Chapter 1: One
“There are Soldiers in Cosmo Canyon.”
Sephiroth’s words were such a surprise to Ifalna that she dropped the shirt she had been mending, “What did you say, Sephiroth?”
Sephiroth closed and locked the door behind him, pulling the shades closed for good measure. He carefully unclipped his sword and hung it with the sheath in their proper place on the wall. His movements had an edge of tension that was obvious to Aeris and Ifalna, but only because they knew him so well.
“I was just down by the Candle and I saw Soldiers in the village.” Sephiroth ran his hands through his hair, “Why would Bugenhagen let Soldiers into Cosmo Canyon?”
Aeris put a hand on her mother’s shoulder to keep her from jumping up out of her chair, “He let a Soldier into Cosmo Canyon. One. He’s here to pick up something for his mother, who lives in Gongaga, before he goes home on leave.”
Sephiroth’s scowl was legend, even when he was a boy. It more than just the mako glow in his eyes or the knowledge that he could probably break your arm without expending any real effort. There was a raw power in him when he was angry that made him terrifying… to everyone but Aeris.
“His name is Zack Fair.” Aeris added with her sweetest smile, “He’s nice.”
Ifalna buried her face in her hands, “Dear Planet preserve me.”
“Are you out of your mind!?” Sephiroth hissed, striding across the room to go toe to toe with his adoptive little sister, “You know better than to talk to anyone from Shinra, Aeris. What possessed you-“
Aeris crossed her arms, “Honestly? The poor guy tripped coming off the platform around the Cosmo Candle. Went head over feet and landed square on his back. I went over to make sure he was okay- I didn’t realize he was a Soldier until he opened his eyes! He asked me if I was an angel and if this was heaven. Oooh… scary.”
Aeris spun to face Ifalna, “I cured his bruises… with materia! He wants to take me out to dinner tonight as a thank you. We’re going to go to the one restaurant in town to have a perfectly nice meal before he goes home to his parents for a week and back Midgar again after. I’ll never see him again and it’ll all be very normal. Please don’t make a big deal out of this!”
Ifalna held her hands up in surrender, “It’s been eight years. I think one dinner will a stranger be safe enough… as long as you’re careful.”
Aeris nodded, “Of course, Mama.”
Ifalna arched an eyebrow at her daughter, “How long have you lived here, Aeri?”
“My whole boring life.” Aeris said, echoing a game from the early days of their hiding out. Ifalna and Sephiroth knew how serious the danger was and they had no problem lying smoothly about their past when asked. It was Aeris who had needed repeated practice before the lies became second nature, “Grandfather was a scholar and Grandmother wove blankets and Papa died defending against the Gi attack. Blah, blah, blah. Even Bugenhagen says he wouldn’t know I hadn’t grown up here if we didn’t tell him. Some days he forgets anyway. If I have him fooled, I can handle myself against Zack.”
“So when is he picking you up?” Sephiroth asked, voice deceptively bland.
Aeris turned back slowly to face him, “He was just going to pick up his mom’s order and then he was coming here. Why?”
Sephiroth casually crossed the room to take his sword back from the rack. He picked up his weapon cleaning kit as well, “I believe there is a tradition regarding a young woman’s potential date meeting her father. Since the professor is not available, I believe I will meet with Fair myself. I will clean my weapon and sharpen the blade to pass the time.”
“Mom-“ Aeris turned back to where Ifalna had been and growled when she saw the woman had quietly escaped the room, “Traitor.”
“You should go prepare, hm?” Sephiroth murmured, the picture of innocence, “Don’t try to sneak out the back door or the window. I will hear you and then I will come retrieve you.”
“You’re a terrible person.” Aeris muttered, storming into her room and slamming the door.
Sephiroth really had intended to care for his weapon that night, even before spotting the Soldier. He set to work carefully oiling the blade and sharpening the edge. He and Nanaki worked hard to keep dangerous monsters from getting too close to the entrance of the village. Even with as young as he had been when he escaped Hojo and Shinra, he had been taught the importance of caring for a good blade or gun for that matter.
He had just set to work with his whetstone when a knock sounded at the door. Setting the blade aside, Sephiroth crossed the room and pulled the front door open. Zack Fair was indeed the Soldier he had seen before. They were nearly of a height, although Sephiroth was pleased to see he still topped the man by several inches. He looked to be older than Aeris, but not by much. His black hair was worn long and slicked back, but a few stubborn shorter pieces fought to hang over his forehead. The glow of mako was impossible to ignore in his blue eyes.
Zack held out a hand to him, “Hey, I’m Zack Fair. Nice to meet you.”
Sephiroth arched an eyebrow at Zack and made no move to take his hand. Zack pulled it away and awkwardly scratched the back of his neck, “I… uh, offered to take Aeri to dinner, as a thank you for helping me out this afternoon. Is this her house?”
“Yes.” Sephiroth turned from the door and headed back to his sword, “She is getting prepared for dinner.”
He heard Ifalna’s exasperated hiss from the kitchen where she had been hiding. She came in with a pitcher of lemonade and glasses on a tray, “Seph, you’re awful. Please come in, Zack was it?”
“Yes ma’am.” He shook her offered hand, “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Ifalna paused at the edge of the table when she realized that she had no room for the tray. She kicked Sephiroth in the shin lightly. With a sullen frown, he moved his supplies over to make room.
“I know you’re on your way to supper, but you look like a lad with an appetite. Cookie and lemonade?” Ifalna held the pitcher up.
Zack chuckled, “I’m always up for a homemade snack. Yes, please to both.”
“Aeri mentioned that you were on your way home for leave.” Ifalna said, pouring glasses of lemonade for all three of them, “I’m sure you’re in for all the homemade food you can stand.”
“I do miss my mother’s cooking when I’m in Midgar.” Zack admitted, taking his glass, “I can’t cook to save my life, so this week will be a real treat.”
Ifalna and Zack both took a drink from their glasses of lemonade. Zack also tried a cookie with a hum of approval. Sephiroth ignored the drink and cookies, taking up his blade again for sharpening.
The effect was not quite what Sephiroth had hoped for, although he knew he should not have been surprised. Zack eyed his blade with the keen eye of an experienced swordsman, “Never seen a sword quite like that. Got some length to it like a broadsword, but thinner… almost katana-like. How does she handle?”
“Efficiently.” Sephiroth replied, “My style is unconventional. This blade suits it.”
He could see that Zack was eager to ask questions, just shy of bouncing on the seat. Sephiroth decided to head him off, “You are unarmed? That seems odd, considering your profession.”
“Someone obviously takes good care of the area leading up to the city. I didn’t see a monster for two miles outside of the road up.” Zack gave him a knowing look, “I figure I’m safe enough in the city itself and it’s unlikely that anyone here’s strong enough to lift my sword, let alone take it. It’s… unconventional, to say the least. A buddy came up with the design for me, it’s a thing of beauty.”
He shifted his sleeve to show a dull copper colored bangle on his wrist. Sephiroth could see four materia slotted into it, “I’m never completely unarmed, so Aeri’s in good hands… if that’s the problem. I just figured a giant sword doesn’t usually make a great first impression on a girl’s family.”
The door to Aeris’s bedroom opened and she stepped out in a dress that she usually reserved for festivals. Zack set aside his empty glass and immediately stood, “Aeri, hey!”
“Hi Zack.” She glanced at her mother and brother, “Has he been sufficiently interrogated?”
Sephiroth opened his mouth to reply, but Ifalna kicked him again to stop him, “Zack, you seem like a perfectly lovely young man. Enjoy dinner and be back before it gets too late, please.”
Zack flushed, pleased, “Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”
Aeris leaned down and pressed a kiss to Ifalna’s cheek, “I’ll see you soon, Mama.”
She flicked Seph’s bangs as she walked past him, “Bagrisk licker.”
“Halfwit.” Sephiroth grumbled without heat, “Don’t make me come get you.”
Zack laughed nervously, “I’ll have her home before that, promise.”
Sephiroth waited until the door closed before attaching his sheath to its strap on his back. Ifalna jumped up and blocked his way to the door, “Don’t even think about it, Sephiroth. Sasha already said she’ll watch them like a hawk. If anything seems suspicious, she’ll send Ani up to get us. Do you really think that one Soldier could stand up to us both, assuming that Aeris didn’t handle him on her own?”
Sephiroth knew she was right. Grudgingly, he removed his sheath again.
“That’s my good lad.” She reached up and patted his cheek, “Let’s see what we can scrape together for dinner while they’re gone.
Chapter 2: Two
Ifalna was able to keep Sephiroth in line for an hour before he tried to collect Aeris. Thankfully, she spotted them at the Cosmo Candle as dusk was falling over the city. She refused to let him embarrass Aeris on her first date and told Sephiroth that if he was going to stalk his sister, he would have to be at least as far away as Bugenhagen’s observatory. His keen eyesight would allow him to watch over Aeris without drawing the attention of her date.
Even Ifalna had to admit that it was hard to go back inside and leave Aeris with the Soldier. Her daughter had good instincts and she was going to trust them. If the boy managed to kidnap her while escaping Sephiroth and Nanaki, because Sephiroth would undoubtedly recruit the firecat to his stalking, she would eat her favorite shawl.
She spent the next hour catching up on mending that she had let fall by the wayside. Ifalna got very little actually done, but at least she was not perched beside Sephiroth in terror.
She knew that her daughter was on her way back when Sephiroth rushed through the back door. He quickly hung his sheath beside the door and scooped up a book, dropping onto the empty couch just before the front door opened.
Aeris was bright eyed with excitement… excitement that her date did not seem to share. He let her lead him by the hand into the living room, but it was plain to see that he wanted to bolt.
Sephiroth set his book aside, “Aeri?”
“Zack knows something that you both need to hear.” Aeris all but pushed him to sit beside her mother, “Tell them!”
“You told him!?” Sephiroth growled, yanking Aeris towards him.
“She really didn’t.” Zack said, jumping to his feet, “Just let me explain.”
Aeris pulled her arm from Sephiroth’s grip, “Really. Do you think I would be so dumb as to bring him back here if he was a threat? I’m young, I make mistakes, but I’m not a complete nitwit.”
“Everybody at Shinra knows about the three of you. You’re Shinra’s worst kept secret, if you could be called that at all.” Zack winced, “I’m saying this all wrong. Look, let’s start here. I know that you’re Ifalna Faremis, wife of the late Professor Gast Faremis..?”
It was more of a question than a statement and Sephiroth and Ifalna stared at him wide eyed, unwilling to confirm anything for him. Aeris realized what he was asking, “Yes, Zack, papa’s been dead since right after I was born.”
“Damn.” Zack flushed, “Sorry. It’s just… there’s plenty of us that hoped maybe he was still alive and hiding out with you. Anyway, Aeri is really Aeris Faremis and Seph here is Sephiroth whatever-last-name-he-claims, because he could have his pick of a few at this point.”
Aeris reached out and touched his arm gently, “Zack, you’re babbling.”
“Yeah, well, I’m still not convinced that your brother isn’t going to murder me, so that’s a real problem.” Zack glanced at him and quickly away again, “I feel really weird for relying on you to protect me. I’ve done all the protecting for many, many years now.”
Aeris let out a growl of frustration, “Shinra doesn’t care about us anymore. We’re not really fugitives! See that’s how you start this story if you don’t want Sephiroth to lose it.”
Ifalna and Sephiroth turned from Aeris to Zack in surprise. The boy had the decency to look embarrassed but continued anyway, “Right. Well, all those years ago you three escaped the labs and took off. Obviously the Turks were assigned to locate and recapture you. They really gave it their all, you know. One of them recalled that Gast had done some work on the early portions of the Jenova Project in Nibelheim. They thought you might be hiding out there in the mansion. They tore that place apart.”
“I briefly considered it.” Ifalna murmured, “I thought we’d be hiding in plain sight that way and that no one would find us. I’m so relieved I decided against it.”
“That was pretty much the first place they looked.” Zack agreed, “Which is actually pretty lucky for you. They found a man locked up in the basement there. Apparently he was one of Hojo’s… experiments. I… uh…”
Sephiroth’s eyes narrowed as Zack glanced at him again, “What?”
“There’s just no good way to say this.” Zack looked at Ifalna and Aeris again for a moment and then back at Sephiroth, “How much do you know about your parents?”
“Ifalna is my-“
Zack held up a hand, “Family is family, that isn’t the question. I mean the man and woman you are genetically related to. What do you know?”
“Hojo used to tell me that a woman named Jenova was my mother.” Sephiroth shared a look with Ifalna, “That is impossible for many reasons. I must have been conceived and carried at some point… I just assumed that my parents worked for Shinra or were killed after my birth for security reasons. I never trusted Hojo enough to actually ask.”
“Right.” Zack set his jaw, expression grim, “So, Hojo had a wife, once upon a time, a scientist named Lucrecia. Well, it’s a long story, but in the end Lucrecia volunteered to be part of the Jenova project. It was the basis of Soldier. Basically, they used the DNA of a creature they believed to be an Ancient and made it part of a developing baby. The idea was to recreate the extinct Ancients. That baby was Lucrecia’s and kind of… eventually… was you.”
Sephiroth stared unblinkingly at Zack for a moment without making a sound. Aeris sat down beside him, gently touching his arm, “Seph?”
“You are attempting to tell me that my… biological mother willingly gave herself to that psychopath, and that I am the result.” Sephiroth’s voice was the deadly calm that usually preceded a wave of serious anger.
“Not exactly… you remember that failed experiment guy that the Turks found? Turns out he was a Turk who had been assigned to protect the scientists while they worked, name of Vincent Valentine. Your mother was reported to be… uh… on excellent terms with Mr. Valentine up until Hojo… shot him.”
That made Sephiroth look up sharply, “Shot him?”
“Yeah, that’s why everybody thinks… that is to say… yep, like I said, no good way to say this at all.” Zack sank down onto the couch beside Ifalna and leaned towards Sephiroth, hands clenched between his knees, “You’re a smart guy. Do you need me to spell it out or…”
“Please don’t.” Sephiroth replied, the implications obvious. His cheeks went a little pink.
“Thank Phoenix’s bright flame.” Zack leaned back with a sigh of relief, “For what it’s worth, now that I’ve seen you I’d say there’s no question that Vincent was your father. If he had been given a choice, things would have gone differently for you.” Zack grinned at Sephiroth, “Plus, Hojo can never ‘prove’ he’s your father, since no one knows how to find you. That really drives him up the wall.”
Sephiroth glared at Zack, “Tell us about that part of this ridiculous story.”
“Finding Valentine in the mansion was a huge deal. The President knowingly let Hojo shoot and experiment on a Turk. I’ve never met people who take loyalty more seriously than the Turks and that went above and beyond betrayal in their eyes. Rufus Shinra stepped in and promised that if the Turks shifted loyalty to him that he would take care of a number of issues, including Hojo. Shinra Senior was dead a week later.”
“Murder?” Aeris asked quietly.
“Official story is a brain aneurism.” Zack shrugged, “A couple of Turk contacts promise me it was hooker assassins from Wutai. No one really looked too hard. The man was a greedy pig who caused a lot of suffering. When Rufus took over, he forced Hojo to step into a much smaller role. It’s really a fate worse than death for the man. He’s not allowed to quit and he has no real authority. A man called Hollander took over and started Soldier as it is today. He’s a lazy sod with no ambition beyond maintaining Soldier and keeping Hojo under his boot, so it works out well for everybody.”
“So no one is looking for us?” Ifalna asked, unable to keep the hope out of her voice.
“Officially, Hojo still has the power to request that Soldier and the Turks bring you all in. He does so on a weekly basis. Reno handles the Turk request file, the cartoons that he draws in response are a thing of beauty. Personally I think Hojo’s a fan and that’s why he still makes the request each week. Commander Genesis immediately burns the paperwork when it is handed to him. It’s a rite of passage for the new science interns to make the delivery without losing eyebrows or fingerprints.” Zack chuckled, “Reno reminded me to keep an eye out for you when I went home. Of course, I don’t see any silver haired men under the age of sixty… just a lovely family of brunettes who seem perfectly normal. Even if he came out here, that’s all Reno… or anybody else… would see either, if you take my meaning.”
“It just seems too easy.” Aeris murmured, “We’ve been scared for so long…”
“Soldiers sympathize with Sephiroth.” Zack scratched the back of his neck sheepishly, “The injections and treatments are hard on the body. It’s one thing if you choose that life. I mean, I know I’d never go back. I want to do something important, be a hero, you know? But that’s me. You never got that choice.”
Sephiroth’s face was carefully blank in a way that Aeris knew to mean he was trying not to get emotional. Zack had no idea what that kind of allegiance would mean to Sephiroth. She reached over and slipped her hand into Sephiroth’s like she used to do when they were kids. He clenched her hand as tightly as he could without hurting her.
“People imagine the stuff you went through as a kid… well…” Zack flinched, his own imagination supplying him with the horrible images that usually came along with that story, “None of us like it. If you don’t want to join up, that’s your choice. Shinra will never find you because of a Soldier. Just between us, Commanders Genesis and Angeal went through something similar to you. When they found out they chose to stick with Shinra, but it was a pretty near thing. They’re the ones who officially say to leave you alone and nobody questions it.”
Like flipping a switch, Zack’s demeanor brightened, “The Turks hate Hojo, so they’ll never do his bidding. Between our two groups, you’re pretty much safe as houses. I wouldn’t go around announcing yourselves… Rufus is hardly a saint and the last of the Ancients could have their uses, but he’s said more than once that Hojo’s ‘promised land’ story was just a cover for his real experiments.”
Ifalna reached over and covered Zack’s hands with her own, “Young man, you have done our family a great service. In return, I will make an offer to you and anyone who holds true to the things you’ve promised. I will not help improve the Soldier program. Jenova is dangerous and mako energy will one day kill the planet… but if any of the Soldiers should run into difficulties- an injury that will not heal or, well, anything that this Hollander cannot cure, bring them to me and I will see if I can help.”
“The Cetra, or Ancients as you say, are powerful healers.” Aeris grinned at Zack’s blushing face, “Between mama and I, we can heal just about anything.”
“That’s why Shinra wanted you?” Zack asked, “I never was too clear on that part.”
Ifalna patted his hands and leaned back, “Among other things.”
“That explains why I felt like I could run for ten miles after Aeris cured me.” Zack said, smacking his hands into his thighs before he stood. He winked at Aeris, “You’re lucky Cosmo Canyon is so far away from Shinra, or I’d be here begging for help with every scrape and bruise.”
Aeris giggled and even Ifalna was forced to chuckle at Zack flirting. Zack turned back to Ifalna, “I’d like to bring my commanding officer, Angeal, back to meet you. He’s pretty much the head of Soldier these days and I think he should maybe talk to you. You’re obviously a scholar of the canyon, and if there’s something we can do to improve relations… yadda yadda, I’ll come up with a better cover on the way back. If things are the way you say, we should probably know more than we do.”
“I’ll let you know.” Ifalna started to wring her hands, “I should just say yes-“
Zack held his hands up in front of him, “I get it. Old habits. Why don’t we start out small, maybe you have some kind of studies written up that I could pass on to him to read? I know the science department has all these journals with theories written up…”
“There are notes and things that the Elders have put together with my help.” Ifalna nodded to him, “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Just send them to my attention at Shinra HQ in Midgar.” Zack grinned, “They’ll make their way to me and I’ll personally hand them to Angeal. We’ll go from there.”
Giving Sephiroth’s hand one last squeeze, Aeris climbed to her feet, “I’ve got to ask… how did you figure it out? I was so careful when we talked, what did I say to give it away?”
“You? Nothing.” Zack put his hand on his hip and nodded to where Sephiroth was still sitting, “It was your brother there. His hasty stealth exit by the gate was weird, but not entirely uncommon. Hojo’s actions made Shinra pretty unpopular for a while. The way he moved caught my eye, very like a professional fighter… and then the sun sort of shined on his silver roots. It’s a good dye job, but he probably needs a touch up.”
“Ha!” Aeris spun on Sephiroth, “See! Oooh Aeris, why did you talk to a Sooooldier? That’s gonna get us caaaaught! “You know what draws attention? The weirdo with the sword who makes a big deal about Shinra being in the canyon and doesn’t touch up his roots like he’s supposed to!”
Zack did his best to bite back what sounded suspiciously like laughter as he said, “To be fair, anybody else might not have noticed. I only know what it looks like because my mom is going grey and is self-conscious about it. I’m here to pick up her order of specialty hair dye so my dad doesn’t have to make the trip when she needs her next fix.”
Aeris ignored him, grinning at her brother, “You realize that I’m never going to let you live this down now, right?”
“You will do something to equal my stupidity.” Sephiroth replied, his voice a good-natured grumble, “I expect it will not take you long now that you know we aren’t being actively pursued… especially if you intend to continue speaking with him. I am content to deal with your gloating until then.”
“So does that mean I have your permission to keep talking to Aeris?”
Sephiroth scowled at Zack, “No.”
Ifalna laughed, “Luckily for you, you have mine… so long as it is some other time. It’s getting late and you have a trip ahead of you in the morning.”
“Yes ma’am.” Zack agreed sheepishly. He pulled a pad of paper and pen out of his pack and scribbled a note to Aeris, “Here’s my number. Call me or shoot me a message and I’ll copy yours down. I’d like to hear from you again sometime.”
Aeris nodded, “I’d like that, too.”
“Good!” Zack chuckled, bouncing on his toes, “That’s really, really great. I… uh… I’ll just get out of your hair. Night all, and thanks for going to dinner with me, Aeris.”
“I really enjoyed it.” She walked toward the door with Zack, “If you’re ever out this way, we’ll do it again.”
Zack nodded eagerly, “I’ll make time then.”
Giggling, Aeris leaned up and pressed a quick kiss to his cheek, “Goodnight. Safe travels tomorrow.”
He pressed a hand to his cheek in surprise, but could not keep from grinning. He ducked out the door when Sephiroth growled.