It all started on another brain killing day in Midgar High School. Cloud found himself being able to unwind in art class, under the watchful eye of Mrs. Shera Highwind. The week's assignment was a happy memory from their childhoods. His best friend, Zack, had set up an easel beside him (as usual) and breezed right through the assignment; he came from a family of artists. And thanks to his pointers, Cloud managed to recreate himself at age eight, tripping his younger brother, Reno, into a swimming pool.
Mrs. Highwind looked over his shoulder to see his work and frowned a little.
Well, you did assign a happy memory, after all, Cloud thought unapologetically.
Near the end of class, Scarlet Jones, the vice-headmaster of Midgar High stepped right into the classroom with a stern look, stalling very little of the progress. She was holding a stack of papers under her arm.
"Is this a good time?" she asked Mrs. Highwind.
"Of course," she answered, walking towards her. "This is perfect."
Mrs. Highwind cleared her throat and got our attention. "Class… Miss Jones has a very interesting announcement to make."
The whole class turned from their canvases and gave her their undivided attention. The whole class was a patchwork consisting of every type of clique the student body had to offer: preppies, drama queens, divas, jocks, brainiacs, airheads, and just plain weirdoes. Cloud and Zack were the only outcasts.
"Midgar High will be participating in a citywide art contest at the end of this month," Miss Jones revealed. "The principle and I would like to encourage you to participate on behalf of the school."
Cloud and Zack glanced at each other in silence. Neither of them was interested.
"The theme of this contest is 'The Circle of Friendship"… friendship in the urban city and relationships with your fellow students," she continued in an uninspired tone. "What is it like for the youth of today as they face living in this great metropolis together? The piece you enter must also include a caption of some sort."
Cloud and Zack looked at each other again. Not a flicker.
"Entry is strictly voluntary, and collaboration is accepted. How you represent this theme is entirely up to you. Mrs. Highwind will be the authority of the entries that go into the contest. I will be coordinating the entries, so if you have any other questions, feel free to e-mail me or visit me at my office."
Voluntary, Cloud mused. Thank goodness for that…
"Once again, I urge you to take this opportunity to express yourselves," Scarlet droned on (it was becoming more and more clear that she had memorized a speech). "Even if you've never competed in a contest of this nature. After all, creativity, variety, and new experiences are the spice of life. Any questions?"
No one raised his or her hands. The bell rang, saving them all from the awkward silence. Miss Jones left the stack of papers and strolled out of the classroom, half-heartedly wishing them good luck.
The students hurriedly put their artwork away and moved to wash their tools in the sink. It was the end of the school day. It was Friday. Everyone couldn't wait to leave.
Cloud and Zack got into line for the sink and waited patiently.
"If she'd been more upbeat," Zack whispered in Cloud's ear, "I'd almost be enthusiastic."
The expressionless blond raised an eyebrow. "I'm not bothering. I hardly have what you'd call talent."
"Ah… but I can just see the shock on Reno's face as he goes plunging towards the water!"
That earned a tiny smile on Cloud's face.
After a few minutes of waiting, the two friends finally washed their palettes and paintbrushes and set out to escape the clutches of Midgar High. However, when they neared the door, Mrs. Highwind swooped down behind them.
"Wait just a minute, Zack," she said. "Can I speak to you for a moment?"
Zack shrugged and signaled for Cloud to wait. Cloud walked wordlessly out of the class and waited just outside the threshold.
"I'm very eager to see what the other students will be entering into the contest," she told Zack with a cheerful smile. "But I'm especially looking forward to what you'll be submitting. You'll stand out for sure."
Cloud watched as Zack froze in place and gritted his teeth.
"Oh, gee thanks…" he fumbled. "But you see… I…"
"You're a very accomplished artist!" Mrs. Highwind declared. "And you have a very imaginative mind."
Zack's face tightened into a fixed smile. "Th-thank you, m'am…"
Mrs. Highwind rested her hand on his shoulder, her face brighter than the Oceanside of Costa del Sol.
"With your talent and originality," she gushed, "I'm sure that no one can capture the theme of this contest like you can!"
Zack swallowed nervously, and Cloud watched wearily as his poor friend caved into her subtle persuasion. Little did the two boys know that this one moment of weakness would escalate from a simple contest project to a sudden case of teen rebellion.
Cloud and Zack joined their girlfriends at the school entrance and began a tired trek to the train station. From there, they were headed towards Cloud's townhouse.
"Ah! Why did she have to be nice?" Zack cursed, flailing his arms in the air.
All the way to Cloud's home, Zack constantly bemoaned his predicament over and over again. Aerith was clinging to his arm and giggling at his tantrum. Cloud and Tifa walked side by side at a short distance to give them space and quietly planned out the menu for their get-together.
"How about pizza delivery?" Cloud offered. "An extra large six-cheese pizza with tomatoes, spinach, and mushrooms? With sausage on a quarter of it for Zack?"
"And mozzarella breadsticks with marinara," Tifa added. "Maybe some chocolate molten cakes?"
"Why did she have to be so nice?" Zack mourned. "Now I have to think up an idea for a stupid contest. About friendship… relationships… student life…"
Cloud rolled his eyes. "And where to start! Whenever I go to school, there's so much superficial smoke that I can hardly see three yards ahead of me. Real friendships are far and between."
Tifa tossed her hair behind her shoulder and tugged at her messenger bag to get a better grip on it. "You've got that right! I've never seen so many cliques of friends that actually hate each other… and they're not there for each other when it really counts."
Zack pinched his chin in thought and grinned malevolently. Aerith winced at the look in his eyes.
"Who said it had to have a positive message?" he realized. "You know what… why don't I do something that really depicts the nature of teenage 'friendships'?"
"Yes!" Tifa agreed.
"Something that'll make people wake up to reality!"
"Oh, yes!" Aerith chirped.
"Something that'll slap the Kum Ba Yah out of the judges' mouths!"
"Yeah!" the girls cried in unison.
"And you're going to help me, Cloud!"
"Good luck with that!" Cloud scoffed.
Cloud's older brother, Sephiroth, was the sharpest lawyer on this side of Gaia. His younger brother, Reno, was the most idiotic and narcissistic boy on the entire campus. And Cloud? He was, for the most part, a solitary person that preferred to keep a low profile. That's why he opted to wear dark-rimmed glasses to diminish his looks... a habit that annoyed Sephiroth to no end.
His home life was different from his few true friends. His parents died about two years ago, so Sephiroth was the dominant head of the household (though, he'd like to think he was in charge). His sister-in-law, Lucy, was an energetic coroner who worked at a city morgue; she and Sephiroth had met during a complicated murder trial. And Reno was an irritating junior who barely skated by in his grades and somehow had a large fraction of the female school population wrapped around his pinky finger.
So was the household of Cloud's senior year.
His family annoyed the heck out of him, but whose family didn't? He loved them all like crazy… but he'd sooner switch to wearing contacts than admit it.
Speaking of which, none of his family was present the moment his posse arrived. Obviously, Sephiroth and Lucy were still at work, and Reno was probably piddling around with his playboy buddies at the most crowded arcade in town.
More room for us, Cloud thought happily. For now, at least.
For an outcast, Cloud lived in a modestly large and spacious home… having a lawyer for a brother and a government official for a sister-in-law did that for you. Most people did not realize his true financial bracket… mostly because Reno repeatedly insisted that he only had one older brother. It suited him fine.
"Can we order buffalo wings with our pizza this time?" Zack asked him.
"Sure," Cloud replied, "but you're paying for it."
"Stingy. And you won't even help me with my project either."
Aerith and Tifa turned and stared at each other before heading towards the kitchen. They had washed their hands clean.
"You've got to help me on this!" Zack pleaded with him. "It's supposed to have some written statement or something. And you know you're the one that's good with words…"
"No!" Cloud responded sharply.
"Come on! We can combine my paintbrush with your pen. Don't you want to use this chance to 'express' what you really think of Midgar High and their so-called happy cliques?"
Cloud bit his lip. The suggestion was very enticing.
"I, Cloud Strife, have something to say to the world," he wavered. "Zack, I don't know…"
"Let's do it!" Zack urged. "I'm sure it won't even take much. You think of a little paragraph… or a poem… or a few sentences. Puleeeeze?"
Cloud sucked in his teeth as Zack resorted to giving him a sad, puppy dog look. He hated to see a grown man beg.
"If we think of something good tonight," he decided. "I'll cooperate with you, okay?"
Zack nodded like a bobble-head toy and slung his arm around Cloud's shoulder. "Which we will…"
Cloud swallowed in regret, knowing that he had tied the noose around his neck.
By the time Sephiroth came back from his office and Reno trickled in from wherever, the group of teenagers had long ordered and received food from the pizza place and had currently taken over the swimming pool out back. By then, it was almost eleven o' clock. Sephiroth was too tired from a case to care about the noise, and he was soon dead to the world on the couch before he could reach his own bedroom. Of course, that wasn't before he threatened murder if they didn't save him a slice of cold pizza.
Reno snuck a buffalo wing and a slice of pizza, but he didn't stick around the pool... no matter how good Tifa looked in her red tankini. He and Zack didn't get along, and he was afraid of Tifa, who had thrown him over her shoulder two months prior to Cloud asking her out. The details of the incident were still sketchy.
At one point, Cloud and Tifa rested on the lounge chairs and started to bounce ideas off of each other. There was little success.
"How about a painting of a dragon that looks like Principle Shinra in the face?" Tifa suggested. "And he could be chasing all four of us… while we're wearing medieval rags!"
"No, thanks," Cloud countered. "I don't feel like getting suspended."
"How about a group of dragons with the faces of Priscilla and her coterie?" she offered. "You know… the school tramps?"
"Too unoriginal," he answered.
"How about you make a painting titled 'The Future Higher-Ups of Shinra Co. and just paint a picture of Reno and his friends?"
"Tifa, we're trying to gain the audience's attention… not throw them into a deep depression…"
"What's the difference?"
He paused for a moment, and she rolled on her side to face him. "Hmmm… I suppose we can use that as a back-up plan."
In the background, Aerith and Zack were sitting at the edge of the pool, paddling their feet, kicking up water, flirting. Zack slid away from the water, pulling out his legs, and seized Aerith by the waist. She squeaked as he picked her up bridal style, and he let himself fall backwards into the pool. Tifa sat up and watched as the water splashed on the ground in their wake.
"Goof balls," she snickered.
Aerith was the first to come up gasping for air. She swam up to the edge while Zack resurfaced, and she rested her elbows on the concrete. She gave Cloud an incredulous look.
"I can't believe you actually tripped Reno in this pool!" Aerith shouted. "Sheesh… you might've drowned him!"
"No, I wouldn't have," Cloud replied calmly. "We didn't even live in Midgar then. It was a blow-up kiddy pool in our backyard in Nibelheim. Besides, he swims like a fish anyway."
"I…oh…" she muttered, rubbing her head in embarrassment.
Everyone laughed. As Cloud quietly chuckled, a thought crossed his mind, and he froze.
Drown? he mused. Not there for each other when it really counts? Wait a minute…
And Cloud had an epiphany. His friends noticed the zoned-out mien on his face. Zack grinned in delight.
"He's got an idea… he's got an idea…" Zack sang.
Cloud came back down to earth… and wished he hadn't returned. Zack was staring at him with beady little eyes. He huffed in defeat.
"I'll give you your idea and caption," he promised. "But I want to be anonymous, okay?"
Zack threw up his fist in triumph.
Why do I get the feeling, Cloud thought, that this is going to be more trouble than I think?
Tifa put a hand on his shoulder. "See… you can still stay out of the spotlight."
Cloud sighed and shook his head. She cocked her head in puzzlement.
The next day, on Saturday, the guests left early in the morning. Zack giddily raced back to his family's condo to get to work on his masterpiece-to-be. Cloud finished whatever leftover homework he had and got to work on his end of the project. He already knew what he needed to write, but finding the right words was a different matter. By noon, he had ended up creating twelve versions of the caption and temporarily gave up in order to have leftover Buffalo wings and a bottle of ginger ale.
After number twenty-two, Cloud had neatly spread out all of his possible ideas on the coffee table and dozed off on the couch in the fetal position. His glasses were sitting on top of caption number eight.
After a while, he started to have a wonderful dream, where Tifa was giving him a fantastic rubdown on the sandy beaches of Costa del Sol. Unfortunately, when she started to relax an irritating knot in the lower part of his back, a loud car horn gave him a jolt. Cloud groaned, trying to maintain the dream.
"That's for me!" Reno shouted through the house. "See you later!"
The loud, scuffling, thundering boom of his younger brother's feet moved straight past as he headed towards the foyer and the door.
"Cissnei!" he sang.
Cloud woke up wanting to strangle his brother. A normal, weekly occurrence.
"Ah boy…" a older voice murmured tiredly. "There he goes again. Another week. Another girl."
Cloud looked up and saw that Sephiroth was leaning against the back of the couch. His hair was gathered in a long ponytail, his shirt was half buttoned, and he was enjoying a beer. Lucy peaked her head from the swinging door of the kitchen, with her eyebrows wrinkled in an ironic furl. She had been busy making marble cheesecake brownies.
"If you don't like it, why don't you stop him?" Cloud asked.
"If Mom and Dad couldn't change him," Sephiroth responded, "what makes you think I can?"
"Then why do you keep trying to change me and my glasses?"
"Because you're actually worth grooming."
"Ouch!" Lucy cried, and she quietly slipped back into the bowels of the kitchen.
Sephiroth started to follow her.
"Wait," Cloud said. "Where's Dad's old lighter?"
"Why do you need it?" he asked.
"For creative genius. Why else?"
Sephiroth nodded and snickered. "Creative genius. I like that. I know where it is. I'll get it for you."
He strolled off and walked up the stairs. There was a strange sway to his step that Cloud noticed, even with his fuzzy vision. He sat up on the couch and went to reach for caption number eight, the one he decided was best. But when he spotted where it was, his glasses were no longer sitting on top of it. In their place, there was a small package of contact lenses.
Cloud gritted his teeth, and his ears turned blood red.
"SEPH! GIVE THEM BACK RIGHT NOW, OR I'LL CUT ALL YOU HAIR OFF!"
An evil laugh resonated from the second floor.
The weekend came to a dreadful end, and the next school week began. It took until Thursday for Zack to finish the painting (using time at home and time allotted by Mrs. Highwind herself during art class), and it had been worth the wait. That day, he attached Cloud's caption to it and did the finishing touches. Mrs. Highwind passed by his easel with anticipation.
At her first look, the painting was astonishing. It pictured two, white-clad young girls in the forest; one girl was sitting at the edge of a pond, and the other was drowning (or had already drowned) in the pond. It was painted in a perspective where you could see the drowning girl's body. The water surrounding her was black, and for some reason, the black was slowly consuming her feet and the edge of her dress. The water lilies on the pond's surface were a very dark purple.
Even more perplexing, though the other girl (who was sitting in the sunlight) showed visible horror at her companion's peril, she made no move to help… not even to offer her hand.
Mrs. Highwind also noticed that edges of the caption had been purposefully burned. She read it aloud:
The Negligent Savior
She is sinking.
She is about to drown in the water.
Helping her is the only natural thing to do.
Why then, is it so unnatural to help when she drowns herself
In her own forced Vomit
Day, after day, after day…?
The art teacher narrowed her eyes, and Zack became nervous. He gave Cloud a furtive look.
"Beautiful, if not a little disturbing," Mrs. Highwind commented. "Unappealing but necessary language. Attention to detail."
"I listened to a lot of Evanescence," Zack admitted. "It kinda made itself.
She gave Zack a smile. "It's definitely an original idea… I doubt very many people would think about it. Let's enter it into the contest."
Zack stood up straight, his face beaming. Mrs. Highwind glanced over his shoulder and looked at Cloud.
"How does that sound to your collaborator?" she asked Zack.
Cloud stiffened in surprise. Mrs. Highwind stood akimbo with a smirk.
"If you wanted to keep yourself unidentified," she told him, "you should've tried to do something out of character… like be more upbeat?"
She covered her mouth, chortling, and went to inspect the other students.
"So much for anonymity," Zack declared with a silly grin.
"Shut up," Cloud grumbled.
And so, that seemed to be that.
Mrs. Highwind put the piece into the school entries. Zack was satisfied that he had fulfilled duty. Cloud mentally prepared himself for possible exposure to the spotlight. But the days slowly rolled by, and everything honestly seemed to have gone smoothly.
However, at the end of the next week, the week of the actual contest, Cloud and Zack were called to the principle's office. And the downward spiral commenced.
The two boys stepped into the office of Rufus Shinra. Cloud tried not to inhale the hateful smell of pretentious cologne. Rufus was sitting behind his desk in a comfortable armchair; he was wearing a polished white suit that seemed far too stylish for his occupation. Scarlet was sitting on the edge of the desk, staring at him. She got up and stood close by, wearing a dark pinstripe skirt suit, with her arms folded across her chest in an official manner.
Beside her, sitting on a metal easel, was their collaboration. Cloud could feel the bile forming in his throat.
Rufus instructed them to sit, and they pulled up two chairs at the desk.
"First of all," he began cheerfully. "I would like to commend you on an outstanding piece of art. This will definitely be the star of our showcase. And you have a very interesting… perspective…"
"Gee, thanks," Zack blushed.
Cloud nodded quietly.
"However…" Rufus continued firmly. "There is one little problem…"
"Problem?" the boys questioned in unison.
Scarlet cleared her throat to interrupt. "The piece is excellent… and we have every intention to submit it. However… what we have in mind for our entries is something a little more… upbeat and positive."
Cloud and Zack stared at each other and raised their eyebrows.
"I'm sorry…" Cloud replied. "The subject matter of the painting itself isn't meant to be positive..."
"I know that!" Rufus brushed off. "But the painting is beautiful. And the caption is unnecessarily unpleasant and bleak… Isn't there any way you can change the outlook a little. Why not tweak the caption or cut out the lower half of it…?"
"But the painting itself is also rather bleak," Zack defended. "And it's meant to be that way. Why look down on a subject that tackles a serious issue?"
"The unpleasantness is very necessary," Cloud protested. "The whole subject of the painting reflects on a teenager's fear and unwillingness to stop his or her friend's destructive behavior. The first half of it is meant to grab your attention… and the second half is meant to convict anyone guilty of doing what the painting condemns. It's also meant to be an all-around warning for everyone. And with all due respect, I was under the impression that we were allowed to express the theme of the contest in any way we pleased. We didn't break any rules on the flyer, did we?"
Rufus sat back in his chair and scowled. Cloud realized that his supposedly logical explanation had fallen on deaf ears.
Old people these days! Cloud thought derisively.
"So, you won't change the caption?" Rufus replied.
"No way!" Zack declared. "It'll lose its impact!"
"Absolutely not," Cloud answered decisively.
Rufus let out a deep, throaty sigh and folded his hands.
"How about you take twenty-four hours to think this through first," he suggested. "Are you willing to do that?"
In other words, Cloud thought, you want twenty-four hours to strong-arm us into changing the caption.
Cloud and Zack looked at each other for guidance. There really was no choice.
"Fine," they replied.
After the lunch period, Rufus ordered Scarlet to call Cloud's and Zack's families. She nodded her head begrudgingly and did just that. She first called on Zack's family, trying to contact each parent individually, but as she waited on the dial tone, no one answered, and she was forced to leave a message. What Scarlet didn't know, of course, was that Zack's father was at a literature conference in Junon, and his mother was busy sculpting away while blaring Coldplay over her stereo system.
She dialed Cloud's family next and attempted to contact Lucy. Unfortunately, for her, Lucy was in the middle of a hearing… and would not hear the message until later the next day. Scarlet irritably dialed the last resort: Sephiroth.
Meanwhile, in a large attorney's office building in downtown Midgar, Sephiroth was pacing back and forth in his office and doing his best not to make a scene.
He had a dark glare on his face. He was annoyed. He was very, very annoyed.
His secretary, Genesis Rhapsodos, was filing important documents when the phone call rang on Sephiroth's cell phone. He scrambled to drop the papers to the side in a neat order.
"The coroner's office won't return my calls," he muttered, "the defendant is being completely uncooperative, that Detective Highwind never showed up for our meeting, the business cards I ordered arrived completely all wrong… and I couldn't make my lunch break! Why can't anything go right today!?"
"Excuse me, sir," Genesis interrupted. "It's Midgar High School. A Miss Jones."
His head sank low. "Did Reno forget to do a report again?"
"No… it's about Cloud."
Sephiroth's expression softened a little, and he took the phone. Genesis went back to work.
"Hello?" he greeted curtly.
"Hello, sir," she said. "This is Miss Jones… vice-president of Midgar High?"
"Yes, how may I help you?"
"Are you aware that Cloud is participating in a citywide art contest? With the theme of 'The Circle of Friendship'? He created a caption for Zack Fair's painting… I believe it's called The Negligent Savior…"
Sephiroth's office phone started to ring, and Genesis answered hastily. He listened at the other end for a moment and then gave his employer a sharp signal with his hand.
"It's a very outstanding addition to our school's selection, bu--"
"Could you please speed this up?" Sephiroth interrupted coldly. "My conference call just came in!"
On the other end, Scarlet blanched in her seat and took a deep breath.
"The painting is beautiful," she spoke quickly but the caption that goes with it is not what we had in mind for our entries. "We were hoping that he would consider rewriting it."
"Alright, I understand," Sephiroth replied in a raised voice. "I'll talk to him. If this requires any further discussion, please feel free to call my wife!"
And he hung up with a thud. Scarlet lost her composure and sunk into her chair.
That very night, Cloud's family managed to gather around the table for a proper dinner (mostly because Sephiroth left his office earlier than usual to cool his head). Lucy arrived at the table with a Wutainese style meatloaf, and they dug in. Cloud conservatively helped himself to the salad first.
"I got a call from a Miss Jones," Sephiroth announced.
"I figured you did," Cloud replied nonchalantly. "So, are you going to make me change it?"
"Change what?" Lucy asked.
"The caption for our contest entry," Cloud replied.
"The school didn't call you?" Sephiroth asked.
Lucy shrugged in confusion. "Must've left a message while I was busy. What's the caption about?"
Cloud took a deep breath and explained the concept of his and Zack's submission. Lucy coughed in response.
"Cloud," she began, "you really need to learn not to be so cynical."
"You're a coroner and you married a lawyer…" he replied "...and you're worried about cynicism?"
"And it's not true," Reno replied in a silky smooth voice. "My buddies are reliable… they're always there for me!"
Cloud glared at him in disbelief. "You mean… like you friend, Tseng… who pushed you down the stairs of his house… two months ago… for flirting with his girlfriend, Elena? You slimy, little butthole…"
Reno scowled and hissed through his teeth. "You dirty…"
Sephiroth picked up his fork and brought it down on the table, as if he were trying to stab it. Cloud and Reno shut their mouths.
"Enough of that, you two," he said. "Let's stay on the subject."
"So, are you going to make me change it?" Cloud asked, biting into his salad.
"You should," Lucy replied. "It's a good opportunity for you to look on the Brightside of things."
"Ah boy…" Sephiroth groaned.
"What?" she snapped. "He's supposed to create a painting reflecting 'The Circle of Friendship', and he comes up with the most negative message possible?"
"Well… to be quite honest," Cloud interjected, "it's more a 'wake-up call' message rather than a negative message."
Reno growled as he devoured his meatloaf, and he ignored the conversation.
"I think it's bogus to make him change it," Sephiroth declared.
"Seph!" Lucy shrilled.
"If they wanted cheerier submissions," he said, "then they should've specified it from the very start. That… and the subject matter makes it stand out amongst the entries… however…"
"However?" Cloud inquired.
"If you're going to spend your life doing controversial things, you might as well wear the stupid contacts. At least you'll look good while doing it."
"This is exactly why I tried to stay anonymous!"
Lucy grunted and slammed her fists on the table. The men shuddered in her wake as she stomped off towards the kitchen. Sephiroth sighed tiredly and excused himself from the table to go after her.
"She's been acting like that all week," Reno asked. "Is she pregnant or something?"
"Don't judge to quickly," Cloud replied. "It's probably just PMS."
"And so I ended up spending my dinner," Cloud declared, "Listening to the symphony of Lucy yelling in the kitchen… and Sephiroth desperately trying to defend himself."
Zack listened with avid interest as they waited in the station for their train to arrive. From there, they would meet their girlfriends after the next two stops and ride all the way to the neighborhood of their school.
"I'm starting to think that this project's more trouble then it's worth," Zack reflected.
"What took you so long?" Cloud deadpanned.
"Well… at least we won't have to change the caption anymore."
Cloud buttoned his lip and fell silent.
"What?" Zack asked anxiously.
"After they fought for about thirty minutes…" Cloud went on, "Lucy apologized and blamed her mood on PMS. And by then, they had agreed on a truce. I promised to at least listen to Mr. Shinra's point of view… but I didn't promise anything more."
After separating from Aerith and Tifa at the school entrance, the two boys trudged off with heavy hearts to visit Scarlet's office. She welcomed them with a rare smile and offered them wrapped chocolate bon bons before having one on her own.
"I didn't know she had a sweet tooth," Zack whispered in Cloud's ear. "Kind of sexy…"
"Let's get to the heart of the matter," Scarlet began, sitting on the edge of her desk. "I know you're concerned about maintaining the message of your submission. After some reflection, I've come to understand your feelings."
How refreshing! Cloud cheered.
"Nevertheless… Mr. Shinra is still… concerned… so, the only course of action is to make the caption a little more… palatable. May I suggest that I work on it myself?"
Cloud suppressed a yell.
"Now, before you refuse," she said, "let me make one thing clear. If you do not like what I come up with… we'll drop it and leave the caption exactly as you intended. Fair enough?"
Cloud and Zack briefly convened with each other through eye contact. They nodded in approval.
"We've got nothing to lose," Zack declared.
The famous last words.
On the following day, Cloud and Zack were called in during another lunch break to evaluate the new change. The results, predictably, were left terribly wanting.
"I trust the caption is little more uplifting," Scarlet hoped.
Cloud held the painting and read the new caption with distaste. Not only did Scarlet fail to capture the very essence of the subject, but the prose had also been butchered. She obviously didn't have a way with words.
"I see…" Cloud mused. "There's no more Bacardi… or Opiates… and especially no Vomiting. But I think I'm about to."
"Don't do that!" Zack mocked. "That's not uplifting!"
"You should be thanking Miss Jones," Rufus replied forcefully. "She's worked very hard on preserving the premises of your work."
"She didn't preserve it," Cloud shot back. "She distorted the meaning of it and turned it into drivel."
Scarlet frowned in deep thought and scratched her chin. "Well, I did have my doubts… I did try."
"So, we'll simply do as we agreed," Zack waved his hand lazily.
Rufus raised an eyebrow. "Agreed?"
"Since Miss Jones couldn't alter the caption in a way we'd like it," Cloud replied, "we're going to keep the caption exactly as it is. Isn't that what Miss Jones told us?"
Rufus averted his eyes dismissively. "Miss Jones… you are in no position to make such deals with students."
Cloud, Zack, and Scarlet gaped at him in shock.
"Now… an acceptable change has been made to the poster as we have asked. The paintings will be displayed during the school board meeting tonight… and it will go forward into the contest. You should be happy. It'll make our school proud."
"B…but…" Scarlet stammered. "I promised them. I did promise them!"
The boys watched as Scarlet's face turned to the color of her namesake. She lifted her hand and slapped Rufus across the face, causing both of them to cringe.
"You're never going to change!" she spat. "You… you bully!"
And with that, Scarlet burst out of his office in a huff, while Rufus called out her first name. The boys filed out of the office, ignoring him when he demanded them to stay.
The sky was looking very gray.
"Can he actually do that?" Aerith asked, shell-shocked.
The posse traveled slower than usual to the train station. They were still mulling over whether or not to drown their sorrows in their favorite gelato café.
"No," Zack replied. "This is nightmare brought up from me eating caramel chocolate-chip fudge ice cream late last night."
"That'll do it to you," Tifa joked, trying to liven the mood.
"It's a power trip," Cloud declared quietly.
The group turned and stared at him in wonder.
"Power trip?" Aerith asked.
"He's just trying to control the situation for the sake of it," Cloud explained. "He wants the schools entries to be exactly the way he wants them to be. There ARE people like that, you know. I just realized it from Scarlet's reaction… that, and that we're definitely not his first victims."
"And no one's tried to stop him before," Tifa caught on.
The whole group sighed.
"I heard from an acquaintance in my science class," Tifa began, "that Scarlet dumped a fruit salad bowl over his head in the faculty room. Apparently, Scarlet and Rufus have been secretly dating."
"After slapping him and storming out like that," Cloud replied, "it's hardly a secret anymore."
"Don't you have any recourse?" Aerith asked. "What about your parents, Zack?"
"My dad's still in Junon…" Zack groaned. "And Mom's eye-ball deep in her new sculpture. We haven't seen each other for two days straight."
"What about your brother?" she asked Cloud. "He is a lawyer!"
"A lawyer whose wife wanted me to be more upbeat in the first place," Cloud grumbled.
The whole group sighed again.
"The system's failed us," Zack snarled.
"The system sucks!" Cloud muttered. He stopped for a moment, and an idea hit him in yet another flash of genius. "We'll just have to work outside the system then."
"Outside the system?" Tifa asked suspiciously.
"You don't mean…" Zack replied with a smirk.
Cloud gave them a curt nod. "Yes…let's go to that gelato café. I've got a plan..."
That very night, the night of the school board meeting, the four of them borrowed Mrs. Fair's car and drove through the rain storm to their school. Tifa and Aerith stayed behind inside the car, keeping the engine running for their boyfriends' return. Cloud and Zack ran up to the entrance under an umbrella, calmly walked through threshold, and made their way to the school board meeting, which was being held in the auditorium.
Since he wanted to lessen the risk of being recognized, Cloud reluctantly switched his glasses for a pair of contacts.
The adults and some students were swarming the auditorium floors… and were gathering around a table of hors d'oeuvres. Zack spotted the display of paintings on the other end and pointed it out to his fellow conspirator. They slowly made their way towards the paintings, while Zack jammed his hand in his pocket.
A few people were observing the paintings, so they stood close by and waited until no one was there. As soon as everything seemed clear, they inched closer towards their endangered work of art, and Zack slowly pulled something out of his pocket…
A shoulder clamped down on Zack's shoulder, and he jumped. Scarlet held a light grip on him, and there was a blank expression on her face. The boys stared fearfully at her.
Scarlet retracted her hand, reached into the clutch purse in her other hand, and held out a tube of lipstick. Cloud and Zack looked at her in disbelief. She smiled.
A few minutes later, the boys ran out through the school entrance under their umbrella and scrambled towards the car. They leapt into the back seat, slammed the door behind them, and Tifa stepped on the gas. They were far away from the school driveway by the time the chaos erupted.
Meanwhile, inside the school, Rufus was fuming. The once pristine painting that he had been proud to be a part of the school entries was now marred. All over the painting, there was message written in burgundy lipstick:
The following day, Cloud and Zack were called one final time into Principle Shinra's office, but this time, it was only after first period. The boys were coldly ushered into the office, and Rufus gruffly ordered them to sit.
"You already know why you were called here," he said menacingly. "Don't try to deny it. Did you honestly think you could get away with this?"
Zack turned to Cloud. "It would be pretty stupid to say 'yes' now."
"Agreed," Cloud nodded briefly.
"Don't try to be smart!" Rufus bellowed. "Vandalizing school property is a serious offense. Your families are going to hear of this right now!"
He opened a school directory sitting on his desk, searched out Zack's numbers, and called Fair family up on his phone.
No one answered of course, for Mrs. Fair, at that very moment, was still working on her sculpture… with "Loose Control" by Evanescence blowing through her stereo. And his father was still in Junon.
Rufus hung up the phone and muttered a curse under his breath. Cloud and Zack exchanged a smile.
Undaunted, Rufus found Cloud's numbers and dialed them. He tried Lucy's number first, but at that current moment, she was preparing for her next hearing and had her cell phone on vibrate. Visibly annoyed, Rufus then tried the last option: Sephiroth.
Inside his office, Sephiroth was about to have yet another meltdown, with only Genesis to bare witness.
"That idiot detective is late for another meeting!" Sephiroth growled. "If it weren't for him being a key component to this case, I'd be kicking his--"
Sephiroth's cell phone went off and Genesis answered it. "Yes?"
"Why am I surrounded by morons!?"
"Seph… you have a call from Midgar High. It's the principle."
The great lawyer's mood shifted from anger to surprise. "Mr. Shinra?"
He quietly took the phone and greeted Rufus on the other end. "Hello. How may I help you?"
"Hello, sir," Rufus replied. "This is Principle Rufus Shinra from Midgar High. I'm afraid I have some very bad news."
"Eh?" Sephiroth asked.
"It appears that your younger brother, Cloud, has been involved in an act of vandalism."
Rufus paused purposefully for effect.
"You are aware of the art contest our school is a part of?" he asked.
"Well, your brother collaborated with his friend, Zack, in a submission for one of our school entries. We found some of the content to be… unacceptable… so we had it altered. Well, last night, someone defaced the painting during our school board meeting. And since Cloud and Zack had previously objected to the changes made to the entry, I must assume that they are responsible. Therefore, I am going to have to punish them…"
On the other end, Sephiroth bit his lip. "Wait just a moment, Mr. Shinra. They objected to the changes made to their work, but they allowed it to be entered… with the changes?"
"It was entered that way for them, sir."
"I was under the impression that this contest was strictly voluntary…"
"It is… but because of the situation, it was mandatory…"
And his anger rose anew. He gritted his teeth and nearly crushed the cell phone in his hand.
"So, let me get this straight," Sephiroth replied, his voice like ice. "You took my brother's submission from him… altered it's content… displayed it AGAINST HIS WILL… and now, you have the BALLS to say you're going to punish him for defacing his OWN property… which you have just admitted to stealing?"
Rufus choked on his own spit. "Th-that is not what I said…"
"Are you familiar with the meaning of 'violation of civil liberties', Mr. Rufus Shinra?"
"And how about the meaning of 'you're going up the river, pal'!?"
Cloud watched from his seat as Rufus shrank in his chair. Whatever Sephiroth was practically barking into the phone, he thought, it obviously wasn't good for the principle's complexion.
"Now give me my brother right now, ya miserable rat in a suit!" he snapped.
"Y-yes, sir," Rufus replied. "Of course, sir."
Rufus swallowed and handed Cloud the receiver. Cloud blinked innocently, graciously taking it, and put it to his ear.
"Yes, Seph?" he said.
"You know Mr. Hewley, right?" Sephiroth replied. "I'm going to call him up right now… and we're going to gut this chest-waxed metrosexual like it's going out of style! That alright with you?"
"Do your duty."
"You bet I will. Love you, kid."
"Yeah… me too."
His older brother hung up without so much as a goodbye. Rufus' head drooped, and he was almost wheezing. Cloud smiled a very smug grin.
Suddenly, it was another Friday afternoon. The group of four escaped from Midgar High, and this time, they were smiling for different reasons.
They caught the train and headed into downtown Midgar, where a new burger shop had recently opened up. The menu was very promising.
"So," Aerith mused. "It's safe to say… that in order to save your work, you had to destroy it?"
"Catchy…" Cloud replied. "But we didn't do any damage… really."
"I cleaned off the lipstick with a chemical," Zack revealed. "And we fixed the caption right up. Cloud even typed it out in Blackmoor LET font on his computer instead of handwriting this time. It's still in the contest. Everything's right as rain now."
"Wait," Tifa said. "What about the lawsuit Mr. Hewley's handling? Don't you need proof and stuff?"
"That?" Zack replied. "Oh… he came by my house and took a million photographs before we cleaned it up. Cool guy!"
Aerith laughed out loud and closed her menu.
"I can't believe that Sephiroth was able to be so scary!"
"Yeah," Cloud replied. "I can't believe I thought he couldn't help. Should've known. I've been neck deep in lawyers the moment he set foot in Midgar Law. They're ruthless!"
The whole group sighed in relief.
"What an adventure," Tifa declared. "What are you ordering?"
"I'm shooting for the Golden Saucer Burger," Cloud replied. "You?"
"Turkey pizza burger," she responded.
"I'm having one with blue cheese and mushrooms," Aerith said.
"Sausage burger with dried tomatoes and avocado for me," Zack declared happily.
The waitress came by and cheerfully took their orders. Everyone was content. All was right with the world… at least, until the whole problem was officially resolved in court.
Zack sat back in the booth they occupied and sipped his root beer.
"You know…" he thought aloud. "This whole fiasco's given me an idea for a new painting."
"Hmmm?" Cloud replied. "What's it going to be about?"
Zack smirked deviously. "Oh… you'll see."
Several weeks later, there were two paintings inside of Zack's bedroom. The first one was the infamous piece, The Negligent Savior, which was currently hanging on his wall with the "first place" ribbon attached to it. The second painting, a much larger canvas, was sitting on an easel, and some finishing touches were needed.
Inside the painting, there were two knights clad in shining armor who were fighting a dragon on a desolate mountain, with the background of a blood red sky. Curiously, one knight was brandishing a paintbrush with black ink on its bristles, while the other was skillfully wielding a fountain pen. Comically, the dragon's face was identical to Rufus Shinra's.
On the back of the canvas, the title of the artwork was written in blue ink:
The Circle of Friendship
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