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Knowing Shadows - Fusion

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Knowing Shadows - Fusion Powered By Docstoc
					Fusion

Part 1: Remember Me

By Knowing Shadows

-----

“Why do you want to become a Soldier?”

“Why do you want to know?”

-----

The winds whipped across the Nibel mountains just as they had always done, stinging the
vulnerable skin of any traveller who dared traverse them and putting off many of those who
thought they might brave it. The rain was so heavy that it looked like a grey cloud had settled
right across the mountains and the town of Nibelheim, softening and blurring the outlines until it
almost faded away.

It had been raining like this for several days, the mountains seeming to draw in all the dark
clouds and keep them. No-one had ventured outside to brave the harsh weather, so everything
was quiet except for the pounding of the heavy raindrops on the roofs and ground below.

A lone figure headed resolutely through Nibelheim square towards the mountain path, pulling his
cloak closer around him to try and dampen the effects of the rain, though he was soaked through
as it was. His long, dark hair streamed backwards from his pale face. The wind tried to rip the
red material out of his grip, but he held on determinedly as he passed the gates to the Shinra
Mansion. His mind briefly flickered towards echoing memories of pain triggered by the sight of
the old house, but he refused to let himself linger on those dark thoughts, choosing instead to
focus on his trip up the mountain.

It had been a long time since Vincent Valentine had visited this place.

For a long while, Vincent was convinced that he would never return to Nibelheim, that he would
never set foot within the confines of the isolated town. Too much had happened here to ever
make him want to come back, to face up to the demons that still inhabited this place for him. No-
one had wanted to come back. The town stood as a constant reminder of the past, one too painful
for anyone to encounter again. So they had stayed away.

The reason for Vincent‟s arrival made no sense to him, for he had thought that that reason would
have even less enthusiasm for being here than anyone else.

As he passed onto the familiar mountain path, Vincent let his eyes rove ahead, taking in the dark
rocks that marked the treacherous walkway, if ever there was one. It had not changed since he
had last seen it, and neither had the town. Thinking about it, it unsettled him that in so long a
time, nothing had happened to alter it.

Nine years…

So much had changed for everyone and the world around them for this to stay the same. It was
almost like stepping back into the past, an unwelcome reminder of things gone by whilst they
had all moved on around it. Because they had all moved on…they had had no choice but to move
on…

Except maybe one of our number.

Nine years…it had been a long time.

A long time since Meteor had blazed across the skies and Sephiroth had almost spelled doom for
the Planet. A long time since Jenova had been destroyed. A long time since, well, a lot of things.

The metal of his boots made gentle thumping noises on the rocks as he slowly made his way up
the winding path, using his grafted alloy arm to help keep his balance as the rising gale tried its
best to hinder him. The rain drove mercilessly against him, obscuring his sharp vision. It was a
dangerous path anyway, without nature working against him as it was.

His reason for fighting his way up through the Nibel mountains was grave, and he knew that in
the end it may be for nothing, but he was willing to take the chance.

He almost missed the hidden path heading off around the other side of the mountain, but just saw
it through the grey rain. It was made to look as natural as possible, and even if someone spotted
it, they would think it hadn‟t been used in a long time.

Vincent knelt down in the roughage that hid the footpath, impressed by the effort made to
conceal it. Anyone with lesser eyesight than he would have completely missed it.

Whether it was the person he was looking for or not, someone was definitely around here.
Vincent stood and slid through the thorny bushes onto the narrow, winding and uneven path. He
could not see the end of it, for it was well placed and easily mistakable as a natural part of the
mountain, a tiny rock ledge hewn by the elements over many years.

Vincent wondered whether or not that was so as he quietly walked along.

The tiny ledge wound along the edge of the mountain, until he was eventually sheltered from the
worst of the rain and wind about an hour later. He squinted against the drizzle, spotting
something set into the rock-face further along. If it had been on the wrong side of the mountain
the rain would have ensured that he wouldn‟t have seen it. It struck him that whoever was up
here definitely did not want to be found, and absently he wondered if he should honour that
obvious need.
I‟m not the only one who wants to know if you‟re up here. However, if it really is you, I should
accept that you don‟t want to be found, and so should the others.

It was a small, roughly built hut standing in the protective shelter of the rocks, hardly visible for
it seemed to be specially designed to be as non-intrusive as possible. Vincent squinted again,
trying to get a clear view through the rain. However, it was impossible to make out details from
where he stood, so Vincent set off along the path again, reckoning that he would probably make
it in about five to ten minutes. And, if anyone was there, they would probably have spotted him
already.

The ledge seemed to get more difficult to traverse as he continued, the rain making it slippery
and even more potentially dangerous. As he drew nearer to the hut, Vincent could see that, like
the entrance to the path, it had been made to look as though it hadn‟t been used in a while. The
shutters over the empty window-frames looked like they were about to fall off their creaking
hinges, but they were holding up extremely well in the wind despite this. Another trick to fool
anyone who might find this place anyway. In fact, the whole hut – which only seemed to be a
small, one-roomed affair – looked as if it were about to fall down, but was actually far better
made than that.

“Clever,” Vincent murmured to himself, dark red eyes sweeping over the deliberate shoddiness
of the hut. He knew that someone had to have been here recently. His nostrils flared as the beast
in him caught the faint human scent on the wind.

He knew that scent well. Hadn‟t forgotten it though the person himself hadn‟t been near Vincent
in nine years.

“But not clever enough.” He moved forward silently to search for a door. No-one seemed to have
seen him, he was hoping. There was no lock of any kind on the door when he found it. Listening
carefully, he could hear no sounds from inside the hut.

Do I go in? Or leave him alone and tell the others that I found nothing. Tell the villagers that
their stories are wrong and that no-one lives up here.

The only reason Vincent was there was because of the Nibelheim residents‟ stories. They
whispered among themselves of the strange man who they had seen on the mountainside but who
never came down to the village. They speculated on who it might be, but the strangest rumour
had been that it was indeed a man who went by a name Vincent knew well.

Some of the villagers seemed to believe that it was Cloud Strife.

The door slid inwards easily and with no creaking hinges, unlike the shutters. Vincent‟s eyes
quickly adjusted to the darkness, inspecting the sparse furnishings. It was surprisingly warm
inside, and Vincent saw that this was due to two green, faintly glowing materia that lay in
opposite corners of the hut. A jumble of blankets and a pillow on one side was obviously the
designated bed. There was an old rocking chair and a roughly made table in the centre. A locked
trunk sat against one wall. Vincent wondered why the trunk was locked, when the door wasn‟t.
There was no-one inside, but a familiar sword was propped up in a corner, the metal glinting
dully from the dim materia glow.

The Ultima Weapon. Cloud Strife‟s most prized possession.

I found your home and your things, but you‟re not here. Nine years of hiding, and you still refuse
to be found.

He had no business being in someone else‟s home, so Vincent stepped back into the cold outside
and pondered his options, gazing around him to gauge the area. The path wound on past the hut
and carried on out of his view. Vincent ran pale fingers through his soaked black hair and stared
down the continued walkway.

I should try and find you, just to see how you‟re doing. Even if you don‟t want me here. Even if
you won‟t tell me why you‟re here.

Again, Vincent went onwards down the rocky path, picking his way carefully through the loose
chippings that littered the ground beneath his feet. This part of the ledge was curved so he
couldn‟t see much further along from where he was.

The dark-haired man kept his footsteps as light as possible as he moved, trying to keep his
presence hidden for as long as he was able to. The path rounded out and then stayed straight,
leading onto a little jutting piece of sheltered rock a little way onwards. Vincent‟s footsteps
slowed until he halted, staring out at the path‟s end.

Kneeling on the flat rock, sheltered from the stinging rain from the walls of stones around him,
was a figure, wrapped up in dark, wet blankets. He was barely twenty feet away, from Vincent‟s
judgement. The figure had their back turned to him.

You can‟t hide forever.

The figure never moved as he drew closer, close enough to stand on that little plinth of rock only
several feet away. Didn‟t react to his presence at all, though Vincent was certain they knew he
was there.

“Cloud.”

-----

They hadn‟t stayed out in the rain. Cloud had merely stood, a little taller than Vincent
remembered, and quietly suggested that they head back to dry off and talk, if that was what
Vincent wanted. He hadn‟t pulled the hood back from his face, so his features were shadowed
and Vincent could not see him properly as he passed.

They had not left before Vincent saw what had been on the rock plinth.
They made it back to the hut with no problems and inside it was still pleasantly warm. Cloud
pulled off his heavy cloak and hung it up to dry by one of the small material. From the back,
Vincent could already see the changes that had taken place in the young man. He had grown a
little taller, and moved with an ease he had not possessed the last time they had met. His blond
hair was longer, though still just as unruly. The old Soldier uniform had gone, replaced with dark
trousers and thick shirt to try and fend off the adverse weather. Vincent recognised the heavy
leather boots sitting in the corner by the bed, now too torn and scuffed to wear.

“Sit down,” came the murmured command, so quiet that Vincent almost didn‟t hear it. He stared
at Cloud‟s back, at the spot between his shoulder blades, contemplating the slightly deepened
voice.

“There‟s only one chair.”

“I‟ll stand.”

Vincent hesitated only a moment before moving to the rocking chair and sinking slowly into it. It
creaked lightly under his weight as he settled down. He kept his eyes trained on Cloud as he
busied himself lighting an old oil lamp that hung in the corner, unwilling to admit that he was
startled by the defeatist attitude of his old ally.

Is this what the last nine years has done to you?

Cloud turned, then, allowing Vincent to see his shadowed face as the lamp flickered into life. His
face was longer, thinner, mouth down-turned and lips thin. The colour of his hair seemed to have
faded a little. His hair framed his thin, pale face with a not much stronger colour.

He has eyes like mine.

For the fleeting moment this more serious Cloud allowed his eyes to meet Vincent‟s, the far
older man saw himself reflected in them. Even the Mako glow couldn‟t disguise how dead they
were. Devoid of anything that constituted as emotion, they stared back at him momentarily and it
was like looking at stone.

But if they‟re like mine…I know what that hides…

Pain, above all things.

Suffering. Anger.

“What are you doing here, Vincent?”

“Why are you here?”
Something flashed within the deadened core of that body, briefly turning the stone into
something else before it reverted again. Frustration and annoyance that his home and privacy had
been invaded and that his unwelcome visitor was the one who was questioning him.

“You disappeared, Cloud.”

“I wanted to be left alone.”

“For nine years?” Vincent raised an elegant eyebrow at the blond.

Cloud narrowed blue eyes at him. “If that‟s how long it takes.”

Vincent was finding it very difficult to call this man Cloud, still remembering the inexperienced
young man who had led their team to victory so long ago. This man was like someone
completely different – someone who had taken Cloud‟s appearance and name but forgotten to
change their personality accordingly.

Cloud‟s last words dwelled heavily on the dark-haired man, and he couldn‟t help but think back
to what he had seen outside when he‟d found Cloud. A name flashed before his eyes, one that
hadn‟t been uttered from his lips for many years.

“If that‟s how long it takes? Nine years, Cloud, yet you still mourn for a dead man.”

“How would you know what I mourn for?” Cloud hissed, beginning to pace along one wall of
the hut, unwilling to be confronted but unable to stop it.

“I saw his name on the stone you knelt before.”

“I don‟t mourn for him. I mourn for no-one.”

“You mourn for what has passed and you cannot change it. You dwell on him, for what reason I
don‟t know. He was not a martyr to be worshipped, Cloud, he almost killed us all-“

“Don‟t say that.” The blond‟s voice was barely above a whisper, but the pain permeating it made
Vincent obey the command and stare at his old friend. “Don‟t say things like that.”

In the uncomfortable silence that followed, Cloud could not bring himself to look at Vincent, as
if in those few words he had bared a part of his soul not usually aired, and wished dearly for the
punishment to be swift, and expecting it to hurt.

“You still believe he‟s innocent.” The gunman found it hard to appreciate the implications of
what had been said, unable to grasp why Cloud might still think this was so.

I knew he never wanted to believe it when we were fighting…but to delude yourself for nine
years…
Cloud chose not to answer Vincent‟s last comment, instead saying, “If you intended to come
here and mock me, I‟d rather you left.”

“I don‟t intent to mock you.”

“Then don‟t.”

Nine years had definitely changed Cloud Strife, but for better or worse Vincent was unsure. He
knew that he was not wanted here, and that Cloud really had wanted to be left to his own devices,
but he found himself reluctant to leave. He had found Cloud, a shadow of the man he once was,
but alive and well. Someone who had just walked off the face of the Planet nine years ago during
all the chaos after Meteor, and failed to let them know if he was okay. For a long while they had
all believed he had been dragged off by a monster, but had found nothing to suggest so. Besides,
Cloud was too powerful for any monster anyway. To think of him as bested by anything like that
was an insult.

Yet he lives up here, a virtual hermit, and kneels before a grave he put there for someone he
should hate.

“He‟s dead, Cloud. Nothing you can do will change that.”

A fleeting look of pain crossed that pale face, and Cloud let his legs fold under him as he
abruptly sat down on the bed of blankets. “I know,” he said softly, staring down at his slender
fingers with something stronger than sadness in his face. “I know he‟s dead, Vincent. I killed
him.”

“You had to.”

“I could have saved him, you know.” Cloud‟s voice held an oddly strangled note, tight and
unsteady, as if this concept was something he had wrestled with himself over before.

“He was beyond all redemption. You could not have changed him then.”

“No, I meant before…when we went to Nibelheim…”

They sat there in silence for a few moments, Vincent regarding Cloud‟s suffering form with a
deep, aching sympathy. Cloud‟s hands were trembling, his face bloodless and hair hanging limp
around his shoulders. His eyes stood out terribly bright against the rest of his pale figure. In the
short time that Vincent had been in his company, it was the first time that there had been a
display of almost uncontrollable emotion, but the context of it was not what Vincent would have
chosen.

“Is that what you‟re here for, Cloud?” Vincent asked, trying to break the younger man out of his
painful reverie. “To repent for something that wasn‟t your fault?” The blond‟s eyes, so distant
before, snapped to his, searching, as if Vincent could give him the forgiveness he so obviously
wanted.
But I can‟t…I can‟t give him what he needs because he doesn‟t need it.

“I don‟t know…”

“I spent thirty years in a coffin, Cloud, trying to repent for not saving Lucrecia when she needed
me, for not saving the same man you agonise over. I could have done it. I could have taken him
away from Hojo when he was born, I could have saved him before any of us knew anything
would go wrong…but I didn‟t.”

“But that wasn‟t your fault-“

“And neither was this yours.”

“You don‟t understand.”

“I understand better than you think I do, mark my words, Cloud.”

“You don‟t understand.” The words were hissed vengefully from between clenched teeth, the
jaw set stubbornly against the annoyance that thickly laced his voice. It was almost enough to
convince Vincent that maybe he didn‟t understand; that maybe this man before him had
undergone more pain than he in only a third of the time. Maybe even less.

He could think of nothing to say.

After a while, Cloud got to his feet and started sorting through a few little bits around the room,
keeping his eyes away from Vincent at all times. Eventually, though he didn‟t turn to look at his
guest, he said, “How is everyone?”

Wondering why you left them…Where you went…How you‟re doing…Wondering if you‟re going
to come back…If you‟re alive at all…

“As far as I know, they‟re all fine. Getting on with their lives. Tifa has a three year old daughter,
if you‟d like to know.”

“Is she married?”

“Yes, to a man named Richard. From Kalm. He loves her. He treats her well.”

“That‟s good.”

“She still worries about you.”

“Then tell her she doesn‟t need to. I‟m fine out here.”

“You could be fine with everyone else.”
“No, I couldn‟t.”

“You could try.”

“I can‟t.”

-----

Vincent left Cloud not too long afterwards, making his way back down the mountains through
the pouring rain, hardly able to see his way through the ferocity of the approaching storm. When
he finally reached Nibelheim and turned back to take one last look at the mountains, the first
flash of lightning and roll of thunder split the air asunder.

Cloud had said that there had been a lot of storms recently.

-----

Back on the mountainside, Cloud settled down to try and get some rest, ignoring the loud thunder
outside and the lightning that sent bright flashes across his eyelids. He was used to braving these
storms: in nine years he had encountered many of their kind. He almost enjoyed them.

He chose to try and not dwell upon the unexpected visit from Vincent Valentine. He was not
surprised that he had been found. After all, if he was going to hide thoroughly, a place so close to
his old town wouldn‟t have been the best choice. It had been those first few years where he had
had to stay hidden, and those had passed slowly but without a hitch. They stopped searching so
rigorously, so he settled down where he was now. And had not been bothered until that day.

The mountain bore the full fury of the storm for the entire night. The noise from outside and the
fact that he was too alert to go to sleep kept him up for most of the night. He replaced his
conversation with Vincent over and over in his head, wondering what he would go back and tell
the others.

Even if he did realise, he knows better than to tell them. He knows I wouldn‟t want them to know.

For how long he stared at the ceiling he didn‟t know. Often these days he would lie awake for
hours. Sometimes he would drift into a dream, but he would wake up again about a half hour
later. Other times he didn‟t think at all. The nights when all he could do was remember were the
worst.

After those times, he found the days hard to bear because it was still all he could think of. Face,
places, times and scenes all played over and over in his head until he could take no more. After
several sleepless nights, he would exhaust himself out and his body would sleep without
permission from the rest of him.

Vincent doesn‟t understand. He can‟t understand.
The storm carried on well into the next morning, and by the time it finally died down, Cloud had
woken up and was ready as he normally was every morning. Wrapping up warm, he stepped
outside into the cool air and headed along the path to the rock platform where Vincent had found
him yesterday.

He headed this way every day and spent several hours crouched there, reflecting. It was a ritual
he had started up a long time ago, and felt obliged to stick to it for as long as it took to feel like
he had repented. He didn‟t think that it would be any time soon.

He had taken a life. He had taken a life that he felt hadn‟t needed to be taken. Therefore, he
would give as much as he could in return.

Cloud reached the platform and slowly sank to his knees on the cold floor, blue eyes resting upon
the curved stone that he himself had erected in this sheltered place. It had taken him months to
fashion this stone – this headstone – and find the perfect place to put it. It had taken him many
more weeks to carve the name into the smoothed stone perfectly. A reminder of what he had
done, and how much he had to atone for.

Sephiroth.

Most of the times he came to this place, he fell into a dreamlike state where his mind was
blissfully blank. It helped him to deal with being there for hours on end some days. It helped him
connect to things. Sometimes, when he lay so close to that line between wakefulness and
unconsciousness that the distinction wasn‟t discernable, he could feel the Lifestream beneath his
feet; could hear the jumble of voices and presences that tried to ease the pain they felt in his
being.

It doesn‟t work. I still feel it like the day I struck that killing blow.

Cloud stared wordlessly at the curved letters, and his eyes began to water. Maybe it had been
Vincent‟s visit that made this trip mean all the more to him, he wasn‟t sure. Eyes wide and
shining, he reached out a shaking hand and let his fingers lightly trail down the curve of the „S‟,
feeling his chest constrict painfully.

“I‟m sorry,” he whispered thickly, lowering his eyelids until his eyelashes obscured his eyes. He
didn‟t wipe away the tears that ran gentle rivulets down his smooth cheeks, just let them fall.
“I‟m so very sorry…”

He hadn‟t cried in a long time.

I love you. I never told you. I regret it like nothing else.

Cloud didn‟t know how long he sat there for, staring at that name. He didn‟t notice when he
settled into that balanced place, didn‟t realise when it was that his mind touched that place that
was the Lifestream. Suddenly he was surrounded by a warmth that he hadn‟t felt in a long time,
and realised that the soothing flow around him was the swirl of energy that usually greeted his
arrival to this place.

/You hurt./

By now he was used to the simplified, direct sentences that were used when speaking to him and
the strangeness of hearing a thousand or more voices echoing around him at once. He was used
to the collective „consciousness‟ that welcomed his presence.

Yes. I hurt.

/We can feel your pain even when you are not with us. You long for release./

Yes…

/You want a way out./

More than anything.

/You want to change things./

But I can‟t do that. I know that I can‟t.

/We can help you./

…How?

Somewhere in Cloud‟s consciousness he realised that he did not get an answer, but he could not
say anything in time. Before he could react, something was pulled away beneath him, and he was
falling too fast to breathe. He felt that everything was blurring around him though he could not
see.

On the rock platform on Nibel Mountain, Cloud‟s body jerked, and then slumped forward against
the headstone, lying still.

/Don‟t waste the chance we have given you./

-----

End of Chapter One. Yes, there is more…somewhere…

Disclaimer: I don‟t own Final Fantasy VII, its characters, settings, plotline, etc. That all belongs
to the mighty Squaresoft. This disclaimer applies for the entire story – I am not rewriting this
every time I write a new chapter.

Final Fantasy VII: Fusion
By Knowing Shadows

Disclaimer: See Chapter One.

Chapter 2

*****

Cloud did not notice straight away that something was very wrong around him. He lay in
comfortable darkness, praising his dreamless, restful slumber silently. It had been a long time, he
pondered to himself, since he had had a rest like this, and could only barely remember just how
exhausted he had been at the time to bring it about.

Which, in turn, made him wonder what he had done to himself to warrant something like this.

He turned into the warmth of the bed he lay on, drawing that comfort around him, afraid to let it
go. He let himself uncurl, spreading out into it. He sighed in satisfaction, content to let himself
just lay there in the warmth and to not question it. The idea of even opening his eyes was
something he would not acknowledge, nor would he question why he seemed to be lying in a bed
when, in reality, he didn‟t actually have one.

As more awareness returned to his aching body he began to sense little things. The first was that
his body just didn‟t feel – right – somehow. He couldn‟t pinpoint just what was troubling him,
except for the fact that his limbs felt somewhat…looser. On the mountain, the bitter chill of
winter would seep into even a young man‟s joints and make him feel stiff and old. Feeling the
cold from the inside as well was, at times, the worst part of braving the Nibelheim winters.

The second thing he noticed was that he wasn‟t alone. He was in a room, and there were other
presences besides his own. How many, he couldn‟t tell. Had someone found him, all alone up in
his home on Mt. Nibel? He wondered who it might be. Why weren‟t they waking him? Had
something happened to him?

Casting his mind back, the last thing that Cloud found he remembered was kneeling on the rock
plinth, as he always did. He remembered, vaguely, that he had been upset. He ran his tired mind
along this line of events to try and find out what had happened next. Voices, inside his head and
yet not…and then darkness, leading to where he was now.

He moaned lightly in the bed.

The hushed whispers stopped. They hadn‟t registered before; not until the silence left behind
filled the space in his ears where they had been. He stayed perfectly still, barely breathing, heart
beating rapidly in his chest.

Something moved, but he couldn‟t tell where. His senses were slower, less defined than he was
used to, and he felt blind without them. He didn‟t feel drugged, which was strange. It was
just…his body wasn‟t quite the same anymore.
“You reckon he‟s awake yet?” asked a quiet voice from the room.

Cloud dimly recognised the voice, but no face or name came to mind. Alarm bells did not ring,
so that meant he did not associate it with danger, but he couldn‟t be sure, not with his tired mind
as it was.

“Probably. He doesn‟t sleep like a rock, unlike some people I could mention,” said a second
voice scathingly.

“That‟s unfair,” replied the first voice indignantly. “I do not sleep like a rock.”

“Ha. You‟re not fooling anyone.”

The voices were perhaps what pulled him completely out of sleep, though he didn‟t open his
eyes, afraid of what he might see. Whatever lay beyond the barrier of his eyelids didn‟t sound in
any way a threat, but the unfamiliarity of it made him wary.

“Hang on a sec, I‟m gonna try something…”

“Oh, no, don‟t. You‟ll scare the shit out of him.”

“Exactly. Now be quiet or you‟ll ruin it.”

There was the sound of rustling movement, and Cloud‟s heartbeat quickened again to meet it.
Gently, a weight settled itself on the edge of the bed, dipping the mattress to the right of him. It
shifted closer to him and lay out against his side. It shook for a moment, trying to suppress
laughter. Cloud couldn‟t work out what was supposed to be happening.

A hand touched his cheek gently, a brushing of bare skin. The voice, when it spoke, was very
close. “Wake up, Cloud…”

He flinched when the touch on his cheek came again, as if he were responding to it whilst
waking. A snicker, desperately tried to be quietened, reached his ears. Cloud opened his eyes
groggily – there was no faking on that account – and stared at the darker pair across from his that
sparkled with suppressed mirth. Cloud‟s eyes dropped down the long, thin nose to the achingly
familiar half-smile that lay there, and screamed.

*****

The door was shaking behind him. Cloud‟s arms trembled where they supported his weight
against the sink in the bathroom. His head was bowed over the cold, clear water in the basin,
damp blond hair straggling round his face and neck, sticking to his skin. His breathing sounded
very loud in his own ears, and it felt like his heart was beating hard enough to burst through his
ribs. It was difficult to breathe properly.
The door shook again as fists pummelled into it. “Hey, Cloud, come on! I didn‟t mean it! It was a
joke!”

Cloud‟s head sank lower even as his shoulders tensed again. “It‟s not possible,” he murmured,
and the sound of his voice made him shudder. “It‟s just…this can‟t be right.” He lifted his head,
meeting the gaze of the reflection in the mirror, and stared at it. His hair was as lively as it had
ever been, sunshine blond where he was used to pale yellow now. Water dripped from the end of
his nose where he had splashed his face with cold water. The face he was looking at was one he
used to know so very well, one that had changed so subtly over the years into something so
different that now, looking back on his past, it was almost impossible to imagine what might
become of this fragile, small body.

It was the eyes that got him the most. Blue. Just blue.

No Mako glow.

The body he was looking at was his own from 14 or 15 years ago. Short, gangly, awkward…The
limbs had felt looser because he‟d never braved a Nibelheim Winter as he would have to in 14 or
so years‟ time, and because he was still growing. This was the body that would, if he thought
about it, have to survive the horrors of the trip to Nibelheim with Sephiroth and Zack.

Maybe that‟s why I hardly recognise myself. I‟m so used to seeing the product of Nibelheim in a
mirror. This…pre-packaged format…doesn‟t look like me at all.

“CLOUD!”

He was startled out of his reverie by the door rattling in its frame in time with the shout. He
turned round to face it, breath catching in his throat. He knew that an explanation would be
needed for his extreme reaction to finding the person behind the door in his bed, as well as his
scrambled dash for the bathroom, but couldn‟t think of what to say.

Not that I even know what‟s really going on. The only thing that I can think of is the one thing I
doubt can be possibly done…

Waking up fully had helped to jog his memory somewhat. He remembered speaking to the Cetra
by the headstone he had fashioned. They had told him they could help ease his pain. And then
they had done…something…of which this was the result.

“They can‟t have sent me back,” he muttered to himself. “It‟s impossible. They can‟t have sent
me back.”

“Cloud, are you going to open the door or what?”

Cloud coughed lightly, finding it an uncomfortable thing with a dry and scratchy throat.
Hesitantly, fearfully, he moved to the door and unlocked it. “It‟s open, Zack,” he said, hoping
that he would be heard.
There‟s no way I can hide from this. I can feel that this isn‟t a dream. Whatever the Cetra did,
this is real. Or…as real as it can be.

The door swung open to reveal a taller, darker man than Cloud standing in its wake. His hair was
pitch black, hanging down past his shoulders in backwards-pointing spikes. He had a long,
tanned face and broad shoulders that didn‟t let anyone doubt that he had strength in his body. His
smile and eyes were friendly and handsome - and it was all exactly as Cloud remembered.

For a moment, it seemed as if Cloud‟s heart stopped beating.

Zack‟s smile turned lopsided. “What‟s the matter, Spike? Sounds corny, but you look like you‟ve
seen a ghost.”

Cloud felt his heart rapidly start to beat again. He knew he was staring, but didn‟t care.
Something wouldn‟t connect in his brain; that this was really who he thought he was seeing. He
knew that when it hit him, it would really hit him hard.

“I think I have,” he said.

Zack grinned, not understanding. “Hey, come on, I‟m not that frightening. I‟m sorry I scared you
so much in bed, but still!”

He was still having trouble breathing. “It‟s okay. It doesn‟t matter,” Cloud managed to say, still
staring, and feeling cold to the bone.

The grin faded, leaving an expression of concern across the SOLDIER‟s dark face. “You okay,
kid? You look spooked. Everything alright?”

“I‟m…I‟m fine.” Struggling to breathe, to make sense of everything. “It‟s nothing…nothing to
worry about.”

“You sure?” Always concerned. Always. God, it was all too damn familiar to be thrown back at
him like this.

“I…I‟ll be okay.”

The grin was back, lighting up Zack‟s face again as if to say that he had never been worried just
a moment before. “Yeah, you‟ll have to be alright. I think you‟re gonna be late for class.”

*****

If Cloud had ever tried to convince himself that what he had fallen into was some kind of dream,
he was convinced no longer. In fact, it seemed that he was reliving some kind of bad memory.
He remembered being late for class many times – half the time because of Zack – and getting
punished because of it, but this day had probably outstripped them all.
“Strife! Night guard duty, 2200 hours outside the barracks! No slacking!”

That had been the proverbial icing on the cake, and had actually been yelled at him whilst he was
in the middle of paying for his lack of grace during training through press-ups. Press-ups had
also been his punishment for being late, and so he had done them quietly and without fuss in
front of the whole group of trainees, much to their delight.

It had been like stepping back into a nightmare. The snickers as he had started to bend down to
start had been painful to hear, hitting too close to home. It was exactly like it had been before.
Fourteen years out of it had not dulled that ache.

I remember why I hated this place so much. I remember wishing that I could just get up and
leave and it would all be okay, but I never did. I couldn‟t. Not…not with who I would leave
behind.

The sparring practice he had almost been looking forward to. He had been paired up with a boy
who was even smaller than he was, and far more frightened of the prospect of having to beat
someone in a fight than Cloud was. He had thought that it was almost unfair, him being put with
someone like this, until they had started and he had gone down in the first round.

Must remember that 15 year old body does not work the same way as a 25 or 30 year old body
does. Must remember, must remember.

“Whoa…Cloud? You okay?”

He looked up at his partner from where he was sprawled on his back and then started to get to his
feet, ignoring the concern in the other boy‟s eyes and brushing himself off before retaking his
practice sword and vowing to work harder this time round.

From then on it hadn‟t been too bad, until he had accidentally broken one of the swords. More
press-ups had been his answer, until during this it had been decided that he would also be put on
night guard. Cloud suppressed a groan as the other trainees and their tutor left the area. Cloud
finished his press-ups and climbed to his feet with a moan, feeling the ache beginning to set in
from all the work he had done.

I want to go home. I want Vincent to come back and tell me what everyone‟s been up to.
Anything…I don‟t want to stay here.

The urge to cry was astounding, but he reigned it in, blinking rapidly. His heart felt heavy and
full to bursting in his chest. This place…whatever it was…was going to be too much to take
unless he could find a way home. If living on the mountain for 9 or so years had not been enough
to make him suicidal, being back in the soldier barracks would probably do the trick.

That‟s the bastards‟ plan. They‟re sick of listening to my subconscious whine so they‟re going to
make me kill myself to stop it. What a brilliant way to go.
He wiped his eyes and sniffed, then squared his shoulders and started to make his way back to
the dorms. He had a few hours to spare, he might as well spend them somewhere he knew he was
safe.

*****

“Night guard? Haha! Sucks to be you!”

Cloud flopped back on the bed he had woken up in earlier on, closing his eyes as Zack laughed at
the news. Zack – being far, far above him in rank – couldn‟t be pulled for night duty anymore. It
was the scourge of all the cadets, something they abhorred and loathed, and the instructors knew
it. Cloud couldn‟t believe he had to do it again. After the Nibelheim incident, when he and Zack
had been held captive, one of the things he thought about was that at least he wouldn‟t have to do
night guard anymore if he died down there.

Should‟ve known I wouldn‟t be able to get out of it that easily.

The mattress jiggled as Zack bounced onto it. Cloud opened his eyes and stared up at the older
man, sensing that the smile had gone before he saw it. “Honestly, though, Cloud,” Zack started
quietly, “You sure you‟re up for it? You still look a little pale to me-“

“I always look too pale to you,” Cloud pointed out.

“Maybe you‟re just always sick!” Zack retorted, smiling again so his dark eyes crinkled at he
edges. “I could try and pull rank and get you out of it, if you don‟t feel well.”

“They still outrank you as instructors. You seem to forget, because you always offer to do this
when I get night guard.” Cloud smiled a little at the familiarity of the situation. For a moment, it
was almost like he really was back in the barracks. This was a conversation he could play out by
heart, for they‟d had it many times before. It was a shame that he couldn‟t just immerse himself
and believe he really was back when he knew that there was something wrong about it.

“I could still try.” And it was said with a pout. “Aw, they always manage to put you on night
guard, and you never skive out of it, either. Ruin my fun for the evening, why don‟t you!”

Cloud raised an eyebrow at the older man. “Fun? Just what were you planning on doing?”

It was a challenge, one that at one time he remembered he would have been too scared to voice
for fear of what Zack might think of him. But that had been a long time ago.

Zack‟s eyes glittered, picking up instantly on the double-entendre with relish. “You,” he said
easily, winking, before suddenly diving in and shoving his hands up under Cloud‟s shirt. The
blond started laughing even before Zack found the ticklish spots under his ribs, kicking uselessly
as he squirmed under the assault.
He was used to the levels of innuendo at the barracks now. It was inevitable, and at first it had
shocked him. Having grown up in a mountain town, isolated and disliked by the children his age,
he hadn‟t even really known that it existed. He knew of sex, the mechanics of it and the idea of
there being some kind of love behind the act, but this had been turned upside down once he had
arrived in Midgar. It was not only the fact that people joked around about something he had been
taught was an intimate subject, and not only the fact that it was practiced casually – this he had
learned from Zack, who had had his fair share of casual partners - but that in a place like this, full
of men and men only, who were mostly surprisingly open-minded, casual sex was something
commonly practiced between members of the same sex.

He had never known, before he reached Midgar, that same-sex pairings were even possible. Of
course, he‟d gotten used to it by now. He‟d had to – his own share of crushes had soon come,
much to his dismay and embarrassment. Of course, his strongest had been centred on the General,
as many were, but one of his first had been Zack himself. Zack had never known, as far as Cloud
knew, but when he looked back on it, Zack had to have had some idea. Of course, at this point in
time he no longer liked Zack that way. Zack was a dear friend – one he had never forgotten – but
that was all. They teased each other, bickered fondly, often had tickling matches like their
current one, but nothing more. Remembering his old fantasies – at a time when he had been so
embarrassed by the idea of liking another man that he hadn‟t allowed them to go beyond some
rather passionate kissing – still made him blush, however.

Zack drew back, still laughing, smoothed back his hair and poked Cloud‟s bare stomach. Cloud
pulled down his shirt, ever body-conscious, and smiled shyly. The thought came to him that if he
stayed here a while, he would become very, very aware that he hadn‟t slept with anyone for a
very long time. Shame made him flush a little – though his affections were most definitely
centred on one man only didn‟t mean he couldn‟t find others attractive.

He pushed those thoughts away viciously, catching his breath from laughing so much. It was a
shame that his happiness – he had been happy for a moment when Zack had been tickling him –
could be shattered so easily, not just by the thought that this wasn‟t really real, but also by
thinking of something like sex. It depressed him, but he tried not to let it show. Zack would have
picked up on it easily, and he didn‟t want to worry the other man.

“Come on,” Zack was saying, ruffling Cloud‟s hair playfully. “Cheer up, Spike. You‟re doing
good.”

“You always say that, too!” Cloud said, chuckling as he sat up on his bed. “I think you‟re trying
to convince yourself more than me, now!”

“Yeah, you‟re in my troop. Can‟t let anyone let me down and make me look bad, ya know?”
Zack winked at him again, as if to make sure Cloud knew he was joking. “Nah, I hear your test
scores are on the up, though? I do believe that this calls for celebration!”

“Everything calls for celebration with you.”
“Hey, is this „criticise Zack‟s methods of fun‟ day or what? You‟re such a bully.” Zack stuck out
his tongue. “Don‟t be such a stick in the mud. Have a beer! Do something! Do it for me, since
you‟re not going to be here later. Have some fun.”

“Beer‟ll make me go to sleep. I‟ll get reprimanded for slacking, and get night guard duty
tomorrow night to make up for it. I think I‟ll pass.” Cloud grinned at Zack‟s dejected expression.
“Sorry.”

“You‟re not sorry at all, really,” Zack snorted, but let the subject drop. Instead, he lay back on
Cloud‟s bed with a sigh, completely ignoring the fact that Cloud was also there and forcing him
to move to make room. Cloud smiled to himself, easily falling back into the old pattern of things.
In the back of his mind he wondered if he should tell Zack what had happened to him – that this
really wasn‟t the Cloud he thought he was talking to, and that he was lost and couldn‟t get home.

But then I‟d have to tell him everything that happens later on. He‟d never believe me. He‟d think
I was crazy. If he lost respect for me, I wouldn‟t know what to do.

I‟ll keep my silence.

“Let‟s head on down to the canteen. Yummy ShinRa food, all for us. Oh, the joy.”

*****

He was yawning already. Cloud tried desperately to stop it, one hand over his mouth and eyes
closed, but couldn‟t. It was only, what, eleven? And he was already tired.

Night guard duty started at ten o‟clock and went on until about four or five in the morning,
depending when the morning guard decided they would turn up to take over the shift (which they
were supposed to actually take over at a quarter to four). Depending on where you were stationed,
you could end up all over the ShinRa training complex. Cloud, as usual, found himself posted at
the back end of the complex. Too small to be threatening at the entrance, it seemed, Cloud was
then given over to this even more dangerous area. This back area let out onto a rather nasty area
of Midgar, rife with thugs and drug addicts. More than one time he could remember standing out
here, awake out of fear, listening to gunshots going off left, right and centre and hoping he didn‟t
get spotted. He was no match for any criminal at this point in time. Anyone that dared enter the
complex through here would get cut down swiftly by SOLDIER, but it was meant to be a
deterrent – you don‟t slack, you don‟t get put here.

It had been quiet so far, though, which Cloud was pleased about. It was unusual, but welcome.
He hated being put out here, but he would have to stick it out.

Cloud wasn‟t concentrating much on his surroundings anyway. Much of his thoughts were
turned inward, trying to work out what the Cetra had meant by their last statement before he had
woken up in the SOLDIER barracks of 15 years ago.

//Don‟t waste the chance we have given you.//
What chance? What have you done by putting me back here? What can I possibly do? I‟m a
cadet. No-one. Even if you think I can somehow do something to save myself later on, how do
you think I can accomplish it?

He‟d worked out so far that the Cetra must have sent him back to change something – something
that would save his state of mind in the years to come. If it had to do with Sephiroth, there was
nothing he could do. Sephiroth wouldn‟t give him the time of day, let alone stay away from
Nibelheim, which was an assigned mission. There was nothing he could do here, just sit and
relive it all over again.

Which would kill me. I will not go through that again. Never.

Having coming to the conclusion that he could do nothing useful, he then got round to the
equally depressing question of how long he would be here. A dream would surely have ended by
now – and usually a dreamer never realises they might be dreaming until they wake.

What if I do have to live this all over again? If I kill myself instead of suffering again, and if I
really have somehow come back through time – which is impossible anyway – then that means
there will be no Cloud Strife when Meteor comes. Sephiroth and Jenova might not be killed. The
Planet could be destroyed.

Cloud leaned back against the concrete wall and sighed, determined not to cry at the
hopelessness that flooded his body. He refused to just stand back and let this happen to him, but
at the same time he could see no way out of it. The Cetra were more powerful than he could ever
even hope to be, and this was obviously their doing.

Then maybe I‟ll have to find a way to do what the Cetra want.

A sound caught his attention, making him snap his head up. A door, somewhere, had opened. His
ears had picked up the sound, and then his heartbeat quickened as he heard the door shut. He
pulled his gun up into both hands, staring out into the darkness that suddenly seemed very
oppressive.

Please don‟t let it be dangerous. A Whole Eater I can handle – can they even open doors with
those legs? – and maybe even a person, but nothing more. Please.

He gasped in fright as he heard footsteps. He shouldn‟t have been afraid, he had faced far, far
worse than anything Midgar could throw at him, but being able to handle it was one thing when
compared to not knowing if you could.

He should let himself be known. Let whatever it was out there that he knew it was there. He was
ready for it. “This is ShinRa property!” he cried shakily. “Don‟t come any closer, whoever –
whatever – you are.”
“I belong to ShinRa.” A figure stepped out of the shadows abruptly, making Cloud shriek and
leap back in fright. He almost pulled the trigger on the machine gun he held, but instantly
dropped it when he saw who the figure was, eyes growing wider still.

“General, sir!” he cried before he knew what he was doing, scrambling to pick up the gun from
the ground. “I‟m sorry, sir, I didn‟t know it was you-“

“I‟m surprised you even heard me coming.” Green eyes narrowed as they passed over him, filing
away details, and a gloved hand went for the security code panel of the door, long fingers typing
in numbers quickly as Cloud tried to gather himself. In the dim light cast from overhead,
Sephiroth‟s silver-hued hair still managed to shine.

Oh God, oh God, oh God.

“It…It‟s what I‟m trained for, sir,” was all he managed to say in response.

The security panel beeped as the green light flashed on, and the door slid open with a low hiss.
The General half-turned towards Cloud, regarding him intently for a moment before saying,
“Well, at least they‟ve done something right.” He inclined his head in acknowledgement, then
stepped through the door and walked away. He had been there for all of ten seconds, in dim
lighting, but Cloud had registered the line of blood marring one pale cheek. Cloud went to the
doorway and watched him go, until he disappeared around a corner.

He wondered what General Sephiroth had been up to in this part of Midgar, especially to have
been cut on his face like that, but decided it wasn‟t for him to worry about, at least until he
finished worrying about his heart, which was fluttering around like a caged bird in his chest. The
blood that had rushed to his face made him feel hot, and embarrassment made it even worse.

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, Cloud thought sadly to himself, one hand
clawed into the fabric of his uniform over his chest. Oh God, it‟s really him. He‟s alive. Still
alive.

For a moment, it was almost like everything he believed was real had been the dream, and he had
never actually killed Sephiroth at all. And for that moment, before reality came crashing down
around him like a tidal wave, the relief and joy was enough to make him dizzy.

*****

End Chapter 2.

Final Fantasy VII: Fusion

By Knowing Shadows

Disclaimer: See Chapter One
Chapter 3

-----

In the end, Cloud crawled his way into the dorm at half past four in the morning when the
morning guard turned up to relieve him. It was surprisingly cold, and he shivered violently whilst
pulling off most of his clothes and sliding between even colder sheets. He dearly hoped that it
would warm up soon. He didn‟t remember Midgar ever seeming to be this cold – colder than the
Nibelheim he usually endured – but then again, he was comparing an older, battle-hardened body
on a mountain to a much younger boy‟s body who would not know the meaning of the word
„winter‟ until much, much later on in life. So this, to the young Cloud, would be freezing.

Maybe, he thought to himself as he tried to ignore how hard he was shivering, I‟ll go to sleep and
wake up back in my hut, in the real world. Please, oh please, let me wake up there. With my
sword and my materia and my goddamn grief. Even without Sephiroth.

Without Sephiroth?

He screwed his eyes tight and curled in on himself, discarding that thought as soon as it even
came to mind. The sorrow that had become second nature to him, the unrelenting pain at what he
had done, had caused this. The Cetra, so moved by the force of this self-horror, had caused this.
Without Sephiroth, and without the subsequent pleading for a second chance, he would still be
on his mountain. With his sword, with his material, and without Sephiroth.

I never had him to begin with, but I‟d never give him up for anything. Even if this is what it‟s
brought me.

He had killed people before Sephiroth. Many, many people, and all they had given him was a
pity for himself as his remorse, maybe even his human soul, had gradually eroded away with
each life taken. They had meant nothing to him, and they had died as well as the people who had
meant everything. Their deaths had been nothing and that had scared him more than anything
else.

The idea of anything without Sephiroth was almost ludicrous.

Maybe killing Sephiroth had been the last straw, so to speak. His death, his life snuffed out by
the sword of someone who loved him, had maybe killed them both. It made him feel pathetic
when he thought that he had been reduced to this snivelling, cowardly wreck who could not face
the world and could not face himself because of the death of one person.

His mind dwelled upon this fact most nights and it was brought more to his attention that night
than it had in a long while. Willing his own damning conscience to leave had never worked, so
he had been forced to work through the whole situation until his only consolation had been the
belief that possibly, just possibly, he wasn‟t as pathetic as he thought he was because, after all,
Sephiroth‟s death was just the icing on the cake.
Not that it made him feel much better.

It wasn‟t just him, I know that now. He wasn‟t the first, but he was the last. My father was the
first. My mother was the second.

Lying in the bed, thin covers pulled tightly around his small body, Cloud locked his jaw in place.
His face ached where his eyes were forcefully shuttered. It was almost as if by closing the outlets,
his pain could be controlled.

Thinking about his parents was still painful – though his mother was still alive for this Cloud. In
his mind, his parents had been dead for years. His father he couldn‟t even remember, and his
mother was a little shining, smiling light in the back of his head. The loss of his parents – the
only people who he could ever convince himself had really, truly loved him – had been a major
blow, even more so when doubled with the fact he had lost his mother with his only true friend
and then, by his own hands once more, his only true love.

It had been a tangled web of horror, that day in Nibelheim. His mother murdered by Sephiroth;
his friend massively wounded by Sephiroth; and then Sephiroth thrown to drown, to burn, in the
Mako - hardly a dignified, painless procedure – by Cloud. It had haunted him for years, still
haunted him to that day. The pain could be brought right back to the surface by the mere mention
of anything connected with that incident and it had not dulled. The edge of that twisting knife
needed no whetstone to stay sharp.

Don‟t think about it. Don‟t think about it. Don‟t think about it.

Zack would be horrified if he knew how melancholy his young friend would turn out to be.
Scratch that, Zack will be horrified when he realises how melancholy I am. It‟s not like I‟ll be
able to hide from him. He‟s going to realise something‟s wrong sooner or later.

Strangely, the thought of Zack only made the throbbing dread that was balling up low in his
stomach intensify. He pulled his knees tightly into his chest as if the pressure against his
breastbone would ease the mental anguish, but it didn‟t. He wouldn‟t be able to sleep at all, so he
would be a wreck when it came to classes.

Whether he wanted to or not, he would be lying to Zack until he told the older man about
everything. Every time that Zack called his name and he answered it would be a lie. At this point,
Zack still had no idea that anything was wrong. He still believed that the Cloud he was talking to
was the one he really meant.

He hated himself because of Zack.

-----

The bed didn‟t warm up for a long time, which left Cloud struggling to get some rest whilst
trying to stop his teeth chattering. His very bones felt cold. They felt heavy. He ached all over,
mentally and physically. When the bed eventually warmed around him he cautiously moved onto
his back, trying to ease the pain in his tense shoulders. Lying in the dark, the dorm deathly quiet
and devoid of even the lightest snores, Cloud suddenly felt very alone. In that moment, it began
to sink in just how lonely he would be if he didn‟t find a way back to the mountain. He would
never really fit in here, however much he might want to. He would always be set apart, even if it
was only in his own mind, because of what he knew and who he was.

Don‟t think about it. Don‟t think about it. Don‟t think about it.

He turned restlessly onto his side, the blankets rustling as he did so. He sighed softly, opening his
eyes a little to stare at nothing. Vaguely he wondered what had happened to the Cloud who had
been in his place before he had woken up in this bed the day before, but reasoned that the
younger Cloud was probably getting the better half of the deal, wherever he‟d gone, if he‟d even
gone anywhere.

What am I going to do? I never wanted to come back here, despite what the Cetra may think they
are doing. This place…it brings back too many painful memories. Memories…why do they have
such a hold over me? I live my life around them, yet all they are are things that have already
passed. I let them rule my present and dominate my future. Where might I be now if I had merely
forgotten?

The loneliness – the sensation of being cut off, in his own little world – continued to grow as the
minutes passed, settling in his chest as a sodden feeling. His eyes shone dimly in the little
moonlight, the moisture on his eyelashes blurring his vision until all he could see was dim, dark
shapes. He drew a deep breath, but it was shaky and louder than he intended. He closed his eyes,
and the bridge of his nose and one cheek felt wet.

I want to go home.

He opened his eyes again when he heard a soft noise above him, and in the darkness he saw a
long arm appear over the edge of the upper bunk. The fingers wriggled, closed on the palm and
opened again as if gesturing. Nothing was said from the owner.

Cloud would have smiled had he not been so close to tears. What might have been that smile was
pulled into an unwilling grimace. He lifted his hand and allowed Zack to lace their fingers
together. It was meant to be a comforting gesture, but all Cloud could think of was that he must
not make any further noise.

Zack didn‟t let go until dawn came, but Cloud silently fought his tears of panic and fear for far
longer, face buried in his pillow as the rest of his body shook.

I‟m lost.

-----

He felt depressed throughout most of the day. His only bright spot was the fact that it was Friday,
and they got the weekend off just like at any other type of school-place. He felt exhausted, which
he supposed accounted for a lot of his mood. When they had both gotten up, Zack had pulled him
to one side and given him a swift hug, but hadn‟t said a word to him, for which Cloud was
grateful. What he might say if Zack wanted to know why he was crying was beyond him; he was
too tired to think of any plausible lie.

His early morning shower had done a little to lift his spirits. He worked through classes grimly
and without conversation, pouring all his energy into bettering himself rather than letting there
be any chance of beginning to wallow like he had during the night. He escaped practice classes
with little more than a few bruises, but they still hurt. He knew that by nightfall he‟d have some
lovely blackening spots on his shoulders and legs.

Cloud was pleasantly surprised to find himself invited by several of his classmates to sit with
them at lunchtime as they ate. He declined the offer without really knowing why, saying that he
might, if welcome, join them another time. The boy who had invited him, a slightly older cadet
by the name of Reno, had nodded a confirmation and jogged off with his friends. Cloud found it
hard to think of this young, inexperienced boy as the man who would one day join the Turks.
Maybe he could dissuade Reno whilst he was here that a nightstick shouldn‟t be his weapon of
choice. It might save himself a lot of pain later on. Nightsticks hurt.

Instead, he found himself a quiet corner table and settled down to pick at his food, feeling
nauseous at the sight of it. That day it was even one of the nicer choices, but he couldn‟t bring
himself to eat it. He sighed and pushed the tray away from himself, longing wistfully for a
chance to somehow smuggle his mother into the ShinRa kitchens to make something decent for
once.

Cloud looked up in surprise when someone slid into the seat opposite him, but closed his
protesting mouth when he saw it was Zack, offering “Hello” instead of a shove-off.

Zack grinned. “Why, hello there to you, too. Why aren‟t you eating? Savour the chance of
recognisable food.”

Cloud laughed, but it sounded false even to him. Zack‟s expression faltered a little before he
gallantly picked it back up again. Cloud realised that it had never occurred to him before that
Zack might smile as an act only – and not really be happy. He smiled, trying to ease his friend‟s
obvious worry. If it worked, he had no idea. “I‟m not really hungry. I think my stomach has had
enough of the stale rations they try to tell us is food, and given up on the ShinRa menu
completely!”

Zack snickered, brown eyes dancing. “I can see why. Don‟t make this a habit, though, will you?
Don‟t turn anorexic or bulimic or whatever on me. It wouldn‟t kill you to put on a bit of weight,
Mr Bag o‟ Bones.”

Cloud looked down at himself. “I‟m not that bad, am I?”

“You will be one day if you don‟t eat properly. Remember, it‟s my job as your superior officer to
keep you safe and healthy. As a friend, I‟d never do anything less.”
Cloud smiled. “Friends, yeah?”

Zack smiled, but Cloud could see from his eyes that he thought the question was strange. “Of
course! You‟d never be without me, would ya, really?”

“No,” Cloud said, mind taking an uninvited stroll towards the time in which he would have to do
without Zack, because Zack was dead.

Zack must have sensed the touch of sadness to Cloud in that moment because the smile faltered
again – it was amazing how easy it was to see that hesitation in expression now, while he‟d never
noticed it before – before sliding smoothly back into place, pretending it had always been there.
He didn‟t say anything, and Cloud didn‟t know whether he was glad or not.

“How did your classes go?” Zack asked, taking the opportunity to dig into his own food with
relish. The taller man was always hungry, and Cloud smiled. Zack had even eaten the
monstrosity that Cloud had made once that tried to liken itself wistfully to a cake, just because it
was the nearest thing to him and his stomach had grumbled plaintively. Cloud‟s principles of
tasting his own cooking didn‟t stretch that far in that case, and he had been quite glad to let Zack
taste the whole cake for him.

“Not too bad,” Cloud replied truthfully, folding his hands in his lap beneath the table. “Same as
usual. Still getting picked on by the sadist teachers, but other than that, it‟s good.” He
remembered something, briefly, which he knew would cheer Zack up on his behalf. “Reno and
his friends invited me to have lunch with them, though.”

“Really?” Zack had never wanted him to be, or feel, alone, because it was something that Zack
would have hated in his position. “Why didn‟t you sit with them?”

Cloud inwardly cursed, not having thought of this in his initial inspiration. Thinking quickly, he
decided lying would not help. “I just felt a little down earlier, and thought they wouldn‟t need me
dampening their parade. But,” he added with more enthusiasm, eyes brightening as Zack
watched, “they did invite me tomorrow.”

Zack watched him for a second, dark eyes thoughtful. Cloud steeled himself for Zack‟s imminent
question about his depression, momentarily distracted as a group of older cadets brushed past
their table noisily. “That was good of „em,” Zack said once they‟d gone, deciding not to mention
anything. The older, cynical Cloud appreciated the subtlety of that slight watchful pause from
someone whom subtlety normally sidestepped. The younger Cloud wouldn‟t have caught it;
would have gone on thinking that Zack had just dismissed the issue in favour of lighter
conversation. Now, he could see that Zack had filed it away, and had let him know that it had,
indeed, not been dismissed at all.

I always knew there was a lot more to you than I ever appreciated. I was too young, too nïave,
and too bewildered by the world to pay the sort of attention to you that I should have. The
attention I only paid in my memories. In hindsight.
He almost laughed, but managed to restrain himself.

“Oh!” Zack suddenly sat straight in his chair where he would normally slouch, eyes brightening
as he thought of something. “I just remembered! I saw Seph this morning, and he mentioned you.”

Cloud felt a wave of hotness, combined terror and hope, wash over him faster than he could
comprehend. For a moment it seemed as if Cloud had stopped breathing. "Huh?"

Zack gesticulated with his fork on his hand as he spoke, and Cloud wondered if the other man
noticed that the piece of chicken speared on the end of the utensil looked like it was about to fly
off in his face at any given moment. "Yeah, saw him doing paperwork," he was saying when
Cloud managed to get his focus back. "He mentioned that he saw a cadet on duty last night when
he got back from Sector Two who actually heard him coming. He described you and asked if I
knew who you were."

Even if I've not got the same body, I've still got the same trained mind. That's the only way I
heard him.

"He asked you about me?" Cloud echoed in a small voice, letting the fact sink in. It was a strange
thing, he mused, to have him show some morsel of interest in you in a good way when you're so
used to him only being interested because he wants to use you.

"Yup. He was pretty impressed. Even I can't hear him coming when he wants to be quiet. I mean,
he's not that modest about how good he is. He's been brought up knowing he was faster, stronger,
whatever, than everyone else."

"I know," Cloud murmured aloud to himself.

"You do?" Zack looked surprised.

I knew it. I might as well just announce to the entire ShinRa corporation that I know more than I
should. Then the Science Department can have me. Wouldn't Hojo have a field day if I told him
just what he'll be getting up to in a couple of years time.

Cloud was just thinking of a response when Zack grinned. "I'm repeating myself again, aren't I? I
knew I'd probably said something like that before. You know me. Just ignore me if I keep going
round in circles, would you?"

Cloud smiled, half in relief. "Sure." His mind raced on ahead of him, trying to think of a different
subject to talk about. "So what was Sephiroth doing in Sector Two anyway? He had blood on his
face when I saw him." He scowled internally at himself. You can't get away from Sephiroth no
matter how hard you try, can you? Like so many other pathetic losers, your little world revolves
around him. He defines your existence, he always has and always will, and you're quite happy to
let him.
Zack waved his hands breezily, making a low, non-committal sound in the back of his throat.
"Old man Shinra got word of a rebel group based there. Sent them all sorts of polite, flowery
objections in the form of SOLDIER 3rds, but half of them got killed. The 2nds got back okay,
but they were only sent with a message that the President said he'd send out Seph if they refused
to disperse their numbers. They refused, so Seph got sent out to disperse their numbers for
them."

"You know, if they were really serious about their cause, you won't keep them down. There'll be
others out there." A vision of Jesse, dying on the pillar platforms, and of Wedge's broken,
bleeding form sprawled on the ground, made Cloud flinch. That hadn't stopped Barret, or
AVALANCHE. Or anything.

Zack shrugged. "Pfft. It's not really my problem anyway, so why get involved? Let Shinra deal
with it, and Seph if they feel he's got to. There's no-one out there who can match the General."

Except me. There was no pride in the thought. Only sorrow. No-one…except me.

-----

He'd worked out from the date (handily provided in a theory class) that he had six or so months
until Nibelheim. Six months…to do what?

He tried not to let it occupy too much of his time, but knew that he'd have to give it thought or
everything would be wasted. It was in everyone's best interests that something was done. Cloud,
selfishly, knew he wanted to change it more for himself than anything else, because he knew he'd
never survive Nibelheim again. And then, he thought, where will everyone else be?

The end of the day's classes heralded a whoop from all the cadets, thought a small, relieved smile
was all that displayed Cloud's similar feelings. Friday was one of Zack's busiest days, so he
wouldn't be back at the squad's dorm room for another few hours. Cloud's mood dropped,
realising he'd probably spend most of those few hours moping around feeling sorry for himself,
and probably end up doing something overly dramatic like slice his wrists or try and drown
himself in the shower. He wasn't sure whether any of those outcomes were really a cry for help at
all like so many were, if he was honest.

He dropped his things off on his bed and waved when the two others in the room - people he
barely knew, but who were friendly enough - acknowledged his arrival warmly. He had never
really tried to make friends with these people, deciding that it would be safer just to stick with
Zack. Zack had been the one to push friendship with Cloud, because Cloud would never have
dared initiate anything with a SOLDIER 1st Class.

I'll try. This time round, I will try. He glanced back at the two figures, who had gone back to
being engrossed in a card game. They were both about the same height and same build - 5'9'' and
thin, with broad shoulders. They were a few years older than him, as were the other two who
shared this room with them and Zack. One had short blond hair and grey-blue eyes, and the other,
a brunette with eyes to match, had one of the more friendly demeanours in ShinRa. Anthony
Clarkson and Jeremiah Kerrin, respectively.

Just not right now.

He rummaged around his clothes drawer until he found some loose black sports trousers and a t-
shirt, getting into them quickly. His time would be better spent elsewhere, he had decided, and
the only other place he could think of going was the gym/training centre. Out of classes, it could
be freely used by anyone, from cadets eager to train to SOLDIER 1sts who just wanted to spar.
Zack often went there to have some friendly rounds with his fellow SOLDIERs. Sephiroth, Zack
had once told him, could sometimes be goaded into these, even if he humiliated anyone he came
against.

Self-conscious, and half-hoping he wasn't going to see fifteen-year-old Cloud, he checked
himself in the mirror. He couldn't stop the wave of disappointment when that was exactly what
he was faced with, as gangly and awkward-looking as he felt. At least he'd got a little of his
colour back. His blond hair was still as messy as he remembered it was, and he tried to pat it
down in shame. It refused to be moulded. Cloud sighed as he gave up. There was no use. He
would always look like that.

The t-shirt was an old one, and it clung a little more to his frame than he would have liked. The
trousers, as if being awkward, seemed to be particularly loose, and hung low on his thin hips.
The t-shirt didn't quite reach the waistband of the trousers, leaving a thin strip of midriff on show.
He scowled at the reflection of his navel, the decided to ignore it. Not that it mattered anyway.
They were all men here. Wasn't like he was showing anything indecent.

Stealing a clean towel from the bathroom, he packed it with a water bottle in a small duffel bag,
slung it over his shoulder and said a swift farewell to Clarkson and Kerrin before he left for the
training centre.

The training centre was a five minute walk away, but everyone who passed seemed to stare at
him so he hurried along at a half-run, making it to the entrance in around half the time. As he
looked around, he realised with a smile that the place was relatively free of cadets. Most of the
people sparring in the circular, matted area were SOLDIERs. He stood at the edge with a few
other bystanders, watching their skilled interplay with awe, wishing he might dare ask one of the
3rds for a practice bout to help him. He had noticed that he'd begun to regain a little of his old -
his future? - skill, so he didn't feel quite so helpless anymore.

This main area of the training centre was designed almost like a mini-amphitheatre. In a circle all
around the circular floor area were rows of seats, rising up almost to the high ceiling for people
to watch the proceedings. On one side, the side where Cloud now stood, a section of the seating
was cut away as a path, which lead back behind the seats to the corridor which ran the length of
the building. If you joined this corridor and turned right, it lead you out of the main entrance.
Turning left, however, lead you beyond the amphitheatre to the small gym rooms and the
swimming pool.
After quarter of an hour, Cloud turned away and made his way to the other areas of the centre.
The gym, he saw, was almost empty. Two other cadets were there, sweating profusely on the
treadmills. A SOLDIER was using the weights. Another was using a practice mat in one corner,
practising sword kata. Cloud put his duffel bag down and watched the SOLDIER doing kata. It
was a high-level sequence that Cloud instantly recognised. The kata were warm-up exercises
used in classes, and that was what Cloud had come to do before using any of the equipment.

There were three practice mats along one wall and the SOLDIER was using the end one. He
wasn't using his own sword, just one of the tatty old wooden practice sticks. They still balanced
almost like a real sword, though, of course, nothing like a Buster Sword.

-----

The old sequences of sword movement rushed back at him in welcome memory as he stood on
the centre mat. For the first time, his body almost felt fluid and responsive in its movements as
he moved to perform the kata. This was only a low level one, something that would have done
nothing to warm him up had he been using the Ultima Weapon, for example. Going through
these movements, though, would give him a pretty good idea of just how much this body could
do, and handle, since he was still not used to it.

He moved with what he hoped was practised ease. Certainly it wasn't difficult, and he itched to
be able to move onto something similar to what the SOLDIER he had been watching had
performed. Discipline, however, kept him from leaping straight to the more complicated, more
straining moves before he had worked his way up to them.

It felt wonderful to be able to do this again, and was his first experience of real peace since he
had woken up here. He always felt calm, focused, when he did these. It was a familiar, welcome
sensation. The whole body moving, working together for these few moves.

He worked up through the movements steadily, barely aware that he was sweating. His body put
up only a little protest as he moved to the more complicated sequences, but he ignored it. It was
exhilarating, and somewhat heartening to know that he wasn't quite as weak as he thought he was.

It wasn't long after that when his muscles refused to work so much anymore. He stood, letting
the practice weapon fall to the matting below, and caught his breath. He hadn't realised just how
tiring the exercises had been. Doesn't look like I'll be doing anything else now, does it? Silly
Cloud. You should have know this would happen. Think before you act!

His hands had been resting on his knees where he'd bent over a little to ease the ache in his lower
back. He stood, lifting his head as he stretched out his arms to ease the tension across his
shoulders, and frowned. Above them, on the opposite side of this small gym room lay an
observation place. He remembered sitting there many times, watching people practice in awe.

As he'd looked up, he saw the door at one end closing as someone left. The two cadets and the
two SOLDIERs had left whilst he had been practising. He was the only one in the room to watch.
-----

Cloud wondered who might have been watching him as he made his way back through the centre
to the entrance on his way back. He'd been practising for far longer than he'd thought - over an
hour - and realised he might as well just head to the dorm and shower whilst waiting for Zack.

There were only a few people sparring when Cloud passed the main room in the centre again.
Most had left. Friday nights were when people left early to enjoy Midgar. No-one would really
be staying at the centre when they had the weekend to enjoy.

I wonder if Zack will take me out to Midgar sometime.

Speaking of the Devil, Zack was one of the few people left sparring. Cloud's eyes widened as he
dropped to the sidelines to watch the dark-haired man sparring with a fellow SOLDIER 1st. This
was real training - both had real swords. Zack wasn't using the Buster Sword, however, which
would have been too dangerous for even this.

Zack had real skill. Watching him move like this was a self-indulgent pleasure for Cloud, almost
on par with watching Sephiroth's swordplay. He wondered, as he sat at the side, how much of his
skill was in fact his own, and not what he had so selfishly taken from Zack's memories after they
had escaped Hojo's clutches at Nibelheim. It still frightened him to this day, not quite knowing if
all his behaviour was his own and not something influenced by that piece of Zack inside him that
Cloud refused to let go of.

After all, what else had he had? Zack, his friend, his saviour, had been savagely taken from him
by ShinRa and he'd had nothing left. His desperate attempt to salvage something of his beloved
friend, in his less than stable, healthy state, would probably cause the rest of his life to hold these
confusions.

Even after he had found himself in the Lifestream, with Tifa's help, he wasn't sure how to
separate himself from Zack entirely. He'd done what he could, and kept a little just to feel as
though he wasn't so alone.

He snapped out of his reverie as a door nearby opened. He felt that familiar blinding presence
before he saw him, and held his breath as Sephiroth appeared into view, his eyes on Zack as he
continued to easily pummel his partner into the mattress, laughing all the way.

As Zack's partner recovered on the other side of the practice mat from the grinning SOLDIER,
Zack waved at Sephiroth. The General nodded acknowledgement, standing less than ten feet
away from Cloud, just to the side of the cut away area of seats. Cloud, who was sitting cross-
legged on the floor in front of the barrier between him and the seats, felt himself tensing, and
rolled his shoulders to try and relax.

Zack launched into another round with his sparring partner. Sephiroth, arms folded across his
chest, watched them. Cloud drew one knee up to his chest, wrapping his arms around his shin,
and watched Sephiroth out of the corner of his eye.
It was impossible not to watch Sephiroth when he was in the room. He called for attention, if not
for who he was, then for his presence and appearance. You couldn't just ignore him. Cloud just
hoped that it wasn't too obvious that he was watching the General instead of Zack's sparring.

Sephiroth let his arms drop to his sides and moved from where he stood. Cloud dropped his gaze
to the floor just to his right, trying to keep his breathing steady and quiet. He could hear the
sound of leather and then it stopped as a pair of boots came into his view. Black, as ever, and so
familiar it made his heart ache.

What does he want! Why can't he just leave me be to stand in the shadows! I don't want to be
noticed, I don't want to be-

"Strife?"

He looked up then, out of necessity. The uniform, with the boots, brought back so many painful
memories it was difficult to breathe. For a moment, they weren't in the training centre at all, but
Nibelheim, burning and screaming in its fall. He was sitting on the dusty ground, and his Angel
of Death was watching him through the fire before he turned away-

"Cloud Strife?"

His name was repeated with something commanding in the tone, demanding his attention. Cloud
pulled himself away from his thoughts and focused, allowing himself to look up at Sephiroth
properly for the first time since he'd been here.

He hadn't changed. Looking at him still made Cloud want to run his hands through his hair, and
those sharp green eyes still made Cloud feel like he was being turned inside out. Sephiroth's
mouth had never been cruel, it had just never been friendly either, and those pale lips still begged
- or maybe it was just Cloud begging? - for less-than-wholesome attention. Sephiroth's skin was
still flawless, still perfect. Cloud knew of more than one person whose desire for the General
included a longing to mark that white skin; to mark the General himself. It was that idea of
possession that Cloud found almost disturbing. These people wanted Sephiroth because they
wanted to prove their power by owning him. Sephiroth was never meant to be owned, in any
sense of the word. Sometimes, he wondered if they even liked Sephiroth that way at all, or if it
was really just a disguise for a power trip. To overpower Sephiroth would be…unimaginable.
And something that some people obviously dreamed about.

"Y-Yes, sir?" Cloud stammered, belatedly remembering that he ought to stand, to bow,
something.

It was only when Cloud had reached his knees that the General realised what he was doing. He
motioned with one black-gloved hand for him to stop. "I'm off duty. There's no formality
necessary."

Cloud almost scoffed, but instead sank back down to his former position, staring up at the taller
man. He almost felt like a dog sitting at its master's feet, waiting for something.
Sephiroth watched him, frowning, for a few seconds. Cloud dropped his eyes back to the floor,
unable to hold the older man's gaze. Technically, I'm older than he is by about five years at this
point. He's, what, 25, 26? As far as I'm concerned, I'm 30.

He would have laughed had it not been so hard to make any sound at all.

"Look at me." It was spoken quietly but firmly, and drew Cloud's eyes upwards again. Sephiroth
continued to inspect him, Cloud squirming under the scrutiny. Sephiroth shook his head,
breaking the gaze himself. When he lifted his head again, Cloud was still staring.

"You've impressed me twice, two days running," Sephiroth murmured, his voice low enough that
only Cloud could hear.

"Twice, sir?" Cloud frowned, confused, his mind going blank.

"You've hearing that seems to be above that of a lot of SOLDIERs, which you demonstrated last
night." There, a strange expression settled over Sephiroth's features. He looked somewhat
puzzled, but that wasn't quite what it was. "And we don't teach some of those sword practices
until you reach 3rd class."

Cloud just stared, dumbfounded. Two thoughts battled for dominance in his mind, the first being
something along the lines of Sephiroth was watching me? and the second being, You are such an
idiot, Cloud. You're supposed to be a weak little cadet who can't even make it into SOLDIER and
you're showing off 3rd class techniques to the superior officers? Is it just the one brain cell that
you have, Strife?

"I…" Cloud faltered.

"Hey!" Zack jogged over, happily oblivious to any conversation he might have been interrupting.
"How's it going? Stop scaring Cloud, he's such a delicate flower."

Cloud couldn't help the furious blush that spread across his cheeks, looking down to try and hide
it, fists clenching. Thank you so much, Zack. Just ruin any chance I ever might have had.

"I very much doubt that." Sephiroth's voice was measured and meaningful. Cloud could feel his
eyes on him. "I hope, Zack, that you're coaching Strife for the SOLDIER Entrance Exams?"

Cloud's eyes widened as his head snapped up. "The what?" He mentally calculated. Six months
to go until Nibelheim, and I had three months before it to mope over not getting in. Three months.
Three months to go until the Exams. The SEE. Oh my God.

"The SOLDIER Entrance Exams." Zack provided this, gazing at Cloud oddly. "Why?"

"I just had a thought," Cloud admitted truthfully. Inside, this thought grew and expanded until he
was almost bouncing up and down for joy.
Sephiroth would never listen to a cadet about Nibelheim. But he might listen to a SOLDIER.

A minute ago, he had been cursing his stupidity at using skills he shouldn't know. Now, he was
praising it.

I never got this attention before, and attention is what I need to change stuff, right?

I think I know what I got sent back for.

-----

End Chap3

Seph::looks at Cloud: "My spider-sense is tingling!"

A/N:

1. I sat at my computer desk and really thought about how I would feel if I were in Cloud‟s
position, and crying would be the least of my problems.

2. “I‟m lost”. I stole it from Lilo and Stitch, because I think Stitch is adorable and I just wanted
to hug him.

Final Fantasy VII: Fusion

By Knowing Shadows

Disclaimer: See Chapter One

Chapter 4

-----

He was lying on his side in bed; warm, for once. Curled up under the thin blankets not for that
small comfort his own body heat might give him, but because it was comfortable and he was
content. Tired, and more than willing to let his body give in to sleep.

He‟d been dreaming every night, something of an unusual occurrence that surprised him not by
its frequency but by the ease of remembering their events. He had never been one to remember
dreams before this, not real ones anyway. They had always slipped away with the night, sand
through his fingers, though he‟d always tried to cling more to the warm sensation of knowing it
had been a good dream rather than trying to grasp specifics. If it had been good, he knew who
he‟d been dreaming about, and that was enough.

He‟d often mused on late nights where he couldn‟t sleep over the unfairness of the fact that he
had never managed to have a proper one of those dreams about Sephiroth. He had shyly listened
to others describe their own with no embarrassment and wondered how they could pull them off.
He was one of those people who usually woke up once they knew they were dreaming, and even
in sleep the idea of ever being with Sephiroth like that was so utterly unrealistic and downright
ridiculous that he knew he had to be dreaming.

It also didn‟t escape him how “usually” was the operative word in that sentence. Unfortunately,
luck had yet to be on his side and he had yet to have one of those dreams whilst knowing he was
dreaming.

He knew he was dreaming now, but it didn‟t matter all that much.

Cloud sighed softly, lips curving into a small smile as he let himself indulge in something that
shouldn‟t seem so vivid when he had never experienced it in reality. He had always had an active
imagination – borne of so many days spent alone with nothing else to occupy him but making the
best of what he had – and he had always been grateful for it, knowing that what was in his head
couldn‟t be taken away from him. When the loneliness threatened to engulf him, he knew he
always had a safe place to go, within his own mind or not.

Imagination couldn‟t take away the hurt of knowing that it wasn‟t real, and he had learned that
the hard way.

He shivered as a hand ghosted along the line of his hip, the sensation surprisingly real. Cloud felt
that large hand settle on his leg at the top of his thigh, cool against his warm skin, and oh so
powerful. He shuddered, trying to imagine what it would be like to have the rest of that body
over him like he wanted, moving inside him like he wanted.

This dream version of the man – he daren‟t even think the name, or the vision would disappear –
seemed to be able to read his thoughts. He heard a low chuckle just behind him, ghostly, and for
a moment he wondered if he‟d heard it at all, but then that hand moved back up over his hip,
brushing that tender spot where leg and hip met and made him shudder again. His response
earned a laugh this time, but in that same low tone that made him shiver in delight.

Abruptly, Cloud found himself on his back, staring up in the dark at the figure that was now
above him. He could only see a vague outline, but he knew the lines of that body better than he
knew his own. The broad, strong shoulders thrilled him more than he could comprehend. The
silky waves of pale hair fell over the shoulders, framing a shadowed face with eyes that burned.
He was powerless against those eyes, always had been, so he lay there on the bed, waiting with
bated breath and wondering if, just if, this time he might be just a little bit lucky.

He saw the muscles in the other man‟s shoulders tense as he moved, lowering his head down.
Cloud closed his eyes, waiting, and not daring to breathe. He felt warm breath on his lips, felt his
mouth part even as his back arched ever so slightly off of the bed as his own muscles tightened.
Wanting, oh so badly, but not daring, not daring to close that gap-

“There‟s something,” murmured that low voice just above his mouth, “not quite right about all
this, isn‟t there?” Not entirely a question, because the elder knew very well that there was
something wrong about him, but perhaps asking in the sense that he didn‟t quite know what
about Cloud had made him feel so.

There was no question in Cloud‟s mind that he was being referred to as what wasn‟t right,
because with that one sentence the whole feeling about the situation had changed. This wasn‟t
his long-awaited hormone-induced dream anymore and the change from that to what it was now
left him cold.

“Hmm?” Cloud could feel fingertips tracing along his jawline, trying to tease an answer out of
him, but he didn‟t dare open his eyes to see the other man. “Something about you…” A soft
intake of breath and Cloud‟s lips felt chilled for a brief moment as the warm air was drawn away.
“And you know, don‟t you…You know what‟s wrong, but I can‟t figure it out…”

What was he supposed to say to that?

“I don‟t…I don‟t want to be here,” he said then, fingers curling into the bed sheets until his
knuckles went whiter than the other man‟s skin. “It‟s not my fault.”

“Don‟t want to be here?” Disbelief in that voice, then, and Cloud knew that he was smiling, and
he knew that the expression wouldn‟t be pleasant to see if he was inclined to look. “What, like
this?” The elder moved then, a slight shift in body, and Cloud bit his lip, head pressing back hard
into the pillow as his whole body tensed. “Somehow I doubt it‟s me you‟re trying to convince,
here.”

“You‟re not real.” Absurdly, it hurt to say that out loud.

“No, but this is as real as it will ever be for you.” It was a cold statement, and it stung; made
Cloud‟s chest tighten and his throat close and his eyes burn behind their lids. He opened his
mouth to take a breath and it felt wet and sodden in his lungs.

“I know,” he whispered, and the other man had moved ever so slightly until their lips just
brushed as he spoke the words. “But I‟m trying.”

A soft, whispering laugh was all he got in response before he woke. He didn‟t dream anymore
then, unable to sleep as Sephiroth‟s low, imagined laugh mocked him long into the morning
hours.

-----

Three weeks had passed by then, and Cloud found himself with another long-awaited weekend
stretching before him. Being at ShinRa was something like being back in school: suffering five
days of work for those two free days to come round, and then repeating the whole process again
and again. The one difference, in theory, was that you were supposed to want to be at the ShinRa.
In practice, it was much more a case of „the end justifies the means‟, and only dogged
determination to reach the end got anybody through the years of training that Cloud knew he
would eventually fail.
Not this time.

He was sitting on his bed, tangled in the blankets, trying to work out how he would spend his
time. Usually Zack made it a point to do something on the weekend with him, as if afraid that
Cloud would spend his free time locked up in the barracks if he possibly could, and not go
anywhere. However, Zack had been sent out with Sephiroth and several other SOLDIER 1sts
three days ago, and had yet to return. Zack hadn‟t even been able to tell him where they‟d been
going.

“I‟m so bored,” he said to himself, scowling.

Like I have so much time to be bored. Just over two months left. Time‟s ticking away. Tick, tock,
tick, tock.

He cursed himself, slamming the heel of his hand into his forehead to startle him away from the
thoughts of time. It didn‟t really work, and only made the dull throb between his eyes increase.
The room felt too stuffy for a head that felt as stuffy as his already did, but where was there to go
within the complex? He‟d already ruled out the gym – not only would he have to concentrate on
the types of moves he was doing, but doing much exercise on an empty stomach would probably
make him faint. There was little else recreation-wise that he knew of, and he didn‟t know many
within the complex to go and find to hang around with. Reno‟s invitation to lunch flitted across
his mind, but he let it carry on without real consideration.

He pulled himself up off the bed and ran a hand through his hair, yawning. A walk might do him
good, though he doubted he‟d be happy with staying inside the ShinRa complex. Midgar was a
big enough place to lose himself in without being big enough to actually get lost. He‟d hoped
that he‟d have the chance to go with Zack but, as it had turned out, Zack wasn‟t there. He had
never been one to let something like that stop him.

A walk in Midgar it is.

Midgar had few happy memories for him but he pushed that thought aside, dressing resolutely,
features pulled into a frown. He had never fitted in in Midgar, as he‟d never fitted in when he
had lived in Nibelheim. Midgar, like Nibelheim, had been a place of failure. Its expectations had
always been too high, and he had always been lacking or forced beyond his limits to reach a
level he had never been meant to reach as he was.

Midgar brought me to Hojo. Midgar also brought me to Zack. Midgar brought me to him.

He pushed away those thoughts and left the room, turning down one of ShinRa‟s many winding
grey corridors. It was relatively empty, which was what he had been hoping for, and he rode the
elevator all the way down to the first floor before getting off to walk. It was easier to go through
front reception than any other way to get into Midgar itself, so he decided to stick to that
pathway.

He was halfway down the corridor towards the stairs that lead to reception when his luck ran out.
"President Shinra, I have good news."

Cloud froze on the spot, fear shooting like electricity up and down the length of his spine.
Breathing suddenly shallow in panic, Cloud realised that he'd never even thought before now
about the man whose voice he had just heard.

"Ah, Professor. I was just looking for you."

Without thinking, Cloud darted to the nearest hiding place, which was no hiding place at all. He
stood with his back up against the wall, partly hidden by the corner he had just turned into to
avoid notice. He closed his eyes, focusing on steadying his breathing first. There was no reason
to be afraid - after all, until Nibelheim, his existence wouldn't be known to the man in charge of
the Jenova Project. He pressed a hand to his chest for a second, feeling his heart pound
erratically.

He doesn't know you. Stop being so weak. You're nothing to him yet.

"Hojo, you promised me a report on the project."

"I've been too busy to write a report."

The two were walking along the corridor towards him. Cloud looked along the corridor he had
turned into, but it had a dead end. In the shadowed corner lay a mop and bucket propped up, and
a door in the wall read "Cleaning Closet" in peeling letters. He moved forward as quietly as
possible and tried the door handle, but the door refused to budge.

"I don't employ you to disregard my orders, Professor. I wanted a report." Shinra's voice held a
note of irritation, but the Professor ignored it or didn't hear it. Cloud knew that Hojo was too
observant a man to have missed it.

"I haven't finished working on the things to put in the report, Mr President." The Professor's
voice lowered to a horrible, delighted whisper that made Cloud's skin crawl. "Jenova and her son
are endlessly fascinating."

Cloud stilled. Sephiroth?

"General Sephiroth is a ShinRa employee, Hojo, not just your guinea pig. I strongly advise that
you keep that in mind whilst deciding just what to test on him." The President's irritation was
getting more and more pronounced as the conversation progressed. Their voices grew louder as
they closed in on the opening of the corridor where Cloud stood.

"I know that," Hojo muttered flippantly. "I've been wondering, though, how to test just how
strong he really is. His body still absorbs the Mako treatments I give him as if he's never had
them before in his life. His healing capacity is simply amazing. His strength can't have been fully
tested, not even during the war with Wutai." Hojo chuckled, and Cloud could easily picture the
man rubbing his hands in glee. "He shows more of Jenova's traits as time passes."
"You're too close to having to deal with your new subjects to do more tests on him now. He's
capable enough, we know that. I'd like that report a.s.a.p."

They're going to pass by any moment now. If they see me, they'll wonder why I'm here. Why
would a cadet be coming out of a cleaning closet, even if they believe I haven't been lurking
down here listening to them?

Cloud toyed with trying to hide in the shadows as Hojo murmured over getting the report to the
President. He closed his eyes, breathing deeply. You'll face him once. Just once. He won't know
you.

Resolutely, he stepped out into the main corridor and continued walking the way he'd been going,
acting as though he hadn't even noticed the two men. He heard their conversation die off as they
saw him and the silence made him uneasy. He could feel eyes burning into his back. He carried
on walking, and made it to the next corner without incident.

Thank God, I didn't even look at them. And they don‟t' seem to have taken much notice-

"You, cadet."

Cloud came to a stop and turned slowly, belatedly pulling himself into a proper soldier stance as
was befitting the President's company. The President - only slightly less portly than he had been
just before Meteor - and Hojo had stopped parallel to the corridor he had been hiding in. He let
his gaze fall on the Professor and tried not to take an automatic step backwards.

Hojo had been the one to call him. Dark eyes narrowed suspiciously behind his glasses, his
sallow-skinned face looked particularly unwelcoming. He would still have that same face in five
years time. His black hair, thin and limp, was shorter than he last remembered but still tied back
in the untidy ponytail, very dark against his white lab coat.

"Yes, sir?" he asked.

"What were you doing down here?" Hojo's gaze flickered doubtfully to the dead end, lingering
for a moment on what must have been the mop and bucket outside the locked closet.

Mop and bucket. Mop and bucket. Mop and- "The mop," he said suddenly. "I took it out to clean
up a spill someone left in the dorm. The door's locked, so I had to leave it outside." Please
believe me. Please believe me. "Someone must have locked the door whilst I was gone." Please,
please-

Hojo sneered, ever so slightly. "What's your name?"

Oh no, please don't. Please don't.

The President turned to Hojo then, and coughed. "Hojo, he's a cadet."
The emphasis on the word 'cadet' irked Cloud, but he hid it. Not for much longer, sir. Not for
much longer at all.

Hojo cast Shinra one scathing look before turning his glare back to Cloud. "Name, cadet."

He swallowed nervously. "Strife, sir. Cloud Strife."

Well, now look what you've done. He knows you now.

"You are dismissed," Hojo muttered. Cloud turned and had to fight not to run all the way, feeling
Hojo's glare on his back all the way.

-----

His feet took him to Sector 6, and as the ramshackle huts, houses and shops came into view
Cloud wondered if Sector 7 might have been the better destination. Eyes slid over him as he
passed among the throng, and most slid onto the next person with little thought of him. He
caught a few unwelcome stares but ignored them with a wince, hurrying along the shadows in a
bid to attract less attention. It struck him, as he stared out at the residents and their homes, that it
all seemed very dull, as if he was looking at a painting made up of greys and browns. The people
- hunched, dirty and ragged - were much the same. Their skin was as dead a grey as the mangled,
re-used metal around them. In SOLDIER, Cloud had seen more than one person with the same
hue to their skin, marking them out as indigenous to Midgar. Years of metal dust from the plates
above the poorer sectors had taken its toll on those whose families had lived there for generations.

Pulling his coat closer around him, Cloud picked his way through the residents with a growing
feeling of dread. He suddenly felt very alone, and wished that he'd stayed at the barracks on the
off chance that Zack would have returned to come with him.

So far - perhaps a blessing, and perhaps not - the little shop island in the centre of the area had
blocked his view of his destination, but he knew once he moved much more he'd be able to see
the house. It was a stupid idea anyway, he thought bitterly, to come here, where it would hurt so
much to know that he truly was alone, and that even the Cetra flower girl wouldn't recognise -

The Cetra.

His breath caught in his throat for a moment and he almost choked, eyes widening. He ran his
hand through his hair, knowing that he was shaking, and was moving before he knew it. He
cleared the central building and the gap between the two end houses presented itself before him.
The welcoming light from beyond the edge of the circle of houses made his breath short with
remembrance. From here, he could even see the edges of the tiered garden, and how the
blooming flowers seemed still in the breeze-free air of Midgar.

And from here, Cloud could even see a flash of pink that meant Aeris was gardening.

-----
Nibelheim was quiet and empty. The storm that Vincent had initially braved had passed three
days ago now, and yet Vincent found himself experiencing a sense of déja vu as he stood in the
square of the town once more, squinting against the rain.

Cloud won't be very pleased when he sees me.

He moved off with a soft sigh, keeping his eyes once more averted from the ShinRa mansion as
he came level with it. Behind him, sticking close to his back, he could feel the presence of the
two others with him, and knew that he'd be lucky to leave Nibelheim with all his body in one
piece.

He had not intended to come back here, intent on letting Cloud get on with whatever it was that
he had decided he should do for the rest of his life, unable to truly grasp the blond's reasoning.
He had decided that, after all, it really wasn't much of his business. If I were Cloud, I wouldn't
want people prying either.

Not that that had stopped other people, and he wasn't at all sure that Cloud would be half as
forthcoming with his reasons for living up on the mountain with them as he had been with
Vincent. Especially with her…

She won't understand, though I wish that she would. Her opinion is important to him, whether
she knows it or not. Her hate could ruin him.

She'd have to be kept from the plinth, that much was certain. Vincent knew that he had invaded a
personal area when he'd gone near it before, and still got the feeling that he had been allowed
closer than any others might have been.

He'd tried to stop brooding then, preferring to ponder how anyone could endure such awful
weather until they reached the start of the mountain path and a soft thud caught his attention. He
turned at the sound, moving his back into the wind, and frowned at the last of their number, who
had abruptly sat down on the cold stone, their fur matted and dark from the rain.

"I can smell the Lifestream from here," Nanaki said, his orange eyes narrowed into a squint.
"Perhaps it is the reactor, perhaps not." He paused, lowering his head slightly. "Perhaps not."

Vincent didn't reply. His sense of smell was nowhere near as accurate as Nanaki's, and he'd
merely thought that it was the reactor, as Nanaki had suggested. Something didn't sit quite right
with him, and he turned slightly back into the rain and wind, ignoring the burning, questioning
gaze that Tifa Lockhart had settled on his back.

"The smell is stronger than last time," he murmured after a moment, half to himself. "In this
direction."

"What's wrong? It doesn't smell any different to me." Vincent glanced over as the dark-haired
woman moved to his side, the worry evident in her eyes.
"I can barely tell the difference, and my sense of smell is much more acute than a normal
human's," he explained, looking back towards the mountain, and the direction of the smell that
was beginning to bother him so much. "You wouldn't be able to tell."

"What does it mean?"

"It means that we should definitely check." Nanaki's voice obviously startled Tifa as he wound
his way between them to continue along the path towards Cloud's home. Vincent allowed Tifa to
follow Nanaki, choosing to bring up the rear. "I don't like it."

The Lifestream? How could it have got all the way up here? And what else would smell like
that? The Cetra, maybe? But what would they want with Cloud? He's already done them enough
service to last longer than a lifetime.

"Shall we continue, then?" Vincent urged, beginning to pick his way up the narrow, slick path
again. "We will do no good standing here in the rain."

"Too right," he heard Tifa mutter darkly, and half-smiled behind the sodden material of his cloak.

Nanaki sighed, almost too softly to hear, and got up to follow, bracing himself against the wind
and the stinging rain. He looked much more like some kind of panther, Vincent mused, with his
fur dark from the wet and slicked down close to his body. Nobody would dare follow them now
if they had been so inclined to do so before.

The sensible thing to do would have been to have Nanaki go first, the fire at the end of his tail
helping to light the way for Tifa behind him, with Vincent going last so that if either Nanaki or
Tifa might slip, he would be there to help. No-one had said anything to him, but he knew that
Nanaki must have been curious about the arrangement he had chosen instead. But he dared not
change it - not with what might be up ahead.

They turned the main curve in the path that lead them closer to the hut and Vincent stopped
abruptly, nostrils flaring. "The smell," he said. "It's stronger."

Nanaki held one heavy paw over his nose at the rear of the group. "That is not the reactor."

"Cloud?" Tifa stepped up to Vincent's back, putting a hand on his arm to catch his attention.
"What's this got to do with Cloud?"

Vincent shook his head, looking up to where the path dwindled out of sight. The hut would be
visible soon, just around the curve. "I do not know. But we'd better keep moving, as fast as we
can."

With a sense of urgency they clambered along the rest of the path, one behind the other, in
silence. It grew more slippery as they walked, and twice Vincent almost lost his footing on the
narrow path. Tifa seemed resolute, her cloak pulled tightly around her body to ward off the worst
of the weather. He knew that she was still soaked through, however, as the rest of them were.
What possessed you to come here, Tifa? It's been nine years, and you've left a young child and a
husband behind with little explanation to come here. Surely you still don't feel for Cloud. I would
not want to be the one to tell you that you have no chance with him, or the one to tell Richard
that he is apparently only second best.

The hut was hard to see against the blackness of the Nibelheim rock it stood against. No lights
were visible, but Vincent wouldn't be surprised if Cloud had deliberately made it like that. Tifa
made no comment, so he assumed she hadn't seen it. With Nanaki he couldn't tell, but he didn't
point it out. The smell of the Mako grew as they moved closer, but not enough that Tifa could
detect it.

What happened since I was last here? I've only been gone a few days. And why now?

"I can smell Cloud," Nanaki said suddenly. "His scent is all over that hut. I'm assuming that's
where he lives now?"

Vincent nodded, and didn't need to turn around to see Tifa's horrified look as her gaze settled on
the hut as they approached it.

Cloud's home stayed as dark as they came upon it as it had been from so far away before.
Frowning, Vincent knocked on the door. There was, as he had suspected, no answer, so he
pushed the door inwards. Tifa, dark eyes wide, stayed with Nanaki outside, waiting.

It was dark inside, and it didn't seem as if Cloud was home. He could see the Ultima Weapon
still propped up in the corner, the mussed up bedding and the lone chair. Cloud was nowhere to
be seen.

"His scent here is a few days old." Nanaki had pushed inside, his nose in the air. "Perhaps he left
after you came?" He turned curious eyes towards the dark-haired man.

Vincent stared at the feline for a long moment. "No, I don't think he did." It's dark outside. If
you're where I think you are, why are you out there in this weather with no light? It makes no
sense. I would not think you stupid or foolish enough for this. "Can you wait here for a moment?
I think I know where he is. I will try and bring him back."

Nanaki nodded and backed out. Tifa stood silently, watching. Vincent walked past them both and
carried along the path to where he knew the little rock plinth would be.

He hadn't gone far when he saw a figure on the plinth, collapsed over the headstone. He broke
into a run, his footing slipping with the motion. "Cloud!"

The blond was soaked through to the bone and, as he felt as he pressed shaking fingertips to the
man's wrist, as cold as ice.

-----
Aeris knelt on the dry ground amongst the knee high plants, her hair tied back and her hands
encased in gloves that were too big for her. A smudge of dirt marred one cheek, but she was
smiling and her eyes were bright with the same simple joy that she found in the garden she so
lovingly tended.

Cloud stood on the top step that led up to the garden, and Aeris hadn‟t seen him yet. He was in
two minds whether to let her see him or not. After all, what good would it do? She would not
recognise him. She wouldn‟t know him until he would decide that the church needed a nice hole
in the roof, but that wouldn‟t be for a while yet. If he ever made it that far again. Maybe, this
time, she would never know him at all.

She might know how to send me back. Or forward. Or wherever I‟m meant to go. She‟s Cetra.
She has to know something. Even if she thinks I‟m crazy.

He didn‟t really have a plan, he mused as he watched her sadly. She began to hum as she worked
and the soft noise made his chest ache. She was just one more person he had lost. He didn‟t
know how to approach her, knowing that the last time he had seen her he had sent her body into
the water to lie forever.

He thought, maybe, that he might have been able to ask her without letting on too much, but she
would probably be suspicious. As far as she knew, he could be working for Tseng, and be here to
gather information on the Cetra as a Turk. His other choice could have been to ask her straight
out how the Cetra could send him to his own time, but if she thought he was crazy – if the Cetra
couldn‟t, in fact, have done this – where would that leave him?

Cloud preferred not to find out.

He stared at her back for a long time, watching her work. She didn‟t know he was there.
Carefully, and as quietly as possible, Cloud backed down a step. There was no point in being
here. To stand in that place much longer would be his undoing, and eventually she‟d look up and
find him.

But as it was, she looked up and found him anyway.

He froze, his foot barely touching the bottom step, and his eyes widened as hers did. She stood
up, still watching him, but Cloud couldn‟t move. There was utter silence for a moment, and then
the girl smiled with no hint of wariness, and self-consciously rubbed at the dirt on her cheek.
“Can I help you?”

For a moment, as she‟d smiled, his hopes had risen. He shook his head. “No, I don‟t think so. I
thought you might be able to, but…It doesn‟t matter anymore.”

Her smile never faltered. “Are you sure?” Her expression turned apologetic, almost embarrassed,
as she clasped her gloved hands in front of her. “You look like you‟re looking for something.”

“I don‟t know what I‟m looking for.” Cloud shrugged.
“Not many people do, I suppose,” Aeris said conversationally, looking thoughtful for a moment.
“Some people find it, some people don‟t. But you…you look like you‟re looking for something
important.”

He grinned at her, because it sounded like something she would have said to him. “I don‟t know.
Aren‟t you looking for something?”

“I might be,” she said, secretively, and her smile widened until her eyes crinkled at the edges.

He shared her expression for a moment. “I hope you find it,” he said honestly, and backed up
some more to leave. “Goodbye.”

She didn‟t stop smiling as he turned away. He could feel her watching him, and wondered if she
had thought him strange. It didn‟t matter too much, anyway. He‟d probably never see her again.
And if he did…it wouldn‟t be under better circumstances.

“Cloud?”

He turned in an instant and she was still watching him, but she wasn‟t smiling anymore. Aeris‟
expression was troubled, and suddenly older and more burdened than it had been before.

“Aeris?” He hadn‟t told her his name, had he? There was no other way that she would have
known him. “Aeris, is that you?”

“You weren‟t supposed to be this sad, Cloud.” She started walking towards him, pulling off her
gloves. “We thought…” She bit her lip, her eyes watering as she descended the steps. “I
thought…that you‟d be happier…”

“The Cetra did send me back.” He was almost angry, and a sense of betrayal settled heavily
across his chest, but it abated as he took in the depth of Aeris‟ sorrow. She stopped a few feet
away, her green eyes filled with a sadness that made him wonder if she was feeling his own pain
as well as her own.

“You were so lonely…and so unhappy…” She wiped her eyes. “We couldn‟t think of anything
else to do. I thought that this would be better than leaving you up there by yourself…and there‟s
only so much the Cetra can do…”

“Only so much?” Cloud stared at her in disbelief. “Aeris, look at what you‟ve done! Where
you‟ve sent me! And this isn‟t power?”

She grabbed his hands, which were busy indicating their surroundings, and held them firmly.
“Cloud, the Cetra don‟t have the kind of power you think we do. If we were that strong…” She
sighed, shaking her head. “You weren‟t supposed to come here, either.”
“Does it matter?” he exclaimed, breathless with relief. “Do you know how much it means to me
that you know me? That I‟m not the only one who knows what‟s going on? That I don‟t have to
lie to you about who I am?”

He thought that it might make her feel better, but instead her face crumpled and she held him,
crying silently into his shoulder. Bewildered, all Cloud could do was hold her, stroking her hair
softly as he waited for her to calm down.

What‟s going on? What don‟t I know? Everything that she‟s said…

She looked up at him, her face streaked with tears. “Cloud, you can‟t see me again. You can‟t. If
you do…I won‟t know you. I won‟t recognise you. It‟s not meant to work out this way. If you
keep coming back to me…” She looked away, and then pulled out of his embrace, backing
slowly towards the house behind her. “Cloud, you have to leave.”

“Aeris..?” He made to go after her, but stopped as he looked up at him again. “Aeris, what‟s
wrong?”

Her back hit the door, and she fumbled behind her for the handle. He heard a click and the door
opened. “I‟m so sorry.” And then she slipped inside, the door softly closing in her wake.

Cloud sat down on the ground, defeated.

-----

End Chapter4.

A/N:

1. Yes, I have succumbed to Evanescence. Quite willingly.

2. If they‟re OOC, it doesn‟t flow, or whatever, it‟s because my brain currently has Yami no
Matsuei camping out in it, and Muraki‟s prowling around for an outlet. Eep.

Fusion 5

By Knowing Shadows

Disclaimer: See Chapter 1

*****

*****

There was nothing about Midgar that Sephiroth could praise. He made no pretence of the fact
that he disliked the city intensely – if it weren‟t for the fact that he worked there, and felt that he
had nothing to offer anywhere else but the army, he would probably have left a long time ago.
Despite his hair, he had enough of the Wutanese look about him that he might very well have
ended up there. Far, far away from Hojo.

It was on Zack‟s insistence that they walk through Midgar on their way back to HQ. Zack was
avoiding going back to work, of course, though it was a foolish way of going about it since the
SOLDIER was currently favouring his right foot; a small injury from their last scuffle before
making their way back. Sephiroth walked slightly behind him, endlessly amused by watching
Zack‟s slight limp and listening to his muffled curses.

It had been the rebel group again – another pocket causing trouble on behalf of their as-yet-seen
leader. They had scattered, mostly, but a few had remained and caused them to be delayed on
their way home. It hadn‟t mattered to Sephiroth because all it meant was that there‟d be a little
bit more paperwork to be done once he returned, but Zack had been annoyed because it meant he
would miss his scheduled date with his current girlfriend, a local girl from Sector 6 called Aeris
Gainsborough; which was who Sephiroth had been roped into going with Zack to see.

Which had reminded him how much he didn‟t like Midgar.

He ignored the stares – they meant nothing. He concentrated on keeping up with Zack, who
seemed to be walking fast just to prove that he wasn‟t that badly hurt, and probably aggravating
his ankle whilst doing so. Sector 6 was one of the poorer sectors, falling further into disrepair
every year at an alarming rate. The church, which had once been the pride and joy of the sector,
was now abandoned, standing on the outskirts of the sector with its stained glass windows being
the only point of colour in what was otherwise a mostly grey place.

The fact that it was so drab in the sector was probably what made Cloud Strife stand out so much.
At least, that‟s what Sephiroth told himself it was, as his gaze alighted on a mop of bright blond
hair topping a figure slinking along the other side of the residential area to Zack and himself. He
frowned, watching the cadet‟s slim frame making his way in the opposite direction to them.

Zack hadn‟t spotted the blond so Sephiroth watched him for a few moments more in silence on
his own. He moved oddly at times, this boy, almost as if he expected his body to do something it
wouldn‟t do, but he had to look closely to see it at all. And look closely he did – the opportunity
to observe someone as seemingly gifted as this boy outside of the training barracks might not
come again for a long time.

At the moment, he would probably not make a terribly difficult opponent, Sephiroth decided,
tucking a longer strand of silver hair behind his ear. Their physical stature was different enough
to make it an unfair fight without taking skill into account. The blond was only a little on the
short side, but was still about a head shorter than Sephiroth, perhaps a little more.

“Zack,” Sephiroth said, and watched out of the corner of his eye as his friend came to a stop,
giving him a curious look. The elder of the two nodded towards Cloud‟s retreating figure. He
saw Zack‟s face light up as he spotted the blond, vaguely intrigued by the reaction.
“Cloud!” Zack cried, already starting towards the blond and grinning. Cloud froze, hearing
Zack‟s voice, eyes widening slightly. Sephiroth, content to stand where he was, watched all this
with feigned disdain, looking at them out of the corner of his eye as he pretended to study the
creases in his leather gloves.

The boy turned to Zack as the black-haired man approached, lips pulling into a smile that didn‟t
reach his worried blue eyes. Perhaps he hadn‟t wanted to be seen here by them, but for what
reason Sephiroth couldn‟t begin to fathom. Sector 5 was the place to cause scandal – not Sector 6.
In fact, what was he doing there anyway?

There were only so many creases in a glove that he could study, so Sephiroth let his hand drop
down to his side and raised his eyes to the pair across the dirt road. He couldn‟t really hear what
Zack was saying – not that he wanted to, it would invariably be about the mission he had just
attended – but was grateful for the man‟s overactive mouth this time, since it kept Cloud‟s
attention on him instead of on the General. Sephiroth allowed himself a brief, unmasked look at
the boy this time, wondering how the kind of skill he suspected lay there could be contained in
such a figure. His first impression had always been of blond, spiky hair, blue eyes and pale skin.
Too effeminate, Sephiroth mused, to inspire fear in anyone, and too young for the kind of looks
he would inevitably draw because of it. Sephiroth saw that Zack‟s worry over his friend was
easily justified. Cloud was the kind of person who needed the protection that Zack offered, even
though he was probably capable of taking care of himself.

Somewhere in the back of Sephiroth‟s mind, he also knew that he did not want to be the one to
force Cloud to have to take care of himself.

Abruptly, Sephiroth pulled his mind away from that when Zack jerked a thumb over his shoulder
at his superior officer, and Cloud looked up at him, following the gesture. Sephiroth didn‟t look
away in time, and Cloud visibly jumped when he found the other man‟s eyes on him, skin going
very pale and eyes going even wider. Something passed over the blond‟s face – too fast, but
undeniably pain mixed with something else – but it disappeared as the boy looked away, a light
blush rising across his cheekbones.

Sephiroth continued to regard the blond as Zack led him over, wondering what he'd done to
deserve that look other than just stand there.

“You two have already met, right?” Zack said, cheerfully ignoring the awkward silence between
the two in question. “Seph, Cloud, blah blah blah. Anywho! Seph was just accompanying me to
the wonderful Sector 6 to see my girlfriend. Isn‟t he wonderful? Since you‟re here, you might as
well come with, right?”

“Girlfriend?” Cloud suddenly asked, startled. A moment later he looked down at the floor again,
obviously not having meant to have said what he had.

“Yeah, you know, I was telling you about her the other day!” Zack said, smiling and seemingly
oblivious to Cloud‟s strange reaction. Sephiroth, however, wasn‟t. “Pretty brunette with big
green eyes. She sells flowers. She‟s a real sweetie – you‟ll like her! Come on!”
Zack had already started off towards the houses – back the way that Cloud had come – and
Cloud followed closely, biting his lip worriedly. Sephiroth allowed the boy distance before he
followed, green eyes fixed upon the shorter figure‟s shoulder blades.

There's something about that boy…

He followed quietly as Zack steered the younger boy back into Sector 6, thoughtful. He watched
the movement of Cloud's head as he turned to look up at Zack. "What's her name? Your
girlfriend?" Something in the back of Sephiroth's mind had already warned him that the answer
would bring about a strange reaction in the blond, so he didn't find himself surprised as Cloud's
shoulders tightened when Zack cheerfully said, "Aeris Gainsborough!"

What do we have here, I wonder..?

"Oh," Cloud said softly, turning his face back so that Sephiroth could no longer see anything of
his features. "I'm sure she's very nice." He sounded very young then, small and sad and reluctant.

"She's gorgeous," Zack enthused happily, eyes almost crinkled closed because he was smiling so
widely, directing the expression down at Cloud. "I can't wait for you to see her. I've been trying
to get you down here for ages, remember? Gee, and you can't even remember her name! I must
have told you it a couple thousand times already…"

"Have you?" Cloud asked, in a voice that suggested he was only half-listening. Zack hadn't
noticed, and began to go off on another enthusiastic rant about Aeris. Sephiroth blanked him out,
knowing that Cloud had basically done the same.

What is it that I don't like about all of this?

It had been nagging at him ever since he had seen Strife performing the Third Class kata, and
even though he was no closer to working out why the boy made him uneasy that didn't mean that
puzzling over it had gone away. There was something - something wrong…

He almost missed it because of his musing, but the movement of Cloud's head did catch his eye.
He was turning to look at Zack again, but wasn't looking at Zack - instead, Sephiroth could see a
sliver of blue as Cloud looked right out of the corner of his eye over his shoulder. Of course, as
soon as blue eyes met curious green, Cloud's head snapped around again.

So he does remember that I'm here.

Zack must have caught Cloud looking over his shoulder as well, because he glanced at Cloud
and then at Sephiroth, smiling. "You can walk with us, you know. It's allowed. We don't bite.
Well, I don't. But, you never know - Cloud might."

"Zack." The whisper was desperate and humiliated, and Sephiroth couldn't help but feel pity
towards the blond, watching as his fists clenched as the General moved forward to walk on
Zack's other side.
"I never listen to Zack," he offered in a low voice. He paused for a moment, and then added, "So
I wouldn't worry, Cloud." Daring the boy's first name earned him another quick, embarrassed
look. The boy didn't reply, though - obviously either didn't know what to say or didn't dare - and
so they fell into silence as Zack practically bounced his way over to the back of the residential
circle, where a gap in the houses and a splash of light shone through. Zack skipped on ahead - he
could think of no better word for it - and Sephiroth found that once the dark-haired man could no
longer see Cloud, the blond began to lag a little bit.

What is going on? Why doesn't he want to go here?

Beyond the gap in the huts stood a proper house, standing in what seemed like a little area of
paradise compared to the rest of Midgar. A two-tiered garden stretched beyond the house, full of
brightly coloured flowers. The change from black and white to the technicolour of this place was
almost startling.

Cloud meandered to a stop at the threshold, staying close to the edge of the last of the huts. His
blue gaze had fallen on the house, where Zack was knocking at the door. The blond seemed to be
very hesitant - not wanting to go further, but knowing that he should.



As far as I can see, there are two explanations. Either he knows Aeris and might be jealous that
Zack's with her, or…

He didn't like the reversal of that first explanation (which was his second explanation) at all.

Sephiroth did not go much further than Cloud, preferring to stay outside. Zack had been let
inside, leaving the two alone. He turned to face the figure halted to his left, who became aware of
the attention very quickly. Cloud gave him a startled look - all wide blue eyes - before lowering
his gaze almost guiltily.

Stop trying to ignore me, for heaven's sake. Whatever it is that you're doing, just stop it.

"Do you know Aeris?" he found himself saying before he could stop himself. He crossed his
arms over his chest, the leather of his sleeves surprisingly cold against the bare skin of his chest
that he touched.

The boy shook his head, though it was after a period of hesitation that Sephiroth noticed and was
therefore too late to be convincing.

Oh, wonderful. This is going to get us nowhere.

"I've heard Zack talk about her, that's all," Cloud offered after a moment with a small shrug of
his shoulders. He met Sephiroth's eyes for another moment, longer than he had allowed himself
to do before. Sephiroth never flinched, instinctively lifting his chin in defiance against the
searching gaze, but eventually the blond looked away, lips set in a thin line.
Sephiroth opened his mouth to say something else when Zack reappeared, waving at them. "Oi,
I'll have to come back later 'cause she says she's real busy right now. Sorry about that. Back to
HQ, right?"

Cloud didn't look at him once on the way back.

*****

"I think he knows her."

Zack looked up at him from where he had been absently tapping the end of a pencil on
Sephiroth's desk. "Huh? Who knows who?"

Sephiroth leant his elbow on his desk, leaning forward a little to indicate to Zack - who occupied
the seat on the other side of the desk in the General's office - that he wanted to lower his voice.
Zack obediently leant forward as well, curiosity bright in his already glowing eyes.

"Cloud. I think that he knows who Aeris Gainsborough is," Sephiroth murmured. He watched as
Zack's

features fell into an expression which pleaded 'Please enlighten me for you lost me about half an
hour

ago.'

"What if he does?" Zack hazarded slowly.

"He denied it when I asked him, though." Sephiroth moved back so that he could lift his arm off
of the hard wood, giving the paperwork in front of him a disdainful glare. "But his reaction to her
name and her house intrigued me."

And I don't really think he has a 'thing' for Zack. I can't see it. He would have given off signs of
that even before Aeris was mentioned. But still…

"Everything about him deserves intrigue, especially recently." Zack snorted softly at his own
words, shaking his head. "I don't know how he could know Aeris, though. Aeris has always lived
here, she says, and Cloud came from Nibelheim. It is a myyyysteryyyy," the SOLDIER chortled,
obviously not too bothered.

Sephiroth nodded in agreement, pushing the paperwork to one side to indicate that he would do
no more that evening. He was sick of it. Especially since they had just returned from fighting,
after all. He sat back fully in his chair and took off his gloves, lifting one bare hand to rub
gingerly at his temples. "A mystery that makes my head ache, though."

Zack laughed, taking great joy in his superior's consternation. He found his gaze drawn, however
much he fought it, to the number tattooed onto the back of the General's raised hand. "Give up,
man! Even I can't figure out Cloud. You still trying to puzzle out how he knew those kata? Or
how he heard you that night? I can't work it out either, so don't worry."

"Haven't you asked him?"

"No. I don't dare. I get the feeling he'll go all defensive on me, and I only managed to get past
that with him a couple of months back. To be honest, I've just left him to it. I think he's just
coming into his own - he's been like a different person these past weeks. More confident, more
skilled, less clumsy…It's good for him." Zack shrugged, then stood up, easing the ache in his
sore muscles caused by sitting for too long. "He doesn't seem happier, though, which I don't like.
I mean, even you have been giving him attention, and that's enough to flatter anybody."

"He knows I'm trying to work him out," Sephiroth said, looking down from Zack's face as he
massaged his temples again. He needed to sleep. "He's very intelligent. He makes me uneasy -
it's like you're standing with someone much older than fifteen when he's there." It felt strange to
admit that - he who let no-one bother him. And here was one boy who had managed it without
even trying.

His companion was silent for a long time. Then, he said, "I got that feeling, too. Just these past
couple of weeks." Zack was giving him a dubious look and Sephiroth could feel it. Zack didn't
like worrying about things, but rarely did he ever try and pass something off for something that it
obviously wasn't.

"I don't think you should just think of it as 'coming into one's own'. There's more to it and I don't
like it."

"He bothers you that much?" Another doubtful look, coupled with a reflection of tone in Zack's
low voice.

Sephiroth lifted one shoulder in a non-committal shrug. He wasn't really sure how he felt about it,
but there was something…

…Something about the boy…

"Should I talk to him?" Zack asked slowly, rubbing the back of his head helplessly.

"How would I know if you should?" Sephiroth let the request flow over him and away. He had
never liked to be asked for advice; not that he was often asked for it. He could feel a rather large
headache on and thinking about the enigma of odd cadets wouldn't help. Sleep, however, looked
very appealing. Wearily, he stood up and picked up his discarded gloves, pulling them back on
for the walk back to his quarters. "What I do know you should do is embark on some one-to-one
training. As far as I can see, he'll have no problems passing the Entrance Exams, but you just
need to make sure he's up to scratch on the areas he'll be weakest on - weight, size disadvantages,
etc. He doesn't deserve to let that hold him back."
When he looked up, Sephiroth found Zack grinning. "And what about distractions?" Zack asked
slyly, his grin widening even further.

"What about them?"

"You should come see us fight. See if he can do that whilst being watched by someone high up. I
noticed he was acting funny around you today." As Sephiroth stepped around the table, Zack
took the opportunity to nudge the elder in the ribs, winking.

Sephiroth shoved Zack's arm away gently and began to motion for the dark-haired man to lead
the way out. Zack shot him one last teasing grin - which Sephiroth ignored - before moving out.
Both men nodded politely to the late-working secretary they passed and then headed off down
one of the still-lit corridors towards their relative sleeping areas.

Zack's teasing remarks played across Sephiroth's mind as they walked. He'd heard them before -
though certainly not about Cloud Strife, who was still new enough under his scrutiny to still
command attention - but the boy had been acting strangely around him that day. Of course, he
chastised himself scornfully, there were hordes of people who acted oddly around him. The boy
was no different.

So why could he not convince himself of that?

You survive on your instincts. You have done so even before you ever saw a battlefield. Why are
you so doubtful of them now?

The blond was unassuming in every way - from a distance, at least. Zack spoke a lot about him,
and had done ever since he had arrived, but Sephiroth had paid no attention. Another nameless,
faceless cadet he could not know - wasn't allowed to get close to - and so he had never bothered
to even feign attentiveness. He couldn't help but wonder, now, if that had been an error. Perhaps
they had been continually overlooking an untapped resource that SOLDIER needed within its
ranks. From what he had seen, the cadet's startling ability was well into SOLDIER 3rd class level,
perhaps even 2nd, and for how long had it been that way? How long had Cloud been taught
beneath his level?

Sephiroth made a mental note to pull up Strife's old test scores when he had the time. But there
was no point moving Cloud up now, so close to the exams. He would go through them like any
other cadet, and hopefully - certainly - pass. It would be normal. No attention would be drawn to
the blond. Sephiroth had the feeling that the boy balked at attention; had not learned to ignore it
the way that Sephiroth had. So, this was the best way.

"I'm heading off now," Zack said, startling the General enough that it showed, and the dark-
haired SOLDIER raised an eyebrow at him, a sly grin beginning to curve his lips. "Have fun,
why don't you?"
Sephiroth wasn't quite sure what Zack meant by that, or what Zack had been grinning about, but
he let it slide, as he so often did when he didn't understand. He wondered just how long he had
been musing, because they were standing outside the door to Zack's resident dorm area.

The object of his consternation lay behind that door, Sephiroth thought, and scowled.

"I'm, uh, going to talk to Cloud about Aeris." That caught his attention. Zack's expression was
uncertain, his eyes seeking approval for his choice. "I'll let you know how it goes, okay? Best to
get it over and done with, as they say."

Sephiroth nodded absently, mind only half-concentrating on Zack's relieved look. "You do that.
I'll see you tomorrow."

Zack grinned at him in farewell, and then quietly ducked behind the door. The General moved on
towards his own quarters.

*****

He could tell from the snores and light breathing that most, if not all, of the guys under his
jurisdiction were asleep. Zack tiptoed across the floor towards his bunk and sat down gently on
the edge of Cloud's bed to take off his boots. He would probably wake Cloud up when he
clambered up above him to his own bed anyway.

Cloud didn't stir, stretched out under his blanket on his belly, most of his face obscured by his
near arm. It was a warmer night than most of the recent ones had been, which was probably why
the cadet was sleeping so soundly.

If you only knew half how much I pay attention to you, you'd be surprised.

Perhaps, now that Cloud seemed to be doing so much better, he wouldn't need Zack to watch
over him so closely.

Yeah, whatever. You'd do it anyway!

Sliding his boots under the bed and out of the way, he watched the soft rise and fall of the blond's
back as he breathed, debating whether or not to wake him up. Perhaps it would disturb one of
Cloud's few good nights, but he didn't want anyone else to really overhear them. During the day,
everyone was up and down and all over the place - privacy was hard to find unless you were an
officer with private quarters. And now, with the others asleep and if they talked in whispers…

Go for it. Seph's expecting you to do this. Can't disappoint the General now, can we?

He grinned at the thought, and then reached over to gently shake Cloud by the shoulder. The
boy's eyes fluttered open not long after, and his blue eyes were fogged with sleep. He blinked
and turned over slightly when he realised someone was sitting on his bed. Zack couldn't stop
from widening his amused smile as Cloud squinted at him in the dark, pulling a face.
"Zack?" Cloud fell onto his back and threw an arm across his face. "…What's wrong? What time
is it?"

"About midnight," Zack supplied helpfully, far too cheerful for the hour.

Cloud obviously thought so too, because he pulled another face at his superior. "What did you
wake me up for then? I was having a really great dream-"

"About Sephiroth, I'd wager."

"No," Cloud snapped, sounding far too much like a sullen teenager to be believed. Even if his
tone hadn't betrayed him, the guilty slide of his eyes away from Zack's would have alerted the
SOLDIER that he'd hit jackpot.

Zack snickered quietly. "Don't worry. I won't tell anyone. Not that most of the people in
SOLDIER aren't guilty of the same thing." Cloud's sleepy glare held none of its usual effect. "I
was going to ask you about something, actually. And no, it wasn't about Sephiroth, so don't
panic." The glare deepened. "Okay, okay, I'll stop teasing. Anyway…I wanted to know if you
knew Aeris."

Cloud was too disorientated and tired to mask the surprise that showed in his eyes, or the next
flashing emotion which looked suspiciously like panic. "No," he said, expression turning
suddenly puzzled. Zack watched him, the shock of surprise warm in his chest. "I've never met
her."

Sephiroth was right.

"You sure?" he pushed gently, almost hopefully. The surprise suddenly gave way to a fierce
bitterness at the knowledge that Cloud was lying to him. Lying, to Zack, who'd done nothing but
encourage and help a boy who'd have been swallowed and chewed up by this place if he hadn't
had the help.

Cloud shook his head, and the sleepy confusion was a mask so perfect that Zack would have
been fooled had he not already known it was fake. "I don't know her. Why? Did you think I knew
her?"

Zack found himself shaking his own head, and standing. Cloud watched him, eyes wide in the
dark. "No, it was just…nothing. Don't worry about it." He clambered up the ladder to his own
bed without further conversation, angry and not knowing whether it was justified or not.

He's lying to me!

Zack lay on his back staring up at the ceiling for a long time before he slept. At some point,
Cloud offered a timid, "Goodnight," but Zack didn't answer.

Good. At least he knows I'm not happy with him.
A part of him nagged guiltily that perhaps there were circumstances that could explain the
dishonesty, or that he was misreading the signs and Cloud was telling the truth, but he quashed
that with little effort.

Sephiroth's headache would return tenfold when Zack was through ranting at him about this.

*****

Neither Tifa nor Nanaki were ready for when Vincent's dark form leapt out of the sudden rain
that hampered their vision, yelling something that was lost in the wind. He was carrying
something wrapped in blankets and Vincent's own cloak, turned into the ex-Turk's chest.

"-inside!" Tifa eventually made out as Vincent kicked open the door to Cloud's home. "Get
inside! Quickly!"

Tifa and Nanaki followed blindly, infected by Vincent's panic, and Tifa pulled the door closed
behind her, turning at Nanaki's gasp to find Vincent laying out a figure on the rumpled bed in the
hut. Pulling back the soaked blankets and cloak, the flash of pale blond made Tifa's hands fly to
her mouth in shock.

"Cloud!"

"Someone activate those fire materia around the room until it's warm. He's ice cold." Vincent had
fallen into his calm, collected voice, but Tifa barely heard it. She stared down at the pale, thin
figure Vincent was hurriedly stripping out of wet clothing, frozen to the spot. Gods, he was so
thin - testified as a white chest appeared, and Tifa could count most of the ribs. What did he eat
up here, where nothing grew and there was so little to hunt?

"Tifa!" Nanaki cried, breaking her out of her shock and forcing her gaze away from Cloud's still-
handsome face. "You need to help Vincent with Cloud. Get him out of his clothes and wrap him
up in those dry blankets."

"Oh - of course." She literally fell to her knees on Vincent's left, trembling fingers tugging
insistently at the wet material that stuck to Cloud's skin. A little while later they were wrapping
him in blankets, as tightly as they could do.

They lay him back, eventually, and Tifa pressed her fingers to Cloud's throat. A pulse, slow but
strong. So slow…a dull thud against her fingers that went too long quiet (long enough to make
her begin to panic) before thumping again.

“What‟s wrong with him?” she murmured, more to herself than anyone else, and let her
fingertips trail lightly across the line of his cheekbone.

“I don‟t know. Exposure…I don‟t think he‟s got hypothermia, or shock…” Vincent shook his
head, glancing at Nanaki as the feline padded up and sat down. “I don‟t know what happened.
We‟ll just have to wait.”
Tifa nodded, feeling her eyes sting. She sighed and lowered her head, shaking it sadly. “Why is
he doing this to himself? Why can‟t he come back to us?”

Nanaki raised his eyes to Vincent, who remained silent, his own gaze settled on Cloud‟s pale,
drawn face. "Perhaps," Vincent said finally, "this is what he thinks he deserves."

"That's so…stupid!" He'd expected the outburst from Tifa, who saw nothing but what Cloud
wanted her to see. He didn't look at her as she continued, "He's done nothing but good things!
How could he think that being stuck up on a mountain freezing to death is what he deserves?!"

Vincent let her continue, aware that Nanaki's sharp eyes were watching him suspiciously. He
ignored that as well, choosing to turn his attention to the worn figure in front of him. The smell
of the Lifestream was strong, clinging to the blond's thin frame as if it were a part of him.

What have you done to him?

There was no answer except for the silence where the Cetra might have been, and Vincent had
expected no more or less than that. If they were watching, they gave no sign. Vincent wondered,
vaguely, if Cloud himself had asked the Cetra to oblige him in some matter, and this state was
something of his own doing.

"Do you think if we shake him he'll wake up?" Nanaki said abruptly, who had moved close
enough to Cloud that Vincent could see the animal's nose wrinkling against the smell.

Vincent shrugged, the corner of his mouth twitching a little at the thought. "We could always
try." Thinking that it would do little to no good anyway, Vincent reached down and grasped
Cloud's shoulders. Tifa had fallen silent and she watched as the dark-haired man proceeded to
shake the blond's unconscious body. Cloud's head snapped back and forth listlessly.

Give him back to us. I doubt that there's anything even the Cetra can do to ease his pain except
grant him a painless death.

Abruptly, something crackled across Cloud's skin and Vincent pulled his hands back in pain,
dropping Cloud onto his back. In the wake of his fingertips arced trails of green mist that quickly
dissipated in the still air. A second later, Cloud looked perfectly normal.

"What was that?" Nanaki prodded Cloud gingerly with a paw, waiting for the same reaction and
getting nothing.

"The Cetra. They must have him somewhere. That is why he smells of them." Vincent shook his
head and reached out again, brushing his fingertips hesitantly against Cloud's forehead. Nothing
happened. Frowning, he grasped Cloud's shoulders again and before he could even move, pain
flared in his hands. Green mist arced from where Vincent's fingers had been for a few moments
before fading.

This time, however, there was a difference.
"Leave him. He is protected with us far more than he could ever be with you."

It was both one voice and many at the same time, fierce with anger. As soon as it was there, it
was gone, leaving a gaping hole behind that stung in the back of Vincent‟s mind. No-one said
anything, and Vincent was left with the distinct impression that he was the only one who had
heard anything.

Cautiously, he placed a hand flat against Cloud‟s clammy forehead. What are you doing to him?

There was a moment of nothingness, and then the faint pressure in his head returned a bare
moment before the Cetra spoke again. “We are giving him a peace he never attained in life.”

A vision assaulted him of the gravestone but whether that came from the Cetra or not, Vincent
couldn‟t tell. Never attained in life? Is he dead?

“He is still alive. However, we will allow him to pass on if he so desires.”

The voice was cold, devoid now of even the initial anger, and Vincent felt his body jerk back
from Cloud, shock running through him at the words spoken to him. He sat back, staring at the
blond‟s still body. If Cloud so desires? If he had wanted to die, he would be gone already. Why
are the Cetra doing this?

He had intended the thought to be private, not even realising that the Cetra may have heard him.
His blood ran as cold as their voice as they spoke one last time to him. “We will make or break
him. Either way, Cloud Strife will find rest.”

*****

Sephiroth sighed softly, leaning back in his chair and tapping the ends of his gloved fingers on
the edge of his desk.

The paperwork left behind had taken little time to complete, especially after he and Zack had
pulled the late night before get back on top of it, and now sat in a pile in a tray waiting to be
taken off elsewhere. There was nothing else to do, which was both a blessing and a curse.
Sephiroth stared thoughtfully at the blank computer screen in front of him, and then reached out
to switch the machine on.

He could probably get in trouble for some aspect of what he was doing, Sephiroth mused, even
though he was the General and full access to the personnel files should have been a given.
ShinRa, however, had never been run on logic and Sephiroth knew this better than anyone.

His fingers moved swiftly over the keys as he typed in a search. Cloud Strife‟s file appeared
immediately, and he realised that he‟d almost been expecting some kind of password option to
come up, as if there was something about the boy that he didn‟t know and might explain
everything.
Getting slightly desperate, aren‟t we?

He pulled up the personal details first, curiosity peaking more than anything. Sephiroth frowned
at the pale, thin face in the picture that was presented to him, surrounded by a familiar mop of
blond hair. Cloud looked vaguely frightened and it wasn‟t hard to imagine him being so. There
was nothing out of the ordinary, he saw as his eyes flickered down the page. He was just a boy
from an out of the way town, like any other.

Yeah. They say to look out for the unassuming ones, don‟t they.

Sephiroth leaned forward in his chair, placing one elbow on the desk and resting his chin in the
cup of his hand as he tapped a couple of keys. A second window appeared over the profile one,
labelled “Scores”. Green eyes gazed once more down the page, taking in numbers and notes with
increasing surprise.

This doesn‟t make sense…

„A quiet, distant student whose level of determination is only let down by his lack of innate
talent‟…‟Test scores continue to lag behind those of his peers‟…

Sephiroth narrowed his eyes, continuing to read as his confusion increased. As he approached
more recent test scores, nothing had improved at all. Cloud continued to be the runt at the back
of the class, who tried but just didn‟t have what it took to make it.

I don‟t understand…

What Sephiroth had seen of the boy was nothing like this. He scowled at the screen, unable to
comprehend the records. Perhaps there had been some mistake..?

And then, quite suddenly, in the past few weeks the regular test scores had jumped high, and the
comments had changed from „lags behind‟ to „shows incredible improvement in so little time‟
and „astounding progress‟.

It‟s almost as if a different person suddenly appeared and took Cloud‟s place. The change is too
sudden to just be „improvement‟.

The General stared at the screen for a long time, trying and failing to figure out what was going
on. An enigma, this boy…a puzzle waiting to be solved, and Sephiroth had never shied away
from one before.

Sephiroth decided, as he shut off the computer, that he would have to take Zack up on his earlier
suggestion of coming to keep an eye on the training. He sat back in his chair for a moment, silent,
before picking up the finished paperwork to hand in for filing.

*****
End Chapter 5.

A/N:

1. I hate plot building. I need some yaoi.

2. Thank you for being patient with me/this fic, everyone. I appreciate it.

Fusion 6

by Knowing Shadows

Disclaimer: See Chapter 1

-----

Sephiroth's proposed visit to the training of one of ShinRa's best cadets in years didn't quite
happen when either the General or Zack had planned it. This was not, however, through any lack
of curiosity on the General‟s part. The original reason that it was put off was that a lot of
paperwork and trouble had just come the way of SOLDIER and its General, which kept
Sephiroth too busy to even attempt to think about it. It stayed in the back of his mind, however,
but remained unrealised.

Zack reported to him, occasionally, that the training was about as useful as teaching a duck how
to float on water. Zack was also the first to say that Cloud couldn't yet beat him - quite proudly,
as if Cloud was 6'4'' and built like a tank - and Sephiroth was secretly quite amused when Zack
came into work on the odd occasion limping or rubbing a sore shoulder where the blond had
landed a decent blow. He'd asked to see Zack's „battle scars‟ once and had been grumbled at
uncharitably.

"The thing is," Zack said one morning, gingerly rubbing the bruise blooming on his right wrist,
"the only time I get hurt is when I catch him off guard. Most of the time he's fine and I win quite
fairly. It's just that…it feels like he's holding back. It's when I get him going into a rhythm and
suddenly do something unexpected that he just reacts without thinking. He reacts on instinct and
actually lands and damn good blow, nine times out of ten! I'm almost afraid to try and get him to
fight like that constantly during the sessions because I get the feeling I'll walk away a lot worse
off than he will."

Sephiroth nodded to show he was listening. The fact that Cloud apparently had such moves
ingrained in him suggested years of hard training or experience, and this settled uneasily with the
General. The boy was, what, fifteen? "Does he still move oddly, sometimes?" In the back of his
mind the image of the blond‟s sometimes almost loping walk came to mind.

"Not anymore, no. That's one thing, at least, that the training's doing. He seems to be a lot more
confident in what his body can do. I don't know where he learnt half the stuff he shows off
against me. And I wouldn't worry about his height or weight being a disadvantage - he's quite
ingenious enough to make up for it."

"So it would seem." Sephiroth leaned his chin in his hand and frowned, signing the report swiftly
before reaching for the next. He ran his mind back swiftly along what Zack had mentioned.
"Holding back, though? Why would he do that?"

Zack made a rather loud, exasperated noise, causing Sephiroth to look up to catch the dark-
haired man burying his face in his hands. "I don't know! That's what I keep wondering and every
time I say something he just goes to ice on me!"

It wasn't surprising, really, Sephiroth mused. The impression that he'd received from Zack of the
boy was that he avoided confrontation whenever possible when it came to something he'd done
or said. Zack cared too much to really push for answers, suited more for his position as so-called
'carer' for a group of cadets rather than for a high leadership job such as Sephiroth's within the
military. Sephiroth, it had been said, didn't care enough, and the General was aware of this -
resented it, in fact, because it reminded him too much of Hojo and he would be damned before
he found something in himself that could be likened to that man.

He did care, but kept it to himself more than anything.

“Why don‟t you ask him!” Zack started exclaiming, his frustration tangible. “You‟re the General,
he can hardly just cross his arms and glare at you if you ask him! He could be thrown out for
insubordination for that-“

“He could be thrown out for insubordination for doing it to you because you are a higher ranking
officer,” Sephiroth pointed out, his voice clearly indicating that he thought Zack would never
even dream of reporting Strife. He knew Zack well enough that he was a man who disliked those
who didn‟t try, but would do everything possible for those who did.

“I‟m his friend. It‟s different.”

An excuse, however valid it might seem to the other officer. Sephiroth let it slide, closing his
eyes for a moment as he rolled his shoulders against the incoming ache. He‟d been sitting down
for too long, staring at report after report after report-

“But you are gonna make time, aren‟t you?” He glanced up to find Zack watching him intently,
momentarily thrown by the change in the direction of the subject. “To come see him, I mean.”

“Yes.” Eventually. When I have time. These days, he rarely had any time.

“Soon.”

“If I can.” He had never been a real liar, never one to get someone‟s hopes up knowing that he
could only dash them when the time came. Zack would just have to deal with the amount of time
that his job took up, and so would Sephiroth.
“It‟ll be worth your whiiiile,” Zack wheedled hopefully, trying not to smile too widely.

“I‟ll find that out when I find the time to go.”

“Spoilsport.” Zack snorted softly, getting up from the chair he had pulled up next to Sephiroth‟s
desk. The General watched him patiently and Zack grinned. He offered a wave and a goodbye,
leaving Sephiroth to his own paperwork in silence.

Mostly successfully, Sephiroth let all thought of Cloud Strife drift away so that he could
concentrate on his work. He‟d found what Zack now referred to as “the Strife Dilemma”
particularly vexing not only because he could find out nothing to solve the puzzle, but that it so
easily dominated his thoughts because of it.

The loneliness helped, somewhat.

He wasn‟t left alone for long, as it was. Sephiroth hated the constant interruptions and everyone
who worked on his floor knew that unless you were Zack, you never took up the General‟s time.
It was only those who didn‟t work on his floor – or the two floors either above or below, for that
matter – who would not have known not to disturb him. Even then, Sephiroth suspected that
word must have spread, just in case, so in reality no-one in the entire building had any right to go
against it.

The noise of his door being pushed open was enough to startle him out of his paperwork and lift
his head. Irritation settled instantly in his chest, even before he had seen who it was. Zack had
been a distraction he didn‟t mind, because the other man knew not to stay long when he was
working, but he doubted very much that anyone else who might enter would be so welcome.

When his eyes lifted to those of his new company, he couldn‟t help but let the irritation shift to a
sudden surge of surprise.

“Hojo,” he said, as politely as he could manage, knowing that it would be ignored anyway.

The Professor looked decidedly wrong, standing in front of his desk. He always seemed like he
wasn‟t quite on the same plane of existence as everyone else, perhaps because Sephiroth was
well aware that the Professor‟s intelligence lay at a level far above anything he had ever
encountered before. He was always pale, and lab coat starkly white. The only thing that stopped
him from seeming like a ghost was the shocking mess of long, pitch black hair that seemed so at
odds with the colourless nature of the rest of him.

Sephiroth paused, letting his pen fall to his desk, and then frowned as he regarded the shorter
figure of the scientist in front of him. “What are you doing here?” In fact, what was Hojo doing
anywhere other than the top floors of the ShinRa building anyway? Sephiroth had become
entirely convinced that the Professor had developed an intense loathing of anywhere other than a
laboratory.
“I came to find you.” Hojo pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose irritably, dark eyes black
with what Sephiroth knew was anger; or, as close to anger as Hojo ever got. The professor‟s
emotions – what he had of them – were something entirely darker than what could be considered
normal. The General had known that since he was five years old.

“To find me?” Somewhere, deep down, Sephiroth was quite aware that this was a bad thing. He
was good at keeping his emotions private however, and kept the sudden awful uneasiness hidden.
He racked his brain for something that he had done wrong, but all he could think of –

“Yes,” Hojo said slowly, clasping his hands behind his back, mouth set in a slight sneer of
disdain. “As much as it must have slipped your mind, you are not at liberty as an employee of
this company to simply ignore my summons to appointments.”

Sephiroth bit down the anger at Hojo‟s utterly bored, disgusted tone, settling for flexing his
fingers into a fist for a second and then straightening them again instead. Setting his jaw, he said,
“I was working when that particular appointment arose.”

“And yet you failed to notify me of this.” There was that awful knowing boredom again, the tone
of voice that Hojo had often taken with him since he was about ten. One day, he mused, he
would make Hojo pay for the last fifteen years of using that voice with him.

“It slipped my mind.” Falling into the now familiar pattern of using insolence as a shield against
the Professor was easier than using the masamune. “Like you said.”

“I came to deliver a message in person – “ Hojo‟s tone of voice didn‟t hide how deplorable he
found it “ – that your next appointment is for two days time, normal time. Your attendance is
compulsory.”

“Fine.” When insolence failed, resorting to his own quiet fury gave him something to use.
Sephiroth abhorred dealing with Hojo. He wasn‟t a man whose hate was easily earned, but he
had hated the Professor ever since he could remember. “Is that all?”

This man could never be my father.

Hojo sneered, a slight pull of his top lip revealing the straight white teeth beneath. “That is all.”

And I will never be his son.

Sephiroth sat at his desk thinking for a long time after Hojo left, and eventually picked up the
phone to contact Zack to let him know that he would come to watch Strife‟s training in two days
time.

-----

Cloud grunted with effort as he raised the flat side of his sword up to ward off Zack‟s sailing
blow. His elbows bent to take in some of the impact but his arms threatened to cave completely
in exhaustion. He knew that if he looked up at the high windows he would see the twilight sky.
They‟d been at this for hours and even though in his mind he knew the moves, his body didn‟t
have the stamina that it would have in fifteen years time.

He looked up at the window briefly, in fact, and heard the whistle of Zack‟s sword blade slicing
the air in two suddenly much closer than before. He brought his arm up awkwardly – both arms,
twisted and bent in an instinctive move that he knew Zack had been looking for as he did it – and
parried again, feeling white hot pain shoot up his arm from his wrist. There wasn‟t enough
bracing strength in his arm to pull off the move properly and he had known it as he‟d done that,
too.

He pulled back, dancing on the balls of his feet, wincing even as he watched the small smile
playing across Zack‟s face.

“If you‟d had more strength behind that, you‟d have pulled it off.”

Cloud scowled in disgust – as if he hadn‟t known that! “It‟s late, Zack. Why can‟t we leave it for
today?”

“You haven‟t beaten me yet.” Zack‟s smile widened to a grin, eyes bright with energy. Cloud
vaguely wondered if he‟d ever be able to stand up to Zack‟s level of enthusiasm.

“I won‟t be able to beat you,” Cloud said, aching to reach over and rub his throbbing arm. Zack
kept on pushing him like that, trying to get him to react instead of think about his moves. Of
course, he was as used to doing that as Zack was, but when he was fifteen he‟d have had little
reason to have learnt anything like that. He wasn‟t entirely sure what Zack thought he was doing
by provoking such moves from him, but he knew that one more would finish him off tonight.

“You don‟t try,” Zack said, flipping his sword easily in his hand. “Let go for a while, just go
with it. I bet that style would suit you.”

What are you trying to say to me, Zack? Cloud felt the frustration welling up in him as he shifted
his grip on the hilt of his sword. “Zack, I‟m tired. My wrist hurts. Please, can‟t we just pick this
up tomorrow?”

Zack‟s expression faltered uneasily at “my arm hurts” and Cloud silently cheered. He watched
his friend‟s brown eyes darken in thought for a moment and when he saw the tip of Zack‟s sword
waver and lower just slightly in the air, he knew that he‟d won that time. Biting back a sigh of
relief, Cloud nearly dropped his own sword and reached over to gingerly touch his sore muscles.

“Oi, you‟re not hurt that much?” Zack had dropped his sword, watching where the blond was
rubbing.

“You came at me pretty hard.” Cloud shrugged, wincing as a muscle in his lower arm protested
to being inadvertently tensed. “It‟s alright. You‟ll just have to take it easy tomorrow.” He looked
up just in time to catch the fleeting look of horror that passed across Zack‟s face. Realising that
he‟d been seen, Zack then looked mildly panicked, before trying to affect an expression of
complete innocence.

Cloud stiffened. “What‟s happening tomorrow?” he said after a moment of letting Zack stew in
his own carelessness.

“More practice,” came the reply, with a pretty good feigned tone with it. Cloud merely raised an
eyebrow, waiting expectantly whilst he watched his friend‟s face crumble. Eventually, Zack
sighed, fiddled with a few odd spikes of hair self-consciously, and smile widely. “Will you stop
looking at me like that if I say it‟s a secret?”

“You won‟t tell me anyway, so I‟ll have to.” Cloud picked up his sword, trying to curb his
curiosity and almost failing. Damn, but he wanted to ask. It wasn‟t the first time that something
like this had been done to him recently, however.

Zack had been given to infrequent fits of odd behaviour in the last few weeks, where he‟d say
something strange and sometimes look at Cloud in an almost cold manner. At least, Cloud
thought, he wasn‟t looking at the blond in that way this time.

He hated that look, because it made him feel like he was lower than dirt in Zack‟s eyes. Sure, his
own behaviour must have been strange at times, but he‟d been sure that Zack would put it down
to his rather odd disposition anyway – back when he‟d had to live through this the first time, the
SOLDIER 1st would often comment that he was “a strange kid”, but Zack had liked him anyway.

Zack had never looked at him that way back then.

“Come on,” the dark-haired man said unexpectedly, clapping Cloud on the shoulder with a smile,
“it‟ll be fun not knowing, yeah? Let‟s get these swords back and head off – better put a support
bandage on your wrist just in case you‟ve sprained it.”

“I haven‟t sprained it,” Cloud scoffed, but realised that Zack knew that. Obviously, Zack wanted
him in as good a condition as possible tomorrow, but why, he wasn‟t sure. He wasn‟t about to
argue, in any case, because his wrist was beginning to throb dully.

The next day, he met Zack at the usual time in one of the private practice arenas, flexing his
fingers cautiously and gritting his teeth against the ache that set up beneath the tight bandage.
Whatever they‟d managed to do to him yesterday, it hadn‟t yet healed. Of course, it hadn‟t
helped that he‟d twisted it in a practical class earlier that day, either.

Zack was watching him worriedly as he tried to find a way to move his hand that didn‟t involve a
spike of pain and continued to fail to do so. Cloud propped his sword up against the wall, pulling
the bandage back to show a dark purple bruise spread across his pale skin. Zack looked over,
mouth pulling into a grimace of sympathy. “Damn,” he muttered. “Does it hurt much?”

“A bit.” Cloud pulled the bandage back into place. “I won‟t be able to do anything tonight, I
don‟t think, or we‟ll just make it worse.” Especially if you keep pulling those moves on me.
“Damn,” Zack muttered again. “Damn, damn, damn.”

“Why is it so dreadful that I can‟t practice today?”

Zack fidgeted a little, giving Cloud sidelong glances that told the blond it was still supposed to
be secret. A surprise, perhaps? Cloud couldn‟t think of anything it could be other than maybe a
new training weapon or some materia. He‟d been dying to get some practice with materia in-

“Sephiroth was supposed to come watch today.”

Cloud paused, frozen in place, and stared blankly at the older man for a long moment. The shock
of the unexpected statement washed through him in a cold wave, followed by a sudden glow of
heat that made him sure his cheeks had gone pink as well as causing a rippling shudder
throughout the rest of him. “Oh,” he said. “Why?” His voice came out in something like a
terrified whisper.

“Because I wanted him to see you.” Zack shrugged, dark eyes sliding away from Cloud‟s. “And I
knew that you might not turn up today if I‟d told you he was coming.”

It was true, Cloud thought with a flush of shame at what would have constituted as cowardice in
his own eyes, however much he might have been unable to avoid it. The thought of Sephiroth‟s
eyes on him still frightened him somewhat and always had, because when the General‟s attention
was all on him what would he see that Cloud couldn‟t hide?

The odd fluttery feeling in his chest and stomach turned heavy as he remembered that Sephiroth
hadn‟t, in the end, turned up at all. He let his gaze slide down from where Zack stood to where
he had raised his trembling, bandaged arm.

Not that I‟d have been much of a show today anyway. The embarrassment intensified slowly in
the pit of his stomach and he lowered his arm so that Zack might not see it shaking.

“But he‟s not here.” Zack shook his head, his voice drawing Cloud‟s eyes back up to his. “And
he called me to tell me he would be here. That‟s unusual for him in the first place, so he should
be here.”

“Maybe he‟s been held up.” It hurt less to think that way, and it was difficult to keep the hope
out of his voice. “Or something‟s happened.”

“Something has to have happened, because he wouldn‟t just-“ Zack stopped abruptly, eyes going
wide and losing their focus momentarily. Cloud fidgeted, his own eyes following suit out of
sudden panic.

“What?” He padded closer to the dark-haired man, who didn‟t respond. “Zack, look at me! What
is it!” He grasped Zack‟s arms to try and shake him, but was suddenly being shaken off himself,
Zack‟s hands waving around in an attempt to ward him away. His eyes had come back into focus
as he returned from his reverie, and he gazed at Cloud with something just short of calm.
“We just need to find him, is all,” Zack said. Cloud stepped back a little, letting the older man
take his sword and wander out to quickly put them away. He watched, feeling the panic that
Zack seemed to be hiding dancing beneath his skin. “I think I know where he‟ll be, so don‟t
worry.”

Don‟t worry!

-----

They found themselves in front of a door.

Cloud stuck closely to Zack‟s back, having been taken to a floor of the building that he‟d never
been in before, and this was obviously for a reason. Everybody that they‟d passed on the way
had been a SOLDIER 2nd or higher and had given him the kind of looks that made him feel
about three inches tall.

Not that the thoughts going through his own mind were any different from theirs, though. Why
was he there anyway? Zack had said relatively little on the way, walking purposefully fast.
Cloud had had to jog some of the way to keep up on his slightly shorter legs.

The whole floor consisted of many long corridors full of the standard ShinRa sliding doors, and
most had a name or number plate on them to identify whose quarters lay behind them. They‟d
walked almost the whole length of the floor until they‟d come to a corridor where none of the
doors had name plates, and it was much more quiet here than it had been in the other areas.

The door that they stood before was a dark uniform grey colour, just like the rest that they had
passed. A keypad was mounted on the wall just to the right of the door at chest height, and a red
light blinked on and off on it.

“Zack,” Cloud said quietly, tugging on his sleeve to get his attention, “where are we?”

“Seph‟s room,” came the distracted reply, and Zack reached up to type in the code as Cloud
almost rocked back on his heels. The familiar wracking tension and apprehensive fear was still
unexpected, however many times he had felt it. It had filled him when Zack had left him outside
Aeris‟ house, that strange clamouring of delight and terror at the prospect of having the attention
of the man he‟d always, always admired.

He can‟t expect me to go in there! I can‟t go in there!

“Zack!” He tugged at the sleeve again, but was ignored. “Zack, please-“

“Cloud!” Zack half-spun around to look at him, eyes hard with irritation, and Cloud dropped his
sleeve. “Will you just be quiet for a moment! This is important!” As Cloud shrank back in
surprise, Zack turned back to the door and finished entering the code. The door slid open with a
quiet hiss, and Cloud watched as he entered the room, blocking his view of what lay within.
I didn‟t mean…

He realised that perhaps Zack‟s anger had been earned in what must have been selfishness on his
own part – how could he be so concerned with his own personal problems, ones that he usually
kept hidden so deep down that no-one on the outside had even the first inkling of them, when
they were here for Sephiroth?

He hesitated, head lowered and trying not to tremble. Awkwardly, he massaged his injured wrist
and quietly stepped in after Zack.

-----

“Seph?”

The General‟s quarters had always been sparsely furnished; little more than what came with the
room to start with was there, except for Sephiroth‟s clothes and things, which were all neatly put
away out of sight.

The first warning sign was that there were various articles of clothing dropped unceremoniously
across the floor. The first thought that had crossed Zack‟s mind the first time he had encountered
this was that Sephiroth was nowhere near as „virtuous‟ as people sometimes thought. His second
thought, not long after his first, had been that the other person must have been naked to start with
because all he could see was Sephiroth‟s clothes.

He felt his heart beat just that little bit faster in dread, eyes going to each abandoned garment in
turn, knowing without even thinking that the little trail would lead to the bed. One boot had gone
first, followed somehow by a pair of rumpled leather trousers, then the other boot. The leather
coat sat by the bottom of the bed with one of Sephiroth‟s shoulder plates. Looking around briefly
showed that the other shoulder plate had ended up under the table on the other side of the room
with a glove. The other glove lay crumpled up in the middle of the floor.

“This is so not good,” Zack murmured.

Cloud stood behind Zack, feeling the tension emanating from the other man so thickly that he
almost wanted to back-peddle out of the room as fast as possible. What he could see of the room
was as much as he‟d expected, except that he could see littered clothes vaguely from where he
could peer around Zack. He was almost afraid to step around to look, afraid that he would be
seen and thrown out, but something was going on.

He stepped around anyway as Zack moved forwards towards the far end of the square room, and
felt himself grow cold. His own eyes followed the trail of clothes, heat rushing to his cheeks in
embarrassment as he realised what he was looking at. That embarrassment, however, was
forgotten instantly as his eyes alighted upon the bed in the far corner, and his breath hitched just
enough to make his chest ache for a moment.

What‟s going on?
Zack was leaning over the bed, over the curled up figure under the light cotton sheet and
reaching down to place his palm against Sephiroth‟s pale forehead. Cloud started forward, and
stopped when he detected a faint metallic tang to the air.

“What‟s wrong?” he asked, voice quiet in the stillness of the room, feeling the panic begin to rise
as Sephiroth didn‟t respond to Zack at all. The General was just a barely breathing lump under
the sheet, only recognisable as Sephiroth because he was facing the wall and so presented
glimpses of the back of his head to the room. His silver hair gleamed.

“Shit,” Cloud heard Zack mutter, drawing back from the bed. The dark-haired man looked over
his shoulder at him, expression drawn with worry. “I need to get some stuff from the bathroom,
so I need you to just…just sit with him for a moment. Talk to him if you want to, but I don‟t
know if he can hear you. Don‟t touch him-“

- Skin, burning and all fire around him, so painful he wanted to rip right through the Mako-
soaked uniform and tear his flesh from his bones, just to escape the pain for one moment -

“-because his skin‟ll be real sensitive. Okay? Cloud?”

Cloud blinked, eyes focusing suddenly on Zack‟s worried ones. He hadn‟t even realised that he‟d
zoned out for that brief moment, but the faint phantom pain dancing across his body was only too
clear. He nodded, too eager with the fear of making the other man angry again, watched as Zack
strode quickly off into one of the side rooms that Cloud assumed was the bathroom, and stood
frozen by the doorway for a moment longer as the memory of Nibelheim shivered through him
once more.

Nervously he walked towards the bed, and the door hissed closed behind him as he moved away
from it. He hated Zack in that moment, because the man knew how he felt and knew that he was
afraid – god, so afraid, even after so many long, lonely years…

He realised as he stood cautiously about two feet from the edge of the bed that Sephiroth was
shivering beneath the sheet. The tang in the air had increased to a sharp bitterness that clung to
the back of his throat. Mako. Cloud knew that, were he inclined to look, he would find a dark
bruise not very unlike the one of his wrist that marked where the silver-haired man had been
injected. Once upon a time, he had spent hours looking at those bruises, some part of him
marvelling over the beautiful contrast against his pale skin, one barely fading before another was
branded on him with what could have looked like carelessness had he not understood how
precise Hojo was.

Sephiroth lay close to the wall, the sheet drawn up to his chin and grasped in his hands as if
someone was trying to steal it from him. Every so often, Cloud noticed, his fingers would flex in
an uncontrollable spasm. His knees were curled up to his chest, head bowed towards them. His
hair was mostly fine, but around his face strands were stuck to the fine sheen of sweat that
covered the pallid, ill-tinged skin. Cloud stared, feeling the familiar tightness in his chest, biting
his lip.
I came back for you…but I don‟t know what I‟m doing that will help at all. You don‟t need
anything from me, I‟m no-one…but Zack told me to sit so he must think I can give something,
however small…

He perched himself cautiously on the very edge of the bed, just enough that he wouldn‟t fall off.
Vaguely, he heard Zack swearing from the bathroom that he couldn‟t find a flannel, but it barely
registered. Cheeks growing warm, he stared at the smooth curve of the back of Sephiroth‟s neck
where the hair had fallen away.

“When I killed Hojo,” he murmured to the prone form, quiet enough that Sephiroth probably
wouldn‟t have heard had he been listening, “I killed him for both of us. I only wish that I could
do it now. We‟d all of us be saved…at least a little…” Sephiroth did nothing but shudder against
the words, to all appearances dead to the world. Cloud wrung his hands nervously in his lap.

Cloud remembered this experience painfully well, and his whole body itched as he watched the
General. He remembered days on end where he and Zack would be suspended in the cells of
Mako; days of constant agony where he couldn‟t even move to try and hurt himself to distract his
mind from the burn of the green around him. His dreams these days, more often than not,
contained either Sephiroth or an endless wave of green vision, finding himself trapped inside the
Mako-filled cell once more even if it was within his own mind.

The shared experience, the knowing, was something he perhaps felt he could have offered had it
not been impossible to do so without raising questions. He burned with it then, the unfairness
bitter in the back of his throat with the Mako.

Sephiroth hitched an awkward breath, pulling Cloud‟s often introspective attention outwards. His
gaze lifted from the other man‟s neck, and he let out a sudden squeak of surprise as Sephiroth
shifted. He instinctively moved off of the bed and stumbled back a step, and Zack re-emerged
from the bathroom with a bowl of water and the sought-after flannel. He glanced at Cloud, and
the blond stepped back further, feeling that this was Zack‟s space and not wishing to intrude. The
older man‟s brown eyes slid from his as he moved, and the SOLDIER settled on Cloud‟s vacated
spot with more certainty than Cloud could ever have dreamed of in that position.

Sephiroth had twisted half onto his back, and Cloud suddenly saw the sliver of green beneath the
thick eyelashes that Zack had spotted.

“Hey,” Zack said in a low voice, dipping the flannel into the water. “Welcome back to the land
of the living. Please pass Go and collect 2000 gil.” He brought the flannel out of the water,
twisted it to wring the water out, and folded it against Sephiroth‟s clammy forehead. “You‟re a
sneaky bastard, you know that? Next time, why don‟t you just ask for help instead of setting the
both of us up like that, you stubborn-“ Sephiroth didn‟t even blink, simply watching from
beneath his eyelids in what seemed like a confused daze. “Okay, maybe we‟re not totally there
yet,” Zack murmured, placing the bowl on the floor by the side of the bed. “But we‟re getting
there.”

“Is he okay?” Cloud dared softly, near bouncing on the balls of his feet in nervous apprehension.
“He‟ll be okay, yeah.” Cloud watched as Zack reached out to briefly touch his friend‟s arm,
wishing he had the courage to do such a thing, even when Sephiroth was mostly unaware of it. “I
should go get some pain stuff for him…the only stuff that works is in the labs, though, and you
would get in so much shit if you got caught.”

He would have gone if he‟d been asked, Cloud knew, even though in his mind his better
judgement would have warned him that Hojo was a cruel, unfeeling monster who would tear him
apart for any indiscretion. He was only a cadet, after all, and couldn‟t any body be donated for
the good of science?

The dark-haired SOLDIER stood up, and Cloud watched as Sephiroth‟s gaze trailed after him,
slightly delayed and obviously attracted by the movement more than by recognition. Zack gave a
last worried glance before turning back to Cloud. “I‟ll go get the pain meds. There‟s only so
much they can do to me if I get caught, anyway. Just make sure he stays lying down. If he starts
getting coherent, just talk to him a bit…I don‟t know, just use your head. Change the flannel
every so often to keep him cool. I‟ll be back soon, okay?”

He nodded quickly, shoving away the first thoughts of being left alone like this. He wondered if
that was how Zack saw him – as someone whose own petty problems came first. If that was so,
what might anyone else see in him?

Zack offered him an encouraging smile which he couldn‟t quite manage to return, and walked
out. When the door hissed closed behind him, Cloud stood for a moment, wondering if he should
turn around and face the green gaze that he could feel had fallen onto him in Zack‟s absence.

He did, eventually, turn. Sephiroth‟s eyes had lost none of their confusion, looking at some point
past him rather than at him. Cloud moved hesitantly across the room, watching for the following
of the other man‟s eyes and looking away when it happened, unable to look because he knew that
he wouldn‟t be able to look away again. His heart out on his sleeve one more time that he
couldn‟t afford it.

The distance ached anew, the way it used to even before Nibelheim.

He sat once more on the very edge of the bed, staring down at his knees at the folded hands there
because he didn‟t know where else to look. The silence was broken only by the sometimes
rasping breathing. He listened to this, debating whether or not to go and get a glass of water to
ease the parched throat, when the rasping suddenly increased. He looked up, about to go for
water, to find Sephiroth‟s eyes open fully, watching him with an awareness that had not been
there before.

“I know you.”

Cloud‟s eyes widened. “Yes…I‟m…a cadet. A friend of Zack‟s.” He shivered when silver brows
drew together, the eyes narrowing in an almost accusative manner. He shifted as far back as he
dared, his heart pounding uncomfortably in his chest. He watched, almost guiltily, as Sephiroth
drew in more air through soft parted lips, still unable to breathe properly.
“No…” It came out in a breathy rush that caused Cloud to quiver in response, eyes riveted. The
accusing scowl eased into puzzlement, and then Sephiroth murmured, “No, I remember you…I
remember that I hurt – hurt you. I tried to…with the Masamune. But…I can‟t…I don‟t
know…why did I..?”

Hurt me? But the only time was…when we were in…Nibelheim…

Cloud trembled, fumbling desperately for words that wouldn‟t come from his suddenly locked
throat. His eyes stung and blurred sharply as he scrambled up off of the bed, panicked, and as his
eyes focused he could see the other man‟s eyebrows raised in concern, eyes questioning and
sharp with a sudden desperate worry. He stood, legs shaking. How - ? This couldn‟t be
happening because there was no way that Sephiroth could have known –

What is he saying? That he remembers me? No! He can‟t – he can‟t remember! It‟s not possible
that he can – it hasn‟t happened yet!

“You don‟t know me,” he said eventually, voice choked and mind reeling. “You can‟t!”

“I…I don‟t know you..?” Sephiroth started to move then, tried to get his elbows up so that he
could lever himself into a sitting position, but he couldn‟t quite do it, continuing to watch Cloud
with the controlled confusion that the blond couldn‟t master himself, and voice still dazed. “But I
remember – “

“You can‟t remember!” Cloud‟s hands flew to his mouth, shaking his head, but there was no way
he could make sense of it, not with Sephiroth watching him like he held the answers to the
universe. He stumbled backwards, chest heaving as he fought to calm his own breathing down,
but gods it was so hard when all he could feel was the panic of not knowing what was going on.

“But I…I put the Masamune…through you…” And there Sephiroth‟s voice trailed off in
something like a dim dawning horror, and Cloud fumbled for the doorframe to the bathroom
before going backwards through it, locking the door with fingers that shook so badly that they
ached.

Zack found the blond, when he returned, sitting in the corner of the bathroom by the sink, and
Sephiroth upright on the bed staring vacantly at the door.

-----

I leave them alone for ten minutes and when I come back they‟ve still managed to fuck things up.

Zack held the stolen hypo and bottle of liquid pain medication in his hands, quietly watching
where Sephiroth was sitting up in bed, the sheet pooled around his waist and stomach. He, in turn,
was watching the bathroom door, which was closed when Zack had left it open before. Cloud did
not seem to be in the room.
“Seph?” He half-expected there to be no response at all, but Sephiroth flinched, head lowering as
he seemed to come back to himself. After a moment, the General raised his eyes to Zack‟s, still
slightly unfocused from the Mako, but he seemed to be quickly shedding most of the effects. The
pain meds would be useful still, and more than welcome. Zack held them up so that his friend
could see, and Sephiroth nodded slightly. His gaze darted back towards the bathroom door
almost ashamedly, but when Zack next caught a glimpse of the faintly glowing green, they were
as cold and hard as Zack had ever seen them.

He walked over and stood by the edge of the bed, waiting for the older man to acknowledge him.
Sephiroth held out his hand, and Zack stared at it for a moment before determining that he was
able enough to administer his own meds. He offered the stolen goods and they were taken
without question.

You‟re a stubborn bastard, Seph. You know I‟m going to ask, and I know that you won‟t tell me,
but I‟ll still ask anyway.

He watched in silence as Sephiroth inserted the needle into his arm, not even flinching as he did
so. He hoped, with a tightening disappointment settling in his chest, that the silver-haired man
hadn‟t said anything stupid. “So, where did he go?” he asked, unable to think of any better way
of phrasing the question.

“The bathroom.”

Zack rolled his eyes. “And why did he go in there, pray tell?”

And there, as the dark-haired man watched, came the unexpectedly fleeting expression of
consternation, Sephiroth‟s frown deepening as he continued to regard the closed door behind
which Cloud lay. “I don‟t really know why.” A one-shouldered shrug accompanied the
admission, one of the older man‟s traits that Zack knew to mean he was less than comfortable
with answering.

“You must know why, for heaven‟s sake.” Zack closed his eyes momentarily, fighting the surge
of frustration at Sephiroth‟s cryptic answer. “What did you say to him?”

Sephiroth looked away from the door. “I said…that I remembered him.”

“That‟s all?”

Silence. Zack glared, though Sephiroth couldn‟t see it, and reminded himself to get angry at the
man later. He looked away and strode towards the bathroom door in disgust, knowing that he
was being watched. He rapped his fist gently against the door – not one of those goddamn awful
sliding ones, for once – and waited. “Hey, Spike? Can I come in?”

After a moment, the door opened a crack, but no more. He assumed this was an invitation to
enter and did so without a glance over his shoulder. The door hit something about halfway, so he
stepped around it and found Cloud sitting on the floor, leaning against the adjacent wall. His
knees had been brought up to his chest to allow the door to open as far as it could. He was staring
absently across the room to the far corner, though there was nothing there.

Poor kid. I‟m sorry about whatever he did to you, even if he‟s not.

Zack winced as he knelt, his knees cracking. Cloud still hadn‟t looked at him, was staring at that
vague point beyond the wall. His eyes held the odd, distant look of someone who couldn‟t –
wouldn‟t – make sense of something they‟d just experienced. Zack reached out, biting his lip, to
brush a loose strand of blond away from the side of Cloud‟s pale face, and smiled in relief when
the boy turned his head in response to the movement, focusing on Zack‟s face, looking
somewhat like a bewildered animal.

“Hey.” He let his palm rest against the cadet‟s cheek for a moment, hoping that Cloud would
interpret it as a soothing gesture. “You okay?”

Cloud‟s throat worked once, twice, without sound coming forth before a quiet “Yeah” reached
the SOLDIER‟s ears, followed by “I‟m fine.”

“What did he say to you?” He could see the instant change in the blond‟s expression, the
distracted look reappearing at the memory brought up by the question. “Hey, Spike, come back
to me a minute, „kay?” He kept his voice low, barely above a whisper, and let his thumb move to
gently rub against the soft skin, hoping that the physical sensation would attract Cloud‟s
attention once more. “What did he say? Tell me so I have a reason to kick the crap out of him for
it.”

“N…Nothing.” Cloud wasn‟t looking at him anymore, though he was responding as if he were.
“It doesn‟t matter.”

“You sure?” He wouldn‟t push the boy now, not when he was like this, but Zack knew with a
sudden fierceness that he would have no qualms about beating an answer out of his superior later
on.

“No…I‟m fine.” Cloud tried to look at him properly and almost managed, before losing it to the
recesses of his own mind again. “I need to lie down.”

-----

End Chapter.

A/N: My Livejournal is now my writing journal, and the url is on my profile. So you can see that
I don‟t sit around doing nothing in between updates.

2. dies over the Advent Children trailer

3. This would have been up much sooner, sorry, had I not gone on a three day trip and spent two
weeks feeling totally out of synch with catching up schoolwork, etc.
4. Where‟s all the S/C gone from the fandom? pokes everyone hard

5. Akemi-sama – of course you can have this. Just let me know the URL.

Fusion 7

By Knowing Shadows

Disclaimer: See Chapter 1

*****

*****

He had an unobstructed view of the training hall from the gallery, and watched the rows of
cadets from this point in heavy silence. The reinforced glass that separated the gallery from the
larger dome beyond it reflected his pale, carefully blank expression back at him, but his attention
lay elsewhere.

The cadets were going through warm-up kata on the floor, all moving in a less than perfect
unison in varying degrees of fluidity. In the back of Sephiroth‟s mind he could imagine the
sequence of moves, remembering his own time of ingraining these movements into his memory.
The attentiveness and concentration of the cadets was impressive, despite its lack of help in some
cases: he had spotted several figures that wouldn‟t make it past the exams and more than several
who should not even be allowed to enter.

He hadn‟t even tried to convince himself that the reason he stood in the gallery was to pick out
the cadets who didn‟t have what SOLDIER was looking for; his own trained mind had worked
outside of the uneasy concern that filled his thoughts with his usual detached professionalism.

Despite the fact that he was watching them, he didn‟t think that anyone in the dome had ever
actually realised he was there. No-one ever said anything; no-one ever looked up in his direction
with the nervous apprehension that would have been in their faces had they known. He watched
them all with a coldness in his chest, wondering if they really knew what they were letting
themselves in for. Then his attention would wander to that one spot near the edge of the room to
where it would always eventually wander to.

Zack would probably laugh himself silly if he saw him. Sometimes, Sephiroth could see the
absurdity of it himself, hiding up in the shadows, but he had found the self-disgust was nothing
compared to the pulling sensation he experienced to be where he now stood. Just watching, at
least for the time being; he could feel himself momentarily stuck in some kind of limbo where
there was no way forward, but neither was there any way back.

To confront or not to confront, that seemed to be the question. He had yet to come up with an
answer to that, had yet to even consider it properly because he still hadn‟t worked out the
scattered, confused thoughts in his head into a suitable enough order.
It wasn‟t often that Sephiroth found himself thrown, and he disliked the feeling intensely. All
that Cloud Strife seemed to do was disorientate what he had once considered a comfortable order.

His dim memory of what had happened between Cloud and himself had caused the gnawing
vexation to dull into a guilt that fired up whenever he spotted the boy, lining his lungs with lead
that wouldn‟t shift for hours. He tried not to think about it, tried to occupy his time with menial
tasks that bored him stupid just so that he could focus on something else, but it didn‟t work.
Whenever he closed his eyes all he could see were the flashes of vision that remained so sharp
despite the haziness of the rest of his remembrance; impossible, impossible images that he
couldn‟t explain, though he knew where the key to understanding them lay.

I want to know what I‟m feeling guilty for.

As he watched, Cloud moved with a grace and serenity that Sephiroth had only seen in adults
twice the boy‟s age. Developing muscles moved sleekly under the pale skin with each controlled
twist of his limbs and body. He was impressive now, but when he had fully developed and was a
veteran of the 1st class, he would be a truly magnificent sight to behold.

He knew, in the melancholy that stole over him, that he would see the boy like that, and
something inside of his chest ached.

You‟re a pathetic bastard, he thought to himself with a slight twist of his lips. So caught up over
something that you could easily be misreading. Cloud could very well have been talking about
something completely different to what you saw – which is the more likely explanation since
there is no possible way that you could remember the future. Stop looking for something that
isn‟t there!

He stood for a moment longer, saw as Cloud brought the practice sword up over his head in an
easy but powerful swing, and then turned away, closing his eyes briefly. He froze as he opened
them again, seeing for the first time that he was being watched from the gallery doorway.

Zack regarded him intently, expression as controlled as Sephiroth knew his own to be. “So this is
where you come,” the younger man said, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning against the
wooden doorframe. Sephiroth looked at him, lifting his chin at the silent challenge in the other
man‟s tone. “I was just leaving,” he replied coldly. It was none of Zack‟s business what he was
doing anyway, even if he did seem to think that anything to do with Cloud Strife had to go
through him first.

“Don‟t do your defensive thing on me.” Zack shook his head, almost exasperated. However,
when he looked back at the other man, the expression on his face was totally different – pleading,
defeated. “Please, Seph…tell me what‟s wrong.”

Sephiroth pursed his lips, feeling himself bristle in defiance at the words. “There‟s nothing
wrong.”
“Seph, why do you insist on lying to me? You‟ve come up here everyday for a week now, and
we both damn well know who you‟re watching. He won‟t tell me what the fuck‟s going on either,
and he‟s hardly slept or eaten since. So don‟t go telling me there‟s nothing wrong.”

The older man set his jaw, glancing away. What did Zack want him to say when what he could
say made no sense? When it sounded like madness? When it wasn‟t possible in a world that
belonged to Hojo‟s fellow scientists, to the logic and reason that seemed to have bypassed him in
those few moments?

“Seph…” He looked up at the sound of his own name, and found himself resenting the concern
present in the other man‟s darker features. It was too much like pity, an emotion he despised, for
his own liking. He turned back to the training dome again so that he wouldn‟t have to look at
Zack‟s face anymore, his eye caught instantly by the low sweeping movement of Cloud‟s body,
the boy‟s hair catching the wan light filtering through the windows and reflecting it as the
sunlight it might once have been.

He‟s more wiry than most of the other boys – I‟d have thought that he‟d be more suited to the
lighter weapons to make use of the speed, but he moves easily enough with a practice sword, as
if he‟s used to something heftier and with little penalty for the weight. Odd.

The part of him that constituted the working General of SOLDIER shut off again as he felt Zack
come up beside him, following the silver-haired man‟s gaze to the unwitting cadet. He knew well
enough that the dark-haired SOLDIER would not give up until he knew what had happened – but,
truthfully, Sephiroth was not sure that he was the one to ask for that.

“He‟s a strong kid,” Zack said softly, features marred by a sudden frown. “Very focused. He‟ll
do well if he‟s given the chance.”

A strong kid, he says, and he is reduced to barely eating or sleeping because of what I said to
him. Sephiroth shook his head, the strange unfocused guilt hammering in his chest again. Even if
Cloud was thinking of something different, what was it that I‟ve done to him? I didn‟t even know
his name until a few weeks ago.

He found his gaze being drawn to the boy‟s throat and jaw, his sharp eyes easily able to pick out
the faint sheen of sweat on his flushed skin, the muscles taught all over Cloud‟s body as he threw
his entire concentration into the kata. So totally unaware of the scrutiny he was under. Perhaps
not quite so unaware of the stir he was causing, but certainly ignorant of how much of one.

“I don‟t want to be angry at you, Seph. I just want to help. Neither of you are even letting me try.”

“There‟s nothing you can do.” Sephiroth had gone through this; every possible course of action
had been analysed and thrown away over the week he had come up to the gallery. He was a
proud man and loathed asking for help or advice because it constituted weakness, but he had
longed for someone to turn to for advice with this. He had found no-one.
“Even so, it always feels better to talk.” Out of the corner of his eye he saw Zack shrug
helplessly, watching Cloud as Sephiroth was. “Perhaps you should talk to him.” There was a
vague movement of Zack‟s arm to indicate the oblivious cadet. “Apologise, or something. I don‟t
know. Sort it out.”

“I frightened him too much for him to talk to me.” He remembered the look in Cloud‟s eyes
when he had told the blond that he „remembered‟ him, and it was far too similar to the look of
distress he had seen in each of those visions. It was a discomfort like the guilt that he felt –
unfocused and slightly unreal because he couldn‟t work out what he was feeling them for.

Zack made an uncomfortable laughing sound, shaking his head so that the movement of his hair
caused Sephiroth to turn his head towards him. “You‟ll never frighten him that much,” Zack was
saying, eyes still fixed to where his superior‟s no longer were.

What..?

He didn‟t respond to that – didn‟t know how to – but filed it away as his mind was wont to do
with such unexplained notions. He watched the other man for a long moment, considering, but
tossed it away to the back of his mind where a similar pile of wonderings lay. Most of them
concerned the boy, which irritated him immensely.

Finally, he pulled away from the glass – not sparing a glance back at that spot of brightness
among the rest of the blurry mess – and walked towards the door. “I‟ll speak to you later, Zack.
I‟ve got some work to do.” He tossed the words over his shoulder as he moved, knowing and
feeling the inevitable frustration it would cause. As far as he was concerned it was none of
Zack‟s business what was going on between Cloud and himself, if it could even be put like that.

A part of him knew that his defensiveness against his friend‟s curiosity was unnecessary. There
was no reason to feel inadequate for not having the explanation he needed, but the thought didn‟t
stop the feelings from coming.

*****

Since Meteor‟s near destruction of Midgar, Kalm had expanded to cope with the exodus of
homeless city residents who had nowhere else to go when faced with their abandoned houses and
a mountain range separating them from any other settlements. Some, mainly those wealthier
persons who had lived on the upper plate and somehow survived, had made the trip to Junon, or
even across the ocean to the western continent. Still, Kalm was now three times as big as before.

Tifa had opened up a bar in Kalm not long after she had moved there, desperate for some part of
the old, quiet (well, in comparison to her recent adventures across the globe) life she had led
before discovering Cloud at the Sector 7 train station five years after Nibelheim had gone up in
flames. She had called it 7th Heaven because of that, and Barrett visited her often enough that it
did almost feel as if she was back in Midgar.
She earned more money in Kalm than she had ever dreamed of earning in poverty-ridden Sector
7. Kalm hadn‟t really had a proper bar before Tifa‟s, and after the residents‟ initial suspicion had
worn off – she knew that seeing the old Midgar people frequenting had made them curious more
than anything else, even knowing that she was one of the legendary AVALANCHE – the
business prospered, and 7th Heaven was always busy. Tifa had gotten to know most of the
townsfolk through the bar, and became an accepted member of the town herself because of it. All
in all, moving to Kalm had been one of the best things she had ever done.

Once, she had told herself that getting over Cloud Strife had also fallen into that category.

Kalm was predictably quiet, the morning that Tifa allowed Cloud Strife to be carried back into
her life – her new life. Vincent followed with the blond in his arms and he looked so small and ill
against the taller man that she hadn‟t dared look back at him after the first time.

7th Heaven lay in the main square of town, quiet and mostly still. She knew exactly who would
be in the bar right now – Joe, Sam, a few of the other regulars – and she knew for a fact that
before nightfall the entire town would know that Cloud Strife was in town. For a moment, as she
hesitated with her hand on the doorknob to the bar, Tifa cursed Cloud for having one of the most
recognisable faces, and hair, in the world, and for there not being quite enough blanket to cover it.

Tifa pushed open the door and held it to allow Vincent to angle himself through. He winced as
he banged Cloud‟s feet against the doorframe. A second after Vincent, Cid Highwind entered,
giving the bar an appraising look. Drying one of the glasses from behind the counter, a tall
brown-haired man gaped at them in complete surprise.

“I‟ll have the strongest thing you‟ve got,” Cid said around his cigarette. “God, Shera‟ll kill me,
but being around bloody Strife does have its side effects.”

Tifa couldn‟t help but smile as she let the door close. She ignored the sudden stunned silence that
had fallen over the six or seven patrons who had just had four of the most famous people on the
entire Planet just walk in on them.

Vincent gave the pilot a sharp look, to which Cid shrugged and started off towards the counter,
saying, “And one for the uptight man in red over there.”

“We should head upstairs,” Tifa said, leading Vincent past the counter and behind it to where a
door led to the living areas. “We‟ve got a guest room that we‟ll put it in. It‟ll be easy to keep an
eye on him, and a lot warmer and more comfortable than anything he could build on the side of a
mountain.” She waved her hands at the apparent absurdity of the notion, and leaned across to
give the man at the bar a quick kiss on the cheek. “Hey, Richard.”

“Hey, Teef.” He smiled, and cast Vincent‟s silent form a way look. “I‟ll be up in a sec.”

“We‟ll be up in the spare room.” Tifa motioned to the door and opened it for Vincent again. The
dark-haired man nodded in thanks and went through carefully, heading up the flight of stairs
presented to him, which meant that he had to edge up the passage sideways to keep
from braining Cloud on the wall. The blond was all awkward limbs and trying to manoeuvre
him was surprisingly difficult.

Vincent had actually only been here once before, when he‟d come to inform Tifa that he had
found Cloud. It was the first time that he had properly spoken to Richard, the young bartender
whom Tifa had fallen in love with. She‟d hired him to help her out soon after opening the bar,
and Vincent hadn‟t been surprised to know that it had taken Richard and Tifa a long time to
actually get together.

Tifa had gone to pack a few things to accompany Vincent back to Nibelheim, and he‟d been left
in the living room in uncomfortable silence with the fighter‟s husband. He‟d watched Richard
wring his hands, face pale and dark eyes bitter. When he‟d spoken, his voice had matched that
look.

“I must be the only man alive who can actually truly say that they‟ve lived in Cloud Strife‟s
shadow since Meteor.”

He hadn‟t known what to say to that, and had settled for “I‟m sorry.” It had sounded more
damning when he voiced it than it had in his own head. Richard had continued to wring his
hands, only it seemed a more violent gesture after that.

“Carry on down the hall,” Tifa said when they reached the top of the stairs. “It‟s the third door
on your left. Put him on the bed.”

The spare room was actually about the same size as the entirety of Cloud‟s home on the
mountain, decorated sparingly. The bed was the main feature, in the middle of the room with the
headboard against the back wall. Beside it was a small table. A dresser and wardrobe sat against
the adjacent wall. It felt like a guest room, and smelt strongly of air freshener as guest rooms
usually do.

He arranged Cloud‟s limp form on top of the covers in what he hoped with a comfortable
position. He had tried to make it look more like the swordsman was sleeping than dead, but even
the affected sprawl looked fake. It would have been easier to just cross the blond‟s arms over his
chest and place a bouquet of white flowers there, he thought to himself darkly.

Tifa entered, footsteps muffled on the plush carpet, and Vincent glanced at her out of the corner
of his eye. She came up beside him, and he gave the little girl attached to her hip a long look,
meeting her solemn eyes until she hid her fact behind her mother‟s arm. Tifa‟s daughter. The
daughter they had all expected to come from Cloud, before the blond had disappeared. Looking
back, Vincent wondered how they could all have been so blind. They had known it hurt Cloud to
go against his former superior; it would have taken only a little more effort to dig a bit deeper to
understand why.

“Squirt,” Tifa said eventually, prying the three-year-old off of her waist and up into her arms.
“See that guy? That‟s Cloud Strife. He saved the world once, only now he‟s sick, so you gotta
help your momma and be very good, okay?” The girl, long dark hair pulled into twin pigtails,
nodded sombrely, silent, at her mother. “That‟s a good girl. Can you go play for a bit, while your
dad and I sort this out?” Another silent nod, and Tifa set the girl down, who scampered out of the
doorway. When Tifa had turned away, Vincent saw her poke her head back around the frame,
brown eyes bright with curiosity. Behind the red of his mantle, his lips quirked.

There was a moment of perfect stillness, and then: “I thought I asked you to go play.”

The little girl‟s head disappeared again. Vincent felt the quirk again, and was glad Tifa couldn‟t
actually see it. Instead, he kept to his usual silence, and as the brunette sat on the edge of the bed
at Cloud‟s side, he considered whether he should remind her that she had a family of her own
now, even if the blond would have been interested in her to begin with.

Tifa…please. Give up. He couldn‟t give his heart to you even if he wanted to.

“Where do you think the Cetra took him?” Tifa asked softly, reaching out to hesitantly push a
stray strand of blond from Cloud‟s pale forehead. Her fingers lingered, just slightly. She sounded
sad, the way she had sounded sad during Meteor when she had been watching Cloud and Aeris
together.

“I suspect that Aeris will have seen that he‟s comfortable, wherever he is,” he answered. Tifa
nodded, accepting the answer to the unspoken question with a slight drop of her shoulders. He
couldn‟t see her face and didn‟t need to to know that she disliked Aeris‟ probable intervention.
An unfounded jealousy, and one that he wasn‟t allowed to ease without having to explain
difficult, unexpected developments. He would not betray Cloud in that.

“She can‟t…take him like that. He can‟t sleep forever.” She twined her fingers with Cloud‟s, her
hands shaking. Vincent moved, boots silent against the carpet, so that he could see her face. She
was biting her lip, steadfastly ignoring him in favour of Strife‟s calm, still features. Perhaps she
feared his reproach, but he had none that could be aired. “She can‟t take him away from us.”

“And if he wants to be taken?” She flinched, and Vincent tried to make his tone a little warmer
than it must have been. “What then, Tifa?”

She closed her eyes, stuck in a room with two people she couldn‟t bear to look at, even as she
tightened her hold on Cloud‟s limp hand. Vincent waited, as quiet as the figure on the bed, as the
fighter fought against a concept she obviously did not want to consider. In his position of
knowledge – and what knowledge, to have so much suddenly fall into place – it was difficult to
keep his irritation tempered. Even the image of Tifa, so torn in her ignorance, failed to chip the
coldness he felt, and he stared at her with a detachment that didn‟t startle him so much in its
intensity as in how much it reminded him of Sephiroth.

He would have to speak about that with Cloud, if Cloud ever woke up again. He owed it to the
younger man, somehow.

“I can‟t – I can‟t – accept that Cloud would want to just die.” Tifa sighed, and shook her head.
“He‟s too strong…too strong…”
Had she listened to nothing that he‟d told her? “I spoke to you of what the Cetra told me. I, for
one, have no reason to doubt them, and enough respect to know that they mean what they say. If
they say they will break him, they will break him.”

She was silent in the wake of his words, unable to counter, and he knew it hurt her to hear such
things. He crossed his arms over his chest, feeling the cloth pull tighter against his chin. The
heavy silence only seemed to lend weight to his convictions, only broken when two new figures
appeared in the doorway to the bedroom.

“Did we interrupt anything?” At the sound of Richard‟s voice, Tifa slipped her hand out of
Cloud‟s. “No, nothing,” she said, and smiled at the other man. Glancing quickly at Vincent first,
face sober, Richard then offered a tentative curve of his lips back to his wife. The focus of his
attention shifted slightly then, the line of his gaze lifting just enough for them to notice and
follow it out of curiosity. Vincent realised, his stomach tightening, that this was the first time
Richard had ever actually seen Cloud Strife in person.

“He looks smaller than I expected,” he said eventually, helplessly. What else to say in the face of
such a figure, not only the saviour of the Planet but his wife‟s former love? Vincent didn‟t envy
him, and caught Cid, who was standing behind Richard with a drink in one hand, sending him a
look that told him he wasn‟t the only one feeling sorry for the bartender. “I keep expecting to see
a huge sword lying about somewhere.” The laugh which followed was strained, and Vincent
caught a slight gleam of panic in the man‟s eyes.

“Nah, Ultima Weapon„s on the Highwind. Fucking piece o‟ metal‟s so big it needs its own room.”
Cid rolled his eyes. “He‟d better be bloody well happy we brought it with us, when he wakes up.”

Vincent felt his mouth twitch again. AVALANCHE, he had decided a long time ago, had been a
bad idea when it came to his self-control.

Richard looked vaguely startled. He always looked like that, though. Just seemed to have the
face for it – the wide eyes and mouth. Perhaps it came with having Tifa Lockhart as a wife
(Vincent wouldn‟t be surprised at all if that actually turned out to be the reason). He didn‟t know
the younger man well – none of them did, really – and so the awkward quiet that fell was all the
more tense, no-one knowing what to say and Tifa volunteering nothing. Vincent watched
Richard‟s sharp gaze fall from Cloud to Tifa and back again, as if asking for an explanation. He
had already been told it all – Cid had come to pick them up from Nibelheim, and Tifa had
insisted that they take Cloud to her house so that she could look after him because, after all, she
was his best friend…

“He will wake up, won‟t he?” Richard asked. “No-one really said much about what was wrong
with him…”

“We‟re not entirely sure, but he will wake up,” Tifa said, not looking at Vincent, who frowned.
His arms tightened across his chest, but he kept silent. “He should, yes.” Cid sent Vincent
another look, but the dark-haired man ignored it – he‟d only caught it out of the corner of his eye,
the pilot‟s eyebrows drawn together questioningly, so it was easy enough to pretend he‟d never
seen it at all rather than be bugged for a response. Tifa must have her own reasons, whatever they
might be.

“It‟s just…” Richard trailed off, lips going tight as he glanced around the room, cheeks darkened
slightly. He shifted his weight awkwardly, scratching the back of his head. “I‟ll talk to you about
it later.”

Then, Vincent did allow himself to meet Cid‟s eyes, glaring meaningfully. Cid scowled at him,
lips pursed around his rapidly disappearing cigarette, before understanding dawned. He raised his
glass of alcohol, catching Tifa‟s eye. “Well, me and coffin-boy over there had better head
downstairs anyway. You‟ve not got anyone watching the bar, have you? So I‟ll help out for a bit,
you know, being charitable and all…” He sidled out of the doorway, motioning for Vincent to
follow with his arm, making his drink slosh over the side. “You just…have a nice chat and we‟ll
see you downstairs a bit later.” Vincent followed him, noticing that neither Tifa nor Richard paid
them any attention at all. He spared a glance over his shoulder as he left, and his last impression
of the scene was how Richard‟s hands were balled and his knuckles seemed very white against
his tanned skin. After that he turned his attention to Cid.

“Subtle, Highwind,” he said scathingly. “Very subtle.”

*****

Sephiroth knew the timetable of the cadet timetable as well as he knew the back of his hand, and
with almost the same amount of distaste. He had worked to it once, endured being so much
younger than the others and never really understanding why he should be the only one. It hadn‟t
been until he‟d entered SOLDIER 1st class that he‟d been given high enough clearance and had
enough experience with the ShinRa computer system to go the extra mile to hack into Hojo‟s
files to find out the reasons.

And to think that his fellow cadets had thought his tattoo was „cool‟. It was after that that he‟d
taken to wearing gloves, to hide from the one constant reminder of what, some days, he wished
he‟d never discovered.

He remembered, recalling his own days as a trainee, that right about now the cadets would be
showering to refresh from the training class. Any minute now they would exit on their way to
lunch, most likely complaining over Old Master Johannson, who Zack had whined about
endlessly when they had both been leaving the showers those few years ago. And so he found
himself waiting by the exit of the shower block for the boy he had decided he needed to confront
after all.

He leant against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. He could hear the vague sound of chatter
over the water from the room on the other side of that wall, and wondered if Cloud was one of
those talking away merrily as if everything was right with the world. He doubted it – couldn‟t
imagine someone as quiet and serious as the blond chatting much anyway – and hoped that what
had happened was eating away at the younger man as much as it was with him.
He would put an order to the tumbling images he had seen behind his eyelids, though it irked
him that he couldn‟t do it alone.

The chatter grew louder, closer, and he pushed himself up off of the wall.

He easily spotted Cloud among the cadets that filed out of the side door, the steam from the
showers curling out of the doorway above their heads in rushing tendrils, pushing against a door
that was no longer there. He was actually talking with one of the others, a tall gangling boy with
dark red hair whom Sephiroth suspected was far too cunning and independent-minded to ever
make it far in SOLDIER. Like the blond he spoke to, he was far more suited to one of the
President‟s side outfits, the ones who used the darker talents or the ones whose strengths just
didn‟t fit anywhere else and turned them to ShinRa‟s advantage anyway.

He saw, from his position, Cloud‟s eyes flicker in his direction, holding his for a fleeting second
before they darted away once more. He didn‟t stop, but his shoulders tightened and Sephiroth
hated that he had done nothing to cause that response.

Well, after what you said to him about running him through with a seven foot sword, I‟m sure he
has a perfectly good reason this time to tense up when he sees you.

“Strife.” It was so easy to fall into the role, using last names instead. Several of the cadets
stopped to look at Sephiroth, and shot nervous or wondering glances at Cloud, who had turned in
an instant to face him. He seemed very out of place with all the younger boys, even though
anyone who didn‟t look closely enough wouldn‟t notice. He had old eyes, this boy, perhaps even
older than his own. He felt the inexplicable urge to find out what the boy had endured to gain
that look, to find out if there was any of that pain common between them that he feared – hoped
– was there.

After a still moment, where no-one moved, the blond began to wind his way between the other
people towards him. No longer looking at him, of course, but Sephiroth had expected no less. He
felt himself begin to sneer in irritation, but schooled his expression quickly. There was no need
to lead any of the other observant boys to believe that Cloud had done any wrong – he
understood from Zack that Cloud had few close friends, and anything as such would cause
trouble that the boy didn‟t deserve. Perhaps an unfamiliar feeling of concern had moved him to
do so more than anything else, but he disliked the thought that it had.

“Sir?” Cloud stopped a little way away, eyes apparently on his left shoulder plate. His voice was
underlined with a faint tremor of something almost like fear. From this close, he could see that
the blond‟s skin was still slightly damp just below his right ear and then down across the side of
his throat, a few lone hairs sticking to the wet skin.

He knew, that if he let himself, he‟d follow his gaze downward and keep staring at the line of the
boy‟s collarbone that disappeared beneath the loose shirt he wore, and felt disgusted with the
thought.
“I‟d like a word.” His self-anger came out as coldness, and it sounded harsh to his own ears; he
could feel as well as see Cloud cringing. There were a few nervously mocking twitters from the
group and he saw Cloud lower his head, lower lip caught between his teeth. In a spurt of anger,
he looked up at the other boys. They fell silent under his scowl. He could feel his lips twisting
again, let it happen as he snapped out, “I don‟t tolerate immaturity. I expect that in a classroom,
not a military program. You‟re dismissed.”

It was slightly uncharacteristic for him, but a little voice in the back of his head kept telling him
that he would be doing Cloud a great disservice if he turned a blind eye to something that could
be so easily stopped. The boy had suffered enough, he knew, even though he didn‟t know the
details.

“Do we have to talk here?” Cloud‟s voice was very small, weary but still trembling with
anticipation. Sephiroth regarded him for a moment - why wouldn‟t the damn boy look at him? –
and wondered at the tone.

“No,” he said slowly, keeping one eye on the dispersing cadets, most of whom were trying to
linger inconspicuously to listen in. “My office would be more suited. I‟ll try not to take up much
of your time.” He turned, deciding that eventually he would realise that trying to understand
Cloud Strife was an impossible task. “Follow me.” He didn‟t look to see if Cloud would – knew
he would – and found himself pulling anxiously on a lock of hair that had fallen over his
shoulder. No reason to be afraid, of course, or even apprehensive in the slightest, but the coiling
instinctive nausea in his stomach didn‟t listen. Not much of him listened to reason anymore.

“Thank you,” Cloud murmured softly from behind him, head lowered as his cheeks burned.

*****

“Hi, Mrs. Gainsborough. Is your daughter there?”

Elmyra Gainsborough stood just inside the doorway to her Sector 6 house, an apron tied around
her waist and her hair drawn up above her shoulders into a hasty bun to keep it out of the way.
She gave Zack a wan smile, stepping aside to allow him room to come in. “She‟ll be upstairs.
But she‟s got to go out soon, so you can‟t stay for long.”

Zack tried his best to smile warmly at her, but this routine was wearing thin on him now. He
knew she didn‟t like his profession – though whether she liked him as a person he didn‟t know –
and she knew that he knew, yet she still kept that irritatingly thin veneer of politeness to her tone
that rubbed him just that much the wrong way. He knew his smile was slightly chilly, but as far
as he was concerned, two could play at that game. “Thank you,” he said, offering a low
respectful bow, and headed past her to the stairs against the back wall. He could feel Elmyra
watching him all the way until he disappeared to the first floor.

“Aeris?” he called, stepping over the squeaky floorboard to Aeris‟ door. He knocked once and
entered, and she was sitting on her bed, turned towards the door, breaking into a smile as she saw
him.
“You said you‟d be working!” She rose off of the bed with her usual grace, arms held out to him.
He grinned at her, gathered her slim frame to him tightly. She smelled of the flowers she tended.
He pressed a quick kiss to the crown of her head before tipping her head up by the chin and
kissing her properly. He could feel her smiling at him still, and that made him smile too and he
drew back, unable to continue because he couldn‟t take it seriously anymore.

“Work,” Aeris reminded him, straightening her hair with one hand as she stood within the circle
of his arms.

“What, and miss this?” Zack snorted. “You must be joking.” She frowned at him, trying to look
stern though her eyes were twinkling. “Nah, I didn‟t have anything to do. It‟s lunch anyway.
Seph‟s being all prissy about my friend and I was getting angry so I decided what better therapy
was there than coming to see you? So I did.”

“‟Prissy‟?” Aeris repeated, eyebrow raised, and even when she was mocking him the word
sounded strange coming from her mouth.

His grin widened. “Yup. You have no idea. I think I‟ll just bump their heads together and leave
them both to it.”

“And who‟s your friend?” She cocked her head, and as he searched her eyes he found nothing
but genuine curiosity.

“Cloud. Cloud Strife,” he said carefully, and watched for any sign of recognition at the name. He
found none, and couldn‟t help the frown that settled across his features.

Her smile faltered a little at his expression, and she began to stroke his arms lightly where they
rested on his biceps in a somewhat soothing manner. “What‟s wrong?” Her eyebrows drew
together in the delicate way that she seemed to do everything. “Did they fight?”

“Who?”

“Sephiroth and Cloud.”

The laugh came before he could stop himself. He found himself grinning, more than a little
unpleasantly, shaking his head. “No, they won‟t actually get close enough to each other to do
something like that. Lunkheads, the both of them. Honestly.” He rubbed his thumbs gently over
the thin fabric of her dress. “No, I just wondered if you knew Cloud.”

“Cloud?” Aeris‟ nose wrinkled a little. “No, I don‟t know anyone called Cloud, I don‟t think. It‟s
a nice name though. I bet he‟s nice.”

“He‟s only a year younger than you are. You‟d probably get along real well, actually. It‟s
just…he acted funny.” He smiled, though his mind was working overtime to conceal the
frustration he was feeling at the dead end Aeris now presented as far as Cloud was concerned. So
why had Cloud reacted so strongly to the mention of her? “Hey, your mother said that you had to
go out soon? You actually going or is she just playing me around again?”

“No, not today she‟s not.” She drew away from him and turned, motioned to the basket sitting
unnoticed on her pillow. “Gonna go sell some flowers.”

“I don‟t see why you bother. They don‟t appreciate flowers around here, these city types.”
Zack‟s eyes danced a little – after living in Midgar for so long, he now considered himself a city
type, though he didn‟t consider himself one of them in this respect – as he watched her fuss with
the flowers already sitting in the basket. No doubt she‟d spent a good two hours or more at the
church that day, just enjoying the beauty there. Such were the ways of women, he supposed. Or,
such were the ways of Aeris, at the very least.

“I know, but I‟d like to try and make them appreciate it.” She sat on the duvet next to the basket
and smiled up at him. “Eventually they will.”

“I know.” He sat with her, held her hand for a while in his own and watched the muscles move
over her knuckle as she gently rubbed her thumb against his skin. She was so strange a thing to
find in a city ruled by misery, and sometimes he found himself more grateful for that spot of
bright cheerfulness than for anything else.

“Your friend, Cloud…” She sounded suddenly purposeful, voice firmer. “Perhaps if he‟s acting
strange, it would be a good idea for you to just let him be.”

Zack felt his muscles tighten, and sat up so that he could look at Aeris‟ face. She was watching
him intently, and quite abruptly he got the feeling that he didn‟t know her at all. Her gaze held
the same heavy weight to it that Cloud‟s sometimes did, or Sephiroth‟s when he thought no-one
was looking. “That‟s not like you to just tell me to leave him be,” he said, cautious.

“Sometimes, though, prying can do more damage than good.” She shrugged, an elegant
movement of her thin shoulders that caught his eyes because he couldn‟t actually remember her
doing it before. Maybe the whole world was going mad these days, or he was just getting
paranoid. He wasn‟t sure which one was the more likely option.

“Aeris?” he asked, and her eyes lightened once more, losing the odd darkness that had filled
them. “Yes?” she said.

Zack thought for a long moment, regarding the curves of her face and the way she held herself.
“Nothing,” he replied, and kissed her with a feeling of desperation settling deep in his stomach.

*****

Sephiroth‟s office was exactly as Cloud had known it would be. He stood, somewhat fearfully,
just inside the closed door, looking around at the spacious area and feeling rather like clutter the
room wouldn‟t have wanted had it known what clutter was. Everything was so neat, so organised.
The office held no more than it seemed it could bear. There was a wide mahogany desk in the
centre of the floor, behind which lay a long window. It wasn‟t even a real window, just one of
those fake screens which showed the Midgar outside as it would have looked had it lost the smog
and pollution it now carried. The walls were covered in bookcases and filing cabinets, but there
wasn‟t a single paper out of place. Even on the desk, where Sephiroth had evidently been
working, the reports were piled up perfectly. It was almost painfully neat, in a way that Cloud
wouldn‟t have been able to replicate had he tried.

Sephiroth had walked ahead of him, and had been silent the entire way. Cloud honestly didn‟t
know what he‟d have said to Sephiroth had the man tried to instil conversation of some sort,
even though he knew there was no way any conversation would have been had. He could feel the
tension rolling off of the older man; it was like ice in the air. Had he been able to think properly,
he still wouldn‟t have known how to break it either.

What am I going to do? What can I say that he‟ll believe when he asks me to explain?

If he‟d been clever, he would have hidden for a long time until he thought Sephiroth might have
forgotten about it. Unfortunately, he wasn‟t. So now he was standing in the doorway to the
General‟s office, about to be grilled by a probably very angry man. It was not top of his list of
things to do that day.

Oh God, what am I going to do?

He watched, back against the door, as Sephiroth walked to the wide desk lifting his hands as if to
remove his gloves. He hesitated, the fingers of one hand against the wrist of the other, before
stopping and letting his arms fall. Cloud had the feeling that Sephiroth hadn‟t even meant to go
that far, and disliking the thought of taking off the gloves was some kind of admission of
discomfort – he wouldn‟t tell Sephiroth that he knew why – that he hadn‟t wanted to make.
Cloud also had the feeling that Sephiroth knew he had noticed.

“I‟d like an explanation, if you please.” Sephiroth still had his back turned, wouldn‟t look at him.
Cloud watched the light on Sephiroth‟s hair, how it shifted from the almost imperceptible
movement his body made. His mind had gone totally blank from when Sephiroth had spoken,
and when the other man actually turned to look because he didn‟t answer, he was still staring at
the spot where the light had been playing moments ago.

He couldn‟t answer it, couldn‟t give the explanation Sephiroth wanted. But to keep his silence
would not only aggravate both the General and Zack, but distance them as well.

No, I can‟t do that! I won‟t lose them! I came here to make things right – they won‟t listen to me
if I lie and refuse to answer them. But…I can‟t tell them either…

Cloud turned his head, staring at a point on the floor to his right, anywhere so he couldn‟t see the
older man‟s eyes and the coldness in them. Even so, he could feel the slow burn across his skin
where he was being watched. How much he pined for that attention as much as he wanted to hide
from it.
“Cloud. Please.” He winced, even as he marvelled at the sound of his name on Sephiroth‟s
tongue. God, he‟d longed and dreamed for it to be said that way, with no undertone of smug
confidence or insanity. “I‟m not asking you this as a SOLDIER.”

He would have to say something, anything. He fumbled for words – his mouth opened once
without sound and his cheeks grew hot from embarrassment. Sephiroth was still, patient, as silent
as a statue and his expression was carefully blank when Cloud finally looked up at him. Cloud
could see the shadows on Sephiroth‟s long face and it made him look less human, so much like
the Jenova-manipulated puppet of years to come that Cloud felt a terrible sense of light-
headedness.

So cold…I am always by your side.

Even here he could not escape the shadow that haunted him.

“I don‟t…know exactly what it is that you saw,” he managed, eventually. Sephiroth kept
watching him, eyes narrowing just slightly at the words. Cloud felt himself begin to cower inside,
the way he always did no matter how much he tried. Though the Jenova cells were no longer
inside him, he could not escape the urge to humble himself in his „master‟s‟ presence. How could
he think that he could ever change things here enough to save them?

“I saw you.” Cloud regarded the older man‟s face, looking for something and not knowing what.
Sephiroth‟s eyes had lost none of their suspicion, were just as distant and unfathomable to him as
they had ever been. “Lying on the ground in a town that was on fire, outside of a house. And
then we were somewhere else, and I had impaled you on the Masamune. And finally…” There,
Sephiroth trailed off, shaking his head to himself. “What does it matter?”

So, he saw Nibelheim… “No, go on,” Cloud urged, but he was almost scared of what he might
hear. “Please, I…it‟s important.”

Sephiroth leaned his hip against the side of the desk, crossing his arms over his chest. Cloud had
not come away from the door, afraid to invade what seemed like a personal area. The idea of
intruding unwanted was…an undesirable one. So he hadn‟t dared.

“I was dying,” Sephiroth said, soft and so quiet that it sounded nearly intimate. “We were
standing in a place full of stars. You looked…older. You killed me. I didn‟t even fight it.” He
paused, hesitated, as if considering. Cloud had gone suddenly cold all over, the ice statue that
Sephiroth might have been. “And I…was glad. That it was you. I…” Sephiroth dropped his gaze
again. “I don‟t remember why, though.”

I was glad that it was you.

Oh God.

Cloud half-forgot that Sephiroth was standing there, concentrating on keeping himself upright as
an intense wave of surprise swept through his entire body. Sephiroth…had wanted to die? He
had wanted Cloud to kill him, that day in the Crater? It seemed too good to be true, that he had
murdered a man who wanted to be murdered. A man who was tired.

No, I…I still killed him. Oh, I still killed him. Sephiroth can‟t remember that he wanted to die –
the whole thing is impossible…

He placed his head in his hands, digging the heels into his burning eyes as he grit his teeth
against the heavy lump of emotion in his throat.

He wanted to die.

Goddamnit, why was this happening to him now? He wasn‟t like Sephiroth, wasn‟t able to hide
his emotions like he could, and couldn‟t hide this any more than he had. It…shocked him, deep
down, in a way that he couldn‟t even describe – Sephiroth had wanted him to…

Perhaps the future Sephiroth, trapped in eternity in the Lifestream, looked on his killer with
gratitude rather than the fury Cloud could so easily imagine, and had done for many years.

Wake up, Strife. It doesn‟t change the fact that you murdered him, and that is a stain across your
already tainted soul that you will never be rid of, and you know it. This doesn‟t change things.

It did, though. More than he would have ever thought. But now wasn‟t the time to think about it,
to get so lost in his thoughts. Later, later.

He lifted his head up, all too suddenly aware that his behaviour must seem very strange.
Sephiroth‟s expression, however, had shifted, warming into something awfully close to concern,
though he hadn‟t moved from his place at the desk other than to stand fully, waiting.

“I‟m sorry.” Cloud shrugged, because it seemed so little and fell flat in the silence that lay
unbroken between them except for those two words. “I didn‟t mean to…do that.”

“It means something to you.” Not a question, though it asked something of him anyway. There
was a quality in the way Sephiroth was holding himself as he said it that caught Cloud‟s attention,
a kind of hope and a want to reach out that caught him off guard. Sephiroth stepped forward,
once, his footfalls loud in the quiet around them, and there was something in the lines of his face
that Cloud couldn‟t quite read. “It means something.”

“I can‟t - !” He shook his head, half-frightened at the prospect of being pushed because he
couldn‟t think of a suitable lie, a lie that would satisfy anyone in the room. “I can‟t say, I
don‟t…know what to do…”

“Explain it to me,” Sephiroth said, but he did not take another step. “Explain to me why I saw
those things.”
He bit his lip, unable to look away from the other man‟s face, at the emotion just below the
struggling mask that seemed to be near desperation. Sephiroth was a master of hiding what he
felt – to be shown this much…

No, I can‟t tell him!!

“Please, just let me go,” he said. “Let me go back. I can‟t tell you.”

Coward. Stupid, unworthy coward. And you think that you could ever work your way up to his
level, to earn his respect? To be worthy of him?

No, no, he could never, and he knew it.

The tension turned, twisted under Sephiroth‟s suddenly reverted expression and the frustration
that turned the air between them bitter. The older man‟s shoulders drew up as the muscles tensed,
leather moving against metal and skin as his stance changed.

So cold…

“Sephiroth, please…please let me leave.” Please, please, please, don‟t make me stay, I can‟t
stand it any longer…

The General shook his head and his shoulders abruptly sagged, but Cloud wasn‟t sure whether
the shake was directed at him or not. He waited, uncomfortably aware of how his heart was
pounding erratically against his ribs. It seemed so loud in his own ears.

“I did not mean for this to happen,” Sephiroth said, half to himself.

“Neither did I.” He hadn‟t meant to say it, caught his lip once more between his teeth after the
words became more than a half-wistful thought come unbidden to his mind. The older man
stared at him for a moment, before he turned and placed his palms against the polished surface of
the desk, leaning on them so that his hair fell over his shoulder and blocked most of his profile
from view. He drummed his fingers absently on the wood, and Cloud caught himself watching
the graceful movement of Sephiroth‟s hands.

He felt the words welling up before he could stop them – anything, to stop him concentrating on
the sudden flood of sorrow that watching Sephiroth always brought. “I didn‟t…make you see
those things,” Cloud said. “I don‟t know why…how…you saw them.” Please don‟t blame me for
that. It‟s not my fault. “But I‟m sorry.”

The drumming continued. “Then we appear to be in a similar situation.” Sephiroth sighed softly.
“At least, in that respect.”

Cloud could feel the unexpected warmth surge through him, until it burned in his cheeks and
embarrassment followed. “I suppose, yes.” It was true, he mused, but a strange concept to
comprehend, that he and Sephiroth were, in some way, in the same metaphorical boat.
“Zack told me that you aren‟t sleeping or eating properly. Because of this.”

“I…I‟m fine, sir.” Cloud shrugged, though Sephiroth probably couldn‟t see it. The tapping of his
fingers on the desk had ceased, and the silver-haired man was very still, face hidden behind a
veil of hair. “I‟ll be better now that we‟ve spoken.”

Sephiroth nodded, and straightened, giving Cloud one last look in his impenetrable silence. His
face gave away none of his thoughts, calm and as telling as a brick wall. The face of a warrior,
no doubt. However, Cloud had known the warrior in Sephiroth too well; where was the man, that
part of him rarely glimpsed, but whose glimpses had drawn Cloud in like a moth?

You don‟t…have to be afraid with me, Seph.

He had perfected that look himself, once, and knew what it meant, so perhaps the wall held more
information than originally thought. He had become somewhat adept, over the years, at reading
the signs and silences where others hadn‟t.

“You‟re dismissed.” Sephiroth waved a hand vaguely, slid his gaze away and moved around the
desk. Cloud stood, throat tight, for a moment before bowing his head and moving to open the
door. He slipped outside, but paused just before closing the door and let himself indulge in one
more glance at his superior‟s figure. Sephiroth sat down behind the desk, reaching for a stack of
papers, and Cloud whispered a soft “I‟m sorry” to the air before pulling the door closed with a
quiet click.

The rustle of the papers in Sephiroth‟s hands stopped after the door closed. He stared blankly at
the reports, the letters swimming into a grey mess against the stark white background before his
eyes. Slowly, they were lowered back to the desk top, still neatly piled, and Sephiroth placed his
head in his hands, elbows on the wood. He curled his fingertips into his scalp just past his
hairline so hard that it hurt, and let out a long breath through his nose. There was only silence to
meet him.

****

End Chapter 7.

A/N:

1. Just for your information, I‟m picturing Cloud as looking more like his Ehrgeiz artwork
picture than anything (perhaps with Advent Children hair, though, „cause it‟s shorter). That‟s
because his facial structure seems quite youthful compared to his expression, which is how I
picture Cloud looking in this fic. Maybe I‟m the only one who sees that in the Ehrgeiz pic, I
don‟t know O_o;;

2. A big thanks goes out to Dina, who regularly bugs me (and always has done) and also betas
for me, even though I irritate her by querying the work she does ^^;;
3. Just a side note, but unless my beta has missed something, any spelling mistakes the
Americans pick out aren‟t actually spelling mistakes – you‟re picking on Americanisms of
English words, and I didn‟t even know some of these existed until I did question Dina.

Fusion

By Knowing Shadows

Disclaimer: See Chapter one.

*****

Zack found himself doing what he had caught Sephiroth doing not so long ago. He watched
Cloud in the lunchline from his position against the far wall by one of the exits, arms crossed
over his chest.

If he‟d been in a better mood, he would have thought that the nervous glances he was getting
were funny. All he got from it then was a small sense of satisfaction that his expression
obviously reflected how he felt. He wondered if Cloud would be cowed when he was spotted –
he bloody well deserved to be.

Shut up, Zack. You‟re being unfair and you know it.

He was, when he looked at it objectively, taking how Cloud acted far too much to heart. He
doubted that the boy even knew he was doing it, whether it was through plain stupidity or not. In
his fouler tempers, Zack liked to think that it was plain stupidity. But those moods were few and
far between, and he wasn‟t subject to one of them now.

Cloud stood in the line behind a tall, lean redhead whom Zack vaguely knew as the guy that the
Turks had their eye on, Reno. Zack, like most of the SOLDIER officers, disliked the Turks
immensely because, when there was a place going, they liked to try and steal the best candidates
before they could be formally accepted into the public army. President Shinra generally favoured
the Turks, the most precious of his side outfits, which meant that when the Turks got their claws
into someone, that person usually got dragged away. Zack had lost a friend to them once, and the
only reason Sephiroth had been spared was because, as far as Zack knew, he had been singled
out as General since the day he was born.

God, I‟ll have to warn Seph, „cause if Cloud draws their attention…

He could see what Seph had been looking at before, now. He watched the way that a veil
dropped over the blond‟s eyes sometimes, almost like the way it did with Sephiroth when the
older man didn‟t think anyone was watching. He found himself watching an actor.

Reno said something over his shoulder at Cloud, who smiled up at the other boy and replied back.
Zack felt a small twinge of relief that ate into his irritated resolve; Cloud seemed to have bucked
up his ideas immensely over the past two months and appeared to be getting on a lot better with
both his fellow candidates and his instructors. This could only be a good thing, and something
Zack had been encouraging since he had first met the boy, but it was a startling change.

Maybe that‟s why I‟m angry. It‟s not just that he and Seph seem to be getting all buddy-buddy, as
it were; it‟s that he‟s getting on with other people as well.

He had liked the feeling of someone depending on him; having to look after Cloud had brought
him a close friendship that he treasured.

Oh, grow up, Zack. You‟re a big boy now. Don‟t need no-one, remember?

Cloud shoved Reno in the back with his tray to shift him, because he‟d been talking at the shorter
boy and hadn‟t noticed the line move. Cloud smiled to himself, the small secretive little
expression that Zack often saw these days. It was the kind of smile that older people got when
they saw the generation below acting the way that they used to act and remembered it in
hindsight – the kind of smile that implied knowledge or experience or age. It had never failed to
puzzle him, how Cloud could be so young and so old at the same time, and how it had become
that way so quickly.

It had crossed his mind that perhaps Cloud had been hiding before – the innocence and naivety
and affability merely feigned – and now he was seeing the real Cloud Strife, the one moulded by
his experiences at his hometown. Cloud rarely spoke about Nibelheim to anyone, but Zack knew
that he hadn‟t been happy there. He suspected bullying but he had never asked – Cloud got a
wild look in his eyes whenever the town was mentioned, so he hadn‟t dared delve deeper than
that.

Perhaps that was why he was angry, because Cloud had suddenly revealed himself and Zack felt
lost in the wake of it. Even worse, in this wake Cloud had been snatched away, having attracted
the attention of the one man that he had been under the spell of for as long as Zack had known
him, perhaps even longer.

Well, „snatched‟ wasn‟t strictly true, but Zack liked the drama of it.

Cloud got served at the hatch and followed Reno‟s path to the table that the taller boy had moved
to. Zack pushed himself off of the wall and continued to train his stare on the blond as he slid
into a seat across the hall and fell into conversation with the other boys there – although the
others seemed to do most of the talking.

Or perhaps even this was a mask – not the true Cloud, but a put-on to make him more popular.
But even so, where had the sudden talent in class come from? Whichever way he looked at it, it
made no sense, and no-one was willing to help him to make it make sense.

He kept to the edges of the hall, rather than cutting his way across towards Cloud. He had things
to say and didn‟t want them to wait. Zack had never really been a patient man. Anyway, Cloud
was due for more classes soon and Zack was heading out later so it wasn‟t as if he had a choice,
was it? It wasn‟t like he wanted to do this in front of a full dining hall –
Cloud had spotted him, lifting his head and staring at him with wide, questioning eyes. Catching
the blond‟s inattention, the others stopped talking to look in Zack‟s direction. None of them
knew Zack other than as a SOLDIER 1st Class, and they all shot worried glances at Cloud.

“Hey y‟all,” he said as a greeting, flashing a smile. It disarmed them slightly, but Cloud wasn‟t
fooled. He frowned instead, standing. “Oh, you don‟t need to get up, Cloud – “

“I‟m not doing this here, Zack,” Cloud said firmly. He motioned to the hall, stern and upright,
and Zack suddenly felt ashamed that he‟d even thought of doing so. “Not here.”

“Sure,” Zack grinned, but he knew that there was no humour in his eyes. “I just wanted a chat –
no need to let your lunch go cold – “

“I‟m not hungry.” Cloud gave him a sharp look, and then turned his head to offer the confused
people at the table a slight smile. “Just throw it away, will you? I just gotta go talk for a sec.”

A few of them made vague noises of agreement, but Reno watched Zack with the cool, direct
stare that the SOLDIER knew was part of what made him so appealing to the Turks. He refrained
from sticking his tongue out of crossing his eyes – he was a SOLDIER 1st, damnit! – and
stepped back to allow Cloud out. He got another sharp, knowing look from the redhead when
Cloud had gone past and couldn‟t see it, which irked him greatly. He rolled his eyes and
followed Cloud‟s graceful form across the dining hall to the exit.

That was another thing that had confused him – Cloud had never been graceful or elegant. He
was always just the wrong side of clumsy; physically and socially inept. It had been sweet in its
own way, though his heart had always gone out to the boy for it.

This Cloud – and it was a „this Cloud‟, he realised; couldn‟t think of them as being the same –
was focused. Focused and, despite how it looked with Reno earlier, more introverted than ever.

“Where do you want to go?” Cloud asked when they‟d exited the canteen. He glanced over his
shoulder, slowing his walk so that Zack could catch up with him, with nothing but curiosity in
his face. Zack suspected that he was only hiding the darker emotion that had been there when he
had first approached the boy.

“The others will be out, so we could go back to the dorm, if you like.” Zack shrugged. “I just
wanted to ask you how it went with Seph, you know – “ He was cut off by the subtle shift in
Cloud‟s expression, where the mask of calm neutrality slipped and the mouth and eyes tightened
and went cold.

Of course you don‟t just want to ask that, you want to find out what the fuck‟s been going on and
Cloud knows that, you dumbass. Give the kid more credit. You should have learned that recently.

The mask slid back into place but there was a spark of apprehension in the blond‟s eyes that
matched the twisting feeling in Zack‟s gut. Cloud turned and started off in the direction of the
dorm, and Zack followed. The corridors were empty – most of the people who would have been
strolling along them were eating, of course – and Zack tried to ignore the itching, burning need
to just yell and scream or something – something that would give some kind of ground to stand
on again.

I can‟t stand this anymore.

“So, how did it go?” he asked. He tried to keep it conversational but he‟d never been good at
hiding strain – he was too confrontational, too quick to leap on things that he thought needed to
be fixed. “I haven‟t really seen Seph to talk to and I‟m curious as all hell.”

Cloud made a soft, amused “huh” sound in the back of his throat, lips curving slightly into a
small smile as he looked over for a moment at the man by his side. “You‟re always curious.”

Now this was something he knew how to handle – the gentle joking, at least, gave him
something to work with. “And curiosity killed the cat, I know, I know.” He grinned, thinking it
strangely ironic that he was actually dying to know. “But you seem better today, so I assume it
went okay?”

Cloud shrugged, gaze sliding away once more. “It was alright. We just talked a bit. It
was…awkward.” There was pain, there, and Zack ached for him. He knew that this had to be
pretty close to one of Cloud‟s nightmares – the boy loved so deeply and so hard…

“So what‟d you talk about?” He refrained from tagging on “‟Cause, you know, I know nothing”
bitterly afterward, but only barely. He wasn‟t a bitter person by nature, hated feeling angry, but
there was just something there that had sparked it off, something inside of him that had reacted to
the blond in a way it hadn‟t before.

“He apologised to me for something he said…he asked me why it had upset me so much, but I
couldn‟t…” Zack saw the abrupt flash of sadness in the cadet‟s eyes, so bright and terrible that it
couldn‟t be hidden. “I couldn‟t really say why…so I think I made him angry.”

Guilt ate at him after that, and Zack looked away because of it. See? You‟re overreacting and all
you‟re going to do is hurt him because of it…

What if he really can‟t tell me what happened? But what could have happened that was so awful
that he couldn‟t? There‟s nothing, is there? So why is he being so bloody stubborn about it?

I will find out.

*****

Cloud could feel the tension rolling off of Zack. The dark-haired man kept giving him odd little
glances where his eyes darkened with something almost like anger, going pale around the mouth.
Cloud's stomach twisted itself into painful knots as Zack continued with the strained small talk,
his voice light but forcefully so. Cloud hated it. He knew that this fight was coming and wanted
it over and done with. Zack was relentless when he managed to get an idea in his head.
How can I assure him that he'll never lose me as a friend? How can I get that through to him?

"Seph won't stay angry at you for long," the SOLDIER was saying airily. "If he's even mad at all.
I've seen him around and he doesn't look mad." Zack waved his hands agitatedly as he spoke.
Cloud watched him out of the corner of his eye, stomach muscles tight against apprehensive
nausea. They weren't far from the dorm, only another minute or so walk. He wasn't entirely sure
how Zack was going to act when they got inside, and he wasn't sure which possibility was worse:
his friend's silent, accusatory fury or his screaming rages. Cloud had seen them before, though
thankfully neither had been directed at him at the time.

And what can I say to him that will make him feel better? It's not up to me whether he knows
what Sephiroth saw or not - that's Seph's discretion. I can't tell him why I got so upset either. But,
the Planet knows that I'd rather die than push him away because of something like this - I can't
lose him -

In Cloud's melancholy, the conversation had died down and they'd reached the dorm. Zack
opened the door, motioning for him to enter first with a gracious but faltering smile. Cloud tried
his best to send his own back, hoping that it would be reassuring. He wasn't sure if he'd
succeeded, so he ducked past the older man into the damning silence of the room.

Zack shut the door quietly behind him. Cloud wandered to his own lower bunk bed and sat on
the edge of it, back straight, waiting for his friend to follow. He could hear Zack's footsteps on
the hard, cold floor, and raised his head as the taller, darker figure appeared around the corner of
the bunk for him to see. Zack settled on the lower bunk opposite his, almost three feet away,
clasping his hands in his lap.

"Please, Zack," Cloud said, leaning forward as his chest tightened. "I know why you're upset and
there's nothing to be upset about. Please don't be angry." Please, Zack. I couldn't stand it if you
were angry at me. You're my best friend and you always will be.

Zack shook his head, air whistling past his lips as he exhaled slowly. "I'm not upset…Just
worried."

"Worried?"

"You trust me, yeah?" Zack looked across at Cloud for the first time, his eyes dark and pleading
and his face drawn.

Cloud nodded hastily. How could he ever think that I don't? "Of course, Zack, of course I do. I
trust you more than anything."

"So why don't you trust me enough to tell me what's been going on?" The dark-haired
SOLDIER's stare was frank and direct, but his nervousness and hurt were easily seen - Cloud
could see them boiling just below the thinly spread veneer of calm. "Why is it that suddenly you
don't talk to me anymore?"
What? "I do talk to you, Zack!" Oh, please, don't think things like that! "But…what you can
know about what happened, I don't have permission to say. You'll have to ask Sephiroth - it's
more to do with him, really…"

Zack made an indistinct noise in the back of his throat, mouth pulling down and eyebrows
furrowing as he scowled, standing up abruptly to pace. "What's with all this secrecy nonsense
anyway?" He waved an arm as he glanced at the blond sitting on the bed, heated with a sudden
influx of irritation. Cloud stared at him, a vague sense of horror settling across his lungs that
Zack was angry at him. "What's all this between you and him anyway? He didn't know you
existed two months ago and suddenly there's this huge deal about you being able to pull off a few
moves!"

That hurt, a swift aching sting low in his chest. "Zack - "

"It's true, Cloud," the older man snapped. Cloud shut his mouth, sitting back at the rebuke. Zack
paced once more, three steps each way, before coming to a stop in front of the blond, towering
over him. The anger seemed to have drained out of him suddenly, flooding out and leaving
sagging shoulders behind. Cloud forced himself to look up and meet Zack's gaze. It was still
heavy and unflinching, an edge of coldness to it that Cloud wasn't used to seeing. "You've
changed, you know that? You used to at least talk, you know. These days you're so quiet. You're
so focused on getting into SOLDIER now."

That's right. I used to talk all the time before Nibelheim. And then…there just didn't seem to be
any point.

"I wasn't going to get in if I kept up with what I was doing before, was I?" Cloud said sharply.
Where was Zack to get off saying things like that? Aren't you happy that I'm going to get in to
SOLDIER? You know how much that means to me, don't you?

"That's not..." Zack made another frustrated noise, throwing up his hands. "Cloud, if this is what
just getting into SOLDIER will do to you, I don't think that it's such a good idea for you to carry
on - "

"Excuse me?!" Abruptly, Cloud straightened, eyes widening. The anger pooled into his chest in
response, hot and painful. "There is no way that you just said what I think you did - "

"But what if I'm right?" Zack shot back, cutting him off. "What if SOLDIER's not good for you?
What if I lose a friend because of it?"

"This isn't all about you!" Cloud spat, balling his fists tightly and narrowing his eyes. "It doesn't
matter what I want, or that I've been wanting to be a SOLDIER for most of my life, does it? I'll
just let that all go, shall I? What would I do, Zack? What would I do without this? This is all I
ever wanted - "
"Sephiroth is all you ever wanted." There was a strong, burning bitterness behind those words.
Cloud bristled, mouth shifting painfully as Zack elaborated, "Sometimes I think that he's the only
reason you're here."

Cloud looked away, locking his jaw and unable to look at the man standing across from him. A
sense of betrayal - betrayal that Zack didn't understand just how much SOLDIER meant beyond
Sephiroth - broiled under his skin, heavy and smothering. How could Zack not see? How could
he not see that SOLDIER was what he had come to Midgar for? Did he not understand how
much courage it had taken to leave Nibelheim - having never seen Sephiroth before, only hearing
stories - and come to the city, a place where he was more than likely to be more miserable than
before just for a chance to try out for SOLDIER? He was worthless without SOLDIER. There
was nothing else out there to prove that he was stronger than the others; to prove that he had
something to give.

Silence had fallen, abruptly broken as Zack dropped to his knees, reaching out for the hands that
were clenched on Cloud's lap. "Oh, God, I'm sorry - I didn't mean that - I'm not thinking straight
-" He clasped the fists resting on cotton-clad thighs and was batted away. The blond gave him a
sharp glare, so pale that he was almost the colour of the bed sheets.

"Yes. Yes you did," Cloud muttered. He stood up, moving around Zack with purposeful ease and
making for the exit. "I'll be back later."

"Cloud!" Zack straightened, starting off for the blond before he knew it, one arm outstretched.
"Wait!"

"No!" Cloud spun around, still backing up. Zack stopped, stunned by the reflective sheen across
the bright blue of the boy's eyes. "I'm too angry to talk to you. Even if you didn't mean it, I can't -
I just don't - believe…" He trailed off, head shaking in disgust, and disappeared around the
doorframe silently.

You're such an idiot, Zack. You couldn't have said anything more stupid than if you'd just told
him that Sephiroth hated him. Way to go.

Zack growled with frustration, sitting down on Cloud's bunk. "This is impossible," he moaned.
"Just impossible."

*****

Sephiroth felt that he probably abhorred the cadets more than anyone else, because his
paperwork load usually increased just before the exams. It always fell to him to sort these things
out for one reason or another - usually because the exam itself was proper field practice in a real
situation and the intelligence reports for such things went to him most of the time. It was
amazing how much paper was needed to secretly send a bunch of wannabe rookies to an
important area where they would then blow this cover within about five seconds of entering
battle.
He raised his palm to his mouth and yawned into it, tiredness sweeping through his body. He just
wanted something to eat and then he would go to bed and sleep. The canteen would be closed by
now, though, so he would be stuck with vending machine food. He wasn't particularly fond of
sugary/salty junk food - never been allowed it as a child and had therefore never developed a
taste for it. It would do for now, however. He hadn't eaten all day.

His mind had been so focused on the idea of food that he'd forgotten to bring his shoulder plates
with him when he'd left the office, having removed them earlier on in the day because they were
making his muscles ache. It was strange to wander ShinRa's corridors in what felt almost like
bare shoulders; strange and unsettling. He wished that he'd gone back to get them because he was
sure that he could almost feel the ShinRa filth settling on him in the short time that he'd been
without the armour.

He saw the vending machines up ahead, in the 'leisure area' - a glorified smoking room, in
Sephiroth's opinion. His mood picked up at the thought of it, and his footsteps echoed loudly as
he stepped from the corridor into the larger space.

He slowed down to a stop within a couple of paces, eyes drawn across the room away from the
flashing machines to the figure nearby. Cloud was sitting by himself at one of the corner tables,
his back turned. He was dressed in a pair of plain trousers and a dark jumper, the first time that
Sephiroth had really seen him out of uniform, and perhaps it was that which made him look out
of place again – superimposed, almost – but perhaps it was not. From Sephiroth‟s vantage point,
it looked as if Cloud was nursing a plastic cup of ShinRa special hot chocolate, the kind that used
a vague sprinkling of powder and looked so unsavoury that most people avoided it. Cloud was
staring down at it, only half awake, turning the cup around and around in his bare, frozen looking
hands. With his head bowed, the collar of his jumper left the back of his neck bare. His skin
looked like it would have been soft had he touched it.

It had been just over a day since he and Cloud had spoken – however disastrous that had turned
out to be. He was beginning to think that he couldn‟t escape the boy. When he‟d just stopped
wondering about things, the blond would be there to bring it all back again. It would have
seemed more romantic if he‟d believed in fate, but he didn‟t, and all that he felt now was a vague
sense of consternation that wasn‟t even really that.

He walked over then, his footsteps light but enough to alert Cloud to his presence. All he needed
was to startle the boy after yesterday. He wasn‟t really a boy at all, Sephiroth knew, but some
part of him recognised that he needed to keep the distance that the word implied. There was
something within Cloud that was too close to some forgotten ideal within his own mind and
distance meant safety.

He stopped, a few feet behind Cloud, and stared down at the tense shoulders – Cloud knew
exactly who was there, of course, without turning around – for a brief moment. He considered
reaching out, to feel the hard warmth of the muscles beneath his hand just to see what kind of
reaction he‟d get. His fingertips itched all of a sudden, and the thought of someone else‟s body
heat – that vague sense of it he could already feel from Cloud even with the distance between
them – filled him with a sudden, acute sense of loneliness.
“May I join you?” He kept his voice light, making sure that there was nothing but polite curiosity
in it even when they both knew there was no room for anything like that between them. The
awkwardness needed to be addressed, that much Sephiroth knew. Beyond that, he wasn‟t entirely
certain.

“Sure,” Cloud said with a vague shrug. He drew the cup of hot chocolate against his chest,
fingers tight around it. Sephiroth watched Cloud‟s knuckles grow whiter as he pulled out a chair
and sat down. A fine tremor had set up across the surface of the chocolate, hardly noticeable.

“Do you often stay out this late?” Sephiroth said, folding his hands in his lap. What could he say
to bridge that gap? He doubted that he would get any help from the other party. But why should
it matter if Strife was being cold or not?

Cloud was shaking his head. He was still staring down at the slowly cooling cup in his bare
hands. “No. Zack was being a jerk, that‟s all. But that‟s nothing new.”

Sephiroth nodded, wondering what Cloud would do to keep warm when the drink went cold. It
was chilly on this floor – Sephiroth could feel it even through the comfortable leather of his
gloves. Cloud‟s hands looked very white. “Is he giving you grief about me?”

Cloud shrugged in a strange, lop-sided non-committal way. “It doesn‟t matter. It‟s not his fault,
really.” He lifted a pale hand to run through the short hairs at the back of his head. Sephiroth
watched the nervous movement in contemplative silence.

“It‟s not ours, either,” he said eventually, and Cloud shrugged again. Sephiroth fought the urge to
roll his eyes – so defeatist already, this boy, or at least he acted like it – and aimed a steady glare
at the blond. Cloud didn‟t look up, of course, but even then, cold and tired and strained,
Sephiroth was keenly aware of the intensity of the boy‟s focus upon him, despite how the blond
might look.

A period of quiet followed, a prolonged moment of anticipation where each fumbled for
something to say and hoped that the other would be the first to say it. Sephiroth studied the lines
of Cloud‟s face in his own discomfort, the slight curve of the jaw and the pale wisps of feather-
blond that framed it. He was handsome, but his youth made it almost effeminate.

His lips formed words before he realised what he was saying. “You know as well as I that this
can‟t continue forever.” He made a vague gesture with his hand that caught Cloud‟s attention and
made him look up as Sephiroth was indicating the both of them. Cloud looked slightly panicked,
a spark of wildness in his eyes as he sat back in his chair. "You and I."

"You and I?" Cloud echoed, his voice slightly breathless. Sephiroth felt an involuntary shiver
tremble across the skin between his shoulders in reaction to it, feeling the first stir of something
warm and unnameable in his stomach. "What do you mean?"

"This." He didn't need to make another motion between them because, by the uncomfortable
flinch that the blond made as soon as he spoke, Cloud already knew what he meant. "It makes
life unnecessarily…difficult. Especially since I suspect that we will both we working together in
the near future."

That startled Cloud, making his slim frame go rigid in the chair, which Sephiroth hadn't thought
it would. Was he so ignorant of his own ability, or just expecting failure so much that it clouded
everything else, warping it beyond the boy's recognition?

Or had he heard something…something that might make the boy jumpy just being in his very
presence. And then the idea of working together…was that why Cloud acted so strangely around
him?

"Together?" There was a tiny undercurrent of hope that coloured Cloud's tone and face, lighting
the darkness in his eyes. Sephiroth nodded, watching with curiosity and surprise as the spark
brightened. He didn't think he'd ever seen such an expressive face before.

So he hasn‟t heard…?

Abruptly that light dimmed, Cloud's expression becoming closed and wary. "Why, sir? I mean,
you're…"

"I know what I am." The General. A SOLDIER. A monster. Take your pick. Forcefully, Sephiroth
cut off the bitter, angry thoughts, tightening his lips. "If what I've seen or heard is any indication,
you will most likely gain a high position within SOLDIER." As long as you don't drop back
down to your earlier test scores, that is. He suspected after much deliberation that the jump in
the scores wasn't due to any sudden emergence of latent talent - despite what the teacher
comments were - but rather some sudden motivation on the blond's part to concentrate and focus
more. Most people had talent, but the key to it was the focus, and therefore being able to draw on
that talent.

"…Thank you, sir." Cloud fidgeted in his seat under the praise, and Sephiroth had to keep his
jaw locked against the upturn of his lips when he saw the faint flush of the cadet's pale cheeks.

"And even if you weren't going to make it into SOLDIER, you know as well as I that we have a
point of…connection." Cloud's head snapped up, mouth slightly parted and cheeks reddening
further, which Sephiroth suspected wasn't entirely due to the memory of their talk in his office.
The awkward, distracting feeling in his belly surged for a moment as he mulled over what he had
just said.

Wisely, he thought, he didn't say any more and Cloud didn't either. He was willing to leave their
discussion on his visions - or memory, whatever it was - where it was left yesterday, and it
seemed that Cloud was as well. He supposed it was just as well, since he had intended to talk to
the boy to ease the tension between them. It wasn't good for work relations, but he knew that
couldn't have been the only reason. Usually, he knew that he just didn't care.

It's dangerous to care, and you know that it is. It's irrational, irresponsible and the damage it
causes is more irreparable the further you fall. Stop this now, before it's too late.
He had trained his mind long ago to protect him from the wants and follies of the human heart,
since he'd learned a long time ago - too young, too young - that feeling never benefited anyone.
What was the point, he had raged at one time, in allowing yourself to fall for the same traps as
everyone else did? He was better than they were - stronger, faster, more intelligent, and it tore
him apart that even though he was all of those things, he was still the puppet of the same
emotions that drove everyone else.

Cloud was watching him quietly and those wide blue irises were a gentle burn across his skin. He
felt the start of the shiver across his shoulder blades again.

"So," Sephiroth said, trying to distract himself from trying to analyse that feeling, "I suggest that
we leave certain things behind us, until such a time comes as it may be forced to the forefront
again." Sephiroth held out a hand across the table in the still, chilly air, watching Cloud
unwaveringly. The cadet's gaze flickered from his face down to his hand and back again before
he cautiously held out his own hand, taking it away from the hot chocolate for the first time.
Even through his gloves, Sephiroth could tell that Cloud's fingers were cold. They were slim and
white against the leather.

He must have been sitting here for a long time, worrying about this. I don't think that Zack
appreciates how much his opinion must mean to Cloud.

The blond drew his hand back, a smooth movement against Sephiroth's own. He drew back as
well, sliding his palm uncomfortably against his leg under the table. Cloud was staring at him
again, thinking that he couldn't see, and there was something in the twist of his lips that
Sephiroth couldn't quite place, though he was sure he'd seen it in countless other people. Perhaps
he'd even felt it himself, once. He kept his eyes lowered to the table, wondering - staring at the
drink across from him that gave off no steam.

Keep deluding yourself, Sephiroth. Keep telling yourself that this isn't going to end up how you
think it will. How it always has before. How it will again.

His fingers curled in against his thigh. Goddamnit, but he wasn't -

Cloud stood up suddenly, startling Sephiroth from the sudden twist in his thoughts. He looked up
in surprise, and found wide blue acres staring back at him. "I need to go now, sir," Cloud said
softly, but in the quiet that surrounded them his voice was very clear. "Thank you…for this. I'm
glad that we had a chance to sort things out."

"It was no trouble."

Cloud dropped his head in a half-bow, the blond spikes of his hair dipping with the movement.
Then he turned and fled. Sephiroth leaned back in his chair, watching the strong figure in silence
as he left. As he disappeared out of sight, the silver-haired man felt the air close in on him and
the sudden weight across the already aching muscles of his shoulders.

He's pretty, isn't he? sneered a low voice. And so young…
He ignored it, turning away from the exit that Cloud had taken as he stood up. There was more
potential there than he'd originally thought; more beneath the cool exterior than even Zack had
led him to believe.

He's dangerous. And you're a fool.

That voice knew him entirely too well.

*****

Cid let one frothy drink in his hand thump heavily onto the tabletop, finding himself
disappointed when it didn‟t startle the taller, darker figure at the table. He offered the oblivious
man a withering look before sitting down heavily in his own chair. One might have been
forgiven for thinking that a large weight lay upon his shoulders but Cid Highwind always moved
like that – big and heavy, though he was neither. He put his own drink on the table and sat for a
few seconds, drumming his fingers pointedly on the table as he waited for Vincent to notice him.

It had not been a pleasant few days and he was in dire need of a good evening of drunkenness.
Perhaps he could drag Valentine down with him. But first of all, he had a few questions to ask.

I don‟t get anything of what the fuck is going on, but I would bet my airship that Mr. I‟m-
Allergic-to-the-Light over there does.

He hadn‟t said anything to Vincent however much he‟d been dying to. Cid personally thought
that he‟d been very good about this, but he refused to admit that he hadn‟t lasted out as long as
he may have originally intended to. It made him feel better anyway.

Vincent was watching him drum his fingers but hadn‟t moved other than to lift his head slightly
to be able to see. They were seated in the corner of Tifa‟s bar in Kalm, as out of the way as
possible to avoid being overheard as well as being seen and recognised. Word had indeed spread
fast, as Tifa had warned them, and now the entire town knew that they were there. Of course, the
shyer people wouldn‟t approach and a lot of Kalm‟s population were thankfully that way
inclined, but it didn‟t stop the looks that they got – the looks that were filled with awe but a hint
of disappointment that Cloud Strife wasn‟t with them. Cloud was always the one they wanted to
see, their “front man” as Cid liked to call him. Cloud had laughed dismissively at the name, just
after Meteor, waving his hand and smiling, just slightly. He hadn‟t liked the attention that saving
the world had brought, just knowing that they‟d succeeded and all that had been destroyed was
ShinRa and Midgar – neither really a loss at all.

Cid took a long swig of his drink – good beer, this stuff, something he hadn‟t had for a while. He
was pleasantly surprised that Tifa could still get hold of it, but then again it wasn‟t really a
surprise considering who she was. Cid rather liked the attention and privileges that fame brought,
especially when people were too afraid of you to actually pry much. What it meant to Cid in
practical terms was that he got loads of free drinks at the pub and never paid for parts that he
wanted for the Highwind, or just about anything else either.
Cloud had never been happy other than with knowing that they‟d destroyed Jenova, Hojo and
Sephiroth. Or, at least, Cid had always assumed that along with all the others, until Cloud had
gone. The fucker had just upped and left one day without telling anyone. Cid had started to
wonder, then, when they realised that Cloud had left of his own accord. He‟d mentioned to
Vincent one day that he didn‟t think Cloud had ever been happy and the taller man had just
looked at him, asking in that one moment why Cid hadn‟t noticed before.

And now Strife was back. To be honest, he hadn‟t expected to see the kid again, except maybe
when they found his body in however many years time and gave him a huge hero‟s burial. Cloud
could usually stay hidden when he wanted to.

Cloud‟s return had been playing on all of their minds. Cid hadn‟t been quite this stressed since
their final battle with Sephiroth. At least now he had access to alcohol and cigarettes to try and
calm his nerves. Not that it was working much.

Vincent had been more silent than usual. Most people wouldn‟t have noticed, but Cid had. He
seemed very preoccupied and the pilot often found him standing just inside the door to Cloud‟s
room, staring at the motionless figure on the bed. Tifa had seen that the Ancients had spoken to
Vincent upon the mountain. She told Cid what Vincent had told her, and it seemed that this was
what had sparked the determined glint in her eye. For his own part, Cid was once again chilled
and awed by the seeming callousness of Aeris‟ people.

Mouth set in a thin line, Cid waved a hand at Vincent. The other man‟s dark eyes lifted
immediately and enough of his face was visible that Cid knew he was frowning. He smiled
grimly and took another gulp of his drink – he‟d need that – before getting straight down to
business. “So what crawled up your ass?”

Vincent‟s expression deepened to a scowl. “Excuse me?”

Cid rolled his eyes, reaching into his jacket pocket for another cigarette. “What‟s bothering you
so much? And don‟t think I can‟t tell, „cause I can. So spill.” Ah, who needed subtlety in this day
and age? “And it‟s not just that Cloud‟s back so don‟t pull that one either.”

The black-haired man looked indignant for a moment and shook his head. “I was just thinking
that it‟s not a good idea for Cloud to be here.”

“You mean Tifa?”

“It‟ll cause trouble. It already is.” Vincent‟s eyes glanced towards the bar, where Richard was
busy serving. He looked tired and drawn.

“No shit, Sherlock,” Cid said, following Vincent‟s gaze. He felt sorry for the lad, was the best
way that he could put it. “I heard them fighting last night.”
And who wouldn‟t be upset with your wife‟s „other man‟ staying in the house? Cloud‟s a dolt if
he never saw how Tifa felt about him. Why he wasn‟t interested I don‟t know – I don‟t even think
it had anything to do with Aeris.

He‟d also told Vincent once, on another of his great philosophical tirades about Cloud, that he
was completely convinced that the word “enigma” (and a few others besides) had been invented
solely to describe AVALANCHE‟s then-leader.

“I was thinking we could move him,” Vincent said, but he didn‟t sound convinced. He took his
first sip of the drink that Cid had brought over for him. “But Tifa would never hear of it, of
course.”

“Of course not.” Tifa had never known what was best for her. They‟d thought she might have
learned when she‟d settled down with someone else. But all good things must come to an end,
Cid mused thoughtfully. “Personally I think Tifa needs to make her bloody mind up whether she
wants Cloud or not.”

“You can‟t just choose,” Vincent said sharply. “A lot of things would have been a lot easier if
you could. We just have to accept that and work with what we have.”

Cid blinked and directed a questioning look across the table. Vincent looked away, but Cid could
see that his eyes were sad. Vincent wouldn‟t explain what he‟d actually meant by that, the pilot
was sure, however much he poked and prodded. He shook his head, sighing. “So if Tifa won‟t let
him go, what do you reckon she‟s actually planning on doing?”

His companion shrugged. “Waking him up, I suppose.”

“How? She said the Ancients have him. How are you supposed to negotiate with the fucking
Lifestream?” Cid scoffed, glad that he never got such fantastical ideas. He was quite happy with
things that he could touch and bang around, thank you very much, rather than all this airy-fairy
spiritual stuff. That had always been the domain of people like Cloud and Sephiroth, and they‟d
both ended up out of their bloody heads – or close to it.

“The thing is, I‟m afraid that she may be able to make good on her word,” Vincent murmured.

Cid snorted, lips tight around the cigarette end. “You‟ve got to be shitting me. Since when would
Tifa be able to do that? Cloud, yes, but Tifa – “

Vincent shook his head, holding up a hand. “Think about it, Cid. She went into the Lifestream
with Cloud. Even if she had no Mako in her before, she does now. She found Cloud in there. She
could probably do it again if she wanted to.”

He has a point. Cid put his chin in his palm, elbow on the table. “Why would it be a bad thing if
she did wake him up?” Vincent seemed convinced – what did he know that the others didn‟t?
The Highwind pilot pinpointed that as the exact moment when Vincent turned to ice on him. His
eyes went hard and blank as he stared across at his younger companion. Cid had once been quite
intimidated by the other man‟s coldness, but not anymore.

“I don‟t know many details,” Vincent said – liar, Cid thought instantly. “But I think that he‟s
gone for a reason. I don‟t think that we should interfere.”

“And what reason would that be?” Cid rolled his eyes. He himself had never been one for
disguising or hiding the truth. Perhaps he just wasn‟t intelligent or quick-witted enough to think
of any lies, but he‟d never really wanted to find out if that was true or not. “I know you know,
Dead Boy. I can read you like a fucking book. Not that your secrecy and all the rest of it aren‟t a
huge giveaway or anything.”

He saw the twitch of the mantle over Vincent‟s mouth that meant that he had deigned himself fit
to be able to smile. It was gone after a moment, and Cid could almost have mouthed the words in
his head as Vincent said, “I can‟t tell you, unfortunately.” There, he lowered his eyes almost
guiltily to the table. Cid watched him, raising an eyebrow. “Tifa doesn‟t know that I know. But
Cloud…wouldn‟t want her to know. Especially not her. He didn‟t want anyone to know.”

"Didn't want anyone to know?" Cid raised his eyebrow further. "So how come you do? What did
you do - beat him or something?"

Vincent snorted. Cid marvelled over how the other man could still make something like snorting
seem elegant as well as eloquent. "By accident, is all."

Cid filed that away safely in the back of his mind. How could he have found out by accident,
then? What had Cloud done or said to Vincent that had given it away? Perhaps there was
something he had, something he'd made -

Nibelheim.

"So you really believe that this thing that no-one's supposed to know is the reason he's gone?" he
said, but his mind was working, thoughts barely half-formed before the next came along,
everything turning his concentration back to something Tifa had said when he'd landed by the
mountain town.

"Vincent brought him back from somewhere behind the hut. He's so cold, what can we do?"

The darker man was watching him quietly again, having fallen silent. Cid stared right back at
him, and offered a bright smile.

Vincent was being over-dramatic, the pilot thought scornfully. He usually was - and what good
was Vincent doing Cloud by sitting there like a mystic and saying 'I know what's wrong with him
but I won't tell you'?

He's been living on a mountain for nine years, Cid. What better place to start looking?
It was always surprising to Cid how many people never heard the Highwind's engines at night.

*****

"Have you had the intelligence reports through yet?"

Sephiroth looked up from the papers on his desk for only about the second time since Zack had
entered the room. He blinked once, startled out of his concentration by the sudden question, until
Zack explained, "For the SOLDIER exams." Sitting on a clear corner of the General's desk, he
swung his legs a little, needing to spend some of the nervous energy in his limbs.

Sephiroth tapped his gloved fingers on the top of the desk. Zack had a gnawing feeling in his gut
that somehow he had got wind of his and Cloud's fight. "Oh, those. Yes, of course. I meant to
talk to you about them." Sephiroth sat back in his chair as Zack's mind gasped, mock-
incredulously, Sephiroth forgot something?! Dear God! It was odd, though, but Zack guessed
that the man had had other things on his mind. The more cynical part of him, the part that was a
glutton for punishment, thought that it could probably guess what.

"…was thinking about sending them to Corel," Sephiroth was saying. "Apparently that anti-
ShinRa group we've been trying to 'discourage' has a base up in the mountains there, not far from
the town. Not that heavily guarded, but the reports aren't all that detailed so I'd rather go up with
them as backup, since my schedule won't be that bad after I finish the paperwork for it."

"Uh-huh," Zack said in agreement, but gave the man a shrewd look. Sephiroth levelled a cold,
blank stare back at him, as if daring him to say what was on his mind. Zack didn't dare - who
would when they were up against Sephiroth? - but quietly stewed. They could send anyone. Any
member of SOLDIER 1st was capable of backing up SOLDIER cadets, and Zack couldn't
remember the General having gone on any of the field exams as backup. "So it'll be you, the
cadets and the examiners. Who's examining?"

"The usual two. But they're getting older so I didn't think that they should be sent up alone when
there's a chance that there's more up there than we expect. Unfortunately, there's nothing else that
I can okay as an exam - there are still a few more pockets of resistors in Wutai but I know that
they're all experienced fighters. It would be a massacre if I sent the cadets there." Sephiroth
shrugged. one-shouldered, letting his glare soften and shift from Zack's face. His profile was
shadowed and his frown pronounced because of it. Zack wondered what he could possibly be
concerned about. Cloud still thought that he hung the moon.

Cloud.

He'd been unfair on the cadet. Of course, he'd known it at the time, even as he said the words, but
he had been angry and that had been hot in his veins, a driving force that was entirely separate
from most of his brain but powerful enough to supersede it. Cloud hadn't spoken to him since
yesterday, and hadn't come back to the dorm that night until very late. Zack had pretended to be
asleep when he'd heard the blond come in.
You have to apologise. Tell him that you know you're being irrational - but it's so hard not to be
jealous when suddenly you've got to compete with the General.

Zack had the feeling deep down in his chest that he was the only one competing, though.

"…Zack? Are you listening to me?"

His head snapped up, and he found himself staring into Sephiroth's glowing eyes, darkened with
irritation. He had been looking at Zack like that all the way through the 'meeting', the cold
calculation in his face that made him the most successful General that the Planet had ever seen.
Zack felt himself quail a little - sure once more that somehow Sephiroth and Cloud had spoken
together since yesterday's fight - and nod slightly too eagerly. "Sorry. I'm listening now."

"I was talking about the groups for the exams. How we should split them up."

"Oh, right. Well, we won't know exactly how many are entering until after the prerequisites.
They're in, what, two weeks, I think? We'll either have to guess for now or wait. We usually
guess, though, don't we? I don't know, I'm not involved most years." Zack shrugged. "'S up to
you, ain't it?"

Sephiroth continued to stare at him for a second, a pause long enough that Zack fidgeted on the
desk. "I normally estimate," Sephiroth said eventually. His face seemed too deliberately blank
and cold. Usually Zack had some inkling of what was going on beneath the mask, and he felt
uneasy now because he didn‟t think he had any idea. Sephiroth could have been planning to
murder him right there and then and he wouldn't have the slightest clue. "I imagine that perhaps
twenty cadets will make it through the prerequisite tests. Say, groups of four or five, then. Four
or five groups should be enough to cover the base, especially if I'm there as a sixth and the two
examiners count as a seventh."

"It sounds…fine to me." A faultless plan, for one made up in about ten seconds. He expected no
less from the man. Perhaps Sephiroth even believed that he really was going just to be backup.

Stop making excuses, Zack. I know why he's going, and he's not stupid enough to fall into denial
about it. He's just betting that I won't confront him.

God, it wasn't like him to be so damn possessive over someone. Why had it changed? He might
have acted like this over Aeris, but Cloud? Why did it bother him so much that Sephiroth had
finally taken an interest?

You should be happy for Cloud. You know how he feels about Seph - how he's always felt. It had
always been the one constant ever since Cloud came, the one thing that never seemed to have a
beginning and that he couldn't imagine ever having an end. But you always knew that Seph would
never know about it and would never be interested because Cloud was nobody. Too young, too
immature. But now he is somebody and, somehow, he's more grown up than you'll ever be.
"…should rest, Zack. You're obviously not feeling yourself today." Sephiroth stood up, the chair
legs scraping across the floor and pulling Zack back to himself more than the older man's words
had. He'd gone back to staring into space again.

"Huh?" he questioned blankly.

Sephiroth rolled his eyes, something that Zack very rarely saw him do. "Go and sleep, Zack.
You're no use to anyone like this. Go and…talk to Cloud or something." He waved a hand
dismissively, turning away, and Zack felt his back straighten as he pushed himself off of the
table. So Sephiroth did know.

"I'll talk to Cloud when I feel like it," he said testily, annoyed that Sephiroth seemed to think that
he was so obviously in the wrong. He had gone a little too far, admittedly, but surely he hadn't
been wrong for the entire fight?

"What's wrong with you?" Sephiroth suddenly snapped, spinning back around to face the
younger man. "This is unlike you, Zack. You need to get some rest and calm down about things
or you'll go and say something idiotic, if you already haven't." He made another, almost
disgusted, hand movement. "And then you need to talk to Cloud."

Zack shook his head, sighing as he stood before the desk, leaning back on it with his palms flat
on the wood. His heart hammered in his chest. "What did Cloud tell you?"

"Just that you weren't on the best of terms. He was worried about it, though he didn't say as
much." Sephiroth had moved to one of the bookcases and was looking along the shelves of titles.
Zack could only see the strong line of his back. Suddenly Sephiroth took a book out and started
flipping through it. Zack pushed up off of the desk and walked over slowly. The older man
turned to him before he made it, holding out the book. "I've got some maps and tactical
information on the Corel mountains. I'll get someone to write it all up and do copies for everyone
involved. Then whoever's organising the exams can get on with it, can't they?"

They shared a long, meaningful look, before Zack took the book from his superior's hands. "Of
course. I'll pass it on."

*****

Cloud found himself staring up at the criss-crossed wires that supported the mattress of the bunk
above him. He lay back on his own bed, hands behind his head. He'd noticed, sometime in his
long period of indecision that day, that some of the wires had snapped, hanging curled down so
that if Cloud ever sat up in bed abruptly he'd probably gauge his eyes out on them. He'd been
looking up at where the wires were broken and trying to work out how many more could go
before it became dangerous when someone lay on the mattress that it supported.

And if it breaks and some of the wires come down, you'll get them straight through the torso.
Lucky me. Perhaps I'll die quickly - if I'm asleep I won't be aware of it for long, I suppose.
His morose thoughts were interrupted as the dorm door opened and a voice called out, "Cu-
loooouuud? You in here?" The room must have looked empty - his other roommates had left
long ago.

"Here," he called out softly, and heard the door being closed. It was rather reminiscent of the
lunchtime before, he mused dully, thoughts of the argument driving blunt knives against his
breastbone. He reached up and touched one of the sharp ends of a snapped wire with the soft pad
of his thumb.

"Oi," said a voice just off to his side, quiet but mischievous. "Planet to Cloud. Are you
receiving?"

He smiled, lowering his arm and turning his head to look up at the tall, slim figure standing by
the bed. "Hey, Reno." He rolled over, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and sitting up.
Reno had the ever-present faint trace of a smirk about him, even now. He looked much like
Cloud remembered that he would in five years time: a sharp, angular face with intelligent eyes
and a mobile mouth, and long red hair held back by a headband so that it didn't obscure his
vision. He was a street kid, Cloud understood, and could well believe it in the swaggering
confidence the taller boy exuded that came with having survived by himself all this time; the
confidence which did nothing to hide the darkness in Reno's eyes, or the fact that he was no more
a child than Cloud was.

Cloud couldn't help but feel amused that he was finding such kindred souls in his old enemies.
What didn't strike him as so amusing was the fact that, in exchange, he seemed to be losing an
old friend.

"Hey, Blondie," Reno replied, his smirk becoming stronger. He reached up a flipped an errant
lock of red hair back behind his headband. "I came to see how you are. You seemed a bit
distracted in class today and then just rushed off. I saw your big SOLDIER friend on the way and
asked him where you were, and he got all huffy and pale and just wandered off." He shrugged, as
if playing down the incident, but his eyes hadn't left Cloud's face.

Cloud remembered that he had felt intimidated by Reno when he'd reached Midgar the first time
around. The redhead had been cool, first off, but he'd also seemed cleverer and somehow above
the others, without even trying. Cloud, reminded of this as he looked up at the cadet's pale face,
now thought that he knew why. Perhaps that was why Reno had approached him this time,
because he could see someone who seemed to be on the same level as he was.

"Oh, he and I had words yesterday, is all," Cloud said, answering Reno's unspoken question. "He
owes me an apology. I wouldn't worry."

"I'm not," Reno said carefully, clearly implying that he thought Cloud was. Which was true, of
course, but he wasn't going to tell anyone just how concerned he was actually feeling.

He shrugged uneasily, glancing away from Reno's continuous stare. "We'll sort it out, anyway."
The redhead suddenly grinned. "We could always beat him up, just for the hell of it. And call it
revenge."

Cloud snorted, letting his tension slide for a moment as the other cadet's expression grew
stronger with mirth at the idea. "Yeah, and we'd end up in the hospital wing in boxes within
about five seconds flat."

"Nuh-uh." Reno shifted his weight, leaning it on one leg as he placed a fist on his hip. "Your
brawn and my brain-"

"Brawn!" Cloud spluttered, rocking forward as he let out a bark of laughter.

"Shut up. Yes, brawn," Reno repeated, rolling his eyes. "Mr. Dark Horse that you are. We could
take him on. You have no idea how satisfying it will be to knock him around a bit - "

"He's my friend. I can't beat him up." The idea was ridiculous in itself, but he had a sudden flash
of Zack's shocked face as he realised that he'd lost to the blond, and it was satisfying and not
funny at all. "And I'd get expelled unless it was in training."

"Mm." Reno smiled again. "Well, we'll get around to it sometime. All you'd have to do is ask
him to train and you could invite me alone as backup. You with your big SOLDIER friends…"
The humour faded from his eyes, replaced with curiosity. Slowly, the curve of his lips lessened.
"How come you know the General anyway? It's spreading like wildfire, about you knowing
him…of course, half of them don't believe it, but…"

I knew this would happen. Cloud sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Zack knows him, is
all." Reno's expression shifted, something subtly changing so that he looked vaguely
uncomfortable. Cloud tried to ignore it. "I don't really know him as such…we've just spoken a
bit." I would give anything to be able to go back and change what we did talk together about,
Cloud thought, cheeks heating as memory returned to him unbidden. Shame the Cetra never
respond to what I actually ask for.

"That's more than about 99.9% of everyone else has done," Reno responded, the odd look still
haunting his features. "Perhaps," he said, a little strained, "you're lucky to be counted in the same
part of that statistic as Zack is."

"It doesn't mean anything." Not that I didn't wish it did. Cloud shrugged again helplessly. "You
called me a Dark Horse - that's the only reason he's spoken to me."

"Uh-huh." The redhead nodded, watching Cloud intently for a second. "Um…" He cleared his
throat awkwardly, dropping his gaze then. "I wanted to…talk to you about Sephiroth, actually."

"…Oh?" His stomach abruptly contracted, going heavy and solid. Cloud let out a low, soundless
breath, clasping his hands nervously. He'd gone cold - why couldn't anyone just leave him alone?
Surely just being back here was hard enough…
"Yeah. I, uh, didn't think you were aware of something and thought I should tell you, you know."
Reno shrugged uncomfortably. Cloud watched him silently, noting the way that the other boy
wouldn't look at him. Embarrassed, perhaps, but that wasn't like Reno -

"…uh, you've probably heard stuff about Sephiroth, right? Rumours and things." Reno reached
up and twined a stray lock of red around one long finger and in that moment he turned his gaze
back to Cloud's, watching the blond's face for signs of recognition.

Cloud nodded slowly, feeling the first flush of heat across his skin. Yes, of course he's heard -
everyone had - but he'd never really taken any notice of them because it was too close to his own
dreams, and he knew that getting that close would get him burned. He'd been burned enough
already, and had learned not to stray too far from the safety of the shadows. Colder, yes, but less
of a risk.

"Well, I happen to know that he actually does, you know, um…" Reno seemed to be searching
for the right words, as he bit his lip. Cloud could tell what was on the tip of the other boy's
tongue; had waited for it to be said all of his life but it hadn't been and all that he had been left
with was rumour and mystery. "…He does swing that way."

"Oh." It shouldn't have been embarrassing, but somehow it was, as well as thrilling. Cloud knew
he was blushing, and knowing that made it even worse. Still, there was a trill in his blood and it
was wonderful. "How…how do you know..?"

There was a pause, the only sound being Reno's uncertain shift of his weight. Cloud had gone
still again, and after a moment of unbroken eye contact between them, Reno said, "He's not
celibate, you know. He doesn't need to be - the Planet knows how many people there are tripping
over themselves to be with him. I mean, he's never slept with a cadet before as far as I know
but…sometimes he does take up the offers that he's given."

It shouldn't be so surprising - you knew that he couldn't be celibate. But it never really crossed
your mind, did it? Too wrapped up in yourself to ever really think about him.

Cloud wrung his hands - they'd gone cold again. What was Reno doing by telling him this
anyway? What did it have to do with him? "I don't see why…"

"You're very pretty, you know," the redhead said suddenly, sharply, his eyes gone narrow as he
tried to instil some kind of knowledge in the blond, who didn't seem to be quite there yet. He
stared up at Reno's lanky figure questioningly, but his only response was that disconcerting,
intelligently pointed look and he still couldn't -

Oh. It hit him quite suddenly what Reno was talking about, and he felt his cheeks grow very
warm indeed. "I don't think that anything will happen-"

"He's going to notice that you're attractive sooner or later, if he hasn't already." The cadet's voice
was as sharp as his expression, and just as cold. "And to be honest, if he asked, you wouldn't say
no, would you? I don't think anyone would. I just wanted to warn you that he might…um…"
"Ask to sleep with me?" Cloud's voice had gone suddenly strangled. He coughed, trying to clear
his throat as his heart pounded. Surely Reno couldn't be serious - what would Sephiroth ever see
in him? Not even a pretty face, he was certain, because he was nobody.

It's safer to be nobody.

"No, I mean…" Reno sighed, shaking his head and rocking on the balls of his feet. "I just
thought that I should tell you what my friend said. Pass the advice on, you know. Just in case."

So I'm not allowed to say yes if he ever asked? For God's sake, I'm not 5 anymore! I can take
care of myself! "Thanks, Reno," Cloud heard himself say, far more coldly than he'd intended,
"but I don't think-"

“He fucked your SOLDIER friend, Zack, you know.” Reno watched Cloud‟s face, his voice
devoid of any inflection. The blond went stiff, rigid. Cloud felt numb coldness seep into him.
“And they're not together. They never were. Sephiroth's never actually been with anyone, I don't
think."

 Ah, so the real reason behind this comes out. Cloud the poor blushing virgin, idealistic and
naïve… "Yes, I knew what you meant when you said that he 'takes up the offers.'" I'm not naïve
anymore. Not anymore. "Thank you for…warning me." He felt angry again, for some reason.
Betrayed once more.

"Hey, Cloud, don't get like that," Reno sighed. "I was just trying to help. You remind me a bit of
me. I just don't want to see you hurt, especially if you've been hurt before the way that I have."

"Did you sleep with him?" Cloud found himself snapping before he could help it. Reno's eyes
went wide and he shook his head as Cloud found himself balling his hands in his lap. "No, I
haven't. Don't think he's ever fucked a cadet, like I said. But I know someone who did. An older
guy. So I thought I'd pass on the advice."

Cloud smiled crookedly, his heart still weighed down by the idea that Zack - Zack - had been
sleeping with Sephiroth. Had he been sleeping with Sephiroth all the time before, the entire two
years that Cloud had first been striving to enter SOLDIER? "It's okay. Thanks."

"It's cool, you know." Reno smiled, but it lacked the usual spark. Cloud realised he must look
very pale or upset for Reno's to smile like that. The redhead stood up slowly, knees clicking. "I'm
going to head on down to dinner. You want to come or want me to get something for you or..?"

Cloud opened his mouth to decline the offer when another voice spoke up from the side, icy cold.
"I already took the liberty."

Both their heads snapped around, and Cloud saw out of the corner of his eye that Reno went very
still and white as they took in Zack's taller, darker form standing not very far away, carrying two
trays. His face was stony. Cloud hadn't heard the door open.
"I'd have thought you'd be the last person to go spreading around gossip, Reno," Zack said
slowly.

Reno looked like he was about to say something, but he stopped himself. The only betrayal of
the calm of the rest of him was the minute, frustrated working of his jaw. Cloud knew what he
wanted to say. But it's true, isn't it? You did get fucked by the General.

He hadn't known that. God, if it was true, how hadn't he known? Because Zack knew you liked
Sephiroth. He was hardly going to tell you, was he?

"You should head on down to the canteen," Zack said, jerking his head back over his shoulder.
"I've got some stuff to talk about with Cloud."

Reno nodded stiffly and gave Cloud one last indecipherable look before brushing past Zack and
leaving the room. Zack and Cloud stayed as they were until they heard the door close securely.
Then Zack pulled his attention from Reno to the blond in front of him, and moved forward to
offer a tray.

"I got us some food," he said, all the traces of anger suddenly gone from his voice. He was
smiling. Cloud stared up at him, not knowing what to say in the face of the sudden mood swing.
"I thought we could talk. I was out of order and stuff."

"Oh." Cloud reached out dumbly and took the tray of hot food. His fingers brushed Zack's, and
the sudden image of the SOLDIER and Sephiroth together, all slick bare skin and desperate
movement, assaulted him. Sephiroth's pale body against Zack's darker tanned skin would be
beautiful, he thought, and it made him nauseous.

"Hey," Zack called out, waving his hand in front of Cloud's face. The blond jumped, startled out
of his unwelcome reverie, and the taller man's face swam back into focus, his expression
apprehensive.

"Sorry," he said, setting the tray down on his lap so that he could look away and Zack wouldn't
see his eyes. "Thanks…for the food." He wasn't sure if he could eat it. He stared at it numbly.

Why the hell does it matter so much? Reno was quite eager to stress that it's just sex. So what if
two people decide that they just need something to relieve stress, or whatever? It's not against
the law, it happens all the time…but still…

It's because Zack never told you. All this time, and he never told you. You never found out.
People knew, and you didn't. Why didn't they tell you? Was everyone laughing at you, Cloud,
because they knew and you didn't? Perhaps Zack and Sephiroth used to laugh about it…

Shut up! They weren't laughing! Why would they laugh? It's not funny…

"Hey, Cloud?" He looked up again, and then around as Zack's weight settled itself down beside
him on the bed. "Are you alright?"
"Oh, yeah," he lied, picking up his fork and sticking it into the sludgy mashed potato that had
been slapped onto the plate. "I'm…okay." Change subject. Change subject. You'll go mad again
if you keep thinking about those things. You'll be just like you were those first few years on the
mountain until you just didn't have the energy to care anymore, except about killing Sephiroth.
"You wanted to talk to me? About yesterday?"

"Yeah…" Zack looked relieved, lifting a hand to run it through his black hair as he set the tray
down on the floor and shifted so that he was sitting cross-legged on the bed, facing Cloud's still
form. "About yesterday. I'm real sorry. I really am…I didn't mean those things. I was just angry
and…I just wanted to hurt you."

"Why were you angry?" Cloud turned his head then, seeing Zack's downtrodden expression. "I
mean, I know it was because of what happened between Seph and me, but…"

Zack shrugged sharply, palms resting on his thighs. "I dunno, really. I suppose…'cause Sephiroth
hasn't taken an interest in anyone who's tried out for SOLDIER like this for a long time and I
know that he means a lot to you. I just kinda felt like a third wheel…and I hate feeling like that."

Cloud nodded. Just like I thought. Oh Zack, I know you inside out, you know that? But even this
temper is strange for you… "It's okay. But, Zack…it was just that one incident. It was never
meant to happen or anything. You're my best friend and you always will be, whatever happens. I
don't want anything to come between us." Not even Sephiroth.

Zack smiled brightly, the first Zack-like expression that Cloud had seen all day. It cheered him
up for a brief moment and he smiled back, and then fell back to the tray in his lap. In the
awkward silence that fell, he dutifully ate what he'd been brought. He heard Zack pick up his
own tray and start to do the same.

Of course, it'll never be the same if you leave it as it is. Not if Zack heard what Reno was saying.

But could he ask? Could he actually say the words and bear the answer?

They'd finished and Zack was leaning over to take Cloud's tray when he finally decided. "Zack,"
he said, and could feel the dark-haired man pause beside him. The bed went still. "Did you?"

The silence seemed to deepen and stretch. Cloud couldn't meet Zack's eyes, even though he knew
that the other man was staring at him. He didn't know what to expect if he did look up. He knew
Zack better than he knew himself, but this…

"Yes," came the soft answer. "Yes, we did."

"Why?" Cloud found that his voice was more controlled than he'd expected. Somehow, hearing
the admittance from Zack's mouth hadn't been so painful. It would have been, he thought, if Zack
hadn't sounded so...regretful.

"Because sometimes there's no-one else to make it less lonely."
It was a fair enough answer, Cloud thought dully. Truthful, honest… "Do you still..?"

"No, no, not…" Zack made a soft noise in the back of his throat, halfway between frustration and
surrender. "I'm with Aeris now. But even before…I've only…just once. Just once, while you've
been here. Before I knew how you felt. And after that, I couldn't…but then I realised that it was
best if I didn't. For all of us."

For all of us?"Oh." Cloud nodded, digesting the information with an intense feeling of relief.
God, so they hadn't…thank God they hadn't… "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because I didn't want this to happen. You're my best friend, too. It changes things, doesn't it? It
can't help but change things…" Out of the corner of his eye, Cloud saw Zack reach out to him.
He felt the soft touch of Zack's hand against his arm. "I'm not in love with Seph, Cloud. I'm not.
And he doesn't love me. It was just...sex. Just like Reno said. It was never frequent. Just when
things got…bad. It was a way to forget." He paused. "Please, Cloud. I'm sorry."

He laughed, then, turning to see Zack's startled face. He wasn't quite sure why he was laughing.
He couldn't decide whether it was funny or not. "Oh, Zack, you don't have to be sorry. I
know…that things get bad. I just thought…that you might still be…" Cloud shook his head,
trying to dispel the thoughts. "I'm going to go insane one day, you know. I just think things
and…"

"I know," Zack said softly. "I know."

"I get tired," Cloud said, and saw the answering sorrow in Zack's eyes, mirroring his own. "So
tired." He shrugged, not knowing what else to say. For a moment, he was back on the Nibel
mountainside again, staring out into the dark storm and wishing that he had more courage than
he did.

"Hey, shush." Zack slid his fingers around Cloud's arm, pulling the distracted blond toward him
as he straightened his legs out. He saw Cloud's eyes focus on him for a brief second, coming
back from whatever grey place he had been in. Awkwardly, he managed to gather the cadet at his
side, the boy's blond head resting on his shoulder. After a pause, Cloud moved his arm around
Zack's waist, turning into the warm embrace. "We'll get through it, okay. It'll get better. We just
need to be patient. All good things come to those who wait, you know."

"I've been waiting for a long time," Cloud murmured softly.

"Well, then hopefully we won't need to wait much longer."

"Mmm."

It didn't take Cloud very long to fall asleep, as Zack had thought. When the blond was well away,
he got them both into a more comfortable position, knowing that he wouldn't be moving far that
night. The others who slept in the dorm didn't say anything when they came in, casting brief
questioning looks their way before moving on. Zack was left to think, wishing that he couldn't
feel Cloud's pain so acutely, and unable to sleep.

God, but he hoped that what Reno had said about Sephiroth wouldn't turn out to be right.

*****

End Chapter 8.

A/N:

1. Just a quick note, but just in case some people are wondering what the hell I am doing with the
characters (let alone the plot), you have to remember that not only has Cloud lived through the
events of the game, but also an extra 9 years in solitude (incidentally, I do so love how AC‟s
Cloud almost mirrors mine in this respect, hehehehe.) And Zack…well, to explain why he might
seem OOC would be to give away some of the plot, but there are reasons.

2. This took so long because I spent a fair amount of time re-writing bits that I'd already done
because my computer twice decided to corrupt the file and I didn't manage to save everything.
This thing did not want to be written, I tell you.

Fusion 9

by Knowing Shadows

Disclaimer: See Chapter 1

******

Cloud drifted in the warm haze of sleep for a long time, ghosting past the vague whispers of
dreams that tried to entangle him. They promised everything, treacherous in their eagerness to
please. They promised him a moment, a respite from the cold, unforgiving world that would
greet him when he woke. They promised him wonderful, surreal situations to engender why he
was lying wrapped in someone's arms, safe and warm, and not alone like he usually was. They
knew just the way to hurt him the most in that moment when the last vestiges of sleep wore off
and he realised that he'd been tricked once again.

He hadn't fallen asleep with someone for a long time. The last time he could remember doing so
was the night before AVALANCHE had gone to destroy what remained of Sephiroth and Jenova
in the Northern Crater, where he'd held Tifa in his state of terrified dread as she dozed. It didn't
really count, he thought, since he hadn't slept and it had been anything but comforting. The only
time he could think of before that was before Tifa had found him at the train station on Sector 7 -
he and Zack had been on their way to Midgar from Nibelheim. Zack was planning for them to
become mercenaries and never to work for ShinRa anymore, not after what they'd discovered
and endured in the five years thence.
Zack had held him as they slept in the back of the truck. Then again, Cloud hadn't really slept
much then either - gripped by the Mako coursing through his body, he hadn't really been able to
tell up from down and consciousness from unconsciousness. He supposed that his memories of
being held were actually Zack's, who'd probably been speaking to him all along, and he'd just
taken it in, able to use it later on to hide his failed self from the world.

Have I never been held like this, then? Never…never just as I sleep?

He had his face buried against Zack's shoulder. He knew it was Zack, as surely as he would have
known it if it had been Sephiroth. In his state of semi-wakefulness, he felt his face screw up,
trying to physically hold back the onset of the emotions that always came with thinking like he
often did. God, but he had to stop. His fingers, resting on Zack's opposite shoulder, curled tightly
into the loose material of the other man's shirt. He felt Zack shift against him, murmuring
unintelligibly in his sleep, and that roused him fully. The clawing tendrils of his dream-desires
reluctantly withdrew, taking the blessed fogginess of sleep with them.

His friend was very warm. In fact, he was too hot where his body was pressed to Zack's, since he
was still dressed and there was also a blanket over them. Still, he lay in the semi-darkness and
tried to doze, comforted by the older man's presence for the moment. Zack had that relaxing
effect on him - had it on a lot of people, Cloud was sure. He was safe there within the protective
circle of the dark-haired man's arms - held away from the world, and the burning flame that was
Sephiroth. It was nice to be the one who was being protected, for once, rather than the other way
around. He was so used to being the strong one - God, he'd been the leader of AVALANCHE,
killed the most famous swordsman in the world - that it was a welcome and altogether strange
sensation. Not that he minded. He imagined, sometimes, when he daydreamed, that this would be
similar to being held by Sephiroth. He liked to imagine the feeling, as he thought it might be if it
ever, in that million-to-one chance, happened. He would be in much the same position as he lay
now: pressed against a broad, warm chest with his head buried under a strong chin, and arms
around his waist. He could capture that image in his head and it was perfect. The surge of
warmth that filled him when he recalled that picture was both exhilarating and disheartening.

Perhaps Zack got to wake up like that some mornings.

He tensed again, fingers tightening in Zack's shirt once more before he forced himself to relax,
pushing the bitter, angry thought away. What did it matter anymore? Zack said that it never
happened now, so it didn't have any bearing on anything. Still, the thought that it had been Zack -
among others, Cloud remembered - who had caught onto the one thing that he had always
wanted and never attained (and repeatedly, his mind provided unhelpfully, with accompanying,
much-too-detailed mental pictures) was…discouraging.

Shut up! I won't listen to you anymore! I'm better than that, I know I am. I know it. Perhaps I
wasn't back then, but I am now. I have just as much to offer…

But he didn't, really. Zack was handsome, older, funnier. What was Cloud? A broken copy. A
man who still hadn't found out who he was and where he belonged, if he belonged anywhere at
all. A man who had so little to give on his own that he had taken on somebody else's personality
and memory to make himself a more desirable person, and because he was too much of a coward
to let the other person go and live on without them. Seeing Zack now, the man that he had
wanted to be, brought that all back sharply and drove the knife in deep.

And if Reno was right? If Sephiroth did take an interest in him, it would only be a repeat of what
had already come to pass before. Aeris had fallen for him because he had been wearing Zack's
façade, and if Sephiroth had already shown interest in Zack then any shown in Cloud would be
for the same reasons - lingering traces of a dead man they couldn't have and whose place was
shoddily filled by Cloud's smaller, lighter frame.

He had been a coward. More of one than he could ever comfortably admit. And it would be so
easy to slip back into being that same boy he had been, but he wasn't going to let himself do that.

Cloud let out a long rush of air through his nose and turned slightly, easing Zack's hand from
where it rested on his hip and held him to the taller man's body. Zack snorted in his sleep,
twisting again to get comfortable once more. Cloud's lips curved as he saw the darker man's
expression screw up disdainfully for a mere second before his features eased again, then he
gently pushed himself onto his hands and knees and clambered quickly over Zack's still body to
get out of bed and the still-oh-so-tempting shelter of his friend's warm arms.

The other occupants of the small room were still asleep. He could just make out their lumpy
forms on their bunks. The room was still mostly dark - it had to be quite early - and Cloud
carefully picked his way as quietly as possible across the floor towards the bathroom. He was
good, by now, at going unnoticed.

The light in the bathroom blinded him when he turned it on and he shielded his eyes, blinking, as
he closed the door to prevent it from waking anyone else up. Safely cut off from the rest of the
room, Cloud quickly stripped as he made his way to the shower. The water was cold when he
turned it on, so he withdrew his hand from the spray and waited, gaze flickering to the mirror on
the wall. Cloud had never liked to look at himself naked. Never. He remembered standing in this
same position 15 years ago, staring at the short, pale reflection and hating that it was him. Later,
he had learned how to look at his body objectively. He'd never shaken that feeling over the years.
Now he looked at himself and counted the limbs all present and counted for, body unmarred and
unbroken. That was good enough for some people.

He stepped into the warm water after that, away from the introspective dangers of the mirror and
what it showed him. After he'd showered - cleaned away all of the dirt and scrubbed himself
until he was red - he'd be able to face Zack again. He'd be composed and calm and aloof. He
wouldn't look at Zack and see the sour flash of memory of his own reflection. If Zack was
Sephiroth's type, then how could Cloud ever live up to it? Of course, he'd always known that he
would never have Sephiroth, but there had still been that small flicker of hope that persisted, as it
always did with those in love.

Perhaps if you stopped mooning over him like a goddamn puppy then you could concentrate on
the important things, like getting into SOLDIER and working out how to stop Nibelheim from
happening all over again. Or, of course, you could sigh and get flustered over the most
unattainable man in the world and waste your energy doing that instead, but who cares? It only
means that you'll probably have to spend another five years with Hojo, perhaps even longer if
you manage to piss him off in the process of doing a last minute hack -job at getting Sephiroth to
stop from burning down Nibelheim. Not that that matters.

Cloud smiled wryly into the shower spray, running soapy hands through his hair. God, but he
was a whiny little bastard at times, he thought scathingly. Maybe the Cetra had sent him here not
to stop Sephiroth, but to realise that there was no point in still loving the man when there was no
rational reason for doing so. How did they think that he was going to get over someone like
Sephiroth when the man was so close? When he kept doing things that Cloud couldn't explain or
understand? How did Aeris think that he would ever stop loving him? Did she not think that he'd
tried?

Of course, Sephiroth was a force all of his own. There was no stopping. There could be a lot of
struggling and resistance, there always could, but all was futile in the end.

Please, Aeris…if this is what you're trying to tell me, I already know it. What I have…is not
healthy, I know. But I can't stop…I can't…I need help if that's what you're trying to say to me…

There was the odd, heavy silence in the back of his mind where the Lifestream was, the kind that
meant he had been heard but was not due an answer.

*****

Nibelheim was a dead town. Cid watched it from the controls of the Highwind as the airship
hovered above nearby, and cursed as he thought of ShinRa. So desperate to cover up their
biggest fault - their biggest fault ever had been in Sephiroth, Cid was quite willing to believe -
that they'd rebuilt the town as if nothing had ever happened.

It's a completely shitty plan, Cid thought, and it seemed to make the business of covering up
Sephiroth's little 'episode' a lot more complicated. He supposed, watching the largest building in
the town as it loomed behind the other houses, that Hojo had needed his lab. And Shinra
condoned it. He fucking well condoned Hojo experimenting on all the little soldiers he could get
his grimy paws on.

Nibelheim looked friendly enough, in the quaint way that you knew the residents were all crazy.
Not that knowing Cloud and Sephiroth had solidified that idea, not at all. Now that had been
funny - Cloud's face had been priceless when Cid had reminded him that Nibelheim was, in the
twisted test-tube type sense of the notion, Sephiroth's hometown as well. Cloud's surprise had
been amusing - he obviously hadn't considered the implications of the General's origins - but
then he'd fallen silent and said, eventually, "Yes - I remember. He said that he recognised
Nibelheim although he didn't know why." After the shock, Cloud's expression had taken on the
slightly unhealthy turn that Cid knew meant that he had just realised it wasn't his memory at all,
but that of the other man who constantly shadowed his life.
Crazy people, the lot of 'em. One tries to take over the Planet and the other takes on someone
else's memories and hides up in the mountains talking to dead people. And they're only the two
that I know about.

Cid looked away from the town at his crew, who also seemed to be absorbed in watching
Nibelheim in the sleepy dawn light. "Land, you shitheads!" he snapped, breaking the tense
silence. "What do I pay you for?!"

There was the sudden clamour of activity as the crew started to rush about - Cid grinned widely -
and he turned back to the window, taking a cigarette from the packet in his pocket and lighting it
as Nibelheim started to draw nearer. The town gave him the willies. He'd rather be anywhere else
but here, but then no-one else had any common sense at all. He had more common sense in his
little finger than the rest of AVALANCHE put together - especially Tifa, who couldn't see past
the end of her own nose because she was so wrapped up in the ideal of Cloud that she had firmly
implanted in her head. Cid rather liked his altogether more realistic view of things. Vincent said
that he was harsh, but Cid just thought that Vincent was going soft in his old age (his favourite
mental image of Vincent handing out sweets to every passing child never failed to make him
laugh).

That said, Vincent was not going to be going easy on him when they got back to Kalm after this
little excursion. He'd intended to leave Kalm without anyone noticing except, obviously, the
Highwind's crew, but as he'd turned to give Kalm one last cursory look before he boarded the
airship, he'd spotted Vincent's pale, angry face watching him from an upper window of Tifa's
home. He sent the man his own furious glare - he honestly didn't care if Vincent was angry with
him. In his own view, Vincent was being as much of a fuckwit as he ever had been. Sure, the
older man had this mysterious thing going on with Cloud, but whatever reasons Vincent had for
keeping everyone in the dark just didn't seem to make any sense and helped no-one.

Cid was nothing if not practical.

The Highwind landed with hardly a jolt, which made Cid much happier. It hadn't taken him long
to drill into his crew that if they treated his ship with less than the utmost love and attention then
Cid would have no qualms in tying them to the propellers before going on a long haul journey.

"Sir..?" ventured one of the pilots, and Cid turned to him with a stern expression. "Stay here," he
ordered. "I won't be long." I hope.

Of course, most of Nibelheim was still asleep as he entered the silent square and looked up at the
tall buildings. It was quite surreal, venturing into what was essentially a ghost town but where
people still lived, only to keep behind their closed doors. Crazy people, he reminded himself. All
like Sephiroth and Cloud, except worse. How you could get worse, Cid wasn't sure, but there had
to be some way of doing it.

He strode quickly through the square, past the well and towards the mansion, where it sat in the
shadow of the Nibel mountains. He followed the line of sight up to the mountains themselves,
and suddenly wished that he'd stopped to ask Tifa where it was, exactly, in the range of
mountains that they'd found Cloud. All she'd said was something about a hidden path.

Oh, well. It can't be that hard to get to.

As if to mock him, the heavens opened and it started to rain. Cid was drenched within about ten
seconds flat, scowling to himself as he stood near the gates to the ShinRa mansion. Another
reason to be added to his list of why he didn't want to be here, then. It was cold rain as well,
biting as it stung his skin. Eventually, he grudgingly started on his way again, cursing under his
breath as he half-slipped on the wet rock of the path.

I fucking hate Nibelheim. This place is even more miserable than Midgar, and that place would
be enough to send Yuffie suicidal.

Hugging himself against the cold, Cid absently kicked a stone in his path in silent disgust with
the place. No wonder Cloud left. The weather was depressing enough by itself, let alone the
town's sordid history. He watched the stone as it skittered across the path and under a bush. As
he approached it, he fished his foot gingerly under the foliage to try and hook the stone back,
before realising what he was looking at.

There was a path, carefully hidden but recently trodden, judging by the way the greenery had
been trampled, now that he knew what he was looking at. After a moment, he started to snicker.

Ahahahahahaaaa. Vincent - Nil points. Cid - 27 million points. You lose, sucker.

He started up the path with more of a spring in his step, cheerful. He had to reign himself in
when he realised that the way got narrower and more dangerous, but it didn't stop himself from
grinning at the thought that he'd come across it so easily. The day was looking up.

Half an hour later, Cid was beginning to lose his cheer, wondering if he'd been prematurely
triumphant, because he hadn't come across anything that constituted shelter, and even with all
that Mako running through his veins, Cloud needed something to sleep on other than rock. "This
had better be the right path," he muttered as he edged along a bend, looking up from the path for
once to assess the route ahead, "or I'll…" He trailed off, squinting through the rain, and suddenly
brightened once more. "Or I won't do anything," he said to himself, "because I seem to have
picked a fucking winner!"

There was a rough shelter just up ahead. Cloud's rough shelter.

And, when he reached it, it wasn't locked. Almost crying for joy, Cid pushed in through the door
out of the cold wetness and blessed the boy for having the sense not to try and kill himself from
exposure. It was also surprisingly toasty - there were several little green Fire Materia orbs around
the room that were gently glowing away to themselves, just enough to give out heat. Cid almost
fell to his knees to thank the blond for such wonderful foresight.
There wasn't much in the hut, Cid realised as he actually looked around. Taking minimalism to
the extreme, how…not surprising. He thought it was a bit sad that Cloud had so little - the most
famous recluse on the Planet owned little more than a few planks of wood, a table, a few
blankets and some Materia.

But why did he come up here? What was so painful for him with us that made him bloody well
leave? Or did he just flip completely?

"Oh, fucking hell," Cid swore as he realised that the most likely place that he'd find anything was
still out in the rain, if there was anything at all. He was gambling on there being something
beyond the hut, where Vincent had found Cloud. He'd look mighty silly if he went back to Kalm
with nothing - and Vincent wouldn't have looked so angry if there was nothing here to see.

In fact, Cid thought with a small shiver of trepidation, he'd never really ever seen Vincent angry
before.

The thought made him grin unexpectedly, and he gathered up the Fire Materia, stuffing them into
his pockets and keeping one cupped in his hands to try and keep him warm as he battled the
elements. Giving the room one last look, he opened the door and stepped outside, wincing and
expecting to get blown over by the wind. Actually, the rain had quickly died down to mere
drizzle, the wind low. He sighed in relief, and stepped onto the worn path fully to look along its
length. It curved around another bend so that he couldn't see where it led. Fucking typical.

The lure of knowing what Vincent seemed to know was too strong, however, and he started
along the flat, slippery rock with the warmth of the Materia in his hands to keep him going.

The drizzle was annoying, but Cid got the distinct impression that the weather just seemed to
have given up - perhaps it had been trying to put him off, and once he'd reached the hut there had
been no point in going to further lengths to chase him away. After all, all he wanted to see was
where the path led…

It seemed to lead to a rock ledge, jutting out slightly from the rest of the rock. Cid frowned -
there didn't seem to be anything there except for more rock, as far as he could see. He struggled
on, curiosity refusing to wane until he'd made sure that there was nothing there, and swore that
next time he got an idea into his head he'd steadfastly ignore it, especially if it meant going
anywhere where the weather was anything less savoury than that of, say, Costa Del Sol.

But…there was something there, Cid realised as he got closer and closer, though he couldn't
really make it out. Another stone, upright but apparently fashioned by human hand.

What the-? So Strife turned to sculpting whilst he was gone - big deal. Brilliant plan, when you
think that he's sitting on a huge pile of what he needs to do it. What's the huge fuss? Making me
come out into the rain and climb up a bloody mountain just for a stone…
The pilot clambered up, eventually, onto the ledge, less than happy with the thought that he'd just
have to turn back disappointed if this didn't turn out to be something hugely momentous. Not that
there's anything momentous about a piece of rock, of course, but -

Cid would be able to remember the curious silence in his brain as his eyes alighted on the
headstone for a long time. He felt himself begin to trace each letter of the name in turn with his
eyes because, all together, it just didn't seem to make sense and all it met was the blank wall that
had suddenly come down around him.

He couldn't remember how long he'd stood there in the miserable, cold rain before it began to
sink in, and everything began to fall into place. Little things that Cloud had done or said over the
time that they'd known each other that just hadn't made sense, or that he realised that he'd
misunderstood at the time…

Cid shook with anger, reaching for a sodden cigarette. "Thatfucking bastard."

*****

He'd been perched above Kalm since not long after dawn, straining his ears for the sounds of the
Highwind's engine, worrying. Vincent didn't really worry often, not over people, but when things
came to Cloud Strife he seemed to be developing ulcers.

I should have stayed silent. I should have refused to say anything - I know the way Cid's mind
works when it comes to these things…

But the deed was done, now, and all he had left to do was wait until Cid returned. Perhaps Cid
wouldn't find the headstone, but something in Vincent's chest knew that he had. There was an
odd, empathic kind of dread tightening his ribcage, because Cloud wasn't awake to be able to
feel it himself. Of course, Cloud must have lived with this sort of feeling for most of his life,
especially after he'd joined AVALANCHE, the fear of exposure constantly gnawing at him
whilst he was in the middle of having his life torn apart again.

He hoped, for Cloud's sake, that Cid could find in himself the decency to try and understand that
that was the way things were and, for better or worse, it would not change. It could not change.

Cid was, underneath the brashness, too astute not to know what Cloud's gesture meant.

And then, as if to remind him that this confrontation could not wait, there came the faint droning
of machinery on the wind.

Vincent lifted his head to the sky, straightening from where he sat against Tifa's chimney on the
cool roof tiles. He'd come up here so that he'd know when Cid was coming back, and get there
before anyone else did. He knew Cid, knew Cid's moods, and the man was likely to be furious, at
least to start off with. He couldn't risk Cid going to Tifa in that anger, because he would
invariably spell out Cloud's most hidden, darkest secret with all the tact of a charging elephant.
With the pilot's colourful appliance of language, he was also likely to make it sound much
more…sordid…than it was. It would hurt too many people on too deep a level. He couldn't -
wouldn't - allow Cloud to be torn to shreds over this.

It would also be wrong to let Cid throw a tantrum over the news. Once he calmed down, Vincent
knew that Cid would also appreciate how much of a betrayal it would have been to do so to a
man who had sacrificed so much and couldn't even defend himself anymore.

And now they both knew just how much Cloud had sacrificed.

The Highwind was coming up over the mountains to the south, Vincent realised, which was why
he hadn't seen the airship before he heard it. She breasted the peaks, metal body gleaming in the
morning sunlight and bearing down on the town. She seemed to carry an air of slight menace, as
if taking up the state of her irritated captain, and Vincent continued to watch the airship approach
before breathing slowly through his nose and beginning to climb down off of the roof.

It was still relatively early. Perhaps they could have this fight without everyone noticing.

He clambered silently down the drainpipe, choosing to leap the last few metres to the ground,
taking the impact in his stride, crouching to take the strain off of his ankles. He looked up at the
Highwind's approaching bulk and then glanced around the square at the other houses. Everything
seemed to be rather quiet. He looked back up to the sky, and the Highwind was already passing
over the overgrown ruins of Midgar, the noise of the engine beginning to build up. Cid had the
newest engines that had been developed due to his connections with Reeve, but Vincent's hearing
was almost as good as Nanaki's and so the 'stealth' element to the machine was lost on him. Cid
had to have known that he'd know that they'd gone, and he wasn't stupid enough to not know
where they'd have gone to.

Couldn't you just…leave it for my sake? Have I ever done anything to make you not trust me?
Why won't you trust me on this and let Cloud be? He deserves peace and quiet, by Shiva…He
almost died for us. I can't imagine…what it must have been like…

He could imagine that it had been worse than losing Lucrecia, but he had never experienced pain
beyond that, and so the actual magnitude of what Cloud had done he doubted anyone could
really understand. And Cloud's circumstances…weren't what anyone would call normal. Most
people forgot that. Vincent didn't. Every time that he saw Cloud, he could see himself strapped to
a table in Nibelheim, Hojo's pallid face looming over him, the light reflecting from his glasses
just enough that the silver of whatever instrument he was holding would pick it up and gleam…

Vincent had seen pain through a thin wall of glass, when Cloud Strife knew it like a lover.

The Highwind began to slow as it crossed the plains towards Kalm, easing to a hover about half
a mile away from the outskirts of town. Vincent started walking towards it as the ship began to
descend, turning in a slow half-arc as it did so. He could almost feel Cid glaring at him from the
airship. He wouldn't be surprised if Cid was glaring at him.
He reached the entrance to Kalm as the Highwind touched down and the quiet thrum of the
engines ceased. He went still then, watching the unmoving form of the Highwind in silent
anticipation. Perhaps it would be better to keep Cid as far from Tifa as possible, keep him closer
to the Highwind -

A ladder was dropped down the side of the airship from the outer deck, and Cid's unmistakable
form began to clamber down it. Vincent held his breath for a bare moment - Cid usually took the
time to see that the Highwind was settled, that the crew was tending to the machine in the way
that he wanted -Which means that he wants an explanation, and he wants it now. Am I ready to
give him one, when Cloud has no idea of what I'm doing and can't approve it?

Not that Cid doesn't know now, of course.

He started off again with long, sure strides across the grass as Cid's feet hit the same turf and the
pilot turned to make his own way towards the other man. He couldn't quite remember ever
feeling quite this much trepidation - but then, he'd never had quite the personal involvement that
he had now. He'd failed to protect others before, so many times, how could he let himself fail
again now? Especially Cloud, with whom he shared a certain affinity, though the blond didn't
know it.

Still, Sephiroth, so many years after your death, so many things are tied to you, and your hold is
as strong as ever, however unwitting it may be.

Cid's face became clearer quite quickly, and his face was pale and drawn and somewhere beyond
thunderous. Vincent pooled the distant coolness into his chest, trying to harden himself against
the already volatile emotions that he could feel just below the veneer of calm that he held.

The pilot's mouth moved quite suddenly, and then there was a loud shout of, "You fucking
pansy-ass shit-faced bastard!"

Oh well, at least Cid's verbal skills weren't impaired by being out before noon, though he'd
certainly heard worse.

Cid half-jogged the last few steps as they met halfway between the ship and the town. He saw
Cid clench and pull back his fist, eyes flickering in that direction as Cid began to swing, and
reached out with his metal claw to catch the other man's arm. Cid's knuckles smashed into the
unyielding metal of his hand but the pilot barely seemed to notice, snapping his hand back and
whipping his other arm up, fingers curling in Vincent's mantle.

"Why the fuck didn't you think it wasn't important enough to tell us about Cloud, huh?!" the
younger man snarled, absolutely furious. "Did you not think that it mattered?!"

"Of course it matters," Vincent said stiffly, easing the strangling pull that the pilot had on his
clothes by arching just onto the balls of his feet. "It matters terribly. The question, Cid, is
whether AVALANCHE would have been able to handle it if I or Cloud had told you."
"Bloody HELL, Valentine!" Cid pushed him back roughly, causing the dark-haired man to
stumble as he regained his balance. "How can you stand there and be so calm?! This is your flesh
and blood we're talking about and even you know he was irredeemable, so how could
Cloud…how could he…"

My flesh and blood? Vincent thought, amused at how, even now, Cid couldn't say the actual
word. It had taken more courage than Vincent would ever admit to tell Cid about Lucrecia, and
what that meant regarding his love's son. Cid had been quiet, though shocked - hadn't reacted
like this at all, but Vincent wasn't expecting him to be quiet this time. Cid's silence on that
occasion had been merely down to finding nothing to say. Vincent doubted that that would be the
case again.

"This is…it's absolutely nuts!" Cid scrambled for the packet of cigarettes in his pocket and a
lighter, pausing in his rant to light it and inhale deeply. Vincent watched him warily, taking in
the tight, drawn lines of the pilot's face and the hard anger in his eyes. A small part of him
wanted to tell Cid that giving himself cancer was hardly going to help, but he'd get lanced
straight through the gut for it, so he refrained.

"Cloud can't help it," he said in the brief silence before the younger man could start shouting
again.

Cid snorted around the cigarette pursed in his lips. "Mm, so that's what you were going on about
yesterday with your little speech about having to 'work with what we've got' or whatever you
were babbling on about. Well, you know what, I don't give a shit about that!" He made a wide
gesture with his arm in the direction of Tifa's house. "This type of thing doesn't just not matter
because you can't help it! I can't believe that - I just can't - It doesn't make any fucking sense!"
Cid through his arms up, turning his back to Kalm and Vincent for a moment.

"It makes perfect sense." Too much sense. And Cloud doesn't even see it himself, really. He
doesn't see…just how bad it is…

"Oh, right, yeah, 'cause everyone just goes about obsessing and God-knows-what about your
mortal enemy for a decade after you killed them!" Cid snapped back. "Stop bullshitting me and
pussy-footing around the issue, Valentine. We are going to go sit down, have the strongest drinks
ever created, and you are going to tell me everything. Perhaps after I actually know what the hell
is going on with those two, it'll make as much sense to me as it apparently does to you!" He
made an odd growling sound in the back of his throat and then grabbed Vincent by the arm,
making off at a determined stalk across the field into Kalm.

"We can't go to Tifa's," Vincent hissed, pulling back with a sharp yank. "She can't know about
this, not yet. She won't understand, especially if she keeps on acting like she is at the moment."

"I'm not stupid," Cid snapped, turning back to him. "Understatement of the century to say that
Tifa wouldn't understand. But I am not standing out in the middle of a fucking field discussing
this. The best place to go is Tifa's - she'll be too busy working and we won't look suspicious, like
we would do if I stand and yell at you out here all day. We find a nice corner, get some drinks
and then we talk about this like civilised men because I am tired of being angry with you."

Vincent nodded, a part of him still apprehensive about being so close to Tifa when something so
potentially explosive had come up. Cid was never…tactful, so allowing him to do what he
wanted was always placing more of a risk on the situation. But then, what he said also made
sense, it would just mean that they had to be discreet.

Cid gave him a long, coldly furious look, and then started off towards Kalm. After a moment of
watching the pilot's tense figure, Vincent followed behind. "I'm…sorry," he said, loud enough
for Cid to hear, but was ignored.

*****

Zack woke up to find the extra warmth along his side slowly dissipating, and the quiet
background murmur of the water in the shower. He stretched out under the blanket, feeling the
distinct pleasure of it spreading for a moment along his limbs and arched back. He remembered,
in a split second image that was gone as soon as it came, searing in its intensity, having arched
this way in someone else's bed, the pleasure not quite the same but sharper, more demanding,
and his superior's form moving over - inside - him.

He let the stretch go out of surprise, blinking to himself in the semi-darkness. Why am I thinking
of that? he wondered, gone cold in the wake of the brief, heated memory. Was I dreaming about
him? Not that he often dreamed about Sephiroth, but he didn't usually wake up thinking about
past encounters like that, so there had to be-

There should be…someone else in bed with me?

The sudden, disjointed thought caught him off guard, and he sat up, looking around at the
rumpled covers and trying to think of what had happened the night before. Blearily, he glanced
around the room and realised that he was in the dorm for his small 'squad', and lying in what
seemed to be Cloud's bed.

Cloud..?

Woohoo, came an unbidden thought, its tone hard to place but somewhere between sarcasm and
flat dullness. You scored a minor. The old Zack-charm still working, obviously. Naturally you
couldn't wait the enormous stretch of about a week or so until he becomes legal, of course…

He pushed that aside, certain without knowing why that nothing of the sort had happened. Even
if Zack had tried something with the blond, the boy was so wrapped up in Sephiroth that if he'd
succeeded it would have been almost rape.

Or it could be the fact that you're fully dressed, of course. Pick whichever explanation for the
lack of sex seems likeliest.
In any case, Cloud seemed to have slept in the same bed as him the night before. A vague sense
of pain flowed through him as he tried to sift through his disorientated mind for memories of the
night before. He frowned, pressing the heel of his hand briefly against his forehead before letting
his fingers slide up and into the tangled mess that was his hair. He could see an image of red hair
framing a long, pale face, a mouth pulled into a smirk that always seemed to have a hint of
maliciousness in it. Ah, yes, Reno had been having an informative chat with Cloud about things
the taller cadet shouldn't have known and should have kept to himself anyway. And now Cloud
knew all about Sephiroth and him. From the sounds of it everyone knew about them. And he'd
sent Reno away, and Cloud had been somewhat off, not cold so much as wary, cautious. The
blond hadn't looked at him very much.

Another complication to add to my ever growing list, how wonderful. I know the way Cloud's
mind works - I know the way he'll see this…

Zack yawned, pulling his hand out of his matted hair to cover his mouth. The break in his
thinking caused the sound of the shower turning off to reach his consciousness, and as he opened
his eyes he realised that that must have been Cloud, who was no longer with him and who
seemed to be the only person out of bed, judging by the faint snores coming from nearby. The
blond couldn't have been gone long, since his flank still bore the very last vestiges of someone
else's fading body heat.

One day, soon, I have to sit Cloud down and we need to have a long talk about all of this…stuff.
We'll fight over what's going on with Sephiroth over and over and we're just avoiding the real
question, which as nothing to do with Seph at all: what's happening to Cloud? And what is that
doing to me?

He swung his legs over the side of the bed quietly, stifling another yawn as he pushed himself
upright. Cloud was an evasive creature, seemingly skilled in the art of avoidance, but Zack could
see where Cloud apparently couldn't that all it was doing was damaging them. Something had
happened about two months ago to cause this, though for the life of him he couldn't figure out
what.

Cloud also tended to be less guarded when he was startled or tired, as most people were, so
perhaps if Zack bugged him now he might get something, before Cloud wandered off to class
and, undoubtedly, the troublesome Turk-wannabe. His lip almost curled in distaste at the thought
of the redhead. The boy wasn't even in SOLDIER and his reputation already was easily the size
of his overly inflated ego. What did Cloud see in someone like that?

He had to stop thinking about Cloud anyway, he told himself sternly as he surveyed the quiet,
dark room. The blond was not the be-all and end-all of everything, but yet he seemed to be
attracting attention as easily as he breathed, whilst seemingly doing nothing. How could you
fight something that you couldn't see?

I shouldn't have to be fighting anything anyway. Perhaps it's a problem with me. Maybe I just
need to spend more time with Aeris. I haven't been able to see her lately as much as I'd like -
maybe that's the reason I'm fixating on someone else, though not in the same way that I would
think of Aeris.

Everyone, Zack saw tiredly as he kept the protective thought of Aeris in the back of his head,
seemed to still be sleeping, which was understandable. Zack couldn't believe that he was out of
bed, and it wasn't even 6am yet. Necessity normally dragged him out of bed five minutes before
work.

But then, Cloud liked to sleep as well. And he was already in the shower, so he'd obviously had
trouble as well. Zack winced, moving slowly and quietly across the floor to the closed bathroom
door. Yes, of course Cloud was uncomfortable, who wouldn't be, after what he'd been told.

Okay, sort this out, and then stop thinking about Cloud.

Before Cloud had arrived, Zack had never looked on his encounters with Sephiroth with
anything like guilt, or discomfort. It just…happened, every now and then. He liked it when it
happened - who wouldn't? Sephiroth was the most physically attractive person that Zack had
ever known, and experienced enough that he'd shown Zack a few things, which he hadn't thought
possible. There was nothing other than desire involved from both sides and they both knew that,
which made it safe and, as far as they were concerned, harmless.

The act itself still was harmless, when he thought about it. And then Cloud had come from
Nibelheim, and instantly fallen into the trap that many of the cadets did, awed and blinded by the
General's 'magnificence.' Most got over it after a while - the attraction fading until it just lingered
at the back of their minds. Cloud's hadn't faded or gone away, only grown. Though the
knowledge that Cloud liked Sephiroth was not a secret between them, the exact nature of those
feelings was, and Zack remained unsure of exactly how far Cloud had fallen. Cloud clammed up
whenever Zack pushed the matter, always had done.

Now, though, he looked back over those memories of the General and felt guilt. He looked at
Cloud and was reminded of how little emotion there was between he and Sephiroth when they
fell into bed, and yet someone else out there was waiting who deserved it much more than he did,
getting nothing.

Although, Sephiroth has shown some kind of interest in him. Damn, but he's so hard to read - I
have no idea if that interest is professional or not -

Part of him hoped that it was strictly professional, because Sephiroth would devour Cloud. He
was too strong, too confident and too emotionally detached from everything to be what Cloud
needed. Sephiroth had never shown real interest in anyone. Zack very much doubted that he ever
would.

At least, he's never shown it…and he's so good at hiding it that maybe I just never knew when
and who he was interested in…I just don't know…
He shook his head - too early for such musing, it taxed his brain - and hesitated a moment at the
bathroom door, placing his hand on the handle. He pushed down and opened it slightly, calling
out softly, "Hey, Spike?"

There was no sudden rustling movement to cover up nudity, and Cloud's voice floated back
warily, "Yeah?"

"Can I come in?"

There was slight hesitance as Cloud seemed to mull over the strange request. "Uh, okay," he
murmured, tone of voice a little guarded, unsure. Zack pushed the door open a bit more, slipping
in quietly before closing it behind him. He shielded his eyes abruptly, startled by the bright light,
and squinted painfully at Cloud, who was frowning questioningly at him. The blond was only
half-dressed, in the process of pulling on a shirt, but he had paused, clothing forgotten as he
regarded his friend. His hair was still damp, sticking to his cheek in wet golden strands.

And what if Sephiroth's interest is purely personal? It's not as if he's a child, for Shiva's sake.
He's almost 16, and he already looks legal. He's a little short and a teenager, not
underdeveloped. What would be wrong about them being together? Wouldn't it be good for
Sephiroth to actually show something every now and then, even if it's stirred by someone nine
years younger than him?

"Was there something you wanted?" Cloud suddenly said, and Zack looked up to meet his eyes.
There was still the slight look of worry in them, but they had become brighter with humour and
that tinged his voice as he said, "Or did you just come to ogle?" He raised an eyebrow
questioningly, lips twitching.

Zack snorted, mood lifting at the joke. "Just came to see the show," he answered easily, leaning
back on the door and crossing his arms over his chest, giving the blond a deliberate leer. Cloud
gave him a flushed grin at the tease, cheeks going red, but then proceeded to hastily pull on his
shirt. Zack watched the easy arc of his body as he pulled the clothing on over his head. No,
Cloud wasn't underdeveloped at all, really, and who could blame Sephiroth if he'd found himself
looking? He was a man, after all, far from the untouchable god that many seemed to think he was.

"Show's over now," Cloud said, skin still tinged a little pink. Zack couldn't believe that he still
got like that when good attention was sent his way - if he hadn't known Cloud that wasn't, he
would have thought that the boy was inundated with offers. "What did you want?" the blond
continued, but there was no uneasiness in his voice.

He's a damn good actor. I'll give him that.

"I wanted to check that you were okay after yesterday." Zack jerked his head backwards, "Just
without them lot waking up and listening." He flashed a disarming grin on instinct, though Cloud
seemed to know him well enough to see past those.
"Oh…" Cloud waved a hand dismissively, but he didn't look away, as Zack had expected. "It's
nothing, honestly…well, it's not nothing, and I'm not going to pretend that I'm jealous and all
that, but still…I understand why you did it."

That was entirely…too easy, especially when it came to Cloud. It gnawed at him, but not
because Cloud was lying - didn't think he was, to be honest - but because, for some reason,
Cloud shouldn't have dismissed it so simply.

"Cloud," he started, not knowing exactly what was going to come out of his mouth but certain
that he needed to say something. "Cloud, just this once, I want you to listen to Reno. There is a
chance…just a chance…that something might happen. But I don't - Sephiroth doesn't take
partners other than as bed ones." No matter how much I try setting him up otherwise - maybe his
standards are too high, I don't know… "He's never found anyone, I don't think, and to be
honest…I don't think he'll ever find anyone special."

There was just a hint of insult in Cloud's expression and the sudden shift in his stance, which
made Zack wince. "Yes, I'm well aware that I'm not in Sephiroth's league," the blond said softly,
and his voice held only a bare touch of cold offence. "I don't need both you and Reno reminding
me of that."

Dealing with Cloud was like holding a glass vase in your hand that was already riddled with the
finest of cracks. It was like dealing with Sephiroth, except worse. "No, Cloud, that's not what I
meant!" Zack waved his hands as he spoke, hating the way that Cloud was watching him. "If you
weren't in his league, he wouldn't even look at you, let alone pay the amount of attention that he
has paid you lately, so you can stop thinking that right now." Perhaps, Zack thought worriedly,
that was too much encouragement, but Cloud's face only showed the slightest change, even
though that change softened his expression somewhat. "It's just…you should know that
Sephiroth…if he ever did do something like that…" Zack shook his head - why did these
conversations never go right? Why wasn't he as damn eloquent as Sephiroth and Cloud? "He'd
just hurt you. He wouldn't mean to, not really, but you would just end up hurting…and I don't
want to see that happen to you." He thought of Reno again, who'd said much the same thing, and
hated him.

Cloud continued to frown at him for a bare second - long enough to see that he was
contemplating something - before saying, "So why did you do it?"

"Because I'm not…I wouldn't be as emotionally involved as you would be." It sounded too
clinical when put that way, but Zack couldn't think of any better way to put it without making
Cloud sound like a whimpering schoolgirl. And it was vague enough that any degree of affection
could apply - he was once again reminded of exactly how little he really knew about Cloud's
emotions regarding Sephiroth. What he suspected and what truly was could be very different.

He thought about telling Cloud that Sephiroth only ever took up with those who had expressed
an interest beforehand - Reno had been entirely too correct when he'd called it "taking up the
offers" or whatever he'd said. They were offers - Zack's had initially been drunken and desperate,
and he didn't like to think about it out of male pride more than anything. Sephiroth had no idea
about Cloud, and that was likely to stay that way unless Cloud made it known - which he
wouldn't unless he thought he would gain something from it.

He decided against telling Cloud that.

"I understand," the blond said softly, with a small shrug of his shoulders, turning away from him
then to bend down and pick up some socks. Zack felt like he'd just kicked a puppy when all he'd
intended to do was nudge it, and the feeling was awful. Cloud hopped a little on one leg as he
pulled on a sock, and said, "Thanks."

"You don't mean it," Zack said after a pause, keeping his voice soft, and saw how Cloud fought
not to tense up. Ah, yes - Cloud hated people seeing through him for even the barest of moments,
though Zack couldn't even begin to guess why. What was Cloud hiding that no-one should see?

God, this is so like having a conversation with Sephiroth. It's scary.

"It's okay," he continued, when Cloud didn't move, "I'm not angry or anything, and I understand
why, I think…but you don't have to pretend that you're grateful. If I were you, I'd be exactly the
same."

"…What else do you expect me to say?" Cloud asked, but his back was still turned. Zack much
preferred it when Cloud had been looking at him. "You and I both know that it hasn't changed
anything. If he asked…we both know I wouldn't be able to say 'no'."

"He won't ask, I don't think…" He won't, because he doesn't know. And if he did know, I don't
think he'd take you anyway, because he'd know that it was unfair on you. Zack ran over that train
of logic a few times and couldn't see any fault in it, which relieved him. He won't ask.

"Well, then everything's okay, then, isn't it?" Cloud said, his face very still. If Zack applied the
principles of Sephiroth Reading to that expression, it meant that Cloud wasn't 'okay' at all but
refused to let anyone know it. Neither of the two were as good at it as Zack was - neither could
quite turn the mask of indifference into cheerfulness, a transformation that would have been
complete and would have worked.

That's a goddamn lie. Out of all of us, Cloud's the master. How long have you gone on thinking
that he was okay? How little do you really know about him? You know nothing, and only now
you're beginning to learn that. Sephiroth is good, but you always know something's going on
even if you don't know what. But Cloud…with him you don't even know something's wrong.
Lately he's just…beginning to lose control over everything, isn't he? And it took that for you to
notice, Zack. What kind of a friend are you?

"Is it?" he said. "With us, I mean."

Cloud instantly brightened, breaking out into a smile, which caught Zack off guard. "You're so
paranoid," the blond said airily, moving forward to reach out and lay a hand against Zack's arm.
"Don't worry about it, alright?"
Zack lay his own hand on where Cloud's lay against his biceps. The skin was warm to the touch -
somehow, he had expected it to be cold. He smiled down at Cloud, and said, "Sure. No worries,
yeah?"

Cloud squeezed his arm before gently pulling away. "Right. I'm going to head down to get in
some extra practice now, so I'll see you later, mm?" He flashed white teeth in a startlingly
cheerful grin before picking up the wet towel and his other things. Zack watched him leave,
staying where he was, until he heard Cloud leave the squad room entirely.

Maybe I am being paranoid, he thought absently, because he never said 'yes'.

*****

The moon had long since risen at the end of that day before Sephiroth was anywhere close to
finishing his workload. The skin around his eyes was tight with strain and tiredness, and he could
feel the start of a headache coming on. He hated to admit that he could be overworked, but right
then he was all up for some kind of protest against it. There was at least another two hours'
paperwork sitting in front of him - what time was it anyway? Blearily, he lifted his heavy head to
look at the clock on the wall and wasn't at all surprised to find that it said it was 3am.

He pushed the chair back enough that he could bring up his legs, knees to his chest and feet
resting on the edge of the desk to stretch out the muscles, gone stiff from sitting down for so long.
With a sigh he pressed his forehead against his thighs just above the knee, grimacing, hugging
them back to his body tightly to pull on the backs of his thighs.

Life was, he mused, entirely too complicated and always seemed to go in the direction that you
didn't want it to. Life was always there to remind you that it wasn't nice, wasn't helpful, wasn't
practical or ethical or any of those things that Sephiroth valued so greatly.

It made him angry.

It wasn't even as if he was angry with any particular person or thing but himself, really. He
couldn't remember being this angry with himself for a long time, though, and it
was…disconcerting. The fury was something that unbalanced him and he hated to feel
unbalanced more than he hated anything - that amount of loss of control was unacceptable. He
commanded an army, the largest on the Planet, what good was he if he couldn't control himself
first?

It will pass soon enough, just like the others, he thought disdainfully. You get worked up over
nothing, these days - the slightest twinge of attraction and you leap at your own throat - what
way is that to live your life? You're pathetic. The rest of the world deals with things like these,
stop whining and acting like yours is the only problem.

I wouldn't be having this much of a problem if he wasn't so...young.
Sephiroth was…fastidious by nature. His mind kept going over and over his late-night
conversation with Cloud Strife, picking at the strange tightening in his belly that had so
distracted him at the time - by Shiva, some of the things he'd said to the boy had been downright
suggestive. What had he been thinking?

You weren't, that's why, you idiot. That feeling should. Not. Be. There. And the more you think
about this at 3am, the worse you'll think it is. It was enough to distract you, but nothing more.
You've had a lot worse, and you dealt with those just fine.

He'd seen Cloud only once in passing that day, and that was what had started this. He'd been
passing down a corridor and a group of cadets had turned into it. They'd gone instantly silent
when they spotted him, most of them going as white as ghosts, and Cloud had been somewhere
near the back, instantly discernible not just because of his hair. The flush across his cheeks had
only been very faint, but Sephiroth had noticed it, and Cloud knew that he had. They'd only
locked eyes for a moment before the blond had turned away with the rest of the group, but that
one, vividly expressive look had reminded him so much of the night before that it had plagued
him for the rest of the day.

He couldn't interpret the look Cloud had given him. It reminded him that he wasn't quite sure
where he stood with Cloud, and that bothered him as much as the niggling, unwanted stirring in
his stomach did. Sometimes he could almost convince himself that he frightened the blond more
than anything, but he knew, somehow, that that wasn't right. It was all tied up in that one gaze,
laid out before him but it was as indecipherable as if he was reading something the Ancients had
written.

He wasn't as good as most at reading people, brought up as the only child amongst a plethora of
scientists who'd only wanted him for his scientific value and hadn't bothered to let him come into
real contact with people his own age and muddle them out for himself. His early social
interaction had all been with Hojo and Professor Gast, and Hojo had wanted Sephiroth all for
himself so now he only remembered Gast as a vague, blurry image. Gast had been kinder than
Hojo, but he was still a scientist, not yet as dissatisfied with ShinRa as he would soon become.

His first real social contact had been at the academy, of course, after Gast had left. He hadn't
really been able to function very well, and became cold and withdrawn because he couldn't
understand these boisterous figures surrounding him. He'd used the same tactic with Hojo a lot of
the time because he couldn't understand that either, when he'd picked up from Gast's hesitant
signals that the way he was treated wasn't normal. People tried to pick fights with him and they
had, before he had been warned against this, ended up with broken limbs. They soon learned that
he was much stronger and faster than they were, and began to leave him alone. This had suited
him just fine - he was used to being alone, preferred it because being social was a lot of wasted
effort as far as he was concerned. Hojo had told him many times that he was going to become the
greatest SOLDIER that ShinRa had ever known, and he knew that becoming such a leader would
mean that he had to be ruthless, amongst other things. Why make friends only to have to cast
them off later?
Hojo had been dutifully appalled at his behaviour, and Sephiroth remembered the dressing down
he'd received very well. It was the first time he'd truly realised that Hojo just didn't work the
same way as other humans did, because Hojo's despair had been directed at the fact that if he
became known for violence, he was unlikely to attract a good enough partner for "breeding".

By "breeding," Sephiroth knew that Hojo meant "sexual relations with women." He'd failed to
inform the Professor that that idea hadn't really been met with much relish. He thought of women
and cool sort of indifference settled over him - it still did. The same happened with regards to
most people. When someone had come along who had sparked any interest at all, it generally
wasn't the gender that Hojo had in mind.

Zack had been the most frequent of those mild, fleeting interests, who he hadn't met until after
they'd both joined SOLDIER. Their friendship had grown out of necessity rather than anything
else. He'd been scheduled for a "routine test" with Hojo and broken out during it, his brain too
addled with Mako to know what he was doing. He'd been 22 at the time, and Zack 19. Zack had
found him half-naked and confused out of his wits, purely by accident, and after that Zack had
known too much to be alienated.

During that time at the academy, he'd had to learn mostly from scratch how to interact with
others, and Zack had helped a lot. By now, he'd thought that he'd had quite a sound grip on these
things, but then someone like Cloud came along who made him realise how little he really did
know, and how much he wanted to learn. Cloud was more of a puzzle than Zack had been, and
he wanted to know why. He wanted to know why he looked at Cloud and knew, somehow, that
they were more alike than either would ever realise.

Ignore it - how could he ever be like you? How could he ever have gone through the kind of
things that you have? And it's not even like this is melodramatic or self-indulgent - no-one else
has gone through the same things!

Reports - reports and things, he had lots of them. He had to finish them before he got up and
went to bed, if he went to bed at all. He sighed, pulling on his legs before lowering them to the
floor once more, and leaned forward to type a few things into the computer. It blinked at him for
a few moments, and he wished dearly that it would explode. Then he wouldn't have to do
anything, and he'd be much happier.

It blinked cheerfully at him once more before a screen appeared with a short list - thank god he
didn't have that much to go through on the computer, then. One flashed at him - marked as
important by someone else in the system, no doubt - and he clicked on it curiously. A concern
marker, as he'd suspected - unusual activity at the Nibelheim Mako reactor, and a subsequent
request for some military investigation.

Nibelheim? Isn't that where -

He had a vague memory of Zack in mid-ramble, talking about some of the new cadets and how
one had come from Nibelheim - how far away it was, how remote - and how this boy had hair a
lot like his, except he was blond.
Oh, for the Planet's sake, you have got to be kidding me.

A quick dance of his fingers across the keyboard brought up Cloud's file and the blond's familiar
pale picture, and there, under the "hometown" subheading lay "Nibelheim, West Continent." He
stared blankly at it, wondering just how much more ridiculous this could get. His eyes flickered
over the rest of the profile, resting just long enough on the birth date to realise that Cloud would
turn 16 in about a week's time.

Ah, yes, quite young indeed, he couldn't stop the more cynical part of him thinking, but at least
from next week you couldn't get put in jail for it.

He brought his legs up so that his feet rested on the desk again, glaring at his knees for a long
moment in fury. His loss of temper happened in a split second and a split second only, where he
lashed out at the computer screen with a sharp growl, a boot and enough power to send the heavy
monitor crashing off of the desk to the floor in a shower of sparks.

In the long stretch of silence that followed, he decided calmly that he would let Nibelheim be for
the moment, until it proved to be a real problem.

*****

End Chapter.

A/N:

1. Wow, this made it past 200 reviews! Thank you so much, everyone, and I can only get on my
knees and beg forgiveness that I'm not able to spend more time on this thing to get chapters up
faster. It would be so much easier if you all didn't seem to like this so much O_o;;

2. Nibelheim - there must be a little sign outside saying "Centre for the Maladjusted/Most
Miserable, Place on the Planet." Anyone born there is just doomed from the start.

3. Q: What one thing would you take to a desert island, Shadows?

A: It'd have to be two things, because I am never going anywhere ever again without the FFVII
Piano Collections and I need a CD player to go with it. Any former travesty Square has done in
the name of 'music' (*cough*FFX-2!FFX-2!*cough*) has been and will forever be forgiven for
releasing that album.

Fusion 10

by Knowing Shadows

Disclaimer: See Chapter 1

------
There were two empty glasses in front of Vincent, with a third, half-full this time, standing
beside them. He had declined alcohol but Cid had ordered it for him anyway - no doubt hoping
that it would loosen the older man's tongue. Still, he doubted that it would matter because Cid
was hardly likely to be taking anything in anyway; there were four empty glasses in front of the
pilot, and his fifth was rapidly disappearing.

However, Cid had a high alcohol tolerance, as Vincent had discovered, and even though he
wasn't showing any signs of drinking as much as he had, surely that couldn't go on forever.

They'd been sitting there for over an hour already, Vincent realised as he looked up at the clock.
Tifa had raised her eyebrows at Cid when he had ordered the drinks, but had acquiesced with no
further indication of disbelief. To Cid's credit, the pilot hadn't shown anything when he'd spoken
to her other than his usual gruffness, for which Vincent knew he would be eternally grateful. Cid
was…unpredictable at times. Along with Barret and Tifa, Vincent had hoped Cid would be one
of those who never found out about Cloud.

This did not bode well for the continued secrecy from the other two. The two original
AVALANCHE members were at least as stubborn and bone-headed as Cid, even more. Perhaps
they, too, would eventually travel to Nibelheim and piece things together as Cid had.

Cid absently swirled the last of his drink around in the glass, watching the curving stains on the
side as they appeared and disappeared. Cid frowned deeply, contemplating his drink, and
Vincent watched him in turn, calm as he waited for the pilot to speak. Cid rarely ever thought to
himself without expressing it.

"Things don't stay the same, do they?" he said eventually, putting his glass to his lips and
downing the last of the drink before placing the empty glass on the table. Vincent continued to
watch him quietly. "Sometimes I wish they would. It would be so much easier if I could just go
back to thinking Cloud was just a bit of an oddball with no sex drive…"

"No sex drive?" Vincent queried, raising a fine eyebrow along with the corner of his mouth.

Cid shrugged with a slight grin. "I couldn't see any other reason why he wasn't with Tifa…"
Vincent felt the tug at his lips widen into a real smile, shaking his head in amusement. "It didn't
even cross my mind," Cid continued after a moment, "that he might, well, you know, bat for the
other team."

The pilot looked a little deflated now, after the initial surprise. He'd stewed in his anger and
confusion all the way back along the mountain and then on the ride to Kalm, and no-one could
physically stay angry for much longer than that, not in one long go where it was all that drove
you. Eventually it would burn out, and it had, leaving him subdued.

"I mean," he thought out loud, "yeah, I can sort of see the attraction from a purely aesthetic point
of view, maybe - anyone can see that the General wasn't the ugliest duck in the pond - but that
can't be all of it…and then that's where I don't get it…" He floundered for a few moments, hands
waving a little. "I mean, it's Sephiroth." He made a sharp, knife-stabbing motion with one hand,
making a harsh, high-pitched noise with each downward motion to indicate what he thought of
Sephiroth's mental state.

"I don't claim to know Cloud's reasons." Vincent shook his head again, wondering just what right
he had to be speaking about it at all - even he hadn't known until the few days before they'd
found Cloud unconscious. "I can only speculate with what information I have."

"And you don't even know the General better than any of us," Cid said, and sighed, reaching into
his breast pocket for his packet of cigarettes and his lighter. "I suppose Cloud did know him
better than us, but still…" He pulled out a cigarette and put it between his lips, lifting the lighter.
His gaze flickered up from the flame to Vincent's face, and around the cigarette he mumbled,
"Does it ever make you sad, that you didn't know him?"

"Everyday," Vincent said quietly, after a moment. He would often wonder about what it would
have been like to have bidden his time and stolen Lucrecia's baby away from them after birth -
away from the mother that even he could see wouldn't care for him properly if she could even
consider leaving him to Hojo - so that Sephiroth had grown up away from ShinRa, perhaps. He
could imagine a little house somewhere in Wutai, and in this picture he was a respectable man,
no longer a Turk, with a bright, handsome little boy whose eyes shone with contentment and
nothing else. Thinking about that image made his chest hurt in a way it didn't unless he thought
about Lucrecia, and he thought about it now and it hurt all the more.

He would have kept Sephiroth away from ShinRa and Hojo, and none of this would ever have
happened, and Cloud would have been free to live his life, never knowing that Sephiroth existed.

He had been an impulsive man as a Turk, not knowing better, and the damage that that nature
had caused was unimaginable. He had not appreciated just how detached from morality Hojo had
been. He deserved to have stayed in that coffin forever.

Cid tapped his fingers restlessly on the tabletop, drawing Vincent's attention. "So, Mr. Valentine,
'speculate' away about this whole business. Feel free to enlighten me."

Vincent shrugged, trying to play down the sense of unease that he felt at doing what Cid asked,
even though it was all that he could do. "We know that Cloud worshipped Sephiroth. He told us
that Sephiroth was his idol and even if he hadn't told us, it was easy to see that much from how
he acted. At least, after he'd mentioned the word 'idol', we could attribute any strange behaviour
down to that…"

"But you think that that was just a cover up?"

Vincent shook his head. "No, Cloud did worship Sephiroth, so it wasn't a cover up, as such. He
just…never made it clear how far that worship extended, is how I'll put it."

Cid snorted, crossing his arms over his chest as he watched his friend across the table. "So,
basically, this goes back all the way to before Nibelheim?"
"I doubt very much that Cloud would suddenly fall in love with the man after Nibelheim."

Another snort. "Depends just how bad Hojo fucked him over, and how Zack felt about the
General. You know - oh, well, you wouldn't, actually, but still - there were all these rumours
going around about him, and how he'd shacked up with a SOLDIER buddy - from what I know,
what other 'buddy' did Sephiroth have?"

"I don't know about Zack," Vincent said slowly, quietly, mulling Cid's words over in his head.
"But you're right about Hojo - at least, that's what I think. Whatever Hojo did to Cloud's mind
just…well, we know what it did. Something so central to him would hardly go unscathed, I
imagine."

"Which," Cid continued aloud for him, with the tone of a man who has just realised something
unpleasant, "is probably why it didn't go away and is still affecting him almost fifteen years
later…"

They fell into the kind of heavy silence that Vincent was quite aware only he usually partook in.
Vincent watched Cid's face with a kind of wary tension as the pilot's frown deepened a little,
wondering how Cloud had managed to deal with this constant edginess the whole time, and
wondering how he'd managed to so successfully disguise it from them.

"So…what now?" Cid asked finally, and Vincent frowned across the table, not understanding
what Cid meant. The pilot caught the expression and flicked his hand irritably, elaborating,
"About Cloud. What do we do with him? And what did this thing with Sephiroth have to do with
what the Ancients have got him for?"

"We don't do anything with Cloud," Vincent said flatly. He watched Cid's expression darken a
little at that, but continued, "This is entirely between Cloud and them. I doubt we were meant to
even find him. Aeris wouldn't have let him come to any harm."

"Vince, they left him on the side of a fucking mountain about to freeze to death."

"It would take more than that to harm someone like Cloud," the darker-haired man replied
sharply. He traced the contours of the metal plates on his gloves in his lap, continuing to watch
Cid's face as it flickered between expressions of irritation and neutrality. "And I don't know what
it's got to do with Sephiroth, but considering how much of an impact he has had on Cloud's life, I
should suspect that he's involved somehow."

"They'd better not fucking well bring him back," Cid muttered. He slumped back in his chair
with his cigarette, huffing slightly. "Or I will personally kick all their asses, including Aeris'." He
paused, and then amended himself: "Especially Aeris'."

Vincent felt the involuntary lip twitch again and schooled his face back to careful coolness. He
lifted and hand and took hold of his half-empty glass, taking it to his lips as Cid seemed to
contemplate the idea of Sephiroth coming back to life again. No doubt much of what was going
through Cid's head was images of Sephiroth running around cackling gleefully as he chopped off
people's heads and did his damnedest to attract a passing asteroid towards the Planet.

And even if they could bring him back, I doubt it would happen again. Cloud wouldn't allow it.
Cloud would give him the support he needed that he didn't have in Nibelheim the first time
around. He would give Sephiroth the support that saved him from a similar fate.

He remembered Cloud talking to him on the mountain not so long ago, saying that he could have
saved Sephiroth at Nibelheim. Vincent had dismissed it at the time, believing that notion to be a
product of Cloud's anguished, desperate mind, but now that he thought about it…

If they had only known each other better before Nibelheim…if only Cloud or Zack had managed
to be there when Sephiroth was reading those books…If only they had known then what we all
know now.

"So," Cid continued finally, "if we can't do anything about Cloud, what do we do about her?" He
cocked his head a little at the bar, and Vincent's gaze flickered that way for a second, catching
sight of Tifa's face before she ducked down behind the bar to collect something, unaware of their
attention. The impression that he received from that glance told him that Tifa was drawn, the
skin just a touch darkened under her eyes, which weren't as bright as usual.

"There isn't anything that we can do there, either, really." Not if Tifa won't let him away from her
sight. Where could we take him that she wouldn't find him? We could give him back to the Planet
and she'd find a way to follow and pull him back from death. It frustrated him to feel so helpless
when all he wanted to do was move Cloud somewhere safer - somewhere away from the prying
eyes he doubted that someone like Aeris had taken into account. There was no doubt in his mind
that it was she that had arranged what had happened, not surprised that she might have been
watching Cloud for all this time -

"Ch'." Cid snorted, leaning back in his chair. "Nothing we can do, is there? Just gotta fuckin' sit
back and wait…"

"I am about as pleased with the idea as yourself," Vincent assured the younger man. "We could
try to sneak him out but then where would we take him? There's nowhere we could go that's far
enough out of reach…"

"There must be," Cid answered reproachfully. He gave Vincent a long look. "There's a whole
fucking Planet out there, Valentine. There must be somewhere. And even if she goes to the
Lifestream, how on earth is she going to find him, let alone bring him back?"

"She had his body last time." She needed a body… Another reason to take Cloud away, if that
was what she needed to locate him and bring him back. Vincent shook his head, sighing and
pressing a hand to his forehead. "We need to get him away."

"Well done, Captain Obvious."
Vincent scowled at Cid, who just looked at him levelly in return. "So what do you suggest that
we do?" he asked, hearing that his tone was short and clipped in irritation. To hear his annoyance
aired out loud bothered him even more, and he took a few moments to control himself again, as
Cid answered, "Nothing, for the moment. We think of somewhere to take him, if we can, and in
the meantime, we watch to make sure Tifa doesn't do something stupid." Cid froze for a moment,
and then said, "Oh, wait, she comes from Nibelheim, too - they're all a bit dopey in the head so I
suppose we'll have our hands full with that one…"

Vincent was pretty sure that the only person they would have trouble with would be Tifa -
certainly her husband wouldn't mind Cloud being moved out of the house. As Vincent passed
Cloud's room later that night on his way to his own guest quarters, he noticed that the door was
open. Curious, he peered in, and found Richard standing just inside, watching Cloud's still body
on the bed where it lay underneath the covers, almost lifeless.

Richard hadn't asked for any of this, Vincent thought. His only crime had been in trusting his
heart to a woman who couldn't decide where hers lay.

"You know," the brown-haired man said after a while into the dark, "It was quite easy to forget
that Tifa belonged to AVALANCHE when the rest of you weren't here. It was even possible to
forget it when you were."

"But not now that Cloud's here," Vincent offered softly, feeling sympathy pool into his chest.
"His reputation, among other things, can be…intimidating."

Richard snorted, raising a hand to run it through his hair uncomfortably. "I'd never seen him in
real life until he came here. I mean, I've seen the pictures, even heard Tifa talk about him,
but…He didn't seem real. I knew Tifa had loved him, once, but he…it didn't seem to have any
impact on our lives because he had disappeared and somehow…somehow that made everything
all right…" A sigh. "He didn't have an impact on our lives then…" Even with his eyesight,
Vincent couldn't quite make out Richard's expression in the dark, though he could see the twist in
the man's mouth; he could guess the rest of it from there.

He didn't know what to say. He could have reassured him that Cloud was not in love with Tifa,
would not vie for Tifa's attention, but what good would that be when Tifa was the one whose
thoughts strayed where they should not go?

"What…" Richard began finally, interrupting Vincent's thoughts, "What is he really like?"

Vincent tried to hide his surprise at the question, but felt his eyebrows lifting a little anyway. He
stepped a little into the doorway, just enough to be level with the frame, and cleared his throat.
Richard turned his head, eyes reflecting the wan moonlight that filtered through the windows
where the curtains had not been drawn all the way.

"What has Tifa told you?" Vincent asked eventually, not knowing where to start. How could he
describe Cloud, one of the most complex people he'd ever known, to someone who just couldn't
have any idea..?
The younger man shrugged, glancing towards the bed. "The usual. That he's good-looking, that
he's good with a sword, her childhood friend, brave…inconsequential things. Just the story of
what happened within AVALANCHE, and what happened with General Sephiroth…"

And there was the crux of it, wasn't it? 'What happened with General Sephiroth…'

"He was…is…a very quiet, private sort of man," Vincent decided on, his words cautious. He
watched Richard's face, the strong clean lines of his jaw and nose and cheekbones. "Very brave."
Then he looked over at Cloud's body as the other man had done. "Braver than even Tifa gives
him credit for, that much I know. And not…not a very lucky man for much of his life." And then
he thought of Cid, and what Cid might have answered had he been asked this question, and said,
"If you ask my friend, he'd tell you that even though Cloud's the toughest fighter out there, he
says things like 'Let's mosey' and that that should tell you everything you need to know about
him."

Vincent liked the implication in his words, though it was hidden behind a joke, and he watched
Richard smile; perhaps reassured, but then again perhaps not.

-----

Cloud bounced eagerly on the balls of his feet in the line of equally apprehensive cadets, eyes
darting around the room at the general hubbub that was going on around him amongst them.
They were arranged in the practice hall at the edge of the mats - he felt his gaze involuntarily
drawn to the spot across from them where Sephiroth had calmly informed him that he was
practising kata too advanced for his level - and waiting diligently for the instructors.

Reno had sought him out at the beginning of the class, standing beside him with a sort of nervous
energy running through him. He, like many of the others in the room, was watching the
instructors where they stood on the other side of the mats to them, inspecting swords. For the
first time since Cloud had been here, they were being allowed real swords. They were blunted for
safety reasons and little more than rapiers, but Cloud hadn't held a real sword in so long that he
almost ached for it. He missed the Ultima Weapon keenly in that moment as he watched the wan
sunlight flash across the metal blades as they were moved around. He wanted to feel the
comfortable weight of it in his hands, knowing that it was his and that it would move for him the
way that he wanted it to.

He wasn‟t entirely sure how he would handle these practice swords. Certainly his mind knew
how to use them, but he was also far more used to the Ultima Weapon, a two-handed blade that
was almost as unwieldy as the mighty Masamune. But this teenager‟s body…what could it
handle in the stead of his adult figure?

He found himself incredibly eager to find out, and wasn‟t surprised by that. His place was in
SOLDIER, the place he had proved himself more than worthy for in his later years. He knew this,
knew it more surely than almost anything else, and this time he had a way of achieving that place
the way he had originally wanted to.
SOLDIER was…crucial. Everything rested upon it.

“You ever held a real sword before?” Reno said, his red hair looking a little haphazard that day.
“I mean, a real-life thing like you can buy…”

“Yes,” Cloud replied without thinking. He was still watching the instructors as they hovered over
the practice swords, talking swiftly to one another as they seemed to attempt to sort something
out between them.

Reno looked decidedly impressed, his sudden stillness catching Cloud‟s eye. He looked over and
met the future Turk‟s gaze, hurriedly adding, “Just the once! Back in Nibelheim.” Reno smiled,
just a hint of rogue-ish-ness in it. “Bet that‟s how you got to be so good – you got to practice all
the way over in Nibelheim while the rest of us just had to wait…”

Cloud couldn‟t help but smile a little. He wasn‟t fooled by Reno‟s innocent act for a second,
though he didn‟t doubt that Reno had had little to no practice with an actual sword. He supposed
that Reno was more an expert in the knives department – they were more economical than guns,
and a lot easier to come by on the streets. Cloud liked the rush of close-quarters combat, but not
so close as you came when fighting with a blade probably only 7 inches long. He didn't have the
reach of the taller, lankier boys, so he'd only be that much nearer.

Most people blanched when they saw the size of the Ultima Weapon anyway, which always
worked in his favour.

The instructors seemed to be decided then, and broke apart to turn back to the group. Reno
seemed to become suddenly taller with his excitement, back unnaturally straight. Cloud couldn't
help but grin, out of amusement at Reno and at his own similar feelings. A proper sword, after
how long…?

"Okay, listen up!" called out one of the instructors, a SOLDIER 1st ranking man who was
getting on a little bit in years to really be sent out to the type of situations a SOLDIER 1st would
have. "As you can see, today's going to be a little different - we're going to divide into pairs and
try some sparring practice with the real thing. The blades are a bit blunted, but they can still hurt
a bunch if you're too heavy-handed, so be careful."

All things that Cloud suspected the class knew. He bounced a little again to try and dispel some
of his nervous energy, but it didn't really work. Many of the others were doing the same. He
hoped with all his might that his skill hadn't left him entirely - even so, he suspected that he
would handle the swords better than many of the class. ShinRa introduced real practice like this a
bit too late in the programme for Cloud's liking, but at least they had a month or so solid practice
before the exams.

"And just simple sparring only. There's not enough room for you all to go into fully fledged
duels," the instructor continued. "We're just getting a feel for the swords today. Right, now, I'm
going to pair you up and you'll start practising as soon as you find a space - Jenkins, you with
Strongbow; Strife with Ratchett; Mellings with Lionni…"
Ratchett, Cloud knew, was a handsome, ambitious blond boy who was taller than him by a few
inches. He was a bit older than Cloud. He was also a bit of a loudmouth - they had never seen
eye to eye, and Cloud avoided him when he could. He rolled his eyes at the pairing, and then
followed the other boy across the mats to where he was already heading to stake out a space.

Ratchett was also, a voice in the back of his head told him, a talented if arrogant swordsman.

The instructors dropped off the swords at each pair, and Cloud picked his up to get a feel for the
weight. A one-handed sword felt awkward - he kept wondering why his other hand wasn't doing
anything - but after a few practice swings, he thought that he'd be all right with one. Ratchett, he
noticed, just stood there with his held comfortably in his right hand, watching him and waiting.

He's had practice - how? Cloud thought suddenly, and shifted his grip on the hilt. He ran a finger
lightly down the edge of the blade just to check how sharp it was. Satisfied, he let the blade drop
a little, checking his opening position. Ratchett was still watching. When Cloud was finished, he
saw a slow smile spread across the other boy's face.

"Not had a tryout with one of these yet?" he asked, but there was a slight hint of sarcasm or some
other such like emotion in his voice. Cloud didn't like it. "Thought you would have been an
expert by now, since you know the General."

Ah, yes, here it comes. Cloud fought not to roll his eyes again, sure that would just provoke
something else, and said, "I don't know him that well at all, actually. So no, I haven't, sorry." So
there, he added silently. And which of the instructors have you had fuck you so you could get
early practice with swords, anyway?

"You don't need to know him that well to get down on your knees," Ratchett spat suddenly,
looking abruptly angry. Cloud blinked, surprised, but couldn't say anything before the blond boy
was coming at him with the sword. He made a startled sound, bringing his own sword up to parry
the blow, and Ratchett's blade slammed into his with a loud twang, before he was moving away
again.

"Hey-" Cloud began, but Ratchett was coming again, and he gave up, choosing to give himself
over to the fight rather than try and placate the other boy. Ratchett was good, but he was also
angry, though Cloud had no idea why, and that was a disadvantage. His sword felt like hardly
any weight at all so Cloud dodged and parried confidently, trying to keep his moves a little
slower than he would like so it wouldn't look like he had been the one to have had practice with a
sword before. Being good with a practice sword was one thing - to then be instantly wonderful
with the real thing was another matter entirely.

Ratchett's blade glanced off of his as Cloud moved to one side, turning to follow the other boy
with his eyes. Though the blond came back at him almost instantly with a low swing, he jumped
back and parried the following blow, backing off.

"Like fuck you haven't had practice," Ratchett hissed so that no-one else would hear. "Like fuck
you haven't. And like fuck it wasn't Sephiroth that let you. I knew this would happen!"
"Eh? Is that why you think I know what I'm doing?" Cloud couldn't help but snort. "I'm really
sorry if that's what you think but it's not true - hey!" He fought off another blow, feeling his arm
jar with the force of it. He backed off some more. "Knock it off!"

Ratchett ignored him. He raised his sword again and approached, slower this time. Cloud raised
his own, watching quietly as he watched for the inevitable strike. As Ratchett circled right, Cloud
did the same, trying to keep a respectable distance between them. Ratchett seemed to have
calmed a little - his face was a dark scowl, but there was a sudden focus in that expression that
hadn't been there before. Cloud watched him closely, senses suddenly as alert and heightened as
they'd ever been now that he was faced with what looked like a real threat -

The blade came at him from an angle on the left, more difficult to parry but by no means
undoable, so he went to block it, and just before the two blades clashed, Ratchett drew his back,
retracting the move, and came at him suddenly from the right. He parried that as well, reacting
instinctively though not at quite the speed he would have been able to in ten years time. Still, it
was faster than Ratchett, and Cloud went on the offensive for the first time, tackling the other
boy's blade and driving him back a few steps before sweeping his own sword up and around
whilst Ratchett was busy trying to recover. The other boy froze instantly when the blunted edge
of Cloud's sword came up against his throat.

"You're dead," Cloud said mildly, and watched as the other boy's surprised expression
immediately turned almost murderous.

"Hey, hey, what's going on here?"

Cloud lowered his blade cautiously, just in case Ratchett decided to go for him again, as one of
the supervising instructors approached. "You were told simple sparring only, not proper
duelling!" the older man said. Cloud looked over, satisfied that his partner would probably not
risk it with an instructor so close, though he kept a wary grip on his sword. "What on earth were
you two doing?"

Cloud supposed it sounded a bit childish and petulant to say, "He started it." "Got carried away,
sir," he said instead, sending Ratchett a brief warning look. The other cadet was still watching
him furiously, something dark and ugly in his eyes. "Sorry, sir."

"Well, see that it doesn't happen again." The instructor gave them both looks for a moment, and
then said, "But, besides that, I'm impressed - you're both pretty good, actually. If Zack hadn't
stopped by and pointed you two out I would have been too busy sorting out the other bozos in
the class to have noticed -"

"Zack's here?" Cloud said before he could help himself. He looked over the instructor's shoulder,
and there by the cut away section of the seating stood the black-haired SOLDIER. The rack of
swords stood next to him. He was watching Cloud with a closed expression on his face. Cloud
looked away - again, he'd been stupid enough to actually fight like he knew how to handle a
sword -
"Now, can you just do what you were told?" the instructor said. "You're going to hurt each other
and then you'll get in trouble."

"Sure," Ratchett said calmly, never taking his eyes from Cloud's face. "We'll play nice."

"See that you do," the older man said, and then turned to leave them. He hurried over to another
pair that he could see were getting into it a bit much, and Cloud watched him jog over, the two
he was heading for beginning to really go at each other. Each of them looked quite carried away
as well, and he wondered if he and Ratchett had looked like that-

Ratchett suddenly moved and as Cloud abruptly swung around to look at him, something heavy
slammed into his temple. There was an angry cry from across the room, and Cloud, stunned,
dropped like a stone to the mats, pain throbbing where he had been struck. He blinked up at what
he assumed was the ceiling as the room spun violently.

That bastard, a part of him thought. That utter bastard!

The side of him that was too used to being in a battle told him to get up and face his enemy, so
he did, struggling with the sudden dizziness as he rolled onto his side to get to his knees. There
were voices around him, speaking angrily, and someone shouting. His sword was still in his hand
- he hadn't let go. At least he still had a weapon, if Ratchett came for him again -

The other boy abruptly grabbed his shoulder, too rough, and he spun his arm up and around
without thinking, falling on his back again to go with the movement. There was a blurry mass
above him and he could make out the line of the blade, shining silver against the purple and
peach and black of the other man's body, at his attacker's throat once more, to keep him away.

Damn, but he wished he had his old body back. A blow like the one he had just received would
have distracted him for a moment, now he was reduced to a disorientated wreck on the floor. The
side of his face felt wet. With swords this blunt, he thought vaguely, Ratchett must have really
hit him hard to break the skin.

His vision was slowly focussing again, and he could see the man above him speaking. "…put it
down," he was saying, but it didn't sound like Ratchett. Nor, he thought belatedly, did Ratchett
have black hair. "Cloud, just put the sword down, okay, I'm not going to hurt you…"

"Just take it off him," someone else said, but the man above him shook his head. It looked like
Zack. Cloud blinked, trying to shrug off the dizzyness, and lowered his sword anyway, letting his
arm fall to his side. It was Zack. He'd thought Ratchett had been the one to touch him. Now, as
his vision became clearer, he could make out a bit of a commotion off to his right, which
sounded like Ratchett and one of the instructors having a shouting match.

"Spike?" Zack said. He was kneeling at Cloud's side, his face a bit pale and worried. There were
other people standing close by, having come to see what had happened. "You recognise me?"
"Uh-huh," Cloud said. His head was throbbing phenomenally. He let go of his sword and raised
his hand to touch his temple. It stung, and he raised his fingers to look at them, and saw with no
surprise that they had come away slick and red. He stared at the blood blankly.

"That bastard really walloped you one," Zack said, trying to smile a little. He held up a hand then,
putting some of his fingers down. "How many are there?" he said, and Cloud counted two. He
said so, and Zack looked more than a little relieved. His smile widened, more genuine this time.
"Don't think you have concussion, but someone's gone for a doctor just in case. Don't move,
anyway, you'll probably get nauseous and throw up, and I'd rather you didn't."

"Thanks for your vote of confidence," Cloud said vaguely, and saw Zack grin properly. He didn't
really want to move anyway, knowing that he would throw up if he did so.

"-totally uncalled for!" came the instructor's voice from over where Ratchett seemed to be.
"Shameful, dishonourable behaviour - I don't teach that kind of stuff in my class, and I'm
absolutely disgusted that one of my pupils would even think about deliberately harming another
one-"

It was still going on when the doctor arrived. Cloud had stopped listening long before then, only
really aware that Zack was watching him with a concern that didn't only seem to stem from his
injury.

-----

He was dreaming again, and surprisingly aware of it. He didn't care anyway. He was lying in a
field full of flowers, the scent of them heavy in the air, and the sky above him was the kind of
clear blue that you only got on real summer days out of the city. He stared up at the blue for a
while, then closed his eyes and drifted comfortably on the edge of sleep in the warmth. There
was a quiet all around him, and he loved it, loved the way it filled his head and his chest and
made him feel so at peace that he could forget everything but the summer breeze and the smell of
poppies.

And then someone was walking through the flowers towards him, the gentle swish of the grass
and leaves against his legs the only thing that gave away his presence. Cloud smiled to himself,
turning his head slightly in the grass towards the sound with his eyes closed. He hadn't felt this
good in so long.

The other man came to a stop at his side, and there was a silence where neither moved and all
there was around them was the whisper of the wind in the field and the feel of the sunshine on
his skin in a way he hadn't felt in years. Nibelheim was stuck in the shelter of the mountains and
rarely got the sun very much, and his mother had always been wary of letting him wander the
fields to the south because of the monsters that roamed the open areas. She'd preferred that he
stay in town.
His companion shifted, and then sat down beside him. They were both silent, but Cloud could
feel himself being watched, and if he'd opened his eyes he would have been staring straight up
into the green eyes that had haunted many of his dreams for fifteen years.

He didn't question Sephiroth's presence, because it was a dream and dreams didn't have to make
sense anyway. They rarely did. The only dream he'd ever had to pay attention to was the one
Aeris had sent him that one time in the Ancient Forest, where Sephiroth had appeared and
lamented over Aeris' interference in his - Jenova's - plans to him. Warning Cloud, in his own way,
that Aeris would be hurt if Cloud couldn't stop her from doing whatever she planned to do.
Giving him a chance to save her.

It was one of several incidences that had had his heart hammering in his chest, aware all of a
sudden that Sephiroth was still there, some part of him sane underneath it all, and wasn't happy
with what he was doing. That time in Nibelheim, for instance, when Sephiroth had thrown him
the Destruct materia, the only materia that could have destroyed his protective spells during the
final battle…

"Cloud," said a voice above him suddenly, as if to distract him from those memories. Cloud
loved that voice, the way that it felt. He opened his eyes slowly, knowing that was what was
wanted, and Sephiroth was staring down at him, lips slightly parted as if he wanted to say
something. Whatever he said was important, at least to Cloud, who took it all in the same way he
had with Zack after they'd been captured by Hojo.

The silver-haired man wasn't wearing his uniform, and it was the first time that Cloud had really
seen him without it. He was still wearing the leather trousers and thigh-high boots, but his heavy
leather overcoat had been replaced by a white shirt that looked a little too big on him, the top
four buttons left undone so that a wide expanse of his collarbone could be seen. He wasn't
wearing any gloves.

It didn't look odd at all, Cloud thought, though he supposed it should have. It just made him look
like a man, the way that his uniform had made him look like a General, and Cloud had always
known that this man lurked beneath that mask.

A part of him recognised that this Sephiroth didn't feel like the one from his last, more heated
dream, and was a thirty-year old Sephiroth rather than the twenty-five year old one of his current
time. Was that significant to this dream? He wasn't sure, and didn't know how to tell.

"Aeris says hello," was the first thing that Sephiroth said, and Cloud frowned, sitting up, keeping
his eyes on the older man's as he did so. Sephiroth did not flinch away from that look, meeting it
steadily but with a hint of wariness in his eyes.

"Where am I?" he asked. What did Aeris have to do with this? He didn't like it when his dreams
were supposed to mean something - he'd much rather he didn't have to pay attention every single
hour of the day.
"You're dreaming," Sephiroth said, and his face was very still. He was sitting with his legs
tucked at his side, one hand flat against the ground to support him, the other curled on his thigh.
"But you're dreaming of the Lifestream, to be honest."

"I thought I was dreaming of a field," Cloud said, but he knew that it was entirely possible for
the field to be in the Lifestream, and Sephiroth knew that he knew. His lips twitched a little.

"Indeed," he said, and then his expression quieted. "Aeris wants me to tell you something. She
thinks I should."

"Why can't she do it?" Cloud shifted his weight, sitting the same way that Sephiroth was. It
seemed right for them to be together in this field, but Cloud couldn't explain why. He was
watching the silver-haired man's face and all he knew was that there was the same sense of peace
in him that had been pervading his body throughout the entire dream.

The same sort of half-smile pulled at Sephiroth's mouth, and Cloud felt his heart beat just that
little bit faster. "Because this is something that I have to say," he replied, "And because you
didn't listen to Aeris last time in Midgar and she thinks you're more likely to pay attention to me
anyway."

Cloud felt his mood abruptly drop, his expression shuttered, feeling himself suddenly close off
and draw back. "What did she say-"

"Cloud," Sephiroth cut him off, face betraying nothing, "I know."

And then there was the quiet of the field again, the movement of the grass in his ears and the sun
still shining over them but that did nothing to counteract the sodden feeling in his chest, the way
Sephiroth's words filled him with the kind of dread he hadn't felt since the Northern Crater. He
stared blankly at the other man, though underneath he was reeling with panic, the emotions so
clear and real even though he knew that this place was only in his dream.

But Aeris - this is one of those dreams, I can feel it, that's why this is so clear - it's one of her
dreams, she sent this to me, she sent him to me and this matters -

Sephiroth's face hadn't really changed, not in any way that Cloud could see, though something
underlying the tension in the air had shifted a little, hardly noticeable. Suddenly Cloud wished he
was anywhere else but here, anywhere but at this man's side, where all the attention was focused
on him, full of the knowledge he had hidden so closely, so carefully, for fifteen years.

"I can watch you from the Lifestream," Sephiroth said softly, not lowering his eyes, and he was
speaking as if he really had, not just in the dream. "Some part of me - the part that was still me
after Nibelheim - was curious about you, the only man alive who could beat me - and you had,
you killed me in the end, even though you had never been in SOLDIER. You reminded me of
Zack." Cloud flinched, but did not look away - there was something in the other man's gaze,
some kind of earnestness, that held him. "And I can watch you, so I did - and I saw you on the
mountain, what you kept doing. I couldn't…help but find out." He paused, and Cloud looked
away then, down at where his hand was pressed palm down to the grass to support the lean of his
weight, at the blades of grass that peeked out between his spread fingers, at how the rich, leafy
green contrasted so well with his skin.

He didn't know what to say. He wasn't going to say anything anyway - his voice probably
wouldn't work, and if it did it would break on him, and the least he could do was keep face as
much as he could, keep what ever little ounce of respect and dignity that he could -

"Don't turn away from me." It was an imperative, but it wasn't at all a command made by a man
in uniform - rather, just a man, and there wasn't anger or reproach, but something rawer and more
uncertain. Cloud looked up and the same thing was in Sephiroth's face, and it startled him
because even though he'd known he was facing the man, not the title, he'd expected all of the
pain of this confrontation to be on his own part. He was still expecting a General's response.

That wasn't what he loved, what had been the thing that had sustained him for all these years.
This - the knowledge that Sephiroth was more like him than anyone but Cloud really knew, and
all that followed - this was what he loved.

"…I'm sorry," he said, because there was nothing else he could say, and nothing that could
convey how he felt, how sorry he was that this man knew what kind of burden he had
inadvertently put upon Cloud's shoulders by allowing madness to overcome him that day in their
hometown.

"Don't be," Sephiroth replied, the same tone to his voice. "I'm the one who should apologise, I
never knew, I never-"

"I know you didn't. You weren't supposed to." He shrugged it off, though it was as much an
admission that he was bothered by Sephiroth's knowledge than anything else would have been.
"No-one was supposed to. It wasn't a…" He wanted to say 'it wasn't a big thing' but that was a lie
and he couldn't make himself voice it. It got stuck in his throat.

"…I'm not angry." It wasn't until he said it that Cloud realised he had actually expected
Sephiroth to be angry at him over this, if he ever did find out, and he glanced away awkwardly,
not quite sure whether to believe Sephiroth or not. He had looked liked he meant it, sounded so,
too, but this was too close to his being for him to be unsure of the other man's sincerity.

He felt a flash of frustrated irritation, and looked around suddenly, completely sure that it hadn't
come from himself - somewhere outside him, in the surrounding air, which abruptly seemed
watchful and filled with the same reproach-

"Aeris?" Sephiroth looked startled at his question, the change in subject, and what had been in
his eyes became cold and unmoved. Cloud didn't see it, looking closely around him for
something, some confirmation of what he'd felt.

I swear, if she's just doing this to try and make me happy, I'll kill her, I really will, this isn't
funny and it isn't fair!
Something like shocked surprise then, an emotion both part of and separate from the field around
them. Cloud felt his anger swell, looked back at Sephiroth's closed, emotionless face and
suddenly, stupidly, wasn't afraid anymore. "And you had me almost convinced that this was real,
but it's not, because she's here, everything around us feels like her-"

"Are you saying that what I just said doesn't matter?" Sephiroth asked, and he had gone icy
enough for it to break through Cloud's anger, but not enough to convince, because this whole
dream had been stupid anyway, right from the beginning, and he'd foolishly allowed himself to
get carried away with it.

Cloud sat back, more distance between them, feeling more than a little bitter that Aeris had done
this to him. "No, because this is all Aeris." It came out more bitter than he'd intended, too, but
that didn't matter. He was getting tired of these dreams - the last one had been bad enough, the
mockery wrapped so closely to the intimacy that it was hard to tell where one started and the
other ended, even though he'd known he was dreaming then, too.

"No wonder she got me to talk to you," Sephiroth said. There was a flash of frustrated anger in
his eyes and the set of his mouth, and it thrilled Cloud as much as it frightened him. "You're so
convinced that you're right when you get an idea in your head that no-one can convince you
otherwise, and you just don't listen to anything else that they say, do you? Everything else that
contradicts your little theory just goes over your head, doesn't it? Like, for example, the fact that
I was trying to tell you something important before you started ranting about Aeris!"

Cloud blinked. "If you were real," he said somewhat dazedly, in the wake of that anger, "you
wouldn't give me the time of day, let alone waste your energy talking and shouting at me."

Somehow, Cloud realised, Sephiroth seemed to take that as a challenge. It was apparent in the
abrupt twist to his features. And then, too fast for Cloud to move away from, Sephiroth was
gripping his chin harshly, pulling Cloud's face to his sharply. "I am real, as real as any other form
of me you've known, and I've had a long time to think about this after I found out how you felt -
how could I not? You're-" he faltered, but only momentarily, "-you're beautiful, and I could
appreciate that even if I couldn't appreciate anything else about you."

Cloud stared, more than a little stunned, but he wasn't allowed to collect himself because the next
moment there was a mouth on his, bruising at first because the anger hadn't faded - he had to be
dreaming, this couldn't be real. The long fingers on his chin were still firm, didn't draw away at
all, but that was all part of the sudden sense of domination that came with the force of
Sephiroth's lips. A slick, knowing tongue against his, and he was surprised to realise that his eyes
were closed and he was kissing back - didn't think his brain had been together enough to do
anything at all. The force of it began to ease, until the movement of their mouths was more equal,
and though Cloud ached inside to know that this wasn't happening outside of his head, it still felt
real, because it wasn't quite like anything he had ever imagined before.

He wanted this. His body was telling him that this was right, agreeing with the quality of the
thumping of his heart against his ribs, and he felt the knots in his stomach tighten as, again, he
thought of how this was unlikely to be repeated after he woke up. He became abruptly aware,
throughout, of various things - the feel of strands of silver against his cheeks, and warmth from
Sephiroth's body, close enough for him to wrap his arms around; the feel of air against his cheek
as Sephiroth breathed through his nose; the clean, crisp scent of his body.

It seemed to last far longer than it had, and when Sephiroth gently pulled away he felt as if there
was a hook in his chest dragging something out of him as well. "Nothing could ever truly happen
between us with the shadow of Nibelheim and Jenova hanging over our pasts," the silver-haired
man said quietly, his voice devoid of heat. "So I'm going to forget for you, and do it properly."

Confusion. Cloud searched Sephiroth's eyes worriedly, the kiss forgotten except the shaky
feeling in his limbs, but all there was, was his own reflection. "What? I don't understand, what do
you mean, 'forget'-"

And he woke up. Staring at the ceiling of the infirmary, the shadows that played along its corners
and edges with no light to chase them away, as if he had been doing so all night. His head still
throbbed, despite the painkillers he had been given by the doctor. Besides the pain, he felt - he
didn't know how he felt, there were too many emotions to name that flitted through him. His
heart was pounding, his breath quick.

Was that real?

It couldn‟t have been, he convinced himself into the early hours of the morning, even though
several floors away, Sephiroth lay in his bed, also staring up at the ceiling, the feel of Cloud still
on his lips and the scent of him still in his nose, disjointed images behind his eyes of a field and a
kiss and the fleeting remains of ghost emotions in the dark.

-----

Eventually, Cloud fell asleep again, only to be woken what felt like no more than fifteen minutes
later by the doctor opening the door and coming in. He couldn't have been sleeping very deeply.
He turned onto his back, putting the back of his hand to his mouth as he yawned. He hoped that
he would be allowed to go back to his dorm today, because he hated places like this. It was too
quiet, and forced him to concentrate on himself with nothing outside of him as a suitable
distraction.

He'd end up thinking about that dream, agonising over whether Aeris had really sent it or
whether he'd dreamt that she had, and wondering if Sephiroth really kissed like that - he rather
hoped that his dream had been accurate. Even the anger behind the initial strength of it had been
exciting, but he wasn't entirely sure he wanted to analyse that feeling in himself.

Gods, and if it was something Aeris sent? What did she mean by it? And what did he mean by it?

And if it had been real, if Sephiroth, somewhere in the Lifestream, had once watched over him,
and did in fact know about his secrets, what then? What had that kiss been for?

He didn't want to think about it. His head still throbbed where Ratchett had hit him.
Cloud didn't realise he'd fallen asleep again, sprawled out on his back, until he was being shaken
awake by strong, familiar hands on his shoulder. He groaned, feeling heavy all over, and opened
bleary eyes to find Zack standing at his bedside, smiling widely. He grinned sleepily, stretching a
little underneath the white infirmary covers. "Hello."

"Morning," Zack said amiably and sat down on the edge of the bed. "How‟re you feeling?"

"Tired," Cloud replied truthfully. His eyelids felt weighted, like he couldn't keep his eyes
anything but closed. "Head hurts still."

"Yeah, doctor says you probably have a mild concussion actually. Ratchett really whacked you -
he's being punished like nobody's business. He didn't crack your skull, thank the Planet, but your
head's going to kill for a few days, or so the good doctor says. He said he's going to dope you up
so you can sleep the rest of the day and avoid the pain." Zack's grin widened. "Lucky for some,
eh?"

"You try having someone split your head open like an egg," Cloud murmured, letting his eyelids
drop a little. "I will gladly swap."

“Any idea why he went for you?” Zack asked, and frowned when Cloud shook his head. The
black-haired SOLDIER then looked over his shoulder towards the door, and Cloud followed his
gaze. There were green eyes watching him from the entrance to the infirmary, Sephiroth‟s black
and silver form standing where Cloud hadn‟t noticed him. He seemed to realise that Zack was
looking at him, and he raised his eyes from Cloud, frowning.

It wasn‟t hard, when Sephiroth had turned his attention to Zack, to remember the dream again.
He couldn‟t help his eyes tracing the curves of the other man‟s lips, remembering what it had felt
like to have them pressed to his, what it had felt like to completely surrender his control as soon
as they‟d touched.

Whatever passed between the two SOLDIERs he missed, but then Zack looked back to him, and
even as he turned to meet his friend‟s gaze once more, sure his cheeks were red, he could feel it
when Sephiroth returned to watching him.

“We‟re on our way to work,” Zack explained, but his face looked more solemn than before. As
Cloud watched him, he was reminded of the strange quality of the concern Zack had displayed
whilst they were waiting for the doctor. “And I wanted to stop in to see how you were.”

There was a tension in the lines of his expression, Cloud realised, and suddenly he knew what it
was, because it was exactly the same thing he had seen in Sephiroth‟s face in his dream, after the
man had first called his name. “Whatever you want to say to me,” he said warily, keeping his
voice low, “Just say it.”

Zack did not look surprised. His face did not change, but he searched Cloud‟s eyes as if
wondering whether he should follow the blond‟s request. Sephiroth, his silent presence no less
strong in the room for his lack of participation in their conversation, was still watching, and
Cloud tried desperately to ignore the feel of the man‟s eyes on him – the scrutiny was making
him nervous, and he couldn‟t work out why Sephiroth was studying him so intently.

Eventually, Zack leaned a little closer and said, “I‟ve not said anything before this because I
didn‟t want to scare you off, but I suppose now you must know that I‟ve noticed how strangely
you‟re acting.”

Cloud nodded warily, feeling his chest seize up with apprehension.

Zack did not even seem to wonder at the fact that Cloud wasn‟t going to say he wasn‟t aware of
how he was behaving. “The fact that you‟re suddenly fighting on a SOLDIER 3rd level is
enough to arouse suspicion,” Zack continued. He pursed his lips as he paused. “Yesterday, you
were hardly doing anything and that boy was going for you with everything he had, and anyone
with eyes could see that you were in complete control of that fight. Every time you fight me I
know you‟re holding back, but I don‟t know why.”

Cloud opened his mouth automatically, about to explain although he had no idea what would
come out of his mouth, but Zack pressed a finger to his lips, shaking his head. Cloud frowned,
closing his mouth as Zack drew his hand back away, but didn‟t say anything. What did Zack
want from this conversation if he wasn‟t going to let Cloud say a word?

“And then that thing with Aeris…” Zack trailed off. His dark eyes, Cloud saw with some hope,
were not hard or accusing. He continued, “I know you know her, though why she doesn‟t seem
to know you is just another mystery to add to the list. And you just don‟t act like you used to –
you‟re still Cloud, there‟s no doubt about it, a lot of things about you haven‟t changed one bit,
but still…All these things together, I just can‟t explain away, though the Planet knows I‟ve tried.”
He rolled his eyes, and a smile graced his lips, which comforted Cloud a little. His chest became
a little less tight.

“Zack,” he began, but the older man shook his head again, and he fell silent.

“I‟m not going to ask you what‟s going on.” Cloud‟s eyes widened, but he didn‟t say a word.
Zack‟s smile had faded. His eyes were neither warm nor cold. He wasn‟t sure what to make of
that, however well he knew Zack. “Obviously,” the SOLDIER went on, “there‟s something
going on, but I trust you to tell me eventually. You‟re my friend, right? And I‟m yours, so if you
don‟t want to tell me, or you want to work through it by yourself, I‟ll respect that. But a burden
shared is halved, isn‟t that what they say?”

“Depends what it is,” Cloud found himself saying. His voice sounded a bit strained to his own
ears. “Sometimes sharing things makes it worse.”

“I won‟t tell anyone!” Zack exclaimed, looking almost scandalised.

“That‟s not what I meant.”
Zack frowned again, and ran one hand over his hair as if to flatten it a little. “Well, whatever it
is…even if you think it‟s weird, or crazy, or whatever, I‟ll listen to you, and I‟ll try to help.
I…just wanted you to know that, okay?”

Cloud nodded. He had never wanted to tell Zack about everything so much as he did then, but
the more cynical side of him guessed that that was partly what Zack had been aiming for. He
didn‟t say anything, not trusting what came out of his mouth to be what he‟d intend to say, and
his suspicion was confirmed by the disappointment that crossed his friend‟s face.

“There are more people on your side than you know,” he said then, and Cloud had the fleeting
idea that he meant Sephiroth, which was a crazy idea in itself. He couldn‟t help but glance over,
his own eyes meeting green once more – still watching him – but then looked away, the other
man‟s gaze too intense for him.

Zack patted his hand awkwardly, and then got up. “Work awaits us,” he said softly, and his lips
twitched. Cloud smiled hesitantly, and watched as Zack went after the doctor, presumably to let
him know that they had finished and Cloud would be left to his mercy. As Zack disappeared into
the doctor‟s room, he was left alone with only Sephiroth‟s watchfulness.

What did he want?

“His intentions are noble,” came Sephiroth‟s voice, low and smooth, and for their ears only, “but
there will come a time when he can no longer wait for you.”

“I know.” And he did know, because he would have been the same. Zack had less patience than
even Cloud did – how long would it be until that time came? Cloud closed his heavy eyes, as
much because of their weight as to avoid having to meet the General‟s gaze, and that
indescribable look in them that he couldn‟t read.

He was glad when Zack came back, and the two eventually left. He was tired of people watching
him all the time.

-----

There were privileges to being a General, as there were with any high position within a company
such as ShinRa. The one that Sephiroth enjoyed the most was the Officers' Bathroom. It was
hidden away on the same floor as his own quarters, solely for the use of the SOLDIER 1sts and
any of the higher ranks. A lot of them didn't use it, because their quarters had en suite bathrooms
anyway, but this was far more luxurious and about four times the size of the private rooms.

He sank into the large tub with a sigh, the water just as hot as he liked. The bath, sunken into the
floor, was meant for more than one person. It could easily fit in about four or five people with
room to spare. Some of the officers used it when they brought women back with them, but even
though it was nice, Sephiroth could hardly think of a less romantic place.
He let his head fall back against the side, staring up at the ceiling. He had pulled his hair into a
makeshift bun at the back of his head so it wouldn't get wet (well, so that much of it wouldn't get
wet) unless he submerged, and he could feel it where his head rested against the tiles, but he
didn't really care about the discomfort. He was too tired to care, concentrating only on the
wonderful feeling in his limbs as the heat of the water helped him to unwind.

He'd found it impossible to relax all day. After he'd woken up in the middle of the night, he
hadn't been able to sleep again. He'd been terse and irritable at work out of tiredness, and had
known from the moment he'd climbed out of bed that this would be where he'd end up later that
night, when no-one else was likely to be using it.

He couldn't…concentrate.

Sephiroth was surprised, suddenly, to hear the lock of the door turning and the soft click as it
opened. Most people, when they realised someone was in here, apologised and backed out -
especially when they saw it was him, most were too intimidated to bathe naked in the same room,
the same bath. This person didn't, which meant that he knew it was Zack, and that raised an
eyebrow.

The dark-haired man didn't say hello, but Sephiroth didn't offer a greeting of his own and simply
remained gazing up at the white ceiling as he listened to Zack stripping off. It was definitely
Zack - he could hear the heavy clunk of the boots being dropped to the floor, and the similar
sound of the younger man's belt. He wondered what Zack wanted - part of him expected that the
SOLDIER might be craving something physical, but nothing like that had transpired between
them for months.

He lifted his head so that he could see Zack as he padded around the edge of the tub, trying to
guess what he wanted. The nakedness didn't bother him, he'd seen it before. He looked at the
other man's face, and he looked a bit drained. Sephiroth knew how he felt. He watched, silently,
as Zack slid into the water onto the shelf around the edge of the tub beneath the surface a few
feet away from him. The black-haired man sighed in satisfaction, and Sephiroth felt his mouth
curve a little.

"Stressed?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

Zack grinned, his own head tipped back and his eyes closed. "Just a little," he replied. "You?"

"You mean you weren't expecting to find me here?" Sephiroth snorted. "I couldn't sleep last
night, and work was tiring."

"Oh, is that why you were acting off all day?" And Sephiroth knew from the tone of his voice
that that was the main reason why Zack was here. Zack could have spoken to him anytime about
that - why now? Why here? He watched his friend's face carefully, not entirely sure what Zack
was up to.

"What do you mean?" he asked carefully.
"Whenever I saw you, it was, like, one minute you were snapping people's heads off, and the
next you were completely zoned out." Zack grinned slyly, knowingly, eyes crinkling at the edges.
Sephiroth merely stared back at him, wondering if he really did know what was bothering his
superior.

He slid a bit further underwater so that his shoulders were nearly submerged, and said, "I told
you, I didn't sleep. I was tired and everyone persisted in doing stupid things today. I was bound
to get irritated." It was a thinly concealed warning for Zack to stop with this line of questioning,
but he doubted that it would be heeded.

"You were staring at him this morning." The grin had disappeared and all of a sudden the
humour had gone from the other man. "You keep watching him."

Sephiroth didn't like the way his heart began to speed up a little, and his voice was cold when he
replied, "And?" There was no use denying it - Zack had caught him watching the practice up in
the gallery that day, and had obviously noticed him staring that morning. He shouldn't have gone
with Zack, so soon after that dream - he'd seen Cloud and he couldn't help the images that came
to him, however much he'd tried. He couldn't even make himself feel disgusted at what he felt
anymore. His dream - it had been peaceful, he remembered. That was all he could feel.

Zack's grin returned suddenly, brighter than before. "I think Mr. Stressy over there should get
himself a boyfriend. Perhaps that's the reason he's zoning out all day long…and stuff."

"And did you perhaps happen to have someone in mind?" Sephiroth asked chilly. Zack wouldn't
dare say it to his face, not when any suspicions the SOLDIER might have had to be based on
guesswork and guesswork alone. He wasn't stupid, whatever else he might be.

"Maybe," was all Zack said. He shrugged. "Have you?"

Sephiroth felt his frown deepening, and didn't answer. Zack gave him a long look, and the
silence became more tense, but he did nothing to break it. Eventually Zack looked away and sank
down in the water until only his head was visible. "I was hoping he'd tell me what was going on
this morning."

"He will," Sephiroth said, and leaned his head back one more, closing his eyes in relief at the
turn in the conversation. "All good things come to those who wait."

"Bah," Zack said in reply to that, his tone derisive. "I'm no good at waiting."

"I noticed. Don't let it get to you."

He heard Zack sigh and shift a little in the water. "But I do let it get to me," he said quietly. "I'm
really worried about him." Sephiroth didn't open his eyes, because he wasn't sure he could stand
to see the pained look that must have been on Zack's face. He listened to Zack moving closer in
the water, and it occurred to him that his initial suspicion about the other man seeking him out
here had been right.
"I don't know what to do," Zack said, and his voice was very close.

"…Neither do I." He opened his eyes after he'd said it, turning his head where it rested against
the tiles to meet Zack's unguarded gaze. He still looked pained and drawn but there was also
need in Zack's eyes, a desire to forget for a moment that Sephiroth could empathise with. He
didn't look away, and neither did Zack, even when he felt a hand slide slowly against the inside
of his knee beneath the water and upward.

"Please," Zack whispered. "Just this once. Just so I can…stop thinking about it for tonight."

He accepted because Zack needed it, and because he wanted it to chase away the images in his
own mind that he hadn't been able to escape, so when Zack began to close the distance between
them he met the man halfway.

It left him feeling empty afterwards, as he made his way to his own bed, his stomach churning
unpleasantly. It hadn't worked at all: several times he'd found himself imagining that the hips
beneath his hands were slimmer and the bared skin paler. He'd made sure he didn't say anything
coherent when he came.

He fell, much later, into a blessedly dreamless sleep.

-----

End Chapter 10

1. I know the Planet has an official name now with AC (Gaia), but I'm just going to stick with
"the Planet" because that's what it was in the game, and anything else just sounds odd to me.

2. Again, sorry this took so long, but I had exams, and a holiday, and then some more
exams…and HP3 came out and the SB/RL just called to me, as I knew it would, because Thewlis
and Oldman were just fantastic. But I hope you liked this, if only for the dream-part.

3. And now you have some S/C kinda-action! And it's not gratuitous, either. If you don't
remember what Aeris said to Cloud that he didn't listen to, go back to the scene where he goes to
her house and read it. There should be something that she says that just doesn't fit in with what
Cloud's thinking. It's important, as was the dream in this chapter.

Fusion 11

by Knowing Shadows

Disclaimer: See Chapter 1

------
Zack woke up groggily and aching in the peculiar way that he recognised but couldn't quite put
his finger on yet. His stomach knotted a little as his brain registered the vague, not entirely
unpleasant pain, but he wasn't awake enough to really pay much attention to it. The bed was
warm and he was tired.

He remembered, abruptly, that it had been a bit of a bitch to climb up the ladder to his bunk the
night before because the tightness in his muscles had begun to set in. He remembered looking at
the lower bunk and feeling his stomach twist itself up immensely at the sight of Cloud's sleeping
face, before he looked away and tried to forget about the emotional repercussions of what he'd
just done.

What had he done? He had a blurry, unrecognised notion in his brain that knew right away and
was dying to make itself known, but he was still on the wrong side of sleep to be able to catch
onto it. The knots in his stomach slowly began to tangle and tighten further.

He didn't want to wake up fully, he knew enough to know that. He knew enough to know that as
soon as he did so the reality of what he'd been up to would come down on him and he wouldn't
like it.

"Zack? You gonna wake up there?" There was a hand on his shoulder, gently shaking him. The
voice was one he recognised. He felt his body rock as the hand pushed at him, and that sent a
wave of that ache rushing through him, up from his lower back and renewing into something
more painful just below his shoulder blades. He frowned into his pillow.

"Zack, we gotta get up. You're gonna be late for wooooooooork..."

He cracked an eye open because it seemed to be the best thing to do, not because he particularly
wanted to. Cloud had his arms hooked over the top of his bunk, keeping him upright on the
ladder (Zack assumed that Cloud was standing on the ladder). The blond had been let out of the
infirmary in the evening after Zack and Sephiroth had stopped by to see him, and didn't seem to
be showing any ill effects other than one complaint of still having a headache. He looked rather
bright, actually.

Zack looked at him and remembered exactly what it was that had caused him to ache so much,
and felt abruptly sick.

Cloud poked him gently in the biceps, lips curled into a small smile. "Don't look at me like that.
You wake me if I sleep late. Except usually you jump on me or let something horrible loose in
my bed."

He couldn't help but snicker, though the tight nausea in his belly hadn't receded. "But that was
funny," he said, but it was muffled by his pillow. Cloud just rolled his eyes and raised himself up
onto his toes on the ladder rung so that he could lift his arms and begin to clamber back down
again, satisfied that the dark-haired man was awake. When the last of the blond's spiky hair
dipped back below out of sight, Zack closed his eyes and turned his face fully into the pillow,
guilt and shame crawling in his torso and stomach.
What the fuck did I think I was playing at? And just after I'd told that that we didn't - that it
didn't happen anymore -

He wanted to be angry with Sephiroth for not stopping him, for refusing, but as soon as that
began to rise up it was quelled by the fact that he knew it wasn't the older man's fault at all.
Sephiroth had needed the distraction as much as he did, he'd seen it in the man's face, in the brief
flash of something in his green eyes when he opened them to see Zack above him and not
whoever he was seeing when he closed them.

That thought didn't hurt as much as he'd thought it might - perhaps because they both knew it
meant nothing. Or perhaps it was because Zack had a strong suspicion about who Sephiroth had
been thinking about, whether willingly or not. He had the sudden urge to walk up to Cloud and
say, "Hey, did you know Sephiroth was imagining that I was you last night?" if only to see what
the blond would do in response. It would be nice to see the ego boost in the boy, too, if only he
could do it some other way than revealing how utterly stupid he'd been.

If he was correct, he also doubted that Sephiroth would be very happy to be caught out on it,
especially if his principles as a twenty-five year old male pointed out that (nearly) sixteen might
be pushing it slightly in the age category.

Zack winced as he began to clamber onto his knees to get out of bed, and as that thought came at
him again. Perhaps he should bring it up with Sephiroth before he let those principles get out of
control - the General's ethics tended to be a bit heavy-handed in dealing with the man. If
Sephiroth's interest in Cloud didn't just go away, his mental state would be a mess if no-one
could convince him that he was perfectly normal in having that kind of attraction.

Damnit, why did he have to deal with that at the same time?

Climbing down the ladder was even more of a problem than climbing up it the night before. He
steadfastly refused to make a noise that might arouse questions - he couldn't face Cloud's
wondering expression all day. As he stepped off the ladder, wincing against the cold feel of the
floor against his bare feet, he felt himself freeze up unexpectedly as he heard a startled noise
from behind him.

"Oh, Zack, what did you do to your back?" He turned then, and found Cloud already close by,
frowning up at him. The blond motioned at him to turn around, and Zack did so reluctantly,
knowing that what Cloud was referring to had to be the visible part of the pain he'd felt there
earlier. He'd forgotten he was only wearing boxers and so any marks would be plainly visible,
and he wasn't sure where there were marks - stupid, stupid, not to check before Cloud might see,
might question -

He hissed when he felt Cloud's finger ghost along his back in a line just below his shoulder
blades. "You've got a bruise - like a strip across here," came the cadet's concerned voice. He felt
Cloud prod part of this bruise lightly, and Zack shuddered. "What did you do, get in a fight with
a crowbar?"
"No," he said. He struggled to come up with a plausible excuse, but it was difficult when he
could still feel Cloud's fingertips against his bare skin. "I just did some training last night and got
banged around a bit." He was glad Cloud couldn't see his face, because he winced as he realised
what he'd just said. Cloud wouldn't - he hoped - know any different.

Getting 'banged about' was just right - leaning against the hard edge of the bath last night for a
part of it didn't seem to matter quite so much when I was concentrating on other things.

Cloud didn't say anything to that, but he took his hand away immediately and Zack had the
feeling that the blond knew he was lying, even if he didn't know the truth of it. Perhaps knowing
that he was lying would lead the boy to suspect whatever he'd been doing had been sexual - and
then trying to hide it from Cloud would then, eventually, lead him into wondering who he might
have been with, and the only person Zack would want to hide would be plainly obvious.

"You should see a doctor and see if they can give you anything to ease the pain," Cloud said.
Zack didn't know if he was imagining the chilly edge to his voice. He hoped he was. "Especially
if you've got other bruises." Zack froze, felt his muscles tense up painfully in his back, and Cloud
finished, "Or anything else that I can't see right now."

Oh, fuck. He closed his eyes, couldn't even turn around to look at Cloud, or try to explain away
the definitely harsh quality to the blond's tone as paranoia alone. Was it harsh because he knew
Zack was lying or because he'd worked out it was Sephiroth? He didn't know, didn't want to ask,
and couldn't anyway - he heard Cloud walk away and out of the door.

He leaned forward until his forehead was resting against the edge of his bunk, and sighed,
ignoring the pull of the bruised area that sent sharp stinging sensations along his spine. Of all the
dumb things to do, of all the goddamn stupid things he could have done - why this? Why the one
thing he could have done to hurt Cloud so much?

Because you're a fucking man, and Sephiroth is a walking wet dream even when he's got his hair
in one of those stupid loopy bun things, and he was sitting in a bath, naked, needing to get laid
and you were naked, too, and you wanted it. Damnit, you were even thinking about Cloud at the
time - your goddamn excuse was that you wanted to forget about him for a while. You're not
perfect and you made a mistake; you just made a huge mistake because you're Zack and you
never do things by halves.

God, he thought, lifting a hand to his back to rub it gingerly, you can fucking say that again.
Ouch. Perhaps I should see a doctor after all, though I wish Aeris was here to do one of her-

Oh, fucking hell - Aeris -

He hadn't even thought about Aeris, not once. His thoughts had all been Cloud Cloud Cloud and
not once had Aeris been there at all - she should have been first in line to send him on a guilt trip.
He had betrayed his girlfriend -
He wondered why thinking about what he'd done to Aeris didn't make him feel as awful as
thinking about Cloud did. Did that make him an even worse boyfriend, that he felt guiltier about
Cloud than he did his own girlfriend?

His back throbbed painfully as he sank down into a crouch, head in his hands. Idiot, idiot Zack,
he scolded himself, too weak-willed to abstain when an opportunity presents itself, too self-
centred to care if you hurt others as long as you get what you want, too lazy to even go to your
own girlfriend if there's someone closer who might give you what you want.

He hadn't wanted a girl the night before, he realised, the emotions lying so heavy in his chest
shifting uneasily with the knowledge. He'd wanted to be put on his back and fucked, to have the
control taken out of his hands for once - it was why he went to Sephiroth, who wouldn't know
how to let up his control even if he wanted to, and not to someone like Cloud, however attractive
the blond might be.

And Cloud was attractive, as beautiful as Sephiroth in his own way, and he could appreciate that
without thinking about it too seriously because... - he scowled, setting his jaw -

Sephiroth has everything you want, if you stopped to think about it more carefully for once,
rather than just brushing it off as a meaningless night in someone else's bed.

Think about that, Zack, as much as you didn't think at all last night.

-----

The practice dummies set up in the training hall looked rather ragged and old. Most of them were
almost falling apart from the amount of slices and cuts into them there were from the edges of
the swords - Cloud's was on its last legs as far as its left arm was concerned. One swift blow to
the thin material keeping it attached to the main body would surely send it flying off completely.

He thought about that darkly, sorely tempted. Instead, he ploughed the edge of his blade into the
dummy's other upper arm, loving the bite of the metal into the solid weight at the end of it. It was
surprisingly difficult to cut into flesh, he knew that from experience, even with something as
powerful as the Ultima weapon - though Sephiroth had bled so easily at the end -

As he came back from the lunging swing, Cloud dug the heel of his free hand into his temple,
breath caught at the sudden flash of memory that came with the thought. His head was pounding
still, though he wasn't entirely surprised. Ratchett had been allowed into this training because it
was so vital, but had been sent to the opposite end of the hall so he couldn't 'accidentally' hit
Cloud again. He'd steadfastly ignored the older boy - he couldn't deal with that mystery when
Zack...

Stop it, stop it, stop it! You're just reading into things too much, you're paranoid because of what
Reno said - quit thinking about it, you'll just make yourself feel worse!
He was feeling aggressive anyway, which he blamed mostly on Zack whether he was being
paranoid and untrusting or not. It helped a bit to imagine that he was going at the dark-haired
man with a sword and working off that anger, but at the same time, concentrating on the older
man just made his thoughts continue to darken and his suspicions more solid in his mind.

He did not...he told me they didn't anymore...I have to believe that, it could have been anyone he
was with last night...but why would he hide it? Why would he lie to me? It's not like I don't know
he has a lot of partners, despite Aeris...

He didn't like the part of Zack that could cheat on his girlfriend, especially as Cloud cared for
Aeris so much anyway, but he could understand, to some extent, that Zack had a high libido and
got stressed if he didn't...

You're thinking about this far too much. Concentrate on your training. SOLDIER is so close, so
close...You can get in this time, you know it, you can feel it - you're better than even Reno, and
you're a hundred times better than you were the first time you came here -

He wondered, vaguely, what it was exactly that allowed him to have retained as much of his
skills as he had - surely his body wasn't trained enough...it shouldn't have been, anyway. Perhaps
the Cetra had helped with that aspect...he wasn't sure. He was just grateful that, this time, he
would be able to make things the way they should have been, however bafflingly impossible
parts of this reality seemed to be.

He thought of Sephiroth, half-naked and addled by Mako, assaulted by images of Nibelheim in
his head and seeming quite convinced that he remembered running Cloud through with the
Masamune. He'd fumbled with the idea that that might have been the Cetra's doing as well, but to
what purpose? Getting Sephiroth's attention? Sephiroth didn't need any more reasons to believe
that he was an unnatural monster of Hojo's.

Cloud hated not understanding things. He didn't understand what Aeris had been trying to tell
him by sending him that dream, if she'd sent it at all; he didn't understand why Sephiroth had
been seeing the future; he didn't understand why so much about this place was...different.

Abruptly, he became aware of a hand waving in front of his voice, and a voice saying, "Cloud?
Are you alright? You're not dead, are you?"

He blinked, shaking the thoughts away from him, and turned to find Reno attached to the hand,
giving him a worried look. "Back from La La Land, eh?" he enquired, stopping the wave of his
fingers and settling for crossing his arms over his chest.

"Sorry, I was just...thinking." Cloud shrugged helplessly. He was holding the sword slack in his
grip, the point digging into the mat at his side. He hadn't realised he'd trailed off so badly in the
middle of training.
"Well, Teach' said I could have a break, so I came looking for you." Reno smiled, the expression
pulling slightly at the twin red scars that cut mirror patterns along his cheekbones. "I have great
news for you."

"Oh?" Cloud steeled himself inwardly, knowing very well that it was probably awful news. He
found his fingers tightening around the hilt of his sword, felt the irritating wrong-ness in the way
he kept expecting to feel the familiar contours of the Ultima Weapon's hilt instead of this, and
didn't like it at all.

"I hope you don't mind injections," Reno said, and abruptly Cloud had a disturbing flash of Hojo
standing before him, his arms crossed just like Reno's. It passed quickly, leaving him only
surprised and with a speeding heart. Reno didn't seem to have noticed, and Cloud caught himself
in time to hear, "Because we all get trial Mako injections pretty soon. It's some sort of
compatibility test - if we don't pass, there's no point in us taking the exams because all
SOLDIERs get a lot of Mako treatment."

He'd forgotten this test - he realised with a start that it belonged to the faintly fuzzy period of
time in his memories that he had never really thought to piece back together after Nibelheim.
Now, he remembered it. He'd been a borderline pass, eventually going on to fail the exam itself.

He remembered not liking the test. The Mako had left his skin itching and burning faintly for
hours afterwards. He'd spent most of that time in the shower trying to scrub his skin off, rubbing
himself raw so he would have that to concentrate on instead. He'd been afraid that the burn
wouldn't go away.

"Oh," Cloud said, and shivered. "Thanks for letting me know."

"Hey, you okay?" Reno reached out to touch his arm gently. "You don't have a problem with
injections, do you?"

"Just Mako ones," Cloud said, and smiled to let Reno know he was okay. He was, too - just not
looking forward to it very much at all. "I've heard they can be pretty painful."

The red-haired boy shrugged carelessly. He probably hadn't really thought about that very much.
"As long as I pass it, I don't really care," Reno said truthfully. "I'll do anything to get into ShinRa.
I haven't got anything to fall back on except..." He trailed off, eyes going distant and unfocused,
before he looked back at Cloud and lifted a hand to trace at one of his scars. "A few months
before I started training here, I didn't have these," he said softly. "I didn't want them."

"They suit you, though," Cloud said, winking and letting his smile widen. Reno stuck out his
tongue.

"Well," the taller boy said, "even if I don't mind the injection, I won't enjoy it very much 'cause
that Professor guy creeps me out."

Profess-?!
The memory of the test spun through him as he desperately searched it, and surely enough there
was a flash of white and black and the glint of light on glass lenses. Cloud's eyes went wide, and
he had the odd impression that being thumped in the solar plexus would feel a lot like he felt
right then.

"Professor Hojo?" he managed to say.

"Yeah, that's him," Reno said breezily, not seeming to notice his shock this time as well. "He's
freakin' inhuman. There are all sorts of rumours going around about the stuff he gets up to in his
labs. Apparently he has a load of top secret side projects going on for President Shinra, you
know? Like, stuff that would have him hung if he wasn't working for the President." Reno
sounded rather excited by the mystery behind the Professor, even if he didn't like the man
himself.

Cloud felt his stomach twist, feeling sick. "Don't say that stuff like it's good." He couldn't stop
the words, angry even though he knew that he would have acted the same before he had been
subject to one of those projects. His hands fisted, nails digging into his skin sharply. "It's not
exciting and it's not a game and he hurts people! I hate that man and he should be fucking shot!"

He was aware of Reno staring at him, though he hadn't been loud enough for anyone else to pay
attention to what he'd been saying. He looked away, ashamed, uncurling his fingers from around
the hilt of his sword, wincing at the pain from how hard he'd been gripping it.

"Hey, dude," Reno whispered, "you know stuff about him. Like, real stuff, don't you?"

"I don't...want to talk about it." He shook his head, turning away to try and avoid the questioning.
"And don't say anything to anyone, either, will you? As far as you're concerned, I don't know
anything...I could get in a lot of trouble, and I'd rather...not..."

"It's our secret!" Reno assured him, holding up his hands as if to pacify the blond. His eyes were
quite wide, and Cloud hoped dearly that what he'd just said hadn't been a major mistake on his
part. If it got back to Hojo - or President Shinra - that he had any idea of what they were doing,
and what they had done...

He couldn't...he couldn't risk something like that happening, knowing what would happen to him.
Something in him had trusted Reno enough to not hold back – he hadn't even realised that he'd
allowed himself to trust Reno. He didn't like the thought that he could let something slip so
easily.

"I'll tell you what," Reno offered quietly. Cloud turned, slowly, to look at him, and the wide-eyed
look had gone, replaced by a more tentative excitement. "I'll tell you a secret."

Cloud almost felt his ears prick up, and there must have been something of it in his face because
Reno stepped closer to keep his voice low, and said, "Have you ever seen a tall guy wandering
around here sometimes? Wears a dark blue suit, got straight black hair down to his shoulders,
and a little red dot on
his forehead?"

Another memory came at Cloud, one of fire flickering on ancient terracotta walls, and the play of
that same fire on shiny black hair and dark eyes and how that wan light almost hid the dark,
unnatural spot

in the centre of Tseng's forehead.

"Yes, I've seen him," he said.

"Well, he's one of the Turks, you know?" Cloud nodded, and thought he knew exactly where this
story was going. He watched Reno's face, trying to make out his feelings towards what he felt
must have been one of the first moves that led to Reno becoming a Turk himself. "And he said
that they've had their eye on me to take over one of their places, if I pass the exams...so he's
going to come and see some of our training sessions to just make sure that they think I have what
it takes."

"The Turks don't just scout for SOLDIER candidates, you know," Cloud said blankly, and from
Reno's face the boy already knew that as well, and didn't really seem to care. For the first time
since he'd been here, Cloud felt older than the other boy - Reno's obvious excitement was unlike
anything he recognised in the Turk he had met as an enemy. He wondered, vaguely disturbed by
the thought, if that change had been wrought before or after Tseng had decided the redhead was
good enough for them after all.

"I wonder why they picked me out?" Reno wondered out loud. He looked genuinely puzzled by
the development, but nothing short of proud of the fact. Cloud couldn't really blame him - within
ShinRa, the Turks were the most well-known of the President's side outfits, their work the most
gossiped about. Being a Turk was Cool, as far as most cadets were concerned, even though none
of the Turks were anywhere near as powerful in battle as the SOLDIER 1sts like Zack and
Sephiroth.

But thinking of those two sent his mood crashing once more, doubt and suspicion over Zack's
lies creeping in once more, so he decided to push it away by answering Reno. "You know you're
one of the most talented in the group. Of course they're going to want to try and steal you away if
they've got a place free."

"But still...why me?" Reno pointed a finger at Cloud, who stared at it. "You're better than I am,
especially recently. You may not be the tallest, but you've got more muscles than I do..." He
screwed up his nose. "Do you have to be scrawny to get into the Turks? That Tseng was skinny
and all...and I once saw a picture of this really famous Turk called Valentine and he was quite
skinny. Did you know that Valentine disappeared twenty-five years ago and no-one knows what
happened to him?" Reno went off on a tangent happily, and Cloud fought not to smile and reply,
"Of course I do. And I know what happened to him."

Sephiroth's only twenty-five, a part of him pointed out wistfully. That's not so big a gap, really...
Twenty-five is still so young. And you'll be sixteen in a few days. Maybe Sephiroth needs
someone younger in his life to remind him that he's still only a few years into adulthood, before
he falls apart...

Twenty-five was nothing, he realised, when you thought about it, and already he'd ascended the
ranks of SOLDIER to become General and led ShinRa to victory over Wutai. A few more
months and the supposed 'truth' might come down on him and finally wear him down; might
break his spirit until he had nothing left but Jenova's lies and no-one there to help him believe
otherwise.

"So, anyway..." Reno was saying, "...Tseng said he'd be checking out some of our practices
pretty soon, so don't be surprised to see him around..."

Cloud wasn't really listening.

------

There was a shiny new computer sitting on Sephiroth's desk. He looked at it in vague amusement,
grateful somewhere in himself that no-one had asked any questions about how his old one had
become so mangled. Thankfully, as he'd only destroyed the monitor beyond repair, he hadn't lost
any files. Sephiroth was pretty sure that he would have thrown himself out of the window if he'd
had to go through and re-do all that work.

God, get a life, a snide voice remarked in the back of his head. Is it all you can do to sit there and
ramble on at yourself about computers? Is that how pathetic you've become, that you can't face
up to your problems anymore, and hide behind something so goddamn fake and awful as this?

He could see his reflection faintly in the monitor screen, and saw his own mouth curl into a sneer
at those thoughts. It didn't look very good on him, he noted - made him look more animal than
man, though sometimes, with the thoughts that went through his brain from time to time, he
wondered if that would be a more accurate portrayal.

More inhuman than anything, the same way that Hojo is - the family resemblance is there, so
easily found if you only look

He looked away from his reflection, startled by the sudden sharp twist to his mood, and to stop
himself from putting another crack in the screen, if only to somehow break up that goddamn
snarl that he couldn't quite erase from his mouth.

How could anyone ever look at you if they knew what you were, truly? If they knew just what
kind of man they were dealing with, who knew that sometimes he didn't think like normal men in
any way at all, what would they do then? Would it even be enough to shatter the illustrious
illusions they all have of you?

But then there were Cloud's eyes, watching him with that odd sort of nothingness that was no
judgement at all, only the quiet sort of acceptance and understanding of everything he saw.
Those eyes that knew everything and seemed to have endured it all with him along the way.
Zack didn't have eyes like that at all, and only because he'd seen it in the blond cadet could he
make out the difference in the way that Zack looked at him. It was only because of that strange
ageless quality to Cloud's eyes that he really understood that, even though he tried very hard,
Zack had no idea.

Oh, for Shiva's sake, stop romanticising everything - so the boy got hurt. Plenty of kids get hurt
when they're young. You're not the only one, so stop acting as if a little childhood trauma makes
you special. And you don't need to turn it into poetry.

He was being hard on himself, and he knew it, but that didn't help the coldness of the thoughts or
the fact that he couldn't make himself believe them when it came to Cloud.

Sephiroth almost jumped when there came an unexpected rap on the door, and then the sound of
someone entering. He looked up, past the computer screen to where the noise had come from, to
find miserable brown eyes staring back at him.

Zack's presence didn't startle him so much as the absolutely defeated expression on his face. For
a moment, as the black-haired man slid the door quietly closed behind him, Sephiroth struggled
to find something to say, and failed. He had no experience of this - there was nothing in him filed
away about how to deal with a depressed Zack. He didn't like it when things like this happened
unexpectedly, it made him feel uneasy and he was generally surly in response to that.

Except this was probably about the night before, and that made him feel even worse - what had
he done to make Zack look like that? he wondered, somewhat flustered. He'd done what Zack
asked, what else had happened whilst he wasn't looking? Had he not paid enough attention again,
and misread Zack's intentions?

"Hey," Zack said, leaning back against the door with a soft sigh, dropping his head momentarily
so that all Sephiroth could see was the top of his head and the mess of soft spikes that started
there.

"Good morning," he replied, confused.

Zack lifted his head, as if to say something, but what came out of his mouth was, "What
happened to your old computer?" with a puzzled frown gracing his tanned face.

If Sephiroth had been anyone else, he might have gone slightly red. "It broke. I got a new one."

Zack continued to look slightly confused for a second or two more, and then his face cleared of
that and returned to the original expression with which he had entered. Sephiroth wanted the
confusion back, rather than what it had briefly masked.

So he patiently waited for Zack to speak, and wasn't surprised at all when the first thing that the
dark-haired man said was, "I'm sorry."
"What for?" was his required line in this script, so he followed it, though he knew what Zack was
apologising for. Well, that was partly true - he knew what incident Zack was referring to, though
what there had been about it to be sorry about, Sephiroth wasn't sure. He couldn't think of
anything on the spot, the partial organisation of his thoughts completely gone in the face of this.
He watched his younger friend intently, trying to read some kind of clue in the way he was
standing, or the lines of his face, but it was like looking at something in the script of the Ancients.

He was used to looking at most people and not really being able to read them the way that others
were. His understanding of the nuances of flirting, for example, wasn't in the same league as
someone like Zack's. But he'd thought that after so long, he'd have some kind of idea as to how
to look at Zack and understand things the way others could. Being met with that curious, hated
blankness in his head disgruntled him.

"About last night," Zack continued. He bent slightly at the waist, hips and buttocks leant against
the door and his hands on his uniform-clad thighs. He was trying to avoid looking at Sephiroth,
that much the older man knew, possibly out of embarrassment. "It shouldn't have happened. I'm
sorry that I started it, I really am...I have a girlfriend."

Oh... That was what Zack was feeling guilty about. Sephiroth hadn't even thought about Aeris -
he didn't know her, she was only present as some kind of vague, peripheral identity that didn't
really encroach upon his world. Apparently, Zack hadn't really thought too much about her either.
He felt oddly slighted.

"Don't beat yourself up about it," Sephiroth said. He pulled absently at a stray lock of silver that
framed his face, the hair sliding smoothly between leather-clad fingers. "It was as much your
fault as mine. If it was a mistake, I understand..."

Zack's head snapped up and his face was abruptly full of reproach and irritation. "I didn't mean it
like that," he barked, and something of Sephiroth's surprise must have shown in his face because
almost immediately afterwards the black-haired SOLDIER was saying, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean
to..." He made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat, trailing off.

Sephiroth sat upright in his chair, gone instantly cold at Zack's harsh tone. He let go of his hair
and lay his hands in his lap, curling his fingers into his palms. He kept his gaze level and chilly,
and set his jaw against the angry rebuke that wanted to tumble from his lips.

The silence stretched out, and Sephiroth revelled in the discomfort even as Zack seemed to
wither in it. Eventually, Zack pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead and murmured, "Seph,
please...I'm sorry. I can't deal with you being like this today."

He wanted to say, "Being like what?" but refrained. Zack's tone hadn't been antagonistic that
time, but as pleading as Sephiroth had ever heard him. He really couldn't deal with Sephiroth
being anything other than civil and co-operative. He wondered why - when he thought about it,
they had been together before whilst Zack had been with Aeris. He hadn't made a fuss about it
then, and as far as Sephiroth knew, Zack's commitment level to the relationship hadn't shifted in
that time.
Perhaps there's something else that's making him feel guilty. Is there anyone else he's seeing? If
he can cheat on Aeris with you, what's to say he wouldn't with anyone else? Perhaps he's found
someone else around here who he likes a whole lot more than he likes you...

It was an old, tortuous thought that refused to relinquish its hold on him however many times he
tried to push it away.

But who else has his attention been on besides you and..?

He curled his fingers into his palms tighter as he asked, "And how is Strife doing, do you know?"
He caught the immediate flinch on Zack's part at the mention of the name and felt himself bristle.
But still, the thought of those two together didn't fit right in his mind - they had never given any
kind of indication at all that they were involved, though it was entirely possible that he'd missed
it, or that they were just extremely good at hiding it.

So why the guilty conscience and flinch when his name is mentioned, but barely anything when
his own girlfriend is brought up?

"He's fine. And you can call him 'Cloud', you know," Zack said, with the air of someone
changing the subject in almost desperation. "It's not illegal."

Sephiroth felt the tension in his hands loosen, and smoothed his palms over his thighs as he
pondered the very odd change. "He's a cadet," he countered, and thought back abruptly to Zack's
mention of him needing a 'boyfriend' the night before, and his suspicions that Zack had been
trying to infer the blond as the one for that role.

He didn't need to infer it - it's bad enough that you were thinking of him at all when you were
with Zack. All logic dictates that you should stay clear of Cloud Strife, not least the fact that you
haven't managed to get an explanation from him about why you had a vision of running him
through with the Masamune. Why, then, do you still insist on harbouring this petty fascination
with him?

Zack was giving him a - surprisingly bold - disbelieving look. The implication was blatant in the
twist to his features, and if Zack had truly had no basis at all for giving him that kind of glare,
Sephiroth would have lost his temper. The defensiveness was there, and he let it show in his
expression, making it deliberately closed off again, but mostly he was irritated that Zack
obviously found it so easy to see what Sephiroth was thinking when the older man couldn't do
the same in reverse.

"It's his birthday in a few days," Zack said. "And pretty soon he won't be a cadet anymore, so it
doesn't matter anyway."

"And what is that supposed to mean?" Sephiroth had known the night before that Zack wouldn't
say it openly at that time, would leave it to implication and inference only, but right then, he
wasn't sure that that still applied.
"You know full well what it means." Zack leaned back against the door fully, raising his hands in
exasperation. So, Sephiroth thought, still playing it safe by not saying it explicitly. Wise, I'd agree.
"And that's all you need to know," the shorter man continued, "except for the fact that there's
nothing wrong with it, and you have my encouragement."

'Nothing wrong with' -? How can he say that? Cloud's only just turning sixteen...

He wondered, as Zack gave him a long look that left no room for argument, when that niggling,
growing emotion in him regarding Cloud - attraction? whatever you wanted to label it - had
become so concrete a thing as far as they were concerned. There was no uncertainty in Zack's
words or in his face. It seemed that, as far as the other SOLDIER was concerned, it simply Was.

Those were the worst feelings to have, because they were the ones that tended to linger.

He was unwilling to ponder whether Zack was on the right lines with his deductions. As far as he
was concerned, the situation demanded that he become no more aware of it than he was - it was
to stay, at worst, as the coiling tension that started low in his belly and rose, lighter, up to his
chest, or the way that he found himself thinking, sometimes, about the bare join of neck and
shoulder he'd caught a glimpse of the day he'd passed the cadets exiting the showers.

"There's only so much you can imply before I take exception to it," Sephiroth said softly,
narrowing his eyes. He dug his fingers into his kneecaps at the sullen, offended look Zack sent
him response. "I'd advise," and he bit out the words, "that you stop before you go too far."

"As a friend, Seph," Zack placated in an equally soft voice. "I'm telling you this as a friend,
because I want to help you. I want to help you both."

And how could encouraging me to pursue Strife help him, Zack? I don't have time for someone
who barely knows me - that thought jarred, the instinctive reaction in him to place that as a lie:
Cloud did know him, somehow - or who I barely know either. What good is it to either of us?

Involuntarily, a hot, brief memory of the dream assaulted him - how, with Cloud's cheeks
beneath his palms and breathing in the blond's warmth as they'd kissed, he'd felt more...more at
home...than he ever had with any other partner before.

Zack had also never encouraged him with a person before, he mused. Zack had shown rather a
large amount of disdain for the other men Sephiroth had been with. It hadn't been jealousy - Zack
didn't want him enough to feel that. Just a plain, honest dislike.

And those had been people he hadn't known. Cloud was someone that Zack knew a lot better
than Sephiroth did, and he was still pushing the idea of something happening between them?

No! I won't let him do this to me - even if he's not really a child, I still...
He's too close to being just a boy. It's just that last stage, where you know they're really young
men, but in your mind you can still see them at thirteen or fourteen. It's a dangerous line - plenty
would be less than understanding if they found out anything...

So the question is, do you want to tread that line again or not?

"...But anyways," Zack said into the silence, quietly, "Cloud's recovering okay. He's gone to class
today. I just warned the instructors to let him take it easy, otherwise he's likely to end up back in
the infirmary."

Wrenched from his thoughts, Sephiroth frowned across the room. "What did they do with
Ratchett? Surely they're not keeping him in the same class."

"Nothing they can do except keep them on opposite sides of the room," Zack replied. He pushed
himself away from the wall, as if sensing the dissipation of tension, and came towards
Sephiroth's desk. "Ratchett's on guard duty every other night until exams are over, and he's
assigned shitloads of extra duties like you wouldn't believe." Zack's slightly sadistic tone echoed
Sephiroth's train of thought: that it wasn't exactly an undeserving punishment. "But he won't say
why he did it. Arrogant little bastard, I tell you. I recognised him, though," the dark-haired man
went on, perching himself on the edge of the desk. He had his palm planted in the centre to lean
his weight on, and Sephiroth stared at it, for a moment seeing paler skin and grass instead of the
wooden desktop.

Stop it, stop it now.

"He was there that night I managed to convince you to come out with us," continued the other
SOLDIER. "Hanging all over us. Thought we wouldn't notice that because he looked older we
wouldn't work out he wasn't a SOLDIER. He didn't stay long." He sent a mock-accusing look at
his superior. "Not that you stayed long either, Mr. Boring-Party-Pooper."

Sephiroth felt himself grow cold, thinking back on that night and the rather vivid impression that
Cloud's attacker had left on him. He continued to stare at Zack's hand, how the tendons moved
beneath his tanned skin as he shifted his weight. "If you'd like," he said to Zack's knuckles, "I can
speak to him - I can deal with arrogance better than you can."

"Only 'cause it's like chucking stones at a fuckin' fortress."

"I'll take that as a compliment."

"Take it whatever way you want."

----

The morning of Cloud's birthday was heralded by a loud yelp as Cloud was pounced on by Zack.
Considering that it was before six in the morning, he got several pillows thrown at him and was
forced to go back to bed for a few more hours before he was allowed to do anything else.
"Zack, why the fuck are you up at this time on a Saturday?" Cloud had muttered blearily, saving
his other pillow so that he could pull it over his head to try and block out Zack's sunny
cheerfulness.

"'Cause it's your birthday! The big 1-6!" was the helpful reply. The older man was kneeling on
the bed, somehow managing to wedge his frame comfortably between Cloud and the scraping,
broken wires of the bunk above. Cloud was sprawled out on his front, fingers digging into the
pillow he was using to drown Zack out. Only a few tufts of blond were visible sticking out.

"And it'll still be the 'big 1-6' in a few hours time. Go away."

There was a vague disturbance as Zack tried to wheedle his way into being able to sleep with
Cloud (mostly to wind the blond up, and partly because he was too lazy to climb back up the
bunk ladder) but ended up back in his own bed. When Cloud crawled out of bed just after nine to
get into the shower, Zack's snoring was drowning out any other noise in the room.

He locked the door to the bathroom, and double checked everything to make sure Zack hadn't
fixed anything as a birthday prank. He was half-expecting the man to jump into the shower at
some point (which was why he'd locked the door), based on the fact that Zack's pranks were
often sexually-inclined. Thankfully, he was allowed to shower in peace, letting the warm water
flow over him for as long as he dared. There was also the chance that Zack would do something
to his things whilst he wasn't looking. He couldn't actually remember much of this day, except
for what Zack had decided to get for him.

There was a box waiting on his bed when he came out of the shower, surrounded by a few other
small packages. Zack was nowhere in the room to be found. He remembered this from so many
years ago, how he'd sat on the bed and opened these presents, joyful and touched. He moved the
presents carefully as he sat down this time around, and picked out the one he knew to be from his
mother. He was still surprised that she had managed to send this - they were poor enough as it
was, and shipping from one continent to another was expensive.

He slowly began to unwrap the pliant parcel, careful not to rip the paper. Clothes, he saw. The
black, soft wool jumper had been a favourite thing of his to wear when he'd received it. He ran
his fingers reverently over the warm, slightly fuzzy material. There was a note inside, and he
picked it up to read the few simple words there: Dear Cloud, Happy Birthday! I'm sad that I
can't see you so grown up. I hope this fits. You always complain that it's cold in Midgar no
matter what month it is, and you always did like roll necks. Love, Mother.

Cloud smiled warmly, glad that he could still feel that love for his mother, even though they had
never been particularly close. She had never known him the way that most mothers seemed to
know their children. He remembered their conversation in Nibelheim, about her wish that he get
a girlfriend, and no matter how many times he said that he didn't want a girlfriend, she didn't
think it strange enough to ask why.

There were a few other presents from the people in the same dorm area as him, just small,
inconsequential things that he treasured anyway, and then he grinned at the wrapped box, taking
it up excitedly. He made sure not to rip the paper again, and smiled widely at the jewellery box
before opening it.

There was a note, and a single silver stud nestled in the velvet, winking up at him. The note said,
'Time to enter the realm of men, and get a gun put to your head! Your appointment is for 2:30pm,
so make sure you're ready in here to go by 1:30. Love, Zack.'

He pulled a pair of smart black slacks and a belt out of his trunk, took the roll neck and went to
get changed. The roll neck was thin enough that he wouldn't swelter in Midgar's mild 'summer',
and close-fitting without being too tight. He admired himself in the full-length mirror after he'd
messed vaguely with his hair. It was probably just the way he was dressed, but he looked older,
somehow, more like the self that he was used to seeing in his reflection.

When I get into SOLDIER, I won't be a boy anymore at all, he thought, And then Sephiroth has
no reason not to at least listen to me. Maybe, even, if he sees me like this, he'll think I'm less of a
child...

Cloud felt somewhat handsome for one of the first times in his life, and he stared at himself for a
while longer, imagining how much better he'd look and feel when he got his earring back.

He didn't know how long he'd been standing there, but suddenly there was a knock on the open
door and a voice saying, "Someone's looking good today."

When Cloud looked, he could see Zack in the mirror, looking him over. He didn't think Zack had
ever seen him dress smartly before. He spun around in a circle, arms held out from his sides, and
said, "What do you think?"

Zack laughed softly, smiling, crossing his arms and leaning against the doorframe. "Forgive me
if I say, a) black suits you, and b) good enough to eat."

"You think so?" Cloud looked back at himself in the mirror critically. He wished that he could
make himself taller. He was too short for a man - he would only lose the last vestiges of his
boyhood when he fully developed the stockier build that Zack sported, and that would only really
come after five years of Mako treatment at Hojo's hands.

"Don't tell me you've been deciding that all morning," Zack said, rolling his eyes but not moving
from the doorway. "I didn't expect to find you here until later, when we got you jewellery-fied in
Sector 5."

"Thanks for that, though," Cloud said softly, meeting his friend's eyes in the glass. "I've always
wanted an earring."

"Yes, well, from my expert's point of view, I can safely say that you'd suit one. And it would
complete your look for today - you'll have people jumping you left, right and centre, believe me."
Zack winked at him playfully.
"Good enough for a birthday, then..." Cloud mused aloud, and smiled at his reflection. Somehow,
the smile that he'd always considered too goofy looked just right on him. Do you think even
Sephiroth could fall for this? he wondered, and for the first time the feeling that blossomed in
response contained hope.

-----

Zack hadn't been joking about Ratchett's amount of guard duty. Sephiroth found the blond posted
at one of the back entrances - like the one where he'd first taken that glimmer of interest in
Cloud's abilities, and why did everything come back to him, anyway? The cadet was sitting down,
back to the wall and his rifle between his knees, muttering to himself about the unfairness of the
situation.

Sephiroth allowed his expression to turn to a disgusted scowl. How he'd ever mistaken this boy -
and this one was a boy - to be an adult, he would never know, and hopefully no-one would ever
find out to ask the same question.

He came forward, out of the shadows, and it still took a while before Ratchett noticed his
presence. It bothered him - he could care less about security, and it wasn't that he was an
attention-seeker, as it were. Instead, it was that he found that he'd rather this were the night he'd
come in from one of the President's missions, his cheek bloody and his body aching, and the
blond boy on guard able to feel him and acknowledge his presence even when he'd made no
attempt to make himself known.

The emotion was jumbled up in his chest, a mess of other things connected, but he knew what he
meant.

He saw Ratchett's eyes catch onto his movement, and the boy reared up, startled. "Sephiroth!"

"At ease," Sephiroth said, and stopped, keeping himself a good few metres away. There was no
desire for proximity on his part, at least, though he saw Ratchett look him over, the same thing in
his eyes that there had been on Zack's idiotic night out. "First of all, if you're posted on guard
duty, do some guarding." Again, not that he cared, but his aggravation towards the cadet needed
an outlet of some kind. "Second of all, if you touch Cloud, or any other cadet, again, I would
have to make life here for you very difficult if you wouldn't have already been chucked back to
whatever backwater town you come from."

He hadn't meant for it to come out quite like that. He'd had that line all prepared in his head and
it hadn't come when he'd asked for it. But Ratchett's eyes widened, chastened for a moment, so it
had the same effect.

It didn't last long. "So are you fucking him, too?"

"There is no 'too'," Sephiroth snapped. He could feel his chest going tight with anger. "There is
no 'fucking'. There is nothing, and the only one who has any problem accepting that is you, it
seems. And if you speak like that to me again, you won't have the chance to give some other
person a concussion, because I'll kick you out myself."

His mouth was running away with him, he thought distractedly. His mouth never ran away with
him.

Ratchett was silent but sneering.

-----

Hojo's lab was surprisingly bare and uncluttered on the Monday when the cadets lined up for the
Mako test. Cloud stood in line nervously, looking around and feeling frozen all over. He
remembered it being full of boxes and assorted scientific equipment from his travels as part of
AVALANCHE, but most of that had either been cleared away or hadn't even entered the lab at
this point in history. Cloud wondered how much of that stuff had had to do with the Jenova
Project.

He'd moved on from the spot since then, but he'd had to stand by the container that might very
soon contain Jenova's head for a while, and had felt decidedly sick. His stomach was still
churning, though, and the smell of the lab - all of Hojo's had smelled the same, a faint of
something like old, stale blood and chemicals, but not quite - was putting his nerves further on
edge.

Five years spent in a lab a lot like this was enough to make anyone feel queasy.

Reno was in the line ahead of him, the cadets having been put in alphabetical order, and had
already received his injection with no problems. Cloud had been able to see from his standing
point, as he'd been watching every cadet ahead of him. Reno had watched Hojo slide the needle
into his arm, unconcerned despite Cloud's slip about what Hojo got up to. Everyone had had to
take their shirt off so that Hojo could put attach medical pads connected to a machine,
presumably to take the measurements that would deem them suitable for Mako treatment or not.
Hojo would also give a lot of the cadets a long, calculating once-over, which Cloud didn't find
reassuring at all.

Cloud didn't know if Hojo had planned Sephiroth's descent into insanity at Nibelheim, but if he
had (and Cloud couldn't really see another reason for sending Sephiroth to the reactor where
Jenova lay if not for the purposes of the project) then he had a reasonable idea of what Hojo was
looking for.

He balked at the thought, wondering what had been in him that had landed him on that mission.
What would happen if he didn't find it this time around, and some other boy was sent in his
place? Cloud frowned, watching as another cadet settled down into the chair beside the lab
equipment set out for the test, Hojo standing impatiently as he waited to attach the pads.

Hojo didn't really look any younger, Cloud noticed. His hair was still greasy, still long and pulled
into the ponytail, his skin still that pallid, off-white colour that spoke of too many days spent
inside. Cloud liked to think that it reflected Hojo's inner-sickness, the evil that festered inside and
had completely eaten away at any humanity that he might have once had.

He supposed that Hojo had had something redeeming in him many years ago for Lucrecia to
have married him. And Lucrecia had been human enough to keep Vincent's heart for so many
years.

Thinking of Vincent cast his mind to their last meeting. He wondered if Vincent had told the
others of their conversation, or about Sephiroth's gravestone, or if they had found him on the
mountain. He hoped his other body hadn't died of exposure if they hadn't, though he doubted that
that would kill him, even if he thought that the Ancients weren't watching over him.

That was if coming here hadn't killed his body anyway, and the Cetra's intentions had been for
him to stay in this time instead. Looking at Hojo as they shuffled ever closer, he sincerely prayed
that that wasn't the case. If he failed and Sephiroth lost his mind to Jenova once more, and Cloud
ended up back in the lab, he wouldn't survive again. He'd find a way out if Hojo didn't kill him
first, Planet and AVALANCHE be damned. He was under no illusions of his character - he
wasn't strong enough to endure it a second time.

"Strife, Cloud."

He looked up from where he'd been idly watching the floor in his absent-mindedness, startled to
find that they'd shuffled forward so far and he was now being called up. Eyes darting a little, he
could see Hojo standing by the chair, watching him. As Cloud watched, he saw Hojo's eyes
screw up a little in concentration as he, in turn, regarded the blond.

He tried to make himself look confident as he approached, but felt like he was walking to his
own certain death. Hojo motioned for him to take off his shirt, and, fumbling a little with the
buttons, Cloud did so.

He half expected there to be some kind of immature snickering behind him as he revealed his
chest, but there was none. Maybe they were all as frightened as he was, deep down - or maybe
there just wasn't as much about him to laugh about as there had once been. Maybe he wasn't
quite as scrawny as he imagined he was.

All that training's got to be building up some musculature, silly boy, he chastised himself
absently as he turned and sat in the chair. It was only slightly warm from other people's body
heat. Now you can actually handle a sword right, you'll have been building up a bit more than
you were before - you liked the look of yourself in the mirror on your birthday, didn't you? Don't
you think a skinny-fit sweatshirt like that would show that you were scrawny if you were?

Cloud wasn't used to thinking good things about his body, especially now that he'd returned to
the time before Nibelheim. It was at once exhilarating and frightening.

He was jerked out of his desperate reverie by the feel of the cold medical pads being stuck to
different areas of his torso, and the shivery feeling of Hojo's fingers against his skin, pulling it
taught where he was sitting so that the pads would stick properly. He tried not to shudder away
from the shorter man, did not look up at him either, and tried to think of something else to
distract him whilst Hojo finished touching him.

Sephiroth. Sephiroth and his new earring. Yes, that would do -

He hadn't seen much of Sephiroth over the past days at all, ever since that morning in the
infirmary. He realised that he was sort of used to the older man flitting in and out of his new life,
and the absence had been felt keenly. He realised that, as he'd been wandering the halls, or
coming back from the showers, he'd been keeping an eye out for a flash of silver and black or the
feel of green eyes on him from somewhere, but it hadn't come. He also realised that his fear of
catching Sephiroth's attention was lessening in place of a new anticipatory feeling - he'd been
disappointed when he hadn't seen Sephiroth around. Disappointed when Sephiroth's attention
hadn't been on him.

"Lift up your arm, please," Hojo's voice entered his haze, cold and calculating as usual.
Automatically, he did so.

Getting the earring done hadn't hurt, but he'd known it wouldn't. There had been a swift, sharp
sting as the gun had pressed the stud through his ear, but it was only a momentary thing and after
that, he couldn't really feel anything different from normal. Zack had been grinning at him with
his long, handsome face, his dark eyes crinkled up at the edges. "Tooooold you it would suit
you," he'd said as the jeweller had held up a mirror for him to see the glinting in his left lobe. He
smiled at his reflection, and realised that he felt more like his old self in that moment than he had
for a long time, but it was a good thing.

And then, on the way back to the dorm room, feeling oddly giddy and happy, they'd passed
Sephiroth.

Cloud winced and flinched a little in the chair as Hojo slid the needle into his arm. He glanced up
at the syringe, at the sickly green Mako and how the plunger pushed it down and down and down
into his arm. He could feel the pressure of the Mako being pushed into his veins, and bit his lip.

On the afternoon of Cloud's birthday, Sephiroth had been passing with paperwork to the
downstairs office for them to take off of him (so he'd told them). They'd stopped in the corridor,
and Zack hadn't exactly screamed out, "Look at Cloud! Look at Cloud!" but he'd still made
Cloud's presence more noticeable. The sling of an arm around his shoulders as he'd rattled on
about something or other had drawn Sephiroth's polite gaze from Zack to Cloud by the
movement, and he had had the distinct pleasure of a most definite look over from the older man.

Yes! part of him had screamed, somehow managing to drown out the other part which had been
most definitely nervous of that look. Not that it had even been a specific Look - it didn't mean
anything, but as Sephiroth had taken in the pressed black trousers and roll neck, and then come
back to study the glint of the earring, he'd seen something change, and felt it.
"Happy Birthday, Cloud," Sephiroth had said in his low, smooth voice, and Cloud had smiled at
him, hoping that it looked as handsome on him then as it had in the mirror earlier.

Sitting in the chair in Hojo's lab, Cloud jerked as he felt the first stab of pain go through him,
feeling the obscene, sluggish burn travelling from his arm as the Mako began to spread. He bit
his lip harder as Hojo pulled the needle out and quickly swabbed the skin before placing a quick,
efficient dressing to it. He then turned to the computer screen readouts as Cloud fought against a
low hiss of pain.

No, this is exactly as it was before...Why did Aeris not change this for me? Surely it would have
been better to make me more tolerant - maybe she overlooked it, but goddamn the real thing is
gonna hurt like a bitch when it comes to them -

"Hmm," Hojo murmured, and Cloud raised his head from where he was watching his fingertips
turn white where he had pressed them against the dressing. His vision swam ever so slightly
from the speed at which he snapped his head up, and for a moment, the familiar Mako burn and
the smell of the lab caused the cold silver metal walls to become dark - bookshelves, from floor
to ceiling, but just as cold, because they were underground, underneath the Mansion -

And, Cloud remembered, struggling to pull back that more joyous memory from his birthday,
though Sephiroth hadn't smiled back at him, his face had softened and lost all its traces of
unfriendliness. As they'd parted ways, Zack had laughed to himself and said, "So only when it
comes to you will he listen to me, after all." Cloud had no idea what he was talking about, but
Zack's light-hearted attitude gave him the impression that it was also a good thing.

"High reactivity to Mako," Hojo continued, though Cloud didn't know whether it was just to
himself or not. "Perhaps slightly too high...but passable." He then turned from the computer to
Cloud, fixing the blond with his cold stare. "You have a borderline pass. You may enter the
exams. Congratulations." The last word seemed like the wrong thing to say, and Hojo's voice lent
it a tone that spoke of sarcasm without actually being sarcasm.

Cloud closed his eyes in relief.

-----

Zack found him, that evening, trying to scrub himself raw in the shower, the water turned up
much hotter than it normally would have been. The blond's skin had gone red all over, and the
bathroom had been full of steam, and Cloud had been sniffling faintly from the shower stall,
where he'd been determinedly scrubbing at his knees when Zack had first approached. He hadn't
noticed Zack until the dark-haired man had reached in and turned the shower off, and smothered
him in a huge, soft bath towel to lead him out.

"Hey, come on, Cloud," he murmured gently to the trembling blond, "don't get upset. It's alright,
I promise, it'll get better..."
When he'd entered SOLDIER, Zack remembered that everyone had hated the actual Mako
showers. They tended to make people feel violently sick afterwards, and most SOLDIERs were
given two or three days off after a treatment to recover.

Cloud would need the full three, he thought morosely as he sat the cadet down on the edge of his
bed and went about searching for something loose of his own that Cloud could sleep in that night.
He settled for a pair of his boxers, deciding that any kind of shirt or top would just be too
scratchy or itching to wear. Cloud had barely moved, shaking where he sat with his eyes half-
closed, oblivious.

He managed to get Cloud to stand up and dried him off carefully before awkwardly sliding his
boxers up Cloud's legs to rest on his hips. The blond hadn't protested at all, just watched him
quietly, the breath hitching in his chest when Zack touched his sensitised skin.

He was about to get Cloud into bed when the blond said, "I might be a borderline pass, but I still
got in. I can still get into SOLDIER."

Zack bit his lip, unable to look at Cloud's face, and wondered if the pain that was coming Cloud's
way because of this could truly be worth that kind of devoted single-mindedness.

----

End Chapter 11.

I think Sephiroth is slightly OOC in some parts (though we really know very little about his
actual, sane personality), but I don't know... He's confused, poor boy. And Ratchett makes him
feel bitchy (Ratchett is there for a reason, though he's not awfully important. He just...sets the
ball rolling in Part 1, as it were.)

I told ShinigamiAya that this fic could quite easily go off into Zack/Cloud - I think, though, at
the moment, it could really end up in any combination of the three. Oh, if only I wasn't so
conventional about my shounen-ai and loved S/C so much...But I so want Zack to be happy, too!

Zack waking Cloud up - I think they got momentarily possessed by Tsuzuki and Hisoka.
Complete with puppy-ears-and-tail versus Hisoka-Frown-Of-Doom.™

Fusion

by Knowing Shadows

Part 1: Chapter 12

Disclaimer: See Chapter 1.

Author's sincere apology: I'm so sorry this took so long. This was due to many factors
(collectively called LIFE), but I did not want to rush this through and give you something that
wasn't the best that I could do. You all stick with me through these long waits so it's the least I
can do. Even so, I don't like this chapter so much, even though things are beginning to progress
now.

(Major thanks must actually go to L'arcenCiel, actually, whose music kept me sane when writing
this, what with everything else going on with me as it was at the time!)

-

Sephiroth sat staring at the phone on his cleared desk, tapping his gloved fingers on the dark
wood as he watched the shiny black receiver. He'd been doing this for a little while, indecisive,
and there was nothing he hated more than indecision. Zack had not turned up for work, which
was unusual. He'd also not informed anyone of why he hadn't turned up, which was even more
unusual.

Usually he'd let his secretary sort that out, but he'd rather hear from Zack himself, he thought to
himself. He'd rather find out first hand that nothing was wrong…

What on the Planet could be wrong, though? Why, this time, was he thinking like this? It had
been a long time since Zack had last missed work - when it came to SOLDIER, Zack was
surprisingly reliable - but there had to more than that behind his worry. He couldn't really work
out what it was, though. Maybe he knew something had been scheduled for the other day
concerning the dark-haired man but couldn't now think of it...but what would it be that he could
forget it?

He sighed and straightened in his chair, stopped tapping and smoothed his gloved hands over his
thighs. He took a deep breath through his nose and felt calmer. Why he was getting worked up
was beyond him - it was unlike him, he knew that, but at the same time he hadn't really felt like
himself for a while anyway.

He didn't like feeling like this. His carefully controlled order was being disrupted piece by piece
and he couldn't stop it.

Perhaps Zack had just slept late by accident. It wasn't unknown.

Sephiroth shook his head and brushed a stray few strands of hair behind his ear, letting a long
breath out. He should just call Zack and get it over with rather than sitting there agonising over
nothing - that was odd, too, the fact that he hadn't just picked up the phone and demanded that
Zack get his lazy ass into work.

Irritated at that, he picked up the receiver abruptly and held it to his ear, reaching over to put in
the number of the room where Zack stayed - Cloud's number also, he realised.

For God's sake, you're ridiculous!
He concentrated on the harsh monotone of the ringing in his ear and supported the phone by his
shoulder, leafing through the files in front of him so that he could pretend that he'd been busy the
whole while rather than sitting there staring at his phone for the past however-long-it-was.

Sephiroth realised, when Zack picked up at the other end after five rings, that he hadn't really
expected the man to be there.

"Hello?" Zack said, not sounding at all like a man knowing he was supposed to be at work.

"Hello," Sephiroth replied flatly, slipping into his 'I'm-not-impressed' voice without even trying.

There was a pause as Zack realised who it was, and then, "Ah. Hi."

Sephiroth waited, not saying anything. The best way to make someone uncomfortable was to say
nothing. He knew very well that he was exuding anger down the phoneline by doing nothing at
all, which tended to work better than anything else when intimidating people.

"Look, Seph, I'm sorry I didn't let you know that I wasn't going to be there." Zack sounded
vaguely sheepish, but not as much as Sephiroth had been expecting. "But I didn't know until this
morning, and then I had other things on my mind."

"Such as?" Sephiroth lay his hands flat on the desk across the papers, admiring the stark contrast
between the paper and the leather of his gloves. On a whim, he stripped off the gloves and lay his
hands out flat again, palm down, examining the long fingers and pale, smooth skin. He rarely
looked at his hands - he hated them. There was the tattoo, so black against the near-white of his
skin that it seemed to burn on the back of his eyes every time he saw it, mocking him when he
closed his eyes only to see it still. Someone had once told him he had pianist's hands, and he
hated that too because he wished that that was the only thing these hands had ever done.

After a pause, Zack continued, "The cadets had their Mako trials yesterday. It seems that Cloud
is sensitive. So I'm looking after him this morning."

Something cold clasped his chest for a moment, brief and sharp. "Is he all right?"

"He wasn't last night. I found him trying to steam himself to death in the shower. He slept all
night, though, so I suppose it's not that bad if he could do that. He's still asleep now. I didn't want
to wake him up. I informed his instructors what had happened and they said it couldn't be
helped."

Sephiroth nodded, eyelids falling closed a little way as the tension in him eased at the assurance.
"Did Hojo pass him, though, despite that?"

"Yes." It came short and sharp and displeased, and Sephiroth knew to some extent how Zack felt
- Cloud had worked so hard these last few weeks only to have this setback, as well as the fact
that once he got into SOLDIER the hardship would only just begin. Sephiroth knew exactly how
much Mako showers hurt just for non-sensitive people.
"Well, there's not really anything we can do, it's up to him," Zack continued quietly, not
sounding pleased at all with that thought. "Sorry I didn't let you know before, like I said."

"...I understand." And he did - and knowing that he did was a sharp, bittersweet pain.

"I'm not gonna stay with him all day, just to let you know. It's just until I'm sure he's okay. We've
got to go and see what's-his-face in the other building today for finalising the exam dates and
stuff, don't we? You could come down and meet me here and then we can go off and see about
that. It's only a little bit out of the way." Zack sounded entirely reasonable - he often did - but
still, Sephiroth couldn't help but be suspicious of Zack wanting him to be in the same room as
Cloud. He wasn't really certain that he wanted to see a sick Cloud at all - who knew what that
would provoke in him?

"...I'll be there soon," Sephiroth said softly into the receiver, and was already replacing it to its
cradle when Zack's delighted, "Great!" rang down the line.

-

Sephiroth had half-expected Zack to be lying when he got there - Cloud wasn't sick at all, just an
excuse to get them in the same room - but he wasn't. When he slid quietly in the door, he could
hear Zack's voice urging Cloud to try and get some sleep rather than attempting to get up.

"For Shiva's sake, I'm fine," Cloud muttered stubbornly. "I just…I just need to get in the
shower."

Sephiroth closed the door silently, keeping to the side so that he could observe them for a
moment without either knowing he had arrived. He could see Zack standing by a bunk, hands on
his hips as he glared down at the figure he couldn't see entirely. He could see Cloud's bare legs
over the edge of the bed and frowned at the firm curve of muscle that was the blond's pale, near
calf, shifting his weight uneasily. He watched as Cloud bounced his knees nervously, heels
lifting up from the floor to do so, and found himself staring at the defined arches of the cadet's
feet.

"Yeah, and do what?" Zack said somewhat scathingly. "Trying to boil yourself alive like you
were yesterday? You must have been in there for hours."

Cloud didn't say anything, but leaned forward. Sephiroth could see him place his hands over his
knees and the top of his head bent over them. He could just make out the bare flesh of one
hunched shoulder from where he stood. The blond couldn't be naked, could he? But he dismissed
the thought, even though he knew how much Mako-sensitised skin was prone to itching and
irritation.

"I feel…" Cloud eventually murmured into the quiet, "I just feel dirty. I just want a shower.
That's all. I swear. I'll be five minutes, and you can drag me out after that if you think I'm doing
anything wrong. Please."
Zack sighed, looking at the floor as he tapped one foot thoughtfully. Then he nodded, and Cloud
uttered a grateful "thank you" in his low voice before standing. Zack moved out of his way to let
him pass, barely giving the long legs and slim bared torso a second glance as the blond walked
past.

Sephiroth couldn't help but think about how, in comparison, Zack's naked skin didn't bother him
in the slightest as he followed Cloud's retreating back. The blond weaved a little as he walked, as
if slightly unsteady. The boxers he was wearing - the only thing he was wearing - rode low on his
hips, as if they were a little too big on him, and Sephiroth realised that they must have been
Zack's, used precisely because their size would be less likely to irritate the blond's skin. Whilst
he wasn't as defined as the SOLDIERs, the basis of that musculature was definitely there, leaving
him pleasantly toned rather than 'built.'

There was only a young man in that frame, he thought. There was no 'boy' in the breadth of his
shoulders or in the firm, lean stomach.

He realised, leaning back against the door, that the blond's physical appearance had been one of
the last walls of his protests, and that it had just fallen down in a rather spectacular manner.

"I can't believe he didn't notice you were there," came Zack's voice suddenly, and it wasn't until
he looked over sharply that he realised his eyes had been firmly planted on the closed bathroom
door, behind which Cloud now stood. "I think the Mako fucked up his Sephiroth-Precision-
Radar."

Sephiroth lifted his lip in a faint sneer at the smug look on Zack's face, but pushed himself up off
the door to cross the room. "I think you're being overprotective. He looked fine enough to me."

"Mm, fiiiine indeed," Zack leered, licking his lips and laughing out loud when Sephiroth shot
him a warning look. The black-haired man lifted his hands, snickering as he said, "Okay, okay,
I'll back off, he's all yours…"

"That's not what I…" He trailed off, because Zack would just laugh at him some more, and
because he wasn't sure if it would be the truth. He shook his head instead, leaving Zack still
grinning inanely at him. It would do no good to banter with Zack over this - the black-haired
man's joking manner was probably the least helpful thing for him right now, and the most likely
thing to irritate him. He would have preferred that Zack had some of Cloud's quiet, solemn aura
that drew him so much; would have felt more comfortable trying to untangle that growing mess
of emotions in him with someone like that, if Cloud hadn't been at the centre of that mass to
begin with.

It's too fast coming on, too fast…faster all the more because you don't know him and the
untouchable is always the most desirable…

They heard the shower being turned on from behind the bathroom door. They both glanced over
at the noise, though it wasn't loud, and they couldn't see anything. Zack frowned and bit his lip
slightly, worrying the skin as Sephiroth watched him. To see such a reaction in Zack made his
gut twist a little, and his brows furrowed as he closed the distance between them a little. "Is he
not as fine as he seems, then?"

Zack met his eyes for a moment, and then shrugged. "I don't know…" He sighed, defeated. "I
just can't tell with him, sometimes. I'm just worried that Hojo passed him anyway, I
mean…Mako sensitive isn't a brilliant thing to be if you're a SOLDIER…"

"And he still wants to be in SOLDIER?" Sephiroth looked from Zack to the bathroom door and
back again, his frown still in place.

Zack laughed uneasily, morosely. "You have no idea."

His frown deepened at Zack's sudden change in mood. He crossed his arms over his chest,
hooking a thumb under one of his chest straps. The leather of his glove was warm against his
skin. He wore these gloves too much, he supposed. "He's very determined," he said aloud. "And I
don't doubt he'll get in."

"It would devastate him if he didn't," Zack said softly. He held up his hands helplessly. "He gets
worse and worse, you know? He's totally obsessed…"

"You're worried about his mental condition?" Sephiroth raised an eyebrow, genuinely surprised.
This was the first he'd heard of any such concerns - and from Zack, who knew him best? Granted,
something about Cloud gave off that vague sense of fragility, but nothing so bad that he had
really picked up on it before.

Zack was looking back at the closed bathroom door, his frown still set in place. He moved to sit
on the lower bunk where Cloud had been when Sephiroth had entered, and something in that
movement settled uneasily with him. He watched and waited for an answer, unwilling to push
when Zack seemed so obviously - suddenly - serious. He wasn't sure if he was ready to hear what
Zack had to say anyway.

"I wouldn't say he has any real problems," the dark-haired man said eventually. "Nothing that I
can really pinpoint anyway. I don't know…I haven't really thought about it. It's just…after he
had the Mako trial, all he could say when I found him was about how he was going to get into
SOLDIER…and I thought…I thought, 'how can he be this determined when it causes him so
much pain'? It just doesn't seem right. He doesn't deserve to be hurt so badly when he's already
worked so hard to improve himself these past few months."

Sephiroth did not mention Zack's apparent dismissal of any suspicion regarding Cloud's
miraculous "improvement," but watched him for a long time, mulling over what to say. They
heard the shower being turned off in the silence, and Cloud's apparent willingness to stick to the
agreed time seemed to ease some of the tension in Zack.

"I think he was hurt when he was younger," Zack said suddenly, steadfastly watching the door
and refusing to look at Sephiroth as he said it, as if he wasn't sure he should be sharing his
thoughts. "I don't know how or why, but I think he was. And he's trying so hard to get into
SOLDIER because it'll make him feel worthy again."

Another brief silence as they both pondered how appropriate it was to have aired that particular
theory, and then Sephiroth murmured, "I think so, too."

There was, after all, that particularly fine quality to Cloud's features and pale skin that lent itself
so beautifully to being ripped apart at the seams.

I was the same…I was exactly the same…I bruised so easily, used to break so easily, until I
realised that no-one was going to save me and I made myself cold to it all…

"I just can't bear to think of him being hurt that bad," Zack continued softly. He was still staring
at the door. "I don't want to be right about this, Sephiroth. He's my friend. He doesn't deserve to
be hurt anymore."

Sephiroth didn't know how to respond to that, so he didn't, though he felt the same pain in his
own chest as Zack did. He didn't know how to express it the right way.

His friend turned to look at him then, and it startled Sephiroth to find all that attention suddenly
focused on him. "That's why I think you could help each other," he said, and, still surprised,
Sephiroth could find no answer to that either. He looked away, uncomfortable, and wondered
why friendship was reputed to be such a good thing when a friend's knowledge of you could
sting so much.

Trust was the thing. Once you allowed yourself that measure, there were no more barriers, and a
person could do with you what they liked. Sephiroth hated that feeling. He needed the security
which distance provided.

Had he let Zack too close after all? He suspected as much, sometimes, but was never sure - Zack
had never betrayed him in a way that he could recognise, but this -

"I don't know what you expect of me, Zack," he said, softly, watching the bathroom door for
signs of Cloud's emergence. "And I don't understand why you are so fixated on Cloud and
myself becoming…" He trailed off, unable to finish, because there was still that strange
vagueness to the discussion if it had not yet been named - somehow, he could still escape the
ramifications of it if it wasn't verbally defined. He didn't know what to call it, anyway; he only
knew that Zack had latched onto it and suddenly he was being forced to confront the strange
tightening behind his ribs and Name it.

What would he do once Zack decided it needed Definition?

Why could Zack not leave it alone?

"Huh," Zack said quietly, and he was also watching the door. "You know, that's the first time
you've actually admitted that it's him."
Sephiroth went still for a moment, Zack could see it out of the corner of his eye, and then turned
a little to retort, "I'm beginning to tire of you pushing this on me. Before you decided to make a
deal of it, I was doing fine ignoring - "

The bathroom door swung open, cutting Sephiroth off. His head snapped up at the sound of the
hinges, and wide blue eyes were staring at him from the doorway. The blond's lips were slightly
parted, as if he'd planned to start saying something as soon as he'd come through but stopped. His
hair was standing in damp and matted bedraggled spikes, and he was clutching a towel in front of
him - he was still in Zack's boxers and nothing else. They stared at each other for a moment, and
then Cloud's gaze shifted questioningly to Zack and back again.

Zack reclined back on his elbows leisurely, as if to make a point that he'd derive a lot of
amusement out of their awkwardness. "Seph can't do without me at work," the black-haired man
said haughtily, grinning. "Came to find me, you see. Just can't bear not to see me."

Cloud seemed to have regained some of his wits by then, and Sephiroth watched him roll his
eyes. The expression warmed him, he found, reminded him that there was a lot about Cloud he
hadn't yet seen beyond the frightened awe.

"I'll bet," the blond said then, meaning to sound joking, but he looked at Sephiroth as he spoke,
and his eyes were anything but.

Sephiroth's eyebrows drew together a little, and Cloud caught the expression. He seemed startled
that the older man had registered the apparent undertone, biting his lip. Unsure of what to make
of it, Sephiroth kept his expression as it was, until Cloud eventually looked away and murmured
that he'd better get dressed and go to training.

They watched him leave in silence once he had dressed in the bathroom, Sephiroth's eyes
involuntarily lingering on the curve of the dip in the blond's lower back as he disappeared around
the door. He closed his eyes and sighed.

It was too fast. Too sudden.

Eventually, Zack said from the bed, "He knows about us. I think he knows about what happened
in the officer's bathroom the other day, though I don't want to ask to make sure."

"Did you tell him?" Sephiroth turned from the door, not angry but not entirely pleased by that
revelation.

Zack shook his head. "That shit Reno did. Apparently he knows one of your other conquests."

"I hate that word," Sephiroth snapped. "You know I do. Do you consider yourself a 'conquest',
Zack?"

The SOLDIER shook his head rapidly. "Of course not. But Cloud knows about all of this, thanks
to his little Turk-wannabe friend. You'd better keep that in mind."
"Zack -"

"I know, I know, stop talking about it. Sheesh."

-

Tifa stroked the back of Cloud's hand gently, watching and re-watching the invisible arcs that the
movement that the pad of her thumb traced over the blond's pale, smooth skin. His skin was
warm in her hand, but devoid of life - his fingers remained still and unmoving, as did the rest of
his body save his chest.

What's happened to you? she thought, still staring at the hand she held in hers. Where have you
gone? Why did you leave us? Why did you leave us at all?

She had never understood Cloud. This was something she was only now coming to realise. At
times in her life she'd thought that she and Cloud had shared some kind of understanding, that
she knew him, but then something had happened to leave her feeling adrift again, aware that the
man had not been as close as she'd believed.

Had it been Cloud, acting like they were closer than he obviously felt, or had it been Tifa and
Tifa alone who had seen that closeness? She didn't know. Age and experience allowed her to see
things more objectively, but that didn't stop it from hurting.

She had loved Cloud. She had felt it when she was 13 and realising that the blond boy was going
to leave Nibelheim. She had felt it when she was 15 and waiting for that glimpse of blond hair
that she hadn't seen in two years, felt it when she was 20 and Cloud had miraculously appeared
again in Sector 7, still sick with Mako and confused over what the last five years had contained
for him.

She realised that, at 29, she still felt it. It had only moved from the forefront of her mind to
somewhere deeper, had not changed or faded even when she had met Richard. Hadn't changed
even on her wedding day. She sat on her chair by Cloud's bed, staring at the fine bones in his
long fingers and wrist, and her chest hurt like it had the day they'd realised that Cloud had left
them of his own accord after Meteor.

Tifa pressed her lips together a little, raising her head to look up at Cloud's face, turned towards
her against his pillow. Still pale, paler than could be healthy, and his hair had lost its vibrancy. It
was lank and greasy through no fault of his own since he'd been here - the thought of some of
them having to wash Cloud just seemed too odd to think about when they remembered him as a
strong man, and Tifa's thoughts had been so scattered since she had seen him again that she just
couldn't find the energy to go about organising people to help her, or just getting some of the
men to do it.

Cloud would no doubt find it humiliating if he was aware of it. What did Aeris think she was
doing, to leave Cloud like this? Why leave him? Vincent had relayed the Cetra's message that
they would "make or break" him - it didn't sound like he was coming back.
Had she done it so that she and Cloud could be together again? Tifa wondered. The thought
made the pain in her chest hurt all the more. She knew they had been close - Cloud had been
devastated by her death. It seemed that only then did he really become determined to destroy
Sephiroth and Jenova. Before that, he had seemed...distant. Undecided. They were searching for
Sephiroth, yes, but then what would he do once they found the man? Cloud had been remarkably
reticent when it came to things like that. He seemed to wander forever, and had just happened to
wander into AVALANCHE and then into the path of Jenova and his former General. He had
lacked direction.

It was unusual for Cloud, considering what he had been like as a child. It had troubled her at the
time, as had his strange memories of Nibelheim.

And then, after Meteor, he wandered again. And had now wandered into the Cetra's path, away
from them - away from her - forever, it seemed.

What right did Aeris have to do that? What right did she have to take Cloud away from the
people who loved him?

But then, had Cloud gone to her willingly? Had he prayed, night and day, for Aeris to come for
him, so that he could be with her once more? Tifa closed her eyes, breathing deeply through her
nose. She didn't know what to feel - anger at Aeris, or at Cloud? Should she be angry at all?
Jealousy, she couldn't help - hurt, also. Was she right to feel those things? She didn't understand
what Aeris had done to Cloud - was he in the Lifestream? If so, again, why leave his body? Why
not just kill him outright? They had the power to do that - Cloud was more closely tied to the
Lifestream than anyone else she had known except for Aeris, surely they could kill him easily.

She needed to know more. And she knew that Vincent knew something she didn't, and that made
her angry. Did she not deserve to know these things? What else had Vincent seen or been told
that they didn't know about?

Did Cid know, too? He had been remarkably quiet since his impromptu visit to Nibelheim. She
didn't know what he'd gone to see, or if he'd found it. She knew he wouldn't tell her if she asked,
so she didn't. He and Vincent were too close as friends, they probably knew the same things, told
each other what it was about Cloud that kept them from making as much of a fuss as she seemed
to be doing.

Cloud Strife had made her paranoid, she realised, opening her eyes again and shaking her head.
There was just too much that she didn't know about him. And so she had come full circle in her
thoughts, and realised she'd just go around forever and ever if she didn't stop herself.

It was good, then, that there was a knock on the door, then. Tifa dropped Cloud's hand back on
the bed, and called, "Come in!" The door shifted open enough to emit her husband's familiar
form, and she smiled at him, though it pained her to do so. She did love Richard, there was no
doubt about that, but it wasn't the same as she felt about Cloud. Her love for Richard was no less
strong. It was just that those feelings for Cloud had never gone away. She didn't know why.
Richard looked Cloud's prone form over warily, as if he expected the blond to jump up at him at
any moment with the Ultima weapon. "How is he?" he asked.

"The same," Tifa said. She knew that his wariness had almost as much to do with his knowledge
of her emotions regarding Cloud as it was fear of him as a person. She could understand that, and
she felt awful that she couldn't just make the love for Cloud just go away. He had been her first
love - there was always something special in that; always something that lingered. "I just wish I
knew what Aeris was doing with him."

Richard nodded, coming further inside the room to stand by her. He drew her up from her chair
into his arms and she gladly went to him, wrapping her arms around his neck so she could derive
some comfort from him for the moment. "Where's the sprog gone?" she wondered aloud into the
man's warm chest.

He snickered. "She's fascinated by Mr. Valentine. I caught her hiding trying to watch him. I think
she wants his cloak."

Tifa smiled. "Does Vincent know that?"

"She's surprisingly sneaky. I don't think he's noticed her following him around yet."

"She'd get on with Yuffie," Tifa said thoughtfully. She turned her head against Richard so that
she could look at Cloud again. "Yuffie wanted to come but there's nothing really much to see,
and she's got her hands full with running Wutai..."

"I still can't get over the fact that you saved the world, know both Yuffie Kisaragi and President
Reeve, and yet we still run a bar in Kalm. Not even in Midgar. Kalm."

"Ugh, you wouldn't like Midgar. I'm glad I didn't reopen the bar there." She studied the long,
straight line of Cloud's nose, and then the dark, thick lashes against his cheeks. "I wouldn't want
to have taken Cloud back there."

Richard was quiet, raising a hand to stroke her hair for a while. She knew that he wasn't entirely
used to being surrounded by all these figures out of a modern legend. It seemed surreal to him,
and she couldn't really blame him. Each one of their group was quirky in their own way - she
wasn't entirely surprised that her persistently curious daughter had taken a shine to Vincent,
possibly the most memorable member of their party after Cloud Strife himself. Vincent's strange,
quiet nature would also intimidate Richard. Almost the opposite, Cid's brash personality also
made it difficult for Richard to feel at ease with any of them. Cloud was too like Vincent, and
being the flagship of AVALANCHE after all was enough to raise him that far above them.
Nanaki was another matter entirely, being of a totally different race. All the talk of Aeris would
be even more surreal, and Yuffie was (even in her rulership) too loud and scatty an individual.
Reeve was now President of two continents, but it was difficult for her to take him that seriously
when she'd first met him through the persona and disguise of Cait Sith. Barret, who lived in
Kalm with Marlene, was the only other one that Richard had had any regular contact with.
Eventually, Richard said, as they both watched Cloud's oblivious form, "Do you think he'll ever
wake up?"

Even standing within her husband's arms, Tifa didn't find it hard to say, "If I have anything to do
with it."

-

Cloud found that the training that day hadn't been as bad as he'd expected. The effects of the
Mako seemed to have worn off - he hadn't felt anything untoward at all. It was all normal.
Pleased, he performed well and several of his instructors congratulated him on it, which was
something he wasn't used to. He was far more used to being yelled at for being clumsy or unco-
ordinated, or getting nothing at all. It was nice to be praised, but at the same time he felt like a
fraud.

He thought about Sephiroth and Zack a lot that day, and the awkwardness between them all,
especially in the last few days. Things had never been like this between them before. It was
unsettling to feel so out of joint now. He didn't like it at all, but wasn't sure how to fix it,
knowing that a lot of it had to be his own doing, however inadvertent.

He needed to talk to Zack and apologise, that much he had decided. He had become so paranoid
these days, he couldn't believe he had reacted so badly to Zack's bruises. It seemed so...unlike
him to act like that. Even if his suspicions were right, and Sephiroth and Zack had... It wasn't his
business, was it? They were two consenting adults, and Cloud had no claim on either of them. It
was unfair to expect Zack to live his life around what Cloud wanted, especially when it was so
unlikely that Cloud would ever get what he wanted anyway.

So that was decided. He would do that after dinner when he got back to the dorm (assuming that
Zack would be there, too, of course). And then there was the question of what to do about
Sephiroth...

He tried working through it systematically, knowing that despite his adoration, there was another
important reason for wanting to get closer to the man - he needed to gain the man's trust and
respect in time for it to help him persuade Sephiroth to leave Nibelheim alone. It seemed that
neither he nor Sephiroth knew exactly how to act around one another, despite Sephiroth's
declaration that night they'd spoken in the rec room that they put all the unanswered questions
behind them for now. Cloud supposed he wasn't really helping - after all, he didn't really make
any attempt to go out on a limb to speak to Sephiroth.

Safer to not do anything, after all - but that'll get you nowhere. What had his mother told him
once? Oh, yes - "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always
got."

He liked that saying. He said it again in his head and he found it encouraging. He'd need that if
he ever actually got around to going out on that limb. But why would Sephiroth want to talk to
him, anyway? That was another problem - would he have to wait until he actually became a
SOLDIER before Sephiroth would feel comfortable spending any time at all with him?

He thought about this as he showered after training, ignoring the banter around him of the other
cadets and SOLDIERs calling to each other from cubicle to cubicle. He daydreamed a little,
trying to imagine how he might talk to Sephiroth and grab the man's attention; how neither of
them would be lonely anymore with someone else to talk to who understood.

By the time he'd finished in the shower, most of the others had changed and gone. There was the
sound of water in a few other cubicles still running, but very little chatter. Cloud sighed as he
switched off the flow and rolled his shoulders, enjoying the stretch of his weary muscles before
grabbing his towel and tying it around his waist to step out.

He realised, as he dressed, that he missed the fact that there were others out there who had some
idea about ShinRa, about Hojo, about everything. Now he was back here - wherever here
actually was - there was no-one who really knew. Although...Sephiroth would understand about
Hojo and ShinRa to some extent, if not almost entirely. Sephiroth probably felt the same as he
did - that there was no-one else out there who knew the things he did, had suffered the same kind
of horrors no-one should ever have to face.

So close, and yet so far.

Later that evening, he found Zack sparring in the training centre. He sat at the side of the mats to
watch as he and another SOLDIER 1st circled each other warily, waiting for the other to move.
He pulled his knees up to his chest and lay his cheek against them to watch happily. One day that
could be me, if I try hard enough.

Cloud smiled to himself as he watched Zack easily beat his opponent. Zack really was in a
league of his own compared to the other SOLDIERs, even if Sephiroth was still the pinacle that
everyone aspired to.

It was with thoughts of the General still floating about in his head that he began to drift off to
sleep. And then abruptly he was being shaken awake, and he started in fright. He snapped his
head up with a sharp noise of distress to find laughing brown eyes staring down at him. "Didn't
know I was that boring to watch," Zack said with a grin, pushing Cloud's shoulder playfully.
"You're not supposed to fall asleep."

"That's what happens when SOLDIERs get old," Cloud teased, grinning even as he braced
himself against Zack's palm thwacking the back of his head. He snickered, and clambered to his
feet when the dark-haired man pointedly didn't offer him a hand.

"I will never be old," Zack commented flippantly, waving distractedly as the two began to exit
the training area.
"'Act your shoe size, not your age.'" The SOLDIER laughed at that, and Cloud smiled, forgetting
what he'd wanted to talk to the other man about for a moment, happy to just walk and talk with
Zack and revel in the knowledge that, despite everything, they were friends.

He thought of Tifa briefly, how he'd once blindly considered her a friend when they'd been
younger, so eager to please that he'd let the mockery, the insults, everything, wash over him as if
they were nothing at all. He knew that she had been sorry for it when they'd met again, but
somehow he doubted that she understood just how hurtful she'd been.

Then again, not many people seemed to understand.

Zack's arm slung around his shoulders pushed that thought away and he smiled again. He had no
idea what Zack was chattering on about - probably something about Aeris - but that didn't matter.
He was happy to concentrate on the warmth of the older man's presence in general, the chatter
just welcome background noise.

He also remembered that, at times, just being with AVALANCHE in a group had been satisfying
like this, when he could forget the reason that they had formed. He'd not really considered
himself a social person, really, but he guessed that his joy in the presence of others pointed out
that he was.

And then, stupidly, because it didn't seem so bad at that moment, he said, "I'm sorry about the
way I acted the other day. I didn't mean to - I was just grouchy and I overreacted because of
Reno."

Zack's arm tightened around his shoulders but he wasn't sure if it was a squeeze of forgiveness or
just the other man's muscles tensing. Zack was silent for a moment, and Cloud realised it had
been the wrong thing to say then. It hadn't been as safe as he'd thought.

"Don't worry about it," the SOLDIER replied, eventually, and after a brief pause went back to
whatever he'd been saying beforehand, and this time Cloud didn't listen because he could hear
the slightly strained tone to his voice. It pained him. He tried to ignore it but, luckily, after a few
minutes it was gone, and only the slightly tight feeling in Cloud's belly remained.

-

Practice was filled with a general sense of anticipation. Practice bouts were entered into with
more relish and enthusiasm than was normal for the early morning, the chatter was louder, more
excited. People's faces seemed brighter, livelier. Cloud noticed these things whilst realising that
the same was true of himself. There was a general sense of coming to the end of things - two
years of practice had led to this. It had heightened that morning because it was entirely obvious
that they were about to be given details of the exams. All the instructors were there that morning,
hanging around in a large group talking over papers whilst the trainees sparred to try and burn
off some of their restless energy.
Cloud supposed it wasn't helping anyone that Sephiroth had come in with the instructors and was
hanging around watching the trainees. He had no idea what the man had come in for, because no
matter how hard he racked his brains he didn't remember this having happened before. So he
waited, slightly nervous but altogether more excited than anything else. Reno had found him and
commented blithely on how all the cadets were trying to impress Sephiroth and how he found
this quite amusing when you compared the wide gap between skill levels of the cadets and the
General. Cloud snickered at this, knowing it to be entirely true.

Reno gestured widely with the sword in his hand, indicating the empty space around them.
"Fancy a spar? Might as well join the bandwagon!" Cloud grinned and agreed, knowing that he,
like everyone else, had far too much energy that needed an outlet with the promise of the final
exams and the General's unexpected appearance that morning.

The redhead was good with a sword, but it didn't really suit him and Reno had said that he knew
it. When he got into SOLDIER he said he would try and switch to something else, but at the
same time he didn't really enjoy guns either. Cloud was reluctant to suggest anything, thinking
back on how much damage Reno could do with a nightstick and wincing at the memory. Of the
two of them now, Cloud mused as they circled one another, he supposed that he was the better
with their current weapons, so he had nothing to fear.

He enjoyed sparring with Reno. The other boy's style was so different from his own that he had
to pay more attention than he would have normally. It was a nice change, considering that he
would probably have to spar a SOLDIER to get a really good challenge and doing that now
would raise far too many suspicions. Still, he ached to do it - when he thought of sparring Zack
his chest hurt with how much he wanted it, wanted to be pushed to his limits again and feel the
adrenalin rush through him like it used to. It was like a dance, something intricate and beautiful
at its best and he knew its steps; however, he had yet to find a partner to match him.

Reno's blade clashed with his own and the pushed against each other, but not seriously. They
used it to lean together, grinning. "You're playing with me," the redhead observed, but it didn't
seem to bother him at all. "I've not seen it this clearly before."

Cloud cocked his head, still cheerful despite how dangerous the topic could turn. "I'm not
playing," he assured the taller boy. "Just enjoying myself."

Reno let out a loud bark of laughter. "I can see! Far be it from me to take away your fun..." And
he pulled back for them to continue the spar. Cloud spun, laughing, to push Reno back across the
mats with a brief offensive. When they encroached too far on another pair's space, he let Reno
take the offensive and danced back across the mats, Reno following. Yes, Cloud could see that
Reno wasn't suited for swordplay, he couldn't lose himself deeply enough for the sword to
become what it needed to be - for him, it was still a hunk of metal he was holding, something
separate from himself.

He was concentrating too hard on Reno to notice anything else, and it was only when the redhead
lowered his sword without preamble, looking past the blond's shoulder, that Cloud became aware
of his surroundings. He could feel it then, the heat of the other man's gaze on him, and wondered
how he'd missed it. He turned, lowering his own sword, and Sephiroth was leaning back against
the protective barrier between the spectator seats and the circle of mats, arms crossed over his
chest and watching him quietly.

Cloud bowed in respect, keeping his head dipped for a little longer than was strictly necessary.
"Good morning, sir," he said, and behind he could hear Reno's echoing greeting.

"Good morning," Sephiroth replied, his low voice showing that there was no anger or irritation in
him, so Cloud supposed neither he nor Reno had been doing any wrong. That, at least, was
something.

Cloud didn't know what to say after that, not liking the formality that he would have to use if he
did not wait for Sephiroth's lead. He took a moment to try and calm his nervous energy down,
heart still beating fast and no longer from exertion, and Sephiroth said drily, "This is the first
time I think I've ever seen you actually duel someone. You're impressive."

Cloud felt his cheeks heat up and his lips pull slightly in pleasure at the unexpected praise, and
saw Sephiroth notice it all. He could see that Sephiroth was in a good mood like everyone else.
He wondered why, but was pleased beyond belief that, he, somehow, seemed to have contributed
to it. "Thank you, sir," he said.

Sephiroth waved a gloved hand a little, dismissively. "You don't need to be so formal," he said,
and Cloud nodded, thrilled. He was pretty sure he was still smiling but he couldn't help it. The
general excitement was making him feel bold - far bolder than the other morning when he'd
walked out of the bathroom half-naked to find Sephiroth there, unexpectedly.

He stepped a bit closer then, testing his boundaries, and because he knew from his own
experience that Sephiroth would prefer not to have to speak loud enough that everyone else
could hear him. Sephiroth watched him approach and there was nothing in his face to tell him to
stop. Daringly - wondering if even this might be too far - Cloud asked, "What're you watching us
all for?"

"The instructors are going to announce details of the practical exam." He hadn't taken his eyes
from Cloud's and, miraculously, Cloud hadn't dropped his gaze yet. He realised that he'd read
Sephiroth right - the older man lowered his voice a little so that only Cloud could make out his
words. "I wanted to have a look at the cadets because I'm going to be there as accompaniment."

"Accompaniment?" Cloud echoed, startled.

Sephiroth nodded. The usual harsh, sharp expression wasn't there. Cloud liked it like that -
without the pull between his eyebrows and the severity of his mouth, he looked younger, and it
wasn't so hard to ignore the age gap when he looked like that. "The place where we're heading is
quite big, perhaps a little too big for the number of people going. There's nowhere else suitable,
unless anyone wants to try and take on seasoned Wutaian warriors." There was a dark humour in
his voice, lips curving just slightly for just a moment at the thought.
Cloud smiled, an image of Yuffie briefly flashing in his head, but it wasn't really her he was
thinking about.

This is...this is the side of him I want to see...We're just talking about work but still, he's so...he's
not so closed off anymore. Why? What's he doing? Why is he showing this to me

"And still..." Sephiroth said thoughtfully, quietly. "Perhaps I'll get to see in real life what you feel
you can't show here." He nodded in the general direction of the sparring pairs, and Cloud realised
he'd forgotten all about them, about everything but Sephiroth. "Either that," the other man
continued, "or maybe one day we should spar together."

Cloud started laughing because he couldn't help it, and it was when Sephiroth gave him a startled
look that he abruptly cut himself off. "You're serious?" he said, disbelieving, eyes wide.

"I admit, I find myself curious to gauge your abilities for myself," the silver-haired man said, still
looking a little bit surprised from Cloud's reaction, though the look soon disappeared, schooled
away behind the mask of calm indifference. "And I was the one who offered..."

And then, suddenly, Cloud saw it clear as day, like something obvious had been in front of him
for a long time and only now had his mind been able to make sense of it.

"And I was the one who offered..."

'I've put my hand out, made the first move...and now all I await is your response...'

Heart thumping very hard in his breast, Cloud said, "I would be honoured."

When Sephiroth nodded in acknowledgement and acceptance there was a definite half-smile,
something Cloud had very rarely seen in sanity but all too often in madness. Sephiroth pushed
himself up so that he was standing properly, once more towering over Cloud, and said softly, "I
should go to the instructors, they're probably waiting for me - I shall take my leave." He inclined
his head again, and walked past him, not touching but still close enough to make Cloud's blood
sing. Cloud turned to watch him go, not knowing what to do with himself.

He realised, when he came back to himself, that some people were staring, and Reno was giving
him a wide-eyed look like he'd never seen him before. "Wow," the redhead said. "What did he
say? I couldn't hear!"

"Shut up," Cloud said hotly, cheeks suddenly burning with embarrassment. "Just don't say
anything."

Reno made a motion like he was zipping his lips together, and grinned slyly at him.

Cloud had to get Reno to relate the details of the exam to him later on that day because he hadn't
been listening.
-

End Chapter 12.

1. Just a note on the structure of this fic: It's always been planned out in three parts (hence why
these chapters are all "Part 1: Chapter X"), though not all parts will have the same amount of
chapters (parts 1 and 2 cover equal lengths of time, whilst part 3 should be shorter as it deals
with one main incident). There are also two short (one-chapter) side stories planned, one that will
be placed as a divider between parts 1 and 2, and the second between 2 and 3. The first plans to
deal with some of Sephiroth's past as a way of explaining some of his behaviour towards Cloud.
The second will deal with how Cloud's mental instability has affected his feelings towards
Sephiroth (something that Vincent and Cid have already vaguely mentioned). And an epilogue
on the end. Just to give you some idea of how this will be laid out, etc, and some vague idea of
the scale of it (I'm going to be old and grey by the time I actually finish this fic).

2. Hahahaha, Sephiroth has the same seiyuu as Tatsumi Seiichirou from Yami no Matsuei. "No,
Tsuzu- I mean, Cloud, I will not give you a bigger monetary allowance for field trips. That
means no desserts, Cloud. What do you mean, I must be talking about somebody else? And of
course I always wear glasses."And, new AC-trailer:drool:

3. I quite enjoy writing from Tifa's view, I think she's underrated by most fans as a character. I
wonder how much of the game would have changed if Tifa had said, "Cloud, shut up, your
memory suxxors!" when Cloud first told the story of Nibelheim, rather than keeping her silence,
or if she'd not been such a bi-atch to him when they were kiddies.

4. Last, but definitely not least - a big thanks must go out to my wonderful beta, Dina, and of
course to all the people out there who read and/or review this fic. That is what keeps me going
when I sit there and wonder why I undertook this project.

Fusion

by Knowing Shadows

Part 1: Chapter 13

Disclaimer: See Chapter One

-----

-----

Cloud taped a note to the back of the dorm door so he wouldn't forget. It had Reno's scrawling,
spidery handwriting tracking across it in several lines, proclaiming the date and time and known
details of the field exam for those who'd passed the Mako trial. Cloud trailed his gaze across the
paper languidly, smiling to himself.
He remembered, when he had originally lived through this, that he'd been dreading this date.
He'd known he'd fail, knew how weak he was compared to the other cadets and the SOLDIERs,
but still there had been some small glimmer of hope in him that refused to be quashed, and he'd
gone through the humiliation of it anyway.

I'm a glutton for punishment, he thought to himself, but he was content enough in that moment
that the thought didn't really sting. Not only once, but I'm going to do it again. Only this time, it'll
be different. I'll show them all just how good I can be.

There was a strange calmness that came with the certainty that this time he would pass the exams,
even though he was still excited. He didn't know how to explain it properly, but it was a good
feeling - one he wasn't used to, and something he treasured. If Cloud had learned anything in his
life so far, it was that life was never stable so it was better to make the most of things as they
came. They didn't tend to last.

On that train of thought, he wondered whether he should take up Sephiroth's offer before it was
retracted. Maybe Sephiroth hadn't been serious about sparring anyway - Cloud would be no
match for him until he had become a SOLDIER, so it would be a ridiculous thing for them to
fight together - and why would Sephiroth want to waste time sparring a cadet?

"And I was the one who offered..."

Cloud shook his head as he collected his things for lessons. No use worrying about it now - there
was nothing he could do until later. Maybe he would ask Zack if Sephiroth was serious or not.
The thought that Sephiroth might not be - might be mocking him - hurt, which Cloud thought
was pretty ridiculous, but he couldn't help it.

This whole thing was ridiculous, he thought, irritated. The constant worry, paranoia, never
knowing...it was driving him insane. He knew, more intimately than all perhaps bar one, what it
felt like to dangle at the end of someone else's strings, knew how awful it felt to have no control,
to be forever following someone else's will, someone's else's expectations, only to realise too late
just how completely he'd been manipulated, not doing what he wanted at all...

He refused to be like that again. This reality, on whatever plane it might exist, it was for him to
change by not being what he used to be. And he was no longer the Cloud Strife that had once
been here, that much was sure. He wouldn't fail Aeris, wherever she was and whatever she
herself had done for him. He owed her this, at least, for not being able to stop her death.

He owed Sephiroth this.

-----

Sephiroth put a gloved hand over his mouth to cover his yawn, shaking his head afterwards to
clear it. It was barely past lunchtime and already he was tired. He rubbed at his temple absently,
gazing down at the papers littering his desk and wishing fervently that they would all
spontaneously combust. Or, if that was impossible, conveniently flutter into the path of a
wayward Fire3 spell, which, of course, would not have been from his own materia, no, not at all.

He hadn't become General to do this, he mused. Wasn't entirely sure, half the time, why he'd
become General at all, but he'd been born for the army - there was nothing else out there where
his skills would be needed. And when he didn't have to sit in an office all day doing paperwork,
he quite enjoyed the physical aspects of it. If it wasn't for that, he might quit just to spite Hojo.
And tell the bastard in person, just to watch him sputter and go red with fury. Which was always
a satisfying sight.

He sat back in his chair and stretched, arching his cramped back, and wistfully thought about
how damn pleasant it would be to take Cloud for the sparring practice he'd offered, if only to
ease his boredom. Of course, there'd be other benefits - not the least of which would be the look
of surprise on the blond's face if Sephiroth approached him out of the blue. Just the second it
would give him to see past the reticence.

Tilting his head back in the chair, he reached up and pushed his hair back from his face, closing
his eyes for a moment. Thinking about it, making such a spectacle of himself at the practice the
day before hadn't been the best idea, particularly so soon after that other damn boy had accused
him of sleeping with Strife already. Favouritism was frowned upon, and in an all-male
environment, it was easy to think the worst as to why. Sephiroth had never had the desire to get
to know any of the cadets, so he'd never been in danger of it, but now...

But it was done. If it happened only once, no-one could accuse him of tutoring. He'd only said
he'd wanted to gauge Cloud's abilities, which was fair enough. He'd never been one to follow the
rules, anyway - he had enough power within ShinRa itself to have few who would stand against
him, whatever he did.

And the chance to see Cloud alone like that...what it would offer far outweighed the drawbacks.
He hoped. Getting past the blond's perpetual wariness was tiring, but he hoped it would be worth
it. Zack obviously thought so, and Zack was usually a good judge of character. He'd not led
Sephiroth astray yet.

-----

Reno was in a strange mood when Cloud found him in their practical class. He was standing with
the other cadets as Cloud approached, looking restrained. The others were talking animatedly
with each other, sometimes to Reno, and he would reply, and there would be energy in it, but
then he would close into himself again. Cloud was frowning when Reno met his eyes as he drew
near.

“Can‟t say anything,” Reno told him, but looking like he desperately wanted to.

Cloud‟s frown deepened. He hooked his fingers into his belt as he stood. “How come?”
Reno looked at him for a moment, obviously fighting with himself. His mouth tightened as he
pursed his lips, but then he let out a breath in a loud whoosh as he shook his head. “Nope, can‟t
say. It might not happen.”

“What might not happen?” Cloud insisted, but Reno shook his head, biting his lip as if he had to
physically restrain himself from answering. Cloud continued to frown at him, as if this might
draw out some information, but it did not, and just served to make Reno a little antsier than he
was to begin with. He tried to speculate, but all he came up with were blanks, since he‟d never
seen the boy like this.

The lesson was a little different, which was fun. They were split into two groups, one was led
outside whilst the other remained and was told that they were going to simulate the kind of
situation they‟d find in the exam. The inside group would be playing “the resistance,” and would
secrete themselves about the building. The other group would be acting as the SOLDIER group,
coming in to try and exterminate them without being wiped out themselves. Reno had been put
in that group – Cloud struggled to hide his excitement as he and his team-mates in the other
group dotted themselves around the building, waiting in ambush. He and another dark-haired boy
had been assigned to a doorway near the gym, where they would wait and pick off anyone who
came by. They had reasoned that no large groups would come this way as many would have been
picked off already, and that if a large opposition did happen to appear, their side was obviously
screwed anyway.

Cloud sat with his back against the wall for a little while, his partner on the other side of the door,
both with their swords propped between their knees, listening to see if they could make out any
skirmishes nearby. Surely Reno‟s group would be in by now. Katona‟s larger group had been
stationed on the ground floor to take out as many as they could, leaving any stragglers to those
on the 2nd floor. He couldn‟t hear anything yet.

He tapped his fingers soundlessly against the hilt of his sword. Their group had been larger – did
that mean that they expected the cadets to be outnumbered in the exam and were testing them
now? Perhaps Reno‟s group had been given something other than just swords to fight with that
gave them an advantage that was – would they have materia? Cloud‟s heart pounded in
anticipation at the thought, looking longingly at the empty slots in his sword. He wondered if
Yuffie had taken the opportunity to take all his Mastered materia from him yet, if he‟d been
found and brought off the mountain. He supposed that he must have been – but would the death
of his body automatically mean the death of his mind, or that part of him which Aeris had sent
here? He didn‟t know. Maybe his body was gone, but he could somehow survive like this. And
that would mean no going back, if it were true.

Too much he didn‟t know. Too many possibilities to speculate. Cloud rubbed his forehead
irritably and slowly spun his sword so that the point dug into the carpet beneath him as it turned.

He‟d made a hole in the carpet when his partner abruptly started to climb to his feet, gaze darting
nervously. Cloud looked up at him and frowned, catching the other boy‟s eye. “What‟s wrong?”
he mouthed, wondering if he‟d not heard an approaching party. As he started to get up, too, he
watched as the dark-haired cadet mouthed back, “It‟s too quiet.”
They‟d not heard any skirmishes yet. They should have done, unless Katona‟s group had
completely wiped out Reno‟s. Which was silly, because someone would have come told them the
game was over. They would not be able to hear what was going on down on the floor below, but
they should have heard something from their own. Cloud pressed his back against the wall next
to the door frame and listened very hard. Silence. There was nothing. He scowled, glancing over
to where his partner was standing in a similar fashion, looking worried. Catching the boy‟s
attention, Cloud mouthed, “How long since we started?”

The boy looked at his watch. “Half an hour,” he replied. They definitely should have heard
something by now.

Cloud tightened his grip on his sword, hefting its reassuring weight in one hand as he continued
to listen. “Should we go?” he mouthed, nodding his head towards the door, but his partner shook
his head. Cloud glanced at the window in the door and nodded towards it, and the other boy
shrugged, so Cloud listened again for a moment, and then quickly glanced through the window
into the corridor beyond. It was empty and quiet. He took a longer look, mouth turned down in
annoyance. Nothing. What was going on?

His partner was beginning to look a little frightened. “What‟s happening?” he whispered.
“What‟s going on?”

“No idea.” Cloud stepped back from the window to his position against the wall. “I think we
should check.”

“What if they‟ve all been wiped out and we walk into a trap?” the other cadet whispered
furiously, wide-eyed.

“It‟s only a simulation,” Cloud replied. “And if that‟s true, then we surrender. On the other hand,
if we stay in our position, we could get trapped. This room is a dead end. If there is a large party
coming this way, we should move. We‟ll have more of a chance.”

The dark-haired cadet considered that for a moment, not looking convinced in the slightest, but
saw Cloud‟s determination and reluctantly nodded his head. “You can‟t go alone,” he admitted,
and tightened his grip determinedly on his own weapon. Cloud nodded and grinned fiercely in
encouragement, taking the lead. Leaning his head against the door, he listened again for a minute
or so. Still nothing. Glancing out the window again, it was empty still, so he quietly pushed
down the handle on the door and pulled it open so they could slip through. His heart was
thumping, and he was high on adrenaline.

It was eerily quiet. He'd never heard the building sound so quiet - there was usually some kind of
noise, something going on in here. To hear it suddenly sound abandoned with quite frightening.
The sound of his heart pounding was all Cloud could hear. They kept their backs to the wall,
slowly making their way down the hall to where another corridor joined it from the left, making
the stem of a T-junction. If someone was nearby, they were very good at being quiet, so they had
to be equally so, which was easier with only two people than it was with many. He hoped that
meant that there weren't any large group of opposition around here.
Reaching the junction, Cloud listened hard and then darted across the gap, motioning for his
partner to stay where he was (who only looked too happy about that). That new corridor had
been empty, too. There had to be someone around somewhere, even if it was one or two of their
own, stationed and wondering at the quiet as much as they were. Perhaps they'd already gone to
investigate.

They'd have to be careful. It could be a ploy to lure them all out, one by one as their curiosities
were piqued. Cloud knew he was good, but not good enough to take on a large group by himself
if his partner was this nervous.

"Let's see if any of our own are near," Cloud whispered, and the boy nodded. They made their
way down the adjoining corridor, more and more aware with each passing second of every sound
around them as they came across yet more deserted corridors. They searched the first half of the
2nd floor to find it completely deserted. Cloud's partner became more and more jumpy the more
they searched. There weren't any signs of scuffles, either, so Cloud guessed that others had been
as unnerved by the quiet as they had, and gone to see what was happening. Either that or they
had heard something elsewhere and gone in that direction. Either way, they had apparently
moved of their own accord.

"Where could they have all gone?" came the half-panicked whisper in the quiet next to Cloud.
He turned to find his partner's dark eyes wide and fearful. "If they did fight, they were
completely outmanoeuvred if no signs were left - what if we're walking into a trap?"

"Calm down," Cloud whispered, trying to sound soothing. "Don't get nervous now - this isn't real.
We don't know what happened. Just be watchful. Let's go check the other half of this floor,
okay?" A nod, and they moved on. Cloud was sure that if anyone was here, the sound of his heart
would give them away, it seemed so loud in his own ears.

They skirted around the stairs that led back down to the ground floor as fast as they could, and
ducked down another deserted corridor, Cloud leading the way with his partner watching his
back. This one had a corner, and when they rounded it, Cloud's eyes went wide. "Whoa," he
breathed, staring at the large burn mark that had scorched the carpet and part of the wall, starkly
black against the blank magnolia paint.

"Shit," his partner hissed. "They've got a fire materia!"

"Remember, our group was larger than theirs," Cloud hissed back. "They had to have some kind
of advantage. I thought they might have materia. Just think of it like this - it probably means we
will in the exams."

"Yeah, but so will the people we're fighting against. This isn't fair. It's not materia practice - not
in a sim like this. It's too dangerous to give it to untrained people."

Cloud knelt and ran a finger over the burn in the wall. It was still faintly warm, so it was
definitely from this simulation. But the other boy was right - it was unfair to give one side
materia and not the other when, in reality, they would probably both have it. And it was
dangerous - if everyone was going to be as wound up as they were, someone was going to get
seriously hurt.

"FUCK! Ah!"

Both their heads snapped round, back to the corner they'd just turned, and Cloud jumped to his
feet. They backed up automatically, and then there was an abrupt sound that Cloud knew well - a
slightly hissing sound, and a whisper of coldness in the air, and ice growing along the wall as the
spell froze along the corridor. Two figures appeared at full pelt - two of their own - one slammed
into the wall, ice catching him under his feet, the other was a little better prepared and crouched
into a skid around the corner, stumbling as he tried to get back upright whilst still running. "Run!
Run!" he screamed, and Cloud didn't need to be told twice.

The four of them pelted down the corridor without looking back, and kept on running, twisting
down different paths until they eventually came to a halt, breathing hard. Cloud strained his ears
but couldn't hear anything else - they seemed to have lost their followers for now.

The one who'd skidded into the wall collapsed, chest heaving. "The fuckers," he hissed. "The
goddamn fucking fuckers." His companion nodded and practically fell down next to him.

"What materia do they have?" Cloud whispered frantically, crouching down to keep his voice as
low as possible.

"They don't have any!" the second man hissed. He looked caught somewhere between anger and
fear. "They've got the goddamn General with them!"

"What!" Cloud's partner's voice sounded strangled. "You have got to be fucking kidding me!"

"No!" the other one said emphatically. "We were in a group of about six, and we went to see
what was going on the ground floor because nothing was happening up here. We got down there,
and there was a group of about eight of the others waiting, and fucking Sephiroth was there.
They fought us, and he stayed out of it, but as soon as we get in a killing blow, he pretty much
roasts us - they took out four of us, we made a run for it. And then we bumped into you."

"How many of them did you take out?" Cloud's mind was spinning. Putting Sephiroth on the
other team put them at a major disadvantage. They might as well roll over and surrender now.
But Sephiroth wasn't doing anything until one of his own team got pulled down...

"We got five."

"Three left." Cloud let out a long, calming breath. "This is practice for our exams - Sephiroth is
coming with us. He's not stepping in now because he won't in the exam unless it's to stop us from
getting killed. And if they're up here now, we need to keep moving. Come on."

Luckily, they hadn't been caught up with yet. They made their way down the corridor they were
on, and came across a point where two walkways crossed. They paused after ascertaining that
no-one else was lurking around the corners. "Which way?" one of the newcomers asked. His
friend looked at each place in turn. "I vote right," he said after a moment. "It leads to the gym.
That's a through-room. I say we stay in the vicinity of the gym, so if we get caught we can get to
it and at least have some room to fight back. The changing rooms are also a through-room. We're
not trapped that way." The others nodded, and they turned right.

The journey to the gym was tense. Cloud couldn't imagine how much more nervous they could
get in the real thing. His heart would probably burst. He supposed, though, that he'd feel better
when Sephiroth was on his side, and not somewhere in the near vicinity hunting his ass down.

He wondered if the men they were going to fight would be this afraid once they found out who
was backing up their opposition. Maybe they wouldn't be as scared as Cloud's group were, but
then again maybe they would be, considering that they would know that Sephiroth would kill
them.

"Here it is..." They all stopped at the gym door, peering warily in through the window. It looked
empty. Cloud pressed his ear against the door and listened, but there was nothing, so they went in
carefully.

A glance told him there was no-one watching from the observation area where Cloud had once
been watched himself. "We should check the changing rooms," he said, and there was a nod from
the boy who'd skidded into the wall, who then followed him as the other two made a proper
inspection of the gym and its other exit to ascertain its safety.

The changing rooms were deserted. They checked each and every single shower and toilet
cubicle, but there was nothing. No-one hiding in wait for them. Cloud sank back onto a bench
with an exhausted sigh.

The other boy grinned at him. "Being scared shitless takes it out of ya, doesn't it?"

Cloud snickered. "Yeah, it -" But he was cut off by the sound of a door being thrown open in the
main gym area, and sudden shouting. He jumped to his feet as he heard a familiar voice yell,
"Stop right there!"

They'd not taken down Ratchett yet. Cloud's heart was in his throat - they looked through the
small window in the door between the changing rooms and the gym, and saw the three enemy
cadets, just as Cloud's earlier partner dealt what would have been a killing blow against the back
of one cadet's neck, blade stopped short. Cloud watched as the cadet, realising he'd been had,
gave into a particularly theatrical stage death until he lay sprawled out on his belly on the floor.
Distracted by this, Cloud's partner did not see his own 'death' coming until he felt the flat of
Sephiroth's blade against his own throat.

The other boy could not take down two cadets and Sephiroth by himself. Cloud's search partner
burst through the door with a yell to draw attention to himself and away from his outnumbered
partner, and Cloud ducked in behind him, knuckles white where he was grasping his sword hilt
so tight. He noted that the other two enemy cadets, Ratchett being one of them, had been
converging on Cloud's other team member. They all allowed themselves to be distracted by the
yell, and one had the flat of a sword up against him as soon as he'd turned his head to see who
was making the noise.

Ratchett caught this out of the corner of his eyes and spun with a speed that caused something in
Cloud to feel uneasy. The flat of the blond's blade came against his enemy's legs, and he said,
"You're disabled."

Cloud's team mate held up his hands in defeat and lay down on the floor, leaving Cloud and his
search partner against Ratchett, with Sephiroth lingering near the door they'd come into the gym
through. Cloud's eyes were drawn to the General, found green eyes gazing back at him from
where the man was leaning back against the wall, Masamune draw but lowered. Something in
the way he stood, the aura around him, told Cloud that Sephiroth was enjoying himself, but he
couldn't be sure. He wrenched his eyes away, back to where Ratchett was levelling his sword
against Cloud's search partner. The taller blond's gaze flickered between his two opponents,
calculating how likely it was that he'd triumph over both of them. He decided to go for it despite
the odds, giving Cloud a chilled glare before lunging at his nearer opponent.

Cloud circled warily as he watched the fight, keeping his back away from Sephiroth just in case.
Ratchett was good, and had considerable strength (which didn't surprise Cloud much,
considering he'd had the full force of it pounded into his skull not so long ago). Cloud knew that
Ratchett would win this, and only hoped that if he waited, he'd be given a good chance of getting
in a blow to take him down.

Sephiroth remained at the edge of the room, a constant but unchanging presence that set Cloud's
nerves on fire. Every time Cloud glanced over, the older man had not moved much, apparently
relaxed and nonchalant, watching the proceedings. Every time he glanced over, Sephiroth
seemed to know and across the room green eyes would meet his, bright beneath a dusting of dark
lashes.

Ratchett swung his sword hard against the other cadet's, a low, frustrated growl escaping his
throat. "For Shiva's sake, why won't you just-Ah!" He'd seen an opening, and went for it - his
zealousness caught the other boy off guard until he had a sword point resting just over his belly.
"One more down," Ratchett said, and the cadet raised a hand to signal his defeat and flopped
down on the ground on his back, chest heaving as he caught his breath. Ratchett grinned fiercely,
breathing hard, and as Cloud hefted his sword in readiness, he looked over, eyes lighting up. His
grin shifted as he glanced to Sephiroth and then back to Cloud, and it seemed to say how ironic,
which was what Cloud was thinking but wouldn't say.

Even with all of his attention on Ratchett, Cloud heard the rustle of leather as Sephiroth shifted.

He came at Cloud without warning, but his movements weren't enough to catch Cloud off guard.
His arm shot up, sword blocking the blow, and he launched into an offensive that didn't allow
Ratchett to stop and recover fully. The blond scowled at him, grunting as he only barely
managed to parry, stumbling backwards to get out of Cloud's reach. Cloud let him, blood singing
in his ears, knowing that this fight was his. When Ratchett looked at him, he knew that the taller
boy knew it, too.

"Winning over an exhausted opponent is hardly a fair victory," Ratchett sneered.

Cloud shrugged. "I doubt that excuse will stop the enemy from fighting you in the exam, so I'm
not going to let it stand, either."

Ratchett snarled furiously, circling around a piece of gym equipment that forced Cloud to put
Sephiroth at his back, which made his hair stand on end. Unwilling to let the other boy dictate
the terms of this, he pushed an unexpected assault, forcing Ratchett back and back until there
was enough distance between Cloud and Sephiroth that he felt more comfortable. The older
blond tried to meet his blows, but he was sluggish, and it wouldn't last long. Cloud swung his
sword up, forcing Ratchett to parry his blow in an awkward tangle of arms, and smiled tightly as
he caught the blond's eyes and twisted his sword so that the flat of it lay against Ratchett's flank
above his hip.

Cloud stepped back, let the other boy's furious expression wash over him, and watched as
Ratchett sat down with a thump before lying down on his side, looking away from him. Cloud
stared at him, wondering how one person could be so unsporting when the others showed none
of his anger or bitterness. No-one else that he'd seen had sulked at having been beaten.

"Too easy," Sephiroth's low voice said, and Cloud turned to face him. "Even if he'd been at full
strength you could have walked all over him."

Cloud shrugged, aware that Ratchett could hear this very clearly, and not wanting to garner any
more of the other boy's hatred against him. "He's a good match," he said carefully. "Am I the last
one?"

Sephiroth shook his head. "I don't know what happened to the other groups. You may or may not
be the last." He pushed himself up off the wall, rolling a shoulder. Cloud watched the metal
guards shift over one another in a strangely fluid motion at the movement. When Sephiroth lifted
the Masamune, the blade catching the lights, Cloud started, eyes flickering from the glinting
metal to Sephiroth's face.

"What..?"

"Even if you are the last, you just took down my team mate," the taller man said, and Cloud
knew his eyes had just gone as wide as dinner plates. "According to the rules of this simulation,
that means I have to take you down."

"You've got to be -" Cloud raised his own sword, backing away, feeling panic rise up. There was
no way Sephiroth was going to fight him now - He frowned abruptly, saw Sephiroth take note of
it and smirk. "Oi," he said, surprised at how indignant he sounded, "this is cheating."
Sephiroth raised an eyebrow, taking a step forward before leisurely taking up his battle pose, side
on with the Masamune raised in a horizontal line at chest height. It made Cloud's breath catch.
"This is cheating?" Sephiroth asked. "You agreed to this. And how was I to know you would be
the last one here?"

"This isn't sparring!" Cloud argued. "Not the way you meant it! I'm not prepared!"

"You're warmed up, the adrenaline's pumping, you have a sword...I can't see how you'd be better
prepared." Sephiroth was fighting a smile - Cloud could see it.

"How am I supposed to get anywhere near you when you've got the Masamune?" Cloud
continued desperately. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see several of the 'dead' cadets
raising themselves up on their elbows to watch what was going on.

Sephiroth regarded the long line of the blade for a moment, and Cloud thought for a moment that
he might relent and get a shorter sword for this. But then his gaze snapped back to Cloud, and he
said, "You'll just have to be inventive."

The only warning Cloud got was when Sephiroth tensed to strike, and he let out a heartfelt "Shit"
before legging it across the gym, hoping desperately that he might be able to make it to the other
door before Sephiroth caught him. He only made it halfway before he heard the whistle of metal
through air and threw himself to the left in a roll, stumbling upright and dancing round so that he
could see Sephiroth. The other man was standing where Cloud had just been, and smirked at him
fiercely.

He couldn't outrun Sephiroth. The man had much longer legs than him, and was just too fast. If
Sephiroth insisted they fight, then they would fight, Cloud had no choice in the matter. And
though he knew there was no way he could win, he couldn't deny that his heart was pounding
with excitement.

Sephiroth took up his opening position again, just as leisurely as he had before. "Now that we've
established that," he said, "shall we?"

Cloud raised his sword in one hand, the other held out for balance, and took a deep breath to try
and centre himself. "If you insist," he said, but rolled his eyes to show he was joking.

"I do," Sephiroth murmured, voice a low purr in the air, and it almost undid him. Cloud's arm
came up reflexively as the older man bore down on him in a flash, and there was the shriek of
clashing metal as the shock went up Cloud's arm. He must have made a sound because it hurt -
good God but he'd almost forgotten how strong Sephiroth was. He danced backwards out of
range but it was hard when the Masamune was so long, and he had to block two more strikes,
almost falling over a bench in the process, before he could catch his breath. His arm ached
already from those first few blows, muscles trembling. Sephiroth saw, gaze flickering from
Cloud's face to where he held his sword, and Cloud hoped to whatever power might be listening
that Sephiroth would temper his strength more. If he didn't, Cloud would be beat within minutes,
and all it would look like was that Sephiroth was making some kind of example of him with such
a humiliating defeat.

"You should concentrate on building up musculature," Sephiroth commented. "I can't fault the
way you handle a blade - it's just strength you need."

"I know that," Cloud said, though he knew he was glowing from the praise, backing up around
the gym equipment as Sephiroth followed. When he found himself in a clearer space where he
wasn't quite so likely to fall over machinery or the other cadets, he snapped his blade forward,
steeling himself to meet Sephiroth's counter attack with the intention of another quick strike.
Ready for it, the swords did not clash as violently as before, and Cloud was snapping his back
and forwards, aiming for Sephiroth's left flank. The Masamune blocked and pressed, Sephiroth
easily taking the offensive away from him and forcing him to dance backwards as he forged
forwards. Cloud let him, feigning putting more effort into parrying than he actually was. He
stepped over one of his own team-mate's bodies, still on the floor, catching the frightened look
from the floor, and waited until Sephiroth was forced to do the same before abruptly staggering
to the side and slicing forwards. The older man caught his strike, taking an awkward but
controlled step to do so, pushing Cloud's blade away with the Masamune's. He snorted, amused
at Cloud's move, but there was no mockery in it.

"You're a fast thinker," Sephiroth mused, sending the Masamune in a lazy arc towards him,
which Cloud blocked easily. "Now let's test just how fast." And then he leapt forward, raining
blows, and Cloud almost lost it out of pure instinctive fear. But somehow he was counter-
attacking, catching each blow before it could land, some easier than others, some coming
dangerously close. He could not push an offensive, didn't even dare attempt it, all his strength
was being used to try and fend the other man off. He couldn't even think, acting on pure fighting
instinct and fast reflexes to get his sword where it needed to be to parry the flashes of shining
silver blade. His arm and shoulder ached something terrible.

Sephiroth swung the Masamune at his feet; he had to jump over the blade, stumbling back when
he landed, breath coming in ragged gasps as his heart pounded violently with exertion. This level
of combat was too much for him to sustain for long. It had taken Hojo's interference for five
years, and then months of hard training the world over to get good enough to take Sephiroth
down. Whatever advantages Aeris had left with this body, it was nowhere near enough.

He could feel his arm beginning to give way. "Sephiroth!" he cried, desperately, because he
could not afford to injure himself so close to the exam. "Stop! Please!"

He did not, but it didn't matter, because the next blow was a strange one, catching his blade so
awkwardly that the spasm of muscles in his wrist and hand caused him to drop his sword.
Stunned, he couldn't even think what to do when Sephiroth abruptly dropped low, and the next
thing he knew he was on his back, his legs swept out from under him. He lay there sprawled,
heart pounding so hard he was half-afraid it would burst like a rabbit's when it was pushed to the
limit by a fox. He stared dumbly at the ceiling, his right arm one big throbbing ache from
shoulder to the tips of his fingers.
Sephiroth appeared in his line of vision, standing at his side, and Cloud's breath hitched painfully
in his heaving chest when he felt the cool line of metal against his throat. "Yield?" came the low
request.

Cloud couldn't even get the word out; his throat was parched dry from gulping air. He couldn't
nod or move his head because he was afraid he'd cut himself on the Masamune. He moved his
lips, trying to say the word, but failed the first few times until he managed a rasping, "Yield."
The Masamune instantly disappeared, and so did Sephiroth, and Cloud closed his eyes.

This was not what he'd expected when he'd got out of bed that morning.

He was sure he hadn't blacked out, but he jumped when he felt someone trying to pull him
upright, eyes snapping open. Sephiroth was kneeling next to him, trying to get him into a sitting
position, eyebrows furrowed into a frown. Mortified by his helplessness, Cloud struggled to sit
up, head pounding. Sephiroth, one hand between his shoulder blades to steady him, reached
down with his other hand and produced a cup of water. "Drink it," he said quietly, letting Cloud
take it in his left hand. As Cloud took a grateful gulp, he heard the older man say, "If it ever
came to a fight between you and Zack, I would probably have to put money on you."

Cloud raised surprised eyes to Sephiroth's, slowing his sips to savour the coolness. Then he
lowered them, ashamed as he abruptly realised what the General had been doing. Sparring with
Zack had had the same goal - getting him to fight on instinct so that the other man could gauge
his true abilities. Where Zack had failed, Sephiroth had not.

The water became cold fear, sliding down his throat all the way to his belly, gripping his chest.
Would he be questioned now? Would they sit there and call him on his strange talent, demand an
explanation? Sephiroth had told him he had questions, but they would wait until a more
appropriate time - was this it? Could he hide no longer?

"Ability such as yours is rare," Sephiroth murmured, low enough so that no-one else could hear.
"Why hide it? Why take so much effort to do so?"

Cloud shrugged, keeping his gaze lowered. "I didn't want to cause waves," he said, and supposed
that that was true.

Sephiroth's hand, warm even through leather and fabric, made a soothing half-rub down to the
middle of his back - so casual it was probably unintentional - as the silver-haired man sighed.
Cloud suppressed a shiver. "Too late for that," he said, and the heat of him disappeared as he got
to his feet. Startled, Cloud looked up, and Sephiroth held out a hand. "Come on," he said, and
Cloud took a gloved hand and let himself be pulled to his feet, legs shaky. Sephiroth gave him a
look that wasn't quite a smile, but could have been thought of as friendly as far as someone like
the General was concerned. Cloud offered a tentative smile in return.

Sephiroth suddenly turned to where all the cadets were sitting up with wide eyes, watching them,
and said, "You can get up, but stay in the room until you're told to go. I'll go see if the simulation
is over yet." There was a chorus of "Yes, sir," and then Sephiroth swept out of the room. Cloud
watched him go, heart in his throat, until his attention was caught by an abrupt shout, "That was
totally awesome! What did it feel like, huh, Cloud!"

Considering the awe shining in the other cadets' eyes, Cloud thought it wasn't such a bad thing if
he became known for that fight. Ratchett stayed apart when the other rushed forward to question
him, and his glower of hatred burned from across the room.

------

Sephiroth was gone when a tannoy system announcement told them all that the simulation had
ended and they were instructed to return to the amphitheatre on the ground floor. Cloud was
being followed in awe, and as soon as they reached their destination all but Ratchett rushed off to
their normal group of friends, most likely to tell them of Cloud‟s impromptu duel with the
General. Cloud felt his face burn with both embarrassment and pleasure. He searched the throng
for Reno‟s familiar form, but a hand gripped his sleeve harshly before he could move. Cloud
looked round, startled, and found Ratchett‟s pale-lipped figure standing nearby.

“What do you want?” he asked, tensing himself for some kind of fight.

Ratchett scowled. The expression seemed to be the one that came most easily to him, and Cloud
rather thought it ruined what would have otherwise been a handsome face. “Don‟t think that just
because he set out to prove he hadn‟t sparred you before, that it means anything, Strife.”

Cloud glared at the other boy. “I don‟t know what you‟re talking about,” he said coldly, pulling
his arm away with a rough jerk. Ratchett let go, turning away from him and stalking off in
another direction. Cloud made his way to Reno, who had seen the brief confrontation and looked
concerned, but one of the SOLDIERs at the front started talking before Reno could say anything.

“That was your first taste of what the exam will be like,” he called, loud enough for everyone to
hear. “No doubt those of you not on the General‟s team were a bit surprised to see him. So will
your opponents in the real thing. He will have materia in the real thing, as he did here, but you
won‟t. As far as our intelligence goes, these people are the stragglers of the group, and rely on
brute force and not magic. Sephiroth will be there to protect you - in the exam, if he or any of the
examiners have to step in to save your sorry hides, you will be awarded penalties, depending on
the circumstances. This exam is for us to test your abilities, not those of the SOLDIERs
accompanying you. Is that clear?”

There was murmured assent, sounding slightly cowed. Cloud wondered what had happened to
the other people to make them sound like that. He wondered if those who had found Sephiroth‟s
blade aimed at them had realised just how much they had to learn and that was the reason. Even
Cloud had not been a match in any sense of the word - Sephiroth belonged to a whole other level
of SOLDIER, of man. Cloud understood that.

“For those of you interested,” the SOLDIER continued, “though it does not matter, Cloud Strife
was the last person to be taken down, which means that his side won. Pick yourselves up if you
don‟t want that to happen in the real thing. You don‟t have long left. Dismissed.”
There was a collective sigh of relief as the cadets began to disperse, and Cloud turned to Reno to
say something but the SOLDIER who‟d spoken before had crooked a finger at him and was
motioning for him to come over. Cloud gave Reno an apologetic look, who mock-saluted him,
before he jogged over to the instructor.

He saluted them respectfully as he neared. “Sirs.”

There were three of them, but only the one who‟d already talked to the group as a whole spoke to
him. The instructor looked him over critically. “General Sephiroth sings your praises, did you
know that?” he asked, face breaking into an abrupt, prideful grin. “Told us he duelled you, and
you can keep up a defence against him.”

Cloud flushed with pleasure. “Only a defence, though,” he said. “And not for very long. I
thought he was going to break my arm.”

The older man laughed. “Yep, sounds like you battled the General alright. I‟m assuming he left
your arm intact?”

“Yes, sir. Aches, is all.”

“To be expected. We‟ll take that into consideration in the next few days, don‟t worry.” He
rubbed his hands together a little, as if warming them. “Just be careful before the exam, okay?
Make sure you pass. I think the General would be most displeased if you didn‟t.”

Cloud raised his eyebrows. “Yes, sir.”

The SOLDIER nodded, and dismissed him. Cloud was pretty sure his eyebrows were still raised
when he got back to his dorm.

-----

By the evening, Cloud‟s arm was really beginning to protest the work out it had had in the gym.
He was sitting cross-legged on his bed, reading a magazine and rolling his shoulder to keep it
from stiffening when Zack came in through the door. The noise made him glance up, and when
Zack spotted him, a slow grin spread across his face.

Cloud rolled his eyes and went back to his magazine.

“Sooooo…” the dark-haired SOLDIER began casually as he sauntered over. Cloud was glad it
was only them in the room. His other room-mates had grilled him earlier when they‟d found him.

“So what?” Cloud asked, turning a page of the magazine and not looking up.

He could tell that the older man‟s grin had widened at that, and felt his body rock as Zack
plonked himself down on the mattress opposite him, pulling up his legs so he could sit like Cloud
was. “So, I hear yourself and His Highness had a run in today?”
Cloud couldn‟t help but laugh, looking up with a smile. “If that‟s what you want to call it, yes.
Who told you? And what did they tell you?”

Zack‟s grin shifted so it was a more genuine expression, warm and gentle. “You look good when
you smile. You should do it more often. And all we had to do was have Sephiroth beat you up in
public…”

Cloud snorted, hitting the SOLDIER with his magazine. “He didn‟t beat me up.”

“So I heard,” Zack chortled. “All the cadets are talking about it, and some of the officers
overheard them, so they‟re talking about it. And I heard it from them. Said the rules of the sim
today was that Sephiroth was to „take down‟ whoever „killed‟ a member of his own team, and
you happened to be one of many unlucky individuals who fell into that category. Except you
actually duelled him, and didn‟t just roll over and die within five seconds like everyone else did.”

“We didn‟t duel, not really,” Cloud said, feeling his face heat up again. “He‟s too fast - I just
tried to block him.”

“But that fact that you can, that is what makes all the difference.” Zack snatched the magazine
from him and hit him instead. “That‟s for being dumb.”

“How am I dumb?” Cloud retorted, taking back his magazine for protection.

“The pair of you are.” The blond felt himself flush, not believing the other man for a second
because the implications were ridiculous. Nevertheless, he had felt a certain measure
of…closeness…that hadn‟t been there before. Just thinking about it, everything, made him feel
warmer - the rush of blood in his ears when they‟d fought, not caring for the others around them;
the feel of the Masamune against his throat and knowing his life was in Sephiroth‟s hands; the
chilled water gliding down his throat even as he‟d been so very aware of the heat of the silver-
haired man‟s hand on his back…

“Hey,” Zack said, hand on Cloud‟s chin to lift the blond‟s head. “Don‟t go all introvert-y on me.
You know what I heard today?”

“No…” Cloud frowned, unable to shake his head because of Zack‟s hand on him. “What?”

“There was one cadet who was there who said it was the most amazing thing he‟d ever seen.
That it was beautiful.” Zack smiled again. “We all know that watching talented people spar is a
sight to behold, but it takes something special for bog-standard cadets to come out and say it‟s
„beautiful.‟ You know that.”

Cloud pursed his lips for a moment. “You and Sephiroth are beautiful,” he said, voice very quiet.
He made to pull away, but Zack‟s fingers tightened even as he sighed, forcing Cloud to look at
him again.
“Not in the same way.” He stroked his thumb briefly against Cloud‟s skin, asking for forgiveness
for the roughness of his hold. “You know that, too. Continually convincing yourself that you‟re
unworthy will keep you alone and depressed forever.” His smile, then, was wistful, almost sad.
“I wish I had seen you two today. I can only imagine what it was like, but I know that cadet was
telling the truth. You and he make it beautiful because you love him. That is all the difference.”

Cloud did not fight his hold, but his gaze slid away like water through his fingers. He remained
silent.

“No reply?” Zack snorted. “I thought you would have denied it…”

“I love him.” It cut Zack off, a surprisingly strong statement, and so obviously true that it was
impossible to refute.

After a moment, the dark-haired man said, “Well, you know that admitting to the problem is the
first step towards curing it, they say…”

Cloud still had the magazine in hand and thwacked Zack hard until they were laughing and
rolling on the bed, finding long abandoned ticklish spots, all seriousness forgotten.

------

He forgot to ask Reno what he had been so jittery about, and it wasn't until the next practice they
held that he had a chance to ask. He ducked in at the last minute to avoid being accosted by
curious cadets who wanted to know first hand about what it was like to fight the General, and
snuck up beside Reno. "Hey," he said, poking the red-haired boy in the side, making him jump.

It earned him a swift punch to his bicep, though it was accompanied by Reno's playful grin.
"Hello," he said. "I hear you've been a busy bunny."

Cloud rolled his eyes. "Not you, too. I'm getting sick of answering questions about it." He smiled.
"I forgot to ask about your thing that you were looking for, or whatever it was. Did it happen?"

Reno shook his head, crossing his arms over his thin chest. "Nah, he didn't turn up. Maybe today
- ah!" Eyes brightening, Reno nodded his head to where a figure had silently appeared in one of
the entrance ways to the amphitheatre. Cloud recognised the blue suit immediately, and the long,
slicked back black hair. Tseng hadn't really changed, though it was obvious he was a bit younger
here. His expression wasn't quite as severe as Cloud was used to, his mouth more relaxed than
normal. The Turk's eyes were still cold, but that was a look Cloud had seen in the eyes of many
who killed often. He had seen it in his own in the years after Meteor.

Tseng's dark eyes swept over them, searching out Reno, it seemed, but they lingered on Cloud
first. Cloud wondered if Tseng had heard about his fight against Sephiroth, and if that might
draw their attention to him. He had no intention of joining, but he'd heard horror stories about
those who'd refused a rank offered to them. He kept his eyes averted, and when the practical
started, he made sure he did not make a spectacle of himself. Reno tried extra hard, very aware
that he was being watched, but Cloud wasn't sparring him that day. Out of the corner of his eye
he watched as Reno made a quick lunge with his sword that his opponent was just too slow to
fend off, effectively winning the match.

His own duel went much more languidly. Cloud's arm still ached somewhat, though not nearly as
much as he'd thought it might, but he was careful anyway. His mind was elsewhere, though there
was always a part of it focused on the hear and now, this match, just enough to be able to parry
the oncoming blows with ease, and with not much thought...just instinct, knowing that what his
eyes saw, his arm had to follow...

This was child's play...He realised now how much he missed the feel of his blood racing,
pounding through his veins in excitement and anticipation and not knowing whether he'd come
out on top or not. Having to think on his feet, having to focus all his concentration on a fight,
strategising as much as fighting back on that instinctual level that bypassed concrete thought and
made him pure fighting machine, nothing more than quicksilver in the air, and consumed with
that liquid fire of joy when he found a partner to match him, someone to push and be pushed by.
Someone who understood the power of a thin strip of sharpened metal whistling through the air
as much as he did, and knew how to use it.

Fighting Sephiroth would be like that when they were both in SOLDIER. Then, they would be
the 'beautiful' that Zack had talked of. Whatever they were now was nothing more than a pale
imitation of what it could be, he knew that so deep down inside him that there was no argument.
He knew it on the same level as he knew he loved Sephiroth.

I love him...I said that to Zack...I think it's the first time...the first time that I've ever said it
aloud...

It was…freeing. Something inside him that he had kept hidden for as long as he could remember,
though it was as much a part of him as the need to breathe. Zack had known - obviously he had,
or he wouldn‟t have said so - but still, it had been laid between them now, where it had obviously
only been a nebulous suspicion before. He trusted Zack enough not to betray him with that
knowledge.

A whistle blew, signalling for those who had not yet finished their matches to do so and call it a
draw. Cloud's opponent dropped his sword gratefully, breathing hard. "God," he gasped out,
hands on his knee as he bent over. "I knew it was going to be hard when I got paired with you
but...this is...ridiculous."

Cloud smiled sheepishly. "Sorry."

He was waved off with an answering smile - no hard feelings. Cloud was glad, half afraid that
somewhere down the line he would become resented by the others, which would make life
unnecessarily difficult. Not that he'd been particularly popular before, but he hadn't wanted to
single himself out as someone to bully, either.
Zack was convinced that Cloud's scrap in the gym with the General would serve to make him a
legend amongst the cadets, but Cloud thought that was going a bit far.

By the time he found himself at Reno's side again, the redhead was managing a good impression
of nonchalance, refusing to look in Tseng's direction. Cloud rather suspected that Reno was
impressed beyond belief by Tseng's cool, unconcerned demeanour didn't wish to seem so young
and excitable in comparison. However, the air around him was tinged with nervous energy, and
Cloud grinned at him, shoving the taller boy playfully.

For Reno, it seemed that the last lot of instructor's spiel couldn't pass quickly enough, and Cloud
couldn't blame him. Reno had been a drifter, that much he knew, before he'd tried for SOLDIER,
and the Turks had given him a place and stability he craved. However much it spoke for Reno's
moral standards, he fitted with the Turks like Zack slotted in with SOLDIER.

Tseng appeared out of the shadows as soon as they were dismissed for the day, striding
purposefully towards where they stood. Reno flashed Cloud a nervous grin before starting to
make his way across to meet the Turk halfway, and Cloud watched, surprised when the dark-
haired man fixed him with a long look and said, "You there, I'd like to speak with you."

Reno glanced back over his shoulder at the blond, expression the most confused that Cloud had
ever seen it, and he knew that his own face mirrored that. He wandered over, lugging along his
practice blade in one hand.

Tseng was giving him a chilly look over as he neared. It wasn't unfriendly, as such, just
professional and calculating. Cloud was used to that look - no-one could do it quite so well as
Hojo. "What's your name?" the Turk asked.

"Cloud Strife, sir," he replied, keeping his voice neutral.

Tseng frowned at him, the slight creasing of his skin on his forehead pulling at the dark spot
there. "I've not noticed you before," he said, sounding a bit puzzled. Cloud felt his stomach pull
in apprehension as understanding began to dawn, and he didn't reply, opting to stand politely and
make sure his expression stayed as it was.

When Tseng was finished looking Cloud over again, he raised cool dark eyes to Cloud's face.
"Are you aware of what unit I'm from?"

Cloud met his gaze, letting a frown come through. It wouldn't do good to show that he could
level the same stare back at Tseng, because it might encourage the man more. "The Turks, sir,"
he said.

"Are you aware of what the Turks do, cadet?"

"They...scout for SOLDIER candidates," Cloud replied, affecting a slightly confused voice,
hoping that naivety would put the man off.
"Amongst other things, yes," Tseng said diplomatically, and Cloud wasn't entirely sure that the
Turk leader was fooled by his act. Cloud wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't - the Turks were one
of ShinRa's many open secrets. Hopefully he'd just think that Cloud was stupid. "I'd like to see
the two of you and your skills in a more private environment," he continued, nodding to the
dispersing crowd of cadets as they wandered noisily to the showers. "This is hardly the place to
determine such things."

Cloud tried to think of a polite way of saying "I don't want to join the Turks" without ruining his
facade of stupidity, and couldn't.

Reno cleared his throat, catching Tseng's attention. "When, sir?"

"I'll have to decide and send messages to you both," Tseng said thoughtfully. "Soon, though.
Before the SOLDIER Entry Exams. Strife, you are dismissed. Reno - I'd like a private word."

Cloud sent Reno a brief look of apology before the red-head was herded away, dread settling in
his stomach. He hadn't thought of this happening, though some small part of him had been aware
that the Turks looked for the more talented cadets when they were looking to recruit. Vincent, for
example, had been a natural marksman, as far as Cloud had heard, and had been snapped up
away from SOLDIER.

Considering that the Turks were pretty much of legendary status amongst the SOLDIER cadets,
Cloud doubted they'd ever had one refuse to join their ranks. Which put him in a difficult
position - knowing what the Turks did, how they acted, how they fought, and knowing that he
didn't want that - how would he be able to be the first cadet to do so? He'd heard of refusals, of
course, but he was sure they'd come from older individuals whom the Turks had tried to poach
from actual SOLDIER ranks when none of the cadets had measured up to standard.

There wasn't even a chance that he could get away with holding back his swordsmanship,
considering that Tseng had watched him in that practical. As he meandered after the other cadets
to the shower room, he ran a hand absently through his hair, sighing. Too many things to think
about; too many complications. Too much he had to watch out for, in fear his secret might be
revealed.

He tried to forget about it in the showers, standing with a hand against the tiled wall and letting
the hot water beat down on his back, head lowered. Again, he stayed longer than necessary, until
the normal shouts of the more boisterous cadets had faded out and there was just the sound of the
water, and the smell of it in his nostrils. He found it comforting. The heat, the closeness of the air,
offered a respite.

He wasn't the only one who seemed to have sought out that peace and comfort, and if he'd had
his head turned into the spray of the water he wouldn't have been able to hear them. As it was, he
closed his eyes and fought the embarrassed flush as he caught a quiet gasp of "f-fuck..." from the
next stall over, and the quiet shush from a different voice. Then, he couldn't hear anything over
the sound of the showers for a while, until the next groan came, voice unchecked.
Cloud turned his head into the spray so he didn't have to listen. He knew more than a few cadets
here who wouldn't have done the same; would have strained their ears and reached for
themselves like they would in their own beds when they thought it was safe to do so without
anyone noticing. Instead, his mind went briefly back to the dream of the field, where Sephiroth
had taken his mouth with no doubt that it was his to take. For a brief moment, he couldn't help
but imagine that Sephiroth was with him then, pressing him back into cool, wet tiles with the
same domination that he'd shown in Cloud's sleeping hours.

He pushed the image away roughly even as it sent a sharp spike down through his belly, and
reached to turn off the shower. He ignored whatever he could hear from the next stall,
determinedly closing his ears to it, and dried himself off before dressing.

Thinking about Sephiroth like that would only hurt, he told himself as he made his way back to
the dorms, because it just would not happen. He'd told himself that for years, though, and it
hadn't stopped him from dreaming.

The dorm was empty when he got there, and he dumped his things on his bed before falling on it
with a sigh, relaxing for a moment. That was, until he realised that something was digging into
his cheek. With a scowl, he moved himself so he could reach it, and found a slip of paper lying
on his pillow. Shoving his elbows underneath him so he could read it, he frowned at the elegant,
unhurried script. It didn't take long for a pleased smile to spread across his face - 'Since you were
so convinced I was cheating, I'm willing to have a re-match, if you're willing to spare me some
more of your time.' It was signed with just an initial.

-----

Despite having a name that was known the world over, Sephiroth did not receive many
unexpected visitors in his office, eager for just a glimpse of him and uncaring of any
consequences to barging into his work place. He supposed that he might have done, if he'd been
in any other occupation - or even if he were slightly lower down in the SOLDIER rankings, or
maybe if his sword wasn't quite as long and painful looking as it was, and so forth. Or if he wore
more welcoming colours - for example, anything other than black and silver. Sephiroth supposed
that there were many reasons that people found him intimidating, but he hadn't found himself
complaining yet.

On the odd occasion, he'd lamented to himself silently that his reputation obviously wasn't
menacing enough to scare Zack away. He often found himself thinking this as the SOLDIER in
question went on and on at length about some subject about which Sephiroth had no real interest,
usually pertaining to women.

He'd had his scheduled meetings for the day. He'd sat and looked professional whilst some
official had sat in the chair opposite him and gone on and on about something that had absolutely
nothing to do with him, until he'd pointed this out and the man had gone slightly red. He'd had
his obligatory listen to Zack, who often wandered in on his way on some errand (usually taking a
long detour in able to get to Sephiroth's office) in order to tell him something else. He was pretty
sure he'd met his people quota for the day, however low that quota might be compared to other
people's. And, as he looked at the diminishing pile of paperwork on his desk with great
satisfaction, he was going to get out of work at a reasonable hour that day. All in all, life was
good as far as he was concerned.

He couldn't help but look up and blink when he heard a knock on the door. He wasn't aware that
anyone had an appointment to see him, and certainly not at this hour, because whilst he might
have considered it reasonable, that by no means it was within normal office working hours. His
meeting-free evenings were where he normally got the majority of his work done because there
was no-one else around to distract him.

"Come in," Sephiroth called, keeping his voice free of concern or confusion, and sat back in his
chair.

There was a pause, and then the door handle turned and the door pushed open just enough to let
Cloud Strife half-appear. He glanced quickly around the office, as if he expected someone else to
be there. Sephiroth clasped his hands together on the desk, pleasantly surprised, and letting his
demeanour soften to show it. "Cloud."

When Cloud's eyes met his, they were as confident as he had ever seen them, a blue as clear and
rich as the summer sky, but there was still that hint of wariness that he was so used to seeing.
Clearing his throat a little, the blond said, "Is this a bad time?"

"Not at all..." Politely, Sephiroth closed the folder he'd been looking through, though it also
served to keep the contents away from any prying eyes. Most chose to take the move as a sign of
complete attention. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

The rest of Cloud slipped in through the door, closing it behind him with a soft click. He was all
limbs, wearing a blue tank top that showed off his pale arms, and dark trousers that accented the
length of his legs.

- they'd be just as long clad in nothing but skin, but you wouldn't really notice that if they were
wrapped around your waist -

Mortified, Sephiroth looked down as Cloud came closer, pretending to be doing something by
pushing the folder further towards the edge of the desk.

"I got your note?" Cloud said in his low, soft voice, tone rising at the end in a question, as if he
wasn't entirely sure he'd got the right person.

"Ah, yes." Sephiroth supposed it had been bold of him to leave it, there for anyone to see and just
signing it with an initial wasn't enough to stop anyone with half a brain from working out who it
was from, if they'd heard even the slightest mention of their impromptu battle in the exam
simulation. He was ready to look up again, then, and Cloud was standing a few feet from the
desk, not entirely casual but not too formal either, but still entirely too inviting and with
absolutely no idea of it. "Did you want to do it again? I didn't hurt your arm, did I?"
"Oh, no," Cloud said, holding out the limb and twisting it briefly to show that it was in perfect
working order. "It's fine. And yes, I do - of course I do." He smiled, too self-conscious by half,
but the expression lit up his face, a welcome change from the usually flat mouth and worried
eyes. "I just...I'm supposed to spar with Reno, and I don't know when, so it'll have to wait until I
know what's going on with him..."

"Reno?" Sephiroth frowned, the name familiar but not one he could instantly put a face to. After
a second, he recalled a red-haired man, thin and lanky but taller than Cloud, with a somewhat
angularly handsome face marred by street scars. Tseng was interested in him. He also recalled
Zack talking about the boy, though - what had he said? 'That shit Reno,' or something to that
effect - Reno had been the one to tell Cloud of the General's apparently well-known sexual habits.

Zack had warned him about that. He hadn't really thought about it at the time.

"Yeah...he's a friend of mine," Cloud said, expression turned wondering as he watched
Sephiroth's face.

"Ah," the older man said, and felt his stomach drop with disappointment. Reno was a friend, and
one to whom Cloud adhered more than he did the General, if this was anything to go by. Reno's
arrangements were coming first. Which meant he would have to be careful, if that was so - Reno
could say anything about him to Cloud, and it was likely that the blond would believe it.

Reno already had said things to Cloud about him. He wondered if Cloud had taken it as
negatively as Zack seemed to think he might have - inexplicably, the thought hurt. He wanted to
explain, to say something in his defence - but couldn't. He fought the sudden worried urge,
covering it, and kept it from being shown in his eyes. "Well, as soon as you know, we could
arrange something, if you wish." He let his mouth pull into a slight smirk. "I'll even leave the
Masamune behind."

"That was rather unfair," Cloud admonished gently, as if Sephiroth's promise of future good will
was all but due, and it caused the smirk to lose its edge, becoming gentler and more amused.
"We could always swap..."

Sephiroth snorted, the sound causing Cloud's serious expression to fade away and reveal the sly
smile he'd been trying to keep at bay. "No doubt it would be highly amusing to watch us duel if
we did, but, unfortunately, I am the only one who can handle the Masamune."

"I know." And Cloud did. He knew he did, and Sephiroth knew he did. And instead of the long,
niggling ache to know how and why Cloud knew, it was muted by the warmth of knowing that
someone, somehow, understood, without question and without fail.

And not long after, when Cloud had disappeared back to his dorm, Sephiroth tapped his fingers
restlessly on the top of his desk. He pushed down on the dark, sudden train of thought that told
him Reno would do nothing but drip poison in Cloud's ear and try to tear at that fragile, peaceful
middle-ground that was still no more than newborn between them, and which he abruptly
realised that he would not hesitate to fight for.
-----

End Chapter 13

1. Yes, I know, I suck at updating. Stone me if you want :P I had exams and revision for, like,
ever... .

Fusion

by Knowing Shadows

Part 1: Chapter 14

Disclaimer: See Chapter 1

A/N: Slightly quicker update this time ;; I made my personal before-uni deadline! Woohoo!

-----

-----

There was sweat dripping down the side of Cloud's nose, and down his temple. He could feel it
against his hairline. He shook his head, trying to clear the irritating feel, but it didn't really help.
His hands were tied, but his palms were sweaty too and it didn't help his grip around the sword
hilt.

It made him feel a little better that Reno was in an even worse state, but not much. Reno was
heaving for breath, pushed to his limits, and Cloud was rapidly approaching his. They circled
each other warily on the mats, trying to catch their breath. This fight was over, Cloud thought as
he tried to breathe through his nose to spare his parched throat. Neither of them wanted to carry
on, but it depended on how much more the man standing to the side thought they could take - or
how much more he wanted to see.

Tseng wasn't stupid, which was a relief as much as a worry. "Good, good," he called out, and
they both let out massive sighs of relief. "That's enough. Well done. You can put your things
away now."

Cloud rolled his eyes and straightened, wincing at the ache starting up in his lower back. Tseng
had pushed them hard for much, much longer than Cloud had ever thought he'd want to watch
them for. And Cloud had been taking it easy. He was surprised Reno hadn't collapsed by now. If
Cloud wasn't in the shape he was, he was sure he would have been flat out on the floor.

Reno trudged along with him to put their swords away, and they were both quiet as their pulses
began to slow back to normal. Cloud was pretty sure he couldn't talk anyway since his throat was
so dry. They put their weapons back on the rack, out of Tseng's sight, and Cloud then raised his
arms above his head to stretch out his lower back, making a satisfied groan as he did so. Reno
ran a hand through his hair, found it damp with sweat, and scowled to himself, wiping his palm
disgustedly on his thigh.

"He's such a bitch!" Reno said quietly, his admiration for Tseng apparently destroyed. "Prissy,
stuck-up -"

"Ssh." Cloud nodded his head in the Turk's direction. "Save it for after he leaves."

"We'd better go back and see what oh-mighty-Lord-on-High has to say," Reno said with a roll of
his eyes, and Cloud bit back a smile as they trudged reluctantly back into Tseng's sight. The Turk
was obviously waiting for them, watching them with the same dark, detached interest that had
been in his eyes all evening. He stood with his arms crossed over his chest, broad-shouldered and
impassive, and it would have been intimidating for anyone except Cloud. He kept his own
attention on Reno because he wasn't sure that he could even pretend to be awed.

"You're both impressive," Tseng said after a moment, and Cloud met his eyes blankly. "And,
from what I've seen, pretty well-matched. I'd like to see you two practice again. Reno, you at
least know what's at stake. I'm sure you can explain it to Strife if he doesn't know already." He
nodded in Cloud's direction whilst watching Reno. "I'll let you know when we shall meet again.
You should go shower and get to bed." They watched him go a bit resentfully, Reno in particular,
until he'd gone through the door.

Reno threw up his hands and made a loud noise of exasperation. "Again?" he cried. "What's he
trying to do? Kill us? At this rate we'll fail the exams through exhaustion!"

Cloud shook his head, scratching the back of his neck. He swallowed to wet his throat. "I don't
even want the place he's offering. He hasn't even asked!"

"I never got asked either," Reno said, sounding indignant where he'd been excited before. "I don't
know if I want to work with that pompous bastard."

"Well, I don't want to." Cloud snorted, and then a thought hit him. He turned to Reno, and said,
"You do know that, don't you? I don't want to join the Turks. It's your place -"

Reno waved his hands, cutting the blond off. "Yeah, yeah, I know that. You've only got eyes for
SOLDIER. A blind man would know that. But..." The redhead sighed, kicking the practice mat
idly. "You are better than I am, and I think Tseng knows it. I can't...there's no way I can match
you physically. He must know about that fight you had with Sephiroth, and that's going to bump
you up about 3 hundred gazillion points in the talent department."

"But I don't want to join the Turks," Cloud reiterated, knowing that Reno's desire for that place
was almost as strong as Cloud's desire to enter SOLDIER. There was something about Reno that
just didn't suit SOLDIER, and he wasn't sure what it was but it was there. "I could talk to
Tseng..."
"You could try," Reno said with a bitter laugh. "I expect he'll be all like -" He adopted a deep,
pompous voice that sounded nothing like Tseng, " - 'Oh, you don't want to join the Turks? Why
ever not? The Turks are the best thing there is! No, no, silly boy, you're just a bit confused. Of
course you want to join us!'"

Cloud bit back a laugh, shaking his head, but still, Reno had a point. The Turks were the
President's favourites, and got what they wanted, including their pick of the cadets. That was the
problem once you gave your soul to ShinRa - they tended to take advantage of it.

"I'll try Tseng," he said, though he didn't really expect anything to come of it, except that Tseng
might become more curious as he tried to work out why Cloud didn't want the place that most
other boys his age would dream of having. And if, somehow, he worked out that Cloud knew
more about them than he should, then he was in trouble. The Turks might have been ShinRa's
worst kept secret, but their notoriety didn't discourage them from carrying out their dirty work.
Silencing a sixteen year old boy from Nibelheim wouldn't give any of them nightmares.

Reno shrugged. "If not, you could always ask the General to interfere for you."

Something in Reno's voice didn't sit right. Cloud laughed disbelievingly, but it sounded more
strained than it should have. "I don't have any right to ask him to do anything for me," he said.

Reno raised his eyebrows, looking entirely unconvinced and not bothering to hide it. "I would
have thought you did," he said. "He seems to be taking enough of an interest..."

"If this is about what you told me before," Cloud said, feeling his mood drop and his voice ice
over slightly, "then you've got nothing to worry about. Really. I am not involved with him." He
wanted to be, but Reno didn't need to know otherwise. "And I'm not likely to ever be."

"I still don't like it," Reno said stubbornly, frowning. "Like I said, I've seen what he does to
people. I don't want to see him do it to you, okay? You deserve better than that."

"It depends what you want from him," Cloud found himself saying. "If all those others, if all they
wanted was the same as what he wanted, then it's no problem, is it? Was your friend looking for
a relationship?"

Reno stared at him, blinking slowly, and his face clearly said that he couldn't believe Cloud was
defending the man. Why Reno had such a grudge, he didn't know. "I don't know," Reno replied
slowly, measuring his words. "But, still, I've heard about the way he treats people he's slept
with...and it's unacceptable whether someone was looking for a relationship or not."

"Why? What does he do?" When sane, Sephiroth had never treated him with anything less than
his due, even as a mere ShinRa grunt. He'd known his name on the Nibelheim mission, knew that
that was Cloud's hometown, let him see his family...

Reno shrugged, uncomfortable, leaning back against the low partition between the mats and the
seats. He slid his hands into the pockets on his trousers. "He just...doesn't acknowledge them at
all. Pretends they don't exist, that nothing ever happened. He uses them. And once he's fucked
them, he just tosses them aside. He's so...so cold."

That's not true at all, Cloud thought, but kept the indignant statement at bay. He looked away,
crossing his arms over his chest. The only time he's ever been cold to me at all was when he'd
lost his mind...when it wasn't even him. Tifa said she thought he was cold when he came to
Nibelheim, and yes, he's aloof, but not...it's not his fault, with the way others treat him...

He knew, better than anyone except perhaps Zack, that Sephiroth was human, despite his Jenova
genes. The distance he put between himself and others was something Cloud understood, and
something he did himself - keeping others away meant less chance of being hurt. And who could
hurt you worse than someone who knew you as intimately as a lover might? Of course he was
unlikely to ever continue a steady relationship. His poor experiences of the human race were
hardly going to inspire any confidence in them.

He also knew that keeping yourself apart from others still hurt, because it was human nature to
want to be close to others. So if Sephiroth cracked every so often and sought out human comfort,
who could blame him? Cloud couldn't - he understood too much about Sephiroth to be able to.

"Look," Reno said, breaking the silence, "I'm not looking to argue over him, I just want you to be
careful. And if it does happen, then it's your choice, not mine. That's all, okay?"

"It won't," Cloud replied firmly. Where on earth had Reno got the idea that it was a certainty he
was going to sleep with the General just because the man was taking an interest in a skilled
cadet? It was ridiculous. Feeling defensive on Sephiroth's behalf, he turned away, making to go
towards the showers, as Reno held up his hands to indicate an end to the argument, obviously
sensing Cloud's drop in mood over the discussion.

Reno doesn't understand yet that Sephiroth will always come first, Cloud mused as the redhead
trailed along behind him. He always has, ever since I came to Midgar, but now... Now, this is all
for him. Everything is for him. He is what I'm here for - to change things for him. Because he
never deserved what happened to him. Never.

The silence continued all the way until they were both under hot spray in their individual
cubicles. Cloud was rubbing a soapy flannel along the underside of his arm when Reno's voice
floated over the steam, "Hey, Cloud?"

"What is it?"

"Are you mad at me?"

Cloud had moved the cloth to his left flank, and scrubbed a bit harder than necessary at Reno's
question, wincing. It was a long while before he answered, "...Not really. I just think you're too
hard on him. I think there are circumstances that you aren't taking into account."

"What circumstances?"
"I don't really know. And neither do you. So I think you're making an unfair judgement, that's
all." Cloud shrugged, even though he was the only one who was aware of the gesture.

"No offence, Cloud, but I think you romanticise him too much."

"Probably," Cloud replied honestly, rolling a stiffening shoulder before pressing his wet palm
briefly to his chest uncomfortably, as if that pressure might detract from the ache inside. But I
also know more than you do, and I can't mention any of it to anyone. I have to stand here and
listen to you badmouth him when I know...I know that it's not fair...

He heard Reno sigh even over the combined sound of both their showers running, but he didn't
say anything. Cloud continued with his shower, tilting his head back into the spray and letting
the noise of the water block out any hints of Reno's presence for a little while. The conversation
meant that thoughts of Sephiroth weren't far away - but when were they not? For a moment he
allowed the ridiculous fantasy to surface again, of what it might be like if the older man were
with him then. It made his face burn with both shame and something altogether different, which
writhed in his belly all the same. Cloud had always had a vivid imagination, after all, so it wasn't
particularly difficult to imagine pale wet skin beneath his fingers or pressed against his mouth,
even though it was Sephiroth. And older as he was, the sexual desire was easier to accept than it
had ever been in his teenage years.

I am not involved with him. And I'm not likely to ever be.

And every word of it was true. Cloud grit his teeth, and hit his balled fist soundlessly against the
tiled wall.

Damnit, Reno! Why couldn't you just leave it alone!

"Cloud? You okay in there?"

Cloud shook his head, stretching his hand out flat against the tiles. "Fine," he managed
eventually, surprised at how off his voice sounded even though he knew the ache in his chest
would affect it. He took a deep breath and tried again. "I'm fine," and it came out calmer.

"I think...we should arrange some more practicing on our own," Reno continued, sounding a
little humbled. "Because Tseng seems so interested. What do you think?"

Cloud almost laughed, but managed to stop it at a pained, self-mocking smile, head bowed until
his forehead was almost leaning against the cool tiles. Reno was a fool if he thought Cloud
couldn't see through that - if talking wasn't going to turn Cloud away from the General, then that
obviously wasn't going to stop him from trying something else to keep the blond out of the other
man's way.

But still, it would make no sense to alienate Reno, not even if he was being so stubborn about the
issue. He could still arrange the extra practice sessions that Sephiroth had suggested around
whatever Reno wanted, as long as he was careful, and used it to keep him in shape for the field
exam. His instructor, after all, had said that Sephiroth wouldn't be very pleased if he failed to
pass.

"Sure," he said over the showers. "It wouldn't hurt."

-----

Zack sat on the edge of Cloud's bed, his face set in a scowl as he stared at the blond's shoulders,
watching them shift slightly as he breathed. To be honest, his scowl was not directed at Cloud
except that he was annoyed that the younger man was still asleep, and he was not. Anyone could
tell you that Zack liked to sleep, and that waking him up was a task no-one relished. Waking up
naturally only happened after about eleven o'clock. Yet, at that moment, it was still dark, and
Zack was not only awake, but had showered and dressed and packed his bag.

No, Zack's unhappy expression could be applied any number of people: anyone in the world who
was, in fact, still asleep; Sephiroth, because he was the one who wanted to travel at this
Godforsaken hour of the morning; himself, for agreeing to accompany the General in the first
place.

Cloud was on his side, facing the wall, so his back was to Zack. The blankets were drawn up
high to just below his shoulders, so Zack could see bare, pale skin where the material didn't
cover him. He didn't snore, so the only noise he made was the soft, low sound of slow, regular
breathing. Zack found it soothing to listen to him sometimes, when he lay awake and couldn't
sleep, or something was playing on his mind. Many times he'd eventually drifted off, listening to
the blond. Despite the problems surrounding Cloud, Zack often found his presence calm and
soothing.

Interrupting that thought, the blond made a soft noise of protest and shifted, legs drawing up
slightly under the blankets. He made another sound, more insistent, and Zack reached out, laying
his hand lightly on Cloud's shoulder.

"Hn," Cloud murmured, and Zack squeezed gently, smiling a little as the tension seemed to pass.
The blond stretched out again, the way he'd been before. Zack stared at his hand, and even in the
dark he could make out a clear contrast between his own skin and Cloud's. He admired it for a
moment, rubbing his thumb comfortingly across Cloud's shoulder blade.

He heard the door to the room open very quietly, and then click shut again a moment later. He
took his hand away and left it on the blanket between himself and Cloud's sleeping figure,
turning his head to where Sephiroth detached himself from the shadows.

"I half-expected you to be still asleep," Sephiroth said quietly, his normally chilly voice warmed
by amusement. "In fact, I take that back. I more than half-expected you to be asleep."

"Yeah, yeah, rub it in, why don't you?" Zack replied, rolling his eyes. "Just because some of us
have decent sleeping hours, doesn't mean you have a right to inflict your inhumane schedule on
everyone else, you know...god, some people are just so inconsiderate..."
At one time, Sephiroth would have taken that statement seriously, but now he just smirked a little,
amused by the banter. Before Zack, no-one had really taken the time to joke with him, either too
afraid or not expecting the General to be the kind of man to appreciate someone else's sense of
humour. Zack was too confident in himself to even entertain that kind of thought, which had
benefited his older friend greatly. Zack was proud to be able to say that he had helped Sephiroth
in some way.

"Well, I warned you when I asked you to accompany me," Sephiroth said, "and one would
expect that to have allayed any...grumpiness...but I see some people are just never satisfied..."

Zack grinned at him. "Oh-ho, is that teasing I hear from your good self, oh Mighty General? That
simply won't do."

Sephiroth held a finger to his lips then, looking past Zack meaningfully and nodding his head.
Zack looked over as he heard a rustle, watched as Cloud shifted beneath the blankets, half onto
his back, eyelashes fluttering as he stirred. They waited with bated breath, but Cloud's eyes did
not open. Zack breathed a sigh of relief, and then silently cursed himself for it when Cloud's
sleepy voice murmured, "Zack...?"

Zack leaned over the blond, and he could just about see the wet sliver of iris beneath barely lifted
lashes. "Yeah?"

"Mm..." Cloud hummed, luckily not very awake at all, it seemed. "Thought I heard...thought I..."
He trailed off for a moment, moving languidly until he was properly on his back, and for a
moment Zack wondered if he might have just drifted back off again, but then he said, "Is
Seph...Sephiroth..."

Zack smiled, a little painfully, willing Cloud not to say anything incriminating. "Yeah, he's here.
He's come to pick me up. We're going on a date to the mountains," he added in a stage whisper,
and heard Sephiroth snort loudly.

"Ah..." Cloud's eyes had fallen closed. "'kay..."

"Go back to sleep, Cloud." Without the chill, Sephiroth's deep voice was pleasant to listen to, and
Zack watched as Cloud's mouth pulled into a small, pleased smile at the sound of the other man's
soft command. He hummed a sleepy affirmative, and out of the corner of his eye Zack could see
the answering curve of the General's mouth in the dark.

Zack watched Cloud until he heard the blond's breathing even out again. He'd fallen asleep on his
back, face turned in their direction, and Zack knew that Sephiroth's eyes were on the blond's
shadowed features. He wondered what Sephiroth was thinking; if he was looking at Cloud and
imagining what it might be like to have that sleepy, unguarded figure dozing in his own bed, or if
he was staring at the blond's face and could only see the huge gulf of age between them.
He turned his head just a little, enough to see Sephiroth more clearly out of the corner of his eye.
Sephiroth's expression was carefully neutral, as it normally was, but there was the hint of a frown
in his eyes and mouth, and Zack silently cursed him, because that could be read either way.

Sephiroth's gaze shifted to Zack after a moment, aware that he was being observed. "We should
move before we wake him again."

"Yeah, he's a light sleeper like you." Zack eased himself up off the mattress so as not to jostle the
blond too much. "I don't know if he learnt that here or its natural."

"It's a useful habit," Sephiroth murmured, and he was watching Cloud again as he said it. His
face had that odd, closed, pensive look, the pale jade of his eyes gleaming gently in the dark.

Cloud fascinates him, Zack realised. There's something about Cloud that's caught his attention,
but he just has no idea what to do with it. I doubt he even knows what it is he really wants. And
he doesn't know what to do with himself.

"Come on then," he said eventually, taking Sephiroth's attention back. "Let's go inspect these
mountains. Wouldn't want our poor SOLDIER candidates getting killed off because they moved
in extra forces while our backs were turned. You'd actually have to get your hands dirty."

Sephiroth made a slight face that made Zack grin. The black-haired man picked up his bag and
cheerfully hoisted the strap up over his shoulder. "Lead the way, oh mighty General. You'd better
have me back in time for tea."

"We'll see. And if you're lucky, I'll even walk your delicate self home."

"Really! Kick-ass! You're the best boyfriend ever."

"I'm sure."

-----

It felt like years had passed since Cloud had gone, though it wasn't. Exactly how long, Vincent
wasn't sure, and he didn't really like to think about it, so he thought about other things instead.

Cloud lay on the guestroom bed like he had done ever since they'd moved him there from
Nibelheim. It seemed fundamentally wrong to walk into the room every day and find him
unchanged and unmoving, only alive. Even worse was bathing him, keeping the lolling head
propped up on his chest to wash lank blond hair and pale, pale skin that seemed paler every day.
It wasn't that he begrudged the task, because after everything Cloud had done and suffered it was
no hardship to at least keep him clean when he couldn't do it himself, but it was the worst
reminder of Cloud's condition. When he was lain out on the bed, it was at least possible to
pretend that he was sleeping.
Vincent was close to sleeping himself. He was sitting in the comfortable armchair he'd moved
into the room next to Cloud's bed, on another unofficial vigil. It was getting late, but he didn't
really feel like moving, and the chair was fine enough - he'd slept in it other nights like this, with
the excuse of letting Tifa have the time to see to her own family rather than concentrating on the
man she'd originally wanted one with.

He watched Cloud's face in profile wearily beneath lowered lashes, the wan moonlight coming
through the open curtains lending his skin a healthier glow, highlighting the elegant lines of the
blond's fine-featured face; the narrow nose and jaw that some found more effeminate than they
liked in their heroes, and others found alluring.

It took him a long time before he became aware that he was no longer watching Cloud, but
another fine-boned face in the same vein as his own, and that he no longer seemed to be in Tifa's
guestroom, but an office. Sephiroth was bent over his desk, tapping the end of a pen against a
stack of papers that he seemed to be reading through. After a moment, he reached the end and
quickly placed what looked like a signature there. That done, he placed the pen on the desk and
stood, wincing slightly, before brushing his hair behind his ears.

Vincent stared at his son with a mix of awe and horror, heart thumping beneath his ribs.

"Don't worry, you're only asleep."

And abruptly Aeris was standing by the office window, hands clasped behind her back and a
gentle smile on her face, dressed the same as he remembered her. Sephiroth, apparently
completely unaware of either of their presences, picked up the papers and walked with them
around the desk towards the door. Vincent turned to watch the SOLDIER leave, the awe still
sharp in his chest.

My son...The son I never saw before he lost his mind.

"He would have been a magnificent man, had Hojo not factored in his life after his birth," Aeris
said thoughtfully from behind him. "As fragile as he is, there's no way Nibelheim could have
turned out any differently."

"'Is'?" Vincent queried, voice miraculously clear of the guilt throbbing in his chest. "Where is
this?"

"A more appropriate question would be 'when'," Aeris replied. "Although, being honest, 'where'
is equally valid, I suppose."

"And 'when' is this?"

"Before Nibelheim," Aeris said, her voice surprisingly light. "This is where Cloud is."
Vincent turned back to her, and she brought her gaze away from the door to him. Her expression
was still gentle, but the smile had gone. Then she cocked her head. "Well, this isn't literally
where he is, of course, not yet - but I'm guessing he will be soon. But you know what I mean."

"This is where his mind is?" Vincent looked around the room. "If this is Sephiroth's office, then
I'm guessing Midgar...pre-Nibelheim Midgar. This is where he's gone?"

She smiled again, indulgently, but said nothing.

"Are you the one keeping him alive?" Vincent asked. "Cloud's body, I mean. He's not taking in
any food, yet he's not wasting away. We had a doctor try and fit a drip a few weeks back and it
just wouldn't work."

"Of course we're keeping him alive." Aeris' laugh was a soothing, much missed sound, light and
airy and calm. "His mind is still connected to his body. The death of one is the death of the other,
and Cloud still has work to do here."

The door to the office opened again and Sephiroth reappeared, minus the papers he'd walked out
with, but loaded down with manila folders. Vincent had known that any son of Lucrecia's would
grow up handsome, and looking at the man now, he could see that there was nothing of Hojo in
him. The pale complexion was Vincent's, as was the queer, exotic quality about the green eyes
that made them seem so unfriendly.

"You can't fault Cloud's taste, really, can you?" Aeris said teasingly as Sephiroth piled the
folders on his desk, before pulling out his chair and sinking into it, fiddling absently with his
gloves.

"Why did you bring Cloud here? What purpose is there in this?"

"I can't tell you that." Aeris sighed softly.

"Then why am I here?"

"We wanted to assure you that Cloud is alright." Aeris smiled again, eyes crinkling at the edges.
"Time flows differently here than it does where you are. More time has passed here than has for
you. Cloud has settled here. I just wanted to ease your mind a little, and allow you a chance to
see your son, even if he can't see you."

He did not question her knowledge of their relationship, but gave her a long, flat look. He
wondered, though, how long she had known. "Who knows?"

"That Hojo is not his father?" She cocked her head a little, thoughtful. "The Cetra, because it's
quite difficult to keep things hidden in a collective consciousness." She smiled, sweet and joking
and meaning to ease his discomfort. That kind of smile on her rarely failed. "Yourself, of course,
and anyone you have told. That is all."
Vincent nodded, satisfied, and allowed himself to watch Sephiroth work for a moment longer. It
was a guilty pleasure, knowing that this was the man who had caused so much pain for the entire
world, and almost destroyed Cloud Strife, but at the same time knowing that that hadn't really
been Sephiroth's fault - and the overwhelming emotion in his chest at seeing his only son sane
for the first time was almost too much for him.

"How old is he?" he asked quietly, as Sephiroth pulled several finely-detailed maps out of his
desk drawer and spread them out over the space on his desk not occupied by folders.

"Sephiroth? Twenty five, if I remember correctly. Cloud is sixteen here."

"Sixteen?" He tore his eyes from Sephiroth to watch Aeris' face. "Then...Nibelheim..?"

"Not far away, no." Her face gave away nothing, and Vincent became suddenly acutely aware of
how much she was a stranger to him like this - she was no longer the Aeris he had known. No,
she was - but now she was more, and it made him wary.

"Then that is what he's here for? To change...prevent Nibelheim?"

"I cannot say."

"Cannot or will not?"

She smiled again, and in her eyes there was the whole of the Lifestream looking back at him. A
thousand different shades of green, and in her smile a thousand other smiles, and her single voice
carrying the weight of the Cetra with it.

As Sephiroth traced a fingertip along one of the lines on a map, following it along, there was a
knock on the door that disturbed all three of them. The silver-haired man looked up, expression
impervious and chilly. "Come in." His voice was strong and deep and smooth and so very
different than the voice in Vincent's memories - it was disconcerting to be faced with such a
different man, disconcerting to be faced with just how much change insanity could wring in a
person.

Aeris' smile had changed, wider and brighter than before, and it was more her own again. The
door opened enough to let a head poke around it, and Vincent found himself staring at a sixteen-
year-old Cloud Strife. It was almost as shocking to see how much Cloud had changed under such
suffering over the years - here, he was fresh-faced and held the almost arrogant handsomeness of
youth, with startling blue eyes even before the Mako, and the clean lines of a narrow jaw and
chin; it was the healthiest Vincent had ever seen him.

"Sir? Is it okay to come in?" Cloud's voice was untainted by anything but a very faint tremor of
nerves. He seemed very young, but at the same time his eyes were not - like Aeris', they spoke of
more, and Vincent knew why. He could see the Cloud that he knew in there, a more sombre
personality than must usually inhabit that body.
He looked to Sephiroth then, to gauge the other man's reaction to Cloud, and was glad he had,
because for a man who knew what to look for, the change in the General was startling. Taut
muscles across the silver-haired man's broad shoulders and back eased just a little, signalling that
this was a welcome interruption rather than another burdensome task. More than that, the chill in
Sephiroth's expression thawed as if it had never been, leaving him neutral but not unfriendly.
Cloud, apparently as adept at reading these signs as Vincent, visibly brightened, and was
daringly stepping inside the office even as Sephiroth was saying, "Of course..."

It was as if someone had volume control on the scene then, and abruptly set it on mute, because
Cloud's mouth was working as he approached the General's desk, but Vincent couldn't hear him.
And when Sephiroth replied, Vincent wished that he could hear it, as much to hear his son's
voice as because he knew that Sephiroth generally wasn't really given to speaking more than he
had to, yet here he seemed quite happy to converse with the younger man.

"It's a wonder no-one realised before," Aeris said softly, and it was sad. Vincent listened to her as
he watched the pair before him, the first time he had seen them interact without madness and
hatred to divide them. "Cloud hid it all this time, fought with it, but it never left him. He gave his
heart away and never got it back."

"It would have killed him if he had," Vincent said firmly, not knowing how he knew it, but
knowing he did. "That seems to be all that drove him at times...without that, he would have had
nothing, because Sephiroth would have been lost to him completely. He would have died."

"And your son...He never had anyone in his life who loved him for who he was, not really.
Everyone deserves to be loved, and to know they were loved. And Cloud loves him...so much."
Vincent looked at Aeris then, and her expression was pained, twisted. "For nine years he lived
believing that he had failed the man he loved, like it was somehow his fault...and I could feel it.
It was eating him inside because that was all he had left. I couldn't...leave him like that." She
gazed a him pleadingly, as if somehow this sudden, desperate explanation could excuse what
she'd done. "And Sephiroth...It was just so unfair."

"You plead the case of the man who killed you?" Vincent asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I've spoken to him, you know," Aeris said. "In the Lifestream. Before...this." She gestured
around the room, the dream, where Sephiroth and Cloud were still talking, more seriously.
"It...hurts to talk to him, sometimes." She seemed uncomfortable even saying it, and Vincent was
reminded of just how sensitive Aeris was when it came to the emotions of others. "Without
Jenova to drive him, he's nothing like he was before. He's not...completely sane, but I wouldn't
say 'mad'. Just...just a little unbalanced. Most of the time he's so lucid that it's almost like he's
completely normal again, but as he's part of the Lifestream, it's impossible to hide his mind from
us." Her smile tightened, saddened once more. "It's...painful. His mind. And I can't find it in
myself to hold what he did against him when I can see for myself that he's not truly to blame."

"A fair answer." Vincent nodded, relieved, and glanced over in time to see Sephiroth's
expression tighten, something like a frown settling over his face for a split second before he
controlled himself. Cloud faltered slightly at the sight of it, but picked himself back up again a
little hesitantly when Sephiroth continued to watch him blankly.

"This is progress, if you'd believe it," Aeris said lightly, and out of the corner of his eye, Vincent
saw her wave in Sephiroth and Cloud's direction. "It's both wonderful and frustrating to watch
them. But!" She clapped her hands so suddenly that it startled him. "I think you've seen enough
for tonight, so I think it's time for you to go on back to your own dreams, and not mine."

"Wait - !" But it was too late, and the office scene faded from around them, until it was only
Aeris standing in the dark before him. "Wait, Aeris - will he succeed? Will Cloud do what he's
got to do?"

That enigmatic smile again that wasn't just Aeris', and then she faded just like everything else,
and there was only silence left to answer him.

-----

The door to Sephiroth's office was a strange thing, both frightening and exciting all at once.
Higher ups in the company liked their doors to be intimidating affairs to make them seem more
frightening, that much Cloud knew. Sephiroth's was made of a dark, panelled wood and a gold
plate was nailed to it, into which was engraved 'SOLDIER General Sephiroth.' That was all he
needed to have most men quaking in their boots. Cloud traced the fine letters with his eyes for a
moment, and swallowed against the mix of apprehension and anticipation rising from his belly.

Eventually, after the secretary asked him in a slightly scathing voice if something was the matter,
he raised his hand and knocked on the door. The woman had seemed slightly disbelieving of him
when he'd asked to see Sephiroth, but hadn't even asked the General personally if he wanted to
see Cloud - she was obviously hoping to see the blond getting his head kicked in for disturbing
the older man.

Sephiroth's hard voice drifted through the wood. "Come in." With that tone of voice, Cloud was
sure the secretary must be smirking behind him. He refused to turn and look, but squared his
shoulders and pushed open the door enough to look around inside. Sephiroth was seated at his
desk, hands resting on what looked like detailed maps. His eyes were sharp, almost reproachful,
but any thought that that look was directed at him dissipated as he watched it fade from
Sephiroth's face when their eyes met.

"Sir? Is it okay to come in?" Cloud knew he sounded a little uncertain, but he couldn't help it -
and the tremor was as much from the sharp surge of emotion in his chest as it was from any real
nervousness.

"Of course..." The harsh quality in Sephiroth's voice had gone, and Cloud mentally stomped all
over the irritating secretary in triumph, resisting the urge to look back at her and see her
expression. He closed the office door behind him, and Sephiroth clasped his hands together on
top of the desk, watching him curiously. "Is there something I can do for you, Cloud?" He
seemed to be trying the name out, as if that kind of familiarity might be too much, but all it did
was make Cloud's heart soar.

Standing by the door made him look like a coward, so Cloud made his way closer even as he said,
"I wanted to ask about the practice sessions."

"Ah." That evidently pleased Sephiroth, because he sat back slightly in his chair, shoulders
relaxing a little bit more. "Yes, I was hoping that might be it. Did you arrange your other ones
with your friend?"

"Reno?" Cloud questioned, coming to a stop a few feet from the desk. "Yeah...we already had
one session but he wants a couple more before the exams, too. But I do have some free evenings,
so I wondered if you might be free then, too..."

Sephiroth regarded him coolly, thoughtful, and Cloud shifted a little, but unable to look away
from the other man's face. His heart beat an uncomfortable rhythm behind his ribs, like it always
did whenever Sephiroth was involved. "The exams aren't very far away at all," the silver-haired
man said eventually, still giving him that calculating look. "Asking you for more practice
sessions might run the risk of injury, or at least be detrimental to your performance -"

"No," Cloud started, interrupting at the sudden fear that Sephiroth might call it off and he'd lose
his chance. His chest went tight and cold with it. "No, it wouldn't - I know it's a lot but I see it as
training and I'd cancel the ones with Reno if I could but they're ones Tseng scheduled -"

"Tseng?" Sephiroth's expression tightened into a frown, his deep voice cutting off Cloud's
tumbling words sharply, but then the older man„s features smoothed out again, going blank. In
the brief silence that followed it, Cloud wondered if he'd made a mistake or not. "Why is Tseng
scheduling practice sessions between yourself and Reno?"

Cloud went very still, unsure of what to do. He hadn't really wanted Sephiroth to know about
Tseng, especially after what Reno had said about getting the General to step in (because Reno
had the wrong end of the stick anyway and he'd rather discourage that any way possible). But he
knew from experience that Sephiroth was a man who despised dishonesty, and if he caught
Cloud out in a lie then the blond was sure he'd never be forgiven, and all of this would have been
for nothing.

Sephiroth was watching him expectantly, pale green eyes never leaving his face, head tilted
slightly to one side. God, but he was so beautiful - everything about him made Cloud ache. That
deep, overwhelming longing was the one thing about love with which Cloud was really familiar,
and over the years it had only grown stronger.

"I think Tseng wants to choose between either Reno or myself for a position in the Turks," Cloud
said quietly, "and is trying to compare our skills by pitting us against each other. At least, that is
my guess." He shrugged uncomfortably.
Sephiroth continued to watch him coolly for a long moment, before eventually saying, "I see." It
was amazing how uncomfortable he could make a man, just by sitting there with his hands
clasped. Something about him screamed 'I am most displeased' and it made Cloud's chest tight
with worry at the thought that it was him that had done that.

"You are an unusual target for the Turks," Sephiroth commented when Cloud didn't say anything.
"But I can see why they would be interested."

Cloud searched the General's face desperately for something to contradict what he was hearing,
because it sounded almost like the older man was accepting it. "Sir, please, I don't want to join
the Turks!"

His voice did not hide any of his desperation, and Cloud couldn't even begin to guess what was
showing on his face, but Sephiroth's expression thawed again, the older man allowing a puzzled
frown to pull at his fine features.

Cloud met that look as bravely as he could, squaring his shoulders. "I want to join SOLDIER."

"Most cadets would jump at the chance to join the Turks," Sephiroth said evenly, but his frown
did not ease.

"I...came to Midgar to join SOLDIER, not the Turks," Cloud replied, lowering his gaze a little so
that it rested on Sephiroth's right shoulder guard. I came to join SOLDIER, but then I found you
and found a reason to stay...I was never sure where my desire to join SOLDIER ended and the
desire for you began, even though I knew they were two separate things...

"The Turks hold no appeal for you at all?"

He raised his eyes then because Sephiroth sounded a little surprised, and the older man was
watching him with a neutral expression that only his voice had betrayed. His tone had been one
of pleasant surprise, as well, and the heaviness in Cloud's heart began to ease. His mouth pulled
into a small, hesitant smile. "I'm aware that the image is not the reality," he said, and shrugged.
"Besides, it seems silly coming all this way to Midgar to join SOLDIER, only to change my
mind at the last minute."

His answer seemed to be the right one, because Sephiroth said, "It does, indeed," and seemed to
relax a little. The tension emanating from him eased, but did not entirely disappear, which still
left Cloud on edge. As Cloud was contemplating that, the silver-haired man suddenly said,
"You're from Nibelheim, aren't you?"

"Uh - yes!" His heart lightened considerably with the knowledge that Sephiroth knew that about
him, and even more from the suspicion that Sephiroth was attempting conversation with him.
Excitement filled his belly as he met Sephiroth's bright, interested gaze.
"That is a long way to come to join SOLDIER." Sephiroth looked down at the map on his desk,
and Cloud followed his gaze, seeing that it was of the mountain ranges near Corel. On one side,
where Sephiroth's gaze had come to rest, was a small dot labelled Nibelheim. "Do you miss it?"

"What, Nibelheim?" Cloud scratched the back of his head nervously, keeping his eyes on the
desk even when he knew that Sephiroth had returned to watching him once more. "I...I guess I
miss my mother a little. But no...there's not much there that I miss."

"Prefer the city?"

"No!" Cloud laughed, and it sounded a little strained. "No, I don't. I prefer it quieter, but I just..."
He shrugged uneasily, and wondered why on earth he was telling Sephiroth this - it was the last
thing the older man would want to hear.

"Ah..." Sephiroth murmured, and Cloud looked up again, wondering what that meant, but there
was knowledge and understanding there, that told him he didn't need to carry on because
Sephiroth understood that there was pain there. "I imagine there's not much I would miss about
Midgar, either, if I was ever to leave."

Cloud nodded, knowing the kind of memories Midgar would hold for Sephiroth. Though the man
had been born in Nibelheim, as far as Cloud knew, he must have transferred to Midgar not long
afterwards to have no real recollection of the town except a vague recognition upon seeing it
again. Everything that had ever been done to him in the name of science must have taken place
in this city. He would forever associate Midgar with Professor Hojo, just as Cloud associated
him with five years of torture in Nibelheim.

Sephiroth sighed after a moment, and changed the subject, which was probably for the best,
Cloud thought. "As for the Turks, it's difficult to refuse them considering that they are so in
favour with the President, and they generally get what they want. Tseng is a difficult man to
dissuade. However, if you would like, I could speak with him about it."

Cloud thought of Reno, who would never let the subject go if he heard that Sephiroth had
interfered on Cloud's behalf. It was more likely that Tseng would listen to the General, if he was
inclined to listen to anyone at all, but not only that, it might look like favouritism. Cloud knew
that even Sephiroth could get in trouble for that, and rumours would fly as to why - Ratchett and
Reno would just be the beginning. Even though they were now on conversational terms, Cloud
couldn't understand why Sephiroth would risk so much for him -

"No..." Cloud heard himself say dully. "No, it's alright. Reno and I will sort it out."

"Yourself...and Reno." It might have been a question, but Sephiroth's voice fell flat. Cloud
suppressed a wince as the older man's voice began to grow cold again.

"Yes...sir." Cloud bowed his head, knowing that he was going to leave the office feeling
absolutely miserable. "It's our problem, sir. And...do you still want to spar?" His question was
undeniably hopeful, and Cloud mentally kicked himself for the embarrassing tone of voice.
Sephiroth let out a low sigh, tapping his fingers gently on the map. "Yes, of course. When are
you free?"

"Tomorrow evening...sir..."

"I can come by your dorm when I'm finished in the office, since I don't know exactly when I'll be
done."

Cloud tried for a smile again, but knew he fell hopelessly short, heart pounding and hating how
easily the tension reappeared between them again. "That would be great."

Sephiroth nodded stiffly, making Cloud ache all over with misery at the dismissive gesture. He
lowered his gaze, hoping to hide the disappointment on his face. "Thank you very much, sir." He
saluted, guessing that Sephiroth was done with him for the evening, and made his way out. Not
even the thought of duelling the General again made him feel any better after what felt like a
massive backwards leap in the progression of their so-called relationship. He couldn't understand
why Sephiroth had suddenly gone so cold, and it hurt. When he closed the door to the office
behind him, he tried for a neutral expression so that the irritating secretary couldn't smirk at him.
She just gave him a curious look as he left.

Inside the office, Sephiroth stared at the military maps. The detailed lines swam before his eyes
as he took a low breath, trying to dispel the hot rush of anger. Why was he so angry? It wasn't
even at Cloud - no, that was a lie, but it wasn't just the blond that emotion was targeted at. But he
was confused at why Cloud had refused his offer of help, pushing him away, once again in
favour of someone else -

Shut up, shut up, shut up, what is wrong with you? Why are you losing control over this?

I don't know, I don't! It doesn't make any sense

He knew the name of the emotion, because he wasn't immune to it like so many thought he was
immune to everything, but he refused to believe he was feeling such a bitter and raging thing
about something so little. There was no reason why...

And that wasn't even everything, because there was also guilt, knowing that he had acted entirely
inappropriately to the blond cadet; and then there was fear, cold and solid and still there even
though he tried to ignore it, because he did not like feeling this way about anything or anyone...

Is this what other people take for granted as a part of life? Something they have to deal with
every day? All these bitter thoughts that fester and eat you alive?

I don't want it. I don't want to feel because feeling hurts, and I thought I'd managed to push that
all away...

For a long time, Sephiroth had considered himself above human emotion, because he knew first
hand how much feeling could damage a person in certain situations. If he hadn't managed to shut
that part of himself away as much as he had, he knew that he would have gone mad before the
age of twelve, unable to cope with Hojo and his laboratory. He scoffed at all the clichés, and had
taken no real interest in Zack‟s love life because he viewed „love‟ as as dangerous a thing as any
other emotion, and didn‟t believe that so pure a thing existed in the first place. Were blue eyes, a
gentle mouth and a similar mind all it took to undo so much hard work?

He was horrified to find that he‟d been screwing up the map of Corel in his fists without even
realising it, hands shaking they were clenched so tight.

-----

Zack was whistling merrily to himself as he entered the dorm that evening, bag swung up over
his shoulder. The first part of his day had been rather boring - their scouting mission had
revealed nothing spectacular at all, and Zack spent the time lamenting his lost sleep and mentally
cursing Sephiroth for dragging him out of bed for nothing. Afterwards, Sephiroth had agreed to
make it up to him by letting him have the afternoon off to go and visit Aeris, so he‟d been in a
better mood when Sephiroth had left him in Sector Six. Aeris had been pleased to see him, her
smile gentle and soothing, but he couldn‟t help but be reminded of Cloud‟s strange reaction to
her again. But then Aeris had mentioned that her mother would be out until dinner, and Zack had
grinned and forgotten all about Cloud for a few hours.

It was dark when he got back, but the dorm was quiet, and empty except for Cloud, who was
lying down facing the wall, knees curled up into his chest. Zack didn‟t know if Cloud was asleep,
but even if he was, it was far too early. He flounced over, swung his bag up onto the top bunk,
and then plonked down on Cloud‟s, making sure that he jostled the blond hard. “Oi, Spike,” he
greeted, poking one finger against Cloud‟s shoulder. “Wake up, Mr. Party Pooper. You haven‟t
seen me all day and I expect to be properly welcomed!”

“Zack, I‟m tired...”

The older man withdrew his hand, because Cloud sounded exhausted, but it wasn‟t just that - it
didn‟t sound like just tiredness. There was something else in his voice. He reached out again, but
lay his hand warily on Cloud‟s shoulder, like he had earlier that morning when Cloud had been
sleeping. “Something wrong?”

Cloud stiffened, and Zack could see it as well as feel it beneath his palm. “Nothing...” he
murmured, and his voice was barely above a whisper, the way people spoke when they were
afraid their voices would break on them.

Zack let out a noiseless sigh, just a rush of air past his lips and a slight sag in his shoulders, and
squeezed his hand. “You‟re a terrible liar,” he said into the quiet. “Come on, look at me.”

There was a long pause before Cloud said, “...No.”

“Oh, Cloud...” Zack crawled onto the bed, and wasn‟t entirely surprised when Cloud willingly
came up into his arms, burying his head beneath Zack‟s chin and hiding his face. Zack lay his
cheek against the crown of Cloud‟s head and held the blond as tight as he himself was suddenly
being held. He said nothing for a moment, letting Cloud take what he needed.

This was the difference between Cloud and Sephiroth. Cloud could only keep everything inside
for so long before he needed to take comfort from someone, and Zack was honoured that Cloud
trusted him enough to reveal this more vulnerable side. Sephiroth, on the other hand, did not and
would not ever trust anyone enough to do the same, and kept everything to himself, which was
almost as painful to watch as seeing Cloud like this was.

Speaking of Sephiroth... “What did he do, Spike?”

Cloud shook a little in his arms, but did not cry. Zack had never seen him cry, and wasn‟t sure
what he‟d do if he ever did see it.

Eventually, Cloud murmured against his shirt, “N-Nothing...I don‟t know why I‟m...s-so upset...”

Zack ran a hand soothingly through the blond‟s hair. “He must have done something to make
you like this. I know it was him. No-one else would bother you so much.”

Cloud‟s fingers, digging into Zack‟s back, tightened painfully. “I don‟t...” He made a slight,
almost sniffling sound. “I think I made him angry at me...”

“Angry? At you?” Zack couldn‟t contain his surprise. “What did you do? Pull his hair or
something?”

“I don‟t know...” Cloud moaned miserably. “I don‟t...he just got so c-cold...” He took a deep,
shuddering breath to calm himself, but it didn‟t seem to work, and Zack felt the blond shake
again.

They stayed like that for a while, Zack couldn't say how long, and it didn't occur to him to check.
He found his own comfort there, in the closeness they shared. Cloud had always struck him as
the kind of person who would be alone through circumstance, not really through choice. He
hoped that, even for this brief moment, holding nothing back like this made the blond feel less
lonely.

Sometime later, Cloud's voice emerged from the folds of Zack's shirt, "Shiva, this is stupid."

Zack snorted. "No, it's not. So don't say that."

Cloud still wouldn't show his face. "He didn't even do anything..."

"He did," Zack insisted quietly, running his fingers gently through the shorter hairs at the back of
Cloud's head, a move he knew from experience rarely failed in getting the blond's resistance to
melt away. "You and he were getting on extraordinarily well, I know you were. And for him to
suddenly turn his back on that, for whatever reason, would be upsetting because you love him. I
understand, and there's no shame in it. Don't be embarrassed about that, Cloud - not in front of
me."

Cloud didn't say anything, but seemed to mull it over. In any case, he seemed in no hurry to pull
away from Zack's massaging fingers. He knew that was so, because the next thing Cloud said,
murmured and sleepy, was, "The head massage might technically be called cheating..."

Zack grinned. "You say that about everyone. You don't mean it."

"Mm, this time I do. I can't think properly." Cloud had gone boneless in his arms, as if he might
fall asleep right there. "You're too good to me."

"Oh, please tell me that's going to followed up with an offer of sexual favours -"

"Zack!" Cloud pulled away and thumped him soundly in the chest, but the older man was already
laughing, eyes sparkling with mirth, and it worked to help alleviate the blond‟s mood. When he
was satisfied that Cloud felt a little better, he ordered the cadet to sleep. Cloud smiled, and Zack
left him to it.

He crawled into his own bed, listening to Cloud settling down as commanded. The other boys
who slept in the dorm returned, raucous, and for a little while as they themselves quieted he
could no longer hear Cloud. He lay on his side in his bed, arm bent beneath his head, and
watched the boys move about the room in the dark with Mako eyes until it was quiet and he
could hear the blond again. And long after he heard the breathing across the room slow down in
sleep, he did not hear the same thing below him. It made his belly clench with worry and he
frowned, staring at the curve of his elbow. He‟d made a mistake in forgetting that Cloud wasn‟t
the open book he used to be, and he‟d let the smile fool him.

-----

End Chapter 14.

Author's notes:

1. Randy!Sephiroth-muse took over this chapter. In the office scene, I didn't realise for ages that
what I'd first typed was "Is there someone I can do for you, Cloud?" instead of "something." If
that had been entirely deliberate, the tension would have been damn easy to get rid of forever,
because Cloud's answer would have been, "Yeah, me!" and they'd have defiled Sephiroth's poor,
innocent desk right there and then. But, alas, it was a mistake .

2. Sephiroth and Zack - I can imagine Sephiroth having a rather dark, dry sense of humour in
comparison to Zack, and I imagine that Zack is pretty much the only person he'd feel
comfortable showing it around, so I apologise if it goes against some people's idea of Sephiroth.
But, seriously, he can't be a robot all the time, or I imagine he'd have gone mad years before the
game :)
3. The choral music on the AC website is amazing, and perfect for getting into the mood for
Seph/Cloud angst, so that's what I've been listening to for most of this chapter - and lo and
behold! I wrote (mild) angst! Don‟t kill me.

-1Fusion

by Knowing Shadows

Part 1: Chapter 15

Disclaimer: See Chapter 1.

Author's Note: I am so sorry this took so long. I had mild writer's block, but the rest was just
laziness and I have no excuse. And I can't even promise that the next chapter will be out quicker,
because I'm importing Kingdom Hearts II from the USA (which should arrive sometime in the
next week, squeeeeeee!) and, you know, it's going to eat my soul.

Edit: I fixed the "insight/incite" problem that a couple of people pointed out, but then someone
said that I'd mixed up "whole/hole" somewhere as well. O.o;; Where the hell did I do that?
Anyone know where that is? "Insight/incite" I can maybe understand, but what retard-drug was I
on to mix up the other two?

-----

-----

He won't come.

Cloud watched his breath stirring the fine hairs on his forearm, the limb propped up on his knee
as he sat curled up on top of his bed. The other leg, tucked underneath him, had gone numb long
ago. He wriggled the toes of that foot absently, pale features twisting just slightly into a pained
wince before smoothing out once more.

He said he didn't know when he'd be done...It could be hours away before he's finished work.
Just because he's not here yet doesn't mean he won't be...

He won't come.

He trailed his gaze along the shallow curves that made up his arm, down to the fine-boned wrist
and the hand that hung limply, fingers curled in the still air. He stretched out his hand, watching
the veins and the tendons shift beneath too pale skin. His hands were neither feminine, nor
showed the pronounced musculature of the SOLDIERs. His fingers were callused, but not overly
so (not like they would be in later life, after the feeling of a sword in hand became more natural
than the feeling of no sword at all). The rest of him was the same - there was nothing special to
see.
He went back to staring moodily at nothing.

The dorm was empty, for which Cloud was glad. He'd been sitting for ages, a packed gym bag
stuffed under his bed so it wouldn't be so obvious to look at him that he was waiting for someone
who would never come. Not now, anyway.

Not only did you manage to upset him, but your best friend as well...

Zack had left that morning in a subdued mood that Cloud couldn't help but feel was his own fault.
Zack's lower moods usually always were caused by the blond, that he didn't doubt. He'd watched
from his own bed as the older man pottered about the room, getting ready for work. Nothing
explicit in the SOLDIER had given away his mood, but Cloud knew and, considering his
complicated connection to the dark-haired man, didn't feel inclined to argue with how he knew it.

He shifted on the bed until he could pull his other knee up, closing his eyes and gritting his teeth
as the inevitable pins and needles set in. He didn't open his eyes again until it began to ease,
resting his cheek against his arm. He wasn't even sure if he wanted Sephiroth to turn up at all - he
didn't really want to have to face Sephiroth being stand-off-ish, and then be beaten to a pulp
afterwards in the name of practice. He wanted to crawl into bed and sleep, pretending that
nothing had ever happened, because he was a coward, and he knew it.

But then again, seeing him might give him the chance to make it right...

He won't come, though. Why would he want to, after yesterday? He said he would, but he's a
busy man and it's nothing if he stands up a mere cadet...

If he was ever planning to come at all.

Cloud was nobody here, after all, wasn't he? One cadet among many, though he stood out just
that little bit because he was odd. There was no other word for him but 'odd'. It wasn't the kind of
trait that attracted others, and he was used to that. He was used to being alone because of it.

The quiet of the dorm was shattered by a firm knock at the door. Cloud's head snapped up, heart
suddenly beating double. No-one who lived at the dorm would knock.

Maybe..?

There was another set of knocks before Cloud scrambled to his feet, heart lurching as he got his
toes briefly twisted in the duvet cover and thought he would trip, and got to the door. He paused
just before he grasped the door knob, hesitating - but only for a moment, so short that he wasn't
even sure why he'd hesitated. But then he took a breath and pulled the door open.

There was always going to be something altogether surreal about finding 6ft of leather and metal
standing outside your door when your memories told you that you'd killed this man years ago.
Cloud felt his fingers tighten their grip on the edge of the door as he looked up into Sephiroth's
stoic face, and after a moment had to drop his gaze, if only to hide how he knew his cheeks were
flushed in shame and embarrassment. "Sir," he said in a quiet voice.

"Strife." There wasn't anything in Sephiroth's voice to cause it, but Cloud still had to set his jaw
against how much it burned. And then when Sephiroth continued, "You wanted to practice?" the
heat of it spread briefly up behind Cloud's eyes until he forced it back.

"Yes, sir," he murmured, head dipping even more. Cloud hoped that Sephiroth took it as respect
rather than insolence. "I'll just get my bag." With that, he retreated quickly behind the door to run
and pull his bag from under the bed. He turned back to find that Sephiroth had caught the door
and had moved to keep it open, watching him silently. He ducked his head again as he moved
back to the door, unsure of how to act. Sephiroth's coldness clawed at his chest like a living thing.

Sephiroth moved off before he reached the door, and Cloud assumed he was to follow. He did
not dare try and walk beside the man - it seemed too familiar a thing to do, and familiar was one
thing they did not seem to be.

At least, not anymore. They had been working towards something, though Cloud wasn't sure
what it might have become, but he was becoming inclined towards the notion that the two of
them were fated to be nothing more than enemies, and not even being sent back in time would be
able to change that.

He walked a few paces behind Sephiroth, head still lowered, and Cloud supposed that it must
look like he was in trouble to anyone who saw them pass by, following Sephiroth for punishment.
It felt as if he were, too, though he tried to push the feeling aside. Sephiroth made no attempt to
converse, to try and ease his obvious discomfort, and it only made the hard knot that was Cloud's
stomach grow tighter and heavier.

Was this because he'd rejected Sephiroth's offer of help? Was that really all that had set this off?
He'd only done it to avoid the repercussions of people accusing the General of favouritism...And
was that really worth this?

Cloud let out a silent sigh, looking up finally at Sephiroth's broad shoulders. For how much
strength inhabited that body, Sephiroth always looked surprisingly long and lean, compared to
officers in the regular army that Cloud had seen, who seemed to be made up entirely of muscle,
and too much of it at that. Cloud had always wondered, before Sephiroth's fearsome reputation
had been cemented, how many people had entered battle with him, completely underestimating
how much damage the man could do, simply because he didn‟t look like a weight-lifter.

It was one thing that might be considered good about Mako, Cloud thought. He himself had
never been very bulky, though his body was naturally squarer compared to the long, elegant lines
that made up Sephiroth. Even at the end, he'd been tiny compared to Barrett and Cid, and even
Vincent, who there was more of than most people realised.

What was he doing walking into the training centre to take this man on, when Sephiroth was
obviously not happy with him, too?
I'm going to die, Cloud realised, but there was only resignation to meet the thought. I'm only a
cadet - I can't do this. Surely when we fought in the simulation it was just a fluke.

Well, you're going to find out, aren't you?

They didn't really pass many people in the corridors, though that wasn't surprising because
Sephiroth wasn't leading them the quickest way to the training centre, but rather, the least
obvious way. At least the older man was taken some precautions against people seeing them -
this late in the evening, there'd be fewer people about anyway, and virtually no-one to spot them
on this route. The training centre would probably be pretty much empty. Most cadets tended to
try and get their training done during the day so they could go out in the evening.

Eventually, they reached the door to the training centre. Sephiroth pushed it open, and motioned
with one hand for Cloud to go in. He nodded nervously, hitching his bag higher on his shoulder,
and ducked in, sharply aware as he passed Sephiroth how close they were, if even for just a
second. The smell of warm leather and skin so near for just that brief moment made him ache.

"There shouldn't be anyone here," Sephiroth said as he followed Cloud in and closed the door
behind him. "So we can use the main arena. It's the biggest."

Cloud nodded in acquiescence, and wandered over to the side to drop his bag. He turned, enough
to keep Sephiroth just in vision, and silently began to go through some warm-up stretches. He
watched Sephiroth deftly undoing the buckles that kept his shoulder guards on, letting them slip
to the floor so his coat was unadorned. The Masamune came next, carefully laid to the side.

Sick of the quiet, Cloud asked, "Are you not using the Masamune?"

Sephiroth turned sharp eyes to him. "Not today, no. You have the dubious pleasure of facing me
whilst we both use the same blade."

"Dubious...how?"

A slight smirk turned Sephiroth's lips. "Most people find it an uncomfortable thought to fight me
at closer quarters than they have to. For some reason, the length of the Masamune seems to
relieve people." He regarded the length of the sword as it lay on the floor. "Personally, I'd have
thought the reach of the Masamune would be more frightening."

Having been on the receiving end of the Masamune more times than he could count, Cloud
considered it as he went quickly through the last of his stretches. Both were just as frightening as
the other - Sephiroth with the Masamune was bad enough, just because he was so skilled with
what would otherwise have been an unwieldy blade, but one couldn't help but wonder how fast
Sephiroth would be with a shorter, easier blade to handle in comparison. It made his stomach
clench for a second, and the first sign of anticipation to break through the heavy dread in him
appeared.
He shook his arms and legs out when he was done, enjoying the looseness of his limbs. Out of
the corner of his eye Cloud saw Sephiroth approaching him, and stood straight. The older man
held out a sword, keeping green eyes unwavering on him, and Cloud didn't understand the look
in them at all. He took the sword, and when Sephiroth turned to walk out into the practice area,
he followed.

Sephiroth took a few lazy practice strokes with his own blade, and then turned to Cloud. Belly
clenched tight, Cloud bowed when Sephiroth did, and when he straightened, he waited for the
other man to strike.

-----

His heart was pounding with exertion. Cloud could feel it straining, trying to give his muscles the
energy he needed, but it wasn't good enough. Sephiroth brought the blade of his sword down and
Cloud swung up to meet it, and when they clashed, he felt his arms beginning to give way under
Sephiroth's strength.

When Sephiroth pulled back, Cloud took a few desperate, dancing steps away to try and give
himself a little time, and he burned with shame when he heard how loud he was panting for
breath. Sephiroth, taking slow, measured steps to the side with his sword ready, did not show any
signs of relenting. Cloud circled to keep distance between them, throat burning. He saw
Sephiroth freeze for a split second before he rushed forward again, and he barely had his sword
up in time to counter the attack, and the next, and the next. His muscles were on fire. He took a
ragged, half-choking breath and when their blades next met, Sephiroth pushed into him.

Cloud's legs buckled, unable to find the strength to push back. He stuck out his free hand to try
and break his fall. His sword-arm came up automatically to try and block against any blow that
might be coming, but nothing did. There was silence, though it wasn't really silent at all because
Cloud's breathing was so loud. Cloud couldn't look up, keeping his eyes down, humiliated.

Sephiroth made an unimpressed "hmph" sound and Cloud closed his eyes, unprepared for how
much the General's disappointment stung. "Get up," the older man said, and Cloud dropped his
head in a silent nod before pulling aching muscles into order and getting to his feet as quickly
and as gracefully as he could.

It was the fourth...no, fifth, bout that he had lost, all in similarly unspectacular ways. And every
time, he could see Sephiroth's frustration and disappointment growing.

Yet...Sephiroth still called him up for more.

Cloud couldn't refuse...Sephiroth was still the General, and was doing an honour by sparring
with him, despite how unworthy he was obviously finding his opponent. He had known that this
would just be a humiliation, but somehow it was worse than even he had expected. He had never
felt the need to run and hide so greatly, not in all his years, but as long as Sephiroth ordered him
to stand his ground, he could do nothing else.
Sephiroth stood, waiting to bow, perfectly poised and completely unruffled. He watched Cloud
intently, face frighteningly cold. When Cloud stood, his legs felt like jelly, but he made himself
be still. They bowed, and then Sephiroth raised his sword again. Cloud did the same, and his arm
visibly trembled. The cold knot in his stomach grew. How was he supposed to fight Sephiroth
like this?

Why was Sephiroth still fighting him when he could see...?

When the first blow came, he felt it all the way up his arm and through his shoulder and he
couldn't help but let out a pained noise, pulling back and away as far as he could. Sephiroth's
face had not changed, eyes still as cold and hard as stone.

Surely Sephiroth knew when enough was enough..?

But he came again, crossing the distance fast enough to frighten Cloud, and attacked once more.
Cloud pushed off the first stroke, Sephiroth's blade sliding with a metallic shriek across his, and
the next one he did the same to. Cloud stumbled, breath rushing past his lips in a surprised groan,
and Sephiroth swung his blade again. It caught Cloud so hard that the breath froze in his throat.
He dropped his sword and fell to his knees, panicking as he held his arm.

"General, sir," Cloud gasped, voice raspy. He had to take another uneven, shaky breath before he
could speak again. "I can't afford to...If I..." The muscles in his hand felt like they were about to
go into spasms. "I can't be injured for the exam, sir."

"I had thought you would be able to take more." The tone was neutral, and for a moment Cloud
hoped that the statement was as neutral as that implied, but then Sephiroth spoke again and he
said, "Perhaps I was misled by your earlier...performance."

It hurt, as much as he'd expected and more. He took a breath and pushed on.

"You're pushing me too hard, sir," Cloud said. "Harder than when we fought before." He looked
up as he gingerly flexed his hand, feeling the pull of overworked muscles all the way up his arm.
Sephiroth stood over him. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, sir," Cloud said in a quiet voice.

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed and his mouth pulled into an expression that Cloud couldn't quite
identify. "If you don't wish to be a disappointment, then pick up your sword. Show me what I
saw last time."

"I can't," Cloud said.

"Why not?" Sephiroth snapped.

"I don't have any energy left!" Cloud flung up his arm and held it there, and Sephiroth turned
green eyes to watch the limb shake.
He looked back to Cloud, and his lips pulled into a sneer. "Wasted energy," he snarled, "if you
are spent and I saw nothing of interest."

Cloud flinched from the anger in the other man's voice, but it made his own rise. "I gave you the
best I had!" he cried, and began to pull himself to his feet. His legs did not want to support him.
"I gave you everything. What do you want from me? Why are you so angry at me?"

For a moment Sephiroth looked like he wanted to deny any such thing, but he didn't. He
continued to watch Cloud, unhappy, until he frowned and looked away. Cloud had to lock his
knees to keep himself standing, even as he waited with bated breath for the reprimand he knew
was coming. He was only a cadet, what made him think he could ask such things of such a
man...?

Cloud swallowed to wet his throat when Sephiroth said nothing. "Did I...Are you angry because
of yesterday?"

The older man's gaze came back to him then, almost surprised, but Cloud barely caught it before
it was smoothed over. After a moment, Sephiroth said, "I am not angry about that."

"Then...what are you angry about?" What did I do? What did I do that you are even letting it
show that you are angry?

Sephiroth's lip curled just slightly, and Cloud guessed because he did not like to talk about
himself, and certainly not about his feelings or thoughts. He readied himself to be rebuked and
chastised for prying where he had no right to go, because that was what he was doing, and with
Sephiroth no less -

But Sephiroth did not say that. Instead, though the sneer remained, he said, "I am angry because I
do not understand you. And I am also taking out that anger on you. I apologise."

Cloud stared.

"I do not understand the way you act. I do not understand how you learned to fight so well. I
don't understand why I see impossible things and you will not explain to me, even though we
both know you could. I don't understand why I let you get away with it." He shook his head
ruefully. "And, yes, I do not understand why you would risk having to join the Turks when you
don't want to, rather than letting me help you."

And I bet you don't understand why you're telling me all this, either...

Fighting a pleased flush, Cloud looked away for a moment, not knowing what to do with his
embarrassed flattery. That Sephiroth would even think of telling him all that..!

And in return...
He lifted his head then, to meet Sephiroth's still face, and realised that the older man was waiting
for his reaction. And, he thought, most likely expecting the uncharacterised display to be thrown
back in his face. Cloud was abruptly proud to know that he would not be doing that. "Sephiroth,
sir..." He lifted his arm, steadier now, and motioned quickly around the room. "This - this one-
on-one training - and offering to speak to Tseng on my behalf...even talking to me...I'm not
worth this much trouble. And I'm not worth getting into trouble over, not when I know some
people are already thinking that..." He flushed then, embarrassed, and broke their gaze.

Sephiroth was silent for a few moments before he said, "Favouritism? Is that what you're worried
about? That I'll be reprimanded for favouritism?"

"Won't you?" Cloud asked.

"And who would have the courage to dress me down? Who would they get to replace me if they
stripped me of my rank?" Sephiroth snorted, amused. "I have no fear of that."

Cloud turned pleading eyes on him. "But...it's not even that, it's just what people will say...I don't
want people saying, or thinking things about you because of me. I couldn't..." I couldn't bear it...

Sephiroth was quiet again, thoughtful, and Cloud could see no anger in him anymore. "Who has
said something to you?"

Startled, Cloud didn't answer for a second. And then, thinking about what had been accused, he
didn't want to, but he still said, "Ratchett."

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. "Ratchett? Was that what made him attack you? What did he say?"

He didn't want to think about what Ratchett had said, because even though it had been wrong,
imagining what he had implied made his belly do interesting things, and his breath hitch. "He
accused you of giving me...special treatment."

Sephiroth seemed to read more from it than Cloud had wanted him to, and when the other man
made a soft, knowing sound, it made him blush. But Sephiroth said, "Well...I can guess what
made him so angry about that now..."

"...What?"

Sephiroth stilled, just for a moment. He was puzzled at that, but Sephiroth waved a hand and said
in a quiet voice, "It doesn't matter anymore. Was it just him?"

"To my face, yes..." Cloud shrugged. "But others will notice...some have already asked how I
know you, and so forth...I doubt it would take much to make it turn less innocent."

"And...you would put me first in all this?"

"Always," Cloud breathed without thinking, and then turned his head away, embarrassed.
"And..." Sephiroth seemed to mull something over for a moment or too, choosing his words.
"And so...if I said that such things do not bother me, and that I did not wish something like that
to cause such petty anger and annoyance between us, would you put that first?"

Cloud had to fight to keep himself from grinning stupidly, the weight lifting so suddenly from
his chest that he felt dizzy. The lightness seemed to abruptly amplify how jelly-like all his limbs
felt. "Yes," he said, but saw the pleasure at his answer warm Sephiroth's eyes for only a few
seconds because when he took a step, the world tilted and opened up beneath him, and
swallowed him whole into darkness.

-----

Much later, Zack would hear from the doctors that the stony look on Sephiroth's face when he'd
appeared with Cloud was one of the most frightening things they'd ever seen. And he would
believe it.

He stood in the doorway to the infirmary, not knowing what to think. As the SOLDIER
responsible for Cloud, he'd been informed pretty quickly that the blond had been admitted to the
infirmary by Sephiroth, though at the time they hadn't said what was wrong. However, even
knowing that Sephiroth was involved at all -

He'd come as quickly as he could, worried and angry. If Sephiroth had anything to do with this,
he was going to kill the man. Unless Sephiroth had somehow managed to make Cloud keel over
by coming on to him or something - but even then he wasn't even entirely sure what he'd feel.

Oh, hell...

Cloud was lying on the bed, unconscious or sleeping, he couldn't tell. There were no drips or
machines attached to him, which was one good thing, at least. He just looked small and pale and
tired.

Sephiroth was like a shadow against the far wall, and when he looked up at Zack to see who had
come in, there was nothing in his face to work with. It riled Zack slightly, though he wasn't sure
why. He let out a breath through his nose rather than sigh and get Sephiroth's back up, and
waved a hand to Cloud. "Do I get an explanation?"

"Exhaustion, stress..." Sephiroth shrugged in that elegant way of his. "So the doctors said."

"That's not what I asked."

Sephiroth did not look away, though any lesser man might have. He met Zack's gaze steadily and
coolly, and after a moment said, "We were in the training centre and I did not stop when I should
have. He collapsed and I brought him here. That is what happened."
"Didn't stop?" Zack echoed, disbelief in his voice as he took a few steps into the room. "How did
you not stop, Sephiroth? Anyone can see when enough is enough, you most of all!" He waved an
arm at Cloud's form. "What, were you aiming for this?"

"No, I was not," Sephiroth replied, and there was just a hint of defensiveness in the slight
tightening of his shoulders and the bite in his voice and eyes.

"So he just dropped for no reason? Is that what you're telling me?"

"Are you so quick to blame me, Zack?" Sephiroth said in a low voice, the look in his eyes going
darker with every word.

Zack felt like pulling his hair out, and raised his hands to do so before he caught himself. "Stop
doing that. All I'm asking is what you did - because you did something! - and you are being
extraordinarily difficult."

"I told you what happened," Sephiroth said. "I also told you I did not stop, therefore admitting
my responsibility. What more do you want?"

Zack threw up his hands and turned away for a moment, because getting angry was just going to
make Sephiroth's mood worse in response. "Are you going to tell me why you didn't stop?" he
asked.

"I was angry, and took it out on him. I had already apologised to him before he collapsed but I
will do so again when he wakes."

"Angry?" Zack turned back, taking his gaze from where it had been resting on the gentle rise and
fall of Cloud's chest and looking back at Sephiroth. "I'm surprised you didn't kill him if you were
angry."

Sephiroth's mouth pulled into a sneer. "I would do no such thing."

"Were you angry at him? Is this about last night?"

"Last night?" Sephiroth's sneer seemed to deepen. "What did he tell you?"

"Not much. I came in and he was upset because he thought he'd annoyed you. He didn't tell me
about what."

The older man's expression softened at Zack's words, and for a moment he turned green eyes to
Cloud, who was not awake to appreciate the attention. Zack watched Sephiroth - it was unlike
him to let much bother him at all, let alone whatever minor offence a boy who was in love with
him (he could say 'love', now that Cloud had admitted the extent of his obsession) had committed.
He wasn't sure that it was a good sign or not, but he didn't know the circumstances of Sephiroth's
annoyance - he only knew one thing, and that was that Cloud was one of the very few people
able to get under the General's skin.
It was where Zack had started, years before, until Sephiroth had given up trying to keep himself
shut off.

There is hope.

"Sephiroth..." Zack sighed, and held a hand to his forehead, rubbing there briefly. The older
man's gaze flickered in his direction at the sound of his name. Zack let out another sigh, and
shook his head. "I'm not going to discuss this with you here."

Sephiroth said nothing, but watched the other SOLDIER intently for a few moments. His eyes
narrowed and his mouth flattened just enough to be noticeable, and then he went back to
watching Cloud. His frown deepened. Zack saw that particular expression mar those handsome
features far more often than he liked to, and almost as often he was at a loss of how to ease it.

"There's nothing we can do now," he said. "We should just come back tomorrow morning to
check on him." There was no acknowledgement from across the room, so Zack barked out,
"Sephiroth!"

Only those green eyes turned his way, almost hidden behind strands of pale hair, but Zack met
the look with his own frown and jerked his head towards the door, and waited for Sephiroth to
move out of the room before he did.

-----

Zack did not, as Sephiroth had assumed would happen, trail him back to his quarters. Sephiroth
refused to look back at first, keeping himself held straight and tall, head high as was befitting a
General, but even then he couldn't escape the way the tension in his shoulder muscles was
beginning to make him ache. His mind was a mess, thoughts scattered, and he walked on
autopilot as he tried to bring himself back under control.

He could feel Zack's gaze burning into his back, and his friend's anger unsettled him. He
supposed he deserved it, but still, he was unused to the feeling. He knew his peace of mind was
becoming ever more volatile when it came to Strife, but to have Zack react so unpredictably to
it... To have to deal with both at the same seemed an impossible thing. And yet one more thing
he would not be allowed to deal with in his own time, if Zack had his way.

Often, Zack thought that the way he pushed Sephiroth was for the older man's good. Sephiroth
did not know whether that was true - didn't know if Zack really thought it was for his own good,
and not just because he was too frustrated to do things in Sephiroth's own time; or, even if Zack
did think it would be best, if it actually was.

He couldn't deny that Strife's quiet, mature demeanour appealed to him in contrast to the way
Zack dealt with him. It would be why he and Zack would never actually work as more than
casual lovers - if he and Zack got involved any more closely than they already were, if Zack had
any more say in his life than he already did, Sephiroth knew he would go insane. Zack was...too
much. Zack caused him enough stress as it was.
"I'm going to leave it for tonight," Zack's voice abruptly cut through his thoughts. Sephiroth
paused, and turned to face the dark-haired man, and found his friend's face pensive. "Neither of
us are in the right mood to talk about this calmly right now. Make sure you drop by on Cloud
tomorrow -"

"Did you think I wouldn't?" Sephiroth cut in, and wasn't prepared for how snappy his own voice
sounded. But, to think Zack needed to suggest that he check up on Cloud after what he'd done -!

Zack let out a soft, half-huffing sound, and shook his head. "I didn't mean it like that. And see,
this is why we can't discuss this right now. And I'm not blaming it on you, before you get that
thought in your head, so stop that. I'm just as tired and stressed as you are. Sleep on it, okay?"
There, Zack's face abruptly softened, his features shifting into a concerned frown. "Look,
Seph...I'm here for you, however much you think you don't need it. It's what friends are for. I
want to help you. Think about it, okay?"

There it was again, Zack wanting to make things Concrete and Nameable rather than leave them
alone. And what was there to drag out into the open? The kind of things that made Cloud's worry
about favouritism all the more real? Not that Sephiroth had been lying - there was no-one who
would touch him, no-one who would dare - so that didn't really bother him.

And yet, still...

He dropped his head in a nod, not trusting himself to speak when he didn't know what to say.
Zack reached out to brush his hand briefly against Sephiroth's arm, and Sephiroth let him.

"Remember," Zack said, and gave him a sloppy, friendly salute, "Think about it. And I mean
properly, don't just dismiss me."

"I'll think about it," Sephiroth conceded, and when Zack smiled at him, for a moment his heart
wasn't quite as heavy as it had been. He tried not to think too hard about how the weight came
crashing back down again when Zack turned away and set off to his own bed, leaving the
General to find his way back to his own.

Just what was he supposed to think about? What was he supposed to tell Zack? He wasn't even
sure himself what was going on. Even thinking about it logically didn't help! He reacted to Cloud,
yes - but what would you call that reaction? The low, clenching feeling in his belly, the way it
sometimes spread up through his chest, at its worse moments even catching in his throat. The
way his thoughts so often circled back to Cloud, and how easily a glimpse of blue eyes, or even a
certain curve of the blond's jaw or throat, distracted him.

Was that attraction? Real attraction? Not that awful illusion that was the brief, sharp pang of lust
before consummation; the only thing he‟d really known? He knew lust well enough - but he‟d
not had the dilemma of age or rank beforehand to consider. Was this reaction different because
he knew Cloud wasn‟t something he should have?
Part of it was want. He knew that, however much he tried to keep it buried, hidden away from
even himself; that primal, purely physical reaction between human beings that was the only thing
he knew of intimate relationships. Cloud was beautiful...surely no-one could blame him for that.

His rooms were chilly and dark when he got back, and for a moment he stood in the doorway
with his hand over the light switch. He tried to imagine someone being here, waiting for him to
return at night, or someone he might, himself, wait for. That was what happened in real
relationships, the kind based on more than those most base of urges, wasn‟t it?

Sephiroth started to scold himself for that thought - it was foolish, and sentimental, and not like
him at all. Not like he should be. He didn‟t like not knowing himself anymore, discovering new
things he didn‟t know were there. He shook his head, as if the physical action could take the
thoughts from his head, but in his mind it wasn‟t hard to imagine opening the door, as he had just
done, and seeing blue eyes turn in his direction. He could imagine the smile that would appear at
seeing him. Worse, it was easier to imagine the calm that would overtake him as soon as he saw
it.

It was harder to accept how much he wanted it.

-----

Cloud's throat was killing him. It was the first thing he was aware of, and the nagging, dry
feeling dogged him until the need to ease it forced him to open his eyes. The ceiling above him
was one he knew, but not the one from his dorm. He remembered waking up after Ratchett had
hit him and seeing this ceiling.

He needed water. He turned his head, searching - there was usually a jug of the stuff next to each
bed, he knew that - and oh, there it was. Target found, Cloud began to try and gather himself up
to get himself a glass. He didn't feel as bad as he'd thought he would, which was always a plus. It
wasn't difficult to roll onto his side and get his elbow underneath him. He reached out, testing,
with his other hand, but it was an awkward position and he needed to sit up to do what he wanted
to. Frowning, Cloud began to try and swing his legs out from under the blankets.

"Strife, lay down."

His hand dropped before it even properly registered who it was. There was the distinctive sound
of leather moving, and then black-gloved hands manoeuvring the jug and glass. Cloud huddled
back into the bed, and followed the line of Sephiroth‟s arm up, and up, to the spill of silver hair
over one shoulder as the man bent to pour his water. Sephiroth was not watching him, appearing
to concentrate on the task he‟d taken from Cloud, and his face was still without being stern.

“General, sir,” came a voice from the other side of the bed, and Cloud looked over to find the
infirmary‟s doctor standing in the doorway to the side room that served as his office. “I assure
you, Cloud is perfectly fine...”
“I am aware of that,” Sephiroth said, and though his voice was quiet the doctor did not argue
back. He turned and held out the glass to Cloud, and when those green eyes turned to his he had
to look away, embarrassed. He took the water and murmured his thanks in a quiet, raspy voice.

After he‟d downed half the glass and his voice was audible, the doctor prodded and poked him
for a moment or two, asking questions, and Cloud found the whole process terribly embarrassing
to have to go through in front of Sephiroth, though there was no reason to feel so. “Just take it
easy today,” the doctor admonished gently, and said he was free to go when he wished. And then
he left with one last glance in Sephiroth‟s direction, leaving them alone.

Cloud drew his knees up where he was sitting in the bed, and couldn‟t bring himself to look at
where Sephiroth stood. What was he supposed to say? His cheeks burned with humiliation. Of
all the things to do, just when it seemed that Sephiroth had forgiven him for his horrendous
performance - to faint on the man! He‟d never live it down!

He heard leather moving again, and Sephiroth settled himself in one of the chairs near his bed.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sephiroth‟s hands come to rest on his thighs, and he had to
look away then to take another sip of his water, mouth suddenly dry.

“Zack was here earlier,” Sephiroth said. “But he was unable to stay. I will inform him you are
well, if you wish.”

Cloud ducked his head. “If you would... I‟d go see him, but I think I want to sleep first, but he‟d
want to know, I guess. Thank you.”

“It‟s no trouble...” There was something in the other man‟s voice, but Cloud wasn‟t sure quite
what it was. But then Sephiroth spoke again, and it was clearly regret. “I know I apologised to
you before, Cloud, but it was insufficient after what happened. My behaviour was inexcusable..."

Cloud's mouth had gone dry as Sephiroth spoke. Did Sephiroth really feel that he had to
apologise? It made him squirm a little, stomach churning, to hear it coming from the General. He
looked up, away from the safety of his hands twisting the stiff infirmary blankets, and Sephiroth
was watching him with guarded eyes.

"Sephiroth...sir..." He tagged on the "sir" when he realised he probably needed it again now. "I
was the one who fainted..."

The moment's silence from Sephiroth that followed his words was somewhere between cold and
stunned. His face went very still, and Cloud's gaze slid away again, stomach clenching
uncomfortably. When Sephiroth spoke, his voice was lower than it had been before, and the
emotion in it made him shiver as much as it made him shrink away. "I am not one to boast, but I
cannot help but remind you that it was I whom you were sparring. In what way is your collapse
something to be ashamed of, especially when I was pushing too hard, and I knew it?"

What was he supposed to say in response to that? "You said yourself, sir...I was a
disappointment..."
"I should not have said that." Sephiroth shook his head as he said it. "You were no such thing. I
was..." He seemed to mull over his words for a second, and the pause made Cloud raise his eyes
again. Sephiroth wasn't watching him anymore, instead, eyes turned downward, gaze introverted.
"I was...not myself, and I took that out on you. It was...dishonourable on my part to have done
so-"

"Please..." Cloud had said it before he realised what he was doing, but even that one soft word
was enough to silence the other man. Green eyes became sharp again, and flickered upward at
the sound of his voice. "Please...don't apologise to me."

He'd thought - hoped - that it might soothe Sephiroth to hear it, but instead the older man's face
tightened, and he started using that voice again - low, and shockingly devoid of the chilly
indifference it normally held. "Don't apologise? Why shouldn't I? Should I not express regret for
what I have done? When I have done wrong?"

Cloud flinched away, as much away from eyes that had gone suddenly hot as from the tone of
voice. Why couldn't he do this right? Why was everything he was doing making Sephiroth angry
at him? He found himself twisting his hands in the blanket again, not knowing what to do. If he
kept silent, he wouldn't say anything to make Sephiroth angrier, but then again, it might be taken
as insolence, or an implication that he agreed with that Sephiroth evidently didn't.

He wasn't sure he could say anything, even if he wanted to. Every time Sephiroth spoke, his
chest went tighter and tighter. He just wanted to know how to make things right again, to try and
stop the ache that seemed to be becoming a permanent addition to his heart.

Sephiroth let out a breath that wasn't quite a sigh, but that didn't make a difference to Cloud. He
barely noticed how white his knuckles had gone. He waited for it to come, whether it came with
words or not, but he'd recognise it when he saw it - a phrase, a gesture, maybe even the nothing
that would be if Sephiroth just got up and left, but whatever it was that would signal that
Sephiroth had finally lost his patience and Cloud was not worth dealing with anymore. Cloud
knew he more than deserved it - knew better than most just what kind of person he was not;
knew just how difficult people found it to get on with him, to find something in him that was
worth their affection.

If you're the one who has to fill in all their own gaps with parts from someone else, there's no-
one else out there who's going to know just how much you're really lacking.

Sephiroth's soft voice broke the silence, and if Cloud hadn't known that Sephiroth would never
express what he didn't want heard, he'd have half-thought that the other man was talking to
himself. "It seems apologising is all I ever need to do." He didn't raise his voice at all, but this
time it was clearly directed at Cloud. "How many clean slates do we need before we stop going
wrong?"

Cloud took a breath then, shaky, and he was glad he wasn't looking at Sephiroth because he
couldn't bear it if the General saw how much that pained him. He blinked, trying to keep himself
under control as his vision briefly began to blur. "We shouldn't need them," he murmured. "We
shouldn't. And I don't need or want a new one. What kind of people would we be if we couldn't
overlook misunderstandings? If we couldn't learn from them what not to do next time? If we
couldn't accept that people aren't perfect? If we thought like that, we'd forever be needing to start
over."

There was nothing, not even the rustle of movement, in response to that, and it filled Cloud with
fear, irrational as it was, not even knowing what he was afraid of. Wide-eyed, he looked up, but
there was none of the condescension in Sephiroth's face that he'd expected. The General was
gazing at him intently, and the look on his face was what Cloud would have expected had he
presented the other man with something alien and unknown.

The thought came to him, had no-one ever said anything like that to Sephiroth? Did Sephiroth
not know that mistakes could be overlooked, laughed off, forgotten?

Of course he doesn't. Why should he? At what point do you think Hojo got around to explaining
that to him?

If I could be the one to teach him that...to teach him that being perfect does not mean you have to
be flawless...

Warmth filled him, hope and determination and desire, at the thought that he could do that, and
he could no more fight the small smile that curved his lips than he could fight the need to breathe.
He saw Sephiroth's gaze drop to his mouth for a moment, and fought the slight shiver across his
shoulder blades that it provoked. Sephiroth dipped his head, as if he were nodding but had
forgotten to lift his chin again, and his hands pulled back on his thighs a little.

"I've never known anyone else like yourself or Zack," he said. "And I find myself sorry for that."

Cloud felt the heat rise to his cheeks, embarrassed and honoured and not knowing what to do
with that. "Thank you," he murmured, because he couldn't think of anything else to say.

Sephiroth was shaking his head again. "There's no need. None at all."

Cloud smiled again, and again Sephiroth had an edge to his expression that said what was before
his eyes was something unknown to him, but in that instant it didn't bother Cloud. Just by
smiling, he was giving Sephiroth something he rarely received, and clearly needed. How could
he stop smiling, when so little could do so much for someone he loved?

There's still so much to learn, isn't there?

"When you're done having your moment," came a voice suddenly, and both their heads snapped
towards the doctor's office, though the doctor was still inside, "I've got patients coming in soon,
so you may want to take it elsewhere..."

Cloud grinned even as he blushed hotly, and watched the slightly startled look pass over
Sephiroth's face, the other man sitting up straight, with something akin to amusement, even if
Sephiroth's expression was blank again within seconds. The older man looked to him then, and
as one the two of them began to move. Cloud could barely keep the smile from his face, wary of
looking like a fool.

He'd just started to collect his things together when Sephiroth's voice interrupted him. "I'll make
sure to let Zack know you're alright," he said, and he was by the door, about to go. "Again, I
apologise for what happened, and I'll inform your instructors. I...I suggest you get some rest, and
then try and speak to Tseng about this whole business. If he doesn't take no for an answer, I
would...I would request that you allow me to step in. And...I appreciate what you've said." He
dropped his shoulders in an abrupt bow, and even like that he was as graceful as anything Cloud
had ever seen. Sephiroth was out of the door and gone before Cloud could think of anything to
say.

-----

Cloud had intended to sleep, he really had, but it did not take him. He lay for a while on his bed,
alone in the room, stretched out on his belly, running his fingertips absently across the crisp,
clean sheets. His mind was too full of things to let him sleep. He kept expecting Zack to burst in,
and half his mind was tuned to listening out for any signs of the SOLDIER's approach.

Zack didn't come, and after a while he pulled himself up off the bed and headed into the shower,
unable to stand how grimy he felt. He stood for a while with his hands braced against the shower
wall, letting the water beat down across his back and ease sore muscles. Afterwards, he dressed,
pulled on some shoes, and left the dorm.

As a cadet, he didn't often have any real business in the ShinRa tower, because the military
offices were separate. Even Sephiroth's office wasn't in the ShinRa tower, despite his status as
ShinRa's poster-boy. The tower was reserved for the high-ranking company officials, Hojo's labs
(which he did sometimes have to visit), and the offices for the side of the company which was
ShinRa Electricity. Most of the world was controlled from ShinRa tower.

As a cadet, he also had to go in the front entrance, and report to reception just like any normal
citizen. When people looked at him, he knew their first thought wasn't 'army cadet', so he had to
wear his uniform to signify that he was affiliated with the company. He made his way to the
front desk, taking a deep breath, and one of the receptionists, a dark-haired young man with
glasses, smiled in that way all receptionists did when he spotted Cloud's figure nearing.

"May I help you?"

"Uh...I need to know if it's possible to see the head of the Turks, Tseng," Cloud said, and realised
that he was very close to not being able to go back.

"I can place a call to Mr. Tseng's secretary, but I believe that appointments need to be made in
advance," the receptionist said, in that way that said 'there's no way you're seeing Tseng today.'
"Can I take your name, please?"
"Cloud Strife."

"Please wait a moment." A flash of that disarming, generic smile again, and he picked up the
phone. Cloud shifted his weight restlessly, sliding his hands into his pockets. After a moment of
speaking into the receiver, the man said, "I'm sorry, but unfortunately Mr. Tseng is booked up for
the day."

"The secretary won't know who I am. Ask them to ask Tseng personally. He knows who I am,"
Cloud glowered. He knew they were just doing their jobs, but it still annoyed him. His courage
was beginning to wane, too - if he didn't do this now, he wasn't sure he'd be able to come back.
He still wasn't sure what he was going to say, exactly.

The receptionist stared at him for a moment, and then took his hand away from the receiver. "Uh,
I'm sorry about this, but Mr. Strife says that Mr. Tseng is aware of who he is, and could you ask
your boss personally if he's able to meet...Sure, I'll hold."

Cloud settled for keeping his eyes on the receptionist, hoping that his unwavering, expectant
stare would creep the man out enough to give him the card key to go up the elevator.

The receptionist was freaked out enough that his eyes were going everywhere but Cloud's face as
he waited for a response on the other end. Cloud had to stop himself from smirking.

The receptionist's head jerked suddenly. "Yes, I'm here. Okay, I'll pass it on. Thank you very
much." He put the phone down and Cloud raised an eyebrow, waiting. "Mr. Tseng says he can fit
you in now." The man reached under the desk and started fumbling around, until he produced a
card key. "This is for the floor on which the Turk's offices are situated. I'm sure you're aware that
these cards will only let you go to that specific floor, not anywhere else. Just swipe it through as
you go in the elevator." He handed over the card, and the smile was abruptly back. "Have a nice
day."

"Thank you," Cloud conceded, and headed off towards the elevators.

He always had to face the doors when the elevators were moving, because if he looked out of the
glass panes at Midgar it made him feel a bit motion sick. He watched the display instead,
counting along as they shot up the floors. The Turks being who they were, their offices were on
one of the higher floors. Cloud wondered why they even bothered pretending that all they did
was scout for SOLDIER candidates, because any outfit that had that sole purpose would have
been housed with the rest of the military.

The elevator dinged gently to let him know that they'd reached the correct floor, as if the lurch of
his stomach as the lift abruptly came to a halt hadn't told him that already. For a moment, Cloud
had to stand there with a hand against the wall as he waited for his stomach to settle again.

The floor looked empty at first sight, but Cloud rounded a corner and spotted the secretary's desk.
The woman held out a hand and said, "I.D. please." He fished it out and gave it to her, and she
waved him through. "He's waiting for you, second door on your right."
"Thanks." Cloud followed the line of her arm where she pointed to a door further along the
corridor. He schooled himself, trying to calm the sudden rapid beating of his heart, and made his
way towards the door.

What was he supposed to say? He knew he wasn't as good at hiding things as he wanted to be, or
even thought he was, and someone like Tseng could eat him alive because of that. If he didn't
screw things up in the meantime, Sephiroth would always be able to deal with any fallout, but
Cloud wasn't used to leaving things to others. Knowing that this might be out of his league made
him uneasy.

He knocked on the door before he could think any more about it. Almost immediately, Tseng's
voice called him in, and he opened the door. Tseng's office was a surprisingly spacious affair and,
like Sephiroth's, was kept as clear of clutter as possible. A wide desk sat opposite the door,
windows behind it, and between them stood Tseng, who was closing a file smoothly as Cloud
entered. He smiled reassuringly, the first time that Cloud could think of seeing that expression
since he'd woken up here, and it made his stomach protest all over again.

"Good afternoon, cadet Strife," Tseng said in that low, cool voice, but his eyes flashed. "How
may I help you?"

"I..." Cloud realised he really should have planned this. What was it with him and just charging
into delicate situations? "I wanted to discuss the training sessions you've been scheduling, sir."

One fine eyebrow raised at that. "Oh?"

"I wanted to...withdraw from them, sir." The second eyebrow raised, and Cloud wondered if he'd
actually caught Tseng by surprise with that.

"Why, may I ask?" Tseng asked, his tone still diplomatic, but not quite as friendly as it had been
before. "And may I enquire as to what exactly this withdrawal means? For example, are you
talking about just for the SOLDIER exam period?"

Cloud shook his head. "What I mean is, with all due respect, sir...I wish to withdraw completely.
The exams for SOLDIER are very close and SOLDIER is what I came here to join. I don't
feel...comfortable, with anything else, sir." He met Tseng's eyes as best he could as he spoke,
determined not to back down, and as he spoke he saw the Turk's expression flatten into
nothingness.

"Is this a decision made off your own back?" Tseng asked coolly, and he didn't even try to
disguise the look of calculation.

"Yes, sir," Cloud answered. What was Tseng trying to imply? Who would have had any
influence over him? Reno might have been trying to discourage him, he supposed, and maybe
Sephiroth's shining ideal as the best SOLDIER alive...

"Are you afraid of what being a Turk means?" Tseng suddenly asked.
"No..." Cloud could feel a frown pulling at his features, his puzzlement showing. "No, it's not
that. I want to be in SOLDIER, that's all."

"For some people I might have said having no fear of what being a Turk does to you would mean
you're missing something of the qualities needed for SOLDIER," Tseng said. "Do you believe
SOLDIER a more upstanding profession? One free of the possibility of moral taint?"

"No, sir..."

"I'm sure you must be aware that SOLDIER has its fair share of secrets."

Cloud wasn't sure whether he should play dumb or not to a question as loaded as that. "I'm sure it
must do, sir..."

Tseng's mouth pulled into a slight smirk, amusement sharp in it. "And your General, the greatest
secret of all?"

Cloud said nothing. This was dangerous ground - far too dangerous for a cadet like him. Why
was Tseng bringing it up? "I don't understand, sir..."

The older man's smirk widened briefly, still amused. "We are not so different from SOLDIER as
you think. Although, I'm sure you'd be surprised to discover which of SOLDIER and the Turks I
find more deplorable. However..." The amusement drained out of his expression, and he
straightened, sliding his arms to rest behind his back. "I have very little right to hold you back
from SOLDIER. I'm sure you'll do admirably there. I formally release you from further sessions
and I'll make a note on your records as such."

It wasn't supposed to be that easy, and Cloud was sure he looked as startled as he felt. "Thank
you, sir."

"As long as you're happy you've made the right decision," Tseng said, but there was little
sincerity in his deep voice. "I appreciate you coming to see me in person."

"Thank you, sir," Cloud said again, and he was sure he was supposed to be delighted by this
outcome but Tseng's still face and cool voice held little comfort for him.

The older man inclined his head in acknowledgement. "Done, then. Now, if you'll excuse me, I
have a meeting to attend..."

Cloud hastily saluted and backed out of the room, Tseng's gaze intent and constant until the
blond was out of view. The door was barely shut before Tseng reached into his pocket to pull out
his phone. He clicked a button and held it to his ear as it rang.

"Hello?"

"It's Tseng. Are you at a computer right now?"
"I am. Why?"

Tseng paused, and tapped his fingers lightly against the hard plastic of the telephone. After a
moment, he shook his head and said, "On second thought, don't worry about it now. I'll wait a bit
longer."

"Whatever you say, boss."

Tseng hung up.

-----

Zack rather liked being in SOLDIER. Of course, it always helped to like your job, but Zack
found that he got a perverse sense of satisfaction out of a lot of the things that went with his
position, above and beyond what most people did. He wasn't humble enough to not like the way
some people were in awe of him because he was in SOLDIER. He rather liked how girl's eyes
shone when he told them what he did for a living (when neither he nor they actually thought
about what his job entailed too much). At the moment, he finding a lot of amusement out of
cleaning the Buster sword. He had it propped between his knees (it took enough skill to do that),
and whistled as he rubbed polish down the blade. It wasn't the act itself, so much as the way a
SOLDIER polishing a sword almost as big as a grown man was enough to unnerve the cadets so
that they either left the armoury entirely, or just turned right back around and went without even
entering.

He whistled with a smile on his face. That probably scared them more.

He was half-turned away from the door, so if he was concentrating on the Buster sword then he
couldn't see the entrance, or the people coming and going. But he sensed when someone
appeared in the doorway, and something in the sound of those footsteps, and then something else
in the air, almost tangible but just beyond his conscious reach, told him it was Sephiroth. "Look
at me," he said without turning. "See, I can be a responsible SOLDIER! I clean my own weapons
and everything."

There was dead silence from behind him for moment. "What do you want, a biscuit?" Sephiroth
retorted finally.

"You have biscuits?" Zack piped up hopefully, twisting around to gaze imploringly at his visitor.
Sephiroth leaned against the doorway, arms crossed over his chest, looking unimpressed. "I'll go
for a pat on the head if you don't. Either's good."

Sephiroth snorted, eyes dropping somewhere to the side. Zack smiled, the expression slightly
tight around the edges, and turned back to his sword. He ran the cloth lovingly, carefully, up the
edge of the blade. "How's Cloud?"
"He's fine." How could one man's voice hold so much in it, and yet give none of it away? "He
woke up not too long ago. The doctor said he could go. He should be back in his dorm by now,
resting."

"And you didn't go with him to check he got back okay?" Zack asked.

Sephiroth had gone silent again at Zack's tone, but after a moment he said, "I told Cloud I'd
inform you of his condition. He seemed well enough to both myself and the doctor. It didn't cross
my mind to -"

"Seph, just shut up," Zack cut in wearily. "I'm not moaning at you. If the doctor thought he was
fine, and you thought he was fine, I'm happy. If he'd been out of sorts, I'm sure you would've
noticed." There were some points where he could only wish that he had more patience. He knew
some would have said he had the patience of a saint as it was to put up with someone like
Sephiroth, but they didn't know the silver-haired man. It took less than most might think, but
even he forgot what he was dealing with at times. Sephiroth did not, and would not likely ever,
think like Zack did. And not only that, but Sephiroth was still learning to deal with someone less
emotionally robust than Zack, the only person he had experience of dealing with as a real friend.

If Cloud was going to be worming his way into Sephiroth's life, it would take time for Sephiroth
to adjust, just as it had taken time for him to learn how to deal with Zack. Just because Zack had
no trouble with new people, did not mean that everyone else didn't, and he was too quick to
forget that.

God, but he wanted it to be different. If only they could get past all the superfluous, hindering
details of rank and age and all that shit - he could only imagine how good they might be for one
another. If only they'd just suck it up already and get on with it.

And if Sephiroth used Cloud, didn't think anything more of him than he did those other idiots he's
been with? You'd never forgive yourself if you let Sephiroth do that to him. And you'd never
forgive yourself if you let Sephiroth do that to himself again.

Sephiroth moved then, Zack's Mako-sensitised hearing picking up the slight shift in weight, the
accompanying slide of leather over leather. Zack did not turn to follow where Sephiroth went.
The other man walked behind him and the bench he was sitting on, but settled himself next to the
younger man. Out of the corner of his eye, Zack could see the slight curve of Sephiroth's back,
and the belt around the man's waist underneath the spill of that fine hair.

"You alright, Seph?" he asked quietly.

"I've been thinking about what you said," Sephiroth murmured. His whole body was very still.
"About everything you've been saying to me recently."

"Oh?" If it was anyone else, he might lean in against that warmth, giving encouragement by
touching, but he knew very well that Sephiroth had placed himself as close to Zack as he was
physically comfortable with, and it was a hell of a lot closer than he'd ever sit with anyone else,
so Zack let it be.

He watched Sephiroth's back as the older man sighed. "I am not comfortable with this...thing,
Zack. Not in the slightest." His tone was slightly angry, almost bitter.

"What 'thing' exactly? Are we talking about this whole emotional bullshit I make you go through,
or the thing with The-Cadet-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named?"

"While I am just as uncomfortable with the first, I was referring specifically to the second."

"Ah." Zack nodded. He ran the cloth in his hand against the sharp edge of his sword a little more,
admiring the shine he was beginning to bring up in the weapon. Turning the blade a little, he
could see Sephiroth's reflection, the way the older man had turned his head a little towards him,
watching Zack out of the far corner of his eye. "What do you want me to do, Seph?"

"Tell me how to get rid of it. Tell me how to stop feeling these things."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, steady on." Zack lay the Buster sword against the floor, freeing himself of
its weight, and twisted his torso around. Sephiroth's head was forward and lowered, turned away
from him. "Seph, why would I want to do that?"

"Zack, I cannot do this," Sephiroth hissed. "It is inappropriate, and as General I must put my
position first -"

"Bullshit, we both know you can get around rank if you really want to. Tell me the real reason
why."

"The boy is sixteen, Zack. Sixteen."

"That's another shit reason, we've been over that one. Now, listen to me, and don't interrupt,
because I am going to tell you a few things you need to hear." He let his frustration carry over
into his voice, a commanding tone harsh enough to keep Sephiroth sitting and his attention
focused. "Sephiroth, however much you seem to think otherwise, you are the same as any other
person out there. You are allowed to feel, and contrary to what you also seem to think, feeling is
not some great sin, and certainly nothing that you are above of. You are a man, Seph, and for
Shiva's sake, give yourself a break for once."

"That still does not entitle me-"

"Shut the fuck up, Seph," Zack snapped. "Between you and Cloud, the self-pity is going to drive
me fucking insane. When I snap and destroy half of ShinRa, I blame it on having to deal with
you two shitheads. Now listen to me - this isn't about Cloud, this is about you. If you never take
the chance, if you never let yourself feel these things, heaven forbid even act on those emotions,
then you'll be the robot you obviously want to be, and you'll rip apart everything that could ever
be important in life in the process. I'm not going to let you do that. I am your friend, and God
help me, Sephiroth, I'm not going to sit back and let you beat yourself up over something that is
normal, either."

Sephiroth's back shifted again, another long breath escaping the older SOLDIER. "This is normal,
Zack?"

"Perfectly, Seph. Perfectly normal."

Another long breath, in and out. Sephiroth raised a hand, then, and rubbed at his temple.
"Sometimes I don't know whether you make things better or worse, Zackary."

Zack laughed, and bumped his shoulder against Sephiroth's briefly. "And I didn't even have to
yell at you properly."

"You're not supposed to yell at your superior."

"Tell it to someone who cares, man."

"Hn..." Zack watched as Sephiroth ran his hand over his face, eyes closed momentarily. For that
moment, Sephiroth looked as tired as Zack suspected he was, everything beginning to catch up
with him. How much of that might dissipate if he had a lover to focus on; someone who would
take care of him better than even Zack could? Zack sometimes felt that Aeris was one of the only
things that kept him sane, after having to deal with ShinRa's shit everyday for the past few years.
Sephiroth had been brought up as the centre of that shit - surely everyone had their limits.

God, but what if he was being too positive about the whole thing? What if they wouldn't be good
for each other at all? What if Sephiroth needed someone more outgoing, more confident in
themselves and what they wanted? There were too many if's - and too many things riding on
those if's.

"I've got a question for you," he said, mulling it over in his mind even as he spoke. "And you
have to answer truthfully."

Sephiroth stiffened. "What?"

"When Cloud collapsed, when you saw him go, what did you feel?"

The older man went quiet, thoughtful, and Zack knew Sephiroth was partly trying to work out
the significance of the question before he answered. "I want the truth," Zack reiterated.

"I..." Sephiroth shook his head ruefully. "I remember, I wasn't prepared for it at all. He took a
step, and then he just went down, his legs just went from under him. I was...I was afraid." He
laughed, low and mirthless and the sound had always made Zack's stomach clench
uncomfortably. "I was afraid for him, Zack. Is that truthful enough for you?"
Zack knew the slightly harsh question at the end was only Sephiroth's defensiveness at having to
reveal such things, so he ignored it. He nodded instead, and murmured, "Thank you."

Sephiroth snorted, still unsure of why Zack had asked that particular question, and not knowing
that his answer had eased the younger man's worries a bit. He bumped Sephiroth's arm again,
anything to ease the tension across the older man's shoulders. Sephiroth did not pull away at the
contact, or even flinch, which made Zack smile to himself.

They were getting there, slowly but surely. And it's taken you this long, Zack. There's no way you
can give up now. Not when you're this close to getting him to realise he's not so different, and
not without friends or family...or love.

"Did you know," Sephiroth said abruptly, "that Tseng has taken an interest in him?"

Ice shot through him. "Cloud? The Turks want Cloud?"

"Apparently so." Sephiroth rubbed thoughtfully at his jaw with leather-cased fingers. "Though
Cloud said he wasn't particularly enamoured with the idea."

Zack snorted. "He wouldn't be."

Sephiroth shot him a quick look, but it was so fast Zack couldn't even begin to decipher what it
had been. "What are we doing about it?" he asked instead. "We can't let Tseng have him. God,
can you imagine it?" He shuddered at the thought, imagining a suit-clad Cloud with no pity in his
eyes, no nothing. "He'd be fucking terrifying after they got through with him." The Turk-Cloud
in his head smiled, cold and utterly brilliant, and raised a pistol to aim between his eyes. Another
tremor wracked through him.

Sephiroth made a soft noise - somewhere between a snort and a laugh. "And you think he'd be
less so after SOLDIER finished with him?"

"Of course he would be," Zack said. "He's got us to help him through that shit. Who would he
have in the Turks? No-one. Cloud needs people, though sometimes you need to convince him of
that." He grinned then, over his shoulder at Sephiroth's black-clad form, who seemed to sense his
humour and snorted.

"I am aware of the similarity you seem to see."

"'Seem to see'," Zack chortled back at him. "My ass. You know you need me, at least." He was
tempted to add something lewd to that about what kind of things Sephiroth couldn't accomplish
by himself, but bit his tongue to keep the remark at bay. It was good, at least, that he could do
that when it was just the two of them, because if he ever slipped up in Cloud's hearing range...

He could imagine it, all too clearly, because Cloud reacted too much like Sephiroth, except for
one difference: Sephiroth would never show the hurt, would just look at him as blank as stone,
but Cloud... For just a moment, before he could pull himself together, he'd see the way that full
mouth thinned and how pained his eyes could be before they just went dead.

"What are we going to do about Cloud?" Zack sighed, half to himself.

It wasn't until Sephiroth answered, "I'm considering paying a visit to Tseng," and it startled him
like an abrupt change of subject, that Zack realised he hadn't even been referring to that.

-----

Tseng tapped his fingers restlessly against the top of his desk, gazing at the report sheet sitting in
front of him. It was getting late and his secretary had already gone home for the evening, leaving
Tseng to ever-present overtime work. Though, to be fair, his overtime had dropped dramatically
ever since the President had stopped seeming to care whether they kept up their facade as
SOLDIER scouts or not (and, given that freedom, they generally didn't bother).

Things were coming to a head in ShinRa, though. Tseng knew that, before long, he'd have his
hands full. The wheels were already being put in motion.

He rested his chin in the palm of his other hand, elbow against the arm of his chair. A knock
interrupted his thoughts, and he raised his eyes to the door. "Come in."

The door swung open, none of the hesitance in it that Strife had shown earlier, and Sephiroth was
standing in the doorway, all lean muscle and leather. Tseng sat upright in his chair, folding his
hands neatly across his crossed knees. The General had always been a stunning man to look at,
for as long as Tseng could remember. Not much younger than Sephiroth, he could still remember
the other man as a teenager, everything about him extreme. Socially inept, coldly handsome, and
strong beyond anyone's wildest dreams - all to the same painful degree.

Now, he was the most powerful man in the military, but even from what little Tseng knew now,
he knew that in the scheme of things, Sephiroth was more helpless than anyone.

"To what do I owe this...dubious pleasure, General?" Tseng said carefully. Sephiroth did not
make social calls. His cold, distant demeanour had been somewhat thawed by that idiotic
SOLDIER he never saw far from the General's side, but Sephiroth was still aloof, still
disconnected.

Sephiroth moved into the room, and you could hear how much muscle was on that slim frame by
the solid sound of his footfalls. "Good evening. I apologise if the hour is too late..."

"Not at all, not at all," Tseng assured him politely, inclining his head. "Will you take a seat?"

"No, thank you." Sephiroth inclined his own head, but the nicety was just for show. SOLDIER
and the Turks had never really seen eye-to-eye. However, Tseng had always maintained that
Sephiroth did not bother himself with petty things like that - maybe it didn't even cross
Sephiroth's mind that he should bother - but then he had come to realise that that did not mean
Sephiroth was neutral about people either. And everyone knew that the Turks preyed on
SOLDIER candidates at times - that, at least, was a real reason Sephiroth might hold against him.
He might dismiss Sephiroth's hold over things, but he wasn't stupid - Sephiroth was not someone
you wanted to be on the bad side of.

"So, was there anything I could help you with?" he enquired, watching the older man's face
carefully. You had to watch him carefully to be able to read anything at all. Tseng sometimes
wondered if that was because there was no emotion in the General to be seen anyway.

"Yes, depending on how...co-operative you're feeling." Tseng's office wasn't brightly lit, and he
could see that Sephiroth's pupils were dilated enough that they almost looked normal.

"Well, that depends on what your request is," Tseng countered, spreading his hands.

The corner of Sephiroth's mouth pulled up briefly into a humourless smirk. "I wish to get straight
to the point. As far as I'm concerned, this situation with the SOLDIER cadets is becoming
ridiculous. I know very well that you have an eye on our cadets when there is an opening in the
Turks, but you have no official capacity in which to take them. Singling out one student, that I
might overlook, but you're going beyond that now. Those cadets are for SOLDIER - they were
not brought here for you to peruse through."

Tseng had to fight a slight smile. So, he'd picked a cadet that SOLDIER particularly wanted this
time, had he? It had to be the blond - no fuss had been made when it was just Reno. "If I might
ease your distress, General," he said smoothly, and watched Sephiroth's still face, "I have already
had a visit from Strife. He has already been released from my watch at his own request." He slid
his gaze away, gesturing with his hand to affect nonchalance, "Though I'm sure he'd appreciate
such a powerful, noticeable figure acting as a...a knight in shining armour, if you will."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the General's expression tighten with displeasure.

He had honestly begun to regard Sephiroth as a being incapable of human emotion. To have this
- some boy from the middle of nowhere - suddenly become a sore point...

He hadn't, honestly, thought too much of the boy, either. Talented, yes - anyone could see that,
though how he'd missed it before was another matter entirely - but other than that? The boy's
disinclination to join the Turks had been unexpected food for thought, but he'd let it be. Until this.

"Was there anything else you wanted, General?"

"You're too arrogant, Turk," Sephiroth said, but there was little heat in his voice. "You forget
your place at times. Perhaps you should keep that in mind before you try and incite my anger."

"Duly noted."

Sephiroth smiled then, darkly, and it was every bit as intimidating as Tseng had heard it was.
"Good night, Turk."
"Good night, General."

Sephiroth did not spare him another glance, turning and sweeping out of the door as only 6ft of
SOLDIER General could. Tseng rested his elbow on the desk and his chin in his palm, smiling
behind his fingers. After a moment, he picked up his phone and dialled.

"Hello?"

"Are you still at a computer?" Tseng enquired.

"You know I am, boss."

"Good." He found himself tapping his fingers on the desk again. "Get onto the network and tag
SOLDIER cadet Cloud Strife's file. I want him watched."

-----

End Chapter 15.

1. I actually don't know when Tseng became head of the Turks - I get the feeling that he
probably wouldn't have had such a high position this long before the game started, but I know
next to nothing about Before Crisis (events, characters, you name it), so I'm afraid Tseng got
landed with the job.

2. Thank you, everyone, for sticking with this for all this time. You don't know how much I
appreciate it. And thank you to Dina, who still beta's for me :)

Fusion

by Knowing Shadows

Part 1: Chapter 16

Disclaimer: See Chapter One.

-------------

“I hate you so much right now,” Zack muttered, rubbing one hand over his face. “I really…” His
voice trailed off, and Cloud looked up to see Zack‟s jaw split wide into a yawn. When it passed,
he continued, “…hate you, Cloud.”

“You‟ll get over it,” Cloud replied, letting his gaze rove back to the doorway they were heading
towards. Through it, he could see other cadets milling around, summoned to the training centre
the same as Cloud and Zack had been.
“I don‟t think you fully appreciate the fact that you woke me up,” Zack went on, “a full half hour
before I was expecting to have to be awake.”

“If you forgot what time the memo said,” Cloud said, heading through the doorway, “then it‟s
hardly my fault. You should be thanking me, otherwise you‟d have missed it.”

Zack‟s voice became a whine and Cloud didn‟t have to look back to know exactly what
expression had formed on his friend‟s face. He fought back a smile. “But I don‟t have to be here
really. I know what they‟re going to say and I‟m only here because I‟m in charge of you lot, I‟m
not actually going on this stupid practical exam…”

If Zack carried on after that, Cloud wasn‟t sure, because his attention was taken up observing the
room around him. About half the students seemed to have arrived and were standing around
waiting for instructions. He spotted Reno talking to several of their classmates, near the back of
the throng. The instructors were all at the other end of the room, engrossed in a conversation of
their own. Sephiroth stood, tall and regal, with them, though he seemed to be listening rather
than contributing to the conversation. As if sensing Cloud‟s scrutiny (which wouldn‟t surprise
Cloud in the slightest), he turned his head and met the blond‟s gaze squarely. The corner of his
mouth lifted only very slightly, but to Cloud it spoke volumes.

There are a hundred people in this room and it‟s me you turn to look at, he thought in wonder.
I‟ll make sure I‟m worthy of that attention somehow.

Zack grabbed his elbow then and began to lead him towards the edge of the crowd nearest the
instructors. Cloud let himself be led, since Zack‟s grip on him was pretty firm. When he looked
back again, Sephiroth had turned his attention to the group around him, and this time they were
listening to him speak. He had a piece of paper in his hand and was tapping part of it, then slid
his finger down and tapped a different part. The instructors nearest him leaned over to see what
he‟d been pointing out, and then several of them began speaking back, though from where he
was, Cloud couldn‟t hear anything of what they were saying. Sephiroth frowned briefly as one of
the men said something to him.

“He doesn‟t look too happy,” Zack murmured. They watched as Sephiroth interrupted the man
speaking to him with a wave of his hand and shook his head. Zack whistled quietly. “Not happy
at all.”

Though Cloud remembered having this meeting, Sephiroth hadn‟t been there the first time. He
supposed it should feel strange having something that should be familiar feel, instead, new and
exciting, but it didn‟t. That Sephiroth was here told him that whatever he was doing was indeed
affecting the course of events, and that was what he‟d wanted, after all. His reason for joining
SOLDIER now was to be worthy enough in Sephiroth‟s eyes that the older man might be
persuaded by him not to go to Nibelheim. Seeing this, something new in a past he‟d never
expected to have the chance to change, made him feel warm with happiness.

Not that this really felt like the past. He was surprised by how much it felt like living in the
present. Yes, he knew the vague shape of things to come, but his memories of before Nibelheim
were blurry enough that he‟d forgotten a lot of the details. He wasn‟t sure how much of that was
due to what he and Hojo had done to his mind, and what was due to time. From what was, he
assumed, a combination of both, his memories of the exam itself was equally hazy. He could
recall where they‟d gone, and even had some pretty sharp memories of wandering dim rock
passages with other cadets, but there was surprisingly little else there. By now he was used to his
memories being that way, and it didn‟t bother him as it once had.

He continued to watch as the instructors tried to talk to Sephiroth and all seemed to be cut off
again with another wave of his hand. He was surprised to see several of the men, who could and
did scare the shit out of most of the cadets, looking uneasy and nervous at Sephiroth‟s apparent
unhappiness. It amazed him that such a small gesture from Sephiroth could unsettle the others so.

Zack was unusually quiet, and he was also watching his superior.

“Zack..?” Cloud ventured.

“It‟s the group list,” Zack said suddenly, looking pleased that he‟d worked it out. “That‟s what
the paper is.” His expression pulled into a frown. “Why wouldn‟t he be happy with the groups?”
He shook his head, and Cloud had the feeling Zack was more talking to himself than to Cloud.

“Maybe they stuck me in the same group as Ratchett,” Cloud said.

“They wouldn‟t be that stupid,” Zack scoffed, but then paused. “I hope.” He thought about it for
a bit longer, and then said, “Nah, they won‟t have done that. They know Seph would kill them if
they had.”

Cloud wondered, briefly, if Sephiroth really cared that much about what had happened – cared
enough about him – but Zack had sounded so sure.

“Right, ladies!” came a sudden shout from the front, and Cloud raised startled eyes to the
instructors. One of them, a man Cloud knew from drills, had come forward with some papers in
his hands. The cadets went quiet. “As I‟m sure you‟re all very aware, in a couple of days we will
be taking you all across to the Corel mountains for your practical exam. You‟re here this
morning for a brief overview on what you‟re all going to be doing, to find out your groups and
which officer is attached to that group, and for the information packs we‟ve put together.” He
motioned to the far side of the instructors and Cloud craned his head – a table was there, set up
against the edge of the barrier, with a pile of large envelopes stacked up on it. “The info packs
contain all the information you will be told here and much more, so make sure you learn it! As
I‟m sure most of you know by now you‟ll be split into three groups headed by an officer – this
year, though whether you‟re lucky or not matters on your point of view, the General will be
heading one of the groups. You will be infiltrating and securing a small base in the Corel
mountains that is housing the stragglers of a rebel group. Success in passing the exam does not
necessarily rest on whether or not the base is secured by the end of the time period, but on many
factors which are detailed in the packs.” He pulled one piece of paper out of the stack in his
hands and said, “The groups are divided A, B and C. A will be headed by Sephiroth, B by Sands
and C by Morgan. Groups are as such: in group A, cadets Ashley, Barnes, Derrickson, Farrier,
Ferera, Knightly, Morse, Phillips, Strife, Umber. In group B…”

Cloud found that he wasn‟t surprised by that, even if he‟d been hoping for it. He looked towards
the older man but Sephiroth didn‟t look back at him, and after a moment Cloud wondered what
he‟d have done if he had. What was he even looking for?

Zack leaned in then whilst the instructor was reeling off the other names, held his mouth close to
Cloud‟s ear. “He wants to watch you on a real battlefield, see how you cope,” he said. “See what
you can really do.”

Cloud wasn‟t really surprised by that either and nodded his head. He turned his attention back to
the instructor just as he said, “-Ratchett, Romero, Verne. In group C…”

“Well, Ratchett‟s not in your group,” Zack mused aloud. “Wonder what got Seph‟s panties in a
knot, then.”

Out of the corner of his eye Cloud saw the nearest person to them turn wide, startled eyes on
them at the word “panties,” and he had to stifle a laugh, bringing a hand up to his mouth to hide
his smile. He turned his mind purposefully away from the image because Sephiroth always
looked good in his mind whatever he wore and he needed to be listening to what the instructor
was saying, not pondering the possible virtues of Sephiroth in lingerie.

“The groups,” the instructor went on, “are basically separate but groups A and B will, for a short
time, meet up to proceed together through the base –“

“Ah,” Zack said. “I forgot about that.”

“What?” Cloud hissed, looking up at the dark-haired man.

“Ratchett‟s in group B, which means for part of the exam, you and he will basically be in the
same group.” He shook his head. “No wonder Sephiroth was annoyed.”

Cloud frowned. Saying “Can‟t they put him in a different group?” made him sound like he was 5
years old. He was 16, and trying to get into SOLDIER. You couldn‟t always get on with your co-
workers, so he‟d just have to put up with the other boy. He‟d just have to act like the adult he
was out to prove he was. So he shrugged and said, “It‟s fine,” instead.

“If you‟re sure,” Zack said, sounding doubtful.

Cloud only half-listened to the rest of what was being said. Was he being too dismissive? If that
was what Sephiroth was upset about, and even Zack sounded uneasy, was there really something
to worry about? He stood there, puzzling it over, but he kept going back to the thought that
surely Ratchett wouldn‟t try anything while Sephiroth was there. Not in the exam. It would
scupper his own chances of getting into SOLDIER.
He looked around, trying to see if he could spot Ratchett and see what his reaction was to the
whole thing. It wasn‟t hard to find him – with a shock that froze his chest for a moment, he found
the other boy glaring at him through the crowd. The glare only deepened when Cloud met his
eyes.

He might want to try something, but he won‟t. Not with Sephiroth there. Ignore him.

He turned away resolutely, determined to put Ratchett out of his mind. Worrying about it would
only stress him out and the exam was worrying enough.

“…have no differences between them,” the instructor was saying, and with a jolt Cloud realized
he had no idea what the man was talking about. “They contain the different objectives and
stratagem for all three groups. You must study them all. You can never know exactly what will
happen in a real-life situation and it is always vital that you know what your comrades are doing.
Learn everything in the packs because you‟re going to need it. Now, will the members of group
A come forward and collect their packs from the tables please.”

Cloud had to pass by Sephiroth on his way to the table, and managed to stop himself from
looking up and trying to catch the other man‟s eye. He was absurdly proud of himself, and
managed to do it again on the way back with the envelope of papers in his hands.

He fancied he could feel Sephiroth watching him go by and fought the giddy feeling in his
stomach before it bubbled up and made him smile too obviously.

He went to stand back by Zack and watched the others go and collect their packs. After they
were done, the instructors dismissed everyone and started to disperse themselves, though none of
the students looked ready to leave. Instead, everyone stood around reading their packs and
discussing them animatedly. Cloud watched them, excited and apprehensive. It was so close
already. He‟d already been here for, what, 3 months?

Time was passing quickly, and he still had a lot to do.

“I assume he‟s going to be more alert than this in the exam,” came Sephiroth‟s amused voice
suddenly, and Cloud spun round to find him standing with Zack. They were both watching him,
though Zack was smirking widely. Cloud snapped a hasty salute.

“I dunno,” Zack said, tapping his jaw thoughtfully. “I think he might be broken.”

Cloud blinked, momentarily confused, before he felt his cheeks grow abruptly warm. “Sorry, sir,
I –“

“Geez, relax,” Zack cut him off, grinning. “We‟re playing with you. And the fact that it‟s „we‟
means it‟s either gonna be a good day or the world is going to end. I‟ll have to wait to find out
which. I‟ll let Sephiroth choose which it‟s gonna be.”

“How gracious of you,” Sephiroth murmured, his voice dry.
It‟s going to be a good day, Cloud thought to himself.

Sephiroth turned his eyes from Zack to Cloud, and the amusement abruptly faded out of them. “I
trust you‟re well today,” he said, sounding strangely formal.

“I feel fine,” Cloud told him, wondering what exactly the formality was covering up. “Zack told
me I‟ve got to take it easy today but I don‟t see why, „cause I really do feel fine, sir.”

“Zack, for once, has the right idea,” Sephiroth replied, crossing his arms over his chest. “But I
imagine it won‟t be hard to do, considering you‟ve got all that to go over.” He nodded to the
envelope Cloud was holding in his hand. “There‟s a lot of information in there.”

“I‟ll make sure I know it,” Cloud said. He worried his lip briefly. “I‟ll make sure I‟m not a
disappointment to the team, sir.”

Something flashed in Sephiroth‟s face but only very briefly, and then his eyes were hesitantly
warm. “I‟m sure you won‟t be,” he said. “I‟m already impressed – I hear you spoke to Tseng.”

“Tseng?” Zack piped up, but when Cloud glanced over he was staring questioning at Sephiroth,
who kept his eyes intently on the blond.

“Did he say something?” Cloud asked.

“I admit that I didn‟t expect you to go, at least not so soon,” the older man said. “So I paid him a
visit and he informed me that you‟d already spoken to him about it.”

Cloud frowned a little. “I thought you weren‟t going to do anything unless I…asked you to, sir.”

At that, Sephiroth‟s expression took on a tinge of guilt. “I know, and I‟m sorry, but in the end I
thought it would be better to get it over and done with before the exams. Tseng is a difficult man.
I wasn‟t sure he‟d even listen to you if you had gone. Since you are under my charge as a
SOLDIER cadet, he has no choice but to listen to me.”

“Oh.” He could see Zack glancing between the two of them, a funny look on his face. “Thank
you, sir. For going.”

Sephiroth waved it away, looking a little uncomfortable at the thanks. “It was nothing.”

“Er…what was this talk with Tseng about?” Zack asked. He looked a little put-out at not
knowing. “Did you ask him to stop pestering you about the Turks?” When both Cloud and
Sephiroth nodded, he abruptly grinned, perking up. “That‟s great! Now I can enjoy the
graduation party without worrying you‟re gonna go running off to the Turks!”

“And I won‟t have to listen to you whine about it when you get drunk,” Sephiroth said. “So yes,
it is a good thing.”
“Graduation party?” Cloud queried, interest piqued. “So there is one? I‟d heard rumours but no-
one‟s said…”

“Oh ho ho,” Zack said, rubbing his hands together with a grin that looked more like a leer. “Of
course there‟s a graduation party. And it‟s always legendary, because all the SOLDIERs have to
attend and greet the newbies, have a drink with them, and everyone bar Sephiroth gets drunk off
their asses. Seph just normally sits there looking put-upon.”

“I am put-upon,” Sephiroth said.

Zack gave Cloud a look that clearly said, „You see what I mean?‟ Cloud let his lips curve into a
small smile, glancing between the two. Sephiroth looked more…relaxed than normal, after the
strange pensiveness when he‟d asked after Cloud‟s health. Listening to them interact with one
another like that made him feel warm – though he wasn‟t really saying anything, he still felt like
he was a part of their easy camaraderie, just standing there with them. But he was still left
wanting – in his ideal world, it would be the easiest thing in existence just to lean over and draw
Sephiroth down into a quick, familiar kiss.

“And everyone always has embarrassing stories to tell about everyone else for months
afterwards,” Zack was saying gleefully. “It‟s worth being a SOLDIER just to go to this thing.
Some people try to bring dates but the majority just go to have a laugh.” He winked at Cloud.
“You can get up to more things without someone there to stop you, hehe. All those hot, drunk,
red-blooded men in one place? Yum yum.” He grinned, and then his look turned abruptly sly as
he looked between Sephiroth and Cloud. “Either of you two got anyone in mind to take to the
party?”

Cloud knew he had gone red again, but before he could answer he saw Sephiroth shoot Zack a
dark, angry look, which the dark-haired man ignored. It startled him – the question was harmless,
so what had prompted that?

“No-one feasible,” Sephiroth said shortly, still watching Zack.

“I‟ll go alone,” Cloud said, a little hesitant after the tone Sephiroth had taken. “It‟s more fun with
just the guys, like you said.”

“Good choice,” Zack purred, giving Cloud a suggestive once over. Cloud was used to Zack
doing that, and knew it didn‟t mean anything, but he saw Sephiroth‟s eyes dart from Zack to him
and then back again. His cheeks felt warm again.

Sephiroth coughed politely and said, “As riveting as discussing the graduation reception is, you
and I have work to do, Zack.”

“Spoilsport,” Zack replied.

“What cutting words,” Sephiroth drawled. “But, unfortunately, I speak the truth. Cloud has work
to be doing anyway, and we shouldn‟t keep him.” He reached up to grasp Zack‟s elbow,
apparently intending to steer him away. He looked back at Cloud. “Goodbye for now. And good
luck.”

“Thank you.” Cloud found himself smiling again. “Bye.”

“I‟ll see you later!” Zack said with a grin and then he was being urged away. Cloud watched
them go, until with a start he realised he wasn‟t alone.

Reno was standing beside him, and he seemed to be watching the two retreating SOLDIERs the
same as Cloud had. After a moment he looked over, and crossed his arms over his chest. “You
told me nothing would ever happen between you and him,” he said suddenly, face unhappy. “I
thought you weren‟t gonna be that stupid.”

“There‟s not – there‟s nothing –“ Cloud sputtered.

Reno only snorted, and looked away.

------------------

If Reno really was annoyed with him, then he didn‟t show it the next day. Cloud went into
classes feeling apprehensive, wondering how Reno would act after his unexpected outburst the
day before, but the other boy just flashed him a slightly guilty smile and asked if he‟d like to do
some partner work.

The slight edge of worry to that smile told him that Reno was sorry, even if the red-haired boy
didn‟t say it outright, so Cloud agreed. He‟d spent a while – too long – feeling angry over Reno‟s
words, but he knew that Reno was only trying to look out for him. The red-haired boy looked
relieved when Cloud agreed to work with him.

“You learnt all the stuff in that pack yet?” Reno asked as he was stretching out of legs.

“Not yet,” Cloud said. “I‟m gonna spend tonight and tomorrow going over it. I‟m not going to
get caught out in this exam for not knowing my stuff.”

“What are you going to do?” Reno asked, causing Cloud to look at him curiously. “You know, if
you fail.”

Cloud considered it. With his brain so full of what he had to do, and all of it coming after he
didn‟t fail this exam, he‟d not stopped to wonder about what he should do if he couldn‟t
overcome this hurdle. He shrugged, shifting his weight a little uneasily. “I haven‟t thought about
it,” he said. “What about you? Why are you even taking this exam if the Turks want you?”

Reno shrugged. “I guess it‟s still a test to see if I‟m good enough for them. If I pass, then I get a
try-out period, and I have to prove myself there as well.” His eyes dropped low, and so did his
voice. “Cloud, don‟t tell anyone, but I think I have to kill someone.”
“To impress Tseng?” Cloud gasped. Not that Reno wouldn‟t be doing that kind of thing anyway
in the Turks, but it still bothered him. He supposed that meant he‟d done the right thing in asking
Tseng to leave him alone – he‟d never been able to kill with the kind of callousness that the
Turks had displayed. He liked to think that he‟d never be able to.

“Don‟t tell anyone,” Reno said quickly. “And I don‟t know for sure but…Tseng hinted at it.”

There wasn‟t much Cloud could think of to say to that, but then someone suddenly bashed into
his shoulder and knocked him off balance. He stumbled sideways a few steps into Reno with a
surprised intake of breath. Ratchett was sneering at him, as if Cloud had been the one to walk
into him, as he continued walking by.

“Watch where you‟re going!” Reno called after him angrily, and then, under his breath,
“Asshole.”

“Sorry,” Cloud said, pushing away from the other boy.

“‟S not your fault,” Reno said. “He‟s a dick. I‟d be careful of him. He really doesn‟t like you.”

“I know.” It was hard not to notice. “I think Sephiroth was unhappy that he and I would have to
be in joined groups for part of the exam.”

“See, that‟s why he‟s like this,” Reno said, waving after the blond boy‟s retreating figure. “He
doesn‟t like you being so close to Sephiroth. Granted, he wouldn‟t like it if anyone but himself
was close to Sephiroth, but…”

“He doesn‟t scare me,” Cloud said, stretching his arms and arching his back a little into the
pleasurable pull of muscle.

“Even after he tried to crack your skull open?” Reno asked dubiously, giving him an odd look,
mouth down-turned in a frown. “He might not scare you, but you should watch your back when
he‟s around. I‟ll tell you this now, if he thinks he can get away with sabotaging you in the
mission, he‟ll do it.”

“He wouldn‟t risk it,” Cloud argued back. “Sephiroth and another examiner will be there. Other
people will be there. He‟ll be seen, and he‟ll get thrown out. Why would be risk a position in
SOLDIER over me?”

“Why would he attack you in front of instructors?” Reno asked with a shrug. “There‟s something
not right with him. I think you should be careful, is all.”

“Alright,” Cloud conceded, if only to stop Reno from continuing in the same vein. But the other
boy‟s words worried him – was he really underestimating Ratchett that much?

I‟m stronger than him. He got lucky before, when I wasn‟t expecting an attack. Now I know what
he can do, he won‟t catch me with my guard down again.
He supposed that people worried because they weren‟t sure he could take care of himself. To be
fair, Cloud had been holding back in his spars, so they wouldn‟t know just how capable he was.
He couldn‟t blame them. The only person he‟d gone all-out at was Sephiroth, but he was still
way out of Cloud‟s league.

Reno picked up his blade and levelled it at Cloud, then, drawing his attention. He watched the
redhead‟s mouth pull into a sly grin. “Pretend we‟re on opposite sides in this exam, and we‟ve
come across each other,” he suggested, eyes mischievous. “We‟ll pretend there is actually some
small chance of me being able to kick your ass.”

“Reno, you‟ve been headhunted for the Turks,” Cloud pointed out, picking up his own sword,
testing its weight in his hand. “There‟s always a chance.”

Reno smirked, looking pleased, and launched himself across the mats.

It was a good match, leaving Cloud exhilarated and pleasantly breathless. He chose not to press
the openings that Reno left, many of which could have ended the spar, but to let them go so that
he and Reno could just carry on. Reno laughed when he realised what Cloud was doing, and
when it eventually came to an end he was smiling.

“This mission‟s going to be a breeze for you,” Reno said. “But you cut me some slack. Tell me
what I can improve.”

“You didn‟t leave that many openings,” Cloud said. “You were fine. There‟s a reason the Turks
want you.”

“Yeah, but they want you, too,” Reno retorted. “And you‟re better than me at this.”

Cloud shook his head, smiling. “They don‟t want me anymore.”

Reno blinked, looking a little stunned. “Huh?”

“I told Tseng I wasn‟t interested, and he‟s agreed to leave me alone.”

Reno continued to stare at him with wide eyes, and his mouth opened once but nothing came out.
He closed it, and then tried again. “Wow – er – I mean –“

Cloud smirked, amused.

“I mean…I know you didn‟t do it for me, but…” Reno continued to look flustered. “Thanks, you
know. This position…I know I‟ll have to do some nasty stuff but it…it means a lot to me.”

“I know.” He smiled, pleased because Reno was.

They continued sparring until Reno was exhausted, and Cloud had to admit that he needed a
break. He felt a brief twinge of guilt for not taking it easy, because he knew it would upset Zack,
but he did feel fine. All through the sparring he‟d felt totally normal. Zack would probably still
be worrying about him taking it easy on the morning of his exam.

“We got the rest of the day off, though, don‟t we?” Reno asked him as they were packing their
swords away. “We got the rest of the time off until the exams.”

“Mm-hmm.” Cloud was looking forward to it. It hadn‟t bothered him so much before, but the
thought of not being forced into Ratchett‟s presence again until the exam cheered him up a lot. “I
think some of the guys I‟m roomed with are going to spend it out partying.”

“Sounds fun,” Reno said, smirking. “I, however, shall be studying, as I suspect you will be.”

“Mm-hmm.” Out of the corner of his eye, Cloud saw Ratchett come in with his weapon. He
considered hurrying away but, again, that seemed childish. Act like an adult. Just ignore him.

Reno seemed to spot him as well and sneered at the other boy as they walked past on their way
out. Ratchett just gave Reno a disdainful look.

“He‟s such a dick,” the redhead said again once they were out of earshot. “God, I hope he fails
the practical.”

Cloud considered reminding Reno that it was unlikely, because Ratchett was talented despite
whatever personality defects he might have, but then thought better. The look on Reno‟s face
clearly said he was imagining and relishing such a scenario, and Cloud wasn‟t going to ruin that
for him.

They said goodbye to each other and Cloud started off back to the dorms. He was pleased with
how the day had gone so far – Reno not being awkward was a larger weight off his mind than
he‟d expected. It was a shame that Reno had been placed in group C, he thought as he wandered
down the quiet corridors, because it would have been fun to have the other boy with him.

Then he remembered that Sephiroth would be there and Reno would probably spend the entire
time being grumpy. Maybe not, then.

“Oi, Strife!”

Cloud immediately stiffened, coming to a stop. So much for not being forced…

“Yeah, you heard me,” came the snarling, angry voice, ripping through the kind of quiet that
meant they were alone.

Cloud turned around, and wasn‟t surprised to find the voice matched by the angry, dark look that
twisted Ratchett‟s normally-handsome face. A quick glance over the other boy‟s shoulder
confirmed his fears – no-one else was coming down the corridor. “Did you follow me?” he asked
incredulously.
Ratchett ignored that, though his eyes flashed with something, too quick for Cloud to interpret.
Angry aura rolling off of him, suddenly he seemed huge and towering, though Cloud knew that
the other boy wasn‟t that much taller than he was. But looking at the cadet‟s eyes, so fierce with
a fury that Cloud couldn‟t understand, he suddenly began to understand what Reno had said
when he‟d expressed his view that something about Ratchett was “not right.”

“You can‟t honestly think that I – that we can‟t see what‟s going on?” Ratchett demanded, mouth
pulled into an ugly sneer.

“This is about the General again, isn‟t it,” Cloud said. “I told you before, you‟ve got it wrong.”

“Have I?” Ratchett sneered. “I saw how you were yesterday. I saw how he was. You think he
acts like that with anyone else?”

“You‟ve got it wrong,” Cloud repeated, praying that he didn‟t start blushing in embarrassment.
He was a man, for Shiva‟s sake. If only he wasn‟t so damn pale. “It doesn‟t…doesn‟t mean
anything.”

“I saw him smile when you came in,” Ratchett hissed. “I‟m not stupid.”

Cloud wasn‟t sure that he‟d had called it a smile, but the thought that others might have seen it
and thought of it as such… That in their eyes, Sephiroth had smiled at him, made his chest and
belly fill with warmth, even as he worried at that fact that people obviously had seen. Even if it
had only been Ratchett.

“It‟s up to him what he does,” he said cautiously, because he was never going to get Ratchett to
believe it hadn‟t meant anything. And Cloud liked to think that it had, anyway. “I can‟t…stop
him from smiling at me.”

“Maybe you‟re too stupid to see it,” Ratchett said, with a kind of thoughtfulness in his voice and
face, even as it was needlessly cruel. “But then again, you‟re quite pretty for a boy, aren‟t you?
No brains, maybe. Maybe you think it‟s cute, being coy like that. Maybe you‟re not stupid at all.
You‟re right, you can‟t stop him.” He smiled, thinly, with more than a bit of malice behind it.
“No-one could, or would. And they won‟t reprimand him for it, will they?”

“I don‟t understand…” Cloud looked at Ratchett inquisitively, watching the rapid play of
emotions across the surprisingly open face. The other boy was jumping from one thing to another
so rapidly…

“No, you don‟t.” Ratchett laughed coldly. “He won‟t get in trouble for it, will he? He‟s the
General. He‟s their prize possession, their poster boy. But you‟re not.”

Cloud stared at him.

The older boy grinned slowly. “They can do what they like to you.”
It was difficult to concentrate. Cloud stared at the papers he‟d spread out in front of him where
he sat cross-legged on his bed. He was supposed to be learning these, and though he‟d been
sitting there for some indeterminate amount of time, he wasn‟t even sure that he‟d managed to
look through a whole page.

He rubbed his hand over his face as he pursed his lips. He was tired, and his belly was so tight
with anxiousness that he felt sick.

The door opened, and Cloud let his hand drop back to his lap to see who was coming in. Zack‟s
familiar form backed in through the doorway, but even before he saw the spill of dark, unruly
hair down Zack‟s back he heard the other man‟s infectious laugh. “I‟ll see you later!” he called
to someone Cloud presumed was standing outside, and then shut the door.

With that he turned around, still smiling, and raised a hand in greeting. “Good afternoon, O
Studious One.”

Cloud smiled, and Zack went into the bathroom to shower. As Cloud heard the water come on
behind the door, he sighed and looked over the pages in front of him again. There were diagrams,
maps, and all of them looked unfamiliar even though he‟d not looked away from them for half an
hour.

He wasn‟t going to be able to do this, not when the thought that none of it mattered was hanging
over his head. If what Ratchett said was true, he‟d get kicked out sooner or later anyway. Not so
long before he‟d been thinking how well he was doing, and he should have known that
something would happen to show him otherwise. It seemed he couldn‟t win – either he left
Sephiroth alone and Nibelheim happened all over again, or he tried to get close to Sephiroth and
got kicked out of ShinRa, after which Nibelheim was still very likely to happen anyway.

It made him angry, and the feeling of being cheated spread through him with it. Not necessarily
all for himself (though he wasn‟t perfect and of course some of it was); the thought came to him
that Sephiroth had never done anything to deserve becoming what he had. His entire life had
been beyond his own control, in the hands of people not fit for such responsibility. Even when
madness freed him of ShinRa, it was only at the behest of his „mother‟. And even then, it had
occurred to Cloud more than once that Nibelheim might have been planned by Hojo, to some
extent.

After all, even if Hojo couldn‟t predict madness, surely he couldn‟t have thought that sending
Sephiroth specifically to the reactor where Jenova was housed would end well.

After a while the bathroom door opened and Zack reappeared, damp hair plastered down flat
over of skull. Cloud tried to look like he‟d actually been doing something, but Zack said,
“Weren‟t you looking at those maps before?”

“…Maybe,” Cloud said.
Zack came over and cocked his head at the diagrams. His gaze flickered to Cloud for a moment,
thoughtful. Then he sat himself on the edge of Cloud‟s mattress, hunkered over a little to avoid
hitting his head on the bunk above. “You stressed about the exam?”

“A little,” Cloud replied truthfully. It was hard not to be – he‟d failed it once. And now it might
not be worth it anyway.

“Did it just hit you today?” Zack looked a little confused. “I mean, before you didn‟t seem this
worried.”

“No, it‟s just…” Cloud scrubbed at his face with one hand, rubbing the heel of his palm against
tired eyes. He didn‟t want to tell Zack that he was letting someone get to him so much – it wasn‟t
in his nature to talk so openly to others, not really. He‟d talked a little before, back when Zack
had been alive, but then after Nibelheim, and after losing the one person he‟d ever truly thought
of as a friend, there didn‟t seem to be any point.

But Zack was alive now, wasn‟t he? If he had really been pre-Nibelheim Cloud, then his
reluctance would have faded long before this. Even if he and Zack hadn‟t been friends, then
Zack‟s position as the SOLDIER responsible for him would have meant he could talk to Zack
about anything.

He‟d gotten used to keeping things to himself, and it wasn‟t a habit that was easy to break. His
secrecy had already caused problems between himself and Zack, and he‟d hated that.

“It‟s just…” he continued, trying to think of what exactly to say. Zack watched him intently.
Eventually he let out a long breath and said, “Zack, will I get in trouble because of Sephiroth?”

The black-haired SOLDIER blinked at him. “What do you mean?”

Cloud shrugged awkwardly. “If people think he‟s playing favourites, will I be punished?
Because I don‟t think they‟d punish Sephiroth.”

Zack started with a slight look of disbelief, but then it faded, and Cloud was left looking at the
tired and unhappy expression left behind. “If this was anything but ShinRa, I would say you were
being absurd,” the older man said, shaking his head. “But, you know, this company is rotten and
I could never say with certainty that you‟re safe. I will say that giving extra training to certain,
talented cadets is not uncommon and therefore not an issue. I suppose you might call that
favouritism and, strictly, that‟s not allowed but, you know, extra training is something that
happens all the time. We‟ve never been called to account for it.” The confidence in Zack‟s tone,
at least, comforted Cloud a little. “I don‟t know if you‟re aware but you‟re not the only one
getting training – there are others being schooled by other SOLDIERs. You‟re just the only one
who‟s sparred Sephiroth properly. The only time you‟d have to worry is if, a) you started getting
advantages for no apparent reason at all, in which case it would be favouritism he would be
accountable for, or b) other people got jealous and tried to construe it as something less
wholesome than it is.”
Which was what Ratchett was trying to do, after all. Cloud sighed. “What if there‟s a danger of
b?”

Zack cocked his head again, trying to work it out. “Ratchett?” he asked after a moment. “Is that
what started this off?”

“He told me ShinRa would take it out on me rather than on Sephiroth.” Cloud couldn‟t meet
Zack‟s eyes. He stared at his own knees instead. “I just wondered whether it was likely or not.”

“He‟s a dick,” Zack said unceremoniously, his voice harsh. “But, in the end, he can‟t do anything
unless there‟s something inappropriate to be found, which there isn‟t, really.”

Ratchett had been convinced there was, though. “You think he acts like that with anyone else?”
Keeping his eyes down, because he didn‟t think he could bear to see Zack‟s face, he decided to
dare, “What if, in the future, there might be?”

Zack didn‟t laugh, or snort disbelievingly, and instead went quiet. Cloud felt all the muscles
across his shoulders draw tight. Eventually, Zack said, “Do you think there will be?”

“I saw him smile when you came in. I‟m not stupid.”

“Do you?” Cloud asked. He looked up then, but Zack just seemed curious and interested rather
than dismissive. “Ratchett is…he‟s convinced that something‟s going on. I know it doesn‟t sound
much and I know…I know…” He looked around the room helplessly, hating how stupid he
sounded. “I know I‟m probably interpreting things that way because I…well, I‟d like it to mean
something if Sephiroth looks at me.”

“Far be it from me to agree with something an idiot like Ratchett says,” Zack began, “and I‟m
not gonna go speaking for Sephiroth either, but I don‟t think Ratchett‟s…entirely barking up the
wrong tree.”

Cloud felt his heart thump. “Entirely?” he asked.

Zack sighed, and briefly rubbed at his eyes. “You have to understand, Cloud, that this is…hard.
Sephiroth has been acting differently towards you, but I couldn‟t say for sure what that means.
He‟s not the type of person to share that kind of thing with people. And even though I want to
see him find someone, I don‟t…” Zack seemed to be struggling to think of how to word his
thoughts. Cloud watched frustration play across the other man‟s face. Eventually, the older man
said, “I don‟t want to see anyone get hurt by being with him.”

That surprised Cloud. In his sanity, Sephiroth had never come across as a cruel person. “Is he the
kind of person who would do that?”

Zack shook his head vehemently. “Oh, no, no, not deliberately. But he doesn‟t understand people
a lot of the time. He‟d do it without realising he‟d done anything wrong. I just…Would that
make me a bad friend if I knew that, and encouraged you anyway?”
“No,” Cloud said. “Because you‟ve warned me. And you‟re not encouraging me, anyway.” He
smiled. “If you are, you‟ve got a funny idea of it.”

However, Zack did not seem to be appeased by Cloud words. He was frowning worriedly. “And
does it make me a bad friend if I stopped Sephiroth from ever getting the chance to try, just
because there‟s a possibility he might accidentally hurt someone?” Zack looked tired – as if this
was an argument he‟d had with himself many times.

“People get hurt all the time in relationships, though.” Cloud shrugged. “It‟s not something you
can just single Sephiroth out for. He‟s not the only one out there who doesn‟t understand other
people.”

Zack nodded. “I know. I just don‟t want to see you get hurt. You‟re nine years younger than he is,
and he‟s…I mean, I‟m pretty sure you‟ll get into SOLDIER so eventually it won‟t matter so
much, but right now he‟s so much stronger than you. All SOLDIERs have to be careful if they‟re
in a relationship with someone who‟s not, and Sephiroth is just so far above the average
SOLDIER, he could really hurt you – physically really damage you – if he wasn‟t mindful.” He
frowned for a moment, and then said, “I know it‟s because I‟m a SOLDIER too and I can take it,
but, you know, he can be a bit…rough. Even by SOLDIER standards.”

Cloud thought he should probably refrain from telling Zack that, excessive physical damage put
aside, he probably wouldn‟t be opposed to something „rough‟. He nodded instead, wondering
briefly if that was something Zack enjoyed or not.

“If you‟re serious about this,” Zack went on, “then you really need to talk to Sephiroth. He‟s the
only one who knows for sure if he‟s interested. If he is, then I really think you should…talk
things out first. Don‟t rush into things. It sounds girly, I know, but I‟m guessing you don‟t do
casual, and he‟s never had anything but, through no fault of his own. You should make sure you
both know where you stand before you try anything.”

It didn‟t sound like something Zack would normally say – Zack, whose ideology when it came to
relationships was hardly anything to write home about – so Cloud nodded and said, “Okay.
Thanks, Zack.”

He‟d never expected any relationship with someone like Sephiroth to be easy, really.



A hand slapped across his face. He wasn‟t prepared for it, and even though Hojo had never been
particularly strong, he was angry and the force of it caused Sephiroth‟s head to snap to one side.

“Worthless, good-for-nothing little brat,” Hojo hissed. “How many times do I have to tell you?
How many times must we go through this?” He shook the hand he‟d hit Sephiroth with, like it
was hurting. “And even then, you turn your face away like a woman! What kind of General are
you going to be if you can‟t even take a slap like that?”
Hojo had never actually hit him before. Sephiroth realised he‟d gotten too complacent – after 17
years with no physical violence he‟d just assumed it wasn‟t in Hojo‟s nature, especially when
Sephiroth was already taller and stronger than him.

At Sephiroth‟s silence, Hojo threw up his hands and began to pace, agitated. “What do I have to
do to get through to you, idiot boy? ShinRa does not tolerate mistakes! And you, my boy, are
pushing your luck! What did you think you were up to?!”

Sephiroth stared straight ahead, standing tall and straight as if Hojo was one of the instructors. “I
was in a fight, Professor.”

“I know that!” Hojo wailed. His whiny, nasal voice always became pitched even higher when he
got angry or excited. “We‟ve had this conversation before, haven‟t we? I‟m sick and tired of
hearing of you fighting! There is only so much ShinRa is allowed to overlook before they are
forced to discharge you and that is not allowed!”

He knew this. He‟d been told many times that if he failed then Hojo would kill him. He‟d always
ignored that before but the more time passed, the more maniacal Hojo began to look and now
Sephiroth was beginning to believe that Hojo would do his damnedest to do the job if it came
down to it.

“You are going to be General. It is what we‟ve worked for all these years and I won‟t let you
destroy that so selfishly! Do you have any idea how many people are behind this? Do you have
any idea how much money?”

Sephiroth didn‟t, as it happened. Hojo sometimes spoke like this, especially recently, as if
Sephiroth was some kind of project rather than a human being – well, if he was honest, there had
always been an element of that in how Hojo dealt with him – but he never actually went into
details about these mysterious „people‟ and all this „money‟. Sephiroth assumed „lots‟ but he
wasn‟t sure why there would be.

“Just because you don‟t understand the significance of all this doesn‟t mean you can go off
gallivanting around like some kind of hooligan! You are not your own person, boy! Too many
people have too much invested in you!”

Sephiroth had heard all of this far too often recently and he‟d begun to switch off by then. It
unnerved him, being talked about like some kind of business proposition, like he was the
manifestation of people‟s shares in ShinRa or something equally ridiculous. He had the sudden
image of running away from ShinRa and having various balding, middle-aged business men,
President ShinRa included, huffing and puffing their way after him like he was escaping with
their money.

“Sephiroth!” Hojo shrieked. “Listen to me when I am talking to you, you stupid, insufferable
little-“ He was rocked by another slap, Hojo‟s full palm slamming across his cheek, and then –
He blinked, and found himself standing in a corridor. Not Hojo‟s lab. Not with Hojo screaming
at him. Not 17 years old.

A dream. No, a memory. Just a memory.

Sephiroth let out a long breath through his nose that sounded loud in the sudden quiet left behind
where Hojo‟s voice had been. Even if it had only been in his own mind, it was one of those
memories that stayed clear forever – Hojo‟s words rang in his ears as if the man had only just
screamed them at him.

Sephiroth shook his head and looked around. It took him a moment to work out where he was –
somewhere down by the cadets‟ dorms. He couldn‟t remember why he would be there, though.
He tried to think and couldn‟t really remember walking here. He‟d been preoccupied, he knew,
but surely not enough to have just wandered this far away from his own office and quarters for
no reason.

Cloud.

He was close to the dorm Cloud and Zack both used. The thought of Cloud sent an odd feeling
through him – half a sharp rush of anticipation, and half the dull drag of unease and dread. And
then he realised what had brought him here – some half-formed notion of seeing Cloud that had
dogged him throughout the day.

Not that he had any idea how to explain such an impromptu visit. He could barely explain it to
himself. He knew there was something he wanted to see, but what it was he couldn‟t quite name.
It was getting late, the light failing – Cloud would probably be busy anyway, what with the exam
preparations – and there‟d probably be others there as well –

Not that any of that stopped him. He was walking again, driven by the determination not to back
down when he‟d come this far. There was a voice in the back of his head saying Stop this, this
goes against all army regulations – as if the way you and he speak to each other hasn‟t already –
and eventually someone is going to pull you in for it. You or him.

He rounded a corner and the entrance to the dorm came into view. He stopped again, steps
faltering as his doubts began to clamour once more – What do you think you‟re doing here? Do
you have any idea how unprofessional this is? Just how unthinkable this should be to you – to
even contemplate carrying on an affair with a subordinate?

But it wasn‟t like it didn‟t happen with other people anyway. He‟d turned a blind eye to affairs
other SOLDIERs had carried on when they‟d posed no threat to their professional relationships.
And when had he ever had anything for himself, anyway?

But as it was, his thoughts were interrupted when the door to the dorm opened. Zack came
through the doorway, and his face brightened when he spotted Sephiroth. He smiled, closed the
door, and then said, “Hello you. What‟re you doing down here?”
Sephiroth didn‟t know what to say to that, since he wasn‟t sure himself. But Zack‟s smile quickly
turned knowing and he jerked his head back, indicating the dorm. “He‟s in there, by the way.
The others have gone out – they‟re the kind who aren‟t really gonna make it past the exams, you
know – so he‟s in by himself.”

“Why, where are you going?” Sephiroth asked, ignoring the mention of Cloud.

“I‟m gonna go see Aeris,” Zack explained, eyes brightening further and his smile widening.
“And I won‟t be back for a while. I doubt the other boys will either, so Cloud‟ll be alone for a
while. He might be glad of some company.”

Did Cloud not have people to spend time with? The thought irked him. Was Cloud unpopular?
He‟d never really noticed the blond as such, since he‟d attracted Zack‟s attention, and Zack had
mentioned Reno before, who certainly was popular.

“Sephiroth,” Zack said, catching his attention again. “What are you here for?”

Sephiroth shrugged. “There‟s no answer I could give that would satisfy either of us,” he admitted.
“It was just a thought that crossed my mind…”

“…To see him?” Zack finished.

Sephiroth shrugged.

“It‟s nothing to be ashamed of, and I‟m not interrogating you,” Zack said softly. Sephiroth did
not meet his eyes. “And now‟s as good a chance as any to go visiting. You came at the right
time.” He started forward to pass Sephiroth, and lay a hand on the older man‟s arm as he went.
“You‟ll be fine,” he said with a warm smile. “Just talk to him.”

Easy enough for you to say, Sephiroth thought, but nodded. Zack squeezed his arm before letting
go, and then carried on walking and left him to it.

He waited until Zack‟s footsteps faded out of earshot, collecting himself. Zack‟s words made
him feel like he was on the edge of a cliff, and any moment he‟d tip over the edge – but into
what he didn‟t know, and a large part of him was – afraid? – to find out.

But he was never afraid, and he crossed the last short distance of corridor. A short knock, and a
voice came back from the other side, “Did you forget the code again, Zack? What did you leave
behind this time?”

Sephiroth smiled a little, amused. “If Zack has forgotten something, he hasn‟t realised it yet.”

A moment of quiet, and then he heard the sounds of movement on the other side. The door
opened, and Cloud stared out at him, blue eyes wide. “General, sir? Is there something I can do
for you?”
“You could let me in, if it doesn‟t inconvenience you,” Sephiroth said, and Cloud scrambled
back out of the way to let him in.

The room was empty except for Cloud, just as Zack had said. There were papers spread over one
of the bunks – Cloud‟s, he assumed. The blond was standing near the door, watching him
curiously, eyes still wide and cheeks flushed just enough to be noticeable. “Sir?”

“Sit,” Sephiroth said, motioning to the bunk. “I‟m not here in an official capacity.” Think,
Sephiroth, think! “I came to…check up on you from the other day.”

The flush became more noticeable then, but it was more out of embarrassment than anything else.
Cloud visibly deflated at the mention of his collapse. “Oh,” he said. “I‟m fine, really, sir.” He
motioned to the paper-strewn bunk. “I was just going over the papers you gave us for the exam.”

Sephiroth made another motion with his hand towards the bunk, and Cloud wandered over to it
as he spoke. Sephiroth followed him, watching the younger man move. He was wearing casual
clothes – sweatpants and an old t-shirt that looked a little too small for him now; socks but no
shoes. It was…appealing to look at him like that, to see him in a more relaxed environment even
though they were still on ShinRa property. It didn‟t remind him so readily that Cloud was a cadet
and technically off-limits.

He found himself – stupidly – watching Cloud‟s hips. The thought came unbidden to him of
standing at Cloud‟s back with his hands either side, easing the loose sweatpants down and
watching them fall –

But then Cloud turned and sank down onto the bunk, and Sephiroth thought that if there was one
time his pale skin would fail him it would be now, heating with embarrassment. But luckily he
didn‟t feel his face grow warm, and nothing showed in Cloud‟s expression that said he might
have gone red. He needed to keep himself in check – no matter what Zack said, he couldn‟t let
those thoughts rule him.

He watched Cloud cast his gaze around the room from where he sat, and Sephiroth knew he must
have looked questioning because the blond suddenly said, “I should get you a chair but you told
me to sit and I –“

Sephiroth couldn‟t help but smile, which cut Cloud off. The blond stared back at him. Sephiroth
waved a hand and said, “I‟m perfectly capable of finding my own chair, and it‟s not an offence
considering I am, as I said, not here as General…” Cloud smiled at that, relieved, but there was
more there, a tentative warmth that Sephiroth had seen before in Cloud, but not quite recognised.
It was like when Zack looked at him, but softer.

He turned away to find a chair, cursing himself again. He wasn‟t there to fall over himself staring
at the boy – it would only lead to Cloud becoming uncomfortable, and that wasn‟t what he
wanted. Quite the opposite. That was what he was here to do, he realised as he spotted a chair
against the far wall. There was something standing between them and he wanted to see – what
did he want to see?
I want to see…what it might be like if we were comfortable with each other. To see what it would
be like to be friends, the way Zack is my friend but…more. To see if we could be friends at all…

He wanted more. More than what Zack could give him, more than what he had gained from his
brief dalliances with other men – if he had gained anything at all except the knowledge that he
wasn‟t happy with what that offered him.

His hand closed over the back of the chair and he stood there for a moment, letting the thought
settle. And what right had he to think that Cloud might offer him more? He‟d seen Cloud look at
him like he understood him, look right through him and Cloud had not flinched away from what
he‟d seen. It was more than anyone else had done. Zack, despite everything he had done for
Sephiroth, still judged at times. It was human nature. He couldn‟t blame Zack.

But that could easily be his own desperation leading him to see things where there were none.
But he couldn‟t know for sure. Not unless he tried for more.

“Sir…Sephiroth?” Cloud‟s voice washed over him, his tone uncertain. “Are you alright?”

“I‟m fine,” Sephiroth said, keeping his back turned. “I just thought of something. But it‟s not
important.” He picked up the chair and turned back. Cloud looked like he had paused halfway
through getting up off the bed, but as Sephiroth returned, he folded back. Sephiroth watched him
pull his legs up onto the bed and arrange himself cross-legged.

“I saw Zack on his way out,” Sephiroth found himself saying as he sat down. “He said you were
studying for the exam.”

Cloud looked over at the papers beside him. “I wanted to be sure that I passed this time.” Even as
Sephiroth picked up on the words, he saw a brief look of consternation flit across the blond‟s
face, as if he hadn‟t meant to say that either. But Sephiroth chose not to comment – filing it away
along with the still unexplained incident of him „remembering‟ running Cloud through with the
Masamune – and Cloud went straight on hurriedly, “But Zack‟ll be gone all night so that‟ll help
– I‟ll be able to get some work done without him hovering.” He looked briefly stricken, raising
worried eyes to meet Sephiroth‟s amused gaze. “Not that you‟re unwelcome, sir, not at all –“

“No offence taken,” Sephiroth cut him off, fighting to keep himself from smiling again. But the
thought struck him, why wasn‟t he allowed to smile here? “He said he was going to see his
girlfriend.”

“Aeris, yes.” Cloud‟s voice was warm as he spoke the name. Another oddity – Sephiroth
remembered coming across both Cloud and Zack in Sector Six and Cloud‟s very marked
reluctance to go anywhere near the Gainsborough residence.

“Have you met her?” he asked.

“Aeris?” Cloud looked at him silently for a moment. “I‟ve seen her briefly. She seems like a
lovely person.”
“A saint, I imagine, to voluntarily attach herself to Zack,” Sephiroth said, and it startled a wide,
surprised smile out of Cloud that made his breath catch for a second.

“You‟re being a little unfair,” Cloud said, the smile a little teasing. “He‟s not quite that bad.
After all, you –“ The smile dropped as quickly as Cloud‟s eyes did. “Sorry, sir,” he whispered,
hands clasped tightly in his lap. “It‟s not my place to-“

“Cloud,” Sephiroth said softly. He hated to see Cloud cower from him. “Please,” he continued,
“it‟s alright.” The blond looked up, and Sephiroth was startled to see pain in the teenager‟s face.
“I‟m not acting as the General right now, I‟ve told you. And I know that my…past relations with
Zack are hardly a secret.”

“Still, it‟s private,” Cloud said quietly. “It‟s nothing to do with me, I don‟t know why I said it.“

“You meant no harm.” The opposite – it was as if Cloud had wanted to tease him, to share in a
joke with him. That warmed him more than the mention of Zack had unsettled him. “I know you
didn‟t. Just forget about it.” Cloud nodded. “And we both know he‟s just as bad as we make him
out to be. Let‟s just say I got out before he could inflict any lasting damage.”

Cloud couldn‟t help the sharp burst of laughter, even though he briefly looked confused as to
whether Sephiroth had meant him to laugh or not. Sephiroth let his lips curve upwards and the
tension bled out of Cloud‟s face.

“That‟s one way of looking at it, I suppose,” the blond replied. “But Aeris seems to be coping
pretty well so I think you‟re safe for the moment.”

Sephiroth snorted. “I‟m glad.”

Cloud smiled again. “You sound it.”

Sephiroth wanted to keep him smiling. He wasn‟t expecting another laugh – he didn‟t think he‟d
ever heard Cloud laugh before. Cloud‟s smiles weren‟t as easily given as Zack‟s, his laughter
even less so. Another pang of recognition hit him – he could easily be talking about himself.

But what had happened to him to cause that reluctance? It was more than just a quiet personality.
Cloud‟s smiles were more often than not a little uncertain, as if he wasn‟t sure it was a welcome
expression. Sephiroth knew, objectively, that his own problems probably stemmed from being
raised here in the labs, but Cloud should have had a normal upbringing, shouldn‟t he?

“It feels odd to be sitting here like this and to know so little about you,” Sephiroth said. “We‟ve
had a few…false starts, I think.”

The smile again, tinged with a sudden understanding that Sephiroth couldn‟t quite puzzle out.
“Where are you from?” he asked. He knew the name from the files but it meant little to him.

“A little town called Nibelheim, on the West Continent,” Cloud told him.
“What‟s it like?”

“Oh, you know…a really tiny place, nothing like here.” Cloud shrugged. “Not many people.
Quite a…closed community.”

The words of an outsider. “You came here to get away from that?” Sephiroth ventured.

“It was one of the reasons.” Another uncomfortable shrug. “I wouldn‟t want to…I mean, I don‟t
ever intend on going back there.”

That surprised Sephiroth. “No family you‟re leaving behind?” he asked before he could stop
himself.

Cloud cocked his head and said, “My mother is still there. I probably should go back for her but
we were never really close.” A dull red crept up Cloud‟s cheeks and he dipped his head
apologetically. “I‟m sorry, sir, it‟s not anything you‟d want to hear about…”

“On the contrary. I never really had a family so I…I like to hear about other people‟s.”

Cloud looked back at him, so full of pained understanding that Sephiroth felt embarrassed to
have said anything at all.

“You and Zack are close, though, aren‟t you?” Cloud asked softly.

Sephiroth knew that there was no-one in his life who he was close to the way that some people
defined „close‟. There was no-one he could confide in about everything. “Zack is the closest
friend I have,” he admitted instead.

Cloud‟s expression eased a little into that tentative smile. “Knowing the kind of liberties that
Zack takes, he probably considers himself to be the closest you‟ve got to family.”

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow and snorted, amused. “You think so?”

“You know what he‟s like with adopting people,” Cloud said fondly. “He can‟t help himself.”
His face clouded for a moment as his mind went elsewhere, and Sephiroth watched the different
expressions flit across that mobile face with interest. He liked watching Cloud, trying to work
out what was going on behind those expressive eyes. It was like a puzzle and he‟d always liked
puzzles.

“I‟d think you‟re included in Zack‟s little „family‟, then,” Sephiroth said. “And it can‟t be so bad,
to have a SOLDIER 1st looking out for you.”

Cloud smiled, drawing one leg up onto the bed and wrapping his arms around his shin. “I guess
not. For someone trying to get into the SOLDIER program, I guess that‟s a pretty good thing to
have.”
“I would say so.”

He watched Cloud begin to pick at the hem of his sweatpants. “Sephiroth, sir…” the blond began,
uncertainly. “About that…”

Sephiroth‟s eyebrows rose. “You‟re still worried about punishment for favouritism?”

Cloud nodded unhappily. Sephiroth wanted the smile back and he wasn‟t sure how to go about
getting it. He wondered what Zack would do if Aeris looked like that. Probably kiss her,
knowing Zack. When he and Zack had been closer, the younger man had done it to him when he
had been frowning.

Not that kissing Cloud would do any good. It would probably make things worse. He doubted it
would get the blond smiling again. He had a brief flash of it turning out somehow better –
leaning over Cloud, pressing him back into his bunk and swallowing with his own mouth the
hitched gasp of surprise he just knew Cloud would make –

Cloud started talking again. For which Sephiroth was entirely too grateful. “It was mentioned to
me that…I might get in trouble instead, if they can‟t touch you, sir.”

That took his mind off other inappropriate thoughts. Even though Zack had told him it was okay
to think like that, he still couldn‟t quite wrap his mind around it. Cloud was still so young, no
matter what Zack said. No matter how much the non-logic-driven parts of him agreed with Zack.

“I can‟t see that going very far, even if someone in ShinRa did try to do such a thing,” Sephiroth
said after a moment. “ShinRa doesn‟t like upsetting me because it reflects badly on them – and I
would certainly have something to say if they forced you out of the military.” For something that
wasn‟t even inappropriate. Yet.

The smile came back, which satisfied him. He‟d managed to tease out quite a few in the short
time they‟d been speaking, which felt like a real accomplishment. He liked being able to do it.
He‟d work up to getting another laugh, he decided.

“Thank you, sir,” Cloud said, and for the first time Sephiroth saw a hint of weariness in him. It
was getting late, and he‟d interrupted Cloud working.

“You seem tired,” he said. “I should go.”

Cloud looked startled and then disappointed by this statement, but didn‟t refute his observation.
He began to get up off the bed. “I‟ll see you out, sir.”

Sephiroth nodded and rose. He followed Cloud, resolutely keeping his eyes on the back of the
blond‟s head this time. It was easier said than done, and he was quite appalled with himself
before they even finished the short journey to the door. He couldn‟t quite decide if their talk had
gone well, or been a complete disaster on his end.
Cloud pulled the door open for him. “Thank you for coming to see me, sir. I enjoyed it.” There
was a very slight flush along his cheekbones, but Sephiroth was beginning to realise he rather
liked it being there.

“It was my pleasure,” he said, voice low, and watched the colour flare a little more in Cloud‟s
cheeks. He got a perverse sense of satisfaction from it. He turned away and moved past Cloud
into the doorway, but stopped. He turned abruptly back, murmured, “Cloud –“

Cloud was still standing, closer behind him than he‟d realised. He stared up at Sephiroth, eyes a
little wide, mouth parted. “Yes?” he asked, and his voice was more than a little breathless.

Sephiroth couldn‟t say what he‟d turned back for – whether he‟d had a reason at all, or if it had
just been lost as soon as he found Cloud‟s gaze again. He stared, taking in everything he could,
and the sudden need to lean forward and take what was his burned through him, too much. And
Cloud stood there, so close, so close, staring back and waiting, breath held –

He tore his gaze away. “Nothing,” he muttered. “It was nothing, sorry.” He dipped his head, but
not before he caught the disappointment flash across Cloud‟s face. He ignored it, backing away.
“Goodnight, Cloud.”

“…Goodnight,” Cloud whispered uncertainly, and Sephiroth left him there in the doorway.



Author‟s Notes:

Thanks to Dina again, for beta-ing

I have absolutely no excuse for the delay with this. Oops? is all I think I can say.

Hi everyone

Sorry this isn‟t the update you may have been waiting for. This is just an apology to everyone,
for waiting for so long, and also for people not being able to really contact me through .

For a while now, I haven‟t really been using the site anymore. I‟ve kind of drifted away from the
site, Fusion, and also the contact email address that people may have for me. So if people have
been trying to get in touch with me, and have been having no success, then I‟m very, very sorry.
I have not intentionally been ignoring anyone, but it has been pointed out to me that this could be
seen as being rude, so I realised I needed to write an apology.

From now on, if you need to contact me, please do so through my livejournal (url in my profile).
Thank you so much!

As for Fusion, I know some of you wonder about whether it will be continued or not. To be
honest, even I don‟t know. FFVII will forever continue to be one of my major fandom loves, but
the fact is, I started Fusion when I was very young, quite a few years ago. As I‟m sure you can
understand, my writing style, my ideas, and my tastes have changed a lot. I have changed a lot.
And now, looking back on this fic, I‟m not so proud of it, and don‟t have the same kind of
passion for continuing it that I once had. I don‟t want to abandon it, because so many people
gave me such kind reviews and still continue to tell me they enjoy this story. However, at this
particular point in time, I don‟t have the motivation for it. That‟s not to say that I won‟t ever
update it, but it probably won‟t be soon.

I‟m sorry if I have seemed rude to people at all. Thank you all so much for your amazing reviews,
and I hope that you might continue to enjoy some of the things I write now, even if it‟s not
Fusion.

Knowing Shadows

				
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