Once More, With Feeling... – Chapter 60: A Taste of Things to Come
Summary: Genesis throws a party, but things take a somber turn.
Author: Illusor Meaneld
Rated T: for Descriptive violence and injuries, No Adult Situations, No Cussing.
Disclaimer: I did not create, and do not own the characters from Final Fantasy 7. They are owned by Square-Enix, and I am simply borrowing them for my own (and hopefully your) enjoyment.
Sephiroth sighed heavily once the elevator doors closed securely and he could no longer be over heard. He had just finished a rather long and complex meeting with SOLDIER Director Lazard. He had to admit that if he'd had the slightest concept of how much of a nuisance Cloud's Ex-Turk friend could make himself, he might have reconsidered this plan. As it was, he had only slightly begrudging respect for the man's efficiency. No one in Shinra, outside of their circle of confidences, had the slightest clue where he was or what he was doing, other than raiding supplies of course. The entirety of the board of directors were in an uproar, and that moniker - The Red Devils … Sephiroth chuckled, he'd love to see the faces of the board if they knew it was just one man, albeit an enhanced one,… but still just one! He paused briefly, was this how the Wutaians felt when a SOLDIER First entered the fray? It was a sobering thought. The General was suddenly immensely thankful for Cloud's insistence on a 'casualty free' plan, and admittedly doubly impressed at how well the Time-Traveler's mysterious friend delivered. He really must meet this man in person! The idea of such a capable fighter, was thrilling, he wondered what his fighting style was like, it was bound to be unpredictable as an ex-Turk. The silver-haired First continued to muse on the subject as he traveled through the Shinra Compounds to his apartment. Once arrived he had to divert his attention to expediting ablutions and selecting appropriate attire. He showered with thorough efficiency, and donned an outfit that had been as carefully tailored for comfort as he could get away with in his position. Then almost as soon as he'd adjusted his cuffs, he was back out the door. Genesis would never forgive him, and would be exceedingly vocal about it, if he arrived late to the Lieutenant's … party.
The Silver-haired SOLDIER sighed again, he was not particularly fond of parties. Something the Shinra executives had learned rather quickly, though not quickly enough to spare him from more than a few politically charged events. Never-the-less, this event had been arranged by one of his only friends, he would endure with as much of a facsimile of enjoyment as he could muster. He had a vague hope that a party arranged by his Lieutenant would be better than the ones arranged by Shinra, but Genesis didn't hate Shinra's parties like Sephiroth did. Even their birthday celebrations were usually a just a special outing. With those thoughts plaguing him, the General made his way steadily to the Auburn-haired First's apartment. Thankfully, as all the First Class SOLDIERs had apartments within the tower, it did not take long to progress from one to another.
He knocked firmly on the door when he arrived, and his enhanced senses picked up the near immediate whisper of cloth as someone inside moved to approach the door. It opened to reveal a smirking Genesis, garbed in a dark red turtleneck and loose fitting black slacks. The silver-haired first blinked, it was not the sort of attire he had seen the Lieutenant wear at previous parties.
"Welcome." The auburn-haired man purred, "Punctual as usual." He pulled back the door and invited the General inside with an expansive gesture. Stepping foot in Sephiroth felt uneasy. Cloud was also already present, and dressed similarly to Genesis, albeit in blue. The Silver-haired man had the sudden impression he was overdressed. Garbed in a full suit and tie as he was. The blond had moved away from where he was organizing food and drinks on a long black table and was approaching.
"Hello, Cloud." He found himself murmuring, almost instinctively.
"Hello, Sephiroth." The Time-Traveler returned his greeting with a smile, though as his gaze took in the other's clothing it quickly turned sympathetic. "If you take off the coat and tie, and maybe pop the first button, you'll fit in fine for an informal gathering."
"Dressy-Casual." Genesis corrected, and the blond shook his head in exasperated amusement. The General advanced further into the room, quickly obliging with the outfit adjustment. The Auburn-haired First whisked the removed garments efficiently away somewhere further into the apartment itself, the bedroom perhaps? While he was gone, Sephiroth perused the refreshment table where Cloud had returned to finish setting it up.
"Genesis would prefer if we didn't eat until after everyone is gathered." The Time-Traveler advised him tranquilly. The Silver-haired SOLDIER hummed in response. The blond seemed much improved from when the General had last seen him, no longer was his face pinched with pain and his temper also appeared to have benefited. The taller man continued to stand and observe, briefly closing his eyes to better allow the unusual and tantalizing smells of the refreshments to waft over him. There were quite a few things on that table he'd never encountered before, and he was intrigued. The smaller man's calm also settled his own nerves greatly. Before Cloud had finished his task, there was another knock on the door, Genesis nearly materialized in front of the entry to open it.
"Good Evening." Tseng's even tone was clearly audible, and judging by the slight glance the young blond gave the door, to his as-yet unenhanced ears as well. The distinctive tap of leather shoes on flooring gave Sephiroth reason to glance at the newcomer. To his relief, the Turk was, for once, not garbed in his traditional suit, and instead had a well-fitted button up shirt of dark grey tucked into his slacks. Confirming Cloud's assurances as to an acceptable dress-code. One could never be quite sure with Genesis sometimes. Tseng made his way over to small gathering by the table, Cloud quietly repeated his instructions to currently abstain from consumption. With a quiet inquiry from the Turk, the young blond obligingly described the various snacks. Apparently it was all staple fare from his hometown of Nibelheim, excepting the Banoran White Cider provided by Genesis, and they would be allowed to sample after they had 'cracked the cheese' which seemed an odd thing, apparently to Tseng also as he quickly inquired. This prompted the time traveler to lift the cloth covering from a large and oddly green cylinder, and a strong, tangy cheese-like odor intensified. Peripherally they heard another knock at the door, and Genesis once again answering, followed by Reno's lazy drawl.
"If cracking the cheese is a Nibelheim tradition, complete with accompanying food, why is Genesis throwing the party?" Tseng asked with a raised eyebrow.
Cloud chuckled, "I'd have much rather just dragged everyone over for a casual get-together, but Genesis wouldn't hear of it. I think he's just excited for an excuse to look fancy with a dinner party." the blond glanced down at his sleek turtle-neck, tugging lightly at the fabric. Which, if Sephiroth were to guess, was made of the same fabric as the Lieutenant's "He also insisted on the dress-code, not sure how he learned my sizes though."
"It's in your file." Sephiroth clarified, "For your uniforms. As your mentor he would have access."
"Ah." the Time-Traveler shook his head with a wry smile. "Mystery solved then."
The Silver General took a moment to glance at the newest guest, the short red-head was dressed similarly to Tseng, albeit with his usual white Turk-Uniform button-up and more than just the top button undone. It was perhaps, pushing the bounds of 'dressy-casual' judging by the discontented expression on Genesis' face.
"Yo Cloud! Which food's best to have first?" The lanky teen somehow managed to meander towards the refreshments with eager haste.
"You have to wait for the rest of the guests Reno." the blond explained patiently, "No touching." For a split second the taller youth looked torn between respect for the time-traveler, and typical teenage gluttony. Hunger quickly won that contest.
"Aw man! I came with'n appetite yo! 'M starvin'!" the red-head complained. Cloud just shooed him off. Much to the grumbling of the rambunctious Turk. The edges of Tseng's mouth quirked briefly in amusement at the sight, and Sephiroth found himself matching the expression. He wasn't sure when it had started, but he found himself growing partial to the two Turks of their coterie. Maybe it had been watching Reno and Genesis bait each other, or perhaps spending time methodically working through plans with Tseng, but he thought, perhaps, they might become something like friends someday.
"Hey C'mon Cloud, jus'a nibble." Reno maneuvered back around to the table, wheedling plaintively. Though perhaps not someday terribly soon, the General mentally revised. The Time-Traveler fended off two more snacking attempts from the lanky youth before their host finally intervened.
"That is quite enough of your crowing little bantam." The Auburn haired Lieutenant drawled as he slid smoothly behind the younger Turk before grabbing his belt firmly and lifting him by it. The red-head let out a wheezing squawk as he flailed uselessly at the taller man. Genesis carried him effortlessly into one of the further rooms, the door closing behind the two of them with a gentle click.
"Huh, they make those belts pretty sturdy." the blond observed as the noisy youth was relocated.
"Indeed." Tseng hummed. Sephiroth could still hear Reno cursing at Genesis, who was responding with a drawling recitation of Loveless quotes, and idly wondered if the sound carried to the unenhanced. He glanced briefly at his companions, Tseng's expression was impervious as always, but judging by the smirk playing around Cloud's lips, he thought it likely.
It didn't seem to take as long after that, with the current provided entertainment, before there was another knock at the door. A shriek followed by a thump and a yelp indicated that Genesis had released his captive, and mere moments later the auburn-haired First had reemerged and was answering the door once again.
"Hey Gen!" Came Zack's chirp, followed by a soft 'oof' as the gangly teen was shoved from behind.
"Hello Genesis." Angeal greeted with a grin. "Don't worry, I made sure he bathed first."
"Oy! I'd have bathed first anyway!" Zack protested, "We just got back from the swamps! It was disgusting!"
Angeal snorted, "We drove through the swamps, and you still came back like you'd rolled in it." He continued to guide the younger boy into the apartment with a hand on his back.
"It smelled really gross." Zack moaned,
"Your attendance to basic hygiene is appreciated." Genesis drawled.
"You're welcome!" The young Second said with a salute, completely missing the edge of sarcasm. "So where's the food?" He continued blithely as they proceeded further into the room. Sephiroth watched as his Lieutenants exchanged a long-suffering look. Zack was already bee-lining to the refreshment table and Sephiroth glanced at Cloud, startled after a moment to realize he'd just shared a similar wry exchange with the Time-Traveler. The General's arm darted out to flick the black-haired youth's reaching hand sharply.
"Not yet Zack."
The Second Class pulled his hand back with a yelp, "Wha? But …why?" He complained while shaking out the offending limb
"Ev'ry one's here yo! why d'we gotta wait now?" Reno asked with a scowl. Sephiroth raised an intimidating eyebrow at the querulous tone. Unfortunately neither youth had the good sense to back off. Significantly more fortunately, Cloud was discerning enough to interject.
"Everyone's here, so we can get started, but before we eat, I have to explain the tradition." He gestured for the older guests to gather around. Once everyone was arranged to his satisfaction, the small blond whisked the cover off the large wheel. The rambunctious duo gawked in bewilderment, while Angeal peered at the cheese in curiosity.
"Nibelheim is mostly known for its cold weather and remote location... if it's known at all." the blond began a little wryly, "But to some circles, it's also known for its cheese."
"That's cheese?" Reno frowned, "Why's'it that color?"
"It's coated in herbs and spices, which form a hard rind or crust. The rind is perfectly edible, but I'll understand if it's not to everyone's taste."
"Weird." Zack blurted, cocking his head in bemusement. Genesis started to look offended, but Cloud was already chuckling.
"Yeah, the color can be pretty off-putting if you're not used to it." The blond turned then, picking up two small wedge-shaped knives. "Now if you're opening a wheel of Nibel cheese for the first time. Tradition says you crack it fresh with friends and family to celebrate. After all, it won't keep forever once opened, so it's best if shared."
Sephiroth had noted the repeated use of the word 'cracking' by the time-traveler, but even he was surprised when the blond produced a small cudgel and began gently hammering the knives into the top of the wheel. The small figure continued to tap until it each blade was submerged, then he pried each knife out, and re-positioned them, starting the process again. In a few deft moments he'd created a definitive seam in the green crust, at which point he placed one of the two small blades at the very center of the wheel and gave it firm and startling thwack. The cheese split open like the log it vaguely resembled, and despite its disconcerting exterior appearance, the center was an appetizing creamy white. Sephiroth closed his eyes as the musky earthy aroma wafted powerfully from the table, the variety of odors present in the cheese alone was intriguing. By the time he returned his attention to the time-traveler, he found the youth placing small wedges of the cheese on plates, which also held a small sample of the other items on the table.
"The orange sauce is Mountain Berry Preserves," Cloud continued to explain, "They're a cold weather fruit, so typically they're harvested in winter. They can be a bit tangy, so they're usually combined with sugar and spices in the preserves."
"I love fruit." Zack said smacking his lips. "We get lots of fruit in Gongaga!" As soon as he received his plate, his fingers immediately dipped in the orange colored spread, much to the consternation of his mentor.
"It's pretty tropical there." Cloud agreed with a smile, before continuing his explanation, "The bread is Nibel Spiced bread, we often eat this with the preserves over the winter, but some people find the spice a bit overpowering, so Genesis added butter and cream for those who would prefer that. Unlike Nibel Cheese, the Cream and butter come from Koiréal Cattle, so they won't have the musky undertones of goat cheese."
"Goat cheese?" Reno suddenly yelped, a crumbly piece of said food item tumbling from his fingers back to his plate. "Ya mean... from the giant ones?"
"Yes, the giant six-foot tall goats." The blond laughed, "I know it's hard to believe, but they really are that big, and they produce a lot of milk! Though not as much as Koiréal Buffalo as I understand it."
"Oooh.. I saw one of those!" Zack perked up suddenly, "Me and Angeal went by Koiréal, those things are freaky! They have horns AND tusks!"
"I'm not sure I want to know how you'd go about milking one of those." the black haired First Class grimaced.
At the same time Genesis interjected, "It's Angeal and I, you plebeian." with a roll of his eyes. While they were speaking, Sephiroth accepted his own plate, and carefully sampled the cheese. It distinctively did not taste like the cheese from cattle, very earthy, almost like mushrooms, and the rind even more so, but after thoughtfully rolling the bite against his palate, he decided he didn't dislike the flavor. Zack, seeing the General eating, picked up his own piece, after licking the remains of the preserves from his lips. A moment later his face screwed up.
"Ugh..." The teen's nose wrinkled, "It's so weird." he said as he grimaced.
Reno picked up his dropped offering and popped it in his own mouth, "Eh, it's kin'a interesting. I've defin'tely had worse, but I dunno if I like it yo."
"Philistines." The Auburn-haired First muttered.
Tseng simply hummed around his own bite.
"You should try it with the apple slices." Angeal interjected, "These are Banoran Whites,"
"Genesis provided the apples and the Cider as well." Cloud added. Sephiroth obligingly ate his next piece with the provided apples. It did have an interesting flavor combination he decided. Once everyone had sampled the offerings, Cloud and Genesis let them fill larger plates with the items they enjoyed, and then led them to the lounge where the auburn-haired Lieutenant produced flutes of a pale carbonated beverage. These were passed around until everyone had one.
"I'd like to make a toast," Genesis began with obvious relish in his role of host. "To a fruitful alliance." He raised his glass,
"To friends and trust." Cloud added,
"To saving the world!" Zack piped in, causing the blond to laugh.
"I'll toast to that." Angeal agreed, and they tapped their glasses together. They settled in to enjoy food after that, and Sephiroth reflected that this party was not at all like he'd feared. In fact, he thought he might enjoy attending more parties in general if they were more like this one. When they'd all relaxed after their meal, Tseng politely cleared his throat,
"Since we are all present," He began, which instantly caused Genesis to bristle. "I believe I have locked down a source through which we can acquire one of the items of … spiritual significance."
Cloud perked up, "Oh! Which one?"
"The pure Mako, though forgive me if, once a portion has been secured, I would rather keep it safe until such time as it is required."
"That's fair." the blond smiled, though Sephiroth frowned,
"These are for the ... cure? For Genesis and Angeal?"
"Yes. I don't know when they'll start ... ah, degrading is the supposedly scientific term Hollander used." the blond shrugged apologetically, "So I want to get a head start on the cure." Sephiroth remembered the varied discussions, he was eager to avoid those consequences for his friends as well.
"Speaking of ingredients" Genesis chimed in, standing from his seat. He grabbed something from under the refreshment table, returning with a fairly large basket. "Banoran Apples." He declared with a mischievious grin, then promptly dropped the basket into the blond's lap. Causing the small boy to jack knife with a wheezed 'oof'.
"I thought he only needed one?" Sephiroth observed in bemusement.
"Our esteemed sage admitted had yet to sample my native delicacies, so I would be remiss not to gift such deprivation with an entire bushel."
"He's going to get sick of them." the General advised bluntly, as he watched the Lieutenant's unfortunate protégé struggle with the basket.
Genesis simply scoffed. "Not if he knows what's good for him."
"I'm sure they'll be delicious," the boy in question gasped sarcastically. Zack was laughing loudly, and Reno scowling, but also struggling not to snicker, even Tseng's lip twitched at the interchange, but the General noted that the largest of their group was oddly quiet. His cat-eyed gaze darted to Angeal who was staring pensively at his left arm. Sephiroth's frown deepened. Now that he was paying attention, he could see a slight bulge under the fabric of the others long-sleeved shirt. Were those... bandages?
"Angeal...?" He queried firmly, the gravity of his tone cutting through the levity. His Lieutenant looked up, a little startled, and with another glance down at his arm, shrugged.
"It's probably nothing." The man murmured. "Took a hit during the mission."
"Ah man, does it still hurt?" Zack piped in with a grimace, "It looked really nasty, but the medic said acid burns don't heal as fast and stuff."
"Acid?!" Genesis snarled in alarm, while Cloud sucked in a breath through his teeth.
"Oh yuck! I've seen acid burns yo! That stuff is nasty!" Reno shuddered.
"Bad acid burns can take a while to heal, even with Mako enhancements, your body has to rebuild from scratch." The blond explained, wincing in sympathy, his blue eyes wide with concern.
"Regardless, the symptoms of Degradation include a notable decline in recovery." Sephiroth murmured, his blood running cold. "Please keep us appraised of your progress."
"Of course." Angeal confirmed, glancing at his fellow Lieutenant who was had paled at the revelation.
"Trust me when I say from experience hard-earned…Just be honest! Suffering in silence, no matter how honorable it might feel at the time, really doesn't help anyone." the Time-Traveler advised gently, "We have a cure coming, I promise you'll be fine."
"Thanks." Angeal said in quiet relief. The tension in the room eased noticeably at the reminder.
"I will... do what I can to expedite the acquisition of the remaining ingredients." Tseng offered slowly, even his normally placid face was tight.
"Hopefully this is nothing to worry about yet." The black-haired first soothed. "I'll be off active duty for a bit while it heals, but I'm sure I'll be back out and about in no time."
They shared a glance together, all of them. Even Reno was oddly somber. Sephiroth's own thoughts returned to the initial detailing of the degradation cure, according to Cloud's updates, they only needed two more items of 'spiritual significance', a phrase that would have produced heavy skepticism in the General under other circumstance. A sample of pure mako, from a natural spring, Cloud had described, and a feather from an adult phoenix. Glancing at the hidden bandages on his friend's arm, the silver-haired First was increasingly glad Cloud had come back with his wealth of knowledge. He distinctively disliked like the thought of how this could have gone otherwise.
Professor Hollander found himself pacing idly through the science department as he perused the latest medical information forwarded his way. One of his primary subjects, Angeal, had taken a rather nasty injury during his latest mission. The SOLDIER First had been pulled from active duty during recovery, but it was still unfortunate timing.
"Hmmm, I've heard rather interesting news." A sneering voice interrupted his thoughts. This was also unfortunate timing Hollander decided.
"Professor Hojo," He greeted in return,
"It seems your inferior specimen is a bit ah… under the weather." The gangly scientist smirked.
"Oh, perhaps, though I've heard that your computers are hmmm… how did you say it, 'under the weather'? Are they on the road to recovery yet? Or will you declare them deceased soon?"
The smirk dropped instantly, "You insignificant hack, the entire department's computers were affected."
"True," Hollander confirmed, his blood was racing with adrenaline at his own daring, "But unlike you, I keep hard copies of my records. How many experiments were ruined again? I heard it was Millions of gil in damages… or was that a conservative estimate?"
Hojo snarled, his fingers white knuckling on the tablet he carried in one hand. "I am still the Head of the science department."
"For now at least, though some rumors suggest the president isn't very happy with your progress."
"Hmmph." The slender scientist shrugged, visibly calming himself. "My masterpiece has remained superior to yours, and that will always count higher in Shinra's estimation."
"On the other hand, I have two successful SOLDIERs to your one. A shame you've never been able to duplicate your results hmmm?" Hollander mocked, and his verbal sparring opponent sneered once more, suddenly the man jerked, his free hand reaching into a pocket, but before the motion could be completed a technician called from the next room.
"Professor, the centrifuge is finished, the results you requested are ready."
Hojo paused, his dark eyes glancing over the larger scientist slowly. "I do not have time for your childish arguments." He said with deadly calm before turning briskly away.
Hollander felt cold all over, he had the sudden impression he'd just dodged a bullet. Maybe he'd pushed a little too far… but he shook his head, it was done, and he'd hardly been able to resist, never before had his own standing been so close to equal that of Hojo's, he had to push harder, prove his worth somehow. He glanced back down at the paperwork in his hands. First thing was first, he had to ensure Angeal received the best, and fastest care. His prime subjects needed to be visible! He made a note to schedule an appointment to look at the injury as soon as possible.
Lots of weird research involved in this chapter. But it was interesting. Finally got some of the key setup! Hope we can keep working it from here on out!
I'm really glad I had some buffer chapters, because they are disappearing fast! So fast in fact… that this is my last one. Things have been crazy busy and my free time to write seems to keep dwindling, but I'll keep working on this as best I can! Thanks so much for all of you who have stuck with me! And I do read all the reviews even though I don't have time to respond. Also, I've brought the Ao3 version up to speed. (Jianre_M is the author name over there.) so for those of you who hate the adds it's available there as well.
On a different note: I'll be at the Artist's Alley at Anime Expo (in Los Angeles) if anyone wants to come say hi! Booth H1, right by my table neighbor Maire Bourke (RosaleenDhu Designs)
-Jianre M. A.K.A … Illusor Meaneld.))