Notes: I've been messing with this chapter ever since the first one was done. I am hoping it's finally ready. Many thanks to Kaze and Lisa for plot help!
Zack stretched his arms above his head, reaching to take the plates out of the cupboard. Of course, to get them he had to restrain some other plates and saucers so that they would not tumble out as well. And a nearby glass was teetering worryingly. He pushed it further in with his upper arm as he drew out the desired items.
"How's it coming?" Cloud asked from behind him.
Zack started, whirling to face the blond while trying to hold the dishes. "I've got 'em!" he chirped. "No problem."
Cloud reached behind him, grabbing another glass that was starting to tip out. "Looks like you needed some help," he said.
Zack gave a sheepish grin. "Dunno how that one slipped past me," he said.
He headed to the table with the plates. "That's what I need in the army," he decided, "someone to catch the stuff I miss. I have to go over and over things and I still don't find all the flubs."
Cloud set the glass back in the cupboard. "So you've got all this extra power but still no assistant?" he said in disbelief. Turning his attention to the silverware drawer, he hauled it open. Then he gathered the correct amount of spoons, forks, and knives and went to the table. Zack was already there, setting up the dishes.
"No permanent one," Zack said. "But I've gotta proofread my own reports and stuff myself, anyway. I wonder if Seph ever had the same problem."
Cloud began to put the cutlery around each plate. "No one's perfect," he shrugged, "even the General."
"Still seems weird to think of Seph making typos," Zack smirked. "He goes over his stuff a lot more meticulously than I ever have."
He straightened, stretching his arms above his head. "Man, there's so much stuff to get used to," he said. "All these weeks later, I'm still not adjusted. More meetings, more training, more everything!" He gave a wild gesture as he brought his arms to the sides. "Poor Seph. He had to do so much!"
"He's always seemed like the type who wouldn't mind all the work," Cloud said.
"Well, he doesn't," Zack conceded, "but it must've been overwhelming for even him at first, when he first made General. There's always something going on!"
"Don't you have even more going on than he did, now that Mathews gave you his power?" Cloud asked.
Zack nodded. "Yeah, in some ways," he admitted. "But since Mathews really is still the head, he's gotta come to the meetings and stuff with me and make suggestions and stuff. I'd be even more swamped if he didn't." He leaned on the back of a chair. "He's been doing it less, though. Making less comments, trying to get me to figure stuff out on my own. . . ." He shook his head, suddenly looking so tired. "I dunno if I can do it, really."
Cloud snorted. "Of course you can," he said. "Anything you've ever put your mind to, you've done."
Zack gave a bit of a sad smile. "Or tried to do," he said. "Doesn't mean I always made it."
Cloud looked away. Zack was probably thinking about the nightmarish battle he had sent the army into, when they had faced the Sephiroth clones and had lost. And maybe also when he had tried to talk to both Cloud and Sephiroth in the past, as they had fallen onto dark roads, and neither had listened. Those times were past now, but Zack still hated that he had not been able to stop or at least ease their pain.
"No one can always make it," Cloud mumbled.
"I know." Zack looked to his childhood friend, guilt coming into his eyes. "Hey, I shouldn't be heaping all this on you," he said. "Man . . . it makes me feel ungrateful to say it at all. I must've really needed to rant."
"Go ahead and rant. It doesn't mean you're not grateful." Cloud looked at him. "You hardly ever talk to me about this military stuff. You usually talk to Sephiroth, if anyone, but you don't really do that much, either. You just keep your problems to yourself, but we want to help you." Ever since Sephiroth and Cloud had begun to bond the past summer, they had discussed Zack's aloof behavior now and then--though mostly they just exchanged silent looks of concern when they realized Zack was doing it again. Neither could remember him ever saying anything about his wounded leg, and him being close-lipped had continued after having the added military power bestowed upon him in the wintertime. He had spoken to them a time or so right at the beginning, but other than that he had not said much since then, and it was obvious that he was overwhelmed.
Now Zack poked him on the arm. "Hypocrite," he smirked.
Cloud rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah . . . we're all a bunch of hypocrites."
Zack limped over to the stove to check the food. "None of us wanna worry the others, so we don't talk," he said, lifting the lid on the kettle. The smell of boiled potatoes filled the room. He licked his lips, replacing the lid before opening the oven door and studying the lasagna in the pan inside.
"Dinner's almost ready!" he announced.
"Now if Sephiroth just gets back before we have to warm it up again," Cloud muttered.
Zack shut the oven. "We should all get cellphones," he chirped, making his way to the window.
Cloud grunted. "Would he go for it?"
"Sure! It's practical! I'll talk to him about it." Zack parted the curtains, peering out into the night. There was a street lamp not far from their home, and by its glow there was no one visible on the street. It looked to be a perfectly calm Spring night.
There was always a feeling of unease when Seph took his walks towards evening. Nothing should go wrong. People were kinder lately, but there were still those who despised anyone with wings. Seph could have gotten into trouble. But Zack knew how much Seph enjoyed his walks, and he never protested. And Sephiroth knew how Zack worried. He always tried to get back before it was completely dark. But this time he had not managed to do so.
Cloud wandered over as well. "He'll come back fine," he said, his voice gruff.
"Yeah. . . ." Zack sighed, moving to close the curtains. Maybe he was being paranoid, but still . . .
Both spiky-haired men started, whirling to see the silver-haired man standing in the doorway. He did look fine. Relief spread over Zack's features. "Seph!" he greeted.
"You're late," Cloud remarked.
"I was detained." Sephiroth set what looked like a file folder on the living room end table before walking into the kitchen.
Cloud frowned in the general direction of the object. "What's that?" he asked.
"I'll show you after dinner," Sephiroth said, pulling off his gloves. "It isn't really appetizing."
"Oh great." Cloud rolled his eyes. "An after-dinner treat."
Zack gave the older man a worried look. "Is something wrong?" he exclaimed.
"Nothing new," Sephiroth sighed, shaking his head. "This is something that has apparently been going on for some time."
"Now you've got me in suspense!" Zack cried, limping to the oven. Taking out two hot pads, he opened the door and grasped the large pan inside. Cloud's stomach growled as Zack lifted the container out onto the top of the stove. Sephiroth smirked, looking in Cloud's direction. Cloud rolled his eyes.
"I met the high prosecutor today," Sephiroth said, assisting Zack by lifting the kettle to the table.
Cloud blinked, looking over at him. "What was she doing talking to you?" he asked. From the sudden tensing in his voice it was obvious that he wondered if they were in trouble again. The winged people had been officially pardoned by the government, but that did not mean that something could not go wrong if some vindictive person wanted to frame them.
"She has a mystery for us," Sephiroth said.
Zack moved to the table as well, bringing the pan with him. He set it on the cloth placemat in the middle of the table before straightening up and looking to Seph. "A mystery?" he repeated. "Is that what's in the folder?"
Sephiroth nodded, taking up the knife and fork by his chosen plate to remove some of the contents of the pan. "Apparently Kala-Ansa's treacheries extended far beyond what happened to us," he said.
Cloud grabbed his own knife and fork, attacking the lasagna from the other side. "Well, don't talk about it now," he grumbled, "or we really will lose our appetites."
Zack shook his head, waiting for his friends to finish getting their portions before digging in himself. "It doesn't sound good, whatever it is," he declared.
Cloud lifted the lid of the kettle, removing a potato with his fork. "When it's Kala-Ansa, you'd know that right off the bat," he muttered.
Sephiroth gave a grim smirk in response. "Unfortunately." He nodded to Zack to go ahead.
"Did anything else happen on your walk, Seph?" Zack asked as he pulled out a potato as well.
"Not much." Sephiroth took a third potato. "I met some of the Restoration Committee working on a house." And he frowned to himself. He had to pass along Tifa's invitation at some point tonight. And he was not looking forward to it. Of course Zack would hope Seph would come with them, if he thought he and Cloud would be free to attend. Sephiroth still wondered if he truly was invited or if Tifa had only said that because of how it would sound to invite the other two in the house and not him. And of course there was the little matter of his dislike of gatherings.
Cloud grabbed for the sour cream, scooping some onto the potato. "Yeah? Did anyone say anything to you?" he wanted to know.
Sephiroth shrugged. "Tifa said there's a celebration tomorrow evening at Merlin's," he said. He preferred to not speak of his involvement with the reconstruction.
"Oh great." Cloud's voice was flat.
"Hey! It's free food!" Zack smirked. "And the girls'll be glad to see us again."
"I'd rather see them in some other setting," Cloud retorted.
"Maybe Sun and William'll be there too!" Zack went on, looking to Seph for confirmation.
Sephiroth was cutting open the potato. "It's possible," he said. "They were likely invited."
"The last time the Restoration Committee had a get-together was on New Year's," Cloud complained. "That's still too soon. Those things are always so noisy."
"Well, at least this time it won't be at our house!" Zack chirped, raising a forkful of lasagna. He shoved it into his mouth, chewing ravenously. "This is good!" he commented.
"Yeah, it is," Cloud said, eating some as well. "So you're complimenting your own cooking?"
Sephiroth was amused.
Zack shrugged. "I haven't made it in a long time!" he protested. "I wasn't sure if I still had the magic touch!"
"You do," Sephiroth said as he ate.
It was a calm and peaceful meal. For a while they could forget whatever cares were troubling them and just enjoy the feeling of unity. So much had happened since Zack had been seriously wounded by Hojo. Zack had often insisted that maybe it had been a good thing for them in the end, which Cloud and Sephiroth protested. But that had been what had finally begun to melt the rest of the ice between Zack's two best friends. And now, here they all were--sharing dinner as a family. Zack could not be happier than he was at these times. And he could tell that Cloud and Seph were enjoying themselves as well.
Once the leftovers were in the fridge and the dishes were washed, Zack and the others headed for the living room. Cloud eyed the folder with distaste and suspicion as they entered.
"So what's the mystery?" he asked.
Zack stretched his arms above his head, the muscles cracking and popping as he strained. A sigh of satisfaction left his lips as he plopped on the nearest couch. "Well," he said, grabbing for the object, "let's see it!"
Sephiroth sat next to him. "Several years ago, Kala-Ansa was apparently funding research to stop the Heartless," he said as Zack flipped it open. "It failed."
Lavender eyes widened in alarm. "And this is telling all about the project?" Zack exclaimed. He scanned the overview of the experiment on the top page. His stomach began to twist in his horror. According to this, everyone involved had been nightmarishly disfigured. But it did not say what had become of them afterwards.
Cloud sank onto the couch on Zack's other side. "And Kala-Ansa just branded them all monsters," he muttered, his gaze falling to the bottom of the page. "Even though she helped make them. Typical."
Zack set the folder on his lap, slipping the papers out from under the clip.
"They included photographs of all the victims," Sephiroth said. "The names match those of people who went missing around that time."
Zack let out a gasp as he searched through the pages. "All of these people," he breathed. "Their whole lives were ruined!" He gripped the edges of the sheets tightly in his hands. It was too sickening to look at, but he could not tear away. The ones that seemed so resigned drove an especially deep knife into his heart.
Cloud's eyes narrowed. He did not want to admit how much this was disturbing him, but he could feel his wing twitching from his displeasure. "I wouldn't be surprised if she just had them all killed," he said. "You know, for turning into 'demonic abominations.'"
"I wouldn't, either," Sephiroth frowned. "Particularly where the violent ones are concerned. However, that's the mystery--whatever the answer may be. We have to find out what did happen and where these people are."
"And then what?" Cloud wondered.
"I don't know." Sephiroth sighed. "We'll take it as it comes. If they're alive, then . . ." His frown deepened. It was hard to know. What if whatever had been done to them was contagious? They would never be able to live in a populated city again, for everyone's safety. But their families, whoever was still alive, would need to be contacted. And a meeting might need to be organized from a careful distance.
Or maybe the condition was not catching at all, but the majority of the people would not welcome them back. They might all be seen as monsters because of their appearance, regardless of whether or not they would hurt anyone. It might be better for them to continue living wherever they currently were, for more reasons than one.
. . . And maybe nothing would be found except a cold and probably unmarked graveyard.
Zack frowned as well, shifting the first page back to the top. "It sounds like their base was some secret location here on the planet," he said. "So I guess the first thing we've gotta do is figure out where."
"It might not even be safe to venture in if we do find it," Sephiroth said, "not without knowing exactly what went amiss and if the chemical properties could still be lingering."
Zack nodded. "We might havta find the place and then step back and let chemical experts take over," he said.
"But where do we even begin?!" Cloud burst out in frustration, throwing his hands in the air.
Sephiroth shook his head. "The prosecutor wondered if Sun would know anything," he said. "It's doubtful, but she should be asked anyway." And he did not appreciate the task. It would not be pleasant for her to have her mother brought up again at all, let alone in this fashion. She would be mature enough to understand why it was necessary, but it was still not a pleasant prospect.
"When would you do that, Seph?" Zack asked, all at once understanding the conflicting feelings in the older man's heart.
"Tomorrow morning, perhaps." If Sephiroth saw Sun at the party, he would not inquire then. That would be most tactless.
Zack nodded. "That works." But an overwhelmed sigh escaped his lips as he placed the papers on top of the folder and set it all on the small telephone table. "We've sure got our work cut out for us."
"That's an understatement," Cloud muttered.
Sephiroth crossed his arms, leaning back on the couch. They might not have any luck. There might not be any luck to be had, by them or anyone else. All evidence of this treachery may have been erased.
And he could not stop thinking that it might also include the people.
He was still dreading the visit to Sun when he was standing on the manor's porch the next morning. His awkward feelings around children had not decreased, and this topic he had to approach with Sun was among the discussions he wanted least to have. But he would not be a fool and put it off even more.
He raised his hand, knocking on the door.
In a moment it was flung open. Sun stood there, her eyes bright and shining as she gave him a joyous smile. "Sephiroth!" she exclaimed. She reached out, grabbing his hand. "Come on in! I'm teaching William how to make cookies." The flour on her right cheek, and the pleasant smells drifting out from the kitchen, testified to this fact.
For some reason Sephiroth allowed himself to be pulled inside. There was such a happy atmosphere in this home, so different from when he had been here when Kala-Ansa had been alive. And a bit of guilt pricked him. He did not want to destroy it.
Bah, he was growing soft. He had to complete what he had come to do.
Sun looked up at him, his awkwardness not lost on her. "You could come help," she offered. "Or you could just watch, if you wanted. . . ." She clearly wished that he would join them, yet understood that he probably did not feel like it. And the last thing she wanted was to push him into anything. That was one of the things she had disliked most about socializing with other people--the feeling that they were trying to push her to do things she did not want to do.
Sephiroth grunted. "I'll watch," he said, and immediately was appalled at himself. So now he did not want to run the risk of ruining her day? How long would he stay here without getting to the point?
She beamed at the fact that he would stay at all, even to observe. "Come on then!" she said, turning to lead him to the kitchen.
And he followed.
William was standing over a mixing bowl on the island counter in the middle of the room. He was peering down at the bowl's contents, seeming doubtful and concerned about something. "The egg shell isn't supposed to be used, is it?" he asked.
"It's not," Sun said, climbing onto a stool. "Then they'll be all crunchy, but not in a good way. The peanuts will give them the good crunch."
Sephiroth looked from the egg shell pieces on a sheet of paper towel to William taking a spoon and fishing in the batter. He had tied his hair back the way Aeolus did, and he was wearing a black long-sleeved shirt and dark pants. Holes had been cut in the shirt to accommodate his wings.
It was strange, to see someone who looked just like Sephiroth attired so casually and engaged in retrieving egg shells from cookie batter.
Sun just watched, her arms crossed on the counter.
"I think this is the last piece," William said, depositing the stray shell on the paper towel.
"Okay!" Sun straightened up, reaching to pull a paper plate towards them. "Then it's time for the flour." Lifting it up, she curled the ends and let the whitish substance on the plate slide into the bowl. William began to stir it through the sugar, butter, and egg.
Now Sun looked to Sephiroth, who was still in the doorway. "You can come in further," she encouraged.
William blinked, noticing him for the first time. "Hello," he greeted. "I must have been too involved in what I was doing. . . ."
Sephiroth merely nodded in greeting as he advanced into the room. He came to stand near the table.
"You could help," Sun said again. "We need the baking soda now."
It would seem awkward to refuse a second time. Or was it just that he did not want to disappoint her? Maybe he thought that if he helped, it would not be as much of a letdown when he revealed his real reason for coming.
"Where is it?" he asked.
Sun beamed. "In that cupboard over there," she said, pointing to one at the far corner. "We just need a teaspoon or so."
Sephiroth crossed the room, opening the door and glancing over the contents. The baking soda was near the front on the bottom shelf. Taking it out, he brought it over to the counter, where Sun had a spoon waiting. As she held it up, he poured the required amount onto it. Then she dumped it into the bowl.
"What's left?" William wondered.
"The peanuts and the chocolate chips," Sun said. "Oh, and a teaspoon of vanilla."
William turned, walking to the still-open cupboard. Removing the small bottle of vanilla, he came back to the counter. Carefully he added the needed teaspoon to the mixture. Sun, meanwhile, was opening the bag of chocolate chips and sampling a few.
"They're good," she announced to both men. "Try some!"
"It's really alright?" William blinked. "Will there be enough for the cookies?"
"Sure, if you just have a few," Sun said.
Encouraged, William took four or five chips between his fingers and shoved them into his mouth.
"Well?" Sun asked.
William chewed, looking both thoughtful and confused. "They're somewhat bitter," he said.
"They're semi-sweet chips," Sun said. "They taste even better when they're in the dough!"
Sephiroth was unaware that a vague smile was playing on his lips. To see Sun this relaxed and happy made him feel happy as well, especially after knowing everything she had been through. He had grown attached to her in spite of his efforts to keep her at arm's length. It still amazed him, too, that she adored him as she did, even when he had tried to not get close to her for her own safety. She had seen goodness in him, as Zack had, and had wanted to be with him.
Sun looked up at him, noticing his contented look. She smiled, holding out the bag of chips. "You could have a few too," she said.
Sephiroth blinked. "I'll try a cookie when they're done," he found himself saying. One batch of cookies would take ten minutes, wouldn't it? Plenty of time to get to the point. Then he could depart and let them make the other batches. But if Sun was upset by the memories of her mother's cruelty, it might not be fun for her any more. And Sephiroth did not want to leave her sad, especially not when she finally was enjoying herself.
"Okay then," Sun said, turning the bag upsidedown over the bowl. Chips rained down, hitting the sides of the container, the spoon, and each other before coming to rest on top of the dough. Fascinated, William brought the peanuts over as well.
"And now I pour these in?" he asked, holding up the container.
"Yeah!" Sun said. "Well . . . we probably ought to stir the chips in first." Taking up the spoon, she demonstrated by turning the dough over so that some of the chips would be covered. This she repeated for two or three times before stepping back. "You can do the rest," she said.
William came forward, copying Sun's movements as he held the spoon and the bowl. His wings further relaxed, a signal that he liked this activity.
Sun looked up at Sephiroth. "Last night we made pizza," she said. "William's getting really good at it. He likes the throwing the dough in the air part."
William nodded his assent.
"Do you cook?" Sun asked.
Sephiroth grunted. "Sometimes," he said. "Usually I leave that to Zack."
"That's neat that you can both make things!" Sun said. "What about Cloud?"
A grim smirk came over Sephiroth's features. "You don't want to know."
William opened the peanuts, shaking them into the dough. "He can't cook?" he said.
"Cloud has many talents," Sephiroth said. "The culinary arts are not among them."
"I couldn't cook, either, until Sun started teaching me," William offered.
The smirk was still playing on Sephiroth's lips. "Zack and I have both attempted to teach Cloud," he said. In Cloud's defense, he could use a microwave at last, and had started to master how to warm pre-cooked food in the oven. But when it came to making dishes himself, he did not have the interest and had not managed to locate whatever talent he had in that direction--if indeed he had any.
"You could take some cookies home to Zack and Cloud," Sun offered. "There'll be plenty." Grabbing a small portion of dough, she began to shape it into a ball before placing it on the cookie sheet. Seeing how it was done, William followed suit.
"They would like that," Sephiroth said.
While the cookies were baking, Sun led Sephiroth into the spacious living room. "You can sit down," she said, plopping on a couch.
Sephiroth sat down slowly, spreading his wings enough to be comfortable.
"It's so wonderful to see you again!" Sun declared. "I was hoping we'd see you at the party tonight. I didn't think you'd come by before then!"
"I didn't think so, either," Sephiroth admitted. No matter his personal feelings, he had to reveal the reason he had come.
But he still sighed at the prospect. ". . . The high prosecutor spoke to me yesterday," he said. "She wanted me to ask you a question about your mother."
Sun bit her lip. "What is it?" Suddenly she looked downcast, which Sephiroth had been afraid of and had not wanted to see.
"Apparently she once funded experimentation to find a way to stop the Heartless," Sephiroth explained. "But something went wrong. Everyone involved was disfigured, and now they can't be found. There is no record of what happened to them after the failed experiment."
"That's awful!" Sun declared, her eyes wide.
Sephiroth nodded. "The high prosecutor wondered if you ever heard your mother talk about it."
She shook her head. "I don't think so," she said, "but maybe I'll remember something later."
"Maybe." Sephiroth hesitated. "I'm sorry I had to put this upon you."
She looked up at him. "Were you worried because you had to ask me?"
Sephiroth blinked. ". . . Yes," he said. "I didn't know how you would react to having your mother brought up again."
She smiled. "You're always really thoughtful," she said.
He grunted, not certain what to think of that term being applied to him. He thought things through to be logical, but that was not exactly what Sun meant now and both of them knew it.
She shifted, moving so she was kneeling on the couch as she looked at him. "I don't remember my dad," she confessed. "Just what Mom told me about him later. And she'd think I'm disgracing him the worst way I ever could. But I think it's a tribute to you and to him." She hesitated while Sephiroth looked at her in surprise and confusion. He did not have any idea what she wanted to say. But she knew she was going to say it.
"William's like a big brother to me," she said then, "and I love him a lot like that. But you . . . well, you're a lot like what I imagined my dad must have been like."
Sephiroth could only stare at her, speechless at first. "I wouldn't make a good father," he said at long last. "I'd be a bad influence." He had never expected anything like this. Apparently Sun had grown to love and admire him more than ever. And he did not think that he deserved it. Mostly it made him uncomfortable, though to some extent he was touched as well.
She leaned against his shoulder. "I think Dad would've liked you, too," she said. "You're kind and nice and good, even though you're rough around the edges and you make people think you're really stern."
"I am stern," he grunted.
She giggled. "Well, yeah . . . but there's a lot more to you than that."
She looked up at him again. "Will you be coming to the party?"
He shrugged. "If Zack and Cloud go, I'll probably go along," he said. "I don't care for such gatherings."
"Me either, really," Sun said. "But I like the Restoration Committee. And . . . I was hoping to see you."
He blinked. "Then I'll try to come," he found himself saying.
Times had changed. Before Kala-Ansa's death, Sephiroth would have rejected her adoration of him and told her that to stay away from him would be the best thing for her. Not that his views had altered a great deal, but without Kala-Ansa to make everything difficult, he had relaxed more and had let down his guard. And Sun was happier, so perhaps he was doing the right thing.
William came to the doorway. "The cookies are done," he announced, having been waiting and watching them bake through the oven door.
Sun hopped off the couch. "Okay!" she said.
Sephiroth stood up to follow her. This was turning out to be a very odd day.