“I’ve got the latest schematics here,” Sephiroth said, hitting the projector function on his tablet so Cloud could see. The tech specs in question warred for his attention with a desktop background that was clearly a photo from home.
“How come you’re so muddy?” Cloud asked.
“What?” Sephiroth looked up. “Oh, the pic. From when the boys were little.”
“Ah, yeah, I remember now,” Cloud said. “Those mud pie battles you used to have.” Sephiroth’s face had softened even as he scrolled to the relevant numbers. “Whatever happened to those?” Cloud asked. “Kids outgrew them?”
“No, not really,” Sephiroth said, hand hovering over the keyboard. “Ari started putting rocks in his.” He shook his head and maximized the window. “I’d have smacked him upside the head if I weren’t also kind of proud.”
She was sitting on the edge of the roof again, the way she did when she wanted space. Sephiroth wasn’t worried about her falling, or even trying to jump, not from this height. It had never done him any harm. She did not say much, but her feelings lay in the open in other ways.
Gaia, he thought, so old already, and still too young. “Ella,” he called, “I’m coming up.” He leapt and landed like a cat behind her, soft enough to do any dancer proud. Ella nodded but did not turn. Her shoes lay beside her, pale pink satin the only color left in her new wardrobe choices of black and charcoal grey. Sephiroth sighed.
He sat down some distance away, out of arms reach, but close enough to study her hunched form from the corner of his eye. She looked like she could use a hug but she was prickly about such things these days. Softness was not weakness but people thought it was, so she hid any she had left, his little warrior.
Sephiroth charged right into the fray. “How was school?”
She shrugged. He waited. She sighed. He felt the boiling frustration on the edge of his mind, seething behind the barriers that puberty was putting between them. “They’re calling me ‘Ella the Kella’,” she said.
“That’s stupid.” The words flew out of Sephiroth’s mouth before he thought about them. “They can’t even rhyme properly.”
“That’s what Ocean said.” Ella’s voice was more animated now. A good sign.
“Well, if Ocean said so too, must be true. He knows more about high school than I do.” Sephiroth let his wing out with the pretence of stretching. A flap or two and it settled on the outskirts of Ella’s personal space like a shield. Hugs were too much sometimes but every warrior appreciated a good defence now and then.
He drummed his fingers on the roof. “I… don’t have a lot of advice on how to handle this kind of thing. Never was there myself. But I suppose…” Sephiroth considered the possibilities and got lost in thought.
“Suppose what, Dad?” Ella said, tired of waiting.
“Oh. Remind them that it’s true? I’m not sure how that would work out.”
Ella sighed, hugging one knee to her chest. “I’d probably get in trouble.”
“So?” Sephiroth shot her a smirk and edged his wing in closer. “Let the Principal call me. I’ll back you up.”
Ella’s eyes lit up from within. “Sounds like a plan,” she said, returning his smirk. People were starting to say her smile looked like his.
People said a lot of things.
“Boy, why is your hair blue?”
Ari rolled his eyes. “It’s not blue,” he said. “It’s cerulean.”
“Hmm.” Sephiroth circled around. “Rei,” he called out.
“What?” Rei hollered from upstairs.
“A shade of blue,” Rei answered.
“Thought so, thanks,” Sephiroth shouted back, folding his arms and fixing Ari with an expectant glare, waiting for the explanation he knew the boy didn’t have.
Sephiroth tossed and turned and finally sat up in the dark. “Somebody hates me.”
Aeris groaned, nestling further into the covers that he had thrown off. “We’re used to that.”
“No, I mean somebody seriously hates me.”
“What are you going on about?” Aeris rolled over.
“Can’t you hear it?” Sephiroth asked, eyes lighting up the night. Out in the old barn that they only used for storage, he could hear cymbals. And a snare drum. And a bass. Their latest addition to the family had a constructive way of working out the grief over his old one.
Aeris sat up and listened. It was distant and faint to her. “He’s got skills.”
“I’m not saying he doesn’t,” Sephiroth said, flopping backwards into his pillow.
Aeris curled an arm across his chest, molding her soft curves against his side. “You’re the one who said he could bring his drum kit.”
“I know, I know,” Sephiroth said. “But there’s an old Wutai curse about this. ‘If you hate your neighbor, buy his son a drum.’ Somebody hates me.”
“Boy, why is your hair green?”
“There wasn’t any red dye in the store.”
“Sit still, Dad.”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Sephiroth insisted. “Just let me get a look at it. I can fix it myself.”
Rei stood with his syringe prepped and ready. “You don’t have to. Just let me numb you up so I can straighten it before it heals all crooked.”
“Crooked toe never stopped anybody,” Sephiroth said, inching away. It was nothing, really, just a silly little accident. He had cracked a few bones before.
“It’ll make your shoes fit funny and you’ll get corns and bunions and bursitis,” Rei said, shifting to block the exits. “Now just a couple of sticks…”
“I can straighten my own toe,” Sephiroth said. “Really.” It didn’t hurt that much, no, it didn’t.
Rei sighed and set the needle down. “Okay. But Mom will laugh her ass off if you do it wrong.”
Sephiroth considered his options. Needles on one hand. Aeris constantly snickering on the other. He sighed. He shook his head and gestured to his wayward toe. “Dope me up, Doc,” he said, “and don’t tell your mother if I cry.”
“What’s in this cake?” Barret demanded.
“Amaretto buttercream filling,” Sephiroth said, cutting himself another slice. “And I might have poured some liqueur over the cake.”
“Da hell,” Barret said. “That ain’t your baby girl’s birthday cake.”
Sephiroth shrugged. “She’s not a baby girl anymore.”
Barret paused, fork in his new cybernetic hand. “I guess not. Damn. Seems like just yesterday…”
Sephiroth contemplated the span of years and felt reality come crashing in. “I feel old,” he said suddenly.
Barret snorted. “You’ll get used to that.”