Ukiyoe Painting

BY : MystIc19
Category: Final Fantasy VII > Yaoi - Male/Male
Dragon prints: 1053
Disclaimer: I do not own FF7 or any of the FF7 characters. I do not make any profit in writing these fanfictions.

 


"I don't know why I make so much anymore," Natsumi started with a soft laugh as she poured tea for the both of them. "Saito rarely get's home at a decent hour anymore and Cloud is..." trailing off she cleared her throat before lifting blue eyes towards the Samurai and giving a smile. "It's just a habit I guess."

Zack returned the smile although the sadness behind it was evident. When he had walked his aunt back home that evening she had insisted that he stay for dinner. And while he thought to decline at first the hopefulness in her eyes was enough to make him change his mind. He knew that Natsumi was lonely, and he could only imagine that the silence in her home was deafening to her. She loved caring for her son and now that Cloud wasn't around she probably felt more lost than ever.

"Tama," Natsumi spoke while snapping her fingers at the cat who had now settled herself in Zack's lap.

"It's alright she's not bothering me," Zack replied with a laugh as he picked up his chopsticks.

"Sorry," Natsumi began with a laugh of her own, "I forgot how attached she is to you."

"Yeah I guess she misses me," Zack began while placing a bite of food into his mouth.

"Yeah well between you and Cloud I would assume she is pretty lonely," Natsumi said while dropping her gaze towards her plate.

Zack was at a loss for words, whenever Natsumi mentioned Cloud or anything even related to him she would get a downcast look. It tempted him more than anything to just tell her that Cloud was safe at Angeal's for the moment, but he knew he could't take that risk...he just couldn't. But the sight of her in such obvious pain broke his heart.

"Um," Zack started softly before turning the topic of conversation. "I heard that one of the tailors saw your Kimono at the festival a while back and really liked them. Are you thinking of selling them in town?"

"Oh," Natsumi said with a slight shake of her head, "yes. Takahashi's wife said she would love for me to bring some pieces to their shop. I actually already started to work on some."

"That's great," Zack replied with a smile.

"Yeah," Natsumi said while lifting up her cup of tea and taking a sip. "I had a few completed already but..."

Looking up from his plate when the woman trailed off Zack's eyes widened slightly when he saw the tears that had welled up in Natsumi's eyes. She covered her mouth with her hand before shaking her head.

"But...Cloud ususally helps me when I ask him to so," she continued shakily before covering her face.

"Auntie," Zack spoke gently before reaching his hand out across the table and taking her slim hand into his own.

"I'm sorry," she said while wiping at her eyes. "It's just...I can't help it. It's been weeks and I still...I just don't know."

Nodding in understanding Zack squeezed her hand tighter.

"Have you heard...anything?" Natsumi finally asked while turning watery eyes onto the Samurai. "Anything at all? I know they are supposed to be expanding the search for him."

Even though it was hard to do, Zack quietly spoke his next words. "I haven't heard anything else, I'm sorry."

Another choked sob came from Natsumi's throat and she shook her head. "Cloud would never just leave...he wouldn't. Something...something terrible must've happened."

"Don't talk like that Auntie that's not true," Zack started, trying to reassure and comfort the woman in some way.

"How can it not be?" Natsumi asked, "you know Cloud. He would never go away by himself like that...never! And he didn't even tell you? You know just as well as I do that he would never do that! So something must've happened...maybe they already know but they just don't want to tell me!"

In a second Zack had gotten up and rounded the table before kneeling down beside his aunt and pulling her into an embrace. She openly wept and clung to him and Zack felt even more horrible than before. This woman was like a second mother to him and he hated to see her this way. All of his life he had always known her to be full of smiles and bright and cheerful. To see her fall apart this way was too much. She didn't deserve to be kept in the dark, after all it wasn't her fault that Cloud had to leave. But if she knew the truth, would that honestly be any better?



"Zack?" A sleepy voice filtered into the air. Sliding the door to the den closed Sephiroth made his way over to the sleeping form under the blankets.

"No," the General spoke, "he's not back just yet. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."

Blinking briefly Cloud glanced towards the window before pushing himself up slightly.

"But it's late, and Angeal..." he trailed off on the verge of sleep.

"Don't worry, go back to sleep," Sephiroth continued while reaching down and pulling the blankets up higher on the younger one. Cloud hesitated for a moment before finally resting back against his pillow and allowing the blankets to be placed over him. Sephiroth could see that he was still trying to stay awake, but after a few moments his eyes fell shut.

Taking a seat back at the table Sephiroth let out a sigh before his gaze drifted back to the blond. He knew the boy was worried about Zack but after Angeal had gone out to look for him Sephiroth had convinced Cloud that staying up and worrying wasn't going to do any good. He told him that he should get some rest and eventually sleep won out and Cloud started to drift off. The General figured he should stay until Angeal arrived back, just in case something had happened he didn't think it would be a good idea to let Cloud stay alone.

Reaching out for the bottle of sake his fingers had just touched the bottle before he let them slip away. He had probably drank more tonight than he had in a long time. Not that it was particularly affecting him though, but it seemed as if he somehow thought it would help. He had to admit that the evening at Angeal's had brought up alot of memories and emotions that he hadn't felt in quite sometime. There wasn't a day that went by that he didn't think of Genesis, not a day that he didn't curse the Shogun. But with being back in Edo...back at the castle where his very love once lived...it was heart wrenching really.

Ever since he had set foot back into Edo he had felt that way, but now with the situation of Cloud coming to light, it only made it worse. He saw in Cloud what he saw in Genesis. That hidden depth in their eyes. At the time Sephiroth didn't know what it was that he saw lurking in Genesis eyes, but now he could clearly see it in Cloud's and it only mirrored Gen's...

He had just stepped foot out of the castle doors, passing by the stoic guards before a voice that he had longed to hear all day called his name. Stopping abruptly he turned around and was met with the smirking face of Genesis as he walked over towards him.

"Leaving without saying goodnight to me?" Genesis asked once he was right in front of the other, "such manners."

A small smile tugged at the corners of Sephiroth's lips and he couldn't help but to reach out and brush a few strands of auburn hair away from his eyes.

"Forgive me, I thought you and Angeal were at some council event this evening," he explained as Genesis waved his hand in dismissal.

"I left that already," Genesis started while placing his hands against the Samurai's strong chest, "where were you heading just now?"

"Home," Sephiroth replied with a shake of his head, "but that was when I thought you were unavailable tonight."

Genesis smirk had turned into a full grin and he reached down and laced their fingers together. "Then stay the night with me?" He asked but had already turned and began leading them back into the castle before he got an answer. The stoic guards didn't say anything and their expressions remained the same however they did shift their eyes in the pairs direction gaining a glare from the Samurai. Sephiroth understood that maybe he was looked down upon, he was only a Samurai and the Rhapsodos family was very well respected. Genesis was far more above him in terms of status but it didn't matter to either of them, and Sephiroth would openly admit that he was very protective and even possesive of Genesis, and anyone who dared to challenge their relationship would surely lose in the end.

They arrived at Genesis quarters relatively quickly and made their way through the lavish place to his bedroom. No matter how many times Sephiroth had been there it still left him in awe. Everything about the place was extravagant and beautiful. Spacious and decorative, the finest materials, beds draped in silk. It made Sephiroth's home back in town pale in comparison. The first time he had been there he had been hesitant to even touch anything, and over time that had greatly annoyed Genesis, but as their relationship grew so did Genesis scolding on the topic. He assured Sephiroth that his home was his too and he didn't need to feel out of place in being there. And so he didn't anymore, but he still had to appreciate it's beauty.

"Angeal told me you two had a long day of meetings," Genesis started while grabbing a comb off of his dresser and pulling it through his hair a few times. He looked into the mirror and smiled at the reflection of Sephiroth sitting down on his bed before setting down the comb and crossing the room to the man. He placed a kiss on the other's cheek before wrapping his arms around his shoulders and looking at him back through the mirror. "Sorry, I know you hate those."

"It wasn't so bad," Sephiroth replied while staring back at Genesis reflection. "How was your day?"

"Dull," Genesis said with a sigh, "I was stuck in here all day."

"Hmm, then I would've thought you would want to stay at the event this evening. Change of scenery," Sephiroth explained. Genesis turned his gaze away from Sephiroth's in the mirror and unwrapped his arms from around his shoulders.

"Those things are just full of people I don't care to see," Genesis spoke while pushing himself back on the bed.

"Oh?" Sephiroth asked while turning to face his lover. "Like who?"

There was a brief pause before Genesis was looking up into green eyes with a smirk. "All of the uppity council members and their equally boring children. I swear, Angeal and I are the only the good ones out of the bunch."

Sephiroth let out a genuine laugh at that and Genesis joined in.

"I'd have to agree with that," Sephiroth replied before Genesis leaned forward slightly.

"Yeah, and I'll gladly choose to see you anytime over those people," Genesis added while running his fingers through silky silver hair. Sephiroth closed the small distance between them and pressed a soft kiss to Genesis lips. The same rang true with him, Sephiroth would pass up seeing anybody else in a heartbeat if it meant that he could see and be with Genesis. He was the number one person in his life, and if he could he would spend every second of the day with him.

Their small simple kiss grew into one more passionate and their hands began to wander over each others bodies. It didn't take long before they had both shed their garments and were pressed closely together, skin to skin and mouth to mouth. They made love well into the evening and the sounds of Genesis hitched cries of pleasure slowly tapered off. They rested after in each others arms, Sephiroth pressing kisses to Genesis forehead and shoulders and Genesis running his fingers through the cool silkiness of silver hair.

"Can you stay with me tomorrow?" Genesis asked softly as his eyes slipped closed but he continued to keep his fingers moving through the others hair.

"Only until early in the morning," Sephiroth replied while kissing Genesis ear, "sorry love."

"Mm," Genesis said in response. It was something that he was used to, even though he hated it. He loved the rare occurrence if Sephiroth had a free day, they could sleep in each others arms without a care in the world. But often times that was ruined by Sephiroth getting up in the early morning hours and preparing to leave for his daily routine. He tried to do this without waking Genesis but it seemed as if the moment that the other's body moved away Genesis would awake in an instant.

"You have an early day tomorrow too don't you?" Sephiroth asked while tightening his hold on him.

"I suppose..." Genesis said while allowing his fingers to slide out of silver hair to instead trail down his lovers back. "My friend, the fates are cruel. There are no dreams, no honor remains."

Raising an eyebrow at that Sephiroth spoke up. "What is that from?"

"Something I've been reading lately," Genesis replied while nuzzling his face against the others chest. "Loveless."

"It sounds rather sad," Sephiroth continued.

Blinking his eyes open Genesis looked into green eyes. He gave a small smile before reaching out and tracing the outlines of Sephiroth's face with his finger.

"No...I think it's tragically beautiful actually," he replied softly. The small smile still remained on his face, but even with that... the sparkle that was usually in his eyes whenever he smiled seemed to be non existent to Sephiroth in that moment.

That had been the first time that Sephiroth had ever seen that look in Genesis eyes, and he often wondered just how long it had been at that point since the Shogun had entered the picture. Had it only just happened? It was something that he racked his brain over even though he knew that those thoughts only caused him more harm. After all it wasn't going to change the fact that Genesis was gone.



Shifting under the blankets he pulled his pillow closer before the sound of a cat meowing caught his attention. Blinking open his eyes he looked down into the dining area where he saw Angeal shooing Mizu away before he stood up from the table and enetered the kitchen.

Rubbing at his eyes he turned to look beside him and noticed that it was empty. A frown settled on his face before he quickly sat up replaying the events of yesterday. Sometime during the night after Angeal had left out Sephiroth told him that it was late and that he should just get some rest and not worry. And after a little hesitance Cloud decided he should head to bed, Sephiroth told him he would stay until Angeal arrived back and so he felt a bit more at ease. But now it was morning and Angeal was indeed there but...he still hadn't seen Zack. He wasn't sleeping beside him like he usually was, and he didn't hear his voice speaking to Angeal as he often would in the morning.

Angeal entered back into the dining area setting a small dish down for Mizu before entering the main living area where Cloud had been sleeping on the tatami mats.

"You're awake," Angeal started before pointing towards the dining area. "I made plenty enough so be sure to eat something."

Nodding Cloud ran a hand through his hair before looking up and squinting slightly at the other as his eyes tried to adjust to the bright sunlight that was filtering the room.

"Angeal," he started, his voice sounding small and quiet with the remnants of sleep.

The Samurai had just pulled open a cabinet sifting through it before turning to peer at Cloud from the corner of his eye. He already knew what the question was going to be.

"Zack's not here," he spoke casually.

Cloud opened his mouth to speak but Angeal continued.

"I couldn't find him last night," he started while shutting the cabinet door, "my guess is that he ended up staying back at home in town. I'll see him today."

"But he told me he was going to come back last night," Cloud replied as his eyes widened, "he wouldn't have-"

"Cloud relax," Angeal said while turning to face the other fully, "things happen. I'm sure he just couldn't get here last night. He'll be here soon enough."

"But I-" Cloud started, still having a bad feeling about things. However he quieted down when Angeal narrowed his eyes at him. It was a look that Cloud could easily tell meant stop questioning him.

Heading towards the entrance Angeal continued to speak. "Eat something. I'll be back tonight with Zack, don't worry."

The door closed shortly after that and Cloud was left in Angeal's spacious quarters by himself once again. Letting out a sigh he glanced towards the kitchen where Mizu was trotting over towards him, crawling onto his blanket and bumping his head against the blond's hand.

Zack wouldn't just go back in town without saying something, he thought while picking up Mizu and petting him behind his ears.

He didn't want to worry, he was trying hard not to worry but he couldn't help it. What if something had happened? What if somebody had discovered that he was staying at Angeal's and knew that Zack was aware of it? As a Samurai if he didn't report it he would be breaking an order. Not only that but Angeal could get pulled into it also.

Setting Mizu down on the blanket Cloud got up and made his way into the kitchen. No, he couldn't think that way, he had to trust Angeal and if he said that things were fine then surely they would be. Or...at least he had to hope.



Stepping into the conference room Angeal's gaze took a quick sweep of the area. There were a few council members present already but that was it. Letting out a sigh he took a seat at the table. After a few more moments more people began to file in and take their seats. Kunsel entered shortly after and gave a bow to Angeal before taking a seat beside him.

"Good morning," he said while shifting in the seat.

"Morning," Angeal started before casting a glance back towards the doorway. "Have you seen Zack at all?"

"Uh not today," Kunsel said, "but I was with him last night for a bit. He Reno and I were at the teahouse."

"I see," Angeal replied. There wasn't very much time before the conference was to begin and the man was beginning to wonder if Zack would make it at all. But it was at that moment when the door opened again that the raven haired Samurai stepped through. He said a quick hello to Kunsel before taking up the vacant seat on the opposite side of his mentor.

"Good morning," Zack said with a sigh. Glancing at the younger one from the corner of his eye Angeal lowered his voice so that only Zack could hear.

"Is everything alright? You didn't make it back last night," he spoke while opening his briefing folder.

"I know, I had a horrible night," Zack started while sitting back in his seat. "I was with my aunt and she's not doing well at all."

Raising an eyebrow Angeal turned to look at Zack slightly. "The Chamberlains wife?"

"Yes," Zack replied, "it's like Saito doesn't even care."

"We'll continue this conversation later," Angeal said once he realized the room was now pretty much full and the Shogun and his assistant Elena had entered. Once every was in attendance they started off the meeting, however as of lately Zack didn't really pay close attention. He was alert and knew of the general topics but then he would zone out, or keep a death glare on the Shogun. Angeal had noticed this more than once and would discretely jab his side while giving him a look that seemed to say "knock it off."

But Zack understood that, he had to keep his feelings in check. If anyone thought that there was anything suspicious going on surely attention would be brought upon him and that was the last thing he wanted or needed for that matter.

After a substantial amount of time the meeting finally came to a close and people began to file out of the room. Zack stayed near Angeal's side as he gathered the last of his documents before the Shogun spoke up.

"Zack before you left I wanted to ask you a question," the man spoke while leaning forward in his seat. "Have you any word of Cloud Strife's whereabouts?"

Turning his gaze towards the man Zack reluctantly bowed before speaking. "Forgive me You're Excellency but I still don't know."

"Is that so?" Hojo asked with a sigh, "it's beginning to become troubling. For his family that is."

"I understand," Zack replied while Angeal narrowed his eyes slightly at the other.

"You seem to be fine however," Hojo said with a smile.

"You're Excllency?" Zack asked while keeping his eyes fixated on the man.

"I know that you two were close," Hojo explained, "I'm just surprised that you don't seem to be too worried or taking his disappearance hard."

What was he up to? Was he fishing for something here? Was he trying to see if he would crack and give up some kind of information if he was questioned? Zack wasn't actually too surprised. He knew that if any speculation were too come it would definitely fall on him first, especially since the Shogun was aware of he and Cloud's true relationship.

"I am worried," Zack replied, "however I am a Samurai You're Excellency. I don't let allow emotions to seep into my work. You must understand this."

The Shogun's smile widened and he adjusted his glasses while sitting back in his seat. "Of course," he said with a nod, "that is why you are one of the best. Hewley you have an exceptional pupil."

"Thank you You're Excellency," Angeal spoke with a bow.

"Weren't you at the Strife's residence last night?" Elena asked while looking up from her folder that she was holding and scribbling things down in.

"I was," Zack quickly answered.

"Oh?" Hojo asked with a tilt of his head.

"I ran into my Aunt in town and she invited me back for dinner. She hasn't been too well lately considering the circumstances," Zack explained.

"That is understandable," Hojo replied.

"Hmm," Elena mused while continuing to write in her folder.

"Well then, please do keep searching for him. I would like to have some good news for his family soon," Hojo explained while rising from his seat with Elena beside him.

The two bowed once more before exiting out of the conference room and Angeal let out a sigh.

"What was that about?" He asked lowly.

"I don't know, I think he's just trying to catch me off guard," Zack replied with a shake of his head.

"Did something happen last night that would make him question you?"

"No," Zack started, "I was at Cloud's home and I had dinner with my Aunt. She was crying for a majority of the night and I didn't want to leave her in that state. Then by the time I was going to leave she insisted that I stay because it was too late."

"And what of Saito?" Angeal asked, "he didn't mind you being there?"

"No," Zack replied, "he came back later in the evening and saw Natsumi crying and barely said two words to her. He just went back to his room and that was all that I saw of him."

Frowning Angeal took in that information. Somehow Elena had discovered that Zack was there, whether she had seen him in passing or followed him for some reason he couldn't be sure. Or was it that Saito told her?

"I don't have too much of a full schedule today, I better get back soon I know Cloud was worried," Zack started before Angeal slowed his steps. Noticing the change of pace Zack stopped and gave his mentor a curious look.

"Follow me," Angeal said simply before turning and going down the opposite direction of the hall. They made their way through the castle before Angeal was opening the door that lead out to the main courtyard. There was a few people passing through but other than that it was scarce, which was how it usually was early in the morning and that was the reason why Angeal chose to go there.

"Angeal?" Zack asked once they had made their way towards the center of the courtyard.

"Tell me exactly what happened yesterday," Angeal started while taking a seat on the stone bench.

Giving a bit of a confused look Zack took a seat beside him. "I told you I ran into my Aunt in town and-"

"Where were you when you were in town?"

"At the Kisiragi teahouse having a few drinks with Reno and Kunsel," Zack explained.

"Then you left there and came back to the castle and went to Cloud's quarters," Angeal continued.

"Yes," Zack confirmed before shaking his head slightly. "Why are you asking?"

Angeal let his eyes roam the area before continuing on. "I think you're being followed Zack."

"What?" Zack asked as his eyes widened briefly.

"Elena got her information from somewhere," Angeal started, "and just how would that be possible? Do you recall seeing her last night at any time?"

"No I...I don't think so," Zack replied but Angeal was letting out a sigh. He clearly wasn't impressed with that response.

"Think Zack," he began more sternly.

Narrowing his eyes in thought Zack tried to recall the other days events. After he left from town and parted from Reno and Kunsel he didn't remember seeing anybody else around. And when they had gotten back to the castle it was already late in the evening and so the halls were very quiet. He didn't remember seeing anyone in the halls except for maybe a few residents but that was it.

"She wasn't around, I know that for a fact. I didn't see her last night," Zack explained while shifting his gaze back to Angeal.

Giving a brief nod Angeal continued. "There's no way that Saito could've relayed that message so fast. He wasn't present at the conference today, and you said yourself that once he came back last night he stayed in his room."

"And he was still there when I left," Zack added.

"He hadn't left to his office?" Angeal questioned.

"No," Zack replied with a shake of his head, "my Aunt had just made breakfast and had just woken him up. I left and headed straight to the conference hall right after that."

"Then it's someone else," Angeal supplied while pinching the bridge of his nose. This was too much first thing in the morning.

"Who?" Zack continued to question. His mind was racing at this point and he just wanted answers.

"It could be anyone," Angeal replied. "You know how these things work. In the meantime you need to be wary of your surroundings. Until whoever this person is figures out that the trail runs cold with you."

"Okay," Zack began with a nod. "I've kept up my same routines up until this point, nothings changed in that regard. So it shouldn't be any-"

"You need to stay away from my place for a while," Angeal cut in. "It's way too risky for you to be spotted around there."

"What!" Zack asked in shock, "Angeal you can't be serious, I have to stay there. And nobody will think otherwise if they see me going there, I've stayed there plenty of times before."

"This is different Zack," Angeal countered, "you'll just lead whoever it is that's following you straight to Cloud at that rate, and that's what they want."

Looking away Zack clenched his fists tightly. He couldn't be away from Cloud, no, not again. Not after he promised him that he would do everything in his power to keep him safe. Just how was he supposed to do that if he had to stay away from him? Anything could happen and he wouldn't know, just like how things went before.

"You're gone all day," Zack said while looking back to the other, "he'll be there all alone, that can't be safe. He needs someone there with him at least half of the time."

"As long as he stays inside my quarters he'll be fine," Angeal said while lowering his voice as a few residents passed by. "There's no reason for them to believe he's staying at my place, they'd have no reason to search there."

Part of Zack knew that Angeal was right, but another part was still saying that it wasn't enough.

"I don't..."

"You just worry about this. If you notice or see someone constantly around you, be aware of it," Angeal started while standing up from his seat. "Leave Cloud to Sephiroth and I for the time being, we'll keep an eye on him."

"Wait Sephiroth?" Zack asked while rising from his seat also. "He knows about Cloud being there?"

"Yes," Angeal replied, "but it's fine, you can trust him."

Sephiroth knows? Zack wasn't sure how he felt about that. He had always been an admirer of the General's and he was a good guy from what Zack knew. But when it came to something like this, he didn't know if he was completely trustworthy. If the General's loyalty was with the Shogun wouldn't he tell Cloud's location without hesitating? Although Zack trusted Angeal more than anything, and he supposed if he told Sephiroth then it was alright. After all Sephiroth and Angeal were long time friends.

"I need to go before I'm late," Angeal continued, "we don't need any more suspicions to arise. I'll see you and Kunsel at the dojo later."

"Alright," Zack replied just as Angeal was about to walk away. "Angeal?"

Stopping the man glanced at Zack waiting for him to continue.

"Can you please tell Cloud...I'm sorry," Zack said softly as his gaze fell to the ground. He looked back up when he felt a hand squeeze his shoulder.

"I will, although I'm sure it won't be needed. He'll understand," Angeal explained before walking out of the courtyard.

He'll understand...

Zack was sure that he would, but it still didn't mean that he wasn't sorry. After all in a way he was breaking yet another promise to Cloud, and he knew he needed him. He had to think of something quick, this had gone on for far too long in his opinion.

The rest of the day seemed to drag by relatively slowly. Zack found it hard to concentrate on anything and his mind kept drifting back to Cloud. He knew he was back at Angeal's worrying, even if Angeal had already filled him in on what was going on. For a moment he felt like completely disregarding what Angeal said and going to his quarters anyway. If only for a moment, he just wanted to see Cloud and make sure that he was alright. But he knew that was reckless thinking, he couldn't go there if it meant that it would potentially put Cloud in danger.

It was now the evening and he had been at the resident dinner for a while. He really didn't want to go but Angeal insisted that he needed to go and at least make an appearance. And so he did but after a short amount of time he decided to head out. It looked as if he would be going back into town though.

"Zack?"

He had just stepped out of the dinner hall and turned to see Aerith stepping out of the room as well.

"Were you leaving already?"

"Yeah," Zack replied with a smile, "I was only here to stay for a bit because Angeal needed me to. But I've had a long day."

"Oh," Aerith replied with a giggle while taking a few steps closer to the other. "Well that's understandable. I hope next time you can stay longer, I feel as if I haven't seen you in awhile and...well. Are you okay?"

Blinking briefly Zack tilted his head. "I'm fine, why do you ask?"

"It's just with everything that's been happening lately...and Cloud you know?" She finished while dropping her gaze briefly.

"Yeah," Zack replied softly.

"But they'll find him soon, I know it," Aerith continued while putting her dazzling smile back on her face.

"That's right," Zack said with a smile. If anyone's spirits could be up during this time it was definitely Aerith's, she was always an optimist.

"Well I better go back inside," she started while peeking back into the dinner hall. "I'll see you soon?"

"Of course," Zack replied. And before he even really realized it, Aerith had took a step closer and stood on her tip toes to place a small kiss on his cheek.

"Goodnight," she said with a full blush on her cheeks. She didn't give him a chance to say anything before she slipped back into the dinner hall leaving a surprised Zack behind.

"Good...night," he said to himself while keeping his gaze on her until she disappeared from his sight. What was that? He thought to dismiss it, perhaps it was just because of everything that was going on, maybe she meant it in a comforting sort of way. But he knew that wasn't it, he was well aware now that Aerith had a crush on him, but that...

Letting out a sigh he turned and continued to make his way out of the castle. What was he going to do about her? He already had too much going on. Was he going to have to let her down gently and tell her that nothing more could come from their relationship other than friendship? He didn't want to hurt her feelings but...he couldn't lead her on either.

Never mind that. What about Cloud? What are you going to do?

No matter what Cloud and Angeal thought, Zack couldn't deny that his thoughts kept going back to taking Cloud and getting out of Edo. Yeah, he knew it was potentially dangerous. But he truly believed that the pros outweighed the cons. The places that they could go were endless, and with his skills as a Samurai he would be able to protect them and keep them safe. Work wouldn't be had to obtain, and he did have a decent amount of savings. If only he could get Cloud to trust him and go along with the idea, because staying in Edo when things were how they were seemed impossible.

He had been so lost in his thoughts that he had barely even realized that he was already more than halfway from the castle. But he snapped out of his wanderings when he heard a sound coming from behind him. It was a quiet evening out, barely any wind and the only sound was that of some crickets chirping in the distance. It was easy to spot any other sounds that seemed off in the setting. Shifting his gaze to the right he reached back and placed his hand on the hilt of his sword before spinning around.

"Whoa, it's just me!"

"What the hell," Zack said with a sigh as he removed his fingers from the sword. "What are you doing out here?"

"I just got back from doing some work," Reno replied.

"Heading into town then?" Zack asked.

"Yeah, want to grab a drink with me?" Reno asked while walking closer.

"Sure," Zack answered. It had been a long day and so he figured a drink wasn't too bad of an idea.

"So anything interesting happen today?" Reno asked as they continued heading back into town.

"Well interesting isn't exactly the word I'd use for it," Zack explained.

"Yeah probably more like boring right?" Reno asked with a laugh, "those dinners are always that way."

Wait...what?

"How about your day?" Zack asked carefully.

Reno shrugged, "work is work. I was gone all day though, I just got back now and thought a drink was in order."

Halting in his tracks Zack kept a leveled gaze on the red head.

Stopping Reno gave Zack an odd look. "What?"

"How did you know there was a resident dinner?" Zack asked quietly.

"Huh?" Reno asked in confusion, "they said there was going to be one."

"No they didn't," Zack replied, "this one was spur of the moment, they only put it together towards the end of the day. And if you were gone all day and just getting back now how would you have heard about it?"

Blinking Reno let out a laugh, "well I'm sorry I just assumed, they always have those things. And since you're leaving the castle I just figured you must've been there."

"No," Zack continued while reaching back and grasping the hilt of his sword. "And more importantly if you were just in fact getting back now why are you coming from the direction of the castle? You could've gone straight to town."

There was a heavy silence that fell over the two after that. Reno's smile had disappeared and he kept a cool gaze on the Samurai. After another moment he let out a sigh before grabbing the hilt of his katana.

"Damn," he spoke while tilting his head, "you always were good with puzzles. Maybe I was a bit messy this time around."

"You've been following me," Zack stated while narrowing his eyes.

"Yes, I was going to tell you tonight...which is why I was suggesting we go for a drink. I had things we needed to talk about," Reno explained.

"Yeah I'm sure," Zack said sarcastically.

"I'm serious," Reno replied while looking a bit offended. "I just didn't want to talk in a place so open."

"It's just you and I," Zack started, "so talk."

Letting out an irritated sigh Reno frowned, "Alright fine, but would you mind moving your hand from your sword? You're not really preparing for a fight with me are you?"

"I've just learned that an assassin has been following me, what do you expect?" Zack asked while still keeping his hand in place.

"Fair enough," Reno started, "but I am your friend first before anything. Which is why I was coming to talk to you tonight, before anything else progressed."

Removing his hand from the hilt of his katana Reno continued. "What are you mixed up with? What do they expect me to find from following you?"

Dropping his eyes to Reno's weapon Zack felt that possibly he was telling the truth. For him to not be on guard was a good indicator that he really didn't mean Zack any harm. But as of right now Zack wasn't sure who could be trusted, and friend or not he still was a bit cautious.

"I'm not mixed up in anything," Zack explained, "who sent you to follow me?"

"A direct order from the Shogun," Reno replied. "I was supposed to tail you and report back daily."

"How long have you been doing this?" Zack asked.

"That I can't say," Reno began with a shake of his head. "Though they wouldn't ask me to if there wasn't some other reason behind it. What do you know?"

What do you know...

So Angeal was right after all. Someone was following him and the reason for that was because they were sure that he was aware of Cloud's whereabouts. A sneaky move but Zack guessed he couldn't be too surprised, they probably always thought he had something to do with it from the beginning.

"Nothing," Zack said with a shake of his head.

"That's a lie," Reno stated without hesitation.

"Even if it were it hardly matters," Zack started. "Is that the extent of your order? Or have I been marked already?"

"That's the extent, and that's the truth," Reno said while looking directly into blue eyes. "If you have been marked I don't know anything about it. I felt bad enough for doing this but I can't ignore an order. I thought if you told me what was going on I could...somehow help."

"Help?"

"Yes," Reno continued with a sigh, "I can throw them off track. Tell them I didn't find anything from following you, that everything seems normal. But it would have to be a valid reason. And knowing you...I'm sure that it is."

Zack wanted to believe him...really he did. This was his childhood friend after all but he still wondered if he could trust him. Then again, Reno didn't have to tell him what he did so far. And being a professional assassin he knew that Reno easily could've lied his way out of the situation if he really wanted to.

"They think that I know where Cloud is," Zack admitted while adverting his gaze briefly.

"Cloud?" Reno asked while raising an eyebrow. "Why would they think you knew?"

"Because the Shogun knows that we're close," Zack replied.

"Even so," Reno began quietly while furrowing his brows in thought. "Well...do you know?"

"No," Zack answered instantly while shaking his head. He did trust Reno, but he was still too leary about giving up too much information. And if anything did happen to him...he needed to know that Cloud was safe, and exposing his location wouldn't be a good idea.

Letting out a sigh Reno crossed his arms across his chest. "Even if you did know you wouldn't tell me would you?"

"Probably not," Zack replied.

"I guess that's not a shock," Reno continued with a slight nod, "you and Cloud have always had that best friend thing. And you two never told each others secrets to anyone else, maybe that hasn't changed."

Looking down to Zack's hand that was still resting on the hilt of his sword Reno shook his head. "Do you really believe that I mean to harm you?"

"I want to believe no," Zack answered honestly. They had been friends for so long, that if their friendship really ended in such a tragic way, it would be heartbreaking. But then that was the past and this was now. And maybe things didn't always remain the same. The simpler times had long since passed...

"What are you doing up there?"

"The kitten needed help!" Cloud shouted down towards the red head.

"It's not even your cat!" Reno shouted back while peering up at the blond through squinted eyes because of the bright sun.

"Well he wanted to help it," Zack added while beginning to scale the tree already.

Shaking his head Reno kept a close eye on the small blond, hoping that he kept a tight grip on the branch he was currently perched on before Zack reached him. He had the kitten secured in one arm and was looking down at the ground below.

"I didn't know it was this high," Cloud said as his eyes grew wider.

"Don't worry, I'll get you," Zack spoke while reaching out for another nearby branch.

"Lower the kitten down to me Cloud," Reno said while reaching his arms out for the animal.

"No he'll fall!" Cloud cried.

"He'll land on his feet just drop him!"

"No!"

Scuffing a hand through his hair Reno frowned up at the smaller one. He sure was being stubborn for someone who got himself into this mess.

Pulling himself up onto the tree limb that Cloud was on Zack carefully moved forward until he was right behind Cloud.

"Alright, you have to hop onto my back," Zack explained while reaching out to take the kitten from him. And ever so carefully Cloud climbed onto Zack's back, securing his arms tightly around the others neck.

"Reno I have to pass the kitten to you," Zack started but Cloud tightened the hold on his neck at those words.

"You can't drop him, he'll get hurt!" Cloud exclaimed.

"I can't climb back down with only one free hand," Zack replied. They went back and forth on this for awhile before Reno was letting out a big sigh and then approaching the tree.

"I'm coming up!" He announced before carefully making his way up the tree.

"Honestly Cloud, you owe me big for getting this cat! What are you even going to do with it?"

"I just want to feed it and make sure he's safe," Cloud answered innocently.

Zack laughed and smiled at that, it was something so simple and Cloud was going to such lengths to do it.

Finally reaching the limb they were on Reno took the kitten from Zack and began making his way back down the tree with Zack right behind him. He reached the ground and put the squirmy kitten down just to have it bolt off the second after.

"Oh no come back!" Cloud cried as the little kitten dashed off. Zack dropped down to the ground and kneeled down so that Cloud could hop off his back. He ran a few steps wanting to go after the kitten but then let out a defeated sigh when he realized it was already too far away.

"Don't feel bad Cloud," Zack said while coming up behind him and patting him on the head, "at least you got him down from the tree huh? He's probably just going home now."

"What a waste of time," Reno said with a pout, "and it scratched me too!"

Turning back to the redhead Cloud took his hand and looked at the tiny scratch.

"I'm sorry you got scratched cause of me," he explained while looking up with big blue eyes.

"Eh, it's fine," Reno replied while ruffling blond spikes. He may have griped at the other but truth was he didn't mind doing things for Cloud. He was like his little brother after all.

"He scratched me too," Cloud said while holding out his arms and Reno pushed up the sleeves of his yukata. While Reno only had a small scratch, Cloud had a few on each arm.

"Geez Cloud," Zack broke in while looking at the little red welts on the boys arms. "That cat wasn't very friendly was he?"

"He must've just been spooked," Reno replied while pulling Cloud along with him. "Come on let's go bandage these up."

Memories like that seemed to be like a past life. They were all so innocent then, not yet tainted by the challenges of growing up. They had history that was for sure, but in this new life they had maybe that meant nothing. Perhaps the paths they had chosen were too harsh and cruel that they couldn't hold onto what used to be.

"I'll tell the Shogun that I've continued to follow you and that everything is normal," Reno explained.

Shaking his head from his small flashback Zack looked back to the other.

"I know you'll do anything to protect Cloud...and if for some reason you're covering up his disappearance for that reason, then I respect that."

Not saying a word Zack soaked in those words. Maybe things wouldn't change then? Despite their positions, they were friends. And maybe there was a deeper loyalty in that than in anything else.

Slowly he removed his hand from the hilt of his sword and Reno gave a smile.

"Thank you," he said while flicking his eyes back towards the Samurai's.

Zack simply gave a nod and Reno tilted his head questioningly.

"I don't suppose you might still want to get a drink?"

Hesitating only briefly Zack nodded. "A drink sounds good."

He wouldn't doubt Reno's loyalty, not anymore.



Authors Notes: And here is chapter 18! Sorry again for the slow update, heh. Although I've already begun writing chapter 19 and I'm actually almost done with it! So sorry for the cliffhangerish ending there. What's going to happen with Zack? Will Reno really not say anything to the Shogun? And will leaving the castle really be the best option for Cloud? And just why is Sephiroth really back in Edo after all this time? Pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fill in! Thanks so much for your reviews and comments guys, they mean so much. Will be posting Chap 19 soon! Until then Ja ne!

 



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