Fandom: Final Fantasy VII AU (Wild Ones fic)
Pairing: Implied Z/C, pre-S/Z/C
A/N: Right so this is a sidefic for my slowly progressing Wild Ones AU story, for ldyavalon because she's been having a crummy time lately and deserves nice things. Apologies for taking so long darling - it decided it needed a plot. Takes places substantially before the events of Wild Ones and can probably be read alone if you're of a mind.
Summary: Zack decides that Sephiroth's spending too much time cooped up at the castle.
"What? Wait no, Zack, you can't be serious…"
"Why not?" Zack's voice said and Sephiroth looked up to see Zack and Cloud approaching through the densely packed trees that protected this part of the garden from the prying eyes of the castle. Cloud looked suspiciously harried considering the hour of the morning. Sephiroth wondered if he ought to be concerned.
The mischief in Zack's expression suggested probably yes. "Seph!" he greeted cheerfully. "Ready to go?"
Sephiroth met the mayhem in that expression calmly. "Given that you haven't told me what to be ready for, I'm not sure I can answer that question."
A sparkle of a grin answered him. "And yet you waited for us anyway." He flicked a glance over his shoulder. "Stop lurking around in the bushes, Cloud. Come on."
Zack started forwards, Cloud trailing obediently in his wake, and Sephiroth belatedly realized that Zack had a hold of Cloud's wrist, his tanned fingers stark against the boy's pale skin. Sephiroth couldn't really say he blamed Zack; the royal gardens were massive and purposely overgrown and Sephiroth doubted that Cloud would have been able to make his way through safely without that guiding touch.
The fact that Cloud looked a few deep breaths shy of bolting likely had something to do with it as well.
Zack fixed him with a critical look. "Hmm. Well you're in ordinary clothes which is good, but we've got to do something about your hair." He released Cloud and gestured to the grass at his feet. "Sit."
"Zack!" Cloud protested, indignation trailing off into silence as Sephiroth sank wordlessly to the ground and Zack dug his hands into the heavy mass of hair at Sephiroth's nape.
"Hmm?" Zack asked absently, broad hands effortlessly competent as they wove the long strands together. "Wassat, Spike?"
"I - you, we can't just steal him!" Cloud blurted, cheeks pinking as Sephiroth arched an eyebrow his way.
What did Zack have planned this time?
"Sure we can," Zack said, unperturbed.
"B-but he's the prince! What if someone, er… needs him for something?"
"There's not much fear of that," Sephiroth interjected, trying to sound reassuring. "My father has made it quite clear that my help is neither required nor appreciated in the management of the kingdom. Besides…" He paused, a quiet whisper of amusement curled the corner of his mouth as he added, "I don't think it counts as stealing if I come willingly."
"That's the spirit!" Zack approved. He tied off the end of Sephiroth's hair and stepped back to give Sephiroth room to stand. "Wear your cloak over it," Zack suggested. "That ought to keep people from recognizing you."
"The hood as well?" Sephiroth asked, unclasping his cloak and refastening it so it covered the thick braid trailing down his back.
Zack shook his head. "Only if you think you need it." He considered Sephiroth for a moment, then nodded, pleased. "Alright, now you're ready. Let's get going." He hooked an arm around Cloud's shoulders and turned, half dragging the boy towards the exit. "We don't want to be late."
"You still haven't said where we're going," Sephiroth noted, falling in step on Zack's other side.
Zack shrugged with suspect nonchalance. "Oh, just into town."
Cloud groaned aloud.
"You have something planned," he accused, though it didn't sound particularly like a complaint to Sephiroth.
Zack's grin was dangerously amused. "Ma~ybe. You'll just have to wait and see, won't you?"
As if there was any chance of either of them doing otherwise where Zack was concerned.
It had been… a long time since he'd left the castle. Sephiroth strode down the hard-packed street, taking in the sights and smells and comfortable chaos of the market. The three of them attracted a few stares - Zack's ineffable charm pretty much guaranteed that wherever they went and Sephiroth suspected that neither his colouring nor Cloud's were particularly common in this part of the kingdom - but it didn't seem to him that there was any particular recognition in the gazes turned his way. Which was strangely comforting, reassuring him that he was, if not unremarkable, then at least relatively anonymous with his armour traded for sober browns and his distinctive silver hair tucked out of sight, all the trappings of his rank left behind. It made him relax almost despite himself, the stresses of the court and the task of living down to his father's expectations seeming suddenly very far away.
"That's more like it," Zack approved at his side, meeting Sephiroth's faint frown with an open smile. "We should go find a statue of you to make faces at."
"I would sincerely hope there aren't any."
"Well, no probably not, considering what a hell-bastard your dad is, but it'd certainly be fun, don't you think?"
Sephiroth waited automatically from a protest, either verbal or physical, from Zack's other side and was surprised when neither was forthcoming. "Where's Cloud?" he asked, craning his head to ensure he hadn't somehow overlooked the boy.
Zack jerked a thumb jerked over his shoulder. "Getting us something to eat. We wouldn't want you wasting away in our care, now would we?"
Sephiroth snorted and didn't dignify that with a response.
"Whew," Zack breathed, somewhere between contented and wistful. "It's been ages since we've done this."
"Indeed," Sephiroth agreed.
"You been down here since then? And riding through on the way to the castle doesn't count."
Sephiroth shrugged. "No. Why would I?"
A flash of some emotion Sephiroth couldn't read slanted across Zack's face. "Man, not even once? Clearly I'm not nearly bad enough of an influence on you."
"I can think of several individuals who would disagree with you on that score."
Zack laughed. "Yeah, I'll bet." His tone went thoughtful then, gray eyes gazing past Sephiroth around the quiet square. "But do you really think it's a good idea to let Hojo hide you away in the castle all the time? These people are your subjects - how are you supposed to learn how to help them if you don't get a chance to try and understand them first?"
Sephiroth was saved from having to find an answer to that when Cloud rejoined them, cheeks flushed and hands full of small, paper-wrapped bundles that steamed visibly in the cold.
"Potatoes," Cloud announced, handing them out. "With pepper." His gaze flicked shyly to Sephiroth. "I hope that's okay."
"Thank you," Sephiroth said gravely. He ate the potato slowly, mind drifting as Zack started teasing Cloud about something inane and they all carried on leisurely down the street.
His subjects. It hardly felt like it even at the best of times - he had little to do with the running of the country and even less to do with its people. And it wasn't as though he would ever ascend the throne; Leial was and would ever be a matriarchy, even if the moon fell to the sea and the mountains melted to dust. So they weren't his subjects, not really.
He cared for this country. Whatever else was uncertain in his life, that at least was true. And he could hardly care for the country and not have concern for its people as well. Did they expect great things of their prince? And how could he think to be any boon to them when he didn't even know what he expected of himself?
Zack laughed at his side, bright and unaffected, and Sephiroth willed himself to relax. He didn't have to face this alone. And his people expected nothing of him except himself. Zack had told him so, on more than one occasion.
The thought made him want to smile and he glanced instinctively to the side, stride hitching in surprise as his gaze met only empty air.
"Zack?" he asked, half-turning.
"Over there," Cloud told him before he could go far, pointing with his free hand. Sephiroth twisted round to find Zack crouched low to the ground several paces behind them, a gaggle of scruffy-looking children gathered around him. Sephiroth couldn't hear what Zack was telling them at this distance but the rapt expressions on little faces suggested it was something suitably fascinating. As he watched, Zack's hand dipped into his pocket and pulled out a collection of sweetmeats to a chorus of delighted smiles.
"Kids love him," Cloud offered and Sephiroth shifted his attention back to find Cloud looking at him with a smile that was tentative but open, an invitation to share the joke. "Happens every time we come into town."
"Ah. That's… understandable, actually."
Cloud's grin quirked towards something that Sephiroth would have called mischief if he'd seen it on Zack's face. "Why? Because Zack's got the mind of a five-year old?"
"Perhaps," Sephiroth managed after a short, startled silence, wondering how Zack could ever consider himself a poor bad influence with evidence like this to the contrary.
"Hey guys, thanks for waiting." Zack's arms looped carelessly around his and Cloud's shoulders. Zack was already grinning even as he leaned forward. "Miss me?"
"I'm not sure," Cloud said innocently. "Maybe you should go away for longer and we can find out."
Zack struck a mortally offended pose, an action made rather difficult by the current position of his arms. "You wound me kiddo. See if I ever buy you spiced potatoes again."
"I bought my own Zack. And I carried yours."
The level of noise ahead of them increased suddenly, shifting from casual racket into a more deliberate sort of commotion and Zack perked up. "Oops, it's starting. Let's go."
"What's starting?" Cloud wanted to know but Zack was already moving, trying with a considerable lack of success to haul them both along with him. Sephiroth surrendered to the sentiment if not the tug, deliberately ignoring the stares they were receiving, reeling down the street like a gang of soused revelers.
Zack's arms fell as the street grew busier, though the closeness remained. They edged their way through the growing crowd, Zack's easy smile helping keep the peace with the people they pushed past.
"Here looks good," Zack decided eventually, looking entirely too pleased with himself.
"Zack." Cloud was starting to sound put out. "What's going on?"
Zack's grin was a devilish thing. "Well-"
Light flared, roaring and violent, and only the sudden clench of Zack's hand on his arm kept Sephiroth from leaping immediately to the offensive.
"Oh," Cloud breathed at his side, oblivious to the rigid set of Sephiroth's spine. "A flare dance!"
"A-?" Sephiroth frowned, looking past the flash of fire magic to the group of white clad figures weaving gracefully in and out of the flames in time to the roll of an unseen drum.
"Traveling dance group," Zack explained quietly, hair turning ruddy as a swirl of fire streaked past. "They train for years to be able to perform like that."
"I can't believe this is a permitted use of magics," Sephiroth objected, nearly a question.
He felt more than saw Zack's shrug. "Well, it's not as easy to get a license as it used to be." His tone quirked wryly. "It's dangerous playing with fire after all, and Hojo's been pretty determined about restricting magic use for anything but the army." Zack sighed then, softly, and Sephiroth glanced over to find the man watching the performance with a strange little smile on his face. "It makes for a hell of a show, though."
Unsure which of that he was supposed to be answering, Sephiroth nodded, silence falling between them as he turned their attention to the performers. It was strangely compelling, Sephiroth decided, dancing fire and whirling figures, perfectly in sync. He tried to focus on the beauty of it rather than the motions, carefully not considering how they might be used in battle.
All in all, it was an impressive performance.
"Alright," Cloud admitted later, unforced delight shining in his face as they headed back the way they'd come. "That was worth dragging us down here for." He let out an explosive breath. "Leth, what a show!"
"I'm glad you approve." Zack had his arm around Cloud's shoulders again, drawing him in closer than was probably necessary. Cloud didn't seem inclined to object. Zack's other arm kept brushing against Sephiroth's, maintaining contact. Sephiroth was only mildly surprised to find himself also disinclined to object.
"So now what?" Cloud asked then, expression sobering some as reality intruded on the quiet bubble of contentment around them. "We should probably be getting back, huh?"
Zack made a grand show of thinking about it, the sparkle in his eyes ruining the effect entirely. "Well, I think we've probably got time for dinner before we un-steal our dear prince. If it's okay with Seph, of course." He grinned, his steady regard not asking for anything Sephiroth wasn't prepared to give.
Which made it almost disturbingly easily to nod his assent, not willing to give up this closeness just yet. "Alright."
"Excellent. Because we're just going past what is quite possibly the best tavern in the entire country and I don't know about you two, but I'm getting hungry."
He had things to consider. Sephiroth didn't know yet how to begin, but with Zack grinning in his ear and Cloud quietly eager at his side, he couldn't help but want to believe that they'd all figure it out eventually.