him and he pulled back, running a hand through his hair. "No," he answered quietly. He hadn't had that much of a childhood himself. "I know nothing about raising children or anything like that." Not to mention that he was gay and about the only thing he could do was adopt, if he really wanted.

"Oh, it doesn't take much," Aeris attempted to assure him, moving to sit back down in her chair as a sudden wash of fatigue assailed her. "No one ever really knows anyway. They just make it up as they go along."

Sephiroth shook his head. "Maybe…" he trailed off, sucking in a breath as he remembered the original reason he had come to see both Denzel and Aeris. "I was wondering if I could ask you for a favor. I know that I'm in no position to ask something of you but…"

Jade green eyes were thoughtful. "I already told you that I hold no grudge. Please, continue."

The former General nodded. "I-- I can't be the stable influence that he wants me to be," Sephiroth explained, gesturing vaguely to Denzel's door. "I can barely take care of myself much less a little boy and there's something…" he trailed off, shaking his head. "I don't know if she's completely gone yet and I won't put him in danger like that. Would you look after him for me?"

Aeris blinked in surprise but understood completely. "I will but he'll want to see you, too."

"I know. And I promise to visit now and again, not to mention giving you whatever help you need." He twisted his hands together before realizing what he was doing and promptly shoved them down at his sides, refusing to look the part of a shy, unsure man.

The flower girl nodded. "All right. I will," she responded, and relief flooded the former General's taut nerves. At least one thing in his life wouldn't be ruined. He didn't know what he had done to be worthy of Denzel's admiration, but he was determined to never lose it.

He wondered, if he stared at it long enough, would he find all of the answers swirling around in the amber fluid? Would all of life's little mysteries suddenly be solved and the need for heartache and despair erased? It hadn't worked before but that was because he had always consumed it. Perhaps staring was a much better method for obtaining oblivion.

Tseng pondered this as he sat in the rather small bar at Fort Condor, mostly deserted this time of the day, or evening rather, as nearly all of the residents were either working or resting. Honestly, he should have been doing that as well, but he was useless as a worker and didn't dare close his eyes. Instead, he stared fervently at his untouched shot glass, wondering if he should bother to lift it to his lips. It had been sitting between his hands for the last two hours, but he hadn't even taken one sip.

The problem was that he wanted to. His mouth was parched, his stomach craving that subtle burn. He could feel them, the low buzz at the back of his mind and the quiet murmur of a thousand voices. He could hear their whispers, reverberating in his skull; even the brush of their breath tickling the skin of his ear was tangible. He wanted to drown it and them out, erase every subtle suggestion and cry of pain or loneliness. He listened now, but that didn't ease any of it.

Tseng desired solitude above all else at the present moment, wanting to bro—contemplate on recent events. He had to think about them, pick apart each instance and analyze it for hidden meanings. Though he had accepted it, they were still a gift he did not want. It didn't matter that he held some semblance of control now, or that the blinding pulse of their words in the back of his mind had become only a dull roar of pain. Their misery was only compounding his own.

Why didn't anyone ever want to bemoan their happiness? Why didn't they have pleasant things to speak of? His cold heart was unsuited for such gifts.

Tseng slumped in his bar stool, the chair screeching backwards with a staggered movement and sending an ear-splitting shriek through the bar. Neither of the other two patrons even looked up at the sound, already beyond sloshed. He hadn't asked what sorrows they were drowning. It was an unspoken rule in all bars, especially since Tseng had no plans to extrapolate on his own.

His mind, already fractured and running in a thousand different directions, turned to the past battle, the barely won victory. He saw his own defeat at the hands of the goddess, a ridiculously easy defeat that rankled his pride and filled him with a quiet anger. Not because he had lost, because no man was infallible, but because he had failed in his duty, he had failed Sephiroth. And now, Sephiroth's pain was a direct result of his inability.

Inwardly, Tseng cursed his own ineptitude. Persephone was no kind enemy, and he wished her attacks on no one, especially not the already frayed former general. It was as if she had dug her nails into his heart, ripping out every memory and twisting it in her hands before showing him the bleeding pieces.

Everything he sought to block, she magnified. He saw his mother's tears and his father's anguish, he saw his homeland disappearing as a boat rocked violently on storm-tossed waves. He saw the first person he ever killed for money, the fear and regret shining in her eyes and the pleas for mercy on red-painted lips. But worst of all was that she could summon up the emotions he had been feeling at the time as well, throwing them back into his face.

Tseng knew that Sephiroth had to have suffered the same. There was no excuse for his failure.

There was movement on the corner of his vision, followed by the screech of another bar stool as someone hopped up onto the chair beside him. Tseng tilted his head, not surprised in the least to find Elena perched there. Her eyes darted from the drink in his hand, to his eyes, and then back again before she lifted a hand, signaling to the barkeep. She called him over with a twitch of the finger then returned her attention to her commander.


"Shut up, Elena," the Wutaiian interrupted more shortly than he meant to. He had an inkling of what she planned on saying and had no intentions of hearing it. "I've not even had a sip."

Brown eyes blinked, completely unperturbed by his rudeness. "You were thinking about it," she responded stubbornly. "I thought you had overcome this."

Tseng sighed and pushed the drink away from him, the glass making a shhhhnk sound as it slid across the table. "It's not as if the snap of a finger solves everything," he muttered, staring dedicatedly at the amber fluid.

The barkeep chose that moment to appear, silently asking Elena for her order. She watched Tseng for a second before turning her attention to the bartender.

"Your best ale," she ordered briefly.

The man nodded and turned away, allowing Elena to return her gaze to her commander. "No, maybe not," she commented musingly, eyes searching Tseng's face. He looked weary and strained, much like Sephiroth.

A finger barely brushed the tip of the glass, moving it across the countertop with a definite noise. There was silence between them for a moment before Tseng sighed again.

"The battle… was not easily won," he finally said, knowing that he needed to talk about it but hating that he had to. As far as listeners went, however, Elena was his best choice.

His subordinate and friend both didn't respond, silently waiting for him to continue. Her drink was brought to her and she accepted it with a nod of her head, taking a sip.

"Balaam had awoken a goddess by the name of Persephone and her abilities were beyond our comprehension. They were similar to mine but far more powerful." He paused, drawing in a ragged breath and staring at the alcohol, practically able to taste it on his tongue. "It was like fingers were digging into my brain, picking apart my memories and finding the cruelest and most painful of them only to throw them back in my face. I was unable to stop her."

Elena's brow crinkled, a sigh escaping her lips. "Tseng--"

He shook his head, interrupting her. "It was the only order I had been given. I was trusted to put an end to Apocalypto. Instead, I shattered like fine glass in the wake of her power." He picked up the glass, contemplated it, then set back down on the table and signaled for the bartender. "Sephiroth is in pain because of my failure."

"You can't honestly blame yourself for that," Elena countered, watching as he handed over the untouched alcohol and asked for water instead. She admired his tenacity to try and stay sober. "From what I heard, even the other gods were nothing in the face of her power."

The Wutaiian was silent for a moment as he contemplated his water, taking a small sip of the cold and refreshing liquid. He wasn't going to argue with Elena. The fact remained was that he had failed and many were hurt because of that. Isis would have not been forced to give her life and Sephiroth would not have had to relive painful memories. The feedback from his conflicting emotions was enough for Tseng to understand just what Sephiroth was suffering.

Elena sighed and shook her head. "I don't think I'll ever understand you," she commented, taking a deep draw of the somewhat spicy ale she had ordered. It was rather tasty and she couldn't help but hum thoughtfully.

"You're not meant to," Tseng countered reasonably. His finger idly traced designs in the condensation forming on the clear glass. "I heard Zack awoke. How is he?"

She smiled then, reminded of her attempts to peek in on him and being thwarted by a motherly Sephiroth of all things. Not that he outwardly ushered her away, but it was just so cute she couldn't interrupt. She had caught Zack's eyes when Sephiroth's back was turned and that was enough for her.

She left them alone, and had recently caught sight of the former general standing all by his lonesome on the roof. Once that little problem was taken care of, she was determined to find Zack. But first... to deal with her commander.

"As near as I can tell, probably more well than he needs to be," she commented lightly, a slight chuckle escaping her lips.

Tseng raised a brow. "And you say I make little sense."

She laughed again, shaking her head as she downed the last of her first mug and signaled for another. "Sephiroth was hogging him again, making sure he had enough blankets and food and medicine, even though he didn't need any of it." Her lips curled into a wide smirk. "Zack was humoring him, of course. It was cute."

The Wutaiian tilted his head to the side, frowning slightly. He couldn't help the small bit of jealousy that tainted his heart, even if he knew that they were only friends and Zack was with Elena in some fashion. Besides all that, there was nothing between him and Sephiroth. Not that the knowledge quieted the green-eyed demon raging inside of him.

"That doesn't bother you?" he asked, though it came out more of a mumble as he stared at the grained wood of the bar top.

Her new drink clomped to the top in front of her as the empty was swiped away and Elena smiled at the bartender. "You would think I would be jealous. I should be jealous. Honestly, I've tried to be jealous." She sighed and dipped a finger into the ale, sucking off a few small droplets of the beverage before continuing. "But then I look at Sephiroth and see how much he needs Zack and all the jealousy I have falls flat. I just feel petty."

She shifted position, tipping her head to the side so that she could look directly at her boss. "I understand it now. All his life, Sephiroth has had no one. And now, Zack is the only family he can claim unless he and Valentine somehow get their act together. I can't be jealous of that." Elena smiled, revealing pure joy and not hidden pain, and laughed lightly. "Besides, ShinRa boy is absolutely hetero and pretty damn good at it."

Tseng flushed and coughed, shaking his head at his subordinate. "Not that I wanted to know that, Elena," he commented, trying to clear all unwanted images of her and the SOLDIER in a compromising position. There were just some things he did not want to see.

Elena laughed at him, loudly enough to disturb the one other sloshed patron in the bar. He looked up blearily before returning to his drink as Elena nudged her boss with her elbow.

"Don't worry, Tseng. I'm sure he likes you, too. Now why don't you go talk to him?"

Silver eyes shot towards her, slightly alarmed. "What?" Tseng repeated in mild disbelief, seemingly unable to wrap his mind around her words.

She smiled mischievously, tilting her head to the side and gesturing upwards with her eyes. "He's alone on the roof, brooding if I'm not mistaken. I think he needs some cheering up." Amusement flooded through her at the subtle reddening of her boss's features, especially since it was quite obvious what she was insinuating. "After all, what do you have to lose?"

"My dignity," Tseng retorted, recalling how he had been rebuffed before. It was humiliating. "I doubt he's any more ready now than he was before." He shifted irritably in his seat, taking a drink of his water and wishing he hadn't returned the alcohol. He could really use the liquid courage.

"How do you know if you don't try?" Elena countered smartly. "It certainly beats sitting around in a bar and pretending that water is vodka. Now that is what's pathetic, Tseng."

He grimaced. "Why am I friends with you again?" Tseng asked, sliding down from his bar stool and adjusting his clothes, attempting to look slightly less rumpled.

"What? Are you leaving?" Elena asked with a completely innocent air, trying not to laugh at her flustered boss. A few giggles escaped her nonetheless.

He shot her an annoyed look, idly brushing down a few loose strands of hair that had broken free from its usual unflustered appearance. "Either that or lose what remains of my dignity to you," he retorted sharply, shaking his head. "Goodbye, Elena."

Brown eyes twinkled with amusement. "Bye, Tseng. Give him a kiss for me."

Tseng glared at her, thought it was half-hearted before he left the bar, ignoring her enthusiastic wave of farewell. Elena chuckled and reached for her second drink, sucking it down until it was nearly half empty. With any luck, Tseng and Sephiroth would take now as the perfect opportunity to begin some sort of relationship. The two of them were just so incredibly awkward, despite all attempts at being cold and heartless. She couldn't help but think it was cute.

Elena signaled for another mug, knowing that she would be finishing the second rather quickly. It had been a while since she had sat and drank for taste, unlike her boss and Reeve, she had quite the tolerance for alcohol. And with the world saved and Tseng occupied, she could finally take a break. Not to mention the lingering remnants of Raijin's loss still echoed hollowly inside of her.

She quickly swallowed down the last of her second and handed over the empty mug as a new one was slid into place. The bartender's eyes flickered past her as he brought it but before Elena could turn to look, arms slid around her from behind and a warm body pressed against her back. Warm lips kissed against her neck. Elena knew by scent alone that it was Zack.

Humming in her throat, she relaxed into the strong arms. "Shouldn't you be in bed?" she questioned, shivering when a tongue slid along her skin, leaving a wet trail behind.

The spiky-haired man chuckled, rubbing his thumbs along her cloth-covered abdomen. "Shouldn't you be keeping an eye on our resident alcoholic?" Zack countered, breathing hotly in her ear.

Blue eyes rolled as Elena shifted in her seat, turning to look into his gaze. "I sent him to your commander," she explained with a mischievous grin. "And as much as I'd love to watch, they're awkward enough already."

With that, she closed the space between them and kissed him, hard and deep. Her tongue slid out of her mouth, teasing along the seam of his lips before dipping inside, tasting deeply of the fresh mint flavor. Zack's tongue was smooth against hers, stroking gently and coaxing her to deepen the kiss. She eagerly accepted, lips smacking noisily between them.

Zack hummed approvingly, his lips curling into a mischievous smile. "You wouldn't happen to have missed me, did you?" he asked teasingly.

She raised a brow. "Don't ask stupid questions," Elena muttered, slipping her hand down and squeezing his. "Now, what say you we find somewhere a bit more private?"

The ex-SOLDIER laughed at her before quickly lifting her weight easily from the stool and setting her down on the ground. It always amazed the Turk how strong he was, since he wasn't exactly the bulkiest of men. Before she let him drag her away, however, she quickly dug into her pocket and threw some gil onto the table, both for her and Tseng's drinks since her boss had forgotten to pay before he left.

"I'd say that sounds just about perfect," Zack responded, taking her by the hand and leading her out of the bar. Elena couldn't help but smile somewhat lecherously.

Meanwhile, Tseng lingered outside the door that led to the roof of Fort Condor, peering out through the small looking glass. He could see Sephiroth standing at the far end of the platform, hands on the railing as he stared out at nothing in particular. On top of that, the former General was dressed down, wearing nothing but blue jeans and a t-shirt, looking positively edible. It was the first time Tseng had seen him in something other than black or armor. He rather liked the change though the clinging leather was attractive as well.

He was attempting to work up the courage to actually go outside, wanting to speak to Sephiroth but hating to bother him. The former silver-haired man seemed as if he were deep in contemplation, but also appeared exhausted as well, a somewhat weary set to his shoulders. And on the edge of Tseng's mind, he could hear the trickling of Sephiroth's emotions, an oscillation of feeling that he couldn't seem to sort out in his head, nor did he even want to try.

Sucking in a deep breath in an attempt to calm the unwelcome fluttering of nerves inside his belly, Tseng decided to at least apologize for his behavior earlier, when he had practically molested Sephiroth under the guise of alcohol. For a moment, he wished he had decided to consume the shot he had bought for himself.

Steeling his courage, Tseng finally pushed open the door without making a sound and stepped silently out onto the roof. His nose twitched at the scent in the air, that of an approaching storm. Sephiroth didn't even appear to notice that someone else was out there with him. Tseng approached, his Turk stealth keeping his silence though he hadn't meant to sneak up on the other male.

"Are you hiding as well?" he asked tentatively, voice breaking the calm quiet of the roof. It was an attempt at a joke.

The taller male startled in surprise, having been completely lost in thought. He half-turned as Tseng moved to the railing beside him. "I'm considering it," he responded honestly, face contemplative before realizing that there was probably a reason the Turk had spoken to him. His expression changed solemnly.

"Were you looking for me? Is something wrong?"

Tseng shook his head quickly, not wanting to alarm the other male. "No, everything's fine as far as I know," he answered, his eyes raking over the former General's face. He was again reminded of how he had been attracted to the man in the first place.

His eyes, though lacking the incredibly bright glow of mako now, were no less alluring than before. No matter how much Sephiroth appeared cold on the outside, he could never completely hide from showing his emotion in those gray-green orbs. His features were delicately androgynous, but held a subtle hardening, that of a warrior, a man bathed in blood time and time again, who could kill without a second thought. Tseng was certain the same hardness reflected on his own.

Sephiroth nodded distractedly, brow furrowed in slight confusion. "Then were you--"

"I wanted to apologize," Tseng blurted hastily, not wanting to delay his words any longer. Besides, he wasn't normally one for timidity and wasn't about to start now.

As Sephiroth's gaze slid to him, he continued, "For my actions earlier. They were uncalled for."

Something flashed in gray-green orbs that Tseng could not identify before the taller male looked away from him, gaze drawn to the darkening sky, quickly becoming overcast.

"I see," he responded succinctly, seeming disappointed but it was difficult for Tseng to tell. His fingers subtly curled around the railing. "Was there anything else?"

The Turk was quiet for a moment as he considered the options in his mind before deciding against apologizing for his failure. They were both men of war and battle; there was no need to bring up things as such as that. Sephiroth had probably not even thought about it, even if Tseng felt the lingering guilt. It was something that would be fruitless to offer confessions for.

He shook his head. "No, that was everything."

Again, that look of disappointment crossed Sephiroth's features, though he remained stony silent and still. Tseng sighed inwardly and turned to leave, assuming that perhaps it was best if Sephiroth were alone. He didn't seem to want any company. Tseng pushed down his own discontent and took a step towards the door. He had to speak to Reeve about ShinRa anyways.

He hadn't moved more than a couple steps when Sephiroth's voice floated out behind him. "Wait," the former General called, somewhat hesitantly.

Tseng shifted towards him. "Yes?"

"You apologized," Sephiroth responded slowly, letting go of the railing and putting his back to the horizon as he looked at Tseng. "Does that mean you… regret it?" His face held the faint tinge of embarrassment that Tseng couldn't help but find absolutely endearing, that was until the implications of Sephiroth's question hit him.

Silver eyes widened slightly. "No, it doesn't," he answered quickly, realizing that Sephiroth was just as lost as he in that moment. Neither of them truly knew what to do around the other, wanting to speak but losing the words, wanting to ask but fearing to overstep boundaries. It was time someone took the initiative.

Riskily, Tseng closed the distance between them by a step, until Sephiroth was close enough to touch. He instantly noticed the subtleties; the slight flaring of Sephiroth's nostrils, the tentative widening of his eyes, the hitch of his breath and something akin to anticipation flashing through his gaze. Licking his lips and swallowing thickly, Tseng reached up and gently pressed his hand to the back of Sephiroth's head. Locking gazes with the other man for a moment, he ended the distance and brought their lips together in a sensual kiss.

Sephiroth stiffened at first, unaccustomed to the nearness of others, before he relented the kiss, lips slowly parting. Tseng took the opportunity to slide his tongue within, teasing gently with Sephiroth's. The former General's hands clenched at his sides briefly before slowly uncoiling and rising, settling on Tseng's hips as if unsure whether he was allowed to venture anywhere else.

The Turk pressed closer to his captive, his body thrumming with desire as he deepened the kiss, thoroughly enjoying Sephiroth's taste. His free hand slid around the other male's waist, pulling their bodies together. Tseng took an unconscious step forward, pinning Sephiroth between him and the railing as his lips and tongue worked slowly against Sephiroth's, weaving him into a spell of need and desire.

Tseng's arousal began to slowly fill in his pants, driven by the somewhat needy and most likely unconscious noises pouring from Sephiroth's throat. His fingers trailed lightly through darkened, once silver strands and he idly wondered if he was dreaming. Because this time, there was no alcohol to hide behind and this time, Sephiroth wasn't even trying to pull away. His fingers pressed into Sephiroth's spine, their bodies pressed flush together. He didn't want to end but knew that it must.

Though he wanted to continue kissing Sephiroth, Tseng knew that there were some things that needed to be cleared up. He reluctantly ended the kiss and looked up into Sephiroth's eyes, pleased to find that they were desire-clouded. It warmed his heart, not to mention that the painful buzz of oscillating negativity on the back of his head had been replaced by the subtle hum of Sephiroth's pleasure.

"I want you," he spoke quietly yet bluntly, not wanting to talk around in circles anymore. "And I have for a long time. If this is out of bounds, let me know now because I don't know if I can stop."

His fingers seemed to move of their own accord, thumb brushing across Sephiroth's cheek. Grey-green eyes widened slightly and a light blush stained the other male's cheeks. His gaze slid to the side, somewhat embarrassed.

"It's not," he responded quietly, hand unconsciously tightening on Tseng's hips. "I want you as well but..."

Something inside Tseng warmed even further and he felt the urge to kiss the former General once more. But he refrained in an effort to finish the conversation. Besides, he understood completely what Sephiroth was trying to say. He had gathered as much, from their previous conversation and hints given by Zack that Sephiroth had never been in a relationship before. For that matter, neither had Tseng truthfully. A string of meaningless one night stands and cold encounters could not be counted as a relationship. Honestly, he was as lost as Sephiroth when it came to such matters.

"You have no idea what you are doing," Tseng finished for him, smiling when Sephiroth faintly blushed.

The former General's gaze slid to the side. "Correct," he responded, trying his best not to come off as a shy schoolgirl or something equally mortifying. He was a SOLDIER who could kill without a second thought, but physical intimacies were beyond his current understanding.

"Would you be willing to try?" the Turk asked, unconsciously pushing his hips closer and smirking when he felt something hard in return. It seemed he wasn't the only one affected by their encounter and his blood stirred at the thought.

Sephiroth was contemplative for a moment before taking some initiative. He refused to be the one sitting on the side, not making his own choices. Instead of verbally responding however, he leaned forward and ended the distance between he and Tseng. His lips closed over the Turk's, sliding his tongue quickly into the other's mouth and mimicking Tseng's earlier actions. He was a prodigy after all, and learned rather quickly.

Tseng quickly succumbed to the kiss, a low moan rattling in his throat at Sephiroth's initiative. He pressed even closer, their bodies rubbing together as his hand curled tighter around Sephiroth's waist, wishing he could simply crawl inside of the former General's body. He had never needed so desperately before, never been so aroused by a simple and clumsy kiss. He had never wanted so badly in his entire life and it showed with the desperate way he practically consumed Sephiroth's mouth.

The former General was no less affected. Though he had no clue as to what he was supposed to do, he reacted completely on instinct. His hands clenched and unclenched where they had settled on Tseng's hips, tightening as if he needed something cling to. He could feel the evidence of Tseng's longing nudging against his own. His heart thrummed in his chest, beating a fierce beat.

Tanned fingers tangled in dyed hair, massaging Sephiroth's scalp before abruptly releasing his head and sliding downwards, wriggling its way between their bodies. Tseng's hand teased at the seam of Sephiroth's jeans, hesitating at the band before taking the risk. He slipped his hand beneath the soft cotton of Sephiroth's shirt and splayed his fingers over the pale, washboard stomach.

The SOLDIER's belly jerked in surprise beneath his touch but Tseng continued doggedly, his chilly touch warmed by the other male's flesh. He heard Sephiroth's breath hitch as he pressed him against the railing, somewhat mimicking the first time they had ever kissed.

Sephiroth was lost, drowning in every movement and touch. Tseng's fingers were spread hot flashes across his skin wherever he touched and he practically burned beneath his skin. He knew he wanted something, anything, as a part of him began to ache, shivers spreading up and down his spine. It was moving fast, probably too fast, but another, deeper part of him didn't want to stop for any reason at all. Especially when the Turk's hand slid further upwards, fingers brushing over a nipple.

The former General moaned low in his throat at the unexpected touch, his body arching forward and closer to Tseng's. He opened his mouth wider, allowing Tseng to deepen their kiss and losing himself in a haze of pleasure. Everything that he had been brooding on flitted away, pushing itself to the far reaches of his mind where it no longer mattered for the present moment.

Above them, the sky rumbled ominously but neither male appeared to notice or even care. A brief cold wind tugged at their clothes, whipping hair around their faces. Tseng continued to brush his fingers over Sephiroth's nipple, the flesh tightening into a nub beneath his ministrations.

And then it began to rain.

Fat and heavy droplets splashed down onto them as lightning flashed a fair distance away, but still close enough to startle them. Tseng broke away from the kiss, muttering a curse at fate under his breath. He reluctantly detangled from Sephiroth, wincing when a fat raindrop slid into his own eye. Where the storm had come from, he had no clue.

Sephiroth was somewhat dazed as he mechanically adjusted his clothing, regarding the storm with some confusion, as if he had never seen it rain before.

"We should go inside before either of us get sick," Tseng murmured, watching longingly as pale skin disappeared beneath the appealing white shirt. Though, the glimpse of pink, hardened nipples beneath was just as enticing.

Sephiroth flushed a little under the intent stare but managed to retain some command of his senses. He nodded in agreement and the two males quickly made their way across the roof, entering into the building just as another loud rumble of thunder boomed above them. Within, they shook their heads, staring miserably as water beaded from their clothes and hair.

"I hate the rain," Tseng grumbled under his breath, attempting to wring water from his hair and not caring that he was soaking the floor beneath him. It always seemed that there was something to interrupt them, not that he planned on simply screwing his new boyfriend he supposed was the best word for it, on the roof. He couldn't help but feel a little disappointed.

Sephiroth watched his actions with some amusement, his own disappointment obvious. "It was unfortunate," he responded, flushing slightly when silver eyes raised to him, watching him intently.

He was prevented from having to say anything else witty when the door to their left opened, admitting one of the Fort's residents carrying several towels in her hands.

"I thought you might be needing these," she commented softly, handing them over as a faint flush brushed her cheeks.

Sephiroth accepted the fluffy, black cloth that she handed over, marveling at the coincidence. Tseng, however, was certain that a devious, blond subordinate of his had something to do with it. He couldn't shake the feeling that she had probably spied on them.

The female bowed and left them alone, still dripping on the floor but rubbing towels over their soaked heads. An awkward silence ensued, sexual tension reverberating in the air. Tseng's erection throbbed in his pants, wanting some sort of gratification.

Then an idea. "I hear Fort Condor has a fully stocked training center," Sephiroth offered somewhat tentatively, at a loss for anything better to say. Besides, he would need the training center to be stocked, his weapon had vanished with Gilgamesh and he hadn't procured a suitable replacement.

Tseng raised a brow. "We never did get to start our duel," he added, thinking back to when Vincent had interrupted them.

He rubbed his towel over his head, wringing out most of the moisture from the rain, which was still steadily falling outside. "Are you up for one?" he asked.

The Turk could only smile in response, recognizing it as a way to ease out his frustrations even if he would have to resort to his hand later. "Of course. Lead the way," he responded. As if he would say no to spending some alone time with Sephiroth.

"Nooo, Nanaki! That was my card!"

"Too slow, Yufs!"

There was a growl of anger. The sound of another card slapping down to the table with a sharp thump. "Hah! Beat that!"

Snap! Whish!

"It's not over yet!"

Tensions rose even higher, twin looks of concentration settled into the best friend's faces.

"Hurry! Deal 'em out!"


Total and complete attentiveness. The race was on now. This was it, the final moment. Nanaki sucked in a deep breath. He had only one more card, just one and then--

"Mwa ha ha! You lose!" Yuffie crowed, jumping to her feet and pumping both fists into the air. "That's three times, 'Aki!" She stuck out one hand, gesturing towards him. "Come on, hand it over."

The demi-human frowned and attempted a pout that didn't quite work so well. "I don't understand," he griped as he leaned back against the headboard, digging into his pocket to produce his second favorite materia, a fully mastered Fire that had mysteriously regained its magical glow not too long ago. He reluctantly dropped it into her hand and watched as she reveled fiercely, eyes gleaming as she coveted the sphere.

Still, as much as he hated to lose it, he couldn't deny that he enjoyed seeing the wide smile on her face and the sparkle in her brown eyes. After the fight with her father, she had been carrying around a certain amount of weight on her shoulders and he could see the haunted emotions sometimes. It was worth it to simply see her happy. He had never expected that she would be so damn good at Speed though he should have known it considering how well she could steal materia.

Nanaki sighed. "Do you have to gloat so loudly?" he asked teasingly, relaxing against the hard wood behind him.

They had been sitting on his bed, playing card games for the last hour since there was really nothing better to do. Yuffie was still too injured for anything like training.

Her smile was wide enough to split mountains as she tucked the materia safely into her pocket and bounced back onto the bed, sending cards scattering everywhere.

"Yes, I do," she answered matter-of-factly, a mischievous look on her face. "Do you have to be such a sore loser?"

He crossed his arms over his chest and looked away with a pretend huff. "You're injured, you should be resting," he countered playfully, knowing that it would irk her to be accused of weakness.

There was a moment of silence before the bed dipped and a body suddenly hurled itself at him. Nanaki's breath whooshed out of his lungs as the weight clung to his chest and he whipped his head around, arms automatically falling around the smiling mess. Yuffie was frowning cutely at him, her face a mix of annoyance, mischief, and something else entirely as she straddled his thighs.

"I'm not that hurt," she protested with her usual Yuffie logic. "Just a scratch here and there." Her arms fell around his neck as she pressed her face close to his, causing his heart rate to pick up rapidly. She had been getting bolder lately, making it harder for him to resist.

The demi-human felt a slight flush taint his cheeks. "You get any closer and I might have to kiss you," he commented, slightly embarrassed by his own words.

"Well, maybe I want you to," she murmured before leaning forward and kissing her best friend softly. She could never quite get over the subtle change in their relationship. She didn't understand it, she didn't question it, but for now, was just going to accept things as they came. Besides, there was something infinitely satisfying about kissing him.

Nanaki was no less affected. He quickly took control of the kiss, sliding his tongue into Yuffie's mouth and tightening his arms around her, pulling her against his chest. His hand slid against her back, rubbing gently and carefully over the bandages wrapped around her body. Her warmth was a welcome presence in his arms, her form soft and unyielding.

Her hand teased at the back of his neck, trailing against the hairs that grew there and sending a shiver up his spine. She moved against him in a decidedly sensual manner that severely tested his restraint, even if he were moving by instinct alone. Her tongue mischievously darted against his teeth, flicking across his pointed fangs as if flirting with danger before moving to duel with his own tongue.

Nanaki groaned, a low rumble low in his throat. Or at least he thought it was a groan. It wasn't until Yuffie broke away from the kiss with a smile on her face that he realized he was mistaken. She pulled back slightly, poking at his belly with a finger.

"Hungry?" she teased, poking him again.

He flushed to the tip of his ears. "Perhaps a little," the demi-human responded with slight embarrassment. What an awful time for his stomach to grumble.

She laughed at him, wriggling slightly in his lap which didn't make things any better. "We should go find some food then. You're still growing," she teased, poking at him again.

Golden eyes rolled. "And you're hopeless," he countered, sliding his hands up and down Yuffie's sides.

She shivered at his touch, emitting an unconscious sigh before leaning forward and laying her head on his shoulder. Silence filled the small room, broken only by the sound of loud laughter as someone passed in the hallway.

"What are you going to do now?" Yuffie asked softly, disturbing the quiet. "I mean, Cosmo Canyon is in the middle of rebuilding and well…" she trailed off, not wanting to remind her best friend that he had lost his only family member.

He shrugged off-handedly, turning his head slightly and burying his face in her dark hair. He faintly smelled citrus bath soap, which brought a smile to his lips. "I haven't really thought about it. Suzaku had promised to help me find my clan but now, I can't really see that happening."

The ninja stiffened momentarily at the mention of his clan, but forced herself to relax. It was an entirely selfish reason that she was so selfish about it and wasn't going to point out the issue to him.

"I'm not going back to Wutai," she responded. "So wherever you go, I'll go, too."

Nanaki frowned. "You'll regret it if you don't make up with your father," he responded quietly. "He's your only family."

"I don't care," she said stubbornly. "He insulted you and tried to force me to marry that stupid Uryuu. I won't do it."

He sighed but didn't press the issue. "Perhaps I'll explore the caves some more. I have the feeling the answers may be there."

"How right you are, child of the flame." The voice echoed out of the stillness, surprising both of them with its presence.

Yuffie pulled away from Nanaki, immediately leaping into a defensive position whereas the demi-human was utterly calm, recognizing the voice.

His eyes darted to their left, near to the door where the air seemed to be shimmering. It pulsed and throbbed seconds before a familiar form appeared in a fiery sparkle, a trace of a smile on her ageless and beautiful face.

"Hello, Nanaki," Suzaku commented softly before her eyes flickered to Yuffie. "And to you as well, Yuffie."

The ninja's shoulders sagged as if disappointed there would be no fight and flopped back down onto the bed. "Hey, Suzaku. I thought you guys weren't coming to Gaia anymore."

The demi-goddess nodded and stepped gracefully forward, flickering a lock of bright red hair from her eyes. "That was Kami's decree, yes. But I had one last thing that I must do before I can merely fall into the fold as a guardian." Her calm gaze fell on her animus, softening immediately. "I made you a promise, didn't I?"

Nanaki nodded before moving to slide from the bed, swinging his long legs over the side of it. "You said you knew where to find my clan, that I wasn't the last of them."

"That's right." Stepping forward, Suzaku held out her hand in a closed fist, gesturing for him to accept what was in her hold. "They are beyond the barrier in the caves beneath Cosmo Canyon. You will need this to break it."

Golden eyes shimmered with unexpected emotion as he lifted up a hand and watched as something dropped into his open palm. It greatly resembled the charm on his necklace, though the design was a bit different than the one around his neck. His gaze fell to the object, which looked as if it had been carved from a materia, a Destruct materia for that matter. Only, since it was not sphere shaped, it could not be equipped.

"How do I use it?" he breathed, lifting his eyes back to his anima.

She smiled. "You cannot control the transformations, correct?" she asked, and when he nodded, she continued. "That is because you were missing a piece. I do not know where the original is but I had another made for you. They are two parts of the whole, fitting together like pieces of the puzzle. It is my final gift, child of the flame. Use it well."

The demi-human frowned slightly, not quite understanding what he was supposed to do with it. The look of confusion caused Suzaku to chuckle lightly before reaching forward and drawing her animus into a hug, embracing him warmly.

"I regret being unable to look after you, but should you need me, do not hesitate to call," she murmured before pulling away and kissing him lightly on the forehead. "I have since learned that some rules are meant to be broken."

With that, she drew back from Nanaki and put some space between the two of them. Nanaki was somewhat troubled, his fingers closing around the object. Suzaku's eyes shifted towards Yuffie, the smile remaining on her lips.

"Watch after him, ne?" she asked of the ninja. "He is still just a kid."

When the demi-human spluttered indignantly, she merely smiled and promptly twinkled out of existence, leaving the two alone in the room. In her absence, Nanaki's eyes again fell to the item as he drew it near to his body and examined it more closely. It almost looked as if it would fit into something.

Yuffie bounded over the table with more agility than an injured person should have, her gaze glinting excitedly at the look of the materia. "Wow," she breathed, reaching out to touch it. "It's beautiful."

Nanaki nodded distractedly, a bit of excitement beginning to rise within him. "It is. And once Cosmo Canyon is well on its way to rebuilding, I'm going to test it." He smiled then, a true smile different than what Yuffie had been privy to seeing in quite some time. "Do you want to help me?"

Again, she fought down the fear and jealousy. She didn't want to lose her friend, but didn't want to see him unhappy either. So for him, she would pretend she wasn't hurt in the slightest. She forced a smile onto her face.

"Of course, 'Aki," she declared. "You know I'm there for you."

He grinned widely, throwing his arms over her shoulders and drawing her into a close hug. "I knew I could count on you." He failed to catch the look on his best friend's face, both the disappointment and the worry. Yuffie could only cling tighter to him and hide her face before he discovered the truth.

She didn't want to worry him, after all.

The sizzle of oil in a pan and eggs cracking over the edge was a quiet noise in the background as light laughter echoed in the rather expansive kitchen. Archer listened to it all with only half an ear, ignoring the jibes and taunts that Reno was throwing his way for being a man who knew his way around the kitchen. He continued to cook eggs as he had offered, one elbow nudging aside the other food he had already made that was just waiting to be served. It wasn't his fault that Reeve was hungry and had given his former subordinate a pleading look to feed his aching belly. Not to mention no one was interested in whatever Reno thought he could cook aka create.

"You would make the perfect little housewife," Reno teased, leaning back in his chair and propping his feet up on the table. "I just need to get you a frilly apron, you know the kind with red hearts and lace, yo."

Amethyst eyes narrowed yet Archer took it all in stride. He sniffed somewhat haughtily and shook his spatula at the Tuesti sister. "Well, if Reis wouldn't attempt to burn down the kitchen I'd make her do it."

The amber-eyed female shook her head. "Don't blame this on me, Kyle. You offered, remember? Besides, I can't help it I'm no good in the kitchen."

"That's what you get for having servants," Reno offered, shooting her a lazy grin. "It makes you inept."

"Big words for a small brain," Reis shot back with an equally amusing smile.

Reeve could only shake his head at all three of them, the lot were really children, he was certain of it. It didn't matter that Archer was probably older than all of them, even if he only had Reeve himself beat by a little over a week. Still, the shadows that had haunted his friend's eyes lately could not be mistaken and Reeve was glad that he could see a smile on Archer's face.

A hand touched his arm and Reeve turned his attention to his sister at his side, albeit a bit slowly since he was still sore all over his body. He had woken from his coma but hadn't completely healed.

"What?" he asked as Archer and Reno continued to trade jibes in the background.

"You wanted to speak to all of us, didn't you?" Reis asked, a warm smile on her face. "Isn't that why you limped down to the kitchen, even if you were also hungry?"

At her words, it was as if a command for silence had been uttered. All bickering went silent as they swiveled their heads towards him.

"Right, babe. And Rude couldn't make it because he's cuddling with Shera." Winking brightly, Reno continued, "I promised to keep him updated."

Amber eyes rolled. "I just wanted to discuss our plans for ShinRa Corporation and the future." Reeve looked around, missing his usual calm and stoic presence. "I was hoping Tseng would be here."

Knowing eyes, which was everyone in the room outside of the President himself, exchanged glances before Archer let loose a deep chuckle. "Tseng is otherwise occupied," he explained, shooting his former boss a look. "And if I were him, I would skip this meeting for that any day."

Reeve blinked in confusion as he eyed the others, easily detecting that there was something going on no one had bothered to share. "Is this something I don't know about?" he asked, unable to remember if anything significant had happened to his close friend.

"You can't help that you're oblivious," Reno teased, leaning close to his lover and entwining their fingers together, still wanting to keep close to his husband after what had happened. "Do you even know what Elena's been up to?"

The President shook his head, shifting slightly in his seat. "With everything that has been happening lately, how would I?"

Archer couldn't help but laugh. "It's nothing but a little romance, Reeve. Tseng was eying Sephiroth for a long time and you know how Elena gets when she chooses her prey."

Reeve's mouth opened then closed just as promptly as he seemed at a loss for words. Finally, he shook his head and took a breath, rubbing a hand across his forehead.

"No one ever tells me anything," he muttered under his breath before continuing, "We'll just have to go on without them then."

Plates began to clatter to the table as Archer served everyone, setting before them scrambled eggs and bacon. It was a simple meal, but enough to feed their hungry bellies.

"What are your plans?" Archer asked as he set out the last of the food and took one of the empty seats.

The President picked up his fork and scooped up some of the cheese-covered eggs. "I want to disband ShinRa, consolidating all of its assets and creating the WRO," he explained slowly, enthusiasm beginning to peak through his tone as he continued, "The world has been damaged extensibly, with almost fifty percent of all living areas destroyed beyond recognition. A large corporation isn't needed, but something else."

Reis furrowed her brow. "The WRO? What exactly is it? What does it do?"

"The World Regenesis Organization," Reeve answered with a smile. "It will be dedicated to rebuilding what has been destroyed. All soldiers employed by ShinRa will be offered jobs in the WRO with only one mission, to protect and serve the people. It's about time that ShinRa's money did some good."

Aquamarine eyes sparkled with admiration and love. "Just like you always wanted, huh?" Reno questioned, shooting his husband a warm look.

Reeve nodded. "Yes. I originally created the reactors as a way to help people, but as with all things that ShinRa got their hands on, in the end they only hurt others. Now, I can make amends. And I hope that you guys are willing to help me."

"Of course!" Archer responded, shaking his head. "As if I'd say no. And I'm pretty sure that Tseng, Elena, and Rude feel the same way. WRO sounds like a great idea; I'm not surprised you came up with it."

The President had to fight to keep his cheeks from reddening. While not prone to random acts of blushing, it was rare that someone praised him for his work, his parents words still a lingering disappointment.

"I appreciate it everyone," he replied honestly. "I didn't think I could do it on my own."

Reis grinned. "No problem, big brother." Suddenly, her smile turned mischievous. "Now, wasn't there something else you wanted to discuss?"

He nodded and turned to his husband. "Are you sure, Reno?" he asked softly, just loud enough for the other male to hear him and not the others, who were waiting patiently.

The Turk nodded, his smile warm as he squeezed Reeve's hand. "Yeah, I'm sure. I love you, Reeve."

"I love you, too, Reno."

Amethyst eyes rolled. "Sweethearts, the sugar is killing me," Archer declared with an overdramatic flourish, a teasing hint to his tone. "Don't keep us all in suspense."

In response, Reno socked him in the shoulder. "Don't be jealous."

"Come on, boys," Reis scolded playfully. "You're supposed to be adults. Besides, Reeve was in the middle of asking something. Right, brother?"

The President nodded. "You already know, Reis. I don't know why you insist on teasing." He shook his head before deciding to just jump right into it. "Would you be willing to surrogate for Reno and I?"

Amber eyes, nearly a mirror to his own, sparkled merrily. "Of course, Reeve. You didn't even have to ask." She grinned but it was entirely mischievous. "I can't wait to see the look on Mother and Father's faces."

Reeve groaned, sliding a hand over is face. "Don't remind me," he muttered, wanting to sink down in his chair. "I dread the very thought of it."

"Not that it matters," Reno said with a sniff. "We're going to go through with it whether they like it or not."

"And then we can all be one big, happy family, right?" Reis added, slinging her arms over both Reeve and Reno's shoulders.

"If only slightly insane," Archer added with a chuckle.

A general chorus of laughter echoed around the table.

"I knew I'd find you here."

Sephiroth startled slightly and whipped his head to the side, looking up with a faint flash of guilt on his face. His concentration left the book he had been perusing, directing itself towards the invading presence of his best friend.

"The war is over, the world is saved," Zack added with a saucy grin as he strode further into the library, maneuvering easily through the narrow aisles formed by the bookshelves, "And instead of finding you making out with Tseng, you are here, poring through dusty, ancient texts."

Pale cheeks reddened slightly as Sephiroth replaced the book in his hand back onto the shelf, shoved between two equally thick and difficult to comprehend texts. "Hojo did some research here," he explained quietly, a bit embarrassed by Zack's usual forwardness. "I was hoping to--"

"Seph!" Zack suddenly exclaimed, interrupting him before he could even finish his thought. Mischief sparkled in his gaze. "Did you get laid?"

Gray green eyes widened impossibly large as the faint hint of red deepened to a brightly visible crimson flush that spread across his nose and cheeks. "What?" the former General repeated, mouth unusually gape.

Yet, Zack was not to be deterred. His mouth stretched a mile wide into a grin as he shook his finger at his best friend. "Or something similar you sly dog. I know what that look means," he crowed.

He darted forward and before Sephiroth could escape him, he had the former General by the neck, using his elbow as leverage. His free hand ruffled the dyed strands wildly as he laughed, giving the older man a faintly electrified look. Predictably, Sephiroth resisted, trying to squirm free of Zack's unnaturally strong grip.

"Zack!" he protested loudly, attempting not to knock over the many stacks of books balanced precariously at their feet. "Grow up!"

"Never!" the spiky-haired man argued with a raucous laugh, echoing loudly and disturbing the silence of the library. Only, there was no grey-haired old lady to tell him to shush. No one manned the old collection of books and documents.

Sephiroth sighed and stopped struggling, knowing he had no choice but to endure. "You must have a little something to brag about as well," he commented, idly reaching up with one hand and trying to pat down his hair. "You're only this energetic when you've been with someone."

Blue eyes glinted mischievously as Zack pulled him into a tight hug, the affection from him Sephiroth was used to putting up with. "Right. We SOLDIER's can't keep our hands off the Turks, hmm?"

Faintly blushing, Sephiroth wriggled out of Zack's hold. "You never stop, do you?" he asked, only half serious as he nimbly edged out of Zack's reach and turned his eyes back to the bookcase he had been staring at earlier. His hands immediately reached for one that seemed promising, a ratty looking notebook with sheaves of paper poking out of the tops and sides.

"Why would I?" Zack asked, sobering slowly as he began to recognize the strange aura to the room. Sephiroth was acting oddly, not that he was usually bright and chipper. "Life gets boring if I try to be serious all the time," he continued, watching his best friend closely.

Sephiroth hummed distractedly, only half paying him attention as he flipped through the pages of what appeared to be a scientific journal. His eyes rapidly scanned the scrawled text, obviously looking for something important.

Crystalline eyes were curious. "Seph… what are you doing?"

"I overheard that Hojo once did research here. Not a lot of course, but also that he was using this place to store documents he no longer considered important." He leafed through a few other pages, wincing when a few ripped from age and neglect. "There might be something here."

Zack frowned, an uncomfortable feeling sitting in the pit of his stomach. He had the most unsettling feeling of déjà vu. "Why?"

"It's something I have to do," Sephiroth answered succinctly, his lips pursing as he flipped to the back of the journal, reading through the acknowledgments and sources. "The world is saved and now I have no place. I have to know... without the madness and the burning of someone's home."

Well, that was reassuring.

"What are you going to do?" Zack asked, incredibly worried since Sephiroth hadn't talked to him about any of this. He was used to knowing everything there was to know about his best friend, but now he had the disconcerting worry that there were some secrets he had never understood.

The former General shook his head. "I don't know." He sighed, snapping the book shut and staring helplessly at the many other volumes scattered around the shelves before turning somewhat sad gray-green eyes towards his best friend.

"I'm afraid, Zack. Of the things I don't know about myself. My memories, the ones that Persephone unlocked… there were images that I thought were only nightmares that might well be true."

Fear and Sephiroth were never two things that had gone hand in hand in Zack's mind. He frowned, uncomfortable with the strange fluttering of feelings around.

"Like what?"

A moment passed before Sephiroth immediately closed up, shutting down everything to Zack's perusal. He shook his head. "

It's hard to say. But I don't think I can move on until I find out something. About Hojo… my past… what he's done to me…"

Zack crossed his arm over his chest, leaning against the bookcase. "Move on?"

The former General nodded and turned his haunted gaze back to the bookshelf, as if he could no longer to look into Zack's eyes. "It might be too much for someone like me to ask for but I owe it to him to at least try," he responded quietly.

He tilted his head to the side, somewhat confused, before a revelation suddenly struck him. "You're talking about Cloud, aren't you?"

A strange look crossed Sephiroth's face as he watched Zack from the corner of his eye. "You knew, didn't you? That Cloud was in love with me?"

"Yes," Zack answered honestly. "But it wasn't my place to say anything."

The taller male sighed. "I know. Aeris told me that he trusted me, admired me even and how have I repaid him?" he asked rhetorically before answering his own query. "By failing miserably."

"Seph," Zack started, shaking his head. "You can't--"

"I can and I will," Sephiroth interrupted firmly, reaching for a couple of notebooks and stacking them into his arms for later reading. "Don't worry about me, Zack. You've done enough of that. I think you should live your life now without having to worry over me."

Zack frowned, not liking the other man's tone of voice. It sounded resigned. "You know I always have your back, Seph. That's not going to change."

His best friend turned towards him, face a careful and unreadable mask. The world is saved. We've no more need to battle," he commented. "It is safe to say that the world can dream again." A slight smile tugged at the corner of his lips but it was empty. "That's all a person could ask for, right? It's what we fought for."

Zack was uncertain. "Right," he half-responded, watching as Sephiroth stepped past him and headed for the door to the library. He didn't miss the fact that his best friend had made no mention of his own happiness or dreams.

He shifted towards the other man's retreating form. "If you need me, you know you can just call," he offered, for some reason feeling as if he were losing something important.

Sephiroth paused in the doorway. "I know Zack, Thanks." Something flashed, falling in pools of glimmering green before Sephiroth was gone, leaving Zack alone in the library with a worried look on his face.

"Where the Wild Things Are" © Maurice Sendak.

To be continued in "Shattered Traditions" a Yuffie/Nanaki tale, with "Shattered Children" to follow.

Well, guys, this is the end of Shattered Dreams, but not the series! There's still two more fics to go before I can rest. Here's a little heads up for you. I'm attempting to write both ST and SC at the same time, we'll see how it goes.

There will be a month long lag between this chapter and the first chapter I post of either Shattered Traditions or Shattered Children, whichever I manage to finish first. I want to get some other projects out of the way first. (Like finishing Desperate Reflections for instance.) In the meantime, feel free to check out any of the numerous original works I have available.

At this point, I'm estimating ST to be about ten chapters long, and SC to be about 30. We'll see how it goes once I finally start writing them.

All right, for those still confused by what has happened, feel free to contact me with an e-mail and what not. If it's something I don't plan on explaining in the sequels and/or you don't mind spoilers, I will be happy to answer your questions.

Phew! I think that's everything. Thanks guys, for sticking with me through this monster of a fic! I look forward to reading your concluding comments and I return to work on the sequels!