Chapter Forty

Buried in the Snow

December 25th, [ μ ] – εγλ 2000

One of the advantages of carrying a staff was that the more traditional sword users in SOLDIER had no idea how to fight you. When that meant your sadistic friend and mentor used it to justify being practice for two SOLDIER Third Classes, it didn't seem like much of an advantage.

The two of them were flanking Denzel now, co-ordinating just enough that he could no longer flick his grip up and down his arm to easily block their strikes, forcing him to spin and twirl and all that other shit Cloud loved to avoid one blade while he concentrated on parrying the other.

Pushing the SOLDIER in front of him back a few steps with a particularly hard strike, Denzel leaped into a backflip, pushing all his enhanced strength into his legs to clear the reach of the SOLDIER behind him.

Of course, being beyond the reach of Essai's sword didn't mean Essai was beyond the reach of his much longer staff. Denzel let the staff fall in the zenith of his flip, catching one end in his hand and swinging to clip the off-guard SOLDIER behind the ear with the other end.

It wasn't enough to really hurt, just to startle Essai long enough for Denzel to land out of reach and backpedal enough to put some distance between them.

He was just brushing his sweat drenched fringe out of his eyes when he was startled by a whooping behind him.

"Whoooo! Go Mouse! That was awesome!"

Gaia, it was impossible to even be annoyed at Zack, the man was too endearing for that. He flashed Zack a smile and finished sweeping his hair out of his face, falling back into a ready position. The others were closing back in, spreading apart as they approached to flank him again.

"Sorry guys, we gotta cut this short. Me 'n' Mouse got a mission."

"What's up, Zack?" Denzel asked, clipping his staff back into the holster on his back.

"We're following a lead on Angeal, some base that Hollander might have up in the north."

"Where're you guys going?" Sebastian asked. Much to Denzel's annoyance and the others' amusement, Essai had wrapped Denzel up in a hug and was using the leverage to mess his hair up.


For all the things that sucked about working at Shinra, being able to fly in helicopters was not one of them. In the old world, only a few helicopters were still in serviceable condition and nearly all of them were jealously guarded by Rufus and the Turks. And as amazing as it was the first time he had taken a ride in Cid's airship, there was something more, something exciting about a helicopter.

Instead of the sedate high altitude ride of the airship, they were skimming along the water at a breakneck speed, low enough that it felt like any bump could leave them tumbling into the waves below.

The cliffs of the Northern Continent rose up out of the sea before them, sheer and white, the pale stone barely able to jut out of the layers of snow caked deep and hanging over the edge. The helicopter pulled up to lift them gracefully over the lip of the cliff and nothing could beat the view in that moment, high enough to see the continent laid bare before them, low enough that not a single silver mountain or white forest lost its majesty.

Even Zack, the perpetual nuisance child in any long journey, was hanging out the side in glee, watching as the scenery flew by.

"Well, that makes a four hours flight worth it," Zack said over the headset, turning to Denzel to flash a grin and flick him a thumbs up.

"Nothing makes a four hour flight with you worth it," Tseng called from the cockpit.

"Hey now, Tseng, buddy. That hurts."

"Not as much as a four hour flight with you."

"Wow. Ok. I'll have you know you're off my Millennium card list."

Denzel couldn't help a small giggle — chuckle. Small, manly chuckle. "It is the first time you've stopped fidgeting, Zack."

"It's beautiful, though, right? Reminds me of going over the Nibel Mountains."

"Didn't you guys get shot down over the Nibel mountains?"

Zack glared at Denzel. "No. Don't you dare-"

"Gentlemen," Tseng called from the cockpit. "We have something approaching."

"You just had to," Zack said, flicking Denzel's ear.

"Don't blame me for this!"

"I am totally blaming you for this."

"Mouse? Tseng? Hey guys?"

Denzel shoved away the blanket of snow, shaking his head to dislodge some of the white powder caught up in his hair. He was just glad SOLDIER actually had a cold weather uniform as he wrapped the scarf around his neck and shoulders.

"Over here," he said quietly, grumbling as he pulled himself to his feet. He spotted Zack hauling one of the troopers out of the snow.

"No signal out here," Tseng said as he brushed past Denzel, his phone held out in front of him. "We will have to count on Shinra picking up the mayday from the helicopter."

Tseng, Zack and both the troopers. The crash must not have been as bad as he feared if they all managed to survive without injury.

"We should have reached Modeoheim by now," Tseng added. "We will need to make up for lost time."

"Geez," Zack whined, running a hand through his hair. "We just crashed and that's all you gotta say?"

"Come on, Zack," Denzel said, tugging his mentor's hand.

"Alright then, follow me everyone!"

The cold and densely packed snow didn't seem to dampen Zack's spirit at all and he cheerfully let the way through the knee deep snow, legs kicking out a path ahead of him. Everyone else following behind him like grumpy ducklings, Denzel shivering and grumbling at every step he was forced to take.

"What's the matter, Mouse?" Zack asked in front of him, and though Denzel could not see his face he just knew that it was covered with an insufferable grin. "Not used to the great outdoors? I thought you were from the mountains!"

"Cloud's from the mountains," Denzel spat back. "I was born in Midgar."

"Hey, touchy, Mouse! City boy, huh?" Zack turned to face Denzel, not even stopping his stride, instead walking backwards and kicking snow into high arcs with his boots. "Well, just follow me and you'll be fine! I'm a regular backwater expert."

The way Zack proudly announced himself as a backwater expert by pointing to his face with his thumbs was too much. Denzel couldn't even stay grumpy at him for bringing up — indirectly, of course, Zack would never mean that — his, well, lack of a biological relationship with his father. It didn't bother Cloud, so why should it bother him?

Because he still missed his biological parents, and even that pang of longing made him feel guilty, like he was betraying Cloud and Tifa with his feelings for long lost parents. Except they weren't long lost, they were here and he still had yet to go and meet them.

"Hey Mouse, why so glum? You right back there?"

"Yeah, it's just… Zack, you know I'm adopted, right?"

He knew it had been exactly the wrong thing to say when Zack stopped the entire procession in its tracks to swoop down and pick him up in a bear hug. "I'm sorry, buddy," Zack said, swinging him gently in his arms. Denzel made a valiant effort to kick at his shins.

"Hey, I'm sorry!" Zack laughed, letting Denzel drop back to solid ground. Still, he kept his hands on Denzel's shoulders and stared right at him with those earnest blue eyes. "I wasn't thinking, Denzel. I'm really sorry."

Denzel turned his head and broke the gaze. "It's fine," he said, cheeks flushing. "Zack, please. It's ok." His eyes wandered back and he caught the softness in Zack's eyes. He smiled. "I'm proud of it, actually. Cloud's an amazing dad."

Zack grinned and straightened up, the twinkle returning to his eyes. "Yeah, he's-"

"Don't you even fucking dare."

Zack grinned and twirled on his heel, pushing back through the snow. Tseng gave him a look and Denzel sighed, falling in line behind his mercurial mentor. Gods, why did he even like the guy, again?

Cloud raised an eyebrow at Reno. Since when did the redhead ever come to his office, except to annoy him while he was trying to work.

"I've got something for you," Reno said, sauntering up to his desk and perching himself on the corner. "Your kid was flying out with Tseng, to check up on some base in the frigid fucking north. Modeoheim, I think."

The name set off a chain reaction in Cloud's volatile memory. Modeoheim. Their chopper crashed, he met Zack, Zack killed Angeal.

"Fuck!" Cloud yelled, pushing away from his desk and standing quickly enough to for Reno to startle and leap off himself. "Their chopper crashed!"

"How'd you—" Reno shook his head. "Y'know what, nevermind."

Cloud grabbed the coat that was hanging on the rack in the corner and pulled Reno out the door. "C'mon, we need to get out there."

Reno already had his phone out. "Told you I was on your fucking side," he muttered to no-one in particular.

Denzel groaned as they reached the top of yet another climb, only to see the Modeoheim base sprawled out in the distance, looking as far aways it ever had. "Maybe we should find some shelter, stop for the night."

Tseng pushed past him to get a better view of the base. "The facility is not far. There will be better shelter there."

"You said it wasn't far three hills ago," Zack whined.

"Then it is less far now."

"You've got to be kidding me. The troops must be dying out here."

Tseng hummed softly to himself and turned to address the troopers. "Well? Can you make it to the facility."

The pair stopped for a moment, catching their breath before chanting, "yes, sir," in less than enthusiastic unison.

Tseng turned back to Zack and let out an amused little chuckle. "If the troopers can make, I'm sure that SOLDIER shouldn't have a problem."

"This guy…" Zack groaned.

It was well after dark and the company was facing strong, biting winds as they entered the compound. Denzel had drawn in on himself, arms wrapped around his torso in a futile attempt to stop the wind chill from cutting deep into his bones. Zack was doing no better and the poor troopers, despite being bundled up in much warmer uniforms, were having trouble putting one foot in front of the other. Tseng, the arrogant bastard, was strolling around in his suit like he didn't feel the cold, probably suffering six kinds of hypothermia and frostbite just to make it look like he wasn't bothered.

"It's good we arrived after dark," Tseng said. It took all of Denzel's willpower not to kick him in the shins. "We can approach undetected."

"We need to get inside soon," Zack said. "The troops won't last much longer."

Given the sprawling complex and the lack of life to be find in the area, it didn't take long to pick out a suitable location, taking the office inside a delivery warehouse where they could keep the heat in and the flames of a fire wouldn't be spotted from the outside.

A real fireplace would be too dangerous, either the smoke would escape and they would be spotted from anywhere in the compound, or it wouldn't and they would suffocate inside the small room. Instead Zack had Denzel take his fire materia out and he was carefully imbuing pieces of scrap metal with heat, letting them become red hot before tossing them into a pile in the centre of the room to smoulder and radiate heat.

The troopers were huddled together around the pile of melted slag, still wrapped up in their uniforms and rubbing over their clothing to warm up. Denzel perched on the edge of the office desk and watched as Zack crouched down next to them.

"How're you guys doing. Ok?" Zack asked, helping one trooper take his helmet off, which encouraged the other to remove it. They looked so young, only… well, his age. Denzel never thought of himself as young, no kid ever did, but seeing boys his age so vulnerable, shivering and barely hanging on, brought reality home.

Years ago, when he had asked Reeve if he could join the WRO, it wasn't too much of a surprise when Reeve had told him he was too young. After all, he was only eleven. Under Shinra, you would sign up for the army at thirteen, drink at fourteen and enter a relationship at fifteen.

"Just cold, sir," the one nearest to Zack said.

"C'mon, bunch up around the metal, then." Zack nearly shoved the two troopers together trying to get them to bundle in near the heat. "I'm Zack—"

The trooper furthest away from him snickered, "we know", under his breath. Denzel's eyes widened and he stared across at Zack. There's no way he should be able to hear that, right? Zack caught his eye and responded with a slow wink.

"What's your guys names?"

"Hyne," the trooper on the right said, her helmet finally off and in her lap. She was brushing her wavy brown hair out with her fingers, trying to free it from the many hours of helmet induced styling.

"Alric," said the trooper closest to Zack. He was a short kid, especially pale contrasted to Hyne's rich brown skin. His short blond hair was matted and soaked in cold sweat, making the trooper look too close to a soggy cat.

Zack laughed. "I'd recognise that accent anywhere! You're from the Nibel area, Alric?"

Alric ducked his head, trying to hide a blush. "Vanaheim, sir."

"Zack," Denzel warned, shooting his mentor a dirty look.

"Sorry, boss!" Zack said with a huge grin, giving Denzel a sloppy salute. "He doesn't like me talking to mountain boys," Zack stage-whispered to the scandalised trooper. Denzel rolled his eyes. "He gets jealous."

"I'm not jealous," Denzel yelled, indignant. He flushed at his outburst as all eyes in the room turned to him.

"It's ok, Mouse," Zack said, grin never wavering. "Y'know, you only needed to—"

"Second Fair, if you must insist on sexually harassing Shinra employees, I will be forced to report you to Director Lazard." As always it was impossible to tell with Tseng, but Denzel could swear he detected a tone of playful humour in his voice.

"Hey, that's totally not fair!" Zack protested.

"You're right. I should report it to Sephiroth instead."

Denzel ducked his face behind his scarf, hiding his grin at Zack's spluttering indignation. He couldn't help but feel that his mentor deserved it, though. "Zack," he said more seriously, catching the other's eye. "You really should drop it."

Zack's gaze briefly flicked to Tseng and then back. "I just think that—"

"It makes him uncomfortable," Denzel said. It makes me uncomfortable, he thought, because… no… it was inappropriate. "I know it's kinda a joke, but it's been three months… it's kinda—"

"Obsessive," Tseng cut in.

"Uh, yeah." As much as admitting that made Denzel feel awkward.

Zack stared down at the smouldering heap of slag. His eyes flicked back towards Denzel, but never long enough to catch his gaze. "I thought I could win him over."

"By ignoring how he feels?"

Zack chuffed, half a laugh trying to escape his chest. "Well, when you put it like that…" He raised his head, but still did not catch Denzel's eye. "D'ya think I ever had a chance?"

"Well, even if Cloud was interested in that sort of thing… my mom would still beat your ass for it."

"He's straight? No way!"

"Straight as an aro," Denzel said, unable to suppress a grin of pun-filled shame. Zack was giving him a look. "What?"

"I'm not sure if I'm more disappointed in that, or that you can't pronounce 'arrow'."

Denzel grinned. Not only were the corny jokes fun, they were often the only way to make Cloud finally lose his composure and laugh. "Aromantic. He's… not really straight, but you still didn't have a chance."

"Wait, you have a mum?" Zack blurted out. Denzel raised an eyebrow and Zack reeled back a little. "Sorry! I mean…"

"Yeah, Tifa. She and Cloud took me in." Denzel felt a prickling of awareness on his neck and he glanced over at Tseng, who was paying very close attention to the conversation.

"But…" Zack scratched the back of his neck like a man who knew he was walking through a social minefield. "How does that work?"

Denzel shrugged. "I haven't really asked about my parents' love lives." Cloud had sat him down once, trying to explain about romance and sexuality. For other kids it would have been the birds and the bees talk but Cloud was so bad at it he spent most of his preteen years hoping to never touch the topic of sexuality again. Even Tifa's attempts to repair the mess had only resulted in more damage.

"Heh, ah… yeah."

Denzel glanced over at the troopers, both of them averting their gaze and looking as awkward as you'd expect in the situation. Tseng might as well have been writing notes.

"Let's get some sleep," Denzel said. Anything to avoid continuing further down this topic. "We've got an early start tomorrow."

Zack threw him a wink and he couldn't help the flush that crept into his face. "Of course, sir," his mentor said teasingly.