Author's note: Life sucks. Seriously.
Okay, I didn't come here to whine, I came here to give you a chapter. But first of all, the poll results:
OMG, JUST HOW MANY PEOPLE VOTED?! *faint* Seriously, I never dreamed I would get that many voters!
Meta: 21 votes (29%)
Stacey Rayleigh: 17 (23%)
Cissney: 15 (21%)
Eve Strife and Ifalna each: 8 (11%)
Scarlet: 2 (2%)
Aaaand the winner is... META SALMHOFFER! We'll see how it goes!
Had Meta still been holding her mug, it would have shattered again, this time into more pieces than even Cloud could fix.
"What?" Eyes filled with fright, Meta was looking at Cloud in disbelief, praying to every god she knew that she had heard wrong, or that the mysterious man meant something else.
Such knowledge wasn't common, but Meta had seen and heard many tales and seen many things in her journey over the Planet, and though almost every other story called them differently, the description was always the same. And there was one common name in all the horrors she heard.
WEAPONS. Machines created by the Planet itself that sleep beneath its core, waiting for the Planet to summon them and purge everything on its surface, living or dead, by any means necessary.
And if Cloud was to be believed, she was just sitting across from one. She now desperately wished for that materia she had equipped yesterday, but with how quickly she had been pulled from her bed she didn't even have time to put on some proper clothes, much less bracelets.
Said WEAPON for his part seemed to be patiently waiting for her to gather her wits, though one of his eyebrows was posed higher than the other one, the only indication of his surprise. Surprise that she was familiar with the term? Or that she wasn't running away from him in horror? He seemed to be expecting that one a lot.
"I… I don't-" Her words were cut off by a sleepy voice.
Both adults whirled around to see the silver haired child emerge from the guest bedroom, a familiar book clutched under his arm. He looked confused for a moment, and when he spotted Meta first his expression became one of cold disinterest.
Meta blinked in surprise. Why the sudden hostility? As far as she had seen, though it admittedly wasn't much, Sephiroth didn't seem like the type to glare at everyone who looked even remotely suspicious. And then she remembered just where he was from, and that she used to be the same way, her surprise turned to something akin to pity. When Sephiroth noticed the change it was his turn to be surprised. Why was she looking at him so strangely?
Though the little staring match amused Cloud, he got up and went to Sephiroth. When the child spotted his guardian, his expression relaxed and a small smile nearly stretched across his face, but he valiantly held it back. If Cloud was here, then everything was okay.
"Did you sleep well Sephiroth?" Cloud kneeled so he was level with the boy and ruffled his hair a bit. The small button nose scrunched up cutely, the only sign of his displeasure at being petted like a little kid. Of course, Cloud was probably the only one who could get away with it, but that didn't mean Sephiroth liked it very much.
"So," Meta suddenly got up, startling him a little. "I take it you're probably hungry. I'll make us something to eat." Without waiting for a response, she marched into the kitchen and started pulling out the ingredients with stiff haste, grateful for the distraction.
Her mind was such a mess, she was on the verge of a panic attack and it took all of her willpower to stop her hands from shaking. She glanced over her shoulder at Cloud, but he had his back turned to her, talking to Sephiroth. She quickly turned back before he could catch her, and walked further into the kitchen, the part that was closed off from the living room, out of sight.
Alright, now she could have a moment to think more or less clearly. So, she had a maybe-mercenary-actually-a-WEAPON who adopted a Ghost Child in her house, and he had a decidedly evil entity fused to his soul. She didn't even know what purpose Sephiroth was intended for, and from her own experience the boy was probably unaware of it himself. Which pretty much classified him as an unidentified threat.
Meta sighed. This was too much, even for her. Cloud himself was more dangerous than she thought was possible, and he clearly had no qualms about killing humans. And Minerva only knew just what the boy was, considering that Cloud had taken him under his wing. Or what he would turn out to be.
That said, what in the world was she supposed to do? Tell the mayor? Like that oaf would be able to do anything. Tell ShinRa? No, Cloud would probably kill her before she even reached the incineration site. Kill them in their sleep? She doubted Cloud even slept at all! Kick them out? Maybe if she did it politely, promised to keep her mouth shut, and fed them beforehand, they would just walk out the door without shedding any blood?
While she contemplated her options, Meta cooked. She took out her biggest pan, put some butter on it and put on the fire. Thankfully, she went to the evening market the day before, so she had enough eggs for the three of them. She scrambled the eggs in a bowl, and dipped thick slices of dry potato bread in it. Once it was sufficiently soaked she dumped it in a pan and let it sizzle, along with a few other slices.
It was a pretty simple meal, but at such high altitudes not much grew, so the diet of the people in the Nibel Mountains consisted primarily of salted meat, and she didn't think that feeding Sephiroth that much salt would do him much good so soon after recovery. So she opted for something just as nutritional, but lighter. And if Cloud was really going to live the life of a fugitive with ShinRa on his tail, and Sephiroth along with him, she didn't know what he was planning to feed the child. What did he even eat? Wait, did he eat at all?
Meta sighed as she dumped the egg shells in the bin. But when she looked up she nearly jumped out of her skin, her hands going up in the air.
"I apologise, I did not mean to frighten you." Sephiroth calmly told her from his position on the chair from the edge of the counter, his expression neutral.
"It's nothing, I just didn't notice you. When did you get here anyway?" Meta quickly smoothed down her rumpled nightdress, smiling gently at the boy. She still couldn't understand why he was so coldly polite with her, especially considering how old he was, but she hoped he would warm up to her. She just had to be patient.
"I have been here for merely a few minutes. Cloud has gone out, and I did not wish to overly disturb you." Sephiroth informed her calmly. Meta wondered just how in the world he could speak so eloquently at such a young age. She doubted it was from Cloud, he spoke pretty normally, though he sometimes sounded like he was from another time. So that probably meant he was taught to speak like that by whoever was his last caretaker.
And no matter how patient and well behaved a child was, she doubted it would be a painless lesson.
"Why are you standing all the way there?" Meta smiled. "Come on, you can sit here and watch me cook." And just like that, without any warning, Sephiroth suddenly found himself lifted by his armpits and sat on the counter where he had a clear view of the kitchen before he could utter a word of protest, utterly befuddled. Still, he sat where he was put and braced himself with his hands on the edge of the counter so he could have better balance.
Meta's kitchen wasn't very spacious, clearly designed for only one person maneuvering. It was long and narrow, with the counter and a wall of cupboards separating it from the living room. The counter stretched all along one wall of the kitchen, part of it cut out so an oven with a stove could be put in the middle. More cupboards lined the walls above it, as well as a couple of long shelves on the thin wall separating the kitchen from the living room. A small table for two was pushed against the said wall, along with a box of kindling under it.
While he was observing the kitchen Meta wasn't idle. Once she figured that the boy was going to stay she continued to prepare breakfast. The first batch was nearly done so she added a slice of cheese on each a few minutes before taking them out. She pulled a plate out of the cupboard and put two slices on it, along with a freshly washed tomato she managed to grow in her garden. Breakfast prepared, she presented it to Sephiroth.
"Here you go, breakfast is served!" Sephiroth accepted the plate from her with a quiet thank-you and prodded it cautiously, probably checking if it was cool enough to eat. Still, he took the tomato in one hand and carefully bit into it. Of course, as soon as he did it, the treacherous tomato sprayed it's juice all over his chin, and only a hastily lifted plate stopped it from dribbling into his lap.
When the spraying stopped Sephiroth lifted the squishy fruit and glared at it like it had murdered his mother. Damn tomato had nearly ruined his only set of clothes. He got a childish urge to throw it against something, but he refrained, instead he put it back on the plate with feigned composure, refusing to show how frustrated it made him.
Suddenly a hand took the offending fruit from his plate.
"Here." Meta took the tomato and Sephiroth watched curiously what was his host intending to do with it. She produced a small kitchen knife and cut it from top to bottom a couple of times, and put it back on the plate. As soon as she let it go, the tomato fell apart into eight slices like a blooming flower, and Sephiroth smiled slightly in wonder.
"It should be easier to eat it like this. At least you won't get tomato juice all over your clothes." She gave him a sincere smile and returned to cooking.
Though still careful, Sephiroth bit into the slice, savoring its taste. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched as Meta piled a significant amount of grilled bread onto a plate and put some ham in the pan. Though it wasn't just her actions anymore he was observing, but more the woman herself.
She had a small smile on her face as she cooked, and moved with ease around the narrow area that spoke of practice. She seemed perfectly content, but now that Sephiroth really bothered to look, he noticed she had a somewhat heavy look in her eyes, like she was thinking of something worrying.
Still nibbling on the tomato slice Sephiroth looked down to his plate. This woman had taken them in, and displayed such thoughtfulness for him that he had never been shown in his life until Cloud came along. Though it seemed like a nearly insignificant gesture, cutting up the tomato so he could eat it easier was nearly unfathomable to Sephiroth. In the labs, though he wasn't outright disrespected by the scientists, nobody had gone out of their way to help him like that. The only one to ever do something like that back there had been Ifalna, but her visits were few and far between. Even Gast was limited in his kindness, though on some level he knew it was not of his own choice.
Though he wasn't even a decade old, Sephiroth was completely convinced that being human amounted to little good. It was also part of the reason why he so readily believed Hojo when the scientist said that he wasn't human, but something better. Based on the examples of humanity he saw around him, he considered not being human a pretty good thing.
Hojo was an insult to even humanity, and his lab assistants and fellow scientists weren't far behind. Gast was probably an exception, Ifalna was an Ancient, and Cloud… Well, he wasn't exactly sure what Cloud was, as Ifalna said he wasn't actually an angel, but it didn't take a genius to figure out that he wasn't human, not by a long shot. So far the only thing human about him that Sephiroth had witnessed was his appearance, and even that shifted often enough. In Sephiroth's book, that only heightened his opinion of him.
Yes, he pretty much gave up believing in humanity. And then came this total stranger, somebody he didn't know until a few hours ago, who had absolutely no reason to be even civil towards either of them, taking care of him and acting so nice to him. It made him think. He considered Gast, the only human he respected, an exception in the humanity, but if a random stranger was this nice, then what were the odds that she was another abiverration to human evilness? Maybe… Maybe he was too hasty to judge the entire human race on only his tormentors.
"What are you thinking so deeply about?" His head snapped up at the sound of the redhead's amused voice. She was holding a wide plate stacked with freshly grilled bread slices with cheese.
"About the question of humanity." He saw no reason to lie. "Do you need help?"
Meta raised an eyebrow at the strange answer, but chose not to ask for further explanation. "It's okay, I can handle it on my own. Come to the table, I already set the dishes."
Sephiroth put the plate on the counter, gracefully hopped down and retrieved his plate before going into the living room table. As Meta said, the table was already set, and in the middle of it was a plate with grilled bread, a plate with ham and a bowl with a couple more tomatoes. He climbed on the chair from which he had a direct view of the hallway in case Cloud got back, and settled so he could finish his breakfast.
"Here you go." Meta put a steaming cup of milk in front of him. "I didn't have much milk but you're a growing boy so you need your protein." She turned towards her own seat, but a hand on her sleeve stopped her. She turned to Sephiroth, who was looking at her so strangely Meta became a bit nervous.
"If you do not 'have much' then why did you give it to me?" Sephiroth finally asked, looking at the redhead inquisitively.
Meta was confused. "Because I thought you might like some milk. Would you rather like something else?"
"You misunderstand me." The boy corrected her. "Why would you give me something you know you will later lack? Why not keep it for yourself?"
Meta honestly didn't know what to say. But she had to remind herself that something that was perfectly logical to her might not make the same amount of sense to a boy who had been tortured since birth. So she pulled up a chair so she could sit directly opposite of him.
"Sephiroth," She started, "it's... You're just a child, and I need to make sure you're propperly fed."
"Because I'm an adult, and adults take care of children."
"But we have no genetic relation between us, and I already have a guardian. You do not even know me." Sephiroth frowned. It made no sense.
"That may be so, but that doesn't mean I can't care for you. Besides, even if I didn't like you I couldn't not feed you! I guess… the best way to explain it is… I would be morally obliged as a person your caretaker has entrusted you with to make sure you are healthy, fed and happy until he returns." Not really the way she saw it, but she could offer no other explanation that would make sense to him.
Sephiroth's frown deepened. Morally obliged? He of course knew that morals were rules of right conduct that supposedly made people do right things, but as far as he had seen, not every person had them. Then again, his interaction with humans had been rather… limited, and not very pleasant.
"Do all people have some kind of moral code they have to follow?"
"Well, most people do, but you can always run into dishonest people who buried their morals for the sake of their own greed." Meta nodded.
Sephiroth returned the nod. "Alright. Thank you for explaining it, Mrs Salmhoffer."
"Okay, now that makes me feel old." Meta laughed lightly. "Just call me Meta. And how did you know my name?"
"Cloud told me." Meta frowned, suddenly remembering that her other guest wasn't around. She remembered that Sephiroth mentioned Cloud was gone, but…
"Did Cloud say where he went?"
"Not specifically." Sephiroth swallowed a bite of his sandwich. "He said he 'needs to take care of some unfinished business', though I'm not certain as to what his words pertained to."
Suddenly, a nearly violent chill ran down Meta's spine. 'Unfinished business…' Left without Sephiroth, but took everything else… Meta looked at Sephiroth who was, thankfully, too immersed with his breakfast to notice how stiff she became. But she had seen this scenario too many times not to realize what would happen. Cloud said he was a mercenary, and that he only knew Sephiroth since yesterday. Other than making sure the child was taken care of, he had no further obligations towards him.
So he had left the child here, for somebody else to look after him.
Meta couldn't believe that Cloud was that kind of man, but then she remembered that he was technically not a man. Indeed, did a machine even have any emotions, much less those that enable him to care for others?
"Miss Meta, will you not sit?" Sephiroth's ever polite voice snapped her out of her thoughts and Meta, in an almost desperate attempt to hide her fears, smiled lightly and sat at the table with the silverett.
"Sephiroth," The boy rose his head to look at her. Meta hesitated, unsure how to phrase her question without rousing suspicion. "Did Cloud say when he would be back?"
"He did not." Sephiroth calmly answered. "But this is not the first time he disappeared. He always came back, so you do not have to worry. "
Meta could only blink. Did Sephiroth already figure out what she was worried about? From just one sentence and a bit of hesitation? It seems she had underestimated him then. But he was still young, too young to realize that when the adults say they would be back, there might come a time when they do not hold on to that promise.
'Minerva, please let me be wrong…'
Earlier that same morning…
"So," Meta suddenly got up, startling Sephiroth a little. "I take it you're probably hungry. I'll make us something to eat." Without waiting for a response, she marched into the kitchen and disappeared from sight.
Cloud looked at her retreating back for a second and turned to Sephiroth. He was also looking at Meta, probably trying to figure out why she nearly high-tailed it out of the living room when he appeared. Cloud got up from his crouch and went to the guestroom to retrieve his weapon. First Tsurugi was in the same position he left it in when he went to talk to Meta, leaning against the wall next to the bed. He strapped it to his back and then went to the window.
"Are you going out?" Sephiroth's voice came from the door, freezing Cloud in his position. With a remarkable display of balance, he stood on the window edge on his toes in a crouch, inwardly laughing at himself how he looked like a gargoyle, and turned to the silver boy.
"Yes, I still have some unfinished business to take care of." The confusion on Sephiroth's face clearly meant he didn't know what he meant. Cloud sighed, unsure how to explain his intentions. "It's okay, I'll come back. I always do, don't I?"
He knew right away that those were exactly the words he had to say because confusion melted off Sephiroth's face and was replaced by a small smile. And with only that Sephiroth backed out of the guest room and closed the door behind him, leaving Cloud to wonder if the boy was smarter than even he was aware of or… Or he really trusted him to that extent.
'I had five centuries to figure him out and now almost everything I ever thought I knew is turning out to be wrong.'
He jumped off the windowsill and landed gracefully on the ground just outside of Meta's garden fence. Thankfully, it was the part that was turned towards the forest so the house concealed him from any prying eyes.
And then, with instinct born of decades of running and chasing, Cloud ran. Ran faster than a human eye could follow, right towards the investigation site. He needed to check just how much the Turks knew, if they were questioning the locals, and if those who saw him in the ShinRa mansion knew anything about him.
He stopped right on the outskirts of the forest, where he had a good view of the Turks mulling around and was still covered by the forest trees. He could see six, no seven suited people, and some villagers. Too many of them to sneak in. But they had already seen him, he couldn't risk them getting that information back to ShinRa. So, what to do?
Suddenly, one of the blue figures came running up to what he guessed what the head Turk of the operation. Realizing that something was being said, most likely a report, Cloud decided to put one of his less used skills to use: Mako sensitive hearing. It took a bit of training to learn, but even a 3rd class SOLDIER could do it if he knew how. So Cloud took a deep breath, closed his eyes and concentrated.
And he listened.
"…unable to find the creature we spotted at the Mansion. We have also questioned the Mayor, but he had only said that the building was haunted, and has been so for nearly a decade. This leads us to believe this monster could be one of Dr. Hojo's experiments that has escaped during the move."
"Then it could also be the reason it burned the ShinRa trucks and left the village intact. It means it's intelligent, and wants revenge." A sharp sound of a fist hitting metal. It meant the Turk was unusually agitated to be displaying emotion so freely.
"Sir? What of the witness?"
"Nearly useless. She keeps sprouting nonsense about devils and repenting." Witness? It could be that villager he found with Sephiroth near the trucks. She was apparently too traumatized to say much, but it seems it would have been better if he had killed her too.
"She also says that that 'The devil came to take his child back'. And as we found no child's corpse, it's obvious the monster took Sephiroth." A sigh. "Damn that madman, just whose sperm did he use to sire that child…?"
"Sir? Are you saying that the creature we saw is not a monster, but an actual demon?"
"At this point, I don't know what to label it as."
Sound of clothes rustling. "Sir, your old partner… He was here on a mission eight years ago and disappeared. Do you think…?"
"I doubt it, that creature the others saw didn't match his description. But it really is him… Minerva help us all."
They were interrupted by a pair of feet rapidly approaching. "Veld! I think I got a clue!" Veld?
"What is it?" Ah, the older one.
"I finished the interrogation of a couple of villagers. Almost all of them said the village Witch might know something." Village witch? Crap, did they mean Meta?
Another sigh. "Probably just an unfortunate pariah of the close-minded village. Still, we don't have much clues to go on. In a situation like this we better look at this from all angles. What did they say was her name.?"
Cloud didn't listen any further. His eyes snapped open, and in less than a second he was running again. He couldn't believe it. A damn blind shot in the dark had hit the mark. They had no way of knowing where he and Sephiroth were hiding and yet, in seeking to harm a person they hated they gave the Turks a perfect clue.
This was serious trouble. If he simply killed the Turks now, it would give them a head-start, but it would only serve to make ShinRa even more vengeful towards them. And as powerful as he was, he doubted even he could bring down an entire ShinRa corporation by himself, and especially not if he had a child to consider.
They could escape, but Turks were the best for a reason. They were like blood hounds who wouldn't stop until they discovered the source of the blood. And with them on their tail they had no way of getting to the Icicle Inn without bringing Ifalna and Aerith in danger.
There was also Meta to consider. Even though she was a stranger and they presented a clear danger she took them in and helped them. Though Cloud didn't really consider her a friend, he couldn't just leave her in the hands of the Turks.
He was cut out of his thoughts by the sight of Meta's cottage coming into view. Barely stopping enough not to tear the door clear off its hinges he burst through the door. Meta yelped and jumped out of her chair, still unaccustomed to Cloud's dramatic entrances. And for some reason Sephiroth an almost smug expression on his face.
But there was no time for that now.
"ShinRa's found us!"
AN: My friend sort-of-co-writer said this story was all action and no interaction between characters. I realized she was right, so now that the first main action part is done, I might slow the plot down a little and let the characters get to know each other.
And I have no idea what to call a french toast in a world that has no France.