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Clinging to a Burning Nail

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               On some level, Cloud had always understood that his childhood wasn’t quite normal, even if he couldn’t quite put his finger on which parts of it were odd. Not having parents or knowing the date of his birth were certainly on the list. From what Professor Gast implied, the lack of toys and general playing was also there. Beyond that, he just couldn’t put his finger on it. Was it the labs themselves? All the (only debatably humane at best) tests? The constant training for battle? He didn’t know.

               What he did know was how to get by in the labs, even if he sometimes ignored the unspoken guidelines and got himself into trouble. Displays of emotion had been crushed early on, making Cloud into a stoic man at best. Asking questions was frowned upon. Total obedience was required. These were all things that rankled Cloud, that it took him many, many years to master—even if he didn’t always succeed, even now. He was by nature emotional, curious, and hard-headed. The labs did their best to eliminate these traits, but only succeeded in burying them.

               Still, the labs were all he’d ever known. Though it grated on him, he knew the rules there. There was a correct way to behave and he was familiar with it.

               What he discovered upon being released was that the outside world also had a correct way to behave, but it wasn’t the same as what the labs had taught him. Luckily, the way of the SOLDIER was similar enough to the way of the labs for him to at least get by.

               The Wutai War was at its height and he was being sent in as a general. He questioned this, well aware that anyone in the army was supposed to start a private and that things would go from there, but he kept his mouth shut, the way he had learned many years ago. It would do no good for him to ask questions.

               So instead, he was sent in to Wutai, a raw recruit with high rank. Upon landing, he was shown the compound that served as their primary base. They had taken the southernmost peninsula first and were working their way up through the mountains. This base as nestled in the plains right below the mountains. Normally, it was manned by low-ranking personnel, as those of higher rank were needed in the active warzones. At the moment, however, Shinra’s current general was on base. He’d been recalled to meet his new “equal” and bring him up to speed.

               But by the look on his face, he was none too pleased about the situation.

               When Cloud was brought into the room to meet Sephiroth, he was all but radiating a chilly sort of anger.

               Two could play that game.

               Cloud strode into the room with his head held high, back straight, refusing to be cowed by this man’s temper. He kept his eyes on him as he walked, and found the other man locking eyes with him. He could watch as irritation turned into being affronted, as the room cooled a degree with his rage.

               Sephiroth turned toward the aide that was guiding Cloud in with a look of fury and snapped, “They sent a child?”

               It took Cloud all those years of training in the labs to not give more of a reaction than to raise an eyebrow. He slipped into parade rest in front of Sephiroth.

               “A child they found competent enough to lead armies. Now, we have work to do, if you don’t mind?”

               Sephiroth turned those bright, angry eyes toward Cloud, longing to retort, but he would not be outshone in professionalism by a new SOLDIER fresh off the boat, much less a sixteen year old one. Sephiroth approached the table that Cloud was standing in front of and began gesturing at the maps and small plastic figures marking troops and supplies.

               “We hold the Southern Plains without question. The mountains are the trouble. The Wutaians know the areas better and have superior maps than what we’re working with, which is causing trouble. They’re using this to their advantage with guerilla tactics—they can attack and disappear before we offer a full defense, much less counterattack. We’ve been able to track some of their locations. Their primary mountain bases are here, here, and here. We have them held at a choke point in the west here, and again in a mountain pass in the northeast here. These are their typical supply routes.

               “We’ve been making steady progress through the mountains, primarily by hitting supply routes and with skilled scouts finding their locations. It’s slow going, but it’s movement.”

               Cloud’s eyes flickered over the map, following Sephiroth’s explanation. He nodded once as it concluded.

               “I will be shipping out to the front lines in two days’ time at 0300 hours. This has been your war so far, general. Deploy me as you see fit and I will take over where you’d like.”

               He glanced up just in time to catch the flicker of surprise on Sephiroth’s face. He wasn’t sure what the man had been expecting. Some bullheaded young man, full of fiery temper to storm in and demand control of his war? While he was bullheaded and did have a fiery temper, he knew how to control both traits, and was no fool besides. He needed morale high, and from what he had seen of the base, it wasn’t where they needed it to be. This far from the warfront, there should be more cheer.

               He’d heard a thing or two about Sephiroth’s leadership. The man was fearsome. He led by nature of respect. The men followed him because he was a force of nature, because he had earned their loyalty through combat. He was professional, if cold, but the men trusted his leadership.

               Cloud had always kept his mouth shut about this sort of thing in the labs. That was the kind of leadership Hojo was looking for. Cloud had other ideas. He wanted his men to follow him because he was him, not just because of how well he wielded a sword.

               There was time to work on that later.

               Sephiroth recovered quickly, going from surprised to unimpressed at his polite deference. It was his due as Cloud’s senior and he seemed inclined to consider it as such.

               That was going to wear on Cloud quickly.

               “We will both be going to the northeast pass.”

               Cloud raised his eyebrows.

               “Both? That defeats the point of having two generals.”

               There was the marked absence of the word “sir” at the end of his sentence. He knew it would grate on Sephiroth, but he also did not care.

               “Until I’m convinced of your competence, general, you’re staying in my sight.”

               It was a testament to his years of work mastering his temper that he didn’t so much as twitch.

               “Then we should ship out tomorrow instead. The sooner you’re at ease, the better.”

               Sephiroth’s brow twitched in irritation.

               “Perhaps we should.”

               “Would you still like to keep the deployment time of 0300 hours?” Cloud asked, faultlessly polite, if only because it seemed to annoy Sephiroth more, and he wasn’t above being a little petty.

               “I would,” Sephiroth ground out. It worked like a charm.

               “Then, unless you have any other use for me, I’ll conclude my tour of the base.”

               Without waiting for dismissal, Cloud turned and left, gesturing with his head for the aide to follow him, who only did so after one last look at General Sephiroth.

               He had hoped things would be peaceful. He had hoped Sephiroth would see sense. He was apparently overly optimistic.

Chapter Text

               “He’s a child.”

               Sephiroth didn’t need to be told.

               Zack and Sephiroth were leaning against the truck that carried Sephiroth and Cloud up to meet Zack at the northeast pass. Sephiroth’s arms were folded over his chest while Zack drummed his fingers against the side.

               “He acts like one.”

               “Not what I wanted to hear.”

               “It’s not what I wanted to see myself, either.”

               “Do we know anything about his qualifications?”

               “I’ve seen footage of him in the VR rooms. He’s admittedly capable, but they’re VR rooms. It only counts for so much in combat, and nothing when it comes to leading.”

               “Comforting. We’ll just have to see how he does in the field.”

               “I’ll spar with him before we attack anywhere. I need to know he can hold his own.”

               “Let me talk to him before you do.”

               “Why?”

               “Because you hated him before he got here and I want to make sure your judgement isn’t clouded by that.”

               “Do what you’d like.”

               “You know I do.”

               Zack clapped his hand to Sephiroth’s shoulder before jogging off to where he saw the downy blond fluff disappear. It didn’t take him long to track the young general down.

               “General!” he called. Might as well try not to ruffle any feathers. He wasn’t Sephiroth, and he refused to go in with a grudge.

               Cloud turned around, eyebrows raised in surprise. He clearly hadn’t expected to be addressed as such anytime soon. Good. At least he understood where he stood.

               “Hello. Can I help you?”

               He didn’t seem to act like a child. He wondered how much of that comment had been Sephiroth’s bias.

               Zack came to a stop in front of the blond and held his hand out with a grin.

               “Lieutenant General Zack Fair, sir. Thought I should come introduce myself.”

               “General Cloud Strife. You’re free to drop the formalities; I’ve done nothing to earn them.”

               Yup, Zack thought. It was the bias.

               “You’ll have a chance to prove yourself soon enough. Anyone show you around yet?”

               “Not yet. I’ve been showing myself around.”

               “You’re not going to find much that way. Let me take you.”

               Cloud looked surprised at the gesture, and then a little wary. Zack grinned and nodded his head in the direction Cloud had originally been going and led them off.

               The tour was conducted quickly, as there really wasn’t that much to go over. The camp looked like pretty much every army camp, and, though Cloud didn’t have any personal experience with them outside of the base camp in the South, he had been made to memorize the top three most common Shinra camp configurations long ago. He recognized which one this was easily and knew where everything was almost immediately. He kept that information to himself and allowed Zack to show him anyway. The man was going out of his way to try and help, even though he was entirely sure this was more of an attempt to feel him out than a gesture of kindness. It wouldn’t do to spurn the gesture regardless.

               At the end, they had circled back around to where they started, and Zack came to a stop.

               “Before I let you go, I just want to say something in advance. I’m sorry for how Sephiroth’s going to act. You seem like a good kid, but he’s offended they’re trying to just give you the rank he earned the hard way. He’s going to give you a hard time, but he’ll see sense sooner or later. I doubt this rank thing was your idea.”

               Cloud shrugged.

               “It wasn’t. They had always given me the impression that I was starting as at the bottom like everyone else; I wasn’t expecting this anymore than he was. He has every right to be upset. I just hope he stops aiming that anger at me quickly.”

               Zack was reminded, yet again, that any comment on Cloud’s “immaturity” didn’t come from a fair place.

               “I appreciate you being understanding about it.”

               “I don’t appreciate his behavior, but I can appreciate the reasoning behind it. He’ll stop getting an attitude from me as soon as he stops giving it.”

               Zack couldn’t help the laugh that escaped him.

               “You’ve been giving him an attitude?”

               Cloud shrugged again, but there was a flicker of a smile on his face.

               “A polite attitude.”

               “A polite attitude.”

               “I understand perfectly how to give my superiors their due. I just also understand how to let them know that I disagree at the same time.”

               Zack grinned fiercely and said, “You know what, kid? You’re not too bad.”

               “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t call me ‘kid.’”

               “I’ll think about it, sir.”

               Considering that Zack was still his senior, and that he had surpassed his rank with absolutely no effort, he couldn’t help but agree it was fair.

               Zack clapped a hand to his shoulder, much as he had with Sephiroth, and said, “I’ll leave you to finish getting acquainted with the camp. You might want to go to the mess hall before everything passable goes.”

               Cloud couldn’t help but flinch at the contact. His history with touch was sketchy at best. When he was touched, it was by monsters in combat or by lab technicians, who were arguably worse. He wanted to step away, but it was instinct to submit to touch by humans, to allow it even if he didn’t like it, because in the labs, fighting it only ever made things worse.

               Either Zack caught the flinch, or there was something on his face, because his eyes narrowed. This time, he made a conscious effort and stepped away. He raised a hand in a (forcibly) lazy wave.

               “I’m going to go take that advice. I’ll see you later.”

               “Right. Bye, Cloud.”

               Something in Cloud’s chest contracted. He wasn’t used to be addressed by name. It was always “Subject C” or now “General.”

               By virtue of years practice keeping his face schooled, he gave nothing away as he left the area.

               Zack turned and went back to Sephiroth, who hadn’t moved from where he stood leaning against the truck.

               “What’s your report, Lieutenant?”

               “He seems like a good kid.”

               “What?

               “I recommend not trying to pick a fight with him, and I think you’ll get along better.”

               “I didn’t pick a fight.”

               “Really? Because he said you did.”

               “Well he’s—”

               “He also said he didn’t blame you for it.”

               “… What?”

               “He understands why you’re upset, and he doesn’t seem to think he deserves his rank either. It seems like he’s just trying to do the best he can with the situation.”

               “If he didn’t want his rank, why did he take it?”

               “Seph, come on, when’s the last time you succeeded in telling Shinra ‘no?’”

               “I get away with it all the time.”

               “Yeah, on supply orders and occasional battle tactics if you pull off whatever your plan is and prove to them that it’s better. There was no way for the kid to say no. And besides, something’s off with him.”

               “What does that mean?”

               “That something’s off. He said that ‘they’ made him think he’d be starting off with no rank like everyone else, and you should’ve seen him go tense when I touched him. I think Shinra’s done something to him.”

               “You’ve seen the glow in his eye, you know they’ve done something.”

               “I mean something beyond some shots, Sephiroth. Something’s not right, and I want to know what. Just how long has he been with Shinra that they had time to give him a different impression and then change their mind?”

               “Not that long, I imagine. You’ve seen how young he is. He can’t be more than, what, 16? The minimum age for the cadet program is 15.”

               “Right, and I guess they could have given him a different impression in a year, but the cadet program itself takes a year, and that would leave him as a fresh SOLDIER Third. Not fit to be a general in anyone’s book. This just isn’t adding up.”

               “Maybe he was trained before he got to Shinra.”

               “Yeah, but by who? Whose training would Shinra trust that much other than their own?”

               “I… don’t know.”

               “That’s the problem, isn’t it? What if they got him underage, Seph? He could have just been a kid, like a real kid. Do you think Shinra’s all he really remembers? Shinra can do that to people even when they do come to the company at 15. Think about Rolands. He won’t even talk about his life before Shinra anymore.”

               Sephiroth hated this entire train of thought. He wanted to hate the little upstart, not feel sympathy for him. But even he couldn’t ignore the fact that things were adding up in a bad way.

               “Even if Shinra did something like that and we actually succeed in getting him to admit to it, there’s nothing to be done about it now.”

               “No, but don’t you want to know? This is the company we’re fighting for, that we might die for, and I for one want to know if they’ve been up to something that fucked up.”

               “… Fair enough. We’ll see if he’ll say anything.”

               “Besides, if it’s true, we owe it to him to show him something better than whatever Shinra’s taught him.”

               “He’ll learn on his own soon enough out here.”

               “He’ll learn war out here, and I doubt that’s much better than whatever it is he already knows.”

               “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s suspicious, that’s true, but we don’t know anything yet. And let’s be honest, you feel bad enough for him already that you’ll try and show him something ‘better’ anyway.”

               “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

               “Not a bad thing, just true. This is something to be concerned about, but it isn’t my priority at the moment. More than any possible tragic backstory, I need to know that he’s capable.”

               “It’ll be my priority, then. Go off and ask him for that spar; you’ve been itching for it.”

               “You say that like it’s a bad thing.

               “Not a bad thing, just true. Now go on, get out of here.”

               “Good luck on your information hunt.”

               “Good luck kicking his ass.”

               “I won’t need luck for that.”

               “Sure you won’t.”

Chapter Text

               “Sure.”

               Sephiroth was surprised it was that easy.

               “What?”

               Cloud was surprised it took him this long to get here.

               “I said, ‘sure.’”

               Sephiroth watched him closely, but shrugged and led the way from the center of camp.

               When he was asked if he wanted to spar, Cloud agreed readily. He’d known Sephiroth would want one. Given the situation, it only made sense that he’d want some sort of confirmation that Cloud knew what he was doing. He’d said as much before about leading in general, but that he couldn’t prove right now. His skill in one-to-one combat? That he could prove.

               On their way to the sparring field, they gathered a small following. Zack was following behind, talking and laughing loudly with some of the other men. He seemed to be very charismatic; he was the morale booster here, not Sephiroth. Sephiroth led, but Zack apparently played a very big part in keeping the men together as a unit. Eventually, Sephiroth brought them to a halt in the middle of a grassy clearing. Men began to file off along the tree line, filling in gaps and joking with one another.

               Sparring with an audience was something Cloud disliked, but was intimately familiar with. He hated the feeling of being watched, but he’d been watched night and day since he was a child. It was nothing he couldn’t tune out. He came to take his place standing across from Sephiroth and heaved the massive blade from his back, bringing it down to hold in front of him in a ready position. He pulled in a deep breath and let it out slowly. As he did, he focused in on Sephiroth, the rest falling away. He watched carefully as Sephiroth pulled the infamous Masamune from its sheath and held it aloft over his shoulder.

               After a pause, it became clear that Cloud was supposed to make the first move. A handicap—give the new boy the advantage, he’ll need it. He would have been insulted if he hadn’t expected it.

               Cloud dug the toe of his back foot into the ground for a moment, listening to the dirt crunch and grind beneath his boot. He took another deep pull of a breath and then pushed off. He flew more than ran the distance to Sephiroth, and Sephiroth, in his surprise, barely had time to block the swing. The crowd exclaimed and then began to chatter. They were noisier than the scientists, but not by much.

               Cloud let his blade slide off Sephiroth’s before bringing it down again in another fierce chop, putting enough force behind the shot that Sephiroth actually stumbled, not prepared for the sheer strength of the blow. He followed up, swinging low toward Sephiroth’s knees, but this too was blocked. He shifted, sliding his back foot forward in a long, gliding step as he pivoted, this strike aimed toward Sephiroth’s ribs. It took a bit of contorting for Sephiroth to block, but he did, by the skin of his teeth. He pushed Cloud’s sword back hard enough that it swung in a wide arch. Cloud used the momentum to go for a diagonal slash, low to high, but by that point, Sephiroth had collected himself.

               Sephiroth ducked beneath the blow and stuck Masamune out in a sharp stab that Cloud had to twist to avoid. Sephiroth turned his blade, going for a quick chop into Cloud’s side. He pivoted and swung in a low arch, bringing his sword up into Sephiroth’s and driving it away. Cloud took the moment where both of their swords were swung wide to back up, stepping away again. Somewhere in the background, there was a din of SOLDIERs doing, saying, calling something, but he couldn’t hear what. It was outside his area of focus, and wouldn’t reenter it until this was done.

               Sephiroth settled back into his high guard and Cloud lowered his sword in front of himself. Neither were out of breath from the exertion, but Sephiroth was watching him closely now, having learned his lesson about underestimating the young general. Or maybe he hadn’t, because he waited long enough that it was clear he wanted to force Cloud on the offensive again.

               Cloud rushed him, bringing his elbow up, aimed at his jaw. Sephiroth ducked out of the way in time to bring his sword around to Cloud’s side, but he’d almost missed the blond’s leg sweep. He danced out of the way at the last second, his own shot going wide. Cloud followed as he recovered his footwork, thrusting his sword forward and successfully nicking Sephiroth’s upper arm. Even focused as he was, he could hear the shouts that followed him drawing first blood.  He back-stepped away from Sephiroth’s swing, thrusting forward to parry. It pushed Sephiroth’s sword backwards and Cloud followed, stepping into Sephiroth’s space. It forced Sephiroth back another step and when he blocked Cloud’s next blow he was off balance. He recovered the next second, however, and turned the momentum, using the force of one of Cloud’s own blows to guide him through a spin to jab at Cloud’s side. He managed to bring his sword up, crossing his arm over his chest to do so, but wasn’t quick enough to get away without blood being drawn.

               Which was odd. Cloud wasn’t used to that. He was always quick enough. For anything.

               Sephiroth began to press forward and Cloud let the tide of the battle take him backwards, blocking and parrying as he went. He ended up locking blades with Sephiroth, the two bearing down on each other. Cloud knew he had the strength to push through, but he didn’t really want to win this on the grounds of enhancements. He was skilled, and this was about showing that.

               So instead, he pulled a little lever on his sword and pried a second one from its side, stabbing forward with that.

               Sephiroth danced away, giving under the pressure. He angled his blade to guide Cloud’s away from him, sparks flying as they skidded against each other. Cloud let the force take him through a large looping whirl where he followed the larger blade with the smaller, Sephiroth only barely managing to block both in time.

It took him a moment to recover from the reveal of the second blade, but he did so quickly. This was a dance between the two men, and he’d been content to let Cloud lead it to this point. The goal had been to make sure he was competent, and Sephiroth had already become very clear about that fact. He got what he came for and was moving to wrap this up. He went on the offensive, aiming to grind Cloud down quickly and resume life as normal.

It didn’t quite go as planned.

Cloud fell on the defensive willingly. He thought that Sephiroth, as a worthy opponent, deserved at least the right to show off for his men. Cloud allowed it, catching the blows and guiding them away carefully, but not making many in retaliation. Of course, it wasn’t long before Sephiroth noticed what Cloud was doing and immediately felt insulted because Cloud clearly wasn’t taking him seriously enough if he thought that he could play around that way.

Sephiroth redoubled his efforts, but despite his best attempts, he couldn’t get through Cloud’s guard. He tried every angle, tried plying every ounce of his strength, but the boy just wouldn’t budge. He could feel himself getting frustrated, which was bad. Frustration led to sloppiness, and he couldn’t afford that right now. Cloud may be the most difficult foe he’d crossed swords with to date. He knew, on a gut level, that if this had been a fight to the death, he would be in serious trouble.

Cloud spent the fight debating with himself. He wasn’t sure how to end this. There was merit to letting Sephiroth get a hit in, but the other man would know what he’d done and would never forgive him for it. He considered letting this continue until Sephiroth wore himself out; the general wasn’t as enhanced as he was, and he would break first. Or, he could simply go back on the offensive and end this.

On the one hand, he didn’t want to piss Sephiroth off. Things were going poorly enough between them as it was; he didn’t need to make it worse. On the other hand, what he truly needed was to win over the troops.  They were who he was really stuck with. He’d be with Sephiroth until he proved himself fully capable and then they would be in separate locations, possibly even on separate fronts. There was no sense in prioritizing him. No, it was the people he had to impress, and that left one option.

He waited, and he waited, and he waited, and eventually, Sephiroth extended just a hair too far. Cloud slipped his smaller blade underneath, twisting his arm to tangle with Sephiroth’s and bring it to an unnatural angle. With the force of the move, he would have to bend or break the arm. Sephiroth leaned forward and Cloud brought his larger sword to his neck, stopping just a breath away from skin.

“Do you yield?” Cloud said, as polite as was possible.

Cloud’s awareness to his surroundings came back fully. He only realized in that moment that the din that was present during the fight had dissipated, leaving perfect silence, save the chirping and singing of the forest.

“I yield,” Sephiroth ground out, his voice thick with barely restrained frustration.

               A collective gasp ran through the SOLDIERs, who turned to each other and began whispering and chatting animatedly.

               Cloud did what he set out to do.

               He stepped back, withdrawing from Sephiroth. He reassembled the swords and slipped it onto his back before bowing deeply in thanks for the spar. Sephiroth frowned, but dipped his head slightly in return.

               Cloud took it as the dismissal it was and left. No one followed him.

               Zack came to stand next to Sephiroth at enough of a distance from the others that they wouldn’t be overheard over the returned racket.

               “What was that?”

               “Watch yourself, Zackary.”

               “You mean you didn’t let him win?”

               “I did not.”

               “… You didn’t.”

               “Correct.”

               Zack looked at him in amazement.

               “He can’t be that good.”

               “Apparently he can.”

               “No, I mean he can’t. Not in one year at Shinra. There’s no way.”

               “He’s been training since he was a child, that much is clear. The question is, who trained him?”

               “I don’t think I’m going to like the answer.”

               “Neither do I.”

              

               Sephiroth sat down across from Cloud in the mess hall, dropping down a tray that rattled as it hit the table. He dropped to the bench as the blond looked up.

               “Let me see your sword.”

               Cloud raised his eyebrows, shoving a bite of food in his mouth. As he chewed, he pulled the blade from his back and held it out to Sephiroth, who, with a swordsman’s reverence, took it gently.

               “Other blades can be disengaged?” Sephiroth said, pushing his tray out of the way to set it on the table.

               “Yes,” Cloud said, swallowing his food. He watched Sephiroth handling his blade closely. He was loathe to let others handle it; he had designed it himself. But, as with many things, it was something he learned to tolerate in the labs.

               “How many are there?”

               “Six.”

               Sephiroth held it back out to Cloud.

               “Show me.”

               Quickly, with an obviously practiced hand, he disassembled the blade in seconds, laying pieces down on various spots of the table and bench. He looked back up at Sephiroth, who seemed to be fighting to keep a straight face, though Cloud wasn’t sure what the emotion behind it was. He reassembled the sword as quickly as he pulled it apart and held it back out to Sephiroth, who just nodded his head. Cloud shrugged and replaced the blade at his back.

               “It’s an interesting sword. How did you come by it?”

               “I designed it.”

               “You designed it?”

               Cloud looked unimpressed with Sephiroth’s disbelief.

               “Yes.”

               It was blunt, it was honest, and it was not what Sephiroth was expecting.

               “Do you have some experience in designing machinery?”

               “I have experience in a lot of things.”

               Cryptic. Also not what Sephiroth was looking for.

               “Why did you design it at all?”

               “I got frustrated with choosing between the broadsword and duel wielding, so I made a compromise.”

               Sephiroth blinked at him. He said it as if it was that easy. As if it was that obvious.

               “I was wondering about that. You’ve clearly been trained well. Who taught you?”

               “Shinra.”

               “How old are you?”

               Cloud’s brow raised in confusion.

               “Sixteen.”

               “The minimum recruitment age for the SOLDIER program is fifteen.”

               “Is it?”

               “Were you not aware?”

               “No. I’ve been given the rank of SOLDIER First, but I was never a part of the training program.”

               “How did you get your training, if not a part of the program? How did you get enhanced if not a part of the program?”

               Cloud paused.

               Hojo’s voice filled his head.

               “Others will be curious. They will ask you many things. They will want to know about you. Tell them lies or tell them nothing. Project C is classified, and unless you are told otherwise, you are not to mention it to anyone who does not bring it up by name with you first.”

               So, Cloud didn’t answer.

               Cloud shrugged.

               Sephiroth stared at him for a long moment before saying, “Are you trying to tell me you don’t know?”

               Cloud shrugged again.

               This time, he could see the frustration on Sephiroth’s face.

               “You obviously do know how you were trained. What are you, an amnesiac?”

               Cloud paused for a moment.

               Then he shrugged.

               It was as good a story as any.

               “Sure.”

               “Sure?”

               “Sure.”

               “You’re an… amnesiac.”

               “Yes.”

               “You don’t remember your training?”

               “I know I’ve been training with Shinra recently, but I’m not sure how I got there.”

               Not technically a lie.

               Sephiroth narrowed his eyes.

               Cloud shrugged again. He shoveled a forkful of mashed potatoes into his mouth.

               “All you remember is Shinra.”

               “That’s what I said.”

               Without another word, Sephiroth stood and left, his meal untouched. Cloud watched him leave, confused as to the purpose of that entire conversation, and uncertain he’d said the right thing.

               Gods he hoped he said the right thing.

               He didn’t think it would go well if he messed this one up. Who knew what Hojo would do if word about Project C got out?

              

               “I talked to Cloud,” Sephiroth said as he approached Zack. He snagged him by the arm and began hauling him away to speak in private, ignoring the fact that the lieutenant general had been in a conversation already.

               “Oh boy. What about?”

               “His sword, to begin with. Were you aware that he designed it himself?”

               “Himself? How did he know how to do that?”

               “He wouldn’t elaborate. He also wouldn’t elaborate on his early training. Apparently, he’s an amnesiac.”

               “What?

               “He doesn’t remember a thing before Shinra.”

               “How long does he remember being there?”

               “He wasn’t clear, and I didn’t want to push it. It seems suspicious to me.”

               “Amnesia is suspicious?”

               “It would be a convenient cover-up. All he would have to do is parrot ‘I don’t know’ to get people to leave the topic alone. He could have been prepared by someone to say that.”

               “I don’t know, Sephiroth. What if he really just doesn’t remember?”

               “You said it yourself. Who else’s training would Shinra trust?”

               “I don’t know, it could have been anyone. If he went in and proved himself, maybe they wouldn’t look too closely at it.” There was a long moment that passed before Zack said, “Yeah, okay, I don’t buy it either. What do we do about it?”

               “You try to talk to him. Maybe he’ll listen to you.”

               “Maybe because I’ve done something other than try to pick fights with him.”

               The look Sephiroth gave him was withering.

               “Right,” Zack sighed. “I’ll talk to him. Just don’t expect too much, okay? There’s always the chance that he’s telling the truth.”

               “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Chapter Text

               Zack had promised to talk to Cloud about the whole “amnesia” thing. The issue was the question of timing. Zack didn’t want to go to press that button again just after Sephiroth talked to him, so he waited a few hours. When he went to go look for Cloud, he had vanished. He checked all over the camp, but the blond was just gone.

               When he went to report this back to Sephiroth, all his general had to say was, “Figures.”

               There was a general lack of alarm, and Zack wasn’t quite sure why it was missing. Sephiroth reminded him that they were shipping out at 0300 and, if Cloud didn’t turn up then, that would be the time to be concerned. As it was, it was more likely that Cloud just knew how to not be found, which wasn’t an altogether bad trait in a SOLDIER.

               That being said, Zack still spent the rest of the evening concerned. Even if Sephiroth was right, why did Cloud feel the need to disappear? Was he just that uncomfortable around new people? Was it crowds? Was it his conversation with Sephiroth? He needed to be comfortable with crowds to fight with the troops, and he needed to be comfortable with new people to lead. That left him hoping that it was the conversation, but even that had his drawbacks. If discussing it briefly once with Sephiroth made him run, what would happen when Zack brought it up again?

               He was left worrying about it as he stood next to Sephiroth, waiting by the helicopter for Cloud to show. They both kept checking their watches, watching the minutes tick by and Cloud got closer and closer to being late. At 0259, they were about ready to call his PHS, when Zack squinted into the forest. He elbowed Sephiroth, who was in the process of pulling out his own PHS to make the call. Cloud stepped out of the forest (ostensibly not in the direction of camp) with his blade on his back and a bag of supplies tossed over his shoulder. Sephiroth let out the smallest sigh, though Zack wasn’t sure if it was in relief or irritation.

               “You’re almost late,” Sephiroth said, folding his arms over his chest.

               “You’ll find I’m exactly on time,” Cloud said, breezing past Sephiroth and climbing into the chopper.

               Zack lit up his watch with a press of a button, and found 0300 looking up at him. He showed Sephiroth, whose lips pressed into a thin line and eyebrow rose. Zack shrugged, and this time, Sephiroth’s sigh was definitely in irritation, as he turned and climbed into the helicopter. Zack followed with a wry twist of the lips.

               It was too loud for conversation in the helicopter, and the second they stepped off of it, Cloud announced, “I’m going to sleep,” and left.

               Sephiroth was left steaming. He didn’t ask for approval, dismissal, or even where to find a tent. He just wandered off into camp. Zack clapped Sephiroth on the shoulder.

               “No sense fussing about it. Let’s go get some rest as well, yeah?”

               Sephiroth did what Zack could only call a “huff” and took off as well. Luckily, Zack and Sephiroth’s own tents hadn’t been taken down while they were off picking up Cloud. They went to bed with no more discussion.

               Still, despite the fact that they hadn’t gotten in until just after 0415, all three were up with the dawn. Sephiroth and Zack had long since gotten in the habit, though Zack had to bully himself into crawling out of his bedroll after so little sleep that night.

               And yet, by the time Zack and Sephiroth met outside their tents and went to the mess hall together, they found Cloud already sitting at a table with a tin mug of coffee in his hand and an empty tray in front of him. He was one of about five people in there, the others of which were too tired and still waking up to even question the new face.

               Cloud raised a hand in lazy greeting.

               Zack and Sephiroth glanced at each other.

               “You know what to do,” Sephiroth said before walking off toward the food.

               Zack sighed and rubbed the back of his neck before sucking it up and going over to Cloud. He sat down across from him with a dull thunk.

               “Can I help you with something, Lieutenant General?”

               Zack knew he was being polite, calling him by rank, but part of it nearly stung, knowing that Cloud was a rank above him.

               “You sure can,” Zack said, reaching out and plucking the last remaining potato of Cloud’s tray and popping it into his mouth. “We haven’t really gotten a chance to talk much yet.”

               “That’s true. Yesterday was busy.”

               “So, let’s talk, I want to get to know you. Where are you from?”

               You don’t have a hometown. Shinra is your home. Hojo’s words echoed in his ear for a long moment before he shrugged.

               “I don’t really remember.”

               “You don’t remember?”

               Zack didn’t think he’d get here this quickly.

               “No. I don’t really remember anything before Shinra.”

               “How long have you been with Shinra?”

               “I’m not sure.” Cloud was quietly glad he had all of last night to prepare for this line of questioning. “They said I got into an accident in the VR rooms. Hit my head so hard I guess a few things got knocked loose.”

               “Ouch, those rooms can really do a number on you,” Zack said, his mind racing, trying to put things together. “So, what do you remember after that?”

               “It wasn’t that long ago, actually. I spent some time recovering, then I caught up on some training to get back to where I had been, and then when I was cleared, I was shipped off here. Luckily, it was only really event memories that were affected. I’ve still got my muscle memory and all the book knowledge I had beforehand.”

               “But you don’t know where you got this training, or that knowledge.”

               “I don’t remember it, at least.”

               “Does that bother you?”

               Cloud blinked. He hadn’t thought of that question coming up. He shrugged.

               “I mean, I don’t like not remembering, but I can live with it. They said that the memory loss might not be permanent, so it might come back to me one day.”

               “Did you ask Shinra for a personal history yet?”

               “I did. All they would say was that I was born in a small town and that I got my training at Shinra. That’s all I know.”

               “I wonder why that’s all they gave you.”

               Cloud shrugged and said, “They must have a good reason.”

               Zack leaned back, his hands pressed flat to the table, and said, “Yeah, right, of course, of course they do. Just curious.”

               But Cloud had already made the mental note that Zack was suspicious of Shinra.

               He liked Zack, and he didn’t want to, but it looked like he’d have to keep an eye on him and his loyalties.

               “Sure, anyone would be. Freak accidents are weird.”

               “Right. Anyway, I didn’t mean to bring up anything hard, I thought hometown would’ve been a pretty safe subject—I’m sorry if I upset you at all. Let’s talk shop instead. What’s your favorite materia?”

               Damn, but why did he have to be so nice?

               “Lightning,” Cloud said automatically, but his mind was already far away. This conversation, this he could navigate without thinking. He didn’t have to be on guard about classified information when talking about fighting.

               No, instead he was already replaying the first half of the conversation for potential missteps and errors. He thought he did okay. Zack seemed to buy his lies, and most everything from here on out could be answered with, “I don’t know.” Zack, he assumed, would pass this off to Sephiroth. He was no fool—there was no coincidence that Zack asked about his past right after Sephiroth did. No, they were both curious, and that was fair, but something he would have to work around. Hopefully, by giving his lies to one, he gave it to both, and he wouldn’t have to repeat this conversation with Sephiroth. Lying sat poorly with him, it wasn’t something he did. It was something that would have gotten him severely punished in the labs. They beat honesty into him a long, long time ago. But, classified information was classified information, and it wasn’t his place to spill company secrets. He just hoped he did enough.

               Zack drew out the conversation until it felt full and long enough that the earliest bit could be swept under the rug. Then he made his excuses, something about checking equipment, and bid Cloud goodbye. He bee-lined it straight for Sephiroth’s tent, where he knew the man usually took his breakfast.

               The general looked up, coffee halfway to his lips, when he entered.

               “What do you have for me?”

               “He’s lying.”

               “Oh?” Sephiroth put the cup down and turned in his chair to fully face Zack.

               “His poker face is pretty good, since his face is usually so blank. But he started tapping his fingers on the table when we were talking, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that kid stands still as a post. No wasted movement, like he thinks everything is a battle. It was a nervous tic if I’ve ever seen one.”

               “Not a lot to go on, but your logic is sound. What lie did he pitch you, then?”

               “He said he got a severe head injury in a VR room accident. All he remembers is after the accident and what Shinra supposedly told him. He said he recovered, caught up on training, and then was immediately shipped out. He also said they would only tell him he was from a small town and that Shinra trained him. It doesn’t add up.”

               “Even if Shinra did train him, which might be the only truth in all of that, they wouldn’t have shipped out someone so fresh off an injury with the kind of insane promotion he got. They’re banking their name and respect from their SOLDIERs on his skill; he has to prove up to the task. They wouldn’t risk so much unless they were absolutely confident in his ability.”

               “And they wouldn’t be if he was just off a sick bed.”

               “Right. Old injuries come back to haunt you—it even happens to SOLDIERs. Remember Reynolds, his leg still hurts before it rains and he broke his leg early on in his training. They couldn’t risk shipping him out until they were absolutely sure he was fully healed.”

               “I’d say maybe the accident could have just been a long time ago, but I’m sure the whole bit was a lie.”

               “I believe you. There’s enough that’s shaky that I’d be doubtful even if we didn’t have your intuition, which I have yet to see fail.”

               “Thank you.”

               Sephiroth dismissed it with a wave of his hand.

               “It’s just fact. The question now, is, what are we going to do about it?”

               “Well, you can’t approach him knowing about it, or he’ll know I told you. I wouldn’t suggest you ask so soon after I just did, or he might get suspicious—I already asked pretty soon after you found out about his ‘amnesia’ and he’ll know something is definitely up if you follow up so soon. I can try to press him, but I don’t think that’ll work. I’d have to basically call him a liar, and that’s no way to win him over.”

               “So, then what do you suggest?”

               “We have to win him over first.”

               “What?

               “Win him over, make friends with him. We get close enough, he’ll trust us enough that he’ll spill, even if Shinra told him not to. It’s just a question of how long it’ll take.”

               “Or if it’ll take. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Zack, but I’m not exactly adept with the whole ‘friendship’ situation.”

               Zack snorted.

               “You could say that again. But it doesn’t look like he is either. It looks to me like he’s got no one. We don’t even know if he’s got someone back home. He could be all alone, and I get the feeling he’ll latch on to anyone who tries.”

               “Zack, while I don’t disagree, this seems surprisingly… manipulative of you.”

               Zack shrugged.

               “Listen, I’m not saying we can’t actually be friends with him. I’m not talking about lying, or buttering him up to get him to talk and then dumping him. I’m saying, we make our duo a trio. We’ll just also get the truth we want out of it. Besides, you could use more friends yourself.”

               Sephiroth cut him a sharp look, to which Zack just raised his hands innocently.

               “I don’t know that I want to be friends with him, Zack. I just want the truth.”

               “You don’t even know him yet—who knows, you might like him, once you get over your beef with him.”

               “I don’t have a beef with him.”

               “Sure you don’t.”

               Sephiroth narrowed his eyes.

               “Regardless. It would be easier for you to befriend him and then just report back to me.”

               “Whoa, Sephiroth, I’m not a spy. A guy tells me something in confidence, I’m not gonna run around with loose lips.”

               “You’re sharing a private conversation the two of you had with me right now.”

               “Yeah, ‘cause I don’t know him yet. We aren’t friends, there’s no sense of trust built between us. Right now, he’s a potential ally we have to scope out. If we’re friends, it’s different. I won’t do that, Sephiroth.”

               Sephiroth pursed his lips.

               “Fine. Suit yourself. I’ll find a way.”

               “I’m telling you, you’ll have the best luck befriending him.”

               “We’ll see.”

               Zack raised his hands and turned around, making for the exit of the tent.

               “Guess we will, won’t we.”

               The flap of the tent fluttered shut behind him, and with a sigh, Sephiroth picked his coffee mug back up.

               This was going to go poorly.

Chapter Text

               Zack was sent off to go find Cloud the next morning. They had been lucky to avoid any incoming attacks while they were gone, but they were on borrowed time. They needed a mission plan and to attack first, as soon as possible. That in mind, Sephiroth planned a meeting between himself, Zack, and Cloud; the only problem was he hadn’t told Cloud yet. That left Zack on duty to go find him.

               When he did, he was surprised by what he saw. It was Cloud, standing in a ring of SOLDIERs, with more in a line in front of him, correcting kata forms. Baffled, Zack pulled up to the back of the group.

               “What’s going on?” he asked quietly.

               The SOLDIER he approached did a double take and saluted him, which he quickly waved away. The men all knew Zack, knew his general informality, and he relaxed quickly afterward.

               “The new guy came to train and a few people started ‘sparring’ with him to feel him out. He kept winning and winning and winning—even the highest rank people around couldn’t touch him. When things settled, people started asking for pointers. They’ve been at it ever since.”

               Zack mumbled his thanks and peeked through the ranks, watching Cloud work. He was soft-spoken and his touch was gentle when he corrected forms manually. He frequently pulled his sword off his back to demonstrate before going back to corrections. From the bit he could hear this far back, he was praising the men frequently, for the smallest of things.

               It wasn’t what Zack was expecting. He was expecting something more like Sephiroth—firm and brisk and a little harsh. Sephiroth got the job done with no nonsense. Cloud was going out of his way to make the experience as pleasant as possible for those he was teaching. It made Zack wonder, again. Had he taught before, and if so, whom? Where did he learn such a gentle way of teaching? Because Zack knew it couldn’t have been at Shinra.

               What Zack didn’t know was that Cloud just took the way he had been taught and did the exact opposite.

               Eventually, Zack called out from the back, “Cloud!”

               He raised his hand and waved with a grin as the SOLDIERs stopped, then parted for him. There was a ripple of salutes as he walked forward. Cloud stepped away from the SOLDIER he was teaching and met Zack halfway.

               “Can I help you with something, Lieutenant General?”

               “You can stop calling me that, to start with. Aside from that, Sephiroth’s asking for you.”

               “Sure, of course. I’ll be right there.”

               He turned back to his temporary student, who had stood upright to watch the conversation. He immediately dropped down into his stance again when Cloud turned back to look. He swept over the shape of his form, gently guided his arms a hair higher, then nodded in approval. Zack watched in surprise as the SOLDIER beamed at the silent praise.

               “Good work. Thanks for humoring me,” Cloud said to the crowd, and that smile spread from one SOLDIER to the next. He nodded one final time and then turned back to Zack, saying, “Where is he?”

               “Come on,” he said, tearing his eyes away from the reaction of the troops, “I’ll show you.”

               Zack led him off toward the command tent, the walk initially in silence as they moved away from the group.

               “So, what was that about?”

               Cloud shrugged.

               “They asked for some pointers,” Cloud said, entirely anti-climactic.

               “So you decided to help?”

               “I was free at the time.”

               Zack glanced at him. There was more to it, he could tell from the way he taught. If this was how he intended on winning over the men, he was doing a damn good job.

               They arrived at the tent too quickly for Zack to press the point any further, and Cloud was intent on sharing as little as possible.

               Sephiroth was waiting, hands pressed to the table, leaning over a set of maps when then entered. He didn’t bother raising his head with their approach.

               “You called for me?” The “sir” almost tripped off his tongue. He would have to get the habit of deference out of his system, and quick. The last thing he needed was to show that level of respect to Sephiroth and take at least twenty steps backwards in whatever slim amount of progress they had managed to make.

               “I did,” Sephiroth said, finally standing upright and looking Cloud in the eye. “We have an attack to plan.”

               “Going on the offensive, then?” Cloud asked, taking a cursory glance over the maps.

               “It’s better than waiting here for the enemy to strike.”

               “I agree. Are these the updated maps?”

               “They are.”

               The group lapsed into silence as Cloud walked forward to peer down at the maps in full. He picked one up, then the other, examining each in turn. They were relatively similar to the ones he had been given before he left, but there were small differences, and no difference was too small to matter during war. He eventually set the maps down and pointed at one of the nearby camps. Not the closest, that was to the northwest, but not far enough to be fully behind enemy lines. This camp was due north and small, but along a supply route.

               “That’s the one,” he announced.

               “Explain your reasoning.”

               Cloud glanced up at Sephiroth, finding his face hard. Cloud wasn’t sure if it was because he disagreed and needed justification or because this was a test to learn his thought patterns. Either way, he didn’t love being felt out this way, though he understood why it was happening.

               “They’ll be expecting the next attack on the closest camp, so it won’t be the most heavily guarded. It won’t be undefended, because it is still along a supply route, but its role on that route is all the more reason to target it. It’s small, which means fewer men, which means a quicker fight. Lower risk, higher reward.”

               Sephiroth watched him very closely. He had been hoping that maybe Cloud had some other, hare-brained reason behind his choice. Part of him was still looking for reasons to dislike the boy, and this would have served as one. But he would have picked the same target, and he would have done it for the same reasons. It was disappointing to learn that, whatever else Cloud was, he was well-trained.

               “Very well. How would you like to go about this?”

               “Why are you asking me?”

               Cloud knew very well what was going on, but he wanted Sephiroth to at least admit it.

               “You are, to my knowledge, a green recruit elevated to General. I need proof that you’re capable of leading at least one small skirmish. This will be your attack. You will plan it, you will prepare for it, you will execute it. Zack and I will supervise and make sure you don’t make a mess of our warfront. So, continue. You have a battle to plan.”

               At least now it was out on the table.

               So, Cloud did what he had been trained his entire life for. He leaned over the table, cross-referencing maps, gesturing and pointing and drawing lines on maps with his fingertip as he spoke. He gave orders for troop movements, supplies to be provided, which troopers and SOLDIERs would be coming, how many of each would be present, and so on. He planned every last detail, writing a script for every moment right up until they made contact with the enemy, at which point there was no point in preparation. No plan survived contact with the enemy. When Sephiroth questioned him about it, he relayed as much. He prepared troop placements and their initial attack, but no further than that.

               When it was done, he turned to Zack and said, “Can you inform the troops? I’ll go make sure our supplies are ready.”

               Zack nodded without so much as glancing at Sephiroth and ducked out of the tent, Cloud hot at his heels. The blond general gave one last look to Sephiroth, who watched him stone-faced, before leaving.

               Sephiroth, for his part, was furious.

               It was an excellent plan. Every detail had been accounted for with perfection. He even understood not to try to control the battle despite never having been in one. He kept waiting for Cloud to slip up and it just kept not happening. The plan he laid out wasn’t quite what Sephiroth himself would have done, wasn’t quite what he thought was optimal, but it would work. It was different, but it was still excellent.

               And that irritated Sephiroth more than any amount of poor planning would have. He could have just taken over if Cloud planned poorly. Used it as a reason to put him on the backburner, keep him out of any functional power. But this would only help his case, and Sephiroth was quickly getting the idea that Shinra had actually made a good choice in putting Cloud in his position, even if the method of getting there was unjust and undeserved.

               It made him concerned all over again. Cloud was, it was becoming clearer and clearer, here to stay. He doubted he would be given any reason to get rid of him at this point. He doubted Cloud would be able to take the warfront from him, but he felt a flicker of concern even for that. All this from someone who seemed to spring out of the ground, fully formed with no history to be found. What was he supposed to do with that?

               That brought him back around to Zack’s point. Should he try to be friends? Everything in him railed against it in outrage. He desperately wanted something to hate Cloud for other than principle, but the boy just wouldn’t give him an excuse. It was maddening. It almost—almost made him feel guilty. That maybe Cloud didn’t deserve the treatment he was giving him. That he was holding Shinra’s actions against a bystander.

               But he put that idea aside without even fully looking at it. He didn’t want to look at it. He was never very good at admitting he was wrong, and this didn’t seem like the time to change.

               Sephiroth went back to the maps, still marked up from Cloud’s planning, and went over them again. He reconsidered the plan from every angle, using every ounce of his experience in the field, and he just couldn’t find any major flaws. Sure, there were some small changes that could be made, but that could be said of literally any plan. Nothing was ever perfect, which always meant there was room for adjustments, that there were always options. And none of the options Cloud had picked were strictly wrong.

               Which brought Sephiroth back around to an entirely separate point.

               Just who had taught Cloud how to plan a battle with such skill that even Sephiroth, for all his years of experience and mastery and fame, couldn’t find fault with him?

               This wasn’t something that could have been learned in a dojo somewhere. This wasn’t some backwoods teacher with shocking skill who just happened to find an adept student to train up. This wasn’t an accident. This was training specifically for war. This was done with clear intent in mind. Cloud had been trained to be a general, Sephiroth was sure of it now. This couldn’t be written off as coincidence, or happenstance, or odd luck. This was planned, by someone who had excellent means.

               This smelled of Shinra.

               Sephiroth had fought for this company for years. He had slaughtered gods knew how many in their name. His body count was sky-high. And this? This was raising some uncomfortable questions.

               Sephiroth had questioned Shinra many times in the past. The company’s only motive for this war, for all of the wars so far, seemed to be world domination. And, while a part of him agreed that those conquered would at least benefit from the introduction of easily accessed electricity, he knew in his core that this was a power move, not done out of generosity for the wellbeing of others. He knew Shinra wasn’t saintly. But he was still willing to fight for them. Partially because war seemed to be the only thing he was truly good at, and this was the only war to be had. It didn’t much matter which side he was on, but he did like winning, and with Shinra’s supplies, it was clear to him who would come through in the end. That didn’t make him saintly either, but he never pretended to be as much, not the way the company did.

               But for all that his morals weren’t sterling, he did have a few. And this was starting to brush up against them. Was Cloud a glorified child soldier? He was young, terribly young still. For him to receive the training he seemed to have, it must have started young. So young, maybe, that there was some truth to his amnesia story and he really didn’t know anything but Shinra. And that? That he couldn’t support.

               His own childhood hadn’t been perfect, considering his own two distracted parents, wrapped up in their work at Shinra. He had been a lonely child often, his parents away at work and other children not very inclined to play with him because he was “weird” and “too grown up” and “boring.” But still, he’d had a childhood. He’d had parents who loved him, very much. Lucretia and Vincent, when they were around, doted on him terribly and would have spoiled him rotten if they’d had the time. They gave him everything they could, including their limitless and freely given love. His childhood was flawed, but he cherished it all the same.

               But now he wondered if Cloud had ever had a chance for the same. Who were his parents? Did he even know? Had he been torn from them at some too-young age, cherry picked to be the next general in Shinra’s endless war? Had he ever been given a chance at having a life? Did he have interests, or did he just have studies he applied himself to because he knew nothing else? The thought of Cloud never even having a chance at what he prized so much himself made him sick. Everyone deserved a chance at a childhood. Everyone deserved to have a few carefree years before the world made them grow up and take responsibility. But the more he thought about it, the more convinced his gut was that Shinra had robbed Cloud of that.

               Sephiroth didn’t like it.

               He didn’t like it one bit.

Chapter Text

               Cloud slapped his sword to his back and took a deep breath. The air stank of smoke and the ozone of discharged materia. It stank of blood and death. It stank of war. For all that this was his first official battle, it stank of home. Two smells would forever be as familiar to him as his own. The first was the scent of the labs, all antiseptic and recycled air. This was the second. Gruesome though it may be, it unwound the tension in his shoulders. His eyes turned soft at the edges. This was his element. He might have no one around him, but that was alright, a real homecoming for him would never include other people. The labs never had. The fights and battles and brawls before never had. At the end of the day, he was alone. And after so many years, he was alright with that.

               He was alright with that, right up until a hand clapped down onto his shoulder.

               He turned and looked at Zack and the moment was ruined. Zack, who he had to be on guard from. Zack, with his keen eyes and perceptive instincts. Zack, who he desperately wanted to trust for no other reason than his own instinct crying that he was safe. He offered Zack a smile, but put his shields back up, the boneless relaxation fading from his body.

               “That went well. Great debut!”

               “Thank you, but I didn’t do it alone. The men need to hear that more than I do.”

               “I’ll tell ‘em all later, you’re the newbie. You oughta hear it too.”

               Something in Cloud prickled. He was unaccustomed to praise. He didn’t know what to do with it. It made him feel awkward. It also made him inordinately pleased.

               “Well, I’ve heard it now,” he said, only because he didn’t really know what else to say.

               Zack laughed and pulled his hand away.

               “Yeah, you have. Why don’t you go find Sephiroth? He’ll want to debrief.”

               “I ought to oversee the last parts of taking the camp. Make sure there were no stragglers who aren’t captive.”

               “It was a clean sweep, Cloud, don’t worry so much. The men know what to do. There’s not really anything for you to do, but if it’ll put your mind at ease, I’ll go keep an eye on ‘em. Go talk to Sephiroth before he hunts you down.”

               Cloud’s face was blank, as it usually was, but his eyes roamed Zack’s face. Eventually, he nodded. Before Zack could say another word, he turned and wandered off.

               Despite everything, he was still looking less tense than he had since he arrived, and Zack noticed. He didn’t know what to make of it. The kid just seemed so much more at home in war. Far too much so for someone as green as he was. Zack’s eyes narrowed as he watched Cloud’s back grow distant. He didn’t like the implications. He hoped that Cloud had just been spoiling for a fight and worked out some of his nerves. Yeah, maybe that was it.

               Okay, even he didn’t really believe that.

               Cloud, for his part, wandered off through the still slightly burning camp. He watched the SOLDIERs and troopers pulling the bodies off to the side to be cremated, saw others sorting through supplies. He wondered what they had taken, what had been moving along the supply route they interrupted. He’d have to get a catalogue of it later. Assuming Sephiroth wouldn’t be stingy with it.

               Sephiroth, who was harder to find than anticipated. He ended up being on the very outskirts of the battleground, where their initial entry point had been. Had he not even entered the fray? Cloud wasn’t sure what to make of that. Was it part of the test, to see if Cloud could succeed without his aid? Was he just watching it unfold? He doubted it was laziness, but it smacked of it anyway. It was the years in the labs and those only that kept the frown off his face as he approached.

               “Sephiroth,” he called as he got close. The man, who was speaking with a SOLDIER Second, didn’t so much as glance with him as he wrapped up what he was saying.

               “—and I want a catalogue of the new supplies. As soon as you have it. Dismissed.”

               The SOLDIER saluted and then trotted off to go fulfill his orders. Sephiroth finally looked at him, looking him up and down. He was irritated to find that not so much as one blond hair was out of place. There was no soot on him, no tears in his uniform, no dirt on the toes of his boots. He looked exactly as he had when he stepped off the transport, in a pristine SOLDIER First uniform. Sephiroth was good, and he came out of his battles in almost immaculate condition, but it was always an almost. He was still human. He didn’t like what it said about Cloud that he looked so… clean.

               “I want details of the battle from your perspective.”

               He spoke to Cloud like he was a subordinate. They both knew it. Cloud’s patience for it was quickly wearing thin.

               “It was a clean sweep,” again, a battle to keep the “sir” off his lips. “Hostiles have all been taken out with minimal damage to the equipment and supplies that were already here. The men are taking stock of what materials we’ve gained, but apparently you know that.”

               “I said details of the battle, not a status report.”

               Cloud bit his tongue to still it. He waited until he tasted blood and Sephiroth’s eyebrow rose to speak.

               “We entered from the southeast. I led the charge. A second group entered from the east. We corralled them northwest, clearing tents as we went. They were taken by surprise in by the early morning hour. To my knowledge, there were few casualties. Three troopers who got ambitious and ran ahead of the SOLDIER line. The Wutaians made their last stand in front of their supplies in an attempt to protect them. They were eliminated, save four captives, who are currently detained and under guard.”

               Sephiroth watched him closely as he relayed the information. He was calm and collected. Not at all like a soldier after his first battle. He was completely unfazed, despite the blood and gore of it all. Even Sephiroth had been pale after his first fight, but here was Cloud, comfortable and cool and as relaxed as he had seen him yet.

               It wasn’t right.

               Cloud quirked an eyebrow at him eventually, his inspection taking too long. He offered no explanation or apology.

               Make friends, Zack had said.

               It couldn’t hurt to ask.

               “This was your first battle, was it not?”

               “It was.”

               “How are you doing?”

               Cloud couldn’t keep the confusion off of his face.

               “Fine. Why do you ask?”

               “Most people struggle in some way after their first experience in the field. The newness of taking life and being surrounded by death can be a shock to the system.”

               “I was trained to handle this. You don’t need to worry about me having a breakdown over a battle, Sephiroth.”

               “I didn’t mean a breakdown, per se.”

               “What did you mean, then?”

               How did Cloud not get it? How was he not feeling it in his gut? Even if this wasn’t his first brush with death, surely it wasn’t so long ago that he didn’t recall the feeling.

               “I mean… discomfort. Guilt, perhaps. Disgust is common.”

               “Those aren’t a concern. I may be a rookie, but I can handle this just fine. Really, you don’t need to be concerned about this.”

               Sephiroth kept looking for some hint. Some betrayal that he was really feeling something about all of this, a wince, a flinch, a hint of paleness or a green tint to the skin. Biologically, there should be some tell. But everything about Cloud showed complete confidence. He was truly at ease.

               What was going on?

               “Forget it, then. You must have been well trained.”

               The cold look came back to Cloud’s face. He was burying something. Sephiroth didn’t realize it was the discomfort he was looking for, only that it was because being praised in any way set that off.

               Cloud didn’t know what to do with that. Praise wasn’t something he knew what to do with, and here he was, getting it from Zack and Sephiroth both. The labs had trained him to do many things, but taking a compliment wasn’t one of them.

               “That was the point,” he said, voice flat in his effort to keep the hesitance out of his tone.

               “Yes, I suppose it was,” Sephiroth conceded, hints of a frown on his face. “Consider our debriefing done. You’re free to do what you’d like.”

               Cloud nodded, but as he made his way back toward the camp, he said, “Please make some attempt to remember that I’m not actually your subordinate.”

               Sephiroth bristled. For a moment, it wiped clear every other thought from his head. It was a polite request, but the cheek wasn’t something he was used to.

               It seemed like it was something he’d have to get used to.

               He waited until he saw Cloud engage with another SOLDIER to go find Zack, who he pulled away from the camp.

               “Does he seem a little too in his element?” Sephiroth said without any sort of greeting.

               “Who, Cloud?”

               “Yes.”

               “Yeah, he really does. You should have seen him when I found him before sending him over to you. It was like he was enjoying the moment, trying to breathe it all in or something. He looked comfortable, Seph. In a way I’ve only seen in our oldest veterans, and not even in all of them. Most people don’t get that accustomed to war, and he just got here. I’d say he was nostalgic if I didn’t know any better.”

               “Zack, I’m just going to ask him.”

               “Sephiroth, he’s not going to own up to it, you’ll just put him on guard.”

               “We’re wasting time here. I need to know if I can trust him with my warfront, and if he’s been through something to unbalance him, I don’t want him near it.”

               “You know, you can just say you’re worried about him. You don’t have to make everything about the war for it to be important.”

               “… My reasons for asking aren’t important. What matters is that I want to know, and I want to know now.”

               “You need to be patient. This needs a gentle touch. You’re just gonna scare him off, and then we’ll never get anywhere.”

               “You don’t know that.”

               “I really do. Besides, if there is something going on, you don’t think he wasn’t told not to talk about it? Why would he spill for a couple of strangers? This is gonna take time, Sephiroth. Be patient.”

               Sephiroth frowned outright.

               “I’m going to go check on the prisoners.”

               Zack sighed, but let him walk away.

               He made his way through the camp to the northwest corner, where Cloud had said the prisoners had been detained. When he made it there, it was to find Cloud crouched in front of the three men and single woman, all of whom were bound. He spoke quietly and in perfect Wutaian, his accent better even than Sephiroth’s, who had been in the country for quite a while now.

               “If you give us information, there will be no suffering. We’re willing to work with you, if you work with us.”

               Sephiroth approached just in time to watch Cloud get his face spit on.

               Cloud, who just sighed and wiped his face clean with the edge of his shirt. He still looked patient when he tried again.

               “Dispensations can be made. You can be given a place within Shinra. Your lives don’t have to be forfeit. All you have to do is give me something to work with.”

               “I’d rather die than join Shinra,” the woman snapped.

               Cloud looked up at him, and then stood.

               “Would you like to try?” he offered, switching back to Common. Sephiroth shook his head.

               “You will get nowhere. Wutaians are proud to a fault. They really would rather die than help us. This isn’t enough to make them talk.”

               “Then…”

               Sephiroth looked at Cloud, watching his face closely.

               “The measures we take out here are nothing to be proud of, but we have to get information, however possible. I understand if you do not have the stomach to do what must be done.”

               Cloud didn’t flinch. He didn’t wince, or grimace, or pale. He didn’t turn green. He didn’t so much as blink. He just turned back to the captives at his feet.

               “No, I’ll do it. I don’t want special treatment, and I’m an officer. This was my fight. I’ll finish it.”

               Sephiroth wanted to think it was being boastful. That this was pride talking. Cloud was green. This was his first battle. His apparently extensive training might have taught him the tactics of torture, but surely he couldn’t have the stomach for it. Sephiroth surely hadn’t at first. It had taken a long, long time before Zack could manage it, and he only had because, like Cloud, he’d seen it as an officer’s duty. He knew those sessions haunted Zack, gave him nightmares regularly. He refused to ever talk about what they did out of necessity. But Shinra had been quite clear with what they were expecting, and above all else, he and Zack were SOLDIERs. They followed orders. No matter how much they disagreed with them.

               Sephiroth had been sure Cloud couldn’t handle it, right up until he saw him do it.

               Cloud’s expression never changed. It was the same calm blankness they always saw, be it in the mess hall or when he first woke up in the morning. It didn’t matter that it was set to the sound of screaming, that his hands were bloody. His voice didn’t shake when he ordered sensory deprivation or food and water restrictions. He remained totally impassive, no matter the cruel business his hands were about.

               Days passed, and they got nothing out of the captives. Cloud proved himself to be quite creative, and very handy with a scalpel.

               Sephiroth never saw his hand shake once.

               He did, however, see Zack leave the tent more than once, too disgusted to continue watching Cloud work.

               Little did Sephiroth know that Cloud’s creativity was born of his childhood. He was not a particularly creative person by nature, after all. He knew what he was taught, what he was trained for, and though his strategies were flexible and he was capable of thinking outside the box in warfare, he still wasn’t creative. No, his inspiration came entirely from the labs. All he did was recreate some of the procedures Hojo had done on him, which he remembered effortlessly by virtue of his near-perfect memory.

               Sephiroth did not know his inspiration, and he did not know the way that pulling those memories up gave Cloud nightmares that he would have woken screaming from if that instinct, too, had not been knocked out of him long ago.

               Cloud’s reputation changed with each day the captives remained in his tender care. The SOLDIERs and troopers saw how he was with his own men, how he was kind in his own way, gentle with them, soft-spoken and polite. But they saw how deadly he was in battle, how ruthless and merciless he had been in taking that camp. They heard the screams and the coldly given orders for deprivation and they saw him do it all impassively.

               No one knew quite what to make of it. The only thing they all agreed on was that they were very glad he was on their side.

               The men took to the same thing their superiors did. They began guessing where Cloud had come from, what could have possibly molded him to be this way. No one could agree, but the guesses ranged anywhere from Wutaian defector to prodigy from the middle of nowhere. If anyone shared the suspicions of Zack and Sephiroth, that maybe Shinra was behind it all, they were careful not to mention it.

               But Zack and Sephiroth were almost certain now.

               They were entirely certain after Cloud had succeeded in getting information about supply movements. After everything, he was certain they knew nothing about the troop movements themselves, but succeeded in getting quite a bit about how different types of supplies were being transported, their quantities and types and who was doing the moving. What cinched it was not that he did get the information, it was what he said afterward.

               A SOLDIER nearby had asked what he wanted to do with the prisoners now that they had talked.

               Cloud didn’t miss a beat when he said, “I’ll put them out of their misery. They won’t want to live the rest of their lives remembering what happened here.”

               He knew that from experience.

               But in what Shinra’s troops in Wutai were quickly coming to learn was Cloud fashion, he looked at the SOLDIER and followed up with, “Don’t worry; I’ll take care of it myself. You’re dismissed.”

               They were coming to learn that Cloud was many things, but he was not a man who made others do his dirty work.

               Zack, who had been watching the exchange silently, laid a hand on Cloud’s shoulder, but slipped from the tent to leave him to it.

               Instead, he went to find Sephiroth. He pulled him into what had been designated the officer’s tent.

               “Cloud got the information he wanted.”

               “Oh? What did he get?”

               “That’s not why I’m here.”

               “… Then why are you here?”

               “It’s what he said after he got it. When he was asked what to do with the captives, he said to, and I quote, ‘put them out of their misery.’ Because they wouldn’t want to remember what happened.”

               “I don’t like the sound of that.”

               “I don’t either. It sounds too much like personal experience.”

               “… You don’t think…?”

               “I don’t know what to think, Sephiroth. All I know is that either that boy has tortured before or been tortured himself. Maybe both. But that kind of mercy is learned the hard way, if it’s learned at all.”

               Sephiroth paused, looking Zack over. He was agitated. Distressed. He looked sickened. He found he couldn’t blame him for that.

               “No, you’re right. I’m not sure which it is, but neither is good. He’s still a boy, Zackary.”

               “Don’t let him hear you call him that,” Zack said with a weak laugh. He still looked green at the edges.

               “He can hear whatever he likes if he’ll tell me the truth.”

               “What truth?”

               Zack and Sephiroth turned to where Cloud was standing, the tent flap still upheld by his hand. He paused in place, looking between them, then stepped inside and dropped the flap.

               “What truth?” Cloud repeated, looking between the two men.

               “Cloud—” Zack started.

               Sephiroth cut him off, saying, “Cloud, where did you learn how to torture?”

               Cloud’s face went from curious to impassive again. Blank as stone. Gods, but he was good at that.

               “I was trained.”

               “You’re aware that torture is not something taught to SOLDIERs,” Sephiroth explained.

               Cloud paused.

               He had not been made aware of that.

               He shrugged.

               “Cloud, there’s something you’re not telling us. About your training,” Zack said, as gently as possible. He talked like he was trying not to scare off an already spooked deer.

               Cloud’s eyes narrowed a hair.

               “I already told you. Both of you. I don’t remember.”

               “You don’t remember, or you were told to say that?” Sephiroth said.

               There was a flicker of something across Cloud’s face. Neither Zack nor Sephiroth knew what it was, but that was confirmation enough for them.

               Cloud, internally, swore fervently and frequently. He wished, ardently now, that Hojo had taught him what to say. Given him some kind of script, anything. He wasn’t trained for this. He was trained for many things, but how to keep secrets was not one of them. He had always been told that he’d be able to say that things were classified and that that would be the end of it. The scientists hadn’t thought about this situation, apparently. Neither had he.

               In his panic to think of something, anything to say, the moment stretched too long.

               Zack approached, slowly, but Cloud stepped away regardless. He pressed on and found that Cloud did not back up again, not wanting to admit guilt by retreating. Zack put his hand on his shoulder and squeezed it.

               “Cloud, whatever you say here will stay between the three of us. I swear.”

               Cloud looked from Zack to Sephiroth, something wild in his eyes. Sephiroth nodded his agreement. Cloud looked back and forth between them.

               It was worth a shot.

               It was the only script he had.

               “It’s… classified.”

               “… Classified,” Sephiroth said. “By whom?”

               They all knew by whom, but Sephiroth wanted to hear him say it.

               “That’s already more than I was supposed to say.”

               Zack stepped in front of Cloud, putting both hands on his shoulders. Cloud looked wary, feeling caged by the movement, but it did block Sephiroth and his curiosity from his sight, which was what Zack was going for.

               “Hey, that’s okay. Thank you for trusting us with that much. You don’t have to say anything more.”

               “Zackary—”

               “But, remember that we are the highest ranking SOLDIERs in Shinra. If there was anyone who would have clearance to hear what you’ve got to say, it’d be us. Just in case you do what to talk about it.”

               “But… they said ‘classified?’”

               There was something that might have been hope, might have been fear in Cloud’s eyes. Gods, he looked so young.

               “I know. They might have just not thought to explain that we’d be excluded. Just something to think on. You don’t have to make any decisions right now. We’re here if you wanna talk, okay?”

               “… Sure.”

               Zack gave him his warmest smile and squeezed his shoulders.

               “Did you want to give report?”

               “That’s what I came here for.”

               “Sure thing,” Zack said, stepping back from Cloud and out of the way so the two generals could see each other again. “Go ahead, Cloud, we’re ready.”

               Cloud paused, still looking at Zack, before he cleared his throat and launched into his report. It was highly detailed and highly useful information, which Sephiroth made notes on. The second he was done, he all but fled the tent, leaving Zack and Sephiroth alone again. They looked at each other in silence for a long moment.

               “It was Shinra,” Sephiroth said.

               “Sounds like it,” Zack agreed. “No one else would have authority to classify information for him.”

               “We still don’t know what happened.”

               “No, but do we really need details? We know it wasn’t pretty. Look at him, look at what he’s done without even coming close to losing his cool. Guy’s like ice, Sephiroth.”

               “The only question is what we do now that we know.”

               “There isn’t much to do. What are we gonna do, abandon ship? Rebel against the company? That’s suicide, Seph, you know that.”

               “What do you suggest, then? Because this cannot go lying down. Whatever happened to him, it was happening from a long time, and he’s still young yet.”

               “We try to fix him. I mean, he’s not broken, but he’s not right, you know? We support him, and we’re there for him, and maybe eventually he’ll feel comfortable enough to tell us the whole truth.”

               “I have no idea how to do that, Zackary.”

               “I’ll give you that emotional anything isn’t your strong suit, but you’re not as bad at it as you think. Just be his friend. I don’t think he’s had one of those before.”

               “All I can do is try, I suppose. Well, if nothing else, my feud with him is over. I can’t hold what Shinra made him against him.”

               “Glad to hear it. I just hope that, if he tells us eventually, it isn’t bad enough for me to consider the suicidal rebellion option.”

               “Knowing what we do about the situation, it will be bad, Zack. Don’t lose your head out of pity. For some reason, I don’t think he’ll want it, anyway.”

               Zack sighed and rubbed the back of his neck.

               “I just keep thinking about him with those captives. Even you aren’t as cold about that shit as he was. He wasn’t fazed. At all. A part of me doesn’t even want to know what made him that way.”

               “It’s always better to know. But I don’t know if he’ll ever tell us that part. That’s the kind of hurt people hold close.”

               “But sometimes the only way through something is to talk about it. I want to help him that way, if I can. I don’t think he’ll ever think he’s allowed to tell anyone else. At least, not anyone else who wants to help him. Who else would he think he’s allowed to tell, Heidegger? Can you imagine how that would go?”

               “I don’t want to think about it, frankly, and I don’t recommend you do either,” Sephiroth said, stepping forward and putting a hand on Zack’s shoulder. “Come on. I know he’s insistent on doing the dark parts himself, but we shouldn’t let him handle the aftermath himself.”

               Zack snorted, saying, “And here you said you were bad at people.”

               “I am. I just know that I wouldn’t want to be alone. Not really.”

               “Surprised you admitted that out loud.”

               “Just don’t repeat it.”

               “Scout’s honor.”

Chapter Text

               For all of Sephiroth’s helpful intent, Cloud had put down the captives before they arrived and had cleared out of the tent. Sephiroth gave it up as a lost cause and let him have his space, but Zack pursued, determined that Cloud really shouldn’t be alone. The only issue was, he couldn’t find the young general. And that was odd, because this was a small camp. Damn small. But it was like Cloud vanished, and no matter who he asked, no one had seen him.

               It continued like that for quite a while. Zack and Sephiroth tried time and again to seek out Cloud, only to find him missing. He was still somewhere; his reports appeared in the officer’s tent, the SOLDIERs had been receiving his training, the troopers had seen him in the mess hall. Clearly the men had seen him, but they seemed reluctant to give up their new general if he didn’t want to be found. They were equal parts becoming fond and afraid of Cloud. There was a unanimous decision to let the brass sort things out among themselves, but wherever Zack and Sephiroth went, Cloud wasn’t. It was exactly what Zack hadn’t wanted to happen. They scared him off.

               Very literally. Cloud was terrified.

               He knew he gave up too much by saying the information on his training was classified. There was only one authority that they all respected, and that was Shinra. He was coming to understand, from the hints of reaction Sephiroth and Zack gave, that his training had been terribly, terribly wrong in some way. He still couldn’t pinpoint how, what parts crossed a line, what parts other SOLDIERs experienced, what might overstep into becoming inhumane. He didn’t like thinking of his training that way. It was all he knew. It made him feel like something to be pitied, that it was so wrong. He was no charity case. He was the peak achievement of the SOLDIER program—he had been told as much over and over again. He was the youngest general. He would bring this war to the swift end that no one else could by virtue of that training.

               He was strong, he should not be pitied, but was what happened in the labs pitiable?

               He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

               All he did know was that he implicated Shinra in something they likely wouldn’t want to be common knowledge. If hardened veterans like Sephiroth and Zack were disturbed by what they had gleaned, he didn’t want to think what civilians would think. He didn’t want to think about the backlash he could bring down on the company. All because of his big mouth. He would never figure out why they hadn’t prepared him properly for the questions that would be asked. They had trained him specifically to be truthful, and that made this process very difficult. He was supposed to tell his superiors everything and deter his subordinates by saying things were classified. That was simple. What to do with people of similar rank was something beyond him.

               He needed time to process. He needed time to think. Zack and Sephiroth gave him an option that had never been there before, and in spite of himself, he was curious. What was a regular childhood like? How wrong had his been? What was training supposed to look like, since it apparently wasn’t what he was familiar with? Luckily for him, he had many, many years’ worth of practice stamping down on his curiosity. He always wanted to know more, but he always knew the scientists would tell him only what they deigned to. If they didn’t want him knowing what a normal childhood was like, he’d just have to keep his curiosity to himself.

               He ended up falling back on that line of thought. Better to keep the company’s secrets. He was curious, yes, the desire to know burned like an inferno in his chest, but it wasn’t his place. He was produced to be the best SOLDIER. He was created to win wars. He would do his job, and then when the war with Wutai was over, he would… what? Go back to the labs? Live a civilian life? He didn’t know, but he decided that was not a current concern. Instead, he would deflect Sephiroth and Zack. They would back off eventually, and he could hide behind things being classified.

               Maybe they did have clearance. Maybe they didn’t. Maybe Cloud wanted to tell them, just to satisfy his own curiosity, but it wasn’t his place. If the company wanted Sephiroth and Zack informed on what had happened, they would be made aware. It wasn’t his decision to make. It was never his decision to make. It was a helplessness he was familiar with, could be comfortable with. It was out of his hands.

               But it took almost a week for him to reach this conclusion, during which he successfully avoided Zack and Sephiroth entirely. He was better at stealth than they were, had always had a talent for slipping into shadows no one thought to look in. He saw them many times, but they never saw him, and that was exactly as he wanted it. He also spent more time than he was proud of sitting in trees, by virtue of the fact that no one ever thought to look up.

               But it wasn’t sustainable. They had a war to run.

               Eventually, Cloud let himself linger in the officer’s tent. He wasn’t looking for the SOLDIERs, no, but he’d let them find him. Besides, he did need the maps if he was going to plan the next attack, and they were in the officer’s tent. He was in the process of marking up one of the copies of a map when Zack wandered into the tent. Cloud glanced up to see Zack, stunned, the flap of the tent still held aloft in his hand.

               “Hello,” he said quietly before turning back to the maps.

               “Hey—uh, hey! Long time no see, buddy, where ya been?” Zack said, approaching now that the greeting had shaken off his surprise.

               “We must have just missed each other the past few days,” Cloud said, not even bothering to look up.

               They didn’t need to make eye contact for them both to know that was a lie.

               “Right, of course,” Zack said, letting it go. It would do no good to press. “Whatcha up to?”

               “Planning the next attack. We ought to act on that information before it gets stale. Have you seen Sephiroth? He’ll want to be kept updated, and I’m almost done here.”

               “Sure, let me go get him. Don’t disappear!” Zack called, already trotting out of the tent.

               He bolted the second he was out of it. He danced around troopers and SOLDIERs as he made his way through the camp to where he had last seen Sephiroth. He really needed Cloud to not disappear. Now that he was back, they could make more progress. Assuming they hadn’t scared him off entirely and he hadn’t made up his mind to keep things all business. Gods, he hoped that wasn’t what happened.

               When he arrived at Sephiroth’s side, he skidded to a halt, grabbed his upper arm, and proceeded to haul forward, blurting, “I found Cloud!”

               That got Sephiroth moving a little quicker.

               They had nothing to be afraid of, though. Cloud was done running. He was still in the tent when they returned. He waved absently at their approach but didn’t look up.

               “Good timing, I’m almost done.”

               “What are you doing?” Sephiroth asked.

               “Working out the next attack. The war won’t move on its own.”

               Sephiroth looked at Zack, who just shrugged. He approached the table with the maps, standing across from Cloud to look them over. The young general made one last X on the map before capping his pen.

               “Want me to run through it?”

               “Your markings are clear enough, I don’t actually need you to step me through it when I’m not testing you.”

               Cloud looked up at him, one brow raised.

               “Are you done testing me, then?”

               “I’ll be keeping an eye on your work for a while yet, but you’ve proven yourself capable. We’ll execute this next attack together, the three of us, and then we’ll be dividing. With each of us leading a front, this will go much quicker.”

               Sephiroth didn’t want to let Cloud out of his sight. There was a high chance he was unstable because of whatever he had been through, but he had no excuses left to hold him back. The quality of the boy’s training was evident. He was more than capable. With experience, Cloud would likely outstrip him, and wasn’t that a blow to his pride. But until Cloud fumbled because of mental weakness, Sephiroth wouldn’t hold him back. Better to win this war as quickly as possible and stop the bloodshed. If Cloud could help him do that, it was better to let him. It had taken Sephiroth most of the week in which Cloud had been avoiding him to come to that conclusion, but his mind was made up now. It was time to let Cloud stretch his wings a little.

               Cloud, for his part, was still a little in awe of the casual praise. He and Zack really just threw that around like it was nothing. Maybe it was nothing to them. Maybe this was what normal was. But he was so used to being “passable” or “adequate” that “capable” sounded incredibly sweet to his ears. He couldn’t believe that Sephiroth would say as much to him, considering how they started.

               Sephiroth eventually gave his approval for Cloud’s plan, and the battle was executed three days later with ease. It was another clean sweep. This time, to Zack’s immense relief, there were no captives, so they didn’t have to watch Cloud in his most gruesome action again. They met afterwards to work out who would take what front and to divvy up supplies, routes, weapons, and troops. It was decided that they would converge on Wutai’s capital. Cloud would move due north, Sephiroth would come in from the west, and Zack up the coast on the east. They were ready to depart in less than a week after Cloud’s second battle.

               And in the entirety of that time, Zack and Sephiroth succeeded in getting nothing else out of him.

               Oh, Cloud could tell they were trying. They tried to be sly, to dance around the subject, though only Zack did so with any success. He shut them down at every turn, changing the subject or giving non-answers. It was only the night before they split for their separate fronts that Cloud took pity on them. He asked both of them to meet him in the officer’s tent at 1930, and true to their word, they were there when he arrived, exactly as it turned 1930.

               “Hey, Cloud,” Zack greeted as he came in from where he was perched on the table. “You wanted to see us?”

               “Yes. I’ve noticed that the two of you are still interested in learning about my training.”

               Cloud took a pause. He unwittingly built suspense, but it was more for him to firm his own resolve. He had made his decision to keep his mouth shut. Now he just had to stick to it. Despite his near overwhelming curiosity in what reaction he would get, what truths he would learn. Damnit, he wanted to just be honest. He was trained to be honest.

               No. Toe the company line. That came first, always.

               “Are you ready to talk about it?” Zack prompted when the moment grew too long. When Cloud looked back up (when had he looked down?), it was to see hope on both Zack and Sephiroth’s faces, though Sephiroth’s expression was much more tame.

               “No.” Their expressions fell. “Until I’m told expressly to disclose the events that took place, I’m going to keep them to myself. You’re probably right and there would be no issues, but in the off chance that the information is classified even from the two of you, I’d rather not say anything. You’re free to radio HQ and see if they’ll give you clearance, but I’ll want to hear it from someone there. I just didn’t want to leave for the front without being clear about this.”

               “Sure, Cloud,” Zack said, the first to recover. Sephiroth still had something that bordered on dark on his face. “We understand. That’s no problem. Thanks for letting us know, we appreciate it.”

               “Sephiroth?” Cloud asked.

               The general was the sticking point. He seemed much more stubborn, and much less accustomed to not getting his way.

               “It’s fine. Thank you for being clear,” Sephiroth ground out. He clearly was not happy.

               Still, Cloud just nodded and turned to leave.

               After he left, Zack turned to Sephiroth, whose face was still clouded over.

               “I don’t like this, Sephiroth. Are you sure I can’t go with him? Just to keep an eye on him, make sure he’s okay.”

               The general folded his arms, leaning up against the table Zack was sitting on as he shook his head.

               “He’s young, but he’s not a child, and we can’t afford to baby him. We’ve been doing well lately, but this war is far from won. It will get worse before it gets better. We need him to do what he was trained to do.”

               “But it’s got to be eating at him. He’s gonna be left alone with that until the war’s over. The men won’t dare to get close enough to him. They can’t decide whether or not to be afraid of him. They like him, but he still scares them. He’s too good and too new.”

               “Give it time. People will forget how he started out once he has experience. They’ll say that the war made him what he is once enough time has passed for them to convince themselves of it. No one wants to think about what made him this way. The men will teach themselves to forget how this started, and then he’ll just be a war hero.”

               “You don’t really think that. How could someone forget how he sprang out of the ground a general?”

               “They’re already writing it off. Most of the SOLDIERs have decided that he’s a prodigy and are leaving it at that, even though they know better. No one wants to look too closely at this, and I don’t blame them.”

               Zack leaned back on his hands and looked up at the top of the tent.

               “You’re probably right. We’ll just have to remember. But if there’s ever an excuse to go to his front, I’m gonna take it, Sephiroth. I really don’t like him being alone out there.”

               “I will likely do the same. I don’t trust that the pressure of war won’t trigger a breakdown. He’s handled things well so far, but the responsibility of leading an army isn’t something he’s used to, no matter how he’s been trained.”

               “I don’t think he’ll break down. That kid has a spine of steel. He’s seen too much to let this break him.”

               “He hasn’t seen war, though.”

               “He’ll make it. I just don’t want him to be in too many pieces by the time it’s over.”

               “We’ll just have to put him back together when the time comes.”

               Zack lifted his head to grin at Sephiroth, who nodded at him.

               “I’m taking that as a promise.”

               “I’m, as you’ve said in the past, far too nosy to let this go. You don’t have to worry about me abandoning him.”

               “There’s a difference between wanting to know the truth and wanting to help him, Sephiroth. Which is it?”

               There was a long pause before Sephiroth admitted, “I don’t know.”

               Zack clapped his hand to Sephiroth’s shoulder and said, “Think on it.” He hopped off the table, waved, and called, “Goodnight!” He then ducked out of the tent. Sephiroth watched the tent flap for a long moment before following.

               Zack and Sephiroth both had a hard time sleeping that night out of anxiety for the young general they seemed to have adopted into their fold. But eventually, they did sleep.

               Cloud, on the other hand, did not sleep at all that night. He gave up on it at 0100, taking instead to patrolling the woods around camp. He was plagued by the idea that he made the wrong decision. He wanted to confide in Zack and Sephiroth, and a part of him knew that was dangerous. Another part of him wasn’t sure he wanted to know just how wrong his childhood had been. To say he was conflicted would be an understatement. His mind worked in circles as he did his mindless patrol, circling the camp endlessly. His only solace, the one that he kept coming back to, was that while they were all on different fronts, he wouldn’t have to think about it. The only concern was that he would think about it anyway. But then, he’d been taught to put his thoughts aside a long time ago to focus on the mission.

               It was a good thing he had been engineered to function on little sleep and there would be no difference in his performance, was what his mind had settled on as he watched the dawn finally begin to peek through the trees.

               He made his way back to camp, ready to set out in a few hours. Now that the troops would begin stirring, he could organize supplies and people to keep himself busy.

               Hopefully that, at least, would give him some reprieve from his own brain.

Chapter Text

               Sephiroth, Cloud, and Zack left for their respective fronts with little fanfare. Sephiroth and Zack both wrung promises out of Cloud to call if he needed help, which he eventually gave but had no intention of following. He wouldn’t need to call. This is what he was created for. Failure was not an option. Leaning on others was not an option. This war was his responsibility now. He knew what the scientists, what Shinra was expecting, and he intended to deliver. He would prove to them that he was everything they had designed him to be and more. He would be more than “adequate.”

               The older general and his lieutenant didn’t know what to make of their junior’s steely resolve. They wrote it off as a chip on his shoulder, a desire to prove himself, and really they weren’t that far off. It was more a question of scale—this wasn’t a want but a need. Part of Cloud was afraid to find out what would happen if he disappointed. Would he be sent back to the labs? Would he be discarded? Terminated? The options weren’t good, and he didn’t intend to find out what the answer to that particular question was.

               Sephiroth and Zack didn’t keep in constant communication from their fronts, but they spoke much more often than Cloud did with either of them. In fact, weeks passed and neither had heard from him. They heard reports, but they were given by other SOLDIERs. Cloud was forcing distance between them all and they knew it. He thought that, maybe, if he didn’t speak to Zack and Sephiroth that their curiosity would fade and they’d let the matter drop completely. Besides, he was a general—people reported to him, not the other way around. He shared rank with Sephiroth, and a difference in experience didn’t change that. He didn’t owe the man a personal report.

               But Sephiroth would have appreciated one. In fact, he would have appreciated anything. Just to hear from Cloud, if nothing else. It wouldn’t be as effective over a PHS as it would be in person, but he could at least try to judge the young general’s state of mind if they spoke. But he refused to communicate. Sephiroth knew he could just call, but he was aware that Cloud would have little interest in a social call—he might even just hang up. His pride got in the way of him risking that. He certainly wasn’t going to give report to Cloud. He had no excuse to call, so he was forced to let the matter drop.

               Zack, however, had a little more luck. What Sephiroth didn’t consider was that Cloud was polite to a fault and strangely compliant. Once he’d gotten him on the PHS, it wasn’t hard to keep him there.

               “Cloud! How are ya, buddy?”

               Cloud, on the other hand, didn’t know what to make of the situation.

               “Things are going fine, Zack, you don’t have to check in.”

               “You’re a little genius, kid, I’m not worried about your front. Can’t I call just to talk?”

               “Aren’t you busy?”

               Cloud knew he was.

               “Cloud, it’s late, everyone but guard shift is heading to bed. No one’s busy right now—or at least, no one should be. You aren’t still working, are you?”

               Cloud looked down at the maps beneath his fingers. He slowly put his pen down.

               “So this is just… social?”

               Zack noticed how he avoided the question. He’d let it go, but this wasn’t the end of it. He couldn’t have the blond overworking himself on top of everything.

               “Yup. What’s been up?”

               Cloud paused. What was protocol for this? Was there protocol for this? No one had warned him that people might try to socialize with him. He had assumed his rank would be enough to keep everyone distant. He didn’t know how to talk to people as equals, had never socialized with peers before. So he did what was familiar.

               He gave report.

               “Our last battle was an easy success. We’re still sorting through the supplies taken, but we found some materia amid everything. Unless the enemy comes on their own, our next attack will be in a few days.”

               “Cloud, you don’t have to debrief me, I’m not your CO. I’m asking how you are.”

               I don’t understand, Cloud thought, frustrated with himself and with Zack for putting him in this situation. It almost tripped off his lips, but he had enough sense to hold that back.

               “I’m fine. The battle was a success.”

               Everything came back to the war. Everything was about the war. He was a SOLDIER before he was anything else, despite his newness. His identity revolved around his position, his training. He didn’t know how to separate himself from it. Even he didn’t know where the SOLDIER and Cloud himself divided.

               It was something Zack was coming to understand. The comment about the battle was telling. He’d asked about Cloud and gotten the war instead. He didn’t like how much Cloud seemed to be wrapped up in his work. He was an individual first. If he didn’t already know that (and it was looking like he didn’t), then Zack would have to teach him.

               “Just fine? No good mood after the success? I always feel great after winning a good fight.”

               Cloud’s bafflement only grew. Good mood? He’d felt a little flutter of something when he’d looked around the battlefield, victorious, but he still didn’t know what it had been. He suspected it had been pride—that he was familiar with. He’d felt that particular twinge in the past, before it was crushed by words like “passable.” He didn’t think that counted as a good mood, though.

               “It was a simple battle. It didn’t particularly affect my mood.”

               “Huh, well, maybe after a good challenge you’ll feel better. Sephiroth gets that way—quickest way to get him to smile is to come out on top after a tough one.”

               Cloud didn’t know what to do with that information, but privately hoped that might be true. Cloud wasn’t entirely sure of the last time he’d smiled. It didn’t fit with the image that Shinra was hoping to cultivate. It was an expression he was trained out of.

               “I guess I’ll have to wait and see.”

               “No real challenges for you yet, then?”

               “Not particularly.”

               The novelty was wearing off. The battles had been exciting at first. It was finally a chance to fulfill his purpose. This is what he was alive for, after all. There had been a thrill in the fight because of the atmosphere, old movements taking on new life in Wutai’s forests, surrounded by a real enemy. But the newness was fading. This was all so familiar. Old hat. Leading the men was new, and really the only thing keeping his interest. The fighting itself was terribly dull. The planning and strategizing was a step away from boring by nature of the stakes, but it was starting to feel like homework again. The troops were the closest thing to a challenge, but even they fell in line quickly. It was more a matter of keeping track of so many allies on the battlefield that was tricky—he was used to fighting alone. Luckily, because no one could keep up with him, he was given a wide berth and didn’t have to worry about it too much.

               “Well just hold on, you’ll get something big sooner or later. Hopefully it won’t be too nasty.”

               Privately, Cloud thought that was exactly what he could use right now.

               “I’ll manage it regardless.”

               “Atta boy. Alright, I gotta get goin’. Remember, you can call me too. I’d like to hear from you sometimes, y’know?”

               “… Right.”

               “Good. Welp, g’night then, Cloud.”

               “Good night, Zack.”

               Zack later relayed that he’d had the conversation with Cloud to Sephiroth, who immediately felt conflicted. He felt like he should reach out, but damn him if he didn’t want Cloud to do so first. He was quickly getting the idea, though, that Cloud never would. From what Zack said, the conversation had been stilted, and Cloud didn’t seem to have much of an idea what he was doing. If that was what happened with an excellent conversationalist like Zack, what would happen with Sephiroth?

               The only way to find out was to try.

               “Cloud.”

               “Sephiroth. Can I help you?”

               “I’m calling to see how you are.”

               Cloud fought back a frown. He understood that he was still new, but it had been over a month now, surely Zack and Sephiroth knew he could handle himself? When would they stop checking in?

               “Everything’s fine here. There was an ambush today, but it was handled quickly. It was a relatively small party.”

               “How many?”

               “Twenty. I was nearby when I heard the gunshots, so I took care of it.”

               “All twenty? By yourself?”

               “… Yes?”

               That would be a feat even for most Firsts. Cloud made it sound so easy.

               Which was because Cloud had found it easy. He had been trained to handle a squadron by himself with ease. Twenty hadn’t made him break a sweat.

               “Well done.”

               Sephiroth said it almost like he was impressed. Cloud felt his stomach flip with some emotion he couldn’t name. There was that unexpected praise again. He didn’t even know what he’d done to earn it this time. Was twenty a lot for other people? It had been so simple, though. Not at all worth the words he’d been given. And they meant something, coming from Sephiroth. He was the closest thing Cloud had to a superior here, and he’d hated him when he’d first arrived, specifically because he had doubted his ability. Hearing his work praised by this man would never get old.

               “Thank you,” he said, only keeping the “sir” off the end of the comment by force of will.

               “You’re welcome. How are things otherwise?”

               “Fine. Supply levels are good, morale is up after the ambush ended so quickly. We’re in a good position.”

               “Perhaps I should rephrase. How are you?”

               It clicked. Cloud understood now. This was another social call, like Zack’s a little over a week ago. He wanted to curse. He was no good at these. He didn’t like fumbling the way he knew he would in this conversation.

               “I’m fine. Like I said, we’re in a good position. We ought to be able to make a strong push north soon.”

               Sephiroth understood now what Zack had meant when he told him Cloud was too wrapped up in the war. Sephiroth himself had his own issues with focusing too much on work, but even he knew how to answer a direct question about his personal state. Cloud didn’t. For someone so new to SOLDIER, it seemed to be a large part of his focus. Sephiroth wondered how long he had been training for that to be ingrained in him this way. He didn’t like the answer things were pointing toward.

               “Good. You’ve been making good progress. You ought to be more pleased with your work.”

               Cloud’s brow pinched. He hadn’t done anything special. He was doing the minimum, really. This was nothing to be proud of.

               “I’ve only done what needed to be done.”

               Sephiroth paused. Did he really not see? Cloud had been making progress north at an astounding rate. His front was moving the quickest out of the three. He’d yet to lose a battle, yet to even come close. If Sephiroth didn’t know better, he’d be inclined to call him a prodigy as well. He knew in his gut, though, that this talent had been hard won, something earned over gods knew how much time. Still, he should be able to tell that he was doing something amazing.

               “Cloud, really. You should be proud of yourself. I severely underestimated you when we first met.”

               Cloud didn’t know what to do. What was he supposed to do with that? He hadn’t really been complimented that way before, and certainly never told to be proud. Why was Sephiroth telling him this? He should be pressing him to do more, demanding that he progress quicker, telling him that these were paltry results. That’s what they were. They weren’t enough. Why did Sephiroth seem to think they were? He seemed so convinced that this was something special. What he’d done so far was pathetic, really. His own nerves, which had been summarily ignored but were still there, were fraying at the thought of what Hojo would say about what he had done since he got to Wutai. He knew, knew it wasn’t enough. He wasn’t living up to expectation, he wasn’t hitting “passable” or “adequate,” or if he was, it was by the skin of his teeth. He should be able to do more, that’s what he was engineered for. He had to prove himself, prove that his training had been enough, that he had been worth the investment. He would deny it until he died, but he still felt a cold tingle of fear when he contemplated what would happen if he failed to show Shinra he was good enough.

               But here Sephiroth was, telling him to be proud.

               He didn’t know what to do with that, so he would ignore it.

               “I—ah, well, you had every reason for your conclusions. I, as the SOLDIERs have put it, sprang from the ground a general. Anyone would have thought what you did.”

               Sephiroth wondered if Cloud even knew he was deflecting. He seemed unwilling to acknowledge his own accomplishments. He didn’t like what that said about his self-esteem, yet he carried himself with such confidence. He was so self-assured, that this was baffling. Maybe he was only confident in certain areas. Maybe he just didn’t know how to take a compliment. Sephiroth couldn’t be sure.

               “A fair point. Speaking of fair, I need to call Zack before the night’s out.”

               “Oh, of course,” Cloud said, unsure of what he was supposed to say.

               “Goodnight, then, Cloud.”

               “Goodnight, Sephiroth.”

Chapter Text

               Cloud was frustrated. Infinitely so. For the first time in his life, he’d been forced to retreat. Well, he’d been forced to order his troops to retreat. He had stayed behind, holding off the enemy and eventually picking them off. The few that made it through him (and it was beyond infuriating that any had managed that much) had been easily mopped up by his men once they had regrouped. It was all his camp could talk about. No one had a clear estimate on how many Cloud had stood against, because more had been coming when the retreat began. It had easily been over fifty, though. Guesses were in the hundreds, but no one could confirm, because Cloud had made a massive bonfire out of the corpses before anyone could see them. It had been to take out his own frustrations as much as to clean up. It had helped, some, to sit there casting fire spell after fire spell, listening to the sizzles and pops and feeling the smoke wash over him, even as it made it hard to breathe. He’d gritted his teeth all the while. He found himself longing for Sephiroth, who at least offered some manner of challenge in a fight, so that he had something to work the anger out on.

               When Cloud walked through the camp, he heard the whispers. They were whispers of awe, of praise, of astonishment. What he heard, though, was derision. It was colored by what the scientists would have said. He wasn’t supposed to be one to retreat. He was supposed to be better than this. What had he trained his entire life for, if he was going to retreat? If he was going to give up? He was supposed to be able to protect his men through anything, and yes, he had retreated to spare their lives, but it had been so tempting to push on regardless and sacrifice them for the victory. He hadn’t been able to stomach the idea (weakness) and had turned tail instead. He told himself it was only responsible, that he couldn’t adequately wage war if he blew through his men, but it set his teeth on edge. What would Hojo think when he heard? Nothing good. He could only hope this never made it back to him, but he knew in his gut that it would. He could picture the look on the professor’s face: cold distaste. He’d seen it whenever his performance was subpar, and that was certainly what this was.

               No one approached Cloud, not even the SOLDIER Firsts who wanted to thank him for standing alone against the onslaught to give them a better chance. He was in a black mood, and that much was clear to the troops, even though they were baffled by it. A few guessed that it was because of the retreat, but that was shot down by anyone the idea was told to. Surely it couldn’t be that, not after he’d covered their escape so well. Retreats happened to everyone. Cloud, for all that he was new to war, had to know that.

               He knew that. He knew that that happened to other people. Retreat wasn’t supposed to be in his vocabulary.

               His mood lasted for the better part of the week. It would have lasted longer if he hadn’t received a call.

               Someone had called Zack. Everyone knew he was personable, and they knew that Zack had spoken to Cloud one on one as much as anyone had. He was their best bet, and one of the Firsts had called him, because Cloud’s mood was dampening morale, for all that his feat had boosted it.

               “Hello?” Cloud had answered as he picked up the phone.

               “Cloud! I heard you’re sulking.”

               “… I am not sulking.”

               “You are, I can hear it in your voice from here.”

               “Who told you I was sulking?”

               “Nuh-uh, I’m not ratting anyone out. I just want to know why, because I know it can’t be the retreat.”

               Cloud fought to keep his expression schooled, despite the fact that Zack couldn’t see it.

               “I may be…  frustrated, by the retreat.”

               “Cloud, what you did was smart and necessary. I got the details in report, as much as anyone other than you has them. You ought to be proud about how you handled that. You showed concern for your men, kept them safe, while also clearing out the threat. That’s literally the most anyone could ask for.”

               Cloud pressed his fingertips to his temple. How did Zack not understand? People could ask for more. They had and they would continue to. This wasn’t enough. How could he even think he should be proud? What was wrong with Zack and Sephiroth that they continued to tell him to be proud when he wasn’t good enough?

               “I shouldn’t have had to have them retreat at all, Zack. It should have been a clean sweep.”

               “Cloud, I want you to listen to me. Are you listening?”

               “… Yes.”

               “Retreat is nothing more than a strategy. It’s a tool in your toolbox, not a failure. You made the right call, and that shows good judgement. What else could you have done, kept the men there and sacrifice them? That wouldn’t have done any good, it just would have raised the body count.”

               “It shouldn’t have come to that at all.”

               “But it did, Cloud. And that’s fine.”

               “It’s really not.”

               “I don’t know how to break this to you, but nothing goes perfectly in war. This was bound to happen sooner or later. It’ll probably happen again.”

               “That’s unacceptable.”

               “It really isn’t. Look, both you and your men are human, you can’t be expected to have a perfect, textbook victory every time. No one expects that.”

               Hojo does, Cloud thought. Shinra does. And I’m supposed to be better than human.

               “It won’t happen again.”

               “You need to be ready in case it does, alright? You need to be ready to retreat yourself, too. You can’t just make crazy last stands like you did today and expect it to work every time.”

               “It wasn’t crazy, or a last stand. I managed just fine.”

               “How many were there by the end of it, huh?”

               “Around 250.”

               “… Cloud, that’s a small army.”

               “Your point?”

               “My point is that that’s insane. That’s way more than anyone could ever ask you for. That’s more than Sephiroth or I have ever done by ourselves.”

               But he was supposed to be better than them. He was designed to be. This wasn’t even the minimum. This was below adequate. He shouldn’t have had to retreat, why didn’t Zack get that?

               “It wasn’t that many.”

               “Wasn’t that…? Cloud, you’re not being serious, right?”

               “Of course I am. That’s not that many.”

               “Cloud. A small army. Those words make sense to you, right?”

               Cloud felt his irritation tick a little higher.

               “Obviously.”

               “It usually takes a small army to fight off a small army. You’re just one man. You’ve got to know how huge that is.”

               “It was a last resort to stoop to taking them myself. I should have handled things before it came to that.”

               “Last resort? Yeah, maybe because the idea is fucking crazy by itself. No one even considers that an option, Cloud. No one goes, ‘huh, maybe I’ll take on this whole army by myself, that’s reasonable.’ Not even Sephiroth. Why did you think that was an option in the first place?”

               Cloud rubbed at his brow. If he wasn’t so enhanced, this would be giving him a headache.

               “Because it was. Because it needed to be done and I was capable.”

               “But how did you even know you were capable of it?”

               “Because I’ve done it in the past.”

               “You’ve what?

               … Shit. He said too much.

               “Against simulations, of course.” Shinra wasn’t willing to waste 250 men on his training.

               “Well I damn well hope so! Still, Cloud, I didn’t think that was even an option in the VR room. I’ve never seen it.”

               Gods, but he really dug himself into a hole this time.

               “It was just a simulation, Zack, it doesn’t matter.”

               “It does matter, Cloud, no one should have ever even considered putting you up against that many. The VR rooms are dangerous, simulation or no.”

               “I came out of it just fine.”

               “Sure, but it put the harebrained idea in your head to try it in real life.”

               “But it worked in real life just fine. Zack, I was barely injured. Just a few grazes.” And wasn’t that infuriating. Shinra’s perfect SOLDIER, taking hits. He should be better than that.

               “That shouldn’t even be possible.”

               “I don’t know what to tell you. It is.”

               The PHS crackled as Zack sighed heavily.

               “That’s beside the point; we got sidetracked. What I’m trying to say is that retreat isn’t failure. Do you get that?”

               “… Sure.”

               “You don’t agree with me, do you.”

               “… No.”

               “Fine. I’m gonna let it go, but expect a call from Sephiroth.”

               “What? Why?”

               “Because maybe he can knock some sense into you,” Zack said, frustration clear in his tone. To Cloud’s surprise, he hung up immediately after that.

               Cloud spent the rest of the night dreading that second phone call. In fact, he spent the next day dreading that phone call. He spent the next week dreading that phone call, but it never came.

               He was ready to think that maybe Sephiroth was too busy, maybe he forgot, but of course his luck wasn’t that great.

               No, instead, Sephiroth showed up personally.

               He stormed into camp like a man on a mission. He found Cloud speaking with a First about supplies and interrupted by grabbing Cloud by the bicep and hauling him away.

               He had the decency to pull him into the officer’s tent where they wouldn’t be overheard before he crossed his arms over his chest and stared down at Cloud imposingly. If Cloud was anyone else, he would have been cowed. Instead, he folded his arms over his own chest and stared back up.

               “You need to learn self-preservation. You will get nowhere without it.”

               “I understand self-preservation. I’m fine, aren’t I?”

               “I don’t believe that, not after the suicidal stunt you pulled.”

               “It wasn’t suicidal, it was tactical.”

               “If the tactic was suicide, I’d be inclined to agree.”

               “It wasn’t. It was something I could handle. I did handle it.”

               “Because you were trained to handle that much.”

               “Yes,” Cloud said in pure exasperation. Then he froze. He said too much again. Damn, this kept happening, and by the look in Sephiroth’s eyes, it was intentional. He’d wound him up to get him to spill. He ought to know better. He stared up at Sephiroth, who looked down at him impassively.

               “So what Zack told me about the VR rooms was true.”

               Cloud didn’t answer. If he didn’t open his mouth, maybe he wouldn’t mess this up.

               Sephiroth plowed on.

               “Cloud, you won’t tell us what happened, so I don’t know how you were trained. I don’t have the details. But what you did was incredibly stupid. You could have died, and then your men would have been left leaderless. You have a responsibility here, a duty. You cannot sacrifice yourself. You will be hurting your army more than helping it if you did. They rely on you. You have to be there for them. That isn’t optional.”

               Zack had sent Sephiroth for one reason. It was that Sephiroth knew how to dress down troops. He knew the right tone, the right inflection, the right words to berate his men just enough that they would never make the same mistake twice. Cloud wasn’t his subordinate, no, but Zack guessed that he might be familiar with that kind of talk. That such familiarity might make him respond better than he did to kindness.

               Cloud didn’t yield, but Zack’s guess was right. This was familiar territory. It wasn’t Hojo tearing into him for a faulty strategy or a misstep in battle, but he knew how this went. The only reason he didn’t cave entirely was that he was dead sure he was in the right.

               “I know they rely on me. That’s why I took care of them. It’s my responsibility to make sure they’re safe. I understand my capabilities perfectly. I know what is within my realm of possibility. I knew that I could handle what the enemy would give me, so I handled it. There was no flaw in my strategy.”

               It was a good thing this was Sephiroth and not Hojo. Such back-talk would have been severely punished in the labs.

               Sephiroth could admit that Cloud knew his potential better than Sephiroth. He didn’t like admitting that maybe Cloud was just that superhuman, that maybe what he did wasn’t ridiculous, but he was willing to let it go.

               He was not willing to let go the matter of the retreat.

               “Where there was no flaw in your strategy was in your retreat. That was the correct response to the situation. You prioritized lives and continuing the war in favor of continuing the fight. That’s exactly what you are supposed to do. Yet, somehow, you’ve gotten it in your head that you were incorrect.”

               Cloud wavered. The familiar tone was putting him in a compliant headspace. He was trained to give to that kind of talk, not stand up for himself. That aside, it baffled Cloud that Sephiroth was confirming he did the right thing. He knew in his gut that it shouldn’t have been necessary, and that if Sephiroth was going to tear into him, it ought to have been for that. What were they even arguing about?

               “It wasn’t that I was incorrect, it was that it came to that at all.”

               “Cloud, I will not continue to say it. You are not infallible. You are not perfect. Furthermore, your men are not perfect. Mistakes will happen—that is one of war’s few certainties. All you can do is compensate for them when they do. Which is exactly what you did. Your attitude has done nothing to help your cause. Your men were bolstered by seeing your success. Morale improved because you managed to withstand something they could not. They were impressed, proud to call you their leader, and glad to know have you on their side. They felt safe with you at their backs. Then you went and spoiled it with your mood. It dampened theirs. I understand that you feel retreat should not have been necessary, but the fact is that it was. You cannot let your own disappointment bring down your entire camp.”

               Now this, this was very familiar. Cloud had been scolded since he was a child for being too emotional. For letting his mood run away with him. He knew better, he did, but here he was, doing it again. Cloud felt the echo of the past, could almost hear Hojo say the words instead.

               Sephiroth must have seen Cloud cave, because he continued, “You are incredibly hard-headed. I cannot get it through your thick skull that you should be proud of what you have accomplished. Apparently, you will feel how you will feel about what you’ve done, and I cannot stop that. But you cannot let that impact your troops. Is that clear?”

               Cloud felt torn. He was in two places at once. He had one foot in the officer’s tent and one foot in the sterile white of the labs. His vision blurred.

               “Yessir,” he said, not realizing that the formality shouldn’t have been there.

               Sephiroth, however, noticed immediately. It wasn’t something Cloud had ever done before. As much as he had longed for it when they first met, it tasted sour now. But he couldn’t help but wonder.

               “Good. You’re dismissed.”

               Cloud turned and left the tent immediately.

               Sephiroth watched his back, feeling sick. He had spoken to many a SOLDIER that way. He cowed many of them easily, even the most proud of them. What happened was not strange in that way. What was strange was that Cloud, defiant Cloud who had given him cheek before giving him respect, caved so easily. Cloud, with whom he shared rank, whom he had no room to be speaking to that way to begin with. He had expected, when he began, to be called on that. Instead, Cloud had gone to putty. He’d put up a fight initially, but he’d shut down the second Sephiroth brought up his emotional response. It called to mind all of Cloud’s stoic looks, his constant deadpan expression, his emotionless voice. Cloud was ice, he was steel, and apparently he’d been taught to be such. Sephiroth didn’t want to, but couldn’t help but think that he had been reinforcing a talking-to that he’d heard before. It sickened him to be reinforcing anything Cloud had learned, because he knew in his gut that it had not been taught with a gentle hand. He hadn’t been gentle, but that was what Cloud apparently responded to. He was accustomed to rough handling, and it showed.

               He didn’t like having this power over him.

               He pulled out his PHS and dialed.

               “Hey, this is Zack.”

               “Zackary, I am never doing that again.”

               “Why? What happened? I figured a little dressing-down would get it through his head.”

               “Oh, it did. Too well.”                                                                                                  

               “… What’s that supposed to mean?”

               “He went pliant, Zack, and I have never seen him do that. He called me ‘sir’ and let me dismiss him.”

               “He what?”

               “I would wager quite a lot that that boy has been all but beaten into submission. The right voice and the right argument and he seems to forget that fighting back is an option.”

               “Right argument? What’d you say to him?”

               “When I told him not to make stupid last stands, he argued. When I told him not to how his disappointment and affect morale, he caved. You’ve seen how he goes to ice, Zack. I think it’s something he’s heard before.”

               “Shit, I was hoping you could talk him into not feeling bad about it at all.”

               “There’s no way to do that. He’s stubborn, and he’s very certain that he should have done better. What could be better than taking down an army on your own, I’m not sure, but he thinks he should have done it.”

               “He’s going to get himself killed that way.”

               “He seems hardy, but I’m inclined to agree.”

               “I’m sorry, Seph, I didn’t think that would happen. I never would have asked you to go if I knew it’d bring up… whatever’s happened to him.”

               “I didn’t anticipate it either. It’s lucky that no one else would dare speak to him that way.”

               “Very lucky. I hate that it worked on him at all, but I’d hate it more if people knew it could be exploited. I get the feeling that him being in this war at all is just him being exploited as is.”

               “He’s already proven to be a valuable asset to the company. They will never see him as anything more.”

               “I hate it when you’re right.”

               “Sometimes, Zackary, I do too.”

               The phone call ended. Sephiroth spent the rest of the night organizing a new supply route between the two fronts, ostensibly what he’d come all this way for. He couldn’t have the troops knowing that he’d come from his own front just to scold Cloud. Cloud, who for his part, was nowhere to be seen for the rest of the night. He’d taken to a trick he had learned while he had been avoiding Zack and Sephiroth: he hid up a tree. It was the closest thing to privacy he could get. He spent the night berating himself. He’d been doing that much since the retreat, but now he had added fuel to the fire with his failure to conceal his emotions. He couldn’t believe he was so weak after all this time. He should know better, and yet he had dropped morale. He swore to himself it would not happen again.

               If being tossed bodily into a toxic old headspace gave him nightmares that night, no one but Sephiroth, whose tent was close enough and hearing enhanced enough to hear him jerk awake gasping multiple times that night before giving up on sleep, knew about it.

Chapter Text

               It was clear, now, that their initial plan had fallen through. All three fronts were supposed to converge on the Wutai capital for what would, hopefully, be the final battle of the war. But the rate Cloud was going made it clear that such a thing would be impossible. He was nearing the capital already, Sephiroth about two-thirds of the way there, and Zack only about halfway. It was with supreme reluctance that they reorganized.

               It had been a long, long argument before they settled, primarily between Sephiroth and Cloud. Cloud suggested that Sephiroth and Zack stay with their armies and go about securing the rest of the countryside. He would make a beeline for the capital and subdue that, hoping that the rest of the nation would fall once he had done so. Sephiroth insisted that he would not have someone so green responsible for the final battle of the war without any backup. He would leave his men with Zack, who would secure the countryside, and he would meet Cloud at the capital on his own—he could make it there in time if he wasn’t bogged down with an army. Zack knew better than to pick a side and instead suggested they radio HQ for their input; if the generals couldn’t agree, their bosses would.

               Unfortunately for Sephiroth, the decision was made almost instantaneously. Shinra loved the idea of having their new super-SOLDIER win the war by himself. What was supposed to be a yearlong—at least—war would be over in months, thanks to his arrival, and he would win it personally with the final battle. The publicity would be amazing. No one would consider fighting back against Shinra with their terrifying new general who brought an entire nation to heel (as Shinra would sell it) on his own. Sephiroth was ordered firmly to stay with his front.

               Cloud, for his part, was not doing alright, but refused to admit it. Him taking the capital on his own had been his own idea, but he had only put it forward because he knew Shinra wanted him to prove himself. He didn’t want to do it. He had stepped in to this war one general out of two. He was supposed to prove himself, yes, but the entire war wasn’t supposed to be on his shoulders. Very suddenly, now, it was. He was too far ahead to realistically wait for backup, but he hadn’t realized it would come to this when he had progressed so quickly. He had been focused on pleasing Shinra, desperate to be good enough, that he had pushed his troops as hard as he responsibly could. They didn’t resent him for it, no, they were proud to be fighting under him, for some bizarre reason. He heard whispers about how they would be the ones to win the war, spoken with wide grins and heads held high. He had wanted few things more than for his men to want to follow him, that was true. He knew they would, because they had to, but the fact that they looked at him with respect meant an astonishing amount to him. With the increasing pressure to succeed, they were what was holding him together. He had to be in one piece for them, if nothing else. They looked to him to lead, looked up to him. He would do this for them.

               But that didn’t make it easy. The pressure ratcheted up another degree with each battle, with every step he took closer to the capital. Every day got worse as he had more time to think about how he had to take the capital, how he alone was responsible for success. If he failed, the consequences would be enormous. Not to the war, that was certain. They could try again. He could keep attacking until he succeeded, or in the worst case, Zack and Sephiroth arrived. With the three of them, he was certain they would succeed. But if his initial push didn’t work, he was certain Shinra would have his head. They wanted the intimidation factor of the image he would present if he won single-handedly on the first attempt. He knew that’s what they were expecting of him, he had known it the second they confirmed he would take the capital on his own. Image was everything to Shinra, after all. His primary duty, he was coming to realize, was not the war itself. It was to win the war in such a terrifying manner that no one would dare to fight another. He was their deterrent. They didn’t need him to fight, not after this—they didn’t want there to be another opportunity for him to have to do so in the first place. He wasn’t created to be a SOLDIER, apparently; he was created to be a threat.

               And gods only knew what would happen if he failed to deliver.

               He was grateful, now, to Sephiroth, for that talking-to. It was a good reminder to keep everything firmly behind closed doors. It was by sheer force of will and long practice hiding his emotions that the troops did not pick up on his distress. They saw him go even colder, though, and they didn’t particularly like it. But they told themselves he was busy, he was concentrating on the task at hand, he had more important things to worry about than smiling, and the troops let it go.

               Who did not let it go, however, were Zack and Sephiroth.

               They were hounding him.

               Neither accepted Shinra’s decree easily. They saw the angle the company was going for, and as leaders themselves, could understand the pressure Cloud was now under. They had feared for his stability beforehand, knowing he was fresh from some sort of trauma, and were growing more fearful with the added weight on Cloud’s shoulders.

               Zack called daily, getting his reports directly from Cloud now, wheedling him into small talk. He was disturbed to find that Cloud had shut down even more than he had previously. He’d been able to get little things before, vague amusement or at least exasperation. Now, there was nothing, only a terribly flat tone of voice. He didn’t even sigh anymore. When he’d asked about the basics, if he was eating and sleeping enough, he was told Cloud was doing so “adequately” and that, if he had energy to worry, he should be concerned about his own front. If Cloud had been holding him at arm’s length before, he had taken two large steps backwards now.

               Sephiroth called every three days like clockwork. He, too, got his reports from Cloud when they were on their PHS’s, but didn’t ask after Cloud’s health—he thought that doing so would be too obvious, and Zack told him how that went anyway. He didn’t have Zack’s skill in small talk, so they mainly discussed business, but he made what Cloud called “social calls” as well. Cloud had taken to answering any questions regarding his own person with the word “fine” and refused to budge beyond that.

               In all, they were getting frighteningly little from the young general. He had closed off completely.

               They didn’t realize that this was how he coped. He had never had someone to rely on, before. When the labs came to be too much, he retreated in on himself. He let himself get wrapped in his own head, focused internally when there was downtime or entirely on whatever task he was presented with. Shutting down was the only way to really survive the labs. It would be how he survived out here.

               He took care to avoid Zack’s questions about his health because he knew he wasn’t doing well. He had no appetite at all, anymore. When he ate, he did so mechanically and out of necessity. The labs had taught him the exact minimum of food and water he could have and still function at his peak, and he met those minimum requirements, but that was all. The same could be said for sleep. He could go five days without rest before his performance started to be affected. So, on the fifth day, he slept, though it had ceased being restful. He was plagued with nightmares that made his nights fitful at best. It was better to spend the time working than to attempt sleep when it wasn’t necessary, anyway. Besides, without Zack and Sephiroth nearby, there was no one keeping an eye on him. No one knew how little he was taking care of himself. They saw him perform the amazing feats they were starting to take for granted and assumed he must be fine, because he was already doing more than even their best SOLDIER Firsts. No one suspected—or rather, the two who did suspect were too far away to do anything about it.

               Cloud didn’t realize quite how bad it had gotten until he was staring down from the high hill overlooking the capital with an overwhelming turn of nausea in his stomach. In what had become a rare show of emotion in the past few weeks, his brow pinched. He hadn’t felt spontaneously nauseous since he was a child. The mako had forced such physical reactions out of him—unless they were in response to the mako injections themselves. He looked down at the capital, unsure of what it meant, but very certain that it wasn’t a good sign.

               He put the matter aside. There were more important things at hand. When he turned back to his troops, his face was smooth again, even if it was paler than they had grown accustomed to seeing it.

               Cloud heard himself speak, but wasn’t entirely sure of what he was saying. Everything felt so distant, so fuzzy. It was like his mind had detached from his body. That wasn’t good. He was familiar with the feeling—it was something that happened often when Hojo chose not to use anesthetic during surgeries. He feared it would slow his reaction time, but then again, it was rare that he needed to be up to full speed. The unenhanced humans of Wutai rarely actually offered him a challenge, after all. He could only hope that would be true.

               He watched his men hurry off in a daze. What had he said that had sent them off? He couldn’t be sure. He could only hope he had properly relayed his reminder for the plans at hand, and that they were going to enact them. He looked up at the moon high overhead and blink dully at it, pulling his blade from his back. He supposed it didn’t really matter what his men were doing. One way or another, he would be victorious tonight. He had no other choice, after all. If he had to take the city by himself, he would. He would die trying, if it came to that. He wouldn’t survive going back to Midgar if he failed, anyway. He only hoped that his men would stay out of his way—not that they were usually very good at keeping up with him, anyway. He didn’t think he would fail to recognize his own, but he had no practice keeping track of allies when he was in this state. He hoped it wouldn’t be a problem.

               That was his last thought as he made his way down the hill at top speed, his mind going blissfully blank. He wasn’t entirely sure what happened next. Time both went still and sped up at the same time. He could feel his muscles bunch and release, feel them stretch almost too far, feel them eventually start to ache. How long had he been fighting? He didn’t usually get sore this way. His lungs were starting to burn. This must be a long fight, then. The colors in front of his eyes stopped making sense, with the exception of the familiar red he could recognize must be blood. He must be doing alright, then, if the enemy was falling. He didn’t feel any injuries of his own, which was good. He doubted Shinra would like it if their images of the end of the war were tainted with their star SOLDIER being injured. No, they were prefer him unscathed. He was more intimidating that way. He was glad he was pulling that off, so far. He hoped it continued.

               That was his last thought before he went still. He blink, first slowly, then rapidly. The world caught up to him in a rush and a roar before coming to a halt. His vision cleared to find Lord Godo’s throat at the end of his sword, the tip of it centimeters from skin. He had stopped in time then, thank the gods. Around him, he could hear the hail of bullets as his men continued to fight. He was dizzy, his breathing harsh. He felt wet. He was sloppy, then. The blood of his enemies didn’t usually reach him.

               “Call your men off,” he ordered, staring impassively down at the Emperor of Wutai. The man’s sword was across the room, at the foot of a wall. He must have knocked it from his hand at some point, must have disarmed him. He wondered when that had been. It didn’t matter.

               A long moment passed as Godo stared up at him in hate. Cloud wasn’t sure what to do. He was never much of one for words. He was trained for war, but never really in how to end it. He had assumed the enemy would just be dead, or that they would cave in fear by the end. He didn’t know what to do with this ongoing enmity.

               “Do you want the rest of your people slaughtered? We’ll do it that way, if we must.”

               Silence, but there was now hesitance on that face.

               He tried again.

               “Answer me. If you do not, I’ll cut you down and go eliminate the rest of the city. I do not have time to waste.”

               Godo’s eyes narrowed. His hand moved slowly, and Cloud pressed the tip of his sword closer to his throat. The hand did not stop, however. He slipped it in the front of his battle attire and withdrew a radio. Without breaking eye contact, he said something in Wutaian into it. Cloud continued to watch in silence as he set the device on the floor.

               The sound of bullets cut in half, then faded into silence. Cloud’s own PHS went off. Without removing his eyes from Godo, he pulled it from his pocket.

               “Strife here. Report.”

               “General, they’ve laid down arms! Do you have their commander?”

               “I do. Take prisoner who you can. The war isn’t over until a treaty is signed, but the city is taken. Let the others know. Report to Zack and Sephiroth when you’re done.”

               “Yessir!”

               He snapped the PHS shut. He slipped it into his pocket and, in that same spare hand, withdrew a set of handcuffs. Godo didn’t fight as he put them on and popped off his bracer full of materia, or when he yanked him to his feet. Cloud led him through the building (he wondered how he had managed to find the right one, how he had located Godo to begin with) until he found a table. He didn’t handle Godo roughly when he forced him to sit—there was no need for it now. He went and sat across from him at the table.

               He didn’t take his eyes off the Wutaian leader as he patted his hands through his clothes and eventually withdrew an envelope. Thankfully, he’d apparently had the foresight to tuck it into a leather pouch at his waist. He didn’t remember doing that, wasn’t sure how he’d known he’d end up bloodsoaked, but was glad for it all the same. He pulled the treaty from the envelope along with a pen and set both on the table.

               “Shinra’s terms.”

               Godo’s eyes flared with rage.

               “I was under the impression that there would be negotiation.”

               Cloud blinked at him impassively. A month ago, he would have raised an eyebrow. He didn’t have enough emotion left in him to do that much.

               “Do you really think you’re in a position to be negotiating?”

               “That’s what happens at the end of war.”

               “Perhaps your situation isn’t clear. I can draw my sword again, if that would help.”

               Godo scowled fiercely but picked up the paper. He squinted down at it, eyes flitting over the sheet. His face grew increasingly enraged as he went.

               “This is outrageous! Absolutely not. I will not sign.”

               Cloud drew his blade from his back and rested it on the table.

               “At this point, my men will have captured a significant number of yours. If I give the word, they will be executed. You will not have enough troops left to put up a fight. The war is over, Godo.”

               “Radio Shinra, I want new terms.”

               “If I were to radio HQ and tell them you’re being stubborn, they would only give you worse terms as punishment. This is the best you will get, Godo, and I suggest you take what you’re offered.”

               “Radio Shinra.”

               “Do you think I’m bluffing?”

               “Radio Shinra.”

               “If I pick up my PHS, it will be to give the order to my troops to execute yours. If that fails to convince you, I will remove you from the city and then raze it to the ground. When the fires are out and you see you have no leg left to stand on, you will sign. Do this with some dignity left, Godo.”

               The man’s eyes blazed. His jaw worked. He was the very picture of fury, and if Cloud was a lesser man, if Cloud could feel anything, that might have done something to him. But that wasn’t the case, and he just stared back at him blankly.

               Cloud was a wall of steel, and Godo was starting to see it.

               He picked up the pen and signed his name with such force that he almost tore through the page.

               As soon as the pen was down, Cloud collected the sheet before Godo got it in his head to tear it to shreds. He folded it, slipped it back into the envelope, and replaced it in the pouch around his waist. Without removing his eyes from the defeated enemy, he pulled out his PHS and dialed.

               “Who is this?”

               “Heidegger, sir. This is General Cloud Strife reporting.”

               “What is it then, boy?”

               Boy.

               Hojo’s voice echoed in his head, loud and quiet at the same time. His ears rang.

               He blinked rapidly to clear his head.

               “The treaty has been signed. The war is over, sir.”

               “Excellent work, my boy!” Boy, boy, boy. “I’ll give the President the good news. You’re to wait and hold the capital until General Sephiroth and Lieutenant General Fair finish mopping up and join you. The three of you will be transported back to Midgar then.”

               “Yessir.”

               “Good to see Hojo was right about you. Go finish securing the capital.”

               “Yessir.”

               “Dismissed.”

               Cloud closed his PHS. Mechanically, he circled the table and hauled Godo to his feet. He brought him outside where, luckily, a handful of SOLDIERs were waiting for him. He passed Godo off to them.

               “Where are we with securing the capital?”

               “The prisoners are still being collected. They’re being removed from the city and brought back to our camp so none of the citizens will get any ideas about freeing them. Should I take Godo there?”

               “Yes. I’ll go oversee the rest of the collection. Good work, SOLDIER.”

               “Thank you, sir.”

               Cloud left Godo in the First’s hands and walked away. As he did so, a weight lifted from him. It was over, at long last. He didn’t have to worry anymore. He hadn’t failed. He’d lived up to what Shinra wanted of him, he’d delivered what they asked for, he’d performed up to standard. He wasn’t going to be terminated.

               He wasn’t going to be terminated.

               If the ability hadn’t been torn from him as a child, he would have sobbed in relief.

               As it was, the tension bled from his shoulders, from every line of his body. His eyes felt heavy. Suddenly, he was exhausted. He was starving. The abuse he’d been putting his body through finally caught up with him, now that the strain on his mind was gone. When he rounded a corner and saw a bench, he thought, what the hell. He sat on it and withdrew the MRE from the pouch at his waist that he had seen when he pulled out the treaty. He ate it slowly, concerned about making himself ill if he ate too quickly, but with rare relish. He usually cared little about eating and did so out of necessity, not out of pleasure. But he was so hungry that this felt wonderful. But eventually it ran out, and he tucked the empty wrapper back into his pouch. He leaned back on the bench and sighed, rubbing his eyes. It was time to get going again. He had work to do, the last of the taking of a city to oversee.

               He meant to get to his feet, he really did. But he fell asleep before he even realized his eyes had shut.

               Multiple Shinra troops saw their General sitting on that bench. More than one SOLDIER had approached, as they had been looking for him for orders. But, every single time, their feet slowed in their approach, before finally coming to a halt. They stopped and looked at their General, really looked. His arms were folded over his chest and he was slumped low on the bench, his chin against his chest. For the first time in longer than they could remember, he looked peaceful. Not that he had looked concerned, no, he’d been too blank for that. But he looked calm like this, pleasant, and frightfully young to be as drenched in blood as he was—even his pale face sported a red splotch high on the cheek. Each person that approached slowly turned and made their way back where they came, deciding that the General had earned his rest. It wasn’t too long before a First made it his duty to guard the General, quietly turning away anyone who approached. He wasn’t the General, but he gave orders in his stead while the blond slept. At one point, the General’s PHS had gone off, and the First had scrambled to find it and answer it before his superior could wake. It was a testament to his exhaustion that he didn’t wake either at the noise or by being touched.

               “SOLDIER First Wilson, this is General Strife’s PHS,” he answered in a whisper, walking away from the General to not wake him up.

               “SOLDIER, what are you doing with Strife’s PHS?”

               “General Sephiroth, sir, he’s—well, he’s asleep right now, and I didn’t want the call to wake him.”

               “He’s… asleep? Didn’t he just win a war? Shouldn’t he be busy?”

               “He already got the treaty signed and reported to Heidegger, sir.”

               “Still, there’s a lot left to be done.”

               “There is, sir, but, well—honestly, I came looking for him for orders, and I wasn’t the only one, but I found him asleep. He seems exhausted.”

               “So you’re covering for him?”

               “Yessir, just until he wakes up. I know it’s not my place… would you rather I wake him?”

               “… No, SOLDIER, let him rest. Continue to cover for him. When he wakes, tell him to call me.”

               “Yessir, of course, sir.”

               “Thank you. How was the battle?”

               “Quick, sir. The General tore off on his own as soon as it started and we didn’t hear from him until the Wutaians suddenly started laying down their weapons. He got to Godo on his own somehow. We hadn’t even made it very far before it was over.”

               “And he got the treaty signed on his own?”

               “Apparently. I only know because one of the Firsts reported to Heidegger, who said the General had reported in with the treaty being signed and to not waste his time.”

               “I see. As I said, tell him to call me when he wakes. I’ll let Zack know not to call so the ringtone doesn’t risk waking him.”

               “Thank you, sir.”

               The call cut off. The SOLDIER shut the PHS and turned to look at his General, who was still asleep, slumped on the bench. He would have been the picture of innocence, if it wasn’t for all the blood. He found, oddly enough, that it was a sentiment that suited the General perfectly.

Chapter Text

               Sephiroth and Zack didn’t arrive immediately, and for that, Cloud was infinitely grateful. He realized only after he woke up just what kind of a toll the recent events had taken on him. He knew the way the other two had been hounding after him, concerned with his welfare for some bizarre reason despite his continued successful performance, and knew it would only be worse if they saw him in the immediate aftermath. He wasn’t entirely sure what signs he would have shown, only that they wouldn’t have been good ones. Would they have seen through his poker face? Would they have noticed his exhaustion, the way he was ravenous for the next week? He wasn’t sure, only that he was glad he didn’t have to find out. Cloud would have loved to return to Midgar and stall even longer on their reunion, but was under orders to stay in the capital until the other two joined him. Shinra either didn’t want to waste expenses by shipping them all back individually, or wanted the triumphant return of their three highest ranking SOLDIERs to be celebrated at the same time. Cloud, who had never claimed to have much of a head for politics, couldn’t really guess.

               Sephiroth was the first to arrive. His pace had increased after the war was won, though Cloud wasn’t entirely sure why. Maybe the fighting was just easier, and the Wutaians had largely given up now that the treaty was signed, but Cloud doubted that word would have reached the outskirts yet. But when Cloud saw the look on his face when he arrived, he got an inkling that perhaps Sephiroth was just that hellbent on reaching him.

               Sephiroth had other duties to attend to. He should be assimilating their troops and supplies, finding a home for both, getting caught up on orders and the newest word from HQ. Instead, he sought out Cloud like that was his mission instead. Cloud, who had been in the officer’s tent filling out reports. There had been an endless amount of paperwork to do after the war had been won. He found himself fudging a lot of it, by virtue of the fact that the last battle was little more than a blur.

               The older general came all but storming into the tent with such a presence that Cloud looked up immediately and would have snapped to attention if he wasn’t used to fighting the instinct to defer to Sephiroth. Instead, he raised his eyebrows. Expressions were something that were slowly returning to him, now that the pressure of the war had been lifted, and he was glad that he had that much back. He didn’t like to think of what Sephiroth would have had to say about the way he had shut down.

               “Cloud,” Sephiroth greeted. His eyes did a once over, though he couldn’t have gotten much from the fact that Cloud was sitting and there was a table between them.

               Or rather, Cloud didn’t realize how telling his body language could be with even that barrier between them. He was more relaxed than Sephiroth had seen him yet. The constant tension in the line of his shoulders was absent. The hand that held his pen was loose, and his fingers were lightly splayed over the page to keep it in place instead of pressing it firmly into the tabletop. He seemed strangely calm. Or perhaps it wasn’t so strange, considering the weight that must have been lifted from his shoulders.

               “Sephiroth. I wasn’t expecting you so soon.”

               “If you weren’t so evasive, perhaps I would have taken my time.”

               Cloud’s brow pinched.

               “Evasive? I’ve been very clear in my reports.”

               “That’s not what I meant and you know it.”

               Cloud did know it. He remembered the social calls, Zack’s endless pestering about how he was. But he really didn’t want to talk about it. He was still recovering from the end of the war, he knew, and he could only hope it didn’t show.

               “I’m afraid I don’t.”

               The look Sephiroth gave him was sharp.

               “Your health, Cloud. You all but passed out at the end of the final battle of the war. Your men were so concerned for you that one of them covered your PHS to let you sleep.”

               Cloud frowned. He hadn’t realized that. That must be why he woke up with his PHS in the wrong pocket.

               “Who was it?”

               “Absolutely not, I’m not letting you dress down your troops for showing concern for your wellbeing.”

               “My wellbeing is irrelevant. I should have been awake, there were things I had needed to do at the time.”

               “They got done, and your wellbeing is incredibly relevant. You cannot say your men’s health matters while disregarding your own.”

               “My men’s health is my responsibility, Sephiroth. Mine is not theirs.”

               “Well apparently it has to be someone’s, since you won’t take responsibility for it yourself.”

               “I take care that I am operating at my peak performance at all times, which is all that matters. I am responsible with my healthcare.”

               “Oh? How often were you eating and sleeping?”

               “Does it matter?”

               “Yes, Cloud. Your performance is not the most important thing about you.”

               This, Cloud knew, was patently untrue. It went against everything he had ever been taught, for as long as he could remember. All that mattered about him was his ability to perform. His interests, his emotions, his interpersonal connections—they just didn’t matter. Those things had been actively ground down. His interests were warfare. His emotions were stifled. His interpersonal connections were limited to subservience to his superiors. The only thing of value he had to offer was his performance. All he cared about was delivering what was expected of him.

               Was that unusual?

               Cloud thought something must have shown on his face that gave him away, some sort of hesitance, but in reality it was the way he went entirely blank that was telling. He had gotten in the habit, in the end of the war, of showing nothing, and it was an easy thing to fall back into. The only issue was that, to Sephiroth, it was clear he was covering something up with that emptiness.

               Sephiroth crossed to the table and stood across from Cloud. He pressed his hands to the tabletop and leaned on them, locking eyes with the newcomer who had suddenly become the General, capital G.

               “The war is over, now, Cloud. You will have to find a place in Shinra as an person, not a weapon. You will have to learn how to be an individual. Peace time is upon us. There is no longer a place for us as troops. We will remain SOLDIERs, but that will take on a new meaning. When we return to Midgar, you will be, for all intents and purposes, a civilian. There will be no battle left to fight. What will you do?”

               Cloud, very quietly and from his place hidden behind his blank mask, panicked. He had not been trained for civilian life. He was trained for war. What he knew was war. These last few months hadn’t been the familiarity of the labs, but it had been familiar enough. He had known what to do, what was expected of him. He knew how to perform. What he didn’t understand was how to do anything else.

               So he gave the easy answer.

               “Whatever the company asks of me.”

               Sephiroth’s eyes narrowed.

               “Shinra cannot be your entire world, Cloud.”

               It would have to be. It always had been. He didn’t even know what his other options were.

               “I fail to see what else I could need.”

               Sephiroth straightened to standing. There was something sad in his eyes.

               Cloud ground his teeth. He was a warrior. He was a terror on the battlefield. He was the best SOLDIER alive. He had brought a nation to heel. He wasn’t something to be pitied.

               “Don’t look at me like that,” Cloud snapped in a rare show of emotion.

               The pitying look only got worse.

               “You don’t even understand how badly you have it.”

               “How bad—how bad?” Cloud hissed, popping to his feet quick enough that the chair behind him tumbled to the ground. “What could I possibly have bad? I’ve been in the field only a handful of months and have taken your place as Shinra’s lead general. I have won a war. The continents are singing my praises, and you have the gall to pity me?

               “I do,” Sephiroth said quietly. “Because I see a young man with no respect for himself, terrified and desperate to please by any means necessary, who understands nothing but bloodshed.”

               Cloud’s spine straightened with a jerk. He looked as if he had been slapped.

               Because, damn it all, he wasn’t wrong.

               “You don’t understand anything,” he hissed back at Sephiroth—a lie, because the man understood too much.

               “Don’t I?”

               “You don’t.”

               “If there’s something I’m missing, it’s only because you are too afraid of your superiors to tell me the truth.”

               And it was true. Cloud was afraid. He was terrified to find out what would happen, to himself and Sephiroth both, if he told him the truth of the labs when he wasn’t supposed to.

               It was a testament to the blind rage he was feeling that he hissed, “Or maybe you aren’t afraid enough.”

               He didn’t give Sephiroth a chance to answer. He turned and stormed out of the tent.

               He did not return to the officer’s tent that night. He didn’t return to his own tent, knowing he would be too easy to find. Instead, he began playing an old game, and started avoiding Sephiroth. It was a testament to how good he was at it that he successfully avoided the man the full two weeks until Zack arrived. He caught a brief glance of Zack and was debating whether or not to avoid him too when Sephiroth approached the Lieutenant General and he ducked away.

               “Zack,” Sephiroth called.

               Zack gave him a broad grin and jogged over, shaking his hand when he was close enough.

               “Hey, buddy, good to see you in one piece.”

               “You as well. Come, we have much to discuss.”

               “About?”

               “Wait until we’re in the officer’s tent.”

               “Uh-oh.”

               “Indeed.”

               The crossed the camp outside the capital in silence until they entered the officer’s tent which was, unsurprisingly, free of Cloud.

               “So, what’s this about?”

               “I need you to find Cloud.”

               “What’d you do?”

               “Nothing to deserve the way he has been avoiding me. He’s annoyingly good at it.”

               “Okay, so what did you do that you don’t think is a big deal but he apparently does?”

               “I told him he’ll have to adjust to civilian life and find meaning outside of Shinra. When I looked at him with what he read as pity, I told him he was pitiable, and he told me I was not afraid of our superiors enough.”

               Zack slapped a palm to his own face.

               “You really don’t see why he wouldn’t like that?”

               “I don’t. He doesn’t respect himself. I don’t see why it should bother him so much to be pitied.”

               “He has his pride, Sephiroth, it just looks different than yours. He knows damn well how good he is and how formidable he is. He’s godsdamn terrifying when he wants to be and he knows it. You don’t see how it might bother someone like that to be looked down on?”

               “I maintain he doesn’t understand his own worth. He wouldn’t lie down the way he does if he did.”

               “No, I agree with you, I’m just saying that he’s got some sense of pride, and you rubbed that the wrong way.”

               “Regardless, he hasn’t given me the opportunity to fix it. I need you to speak to him.”

               “Why? You finally decide you want to be his friend?”

               “Zackary, after the way Shinra is going to sell how the war ended, no one but you and I are going to have the nerve to speak to him with anything other than deference.”

               “That’s not what I asked.”

               “I refuse to leave him alone to flounder. And he will flounder as a civilian.”

               “… Good enough. Alright, I’ll go talk to him. But you better be ready to apologize to him.”

               “I’m not apologizing.”

               “Seph.”

               “What? I did nothing wrong. His situation is pitiable.”

               “Yeah, but he clearly disagrees.”

               “Only because he doesn’t know any better, which is pitiable in and of itself.”

               “That doesn’t mean you have to tell him that.”

               “I’d prefer not to lie to him. It seems enough people have done that.”

               “Look, Sephiroth, get back in his good graces before you start dropping hard truths, okay? He needs you on his side, right now.”

               “I am on his side.”

               “But you’re not supporting him when you’re pushing him away like this.”

               “He’s the one pushing me away by avoiding me.”

               “Sephiroth.”

               There was a long moment of quiet before Sephiroth sighed.

               “My apology will be phrased very carefully. It will only be a half-truth, Zack, because I don’t regret what I said.”

               “You know what? I’ll take it. Let me go find him.”

               Without further protest, Zack ducked out of the tent.

               It took quite a while for him to actually find Cloud, though. The blond wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to speak to Zack. The man had been hounding after his health for over a month now, and he’d just seen him go off with Sephiroth. But he also knew that it would be significantly more difficult to avoid both Zack and Sephiroth than just one of them. Not to mention the fact that the three of them did have work that would need to be done together, and that their transport back to Midgar would be coming before the week was out. That would be a long flight to spend in awkward silence, or dancing around conversation with the other two when they wouldn’t cease to pester him.

               In the end, he decided it was better to just get it over with, and allowed Zack to find him and haul him back to the officer’s tent. Though Zack didn’t tell him as much, he was relatively certain Sephiroth was there, and was not looking forward to it. But, better to rip the bandage off.

               It was, in the end, incredibly unsurprising to find Sephiroth inside the tent, staring the flap down, just waiting for them to arrive. He was leaning back against the table with his arms folded over his chest. He raised an eyebrow at Cloud as Zack pushed him into the tent with one hand firmly planted between his shoulder blades.

               “There we go!” Zack chirped. “Now, Sephiroth has something he wants to say to you, Cloud.”

               “I… regret the way our last conversation went,” he admitted, and from the look on his face, it was painful for him to do so. “It was not my intention for things to end that way. I only meant to prepare you for what you would be facing when we returned to Midgar.”

               There was a long silence as Cloud stared at Sephiroth, trying to decipher if he was being truthful. During which, Sephiroth maintained eye contact. If he was any less stubborn, he would have looked away under the intensity of Cloud’s stare, but luckily, backing down wasn’t really in his vocabulary.

               “Fine,” Cloud eventually blurted. He turned to look at Zack. “Is this what you dragged me here for?”

               “Yup. Sephiroth was sulking when I first got into camp. He wanted me to come find you so he could apologize.”

               Cloud turned a critical eye back to Sephiroth. He didn’t look very apologetic, but he supposed that was one word for what had just happened.

               “Apology accepted. But if I ever catch you looking at me that way again, I won’t forgive you a second time.”

               “I understand,” Sephiroth said, though it didn’t seem like he wanted to. Cloud frowned, but let it go.

               Cloud crossed to the table and dug in a stack of papers at the end of it.

               “While we’re all here, we might as well get work done,” he announced, still leafing through the sheets.

               Zack groaned, saying, “Cloud, I just got in, can’t it wait?”

               “It’s been waiting for quite a while for you to arrive. The sooner it’s done and sent out, the better.”

               “You little drill sergeant,” Zack accused, crossing the tent to go flop in a chair, putting his feet up on the table.

               “I’m not ‘little,’” Cloud said with a dark scowl, glancing at Zack, who grinned up at him.

               “Ya kinda are.”

               “Say it again and you’re filling out my paperwork as well as your own.”

               “Cloud! You wouldn’t!”

               “I would, and I outrank you.”

               Zack groaned and slumped in his chair while Sephiroth looked on in amusement.

               “Fine, fine.” There was a brief pause before he continued, “Hey, Cloud? What’s your favorite food?”

               “I don’t have one,” he said absently, still looking through the stack. There was a frown on his face as he started from the top page again, apparently not having found what he was looking for.

               “What?” Zack said, sitting upright. “C’mon, everyone’s got a favorite food. You got to have one.”

               “I don’t,” Cloud admitted, still more focused on his task and not fully paying attention to his words. “Food is bland and largely tasteless. I eat out of necessity, not because I enjoy it.”

               Zack and Sephiroth shared a look.

               “You’ve been eating army food too long,” Zack said, forcing cheer back into his tone and willfully pretending he didn’t understand the implications about what he had been eating before the army must have been like. “Wait until we get back to Midgar. Seph and I will take you out, find something you like. You’ll see.”

               Cloud paused, considering. He had heard that people tended to eat because they liked the experience. Maybe there was something to it.

               He dismissed it. The enjoyment of food was unnecessary. It didn’t have to taste good, just be nutritious to keep his body functioning at full potential.

               But, he got the feeling that if he refused, it would be telling in some way or another that he should try to avoid.

               “Sure,” he agreed, bland and unenthusiastic.

               “We oughta get you some authentic Wutaian while we’re still here! It’s hard to find in Midgar.”

               “I don’t think eating food prepared by the enemy is wise, Zack.”

               “Why not? Think they’ll poison you?”

               “It wouldn’t much matter if they did,” Cloud admitted—he’d been trained into a tolerance for most forms of poison. “But it would set a bad example for the troops, who are much more susceptible to poison, in the off chance they were inclined to tamper with the food they prepared.”

               Zack sighed and leaned his chair back on its back legs.

               “You’re no fun, Spike.”

               “My name is Cloud.”

               “Sure, but your hair is one big spike.”

               The look Cloud sent him was withering. He grinned in response.

               Cloud looked back at the sheet and something like triumph flickered over his features as he pulled a set of papers from the stack. He distributed them to Zack and Sephiroth, while keeping a set for himself.

               “Do we really have to get down to work already?”

               “The sooner we begin, the sooner it’s over, Zack,” Sephiroth reminded him.

               “Yeah, yeah,” Zack grumbled.

               Cloud watched the exchange and felt something foreign and warm flicker in his chest. If he didn’t know better, he’d say it was fondness. He squashed it immediately.

               He was a warrior. A general. A SOLDIER. He had no room in his heart for fondness.

               That’s what Hojo had always said, after all.

Chapter Text

               Zack and Sephiroth had the rest of the week to work on Cloud, and the troops saw the difference by the time they left. He cracked rare, if small, smiles from time to time. He didn’t seems so tense. He had actual expressions, for all that they were miniscule and far between. They didn’t realize until the change just how blank he’d been during the last push of the campaign. The SOLDIERs joked that the old general and their lieutenant were good for the General.

               In fact, Zack even wrung a laugh out of Cloud on their transport back to Midgar.

               It was all dashed in a blink, however.

               When they stepped off the helicopter, there was a small cluster waiting for them. Heidegger was there, as their direct superior officer, his retinue, and a scientist in a white lab coat with clipboard in hand. Zack, Sephiroth, and Cloud descended from the helicopter in that order and each snapped a sharp salute to Heidegger when they were on the ground. They held it until the helicopter’s blades wound down to a halt and they could actually hear enough for there to be conversation.

               “Good job out there, boys. Zack, Sephiroth, you’re coming with me to report on the last legs of the campaign. Strife, Professor Hojo’s asking for you.”

               That was all it took for Cloud to shut off completely again.

               Zack and Sephiroth had glanced at the young general, confused about the difference in orders, and were quietly alarmed with the reaction. It was a battle not to glance at each other and return their eyes to Heidegger.

               “Yessir,” Cloud answered, his tone of voice completely dead.

               Heidegger nodded and turned around, expecting Zack and Sephiroth to follow him. There was a pause, as both looked over at Cloud, but the blond had already turned to the scientist.

               “Where is he?”

               “He’s waiting for you in the usual lab. Come on, you know he doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

               Cloud did not so much as look back before trailing after the scientist.

               Zack and Sephiroth finally looked at each other. Zack as scowling outright and Sephiroth’s lips were pressed thin, but the general nodded his head toward Heidegger and took off after him. They had their own orders to complete, and as much as they wanted to help, there was nothing they could do for Cloud right now.

               Cloud followed the scientist, quiet and complacent, to the elevators and down to Sublevel 13, which he had called home for what seemed like an infinite number of years. He found he had to work to breathe. It felt like everything was constricting, like a cage was coming down around him, like a tight collar was settling around his neck. He didn’t realize how accustomed he had gotten to the freedom he had had during the war. He didn’t realize how much he’d dreaded the idea of returning. Were they locking him away again? Would they take him out for war and then just hide him back here every time they were done? He thought he had done well enough to avoid that. He thought he had proven himself, earned his freedom, or at least a scant bit of it.

               Maybe he had been wrong. Maybe there was no way they would let him live outside the labs. Maybe this was it, this was all he’d ever be able to know. He felt his chest tighten in panic at the thought. He found he had never hated the sterile white walls more. He already missed the sun. Could he go years without seeing it again? He remembered the first time he’d been allowed outside, how he had marveled at the breeze, at the openness, at the sky and the sun and the clouds. He remembered the fierce joy he had felt at that first introduction to the rest of the world, and how it had crumbled and slipped through his fingers when he was brought back inside.

               He didn’t know if he could take losing the outside world again. He wondered if this would be it, if this would be what broke him. A taste of what the rest of the world got, and it was over for him. Pathetic. He’d lived this long like this, he could do it again if he had to.

               He was still firming his resolve as he was led into a familiar exam room. There was a cold steel table in the center of it with a bright light overhead and thick shackles attached to hold him in place. He did not like this room. He had never liked this room. Nothing good ever happened here.

               The scientist gestured to the table, and because it didn’t occur to him to do anything else, Cloud hopped up on it. His legs swung beneath him, the metal cold to the touch. He was still sitting upright, not bolted down to the table, but he didn’t know how long that would last.

               The scientist ducked out of the room, likely to go fetch Hojo. Cloud forced himself not to look around the room. He knew every chip of paint and scratch on the walls, having stared at every aspect of the room to distract himself during an endless amount of surgeries. He knew if he looked too closely, those old memories would press in around him, and he’d be useless when Hojo arrived. That would only set the professor in a foul mood, and he didn’t particularly want to know how much worse things would me if that happened. Instead, he unfocused his eyes and stared at the door, waiting.

               He wasn’t sure how long he was sitting there waiting, only that he snapped out of it when Hojo pushed through the door, shutting it behind him.

               “Subject C. I hear the campaign was a success.”

               “It was, Professor.”

               “You didn’t do it quite as quick as I would have liked, but your performance was passable.”

               Passable. Always passable. He had hoped, had dared to hope that maybe it would have been something else this time, something better. Everyone else was saying that what he did was next to impossible, that no one else could have done it, that it was amazing. But Hojo said it was passable, and Cloud would have fought an endless war to hear one word of praise from the man who had raised him.

               “Thank you, Professor.”

               “Hmm,” was the only acknowledgement he gave that. “Things will be different, now that the world knows about you. You will be given an apartment to live in on the top floor of the Tower. You will have an office, which you are expected to be in as often as is required to complete your paperwork. You will be given a stipend as payment, as you will now be considered a Shinra employee. But before anything else, you are mine, and you answer to me. You will be on this floor every Tuesday night at 1900 sharp. We will continue your testing and the experiments as before, as well as your enhancement treatments. You will be responsible for your own training, now, through use of the SOLDIER First gym and the VR rooms. If you cannot handle that on your own, you will return here for your training. Do you have any questions?”

               “What duties will I be performing, now that the war is over?”

               “You will be given run of the SOLDIER program. You are Shinra lead general, now, which makes that your responsibility. The logistics of running the program ought to be familiar—it is much like running the army. General Sephiroth had the position before you; if you have any questions about the particulars, bring them to him.”

               “Understood.”

               “Any further questions?”

               “No, Professor.”

               “Then we will get down to work. I am very curious how your months away from treatment have changed your physical responses. We will be testing if your healing rate has changed, as well as your endurance and reflexes. Lie down on the table.”

               “Yes, Professor.”

               Cloud lay down on the table. He moved himself into place without prompting, slipping his ankles and wrists into the shackles. Hojo’s fingers were deft as he closed them. Before things could go any further, Cloud detached his mind from his body. He knew where this was going to go. It was familiar territory. He knew it would hurt, that it would be excruciating, and that he was expected to bear it in silence. If he screamed, his vocal cords would be cut as many times as it took to shut him up and keep him quiet. He hated the feeling of them stitching back together more than he hated the feeling of anything else healing, so he always did his best to remain silent. It didn’t always work, and that frustrated him to no end. After so many years, he ought to be able to bear anything without resorting to his voice. Maybe he would have been able to, if Hojo wasn’t so damnably creative.

               As it was, Cloud could not readily say what Hojo did to him. He was too far gone. He managed to hold his silence this time (which he was proud of, considering he was out of practice), but the rest was a blur of pain. After all this time, he knew that he didn’t really want to know what was happening, anyway. It never eased the pain, it just left him with more memories to dwell on.

               He knew he was wet with his own blood, dripping with it actually, and wasn’t sure where they would go from here. The wounds had closed already, leaving not so much as a scar on his pale skin. He would either be hosed off or given a towel to dry off the blood so it wouldn’t impede in his performance for the rest of the night.

               He was relieved when a towel was thrown at him. He hated being hosed off.

               He got the majority of it cleaned up, but the rest was already drying against his skin. He knew it would start to itch before long, and it would flake off as he did the rest of the tests. Not enough that he would be clean when he was dismissed, just enough to be annoying as it did so.

               He was led into another chamber, where he tossed the towel into the corner. Next to the door, First Tsurugi was leaning against the wall. He picked it up and swung it lightly, more for something to do than to get accustomed to its already intimately familiar weight. He checked over the catches and latches that separated out the swords, making sure everything was in order, before he came to stand in the center of the room and slipped into a battle stance. Tests of his reflexes were already the same. He was to dodge or deflect bullets as they rained in from a stationary machine gun. The test ended when he was hit ten times. He disliked fighting with bullets lodged in him, but he had always told himself it was good training, in case it happened in the field. Now he knew there was little point. He had never taken such a solid hit in the entirety of the war. A few grazes, yes, but nothing like what he would take here, where he worked until he was exhausted, so exhausted that he slipped and took hits. That had not happened in the war. He doubted it would ever actually happen in a fair fight. But this was the test, and he would complete it, because that was what was expected of him.

               Cloud lost track of how long he was dancing under gunfire. All he knew was that his ears hurt from the sound of the shots and his body burned from exertion. His body burned worse where the bullets were currently lodged inside—eight, because two out of the ten had been grazes. As it was, he was left panting for breath and drenched in sweat, enough that the lingering amount of blood on his skin was tacky again.

               He was not given another towel, or a chance to grab his old one, before he was led to another room, this time with a treadmill. He sat down roughly on it, catching his breath. He knew how this went. Technically, the reflex test also tested his endurance, but Hojo liked having separate results. He would be given however long it took for his body to push the bullets out and heal to recuperate, then he would run on the treadmill until he collapsed. His average time for this exam was six hours on the treadmill, four if he was running full-tilt and eight or nine at a jog. He hated the feeling of healing from bullets, but he did prefer the sitting to the endless running.

               Soon enough, though, Hojo was poking at his wounds, declaring them good enough, and Cloud was hauling himself to his feet. He stepped onto the treadmill and watched the pace they set it at—full-tilt, they were either impatient to be done or trying to remind him of his place. It could have been either, but it didn’t really matter. He had never forgotten his place to begin with. He set to running, his feet pounding the treadmill, hands held loose. He stared blankly ahead of him, letting his mind wander away again. He didn’t need his awareness for this, not the way he did for the reflex testing. His feet knew what they were doing and didn’t need active guidance.

               He considered what Zack and Sephiroth were doing right now. They had gone to meet Heidegger, he knew that. Cloud had already given his detailed report over PHS while waiting for the other two to catch up, so his wasn’t needed. He wondered if Zack was as informal during report as he seemed to be the rest of the time. He imagined Sephiroth wasn’t—he always had been stiff. He wondered what they would do afterward. Did they have apartments in the Tower, as he apparently would? Would they return to those? Would they go together? They seemed to like each other’s company. He understood that many people “hung out” in their spare time. Maybe that’s what they would do. He wasn’t sure what that entailed, though, and couldn’t even go about guessing. Zack had mentioned them all going out to eat, maybe that’s what they would do. He supposed both would need to eat, he had been told that most people needed to eat more often than he did, SOLDIER Firsts included. Maybe he would do that, when he was done. He didn’t enjoy eating, but it was something to do. No, he’d probably just go to sleep. He was exhausted.

               He was so exhausted, that he chose that exact moment for his legs to crumple and to fall forward onto his face, scraping it against the rough surface of the treadmill’s belt. The belt did not stop, and instead flung him back against the wall with enough force that he cracked his head against it. He blinked a few times and shook his head to clear it, but did not reach back to touch the welt that was forming. It would clear soon enough.

               “Four hours and thirteen minutes,” Hojo proclaimed, staring down at a computer screen. “It seems time away from the labs hasn’t hurt your abilities. Regardless, as today is Monday, you will be returning tomorrow night, when you will be given a mako injection. You are off track, and I intend to get you back on it as quickly as possible. The secretary will give you a shirt on your way out, as well as the necessary keycards to travel the Tower and get into your apartment. Be back here tomorrow, and be punctual.”

               “Yes, Professor,” he said, his voice hoarse, still panting for breath.

               He climbed slowly to his feet, wary of the way his knees wobbled, but found his legs holding firm beneath him. He would have liked to rest longer to be sure he could make it to his apartment, but Hojo’s dismissal was clear.

               He left the room, feeling strange about it. They had never let him just wander around, before. He had always been escorted. Yet Hojo clearly didn’t want him staying in the room, and no one arrived to pick him up. It was lucky he was familiar with the layout regardless, or he would have gotten lost on his own. He made his way slowly to the front room, which he knew led out to the hallway that led to the elevator. He stopped at the little window and watched the woman behind it. She looked him over, paling at the sight of the blood covering his chest. She must be new, then. This would be old hat for anyone who had been here a while. She glanced up and made eye contact with him, and whatever was on his face spurred her into action. She scrambled to find the shirt that had been set aside for him and held it out through the window. It was the simple SOLDIER sleeveless sweater, in black, befitting a First. He tugged it on over his head, frowning down at his arms, which were still faintly rust colored. He hoped no one asked questions about that. He looked back up at the woman, who was holding out a set of keycards. She stammered through an explanation as to what each one did and where he could locate his apartment. He nodded mutely, relieved her of the cards, and left without a word. He was too tired for pleasantries.

               Cloud took the elevator up and out of the sublevels, leaning back against the wall of it as he did so. He could feel his eyes drooping. He hadn’t been this physically exhausted during the entire war. At the ground level, he left the elevator and crossed the lobby to step into another, which boasted a button for the top floor, where his apartment was. The ride up was far longer this time, the elevator blessedly empty, and Cloud let his eyes slip shut to rest them. He didn’t quite doze, but it felt much better than staring up at the glaringly bright lights.

               Eventually, the elevator dinged, and Cloud forced himself away from the glass wall. He nearly stumbled on his way out, his feet felt so heavy. He looked blearily up at the numbers posted on the door, looking for number 1. It was a testament to his exhaustion and his focus on the numbers that he didn’t see Zack until he bumped into him.

               But Zack, and Sephiroth at his side, saw him the second he stepped out of the elevator. They knew immediately that what was covering his arms was traces of blood. There was some caught in his hair, even if they hadn’t been. They saw him dragging his feet, the way his eyelids hung low, the way tiredness was written into every line of his body in a way they had not seen before. They looked at each other as he approached, but let him proceed without calling attention to themselves. Still, Zack was going to step out of the way before Cloud ran into him, but Sephiroth pressed a hand between his shoulder blades to hold him in place, just to see if Cloud was really so out of it that he would run into him. Apparently he was.

               “Mm? Oh, sorry,” Cloud mumbled, before realization came over his face. He looked more closely at Zack and Sephiroth, his brow pinching. He was remarkably expressive right now, his exhaustion bringing down his defenses. He looked so outright puzzled. “What are you two doing here?”

               “Waiting for you,” Zack said, and though the corner of his mouth twitched up belatedly, his normal cheer wasn’t there.

               “Where were you?” Sephiroth asked.

               “Professor Hojo wanted to see me,” Cloud answered, stifling a yawn with one hand. He needed to be more aware right now. This was dangerous territory. He wasn’t supposed to talk about the labs. Damn, he wished he was more awake. Or that the other two weren’t here right now.

               “Why did he want to see you?” Sephiroth asked, looking Cloud over a second time, a move that Cloud himself did not notice.

               Cloud’s lips pursed. He wasn’t sure what to say to that. Were they allowed to know that he had been in the labs at all? That he was connected to Hojo? Heidegger said that Hojo wanted to see him in front of the other two, so he assumed that much was okay. He didn’t know about the rest though.

               He reached in his pocket and pulled out a handful of keycards.

               “That’s classified,” Cloud said, because he didn’t know what else to say.

               “You don’t look like you got a mako injection.”

               “I didn’t.”

               Cloud tapped a card to the panel next to the door. It flashed red and beeped. He frowned. Wrong one. Which one was it, again?

               “The only reason SOLDIERs go to Professor Hojo are for injections and their yearly physical,” Sephiroth insisted.

               Cloud tried another card. This one didn’t work either.

               “Well I went for something else.”

               Another card. Another dud.

               “What did you go for?”

               “I already told you, that’s classified.”

               Another card. Still nothing. Cloud frowned.

               “Is the reason why you can’t get into your own apartment also classified?”

               “I’ve never been in before,” Cloud admitted, only half aware. He tried another card, only for that one to also fail. “They told me which card opened it, but they all look the same.”

               Zack and Sephiroth exchanged a look over his head.

               “You’ve never been in before?” Zack asked, leaning against the wall.

               “No, I was just told about it today.”

               “Where were you staying before?”

               “I was—hey,” Cloud protested, a scowl on his face as he turned to Zack. “I’m not supposed to tell you that. Stop trying to wheedle things out of me while I’m tired.”

               “Why are you so tired?”

               “Because I was—ugh, no, Zack. That’s classified.”

               Zack shrugged casually, as if he hadn’t been prying into dangerous secrets.

               “Can’t blame me for trying.”

               “Can’t I?” Cloud asked, trying another card. This time, the panel lit up green and a lock whirred open. “Ah ha!”

               He grabbed the handle and yanked it open. He felt along the wall for the lights before flicking them on. In front of him was a large space with an open floor plan. There was a wide kitchen on the left, separated from the living room by a bar with stools on one side. There was a large, mounted TV on the wall sitting across from a plush, dark leather couch. There was overhead lighting as well as a few standing lamps. On the left was a hallway that led further down where Cloud couldn’t see. He whistled lowly.

               “Damn,” Zack said, his head peeking around the edge of the doorframe. “This place is huge!

               Cloud looked over his shoulder, his brow furrowed.

               “Is yours not this big?” Zack shook his head, so he turned to the other man and said, “Sephiroth?”

               “Not quite, though mine is larger than Zack’s,” Sephiroth said, also leaning around to look inside.

               “I wonder why they gave me one so big,” Cloud mumbled, looking around, clearly unsure. “It’s not like I need this much space.”

               “Used to something smaller?” Zack said, tone carefully harmless.

               “Much,” Cloud admitted, not really thinking about it, too distracted by the apartment. “And a kitchen? I don’t even know how to cook.”

               “It’s not that hard, Cloud, we’ll teach you! Seph’s a great cook. I don’t know how to make much that isn’t Gongagan, but I can teach you that!”

               Cloud looked back at him in surprise. He hadn’t been fishing for an offer. He looked at Sephiroth who shrugged.

               “I don’t mind teaching you. It’s a good skill to have, and better than relying on the cafeteria here. The food is awful.”

               “I… thanks,” Cloud said, rubbing the back of his neck. It was a gesture they hadn’t seen before. It was one he’d purposefully squashed years ago, regarding it as a tell, and it was a sign of his exhaustion that he did it now.

               “No problem, Spike!” Zack said with a grin, ruffling Cloud’s hair, disregarding the blood in it.

               In response, Cloud pouted. Pouted. It was the cutest thing either Zack or Sephiroth had ever seen, and neither could quite believe it was coming from this ice block of a man.

               “I told you not to call me Spike.”

               “No, you told me to call you Cloud.”

               “Well, I’m telling you not to call me Spike now.”

               “No promises,” Zack said, tone chipper. Cloud rolled his eyes and groaned.

               “Listen, I’m tired. I’m going to go to bed, if you don’t mind.”

               “Of course, Spike—”

               “Zack.”

               “—Get some rest, okay? We’ll be by bright and early tomorrow to show you to your office.”

               “Oh, uh. Sure. Okay.”

               Zack ruffled his hair one more time, waved, and said, “Goodnight, Cloud!”

               Cloud frowned, but sighed and waved.

               Sephiroth set a hand on his shoulder. Cloud looked up at him. There was something like concern in his eyes.

               “You’re exhausted. Try to sleep. I don’t like seeing you so worn down.”

               Cloud blinked, surprise written clearly on his face. He looked so young, in that moment.

               “Uhm. Right.”

               “I’ll see you tomorrow, Cloud. Rest well.”

               Sephiroth slid his hand from Cloud’s shoulder and walked down the hall after Zack.

               Cloud watched them go before stepping back in the apartment. He brought his own hand to touch the still-warm skin where Sephiroth’s hand had been.

               He didn’t know what that had been, but it left his stomach flipping.

               Cloud shook his head, snapping himself out of it. He moved through the apartment, finding the bedroom and bathroom down the hall. The bathroom was stocked with Shinra-issue basic necessities, and his closet was full of SOLDIER First uniforms. He realized there was no sleepwear, which he had been told was a thing most people used, but he was used to sleeping in his underwear regardless. He’d only ever been given itchy, shapeless tops and pants, and he’d always discarded those for comfort to sleep. He was used to sleeping while cold as a side effect, but his bed, which was huge compared to the little cot he had grown up with, was covered with a thick, downy blanket. Cloud was sure this must be the height of luxury.

               He showered quickly, methodically, as he had always been told to. In the labs, he was given just three minutes of hot water as an incentive to be quick. He didn’t realize until after he was done in his usual five that he could have stayed in longer, because the hot water hadn’t cut out. But he was tired, and that was another strange luxury to be examined at a different time.

               Instead, dressed only in a pair of boxer briefs, black, with “SHINRA” written on the waistband, he crawled into bed, and moaned as he lay down. It was the softest thing he had ever lain on. The pillows felt like clouds. The blanket was thick and it warmed him up so quickly.

               He hardly had time to savor the comfort of it all before he was out cold.

Chapter Text

               Cloud woke with the dawn. It was pure luck that he timed it that well. He had tried to train himself into doing so in Wutai, but hadn’t been able to manage. He was too used to the labs with their artificial lights that never went out, allowing the scientists to keep him under constant surveillance. He was, however, trained into waking up after only five hours of sleep. That was as much as the scientists had ever allowed him in one night, when they let him sleep at all. That the end of his five hours coincided with the sun coming up was a happy coincidence and nothing more.

               The scant amount of hours were enough for him to be fully rested, despite the grueling exercise the night before. It was as much as he had ever been allowed to rest, and his body was used to recuperating quickly.

               Now that he was awake, he took his time poking around the huge apartment. It continued to baffle him. The bed remained as shockingly huge and soft as he remembered it from the night before. He was given plenty of clothes—all SOLDIER First uniforms, but much better than the itchy boxes of fabric he’d worn before. He took another shower just for the fun of it, and found that the hot water just didn’t run out. He stood in there, enjoying the spray and soaking in the heat, which had been a rare commodity before, until he grew bored. Even the towels they gave him were soft and fluffy, unlike the thin, starchy scraps he was used to.

               He had an office in the apartment as well, which was stocked with a laptop, preloaded with Shinra programs as well as office basics and shared file drives. The bookshelves in the room were filled with titles he had already read, covering warfare and strategy and military history. There were maps on the wall showing the world and all the places he hadn’t been in detail. There was even a whetstone, sword oil, and a cloth tucked into one of the drawers.

               The kitchen was full of appliances he had never seen before and couldn’t decipher the use of. He got the stove to spark up, understood that he was supposed to cook on top of the flame, but that was as far as he got. Luckily, the cabinets were stocked with familiar MREs that he knew what to do with. The refrigerator was largely empty, save bottles of water and a lone carton of milk. On top of the refrigerator was protein powder—also familiar to him. They gave him a kitchen, but not much to do with it. That was lucky, he supposed. Whatever food they stocked would have just spoiled, as he had no clue what to do with it.

               The couch was as wondrously soft as his bed, he literally sank into it when he sat down. The flicked on the television, but to his surprise, found that it played some mindless program about dating, of all things. The only things he was used to seeing on a television were battle footage and clips from his own tests. He had been curious what they gave him such a large television to review, one with a startlingly clear picture quality he was discovering, only to find that it was apparently intended for recreation. Recreation had been a dirty word in the labs. It wasn’t something he had been allowed to do. A waste of time. If he had time to kill, he should be either studying or training. Not… sitting on an incredibly comfortable sofa watching drama unfold between a group of romantically inclined strangers. His brow was furrowed when he turned the TV off, unsure of what to make of the situation. Had it been given to him for appearance’s sake, so people wouldn’t question why he didn’t have one if they visited? Was he intended to actually use it? He was sure Hojo would frown upon its use. He didn’t think he’d be very engaged watching other people try and find out if they were compatible, anyway.

               He was still pondering the television when a knock came at his door. He was squinting at it, unsure of who could possibly be calling, when he remembered Zack and Sephiroth’s offer to show him to his office in the morning. He stood and went to the door, fumbled a second with the lock as he wasn’t used to having access to the locks to his rooms, and then opened the door.

               Zack grinned at him and waved, and Sephiroth inclined his head slightly. Cloud nodded and stepped aside, letting them into the apartment.

               “I gotta say, Cloud, they really spared no expense on this place,” Zack said, looking around as he strolled inside. Sephiroth followed, doing much the same.

               “I’m still trying to figure out why they did it. I don’t need this much,” Cloud admitted, crouching down by the door to slip his boots on.

               “Well, you are Shinra’s new star. They can’t have their poster boy living modestly.”

               The corners of Cloud’s mouth tilted down. It wasn’t the outright frown or scowl of the night before, and certainly not the pout. Apparently Cloud had mastered his expressions again with his regained energy.

               “I don’t know who they expected to find out how I was living, anyway. It’s not like reporters are allowed this high in the Tower.”

               “No, but we’re here, and we could snitch, couldn’t we, Seph?”

               Sephiroth made a considering noise and said, “Shinra does care about appearances.”

               Cloud huffed a laugh and tied one boot off.

               “Maybe that’s it,” Cloud admitted. “Appearances.”

               It made sense. It wasn’t like they cared about his comfort. They never had, after all.

               “Perhaps,” Sephiroth agreed, watching him closely as Zack poked around the kitchen.

               “Gaia, they really didn’t give you much food, huh. Are these MREs? Do they really expect you to eat them in your off time?”

               “That’s what I ate this morning.”

               “What? But these are disgusting!”

               Cloud shrugged, tying the second boot and standing.

               “They’re the only food in here, and I don’t mind them.”

               “Don’t mind…? Cloud, we’re taking you grocery shopping, this is an outrage. Let me grab you something while you’re busy today, at least some fruit or something. What do you like?”

               Cloud blinked at him.

               “I don’t eat fruit.”

               “You… don’t eat fruit?”

               “It’s largely just sugar and unnecessary for a balanced diet.”

               “Yeah, but it tastes good, and it’s not like I’m trying to buy you pastries. Fruit’s healthy!”

               Cloud looked at him incredulously.

               Zack was giving him much the same look.

               “Regardless, it’s not something I’m familiar with. It’s unnecessary,” he repeated, as if that would make Zack understand his point.

               It didn’t.

               “Get you a little bit of everything, gotcha.”

               “Zack,” Cloud sighed. “I don’t think—”

               Sephiroth shook his head and said, “Let him, Cloud. He’ll do it regardless of what you say.”

               “Yep,” Zack confirmed with a beam.

               Cloud frowned slightly, a barely there expression.

               “I guess I can’t stop you, but how will you drop it off? I have the only keycard to the apartment.”

               “Nah, you don’t. I got a spare from your secretary—so did Seph.”

               “You—wait, I have a secretary?”                                                                  

               “Yup,” Zack said, popping the ‘p.’ “C’mon, let’s show you to your office, that’s what we’re here for anyway.”

               Cloud shook his head in exasperation, but let them exit the apartment first. He stood there, staring at the door with the keycard in his hand for a second.

               “It locks automatically,” Sephiroth informed him.

               If Cloud had been anyone else, he would have blushed.

               Instead, he just ducked his head, mumbled, “Right,” and caught up to them.

               Zack chattered aimlessly about their report in with Heidegger while the elevator took them down to the office floors, but Sephiroth was watching Cloud closely. The new general was engaged with Zack’s storytelling and not paying him much mind, but Sephiroth was looking for hints of what he had seen the night before. The blood was gone, but he still wasn’t entirely sure where it had come from in the first place, if it had been Cloud’s or someone else’s or a monster’s. There was no hint of the physical exhaustion that had been weighing him down earlier, no drooping eyelids or slouched shoulders. He seemed… completely fine. Which was alarming, considering the way he had looked the night before. And he had come home late—he couldn’t have slept more than five, maybe six hours, because that was as long as Sephiroth had slept.

               Hojo was clearly doing something with Cloud, for him to end up in that state. The day before, when she had been leading Cloud away, the scientist had said that they were meeting Hojo in “the usual lab” and that “he knew” that the professor didn’t like to be kept waiting. That spoke of familiarity with the Science Department’s leader, more so than regular SOLDIERs ever developed. Sephiroth certainly didn’t have a usual lab he went to, because he had never been to one of the Science Department’s labs. The Science Department office the SOLDIERs went to for their mako injections and physicals was just that, an office, like any other doctor’s. There were private exam rooms with cushioned tables and counters full of various medical equipment, but that was about it. It looked much the same as the infirmary did.

               Labs spoke of experimentation. Was Cloud being experimented on? Had he been, for quite a while? He’d said he was used to living in a much smaller space. Could he have lived in something like one of the exam rooms? Surely not one of the prison cells the Turks used. He was clearly staying elsewhere now, but he had apparently returned to the “labs” the night before. Had he returned home bloody because of some sort of experimentation? Were they just gauging his skill in battle? Because Cloud had just fought an entire war, they should be familiar with his battle prowess.

               The hints and glimpses he’d been given were starting to come together, and he didn’t like the picture they were painting.

               Eventually, he snapped back to reality, only to realize that Cloud was now staring back at him. When his eyes focused back in, Cloud raised an eyebrow at him. He just shook his head and turned his gaze to Zack, who was still blabbering, but caught his eye with something like knowing in his look.

               It wasn’t much longer before they arrived at the offices. Zack seemed to know the name of ever worker and secretary in the place and led them through the cubicles with ease. Eventually, he came to a stop in front of one desk and beamed, leaning a hand on the surface as the man sitting behind the desk smiled back up at him.

               “Steven, how ya doing?”

               “Great, Zack, how are you?”

               “Good, good—settling back in, finally. Listen, I wanted to introduce you to your new boss. This is General Cloud Strife, you’ll be working together from now on.”

               Zack gestured toward Cloud, who just looked down on the secretary blankly. Steven sat bolt upright in his chair and floundered, unsure if he should salute despite being an office worker or hold his hand out to shake.

               “General Strife, sir!”

               “Steven,” Cloud said, nodding succinctly.

               Steven began fumbling through a drawer at his side, and his hands appeared to be shaking. Cloud wasn’t even doing anything, he wasn’t sure why he made this man so nervous, but apparently his reputation had preceded him. This was the man who won a war on his own, as Shinra sold it, and Steven for one was intimidated.

               “Here, General, sir, the key to your office,” the man said, holding out yet another keycard. Cloud took it, fighting down the frown that wanted to form on his face.

               Great. Another keycard to keep track of. This one looked just like the others, too. How did people tell them apart?

               He nodded at Steven as he took it and turned away without another word, going to key open the office. Zack flashed an apologetic smile at Steven before jogging over to where Cloud was, Sephiroth having followed him over already.

               Cloud stepped inside, absently holding the door open for Sephiroth as he entered, looking around.

               “This is… also large,” he commented, looking at the spacious office. There were bookshelves lined with more books, he wasn’t sure what about from this distance, as well as a row of filing cabinets. There were two plush leather chairs on one side of the desk and an equally overstuffed office chair on the other. The desk boasted a laptop, lamp, pen holder filled with black pens, and a stack of neatly lined up papers. There was another leather loveseat tucked under the window at the far end of the room, which looked out over Midgar itself. Cloud glanced out the window and felt a little dizzy—the helicopters were the only other time he’d ever looked outside from this high up. Did his apartment on the top floor have windows? He hadn’t even looked, he was so used to living in a basement.

               “What do I need a couch for in an office?” Cloud said, utterly bewildered as he stared at it. Zack snorted, and he shot him a sharp look.

               “Sorry. They’re usually for sleeping. Late nights, when you can’t make it home, catching a nap in the office so you can keep working, that kind of thing.”

               “Not that you know anything about that, Zack,” Sephiroth drawled.

               “Nope.”

               “Zack’s arm has to be twisted into doing his paperwork,” he explained to Cloud, who made a quiet noise of acknowledgement.

               “Listen, I have better things to be doing than paperwork.”

               “We all have better things to be doing, but the paperwork is our job.”

               “Maybe Zack should go get started on his paperwork, then,” Cloud suggested, staring at the pile on his own desk. “We all have paper reports that have to be filled out for Heidegger, among whatever else they’ve given us.”

               “Hey, why just me?” Zack protested.

               “Because I need Sephiroth here,” he explained, looking over at the other man. “I was told I was given run of the SOLDIER program.”

               Sephiroth didn’t look very pleased about that.

               “I was made aware.”

               “I’m sorry about that. I know very little about it. I didn’t ask for it.”

               The older general waved dismissively.

               “No, I know—it didn’t seem like something you would do.”

               “I do have questions, though, and I’d like your advice. You understand the program well, and I’d like to keep it running as well as it had been under your leadership.”

               Sephiroth’s ego was soothed remarkably by the fact that Cloud confirmed he hadn’t taken his position by choice and that he was asking for his help. He hadn’t realized how much it had bothered him until Cloud had done so.

               “Of course. I won’t have the program suffering.”

               Cloud nodded firmly.

               “Good, I’m glad to hear it. Take a seat, I feel like we’ll be here for a while.”

               “Fine, I guess I’ll go get started on my own work, then,” Zack grumbled, heading for the door as Cloud and Sephiroth made their way to their respective seats.

               “The sooner you start, the sooner it’s over,” Sephiroth reminded him, taking his seat.

               “Yeah, yeah. I’ll see you guys later? Wanna do dinner?”

               “Alright,” Sephiroth agreed.

               “Oh. Sure,” Cloud agreed as well, though he was surprised at the offer.

               Zack waved at them and ducked out of the room.

               Cloud sighed and dug around in the desk drawer until he found a pad of paper, grabbed a pen, and then looked up at Sephiroth, who was waiting for him patiently.

               They spent hours there, going over the specifics of the SOLDIER program. Cloud wanted to know everything, and he had very little existing knowledge of the program, despite being a member. It only confirmed to Sephiroth that he had never been a part of the program proper. He had no idea of what they learned in the cadet program, what the exam entailed, what was part of their training and what was only learned in the field, not even what went into their enhancements and what levels Firsts, Seconds, and Thirds actually were enhanced to. Still, his questions were very thorough, and he took diligent notes in his meticulously neat, compact handwriting.

               The day went by that way. Sephiroth would have normally taken a break for lunch, but Cloud showed no signs of stopping, and as a First, he didn’t technically need three meals a day, though the mako in him made him hungry near all the time. Cloud, for his part, had never actually been given three meals a day, and was unaware that this was standard practice. He was hungry, yes, but he was always hungry, and used to ignoring it. If Sephiroth’s increased metabolism made him want food very frequently, Cloud was longing for it constantly. But that urge was one he was used to tamping down. It was unnecessary to give into all the time. He would eat once more before sleeping, because he had the luxury of doing so at the moment and no one to tell him not to, but it didn’t occur to him to eat three times. Two was already more than enough. Sephiroth couldn’t be sure if this was another hint at Cloud’s strangeness, that he didn’t seem to consider eating, or if he was just that focused on his work.

               Still, the time wound down, and an alarm blared into the air, interrupting what Sephiroth had been saying. Cloud fished in his pocket, pulling out his PHS and cutting off the incessant beeping.

               “An email?”

               “No, a reminder. I have an appointment with Professor Hojo in half an hour.”

               “It doesn’t take half an hour to get down to the basement.”

               “No, but I’d prefer to be early. He won’t be happy if I’m late.”

               Cloud’s concern with Hojo’s mood was curious. Most SOLDIERs liked irritating the scientist. He, as most of them said, “gave them the creeps.” He knew more than one who was routinely late to their visits for that exact reason. Sephiroth himself had done it a time or two, just for the satisfaction of seeing the look on Hojo’s face when he did arrive.

               “Why do you have an appointment so soon after returning? The SOLDIERs are all given until the end of the month to recuperate before being given their monthly injection.”

               Cloud just shrugged at him.

               “My injection is tonight. I don’t have much to recuperate from, anyway.”

               “Cloud, you pushed yourself harder than anyone else in that entire campaign.”

               “It was nothing I wasn’t built to withstand.”

               There it was again, Cloud’s habit of referring to himself as a thing. He always said that he was built, constructed, programmed, engineered. Never that he was raised, or born, or grew up. Sephiroth found he didn’t like the sentiment.

               “Still. Why didn’t he give it to you last night, if you were already there?”

               “We were busy with other things and he knew he’d have time tonight.”

               “Why did he know that?”

               Cloud hesitated. He wasn’t sure if Sephiroth was supposed to know about his appointments, but he and Zack had made it very clear that they weren’t going to pull away now that they were back in Midgar. The two were determined to be in his life, and they would notice that he left at the same time every week like clockwork.

               “I have weekly appointments. 1900 every Tuesday.”

               “… Cloud, no SOLDIER has weekly appointments. Appointments for mako injections are monthly.”

               “Well, mine are weekly.”

               “What are you going to be doing during your appointments?”

               The look Cloud gave him was tired.

               “Stop asking me questions you know I can’t answer.”

               “Why tell me about the appointments at all, if you can’t tell me what happens during them?”

               “Because you insist on being around me, and you’re a smart man. You would have figured it out sooner or later.”

               Sephiroth frowned. Cloud stood from his chair.

               “I have to go.”

               “I’ll be waiting at your apartment when you’re done, if that’s alright. Zack said he got a spare key and he was going to bring groceries by for you. I’ll meet him there.”

               Cloud hesitated. He wasn’t sure. He knew what he was like after injections. In his later years, he’d been left alone in the aftermath to pick up the pieces. The scientists had gathered their data on his reactions when he was a child, and he had been glad no one was there to see the humiliation of his weakness. He didn’t particularly like the idea of Zack and Sephiroth being there, to see him brought so low.

               Sephiroth seemed to notice his indecision, because he said, gently, “It’s better with someone there to help. We’ve had the injections before, Cloud, we know what to expect. It’s actually a required part of the SOLDIER program for someone to pick you up after your injections, to make sure you get home safely, but I expect you were never told that.”

               He had never been told, because he had always been escorted back to his room by orderlies. It had never been an issue before.

               “I wasn’t aware, no,” he said quietly, instead of explaining the truth.

               “I don’t suppose you’ll let one of us pick you up?”

               “I don’t think that would be wise, no.”

               He wasn’t sure where the other SOLDIERs got their injections, but Cloud was pretty sure it wasn’t on Sublevel 13. To his knowledge, that floor had been dedicated to him. He’d seen all of it over the years, and no one was ever there but the scientists, nurses, and orderlies.

               “Then we’ll be waiting for you in your apartment,” Sephiroth said, standing. He walked toward Cloud and placed a hand on his shoulder. “You won’t scare us off with the aftermath. It’s nothing we haven’t helped men through before, including each other.”

               Cloud was unsure what to make of it. No one had ever helped him through anything before, especially not the aftermath of mako anything. He’d been studied while he suffered in his best attempt at quiet, so there had been people in the room with him before, watching, but they’d never raised a hand to help him. He could feel the faint pinch between his brows. He couldn’t understand why Sephiroth was offering this to him. Did he not think he could handle it on his own? No, apparently no one in the program was supposed to handle it on their own. Did even Sephiroth accept help? Was he supposed to accept help? It was a foreign concept to him. It had never been a matter of deciding whether or not to accept aid, because it had never been offered.

               It didn’t seem like an answer was required. Sephiroth had made up his mind. He would be there waiting, and that was that. He squeezed Cloud’s shoulder and slipped from the room. Cloud stared at the door after him in wonder, having no idea what was going on. This was entirely unfamiliar territory.

               His pocket started chirping again. Cloud pulled out his PHS and silenced it a second time with a quiet curse, making for the door. That was his second alarm. He’d be cutting it fine, now. He really didn’t want to be late. Hojo would be furious if he was on his first appointment of all things.

               Unfortunately, the elevators were packed. It took three full cars going by before he risked a bold move. He stepped forward into the already full car with his face set in his blankest mask and banked on his, apparently widespread, reputation. It was only a brief moment before half the car emptied to let him on, some with a squeak of fright. Cloud didn’t like doing that to people, didn’t like that he could, but he was already going to be late, now. He would have just taken the stairs, if they connected to the sublevels at all. It probably would have been quicker.

               As it was, it was only years’ worth of training in not wasting movement that stopped him from fidgeting as he switched to the sublevel elevator. He made his way into the waiting room, only for the nervous looking secretary to glance up at him as he came in. She looked infinitely relieved and all but bolted to the back. She popped around to the door on the other side of the room by the time Cloud made it there and quickly led him back to the same exam room as last time, where Hojo was sitting at a computer terminal.

               The professor looked up from the screen with poorly disguised ire in his eyes. He always had hated being kept waiting. He stood.

               “It seems someone needs a lesson in punctuality and the value of other people’s time.”

               “I’m sorry, Professor, I was held up, the elevators—”

               “Then you should have left earlier, Subject C. On the table.”

               Cloud fought back a grimace. Tonight was just supposed to be the mako injection, no tests, no experiments. It seems that went out the window along with the last scraps of Hojo’s patience.

               Cloud knew he was pale, but allowed no other outward signs of his dread as he hopped on the cold metal table.

               “Strip.”

               Cloud didn’t like this. Hojo liked to take his clothing to make him feel vulnerable, weak, and ashamed. It didn’t work quite as well as it used to, instead giving Cloud a startlingly comfort with nudity, but it also hinted that the professor would not just be working on his chest today. He hoped he didn’t cut his hamstrings again. Those took so long to heal, and he didn’t like the idea of turning up to his apartment limping with Zack and Sephiroth there waiting for him.

               Still, he complied without a word. He dropped his clothes in a small pile at the foot of the table before laying back on it without prompting. He didn’t need to be told to place his ankles and wrists in the shackles. He knew how this went by now.

               Cloud did his best to detach his mind the way he had the day before as Hojo pulled on his gloves and picked up his scalpel. He did his best, but it wasn’t working, not as well as it usually did. He felt the blade dig into his abdomen and knew it was a lost cause. If he couldn’t manage to distance himself before the first cut, he wouldn’t be able to at all, he knew that by now. He was resigned to feeling everything, and that tended to end poorly. He’d be vocal, he suspected, and he knew well the consequences of that. Still, there was nothing to be done about it now. Hojo was in a black mood, and Cloud would pay the price for causing it, the way he always had.

               Cloud kept his eyes trained on the walls of the room, examining every flaw in the paint desperately. He could feel Hojo rooting around in his organs. He faintly heard his muttered commentary into a voice recorder he had sitting to the side, but it sounded like he was hearing it from underwater. He could feel the tears forming in the corners of his eyes, his teeth gritted so hard he feared they might break. He wanted to glance down, to see what Hojo was doing, on instinct, to categorize the hurt so he might make it better. But it was pointless, and he was already too familiar with the sight of his own insides as it was. He lost his composure, a guttural whine spilling from his lips, as Hojo firmly squeezed something that belong inside his chest cavity, not where anyone could put their hands on it. He could hear the professor tsk impatiently. He withdrew the scalpel from where it was impaled in Cloud’s side for safe keeping and tilted his chin up with two fingers. Cloud pinched his eyes shut, knowing what was coming. He would beg for him not to do it, if he didn’t know that’d only make his bad mood worse. He hated when Cloud begged. He cut his vocal chords with a neat incision before returning to his insides.

               Cloud continued to fight the urge to make noise, not out of fear for his vocal chords now, but because the strain on them now that they were torn just made everything worse.

               He lost track of time, the world becoming a haze of heat and pain and the wet slide of blood over his skin. Eventually, he felt Hojo slide all his organs back where they belonged and pull the skin back in place, but not bother to suture it. It would heal on its own. He turned his attention to Cloud’s right leg, making another long, deep incision down the front of his thigh. That Cloud fought back his whimper at that was a sheer show of will. It might not have escape anyway, but he had felt his vocal chords stitch most of the way back together, and he was afraid to risk it.

               Hojo cut his way through the muscle down to the bone, when he finally set aside his scalpel. He pulled out a bone saw instead, which caught Cloud’s attention, only because he saw it glint in the overhead lights. He panicked.

               “Professor, no, please—I have to walk through the building to get home, now, if I limp there will be questions, Professor—”

               “How many times do I have to tell you to be quiet, Subject C?”

               Hojo dropped the saw, snatched up the scalpel, and cut his vocal chords a second time.

               “If anyone asks questions, you tell them that it’s classified, and that is the end of it. Besides, it will be late by the time we’re done. I doubt you’ll see anyone.”

               Cloud would have told him about Zack and Sephiroth, out of desperation to make the situation clear if nothing else, but that option had been taken from him.

               Hojo sawed through his femur quickly and neatly, Cloud’s mouth stretched in a silent scream as he did so.

               Hojo set the bone properly and pulled out a stopwatch, staring intently down at the bone as it knitted itself back together again. Cloud had no idea how long it took. He didn’t even hear Hojo click off the stopwatch or see him put it down, but he felt him pull the skin of his thigh back into place.

               Cloud laid on the table panting, his face tracked with tears. His skin healed together, but he knew the muscle of his thigh was still in shreds by feeling alone when Hojo undid the shackles and snapped at him to sit up. His head was spinning, and he felt weak from blood loss, but he complied, albeit shakily.

               He had to blink his eyes furiously to clear them, and only barely managed to do so by the time Hojo sank the needle full of mako into his arm. Cloud grit his teeth as he felt the cold burning through his veins, a long familiar feeling. The needle was removed and Hojo stepped away.

               “Get dressed and get out of here. I want you home before the mako takes effect.”

               “Yes, Professor,” he managed to get out, despite the way his voice cracked and scratched.

               Hojo left without another word, the door slamming shut behind him.

               Cloud did his best to comply, knowing it would be bad if he wasn’t in his apartment before the mako really kicked in. He dressed with impressive speed, considering he could barely put weight on his right leg. He was out of the department before his mind had fully cleared from the pain, and already it was fogging over again from the mako.

               The journey back up to his apartment was a blur, and frankly, he was surprised he found it at all. His hands were trembling as he pulled the fistful of keycards from his pocket, and he went to select one, hoping it was the correct choice, but his shaking hands dropped the lot of them. He groaned in frustration, letting his forehead fall against the door. In a desperate move, he knocked.

               The door was open half a second later, revealing Zack with a concerned look on his face. He covered it quickly with a smile, stepping to the side.

               “Hey, Cloud. Fingers numb already? I’ve dropped my keycard plenty of times trying to get home.”

               Cloud bent to try and pick them up, swaying dangerously as he kept his weight carefully on his left leg.

               “No, no, don’t worry about it, I’ll get them. Let’s get you inside, huh?” Zack said, wrapping one hand around his bicep and gently pulling him to standing. His head swam at the movement.

               “Easy does it, come on, that’s right—wait, Cloud, are you limping?”

               Cloud grunted. It was all he could bother with.

               Zack followed him inside, his hands inches away, ready to steady him if he needed it. Cloud limped his way to the couch and dropped onto it.

               Sephiroth was sitting on the couch and looked Cloud over. He was pale, but that was to be expected. Otherwise, everything seemed normal—except for that limp.

               Zack left to go get the keycards from the hallway.

               “How do you feel, Cloud?”

               “Dizzy. Weak.”

               His voice was still hoarse and it cracked on the second word. Sephiroth’s eyes narrowed.

               As they narrowed, he caught sight of something else. Were those… tear tracks, on Cloud’s face?

               “If that’s all, it’s not too bad yet,” Sephiroth said, carefully not asking, but growing more sure by the second.

               Zack returned, closing the door behind him. He took a seat on the coffee table.

               Cloud didn’t notice. His eyes were shut, his head leaned back against the back of the couch.

               “So, what’s up with your leg, Cloud?”

               “I—mmph.”

               Cloud squirmed slightly, his brow wrinkling. His ears began to ring, his vision fogging. He suddenly felt incredibly itchy. He scratched at his arms. Sephiroth gently pulled his hands away.

               “Scratching will only make it worse, Cloud.”

               “This shirt is only making it worse,” Cloud grumbled, sounding petulant in a way they hadn’t heard before. He yanked the SOLDIER issue top over his head and tossed it to the side. He sank back against the couch in relief, not hearing Zack’s quiet gasp, or seeing the way Sephiroth’s eyes widened just a hair.

               “Hey, uh, Cloud?”

               “Yeah?”

               “Why are you bloody?”

               It set warning bells off in his mind. This was a bad question, he knew faintly. It was one he didn’t want Zack asking. But, for the life of him, he couldn’t remember why. Probably because he had never liked acknowledging the surgeries. Yeah, that must be it.

               “The Professor was—he was mad I was late, and—fuck, it itches.”

               Cloud began scratching again, and once again, Sephiroth pulled his hands away.

               “He was mad you were late?” Sephiroth prompted.

               Part of him felt bad. Cloud was weak, right now. He shouldn’t take advantage of that to get answers. But he’d always had a tactical mind, and he knew that Cloud was incredibly unlikely to tell them the truth of anything if his mind wasn’t addled in some way.

               “Yeah. He hates being kept waiting. I knew that. I knew better than to be late.”

               “How did you know that?”

               “He’s always been that way, as long as I’ve known him.”

               Zack was giving Sephiroth a warning look. This wasn’t fair to Cloud, they both knew. Sephiroth raised his eyebrows. They both knew it was unfair, but they also both knew this was the only way they’d get the truth. Zack pursed his lips, cursed under his breath, but let it happen.

               “How long have you known him?”

               Cloud barked a laugh, and his voice broke on the noise.

               “I’ve always known the Professor. He’s always been there. Always.”

               “Why are you limping, Cloud? Mako doesn’t do that to a person.”

               “My thigh muscles are still healing. He didn’t give me enough time to heal before he dismissed me.”

               “What happened to your thigh?”

               “The Professor—he’s been interested in seeing how long it takes me to heal now, since I’ve been away for months. He broke my femur to see how long it would take to heal. He didn’t give me time for the muscle to regrow, though.”

               Zack looked both pale and alarmed. This wasn’t what happened to SOLDIERs.

               Cloud was pasty, now, clammy and panting for breath. Sephiroth felt his forehead. Even through his glove, he could feel the fever burning there, as his body struggled to fight off the mako. His eyes were shut now, but his chest was heaving.

               “Why does your voice sound so broken?”

               “He cut my vocal chords. Twice. I couldn’t keep quiet, and he hates hearing me.”

               “You weren’t sedated for the procedure?”

               Cloud gave a weak chuckle. Sweat was beading at his brow.

               “He hasn’t sedated me since I was a child.”

               Sephiroth and Zack now both looked alarmed.

               Sephiroth opened his mouth to keep asking questions, but Cloud jerked upright, gagging, one hand clamped over his mouth.

               Sephiroth pulled Cloud’s arm around his shoulder and wrapped his own around the man’s waist, hauling him into the bathroom, just in time for Cloud to fall to his knees and retch into the toilet. Mako-tinged bile fell into the bowl, but Cloud didn’t stop for a long time. Before long, he was just dry heaving, again and again, before eventually slumping, his forehead pressed to the blessed cool of the toilet seat.

               “Cloud, have you eaten anything today?”

               “Not since that MRE this morning,” he groaned, eyes still shut where he rested his head.

               “No wonder he’s just dry heaving,” Zack said from the doorway where he was watching, a scowl on his face.

               Sephiroth watched the blond, a pinch in his brow, as shivers tore through him. He knew he must be cold, but anything on his skin would just irritate the itching. He got the feeling that the only reason his pants were still on was because his leg hurt too much to make it worthwhile to remove them.

               Sephiroth was about to suggest some water, but Cloud began dry heaving again. It took even longer for that round to stop, but Zack had gotten him some water in the meantime without being prompted. He handed it to Sephiroth, who touched a hand to Cloud’s shoulder. The blond looked up at him blearily, eyes taking a while to focus in on him. He took one of Cloud’s hands and wrapped it around the water glass.

               “Thanks,” he mumbled, voice still rough, though he couldn’t be sure if that was from what Hojo had done or the vomiting, at this point.

               He had barely drunk half the glass before he immediately retched it back up. Zack winced.

               It took a long while before Cloud stopped dry heaving, but by that point, he seemed a little more aware. Sephiroth stood from where he was kneeling next to the toilet with Cloud.

               “Do you think you can manage to shower? It’d be good for you to get to bed now and sleep the rest of it off, but you’ll get blood all over your sheets like that.”

               Cloud looked down at himself, as if he’d forgotten the state he was in. He sighed but nodded, climbing to his feet. He swayed, but his weight was firmly on both of his feet now. It seemed more of an effect of the mako than anything else. Either he was still too out of it, or was really that unashamed, because he just began stripping while Sephiroth and Zack were still in the room.

               “Ooooookayc’monSeph.”

               Zack grabbed his shoulder and pulled him from the room, shutting the door behind them. The shower turned on, and the two friends gave each other severe looks in the hallway.

               “I didn’t like the sound of any of that,” Zack said, glancing at the bathroom door.

               “I don’t either. He was punished for tardiness to an appointment he shouldn’t even have with unnecessary, unsedated surgery with what seems to be no purpose other than human experimentation. And it doesn’t sound like this is the first time it’s happened. He said he’d ‘always’ known Professor Hojo. Either he wasn’t lying all those months ago about the amnesia, or he’s been with the professor since he was a child.”

               “I’m guessing it’s the latter.”

               “I would bet on that as well.”

               Zack scrubbed his hands over his face.

               “Gaia, Seph, this isn’t good. I know what we had been suspecting was never good, but this is, like, really bad. He was acting like it was so normal, too. Like he expected it.”

               “I think he did, Zack. I was with him before the appointment. He had a reminder alarm set half an hour before the appointment, specifically, he told me, so he wouldn’t be late.”

               “What are we gonna do about this?”

               “Is there anything we can do? We aren’t supposed to know.”

               “We have to do something.”

               “We can’t go against the company, Zack. That’s suicide.”

               “We can’t just let it happen.”

               “I don’t know that we have a choice. If we protest and Shinra kills us, we leave him alone to face this on his own. I won’t do that to him.”

               “So, what, we just… support him?”

               “I… suppose. We make sure we’re there for him, and we make whatever time he’s not with Hojo as good as we can. That has to be worth something.”

               “I… yeah, I guess you’re right.”

               “What’s he right about?”

               Cloud stood in the bathroom doorway, dressed only in a towel, slung low around his hips and held up with one hand. He was still pale, but otherwise, he looked healthy. Certainly not as if he’d had unelected surgery without anesthesia earlier. His eyelids did droop dangerously, though, and he swayed on his feet. They had reached the exhausted part of the mako-shot aftermath.

               Despite it all, his mouth was going dry, and not for reasons he was proud of. Damn it all, Cloud was ill, and weak, and vulnerable. He was trusting Sephiroth with this moment. He pulled his eyes away from where they had been wandering, with Cloud having no idea what that look in his eyes was.

               For the first time, Sephiroth realized that Cloud was attractive. Painfully so. He was pretty like this, with his defenses down, that stony look far from his face, his eyes soft and trusting. His pale skin was perfect, without blemish despite his warrior’s way of life and what horrors he had apparently seen at Hojo’s hand. His body was sculpted in a way that few people were able to accomplish, and here he was, mostly naked and dripping wet, completely unaware of what he looked like. He was tempting. And he did it all with an air of innocence—for all that Sephiroth was sure that he had seen too much, he seemed entirely clueless to the idea that anyone might want him the way that Sephiroth now realized he did. It made him ache to teach Cloud that bodies could be for something other than pain and killing.

               But this was not the time, or the place. Cloud was in no state to even consider, much less consent to such activities, and his day had been hell. A hell he was apparently familiar with, despite the fact that no one, ever, should be. It was enough of a reminder to stop those thoughts in their tracks

               “We’ll talk about it in the morning,” Sephiroth said, approaching Cloud. He put one hand on his shoulder and steered him into the bedroom. “Do you need help getting changed? Is your leg better?”

               “Yeah, it’s healed,” Cloud said, and it was a testament to the fact that he was still out of it that he said it calmly. “I can manage on my own.”

               “Do you want one of us to the stay the night with you, in case you get worse?”

               Cloud shook his head, already yawning.

               “No, that’s fine. I’ve always managed on my own. You guys didn’t have to come to begin with, but thank you. It was nice to have company.”

               Sephiroth wasn’t sure he’d be thanking him in the morning, when he realized what he’d been tricked into saying, but for now, the sentiment warmed Sephiroth.

               “You’re welcome. We’re happy to help, anytime. I mean that.”

               Cloud smiled sleepily, and Sephiroth’s heart almost stopped in his chest. He’d never seen that expression from him before. Had he ever seen him smile, really? That sincerely? That openly?

               “Thanks. I don’t think you know how much that means.”

               No, but he was starting to.

               Sephiroth put one hand on Cloud’s shoulder and squeezed lightly. He was surprised when the young man leaned into the contact.

               “Zack or I, both if we can, will be around in the morning to make sure you’re okay.”

               “Mmhmm,” Cloud said tiredly, rubbing at his eye. “I’ll be fine. I always am. Worst of it’s passed by now.”

               “Still. One or both of us will be by in the morning. Call if you need anything.”

               Cloud snorted, as if the idea was outrageous, but nodded.

               “Get some rest,” Sephiroth said quietly, stepping out of the room. He listened at the door, heard Cloud open and shut some drawers, rustling around inside of them. He waited until he heard a soft thwump of Cloud falling into bed before stepping away.

               “Are you free in the morning?” Sephiroth asked Zack, coming down the hall to where the First was pulling on his boots.

               “Nah, I’ve got training scheduled with some Seconds. Why?”

               “I told him one of us would check up on him, just in case. I have time, though, I’ll do it.”

               “Think he’ll have more problems?”

               “He seemed confident he wouldn’t, but I’d like to be sure. Besides, I get the feeling he’ll want to talk when he realizes what he said tonight.”

               Zack frowned down at his boot.

               “It doesn’t sit right with me, the way we got him to talk.”

               “You know there was no other way. He’s too afraid, of Hojo I’m guessing, to say anything otherwise. Hopefully, now that he’s already spilled some things, he’ll be willing to tell us the rest.”

               “Hopefully, but I wouldn’t bet on it,” Zack said, tying off his second boot and standing upright.

               “Regardless. It was my idea, and I will take responsibility for it.”

               Zack squinted at him for a second.

               “I’d argue with you, but I don’t think I’d get through to you.”

               “You wouldn’t.”

               Zack sighed and shook his head, opening the door and holding it open for Sephiroth. They both stepped through, the lock whirring shut behind them.

               “Think he’ll be okay?” Zack asked, glancing back at the door.

               “We’ll make sure he is,” Sephiroth swore.

               And he was a man of his word.

Chapter Text

               Sephiroth groaned quietly. His PHS was trilling from its place on the bedside table. He picked it up without looking at it and pressed it to his ear.

               “Sephiroth speaking.”

               “My apartment. Now.”

               The call ended.

               Apparently Cloud was awake.

               Apparently Cloud was awake, and he remembered last night.

               Sephiroth squinted one eye open and looked at the time on his PHS. 0436. That was only a little over four hours of sleep; that was hardly enough to recover from mako. But apparently Cloud had done it. And he was furious.

               Sephiroth sighed, knowing he had every right to be. He climbed out of bed and dressed quickly, knowing it would do no good to stall this. He rushed up to Cloud’s apartment and knocked on the door.

               It was barely three seconds after he knocked that the door was flung open. Cloud grabbed him by the lapels, dragged him into the apartment, and slammed him up against the wall next to the door, kicking the door shut with one foot. He leaned up toward him, his teeth bared in a snarl.

               “How dare you?”

               “Cloud, I know what I did—”

               “You have no idea what you did! I have done everything in my power to keep you and Zack safe, despite your best attempts at interference, and you took advantage of me while I was weak? When I was trusting you?

               Sephiroth set his hand on top of Cloud’s, but it was knocked away. He grabbed his lapel again, pulled him from the wall, only to slam him back against it again so hard his head banged against the drywall.

               “I’m sorry I took advantage, but there’s no way you would have told us otherwise.”

               “Because you shouldn’t know! Because it’s dangerous for you to know. Do you understand what will happen to you, to all of us if they find out you know what happened?”

               “No, Cloud, because you won’t tell us anything.”

               “For good reason. Shinra won’t be pleased if they find out anyone else knows what happens in those labs, no matter your clearance. Everyone who is allowed to know already does.”

               “Neither Zack or I will say anything, Cloud, you have my word.”

               Cloud barked out a harsh laugh, face twisting in a sneer.

               “Your word? Your word doesn’t count for anything. If they find out you know, they’ll force a confession out of you. I don’t care how hardened you think you are—you will break. Everyone breaks.”

               “Have you broken?”

               “Sephiroth, you aren’t listening. You have to stop asking these questions, they will get you nowhere but in the line of fire.”

               “I’m willing to be there.”

               “Then you don’t understand the stakes.”

               “I think I’m starting to.”

               “You don’t understand. I won’t stand for it, Sephiroth. Do you think I could sleep at night, knowing I put you and Zack where I’ve been? Hells, do you think they wouldn’t make me watch as punishment, so I would learn to keep my mouth shut? I will not see that happen to you, Sephiroth. You will not be where I have been.”

               “You don’t have to protect me, Cloud. Let someone protect you, for a change.”

               “Protect…? Sephiroth, no. You can’t protect me from them. Not from the labs, or from the Professor, or from Shinra itself. I am property, do you understand that? I am not a man, I am a weapon to be perfected and used at their discretion. My life is not my own, and it never has been. You cannot stop that.”

               Sephiroth’s face was hard. These were truths he didn’t like to hear, and it broke his heart to hear Cloud speak this way about himself.

               “You are not a thing, and one way or another, I will teach you that. You’re human, Cloud, just as much as I am.”

               “I am not and I never have been, you need to understand that, and you need to let this go. I won’t see you turned into what I am.”

               “If you just give me a chance to—”

               “To what? Get yourself into trouble that I can’t get you out of? To trick me into being the one who led you there?”

               “Cloud, I already said, if there had been any other way—”

               “There wasn’t another way for a very good reason. Did you not think I had cause to keep my mouth shut? That there was a reason it took me being out of my mako-addled mind to tell you as much as I did?”

               “Cloud, I—”

               “Sephiroth, last night is the first time my trust has ever been betrayed, because I have never given it to anyone else before. I allowed you and Zack to see me while I was weak and vulnerable, because I trusted you. Gaia, you could never understand how grateful I was last night that you were there. I have never in my life had someone help me pick up the pieces before. If anyone was ever there, they stood by and watched as I suffered and took notes. You—for gods’ sake, you were the first person in my life to lay hands on me in kindness. I let you be there against my better judgement, and you took advantage of the moment to satisfy your curiosity, because apparently no one has ever taught you that curiosity is dangerous.”

               Sephiroth softened, something infinitely sad in his eyes. He reached out towards Cloud’s face.

               “Cloud…”

               “Godsdammit, I told you not to look at me like that!” he snapped, batting Sephiroth’s hand away. His face was twisted in something he knew he should have hidden but couldn’t manage to. He didn’t realize his hurt was so clear to see.

               “Cloud, I just want to help.”

               “You can’t. There’s nothing anyone can do, don’t you see that?”

               Sephiroth shook his head lightly. This time, when he set his hand on Cloud’s wrist, he was allowed.

               “I can’t stop them, no. But let me do what I can.”

               Cloud snorted, the sound harsh and derisive.

               “What’s that?”

               “Be here for you. I promise, no more questions about things you aren’t allowed to discuss. I will be here, no matter what they do, to help you put the pieces back together. I’ll help you get used to civilian life, step by step if that’s what it takes. And if you ever change your mind, if you’re ever ready to discuss what happened, what’s still happening, I’ll be there for that too.”

               The look Cloud gave him was wary, but deep with longing. He wanted to trust Sephiroth. This was everything he had ever wanted, everything he had begged the gods for as a child. Not to make it all stop, no, he’d always known that was impossible. But for him to at least not have to suffer it alone.

               The moment lingered, as Cloud, with last night still fresh on his mind, couldn’t quite take the step to trust Sephiroth again.

               “Please, Cloud,” Sephiroth whispered. “You said you couldn’t watch what happened to you happen to me. Don’t make me watch you suffer alone.”

               Cloud’s fingers tightened in the front of Sephiroth’s jacket. His shoulders hunched. He dipped his head, pressed his forehead to Sephiroth’s chest. He took a slow, deep, shuddering breath, but then he stepped away. When he did, he was composed again.

               “Fine. But if you pull another stunt like last night, I will not speak to you outside of work necessity again.”

               “I understand.”

               Cloud looked at him closely, inspecting every line of his face for truthfulness. Sephiroth did everything in his power to convey his sincerity. He didn’t like giving up on the truth. He knew it would nag him to no end. But he knew enough, now, and the rest of it wasn’t worth losing Cloud. He couldn’t stomach the idea of abandoning this man to his fate because he didn’t know when to stop pushing. Whatever was on his face must have satisfied Cloud eventually, because he nodded and made his way into the kitchen.

               “Come help me make sense of what nonsense Zack put in here,” he called over his shoulder, and just like that, the tension was gone.

               Sephiroth trailed after the blond, subtly righting his jacket, as he peered over his shoulder into the refrigerator. Zack had really only gotten basics, and healthy ones that he never would have picked out for himself. Fruits, vegetables, yogurts, nothing that strictly needed preparation, but some things that could use it, in case no one was available to show him how to cook something that would spoil if left unattended, or gods forbid, that Cloud would try to eat raw out of ignorance when it really needed to be cooked. The cabinets boasted a few types of granola and some sugar-free cereals next to the piles of MREs. All things that Cloud would be able to handle with minimal instruction.

               So Sephiroth ran him through explanations of what everything was and what to do with it, Cloud nodding along quietly in front of him as he pointed and gestured over his shoulder.

               There was an undercurrent of what they weren’t saying, now, though. Cloud had let slip last night that he had been with Professor Hojo since he was a child, ostensibly as a human experiment. He had been brought up to be Shinra’s star SOLDIER, their next general, and the best one they would ever have. He gathered that he had been given the minimal amount of nutrition to keep him running at his peak, and with no regard for taste at that. It had likely been protein powder and MREs all his life. He was given nothing unnecessary, nothing simply for the pleasure of eating it. It was a nagging thought at the back of his mind, that this was why he had to explain these foods at all, and it irritated him like a sore tooth.

               Eventually, an idea struck, and he found it vastly improved his mood.

               He finished his lessons on the food Zack had bought and then stepped around Cloud to pull a carton of ripe strawberries out of the fridge. He held it out to Cloud.

               “Strawberries, right?” he said, not understanding why Sephiroth was handing them to him, but taking them nonetheless.

               “Right. Try one.”

               Cloud looked at him curiously.

               “Why?”

               “You said you’ve never had fruit before, didn’t you?”

               “I did.”

               “Have you ever had anything sweet before?”

               “I… don’t believe so. Sugar is unhealthy.”

               Sephiroth nodded to himself in satisfaction, then gestured to the carton.

               “Then humor me. Try one.”

               Cloud looked at him with a hint of confusion, but popped open the carton. He plucked out one bright red strawberry, set it the carton on the counter, and ran the berry under the faucet. Then he turned back to Sephiroth and looked at the man, hesitant now.

               He nodded his encouragement, and Cloud shrugged. He took a bite.

               His eyes widened for a second, and then he chewed, and they slipped shut, a quiet moan escaping his lips.

               Sephiroth didn’t fight the smile that took his face, but he did fight the way he felt his eyes grow dark. The things he wouldn’t give to hear that sound in another context. Cloud really had no idea what he was doing. It was entirely artless, the sound he made, the twist of pleasure on his face. It was as if he didn’t even know those things could be taken in another context. Maybe he didn’t.

               Maybe Sephiroth would just have to teach him.

               He forcefully put those thoughts to the side before he could fall any further down that rabbit hole.

               Cloud finished the strawberry and looked with poorly concealed longing at the rest of the carton. Sephiroth laughed outright.

               “No one’s watching your diet now, Cloud. No one but us will know if you eat the rest of the carton. And besides, regardless of what you’ve been told, fruit is healthy.”

               Cloud’s mouth formed that little pout again. Gods, he really was distracted if he let that show.

               “But if I gain weight…”

               “We can go to the gym or VR room today, if you like, and burn it off.”

               Cloud looked back to him with interest.

               “Will you spar with me?”

               Sephiroth looked at him in vague surprise.

               “I didn’t think you’d be interested in sparring again. You beat me rather handily last time. I thought I must have bored you.”

               Cloud’s hand reached out to the carton, pulled back, and then after another moment of hesitation, he snatched it up and ran the entire thing under the sink. He shook the container to release as much water as possible, and then held it out to Sephiroth in offering, who was quietly touched by the gesture. Cloud had just found something that he seemed to be regarding as a treasure and he offered it to Sephiroth. The blond might not have any experience in friendship, but it seemed like Hojo hadn’t succeeded in entirely killing off his warm heart. Sephiroth just shook his head, getting more enjoyment out of watching Cloud enjoy the newfound treat than he would have from eating himself. Cloud just shrugged and bit into another strawberry. He didn’t moan this time (shame, that) but a small, sincere smile did form on his lips, and that was just as precious.

               “I won, yes, but you give me a challenge. That’s hard to come by.”

               If it was anyone else, that would have bristled against Sephiroth’s pride. But he had seen Cloud in action, knew that it really wasn’t fair to compare him to any other person alive.

               “You know, from anyone else, I would have said that was a backhanded compliment, but I feel like you’re being sincere.”

               Cloud frowned. It wasn’t quite that pout, and Sephiroth found himself wishing that it was.

               “I am being sincere. If I wanted to insult you, you would know.”

               “I believe you. For some reason, I don’t think you were ever trained in wordplay.”

               It was a test. Would Cloud react negatively to any reference to his past, now that there was some measure of truth between them?

               Apparently not. He snorted, but there was a faint smile on his lips and a hint of mischief in his eyes.

               “No, but I got very good at back-talking without anyone knowing what I was doing. I did it to you when we first met.”

               Sephiroth scowled as a front, but his heart was warm. He found he liked that glimmer of mischief. He liked the idea of Cloud being playful. Maybe there was a way to thaw the ice around him, now that they were away from the warfront.

               “Don’t think I didn’t notice.”

               “Oh, you might have eventually, but you never did at first. I doubt you would have let me get away with it if you had.”

               Cloud was smirking now. He took another bite of strawberry, pausing, letting his eyes flutter shut. Sephiroth wanted to make him react like that himself. No, he wasn’t supposed to be thinking that way. Why did he have to see Cloud in that towel last night? These thoughts hadn’t come to him before. But then again, he doubted he could have heard Cloud moan outright the way he had this morning and not had his mind fall into the gutter.

               Sephiroth shook his head, both at his comment and to clear the thoughts from his head before they got any worse.

               “You’re right about that. I wanted very badly to teach you a lesson when you first arrived and refused to defer to me.”

               He could think of a few other ways he’d like to teach the man a lesson.

               No.

               Godsdammit, when did his mind get this filthy?

               Cloud snorted a laugh, the smirk fading to a small, secret smile.

               “I know, you weren’t very subtle about it. But we shared rank, it would have been improper for me to defer to you.”

               Sephiroth gave his best put-upon sigh.

               “I understand that now, and at this point, you’ve more than earned your place. It would be my pleasure to spar with you, Cloud, if you’re interested.”

               “I am. I do have some work to get done today, but maybe after?”

               “Of course, I ought to do the same. Let me leave you to your breakfast. I’ll see you this afternoon?”

               “Yes. I’ll call you when I’m done?”

               “Very well. Have a good day, Cloud.”

               “You as well, Sephiroth.”

               Sephiroth nodded and slipped from the apartment, only faintly regretting that he wouldn’t get to watch Cloud eat the rest of the strawberries. But then again, that was another thought to be forcefully pushed to the side.

               Both Cloud and Sephiroth spent their days at their desks, plowing through paperwork. Sephiroth was much accustomed to it, but Cloud had gotten used to a little more action during his days. Yes, there had been quite a lot of time with paperwork and planning in the field, but there had also been battles. He’d never sat behind a desk all day before, and he found he didn’t like this. If this was what civilian life was going to be like, he didn’t think he’d enjoy it.

               Sephiroth did take a break to call Zack, though, and let him know what happened in the morning. Not the details, but to at least pass on that he had given Cloud his word not to ask any more questions until such a time came when he wanted to discuss the matter. Zack, needless to say, was not happy. He tried to press the fact that he had never given his word, but Sephiroth shut that down quickly. Cloud was keeping his mouth shut, apparently, not because he was afraid for himself, but because he was afraid for them. While Sephiroth didn’t think either of them needed protecting, he wasn’t going to add to the blond’s already substantial burden. When it was phrased that way, Zack, however reluctantly, agreed to back off.

               Still, Sephiroth found that he had grown over-bored of his paperwork. By the time Cloud finally called, he was leaning back in his chair, twiddling a pen aimlessly and staring at the ceiling, trying to process what he had learned about the Science Department.

               He still sounded distracted when he picked up the PHS and said, “Sephiroth speaking.”

               “Sephiroth, it’s Cloud. Are you ready?”

               “I am. Meet me at the VR room on 59th floor?”

               “I’m not sure where it is on that floor.”

               “Meet me at the elevator, then. I’ll show you.”

               “I’ll see you there.”

               Sephiroth stood from his chair and snatched Masamune from where it was leaning against the wall, something light in his step. It would be good to get out of the office and stretch his legs. It would be better to spar against Cloud. He hadn’t had a chance after that first initial brawl that had ended so poorly. They had been kept busy otherwise, and he was itching for a rematch. He doubted it would end any other way, but he wanted to try, regardless. After being at the peak of his field for so long, it was a new experience to have such a challenge, and that was a brick wall he was happy to throw himself against time and again.

               He stepped out of the elevators to find Cloud waiting for him, standing stock still, the way he always did. After this morning, he was hoping for some sort of expression, but they were in public, now, and that seemed to have shut off. He found himself missing even the small smiles.

               Sephiroth led them to the VR Room, stepping up to the console to select their location.

               “Have you used the rooms before?”

               “Yes, plenty of times. They’re good for training.”

               “Do you have a favorite location?”

               Cloud hummed in thought, pulling his sword off his back and looking it over with a close eye.

               “I like cities or forests. The limited visibility makes things more interesting.”

               “Let’s try Midgar, then.”

               Cloud hummed again and pulled the helmet onto his head, apparently satisfied with his inspection of his sword. Sephiroth booted up the room and stepped inside, pulling on his own helmet.

               They took a long moment to look at each other as the virtual reality settled in around them. Each slid into a ready stance. Sephiroth didn’t wait for Cloud to make the first move this time, knowing he would need the advantage. Cloud bided his time, feeling Sephiroth out again, staying on the defensive. He let himself warm up gradually, not quite yet given a challenge by Sephiroth’s maneuvering, but then Sephiroth wasn’t trying his hardest yet either, still warming up himself.

               He did, however, slowly increase the pace. He built and built and built until they were a blur through the streets of Midgar. Eventually, Cloud did what he had been waiting for him to do from the start. He stopped playing coy. He switched to offensive, knocking Masamune out of the way and pressing forward. Sephiroth knew that Cloud was quicker than he was, but he had forgotten the scale of their difference. He was struggling to keep up. Their battle had gone on for quite a bit now, but he could feel it rapidly coming to a close as Cloud got lost in the fight and stopped holding back quite so much. He didn’t get quite lost enough, however, that he didn’t pull his blow when Sephiroth stumbled over Cloud’s outstretched foot and fell to his back, First Tsurugi’s point quickly under his chin. Sephiroth’s chest was heaving as he fought for breath, looking up the long line of steel to Cloud’s face. It had fallen into a blank mask, apparently his default expression during battle. But as he watched, it bloomed. It was a small, faint little smile—they were still more or less in public, after all. But it was there. Cloud reassembled his sword and slipped it onto his back, stooping to hold a hand out to Sephiroth. If it had been anyone else, he would have brushed it aside, but he accepted Cloud’s offer and let the young man pull him to standing.

               “Want to go again?”

               “You are a fiend, Cloud Strife. Give me a moment to breathe.”

               Cloud’s smile grew a hair at that, but he nodded and backed off. There was a pleasant, companionable silence between them as Sephiroth caught his breath.

               They ended up losing track of how many rounds they went. They all ended with Sephiroth’s throat at the tip of Cloud’s blade. He wanted to be infuriated by that, but all he felt was a curious thrill. No one had ever beaten him in combat so many times, and Cloud seemed to do it with little effort. Little effort, but a lot of enjoyment. He found he would run himself ragged to see those tiny smiles form again and again. In fact, that’s what he did.

               In the end, Sephiroth was lying on the floor, his hair plastered to his face with sweat before he pushed it out of the way.

               “That’s it, I’m sorry, Cloud, but I’m done.”

               He didn’t look up so he didn’t have to see the disappointment on Cloud’s face, despite knowing that it was there. He did hear his little hum though.

               “That’s alright. Will you be sore in the morning?”

               Sephiroth laughed quietly.

               “The mako will take care of it by morning, but I’ll certainly be sore all night.”

               Not from the activities he wished he was sore from.

               Gods, he was hopeless.

               “Would you like to spar again tomorrow?”

               Sephiroth cracked open one eye and peered up at Cloud. He was examining his sword for damage, a look of careful disinterest on his face. It was the blank look that was telling. Sephiroth was finding that, unless under stress or in front of more people, Cloud usually had at least some small tells. When he went blank, he was hiding something.

               Like the fact that he wanted very much to spar again, but didn’t want Sephiroth to know quite how interested he was.

               Sephiroth smiled and shut his eyes again. Sometimes Cloud acted his age.

               “I’d like that,” he said, his closed eyes making him miss the way Cloud’s eyes immediately cut to him. “I can see if Zack’s busy as well. Perhaps the two of us would be more challenge for you.”

               He glanced up at Cloud just in time to see him bury the spark of interest in his eyes.

               “Sure,” he said, nonchalant.

               Would Cloud ever learn that it was okay to ask for what he wanted? That it was okay to receive what he wanted?

               Sephiroth sat up and hauled himself to his feet.

               “Zack’s been itching to take you to dinner since we saw the MREs in your kitchen, anyway. Perhaps we can do that after.”

               Cloud’s face remained perfectly blank.

               “I wouldn’t mind.”

               “… You know, Cloud, it’s okay to want things. You’re allowed that much. You’re even allowed to have what you want.”

               Cloud looked at him in surprise, then ducked his head. It was a foreign concept to him. No one was ever interested in what he wanted. In fact, he wasn’t supposed to want anything at all. Weapons didn’t have desires. If he ever admitted to wanting anything, it was promptly forbidden from him. If he ever even admitted to liking something that had already been given to him, it was taken from him. This wasn’t something that was allowed.

               Then again, recreational televisions, plush beds, hot showers, and fruit had never been allowed before, either.

               Before Sephiroth could think about what he was doing, before he could second guess himself, he stepped closer, into Cloud’s personal space. He tilted Cloud’s chin up so the young man would look at him and found his fingers lingering.

               “I’d like to give you the things you want, Cloud. Anything that is in my power to give. I know you don’t believe it, but you deserve happiness. I understand that there are people who disagree with me on that, but they aren’t here right now, and any time that they aren’t, I’d like you to tell me the things that you want. It’s much more difficult to give them to you if I have to guess. Could you try?”

               Cloud looked at him with a faint pinch in his eyebrows, the most of his bafflement that he would allow to show while in a semi-public area. He didn’t understand the sentiment. No one had ever wanted to give him anything, but Sephiroth was looking at him like he wanted to give him the world. It just didn’t make any sense. He was… he was nothing. A weapon, nothing more. Property. A thing. Inhuman. People weren’t supposed to connect with him—they weren’t supposed to even consider it. No one should look at him and feel any sort of kinship. But here Sephiroth was, with his gentle touches and kind words. Sephiroth, who he couldn’t scare off, no matter how hard he tried. It made something in him yearn, though he didn’t know for what. Sephiroth himself, maybe.

               “I… I can try.”

               Sephiroth smiled softly.

               “Thank you.”

               It took everything in Sephiroth’s power not to duck his head and kiss Cloud in that moment. So, carefully, he stepped away.

               Cloud felt the loss of his body heat like a physical ache.

               “Goodnight, Cloud. I’ll see you tomorrow. Get some rest, and try for more than a handful of hours this time, hmm?”

               He nodded dumbly.

               Sephiroth nodded back and exited the room.

               Cloud stood there for a long time, staring at the door.

               What had that been?

Chapter Text

               Cloud distinctly did not follow Sephiroth’s request to sleep more than a handful of hours. He only slept three this time, awake with some strange, buzzing energy after his bizarre encounter with Sephiroth. He was not, however, a man accustomed to boredom. In the labs, there was always something to be done. Some test to do, something to study. During the war, there were always supplies and troop movements to coordinate, battles to plan. Now? There was a stack of paperwork he hadn’t managed to get through, which did not appeal to him. He decided his best bet was to go train, but then he realized that he did not know where the SOLDIER First gym he had been directed to use was. He could call and ask Zack or Sephiroth, but then he would wake them up, and have to make up an excuse as to why he was looking to train at 0230 in the morning.

               Having nothing better to do and time to kill, he wound his way through the mostly empty Shinra Tower to his office. Instead of settling into work, however, he decided to poke around on his new laptop. He’d opened and closed a dozen programs before he found one that let him play chess against an automated opponent, and he lit up. Chess was one of the few things he had been taught in the labs that he had enjoyed, which was a secret he guarded fiercely, out of fear that they would stop letting him play. He turned up the difficulty as high as it would go, but unfortunately, found the program relatively easy to beat. In the privacy of his office, he allowed himself to frown at the screen. He would have thought “Expert” would be more challenging. Still, it was better than nothing, and it had been quite a while since he had been allowed to play. Hojo was tired of losing to him, and the other scientists were, for the most part, terrible. They used to bring in a professional, when they had been serious about bringing his skill level up to par, but he hadn’t seen that man in years. When he started winning too consistently, that, too, had been taken away.

               Still, he thought, eyeing the stack of paperwork on the corner of his desk, simplistic chess was better than what he was supposed to be doing. He wasted his morning soundly beating the program over and over. He only stopped once Steven, his secretary, wandered in and almost dropped the new stack of paperwork on the floor in his surprise to see him there. Cloud had looked at him, blank and unimpressed, as he collected himself, before scurrying forward to leave the papers on his desk with a softly muttered, “Sir.”

               He didn’t know why Steven insisted on calling him “sir.” He was not a member of the army, or of SOLDIER. He was not under his command in any way that mattered. He could order this man to get him coffee, perhaps, but not to risk his life. He didn’t understand why he intimidated him, but was coming to grasp the fact that he intimidated everyone. He still wasn’t sure why. As Hojo had reminded him before the war, he hadn’t been expected to be taken seriously as he still had baby fat hanging around his cheeks and was annoyingly short. But Steven, for one, didn’t seemed deterred by either of those things.

               He watched Steven until he left, and then eyed the stacks of paper. He’d stared at them for a good thirty seconds before deciding 0815 was early enough to risk a PHS call.

               “Sephiroth speaking.”

               “Where is the SOLDIER First gym?”

               “Good morning, Cloud. Did you actually sleep until now or have you been up for hours waiting to call?”

               Damn, he was good.

               “… I’ve been up for a while. I thought I’d let you rest.”

               “I appreciate the thought, but you really ought to sleep more.”

               “I don’t need much sleep. I get an adequate amount.”

               “For some reason, I feel your judgement on what an adequate amount is might be skewed.”

               Cloud pursed his lips briefly. It was adequate. For him. Maybe not for anyone else, but it was enough for him.

               “Where is the SOLDIER First gym?” he repeated, instead of addressing that.

               He could hear Sephiroth sigh over the line.

               “Where are you? I’ll show you where it is.”

               “I’m in my office.”

               “Why are you doing paperwork so early?”

               “I… may not have actually started my paperwork yet.”

               “What have you been doing in your office, then?”

               “Playing chess against a very weak computer program.”

               “I didn’t even realize the standard issue computers had a chess program,” Sephiroth wondered quietly. “Regardless. I’ll be there shortly.”

               He hung up the call, only realizing afterward that he probably should have said goodbye. He was terrible at pleasantries. They had never been expected of him before. The only goodbye he was used to was a curt dismissal.

               He started another game against the program while he waited for Sephiroth, wishing absently that it had a higher difficulty available.  He had gotten through another two rounds before there was a knock at his door. He gladly closed the laptop, grabbed his sword from where it was leaning against his desk, and left the office.

               Sephiroth, for his part, was as Cloud had never seen him. He wasn’t in uniform. He was wearing a black T-shirt that stretched tight across his muscles, hiding very little (why was that so interesting to Cloud?), fitted gray sweatpants, and running shoes. His hair was drawn back into a ponytail behind his head. As Cloud eyed Sephiroth’s outfit, Sephiroth eyed his in turn.

               “Why are you in uniform if you’re going to do PT?”

               Cloud blinked. He shrugged.

               “All I have are the uniforms.”

               Sephiroth looked surprised at that, then he sighed heavily.

               “Of course. Come on, then.”

               Sephiroth led him to the elevator, looking remarkably out of place in his attire in an office setting. It didn’t seem to bother him. He pressed a button on the elevator wall and settled back to watch the numbers tick by.

               “We’ll take you shopping when your first paycheck comes in. You ought to have some PT clothes, and at least a pair or two of civilian clothes in case you need to go somewhere in the city. You could wear the uniforms, but I suspect you’d be recognized. Your face has been plastered across the entirety of Midgar, and I think you’re in every other commercial on television now.”

               Cloud ducked his head. If he hadn’t spent a large time mastering the instinct, he would have blushed. He didn’t like the publicity. He’d stood for the photos and videos, even fought some very basic monsters for the camera, but he didn’t like it. He knew there was little point to an ultra-powerful weapon as a deterrent for future wars if people didn’t know it existed, and that it was the company’s right to have him do whatever they wished, but he didn’t have to enjoy it.

               “I got half of an entirely full elevator to leave just to make room for me the other day. I didn’t do anything more than walk forward.”

               Sephiroth snorted, and the sound drew Cloud’s eyes up. He, at least, looked faintly amused. He was glad at least someone got entertainment out of the situation, because he for one hated it.

               “It must have been a sight to see, a Shinra elevator emptying for someone as short as you are.”

               Cloud glared up at Sephiroth just in time to see the man’s eyes flicker down to his, bright with amusement. His glare lost most of his heat when he saw the enjoyment on Sephiroth’s face. He hadn’t meant it as a barb, apparently, but more as a joke. Cloud crossed his arms and looked toward the door.

               “I didn’t need to be tall to win a war.”

               “You had help.”

               “I could have done it without you or Zack.”

               “You could have,” Sephiroth said, surprising him by agreeing, even sounding chipper about it, “but you didn’t.”

               “My height has nothing to do with my skill in battle.”

               “You know, maybe you’d be fine in the city in your uniform. I doubt anyone would be able to see you in a crowd anyway.”

               “You could just ask me to spar, if you’re that interested in being taught a lesson.”

               Sephiroth looked down at him, and was lucky Cloud didn’t see it, because there was something darker than amusement in his eyes. He would be very interested in Cloud teaching him a lesson. Provided it was in another context.

               Instead of commenting on this, he looked back to the numbers on the screen.

               “Is that any way to speak to your elders?”

               “You, Sephiroth, have been around Zack far too long.”

               At this, a smirk curled against Sephiroth’s lips.

               “You might be right.”

               The door dinged open not long after that. The generals stepped out and Sephiroth led them to the gym. There were three Firsts who looked up at them when they entered. Despite the fact that their COs had just walked into the room, no one saluted or jumped to attention. There were a few lazy waves before they went back to their workouts.

               “There is no rank in the gym. Here, we are all just Firsts,” Sephiroth explained to him. There must have been some hint of expression on his face. Or Sephiroth had just gotten that good at reading him. He hoped it wasn’t that last one. That could be troublesome. “Are you familiar with all the equipment?”

               “Very,” Cloud said, and without further comment, made his way to the treadmills. He began stretching out, only looking up when Sephiroth came to stand at the machine next to his and did the same.

               Before long, Cloud was stepping onto the machine, turning it up to what was, for him, a brisk jog, but looked like a breakneck speed that wouldn’t be sustainable to the other Firsts in the room, who kept glancing over at him. Sephiroth snorted lightly when he saw him crank up the speed, but made no comment as he stepped onto his own machine.

               There was no conversation between them, just companionable silence and the sound of their feet hitting the machines. After a long, long moment, when it became clear that Cloud and Sephiroth were more interested in their own workouts than whatever the Firsts were doing, the other three in the room began chatting idly amongst themselves as they lifted their weights.

               Cloud, for his part, was unaccustomed to this much noise as he exercised. He was used to the sound of pens scratching, keyboards clicking, Hojo’s endless muttering into his recording devices, but what was an overall relatively quiet susurrus in the gym felt like a din to him. At first it was overwhelming and kept distracting him, pulling his attention in ways he didn’t like. But he found, after some time, that it was actually relaxing. He didn’t like being around other people because the focus of the room tended to be on him, and he disliked being the center of attention. Conversation was usually directed to him, and he was forever left stumbling, trying to figure out what to say. This way, no one expected anything of him, but there was the presence of others around him. Others who seemed to be, for the most part, unintimidated by him. The Firsts gave up looking at him once they got used to the sight of him running so insanely fast without breaking a sweat or getting out of breath. Sephiroth was a quiet but steady presence at his side, not so much as glancing at him the entire time. Cloud found himself getting comfortably lost in the movement of running, his mind drifting pleasantly.

               He could have gone much longer, but he decided to cut his run short at two hours and come back to the machine for a second round later. By the time he climbed down from the machine, Sephiroth had already left, going to lift weights himself. The three Firsts who had been there when they entered were cooling down now, stretching themselves out and drinking water. They watched with interest as he loaded weights onto his bar and began lifting. Cloud felt a little self-conscious at the attention. He wasn’t entirely sure what the average amount of weight for a First was, only what his averages were, and what had been expected of him in the labs. Resigned to the fact that there was no real way for him to guess what a different First would have done, he loaded up his usual and went to work. It wasn’t a staggering amount, anything that would have caused him to truly strain or make him fear dropping the bar, but it was enough that he soon felt a pleasant, familiar burn in his muscles.

               He did, however, notice when the Firsts began whispering to themselves as he began. It was only by virtue of his sensitive hearing that he was able to eavesdrop and know that they weren’t judging him for not putting enough weight on, but instead astonished at how much he was lifting with such apparent ease. He found he didn’t like their amazement much more than he would have liked their disdain. He decided quickly that he would come as soon as he woke next time and hoped the early hour would mean the gym would be empty.

               When the whispering grew too loud, Sephiroth coughed pointedly and looked at them out of the corner of his eye. This got them to wrap up and leave in a hurry.

               When they were alone, Sephiroth said, “They’re not used to seeing anyone lift that much.” His tone was apologetic, but Cloud didn’t understand why. He hadn’t been the one whispering.

               “It’s really not that much,” Cloud protested, setting the weights down.

               “Forgive me for saying so, Cloud, but you’re really the last person who can judge that.”

               Cloud sighed. He had a point.

               They worked in companionable silence for another hour and a half before Sephiroth began putting his weights away.

               “How much longer are you intending to stay?”

               Cloud hummed thoughtfully.

               “I’m used to going all day, really, but I do have some paperwork to do, and you promised to bring Zack and spar with me. I had planned to go longer, but maybe I should wrap up myself.”

               “You can always come back tomorrow.”

               Cloud looked at him oddly.

               “I thought that was a given.”

               Sephiroth shook his head, but he looked fond.

               “I’m going to shower. Meet us in the same VR room we used last time. Zack and I will get there early to warm up.”

               “Why are you warming up without me?”

               “Because, Cloud, you don’t seem to really need a warm up.”

               Cloud paused, then shrugged. It was true enough.

               Sephiroth had a faint smile on his face as he looked on.

               “I’ll see you later, Cloud. Don’t spend too long in here.”

               “I won’t,” Cloud agreed, despite thinking you couldn’t really spend too long in a gym.

               Sephiroth ducked out of the room, and Cloud continued to work, keeping half an eye on the time. He really did need to get some work done today, despite the fact that he didn’t want to. Luckily, he was very good at getting himself to do things he didn’t want to do.

               The end of his workout came too quickly for his tastes, and before long he was trudging back up to his office with wet hair and a clean uniform. He worked half-heartedly for the rest of the day, successfully getting through one of the two stacks, but knowing he’d have to be more serious about the paperwork issue tomorrow. It was like it never ended.

               It was, however, with delight that he picked up the PHS when it rang.

               “Strife.”

               “Cloud, we’re ready for you. Are you coming?”

               “I’ll be right there.”

               He hung up and was out the door of his office in record time.

               He had a spring in his step as he made his way as quickly as possible to the VR room they had used the day before. When he got there, Sephiroth and Zack were sparring in what appeared to be Junon by the screen on the console. He watched them go at it closely with an expert’s eye, stretching as he did so. He found himself picking apart their form, noting openings they had left, when they overextended their reach, when they failed to take an opportunity. These were formidable men, he knew. The best in the world, next to him. But he couldn’t help but hear Hojo’s nagging voice in his ear, taking apart their flaws piece by piece. They were doing excellently, he knew objectively, but he also knew every little mistake they made. He wanted to correct them, make them better, bring them up to his speed if he could. He found he wanted them as equals. He didn’t want them to go through the process of being enhanced to his level, didn’t want their training to come at the cost his own had, but he wanted them to succeed, so much so that it surprised him. He had never expected to end up invested in his coworkers. He was never supposed to do so, and he expected if Hojo found out, he’d never hear the end of it. The three of them would probably end up stationed at opposite ends of the world as punishment. But here he was, wanting to train them, to make them the best they could be, to see them flourish more than they already did. He couldn’t help but think, though, that offers to train them would be received poorly. They had their pride, after all. He found he couldn’t begrudge them that.

               He waited until the bout ended, Sephiroth clearly the winner, before he paused the program. Both occupants of the room looked up as the simulated air went still around them. Cloud plucked a helmet off the shelf and slipped it on before entering the room. He was surprised to see both Zack and Sephiroth smile at his entrance. Sephiroth’s was small, the way his always were, while Zack’s was broad.

               “Cloud, you made it!”

               “Of course I made it. The only other thing I had to do was paperwork. It should be no surprise to anyone that I’d rather be here.”

               “Fair enough, sitting behind a desk all day sucks.”

               “So I’m learning.”

               Cloud drew his blade, but held it idly in hand. He wasn’t sure how to start this.

               “Have you stretched?” Sephiroth asked, watching closely as he drew his blade.

               Cloud nodded.

               “I did while you two were wrapping up. I’m ready to go if you are.”

               “Are you sure you want both of us at the same time? I know you’re good, Cloud, but we’ve been fighting together for years. We can be a little scary as a team.”

               Cloud felt a thrill run through him. He had been excited at the thought of facing them both at the same time, but he hadn’t realized they had experience fighting together before. He could imagine them working in synch, covering for each other’s weaknesses so that they left few openings at all. He knew well that multiple opponents were more difficult to juggle than single combatants, but these two on their own had merit as a challenge. Them working as a team—that was a treat.

               “Then you shouldn’t have a problem taking me down,” Cloud challenged. His tone would have been arrogant, if it had been anyone else. Instead, the words were said with a calm self-assurance. He knew he was the best, but had little interest in lording it over people. That didn’t stop him from mentioning it casually, as if it was something to be taken for granted.

               Zack rolled his eyes, but Sephiroth smirked. The two looked at each other, nodded briefly, and then rushed him at the same time.

               Zack had been right. They were a formidable team. They wove in and around each other seamlessly. They seemed to know each other’s ticks and quirks, compensating for weaknesses and covering gaps. Zack knew that Sephiroth tended to overextend on that particular thrust and Sephiroth knew that Zack was always a hair too slow to properly time that parry. They used materia as both weapon and distraction, and it was only Cloud’s skill with his Barrier spell that prevented this from being a real issue. Working as a unit, they left surprisingly few openings.

               But Cloud was a quick study, always had been. He was also blessed with a surprising amount of patience. He didn’t mind taking his time feeling out the other two, learning their patterns, finding the few holes in their defense that they did leave. It brought the entirety of his sharp mind into focus in a way few things did. He was dreadfully clever, and it took a lot to bring his entire mind to bear on a single task. But this was more of a challenge than Cloud had had in quite a few years, the entirety of the war included.

               He took his time, but eventually was satisfied with his assessment and went to work. His speed had always been his greatest asset. His was lithe and small, compact in a way most people weren’t, and it made him incredibly agile. The mako in his system certainly didn’t slow him down, either. It almost felt unfair to use, as he knew he was faster than the other two and there was nothing they could really do to compensate for that—it was largely the result of him simply being more enhanced. He had been taught at a very, very young age, however, that there was no such thing as a fair fight. In battle, you used every tool at your disposal to the height of its ability with no holding back and no remorse. Well, there was a little holding back, as this was a spar and not a death-match, but the point stood. He didn’t feel guilty about using his superior speed to his advantage, even if it made him move as a blur that the other two, enhanced or otherwise, were struggling to keep track of.

               The bout lasted longer than expected. Cloud, who was used to being timed and punished if he took too long in bringing down his opponent, initially felt anxious as he felt the fight stretching. But, he reminded himself, Hojo wasn’t here. There was no stopwatch. And he was having fun, which was something that had always been in short supply for Cloud. Fighting was the only thing he had been allowed growing up that he enjoyed, and he was reveling in this one. It felt good to put his hard-won skillset to good use.

               Still, it ended with Sephiroth slumped against a simulated building that he had gone flying into when Cloud kicked him, and Zack staring down First Tsurugi, which had its tip between his eyes.

               Zack blinked a few times before holding his hands up. Sephiroth, in the background, shook his head to clear it. Cloud reassembled his sword and put it in its place on his back. Zack propped his hands on his hips and let his head fall back with a groan. He was breathing heavily, sweat clinging to his brow. Sephiroth climbed to his feet and pulled an elastic off his wrist to tie his hair out of his face as he approached.

               “You’re fuckin’ unreal, Cloud,” Zack said as he panted, finally lifting his head with a grin.

               Cloud shrugged, but had his own small smile clinging to his lips.

               “That was quite the showing,” Sephiroth agreed, coming to stand at Zack’s side.

               Cloud shifted. He didn’t know what to do with compliments, but Zack and Sephiroth seemed determined to give them to him. He decided there was only one thing to do.

               Deflect.

               “You two make a good team,” Cloud said. “I haven’t had to work that hard in years.”

               “Years, he says,” Zack said, turning to grin at Sephiroth, who looked back at him, bemused. “Guy fights a war, half on his own, but says he hasn’t worked this hard in years.”

               Cloud shrugged again, not knowing what else to do.

               “War’s only challenge comes in numbers. The enemy never had any enhanced soldiers, and certainly not anyone as skilled as either of you,”

               “Aw, is that a compliment, Cloud?”

               Cloud ducked his head, a move that Hojo hated and would have gotten him in trouble but that he found himself doing often lately.

               He shrugged again. He was no good at this.

               Zack didn’t seem to mind, however, offering instead a booming laugh, accompanied by a quiet chuckle from Sephiroth. Zack reached out and ruffled Cloud’s hair, a move that astonished him into looking up with wide eyes. It was a rare moment in which he looked his age.

               “You’re so damn cute sometimes,” Zack said, pulling Cloud into a headlock to continue messing up his hair.

               Cloud twisted out of his grasp with ease and looked at him like he was insane.

               “I am not cute.”

               “Nah, you’re right. You’re adorable.”

               “I’m not—people are terrified of me!”

               “Only because they don’t know you and have never seen that wide-eyed look on your face.”

               Cloud scowled fiercely.

               “Or that little pout you do sometimes,” Zack continued, grinning widely.

               “I do not pout.”

               “You really do. And it’s cute as a button when you do it.”

               “People are afraid to even breathe near me.”

               “They wouldn’t dare to even do that much if they saw what you just did in this VR room, but that doesn’t mean you’re not cute.”

               Cloud looked at him like he had eight heads.

               It was a testament to the good mood that spar put him in that he was being this expressive at all.

               He was, however, done with this conversation.

               That didn’t stop a previous one from running through his head.

               “Could we…” Cloud hesitated, looking at Sephiroth, who tilted his head in curiosity. “Could we go again?”

               It was a fight not to shift on his feet uncomfortably, but Sephiroth had told him to just ask for the things he wanted. He just wasn’t sure how much he had meant it. It was a bizarre request, after all.

               But Sephiroth’s eyes softened at the edges and he gave him a look that Cloud couldn’t quite place. He was inclined to say he looked proud of him, only that couldn’t be right. That wasn’t something people did—not with him, at least. Surely he couldn’t be proud of him for such a trifle, even if it had been a struggle to get the words out in the first place. Even if it felt like showing a little bit of his soul to do so, even if it left him feeling vulnerable. Even if it cost him. There was no way Sephiroth could be proud of him for that. They were just words. Cloud put the matter aside, deciding that the idea was ridiculous and that he must have misread the expression.

               “Of course, Cloud,” Sephiroth said, and his voice was as gentle as his gaze.

               Zack looked between the two of them, and he must have read something there that Cloud himself didn’t understand, because he smiled fondly.

               “Winner buys dinner!”

               Cloud’s mouth turned downward.

               “Zack, that doesn’t amount to a bet so much as you telling me to buy dinner,” Cloud protested. The three of them knew it was a foregone conclusion that Cloud would win, but Zack and Sephiroth’s egos seemed unruffled by it. The fact that Cloud didn’t boast or brag had a lot to do with that.

               “Guess you’ll just have to throw this round,” Zack said brightly, though there was mischief in his eyes.

               Cloud blinked. It had never occurred to him to lose on purpose. It had always been a necessity to win, in the labs. There had never been a choice. It was succeed, or face the consequences, and the consequences were never pleasant.

               Still, he found the idea left a bad taste in his mouth. Losing in the labs had been humiliating and usually came with bloodshed, as the scientists tended to let whatever he was fighting continue hacking at him for a while as punishment. They always looked at him like he was pathetic afterwards, too. He knew logically that Zack and Sephiroth would do neither of those things, but the association he had with losing remained entirely negative. Besides, it would be disrespectful to them both as swordsmen to not try his best.

               The latter was the sentiment he decided to voice, saying, “Both of you deserve nothing less than my best.”

               Zack beamed at him but turned away, picking up his sword from where it lay on the floor, saying, “Compliment us all you want, Cloud, you’re still paying for dinner.”

               Sephiroth finally stepped in, but he looked amused while doing it.

               “Zack, Cloud hasn’t received a paycheck yet. He doesn’t have any gil to pay with.”

               Zack turned to look at Cloud oddly.

               “You don’t have any gil?”

               Cloud blinked at him. He couldn’t imagine why this was a surprise.

               “Of course not. Why would I? My expenses have always been paid for.”

               “I know your room and board was, but what about, like, stuff you just wanted?”

               Sephiroth sighed quietly. He knew about Cloud’s complicated relationship with wants, or at least was coming to understand it.

               “The only thing I ever longed for was a new sword when I had poor quality ones, and now that I’ve found First Tsurugi, that’s not an issue.”

               It had been safe to want a better sword. A better sword would assist him on the battlefield, and improving his performance was what Shinra wanted. It was the only want he had ever been able to safely express.

               But Zack was still looking at him as if this was unreasonable.

               “But like… books? Clothes? Movies? Video games? Good food?”

               Not all of those things had been allowed in the labs in the first place, and what had been had been given to him to cover a basic necessity or as a part of his training.

               Cloud wasn’t sure how to express this. He’d been trained out of a longing for physical possessions many years ago. He no longer understood the fascination people had with items. Unless it helped in battle or was a life necessity, it was a luxury and not something he needed. His current apartment was already more luxury than he knew what to do with. He couldn’t imagine collecting pointless objects just for the sake of having them.

               “Zack, if you have time to talk, you have time to spar,” Sephiroth interrupted, thankfully sparing Cloud from trying to figure out how to put his relationship with objects into words.

               Zack pursed his lips, but let the matter drop. He rolled his shoulders, cracked his neck, and settled into a battle stance.

               “Ready?” he asked.

               Cloud nodded, settling into his own stance.

               “Whenever you are.”

               They went again, and again, and again, each time Cloud gently prodding them, asking politely if they could go one more time. He never quite said it with confidence, and he always glanced at Sephiroth in uncertainty, but it was a little less of a struggle to get the words out by the end of the night. He unwittingly tricked Zack and Sephiroth into far more rounds than they actually wanted to go, because they couldn’t begrudge him the simple wish, not when he was finally daring to express it. Eventually, though, he opened his mouth to ask for another round, but paused and closed it. Zack and Sephiroth were laying on the floor, panting in great gasps, their uniforms plastered to them in sweat. Their faces were red and he saw a few tremors work their way through their muscles when he looked closely. Cloud had the faintest sheen of sweat across his brow and was not out of breath at all, but his pale skin had a hint of ruddiness around the cheeks.

               “Seriously, fuck you, Cloud, how are you not exhausted?”

               Cloud hesitated, but shrugged, only to realize that neither could see it, because both had their eyes closed.

               “I’m used to training for almost the entire day with few breaks, and doing so every day.”

               “Damn, and here I thought I went to the gym too much,” Zack griped wiping some sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. “I think you gotta carry me home.”

               “I… can, if you’d like.”

               Zack cracked open one eye to look at him, then grinned widely and let his eye shut again.

               “Little thing like you, carrying me around the Tower? Nah. Wouldn’t want to ruin your image.”

               “I’m not little.”

               “Stop teasing him, Zack, before he gets it in his head to go another round.”

               Cloud’s eyes lit up with interest before he realized that Sephiroth mentioned it specifically because he didn’t want to go another round.

               Zack groaned and draped an arm over his eyes.

               They continued to lie on the floor, and Cloud continued to watch, not sure of what to do. He’d never been allowed to do that. He would be told to stand up again and he would continue going until the Hojo decided it was enough or he collapsed, whatever came first. The thought did give him an idea, though. There had always been one trick they did when he did collapse and Hojo was too impatient to wait for him to rest before they continued.

               Cloud activated the Cure in his bracer, which he used rarely but kept on him at all times as it was something he had been instructed to do long ago, and cast on both of them.

               Zack sat up first, blinking in surprise, and Sephiroth followed suit not much after. Their muscles had stopped trembling and they were no longer struggling to catch their breath.

               Cloud thought he made the right decision, but Zack was looking at him strangely again.

               “Did you just… cure us?”

               “… Yes? Should I not have?”

               “You didn’t have to; we would have recovered on our own.”

               “I know that, but you seemed… miserable, and there was an easy solution.”

               Cloud could not, for the life of him, place why his instinct here was to ease suffering, when the sole purpose of his creation was for him to cause it. He understood very well what he was built for. He wrote it off, saying that it was excusable because they were comrades, and he was responsible for the healthcare of his men. Even if one of them shared rank with him.

               Zack blinked at him a few more times before looking at Sephiroth, drawing his gaze with the movement.

               “I didn’t even know a Cure spell helped exhaustion. I’m not even sore anymore.”

               “I wasn’t aware, either,” Sephiroth admitted. “I’ve only ever cast for injuries.”

               They both looked at him, and Cloud had to fight shifting on his feet again. He hadn’t realized it wasn’t common knowledge, but then again, he supposed most people weren’t forced past the point of exhaustion repeatedly simply because it inconvenienced someone else to let them rest. It made him wonder what training was supposed to be like, but found he really couldn’t imagine it being very different from what he had experienced. He knew it had to be, but couldn’t figure out what exactly the differences might be.

               So instead of addressing the underlying issue, Cloud did what he did best, and shrugged instead of answering.

               Zack’s eyes narrowed, something keen in them.

               “How did you—ow!

               Sephiroth had elbowed Zack sharply and was giving him a warning look.

               “What did I tell you? Don’t make me make you give him the same promise as well,” Sephiroth threatened.

               Cloud finally realized what Zack was going to say, what he was going to ask about. He wanted to know how he knew Cures would fix exhaustion, knowing very well the likely answer.

               Cloud looked at Sephiroth in wonder before he quickly buried the expression. He hadn’t expected him to keep his word.

               “Right. Sorry,” Zack grumbled, looking more put out than apologetic.

               “It’s… fine.”

               Zack nodded, considering the matter to be over and done with, and climbed to his feet. He stretched out as Cloud held out his hand to Sephiroth, helping him up off the floor.

               “I was gonna say we should stay in tonight since everyone reasonable is beat, but I guess that’s not an issue now, and I honestly kinda want to take you out of the Tower, Cloud. Have you really been in  Midgar?”

               “I can navigate it.”

               “That’s not what I asked.”

               “I’ve memorized the map.”

               “You’re misunderstanding me on purpose.”

               “Fine,” Cloud sighed. “No, I haven’t been in Midgar. I’ve only driven through it to get to the Wastes outside for training.”

               Zack nodded to himself, hands on his hips.

               “That’s what I thought. Alright, let’s all go shower, meet at Cloud’s in thirty?”

               This seemed like an awful long time to Cloud, who couldn’t imagine what could take so long about showering and changing, but he supposed they had to compensate for travel time around the Tower. It still seemed like too long. Maybe other people showered longer than he did. But what did they find to do in there? They couldn’t just… stand under the spray, could they?

               Zack clapped him on the shoulder but ducked out of the room. Cloud looked up at Sephiroth, who hadn’t yet moved.

               “I wanted to thank you, Cloud. I know I asked you to vocalize your wants, but I didn’t expect you to do so this soon.”

               Maybe he hadn’t imagined the look of pride on Sephiroth’s face.

               Cloud couldn’t admit, even to himself, that this left him feeling flustered.

               He shrugged dismissively, saying, “I usually do things people tell me to as soon as I can.”

               Sephiroth’s face fell a little. He looked at him closely.

               “It wasn’t an order, Cloud. You could have told me no.”

               Damn. It’d been the wrong answer.

               Cloud, for what felt like the hundredth time tonight, fought the urge to shift on his feet.

               “I know that, but… you said you wanted to give me the things I want. Is it so surprising that I want to do the same for you?”

               Sephiroth blinked at him in surprise. He hadn’t considered that, no. He was so used to chasing after Cloud, reaching out to Cloud, and never really getting that returned that he considered this to be, at least partially, a one-way relationship. He knew Cloud cared for him, to some extent, but he didn’t think it was that much. He’d been taken in by his stoicism, and he knew better than that.

               Still, it made his heart soar in his chest, tasting something like hope on his tongue.

               It made him want to kiss Cloud very, very badly.

               Instead, he stepped around him, sheathing Masamune.

               “I suppose not. I appreciate it, Cloud.”

               Cloud tilted his head slightly, looking up at Sephiroth.

               “Will you tell me the things that you want as well, so that I can give them to you?”

               You, Sephiroth thought before he could help himself. I want you. More than I remember ever wanting anything else.

               He buried the thought firmly.

               “Of course,” he agreed, nodding. Before he could reconsider, before that thought slipped from his lips and scared Cloud away, he moved towards the door. “I’m going to go get ready. I’ll meet you at your apartment.”

               “Oh,” Cloud said, blinking, something like disappointment in his tone. He hadn’t wanted the moment to end. “Of course. I’ll see you soon.”

               Sephiroth left, and Cloud felt strangely cold in his absence, and that didn’t make sense. Sephiroth had given him the promise he’d wanted. Why did it feel like it wasn’t enough, like he had been expecting something else?

               In the emptiness of the room, Cloud allowed himself the frown that curved on his lips. It wasn’t like him to want for things, but clearly he wanted something that Sephiroth hadn’t given him. He couldn’t even begin to guess what it was, though. Maybe Sephiroth had a point, and he needed more practice in naming his wants. He’d grown accustomed to burying them, after all. That must be it, but finding an explanation didn’t remove the strangely bereft feeling in his chest.

               Cloud did what he always did whenever he felt emotions strongly and set it aside.

               He shut down the VR room on his way out and made his way to his apartment, where he showered with his usual quickness and changed into a spare uniform. He glanced at the time on his PHS and found he still had 20 minutes left. He began wandering aimlessly around the apartment, unsure of what to do with himself while he waited. He discovered he did, in fact, have windows: large ones, in the bedroom. They took up most of the wall. He had wondered what was behind the curtains but, in his experience, if things were covered you were supposed to leave them alone. It had taken him a while to convince himself that it was his apartment, and no one had told him not to look behind the curtains. He’d found the view from the windows to be dizzying and made his chest feel tight. He didn’t like it. Heights weren’t something he was accustomed to, and he found he didn’t want to change that. He knew it was impractical—helicopters were the primary form of transport, and he’d ridden in one multiple times. But he’d always kept his eyes firmly inside the vehicle. He decided quickly to keep this issue to himself. No doubt that if Hojo learned about his discomfort, he’d be forced into every manner of height the professor could think up until it didn’t bother him anymore. He knew there was a certain logic to that, that this was a weakness he couldn’t necessarily afford, but the process would be unpleasant. He knew that every time he’d tried to keep a secret from Hojo before, it had been discovered and he’d been subsequently punished for keeping it, and that this wasn’t a wise course of action. But he wasn’t with the professor all the time, anymore. Maybe he’d have more luck.

               He was still waffling, unsure of his decision and thinking of perhaps admitting the issue to the professor when he was in the labs next, when there was a brief knock on his door before whoever was on the other side let themselves in. He drew the curtains again and left the bedroom.

               When he got to the end of the hall, Zack was staring into his fridge.

               “What are you looking for?” he asked. “You’re the one who put everything in there.”          

               “I know, I want to see what you liked enough to go through.” Zack peered around the door of the refrigerator at him, eyes squinted. “Do you really like vegetables that much, or is this another health thing?”

               “It doesn’t matter what I like.”

               “A health thing then, got it.”

               He hadn’t meant to be that obvious.

               He was about to protest before there was a quieter knock on the door. This time, the person waited to be let in.

               “Come in, Seph! I know you have a key,” Zack called, even as Cloud approached the door.

               He opened it and, when Sephiroth rolled his eyes and smiled slightly at him, he offered his own small smile in return. He stepped out of the way to let Sephiroth in.

               “Thank you,” he said, stepping past Cloud. “It’s rude to let yourself into other people’s homes, Zackary.”

               “What’s the point of having a key if I don’t use it?” he said, closing the refrigerator and coming to rest his hip against the counter.

               “It’s for emergencies.”

               “If you’re a hardass, maybe.”

               Cloud felt a little out of place in his uniform, for the first time since it had been given to him. Sephiroth was wearing a similar shirt to what he had on this morning, a black T-shirt that clung to him (why was that so fascinating?), but this time wore simple black jeans to match it. He had on the knee-high boots that he wore as part of his uniform, and Cloud wondered if he didn’t have another set, or if he just liked those.

               Zack was wearing a loud, green striped shirt with light wash jeans, which were something Cloud hadn’t seen before. He too wore the boots that came with his uniform, though they were the heavy standard ones Cloud was wearing as well.

               Their outfits were simple, but said something about them. He wondered if maybe that was the point of civilian clothes. He wondered how much he would stand out in uniform. He couldn’t help feeling a little self-conscious, though he would deny it if asked.

               Zack slapped him on the back and made his way toward the door.

               “It’s getting late, not many places will still be open. But there’s a burger place that does great milkshakes.”

               Cloud wondered what a milkshake was. He couldn’t understand the appeal of a glass of milk that had been shaken. Maybe it frothed, when you did that? Was that… interesting, or something?

               “Zack, if he’s focused on a healthy diet, shouldn’t we try something else?”

               “Nothing healthy’s open this late, and that would defeat the purpose, anyway. Besides, it’s not like he didn’t work hard enough to earn a little grease. What else did you eat today, Cloud?”

               There was a long pause as Cloud took a moment to figure out he was being addressed. He had been focused on trying to decipher what a milkshake was.

               “What?”

               “I said, what did you eat today?”

               “Oh, nothing. I was busy.”

               Now Zack and Sephiroth were both looking at him severely. He looked slowly between them, unsure of what the issue was.

               “Cloud, I know for a fact that you spent hours today playing chess on the computer. You weren’t busy.”

               “I went to my office intending to get work done, so I left in a hurry. It didn’t seem worth it to come all the way back.”

               “You came back to shower after training.”

               “Wait, you guys trained today, too?” Zack asked, looking between them. “How many hours of exercise was that today, Cloud?”

               He thought for a moment.

               “Around six. I didn’t eat while I was home because I was hurrying to the office to do the work I had meant to that morning.”

               “Six hours of intense exercise, and you haven’t eaten all day?” Zack said, staring at him with concern and disbelief twisted on his face.

               Cloud folded his arms over his chest.

               “I don’t see what the problem is. I’m going to go eat now, aren’t I?”

               “Cloud, you are aware that most civilians eat at least three times a day, and SOLDIERs eat more often because of their higher metabolism?” Sephiroth said, watching him closely.

               Cloud’s brow furrowed. It was his turn to look disbelieving.

               “That can’t be right. That’s so much.”

               “How often do you eat, usually?”

               “Once, maybe twice a day?”

               “And you exercise, intensely, for most of the day, every day.”

               “That’s what I’m used to, yes.”

               Cloud was gathering that maybe this was another way in which the labs had trained him oddly.

               “That shouldn’t even be possible,” Zack said.

               Cloud shrugged, saying, “I’m more enhanced. I don’t need to eat as much.”

               “Yeah, but aren’t you hungry? I’m starving if I don’t eat at least four times a day. I usually try for five.”

               Cloud blinked. What an odd question.

               “I’m always hungry. Isn’t everyone?”

               Zack and Sephiroth looked at each other.

               Cloud felt hesitant. On edge. He had always wanted to know how different his upbringing in the labs was, but he found he didn’t much like the answers. He didn’t like how different it made him. How strange. As if he needed another thing to make him inhuman.

               “Cloud, when was the last time you felt full?” Sephiroth asked slowly.

               He pressed his lips together. There was a right answer to this, he was sure of it. The issue was, he was starting to think that his answer wasn’t the right one. He had always been told to be honest. It didn’t sit right to lie, especially not to Zack and Sephiroth, after how kindly they had treated him. He owed them the truth, but he didn’t quite want to give it.

               “I’m… not sure I understand the question.”

               “Don’t deliberately misunderstand—” Zack started, but stopped when Sephiroth held a hand up, still staring Cloud down.

               “Full. As in, no longer hungry. As if you had eaten too much, even, and it’s uncomfortable.”

               Cloud narrowed his eyes at Sephiroth, fairly certain he was making this up. People didn’t actually eat too much, did they? Was that even possible? He didn’t think so.

               “I’ve never eaten too much,” he said carefully.

               Sephiroth nodded his head, as if he had expected that.

               “And the last time you ate until you were no longer hungry?”

               Cloud wondered if this was close enough to classified information that he could refer to Sephiroth’s promise. He didn’t think Sephiroth thought it was—he was certain, now, that he had every intention of sticking to his word. To be truthful, he didn’t really think it was either. There was no way his food consumption was classified. Someone would have told him. How could they expect him to guess something so innocuous was, otherwise? No, it was too fine a line to use Sephiroth’s promise to end this.

               “Shouldn’t we get going, before the places close for the night?” he tried instead, hoping the other two would let this go.

               “Answer the question, Cloud.”

               He and Sephiroth got in a staring contest. Cloud knew his stare was a weapon. It was one of the few things he’d had to work with, in the labs. He was being trained to be a commander, he was supposed to make eye contact. He was just very good at doing so and unnerving who he was looking at in the process. Sephiroth, unfortunately, had been a general for many years now, and had grown accustomed to staring his men down until they caved and looked away. Each waited for the other to look away, right up until Zack cleared his throat to end it. Cloud sighed impatiently.

               “You already know the answer.”

               Sephiroth’s face hardened, but he said, “I’d like confirmation.”

               He was ready to tell Sephiroth that you didn’t always get what you wanted, but his own words from earlier came back to haunt him. He’d said he wanted to give Sephiroth the things that he wanted, and he had meant it. He’d asked the man to tell him when he wanted something. That’s what he was doing.

               “Never. I’m always hungry. Can we go, now?”

               Sephiroth didn’t look satisfied, he just looked displeased.

               Zack, however, was gaping at him.

               “Never? You’ve never felt full?”

               “It’s really not a big deal, Zack.”

               “Uh, it kinda is. You’re supposed to eat until you feel full. Like, every time.”

               Cloud squinted at Zack. He was fairly certain he was making that up, at least.

               “Cloud,” Sephiroth interrupted, drawing his gaze. “While we’re out, Zack and I are ordering for you. I want you to eat everything you’re given.”

               It was on the tip of his tongue to tell Sephiroth that they were the same rank and he couldn’t order him to do anything. But there it was again. “I want.” Sephiroth was incredibly gifted with tactics, and he’d shown that he was willing to use that against Cloud, if he thought it was for his own good. He should have known better than to admit he wanted to give Sephiroth what he wanted, but he’d already done so. It was too late to take it back now.

               “Within reason,” he said, trying to negotiate.

               “No, everything on the plate.”

               “Not if it’s unhealthy.”

               “You worked out intensely for six hours and ate nothing today, you can afford a few calories. All of it.”

               “I didn’t say what I did so you would take advantage of it.”

               “I have no intention of abusing the gift you’ve given me. But I will use it to get you healthy, if that’s what it takes.”

               “I won every bout we did today, how could I possibly be unhealthy?”

               “You sleep a handful of hours each night at best, and barely eat.”                                          

               “Which clearly doesn’t affect my performance.”

               “When will you learn, Cloud, that I have no interest in your performance? I’m interested in you.”

               Cloud stopped in his tracks, thrown. It wasn’t a sentiment he had heard before meeting Sephiroth. All anyone was interested in was his performance, it didn’t make sense that Sephiroth wasn’t as well. At least on some level. He didn’t think he’d ever wrap his mind around the thought of someone being interested in him as a being.

               After a long, long moment, Cloud sighed.

               “Can we just go, already?”

               “Will you eat what we order for you?”

               “Yes. But if you make it deliberately unhealthy I will run you both ragged in the VR room until I feel you actually regret your choice.”

               Zack whistled lowly and said, “You know, Spike, you’re the only one who could actually make that threat.”

               “I told you not to call me ‘Spike.’”

               Zack just laughed, pressed a hand between his shoulder blades, and pushed him out the front door. He proceeded to chatter aimlessly as he led them out of the building and into the streets of Midgar, but it took a while for Cloud and Sephiroth to relax. Their conversation had built a strange tension between them, of feelings half-admitted and more buried, of care and concern neither was quite sure what to do with. But Zack drew them away from it slowly, with a continuous flow of words and well-planned, seemingly casual touches. Sephiroth and Cloud may have earned their titles as the world’s most dangerous men, but for all that they understood a battlefield, they had a limited understanding of people. That was Zack’s area of expertise, and he was more than willing to use his skillset to soothe things between his friends. Especially when there was something clear, glaringly obvious really, that anyone who knew them both could see if they looked closely, that neither seemed ready to acknowledge. That was okay. It could wait until they were ready. And in the meantime, he would be here to smooth the wrinkles.

               By the time they got to the restaurant which had a neon “24-hour” sign in the window, the tension had dissipated, and Cloud and Sephiroth were as relaxed as they ever were.

               When they entered, a woman behind the counter called, “Sit wherever you’d like, I’ll be with you in a second.”

               Zack slid into one side of the booth, and did it terribly slowly. It was so slow he thought it might be obvious, but neither Cloud nor Sephiroth seemed to grasp what he was doing, and sat next to each other as if it was their own idea. The booth was small, however, and he could see the way their arms brushed as they picked up their menus. Well, before Sephiroth took the menu from Cloud’s hands and put it back in its holder with a firm reminder that he wasn’t ordering for himself. Cloud did what could only be called sulking, though it would have looked to outsiders like he was just staring into the distance. But there was a little curve to his shoulders, a slight downturn to his lips, the tiniest furrow between his brows. They were in public, now, and Cloud never seemed to forget himself when they weren’t alone, so this was about as expressive as he was expected to get, but both Zack and Sephiroth knew how to read his little tells by now, and were comforted by the fact that he hadn’t gone entirely blank after the small showdown in his entryway.

               “Hi there, how can I—are you three… SOLDIERs? Is that the General?

               She said it with such awe in her voice that there was little doubt as to which general she was referring to. She was gaping. Cloud’s eyes cut toward her, and she froze, pinned to the spot by the intensity of his stare. Sephiroth wasn’t sure why she reacted that way—he’d been the subject of that look many times, and it had never frozen him that way. But, then again, he led armies, and wasn’t a late night waitress used to, at worst, cranky, possibly drunk patrons.

               Zack kicked Cloud under the table, making him look at the Lieutenant instead, the pinch in his brow growing just a shade deeper, as he didn’t understand what he did to deserve that. It was polite to look at people while they were speaking, wasn’t it? And besides, hadn’t he been addressed?

               “We are,” Zack said with a wide, friendly grin that put the woman at ease. “You’ll have to forgive him—long day.”

               “Of course,” the waitress said with a smile, now looking only at Zack, who felt safe in comparison. “What can I get you?”

               Zack and Sephiroth placed orders for themselves and for Cloud, who was staring at the divider between the booths, sulking again. The SOLDIERs ordered two sets of burgers and fries for themselves and three for Cloud, as well as large milkshakes for all of them. Zack and Sephiroth debated which flavor Cloud would like best while Cloud’s mind wandered, trying yet again to figure out what a milkshake was. It was a good thing he was distracted, because otherwise he would have heard Sephiroth relay the incident where he ate an entire carton of strawberries in one sitting, and would have seen the way Zack grinned and had to force back a laugh. Before Cloud had made much progress on figuring out the nature of a milkshake, the waitress left to fill their orders. Zack and Sephiroth began talking, letting Cloud sulk. They each privately found it endearing that Cloud could be such a sore loser, but were sure mentioning it would only make him sulk more. He didn’t like being called “cute,” besides.

               Cloud let their voices, which he had come to associate with safety (how novel) lull him out of his bad mood, until he was leaning against the back of the seat, which was as closed to relaxed as he ever came. On anyone else, it would be slouching. His arm was pressed against Sephiroth’s, and as he swept the long wall of his hair back out of his face, he could smell the man’s shampoo. It smelled… very, very good. Nothing at all like what Cloud’s smelled like. It was floral, with something that smelled vaguely like wood. There was something else there, something warm, but Cloud was accustomed to the smells of recycled air, smoke, and blood more than perfumes, and had a hard time placing it.

               He lost track of time, until there was a clatter of dishes, and their food arrived. There was some difficulty fitting everything on the table, but they managed to squeeze everything on, just barely.

               Cloud stared down at the monstrosity in front of him, unsure what to do. He’d had meat before, but it was usually cooked so thoroughly that it was bone dry, or else cut into such small pieces and hidden amongst other things that it was nearly unrecognizable. This was all in one piece, clearly, and juicy in a way that was slightly off-putting in its strangeness. The potatoes—because he realized now that’s what they must be—glistened slightly. Was that oil? Did they just drench the potatoes in oil? There as only one vegetable recognizable, and it was a sad, wilted piece of lettuce on top of the burger. There wasn’t even any fruit, which he at least mostly believed Sephiroth was somewhat healthy. Cloud looked up at Zack, then at Sephiroth, incredulous, but they both already had their burgers in their hands.

               “This is the unhealthiest thing I have ever even seen.”

               “It’s not that bad. Meat’s protein, right? That’s good for you.”

               “But it’s… wet.”

               Zack choked a laugh on his next bite, forcing himself to swallow before he answered.

               “Meat’s not usually dry as a bone, only when you get it from the mess hall, where there hasn’t been a decent chef in 30 years.”

               Cloud picked up the monstrosity slowly, staring down at it. Gods, it dripped. He wrinkled his nose.

               “Try it before you knock it,” Zack said, watching him closely now. He looked over and found Sephiroth’s eyes were also on him.

               Sephiroth remembered the strawberries, and wondered if this would be much the same.

               He was delighted to find out that it was.

               Cloud took a bite and, as he chewed, let out a long moan that sent a thrill through Sephiroth. Zack burst into laughter, mostly at the sound, but also because he had caught the look in Sephiroth’s eyes. He gave Sephiroth a knowing look, smirking just a little, and Sephiroth gave him a warning look in return. He rolled his eyes but let it go.

               “This is good,” Cloud said, looking at his food with wide eyes. “I didn’t know food could taste good.”

               “If it doesn’t, it’s usually because you did something wrong with it,” Zack explained.

               Cloud, for once, had forgotten himself, and was staring down at his plate with poorly concealed wonder. It made Sephiroth’s chest twist into knots. It made something fond soften the edges of Zack’s eyes.

               They couldn’t stop the labs, or Professor Hojo, or Shinra. But they could do this for Cloud.

               Cloud ate the entire thing quickly, hesitating only briefly before trying the fries. When he did, he let out a pleased sigh, his shoulders relaxing. He cleaned his plate and leaned back, content. That was already more food than he usually ate in one sitting, and certainly richer than anything he was used to.

               “Are you still hungry, Cloud?” Sephiroth asked, looking at him from the corner of his eye. He’d never seen the blond look so content.

               “Hmm? Oh. Yes, of course.” It was a testament to how relaxed that he was that he said it easily.

               “Good, because you have two more plates to finish.”

               His eyes snapped open again, looking at Sephiroth in doubt.

               “I can’t eat that much.”

               “Have you ever tried before?”

               They both knew the answer to that.

               “No.”

               “Then you can’t be certain of that. Go on.”

               Cloud sighed, but pulled the next plate toward him. He ate the second plate more slowly, but with as much relish. He’d barely finished it before Sephiroth removed the empty plate and put another full one in front of him. He realized now that Zack and Sephiroth were both done, Zack drinking what he assumed were their milkshakes, both of them watching him. He did a quick tally of the plate before frowning.

               “Why did you order me an extra plate?”

               “Because you have more mako than both of us, and mako increases appetite. You’re supposed to be eating more than either of us.”

               Cloud was ready to protest that he never ate much to begin with, but from the look in Sephiroth’s eyes, he was expecting it and didn’t want to hear it. He sighed, but went back to work cleaning his third plate.

               By the end of it, something novel happened. His stomach no longer ached. It wasn’t twisted in familiar knots. There was no burning in his gut.

               He wasn’t hungry.

               It wasn’t so much that it felt good so much as that it no longer felt bad. His stomach had ached for as long as he could remember. He thought it was supposed to do that. That it always did that. It was the strange relief of a pain he had accepted as normal and stopped questioning.

               “I… think I’m full?”

               Sephiroth looked at him with soft eyes, and Zack with a wide grin.

               “You’re not hungry anymore?”

               “… No. I’m not.”

               “Good,” Zack chirped, slurping loudly just for the way Sephiroth’s eyes cut to him in annoyance. “Drink your milkshake.”

               Cloud’s brow furrowed.

               “But I’m not hungry anymore. Why would I keep eating?”

               “Because it tastes good.”

               Cloud could no longer argue that things just didn’t taste good. He knew better, now.

               He looked up at Sephiroth, who raised his eyebrows at him, and realized that the argument was over before it had really begun.

               He pulled the cold glass toward him and stirred the drink with his straw, finding it not at all what he expected.

               “This is thicker than I thought it’d be.”

               There was a long pause before Zack said, “You know there’s more that goes into a milkshake than milk, right?”

               Cloud scowled at Zack, fighting back the urge to blush.

               “How would I know that, Zack?”

               Zack had the decency to look sheepish before continuing, “Go on, try it. It’s strawberry. You like strawberries, right?”

               “I do,” Cloud mumbled, stirring it one more time before taking a sip.

               His eyes went wide.

               This was dangerous.

               He was finding that he liked sweet things. He liked them very much. But sweet things were unhealthy, and he shouldn’t be having them to begin with. He’d never hear the end of it if the professor found out. But—it was good.

               “You never should have gotten this for me,” Cloud says seriously, despite not putting the glass down.

               Zack and Sephiroth look at each other.

               “Uh, why’s that?”

               “Because now I’ll always want one, and they’re very bad for you.”

               Zack and Sephiroth blinked in unison. Then Zack burst into a loud laugh and Sephiroth smiled, his eyes soft again, his whole look fond.

               “You can have as many milkshakes as you want, Spike.”

               “Don’t call me ‘Spike.’ And no, I can’t.”

               “You train like crazy. You can.”

               “Zack.”

               “Tell you what. You put on weight, then you can be self-conscious about your milkshake addiction.”

               “It’s not an addiction. And if I put on weight, then it’ll be too late.”

               “What’s that supposed to mean?”

               Cloud gave him a warning look. That was all it took for Zack to gather his meaning, offering a little hum but no further protest. After a brief pause, he proceeded to drag Sephiroth into a debate about milkshake flavors and their merits, leaving Cloud to enjoy his drink in peace.

               Cloud finished before long, frowning down at the cup when it was empty. He let out a quiet sigh before leaning back against the booth again, this time slumping down a little when he did. His eyelids drooped. Did people always get so sleepy when they were full? Cloud put the matter aside for later thought, too tired to think about it right now. He let his hands fall to his lap, his left coming to rest in the tiny gap between his thigh and Sephiroth’s. The back of his hand pressed to the other man’s thigh, and part of his brain, the part that was hyper-aware of touch after being prodded and poked in the labs for years, screamed in protest. But he was tired, and he had eaten quite a lot of food that he actually enjoyed, and he couldn’t find it in himself to care.

               Sephiroth, very adamantly, pretended he did not notice. He forcefully didn’t think about all the other places he wanted that hand to go. It was an innocent gesture, one that he knew Cloud only allowed because his guard was relatively low, for once. It was a gesture of trust. Cloud had told him plainly that he had been the first person to touch him kindly, and it said something that he allowed the contact at all, however absent-minded it might have been. He knew Cloud had to be aware of it, on some level. Someone as aware and in control of his own body as Cloud was would have noticed. But he let the hand stay.

               He didn’t realize quite how relaxed Cloud had gotten until he felt a slow pressure against his shoulder. Cloud had slumped further down in the booth, his shoulder pressed up against Sephiroth’s enough that he took some of his weight. He wouldn’t quite say that he was leaning heavily, but for Cloud, whom Sephiroth had only seen lean on someone while mako-high, it was a much more significant lean than he had anticipated. He thought for a second that Cloud might have fallen asleep, but his breathing was not slow or deep enough for that.

               No, he was awake. He was just so tired and comfortable that he couldn’t bring himself to care.

               Sephiroth looked up at Zack, a little helplessly, to see the other man looking at them with infinite fondness, his chin in his hand and a smile on his lips. Sephiroth suspected that Zack had guessed his feelings for Cloud earlier, but he was dead certain he knew now. When he scowled, Zack’s smile just grew.

               “Cloud,” Sephiroth said quietly, gently shaking Cloud’s shoulder.

               “Hmm?” he said. He hadn’t even bothered to open his eyes.

               “We ought to go back to the Tower. You’re tired.”

               “But I’m comfortable here.”

               Sephiroth’s heart clenched.

               He looked back up to Zack, unsure of what to do.

               Zack didn’t help, just mouthed the word, “Cute.”

               Sephiroth frowned and did something he rarely did at all.

               He flipped Zack off.

               He shifted away so that Cloud would either have to follow him and lean further or sit upright again. Part of him hoped he would follow, but he wasn’t surprised when he sat up instead. He yawned, but his posture had returned to its military perfection.

               “You’re right,” Cloud conceded with a sigh, looking up at Sephiroth, his eyes still wide despite his heavy eyelids.

               Before he could think more about Zack had been right in his “cute” sentiment, he climbed out of the booth, Cloud and Zack following suit. Zack chattered on about plans for the rest of the week while Cloud punctuated his statements with yawns. The two made plans to train several days in the morning, and all three agreed to a handful more nights of sparring. When asking if he had any plans for next week, Cloud ran down a schedule of work and meetings, carefully leaving out what was planned for Tuesday night. Neither Zack or Sephiroth bothered to ask. They both planned to show up at his apartment regardless of what Cloud thought. It didn’t need to be discussed.

               Eventually, Zack waved them goodbye and stepped out of the elevator, three floors below Sephiroth’s apartment and four floors below Cloud’s. Sephiroth only had a brief moment to consider, and did something he rarely did. He acted without thinking.

               He jabbed at the “Emergency Stop” button with one finger.

               He turned to Cloud, who was looking at him with that open expression and soft, sleepy eyes, curious but not alarmed, his head tilted to one side.

               Sephiroth froze. It wasn’t too late to hit the button again, get the elevator moving, and escape to his apartment. Cloud was too tired to ask him too many questions, and he would likely let it go by morning.

               A part of him was insisting that it was too early, that he shouldn’t rush, that this would be too much, that he might lose everything if he did this now.

               Another part, equally insistent, said that, if not now, when, there would never be a right time, he wasn’t trusting Cloud enough, when had he become such a coward?

               It was that last thought that made up his mind. He squared his shoulders, making Cloud’s brow lift in curiosity.

               “I haven’t been completely honest with you, Cloud.”

               “Is that the problem? You know you can be.”

               Here was Cloud, holding his hand out, offering trust and asking for it in return. He found he could deny him nothing.

               “You asked me to tell you when I want things.”

               “I did.”

               “There’s one very important thing I want, but I haven’t asked. I need you to know you can say no.”

               Cloud blinked at him owlishly.

               “Of course I know that.”

               “That’s very important for this, Cloud. I don’t want you to agree just because I want it. I only want it if you do, as well.”

               Cloud’s brow furrowed, but he nodded.

               “If that’s important to you.”

               “It is. Very, very much so.”

               “Alright. What is it?”

               “I want to kiss you.”

               Cloud blinked at him. He blinked at him again. Then he did something had never seen before, and had never thought he would ever see.

               He blushed.

               Pink started to stain his cheeks, steadily darkening, until even the tips of his ears were red.

               “Cloud, you don’t have to.”

               “I—I’m just—confused. Me?”

               Sephiroth looked at him softly. For all of Cloud’s confidence, he could be remarkably insecure.

               “Yes.”

               “Why me? You’re—you could have anyone, I’m sure. Why would you want to kiss me?”

               Sephiroth shook his head, but took a step forward, right into Cloud’s space.

               “Because you’re lovely, Cloud. You have a warm heart, despite how you try to hide it. You trust me, even though the world has done its best to make you forget how to trust at all. You’ve made it so far, though by all rights you should have broken years and years ago. You let me in, even while you hold the world at arm’s length. Should I go on?”

               Cloud had managed to blush darker while he spoke. Sephiroth trailed the back of his fingers over Cloud’s cheek, his fingertips down his jaw.

               “Sephiroth, I—I’m… damaged goods. I am broken, in all the ways that matter. I’m not even human. You deserve better.”

               “As always, you don’t see the truth of yourself, only what you’ve been taught. You are exquisite, Cloud. I could never ask for anything more. I couldn’t even dream of it.”

               “I… there must be some mistake.”

               “There’s no mistake. This is what I want, and I couldn’t be more certain of it. Do you want the same?”

               “It—it doesn’t matter, I’m not supposed to—”

               “You said you would try to tell me the things that you want, Cloud. Do you want this?”

               Sephiroth was fairly certain of the answer, even if Cloud wasn’t. Cloud was looking at him with such longing it nearly took his breath away. No one had ever looked at him that way before. But he was so hesitant, so conflicted.

               “Sephiroth, I…”

               Sephiroth ducked his head, resting his hand on Cloud’s shoulder, his mouth by his ear.

               He whispered, his lips brushing against the shell of his ear, “Forget about everything else. I don’t care about the ‘would’s or ‘could’s or ‘should’s. I care about you. Do you want me to kiss you, Cloud?”

               Cloud’s voice sounded strangled when he said, “Yes, but—”                  

               “Then that’s all that matters.”

               Sephiroth pulled away just enough to have room to press his mouth lightly to Cloud’s. He didn’t push. This wasn’t the moment to be demanding, or for insistence. This was the moment to reassure Cloud that he was wanted, despite how difficult it was for him to accept that.

               Cloud swayed under his touch, and Sephiroth used the hand on his shoulder to keep him upright. He cracked his eyes open to look at Cloud, whose eyes had drifted shut, his entire expression going soft. He pulled away slowly, could feel Cloud suck in a shuddering breath as his eyes fluttered open.

               “Can I kiss you again?” he whispered, eyes flickering down to Cloud’s mouth.

               Cloud’s brow puckered and he hesitated. This time, Sephiroth didn’t say a word. Cloud would need to come to his conclusion on his own.

               There was a long moment, where Cloud’s eyes skittered over his face and Sephiroth’s heart beat loudly in his chest, so loudly he was sure Cloud could hear it. But eventually, the tension slipped from Cloud’s expression, turning it back into something feather-soft.

               “Kiss me. Please.”

               Sephiroth cupped Cloud’s face between his palms and surged forward, pressing their lips together more firmly. Cloud’s arms came up slowly, hesitantly, to wrap around his neck, his back arching, pressing their chests together. Sephiroth’s arms wrapped around his waist, encouraging the bow of his back.

               The kiss remained chaste, until Cloud whined low in his throat. He wasn’t sure what was happening—it wasn’t like he had ever kissed anyone before—and he had no idea what he was doing, just that he felt hot all over, and that something inside him was screaming for more. He wasn’t sure what more was, what that even meant, but he ached for it.

               Sephiroth, however, knew exactly what more was. He guided their kiss into something open-mouthed, trading breath between them. Slowly, carefully, he walked Cloud backward, until he felt his back hit the glass wall behind him. He felt their momentum build, a fire stoking between them, as Cloud learned quickly what he was doing—he’d always been a quick study, especially with physical action. Sephiroth found himself getting lost in the movement. He had intended to cut things off and end the night, but he found his tongue swiping against Cloud’s bottom lip instead. Cloud, who hadn’t been expecting that, breathed a shuddering gasp, and Sephiroth had never been one to waste an opportunity. He slipped his tongue into Cloud’s mouth, brushed it against Cloud’s own, heard him breathe in sharply. He wanted terribly to pull those reactions from Cloud, wanted desperately to hear him moan because of Sephiroth instead of strawberries. He tilted his head, found a better angle, and guided Cloud through learning how to use his tongue, mapping out his mouth before allowing his own to be explored in return. The kiss grew deep, and neither wanted it to end, but they did both need to breathe.

               Sephiroth pulled away reluctantly, but they were both breathing heavy. Cloud looked up at him through heavy-lidded eyes, his strange, slit pupils blown so wide they were almost circular. He kept glancing down at Sephiroth’s mouth like he wanted to kiss him again but wasn’t sure if he was allowed. Sephiroth looked down at Cloud’s mouth and saw his lips were kiss-swollen, and felt a rush of satisfaction at the sight. He leaned back down and kissed him one more time, Cloud leaning forward to chase him this time when he pulled away. He smiled and looked down at Cloud, whose height had stopped him from leaning any further. He looked frustrated that Sephiroth’s mouth was out of reach now.

               Sephiroth drew away and pressed the “Emergency Stop” button again, the elevator rattling back to life. He looked back at Cloud, who was still catching his breath, his grip on the handrail behind him tight. He composed himself slowly before coming to stand next to Sephiroth.

               “Will I get to kiss you again?” he said slowly, glancing up at Sephiroth, who chuckled.

               “Any time you like,” he answered. “Though perhaps not in front of other people. The PR department might not like it.”

               Cloud hummed, and it was quiet for a moment.

               “What about Zack? Can I kiss you in front of him?”

               Sephiroth sighed, but smiled.

               “I think Zack was waiting all night for us to kiss.”

               “Oh,” Cloud said, and when Sephiroth looked down, his eyes were wide. “How did he know we wanted to?”

               “He can be astute when he wants to be.”

               The elevator doors opened with a ding. Sephiroth turned to Cloud before making his way out of the elevator.

               “Sleep well, Cloud. I’ll see you soon.”

               “Goodnight, Sephiroth.”

               He offered one small, but sincere smile before stepping out of the elevator, the doors shutting slowly behind him.

               Cloud was left alone in the elevator.

               It was a good thing he was alone, because it would have been a nightmare for PR if anyone saw the dopey smile on his face.

Chapter Text

               Cloud was out of his depth.

               It had been a long time since this had happened. He was, by and large, prepared for everything he would face. His training had been thorough, and it wasn’t like people were asking him to do anything outside his skillset. He’d gone the entire war without feeling this unsure.

               So Cloud did what he always did when he was in unfamiliar territory.

               He researched.

               But he did so while he was alone, because no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t control the blush that overtook his face.

               That was how he ended up in his apartment office, sitting at his desk with his chin in one hand, staring at the search engine he’d typed “kissing” into.

               It wasn’t necessarily helpful. There were a lot of images of people kissing one another, but he understood the basics now that he had done it. There were a few articles about the history of kissing, about kissing in different cultures, and he read these because he didn’t know what else to do. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was looking for. He was sure that kissing was a first step, but no one seemed to want to clarify where it led.

               What did catch his interest was an image of two women kissing, one of which with her hand under the other’s shirt.

               Now there was an idea.

               He knew he had been repeatedly distracted by the way Sephiroth’s T-shirts had stretched over his muscles the other day. Maybe he wanted to find out what they felt like beneath his fingertips. Was that allowed? These two girls were doing so, but they appeared to be civilians, and if there’s one thing Cloud had never been, it was that.

               He thought back to the labs, to the very firm talking to he had been given when he’d hit puberty. Reproductive intercourse was something he was strictly forbidden from taken part in. He’d been enhanced too much for such a thing to be safe for the potential child. If he was going to lie with a woman, he had been told, it would have to be with multiple failsafes, and the heavy use of contraception. Hojo had recommended that his potential partner have a hysterectomy first to be safe.

               It had all meant very little to Cloud, at the time. If there was one thing he had never been interested in, it was women. There had been plenty of female scientists when he was growing up, but they were as cold and distant as the men and he cared little for them. There were no women in the Shinra army or in SOLDIER, something he was finding out was apparently contentious and up for discussion to change. He came across women on the office floors, but like every other civilian, they seemed terrified of him. No, he doubted he would ever be close to anyone female. He simply didn’t seem to have the opportunity. Even if he had found them attractive, which he did not, that removed them from the list of potential bedfellows.

               He was coming to realize, however, that he found Sephiroth attractive. He had no idea what to do with that attraction, however. Intercourse had been explained to him, briefly and coldly, and it had been very explicitly between a man and a woman. He wasn’t sure how two men would go about having sex. He wasn’t even fully sure if that was what he wanted, because the whole process had just seemed messy to him with no reward to justify the cleanup, but he knew he wanted something. At the very least, he decided, he wanted to know what Sephiroth felt like underneath his shirt. That seemed like a reasonable next step. If he floundered, which he was starting to expect he would, Sephiroth seemed capable of leading him in the right direction. He had led them the other night, and it had only taken them pleasant places. He trusted Sephiroth’s experience. He certainly seemed to have a better idea what he was doing than Cloud did.

               Cloud closed his web browser. His research, by and large, had gotten him nowhere. The only thing he had gotten out of it was the very, very interesting idea of touching Sephiroth’s skin. He wondered if he would be allowed to take his shirt off. That was an even more interesting idea.

               He found thoughts like this distracting him as he went through his days. They drew his mind in the gym. They made him go into a daze while doing paperwork. They made his eyes linger where they shouldn’t when they sparred. It was starting to become a problem, but it wasn’t one he knew how to fix. He and Sephiroth had both been busy the rest of the week. The only spare time they had was for sparring, which they justified because it was part of their work, in its own way, to keep their battle skills up to par. If Cloud was smarter, or had better self-control (two things he never thought he had been lacking in previously), he would stop asking for so many bouts so they would have a little time left over before they had to return to their own beds. But he tended to get wrapped up in the fight, in the curious thrill of his enemy not going down easily, and forgot that there were other, similarly interesting activities he could be asking for. It was only when he got out of the shower at home that he realized that he’d meant to ask Sephiroth for another kiss but let himself be distracted.

               Sephiroth, for his part, didn’t mind the wait. He hadn’t expected their relationship to change overnight, and it was clear Cloud was being kept busy. He had enough on his mind, trying to adjust to his new life, and Sephiroth wouldn’t press. They had time. It was something that could be addressed next time they had leisure time.

               Or that was what he told himself until he got what he told himself was a rather spectacular idea.

               It was Tuesday, and Zack, Sephiroth, and Cloud were all dreading it. No one knew what would happen at Cloud’s appointment that night, but no one expected it to be good. They would handle whatever it was, but none of them would like it.

               Still, Sephiroth knocked on Cloud’s door at 1820. He’d meant to come earlier—they didn’t have much time left, now. Cloud’s reminder alarm for his appointment would go off in ten minutes, and Sephiroth had every intention of making sure he left immediately after. He would not have Cloud be late again, not after what had happened last time.

               Cloud opened the door to his office with an expression that was largely blank but had edges of curiosity that Sephiroth could see, now. He stepped back to let Sephiroth in, and Sephiroth pulled the door from Cloud’s fingers, shutting it gently behind him. Cloud moved to go back to his desk, but Sephiroth caught his wrist, earning another curious look.

               “Sephiroth?” he asked, glancing down at their hands.

               “You have your appointment soon, so we don’t have much time,” Sephiroth said carefully, taking hold of Cloud’s other wrist, his thumb running soothing passes over the inside of his wrist, just beneath the edge of his glove.

               “Time for what?”

               Sephiroth looked up from where his eyes were focused on the work of his thumb. He held eye contact as he slowly, carefully turned them around and backed Cloud up so his back was against the office door. He released his wrists and rested one hand on the door by Cloud’s head, the other coming to slide onto his hip. Cloud looked up at him with wide, green eyes.

               “I want to give you something else to think about, while you’re there. Something distracting.”

               Understanding passed over Cloud’s face and an unfamiliar heat settled in his eyes. Sephiroth liked the sight of it. It was answer enough for him, and he ducked his head, kissing Cloud. He’d intended it to be quick and chaste to start, but Cloud seemed to have other ideas. When he started to move away, Cloud’s hand shot up and grabbed a fistful of hair, pulling him back down. He wasn’t sure where Cloud learned this, unless he just picked things up very quickly and had good instincts, because the kiss he was given was hot and demanding in a way their first hadn’t been. It was Cloud’s tongue that pressed against his lips first, Cloud’s tongue that slipped inside his mouth. Cloud knew what he wanted, now, at least this part of it, and he had no qualms in taking it.

               Sephiroth got lost in the moment until he felt Cloud’s hand press against his side. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing, until the gloved hand slipped beneath his shirt, pushing it up as he explored. A part of him hadn’t been sure that Cloud had really wanted their first kiss. That he’d been pressured into doing it, that he had returned it just because Sephiroth had wanted him to. Here, though, Sephiroth might have been the aggressor but it was Cloud pushing them further. He shivered beneath his touch when Cloud’s hand dipped, sliding along just above his waistband.

               Cloud pulled away, looking up at Sephiroth. His pupils were blown wide again, and his gaze was hungry, but he was collected. Sephiroth wanted very, very much to make him lose his cool.

               “Is this alright?” he asked, his voice low, private. His eyes flickered down to where his hand was buried up Sephiroth’s shirt to be sure his meaning was clear.

               Sephiroth hummed, the sound coming from low in his throat, his eyes lowering briefly to Cloud’s mouth.

               “More than,” he assured. “Is it okay if I…?”

               “If you?”

               Sephiroth moved the hand that was on Cloud’s hip higher, tugging lightly on his shirt.

               Cloud’s eyes grew darker.

               “I want you to,” he insisted, pulling Sephiroth down by the hair so he could kiss him again.

               He slipped his hand beneath Cloud’s shirt, feeling the powerful muscles pulled taut as Cloud breathed roughly. Cloud’s hand was wandering his chest aimlessly, but Sephiroth had a goal. His curled his hand around Cloud’s ribcage and ran his thumb over Cloud’s nipple. A shudder shot through his body like electricity, his back arching to press into the touch. His thumb ran in a firm circle as the nipple hardened, and Cloud whined at the feeling. Sephiroth sighed happily against his mouth—it wasn’t a moan, but it was close enough to be very, very satisfying.

               “What is that?” Cloud asked, pulling away, though not very far. Their lips still brushed as they spoke.

               “Do you like that? Or is it too much?”

               “I—it feels good, please don’t stop.” Cloud tone was filled with wonder, but his voice was breathy.

               Sephiroth dipped his head to kiss him again, adjusting his hand slightly. He knew Cloud asked him not to stop, but he wondered.

               In a quick motion, he pinched the bud between his fingers, and there it was, the moan he had been longing to hear. He swallowed the sound with glee.

               He was about to continue, but Cloud’s pocket began to trill.

               His head fell back against the door, and he did something Sephiroth saw him do very rarely.

               He cursed.

               Sephiroth withdrew his hand, tucking Cloud’s shirt back into his waistband for him, watching Cloud as Cloud watched him, his eyes making it very clear he had no interest in stopping.

               Before Cloud got any ideas, he said, “I won’t have you be late again. Certainly not because of me. We can continue later, if you like.”

               Cloud’s hands surged up, grabbing two fistfuls of hair this time, and pulling him back down for another kiss, even if this one was brief.

               “Just you try to stop me.”

               “Go.”

               Cloud looked displeased when he pulled away. He tugged on his uniform, making sure everything was in place—he wasn’t sure what Hojo would say if he knew he’d just been kissing Sephiroth in his office, but he didn’t really want to find out.

               “I… don’t know what will happen today,” Cloud said slowly. He realized he was stalling, but he felt like he owed Sephiroth a warning.

               “It doesn’t matter. Zack and I will be waiting for you when you get home regardless.”

               His brow pinched in confusion.

               “But I never asked—”

               “You didn’t have to. You didn’t honestly think we were going to abandon you when you needed us, did you?”

               Yes. Yes he did. No one had ever stayed with him before, after all.

               “There will probably be mako, again. I used to get injections weekly.”

               “Weekly? But injections are monthly.”

               “Mine are weekly.”

               The look on Sephiroth’s face turned hard, but he got the feeling it wasn’t aimed at him.

               “Then we’ll handle it like last time. No questions, though.”

               Cloud felt relief wash through him.

               “Now go,” Sephiroth said, nodding toward the door. “Don’t be late.”

               Cloud sighed, but nodded. He ducked out of the office, holding the door open for Sephiroth, who trailed after him. They shared a brief look in the hallways before they went in separate directions, Sephiroth toward his office and Cloud toward the elevator.

               Cloud did succeed in being early to his appointment this time, and Hojo looked incredibly smug about it, no doubt because he felt he had been successful in teaching Cloud a lesson. It was a good thing Cloud had learned not to be rebellious, because it would have been hard not to bite back otherwise. Instead, he looked at Hojo placidly, blinked mildly. Hojo took the deference as his due and turned to lead him through the labs.

               He wasn’t entirely sure what Hojo had planned, but knew it would likely end in an injection. He only ended up being half wrong. There would be no injection this time, but there would be mako.

               Cloud stared up at the mako tank, his mouth a grim line as Hojo ignored him, going about preparing the tank.

               Cloud hated the tanks. They took his clothing for them and left him in there a long, long time. There was nothing to distract him in there, as he could barely see through the mako, and the glass of the tank warped the rest of the world around him. Between the two, he couldn’t really see while inside, which meant he couldn’t even look around the lab for something to do. The boredom meant there was nothing to pull him away from the terrible feeling of being submerged in mako. He’d rather the surgeries than the tanks.

               But it didn’t matter what he thought. Hojo shot him an expectant look, and he began to strip down with no fuss. There was nothing to be done about it. Protesting would just get him left in there longer.

               The top of the tank opened with a hiss, and Hojo gestured toward it with one hand, not even looking up from his clipboard. Cloud climbed the ladder at the side and stood on the rim of the tank, balancing carefully. He could have swung his legs over the side and slipped in, but it was better to let himself drop into the tank like he was diving toe-first into a pool. The quicker he was submerged the better. Drawing the process out would only make it worse.

               He was distantly aware of the lid closing above him and locking, but it seemed so far away. Carefully, with every ounce of his will focused on self-control, he blew out his remaining breath, watching the bubbles slip upward. He took a long pause to steel himself, lungs burning, before drawing a breath in, his palms and forehead pressed to the glass walls, his eyes slipping shut. The mako slid over his tongue, sour and acidic. It was freezing as it worked its way down into his lungs, but burned the inside of his mouth and his esophagus. It was thick and difficult to breathe, but seemed to give him the oxygen he needed, though he wasn’t quite sure how it worked. He measured his breaths slowly, giving his lungs a chance to get accustomed to the mako.

               It felt like a nightmare. It wasn’t long before the shivers set in, his body’s attempt to warm itself against the unnatural chill of the liquid surrounding him. At the same time, it burned, like acid against his skin. He knew he was slowly turning red from the burn of it—he’d seen himself when he came out of the tanks. His skin would feel raw all night. It didn’t help that before long, the itch set in, and it was maddening. He knew better than to scratch—he’d peel away large strips of skin that had been softened and slightly melted by the mako—but he wanted to, very badly. His head swam and his eyes blinked open automatically to try and fight the vertigo. That only made it worse, as the mako burned at his eyes, feeling like lemon flushed into them. He forced them shut again, but it did little to ease the sting.

               He wasn’t aware of how much time had passed, only that it was going slowly. It took him a long time to get some measure of accustomed to the feeling, to relax enough to stop fighting the mako. This was the part where he started scrambling for something to keep him occupied. If not, he was going to sink into the pain of the mako and get lost in it. If he did, he’d panic. Scream soundlessly, pound at the glass, scratch futilely at the walls. It was hard to judge time in here, but he was relatively sure Hojo left him in longer when he did that. He’d never liked it when Cloud reacted to treatments—he saw it as weakness. He was supposed to be able to take anything with a straight face and composure intact. He didn’t like it when Cloud couldn’t manage that much.

               He felt around blindly in his head for something to keep his focus, and then remembered that Sephiroth had given him something to focus on, for this very reason. He focused on evening his breaths back out and recalling every detail of memory. Sephiroth’s mouth on his own, their tongues brushing together. The feeling of leather against his skin, of whatever it was that Sephiroth had done with his fingers that tore a noise he couldn’t control from his chest. How Sephiroth’s chest and stomach had felt beneath his own fingers, the little shiver he’d given when his fingers trailed his lower abdomen. How it had felt so strangely safe to be caged against the door by Sephiroth’s body.

               He didn’t realize how long he drifted and reminisced until he heard a tap against the glass. He forced his eyes open, ignoring the sting, to see Hojo pointing upward. Cloud pressed his feet against the bottom of the tank and pushed, surging out from the top of the tank, his hands curling around the lip of it as he hauled himself out. He paused to cough up the mako from his lungs, clearing it slowly but determinedly, until he was breathing air again.

               He took his time on the ladder. He was still light-headed and trembling all over, his grip weak against the sides. He looked at his hands and arms and, sure enough, his skin was reddened. He stepped off the ladder carefully, making sure he was steady before he turned around.

               Hojo waved him over, and Cloud followed after him, dripping mako against the floor. He trailed him until he was led onto a grated floor for what was, arguably, his least favorite part of the tanks. Hojo kept walking, circling behind a desk to type at a computer. He didn’t need to tell Cloud to stay on the grates. He made a beckoning motion with his hand, not looking up from the computer, as an orderly with a hose came forward.

               Cloud pinched his eyes shut and did his best not to flinch when the hard spray smacked into him, though he did stagger back a step at the force of it. They had to get the excess mako off, he knew, especially now that he was going to be wandering the Tower afterward. But he could feel patches of already raw skin peel away under spray and knew they’d ache until he healed.

               The hose was turned off and a towel was thrown to him. It wasn’t like the towels now sitting in his apartment, but one of the old towels he remembered. Thin, starchy, scratchy. He knew better than to rub himself down with it, as that would only peel more skin away, and instead blotted himself as best he could with it.

               “Your uniform is on that desk. Get dressed and get out.”

               Cloud didn’t say a word, just obeyed his orders. He dressed as quickly as he could, given that he was still trembling, and left without a word.

               It was difficult getting up to his apartment. The shivers were coming harder, now, as his body fought to heal instead of just staving off the damage. He stumbled more than once, and a few times had to pause and lean a hand against a wall to catch his breath. He couldn’t feel his fingers or his toes anymore, and his vision kept fogging over. That made it very difficult to navigate, but eventually he found his way to the elevators, where he slumped against the wall, resting his overheated forehead against the cool glass, watching out of the corner of one eye as the numbers ticked by.

               His arms trembled when he pushed himself away from the wall and out of the elevator when it opened. He tripped twice between the elevator and his door. This time, he didn’t bother with the keycards, even though he was relatively sure he’d recognize the correct one this time. Instead, he leaned against the wall and knocked weakly at the door, though it was really more of a tap than a knock.

               The door opened regardless, Zack’s head poking out to look around for him before finding him resting against the wall next to the door.

               Zack opened his mouth to say something, but Cloud swayed dangerously, despite the way the wall was supporting him. He took him by the shoulders, almost drawing away in alarm when Cloud hissed his pain at the contact, but helped him inside regardless. He steered him to the couch where he started to sit gingerly before his knees gave out and he collapsed. His vision swam, his head spun, and he was leaning heavily on one hand before it cleared. When it did, he could see Zack and Sephiroth both staring at him in concern.

               “Cloud, you look like a boiled lobster,” Zack said slowly, examining his skin.

               “Zack, we said no questions.”

               “I know. It’s not a question, just an observation.”

               “It was a mako tank, this time,” Cloud said, slumping low on the couch. They looked back at him, watching another tremor work its way through him.

               “What’s a mako tank?”

               “Cloud, you don’t have to answer that.”

               “It’s a big glass tank filled with mako. They submerge you in it. I’m not sure how many hours I was left in this time, it’s hard to keep track inside.”

               There was a long moment of silence.

               “How do you breathe?”

               “Zackary.

               “What? He’s volunteering, Sephiroth.”

               “He’s going to regret it in the morning.”

               “I want to talk about it,” Cloud said, eyes cracking open. He looked blearily up at the other two, who froze in their tracks, staring back at him. “I’ve always wanted to talk about it. I’m just afraid of what might happen to the two of you if someone finds out.”

               “Nothing will happen, Cloud,” Zack reassured vehemently. “I know I talk a lot, but we both know how to keep a secret. We wouldn’t have been promoted this far if we couldn’t.”

               Cloud paused, his mind working like gears soaked in molasses as he tried to process this. Eventually, he nodded and drew himself slowly up to sitting. He swayed, listing far to the right, but Sephiroth put a hand on his shoulder and steadied him.

               “You can breathe mako. It doesn’t feel right, but you can.”

               “Why does your skin look like that?”

               Cloud glanced down at himself. He stared at his hands, at the large patch of missing skin on his palm. Zack was the only one asking questions. Sephiroth was unsure of what to do—he had given his word, after all, and there was still a chance Cloud might change his mind when the mako left his system. He wasn’t sure if he ought to put his foot down and stop this altogether or let it continue or even help. He wanted to know, he just didn’t want to know if Cloud didn’t want to tell him.

               “It eats at your skin over time. Burns it. Leaves big blisters. They always hose me down after though, to get the mako off, and the spray usually pops the blisters and takes the skin with it.”

               “They hose you down? Why can’t you just take a shower?”

               “The hose is quicker.”

               “Yeah, but it hurts you.”

               “I heal quickly.”

               “It doesn’t matter how quickly you heal, it’s that it causes you pain.”

               Cloud chuckled lowly. He swayed again, this time toppling over into Sephiroth, who was sitting at his side. He didn’t have the energy to sit back up, so instead he shifted closer, letting his head rest on Sephiroth’s shoulder, his weight against the other general’s side. His eyes drifted shut.

               “They’ve never cared about that. Just efficiency and results.”

               Sephiroth was still debating what to do with their new arrangement when Cloud shivered again. He looked around for a blanket, but didn’t find one. Instead, he shifted closer and wrapped his arm carefully around Cloud’s shoulders, hoping to keep him warm and comfortable while not irritating his sensitive skin. Cloud hummed his appreciation and curled into his side.

               He felt safe. They were discussing the labs, and that meant thinking about things he didn’t like to, and there was the taste of fear lingering on his tongue at the potential consequences, but Zack was watching over him from his place sitting on the coffee table with gentle eyes, and Sephiroth’s arm was around him, holding him close. He could smell his shampoo, floral and woodsy and warm, and strangely enough it put him at ease. It felt like Hojo couldn’t reach him here.

               “How long were you in the labs, Cloud?”

               “I was born there, I think. They were all I had known, until the war.”

               “What did you do there?”

               “I was being engineered to be the best SOLDIER, so anything that helped with that. Training, fighting, sparring, lessons, studying. Tests. Experiments. Enhancements.”

               “You were alone, all that time?”

               “There were the scientists, and orderlies, and nurses. Some tutors. The Professor.”

               “That’s not what I meant. You didn’t have any friends? Peers?”

               “Oh. No. They never told me I would have those, just superiors I should serve and obey and subordinates to lead. I never thought I’d meet anyone like either of you. I still don’t know what to do with myself around you a lot of the time.”

               “Do whatever comes naturally, that’s all we’ll ever ask you for.”

               Cloud shook his head before snuggling closer to Sephiroth’s warmth. He still felt freezing, his fever wracking him, but he was accustomed to being cold. It wasn’t an issue, but it made Sephiroth’s body heat very pleasant.

               “Nothing comes naturally except fighting. I was always taught that there was a right and a wrong way to behave. I don’t want to behave the wrong way with either of you. I don’t want you to leave.”

               Nothing lowered Cloud’s defenses quite like mako. He knew, very distantly, that these were secrets he was giving up—if not secrets Hojo wanted him to keep, then ones to keep for himself. He rarely lied, but he was never quite honest this way, either. He didn’t just spill his thoughts. He had been trained very firmly to keep those held tightly behind his teeth. But with Sephiroth’s warmth around him, in the apartment that was starting to feel like the home he never had, feeling comfortable in a way that was foreign to him, it felt safe to say these things.

               “I want you to listen to me, Cloud.”

               Cloud cracked open an eye and looked at Zack, because he sounded strangely serious.

               When it was clear he had Cloud’s attention, Zack continued, “There’s no right or wrong way to act with us. You’re not going to drive us off. We’re your friends. We care. We’re going to be here for you, no matter what. You don’t have to worry about losing us.”

               Cloud’s brow furrowed in confusion. What a strange sentiment.

               “But what if I make you angry?”

               “Friends argue all the time, Cloud. That doesn’t mean they stop caring.”

               Cloud had little experience with arguing—backtalk was dangerous—but he knew much about dealing with other people’s rage. It was true that Hojo never left no matter how angry he was with Cloud, but he got the feeling that this wasn’t the same thing. Hojo stayed because he wanted something from Cloud and was determined to make him give it to him. Maybe that was it.

               “Do you want something from me, then? Is that why you’ll stay?”

               “I don’t want anything from you but your friendship. Sephiroth—” here, Zack smirked, “—well, he may want something else.”

               Cloud looked up at Sephiroth in confusion. Sephiroth had the decency to look a little embarrassed as he cleared his throat.

               “He means the kisses, Cloud.”

               “Oh, have you two finally kissed? I was wondering how long it would take.”

               “It’s none of your business, Zack.”

               Cloud returned his head to rest on Sephiroth’s shoulder, trying to make his eyes focus again. He was starting to come down from the mako and was getting more exhausted as time passed.

               “I just… don’t really understand. Why you’re both here. The only reason I matter is my performance on the battlefield, but you keep saying you’re not interested in that.”

               “Cloud, there’s much more to you than the way you swing your sword,” Zack said gently.

               Cloud’s brow furrowed.

               “There shouldn’t be. I’ve tried very hard not to let there be anything else. The Professor wouldn’t be pleased if there was.”

               “The Professor isn’t here. Do what you have to to keep yourself as safe from him as you can, but you don’t have to hide around us. You can be more than a general.”

               “I… don’t know how to do that.”

               “You’ve been doing just fine. Just be Cloud.”

               “I don’t know how to do that either.”

               “Like I said, you’re doing just fine. You don’t have to bury your expressions around us, though. I think I can speak for us both and say we like seeing them. Especially that little pout you do, that’s my favorite.”

               “I don’t pout. And I’m not supposed to be expressive. Or have emotions. They don’t fit the image Shinra wants.”

               “Shinra isn’t here, behind closed doors. It’s just us. You don’t have to worry about image in private.”

               Cloud frowned (it was the pout). That sounded fake to him.

               “But what about the cameras?”

               “… What cameras?”

               “Aren’t there cameras in here?”

               “Uh, no, Cloud, there shouldn’t be. Apartments aren’t usually bugged. You haven’t done anything to get on the wrong side of the Turks, yet, and they’d be the only ones who would.”

               Cloud looked baffled. He assumed he was always under surveillance. He always had been, before.

               “Were you always being watched, in the labs?”

               “Always. My room had glass walls, but there were still cameras inside it. There were cameras in every room.”

               “You never had any privacy?”

               “… No? Is that odd?”

               “Uh, yeah, Cloud, yeah it is. Most can find at least somewhere private to go from the time they’re kids. What did you do when you needed to change clothes? There weren’t cameras in the showers, right?”

               Cloud looked at him oddly again.

               “Of course there were. There were cameras everywhere.”

               “Did they turn them off when you were naked?”

               “What? No, why would they?”

               “That’s something people usually want to be in private for.”

               “Mmm, I guess that makes sense. They always liked to take my clothes to punish me, but it stopped bothering me a long time ago.”

               “They what?

               Cloud shrugged and yawned.

               “They didn’t have many punishments that wouldn’t impact me physically in some way, and they would only do something that hindered my performance if we were done for the day.”

               “They couldn’t just… take the things you liked?”

               “I wasn’t allowed to have things I enjoyed. If they knew I liked something, they took it immediately.”

               “But then how did they reward you?”

               Cloud looked at him in confusion again.

               “They didn’t. Does that happen often, to most people?”

               “… Yeah, Cloud, yeah it does. How did you know when you did a good job?”

               “I never performed well enough for it to be ‘good.’ It was always ‘passable’ or ‘adequate.’”

               “Cloud, that’s crazy. You’re the best fighter I’ve ever even heard of, your performance is always better than just ‘good.’”

               “I was created to be the best. Meeting that bar just makes me adequate.”

               “But by that standard, there’s no such thing as a good job.”

               “I learned that a long time ago. I stopped looking to hear it.”

               “But that’s not right. How do you have goals that way? Or dreams?”

               Cloud snorted, letting his eyes drift closed. He snuggled closer into Sephiroth’s side, though he would deny that’s what he did if he was asked.

               “My only goal is to meet expectation. If I don’t perform well enough, I might be terminated.”

               “Terminated? Cloud, they can’t just kill you.”

               “Of course they can. I’m Shinra’s, to do with what they will. That includes discarding me.”

               “Cloud, you aren’t a thing. You’re a person.”

               “That’s kind of you to say, Zack, but not strictly true.”

               “Of course it is! You’re human, same as Seph and I. Flesh and bone.”

               “Flesh and bone, maybe, but never human.”

               “Cloud, stop that. Don’t talk about yourself that way.”

               “It’s only the truth, Zack. Don’t worry. It stopped bothering me a long time ago.”

               “But—”

               “Zack,” Sephiroth interrupted, “you’re not going to get anywhere with this particular issue tonight. I’ve been trying, but he seems hardheaded about it.”

               “I’m not being hardhead, I’m just right.”

               “See?” Sephiroth added. “Besides, he’s exhausted. I think it’s time he gets some rest.”

               Zack sighed heavily, but stood up, leaning back to stretch.

               “Alright, you’ve got a point. It’s getting late anyway.”

               “Come on, Cloud,” Sephiroth said gently, trying to extricate himself without causing Cloud to fall.

               “No,” Cloud grumbled, and there was that pout again. “I’m comfortable.”

               “Cloud, you can’t sleep here.”

               “I can. It’s my couch.”

               “Your bed isn’t that far.”

               “But I’m comfortable.”

               “You’ll be more comfortable in bed, once you get there.”

               Cloud didn’t answer, just pouted harder, whined, and snuggled closer to Sephiroth.

               Sephiroth sighed. There was only one option, really, if he wasn’t going to spend the night here as Cloud’s pillow. He adjusted his grip until he had one arm around Cloud’s shoulders and one under his knees and lifted him. Zack laughed, his hands on his hips as he watched.

               “Talk about a PR nightmare,” he commented as Sephiroth carried Cloud to his room, the blond turning his face to burrow into Sephiroth’s chest, sighing happily.

               “Good thing no one will ever know,” Sephiroth said. There should have been a warning instead of amusement in his eyes, but he knew Zack wouldn’t tell anyone.

               Sephiroth carried Cloud into the bedroom and set him gently on the bed. Cloud hummed in appreciation before immediately sitting back up.

               “Is there something wrong? You should rest.”

               He began fumbling with his boots, fingers struggling with the laces. He had some feeling back in them now, but they still tingled.

               “I need to get out of these clothes first.”

               Sephiroth paused, but watched the way he was struggling with his boots. He sighed and went over, pushing Cloud’s fingers away to undo the boots himself.

               “Where are you pajamas? I’ll grab them for you.”

               “Don’t have any.”

               “Oh. Would you like a clean uniform, then?”

               “What? Do people sleep in their uniforms when not in the field?”

               Sephiroth paused to look up at him.

               “No, but they also usually own other clothes to sleep in, which you apparently don’t.”

               “That’s no issue. I sleep in my underwear anyway.”

               Sephiroth’s mouth promptly went dry, the image of that filling his head. Cloud, stripped down, tangled in his sheets.  That was not something he ever imagined finding out this way.

               He pulled the boots off and set them at the foot of the bed. He stood to leave, but then Cloud was fumbling just as badly with his belt. He seemed to be growing increasingly frustrated with the way his fingers wouldn’t work the way he wanted them to. Sephiroth was still trying to decide what to do when Cloud looked up at him with big eyes.

               “Help?” he asked.

               He had half a mind to refuse. If he was going to get Cloud out of his clothes, he wanted it to be when they were both completely aware and in a very different state of mind. But Cloud just didn’t ask for help, not from anyone, and it was the kind of behavior he wanted to encourage.

               He sighed, resigned to helping but determined to keep his mind very far from the gutter. He came around the bed, setting one knee on the mattress for balance. He slipped his arms around Cloud and began undoing the large SOLDIER belt. Cloud rested his hands on Sephiroth’s shoulders—he wasn’t sure why, as the young general was no longer swaying and struggling to balance. He also wasn’t sure why he was looking up at him so intently.

               He got the belt off and dropped it to the floor beside the boots. He pulled the gloves off one at a time and let them fall as well. His fingers dug into the material of Cloud’s shirt at his beltline, pulling it from where it was tucked into his pants. He wanted to let his fingers brush over Cloud’s skin as he brought the shirt over his head, but instead pulled it off quickly.

               He plastered on his most unaffected mask as he unbuttoned Cloud’s pants and lowered the zipper. He was careful to focus on his own fingers as Cloud leaned back on his hands, lifting his hips so Sephiroth could tug the pants down. He thought he heard Cloud’s breath quicken, but firmly decided it was his imagination. He pulled the pants off the rest of the way and folded them, setting them carefully on the floor before daring to look back up at Cloud.

               Cloud, who was staring at him with heavy lidded eyes, his pupils blown wide again.

               “Will you kiss me?” Cloud whispered.

               “Cloud, you’re still out of it from the mako.”

               “It’s mostly worn off by now. You asked me to tell you when I want things.”

               Sephiroth swallowed. Cloud’s lashes lowered just a hair. He was still leaning back on his hands, almost entirely on display. It was only his iron will that stopped him from lowering his eyes to see if the thin fabric of his underwear was hiding a bulge.

               “I did. And I want very, very badly to kiss you right now.”

               “Then why don’t you?”

               “Because I don’t think I’d stop if I did.”

               “Who said I wanted you to stop?”

               “Let me rephrase. I don’t think I’d stop at just kissing, and you aren’t in a state to consent to anything further.”

               “I can consent just fine.”

               “You really can’t, Cloud.”

               “I know what I want.”

               “You know what you want right now, but you’re impaired.”

               “But—”

               “No. Another time, if you’ll let me, but not right now. Goodnight, Cloud.”

               He left the room before Cloud could argue any further, letting the door shut behind him. He could hear Cloud’s groan of frustration through the door.

               When he came back into the living room, Zack was smirking at him.

               “How much did you kiss him?”

               “Not at all, Zackary.”

               “What took so long, then?”

               “… He wanted help out of his clothes.”

               “Oh yeah?

               “Stop it. He didn’t have full control over his fingers yet, that’s all.”

               “Uh-huh.”

               “Zack.”

               “Betcha weren’t complaining too much, were ya? ‘Oh, what a hardship, stripping my boyfriend.’”

               “He’s not my boyfriend.”

               “But you want him to be.”

               “Get out and go home, Zack.”

               Zack’s laughter was bright as he exited the apartment. Sephiroth followed after him, still frowning.

               Zack babbled nonsense he barely paid attention to on their way to the elevators, but he was distracted. He was too busy being conflicted. On the one hand, he knew he had made the correct decision, keeping his eyes and hands to himself as much as possible. On the other, he was burning with curiosity and something else, now. He wanted to drink in the sight of Cloud out of his uniform. He wanted to do much more than that.

               He’d just have to hope that Cloud would still be interested when his mind wasn’t so muddled.

Chapter Text

               Cloud plucked his PHS from his bedside table and flicked it open to check the time again. 0845. He closed it and set it back on the nightstand with a sigh. He’d been awake for hours now, but he couldn’t motivate himself to crawl out of bed.

               He’d talked, last night. A lot. About a lot of things that he had no business discussing. He wanted to be angry with Zack and Sephiroth. Zack, for all that he had never actually given his word not to ask questions, had taken the opportunity as soon as it had arisen to pull information out of him. Sephiroth had, technically, held to his promise, not asking a single question, but also had not stopped it. Neither of those were good things, per se, but he couldn’t really blame them, not when he was being honest with himself. It was his own fault. He had elected to share the information. Had admitted to wanting to.

               He flung an arm over his eyes. He was an idiot.

               Maybe his apartment wasn’t full of cameras, and no one knew yet, but surely it was a matter of time. One of the three of them would slip in some way, and it would come to light that Cloud had shared what he shouldn’t have. When that happened, it was just a question of which of his nightmares would come true. He didn’t want Zack and Sephiroth to disappear. Even worse, he didn’t want to see them on Sublevel 13. He was afraid that he had all but sent them there, now. Cloud was a man accustomed to fear, but also accustomed to pushing it down and to the side, out of sight, where it couldn’t affect him. This morning, he found that every time he did that, it rose back up like bile.

               What was arguably worse was the disappointment in himself. He couldn’t believe he had caved to his longings and curiosities when he knew it put his friends at risk. He had wanted to discuss the labs, yes, wanted to get the truth off his chest and start to find out just how odd they were, even if the truth hurt to hear. A part of him had burned with the need to know, still burned because there were more secrets, yet, that he had not shared. But it disgusted him that he had opted to relieve the burden he carried when he knew it might compromise Zack and Sephiroth’s safety. He was built to withstand more pressure. He was built to ignore his desires. Last night had been his most remarkable show of weakness in longer than he could remember. He was supposed to be better than this. If Zack and Sephiroth were reasonable, that alone would be grounds enough to turn their backs on him, but he was starting to gather that they really had no intention of leaving him. Even when it was the smart idea.

               Usually, when he was in emotional turmoil, there was nothing to be done about it. Either he had been in the labs, and someone came through his door to drag him into his next day, or there was a war to win, and he had no time to dwell. His emotions had to be set to the side because there were demands being made of him, demands that he had no ability to ignore. Now, however, there were only faint calls for his attention—the paperwork on his desk, the fact that he ought to be training. There wasn’t even a mandatory meeting today to make him haul himself out of bed. He got the strong suspicion that he was doing what Zack had once called “sulking,” but he couldn’t find it in himself to care. Maybe if he beat himself up enough over his mistake he would learn from it. There was no professor here to punish him for it, after all, so it fell on him to do it to himself.

               He was resigned to spending at least a fair amount of the day doing this, hoping he would learn his lesson by the end of it, when there was a knock on his door. He groaned and shut his eyes. No one but Zack and Sephiroth came to his door, and he didn’t really want to face either right now. He opened his PHS and glanced at the time again: 0930. He set it back on the nightstand and rolled over in his bed, pulling the sheets over his head, determined to ignore the door.

               “Cloud.” It was only thanks to his severely enhanced hearing that he heard the voice from the hallway. Sephiroth. “I know you’re awake. Come answer the door.”

               Great. If he was determined enough to call him out on it, he wasn’t going to go away.

               Cloud stared at the curtains covering his windows, trying to make up his mind.

               He pulled the blankets further over his head. Sephiroth would go away eventually.

               He was just starting to think it might have worked when he heard the lock whir open. He cursed quietly. He forgot Sephiroth had a key.

               He decided to pretend to be asleep just a split second before Sephiroth opened the door to his bedroom.

               “Cloud, as I said, I know you’re awake.”

               So much for that.

               Cloud pulled the blankets down just enough to peek at Sephiroth with one eye. The man was standing in his doorway, arms folded over his chest. He wasn’t even in his uniform, instead in his PT gear and another one of those distracting T-shirts.

               “Did you forget we were supposed to train this morning?”

               … Yes. Yes he had.

               “You never sleep in this late. I’m surprised to see you still in bed.”

               He snorted and pulled the blankets back over his head.

               He could hear Sephiroth’s sigh and his footsteps as he approached the bed. There was a long moment where he paused before making the decision to sit on the edge of it. He placed one hand on Cloud’s shoulder.

               “You’re upset. I’ve never seen you so upset that you actually show it. If something’s wrong, you can talk to me about it.”

               “That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Cloud said, his voice the barest murmur. “I can’t seem to keep my mouth shut.”

               Sephiroth sighed again.

               “This is about last night, then. I thought it might be.”

               Cloud didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know where to begin, with all the ways he’d made a wreck out of the night before. He didn’t know why he was inclined to discuss it with Sephiroth at all. That was where the problem had begun, wasn’t it?

               “Cloud, you did nothing wrong last night. You can trust us to keep this secret.”

               “It’s not that I don’t trust you. It’s that I know Shinra very well.”

               “We aren’t in danger.”

               “You are. You are, and I put you there, despite knowing better.”

               “The three of us just fought a war. We know how to handle a little danger.”

               “Not this kind. There’s no fighting your way out of danger from Shinra. If you tried, they would just send me, and you know how that would go.”

               “Cloud, would you say that I am good with tactics?”

               Cloud lowered the blanket enough to peer out at him. Sephiroth raised his eyebrow.

               “Yes.”

               “Is weighing the value of risk a part of tactics?”

               “… Yes.”

               “Would you say, then, that I might have a firm understanding of how to weigh risk versus reward?”

               “Yes, but I think your judgement might be skewed this time.”

               “I was willing to take advantage of your mako shot the first time to get to the truth because it was the best tactical option, despite being fully aware of how it would upset you. Do you think I’m inclined to letting my emotions sway my judgement?”

               “… No,” Cloud admitted, begrudgingly.

               Sephiroth nodded.

               “Then maybe you should trust that I have weighed the risk of being discovered by Shinra against the reward of helping you share your burden and found a clear answer.”

               Cloud lowered the blanket past his chin and looked at Sephiroth with furrowed brows. He turned over onto his back and Sephiroth withdrew the hand that was on his shoulder.

               “But why? It’s my burden to bear.”

               “Because I care, and because what happened to you is too heavy for one man to shoulder alone.”

               “But—”

               “Cloud Strife, do not even consider telling me that you’re inhuman and should be able to bear it.”

               Cloud shut his mouth.

               Sephiroth continued, “If you don’t want to share what happened to you because the wound is too close, or too fresh, or even simply because you don’t want to think about it, I will respect that. But it’s time you stop worrying about Zack and I. I stopped pressing you because I did not want to add to your burden by making you concerned for our sakes. But it’s clear that you want to discuss what happened. And we want to listen. Let us help you this way, Cloud. There’s precious little we can do to remedy this situation, but this is one of the few ways we can help.”

               Cloud sat up, letting the blankets fall around his hips, leaning back on his hands behind him.

               “I don’t think I will ever understand the two of you.”

               “You don’t need to, but I think you might eventually,” Sephiroth said, getting to his feet. “Would you still like to train?”

               Cloud looked up at him, considering. The moment grew long, and Sephiroth raised an eyebrow at him.

               “You know, the mako is entirely out of my system by now.”

               “I should hope so. I’d be alarmed if it wasn’t.”

               “The mako was why you wouldn’t kiss me last night, wasn’t it?”

               Sephiroth blinked in surprise, and then laughed.

               “I had no idea that kisses would be the thing to teach you how to be greedy.”

               Cloud pursed his lips, fighting the urge to blush.

               “I’m not being greedy. You wanted me to tell you when I want things.”

               “Yes, I did ask for that, didn’t I?” Sephiroth said, coming to sit at the edge of the bed again. Cloud shifted, scooting closer to him, the blankets falling further away. It drew Sephiroth’s eye, and he coughed gently. “Are you sure you don’t want to get dressed, first?”

               Cloud tilted his head.

               “Why would I bother? Unless—does this make you uncomfortable?”

               Sephiroth sighed. Cloud was hopeless.

               “Not uncomfortable.”

               “Then what’s the issue?”

               Sephiroth couldn’t believe he was feeling himself getting flustered. He’d had plenty of partners before. The difference was that, previously, his partners had seemed to have a better understanding of what they were asking for.

               “Cloud, I find you… incredibly attractive. And you are almost entirely naked. In bed.”

               “I find you attractive as well. What does the amount of clothes I’m wearing or the location have to do with that?”

               Sephiroth stared at Cloud so long that Cloud raised his eyebrow.

               He couldn’t believe he was doing this.

               “Has anyone ever discussed intercourse with you, Cloud?”

               His head bobbed.

               “I was warned against reproductive sex out of fear for the offspring. They explained the mechanics of it at the same time.”

               “Was it explained to you that two men can have sex?”

               Cloud blinked slowly. The conversation was growing to be worth it, as his cheeks slowly started to turn pink.

               “No. No it was not.”

               “That is something I am interested in doing with you, Cloud, but not something I’m willing to ask for if you are not ready. Considering you weren’t aware it was an option until now, I doubt that you are.”

               Cloud’s face was decidedly red by this point. But he also did not like being told he wasn’t ready for things.

               “How about you let me be the judge of that?”

               Sephiroth gave him a warning look.

               “Cloud, I won’t have you pushing yourself beyond what you’re ready for.”

               “How can I know if I’m ready if I don’t try?”

               “I don’t trust you not to suffer in silence because you think you’re giving me something I want.”

               Cloud scowled. It was, admittedly, something he would do.

               “I promise, Sephiroth, if I feel things are going too far, I’ll stop you.”

               Sephiroth looked at him closely.

               “You understand that I have absolutely no interest in sex with you if it’s not something you are both interested and ready for, yes?”

               Cloud sighed impatiently.

               “Yes, Sephiroth.”

               He took another moment, eyes roaming Cloud’s face to be sure of his sincerity, before he nodded his satisfaction. He removed his running shoes, not wanting to get the bed dirty, but shifted closer to Cloud when he was done, their knees brushing.

               It was Cloud who got impatient and grabbed two fistfuls of his T-shirt and yanked him closer, but the kiss they shared was soft. Cloud hummed into it, one hand sliding up into Sephiroth’s hair as their lips moved together. There was no rush, right now, no elevator waiting to be restarted, no impending appointment to make. He’d already given the day up as a lost cause, and this was a much better use of his time than sulking.

               It wasn’t enough, though. He wanted to be closer. He tried tugging Sephiroth further in, but their knees were in the way. He let out an exasperated breath against Sephiroth’s mouth and shifted, climbing into his lap and straddling his thighs. Sephiroth looked up at him in surprise as he settled with a self-satisfied look on his face.

               “Better,” he proclaimed, before cupping Sephiroth’s face between his hands and kissing him soundly.

               Sephiroth’s hands came to rest on Cloud’s hips, and he was being very careful to be chaste. His hands did not roam Cloud’s chest or reach down to cup his ass the way they wanted to. He told himself firmly to focus on kissing, not all the places he could put his hands, or the way Cloud’s skin would feel beneath his if he dared to move his hands from the safety of the little bit of fabric over his hips. He focused harder on keeping his breath even, his heartrate steady, and not getting an erection that Cloud would be very, very aware of in this position.

               That was, until Cloud growled and did something he had not taught him. He nipped sharply at his lower lip and pulled back to stare at him.

               “Stop treating me like I’m made of glass,” he said, pulling Sephiroth’s hands from his hips and putting them firmly on his chest. “If I want you to stop, I’ll tell you as much.”

               Sephiroth could feel the ring of his Valentine-red eyes grow smaller as his pupils dilated. Before he could think, acting on the memory of a day ago, he reached out and tweaked Cloud’s nipples between his fingers. He would have regretted the impulse, after how careful he was being, but Cloud tossed his head back and moaned, and he much preferred that.

               “If that’s how you want it,” he said, voice a low purr as he dipped his head and licked a long stripe up the side of Cloud’s neck. He could feel Cloud shiver at the touch, his hands coming up to cling to Sephiroth’s shoulders. He nipped at his neck just to feel him shudder again and began working a mark onto his throat. He knew it would be bad if someone saw it, but their uniform had a high collar, and Cloud healed quickly. It would be worth it regardless, just for the throaty noise Cloud made in response.

               He could hear, could feel Cloud panting, feel the way his fingers dug into his shoulders. He was much more reactive than Sephiroth had expected. He had thought he would have to fight to get these responses, would have to work very hard for each small sound, but it didn’t seem to cross Cloud’s mind to be quiet.

               He realized just how much the level of responsiveness was getting to him when he reached down and grabbed Cloud’s ass, kneading it firmly, earning him yet another gasp. He knew he was starting to push what he had decided was the boundary, regardless of what Cloud had said, but Cloud’s words were echoing in his ear, something deep inside telling him to just trust Cloud, and he pulled Cloud’s hips closer so they were settled on top of his own. He was delighted to find that he could feel Cloud’s hardness against his own.

               He wondered, then, regardless of the decision he had come to, if he really shouldn’t stop anyway. Yes, he should trust Cloud, believe him when he said he would tell him no if he needed to. But wasn’t this going a little quickly, considering Cloud’s overall ignorance? Shouldn’t he be the responsible party and stop?

               But then, as he nipped Cloud’s neck again, Cloud’s hips twitched forward, seemingly of their own accord. Sephiroth gasped at the feeling and found his mind quickly made up. He pulled Cloud forward and down, grinding them together.

               The sound Cloud made was broken. His fingers dug so hard into Sephiroth’s shoulders that he was sure there would be bruises. Neither of those things stopped him from pulling Cloud down again, and again, until Cloud learned what he was doing and started rolling his hips on his own.

               “That feels—so good,” he choked out. He pulled away enough that Sephiroth stopped kissing his neck and met his eyes, saw the little furrow in his brow. “Why does it feel so good?”

               “That’s how it’s supposed to feel, Cloud,” he answered, his own voice rough. “Did you not know that?”

               “No?”

               Sephiroth took Cloud’s hips firmly in his hands, pulling them to a stop, ignoring the look of frustration that came over Cloud’s face.

               “You’ve never felt anything like this at all?

               “How would I have? No one was doing anything like this with me in the labs.”

               “I should hope not. But you never—haven’t you touched yourself?” When Cloud stared down at him with a complete lack of understanding, he settled his hand lightly on Cloud’s crotch, ignoring the way he hissed in breath at the contact. “Here, I mean.”

               “I use the bathroom daily, Sephiroth.”

               “That’s not what I mean. You’ve never touched yourself for pleasure? When you’re hard?”

               Cloud looked baffled.

               “I don’t understand.”

               “Cloud, have you not masturbated?”

               “… I’m unfamiliar with the term.”

               “Have you not had an orgasm?”

               Now Cloud flushed a little darker. A term he did know, then.

               “I’ve had… nightly emissions, if that’s what you mean. I was told they were normal.”

               “No, I mean, you haven’t given one to yourself? Intentionally? While you were awake?”

               “I’m… not even sure how to go about that.”

               Sephiroth could feel his eyes grow dark. He knew, in that moment, that any plans of stopping without Cloud explicitly telling him to were firmly out the window.

               Cloud had never had an orgasm.

               He was very determined of two things, in that moment. One was that he was going to see Cloud’s first, and the other was that he was going to give it to him himself.

               He grabbed Cloud by the hips again and gently flipped them, lying Cloud on his back with his head on his pillows. Gently, slowly, with his eyes asking permission, he spread Cloud’s legs wide enough that he could fit between them. Then he leaned over, one hand planted firmly by Cloud’s head, and kissed him, slow and deep.

               “Let me teach you, then,” he purred against Cloud’s lips.

               He returned to kissing Cloud, giving him something to focus on as he trailed his left hand down Cloud’s front, reveling in the feeling of smooth skin beneath his own. He brushed his fingertips over the skin just above his waistband, feeling the muscles tremble and contract under his touch, hearing Cloud pull breath sharply in through his nose.

               He moved slowly, giving Cloud time to protest, as he pulled his boxer briefs down just enough that his cock sprang free. He slid his fingertips lightly over it, savoring the sound of Cloud whimpering into his mouth, his hips canting up at the touch. His body was seeking more of something, even if his mind wasn’t sure of what it was. The instinct was there.

               He swirled his thumb around the head, collecting the beading precum there and smearing it down the length. He began stroking Cloud slowly, his touch light enough to be teasing. He knew it wasn’t enough for him, there was no way it would be, but he wanted to draw this out, give Cloud pleasure for as long as possible. Cloud, who knew infinitely more about pain than pleasure, deserved every ounce of it, everything Sephiroth could give. Part of him wanted to stop the way Cloud was thrusting upward into his hand, to be the sole one in control of what he got, to be sure it lasted as long as it could. But he didn’t think their first time doing something like this was necessarily the right time, especially considering Cloud’s complex history with being given orders. Those games would wait until later, when Cloud had a better understanding of what he was getting into.

               Cloud let moan after sigh after gasp trickle from his mouth, heedless to their worth. He was giving these sounds away so easily, when Sephiroth would have been happy to fight for them. From such a stoic man, who fought so hard to keep everything so tightly contained, it was heady to hear, to know that he was the cause. It only deepened his resolve to give Cloud everything he possibly could.

               “Gods, Seph,” he moaned, head tossed back and digging into the pillows, and Sephiroth almost didn’t hear the next words, he was too focused on that nickname, on Cloud forgetting himself enough to call him “Seph” for the first time, “I—it feels so good but it’s not enough.”

               “I know,” Sephiroth said, something just a little smug in his tone. He nipped Cloud’s bottom lip just to hear him gasp. “You can ask for more, if you want it.”

               “Please, Seph. I want more. Please.”

               “Someday,” Sephiroth promised, “I’m going to make you really beg, and you’ll be beautiful while you do it.”

               Cloud opened his mouth to say something, but whatever he was going to say was turned into a wordless keen. Sephiroth tightened his hand and began stroking quicker, twisting his wrist just so. Cloud writhed beneath him, filled with something he had never felt before and wasn’t quite sure what to do with. Pain he understood. Pain was familiar. Pain was to be endured with silence and ignored as firmly as possible until it was over. This, this confused him. It consumed him the same way pain did, but it felt better than anything he had ever experienced. It overwhelmed him in the way pain sometimes did, made him resort to his voice, but he found he wasn’t inclined to fight for his silence. The only one here was Sephiroth, who he trusted, who he was safe with. Sephiroth wouldn’t punish him for making noise, wouldn’t hurt him for something out of his control. In fact, Sephiroth seemed to delight in the noises he made, and that made Cloud a little freer than he would have been otherwise. Sephiroth was giving him this, the least he could do was make sure he knew he enjoyed it.

               It wasn’t long before he felt all the muscles in his body start to tense. He was trembling, his heart racing in his chest, his breath quick and ragged. He wrapped his legs around Sephiroth’s hips and his arms around his neck, clinging desperately. He was hurtling toward the edge of something, he wasn’t sure what, just knew that something was building, and doing so rapidly.

               “Seph, I—I’m—I don’t understand.”

               “It’s alright, Cloud, you’re doing so well. That’s it, that’s it,” Sephiroth praised, his voice low.

               A violent shiver ran through Cloud’s body, an almost wounded noise coming from his lips. He wasn’t accustomed to being told he was doing anything well. He’d never been praised before, not really. It was something he had always wanted, something he had longed for keenly, but had given up on long ago. People gave him passing compliments, now, things tossed out as if they were fact that Cloud found hard to believe, about what he had done during the war. That he did amazing things, that he was the best SOLDIER there ever was, that no one else could do what he did. He didn’t consider these things praise, not really. These things were meeting expectation. He was doing what he had been groomed for, and these comments acknowledged that, but nothing else. It wasn’t someone he cared for telling him he was doing well, and the thought was nearly his undoing.

               “Seph,” he whined, his eyes falling shut, his face twisting.

               “That’s it—good boy, Cloud.”

               Cloud had been called “boy” many, many times in his life. Hojo and Heidegger both liked to address him that way. It was infinitely familiar—in some ways, more than his own name. But never, not once, had it ever been preceded by the word “good.” He shivered hard, groaning loudly. He distantly heard Sephiroth chuckle, the sound dark.

               “Did you like that? Do you like me calling you a good boy?”

               “Yes,” he gasped, fingernails digging into Sephiroth’s back.

               “You are, Cloud, you’re a very good boy,” Sephiroth said, bending to kiss him just in time to swallow the moan he gave. “Now, my good boy, come for me.”

               Cloud was still wondering what that turn of phrase meant when his own body made it very clear to him. He came with a cry, his back snapping into a hard arch, white painting his chest and Sephiroth’s hand, which loosened its grip on him but did not stop, milking him through the orgasm. Slowly, he settled back onto the bed, panting for breath. He opened his eyes to look up at Sephiroth, who was watching him hungrily.

               “Gods, you are gorgeous when you come.”

               Cloud knew that, if he wasn’t already pink from exertion, he’d be slowly turning that color at the comment.

               “You’re exagger—what are you doing?

               “Hmm?” Sephiroth hummed, pausing only briefly, before resuming his work, licking the come slowly off his hand. He held eye contact with Cloud as he did so. Cloud felt so spent, but the sight was doing things to him. “I wanted to know how you taste. It’s as good as I imagined.”

               All Cloud could offer was a strangled noise. Sephiroth laughed quietly in response.

               He shifted backward and, still maintaining eye contact, began to lick Cloud’s chest clean. He could feel Cloud’s cock twitch in interest, as it bumped into his collarbone. He crawled his way back up Cloud, before tucking him back into his briefs. He paused.

               “Is it alright if I kiss you, after I did that?”

               Cloud wasted no time answering, instead grabbing Sephiroth by the hair and pulling him down. His tongue pressed immediately to Sephiroth’s lips, which slid open, allowing him inside to seek out his own taste. He moaned quietly into his mouth, kissing him until he was satisfied, before collapsing back against the bed.

               “That was amazing,” Cloud whispered, looking up at Sephiroth, sleepy and sated.

               He laughed, leaning down to press a brief kiss to Cloud’s lips.

               “You can do that yourself, now that you know how, but I will always be happy to help.”

               Cloud hummed his interest, letting his eyes shut for a second, before opening them when an idea came to him. His hand slipped downward between them, coming to cup Sephiroth through his pants.

               “Can I do that to you?”

               Sephiroth’s eyes were still dark, but the smile he gave was fond. He pulled Cloud’s hand away, pausing briefly to kiss the palm.

               “Another day. Let this be my gift to you.”

               Cloud pouted.

               “But I want to try.”

               “You’re terrible at receiving gifts, aren’t you? You don’t always have to give something in return.”

               Cloud thought this was untrue. He had always been expected to give. He was accustomed to giving, giving everything he had until there was nothing left. He couldn’t understand that Sephiroth wouldn’t want this from him, especially when he was offering.

               “Maybe I just want to.”

               “Maybe. Or maybe you still need practice accepting that things can be given to you with no ulterior motive.”

               “I don’t think you have an ulterior motive.”

               Sephiroth looked at him in blatant disbelief.

               “Did you think I did that with the expectation of receiving something in return?”

               Yes. Yes he did. Wasn’t that normal?

               “… No,” Cloud said slowly, because he thought that was the right answer.

               Sephiroth clearly did not believe him.

               He sighed and touched Cloud’s cheek, who leaned into his hand without thinking.

               “Cloud, I want to give you things because I like seeing you happy. That’s all. That’s all I need in return.”

               Cloud looked at him, hesitant and disbelieving. He wanted to trust that this was the truth, but his experience made him doubtful. No one expected so little of him. No one wanted so little from him. No one was interested in his happiness, period.

               But maybe Sephiroth was.

               “One day,” Sephiroth said, thumb stroking over Cloud’s cheekbone, “I’ll get you to believe me.”

               Cloud didn’t know what to do. Regardless of what Zack said last night, there was always a right and a wrong answer, and he wasn’t sure what each of those were right now. So he did what he did best.

               He deflected.

               “Does that mean you’ll never let me do that to you?”

               This did, however, win a laugh from Sephiroth.

               “Eventually, Cloud. Maybe once you learn that I’m not expecting it.” He leaned down and kissed Cloud again, and when he pulled away again, his gaze was heavy. “Maybe after you let me do that a few more times, first.”

               “I understand the mechanics of it, if that’s your concern. I’m sure I could refine my technique if you let me practice.”

               Sephiroth laughed again.

               “I don’t doubt your ability to get me off. You’re very determined, and good with your hands—you’d figure it out.”

               “Then what’s the issue?”

               Sephiroth knew that Cloud understood his issue very well, and was mostly protesting to try and wheedle him into changing his mind. Instead of continuing to reiterate his argument, he hummed quietly and kissed Cloud again.

               “Maybe,” he whispered against his lips, “I want a chance to show you how it feels when I do that with my mouth.”

               The noise Cloud made was choked.

               “Your mouth?”

               “Mmm.”

               “Gods.”

               Sephiroth breathed a laugh and leaned a little lower, settling some of his body weight on Cloud, who let out a happy sigh at the feeling. He wrapped his arms around Sephiroth, holding him close.

               “Sephiroth?”

               “Hmm? Are you done calling me ‘Seph,’ then?”

               “What? I’ve never called you that.”

               “You did a few minutes ago. Multiple times.”

               Cloud blushed, and Sephiroth smiled at the sight. It made something fond twist in his chest.

               “I did not.”

               “It’s alright that you did. I liked it.”

               That deflated Cloud’s urge to argue quite a bit. He was still pink in the face, but his eyes turned soft again.

               “Will you stay? For a little while. We can still train, if you want.”

               Sephiroth hummed. He rolled off Cloud, much to the blond’s disappointment, but shifted instead to settle at his side. He pushed Cloud’s shoulder gently, urging him onto his side as well, and spooned up behind him. He pulled the covers over them both and wrapped an arm around his waist, his nose pressed lightly to the back of Cloud’s neck.

               “I think we can take the day off.”

               Cloud sighed happily, reaching up to tangle their fingers together, letting his eyes drift shut. He was sleepy, and content.

               He’d never felt so safe in his life.

Chapter Text

               When Cloud woke up, it was dark out, and he was sad to find that his bed was empty. He plucked his PHS from the nightstand to check the time—1915. He’d woken up a handful of times, where he’d rolled over to kiss Sephiroth before settling back to sleep. He’d never slept so long or so comfortably in his life. But his PHS showed a new message, from Sephiroth. It explained that he and Zack were called away on a mission and would try to be back by morning. Cloud thought this was a little odd (there was nothing planned, or it would have had to cross his desk) but emergencies happened. He was mostly surprised that he hadn’t been the one called for, but there was the niggling thought that Sephiroth might have brought himself and Zack on a mission that had really been meant for Cloud. It didn’t matter. He could always ask when they were back, if it continued to bother him.

               He climbed out of bed and took a quick shower, dressing with his usual speed. He went to the office in his apartment, deciding to not let the day go entirely wasted, and began doing work. He got lost in the flow of it easily. He was finally, finally starting to get accustomed to working behind a desk, though he still got bored very easily and had to get up to at least stretch his legs often. He was in the process of doing as much when there was a knock on the door. Cloud paused, looking toward it through his walls. That was odd. Zack and Sephiroth were both gone on a mission, and they were the only two who came to his door. Maybe they were back early?

               He left his office and went to open the door, and when he did, he promptly fell into a smart salute.

               “Rufus Shinra, sir.”

               The other blond, who couldn’t be much older than he was, swept the hair from his eyes. He looked amused.

               “At ease, Strife, and stand aside.”

               Cloud stepped back and out of the way, watching as Rufus entered his apartment, shutting the door behind himself. Cloud understood that “at ease,” when directed at him, did not mean he was free to relax and do what he wished. It meant he was free to slip into parade rest and await further orders, which is what he did. He waited patiently as Rufus began exploring his apartment, looking around, peeking around corners. He wanted to know what he was doing here at all. He’d never actually seen Rufus before. He knew he was the Vice President and one of the few people Cloud was supposed to obey without question, but he knew little beyond that. No one had ever seen fit to give him details.

               Rufus finished his inspection and came to stand before Cloud, relaxed with an air of easy confidence that Cloud knew he would never have himself.

               “Do you like your apartment, Strife? It’s much better than your old rooms. I’ve been to see those. This is a vast improvement.”

               The thought made Cloud feel faintly ill. He didn’t like the idea of anyone seeing his old room, especially not when they knew everything that had come with it.

               “It is, sir. I appreciate it greatly.”

               Rufus hummed, inspecting Cloud closely, as if he was looking for something. Cloud tightened his stance in his parade rest just a hair. He wasn’t sure what Rufus was looking for, but he wanted to deliver.

               “And your new freedoms? Do you appreciate those, as well?”

               This, to Cloud, felt distinctly like a trap. He didn’t want it to seem like he wasn’t grateful for what had been given to him since he left the labs, but he didn’t want to seem too grateful, either, and have them revoked to teach him a lesson. He only wavered for half a second, more concerned with pausing too long than what would actually come out of his mouth.

               “Yes, sir.”

               “Hmm. I thought as much. We can’t have you forgetting your place, though, can we?”

               Damn. That was exactly what he had been worried about.

               “I haven’t, sir.”

               “I’m glad to hear it, Strife, but I’d much rather you prove it,” Rufus said before flicking his fingers slightly. “On your knees.”

               Cloud sank to the floor immediately.

               Rufus hummed his approval, coming to stand close in front of him. He threaded his fingers into Cloud’s hair, using it to turn his face this way and that, looking him over. Then he continued to run his fingers through his hair, nails scratching slightly at his scalp, and Cloud found he didn’t like the gesture at all. It made him feel like a dog.

               “I wonder just how obedient you are, Strife. How far can I push you?”

               That was never a good question. Something cold slid into Cloud’s stomach. People asked him that right before they asked too much of him, demanded things he didn’t want to give. With Hojo, at least, it was things he was used to giving, now. “How far can I push you” asked how many miles he could run, how much pain he could endure, how long he could sit in mako. He didn’t like those things, no, but he was accustomed to suffering them. But he didn’t know Rufus. He didn’t know what that meant, from this man. But he knew the eyes staring down at him were cold, and the smile at the edges of his lips was not warm or fond, but cruel. He hadn’t even known that a smile could be cruel.

               “I will do what I’m told, sir.”

               “Anything?”

               “Whatever you ask.”

               “Then, Strife,” Rufus said, tightening his grip in his hair, pushing his face pointedly toward his crotch, “suck.”

               Cloud looked up at him in confusion for a long moment, unsure of what was being asked of him. Then another voice, more familiar and much better, came back to him.

               “Maybe I want a chance to show you how it feels when I do that with my mouth.”

               The feeling of sickness in his stomach built. This wasn’t the kind of thing people asked of him. He was told to kill, to be violent, to suffer violence, but not this. This was something he had with Sephiroth, something that they had built together, something safe. This was Sephiroth teaching him that bodies could be for pleasure, not just pain. This wasn’t something he wanted to do with Rufus.

               But as he stared up at Rufus, who quirked a demanding brow at him, he knew he had no choice.

               It was by virtue of the extremely fine control he had over his own body that his fingers did not shake when he reached out for Rufus’s belt. He undid it carefully and precisely. If he made this as clinical, as methodical as possible, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. He just had to keep it distant from what he had done with Sephiroth. If it was cold and quick and devoid of passion, maybe it wouldn’t cost him too much.

               He pulled Rufus free from his pants, already entirely hard in his hands, and found he didn’t know what to do. He had an understanding of how to do this with his hands, but not his mouth. But he was running out of time, and he doubted Rufus would like him stalling.

               He wanted to keep his encounter with Sephiroth as far from this as possible, but he had no other reference material. He was extremely reluctant, but called up what they had done earlier that day. He remembered how Sephiroth had swirled his head with his thumb and tried to do that with his tongue. When Rufus sighed, he guessed it was the right idea. He remembered Sephiroth trailing his fingertips slowly over him, and licked up Rufus’s length just as slowly. He repeated these two gestures a handful of times to buy time, to try and think of what to do next. Rufus’s hand had gone back to petting his hair in the meantime. Sephiroth had wrapped his hand around him and stroked him, so Cloud wrapped his lips around Rufus and lowered his head, bobbing up and down, pressing his tongue where it could reach. Sephiroth had mostly stroked him, so he guessed this was what he was supposed to be doing.

               Cloud let himself fall into the clinical analyzation of what was going on, on the strategic planning of his next step. If he did that, he didn’t have to look too closely at what he was doing, or think about the way it made him feel sick and humiliated.

               It wasn’t long before Rufus sighed impatiently and said, “You haven’t done this before, have you, Strife?”

               Cloud pulled away and looked up at Rufus, not because he wanted to see him, but because it was expected.

               “No, sir.”

               “I suppose that would be asking for too much.” A damnation. A failure to meet expectation. A strike against him. “Luckily, there a way to do this that doesn’t require your skill.”

               Cloud felt himself grow cold. This was bad. He needed to meet expectation, always. It was dangerous to fail. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t been trained for this, had no experience, had no way to know what he was doing—it was something that had been asked of him, and he’d failed to deliver. That was bad.

               “Sir?” Cloud asked, not knowing what Rufus meant, too distracted by the condemnation.

               “Open.”

               Cloud opened his mouth, and Rufus tightened his grip on his hair, and thrust all the way inside, pressing Cloud’s face against his groin. Cloud choked and gagged around him, involuntary tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. He forced himself to relax his throat, to let Rufus in, to let him take what he wanted. He couldn’t keep making that gagging sound. Years’ worth of reminders, of Hojo hissing for him to “be silent,” played in his ears. He didn’t know if Rufus would have the same problem with noise, and he didn’t want to find out.

               Cloud was infinitely thankful as he felt his mind drift away. He knew, distantly, that his fingers were digging little furrows into his knees, and that Rufus was fucking into his face roughly, but he stopped being quite so aware of it. He wanted to let his mind drift into pleasant memories, ones Sephiroth had given him, the way he had when he’d been in the mako tanks. But that felt dangerous, right now. Instead, he thought of nothing, letting his mind go blank and fuzzy.

               It lasted until a hand cracked sharply against his cheek, turning his face to the side.

               He looked up to find Rufus not quite furious, but getting there.

               “You will stay present and aware until I leave, do you understand me, Strife? I want you to remember every detail of what happens here. I am going to have you in a way my father never will. He may be afraid of you, but I will not be. I will make you mine in a way you will be no one else’s, and I am going to make sure you never forget it. Is that clear?”

               “Yes, sir,” Cloud said, his voice ragged from abuse.

               “Good,” he said, voice dipping into a purr now that he had what he wanted: Cloud’s attention. He used his grip to turn Cloud’s face up and rubbed his slick cock over Cloud’s face, smearing it with saliva and precum. When he stopped and Cloud open his eyes, his face was twisted in cruel satisfaction. “There. They call you a weapon, but you’re little more than a whore for the right person. Are you my whore, Strife?”

               Gods, he wanted to vomit.

               “Yes, sir.”

               “Say it.”

               His fingers dug harder into his knees. He fought to steady his breath.

               “I’m your whore, sir.”

               “That’s right,” he said, shoving Cloud away from him. It didn’t do much with Cloud’s innate sense of balance, but the meaning behind the gesture was there. “Up. Show me to your bedroom.”

               Cloud got to his feet slowly. He thought they were done. He thought that there was no way Rufus would demand anything more of him. He had taken his pleasure, he had Cloud’s abject humiliation, what more could he need? But, he supposed, he hadn’t come, and he still seemed determined to claim Cloud in some way. Cloud didn’t really want to know what he had in mind, but was sure he’d find out regardless.

               His steps were even and measured as he made his way to his bedroom. He was desperate for any distraction, and taking minute control of even the smallest gesture, focusing on regulating his body down to the details was something he had long ago learned to distract himself with. But the walk to his bedroom was damnably short. Before long, he was turning to face Rufus, standing at the end of his bed.

               “Undress,” Rufus ordered.

               Cloud began to strip with military precision. He was glad, now, that the scientists had taken his clothes so many times, or this would have been infinitely harder. Still, even for him, it was difficult not to hide behind his hands when he turned back to Rufus, naked now, with the other man’s eyes raking over him.

               “Now undress me.”

               Cloud stepped forward, trying to forcibly relax his shoulders, trying to keep the stiffness from his muscles so they wouldn’t tremble. Rufus pulled something from his pocket before he reached him, palming it in silence. He pulled Rufus’s clothes off piece by piece, layer by layer, with the same clinical manner he had undressed himself. When it was done, he took a step back, but he didn’t get very far before he felt Rufus’s fingers close around his throat. He knew he could yank him off with ease. He could break every finger and his wrist as he did so. Instead, he tilted his head back to allow room for Rufus’s hand, baring his throat.

               Rufus backed him toward the bed and shoved him roughly when they reached it.

               “Up by the pillows.”

               Cloud crawled backwards up the bed and found Rufus following him up it. When he got there, he spread his legs with a shove, nothing at all like the gentle way Sephiroth had done it earlier. He fiddled with what he had retrieved from his pants, apparently a small bottle, and popped it open. He squirted some liquid onto his fingers. Cloud had no idea what that meant or what he intended to do, right up until Rufus pressed one relentlessly inside him with no prelude. His breath stilled in his chest. No one had ever touched him there. He hadn’t thought anyone was supposed to touch him there. It was uncomfortable. It felt dirty. As Rufus pushed another finger inside him, he found it stung as well.

               “Has anyone fucked you before, Strife?” Rufus asked, his free hand dropping the bottle on the bedspread before coming to close those fingers around his throat again.

               “No, sir.”

               “Good. I want to be your first. Then, if you ever do this again, it will be me you think of.”

               Cloud didn’t want that. He didn’t want to think of this now, much less later. But he was well familiar with the way experiences tended to haunt a person, and he doubted this would be any different than Hojo’s surgeries. It would plague him, for years, if not his whole life. This was something else being taken from him, something he wasn’t ready or willing to give, but this is what it meant to be owned by Shinra the way he was. His body had never been his own. Just because it hadn’t been taken from him this way before didn’t make that any less true when he was a child. It was something he’d known for a long time now, but he’d always been safe from this, before. It seemed there was nothing left to be safe from.

               Cloud felt the fingers push in and out of him, spreading him occasionally, the movement relentless. Then, Rufus did something different. He curled his fingers, brushing up against a spot Cloud hadn’t even been aware of having, that made him see stars. He hissed in a breath sharply, his body jerking in response.

               “There it is,” Rufus purred, curling his fingers again and again. “I was starting to wonder if your body was built to feel pleasure at all. But look, you’re getting hard already.”

               Cloud could feel it was true. He didn’t want it to be. This whole encounter had strayed far too close to the memories he shared with Sephiroth, memories he wanted undefiled. But, in spite of everything he wanted, he could feel the pleasure coursing hot through his veins as Rufus stroked him from the inside. He started to distance himself, to pull his mind away, but Rufus tightened his fingers around his throat so hard that it cut off his air supply. He leaned down so close that his breath fanned over Cloud’s face.

               “I told you to be present, Strife. Don’t make me tell you again.”

               The fingers released, and Cloud knew he would not try it again. That was a clear warning, which was more already than he was used to being given. Usually the punishment came as soon as he failed to follow an order, but this was too much, and he couldn’t not try. But Rufus was perfectly clear, and he would not warn him a second time.

               Rufus slipped a third finger inside him, stretching him further, his fingers still relentless in their movement inside of him.

               “I’m going to fuck you, Strife, and I’m going to make sure you enjoy it. I want it so that you never come again without thinking of me inside of you. You are going to come so hard on my cock that you dream about it for the rest of your life.”

               He didn’t want that. He didn’t want that at all. He didn’t want Rufus inside him. He didn’t want to feel pleasure from this man. He didn’t want to come from this. He didn’t want to live this right now, much less relive it later. The man was making him so many promises, and he wanted desperately for none of them to come true.

               Cloud was shivering in pleasure, rock hard against his stomach, but he was silent. This wasn’t his time with Sephiroth, where he felt safe and free, and he let his pleasure fall from his lips easily. This had switched his mindset. This was the labs, was Hojo’s surgery table, all over again. This was pleasure and not pain, yes, but it was something to be endured. This was not a gift, this was a taking. This, like a knife cutting through him, like the sight of his own entrails, was something to grit his teeth against. No one would cut his vocal chords this time, but he found the thought of what would happen to be worse than that. He knew, now, that sounds here were something a partner looked for. That they were something Rufus would be looking for, a sign of the pleasure he was forcing on Cloud. He couldn’t stop this, he couldn’t tell Rufus no, but he could deny him that much satisfaction. It was small, and it was petty, but it was what he had.

               Rufus pulled his fingers from inside him and, without warning, pressed his length inside in one slow, inexorable push. Cloud found himself struggling to breath, his fingers clawing at the sheets beneath him. He would have tried to pull away if it weren’t for Rufus’s hand around his throat, holding him in place. He kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing, until he was entirely seated in Cloud. He didn’t give him a moment to regain his breath, or to get accustomed to the feeling of being stuffed full, but began pulling backwards immediately. He was not gentle, the way Sephiroth had been. He began to pound into him, his thrusts rough and deep and hard, his grip tightening around Cloud’s throat. He shifted his angle, adjusting minutely, until he hit that spot deep inside Cloud again, making his breath catch in his throat.

               Rufus plowed him into the mattress with absolutely no restraint, knowing Cloud’s SOLDIER body could take everything he had. And, true to his word, he kept that angle, making sure to fill Cloud’s very veins with pleasure as he did so.                                  

               Cloud felt dirty. He felt used. He felt humiliated, and degraded, and sick. He felt disgusting. He had felt many, many terrible ways in his life, but never once had it been as bad as this. He knew his face was blank and dead and emotionless, but something of it must have shown in his eyes, because Rufus’s grin was smug as he stared down at him, watching him closely. Before long, he pressed as deep inside Cloud as he could and, grabbing Cloud around the hip and using his grip on his neck, rolled them over, so that Cloud was on top.

               He stared up at him, hungry eyes glittering, mouth cut in dangerous amusement.

               “Ride me.”

               Cloud stared down at him, feeling his stomach turn over. Not only was he going to take this from him, he was going to demand he participate in his own defiling. If he had any scrap of dignity left, Rufus was determined to yank it from his hands.

               Cloud dug his fingernails into the skin above his knees, but he did as he was ordered, rising up slowly before sinking back down. He reached deeper, this way, and Cloud didn’t like it. Rufus grabbed his hips, shifting him this way and that, adjusting their angle until he found that damn spot again. Sharply, his hand cracked against Cloud’s ass.

               “Faster.”

               Cloud went faster.

               Rufus curled a hand around him, jerking him in time, keeping up with Cloud’s pace. He brought his spare hand up to rest behind his head, the picture of lazy satisfaction.

               Cloud found he never hated a man as much as he hated Rufus Shinra.

               Rufus’s fingers were skilled. He knew exactly what he was doing, playing Cloud’s body like an instrument, and it wasn’t long before he was overwhelmed, his whole body trembling. He came with a sharp gasp, his body clenching around Rufus, spilling over the Vice President’s chest and hand. There wasn’t much to compare with, but Rufus had been right—it was the hardest he had come in his life.

               He had just barely come down from his high when Rufus slapped his ass again, and Cloud resumed the movement of his hips, despite the way that he was now oversensitive.

               Rufus looked down at his dirty hand, considering for a long moment, before he reached up, smearing the come over Cloud’s face and into his hair. Cloud’s stomach threatened rebellion. He had never felt so defeated in his life.

               “There,” Rufus said smugly. “Now you really look like a whore.” There was a long pause before he added, “Aren’t you going to thank me?”

               I hope you die a slow, miserable death.

               Instead of saying it, he breathed out shakily, “Thank you, sir.”

               Finally, finally, he seemed to be getting close, because he grabbed Cloud’s hips in both his hands and began thrusting up into him, no longer content to let Cloud do all the work. Cloud began to actually try to make this good for Rufus, out of sheer desperation to make this be over. With one final, hard thrust, Rufus buried himself as deep in Cloud as he possibly could, filling him with a groan. He held Cloud in place by the hips until he came to the last drop before finally letting him go. The second he was free Cloud slipped off him, but he wasn’t sure where to go. He hadn’t been dismissed, and even if he had been, where would he go? This was his apartment. It was supposed to be where he felt safe, but that had been thoroughly ruined. Rufus was still looking him over, as if he was proud of his work. Cloud wanted to shower. He felt like he would never come clean again.

               Rufus flicked his gaze down to his own chest before looking back up at Cloud pointedly.

               “Well? Clean me up.” When Cloud went to stand to go get a tissue, he snatched his wrist and pulled him back down. “With your tongue.”

               Earlier that day flashed before Cloud, of Sephiroth doing that to him, of how much he had enjoyed the sight. He didn’t want to give Rufus that satisfaction, but he knew the choice wasn’t his. He sank back to his knees, straddling Rufus again, and lowered himself. He refused to make eye contact as he licked the come off Rufus’s chest, finding his own taste familiar. Instead of flooding him with pleasure, this time, it made him nauseous. When he was done, Rufus made a dismissive gesture with his hand, and Cloud backed away. The Vice President climbed out of his bed, stretching languorously. He walked over to where his clothes were sitting in a pile, looked at them, and then looked at Cloud expectantly.

               “Dress me.”

               Cloud got off the bed himself and went over. He was unsure of where to start, but he took the implied direction when Rufus pushed on his shoulders to sink to his knees. He pulled up the other man’s underwear and pants, fastening them quickly. He slipped on his socks and tied his shoes. All the while, Rufus’s hand was carding through his hair again, though careful to avoid the smear of come staining it. He felt like a pet again, only he was sure people treated their pets better.

               When Rufus tugged on his hair, he stood back to his feet, pulling on the shirt and blazer quickly but neatly. He tucked Rufus’s shirt into his pants, only to have him grab his hand and place it over Rufus’s crotch. Though there was no hardness there, he thrust against his palm anyway.

               “Maybe I’ll come back to visit,” he said, voice low and private. “To make sure you remember who you really belong to. Would you like that?”

               He’d rather jump off the top of the Tower.

               “Yes, sir.”

               Rufus laughed, the sound deep and dark. He brushed his thumb over Cloud’s lower lip, pulling it down, tugging his mouth open.

               “If only Wutai could see you now. Think of how humiliated they’d be to see what brought them to heel.”

               Cloud didn’t know what he was supposed to say to that, but luckily, Rufus didn’t seem to be expecting an answer. He turned and made his way toward the door, and Cloud trailed after him, knowing it was what he was supposed to do, just as he knew he would be in trouble if he stopped to dress, first.

               Rufus stopped at the door, one hand on the knob. He turned to look at Cloud, giving a thorough inspection of his work. This, at least, was something Cloud was used to, being eyed like a horse at auction. It was better than being eyed with lust. He gave a nod of approval before sweeping out of the door, slamming it shut behind him.

               Cloud stared at it for a long moment. He lost track of time, of just how long he was standing there, but could feel himself slowly become overwhelmed with shivers. He was standing there, cold and sick, trembling more violently than he could ever remember doing. He realized before long that he was hyperventilating. Then he felt his stomach heave, and he made a blind rush to his bathroom, falling to his knees to vomit into the toilet. He brought up every last bit in his stomach and then continued heaving, and heaving, and heaving, his body working to expel everything it could. When he was finally done, he rested his forehead against the cool toilet seat. He did, at least, until he realized he could feel Rufus’s come sliding out of him and down his thighs. He began dry heaving again, his grip on the toilet seat so tight that it cracked beneath his fingertips.

               At some point, he stopped trying to vomit, but his body was still heaving. He realized, distantly, with some surprise, that he was sobbing. He couldn’t remember the last time he actually cried. There were the involuntary tears of pain, but he knew that wasn’t what this was. He didn’t hurt, not more than a vague ache in places he didn’t want to think about. He wished he was in pain—that would have felt better than this. He wrapped his arms tightly around his waist, trying to hold himself together, tears streaming down his face, broken sounds being torn from his chest.

               He had never felt shame quite like this.

               He had been drenched in blood and guts and never felt so dirty.

               He had been strapped to a table and never felt so helpless.

               He had been knocked to the ground, a sword at his throat, and not felt so defeated.

               He’d been tortured until he begged and not felt so broken.

               Cloud didn’t know how long he knelt there weeping. He wasn’t sure he wanted to. It would probably just make him feel worse, to know. Instead, he pulled his mind away, far away, until he could stop feeling unwanted touches, until his tears petered out and he breathed evenly. When he finally had enough distance, when he finally felt numb, he flushed the toilet and climbed into the shower. He turned the water up so hot it burned, and there, finally, was the pain. It felt familiar. It felt cleansing. It felt pure, in a way he no longer was. He grabbed his shampoo and worked it into his hair, fingernails first, focusing on the bite of them scraping his scalp instead of on what he was working out of his hair. He washed his face next, rubbing it raw, trying terribly hard not to feel what was flaking away.  He scrubbed the rest of himself so hard it hurt, so hard he bled and the water ran pink. But that was alright. He’d rather see red than white. When he was sure he was clean, as clean as he could get, he stood under the spray for a long time, focusing on the way it burned his skin, and let everything else fall away.

               Eventually, he got out of the shower. He didn’t look at the toilet, where he had cried for the first time in years. He went into his bedroom, and forced himself not to look at the bed, but he couldn’t force his sensitive nose not to pick up the smell of sex in the air. He hurried to his closet and dressed, pretending his fingers didn’t tremble as he did so. He grabbed First Tsurugi from the wall and his keycards from the counter and rushed out the door.

               There was nowhere, really, for him to go. If he went to his office to try and do paperwork, he would get lost in replaying events he didn’t want to think about—that was what always happened in the labs, when he tried to study after something he wanted to bury deep down and forget. He could go to train, but there would be people in the First’s gym at this hour, and he didn’t think he could stomach being around anyone else for longer than was strictly necessary.

               He chose the VR rooms, simply because it was the only place he could think of where he could go and be alone. He was unsatisfied to see that he couldn’t select as many opponents as he would have liked—the VR room on Sublevel 13 must have been customized to allow it. He did what he could, picked the highest number of opponents, the most difficult terrain, the highest difficulty setting, and entered the room. Hopefully, he’d be able to lose himself in the burn of his muscles and the familiar dance of the fight.

               He didn’t leave the room for hours.

Chapter Text

               Cloud did not sleep that night. In fact, he didn’t sleep for almost a week. He knew his performance started to be affected after the fifth day, but there was no war, anymore, and he wasn’t in the labs.

               Part of the problem was that he was afraid to find out what waited for him in his dreams. Part of the problem was that he couldn’t face his bedroom.

               A larger problem was that Zack and Sephiroth had come back the next day. He knew they were looking for him, because they asked him explicitly where he was over his PHS. He didn’t answer their texts, and he did not pick up their calls. It was, however, harder to hide from them here than it had been in Wutai. He had far fewer places to go, and no trees to hide in. He didn’t dare return to his apartment. Partially because he didn’t think he could stomach returning, partially because he knew that was the first place they’d look and that they both had keys. He didn’t go to his office, because that was the next place they’d look. He had Steven leave his paperwork in a pile on the secretary’s desk. He picked it up at the end of the day, and when he came back the next evening, he took the new stack and replaced it with what he had completed. He trained in the middle of the night, because the gyms were empty then and he needed something to do. The rest of the time, he was either in the VR rooms, which was the biggest risk he took (Zack and Sephiroth likely looked there as well), roaming the many floors of Shinra Tower, or sitting somewhere in the long stairwell doing paperwork. After a while, he took to sitting on the roof. The height still made him panic, but if he shut his eyes, the breeze was nice.

               He ought to see Zack and Sephiroth, he knew that. He was worrying them, and they had done nothing to earn the cold shoulder. But he felt like they would look at him too hard and figure out what happened. It felt like it was written over his face now, stitched into his skin, and anyone who looked too closely would see. The lieutenant and general knew him so well, now, that they were the most likely to do so. He didn’t want to see them look at him differently. He didn’t want to know what they would think. He didn’t want Sephiroth to stop looking at him with softness and look at him like he was disgusting instead. He had never been worthy of them, not really, but he had never felt it keener than he did now. They deserved better. If they wouldn’t see it, he would make them. He would force them away, if that’s what it took. He didn’t get to have friends, anyway—it wasn’t in the script, for him. He was property, that was all. He’d lost track of that somehow, thought that because they gave him a nice apartment and some freedom he got to have the things he wanted. It was naïve. He knew better.

               He didn’t sleep, and he didn’t eat, either. His stomach was in too much of a state of uproar. If he tried, he would just vomit, again, he was sure. Besides, the only places to get food were the cafeteria, which was far too full of people, or his apartment, which was right out. He’d dealt with hunger longer, he could manage.

               What was surprising that he managed, was that he avoided Zack and Sephiroth this long. It was Tuesday again, and The Incident had taken place Wednesday night, with the other two returning on Thursday. This, however, raised a larger issue. His appointment was that night, and he’d have to return home, after. To his apartment, where Sephiroth and Zack were sure to be waiting. He’d already proven the last two weeks that, after the mako, there was no way he’d keep his mouth shut. He’d end up telling them what he had done with Rufus, and that idea was unacceptable. It was a secret he’d rather take with him to his grave. But he couldn’t go to his office after, either, because that would be where they would check when he failed to show up at his apartment, and they both had keys to the office as well. He spent all day thinking about it, but could only come up with one terrible, terrible option. It was a bad idea, he’d be the first to admit it. Sephiroth and Zack would have his head if they found out. But he couldn’t think of anything else, so.

               He deliberately showed up an hour and a half late for his appointment.

               Hojo, as he had known he would be, was furious. Cloud was grabbed by the hair (and felt an echo of another hand there) and dragged toward the operation table, which he was shoved against. He was told to undress (heard another voice order the same), and he complied without a word. He got onto the table and let Hojo put him in restraints. He didn’t even try to distance himself from his body, this time. No, this time, he wanted the pain. He needed his body to feel something familiar, something that felt right, something whole and consuming that would blot every thought out of his head and make him forget even his own name. He didn’t try to be quiet this time, which only made Hojo angrier, made him be even rougher. He lost track of how many times his vocal chords were cut. He lost track of what, exactly, Hojo did to him. He just knew it hurt and that was what he wanted.

               He was still bleeding and broken when Hojo had an orderly lift him off the table. He was brought to a mako tank and dropped gracelessly inside. He didn’t try to fight this, either. When the itching came, he went ahead and scratched. It burned his eyes to keep them open, but he watched the skin come away in ribbons anyway. He kept scratching, kept peeling his skin off, because that was all he had wanted to do since The Incident, just crawl out of his skin and leave his body behind. He focused on that task, on the delightful pain it brought, and found the familiar panic didn’t come. There was only the sense of rightness. This was how things ought to be. This was where he belonged. He was home.

               Eventually, his fingers fell away as his awareness did. He’d been steeping in the mako too long, his mind drifting away despite how he, for once, wasn’t trying to make it do so. The mako sank too far into him, and he couldn’t fight it anymore. He just floated, unable to do anything else, burning eyes watching the room sightlessly.

               He couldn’t even begin to guess how long it had been when they pulled him out. He wasn’t even aware that he was out, not for a long while. When he came to, he was lying on the floor of an achingly familiar room.

               He rolled onto his back and stared up at the pure white ceiling. He could hear the hum of electricity around him. He could, if he wanted to, pinpoint where the cameras in the room were. He looked around him to see glass walls that he knew, from experience, he could not break. To his left was his old cot on its metal frame—thin, hard, and covered in a single, scratchy fitted sheet. He’d never been given blankets. He was told he didn’t need them. There was a toilet in one corner and a sink by it. They had taken the piles of books and handful of maps he’d had when he was preparing for the war. Now, his old room was just empty.

               Cloud lie on his back, the cold tile pressed against his bare body, and found himself bothered by his nudity for the first time in years. He supposed that shouldn’t really be surprising. He frowned. He didn’t want to remember why that wasn’t surprising. He found himself missing the mako. At least in there, he hadn’t had to think. He shut his eyes against the blinding overhead lights and breathed in through his nose, focusing on the familiar smell of recycled air, antiseptic, and mako. This was his home, and he had been a fool to let himself think it had been the apartment. He knew all the things that could go wrong, here. He understood them, and was no long afraid of them. They would only take so much, here, and they were all things he didn’t mind giving, anymore.

               He wished he could go back to before the war, when it had just been the familiarity of the labs. He had no expectations, then. He hadn’t let the outside world run away with him. He didn’t have hopes, or dreams. He didn’t know what pleasure was, and that couldn’t be twisted against him. It had been hell, but it had been safe, in its way. He had thought safety was his apartment, was Zack and Sephiroth. Now he knew that his apartment was far from safe, and Zack and Sephiroth were a distant dream he should have known better than to reach for. Things had been simple, before. Now he knew his time in the labs, in the safety of his old room, was limited. They would give him a clean uniform and tell him to get out, soon enough. He couldn’t stay, even though he wanted to. He wondered if he could volunteer for more appointments, and then show up late to all of them so Hojo would lose his temper again and go too far, so he could keep being brought back here. He didn’t think that would work, though. They hated to give him anything he wanted. As soon as they found out he wanted to be in the labs, they would probably kick him out.

               As it was, they came to kick him out too quickly. He wanted to protest, but they tossed the uniform at him and stared at him expectantly, clearly waiting to escort him out. Only, it wasn’t a uniform they tossed at him, but his old, itchy, shapeless clothes. He was informed that they didn’t have any uniforms stocked here and he was expected to retrieve one from his apartment. There was nothing to be done, and he couldn’t keep hiding here. He dressed himself and let them guide him to the lobby. He left and walked slowly down the hall before staring a long, long time at the elevator. He felt his stomach sink further the longer he stared. When he finally reached out to call the elevator, his hand trembled.

               He didn’t want to go back.

               He glanced at his PHS and found it was 1600 on Wednesday. They must have left him in the tank at least overnight. It had been a while since he had been in that long. He tried to think about that and not the increasingly frantic texts he was dismissing on his phone, or the fact that either Zack or Sephiroth would likely be in the apartment waiting for him.

               His brilliant plan, foiled by the Science Department not stocking uniforms.

               He had half a mind to go to the requisition office and demand a new uniform there, but the fewer people that saw him dressed like this, the better. He was sure there would be rumors about him having some sort of medical procedure done or something equally ridiculous by the end of the day regardless, but he had to do some damage control. Even if it meant going back to the apartment.

               He got into the elevator and rode it as far is it would go, before switching to the high level elevator on the ground floor. He focused on fighting the tremble in his fingertips the whole way up.

               When he got there, his walk from the elevator to his front door is a slow death march. He put one foot in front of the other only because he felt he had no other choice. He took his time pulling his keycards out of his pocket, took even longer selecting the right one. When he tapped it to the panel beside his door, the lock opened too quickly for his taste. He pulled the door open just a split second before the lock re-engaged.

               Cloud walked inside, forcing himself not to look at the spot where he had knelt before Rufus. He looked around his apartment slowly before finally allowing his gaze to settle on Sephiroth, who had jumped up from his seat on the couch and was looking at him with wide eyes. He watched impassively as Sephiroth hurried around the couch to come sweep him into a hug. He couldn’t stop his flinch, but knew Sephiroth felt it. It was only a split second before he relaxed.

               Sephiroth pulled back and looked at him, concern melting into an inspecting look, his hands still on his shoulders. He pulled his hands away slowly, watched a faint amount of tension stiffen Cloud’s shoulders again. He set his hands on Cloud’s upper arms and felt the tension bleed away, but there was a hollow, dead look on Cloud’s face. This wasn’t what Cloud looked like when he relaxed. This wasn’t Cloud relaxing. This was Cloud going pliant. This was submission. This was a pack animal feeling teeth at its neck and baring its throat to not be bitten.

               Sephiroth yanked his hands away as if he had been burned.

               “What happened?”

               Cloud couldn’t stop the hollow laugh that he gave. He didn’t answer.

               He brushed past Sephiroth and entered his bedroom. Before he could stop himself, he glanced at the bed, images flashing before his eyes as he took in the still-rumpled sheets. He did a brief stutter-step before forcing himself to continue. He could feel Sephiroth watching from the doorway as he reached the closet and pulled out a uniform. He began to strip. Who cared if Sephiroth watched? He’d seen him undressed before. Worse people had seen him naked. It didn’t matter.

               It didn’t matter, but when Cloud turned to look at Sephiroth, his eyes were politely averted.

               He immediately felt sick. He didn’t deserve that, that politeness. He didn’t deserve how Sephiroth treated him. He deserved Hojo, and the labs, and Rufus. That was his lot in life. He knew that, now. He didn’t think he wanted to be there for when Sephiroth figured it out for himself.

               Cloud stopped in front of Sephiroth, because he was blocking the doorway, and there was only the one exit. Sephiroth finally looked down at him, and he was roaming his face, as if he could figure out the truth just by looking. Cloud was, frankly, surprised he couldn’t. But he was too distracted by the looming presence of the bed behind him. He thought, for a second, he could smell sex on the air. The room pressed in on him, making him feel claustrophobic. His chest felt tight. He couldn’t breathe. He realized, faintly, that he was hyperventilating. He swayed on the spot, felt Sephiroth steady him, and that was so much worse, because then he could feel the ghost of other touches, everywhere else. He shook him off.

               “Let me out,” he choked out, his voice strangled. Sephiroth all but jumped out of the way, and Cloud bolted. He didn’t stop until the door was slammed shut behind him. He leaned his back against the wall outside his door and panted, gasping for breath. Gods, he was pathetic. He hadn’t had a panic attack since he was a child. And here it was, after just a brief look at his bed. He was supposed to be better than this. Hojo would be furious all over again if he knew how weak he was. He was surprised that he ached for that fury. Maybe Hojo could hurt him so badly it made him clean again.

               He couldn’t stop the bubble of hysterical laughter that slipped from his lips. Who would have thought he’d think to turn to Hojo for help putting himself back together again?

               Eventually, the laughter died away, and he caught his breath, and he opened his eyes. He found Sephiroth staring at him, something that was sad and afraid at the same time in his eyes.

               “Something happened,” he said, and it wasn’t a question. “Was it me? Did I do this? Did I move too quickly?”

               Cloud looked at him in confusion, unsure of what he meant, until it caught up to him. He thought he’d rushed him, that morning. That he was reacting to being pushed too far before he was ready. Really, he wasn’t wrong, but Sephiroth wasn’t the culprit.

               Cloud softened, if a dead thing could look soft.

               “No, Sephiroth. You didn’t do anything wrong. It wasn’t that morning.”

               It was that night, as soon as your back was turned.

               “What happened, then?”

               “I… can’t tell you.”

               I can’t tell you. You’ll never look at me the same way again.

               “Because of the cameras in the halls? Let’s go back inside, it’s safe there.”

               Cloud couldn’t stop that hysterical laugh from coming out again.

               It wasn’t safe in there. It never would be again.

               “No. I’m not going back in there.”

               Sephiroth looked at him, taking in the odd statement, the strange laugh, the panic attack he’d had in his own bedroom. It didn’t make sense. Cloud had only ever been relaxed in his apartment.

               “Whatever happened, happened in there, didn’t it?”

               Cloud stopped breathing for a moment, before he forced himself to start again. Sephiroth was smart. Too smart. He’d figure it out, given enough time, given enough accidental clues from Cloud. He didn’t want him to know. Of all people, he didn’t want Sephiroth to know.

               “Please, don’t ask me,” he said quietly.

               Sephiroth’s brow pinched, in confusion and concern.

               He lowered his voice so the cameras wouldn’t pick it up, but Cloud’s enhanced hearing would.

               “What could be worse than what you’ve already told me?”

               Cloud just shook his head and walked away.

               “Cloud,” he said, reaching out and grabbing the blond by the elbow.

               Cloud froze midstep. He went pliant again, stopped fighting immediately. His head bowed. Sephiroth pulled his hand away, cursing himself silently for the slip. He didn’t know what happened, but he didn’t want Cloud tolerating his touch when he didn’t want it. He’d always been clear about that, from the very first kiss. If Cloud didn’t want it, he didn’t, either. Somewhere along the line, he seemed to have forgotten that.

               “Come to my apartment, then. We can talk there.”

               “There’s nothing to discuss.”

               “There clearly is. You aren’t acting like yourself.”

               “I’m behaving how I should. What I was doing earlier was the mistake. I should never have slipped.”

               “Cloud, it’s okay to be yourself with me.”

               “It isn’t. All it will do is get me into bad habits that will have to be broken later. I should never have let myself get close to you in the first place. This was foolish.”

               Cloud began to walk away again. Sephiroth did not reach out to stop him a second time, but did fall in step behind him.

               He got in the elevator and Sephiroth followed him there as well. There was a long moment of silence.

               “You can’t honestly be planning on following me.”

               “I’d say you can’t honestly be planning to keep avoiding me, but this last week has made it clear that you’re serious.”

               “Sephiroth, I don’t want to be around you right now.”

               A lie, but a small one. He didn’t want to be around anyone right now, but if he hurt Sephiroth and he left him alone, that would be better.

               “There’s a reason for that, and I intend to find out what it is.”

               “I’m not going to talk about it, Sephiroth. Not now, not ever.”

               “Who else knows, then? There has to be a guilty party. Tell me who, I’ll get them to talk.”

               Cloud’s stomach turned, the image of Rufus appearing before him. Rufus, looking down on him, smug. Rufus’s cruel smile. Rufus lying on his back, one hand behind his head, lazy and victorious. He reached out to grip the handrail to steady himself, and Sephiroth took notice.

               “I want him to tell you even less than I want to tell you myself.”

               If he told Sephiroth, it would be bragging. There would be a gruesome amount of detail. Everything he wanted to stay in the dark would be laid bare. No, Sephiroth would not ask Rufus, not if he had anything to say about it.

               “So I’m looking for a man, then.”

               Dammit.

               “You’re not looking for anyone. Let it go.”

               “No. I’ve never seen you so affected by something, Cloud. Whatever it is, it cannot be allowed to go unpunished.”

               “You can’t punish the person responsible.”

               “So a superior, then. Part of the Board of Directors?”

               Cloud cursed his big mouth. He cursed Sephiroth’s clever mind.

               He hit the “Emergency Stop” button, trying very hard not to think about the last time they had been in an elevator and that button had been pressed, and rounded on Sephiroth.

               “What happened is over and done. You cannot stop it. Neither of us are in a position to stop it from happening again, either. So accept that it is out of your hands and let me deal with the consequences.”

               “Not if this is how you plan to cope. You’re avoiding the people that care about you. From the look of you, and from the fact that you haven’t been in your apartment for almost a week, I’d say you haven’t been eating or sleeping. You can’t go in your apartment without having a panic attack. You went to your appointment and took almost 24 hours to return home, which I’m relatively certain you only did because you needed a change of clothes. This isn’t healthy, Cloud.”

               “Who cares if it’s healthy? All that matters is that I continue to do my job, which I have been. Everything else is a luxury.”

               “Cloud, how many times do we have to tell you? You’re more than your work.”

               “I’m not and it is dangerous for me to think that way, because you and Zack are the only two who believe it. When the fact that I’m not is rubbed in my face and I have to accept it all over again, when someone rubs salt in that wound, I only have you two to thank for ever making me think anything else. I will never get to be anything but my work. It’s better, safer that I accept what I am now than have to be taught the hard way all over again because I let you raise my hopes when I know better.”

               Sephiroth looked at him as if he had been slapped.

               Cloud could feel his anger building, everything that had been stewing inside him for a week that he’d had no outlet for. The rage at himself, at Rufus, at his own helplessness. Sephiroth wasn’t a fair target, no, but he was a safe one. He could take it out on Sephiroth, because he would let him. It wasn’t right to take advantage of that, but Cloud found he couldn’t stop the words coming out of his mouth.

               “You and Zack are the only ones who ask me for anything that I get to say no to. Anyone else, there’s only one answer, and that’s ‘yes, sir.’ They ask me to jump, and I say ‘how high?’ They ask me to kill, and I do. They bring out shackles, I hold out my wrists. They ask me for more than I can give, I give everything that I have and apologize for not having more. That is the way things work. That is my life and it will never change. You two indulged me, let me think I was safe, got me to let my guard down, and it all got torn out from under me. Now I have less than I started with and more nightmares to go with it and that’s worse.”

               Cloud could feel his nails digging into the leather of his gloves from how tight his hands were clenched. He could see Sephiroth blanch, see the guilt rise on his face. He thought he had been doing the right thing, showing kindness to Cloud, but now he wondered if he hadn’t been hurting him in the end. Cloud felt a sick sense of satisfaction at Sephiroth’s expression, and then he remembered the last time he had seen someone satisfied, and he felt ill. He ducked his head.

               Why did he speak to Sephiroth like that? The man had only ever been kind, been gentle with him. It had always been more than he deserved, but he never felt that more keenly than this moment, right after he’d been needlessly cruel.

               “… Cloud, I—”

               “No, Sephiroth, I’m sorry,” Cloud whispered. “I just—I’m angry. It’s not right for me to take that out on you. It just—has been made clear to me that I’m not as safe as I thought I was, and I’m having a hard time accepting that.”

               “How can I help, Cloud?”

               He sighed, and when he looked up, the blank expression that had been glued to his face for a week was gone. It was raw hurt, in a way that Sephiroth had rarely seen from him.

               “I don’t think you can,” he said slowly. He reached out slowly, daring himself to do it, and put his hand on Sephiroth’s arm. “But it means something that you want to try.”

               Sephiroth moved slowly, giving Cloud a chance to change his mind, and set his hand on top of Cloud’s. The blond flinched, but didn’t go pliant under his touch. He seemed to be focusing very hard on something, likely not doing just that.

               And then Sephiroth paused, considering the way Cloud had submitted to his touch. It wasn’t something he had done before, not really. Something new, then, that he had learned in the last week. The whole thing, whatever had happened, had been new to Cloud, or it wouldn’t have impacted him so much. He’d been through plenty of horrors in the past, was accustomed to them, but he’d never seen Cloud have a panic attack and run away before. Whatever had happened had occurred inside the apartment, likely in the bedroom, since that was where the attack had happened. And it had been done by someone above Cloud on the chain of command.

               A new horror, one that was related to touch, that happened in a bedroom, done by someone Cloud felt he couldn’t say no to.

               Sephiroth’s stomach plummeted.

                He withdrew his hand sharply.

               For all that his irises were the color, Sephiroth had never actually seen red until that moment.

               “Sephiroth? … Sephiroth?”

               He could hear Cloud’s voice, but it was so distant. He could feel himself start to tremble in anger, his teeth gritted together, his hands in tight fists at his sides.

               How dare they? How could they? This was Cloud, who had been robbed from his entire life, who understood nothing but pain, who didn’t understand his own worth, who had been taught to see himself as subhuman for so long that he couldn’t believe anything else. This was the one man among men who deserved kindness, and softness, and gentleness. This was the man who deserved to be given pleasure simply as a gift and that, too, had been taken from him. Spoiled. Who knew if he would ever tolerate touch the same way again? Sephiroth certainly wouldn’t be asking it of him, not again, not now that he realized that someone had found the last thing he had left and ripped that from him too.

               He wanted to find who did it and make them bleed.

               But he felt hands on the side of his face, fingers stroking gently over his cheeks.

               “Sephiroth, hey, come back,” Cloud was whispering, looking at him with something like desperation in his eyes. “Come back, that’s it, thank gods.” Cloud smiled tremulously. “I thought I lost you.”

               Sephiroth took a deep breath and reined in the last of his temper. There would be time, later, for punishment. To hunt down whoever needed to pay and make sure that they did. For now, his concern was Cloud. He took the blond’s hands in his and gently removed them from his face, settling them back at his sides before letting them go.

               “I’m so sorry, Cloud. You don’t have to touch me, not ever again, if you don’t want to.”

               Cloud looked at him with that little pinch of confusion in his eyebrows. He opened his mouth to say something, but there was a slow, dawning realization that crept over his face, right before it plummeted. He paled. He looked a little ill. He offered a bitter little laugh, something harsh twisting on his face.

               “You figured it out, didn’t you? I should have known you would. I thought I would have had a little more time, but that was always going to be asking for too much, wasn’t it?”

               Cloud turned around and pressed the “Emergency Stop” button, the elevator whirring back into life. Sephiroth reached out and pressed it again.

               “What do you mean, more time?”

               Cloud looked at him again, and every ounce of expression was gone. The dead thing was back on his face.

               “Well, that’s it, isn’t it? You’re leaving. I can see why you wouldn’t want to be around me anymore.”

               “Cloud, I’m not going to leave you. Why would I leave you? What happened isn’t your fault, you have to know that?”

               Cloud’s expression didn’t change, he just gave him a long blink.

               “He told me what to do, and I did it. I participated. I thanked him, at one point. I’m not blameless.”

               “Did you want to do any of it?” When Cloud just stared at him, he said, “Cloud, at any point, did you do any of it because you wanted to, or did you do it because you were told?”

               “Does it matter?” his voice was quiet. “I still did it.”

               “It matters. There is a world of difference between doing something because you don’t think you have a choice and doing something because you genuinely want to.”

               “It doesn’t matter,” Cloud snapped, and this time, Sephiroth could tell the anger was for himself. “I didn’t protest, I didn’t fight, I didn’t even just lay down and let him take from me, I gave to him myself. He called me a whore, and I’d say he was right, but whores are paid.” Cloud gave that harsh, bitter laugh that Sephiroth was quickly coming to hate. “At least now I know that if I don’t make it as a general, I have a backup career.”

               “Cloud, stop,” Sephiroth snapped. “The details of what went on in that bedroom do not matter because, regardless of what you did, you did not do it because you wanted to, but because you had to. You’ve always called yourself Shinra’s property. You’ve said yourself that you believe they would have you terminated. Do you still think that would be true, if you didn’t obey your orders?”

               “… Yes.”

               “Then all you did that day was survive. It wasn’t pleasant. You aren’t proud of it, clearly. It cost you quite a bit more than you should ever have to give. But you survived, do you understand that?”

               “But I…” An expression of sickness came over Cloud’s face, and he looked down, his voice quiet when he continued. “But I enjoyed it, Sephiroth.”

               “Did you enjoy it, or did he force you to orgasm? Because those are two different things, Cloud.”

               Cloud didn’t look up. His shoulders curled forward, just a hair.

               “I don’t know how you can stand to look at me.”

               “This doesn’t change how I see you. You are still the strong, amazing man with a warm heart who I have come to know. This does not change that. It just makes me want to hurt the party responsible.”

               Cloud finally looked up at him.

               “Sephiroth, you can’t. That’s suicide.”

               “I’m gathering. I won’t. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to.”

               Or that he couldn’t find some subtle way to get revenge. He’d find a way.

               A little bit of tension slipped from Cloud’s shoulders.

               “Is this why you’ve been avoiding Zack and I?” Sephiroth asked, when Cloud made it clear he wasn’t going to say anything.

               He was still hiding behind that emotionless mask, but he looked away.

               “Yes. I… thought you would react worse. It would be easier to hide from you than to lose you for good.”

               Sephiroth ached to touch him, to offer some small comfort. He didn’t realize how used to touching his shoulder or his arm or his hand he had gotten, until now that those things were out of bounds.

               “You won’t lose us. Not over this.”

               Cloud glanced back up at him.

               “You won’t tell Zack, will you?”

               Sephiroth shook his head.

               “It’s your secret, Cloud, to share as you will. But I do want you to know that you won’t lose him over this, either. Though I suspect he will have a harder time controlling his temper than I did.”

               Cloud’s eyes narrowed just a hair.

               “Zack doesn’t have a temper.”

               “He doesn’t have a temper about most things. He was angry enough about what he already knows. To find out that more has been taken from you, that this has been taken from you—there will be bloodshed. We can only hope to get him out to the Wastes where he can kill monsters instead, so there won’t be consequences.”

               Cloud looked like he didn’t quite believe him, and he wasn’t that surprised. Carefree, happy Zack lost in a bloodthirsty rage was hard to picture. But Sephiroth had seen it once or twice before, and knew by now what would trigger it. This was one such thing.

               “That doesn’t sound like Zack.”

               “You just haven’t seen that side of him yet.”

                Cloud shifted, and after a long moment, pressed the “Emergency Stop” button again. He came to stand at Sephiroth’s side, their shoulders next to each other.

               “Were you hiding from us again last night, or were you really at your appointment that long?”

               Cloud fought back a flinch. He didn’t want to talk about this, either. He didn’t think Sephiroth would like what he had done.

               “I went to the apartment as soon as I left the labs.”

               “Why were you there so long?”

               “I was hoping to wait you two out. I thought that maybe if I was gone long enough, I wouldn’t have to see you.”

               “Now that I think about it, you didn’t have any mako symptoms when you came back. Did they not give you any?”

               “… They did.” There was a long, expectant pause. Cloud, knowing that Sephiroth would put it together if he gave him enough time, elected to just spill. “They kept me there to wait out the effects.”

               “But that takes hours.”

               “They left me in my old room to recover.”

               “That still doesn’t account for all the time you were gone.”

               Cloud cleared his throat.

               Better to just get it over with.

               “I… may have purposefully arrived late to irritate the Professor so he would overreact enough that they would have to keep me in my room.”

               “You… intentionally antagonized Hojo.”

               “… Yes.”

               “How bad was it?”

               “… Bad.”

               “Cloud.”

               “I know, I know, you don’t have to tell me.”

               “You didn’t have to do that just to avoid us,” he said, telling him anyway.

               Cloud looked down. He didn’t want to admit that it hadn’t been the only reason. That it had been some twisted form of self-flagellation as well. That he had wanted what he knew Hojo would give him. He didn’t think the admission would help the situation. So he just shrugged.

               “It’s over, now.”

               Sephiroth waited a long moment before he sighed.

               “I suppose it is.”                                                                       

               “Is it alright if I bring you to my apartment? Frankly, you need to eat and sleep, and that’s the best place I can think of for those at the moment.”

               Cloud paused, and then shrugged. He didn’t really want to do either of those things, especially sleeping, but he could try. For Sephiroth. Since he was, apparently, not going to abandon him. He still didn’t understand why that was.

               “Sure.”

               “Is it alright if I call Zack and tell him to meet us there? He’s worried.”

               “I’d… rather not see him, today. This is already a lot.”

               “I understand. May I tell him I found you, and that you’re safe?”

               I’m not safe, I never was, and I don’t think I ever will be, Cloud thought to himself.

               Instead of sharing the sentiment, he said, “Sure.”

               Sephiroth didn’t like how curt he was being, the distance that was between them, but he could understand where it was coming from and respect it.

               He pulled out his PHS and dialed, holding it up to his ear, as he pressed the button for the correct floor.

               “Zack here.”

               “Zack, I found Cloud.”

               “Oh thank Gaia. Where are you guys?”

               “He’s with me, and he’s safe. He wants to be around as few people as possible, right now.”

               “… Something happened, didn’t it?”

               “Yes.”

               “It’s bad, huh.”

               “Very.”

               “Am I going to be mad?”

               “Oh, yes. Extremely. You aren’t allowed to have your sword or materia when you find out.”

               “Shit. That bad?”

               “Worse.”

               “You know, a lot of things are coming to mind, and none of them are good.”

               “It’s not my place to tell you, and I don’t think he’s ready yet. Give him some time. I just wanted you to know that I found him.”

               “Are you going to be with him?”

               “Until he wants me to go, yes.”

               “I don’t like it, but I’ll take it. Watch out for him for me, and tell him I miss him.”

               “I’m not going to do that, Zack.”

               “It’ll make him feel guilty?”

               “Yes.”

               “Damn. Alright, that’s fair. Still, watch out for him for me.”

               “You know I will.”

               “Thanks for calling. Goodnight, Seph.”

               “Goodnight, Zack.”

               There as a long pause.

               Then, “You know my hearing is sensitive enough that I could hear the conversation.”

               “Yes.”

               “Then you know you could have just passed on what he said.”

               “I could have. I wanted him to feel bad about not thinking first before asking.”

               Cloud hummed.

               The elevator ride continued in silence.

Chapter Text

               Cloud was sleeping fitfully. Sephiroth hadn’t really expected anything else, if he was honest with himself. It had taken hours before Cloud had just turned to him, resigned, and asked him to just cast Sleep on him, because this wasn’t going to work any other way. He’d refused Sephiroth’s bedroom, and he hadn’t pressed, unsure if it was because the thought of a bed in general was upsetting, or because he refused to inconvenience Sephiroth more than he already was. He’d already turned down most of the food Sephiroth had given him, instead taking only a couple of bites before stopping, looking green and being very clear that, if he continued, he would vomit. Instead, now, Cloud was curled up on his couch.

               He was tossing and turning, mouthing words that Sephiroth couldn’t make out, his hands twitching. He kept shivering, despite the fact that Sephiroth had covered him in a blanket. He felt strangely helpless. No matter how much he wanted to, there was nothing he could do to help, nothing at all. He stared on in silence, holding a grim vigil until Cloud shot up with a strangled cry. He looked around wildly as he sprung from the couch, First Tsurugi in his hand and pointed at Sephiroth’s throat in less than a second. He watched Cloud quietly, holding perfectly still, until his eyes focused on him, recognition flooding his features. He slowly lowered the sword that was trembling in his grasp. He looked guilty for having lifted it in the first place. He set it gently against the coffee table and sank back to the couch. He pulled the blanket around his shoulders and held it tightly, fingers still shaking, curling in on himself.

               “I’m sorry,” he whispered, staring down at the floor.

               “You have nothing to be sorry for,” Sephiroth reassured.

               He wanted to go sit next to the blond, to draw him into an embrace and hold him until the shivering stopped, until he stopped looking so haunted, but he knew that would only make things worse. Instead, he got up and went into the kitchen. He clattered about, making extra noise so Cloud could keep track of him, and went about making tea. Despite wanting to be there for Cloud, he thought he might appreciate a little bit of time alone to pull himself together. Cloud wasn’t used to relying on others. He didn’t have much of an understanding of how to do so. It might be better to let him do what was familiar, at least for a little while.

               He returned with the tea and held it out when he was close enough. Cloud looked up, toward the cup but not toward his eyes, and took the mug. He cradled its warmth in his palms, and it seemed to help, because he stopped trembling.

               “Thanks,” he whispered. He blew lightly on the drink, watching the ripples intently.

               Sephiroth returned to the armchair and they sat in silence, Cloud quietly working on his tea, Sephiroth watching him, unsure of what to do. He wanted to help, but he knew touch would make things worse, and Cloud had never been much of one for words. Besides, what words could he possibly offer him? What in all the Planet could make this okay?

               Eventually, Cloud set the mug on a coaster and leaned back, staring quietly at it.

               “Do you want to try to sleep again?” Sephiroth asked. It had only been an hour, and he knew that Cloud hadn’t slept in about a week. Super SOLDIER or not, he needed more than that—he just didn’t know if he could stomach it.

               Cloud didn’t answer, though. A little furrow appeared in his brow.

               “Cloud?”

               “I don’t know what to do, Sephiroth.”

               That made two of them.

               “Try to get some more rest, Cloud.”

               The blond shook his head. His fingers toyed absently with the edge of the blanket.

               “I can’t. I’ll see him again. I can’t right now.”

               Sephiroth watched him softly, unsure of what to say to that.

               Cloud stared at the mug, until something dawned on his face. He laughed, but the sound was hard and bitter.

               “Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s how to fix this.”

               “Cloud?”

               “I grew to tolerate the labs over time. It was practice that made it okay. Maybe that’s all this will take, too.”

               “Cloud—”

               “Maybe if he fucks me enough times, I’ll stop caring about this too.” A strange giggle escaped his lips. “Maybe I ought to go find him right now and ask for it again.”

               Sephiroth stood, reaching out for Cloud but not quite touching.

               “Cloud—

               “Maybe if I beg for it, he’ll give it to me,” Cloud said, giggling again. He slid gracefully from the couch to the floor, on his knees in front of Sephiroth. He grabbed his outstretched hand and placed it on his head, threading the fingers into his hair. “What do you think? Do I make a pretty enough picture? He liked me on my knees last time.”

               Sephiroth’s face twisted, something heartbroken on his face, and he yanked his hand away. Cloud laughed, the sound loud and mangled.

               “Not good enough, then? That’ll never do. Who knows how many more times I’ll need him to fuck me before I’m over it? I’ll have to get good at asking. I can’t let him get bored of me. Not until I fix this.”

               Cloud laughed again, the sound so loud this time that it echoed in the apartment. He didn’t stop, though, just kept laughing and laughing, the sound hysterical and twisted. Sephiroth sank to his knees, falling to Cloud’s level, and pulled him into his arms, throwing his earlier hesitations out the window. Cloud tossed his head back, laughing so hard that tears were beginning to form in his eyes, but his arms rose in response, his fingernails digging into the leather of Sephiroth’s jacket. Somewhere along the line, the laughter turned into tears. He thought it might have been when Sephiroth began to hold him tighter. He ducked his head, pressing his face to Sephiroth’s shoulder, and let out one long wail. He didn’t know how long he cried, only that his body began to ache from the effort, and that his throat hurt.

               When he pulled away, Sephiroth let him go. He rubbed at his face and eyes, trying to dry the tears.

               “I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “Gods, that’s pathetic, I can’t believe I did that.”

               “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

               Cloud snorted a laugh. The look he gave Sephiroth was wry.

               “You know, before this, I hadn’t cried since I was a child.”

               “Cloud, your tears are justified.”

               Cloud sank back on his heels and sighed.

               “I’m sorry I did… that,” he said, waving vaguely at their position, refusing to make eye contact. “I don’t really think that would help. I just… I feel desperate, Sephiroth. I’ve never felt so out of control.”

               Sephiroth stood and held a hand out to Cloud. There was a long moment when Cloud decided whether or not he wanted to take it, but eventually accepted the hand, and let Sephiroth pull him to his feet.

               “I’m reluctant to suggest it, given your current lack of sleep and food, but perhaps a spar would help. It might make you feel a little less helpless to soundly thrash someone who leads armies.”

               Cloud chuckled weakly, letting go of Sephiroth’s hand to grab First Tsurugi and slip it onto his back. Sephiroth broke away to grab his own sword.

               “It could help.”

               Sephiroth carefully didn’t look at him, still focusing on Masamune when he offered, “Would you like me to call Zack? For an added challenge.”

               Cloud hesitated a long moment. So long, in fact, that Sephiroth turned back to look at him.

               “Will he pry, do you think?”

               “If he does, make it clear that he is, and that it’s unwanted. I can rein him in for you, if you’d like.”

               Cloud looked unsure, but nodded. He did miss Zack, and his friend’s endless talking and boundless energy seemed like it would go a long way in distracting him. He just didn’t want him to know what happened. He hadn’t wanted Sephiroth to know, either, but the man was damnably clever. Zack, for all that he wasn’t stupid, wasn’t quite Sephiroth.

               “Alright.”

               Sephiroth smiled at him and nodded. He pulled out his PHS and called Zack while Cloud looked over his sword for something to do. It was still in its usual immaculate condition, but it was a familiar task, and comforting.

               Before long, Sephiroth had snapped shut his PHS and was turning toward the door, gesturing with his head for Cloud to follow him. The blond fell into step at his side silently in the halls. There was nothing to say between them. The only things Sephiroth longed to say wouldn’t have been appreciated. Cloud didn’t take comfort very well, and he got the feeling that he’d appreciate as few reminders of the situation as possible.

               When Cloud and Sephiroth arrived at their usual VR room, Zack was already there, warming up. He looked up when the door opened and offered Cloud a wide grin. Cloud didn’t return the smile, but the tension in his shoulders eased just a hair. That was, until Zack bounded over and swept him into a hug. Sephiroth ground his teeth together—he couldn’t tell him not to hug him without Zack asking why. He watched as Cloud did just as he had with him earlier, going pliant and submitting to the touch. Zack pulled away far sooner than he usually would have and looked at Cloud with curiosity. He didn’t ask, but he let him go immediately, not letting his hands linger on his shoulders or arms as he usually would have. Sephiroth let out the breath he hadn’t realized he was holding and was silently grateful for Zack’s talent with reading people.

               He could tell Zack wanted to ask, but his statement earlier that day about Cloud not wanting to discuss what went wrong must have been remembered. Instead, he offered Cloud another broad smile.

               “Try not to kick my ass too hard, huh?” Zack said, tone light, conversation kept carefully safe.

               Cloud allowed a ghost of a smile, but he still looked so distant.

               “No promises,” he said weakly. Even if Zack hadn’t been warned that something was wrong, he would certainly have put it together by now.

               Still, he let it go. He began chattering about his week, since he knew Cloud hadn’t heard anything, as he and Sephiroth warmed up. Cloud did a few light stretches, but otherwise mostly stood around, unsure of himself.

               Without even stopping his chatter, Zack launched himself into his first attack while Cloud was still distracted, looking to the side. If it had been anyone else, it would have been a sure hit, and a devastating one at that. As it was, Cloud got his blade up in time, though he did slide back a few inches. He looked at Zack with a huff, and though it was satisfying to get a reaction, they all also knew that it would have normally been The Pout. Zack was a little disappointed not to see it, but didn’t let that slow his next attack.

               They went a whole round without pausing for conversation. They went a second, and a third, and a fourth until Zack and Sephiroth had to pause for breath. While they were panting, Zack looked up at Cloud, who seemed largely unflustered.

               “Hey, Cloud?”

               “Yeah?”

               “Why was Rufus Shinra asking me about you?”

               Cloud came to a complete and utter standstill. His grip on his hilt grew white-knuckled, and the blood drained from his face. Sephiroth looked up from where he had been staring at the ground, panting, to watch, and felt his stomach immediately sink. It was only a flash, but he saw red again.

               He had a target, now, and what a target it was.

               No one said anything. The tip of Cloud’s sword began to waver as he started to tremble.

               “Cloud?” Zack ventured quietly.

               It broke the spell.

               Cloud rolled his shoulders, tilted his head from side to side so his neck cracked. He flexed the fingers of his free hand and twirled his sword to loosen his wrist.

               “No idea.”

               “Cloud, was it him?” Sephiroth asked. He needed to be sure. If he was going to take on the Vice President of all people, if this was the man he was going to make his enemy, he wanted confirmation.

               Cloud shot him a warning look.

               “Was what Rufus?” Zack asked.

               “Cloud. Yes or no?”

               “Cloud, what’s going on?”

               Cloud glared at Sephiroth, looked pointedly at Zack, and then back at him.

               Sephiroth said, “I’m not involving him in the conversation. I’m just asking you a yes or no question. Which is it, Cloud?”

               Cloud grit his teeth, his grip on his sword turning too tight again. Then he pulled in a deep breath, held it for arguably too long, and let it out.

               “Yes.”

               Sephiroth had already known the answer, but found his own grip growing white-knuckled on Masamune. It would be more difficult to get back at Rufus. He couldn’t just kill him, no matter how much he wanted to. He couldn’t bring him to any bodily harm, actually. And the Turks were a dangerous organization to cross, especially when considering the fact that if he tried it, there would be repercussions for SOLDIER as a whole. Still, he would find a way—he was determined.

               “This is about whatever happened last week, isn’t it?” Zack asked, looking between the two of them, and the tight grips they had on their weapons.

               Sephiroth didn’t answer. It wasn’t his place. He’d done enough damage with this conversation as it was.

               “Yes,” Cloud ground out instead. He was still staring at Sephiroth.

               “The thing I’m gonna be mad about?”

               “I don’t think you’ll be mad about it.”

               Zack blinked. Cloud finally looked over at him, just to find him staring back in confusion.

               “Sephiroth said I would be. That I’d be so mad I couldn’t find out while armed.”

               “I think Sephiroth is wrong. I think you’ll leave when you find out. I still don’t know why Sephiroth hasn’t himself.”

               “I already told you, Cloud,” Sephiroth said. “I won’t leave you over something that isn’t your fault.”

               “And I already told you, Sephiroth, that I’m as much to blame as he is.”

               “You aren’t. You followed orders out of fear for your life. No one can blame you for that.”

               “They can. They can and they should. I already told you that I—that…” Cloud glanced at Zack, who was looking between him and Sephiroth closely.

               “And I already told you that that doesn’t count the way you think it does. Like everything else that day, you weren’t given a choice.”

               “Hey, uh, guys, someone might want to tell me what happened, because I think I’m starting to get an idea, and I really don’t like what I’m getting.”

               Cloud cursed quietly.

               “No, Zack. I’m not going to lose you over this. I’ve lost enough as it is.”

               Zack looked him over, considering. Then he slapped his blade to his back, attaching it to the magnet sheath, and walked over to Cloud, who looked at him warily. Zack pulled him into another hug, taking careful note of the way Cloud reacted, the way he went limp and allowed it, the way he shivered minutely. Zack held him for a long moment, long past the point where Cloud would have normally pulled away or shoved him off, but he only started trembling harder. He pulled away, careful to keep his hands on Cloud’s shoulders, and found the posture and shaking did not change. His eyes roved Cloud’s face, watching the way his friend wouldn’t meet his eye, the way he looked sick. He glanced down and saw his hands twitch a few times, as if he wanted to push him away but couldn’t.

               “How far did he push you, Cloud?”

               He could feel Cloud flinch under his hands.

               “Zack, it doesn’t matter.”

               “It does matter. Was it molestation or rape?”

               “Zack—” Sephiroth called.

               Cloud curled in on himself. He wanted to run from the room before this got any more out of control. He couldn’t bear to lose Zack. He had so little left to lose as it was. He didn’t dare look at him. He didn’t think he could stand seeing him look at him with disgust.

               “Shut up, Sephiroth. Which was it, Cloud?”

               He could feel Zack slipping through his fingers. He was going to lose him. The brightest star he’d ever met, the one man who could shine no matter what happened, and he was going to lose him. One of the few people who could make him laugh. One of the few people to make him feel happy at all. One of only two people he felt he could trust, and he was as good as gone.

               “Answer me, Cloud.”

               “Zack, don’t push—”

               “Sephiroth, shut your godsdamn mouth. Tell me, Cloud.”

               “What do you want me to say, Zack?” Cloud said, giving a helpless, broken laugh. He still wouldn’t make eye contact. “That he fucked me? He did. You want the details, or is that enough to drive you from me?”

               Zack pulled away in the same instant, and Cloud only looked up because he saw a blur shoot past him. When he looked over, Zack was on the floor on his stomach, the Buster Sword lying feet away from him. Sephiroth sat on his hips, holding down his knees with his ankles, one hand pressing him down by the back of the neck while the other worked to get his bangle off his wrist.

               “Let me go, Sephiroth! I’m going to fucking kill that bastard! Let me go!

               Cloud watched in awe as Sephiroth disarmed Zack while the lieutenant did his damnedest to get free from the hold.

               “Zack, you can’t do that, and you know it.”

               “I can and I will, I don’t care how many of his goddamn Turks I have to mow down to get to him! He deserves it! Let me go!”

               The bangle went flying. Sephiroth tightened his grip on the back of Zack’s neck, pressing him harder into the floor, his free hand going to hold down one of the arms Zack was attempting to use to push himself up with.

               “He does deserve it, that and more, but we can’t do anything.”

               “You fucking coward! If you aren’t willing to risk going up against him, I will! Let me!”

               “Zack, if we hurt Rufus and the President finds out why, what do you think will happen to Cloud?”

               At this, Zack finally stilled.

               Sephiroth continued, “If this is how they treat him when he wins impossible wars for them, what do you think will happen when Rufus Shinra is found dead over this? They won’t be merciful enough to just kill him, Zack. They’ll kill you, and then me, and then there will be no one left to try and make sure he’s in one piece. They will use every trick in the book to break him, and that includes a repeat of what Rufus did. Except it will be worse and include more people. Do not be selfish and subject him to that. Control your temper, Zackary.”

               Zack took a few slow, deep breaths. He pressed his forehead to the floor, his hands balled into fists. Slowly, very slowly, he relaxed. Eventually, he nodded.

               “I’m alright, now. Let me up.”

               “If you try to bolt, I will catch you.”

               “I’m not gonna. Let me up.”

               Sephiroth stood slowly, backing two steps away. Zack climbed to his feet and sighed, rubbing the back of his neck, before he turned to look at Cloud. Cloud, who was watching him closely, infinitely confused by the exchange. He had thought Zack was running to get away from him. But, it looked like Sephiroth was right, and that it was rage. It was clear, now, that he wanted to hurt Rufus, and on his behalf? He didn’t understand. He didn’t deserve being defended this way. He watched, still bewildered, as Zack approached him again. He reached out to touch him, but when Cloud stiffened, he let the hand fall.

               “I can’t even tell you how sorry I am, Cloud. I would give anything to go back in time and stop that from happening to you,” he said quietly, his hands balled into impotent fists at his side. Cloud looked between his clenched hands and his face, still lost.

               “But… why aren’t you mad at me?”

               “You didn’t do anything wrong, Cloud. Someone else did something awful to you. Something unforgivable. If it had been anyone else, Cloud, if there was any way I could without it coming back to haunt you, I’d skin him alive for what he did.”

               Ah. Cloud understood what was happening. It was the same misunderstanding.

               “No, Zack. It’s my fault too.”

               “I don’t believe that. I don’t care what he got you to do.”

               “Zack, I participated.

               “Did you want to?”

               Cloud scoffed. He was getting very frustrated with being asked that question, as if it mattered.

               “That’s irrelevant. I did it.”

               “It literally could not be more relevant. If I told you to chop your hand off or I’d kill you, and you chopped your hand off, that wouldn’t make you responsible for doing it. You didn’t do it voluntarily. It wasn’t like you sat back and decided you didn’t want a hand anymore.”

               “Zack, you couldn’t kill me if you tried, that analogy doesn’t work.”

               “No, but Rufus Shinra could, and he’s the one who told you to do things you didn’t want to. If you want to tell me the details of what happened, I’ll listen, Cloud. But I want you to know that there is nothing that you could tell me that would make me blame you for what happened.”

               Cloud looked at him skeptically. He didn’t want to lose Zack, but he also felt that it wasn’t right to keep him when he knew the truth. He didn’t deserve Zack. He didn’t deserve his forgiveness, or his lack of blame, or his continued friendship, when he knew himself to be something filthy and disgusting. He thought the same about the fact that Sephiroth continued to want to be around him, but he knew now that that was a lost cause. He wasn’t going to be able to drive Sephiroth away. Maybe he could drive away Zack, though, and something perverse in him wanted to try. Something felt the need to punish himself, especially now that it was clear that his friends wouldn’t do it for him.

               “I enjoyed it, Zack.”

               “Did you? Or did your body react to certain stimuli because it’s literally hardwired to do so and there’s nothing you could have done to stop it?”

               Cloud frowned. Why did they keep giving him a pass for that? It was the worst part, the most damning part. Why didn’t Zack and Sephiroth agree?

               “But—”

               “Cloud, you will not chase me away because Rufus did something unspeakable to you. It doesn’t matter how much of it he got you to do to yourself. It doesn’t matter if he got you to feel pleasure in the moment. What he did to you was unforgivable, and it wasn’t your fault. The only thing I regret is not hitting him in the teeth when he asked me about you.”

               Cloud looked down at his toes. He didn’t deserve this. He didn’t deserve to keep his friends, or the way they seemed to still care about him, or the way they were even standing up for him. He deserved to be left in the dust and forgotten. He deserved to have to struggle through this on his own, to try and find some way to live with himself and what he did without any support. He deserved to suffer, and he didn’t understand why Zack and Sephiroth didn’t see that.

               “Zack, I—”

               He wasn’t sure what he had intended to say, but he was spared figuring it out by the ringing of his PHS in his pocket.

               He dug it out and put it to his ear.

               “Strife.”

               “Strife, I missed you. Have you missed me?”

               Cloud went pale. He had to breathe deeply to fend off the urge to vomit. His hands began to shake.

               “Yes, sir, Rufus.”

               There was a cold laugh on the other end of the line.

               Cloud knew that Zack and Sephiroth both had sensitive enough hearing to know every word that was being said. He could feel their eyes on him. He wanted to turn his back, so at least they wouldn’t be able to see his face, but he couldn’t get his muscles to unlock enough to do so.

               “I’m calling to let you know you have a mission, Strife. You won’t be far, just the Mythril Mines to clear out an infestation or two. A step down from Wutai, if you ask me, but dangerous enough to call you in, apparently.”

               “Yes, sir. When am I leaving?”

               “1000 hours tomorrow.”

               “If you’ll forgive me for asking, sir, but why did you bother calling me yourself? There are multiple people between us on the chain of command who could have handled such a small task.”

               “What, you don’t appreciate my call?”

               “No, sir, it’s not that at all! I—of course, I appreciate you taking time out of your day for me. It’s just that—you’re a busy man, and such a task seems beneath you.”

               Cloud’s breath felt tight in his chest. He hadn’t meant for Rufus to take it that way. He feared for what might happen if he offended the man.

               “Such a task is beneath me, you’re right. But I’m sure you’ve realized that I’m interested in you, Strife?”

               Gods, he would pay so much for him to lose interest.

               “You flatter me, sir. I’ve done nothing to earn it.”

               “Nonsense. You won us a war, after all. That aside, I can’t have you forgetting who you belong to, can I?”

               “No, sir.”

               “So you remember that you’re mine, then?”

               “Yes, sir.”

               “And you’re my what, exactly?”

               Cloud felt sick. He was trembling from head to toe. His eyes pinched shut. He knew what the answer was, what Rufus wanted to hear, but he would give anything not to have to say it in front of Zack and Sephiroth.

               “I—I’m not alone, sir,” he explained, desperate to not have to get the words past his lips.

               He heard Rufus laugh brightly, the sound tinny as it came over the line.

               “Even better. I want to hear you say it, Strife.”

               He swallowed hard. He lowered his head, but he could feel Zack and Sephiroth staring at him.

               “I’m your whore, sir.”

               “Mmmm, that’s right, you are. I hope it’s Sephiroth you’re with. He’s gotten too enamored with you, for my tastes. Best he knows you belong to another man, isn’t it?”

               “Yes, sir.”

               “He’ll never see you quite as I have. You do look good on your knees, with your lips stretched around someone else’s cock. And good on your back. Best, though, when you ride me until you come. You do look delicious when you come. And feel even better. You tightened so hard around me, it was like you were trying to milk me dry.”

               “… Sir, I—”

               “That’s alright, Strife. The important thing is, no matter how much Sephiroth may want you, he hasn’t had you as I have. Which makes you mine, doesn’t it?”

               “Yes, sir.”

               “You never forget your first, after all. Come to visit when you’re done with your mission, Strife. You’ll owe a report to Heidegger, but I will be the one to debrief you this time. I expect you to come to me the second you return, is that clear?”

               “Yes, sir.”

               “I expect you to hurry. I want to see what you look like bent over my desk.”

               “Yes, sir.”

               The line went dead.

               Cloud slowly lowered the PHS before tucking it in his pocket. He didn’t dare look up at either Zack or Sephiroth, well aware that both had heard the entire conversation. He felt so sick. He couldn’t stop shaking. He felt cold. His shoulders were bunched tight by his ears. His eyes stung, but he’d already shed too many tears over this, and he refused to cry again. Especially not with two witnesses this time.

               “I’m going to fucking kill him.”

               “Zack—”

               “No! You heard how he spoke to him, what he made him say! It’s not right, Sephiroth. I don’t care who his father is, no one gets to do that and get away with it.”

               “We just had this conversation, Zack. You’ll let him get away with it, because Cloud will be the one to pay the price if you don’t.”

               “But it’s not right! It’s godsdamn sick, is what it is, Sephiroth. No one should ever think it’s their right to act that way. No one should ever think it’s okay, but he does, and he wants to do it again? No. He’s not going to lay another hand on Cloud, not if I have anything to say about it.”

               “You don’t, Zack, don’t you understand that? We can’t stop Rufus any more than we can stop Hojo. In fact, we’d have better luck ending Cloud’s weekly lab appointments than stopping Rufus. This is out of our hands.”

               “We can’t just do nothing!”

               “We won’t do nothing. We’ll be there for Cloud. No matter how much he expects us to leave, we’ll be there for him.”

               Sephiroth was staring right at Cloud as he said it.

               Cloud wrapped his arms around his middle and bowed his head lower. His shoulders curled forward. He couldn’t imagine why Sephiroth and Zack weren’t running from him. He was disgusting. Didn’t they hear that conversation? Hadn’t they been listening? There was nothing redeemable left about him. All he was, was what Rufus had turned him into. There was nothing else left. Especially in face of the knowledge that it was going to happen again. That Rufus was, in fact, going to bend him over his desk. There was nothing he could do to prevent it. He was going to have him again and Cloud was going to have no more ability to say no than the last time. For all he knew, he’d end up strong-armed into begging for it before the end. Probably on his knees, knowing Rufus. And then he’d have to walk out of the office, gods knew what fluids smeared over him, with Rufus leaking down his thighs as he went. Maybe not ever civilian, but certainly every SOLDIER would be able to smell it on him when he passed, and it’d be no secret anymore. The whole program would know exactly who was leading them. No one would dare say it to his face, but he’d be the program’s biggest disgrace. He hadn’t even been a formal member for a year, and this is what it had come to. Cloud curled further in on himself.

               He hadn’t realize just how long it had been silent until he heard Sephiroth whisper, “Cloud?”

               He jerked upright, looking almost wildly between Zack and Sephiroth. Both were watching him with concern. His fingers tightened around his sides.

               “How can you look at me like that? You heard what I said. I said I was his whore. I said I belonged to him. He said he’d bend me over his desk, and I said I’d go. Why don’t you hate me?”

               “Because, Cloud,” Sephiroth said, stepping forward. “I’m here with you, right now, and I can see exactly what it cost you to say those things.”

               Cloud looked up at him, lost. He still didn’t understand why Sephiroth didn’t hate him. He had kissed him. He’d let him teach him about pleasure. He’d brought him to his bed. Now, he made him hear those awful things he said to Rufus. He didn’t understand how he could forgive him.

               Zack stepped forward and touched his shoulder. When he went still under his touch, Zack flinched away, but put his hand back on Cloud’s shoulder firmly.

               “Cloud, can I hug you?”

               Cloud looked up at him in confusion.

               “Why do you want to?”

               “Because you look so lost, and so hurt, and I want to help. I’m safe, Cloud. I won’t touch you the way he did.”

               Cloud took a long, long moment to think about it, and Zack let him have as much time as he needed. Eventually, he nodded, and Zack folded him in his arms. He tucked Cloud’s head under his chin, blond spikes brushing his cheeks, his arms wrapped firmly around the young general. He held him as close as he could, fingers rubbing gentle circles into his back.

               “Stay with us until your mission. We’ll keep you safe until then, okay? You won’t have to worry about anything while you’re with us.”

               Cloud looked between the two of them, but Sephiroth had softened. He nodded his agreement. He approached slowly, giving Cloud time to protest, before setting his hand on his shoulder.

               “Let us help,” Sephiroth said. “At least for a little while.”

               Cloud ducked his head, resting his forehead on Zack’s shoulder.

               “For a little while, I guess.”

Chapter Text

               Cloud, unsurprisingly, spent the mission full of dread. The night and morning had been—well, as pleasant as they could be with the debriefing with Rufus hanging over his head. Zack and Sephiroth had stayed with him, in Sephiroth’s apartment this time, and made him watch movies for the night. He’d never actually watched a film before. The videos he’d seen were footage of war, or of battle, or occasionally of monster behaviors. He’d never watched anything with a plot before. He hadn’t read anything with a plot since he was a child, for that matter, but it wasn’t terribly hard to follow. It mostly featured an impending apocalypse and too many explosions that were painfully obviously not real to anyone with much history with explosives. There was a romantic subplot that could have been interesting, but the protagonist was entirely wooden and seemed to have no emotions, while the woman was just outright bland. They ended up killing her to upset the protagonist further, which Cloud felt was cheap, but he let it go.

               The night went on like that. Cloud found that he liked movies. There was a certain element of escapism that he hadn’t been familiar with that he enjoyed. It was nice to be pulled into a world that wasn’t his for a little while. Given, it never lasted for very long—he was terrible at suspension of disbelief. He’d always find something that was unrealistic and would want to pick it apart, but Zack always shushed him when he pointed out these flaws, so he stopped mentioning it. Apparently, he was supposed to let things like that go. But how was he supposed to believe the movie when the protagonist tried to disarm a bomb that way?

                Zack left for his own apartment eventually, after wringing a promise from Cloud to call the second he was available after his mission. Despite Sephiroth’s protests for Cloud to take the bed, Cloud slept curled up on the couch that night. Well, he tried to sleep, but failed miserably. He had waved off Sephiroth’s offer of a Sleep spell, and now it was too late. At least, it should have been, but a few hours later Sephiroth wandered back out into the living room.

               “You’re still awake, aren’t you.”

               “… Yeah.”

               “Do you want that Sleep spell now?”

               “Am I going to keep you up worrying otherwise?”

               “Probably.”

               “Then fine.”

               He slept the rest of the night, after that. He slept fitfully, mind you, and only for two and a half hours, he found when he checked his PHS after waking. He was just glad he woke without shouting this time. He had no intention of waking Sephiroth up—the man needed sleep, much more than Cloud did. And even if Sephiroth could go without sleep the way Cloud did, Cloud wouldn’t want him to. Sleep was generally pleasant, when something wasn’t haunting you. He liked the idea of Sephiroth getting some peace. Instead of disrupting that, he gathered his things quietly and slipped out the front door.

               He went to his office and worked until dawn, at which point he had decided he had waited long enough. The mission was at 1000 hours, yes, but he knew transport was available. The proper thing to do would be to wait. That was what was expected of him. Would leaving early technically be disobeying? He’d weighed that for a while. Eventually, he decided that taking the initiative to get things done early was probably for the best. People tended to like having projects done early rather than late, he understood. He just barely managed to convince himself it was a good idea by the time he arrived at transport. The conversation to secure his vehicle was incredibly quick.

               “General, sir.”

               “I’m leaving for my mission. I require transport.”

               “I thought your mission was at 1000?”

               All it had taken was a cold look of expectance for the many to scurry off. He came back with a handful of keys and gave Cloud his pick of ground transportation. Cloud selected one of the Hardy Daytonas; he’d always had a fondness for motorcycles. Without any more words being exchanged, Cloud zipped out the parking bay and through Midgar—as much as one could zip in traffic. But when he got to the Wastes he got to really go, and he found it was exactly what he needed. It was the feeling of freedom. The rush of wind through his hair, the way it took his breath away, the sheer speed; it was everything he’d been wanting. He was out of Shinra and getting further at a high velocity. He’d have to go back, and face his nightmare at that, but for now, it was just him and the open road. He cranked the speed up with a grin on his face, lowering himself on the bike to go even faster.

               Unfortunately, the trip didn’t take as long as he wanted. He had to leave the bike at the Chocobo Ranch and continue on foot from there. He was well aware of the Zolom problem, but wasn’t particularly intimidated. He ran through the plains, which he found he had missed after Wutai. The troops hadn’t been able to keep up with him when he ran, but on solo missions like this, he got to stretch his legs. It was almost as good as the bike. He bolted right up until the swamps. From there, he walked calmly, and he would admit it was largely because he didn’t want to splash too much and end up soaked in swamp water. He didn’t want his uniform clinging to him and smelling any fouler than it would anyway for crossing.

               He ran into multiple Zoloms, but dispatched them easily. His mission target was the Mines, according to the formal briefing sitting in his email. He hadn’t been in a very long time, but he had a vague familiarity with the area. He’d be able to handle the issue, he was sure.

               The monster infestation wasn’t quite worth his time. He was relatively sure that either Zack and Sephiroth together or a group of Firsts could have handled it, but he supposed it was less people involved if they just sent him. Waste of resources and all that. He wasn’t going to complain—it got him out of Midgar and breathing the thin, mountain air; he was infinitely grateful for that.

               He took his time going back, largely because he didn’t want to go back. It would have felt good to race the bike again, but he had no desire to face what was waiting for him. He fully intended to drag his feet as much as physically possible until he was inside Shinra Tower again.

               He did pick up the pace once he was back in the Tower again. He didn’t want to, but he was on camera, and Cloud knew of Rufus’s connection with the Turks. He didn’t think it would actually be a problem if he took his time, but Rufus had told him to hurry, and he wasn’t taking chances.

               It was a conscious effort to seem unflappable as he approached Rufus’s office, which was located at the end of a long, empty hall. It was an act of will to knock on the door. It was almost impossible to enter when Rufus called for him to do so and shut the door behind him.

               But he did all of those things. He came to stand in front of Rufus’s desk and saluted. The man didn’t even look up from his paperwork, continuing to flip a few pages, scanning for something. Cloud held the salute. Rufus finally found what he was looking for, hummed quietly, scribbled a signature, and then put his pen down. Finally, he looked up at Cloud, raking his eyes over his form, putting his chin in hand for a second. He watched for a long moment before getting out of his chair.

               “At ease, Strife. Come around the desk.”

               Already?

               Cloud followed his orders, rounding the desk. He came to stand by Rufus’s side, watching the man closely. He saw Rufus lift a hand but wasn’t sure exactly what was happening, until he placed it between his shoulder blades and slowly pushed Cloud down toward the desk. Cloud braced his hands against the desktop, feeling his chest tighten as it lowered. He stared at the far wall. He wanted to pull his mind away, but Rufus had told him not to last time and given him a warning. He didn’t think he’d take kindly to having to tell him again. Rufus trailed his hand down Cloud’s back, coming to rest on the small of it as he circled the general, coming to stand behind him. Cloud felt ridiculous. He felt on display, pinned like a butterfly.

               “Report.”

               Cloud launched into his report, but he was focused on the pressure on his back, the single possessive touch. He could feel every minute shift of it, even through his clothes, through his thick SOLDIER belt. He didn’t get very far before a knock came on the door. He started to stand upright, but Rufus pushed him back down.

               He hissed, “Stay put.” Then he raised his voice and called, “Who is it?”

               “Tseng.”

               “Oh. Come in.”

               Cloud could feel himself turning red in the face as Tseng (a man he would have to face in a professional manner later, damn it all to hell) walked in. The man took quick stock of the situation, and Cloud saw his head nod out of the corner of his eye.

               “Vice President, may I speak with you in private?”

               Rufus let out a put upon sigh, but stepped away from Cloud, who jerked upright immediately.

               “Go. Wait in the hall, I still need the rest of your report.”

               Cloud had to physically restrain himself from bolting.

               What he did do, however, was linger close enough to the door to eavesdrop on the conversation that was going to take place inside. He was thankful for his enhanced hearing.

               There was a long, long pause, before Rufus sighed waspishly and snapped, “What?”

               “Nothing. It’s just that I thought I taught you to be smarter.”

               “Tseng, you worry too much. I’ve never even heard of someone as obedient as Strife is. There’s nothing to fear from him.”

               “Strife is simply aware of his position. He understands that he is Shinra property. He doesn’t have a birth certificate; he has a deed, like the machines Scarlet builds. Obviously he knows that denying you anything would threaten his own health.”

               “So what’s the issue, then?”

               “Strife is also the head of SOLDIER, and much beloved by all who fall under his command, including and especially General Sephiroth and Lieutenant General Zack Fair. A word from him, and we have an uprising on our hands.”

               “He would never.”

               “No, I doubt he would. But, even without outright violence, SOLDIER has impressive sway in the company. If Strife decides to throw his weight around, it could cause massive problems.”

               “Again, I doubt that he would.”

               “Then you are underestimating him. He will follow commands given to him, yes, but there are a thousand ways for him to undermine you without there ever being direct proof. But he doesn’t even have to be that clever. All he needs to do is be sure that it isn’t suspicious if you don’t know he has motive. With his loyalty to the company as clear as it is, no one will believe he’s acting in anything but Shinra’s best interest unless they hear about what you’ve done. And it will be a PR nightmare if your actions get out.”

               “They won’t get out.”

               “We will contain them, yes, but I am certain that Sephiroth and Fair already know what happened, and they will also be looking for revenge. That’s the three most powerful SOLDIERs going against you, now. If Professor Hojo finds out, it will be an even bigger nightmare; he’s incredibly possessive of Strife, and unwarranted damage coming to his person, especially in a way that claims any sort of ownership over him, will infuriate him. The last thing you need is the Science Department and SOLDIER both against you. Do you understand now, the gravity of the situation you’ve put yourself in?”

               “It won’t come to that.”

               “You’d better hope it won’t come to that.”

               “It won’t.”

               “Rufus, we will both do everything with our power to prevent that. But it’s best if you quit while you’re ahead and not do any more damage. Don’t make Strife hate you any more than he already does.”

               “… Is that all?”

               “Yes.”

               “Go, then. Send Strife in on your way.”

               Cloud took a few large steps down the hall to pretend he was out of hearing distance the whole time, but when Tseng approached, it was with a knowing look in his eye.

               “Rufus would like to see you.”

               Cloud nodded and passed Tseng, and neither said another word to each other. Cloud refused to be grateful to Tseng, but couldn’t help the tiny spark of it in his chest. Only time would tell if his words would have any impact, though.

               Cloud went to enter Rufus’s office and saluted again at the front of the desk. Rufus was sitting again behind it, and now, he looked irritated.

               “At ease,” he grumbled, waving his hand dismissively. “Finish your report.”

               Cloud stood at parade rest and delivered his report. It was simple, concise, and provided the exact amount of detail that he knew would be appreciated without bogging down the process. He finished and was dismissed. He left, shutting the door gently behind him, and stared down the hallway in shock.

               Rufus had barely looked at him. He’d mostly stared at his papers. After the chastisement from Tseng, he didn’t touch him, he didn’t say anything lewd, he didn’t get possessive. He could have been any SOLDIER. It was—it was amazing. Cloud felt strangely light as he walked down the hallway, pulling his PHS from his pocket, though he waited until he was in the elevator to dial.

               “Howdy, it’s Zack.”

               “… Do you really answer the PHS that way?”

               “Sure do. You back? You… finished? How’d it go? You okay?”

               “Yeah. Weirdly enough, I’m okay. I owe Tseng a favor now, though.”

               “Tseng? Why?”

               “He talked to Rufus. Told him it was a bad idea to risk getting on SOLDIER’s bad side and to back off. He said it a lot more politely.”

               “… Well damn.”

               Cloud chuckled.

               “I agree. He interrupted us to talk to Rufus, and afterward, it was completely professional.”

               “Thank Gaia, good thing Tseng’s there to be his common sense.”

               “Right. I have paperwork to do, and I feel alright to do it, you don’t have to worry about babysitting me right now.”

               “I didn’t think I was gonna have to babysit you. Just make sure you were ok. Watch your back.”

               “I’ll be alright. I’ll let Sephiroth know where I am too, and that he can worry a little less.”

               “He’ll appreciate it.”

               “Let me go call him, then.”

               “Try to eat something today!”

               “Sure.”

               “Are you just saying that to shut me up?”

               “I’m going to call Sephiroth, I’ll talk to you later.”

               He hung up the PHS quickly.

               He called Sephiroth and relayed much the same information, getting a similar response and a mumbled, “I’ll make sure to leave Tseng out of any retribution.”

               Cloud didn’t want to know what that meant, and didn’t ask.

               He got off his PHS and got to his own office easily enough. He had been sitting behind his desk, trying to read as quickly as possible to catch up on some work he’d fallen behind on. He lost track of exactly how long he’d been there when he heard the door whirr open and looked up. Sephiroth wandered in with his laptop under his arm. He sat down at the desk and put his computer on top of it, opening it up without even looking at Cloud, who had set his pen down.

               “What are you doing here?”

               “Making sure you’re okay.”

               “I already told you. I’m fine. I don’t need a babysitter.”

               “Have you eaten yet today?”

               “… No.”

               “Are you planning on eating today?”

               “I’ll just get sick if I try. It’s not worth it.”

               “It might be worth a try, if you’re feeling better.”

               Cloud sighed and picked up his pen again.

               “I still don’t need a babysitter.”

               “Consider me keeping you company, then.”

               “That’s not what you’re doing, though.”

               “I can do both.”

               Cloud watched Sephiroth, who finally met his eyes. They looked at each other for a long moment before Sephiroth turned to face him more fully in his chair.

               “You do look better. Not your old self, but a little less haunted.”

               He looked down at his paperwork.

               “It… helps. Knowing it won’t happen again. I think the fear might have been the worst part. Not feeling safe. It’s like I was just waiting for the next time.”

               He saw Sephiroth’s hand coming and blew out a slow breath as it made contact. By force of will, he didn’t go still when it curled over his own hand. He looked up.

               “Now there won’t be a next time. Rufus was the only one who would. The President is exclusively interested in women, as is Heidegger, Hojo would have tried by now if he was going to, Reeve would never consider forcing someone, and Scarlet… well, she flirts quite a bit, and she might make suggestions, but I’ve never seen her actually follow through.”

               Cloud nodded slowly. That was the entire Board of Directors. Tseng was occasionally included, but Cloud knew how he felt about the matter now. Those were all the people whom he would have felt forced to listen to. His shoulders relaxed just a hair, from tension he hadn’t realized he was holding. Sephiroth offered a small smile.

               “It will be okay now, Cloud. The worst of it is behind you.”

               There was still Hojo’s labs, but that was a familiar torture, one he knew how to handle. Now, the only issue was his memories.

               He’d learned how to handle those before. He could do it again.

Chapter Text

               Sephiroth did insist on babysitting him the rest of the day, despite his protests. He shadowed him through training, and Cloud was surprised at the response from the other SOLDIERs. He’d been essentially absent the past week. Oh, he’d trained, but it had been in the dead of night, when the others couldn’t see him. He had passed a few SOLDIERs from time to time, but he hadn’t truly been seen in public yet. The SOLDIERs were warm, excited to see him. No one quite dared to clap a hand to his shoulder, though a few looked like they thought about it. There were wide smiles and loud voices and, strangely enough, companionable laughter.

               Cloud had been sure, despite it being illogical, that anyone who saw him would know. That they would see filth written into his skin and not want anything to do with him. But, what happened wasn’t the business of his SOLDIERs, and they didn’t seem to guess at it. They had asked where he had been, and he said he’d just gotten wrapped up in paperwork. That had elicited a round of groans and offers to spot him, insistence that he go work off the jitters that always came to a SOLDIER that sat too long behind a desk. He found that they still looked at him with a strange sort of fondness, and he was infinitely glad for that. He had worked very hard through the War for the approval of these men, and to lose it would have been devastating.

               They trained for longer than Sephiroth would have liked, but not quite long enough for Cloud. It was their usual compromise before they wandered off. When they were in the elevator, Sephiroth stepped in but then to the side, pointedly letting Cloud pick their destination. Cloud stared at the buttons long after the door had slid shut. He could feel Sephiroth’s eyes on him, and he wasn’t sure of what he wanted. Did he dare his apartment? Sephiroth would have a spare uniform for him to borrow, but it would be very much the wrong size. If he wanted clothes that fit him, it would have to be the apartment. He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. He’d have to face it sooner or later. Might as well try while it was a good day. He pressed the button for his own floor.

               Sephiroth didn’t say anything, but took hold of his hand as they rode up. Cloud squeezed it, holding on a little tighter than was necessary. It was strange, now, to take comfort from any sort of touch, but Sephiroth’s hand was gentle around his, as if he was made of glass. It should have been infuriating and demeaning to be treated with such gentleness, but he found that the care behind it made it feel safe instead.

               It wasn’t long before they were standing in front of his apartment. Cloud stared at the door, his keycard in hand, held aloft in front of the lock panel. When the moment grew too long, Sephiroth pushed his hand gently, swaying it forward and into the panel so the door opened on its own. Cloud took a deep breath and held it as he stepped inside, not very far, but far enough that Sephiroth could enter as well.

               He looked around the apartment, pointedly avoiding the entryway. Everything was just as he left it. Everything was fine. It was dark, but the mako in his eyes made it clear enough. He took slow stock of the rooms before finally forcing his eyes to the path ahead of him.

               Images flashed before his eyes, overlaying what was actually there. It was like seeing from two angles, one the view from where he stood, the other from where he had been on his knees looking up at Rufus. He closed his eyes, hearing Rufus in his ears questioning him (“how far can I push you?”), making demands of him (“suck.”) He focused on blowing his breath out slowly through his nose, refusing to open his mouth, afraid of phantom feelings that might arise. He shook his head and opened his eyes and it was just an empty room, just his entryway, with no ghosts lingering. His heart hammered in his ears, and his fingertips trembled, but he was okay. Not good, not good by any stretch of the imagination, but okay. All he could hear now was his own heartbeat.

               His feet felt leaden as he forced them forward through the apartment, winding through the space, to his bedroom. He stood in the doorway with his eyes closed, one hand on the frame. He evened out his breathing, and already could hear whispers in his ear.

               (“now undress me.”)

               (“has anyone fucked you before, strife?”)

               He opened his eyes and saw a dozen ghosts, saw the room twist and turn as he remembered it from different angles. There was Rufus, imperious, demanding to be undressed. There he was, looming over top of him as he prepared him. There he was, beneath him as he rode him. Dimly, Cloud could hear wood splintering as his grip grew too tight on the doorframe.  He could feel hands at his throat, at his hips, moving inside him. There were echoes in his ears that seemed to both whisper and shout but they all seemed to come back to the same word, the last one he wanted to hear.

               (“whore.”)

               He didn’t know why it bothered him so much. He didn’t know why it stung the way it did. It was just a profession. Not his, but one just as valid. It implied nothing more.

               Except that it always was preceded by a “my” or a “your,” and then it became not just a profession that wasn’t his, no, it was a mockery. It was rubbing his inability to refuse in his face. It was a statement over ownership. It made him feel subhuman in the worst way. It left him just… less.

               He didn’t realize he was blinded by the past until he snapped back to present, and he wasn’t where he remembered being. He was in his hallway, his back against the wall, with Sephiroth’s hands cupping his face. His ears were ringing, but he could read lips well enough to tell Sephiroth was calling his name. Now that he clearly had his attention, the lips were telling him to breathe, and oh, well, he wasn’t really doing that, was he? Or he was, but poorly. His breaths were so quick and shallow they weren’t really doing much. It was strange, how his body could react to everything, while his mind was so far away, calm and distant. Still, his body needed air, so he forced himself to come back just a little, to walk himself through breathing. He wrangled with his lungs, trying to force them into compliance, and little by little, it worked, until he was breathing steady and he could actually hear Sephiroth coaching the pace of his breaths.

               He nodded a little, and Sephiroth immediately pulled his hands away.

               “We can do this later, if you want. I can go get your uniform.”

               “No.”

               Cloud turned and went back to the room, actually getting a few steps inside before he was hit with a wave of the same. The flashbacks overwhelmed him until he couldn’t breath and, again, Sephiroth pulled him from the room. They did this a handful of times, Cloud growing more frustrated with himself as they went. They got as far as six tries before Sephiroth grabbed his arm on his way in for a seventh.

               “Cloud,” he said quietly, pulling the blond back toward him gently. Cloud followed the gesture, turning to face Sephiroth. “It’s too soon. Please, let me help.”

               Cloud’s brow furrowed and his face turned faintly pink as he stared down at his toes, frustrated and humiliated by his own weakness. It was just a room.

               “Help how?”

               “I’ll get you a uniform and you can shower. While you’re there I’ll change the sheets and make the bed. It might make this a little easier to face.”

               Cloud paused, but he could see the logic in it. He nodded his assent, but didn’t look up from his boots. He felt Sephiroth set a hand on his shoulder before brushing past him into the bedroom.

               Cloud shut his eyes and breathed slowly. His hands balled into fists at his side, his nails cutting deep into the leather of his gloves. He should be able to do this. It was just a room. It was his room. Once upon a time, he’d felt so safe there. It wasn’t fair. Nothing in his life was fair, and he knew that, he accepted it. But that didn’t mean that, from time to time, it didn’t still sting. It wasn’t fair to finally find somewhere safe and have it turned against him so thoroughly. It wasn’t. But there was nothing to be done about that. It not being fair wouldn’t change how things were. He had never known there to be justice in the world, and he would just have to be fine with that. Even if it made him miserable every now and then.

               Cloud leaned against the wall, his head falling back against it with a dull thunk. He let himself fall into that line of thought—that nothing was fair and that was okay. It was comforting, in its own way, this particular brand of helplessness. He used to not have any expectations for things like safety, and that had been its own shield. Thinking about this, how there was no justice and he could accept that, was familiar and comforting in its own right.

               The sound of approaching footsteps brought him back out of it, and Sephiroth returned with his uniform. He offered him a nod of thanks before slipping off to his shower.

               He stood in the bathroom doorway. He didn’t realize he’d have the same problem here, but he was. He could taste the bile crawling up his throat again as he remembered vomiting until there was nothing left. Vomiting until he could feel the trickle of cum down his thighs and then vomiting more. It was that thought that got him moving, still wrapped in memory. He needed to feel clean again. He stripped with military efficiency and was in the shower in record time. He didn’t turn the shower up quite as high as he had that night, but it was still hot enough to sting. He showered quickly, as he always did, but stalled for a little. He was safe, in the shower, hidden away behind the curtain. When he left, he’d have to see the toilet again, remember kneeling in front of it and tossing up the contents of his stomach. He could feel a curl of nausea at the memory alone.

               It was doing him no good to stall. He forced himself out of the shower and pulled on his uniform as quick as he could, not looking at the toilet, and was out of the room like a shot. He almost stumbled in his haste to get to the living room, where Sephiroth was waiting, standing at the door. He didn’t hesitate or pause at all, just moved forward and opened the door for Cloud, who rushed through it.

               And in the hallway, it felt like he could finally breathe properly again. He reached out and took Sephiroth’s hand in his. He didn’t say anything, but the look he gave Sephiroth was so simply grateful, that he didn’t need to, really. Sephiroth gave him a small smile and then nodded toward the elevator. Cloud stepped forward, lengthening his stride for once, and hurried toward it.

               The ride down to Sephiroth’s apartment was quiet, until Sephiroth squeezed his hand.

               “You were very brave,” he whispered. “You did well.”

               Cloud snorted, but felt something in him relax a little at the words.

               “I couldn’t manage the bedroom.”

               “Cloud, you saw him today, and then went and faced the apartment only a few hours later. You handled everything but the scene of the worst of it, and you didn’t break down even then. I have seen men try to face their trauma before, and none of them have made such progress so quickly.”

               Cloud glanced up at him, but could read the sincerity in his tone. He softened just a hair.

               He hummed quietly, but let the matter go, even if he still privately disagreed.

               Sephiroth’s apartment was starting to feel more comfortable as they went. It wasn’t quite what his own apartment had been before it was ruined, but it was close. It helped that everything smelled like Sephiroth, and the man himself was always there.

               They went to sit at the couches, close by each other’s sides, as Sephiroth ordered from their usual take out place. He had been correct in assuming Cloud didn’t particularly want to go to the cafeteria to get food, but that he should still eat. When Cloud tried to protest that he didn’t think he could eat, Sephiroth ignored him and ordered his usual anyway.

               After the call, he had squeezed his hand and said, “Eat what you can. If you can’t eat anything, then it will be ready for you when you are.”

               Cloud paused.

               Ready whenever he was.

               He couldn’t quite know, but he wouldn’t until he tried. And he thought it might be worth it, to try this, even if he didn’t try eating.

               Cloud shifted, swinging his leg around to straddle Sephiroth’s lap. Sephiroth didn’t reach up to touch him, and stayed completely still where he was, as if afraid of the contact.

               Cloud monitored his own breathing closely, paying attention to the in and out as he reached down and picked up Sephiroth’s hands, settling them on his hips. Sephiroth didn’t pull his hands away, but kept them perfectly in place where Cloud had let them. The only betrayal of any sort of emotion was the way his fingertips dug in just slightly, barely enough to feel. Cloud cupped Sephiroth’s face and brought their mouths together, the kiss chaste and gentle. Sephiroth did kiss him back, but the touch was soft. He watched Sephiroth closely, looking between the furrow in his brow, to his concerned eyes, to the little frown on his lips. He kissed him again, moving his lips a little more. He tilted Sephiroth’s head for him with his hands and kissed him a little less chaste.

               In the beat between kisses, Sephiroth whispered, “Cloud.”

               “Yes?” he answered, giving him slow, sensuous kisses between words.

               “Is this wise?”

               “Yes.”

               “Are you certain?”

               “Yes.”

               “It seems early.”

               At that, Cloud pulled back. He brushed his thumb over Sephiroth’s cheek and stared back at him.

               “Sephiroth, even when he isn’t touching me, I can feel him. I want to feel something else. I want a different memory to hold on to, a different touch to override where he’s been. I need to feel something else, and I need it from someone I feel safe with.”

               Cloud watched him, eyes heavy with meaning, with certainty and sincerity. Slowly, very slowly, Sephiroth nodded. His fingers tightened on Cloud’s hips. Cloud nodded back, and their kisses became less and less chaste. Cloud slipped his hands down to take hold of Sephiroth’s shoulders for balance, quickly becoming lost in the exchange.

               This was safe. This, Rufus hadn’t touched. In the entirety of their exchange, he’d never kissed him once. He could feel the ghost of another set of hands on his hips, but he focused in on Sephiroth’s the way he was so gentle, the way he never gripped too hard, even though Cloud could take it. It erased the feeling of those other hands immediately. Cloud could just focus on the sensations as they were happening, and it wiped out everything else.

               Cloud had to pull away for breath and Sephiroth ducked his head to kiss Cloud’s throat. He could feel, for only a second, a shadow of Rufus’s grip there, his fingers digging in to the sensitive skin. But then it was just Sephiroth’s lips, his tongue flattening against his neck, never once teeth, nothing to harm. He didn’t think Sephiroth would dare that for a very long time, but this, this was what he needed. No one treated him with care. Not Hojo or anyone in his labs, not the brass, and certainly not Rufus. He was, with the exception of Sephiroth, unfamiliar with a gentle touch. He hadn’t really known what a caress was. But he felt Sephiroth cup the back of his head gently, his fingers threading into his hair in a way that was distinctly different from when Rufus had grabbed at it and used it as a handhold.

               Cloud could feel himself hard in his pants, could feel Sephiroth’s length pressed against his inner thigh, and had a moment of conflict. Was this enough? Did he need more, or should he wait? He rolled his hips experimentally, listening to the way Sephiroth’s breath hitched in his ear, and decided that he would stop if it became too much, and not before then. He continued rolling his hips, grinding down on Sephiroth until he heard a quiet, but appreciative moan pressed into his neck. It called to mind the morning they had shared, when Sephiroth first taught him how to do this, and that was perfect, that was what he wanted to be remembering.

               Cloud grabbed Sephiroth by the front of his shirt and twisted, rolling so he was on his back, one of Sephiroth’s legs fitted between his own. It was a little more difficult to manage on a couch, but they did manage it. Sephiroth moved from his neck back up to his mouth, kissing him deeply, his knee firm against Cloud. They kissed for a long moment before Sephiroth pulled away, his red eyes hot on Cloud’s green.

               “You said you wanted to feel a different touch.”

               “I do.”

               “Can I do something I know he didn’t?”

               Cloud tilted his head, not sure what that could mean, but nodded.

               “I want you to.”

               Sephiroth kissed him again and began fiddling with his belts and buckles until he had his pants open. Cloud wasn’t sure where this was going, probably back to what they had done originally? But Rufus had stroked him, that wasn’t something different. It wasn’t until Sephiroth gave him one last sound kiss and began to slip downward that Cloud started to get where this was going.

               Sephiroth maintained eye contact with Cloud as slowly, so very slowly, he licked from the base to the tip. Cloud whimpered faintly—it was the first sound he’d made, and that was remarkable, considering their first time. Sephiroth knew the reason why and didn’t comment, but was infinitely glad to hear him. He had been a little worried that Rufus had completely stolen his voice from him in this way, but was relieved to find it was just a little harder to get to.

               Sephiroth closed his lips around the head, swirling his tongue and sucking lightly. Cloud’s head hit the sofa, his eyes pinching closed as he moaned, long and low. It was encouraging, to say the least. Sephiroth lowered himself slowly, taking the entire shaft into his mouth and throat, listening closely as Cloud first gasped and then whined low in his throat. Sephiroth built his rhythm slowly, his hands firm on Cloud’s hips, holding him in place as he worked. Cloud’s silence was long past.

               Because he was right. This was different. Rufus had not touched him this way. No one had ever touched him this way. The feeling of wet heat around him was entirely new and felt so good that he couldn’t even think about the last time something had made his belly tighten this way. He writhed beneath Sephiroth’s touch, back arching, his hands grasping at the cushions helplessly. His brain slowly melted into white noise, no thoughts coming, just the pleasure like fire in his veins. There were no flashes of things he didn’t want to see, whispers he didn’t want to hear, touches he didn’t want to feel. All he could hear were the soft, wet sounds of Sephiroth bobbing his head, and that was all he wanted. Just the feeling that came with it and the sight of the inside of his eyelids.

               This was exactly what he had needed.

               “Seph,” he whispered, voice cracked and broken. “Seph, I’m close.”

               Sephiroth hummed and swallowed around him, and that was all it took. His head dug back into the couch, his back arching as Sephiroth pressed his hips down. He pulled back to the tip, drinking down what came until Cloud was done, when he gave the head a soft peck. He crawled back up Cloud and was immediately pulled into a kiss.

               “Thank you,” Cloud whispered against his lips. “Thank you.”

               Sephiroth hummed and kissed him again before whispering back, “You’re welcome.”

               Sephiroth tucked him into his pants and shifted, turning them so they were lying on their sides, just barely fitting on the couch together.

               “You won’t let me do you, will you?” Cloud said, looking his face over closely.

               “Mmm, no,” he confirmed. “Not yet.”

               “Why not?”

               “Because I want this to be a gift, still. Something I can give to you, without you feeling like you have to give something in return.”

               “And if I want to give something?”

               “Then we can do that later. For now, let this be it.”

               Cloud sighed, but relented. He knew how stubborn Sephiroth could be. And he had a point. It was one thing to need to feel someone else’s touch. It was another thing to try and give to someone, after so much had been taken.

               But, as they lie there together, intertwined, Cloud didn’t feel like he was in much of a rush.