A single man's vengence can be used to change many things, and Sephiroth's is no exception.
Sephiroth usually preferred to keep his eyes on the ground until he was inside the building. Inside the building, everything was relatively normal, if not a little on the blue side of the spectrum. If one took a wrong turn on a walkway, they could end up falling to their deaths, but at least the inside of the compound had tolerable decor. Luckily enough for the inhabitants, the strange ways the building went off in were unnoticeable from the inside.
The assassin was a young man still, though he often times felt older than he truly was. He had striking green eyes, and long silver hair that he let flow loosely around him when he wasn't on one of Reno's troublesome jobs, and enough strength to supply an entire army. Though he was the self-proclaimed best swordsman in the world, he had plenty of experience and skill to back that claim up. He had yet to be beaten by anybody, although his apprentice certainly gave it a good go every chance he got. Compared to the rest of his fellows, he thought himself a fairly normal, if somewhat handsome man. Certainly he looked better than the leader of the organization.
Reno Tarhill had inherited the small organization of bounty hunters after his father had died. Reno was fifteen at the time, and fresh out of management classes from the local university. He was a charismatic and snarky redhead who was full of ideas with the gun power and money to back them up. Reno was simultaneously respected, feared, loved, and hated by everybody who worked under him. He also had an unnerving habit of sneaking up behind the unsuspecting and startling and offending their senses with whatever horrid combination of clothing he had found on his floor when he'd stumbled out of bed that morning.
Today seemed to be no exception to the rule, and Sephiroth had no sooner stepped off the elevator onto the floor where Reno's office was when the boss had tapped him on the shoulder. The assassin jumped-nobody had been there when he'd looked-and turned around. Sephiroth debated keeping his eyes closed until he ascertained the identity of the person, out of fear of Reno's lack of fashion sense. Unfortunately, his sense of paranoia and self-preservation overrode his fear of being blinded by Reno's potential choice of attire, and he kept his open as he turned. Regret, and a loathing over the paranoia brought from years of living the life he had filled his senses, and he wished he'd been able to force himself to keep his eyes shut. The winning combination today involved hideously patterned orange and red shorts, with a dark blue and fuschia shirt that looked as though it had escaped off a bargain rack in Costa del Sol and was living in Junon as a refuge. Sephiroth wished he could tear his eyes away. It was like looking at a wreck of a train that had been carrying waste from a reactor. You wanted to tear your eyes away from the scene because the glowing of the mako was burning your retinas, but it was just so horrible that you couldn't make yourself turn your head.
"Wow," Sephiroth said. "That's... painful."
Reno grinned. At least he'd pulled his hair back into a braid. It made the clashing a little less painful. Well, from the front, at least. "Glad you like it," Reno said, pulling Sephiroth into his office and kicking the door closed behind him. It hadn't gotten any neater since the last time the assassin had been in here-in fact, it seemed to be about ten times worse.
"I love what you've done with the place," Sephiroth said, making a face as he accidently stepped on a folder and heard a small squeak. "I see you still haven't found the time to clean." He moved a pile of papers out of the chair in front of the desk and sat in it cautiously.
Reno tiptoed around his desk as though he was afraid of waking something up, and flopped cross-legged into his chair. "I don't think I've even had time to sleep this week," the badly dressed man confessed. "We've been busier than normal. Must be the holiday season."
"Nobody really wants to have to spend the holidays with their families. Better to just take care of the problem, isn't it?"
"So it seems," Reno said with a grin, shuffling through the drawer next to him. "I've got something you're going to love."
Sephiroth sighed. "Ramuh. What did I do now?"
His boss laughed. "This time, Sephiroth, I really, truly mean it." Reno pulled a file from the drawer, tossed it across the desk to the silver haired man. It landed on top of another folder, which let out a small ribbit. Sephiroth forced himself to ignore the sound as he cautiously picked up the folder. Reno leaned back in his chair and smirked, bare feet going up on the desk. A bit of Sephiroth's suspicion at the assignment left. Reno had a proud smirk on his face. This had to be good, or at least very well paying.
"Are you sure it's safe to walk around barefoot?" Sephiroth asked. "I'm fairly certain there's more than one animal running loose in here."
"It's fine," Reno said. "Dark Nation's been bringing animals in here to let loose. She'll come back later and hunt them down. She usually doesn't pick up anything poisonous."
Sephiroth laughed. "True," he said. "She wouldn't want the remains she gifts you with afterwards to kill you." He flipped open the folder, and one look at the contents nearly caused him to drop it in his shock. "How did you-?"
Reno stretched, obviously satisfied with Sephiroth's reaction to the assignment. "It's got the highest security clearance, of course, seeing as who the clients and targets are." Sephiroth nodded numbly, still a bit in shock. This was too good to be true. To be able to murder the man who had corrupted his father.. He shook himself out of the shock.
"What's the catch?" he demanded. Gifts like this didn't just fall into his lap. There was always a high price attached somewhere. "There has to be a catch."
"I knew you'd be suspicious," Reno chuckled. "But I can assure you that there's nothing to worry about. All you have to do is assassinate the old man and bring the brat back to me alive. My men inside the company will handle everything else."
Sephiroth scanned over the assignment again, still suspicious, but a bit more willing to cooperate. "Bodyguards?" he asked.
Reno shook his head, braid coming undone and clashing violently with his shirt. Sephiroth looked up at Reno and instantly regretted it. Still, he prided himself on his ability to keep a straight, if slightly pained face, and forced his eyes to ignore the color combination that had no right to exist. "How did you get rid of the security?"
That got a proud grin from the other man. "His bodyguards are all friends of mine-very high level employees of ours that you'll recognize when you see them. All you have to do is create a pretend distraction for them to check out, dash in, knock off the old man, and drag the kid away. They'll pretend to investigate and throw everyone off of our trail."
"And then what? You marry the kid and force him to sign all of his assets over to the Turks?" Sephiroth laughed. "Isn't this a little on the cliqued side?"
It appeared he'd hit it right on the gil. Reno smiled a little, dangerously. It would have drawn a shiver out of Sephiroth, had he a lesser amount of control. Reno was the only man alive who could wear that particular combination of clothing and still make to make a smile like that look sexy. It forced one to give a grudging bit of respect. That was definitely a skill one had to be born with.
"Perhaps," he said, the tone of his voice making it perfectly clear that Reno would enjoy humiliating such a proud and strong family by making the only survivor submit fully and solely to him. "But it will fix a lot of problems for our company. For one, we'll be able to operate out of Midgar as well, allowing us to gather a stronger base of clientele. We'll also have easier access to our weapons supplier, and they won't be stopping our caravans to check them anymore."
Sephiroth nodded. He understood his assignment, but there was still something that he was worried about. "So long as you can guarantee I won't encounter my father, I'll accept this assignment and the changes to follow."
The redhead bit his lip, considering. "I can't guarantee much in the way of that, but I will do my best to keep you and father separated, should I choose to keep him on the payroll of the company."
Knowing it was the best Reno could promise him, Sephiroth nodded in agreement. "All right. When do you want me to leave?"
"Friday morning is fine. The first half of your payment will be deposited into your personal account tonight, and I'll have the budgeting department hand the gil for your mission expenses over in cash when you're prepared to leave, along with the details of what you may and may not use it on. That gives you two full days to rest from your last mission, plus the rest of today. Oh And don't forget your debriefing tomorrow morning."
"Yes, sir," Sephiroth said. "Eleven-thirty, correct?"
"Yeah. I don't think I could get myself up any earlier than ten on a Wednesday," he said.
Sephiroth nodded. "Where at this time?"
Reno leaned back further in his chair. "In the usual place," he said.
"It's your turn to pay for the drinks," the assassin reminded him. His boss made a face.
"I know, I know. I'll pay for tomorrow. But for now, it sounds like you've got everything down that you need to know," Reno said, waving his hand in dismissal, "so get the hell out of my office. Can't you see I have tons of cleaning to do on my day off?"
Sephiroth stood and bowed, the folder clutched tightly in his hand. "Thank you, sir."
"One more thing," Reno said lazily, leaning forward to pluck a small frog off of his lamp before it unintentionally fried itself. Sephiroth paused in the doorway. "The Strife boy's been all over the place, trying to find out where you went. Just have a talk with him about exactly how far into this building he's allowed, will you?"
I'll kill him, Sephiroth's mind swore.
"I'll see to it as soon as he attaches himself to my leg."
"Good. Come and see me before you leave."
"I will. Good day, sir," he said, and left, stalking off to find the idiot who dared to cause trouble in his absence.
It didn't take him long to find his apprentice. The sulky young man was more or less right where he'd left him a week ago, in the dojo with the resident sword trainer. Zack handled all of the beginner and intermediate training for the newer assassins, and for the students they left behind who weren't ready to go out on assigments, leaving the advanced swordsmen to Sephiroth.
Zack had been Sephiroth's first apprentice, and his long-time lover was his choice babysitter for Cloud when he left on the more difficult missions that the eleven-year-old wasn't permitted to accompany him on. Zack rarely took missions. He preferred to stay at the compound and help out Reno as best as he could. The man was a natural with a sword. Sephiroth swore he'd had one in his hand since birth, and had recommended him for the job to Reno. It was a high paying job, and Zack's parents were grateful for the gil he sent back to Gongaga every week.
Cloud, however, had higher ambitions than Zack did, and wanted to be just as great as his teacher was. Unfortunately, the boy had a tendency to brood quite a lot more than was warranted by any given situation, which was a terrible distraction for him. Zack often teased Sephiroth that he must be going soft if he couldn't even snap a child out of depression brought on by pre-teen angst. Today though, instead of the usual anger at Sephiroth for being gone so long, Cloud greeted him with a big smile and attached himself instantly to his teacher's leg.
He'd found the boy, having just celebrated his second birthday, from what he could gather of the toddler's garbled and smoke-choked words, just outside of Nibelheim, after the Shinra company had burned it to the ground to get rid of the rebel group hiding there. That was one mission he'd been unable to complete. He hadn't even been able to find the entire body of the man he was supposed to off. Creepily enough, after he'd high-tailed it out of there with the kid, Shinra rebuilt the town exactly as it had been, replacing the lost villagers with slum folk from Midgar that had been payed off to hold their silence-all just one week after it was burned. Just one more reason to hate the company that had... well, no sense in dwelling too much on the past.
Sephiroth shook himself from his reverie and forced himself to focus on the child that was clinging to his pants leg and enthusiastically bouncing on his boot. "Guess what, guess what, guess what " Cloud chanted. The master swordsman watched with amusement as the boy's spike bounced along with him, as though his impossible hair was made out of rubber. Reaching down, Sephiroth rested one hand on top of the boy's head to hold him still.
"You've grown," he said, with some small amount of surprise. Two weeks ago he'd had to drop his hand a lot lower to rest it on the boy's head. Now Cloud's spiky head came above his waist. He glanced down. Sure enough, Cloud's pants were a couple inches too short. He swore internally. He hated taking the boy shopping. Maybe he could get Zack to do it.
Cloud blinked. "You noticed " he said, delighted. He attached his arms around Sephiroth's waist, who took the hug a bit more good-naturedly than normal and responded by patting the boy's head gently for a moment before he extracted himself. "I got a lot taller, didn't I?" he demanded.
"A couple inches," Sephiroth conceded. "Enough that we're going to have to get you new clothes." He paused. "Again."
Zack laughed as Cloud made a face. Both of them hated shopping passionately. "Hey, it's not so bad," he assured Cloud. "Sure, you have to put up with things like shopping, but consider this: Every time you have to go shopping, you're a couple inches closer to being as tall as your papa."
The boy's face brightened. "Is that what you wanted to tell me?" Sephiroth asked, doing his best to ward off the excitement that was sure to follow Zack's statement. He glared at the man. Zack might be able to handle the childish excitement, but Sephiroth had little tolerance for it.
Cloud shook his head. "No I landed a hit on Zack today "
Sephiroth blinked. Had he really heard that right? "He what?" he asked, looking up at Zack for confirmation.
Zack beamed, nodding. "Yup. He's been working very hard all week, and today, he managed to catch my foot when I twisted to avoid the strike."
It took a lot to keep the proud smile to a minimum, but he managed it. He kneeled in front of Cloud. "You finally managed a hit?"
Cloud nodded. "I really did. At first I didn't even realize it I just kept fighting and then Zack stopped me and looked at me and told me what I did and then he gave me candy "
Sephiroth looked up at Zack. "How long ago was this?"
Zack grinned. "About five minutes ago. Walk a little faster next time, Sephiroth." Well, that explained the level of excitement. Sephiroth gave Cloud a brief hug.
"I wish I'd seen that." He stood, ruffling Cloud's hair. "Very well then, I'll keep my end of the bargain. Where do you want to eat dinner tonight?"
"I can really, really pick?" Cloud asked. Sephiroth nodded. The boy didn't even need a second to think about it. "I wanna eat at ChocoBob's "
Zack smiled. "You really should have seen that one coming. Is this your 'dinner for two promise?'" Sephiroth shook his head.
"No. That one's for the day he beats the crap out of you." Zack looked put out. He opened his mouth, probably to complain, but Sephiroth cut him off. "Would you like to join us, oh ye wounded victim?"
Cloud latched onto Zack's hand. "Please come It'll make your foot feel better "
Zack laughed. "I just can't resist an offer like that, can I? All right, I suppose you two are worthy of my presence." He ducked the smacked Sephiroth half-heartedly attempt to administer to the back of his head. Sephiroth sent Cloud to put his shoes on, and followed Zack around as he cleaned up the dojo.
"I've been assigned another mission," he informed the dark haired man. "No choice on this one."
Zack turned to look at him. Something in Sephiroth's tone didn't sit right. "How big is it?" he asked cautiously. If it was something Sephiroth wasn't coming back from, he wasn't going to make it easy for him to go.
Sephiroth shook his head. "It's nothing horribly dangerous, but it is a pretty big deal. I need you to keep him on Friday, and for a few days afterward."
"You'll know," Sephiroth interrupted. "You'll know as soon as it happens, I promise. I can't say anything else at the moment, but I need you to make sure Cloud stays put, and doesn't venture off into the internal area of the main building this time. Reno's got enough on his mind right now without worrying about a little kid stumbling across some of the stuff we do, and I can't risk getting him involved in this."
The Gongagan bit his lip, considering. He wasn't being told a lot about this, and something about the way his lover was speaking really brought out a lot of bad feelings. "You swear you're coming back alive from this?" he asked.
Sephiroth nodded. "It should be an easy mission. It's just... time-consuming." Still, Zack was hesitant. Sephiroth supposed he could understand why. He usually let Zack know exactly what was up. On the rare occasion he hadn't been able to, something disastrous had happened. "I can tell you that involves a very personal matter. I need to do this one, Zack."
Zack relented, albeit a bit reluctantly. "All right, but-" Sephiroth hushed him. Cloud had come running back to them now, ready to leave.
"We'll talk about it tonight," Sephiroth promised, letting Cloud drag him out the door. He automatically averted his eyes to the ground, feeling that he didn't need anymore nervous upset than he was already experiencing.
"We'd better," Zack threatened, gripping onto his hand as they headed into Junon proper, intent on satisfying the whims of the little boy.
"Now," Zack said, closing the door to Cloud's room behind them as they left the child to sleep and returned to Sephiroth's living room, "are you going to tell me what's going on?"
Sephiroth shook his head as he sat down on the end of his couch, picking up his beer. "I can't tell you anything directly. You know that." He took a drink, set it back down, and pulled Zack down next to him. Zack opened his mouth to protest and Sephiroth shut him up with a small kiss before continuing. "But if it's what it takes to set your mind at ease, I can give you a couple hints, tell you what you need to know, and you can fill in the gaps with your own intelligent mind."
Zack pouted, but seemed to accept his small compromise. "Does it really have that high a security clearance?" he asked.
His lover nodded, pulling him into his arms. "It does. But you should be able to figure out what's going on and keep your mouth shut."
"Fine. Go ahead."
"I joined this company for one reason, and one reason only. You were about sixteen at the time, but I'm sure you remember what I told you that reason was."
"I do, but what do they have to do with-" Zack's eyes widened as realization struck. "No. That's too dangerous "
Sephiroth kissed his ear, instantly silencing Zack and turning him into putty. "Reno has everything worked out. I promise you, the danger is minimal."
Zack still didn't like it, and Sephiroth knew it, but at least Zack understood why he insisted on going. The brown haired man sulked against Sephiroth's side, clutching tightly to the arm that held him close to his lover's naked chest. "You know I'm going to be a whiny, demanding, attention-whoring bitch tomorrow, right?"
Sephiroth laughed. "I wouldn't expect anything less than the usual from you. So long as you promise to share me with Cloud, you know I'll love giving you any bit of attention you ask for."
"He's going to be mad that you didn't tell him tonight, y'know," Zack pointed out. Sephiroth sighed and ran a hand through his hair. Of course he knew. But he didn't want to take the focus off of what Cloud had accomplished just to tell him that he had to leave again more or less right away. Seeing his pre-teen smiling was a rare occasion, and the smile hadn't left the kid's face at all tonight. It looked like his little boy really did still exist under all the angst Cloud seemed to be gathering up lately. But after this, he was taking a break. He needed it, Cloud and Zack needed it, and after this job, he knew he wouldn't have to work for a year. Not that he could bear staying away from work that long, but dammit, he could give it a try. At the very least, they could spend a month traveling. Yeah. That sounded good. He could have his much needed sabbatical during Reno's hostile take-over of their major opposition's company (assuming, of course, that Reno felt Sephiroth had done enough and was willing to let him go for a bit) and come back when all the messy parts were done with.
He knew though, deep inside, that Reno probably wouldn't let him go until after he'd had his wedding. Sephiroth made a more than effective security guard, after all, and looked better in a tux than most of the muscle in Reno's employ-two facts which Reno had often remarked upon at the dinner parties they'd been forced to attend to keep their regular clients happy. Sephiroth was capable of blending into any setting, even with his silver hair. For a man with such striking features, the assassin was relatively good at being a normal, plain man.
A hand sliding across his thigh and upwards toward his groin snapped Sephiroth out of his thoughts quickly. He looked down into Zack's eyes, a mistake, for he was instantly lost until Zack spoke again. "Welcome back to Junon," Zack greeted him. "I'm glad to see the aliens finally released you from your thoughts."
Sephiroth smiled, capturing the hand and bringing it to his lips for a kiss. "So sorry. I was lost in thoughts about you," he murmured against the palm of Zack's hand. He kissed it gently, delighting in the shiver he drew from Zack's body. "Why don't we take this to the bedroom?" he suggested. Zack nodded and Sephiroth stood, drawing the brown haired man to his feet and pulling him along the hallway to the bedroom.
They stopped outside the door to Cloud's room at the sound of tears coming from within. Exchanging a glance, Sephiroth knocked softly on the door before opening it to check on his apprentice. Cloud was curled under his blankets, head buried under the pillows, precisely how they'd left him when they'd checked on him earlier. Sephiroth sat down on the bed, and touched Cloud's shoulders gently. "Hey, kiddo," he said softly, "wake up."
There was no reaction from the lump under the blankets, so Zack leaned forward and carefully plucked the pillows off of the boy's head. "He's still asleep," he murmured, watching as Sephiroth maneuvered the sleeping boy into his arms. "Another one of those dreams?"
"Looks like it," Sephiroth agreed. He carried Cloud out into the living room, sitting down with the kid on his lap. "Can you get me his blanket?" he asked. Zack nodded, and returned with it moments later, tucking it around the pair on the sofa. He settled down on the floor next to them, watching as Sephiroth tried to wake Cloud up from his nightmare. At least the sobs had quieted a bit in his teacher's arms.
"Cloud," Sephiroth called gently, fingers reaching for a spot behind Cloud's right ear. Finding what they were searching for, they pressed it and Cloud woke up, crying into Sephiroth's bare chest. Wide blue eyes opened, full of fear, to see where he was. Upon realize that he was safe at home and in his papa's arms, he snuggled closer and calmed down.
"Hey, Cloud," Zack said as the boy's eyes focused on him. Cloud sniffled at him, and Zack handed him a tissue from the box on the table. "Are you okay?"
Cloud seemed to consider it for a moment before he shook his head. "I had another one of the scary dreams," he said. "This time I remember a lot from my dream."
Sephiroth's look of terror made Zack wonder exactly how much Sephiroth was lying about not knowing what Cloud had been through before the assassin had found him on that mission gone wrong. "What did you remember?" he demanded.
"Needles that shoot fire," Cloud whispered, "and a lot of chains."
"What do you mean by 'needles that shoot fire?'" Zack asked, keeping his voice as soothing as he could. Sephiroth had gone pale, and Zack didn't really trust him to speak at the moment.
Cloud wiggled a little more into a sitting position. "They burned a lot when they went in so much that I tried to scream and run away so the bad man used chains to make me be a good boy and not move."
Now Sephiroth looked beyond angry. The dark haired man thought it would be best to keep Cloud's attention focused on him until Sephiroth calmed down enough so he wouldn't be scary to the boy. "I'm sure it was just a dream, honey," Zack assured him. He brushed Cloud's bangs back out of his eyes, his other hand lowering to squeeze Sephiroth's leg and hopefully snap him back into reality. Sure enough, it worked, and Sephiroth was pretending for Cloud's sake that everything was fine.
It wasn't until after Cloud had finished telling them about his nightmare and fallen asleep that Sephiroth found himself truly capable of speech. He tucked Cloud into their bed instead of his, feeling that he couldn't bring himself to let the boy out of his protection. Cloud snuggled into the blankets between the two of them, and as they finally crawled into bed, Sephiroth looked as though he was near tears. It was a rare occasion that Zack ever got to see his former master so open with his emotions.
"It was just a dream, wasn't it?" he asked. But he knew what Sephiroth's suspicions were. They came up every time Cloud had one of these dreams.
"If I ever find out," Sephiroth whispered, his eyes full of rage and pain, "that this was done by my father, I will kill the bastard, whether he is sane or insane."
"Do you really think your father would have-"
Sephiroth cut him off. "He was stationed in Nibelheim about that time. I know I heard the men I was eavesdropping on talking about there being a possible second reason for burning down the town. Let's just suppose, for a minute, that it was getting too difficult for them to hide all of their scientific programs from the general populace and had to move them somewhere nobody really gave a rat's ass about. Around the same time period as my father's transfer, there were reports of people going missing not only from Nibelheim, but from nearby towns and cities as well. There were also reports of lots of new species of monster springing up. The same thing has happened in every city a Shinra science group has been transferred to in the last fifteen years. Something disastrous has also happened in every area the scientists were living in.
"Nibelheim is just small enough a town that somebody could have figured out or seen what was going on. That would explain why they rebelled. And if my father was doing to Cloud what he used to do to me," Sephiroth trailed off with a sighed. "All of his nightmares, all the things that were recorded while he was under hypnosis, all of them back up my theory."
"But you can't prove it," Zack pointed out.
Sephiroth laughed. "No shit. I tried. Shinra's too thorough when it comes to destroying the evidence, and they keep the general population outside of the Midgar slums so happy with their service and existence that there's nobody who would really listen." Not that it would matter for too long. In a few days, he'd be able to take his revenge on the man who had started all of this. Finally, he'd be able to knock off the man who had taken his father away from him, and turned a good doctor into a raving madman.
He simply couldn't wait. His only regret was that he wouldn't be to kill the bastard slowly enough to make it as thoroughly satisfying as he'd always dreamed it would be.