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The doorbell rang and Genesis slammed his wine bottle down on the dilapidated little coffee table and hauled himself up, taking a moment to smooth his shirt. "What do you want, Angeal?" he asked, not even bothering to look when he opened the door. Angeal would always follow him, like his own pet bloodhound.

"To see how you are." Angeal came in and sat down on the couch like he had received an engraved invitation.

"I'd be better if I hadn't been placed in the slum tenements." Genesis arranged himself delicately next to his friend and picked up the wine again. "Nothing in here matches and I swear this couch has fleas."

"You poor dear. How will you ever survive?"

"It is indeed a trial to suffer in this squalor. I'm considering setting the place ablaze before I leave; it would be a small improvement."

"Whatever makes it easier for you, I guess."

"What is that supposed to mean?" Genesis snarled.

"You know what I mean." Angeal sighed, then grabbed the bottle out of Genesis's hand, and took a big swig before handing it back. "Want to talk about it?"

"And why, dear friend, would I want to do that?" He didn't need to sit down and have a heart-to-heart about his feelings. It wouldn't change anything. "He just... who the fuck does he think he is!?"

"Cloud?"

"What? No, not the brat, though that's a good question, too. Sephiroth. He... he kicked me out, Angeal!"

"Can you blame him? If he hadn't, I was going to. You were being a total asshole."

"I don't mean now... well, I do, but he kicked me out long before then. I never meant anything to him. I could have been there for him. I would have... but he didn't want it."

"I know he never wanted to be monogamous, but –"

Genesis sighed and shook his head, feeling resigned. "He wanted me gone, Angeal. He didn't want me to love him. I was content with what we had."

"Were you really?"

Genesis glared at his friend. What did it matter now? Who cared about how he had hoped that one day Sephiroth would have come to appreciate him? Nothing would get him to admit what a blow it had been to his pride, every time Sephiroth shoved him away again. And every time he came crawling back when Sephiroth deigned to let him. "The way things were was sufficient. I wasn't trying to stop him or to get him to choose between me and everyone else who stood still long enough to catch his attention." Genesis chugged the remainder of the bottle and slammed it down again, cracking the table. "And now he doesn't fucking remember it, Angeal! He told me to leave, so I did! Now he's mad at me for leaving! That's exactly what he wanted me to do! What else could I do? What was I supposed to do, Angeal? TELL ME!"

Angeal stared at him for several moments. "Is that what... Is that what happened when you talked to him alone?"

Genesis dropped his head into his hands and nodded, pressing his palms into his eyes. He hadn't told anyone. Had barely even admitted it to himself. The past two years had been spent telling himself that he had wanted to leave; the Sephiroth he knew had died in Nibelheim. "He said as long as I didn't bother him anymore, he'd do what we wanted. I never realised he..."

"I'm sorry." Angeal reached out and gently touched his shoulder, but Genesis shrugged him off.

"What's done is done. He's happy now; that's what matters. Don't tell anyone."

"Gen..."

"Promise me, Angeal. This never gets out."

"On my honour."

Chapter Text

Cloud hesitated when Sephiroth moved towards the couch after dinner. If he had to sit silently for another three hours tonight while Sephiroth petted him, he was going to scream. He needed something to do. "Sephiroth, do you mind if I read a book while you're holding me this evening?"

"Oh." Sephiroth paused in a half-sitting position. "Do you have a book to read?"

"Yeah, there're a few that I brought from—I mean I had when I was at the, um, factory. Zack brought them when he brought my accessories." Sephiroth was looking at him strangely. Did he screw up? It wasn't easy trying to remember what he should and shouldn't know or do. But Sephiroth knew he could read, right? He must. Cloud wrote things in the notebook Zack gave him all the time. In order to write, he had to be able to read. He had to stop doubting himself; Sephiroth wasn't going to hurt him and it was easy enough to explain away his little screw-ups. "So, is it all right?"

"Can I still pet you while you're reading?" Sephiroth sat down all the way, looking a bit worried.

"Sure you can. I just get a little bit bored, that's all. I like it when you pet me, though."

Sephiroth smiled and nodded. "Okay, then. You can read."

Cloud ran to Sephiroth's room and grabbed the first book he found in his things. They were all still in bags while Sephiroth was deciding where he should store his toy's accessories. Cloud hoped he'd decide soon. It wasn't like he had much, after all; a bit of closet space and a drawer would be good. He hated to admit it, but he kind of wished he could display the picture his mom made him bring of the two of them in front of the water tower. It kind of sucked not being able to even acknowledge that he had a mother. Maybe if he said she worked at the factory—no, Sephiroth would recognize the tower, he was sure. It said 'Nibelheim' right on it.

"Cloud?"

"I'm coming." Cloud headed back into the living room where Sephiroth was waiting with a blanket to wrap around him. He sighed as he sat down; Sephiroth was never going to stop worrying about him getting cold, was he?

Cloud absorbed himself in his book while Sephiroth petted his head until a soft noise distracted him.

"What are you reading?" Sephiroth sounded unsure, almost shy, when he asked.

Cloud shut the book with his finger marking his place and held it up for Sephiroth to see. "It's called House of Many Ways."

Sephiroth ran his fingers over the illustration on the cover, looking interested. "What's it about?"

"Well, there's this girl who really likes books and she's pretty spoiled, and she's sent to take care of her great uncle's house while he's away. Only her uncle's a wizard, so his house is magical, and, well, it's really good. It's a kid's book, but I like it." Sephiroth was still running his fingers over the cover and he was biting his lip like he was nervous. "Do you want me to read it out loud?" Cloud asked. Was something like that appropriate? He got the impression that Sephiroth wanted to talk in the evenings, but coming up with things to talk about wasn't easy for either one of them.

"You don't have to," Sephiroth said quickly. "I don't—it's okay. You wanted to read quietly. I was just curious. I'm sorry." He withdrew his hand from the book and looked away, staring at the armrest of the couch.

"Hey, it's okay. I don't mind. I like to read out loud. And I could read something else you like; it doesn't have to be this." Cloud hated the way Sephiroth would act like he had done something wrong; it made his heart ache whenever he would act ashamed for wanting something. Sephiroth still didn't look up, so Cloud reached out to touch his face. "Would you like me to read to you?"

Sephiroth raised his head slightly, still biting his lip, and nodded.

"Okay." Cloud smiled. "Is this book okay or do you want to pick a different one?"

"That one's okay."

"All right." Cloud leaned into Sephiroth's chest and rested his head on his shoulder. He flipped back to the beginning of the book and propped it up on his knee. "Chapter one," he began, "'In which Charmain is volunteered to look after a wizard's house...'"

***

Cloud's voice was nice. The story was interesting, too, but hearing Cloud's voice was the best part. He could have been reading the quartermaster's logs and Sephiroth still would have been perfectly happy. Reading a story was a nice way to hear Cloud's voice without having to worry about thinking of things to talk about.

When Cloud got the end of chapter one, he folded the corner of the page over and shut the book. Was he going to stop already? Sephiroth tried hard to keep the disappointment he felt off his face; he knew that he couldn't force Cloud to keep reading to him or he'd probably be damaged. But... he wanted him to. The chapter went by so fast.

"I'm just going to get a glass of water," Cloud said, wiggling out of Sephiroth's arms and standing up. "I'll be right back."

"You're going to keep reading?"

"Yeah, if you're enjoying it. My throat's a little dry, that's all."

Sephiroth nodded vigorously. "I'm enjoying it."

"All right, then. I'll get some water and we can read until bathtime if you'd like."

Sephiroth waited anxiously while Cloud went to the kitchen, then wrapped the blanket around him again when he came back. The clock on the wall said that it was just over an hour until he needed to give Cloud his bath. Maybe they could finish two more chapters by then.

***

At the end of chapter two, Cloud paused again and said he needed a break for a few minutes. Reading out loud wasn't anywhere near as easy as he thought it would be. "How do you like it so far?" he asked.

"I like it," Sephiroth said, and then frowned like he was thinking of something more to say. "I wish I had a house that talked to me."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah, but it wouldn't just answer questions. It would say 'hello' when I got home and ask me how my day was and stuff like that."

"That would be nice, wouldn't it?" Cloud had to really work at keeping a smile on his face. He wished he had a magic house just so someone would say 'hello' to him? He supposed it shouldn't surprise him by this point, but it still made him feel terrible whenever he realized how lonely and neglected Sephiroth had been. "I'm not a house, but I'll say 'hello' to you whenever you'd like. And other things, too."

Sephiroth smiled brightly at that. "I'd like that. More than a house."

"Can't hold your house, can you?"

"No, holding you is nice." Sephiroth pulled him closer and gave him a tight hug.

"That's good. Want to keep reading?"

"Yeah!"

Cloud obligingly turned the page and cleared his throat. He was glad they had found something they could enjoy together.

***

"'Charmain screamed, dodged and fell of the edge, scattering flowers as she fell.'"

Sephiroth held his breath as he waited for Cloud to continue. What was going to happen to Charmain? But Cloud didn't continue. He shut the book and reached for his water glass instead. Sephiroth gulped nervously and waited for Cloud to have his drink. When Cloud didn't open the book again, he finally spoke. "Cloud? That wasn't the end of the chapter, was it?"

"Yeah, it was. Sorry. We can read again tomorrow night, if you'd like."

Sephiroth held Cloud a little tighter and made a humming noise. The clock said it was nine-thirty. Nine-thirty was when he gave Cloud his bath. But he needed to know what was going to happen! What if she died? What if the monster caught her? Sephiroth hummed as he fretted and began rocking back and forth.

"Sephiroth? Sephiroth, are you okay?"

Sephiroth shook his head and tried to think of the words he needed to explain, but they weren't there. Cloud looked worried and Sephiroth knew he needed to calm down, but the more he tried to just say what was wrong and couldn't, the more upset he got.

"Is it something I did?" Cloud asked.

Sephiroth shook his head 'no'. It wasn't Cloud's fault. Cloud was right. It was bathtime. He should give Cloud his bath and find out what happened in the story tomorrow. That's what a good owner would do.

"Shit. What's wrong, Sephiroth? Please, just calm down and try to tell me." Cloud held his face between his hands and looked straight at him. "Just one word. Can you give me a one word hint?"

After several false starts, Sephiroth managed to say "Charmain" as he continued to rock.

"Charmain? Are you worried about what's going to happen to her?" Sephiroth nodded. "She'll be all right, Sephiroth. She escapes and is fine."

Sephiroth stopped rocking and blinked back a few tears that were threatening to fall. "Really?"

"Yup. Would you like me to read the next chapter so you know what happens?"

Sephiroth breathed deeply for a few moments, finally able to calm down a little bit now that he knew she wasn't going to die. "It's bathtime," he explained. "I have to give you your bath now or I'll be a bad owner. They'll take you away. But I want to know what happens next."

"Oh, Sephiroth. Sephiroth, no. They're not going to take me away if you give me a bath a little bit later. It won't make you a bad owner, I promise."

"But, you need eight hours to recharge. So I need to give—"

"It's okay," Cloud said firmly. "I'll take a nap tomorrow if I don't recharge enough tonight. I'm going to read this next chapter. Do you want to listen?"

"Y—yes." He really did want to as long as it wouldn't make him a bad owner.

"All right, then." Cloud leaned on his shoulder and opened the book once more. "'Charmain heard the lubbock give a whirring shout of rage...'"

***

The end of chapter four was a much better place to stop, Cloud decided. Surely Sephiroth wouldn't get upset about frozen taps or bubbles in the kitchen. "Better now?" he asked as he shut the book.

"Yes. Thank you."

"You're welcome. If you're worried about something like that again, you can just say it. I'm not going to get upset."

Sephiroth nodded. "I'll try. I should give you your bath now." He stood up and carried Cloud to the bathroom and Cloud tried to mentally prepare himself for the night's embarrassment.

It was getting better, though, he thought. Or he was getting used to it. Cloud sighed and swung his legs while sitting on the counter, waiting for Sephiroth to fill the bath. Despite the freak-out, it had been a pretty pleasant way to spend the evening. And now that he knew that Sephiroth seemed to get emotionally invested in stories, he'd be able to plan ahead and not end things on cliffhangers. He probably wouldn't like stories with sad endings either. Cloud raised his arms up as Sephiroth stripped his clothes off and then lifted him into the tub.

"Will you read to me again tomorrow night?" Sephiroth asked.

"Of course."

***

Cloud burst into the office waving a book in the air. "They had it, Sephiroth! They didn't have the next one in when I checked out The Book of Three, but the librarian said it just came back yesterday and she set it aside for me."

"That was nice of her," Sephiroth said, dropping his pen and running around the desk to see. He had been surprised when Cloud said that there was a librarian who helped him find good books to read. But then, people liked Cloud a lot, so it was to be expected.

"Yeah, I think she knows me pretty well, by now. I'm in there all the time."

"Can we start reading it now? I want to know what's going to happen next!"

"You bet!" Cloud hopped onto the couch and Sephiroth followed, pulling Cloud onto his lap.

They had barely gotten through the first page when there was a knock on the door and Director Lazard came in. "Sephiroth? I need you to—"

"Come back later," he said, shooing Lazard away with his hand. "We're on an adventure."

Chapter Text

"Reno! I need you!" Reno flinched instinctively when Zack burst into the Turks' lounge and grabbed him by the wrist.

"Calm down, baby," Reno said, confused as all hell, but mildly curious too. Zack had something yellow and fuzzy in his other hand – that new chocobo toy he had seen in the shop, maybe? "I know I'm irresistible, but wait 'til we're off the clock."

Zack yanked harder on Reno's wrist and pulled him off the couch. "This is an emergency, you asshole. I need your help writing something."

"All those letters tripping you up again? What's with the chocobo?" Reno followed as Zack pulled him into his office and shut the door behind them. "That's not the sort of toy I wanted to add to our relationship."

"Enough jokes, Reno, I'm really about to snap here so just shut up and listen. You know that AWOL cadet? Sephiroth's had him since yesterday; decided the poor kid was a toy because he had this label on him." Zack held up the stuffed toy and flipped it over to show the label on its wing.

"So... he's nuts. What else is new?" How out of it was Sephiroth? Reno hadn't really thought he was that bad. Just a little violent, which was fine by him; he knew how to dodge. "You want me to help you sneak the kid away while he's sleeping or something? Replace him with the real toy?"

"No... I can't." Zack looked freakishly upset by this. "I went to tell Lazard what was going on, only the President was in his office and..." Zack kicked the paper shredder and sent scraps flying. "Official orders are that Sephiroth gets to keep his new toy. It's more 'cost effective'." He made a disgusted face and kicked at the paper on the floor again.

"Well... that sucks. Kid's got some shitty luck. I take it Sephiroth's..." Reno quirked his eyebrows and made a lewd gesture.

"Reno! No, I don't think so. Not yet, at least, and I'd like to keep it that way. Which is where you come in. We need to turn this," Zack held up the chocobo again, "Into a proper care manual for a human being."

Reno stared for several long moments. "You're shitting me, right?"

***

"Choco-Cloud?" Zack suggested.

"Sounds like he's made out of chocolate. Keep it simple. Cloud the Chocobo Toy."

"I don't like it. It's not very catchy."

"Sure it's catchy, and if it's not, who cares? It's not like we're trying to sell it." Reno turned back to the points he was working on and chewed on his pen.

"Yeah, that's a good point. He's already sold. So we'll go with Cloud the Chocobo Toy. I'm thinking we should say that they're still testing Cloud, so we can make changes to the manual if we have to."

"So Sephiroth's like the beta-tester or something?" Reno grabbed another piece of paper and wrote that down. Zack was terrible at keeping notes.

"Hey, yeah. We could say that he was chosen to test out this new toy, but if he damages it, it'll have to be taken away. It'll make him feel special, 'cause hey, not just anyone gets shiny new toys to test out. At the same time, if I need to, I'd be able to take Cloud away from him and he shouldn't really be able to argue about it."

"If he hurts him, you mean."

"Yeah, I know it'd technically be going against the prez's orders, but c'mon, I can't just stand by while the poor kid's being abused."

"Well, let's try and keep that from happening. I'm not risking my life for some random kid, sorry."

***

"Okay." Zack shook out his paper and cleared his throat. "'Do not machine wash. For best results, hand wash daily in warm, soapy water.' That's kind of like what the washing instructions on stuff is like, right? 'Wash your Cloud's hands on a regular basis like you would a person.'"

"Last sentence is clunky. Make it more manual-like."

"How?"

Reno sighed and took the paper from Zack. "I've got a bunch of manuals for crap around here, let me find a few." He rummaged through the bottom drawer of his desk and found the ones for his PHS, his recorder, and, huh, that's where his Mag Rod instructions had got to. He tossed one of them at Zack and flipped through the Mag Rod book. "Let's see... " he said, looking back at the paper Zack had his notes on. "'Because your Cloud interacts with its environment constantly, its hands should be washed on a regular basis throughout the day.' Gives him a reason for washing and doesn't confuse him by throwing people into the mix."

"Why are you referring to Cloud as 'it'?"

"Well I'd guess that if he were really a toy, they'd come in more than one sex. Also since he's a toy, he's technically not got a gender, so he'd be an 'it'. It would be up to the owner to give it a gender. Since you said Sephiroth's already referring to him as 'he', it shouldn't be a problem."

"Right... Anyways, I was thinking we should make sure he gets exercise and all that good stuff, so I put: 'Fresh air and daily exercise keeps your Cloud in top condition.'"

"Sounds good. Do you think it needs a qualifier? Like what if Sephiroth decides to make him run laps with him or something?"

"Hmm, let's leave it like that for now and add it in if it comes up. I don't want to overload him with too much information."

"Fair enough. So, I've split the temperature and sunlight point into two: 'Your Cloud functions best at room temperature. If you are planning to expose it to higher or lower temperatures, please wrap it accordingly. Your Cloud will inform you if the temperature exceeds its tolerance levels.' And then: 'Do not overexpose to direct sunlight. Special protection is available for Clouds if they are going to be in direct sunlight for an extended period of time.'"

"Special protection?"

Reno pointed to his computer screen that had Cloud's file on it. "Kid's from the mountains, right? He's probably pasty white and'll burn to a crisp in the sun. He'll need sunscreen. I figure we can leave the 'keep away from fire' and 'don't let children choke on his clothes' ones as they are. Want me to do a check and see how small his parts are?" Reno dodged Zack's punch and held up his hands in surrender. "Kidding! Kidding!"

Zack grumbled and sat back down. "Right, next point: 'Submitting your Cloud to biting will cause damage. Licking will cause your Cloud to temporarily discolour. Excessive licking has the potential to cause damage, however, so listen to your Cloud's instructions when submitting... I guess 'it' to licking.'"

"That submitting part sounds mildly kinky. I like it. So are we going to put something in about preparing your Cloud properly before play?"

"Reno! The goal here is to not get Cloud raped."

"Yeah, but if there's going to be fucking, would you rather have a properly prepared Cloud, or one with a torn up ass?" It seemed logical to him, at least.

"No, Reno! We're not putting anything like that in. I'm just going to say that he's not meant for sexual purposes and using him for sex will break him."

"I..." Reno paused and thought. It seemed reasonable, but there was something about that that he didn't like. "Zack, how long are you expecting this to go on?"

"A couple weeks maybe, why?"

"What if it's more than that? What if Sephiroth decides that he's going to keep him forever? I mean, if we were certain that it was just going to be for a short while, I'd say sure, go ahead and do that. But we're not certain."

"What are you getting at? Sephiroth can jerk off."

"And what about the kid? Sure, he's only fifteen now, but he's going to get older and he's going to have needs of his own. I looked at his file; there seems to be a lot of speculation that he's gay. Imagine him trying to explain to some guy that he'd love to date him, but he has to go home and be a toy for another man, but it's not sexual, no worries!"

"Umm..."

"I'm just saying that if this turns into a long-term thing, do you really want to condemn him to a life of celibacy without even asking him first? Sephiroth's changed a lot since Nibelheim – personality-wise too. Maybe he'd want to keep Cloud around even if they had a sexual relationship."

"So what are you suggesting?"

"Hold off on mentioning his sexual purposes for now and try to get Sephiroth to let you talk to Cloud privately. Ask him what he wants, give him an option."

"Let Sephiroth fuck you or never have sex? What kind of option is that?" Zack threw his arms in the air in exasperation.

"Well, how about something like... like you know how pets take a while to adjust to a new owner or house? Something like that. Clouds have an adjustment phase where they decide whether or not they want to have sex with their owners. That way he'll be able to wait until he's older and has gotten to know Sephiroth, and he can say 'yes' or 'no' then."

"That's... that's not bad, actually. And Cloud's are pretty new, right? Maybe there's no set time that they take to decide, so no one knows how long the phase lasts. I expect Sephiroth'll be all over me about it constantly, but it could work. And any sexual touching before the adjustment phase is over will break him."

"There! See, he's got options." Reno grinned at his ingenuity.

"Yeah, thanks. I'll convince Sephiroth to let me talk to him when I give them the manual."

***

Reno looked critically at the stack of papers Zack just finished stapling. "That's fine for now, but I'll see if I can find someone who can print up a proper-looking manual for the next edition."

"Yeah, that'd be a good plan. This isn't terribly convincing." Zack flipped through the pages. "It'll have to do, though. I can't believe it took so long; I had wanted to go out this afternoon and get some clothes for Cloud. He looks about ten in Sephiroth's pyjamas, which is really fucking creepy."

Reno laughed at that. "I kinda want to go with you to see him."

"Probably not a good plan. I think I can get Sephiroth to accept me as a sort of liaison between him and the merchandise division, but Turks might be pushing it. Hmm, I need to get his personal stuff from the barracks as well."

"And you can figure out what sizes of clothes to buy from what he's got," Reno suggested.

"Oh yeah, good idea. I was just going to guess at that. Your way is better."

"It usually is. All right, good luck, get out of here, and make Sephiroth let Cloud wash his damn hands already. That's just gross."

Chapter Text

"What are you doing, Cloud?" Sephiroth peered over his shoulder at what he had out on the table.

"Mother's Day is coming up in a couple weeks, so I'm writing a card for my mom." It was pretty nice to not have to keep stuff like this a secret anymore, Cloud thought.

"Oh, that's nice." Sephiroth went and sat on the couch and Cloud followed him with his eyes, frowning at the sad tone he had heard in Sephiroth's voice. He curled up and flipped through a book that had been on the coffee table without really looking at it.

Cloud sighed, thinking that it probably would have been better to make something up. Talk of mothers usually got Sephiroth thinking about Jenova, and Cloud knew that he still felt terribly guilty about that. He set his pen down and went over to the couch where he squashed himself into the space behind Sephiroth and hugged him tightly.

"It's okay to miss her."

Sephiroth shook his head. "She was bad. I'm supposed to hate her."

"No. She was your mother, and even though she was bad, you don't have to hate her. I'm glad you stopped her; I think it's better that way. But it's okay if you miss her and are sad that she's gone."

"I didn't even know her. It's not like your mom." Sephiroth turned a little so he could rest his head on Cloud's shoulder. Cloud bent his head and pressed a kiss on the top of Sephiroth's.

"That's true, but I think you had an idea in your head of what your mom would be like. It doesn't matter what Jenova was like in reality; I think it's that idea that you miss. You miss what she could have been, don't you?"

There was a moment's hesitation, then a slow nod. "She would have loved me. It wouldn't have mattered why she wasn't there when I was growing up. She would have loved me and she would have been proud."

"She did love you, Sephiroth. In her own way, I'm certain she did. Why don't you write a card for her? I know she's gone, but you can write one anyways. It can be both to Jenova and to the mother you imagined. We can send it with the card for my mom and I'll ask her to leave it at the mansion. Maybe her spirit will find it there."

"Do you think so?" Sephiroth looked up at him hopefully.

"I think it's possible. Come on, I've got an extra card you can use."

***

Red eyes narrowed and muscles tensed at the sound outside the door. The letter flap squeaked with rust as something was pushed through it, then footsteps could be heard moving away.

He waited several minutes before moving cautiously towards the thing that had fallen on the floor. It was a card envelope with the word "Mother" written in shaky cursive on the front. He picked it up with his clawed hand and carefully turned it over. There was no one left here but him, so he decided that he might as well open it. It hadn't been mailed, so it probably wasn't a mistake that it was delivered here.

The front of the card had a picture of flowers and the inside had a standard Mother's Day greeting. In the same shaky cursive as what was on the envelope, however, it read:

Happy Mother's Day. I hope that wherever you are, you still love me. I love you and miss you.

Love Sephiroth

"Lucrecia..." Did this mean Sephiroth was still alive?

Chapter Text

Sephiroth scowled at the books in the library. He had read all the interesting ones at least three times each and couldn't stand the thought of reading them again. All the others were boring textbooks that the scientists would consult every time he sneezed or went to the bathroom. He wanted something new and exciting, especially since stupid Hojo had said he wasn't allowed to play outside while the new treatment – whatever it was this time – ran its course.

He padded out of the library and headed for his room. Half way there he saw his favourite nurse pushing a cart down the hallway and immediately went into stealth-mode. He crept quietly behind her as she walked, and as soon as she stopped, he hurried up and poked her in the side, laughing delightedly at her surprised yell.

"Sephiroth! What are you doing down here? I thought you were in the library."

Sephiroth stifled his giggles and shrugged. "Nothin' to read in there. It's boring."

"Nothing at all?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Nothing I haven't read a million billion times already, no! I'm sick of everything in there."

The nurse smiled then. "I'll talk to Professor Gast about getting you some new books, okay?"

"Really? You'll get me new books?" Sephiroth perked right up. It had been forever since he got new books.

"I'll do my best. Do you still like the ones with lots of pictures?"

"Umm, no pictures is kinda boring, but I want ones with lots of words, too." Lots of words would take longer to read, which would be good, but sometimes he had trouble imagining things he had never seen before if there were no pictures to give a hint.

"I'll look for some with a few pictures and lots of words, then. Now go play somewhere else and no more sneaking around!" She swatted Sephiroth gently on the bum, and he took off, laughing again. He'd build a fort in the library that he could read his new books in while he waited for them to arrive.

***

Sephiroth found a big stack of new books waiting for him in the library a few days later. He dragged them all into the rather impressive fort he had built between the last bookcase and the window and spread them out in front of him. Three caught his attention immediately.

They were big hardcover books with scary-looking monsters on them. They had huge, dripping teeth and long sharp claws. The monster on one of the covers had what looked like even more teeth attached to the fronts of its main teeth. That was cool.

"Di-no-saurs," Sephiroth sounded out the word that appeared on each cover. He had never heard that word before, but it sounded promising. Hard words usually only came in the boring books like the ones he had used to weigh down the blankets of his fort. They never had cool pictures to go with them.

He picked up the largest book and turned it over. The back didn't look very interesting, but a quick flip through promised lots more cool pictures. And the page titled 'Allosaurus the Nightmare Dragon' made him pause. A chart in the corner of the page said that it was three times higher than a ten-year-old and nine times as long. He wondered how much bigger a ten-year-old was than a seven-year-old.

Sephiroth pored over the books all afternoon until the light started to dim in his cozy fort. When a nurse finally dragged him out to make him eat dinner, dinosaurs were running rampant through his thoughts.

"Sephiroth, you have an appointment with Professor Hojo tomorrow for your mako shower," the nurse told him as he shovelled food into his mouth.

Sephiroth glared. If he were a dinosaur, no one would make him have a mako shower. A Tyrannosaurus wouldn't even fit in a tank! He'd crush it under one foot and then snatch up the mean scientists with his bone-crunching jaws!

"Sephiroth, did you hear me?"

"I heard you," Sephiroth grumbled. There was no point in arguing about the shower. They always won in the end.

No one would give shots to a dinosaur, either. And if he were fast like a raptor, they would never be able to catch him to try. Sephiroth cackled as he pictured Hojo trying to get him onto an operating table. He'd slash through the straps that were holding him down with his huge, scalpel-sharp claws. They might try to shoot him with the darts that made him sleepy, but they'd bounce right off his armoured plates.

Sephiroth sighed and picked up a piece of meat with his bare hands, watching the sauce drip off it. Dinosaurs liked meat. He tore into it, chomping and snarling loudly.

"Eat properly, Sephiroth. Use your knife and fork like a good boy and don't chew with your mouth open." The nurse looked disgusted. Good. She'd be even more disgusted if the meat was raw, but no one would tell a Sephirosaurus to chew with his mouth closed, no matter how gruesome it was.

'Sephirosaurus.' That's what they'd call him if he were a dinosaur. He thought about what a Sephirosaurus would be like for the rest of his meal until he was finally allowed to leave the table.

He ran back to the library and grabbed his three dinosaur books to take back to his room. If he was going to be a dinosaur, he'd need them for reference. The Sephirosaurus would be the perfect predator. He'd take the best from all the other—Sephiroth flipped through the smallest book as he walked—theropods and turn into the scariest dinosaur there ever was. He'd have defences too, though. Not that anyone would mistake him for prey, but it didn't hurt to be careful, just in case.

There was a stash of crayons in a tin under his bed and Sephiroth hauled them out. Good. Lots of greens and browns. He had paper stashed with the crayons as well, but he quickly rejected it. Sephirosauruses didn't have floppy back plates; they had armour. And they didn't have stupid arms like the Tyrannosaurus. His arms were useful! They'd have big claws like a raptor and he'd be able to snatch things up with them.

Sephiroth stood up and dragged a stool over to the window in his door. There was no one out there. He wasn't really supposed to go out now, though the door wasn't locked yet. If he was sneaky, he wouldn't get in trouble...

The halls were quiet as Sephiroth crept down them, listening carefully for the sounds of someone coming. Most people had gone home by this time of day, so he wasn't too worried. He found some collapsed cardboard boxes in a storage closet that would work well for plates. The books all said that no one knew what Stegosaurus's plates were for, but Sephiroth knew they were for armour. And maybe for distracting his prey – he wasn't sure about that yet.

An unlocked office provided a pair of scissors that could cut through the cardboard and a roll of tape. Sephiroth frowned at the gown he was wearing as he made his way back to his room. Sephirosauruses didn't wear hospital gowns, but his outside clothes weren't very dinosaur-like, either. Nor were the bodysuits with the monitors that he wore when he was fighting something. Sephiroth dumped his loot inside his room and thought hard. Those green shirts and pants that the lab people sometimes wore would work! He checked again that the coast was clear and ran off to the laundry room.

Sephiroth pulled another outfit off the shelf. So far they had all looked like they would be really big on him, which was silly. Sephirosaurus was the biggest dinosaur ever! He held up the pants to his waist. Well, he would be the biggest dinosaur ever, once he finished growing. The big clothes would have to do for now, though. He took the smallest ones he had found, and then grabbed an extra pair of pants and a couple of big safety pins. He had to crawl up onto a washing machine to reach the shelf they were on. Sephiroth grumbled to himself as he climbed back down. A fully-grown Sephirosaurus could reach anything it wanted to.

Back in his room, Sephiroth set to work. He propped his books open and carefully tried to cut out plates like the ones in the pictures. He coloured the pieces with greens and browns and securely taped them to the back of the green shirt. He set aside a few extra plates for his head. Heads need protection, too, and he thought it was a bit silly that none of the plated dinosaurs had thought of that.

He twisted the extra pair of pants into a tail and pinned it to the back of the pants he would wear. A big knot at the end kept it from untwisting, but he couldn't get the spikes he had made for it to stick and he was almost out of tape. Sephiroth let out a big sigh; he couldn't think of how he would attach claws to his hands, either. He yawned widely and rubbed his eyes as he thought. There were footsteps coming down the hall and Sephiroth quickly pushed his work under the bed. He could make improvements later, he thought, as he scrambled into bed just as the door opened.

"Lights out, Sephiroth," the night nurse said.

The lights went out right away and Sephiroth found his way under the blankets in the dark. He'd be scary enough even without claws or spikes tomorrow to get out of having to take a mako shower. He yawned again and curled up into a ball. That knot on the end of his tail was like the clubs that some of the dinosaurs had on their tails. That would be okay.

***

He had half an hour after breakfast before he had to go see Hojo. Half an hour to become Sephirosaurus. Sephiroth ran back to his room and grabbed his outfit and supplies from under the bed. He knew exactly where he would attack from. Someone would definitely open the door to the supply closet across from the room with the mako pods in it. He dodged nurses and assistants and scientists and made it without anyone stopping him to wonder what he had in his arms.

He had to fold up the bottoms of the pants and cinch the waist up tight, but the clothes worked well enough. They probably even made him scarier, since he looked so big in them. It was hard attaching the spikes to his head and neck, especially without a mirror. There was a shiny pan in the closet, at least, and he thought he did a pretty good job of getting them attached.

There. All set. Sephiroth turned out the light, and then climbed up onto a shelf so he would be ready to pounce when his prey opened the door. A short while later, he heard someone say they would get it from the supply closet, and he had to bite on his fist to keep from giggling out loud.

The door opened and Sephirosaurus leapt.

"RAWR!" he yelled as loud as he could. Curling his fingers into terrifying claws, Sephirosaurus jumped on his startled prey, knocking it down. He sunk his fangs into the bigger dinosaur's arm, but couldn't quite get through its armour. And the fabric tasted yucky. The dinosaur he had attacked began to fight its way up and it appeared to be calling for help from the others of its kind.

Sephirosaurus snarled viciously. He needed a pack, like a Deinonychus, even though he couldn't figure out how to say it. If he had a pack, he'd be able to swarm his prey. Or maybe he just needed to be bigger. Either way, this wasn't working, and Sephirosaurus took off down the hall while his prey was still milling around in confusion.

***

Sephirosaurus was good at hiding. It took them two hours to find him, and when they did, Hojo said that they would have to put off the tests for another day. Hojo was probably afraid, Sephiroth thought gleefully. Unfortunately, he wasn't so afraid that he wouldn't give Sephiroth a lecture. Sephiroth tuned out the rambling about wasted time and equipment and irresponsibility and a bunch of other stuff he didn't care about.

Sephirosaurus wouldn't stand for lectures.

Sephirosaurus would bite off the fingers that wagged at him and told him he was bad. He'd bite them off at the shoulder...

Chapter Text

Sephiroth pushed aside his cold meal. It didn't taste good anymore. He hadn't thought that much time had passed, but the clock said it was almost nine o'clock. He didn't even know what he had been thinking about for so long. That happened a lot. It would suddenly be late and he would have no idea how it got that way.

The plate of food seemed to be staring back up at him. He was hungry, but he didn't want to eat cold food. The last time he had tried heating something up, there had been an accident and someone had said that he wasn't allowed to do that anymore.

"Always have to order, can't use the stove, can't talk to anyone, can't have my sword, can't go to the store," Sephiroth muttered angrily, feeling helpless and frustrated. He just... he hated this! He blinked back the tears that were causing the plate to blur and slammed his fists into the table. He heard a crack, but didn't see anything wrong on the surface. "Take away the table, too..."

They would, if he wasn't careful. He heard people talking, even though they thought he wasn't paying attention. Keep him under control... Causes much more damage and we'll lock him up... Sephiroth didn't want to get locked up again. He didn't like the hospital. It was so lonely.

Not that this was much better.

Sephiroth put his plate back in the box and dumped it carelessly by the door. He didn't know what to do now. Watching TV was boring and he didn't want to go to bed yet. He had some paperwork that he knew he was supposed to do, but every time he looked at it, the words became meaningless letters on the page. He hated the paperwork they gave him. It wasn't real work and he knew it. They just made him do it to keep him occupied in between sending him out to kill things.

He could spend some time with his friends! Sephiroth smiled as the thought occurred to him and he ran over to his computer. The first bookmark was his favourite. It went to a site that had a big long list of stories about him and his friends. Some were really silly, and there was no way that most of them had ever happened, but there were also lots that reminded him of the old days. He clicked on an old favourite and brought his feet up on to the chair, hugging his knees and smiling as Genesis and Angeal made him try his first dumbapple.

The hours ticked by as Sephiroth clicked his way through story after story. He went to war in Wutai and played pranks in the office. He helped Genesis deal with a hard day and Angeal taught him how to bake. In one of the stories, Genesis was really badly hurt and Sephiroth was sure he was going to die. He wasn't sure if he could keep reading, but he did after getting a blanket to hold and a box of tissues. In the end, he and Angeal saved the day, but it was really scary for a while. He went back and reread the story about the first time he celebrated his birthday with his friends to make himself feel better. That was another favourite.

A loud buzzing distracted him from the daring rescue he and Genesis were about to attempt and Sephiroth looked up angrily. He stormed into his room and shut off the alarm clock. Seven AM. Time to get up.

He didn't want to go in to work again today. He liked the stories much better than sitting alone in his office. But maybe Zack would have time to talk to him today. It had been a long time, so maybe today. He liked it when Zack talked to him. Maybe there would be a story about him and Zack one day. Sephiroth was sure he'd like those stories.

Chapter Text

"S—Sephiroth?"

"Mmm-hmm?"

"I h—have to go to the bathroom," Cloud said it, hoping he wouldn't have to ask.

"Okay." Sephiroth pushed the chair back to give Cloud room to get down, but made no sign of moving further.

Shit. It wasn't—he wasn't afraid. He wasn't. Only an idiot would be scared to go to the bathroom by himself, but... "Will you come with me?"

Sephiroth stood and took his hand. "Of course."

Sephiroth didn't judge or question it. He probably liked the excuse to take a break, but he was used to Cloud just doing stuff on his own, so he had to ask. And asking meant admitting to himself that he was too much of a coward to go on his own.

Cloud could feel the gazes of the SOLDIERs following them as they walked, and he knew what they were thinking. Weak, pathetic Cloud. Can't even take a piss without someone to hold his hand.

Sephiroth waited at the door to the washrooms for him. At least he could handle that much on his own. But as he washed his hands and saw himself in the mirror, he felt a wave of helplessness wash over him, and tears pricked at the corners of his eyes.

Why did he have to be so weak? He lifted up his shirt and rand his hand over the big scar on his ribcage. He was useless. He had given up on escaping after one try. Cloud winced, remembering the way his teeth had rattled when his jaw cracked on the step when they tackled him. All of his air had been forced out of him when he slammed into the step, and the weight of the guard on top of him had cracked his ribs. He had felt and heard them break and it had hurt so much. He hadn't been able to do anything but gasp as they dragged him back to his cell.

"Cloud? Are you okay?"

"Yeah, half a second." Cloud quickly splashed some water on his face and went back out, forcing a smile. "Thanks for waiting."

"Not a problem." Sephiroth took him by the hand again and led him back to the office. "Is it because you missed me that you don't want to go alone?" he asked once they were seated.

Cloud shook his head and pressed his face into Sephiroth's shirt. He didn't want to admit it out loud. He couldn't. Stop crying, he ordered himself. He gasped for air and tried to hold back the tears, but it was useless. Within seconds, great shuddering sobs were wracking his body as he clung to Sephiroth.

He could feel Sephiroth's strong hands holding him close and rubbing his back. Sephiroth was humming and rocking him—Cloud sobbed again as his stomach twisted in on itself. He was scaring Sephiroth, who was most likely at a complete loss about what was wrong and probably thinking he had done something to cause it. But still, he couldn't stop the tears.

"Sephiroth, I need you to look over these battle plans and let me know..." Lazard's voice trailed off. "Is everything all right in here?"

Cloud tried desperately to stop crying; he didn't want the whole of SOLDIER to see him like this. But he started hiccupping, and then the thought of everyone else knowing he was a complete crybaby got the waterworks going again.

"I don't know what's wrong," Sephiroth said. He sounded terrified, Cloud thought as he let out another great sob.

"Cloud, what's wrong? Can you tell me or Sephiroth?" Lazard crouched down beside him and turned his face away from Sephiroth's chest so he was looking at him.

Cloud hiccupped painfully and shook his head. "I'm sorry. I'll stop soon. I'm sorry."

Lazard reached out and laid a hand on his head. "Don't worry about it. It's not something Sephiroth—"

"No! Sephiroth didn't—" He hiccupped again. "Didn't do anything wrong."

Lazard nodded and stood, letting Cloud go back to hiding his face. "I think he's just having a bad day, Sephiroth. Why don't you let him calm down a bit, then take him home?"

"Is it okay? You don't think he's damaged, do you?"

"No, I don't think he's damaged. What does Cloud do for you when you have a bad day?"

"He... he makes me something good to eat, and then we watch movies together until I feel better."

"How about you take him home and try that, then. Order in a pizza or something and just relax. Don't worry about your work; we'll make do without you. I think that spending some time with you will have him feeling better again in no time."

Cloud felt Sephiroth nod. "I can do that."

He felt like such a tool, getting sent home because he was bawling, but he was grateful to Lazard. He just needed a day. One day and he'd be fine again.

***
"It's kind of sad, don't you think?" Riley remarked, gesturing down the hall where he had just seen Sephiroth disappear carrying Cloud all bundled up.

"What's sad?" Hoffman asked. He didn't look up from the new sword that he'd been polishing obsessively since he got it.

Kunsel glanced over at them, looking stern. "If you're on about Cloud, Hurst, you can shut it. I think we all learned just how vital he is to our team."

"No, sir," Riley said. "Well, yes, I am talking about Cloud, but not like that. I like the kid, and I appreciate what he's done for Sephiroth."

"So what's sad?" Kunsel asked, closing his magazine with his finger marking his spot.

"It's just that he seems so scared ever since he came back to work. That's not like him at all. He's never out of Sephiroth's sight these days. And when Sephiroth's on a mission, he's clinging to Zack."

"Yeah, you're right," Hoffman piped up. "He used to come to the break room on his own all the time and hang out for a while. He'd give me the dirtiest looks when I'd tease him, and I swear I learned some new curses from him. Now he just hides behind Sephiroth and never looks anyone in the eye."

"He got kidnapped and held captive for thirteen days. Zack says that Cloud's not really talking about what happened to him, but I can't imagine it was fun. He's just a kid, and he was put through a hell of a lot that he was never prepared for. Cut him some slack."

"I know," Riley said, holding his hands up in surrender. Pissing off Kunsel was the last thing he'd had in mind when he brought it up. "I don't blame him at all. I just feel bad that he doesn't even feel safe here on the SOLDIER floor. I wish there was something we could do to help him get his confidence back."

"Like what?" Hoffman asked.

"Like, I dunno, teach him to fight or something. He was only in the cadet program a couple months before he met Sephiroth, wasn't he? He'd have barely learned any skills by then; the first few months are all about scaring off anyone who doesn't really want to be there and getting their basic fitness level up."

"That's not a bad idea." Kunsel tossed his magazine down and got up to stretch. "You should do it." He cracked his back loudly and wandered off towards the elevators.

"I think that means he's not going to help you," Hoffman stage-whispered.

"Apparently not. Well, I guess I could talk to Zack about it. Want to come with?"

"Nah, I'll let you put your neck on the line for this. Let me know how it goes, though."

Riley sighed and shook his head sadly. Zack was a nice guy, and Riley was willing to bet that he'd be willing to hear out a suggestion or two.

***
Zack finally stopped tossing his ball against the wall—probably much to the relief of whoever was in the neighbouring office—and nodded. "Yeah, that would be a good plan. I think Spiky could do with some self-defence training. So you want me to act as your go-between or something? I'll ask him if he's interested and introduce him to you?"

"Oh, um, yeah..."

"You were thinking I'd train him?" Zack grinned and tossed the ball at him.

Riley caught it just on the tips of his fingers. Damn, Firsts were fast. "Sort of..."

"If you really don't want to, I will, 'cause I think it's a really smart idea. And Kunsel said he'd be willing, as well. Even if he can just fight an attacker off long enough to call for help, that's going to help him out a lot. But I'd like you to get involved; you obviously care enough to think of it in the first place, so why not go a bit further? He's pretty isolated in his day-to-day life, as I'm sure you know. He could use another friend; let him know that there's someone else in SOLDIER who'll give him more than a passing thought. That alone might help him get some of his old confidence back."

Riley nodded, thinking it over. "Yeah, you're right, sir. I hadn't really thought about that, but I guess the only people he really interacts with are you and Sephiroth, huh?"

"Pretty much," Zack said. "I know you guys have stopped bullying him as much, but he's not comfortable around SOLDIERs. He knows the rumours."

"Yeah... are they really not—"

"It's really none of your business, so don't bug him about it."

"I wasn't going to, I swear. I was just curious, I guess. So, about that olive branch..."

"I'll talk to him about it tomorrow; Lazard said they went home early today. Mail me a copy of your schedule, and I'll see what works for him."

"You've got it, sir. Thanks a lot."

"No, man, thank you. I'm glad someone else out there cares about him."

***
Things were a bit better today. Cloud had finally managed to tell Sephiroth that he was afraid of being alone. Sephiroth had just nodded and said okay, he wouldn't leave him alone in that case. Much to Cloud's embarrassment, he had even taken him into the shower with him after he had been given his bath. Cloud had just stood there awkwardly, not knowing what to do or where to look. But it was infinitely better than twenty minutes alone in the bedroom.

Lazard had smiled at him kindly and asked if he was feeling better when they arrived in the morning, but Cloud knew that Zack would be in later on to grill him, and he didn't want that. Admitting it to Sephiroth had been bad enough. Sephiroth at least understood what it was like to feel terrified and alone. He didn't think Zack ever got scared.

He curled up closed and pulled Sephiroth's hair over him, hoping he could just sleep until it was time to go home. He hadn't slept very well last night, despite Sephiroth's efforts to make him feel safe.

***
"Hey, kiddo, wake up."

Cloud stirred tiredly.

"He's sleeping, Zack. He needs to rest," came Sephiroth's protest.

"Not all day, he doesn't. C'mon, sleepyhead. Wakey wakey. I need to talk to you." Zack shook his shoulder until Sephiroth knocked his hand away.

"You said naps were okay."

Naps are okay. Sleeping the whole day away, every day, is not."

"I'm awake, Zack," Cloud said grumpily. "What do you want?"

"I want to talk to you. C'mon, let's go down to my office."

Cloud shook his head as Sephiroth tightened his hold on him.

"No," Sephiroth said, "he wants to stay with me. I protect him."

Zack sighed. "Cloud, I know what happened was awful and that you're scared. There's nothing wrong with being scared. But you can't stay glued to Sephiroth forever. He and I aren't always going to have missions at different times. What are you planning on doing then?"

"I don't know!" Cloud snapped. Of course he knew that Sephiroth couldn't stay by his side forever, but Zack didn't understand. Sephiroth made him feel safe, and that was what he needed right now.

"Director Lazard asked me to tell you that if you need anything, or want to talk to someone about what happened, he can help. He said he could get you in to see someone who's got nothing to do with Shin-Ra, if you want. He'll give Sephiroth the time off so you can go together."

Cloud shook his head. "I don't—I just want—" To forget it ever happened. Talking to someone about it wouldn't help with that.

"Are you sleeping all right?" Zack asked.

"I'm fine," Cloud insisted.

"Sephiroth, does he sleep well at night?"

Sephiroth hummed fretfully and adjusted Cloud's position on his lap. "He—has nightmares a lot."

Sephiroth was terrible at lying, and Cloud cracked a small smile at the very quiet apology that was whispered in his ear.

"Cloud, I'm not going to force this if you don't want it, but you're not going to magically get over it."

"Lazard said he wasn't damaged," Sephiroth said in a tone that seemed to be asking for confirmation.

Zack looked long and hard at both of them. "No, he's not damaged per se, but he's not good either. Getting stolen was a very scary thing for Cloud and it... well, it wasn't good for him. It'll take some time before he can get back to normal."

"I can look after him until then."

"I'm sure you can and that you'd do a fine job of it, but unfortunately, the more you look after him, the longer it's going to take for Cloud to get better."

Cloud frowned and crossed his arms in front of his chest. "You're just confusing things."

"No, I'm not, Cloud, and you know it. Look, if you don't want to talk to someone, I have another suggestion. Yesterday one of the other SOLDIERs, Hurst—do you know him?"

He shook his head. He didn't really know any of the SOLDIERs by name, though he recognized a fair number.

"He's a Third Class; first name's Riley. He wondered if you would be interested in some self-defence lessons. He offered to work with you, maybe an hour a day, a few times a week. What do you think?"

A S—SOLDIER?" Cloud stammered, shocked.

"Yeah. He noticed that you haven't been yourself since you came back to the office and thought it might help give you a bit of a confidence boost. I know you think you're not that strong, but that's just 'cause you're comparing yourself to SOLDIER. I think you'd do well with a bit of training."

"Cloud's not meant for fighting," Sephiroth said.

"No, he's not," Zack agreed quickly, "but if someone tries to steal him again, or damage him, it would be much better if he knew how to fight back so he can get away and call for help. Don't you think? You can be with him and protect him most of the time, but not always."

Sephiroth nodded slowly and Cloud felt a small glimmer of hope. He wouldn't do it if Sephiroth said 'no', but the idea of self-defence lessons was tempting. If this Riley person could teach him enough that he could protect himself, he wouldn't be scared; he was sure. He wouldn't be a coward anymore.

"I don't want Cloud to be damaged."

"Of course not. Hurst would be very careful to not damage him."

"I'd like to try," Cloud spoke up. "If it's all right with you, I'd really like to try."

"It's all right with me," Sephiroth said. "It makes me sad when you're afraid."

Zack smiled and thumped Cloud on the shoulder. "I'll let him know, then. I think he's got some time to spare this afternoon."

***
Cloud let go of Sephiroth's hand just outside the training room door. He didn't want this guy getting a bad impression of him right off the bat. There'd be time enough for that once Riley saw him fight. The door slid open, and Cloud saw two men, both way bigger and more muscled than he was, wearing Third Class uniforms. They had the company issued swords strapped to their backs, and they were stacking wooden crates on top of each other, forming walls. They paused at the sound of the door opening and set down the crate they had just picked up.

"Hi, Cloud," the smaller man with dark brown hair said. They both stood at attention and saluted at Sephiroth. "Good evening, sir."

"You don't have to do that," Sephiroth said, looking away. "I'm just dropping Cloud off."

Both men smiled and appeared to relax at that. "SOLDIER Third Class, Riley Hurst," the first man said, "and this is my friend, Leon. He's going to be helping us out."

"Nice to meet you." Cloud was feeling oddly shy and stared awkwardly at his feet.

"Leon Hoffman. Third Class." He held out a big calloused hand for Cloud to shake.

"Tha—thanks for doing this for me," Cloud stammered.

"Hey, no problem. You're part of the team, right?"

"You aren't allowed to damage him," Sephiroth said suddenly, his voice meaning business. "Clouds aren't meant for fighting, so you have to be careful."

"We will, sir. We won't hurt him, I swear," Riley said.

"And don't... don't make fun of him." Cloud felt his face nearly catch fire at that. "It makes him sad when the SOLDIERs tease him."

Leon shuffled nervously and looked away. Cloud recognized him as one of the guys who would always bother him in the break room before. No one had said a single disparaging word towards him since he got back, though.

"On my honour as a SOLDIER, sir. We just want to see him back to his old self."

Sephiroth nodded, then leaned down to hug Cloud. "Zack said you would be an hour?" He looked up at Riley for confirmation and got a nod. "I'll come pick him up then. Don't leave him alone."

"Yes, sir. We'll stay with him until you come back."

With that, Sephiroth kissed him goodbye and turned to go. Cloud could barely bring himself to lift his head and look at the other two. Sephiroth's shows of affection had never bothered him before, but this was embarrassing.

"So, me and Leon were thinking that unless you start seriously training and working out, you're not ever going to be much of a straight-up fighter. But that's not really what you want, is it?"

Cloud cautiously raised his head, looking for the laughter that they were surely holding back. It... didn't seem to be there. He shook his head. "No. I can't put that much time into it. Sephiroth needs me around."

"That's what I thought. And most of the time, you've got Sephiroth or Zack or another SOLDIER around to protect you if anything happens, right?"

"Yeah."

"So what we want to teach you is how to lay a lot of hurt on someone quickly, and then how to get away. We're going to teach you to fight dirty. Sound good?"

"No sense in playing nice with the kind of people who would attack you," Leon added.

Cloud nodded slowly. That was all he wanted: to be able to get away and get to Sephiroth or someone else who would help him. He wasn't meant for fighting.

***
Sephiroth smelled blood. He came to a dead stop for a second and listened carefully. He could hear laughter, but not Cloud's, and he could smell blood. Had they damaged Cloud and now they were laughing at him? He ran as fast as he could move and slammed himself into the door of the training room as it was sliding open.

"Cloud!" He spotted him across the room and ran over, scooping him up and checking to see where he was damaged.

"What's wrong, Sephiroth?" Cloud squirmed. "You should put me down; I'm all sweaty and gross."

"You're not damaged?"

"No, I'm fine. Why did you think I was damaged?"

"I smelled blood, and they were laughing at you."

"Oh, well, there's blood, but—"

"It's all mine, no need to worry." A funny sounding voice spoke behind them.

"And the only thing damaged is Leon's pride," Riley hooted with laughter from atop a crate. "Seriously, what did you expect when you told him to punch you in the face as hard as he could?"

"Well, I didn't expect he'd punch me in the nose!" Leon was holding a blood-stained towel up to his nose, but seemed to be laughing as well.

"We just finished telling him to always go for vulnerable spots. Did you think he hadn't been paying attention?"

"I'm really, really sorry," Cloud said. "Really, I am. Want me to go get some ice? I should go get some ice. Sephiroth, I'll be right back. I have to get ice."

"You don't need to get ice, kid, I'm fine. Mako's great for stuff like chocobo punches. I think. The bleeding's mostly stopped already." Leon held out the bloody towel and looked at it hopefully.

"Third Class levels of mako should heal that," Sephiroth said quietly.

"Awesome! I mean, thank you, sir."

"He did really well, sir," Riley said. "We worked on breaking holds and where to hit someone to make it hurt. I know he's not meant for fighting, but he's not weak."

"Good." Sephiroth stroked Cloud's hair, beaming at the praise they were giving him. "Did it help?" he asked.

"I think so. I mean, it was just an hour and we just went over some very basic things," Cloud said.

"You're not fixed yet."

"No..." Cloud looked away. He seemed like he was ashamed for some reason.

"Okay. Everybody says it will take time before you're better. As long as it helps, you should keep training."

Cloud laughed and leaned his head against his chest. "Thanks, Sephiroth. I think it'll help a lot. And I had fun."

"Fun is good, too. Do you still want to go for a walk with me even though you got your daily exercise?"

"Of course. I wouldn't skip that."

"So we'll see you tomorrow, then?" Riley asked. "Same time?"

Cloud smiled widely. "Yeah, that'd be great. Thanks. And I really am sorry, Leon. I didn't mean to."

"Just think of what it means, Cloud," Riley said with a big grin. "You inflicted enough pain on a Third Class that you would have been able to make a run for it if you had needed to."

This time, Cloud laughed. "So I did! Now if only everyone would crouch down and hold still while I punch them."