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Cloud Strife would have loved to say that his mother had told him there would be days like this.  No, really, he would.  He knew a lot of people who had complained about hearing such clichéd lines, but he truly, honestly wouldn’t mind having a memory of his mother warning him.  He could work with cliché; cliché had to happen for it to become cliché.  In fact, it had to be a damned regular occurrence.

Oh yes.  Cloud wouldn’t mind that line right then.

Sighing, Cloud reflexively tightened and loosened his grip on the Buster Sword.  It wasn’t his, but he had used it enough that it fit comfortably in his hands.  Besides that, he had lost his gun in front of the reactor, and in the Nibel Mountains, one would have to be insane

Cloud screwed his eyes shut.  Never mind.  There was no way he could go right with that train of thought.

Cloud sucked in a shuddering breath and focused on his surroundings.  With his back to the shallow cave and bandages hiding the glint of the massive blade, the area seemed well defended.  As clever as the Turks appeared, Cloud knew these mountains better than the back of his hand.  If nothing else, Cloud hoped that his distraction would work until . . .

Until . . .

Oh by Hel, what did Cloud do then?

Breath shallow and quick, Cloud glanced behind him.  The pair still appeared to be unconscious, although a little more bruised since Cloud had literally dragged them a good distance.  Just the memory of that renewed the ache in his limbs, the pain in his hands.  For all of his dreams of SOLDIER, he was nothing but a trooper, a pathetic little trooper who was way over his head and who had killed the

Cloud slammed that thought to a halt.  He steadied his grip on the Buster Sword and forced his hands to stop shaking.

When this is all over, the blond informed himself, you can collapse somewhere, sleep for a week, and then have a nervous breakdown.  Not yet.

Until it was over, he had to deal with the fact that he had gunned down Hojo right in front of the Turks, his hometown was gone (his mother was gone), his dreams were gone . . .

And his best friend and his commander—

Cloud had to stop and just breathe for a moment.

All right.  Surroundings.  Killer Turks.  Right.  Inhaling through his nose and exhaling through his mouth, Cloud glanced around the mountainside.  It was still several more hours until nightfall, but darkness was already falling over his side of the mountain.  The plants were sparse, but Cloud knew how the shadows could play tricks on even the savviest eyes.  Between that and the fact that he knew of three dragon nests close by, he figured they were decently protected.  Only someone who knew about the dragons could safely pass them.

Cloud just wished things were that simple on this side of the cave.

As if he could hear Cloud’s thoughts, Zack moaned and twisted.  Cloud looked around one last time before creeping back into the cave.  He carried the Buster Sword until he reached Zack’s side and then he carefully placed it beside him: just in case, it would be within reach.  Something leathery and black darted at him, but Cloud didn’t flinch when it gently wrapped around his wrist. 

It might be a tentacle, one of at least a dozen, but it was one of Zack’s tentacles, so Cloud knew he had nothing to fear.

Dragging himself to Zack’s side, Cloud couldn’t resist pulling Zack’s tousled shirt down.  Well, at least his stomach is covered, he thought ruefully, staring where Zack’s groin and legs used to be.  The tentacles were scraped but not as badly as before.  Apparently the SOLDIER’s healing ability covered the tentacles, and he couldn’t believe that he was getting used to them.

He was still contemplating covering them and how he could possibly cover them when the man’s violet eyes flickered open.  He stared blankly at Cloud, and the blond’s hands twitched only a moment before he grasped one of Zack’s hands.  Whatever uncertainty he felt at his invasion of the man’s space vanished when Zack visibly relaxed.

“Cloud?” he whispered, and the hoarseness of his voice almost made Cloud cringe.  Only the realization of what Zack would think he was cringing at stopped the motion.  Why didn’t he think to pick his canteen back up?  Or at least find Zack a better pillow than his jacket so the man wouldn’t be inhaling so much dirt?  “Are you okay?”

Cloud forced a smile.  “Yeah.”  He glanced at Zack’s scuffed tentacles, including the one wrapped around his wrist.  “You?”

Zack flinched, following Cloud’s gaze down to what used to be his legs.  Zack trembled a little, stunning Cloud. He tightened his grip on Zack’s hand.  “I hoped that it was all a dream.”  His eyes widened.  “That means—”

With a flush, Cloud lifted his head and looked past Zack.  He couldn’t believe he forgot the man, even for a moment.  “Yeah…”  What else could he say?

Zack started and twisted so he could look over his shoulder.  “He’s here?”  The SOLDIER’s gaze flicked over Sephiroth’s unconscious body.  “Cloud . . .”  His voice trailed off, and Cloud watched him as he studied the odd manacles holding the General.  “Barrier materia?”

Ashamed, Cloud ducked his head.  The cave was small, barely big enough to comfortably house the two reclining SOLDIERs, but hunched as he was, Cloud took up no room at all.  “I had to steal it from the General,” he admitted wretchedly.  “I couldn’t grab our bags and I didn’t have any supplies and I’m sorry that I couldn’t do better—”

Zack’s tentacle on Cloud’s mouth startled them both.  Unsurprisingly, Zack recovered first.  Not withdrawing his tentacle, Zack said firmly, “Enough of that.  We’re here, we’re alive, and how by the Planet did you stop him?”

Biting his lip the moment Zack drew back his tentacle, Cloud knew that Zack wouldn’t like his immediate thought: Why couldn’t he stop the General earlier?

This wasn’t him. This hesitance wasn’t him. He knew he was weak but not this weak but and he had to be stronger and focus.

“My canteen,” Cloud murmured.  “I didn’t want to get close to his tentacles” like my mom did oh by Hel my mom “so I threw my canteen at his head.  It hit him right in the temple and it was the heavy regulation canteen and—”

Zack covered Cloud’s mouth with his tentacle again.  “Breathe, Spike,” he ordered gently.

Cloud stared at him with too wide eyes. His pulse pounded in his ears. “Ah floph Fofo.”

Blinking, Zack withdrew his tentacle.  “What?”

Cloud licked his lips, tasting something odd that had to have come from Zack’s tentacles.  He blushed and then blushed brighter when he unconsciously licked his lips again.  “I shot Hojo.”  As Zack’s jaw dropped, Cloud ducked his head.  “Right in front of the Turks when he said the tentacles couldn’t be reversed by science and I got him in the neck and I am going to die.”

When Cloud looked up again, unnerved by Zack’s silence, he found the man still gaping.  “Zack?” he asked cautiously.

The muscles of Zack’s throat moved in a thick swallow, his tentacles jerking in an odd tandem with the motion.  “How did you do that without the Turks shooting you?” he asked faintly.

With a flush, Cloud tried to hunch further into himself, but Zack’s tentacles wrapping tentatively around Cloud stopped him.  When Cloud didn’t protest, Zack pulled Cloud against his chest. 

Remembering how Zack had held him the night he had learned he had failed the SOLDIER test, Cloud didn’t try to object.  He simply pressed his forehead against Zack’s shoulder.  “I brought the General here first and bound him,” Cloud admitted, feeling ashamed that he didn’t get Zack first even when he knew Sephiroth had to be his first priority.  Zack’s tentacles tightened around him as if hugging him.  “When I came back for you, Hojo was already there with the Turks.  I think Tifa’s teacher got her out of there; she wasn’t there when I went back and there was no sign of anyone else.  They caught up to me when I dragged you out outside.  Hojo talked about Jenova like he was throwing it in my face, and I shot him in the throat.  The Nibel wolves were already around because of . . . because of . . .”  because of the slaughter in town “…because of everything else, and the Turks weren’t exactly equipped to scare the wolves away.  By the time they dealt with that, I got us out of there.”

The flames kept the wolves away, but the smell of blood kept them close.  And there was so much blood.  There was blood everywhere.  I had my mom’s blood on my hands.

He didn’t realize he was hyperventilating until he noticed Zack murmuring in his ear, rubbing his back and rocking him with both his arms and tentacles.  Cloud buried his face in Zack’s shoulder and concentrated on his breathing. 

…dammit. He had more control than this. He planned better than this.

“You’re doing good, Spike,” Zack whispered, hands and tentacles still moving soothingly.   Only Zack could make tentacles soothing.  “You got us out of there and you got us to safety.  Don’t worry, okay?  We’ll figure something out.”

The use of the ‘we’ calmed Cloud more than the blond figured it would.  Exhaling slowly, Cloud pulled out enough to look Zack in the face.  Holding his gaze, Zack placed a steadying hand on Cloud’s cheek. 

“We need to make a plan.”  As he spoke, he stroked Cloud’s cheek with his thumb, and Cloud began breathing in time with the motion.  “I’m not sure how determined the Turks are going to be with Hojo dead.  They were probably going by Hojo’s orders, and all considering, I don’t think ShinRa knew what was going on.  Without Hojo’s orders and probably no orders from ShinRa, either, they may or may not be coming after us.”

Cloud nodded hesitantly, his eyes flicking over Zack’s shoulder.  “What about . . .”  He couldn’t bring himself to finish his sentence.

For some reason, with an agonizing clearness, he could remember Sephiroth turning to him and asking him about his hometown.  Huddled in a ball and trying not to vomit before the legendary General, Cloud had not been able to answer clearly.  However, he could hear the wistfulness in Sephiroth’s voice.

Days later, Sephiroth had burned his home to the ground.

Zack glanced at Sephiroth.  His face tightened, and he turned back to Cloud.  “I don’t think that was him,” Zack said, making Cloud’s gaze snap back to him.  The determination in those violet eyes startled the blond.  “We both know him.  If he was going to crack, he wouldn’t do it like that.”  He looked down at his tentacles, most of which were wrapped gently around Cloud.  He hesitated, glancing at Cloud’s pale face, but didn’t attempt to remove them.  “I think it has to do with them, whatever made them . . . sprout out.”

Stiff and silent in Zack’s embrace, Cloud stared at him for a long moment.  “Jenova,” he finally said.

Zack blinked.  “Jen—”  His eyes widened.  “Jenova.  Sephiroth was rambling about her.  Said she was an Ancient and how that made him an Ancient, too.”

Cloud was shaking his head before Zack was finished his final sentence.  “No.  Jenova . . . Hojo injected Jenova into the General.”  A tentacle waved carelessly before Cloud’s nose.  “And you, too.”  He swallowed, realization hitting him hard and fast.  “Probably all the SOLDIERs.  That’s why . . .”

Zack nodded, jaw clenched.  “Yeah.  That sick shit probably had all this planned out.  ShinRa thought he had an army, but it was Hojo’s army.”  He scowled.  “But what the fuck was Jenova?  Don’t tell me it was an Ancient: there’s no stories about the Ancients having tentacles.”

“She never said.”  That weary voice made Cloud squeak, but Zack twisted and stared cautiously at the bound man.  Sephiroth stared tiredly back, looking older than either man had ever seen him.  “She . . . spoke to me.  She talked about reunions and destruction and genocide, but She never said what She was.”  Those feline eyes looked away from Zack, staring at the ground.  Even the man’s tentacles drooped with an odd resignation.

Cloud had expected to see something when Sephiroth awoke again: that terrifying madness that had destroyed his hometown, anger at being bound, remorse at the destruction he caused . . . not this odd hollowness.  Even the pride that had always held Sephiroth’s head high had vanished, leaving the man slumped and broken.

Was Cloud supposed to be angry?  Was he supposed to scream at him, yell at him for the trust he had broken, the lives he had taken?  Was he supposed to cry? 

All Cloud could do was stare at Sephiroth, feeling the same hollowness echoed in those green eyes gnawing at his guts.  No, he didn’t believe Sephiroth was responsible.  But the only person who could have been responsible was already dead.

What was he supposed to do?

Of course, Zack knew.  He slithered—for there was no other word for it—over to Sephiroth, pulling Cloud along with him.  One arm wrapped securely around Cloud, Zack reached out with his free hand and touched a materia in Sephiroth’s arm bangle.  With a hiss, the binds around Sephiroth’s wrists and tentacles vanished, but the man himself made no attempt to move.  Undeterred, Zack pulled Cloud so the pair was resting beside Sephiroth.

“Are you in control now?” Zack asked quietly. Cloud flinched.

Sephiroth did not.  He never looked up.  “For the moment.  I can still hear Her voice.  She wants me to go back to the reactor, to finish what I began.”  No one needed further clarification on that.

Out of the trio, Zack seemed the steadiest.  He didn’t even seem bothered by his tentacles anymore.  Cloud didn’t know how he could not be, but he wasn’t going to complain.  He was sore and everything ached, but Sephiroth’s dead eyes kept him from resting his head against Zack’s chest and going to sleep.

“Can you maintain control?” Zack persisted, his voice still calm, blameless. 

After only a moment’s hesitation, Sephiroth nodded.  “Long enough.”

Zack’s arm tightened convulsively around Cloud, and the blond glanced between the two in bewilderment.  Long enough?  For a cure to be found?  Remembering Hojo’s words, he grimaced.  How would Sephiroth react to that news?

Zack’s next words confused Cloud more.  “It wasn’t your fault.  We both know that.  It was Jenova’s, whatever that bitch is.  It wasn’t your fault.

Zack reached out, as if to wrap his free arm around Sephiroth, and for the first time, the man reacted: Sephiroth jerked back against the wall as if Zack had struck him.  Cloud flinched, which only made Sephiroth press harder against the cave wall.  Zack stared at the pair, an emotion that Cloud refused to identify darkening his eyes.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Zack repeated quietly.  “You couldn’t control what happened, no more than you could control these forming.”  He waved at his tentacles, and they seemed to wave back.  Sephiroth’s remained limp in the dirt.  “We think that all of the SOLDIERs had that thing injected in us.”

Remnants of old conversations ran through Cloud’s mind, warnings about Hojo, Zack whispering reasons and threats and countless other things about the dark secrets surrounding Sephiroth’s inhuman strength.

As if reading Cloud’s mind, Sephiroth laughed, a hoarse, bitter sound.  It was so soft that it didn’t even echo through the small cave.  His tentacles remained lifeless.  “He had me longer than the other SOLDIERs.  He’s been injecting me with Her cells all my life.”

“Which only means that you had less ability to fight back,” Zack retorted.  “But now you know the threat.  We can make plans now.”

Sephiroth raised his head, staring incredulously at Zack.  “I destroyed his village, Zack!”  He nodded at Cloud as he spoke, but he never met Cloud’s eyes.  “I killed all of those people.  I—”

Zack’s tentacle covered Sephiroth’s mouth just like it covered Cloud’s earlier.  “You were another victim!” he snapped.  “You couldn’t control that, no more than you could control Hojo’s experimentation.  It was Jenova who did that, not you, and now we have to figure out how to keep this from happening again!”

Cloud had never felt more small or insignificant in his life as he listened to the two men speak.  He remembered collapsing in the village earlier, the image of his mother’s corpse burning his eyes.  As he wept over that like a child, Zack had been helping the survivors and charging after Sephiroth, uncaring of his own fate.  Even when he transformed in the reactor, he didn’t stop, still fighting and trying to bring some sort of resolution to the tragedy.

Feeling like a child at the adults’ table, Cloud clenched his fists.  He couldn’t be helpless.  He couldn’t be a burden to them!

“You transformed because of your proximity to Jenova,” Cloud interrupted.  Both Sephiroth and Zack silenced, and Cloud resisted the urge to hide in Zack’s tentacles, like he had been hiding in his helmet mere days (hours?) earlier.  The very urge made him want to laugh, and he could sense the hysteria building in him.  Stubbornly, he forced it away.  “Everything happened because of close proximity to Jenova.”  He took a deep breath and forced himself to look up.  Only Zack met his gaze.  “I’ve never had any injections.  If I could get back to the reactor, maybe I could . . . I dunno . . . drop her in the reactor or something.”

Before he finished Zack was nodding, an oddly satisfied smile on his lips.  “The Turks won’t expect any of us to go back to the reactor.  We’ll have to do that tomorrow.”

Cloud stared at him, a question concerning the ‘we’ on the tip of his tongue.  Instead, he asked, “Tomorrow?”

Zack smiled gently at him.  “You’re shaking and pale, Spike,” he said softly.  “You’ve had one hell of a day.  Yeah.  Tomorrow.”

Cloud wanted to protest but one look at his hands stopped him.  They were trembling, and he quickly clenched them. 

Useless.  Again.

“I’m sorry.”  Sephiroth’s voice made Cloud look away from his hands.  The silver-haired man still wasn’t looking at him, gaze focused on the ground.  Cloud gritted his teeth, hating the look of resignation on Sephiroth’s face.  “I am the cause of your pain today.  You are free to take any justice you feel is necessary.”

“Sephiroth,” Zack started, and Cloud stared at them both.  The words sounded simple, but none of it was making any sense to Cloud.  He had heard the entire conversation—was so close he couldn’t help but hear it—but it seemed to go entirely over his head.

“I already did,” he said, and Zack shut up.  Both men stared at him in confusion, and he explained, “I shot him.  He’s food for the wolves by now.”

As Sephiroth stared, actually looking at his face for the first time, Zack abruptly laughed.  The dark-haired man jumped a little, as if the noise had surprised him, too, but didn’t stop.  “Hojo,” he said with a chuckle.  “Yeah.  I guess you did get your revenge, didn’t you?”

Cloud felt his face flush as Sephiroth continued staring.  Not for the first time, it hit him that it wasn’t his revenge to take.  Whatever had been done to his village, Hojo had been Sephiroth’s to kill.  Cloud had stolen that from him.

And the worst part was that Cloud hadn’t killed him in the name of revenge.  Cloud had simply needed a distraction.

“...I’m sorry.” Unable to look at those oddly vulnerable green eyes anymore, Cloud closed his own eyes. The oncoming darkness was absolute.

xoxoxoxox

“—still pale.”

“Not too surprising.  He had to have dragged us up here.”

“…”

“Don’t.  Don’t start that again.”

“Zachary—”

“And definitely don’t start that again.”

“Zack . . .”

Zack?

Cloud tried to say it out loud, but only a moan escaped.  The voices silenced.

No.  Don’t shut up because of me.

I’m sorry.

“You knock that off, too, Spike,” Zack ordered gruffly, and he felt something warm and leathery brush against his cheeks.  “Don’t wrinkle your nose at me.  I know what you’re thinking.”

I didn’t wrinkle my nose.

“Yes, you’re making faces,” Zack returned patiently.  “Now open your eyes already.  You’re a part of this, too.”

“Zack, are you aware that you’re having a one-sided conversation?”

“It’s not one-sided.  Look.  His eyes are opening.”

Cloud scowled but did finish opening his eyes.  Zack’s grinning face was the first thing he saw, with a tentacle dancing beside his eye.  Behind Zack, he could see Sephiroth’s concerned face.  However, it was difficult to get a good look at either of them, everything bathed in a warm red light.

“Wha?” he mumbled, and Zack wrapped his tentacles and arms around Cloud and helped him into a sitting position.  Mind a little clearer, Cloud looked around and saw the stones glowing crimson.  “What?”

“Fire materia used on the stones,” Sephiroth offered.  He looked at Sephiroth, and the Silver General looked away.  “You . . . you said that the mountains grew cold at night.”

Cloud nodded, wishing he could smile.  He knew the cold wouldn’t affect the SOLDIERs (or would it now? did the tentacles strengthen them?), so he was thankful for the action.  If he could smile, if he could grin like Zack could, maybe Sephiroth would know how thankful he was.

But all he felt was sick.  “Did I . . .”  Cloud’s voice trailed off.  Did I faint?  Humiliation did not even come close to what he felt.

Zack held him close, and for the first time, he realized Zack was leaning against Sephiroth.  Zack’s tentacles were wrapped around them both like he could keep them there forever.  Sephiroth’s tentacles were limp, but he was making no attempt to move away from Zack.  In the same instance, he was making no move to come closer.

“You passed out,” Zack replied quietly.  “You had a day that would have exhausted even someone with SOLDIER stamina.  You deserved some rest.”

Cloud bit his lip and didn’t say anything.  Sephiroth glanced at him and quickly looked away.  Zack looked at them both and sighed.  When he yanked them both closer with his tentacles, even Sephiroth couldn’t help a gasp.

“Enough sulking, you two,” he scolded.  “Now, the Turks may or may not be after us, so we have to keep an eye out for them.”

Cloud snorted, painfully aware of his worn muscles.  His lower back ached like someone had punched him.  “If they can get past the dragons, more power to them.”

Both SOLDIERs froze.  Zack awkwardly cleared his throat.  “Ah, dragons, Cloud?”

Cloud blinked at them.  “Didn’t I mention that?”  When neither SOLDIER answered, Cloud shrugged.  “Yeah, I’d avoid leaving the cave for now.  They’re nesting.”

“…”

Another thought occurred to him.  “Ah . . . when I leave to . . . ah . . .”  Remembering how Sephiroth had been talking about his ‘mother’, he coughed.  “When I leave, don’t leave the cave.  And if you hear a weird noise, don’t move.”

The pair stared at him, but he barely noticed, remembering what he would have to do.  Up here was safe but what if the Turks were still around the reactor?  What if they were pissed at him for killing their charge right in front of them?  But he had to do it because he couldn’t fail them again

Zack’s cough distracted Cloud from his thoughts.  He looked up to meet Zack’s wide eyes.  “Cloud?” he asked cautiously.

Tilting his head to one side, Cloud looked curiously back.  “Yes?”

Zack opened his mouth once, closed it, looked at Sephiroth, and then after Sephiroth’s helpless look, looked back at Cloud.  “You dragged us past dragons?”

Cloud blinked at him.  “Sure.  The Turks won’t follow us here.”  He paused and considered for a moment.  “Besides, they’re probably taking care of the wolves right now.”

Sephiroth was staring incredulously but not at Cloud.  He was staring at Zack.  “…he dragged us past both dragons and wolves?”

Zack was staring back in bewilderment.  “I thought this was supposed to be a quiet town!”

Cloud stared at them like they had grown an extra head rather than tentacles.  “It is.”  His gaze flickered towards the tentacles, and for the first time, he worried that maybe there was more to Jenova than he had originally thought.  Surely SOLDIERs wouldn’t be bothered by mountain dragons and wolves.  Any Nibelheim resident knew how to avoid them, so it would have to be incredibly easy for SOLDIERs with all of their experience.

With that thought in mind, Cloud gently brushed away Zack’s hold and tried to stand.  Zack tightened his grip, stopping him from moving.  “Where do you think you’re going?” Zack demanded.

Yep.  Jenova was surely . . . no, wait.  Zack never did have a lot of common sense.  “To destroy Jenova,” he replied patiently.  He glanced at Sephiroth for support, but the man was still leaning against the wall.  Cloud thought he heard him mumble something, but he had to imagining it.  Why would the General be wondering about the SOLDIER test and requirements?

Turning back to look at Zack, Cloud squawked when Zack tightened his grip.  “No way,” Zack replied flatly.  “You passed out due to exhaustion.  You just woke up.  You dragged us past dragons and Nibel wolves.  You need to rest.

Cloud was really beginning to wonder what the deal with Zack and the local animals was.  Didn’t Zack even initially greet him with a comment about how country boys had to stick together?  While Gongaga wasn’t a mountain town, it surely had to have its own problems with the local wildlife.

“It needs to be done,” he retorted and then bit his lip when he realized he was snapping a superior officer’s head in front of the General. True, it was Zack and he had done it multiple times before but he had no idea what the situation was now or what level of formality was required.  He looked at the General and realized bleakly that the man still wasn’t looking at him.

Zack gently shook him, turning Cloud’s attention back to him.  “Not right now. You need to rest, dammit!  You’re not indestructible!”

…And what could Cloud say to that?  Helplessly clenching his fists, Cloud looked away from both men.  A tentacle around his chin—wow, Zack was really getting used to those—guided Cloud’s gaze back to Zack.  The man’s face had softened.  “Don’t be like that,” Zack murmured.  “You’ve done an incredible job, Cloud.  But you need to rest, get some more sleep.”

Get some sleep?  When he was the only person who could go near that thing?  Cloud clenched his jaw.  “Jenova needs to be destroyed.  I can do it, Zack!”

Zack held his hands up.  His tentacles remained tight around Cloud.  They were really beginning to annoy the blond.  “I don’t doubt it, Spike,” Zack said soothingly.  “But you need rest.”

Cloud took a deep breath, preparing to argue, but Sephiroth cut him off.  “You need rest. You have . . . suffered and fought a great deal today.”  Zack glanced sharply at the older man, but Sephiroth avoided his gaze.  “Sleep while you can.”

Cloud tensed.  He could argue with Zack, was used to arguing with Zack, but how could he argue with Sephiroth?  Especially after everything the man had gone through?

Especially after taking Sephiroth’s kill?

But he couldn’t just give in.  He had to help somehow.  He licked his lips.  He nodded solemnly at the General before staring at Zack.  “You have to wake me up first thing in the morning,” Cloud ordered gruffly.  As Zack nodded, Cloud glared at him.  “And you have to alert me at first sign of trouble concerning Jenova!  Anything unusual, anything at all, and I want to know!”

Both men started, but Cloud didn’t care.  He glared for all he was worth, knowing that he probably looked like a kitten facing a pair of tigers but not caring about that either.  These two were all he had left in the world right then.  He wasn’t going to lose them, too!

Zack yielded first, even as Sephiroth stared at him in astonishment.  Cloud made a mental note to apologize (grovel) later to the General.  “Sure, Spike.”  Zack grinned like Cloud hadn’t seen since they arrive in Nibelheim.  “We can do that.”

Nodding in satisfaction, Cloud allowed Zack to ease him back to his chest.  Even as he wished he could stay up a little longer, find some way to help, his body urged him to follow Zack’s and Sephiroth’s advice.  With a sigh, he closed his eyes.

Ten minutes later, he wished he had passed out again.

The pair was talking in hushed voices above his head, Zack idly stroking Cloud’s hair as he spoke.  Don’t they ever sleep?  He remembered Zack’s pitiful excuse for a pillow—Cloud’s jacket—and mentally cringed.  I knew I should have grabbed something earlier.

The pair’s voices were soft, soothing, lulling Cloud to the edge of sleep but not into sleep.  It struck Cloud as mildly odd how nice it felt in here, surrounded by Fire-warmed stone and held by tender arms and tentacles.

Cloud decided then and there that apparently his troop was more right about him than he had ever thought.

“—sorry for hurting your lover, Zack.”

Cloud was trying not to listen, but they were so close, and they were the only sounds he heard.  Dozing lightly, he listened to their conversation.

“My lover?  How hard did Cloud hit your head with that canteen, Seph?”

“My head stopped aching hours ago.  Why?”

“Because I have a girlfriend, not a lover.  Her mom won’t let us be alone long enough to be lovers, though that's going to change when we get back.  And she’s still in Midgar.  …Or did you think Tifa was, because I think Cloud would kill me if I tried anything. And I don’t think you’re counting…”

Cloud really, really did not want to eavesdrop, but he couldn’t help but agree with the part about Tifa.  Of course, if Tifa thought Zack was using her for only a fling, she would kill him herself.

What did Zack mean about Sephiroth counting someone?

“…I’m sorry.  I thought . . .”

“Stop apologizing.  You have nothing to apologize for.”

“I . . . mistakenly believed you and Strife were lovers.  I assumed . . . because the way you two acted . . .”

Cloud hated the hesitance in the once-proud man’s voice.  Jenova—Hojo—had stripped him of his incredible self-control and transformed him into the Demon of which everyone spoke.  Every doubt and fear Sephiroth ever had, Hojo had thrown in his face.

Perhaps it wasn’t Sephiroth’s kill Cloud stole.  Considering how long Zack had painstakingly worked on Sephiroth’s confidence, perhaps it had been Zack’s kill.

“Cloud and me?”  Zack’s surprise was unmistakable.  The man’s hand stilled in Cloud’s hair.  “We’re buddies.”  After a small pause, Zack’s fingers resumed moving, carding through long, dirty spikes.  “He . . . you saw how only Tifa had been looking forward to seeing him again.  I think . . . I think he was ostracized or something in this village.  Something about his dad, I dunno.  He never really talked about it.”  Zack hesitated.  “But . . . he looked like someone who could use a pal.  Someone . . .”  Zack’s hand stilled again.  “He reminded me of you, actually, when I first saw him.”

If Cloud had been more awake, he would have gaped.

After a long pause, Sephiroth laughed bitterly.  “I am sure all such comparisons have been long destroyed.”  Sephiroth’s scathing tone hurt Cloud, and he felt Sephiroth’s tentacle brush against his leg.  “Strife is not capable of something like this.”

“Seph, dammit—”

The helplessness in Zack’s tone hurt Cloud, too.  He wished he could help, wished he could do something, but what could he offer two SOLDIERs?  He couldn’t even manage to get into SOLDIER himself.

The pair’s voices quieted until they were little more than background noise.  Finally lulled to sleep, Cloud only managed to catch one last bit of their conversation. 

“Did he really drag us past dragons, Zack?”

xoxoxox

The hand shaking Cloud’s shoulder was so familiar he was grumbling “Go away, Zack” before he realized he wasn’t lying on his usual bunk.

Or Zack’s couch, for that matter.

Disturbed by the odd combination of skin and leather and brisk Nibelheim air, Cloud forced his eyes open.  It took a moment for Cloud to remember why his body ached—though not nearly as much as before—and why Zack was holding him with far too many limbs.

For once, Cloud was grateful for all the escapades Zack had led him on during the past two years.  It kept him from jerking or crying out better than any official training.

The Cure materia in the Buster Sword, Cloud remembered, tentatively flexing his hands.  When they didn’t immediately cramp, he wanted to smack himself in the head with one of them.  It was one of the few materia Zack carried.  Zack had been bragging about them.  How could he have forgotten?

In the dim red light, Cloud saw Sephiroth staring at him.  Remembering what he had just growled at Zack, he flushed.  Was it too late to tack on “Sir”?

As if reading his mind (again), Zack ruffled his hair and grinned at him.  “Don’t worry about it, Spike,” he murmured.  The brunet winked.  “Right now’s as informal as you can get!”

Cloud could think of several exceptions to that but now wasn’t the time to voice them.  He pulled away from Zack’s embrace.  Several tentacles lingered, and Cloud shivered at the odd sensation.  Definitely unusual but an ‘unusual’ he could live with.

Except he wasn’t supposed to live with it.  None of them were.

Stubbornly, Cloud pushed his disappointment away.  He had other things to worry about, dammit!

Zack was frowning at him, lips pursed and eyes dark. In response, Cloud tried to muster a smile.  He knew he failed miserably.  “Now then?” he asked.

Zack hesitated, and Cloud realized one lone tentacle was still wrapped around his wrist.  He glanced at it, noting that, while filthy, it still looked better than earlier.  Small scars marred the smooth leather of it, and he bit his lip.  Was it from the fight with Sephiroth or from Cloud dragging him over the rocks?

If he hadn’t failed the test . . .

“If you’re ready,” Zack said quietly.  “Don’t push yourself.”

Cloud met those worried eyes, and this smile came a little easier.  “I’m ready,” he assured him.  “I can do this.”

Zack nodded, his glowing eyes sweeping over him.  “Be careful,” he ordered.  “Watch out for the Turks.  And keep an eye out for the wolves!  They might still be hunting.  And definitely keep a sharp eye out for the dragons!  Don’t try to fight them or deal with them.  Just hide, okay?”

For some reason, Zack’s worry about the dragons dispelled some of Cloud’s own nervousness.  For a native of Nibelheim, particularly one whose family descended from the mountain, the dragons were a danger but a known one.  He didn’t fear them. 

The Turks, however . . . yeah.  He feared them.

Sephiroth’s hand lightly touched his wrist, only to immediately flinch away.  When Cloud looked at him, he saw despairingly that Sephiroth wasn’t looking at him again.  Those glowing green eyes were focused on the cave wall beside Cloud’s head.  Despite the fact Cloud was standing in the small cave and Sephiroth was still reclined, the General made him feel like a pathetic child.

Maybe . . . if he succeeded with this . . .

No.  No point in even thinking about it.  He just had to complete this mission and hope that Jenova’s destruction would help Sephiroth.

Blue eyes flicked in the direction of Zack’s tentacles, which were now making interesting designs in the dirt.  He doubted Jenova’s destruction could help him.

Frowning, Cloud turned and walked towards the mouth of the cave.  Without the light of the Fire-warmed stones, the mountain was still dark, dawn still a little bit away; however, Cloud knew he had nothing to fear.  He had traveled these mountains since he could walk, sitting on the edge of various cliffs and watching the sun rise.  He would have to keep a sharp eye out for the Turks, but hopefully, they would assume the trio was fleeing Nibelheim.

Cloud hesitated at the mouth of the cave, looking back at the pair.  They stared worriedly back. 

Of course . . .

Don’t leave the cave,” Cloud warned.  “There are at least three nesting dragons.”  He took another step, hesitated again, and then glanced at Zack.  “And don’t tease them!”

Not waiting for a response, Cloud hurried down the mountain.  He left Zack’s Buster Sword for him, and Sephiroth still had his materia.  They would be defended well enough in case the Turks did find them.

At least, they would be well defended from external threats.

Cloud moved as fast as his weary limbs could carry him.

xoxoxox

In the end, Cloud saw no sign of the Turks.  Of the Turks themselves, anyway.  Close to the reactor, he found signs of a fight, and he recognized the distinctive prints of a red dragon.  Closer to the reactor, wolves’ prints were everywhere, and crimson painted the dirt.

Cloud needed no scientific training to know that the wolves had torn Hojo apart.

The glass holding Jenova was cracked, and Cloud decided not to mention that to either Zack or Sephiroth upon his return.  He felt guilty enough for throwing a canteen at the General’s head, no matter how dire the need.  There was no need to inform them that Sephiroth’s head had struck the glass hard enough to crack it.  However, it did explain why Sephiroth had remained unconscious for so long.

With his recovered rifle, Cloud was able to finish ‘opening’ Jenova’s container.  Only after finding some leftover gloves (Hojo’s, perhaps?  Zack would love the irony) did Cloud drag what he could of Jenova through the reactor to where he could push her into the mako.  As he pulled her, he expected to feel something, to hear that dark voice of which Sephiroth had spoken, to see some evidence of the creature that had led to the destruction of his hometown.

There was nothing.

That did not stop the surge of satisfaction Cloud felt when he pushed Jenova into the mako.

The liquid surged and Cloud thought he saw something writhe within it.  He waited a little longer, just to make sure, but fear of the Turks urged him back out of the reactor.  Walking away, Cloud glanced at the path that once led home.  With a whisper, Cloud fled to where the SOLDIERs were waiting.

As Cloud had expected, hungry wolves had covered the trio’s tracks, but they also made it difficult to discern whether the Turks had traveled that way.  Not much of a tracker, Cloud focused on keeping his own tracks hidden.

Cloud was so focused on watching his step and keeping an eye out for enemies that he didn’t think about what the SOLDIERs had to be doing while he was gone.  Even without thinking about it, however, Cloud still wasn’t surprised by the sight that greeted him.

They’re SOLDIERs, Cloud reminded himself, walking along a deer trail to the cave.  With his two companions standing at the mouth of it, the cave wasn’t hard to find.  If they’re out of the cave, they have a reason.  They’re too disciplined to risk themselves for fresh air.  They . . .

The deer trail led Cloud to level ground with the cave, allowing him a clear view of everything.  The mountain boy stumbled.

Their tentacles are . . . gone.

And oh, by Hel, what is all that?

Forcing himself to breathe, Cloud carefully stepped over what looked like it used to be a dragon head.  It was small with what appeared to be whip marks along its snout.  It was only with supreme effort that he didn’t flinch when he stepped over something that came from the dragon.  “…What did you do, Zack?”

He actually meant for his first comment to be something concerning the lack of tentacles.  He suppressed the instinct to scold them with mental reprimands of they’re SOLDIERs, idiot, and you’re not so they know better than you what they’re doing.  Supposedly, that left him with relief: with the tentacles gone, that should mean that Jenova’s other effects would be gone.

However, all his despairing mind noted was the dragon corpse and the gunk on Zack’s naked bottom half (if Zack was naked that meant Sephiroth was naked and now was the time for eye contact).  Blood and . . . other things splattered Zack’s legs in an odd pattern.  Was he fighting the dragon when he shifted and eye contact!

Zack held up his hands, and Cloud almost groaned when he noted Zack’s hands were filthy, too.  In odd contrast with his naked bottom half, Zack still wore his uniform top, complete with sword casually sheathed on his back.  The hilt of the sword was colorfully decorated with bloody handprints.

“So totally wasn’t my fault!” Zack protested.  Under Cloud’s steady stare, Zack wilted.  He shifted from foot to foot, leaving oddly blackened footprints.  “Mostly . . .”

Sephiroth coughed, the sound remarkably sheepish coming from the General.  He stood closer to the cave, one hand resting on the moss-covered rock.  “Whoops?”

Both Zack and Cloud stared at him.  Then Cloud realized he was staring and almost yelped, jerking his gaze back to Zack.  However, the picture of Sephiroth’s nearly nude form was clear in his mind: pale, smooth, near immaculate, with only the barest bits of blood marring his beauty.  A dark part of Cloud’s mind wondered how much of that blood was from the dragon, and he forcibly concentrated on Zack. Which only reminded him of the splattered gore. 

“Zack,” he said flatly, “you touch me now, and your hands go the way of the tentacles.”  He glanced at the man’s dirty hands.  He shook his head, trying to drive that image from his mind.  “We need to get you guys some clothes.”

Zack grinned.  “Prolly.  But first a bath.  You know of a stream or lake I can clean up in?”

After a moment, Cloud sighed, resigned.  “Yeah.  Follow me and keep quiet.”  Feeling Sephiroth’s gaze on him again, he flushed and turned to the General.  “Ah, if you wouldn’t mind following me, Sir.”  He hesitated, wondering if it was his place.  It was only the memory of his mother that forced him to ask, “Is she . . . gone, Sir?”

Beside Cloud, Zack stilled at the question, but Sephiroth only stared back.  Before the man even spoke, Cloud felt his heart sink.  “Not completely.”

Not completely.  Cloud blanched, fists clenching helplessly at his sides.  Which meant Jenova was still alive.  Which meant . . .

Which meant that he had failed.

Zack reached over and gripped Cloud’s shoulder.  “Don’t worry.”  He waved at his legs.  “You’ve done good.”

“Very well,” Sephiroth confirmed.  His words were soft but gained strength as he continued.  “She’s not completely gone but She’s greatly weakened.  I no longer have to fight Her for control.”

Cloud glanced hesitantly at the pair.  They looked calmly back at him.  Taking a deep breath, Cloud strengthened his resolve.  There was still plenty to do.

Looking at the remains of the dragon, Cloud frowned.  What little brush covered this part of the mountain was drenched with blood and . . . other things.  “The scent will arouse the other dragons,” Cloud said aloud.  “They’re going to be really defensive of their nests.  It’ll probably attract the wolves, too.”  He glanced at the pair (eye contact!).  “If there’s anything you left in the cave, you better get it now.  We won’t be able to come back.”

Zack laughed and patted the sword strapped on his back.  Knowing Zack, that blade was probably cleaner than he was.  “I have everything right here.”

Sephiroth nodded towards the materia on his wrist.  “I will need to recover Masamune later,” he admitted. 

Nodding at them both, Cloud started walking along the mountain.  His clever feet easily found steps in the brush and rocks.  “Stay close to me,” he called over his shoulder.  “This one’s mother is probably lurking around somewhere.”

Seconds later, he decided it must have been his imagination when Zack breathed, “Mother?

xoxoxox

“So let me get this straight,” Cloud said calmly, reclining on a rock.  His blue eyes were focused on the sky above him, the sight clear of smoke but still reminding him of a view that hadn’t been so free.  However, between staring at the sky and staring at his companions, he chose to stare at the sky.  “You managed to stir up three nests during your recon and managed to piss off a dragon so much that she actually left the nest and followed you to the cave.”

Splashing in the pool like a child, Zack laughed.  “Well, it wasn’t entirely my fault, you see.  The dragon was partly to blame, too!”

On the far side of the pond, standing in a small waterfall, Sephiroth did nothing to argue for or against Zack’s case.  Since Cloud had led them to the secluded spot, Sephiroth had isolated himself.  While Zack played in the pond close to where Cloud relaxed, the brunet terrorizing the mountain trout, Sephiroth deliberately stood upstream beneath a ragged cliff.  The stream ran over the cliff, pouring over him before splashing into the pond.

Both SOLDIERs were surely picturesque at that moment: one majestic, the other wild.  However, Cloud was determined not to look at either of them.  Soldiers to the bone, the pair had shamelessly stripped off their remaining clothing and plunged into the icy water.  Still too anxious to even shower comfortably with his troop, Cloud felt grateful that he hadn’t been involved in the bloodbath.

Thinking of his troop, Cloud smiled bitterly.  When they heard where he was going, they had thrown him a small party to wish him luck.  He wondered if he would ever be able to tell them how everything turned out.

“Hey.”  Slick fingers touched Cloud’s chin, drawing the blond’s attention from the sky.  Cloud allowed the move, and he met Zack’s concerned eyes.  Apparently, the brunet had dunked himself during his play, because his wild black hair lay limply over his face.  Drops of water trickled down Zack’s skin, and belatedly, Cloud realized how close Zack was.  “You okay?”

Cloud blinked.  Settled on his rock, he was almost eye level with Zack anyway.  With Zack resting his arms on the rock, the pair was level with each other.

“I’m fine.”  He blinked again, a little cross-eyed.  Zack was really close.  “But . . . what are we going to do now?”

Zack twisted so he could rest his head on the stone beside Cloud’s.  That close, Cloud could feel Zack’s breath.  “Go back to the ShinRa mansion,” Zack said simply.  “We get our supplies and then contact the other SOLDIERs.  After that, we get a hold of ShinRa.”

“Huh?  Why the SOLDIERs first?”

Zack grinned viciously.  “To help us convince ShinRa that Hojo really fucked up.”

The mental image of that coaxed a soft laugh from Cloud.  Zack’s grin gentled at the noise.  “Hey, Cloud,” he began quietly.  “I never thanked you for everything you’ve done.  Damn, you were incredible the past few days.”

Staring at Zack like he was insane, Cloud shook his head.  As if he hadn’t noticed Cloud’s denial, Zack continued speaking.

“You really saved our asses, Cloud,” Zack continued earnestly.  “I—”

A choked off cry interrupted Zack.  A loud splash immediately followed.

Since Zack had been concentrating on Cloud and Cloud had been doing his damnedest not to look at either of them, neither had any warning to the sight that greeted them.

“Seph!” Zack yelped, pushing off Cloud’s rock and plunging towards Sephiroth.  Gasping, Cloud sat up.

By the time Zack reached Sephiroth, the man had managed to pull his tentacles under him to steady himself.  “I-I don’t know what happened,” Sephiroth managed.  Ignoring Sephiroth’s efforts to compose himself, Zack waded through the water and Sephiroth’s tentacles to his friend’s side.  Sephiroth stared helplessly at him.

“Well, it’s a good thing you were already naked,” Zack quipped, wrapping a reassuring arm around Sephiroth’s waist.  “Do you know what triggered it?”

Cloud’s eyes automatically followed the motion of Zack’s arm and then hastily jerked them back up.  He looked at Sephiroth’s face in time to see Sephiroth smooth out his expression.  However, Sephiroth’s writhing tentacles revealed his agitation.

“I fear . . .” Sephiroth said slowly, one tentacle clinging to Zack’s leg, “that I may have been more upset than I thought.”

Zack’s face tightened for a moment, but then he was smiling again.  “Ah, no problem.  Least we know they aren’t permanently gone.  Makes sense, really.  We still have the Jenova cells in us.  Which means . . .”

“You both are susceptible to transformation,” Cloud said.  His heart ached when he realized Sephiroth wasn’t looking at him again.  Dammit.  “You could transform again, too.”

Zack tightened his grip on Sephiroth’s waist, and Sephiroth glanced at his friend.  Neither said a word, but Cloud felt like he would interrupt some conversation if he spoke.  He swallowed and spoke, anyway.

“I’ll get us some supplies,” he said softly.  “You guys . . . can you figure this out?  I’ll be back soon.”

Both of them jerked and stared at Cloud, but he was already rolling off his rock.  They needed some food and a new place to rest. 

And they would need a moment, anyway.

After a moment of though, Cloud grabbed Zack’s sword and sheath.  They would be all right, and his gun would be too noisy.  He glanced quickly at them, saw how they were still intertwined, and hurried down the mountain.