Written for the LJ comm Polyship for the theme "Ice and Snow".
Divergent timeline; the game didn't happen.
"I truly appreciate you not using any of the vacation time you are entitled to," Rufus said over their weekly business lunch. "You've been an invaluable help in sorting out this whole mess, and I dislike having to ask even more out of you..."
Sephiroth arched an eyebrow pointedly, disbelieving; Rufus laughed, inclined his head in acknowledgement, and cut to the chase.
"There's a Hojo cover-up I'd like you to investigate, but you'll have to go on your own time so we don't spook anyone into destroying evidence."
"Ah. On that copious vacation time I am not making use of anyway."
"Basically. As for security..." Not that Sephiroth needed any, but due to that pesky 'brutal honesty' habit of his he had ended up Rufus's de facto advisor and it was just another procedure to deal with. "...Take your boyfriend and his puppy along, no one will question it."
Sephiroth stared at Rufus over his steak. Rufus smirked and took a sip of wine.
He could ask whether the vacation was a cover-up for the mission or the mission was a cover-up for the vacation until he was blue in the face, and Rufus would only smirk at him some more. Knowing his twisted mind it likely was both, anyway.
Sephiroth sighed faintly and mentally counted the number of files he could bring out of the Tower without creating a major security breach. Knowing Rufus, he'd told Zack already; there was no getting out of it.
He wasn't sure he ought to try getting out of it, anyway. Whether or not the term 'boyfriend' even applied to the relationship he had with his Second in Command - it seemed full of stereotypes and cultural expectations he had never been able to truly grasp - he owed Zack for never complaining about Sephiroth's greatly reduced downtime.
"It was very nice of Rufus," Aeris said, almost earnestly. There was an amused glint in her eyes, though, that suggested she knew 'nice' was not something you could really apply to President Rufus Shinra of the Shinra Corporation.
Manipulative, yes. Ruthless, yes. Fair... to his own people, yes.
Sephiroth found it a little strange to know that in Rufus's eyes he counted as such.
Or perhaps Rufus merely wanted him to think so, to secure his support. It didn't matter. Sephiroth would work to the best of his abilities either way.
... Once he was allowed to retreat to the inn he would work, at least. Zack's falsely horrified 'What? You don't want to recon?' had had enough truth behind the jest to get him to consider a walk around the resort village, and the post-trip stiffness in his legs had done the rest. (There was never quite enough space for men as tall as he and Zack were in Shinra-issued cars.) Of course when Sephiroth thought 'recon' or even just 'exercise' he thought brisk walks, or at least normal walks in a straight line, but of course Zack just had to zigzag from shop window to shop window and explore picturesque little backstreets.
"I will be sure to tell him I appreciate his... niceness," he replied smoothly. "Perhaps a postcard."
Aeris laughed, and patted the arm she was holding on with a small mittened hand, so cushioned with fuzz that he barely felt the touch.
She was light on her feet. He wasn't sure whether he was supposed to believe she needed his support for balance. But having her on his arm, both her hands holding onto the crook of his elbow, prevented Zack from dragging him to admire the latest souvenir shop or funny-shaped snow angel.
Having her on his arm made Zack's eyes go soft and his smiles take on a strange quality he couldn't define.
The two of them got one such look when Zack turned to gesture them closer to a shop window, an array of more kinds of skis and snowboards and ice-climbing gear than Sephiroth had known existed.
"Cloud and I decided tomorrow looks like a snowboarding day," he said, encompassing them both in one of those smiles, like they'd done something he was especially proud of, for some strange Zack reason. "You guys wanna come?"
"It's okay," said Aeris. "I'm not exactly in the kind of shape you guys are. I don't think you'd like the beginner slopes very much."
"No thank you," Sephiroth declined when Zack looked to him. "I do have paperwork."
Strife flinched away from the window and gave him a guilty look. "One of us should likely stay with you, then, sir. We came as your bodyguards-"
"This isn't exactly a hotbed of rebel action. Bringing you along was protocol, not necessity." If the vacation was covering for the mission. The other way around, bringing them along was... well... purely vacation.
If someone could be a danger for Sephiroth, they'd make short work of a normal SOLDIER, be they Third or even First. He didn't think Strife would appreciate being told he was redundant and unnecessary, though, no matter how covetously he looked at that snowboard.
"Aw, come on," Zack said, prodding. "Don't tell me you came all the way from Midgar in order to lock yourself up in a little room and type away. You said yourself the case won't take much time!"
"I'll bring my laptop to the porch and watch you land in snowdrifts. That surely counts as entertainment."
Zack prodded him in the side in a manner unbecoming of an officer, especially one attempting to find a ticklish spot on his superior officer. Sephiroth declined to react, glad for the protective thickness of his winter coat, merely arched an eyebrow. Aeris rolled her eyes good-naturedly at them both and batted Zack's hand away when he tried again.
Sephiroth was distracted from their antics, though, by the peculiar look Strife was giving the window display. Longing, but also faintly worried.
"What is it, Strife?"
"-Ah. Nothing, sir. I was just thinking I... Well. I haven't been a SOLDIER all that long."
Ah, yes. Strife had been in a couple of skirmishes, but apart from that his only experience with his enhancements came from the training hall, which was by necessity a very controlled environment. Snowboarding seemed like anything but.
"Don't worry, it'll be fine, I'll show you!"
Sephiroth snorted. "Zack, you might be more used to your enhancements, but you've never been snowboarding. If I am remembering right, Strife is from a mountain town." He was almost positive there had been talk of visiting one such, at least, and Zack had beamed and asked him how many strings he could pull to get his little trooper friend on it; but then there had been that mess with the President's death... Sephiroth arched an eyebrow at the young man, who nodded a confirmation, cheeks pinking. "I assume you have some experience?"
"Well, with skis, yes..."
"You will develop the necessary reflexes fast," Sephiroth replied, tone brisk. A long command career told him Strife didn't want to be reassured or fretted over, he wanted to be told that worrying in the first place was entirely unnecessary. "Avoid following Zack into a cliff face and you'll be fine. You don't yet have enough mako for your head to break through rock instead of the other way around."
Cloud bit his lip to keep from laughing, hesitated one second and then asked, too-serious, eyes gleaming, "Is that really due to mako, sir?"
"I always wondered," Sephiroth replied dryly.
"Oi oi oi!"
Aeris giggled in her hand at Zack's nonplussed expression. "Actually... Sir."
The three men looked at her.
"Perhaps Corporal Strife should take point," she said in a mock-professional tone, eyes laughing. "His experience seems more relevant to the current situation."
"Hm." Sephiroth gave his men a considering look. "Suggestion taken under advisement."
"Hey! That's ... not such a bad idea, actually," said Zack, going from indignation to supportive amusement in a heartbeat. Cloud's little smile turned into alarm.
"You are not shoving me down that slope first."
"No, really, Zack."
"Alright, alright," said Zack, in the tone of someone who didn't mean it one bit. Cloud swiped snow off the edge of the window display and packed it into a ball.
Zack took off running. Cloud chased him. Sephiroth and Aeris were left behind, still arm in arm.
Zack's playfulness reminded Sephiroth of their time in Wutai, getting to know each other - the too-young, too serious General and his too-young subordinate, serious when on the job but otherwise not very much.
Zack had convinced him to play along a couple of times - as they returned from successful missions, alone in the jungle, where no one else would ever know.
Sephiroth could do verbal comebacks and teasing, but Zack needed someone to be physically playful with, to roughhouse and mock-fight. Sephiroth didn't think he'd ever be able to relax into that, playing and being physical - he could, if he tried, if he made sure to be aware of every single gesture, the strength to apply at any given moment, the cautiousness every single second so he wouldn't get startled into anything he'd regret.
Cloud Strife had moments like that - less and less - where he froze as if his first instinct was to dodge or lash out, but Zack had caught him young enough to train it out of him. Sephiroth... this was a kind of play he would always have to watch closely, always be tense about.
It was a good thing he wasn't responsible for all of Zack's emotional needs; the man would be starving by now.
He thought he was ... glad, that Rufus had forced him out there with him - with them - because he'd been so busy and Zack had been so patient with the personal parts of their relationship and so professional with the rest Sephiroth hadn't noticed how much such a break was needed.
For all of them.
He looked away from the running men and down at his companion. "Yes?"
"Thank you," Aeris said. "For taking me."
"I could hardly have done less." Not once Zack informed him that Icicle Inn was her birthplace. Most people cared about those. They provided roots, a context.
Sephiroth didn't care much about where on the globe he had been born, personally, because one lab was much like another, be they in Midgar or in Junon. But even though Sephiroth had gathered Strife had had a hard enough time in his own hometown, the boy - back when he was still a boy, still a trooper - had still been conflicted about going back; there would have been no conflict if there hadn't been more to the place than simply being the backdrop of bad memories.
"You could have. I know I wasn't included in the original offer."
"You will never be included in work-related offers, Miss Gainsborough."
She looked up at him, head tilted back, scanned his face for meaning. A lone snowflake landed on her cheek, but she didn't flinch and break eye contact.
"You could call it a... tacit agreement," he explained quietly. "Rufus has priorities. I have conditions."
Aeris Gainsborough being looked for, spied on, or even mentioned in a Shinra Company-related context would switch Zack Fair's allegiance, which would... severely strain his. Rufus Shinra was the company, and after the catastrophic near-collapse that the previous President and half of the Science Division's deaths had wrought he had more urgent things to devote attention and resources to than his father's more esoteric projects. Ergo, Aeris Gainsborough did not exist for him.
"I see," she said quietly, pensive.
All of a sudden she hugged his arm against her chest more tightly, tilted her head so it would rest against his shoulder. He allowed it, silent.
The snow crunched under their boots. Lone flakes floated down lazily here and there, more of an accent than an inconvenience.
The Gasts' door and windows were long since boarded up, but frost and wind-chased flurries had long since hidden much of the sordid abandon, the neglected paint jobs, the dead flowers in their pots, so that the house looked almost as picturesque as the rest. Sephiroth knew Aeris was looking at it as they slowly walked past.
"If I do find something," he warned, "it'll be classified."
"If you do find something, won't it be on my father's property?" Aeris countered primly.
"Paid for with Shinra funds."
He was ... not afraid, but almost, that she would be sensitive about the topic, that his instant retort would hurt her, but it made her chuckle instead. "Would someone's salary still count as such once it switches hands? Rufus might well have a riot on his hands if his employees wised up and read the fine print."
Sephiroth declined to keep going in that vein. No doubt they both knew it was unlikely Professor Gast had managed to abscond with an Ancient to the cold end of the Planet without fudging anything at all, be they lab reports or fund transfers.
"... Hojo was involved. If I do find something... It's very unlikely to be pleasant."
Eyes closed, Aeris squeezed his arm, turned her face against his shoulder. It was a gesture he'd seen her do with Zack - very rarely.
Vulnerable. 'I hurt; shield me.' "I know."
He had a bond of loyalty and ... friendship, or more, to Zack, who had a bond to her. That didn't imply that between her and him it ought to be personal as well.
It was becoming so anyway, just like Sephiroth's generalized 'one of my Thirds' vague protective impulses toward Strife had slowly turned into 'one of mine'. As General he owed loyalty to his troops if he wanted to get theirs back, and if he judged them in the right he would go toe to toe, on behalf of any of the SOLDIERs who ever went through the process, against Rufus, against the Turks, against the Science Department - but there was a core group (people who'd been to Wutai with him, mostly) he might even get angry for.
Strife was just a Third, and a brand-new one at that, still being run ragged around the units fetching nonexistent files and bringing coffee, but he was worming his way in there anyway.
So was miss Gainsborough, despite the fact that she wasn't in his chain of command at all.
He didn't owe her anything. "I'll tell you what I can," he promised anyway.
She pressed her cheek against his shoulder and breathed in deep, and flicked him a smile. "I know."
A block ahead, where the street widened into a little town square, Zack and Cloud were pelting each other with snowballs and laughing bright and clear. He felt Aeris chuckle quietly as she watched them.
"I suppose you wish to join them..."
"Good heavens, no, but if they catch sight of us I don't think we'll have a choice. Quick, let's blend in with the other couples!"
There were others, walking the streets much like they were, arm in arm, leaning together for... more than warmth, he could see it, the temperature more of an excuse to press against each other. He blinked down at the girl on his arm. The other couples?
They stilled on the snow-blanketed sidewalk and looked at each other, a little too serious, too watchful for simple banter.
His... significant other's significant other. He could have merely tolerated her, humored her because she came as a package deal with Zack...
If he'd never spent any time with her, that was.
"I suppose we count as such," he acknowledged, voice quiet, a faint, helpless smile on his lips. "Once removed."
Aeris gave him an impish grin and used her weight to tug him down, though he mostly allowed it to move him as a courtesy. She went on tiptoes and dropped a little kiss on his cheek. Her nose was pink from the cold.
"I don't think this will be good camouflage, though," he said dryly.
"Oh? Why ever not?"
Ahead on the square Zack was getting pelted by Strife, due to forgetting to dodge.
"Zack radar," Sephiroth said, and watched him bounce over a snow drift and come at them, eyes bright and delighted.