Cloud hated war. As a footsoldier, he felt like a small, insignificant cog in Shinra’s massive invasion machine. He wished he were a real SOLDIER, so that he could actually make a difference.
The regiment had defeated a force of enemy warriors overnight, with little help from the infantry, and as the morning dawned, the village leaders surrendered. Sephiroth himself stalked out of the forest, and everyone got quiet. Cloud’s breath caught in his throat, watching the great hero. His leather coat flared out behind him as he strode forward, blood dripping from his blade and staining his silver hair.
He said something in Wutainese. The village leader responded, his tone proud and firm, but the other elders sank to their knees in the mud, staring at Sephiroth with desperation, begging for something. Cloud didn’t speak the language, but he understood the fear in their eyes.
The Masamune flew out more quickly than Cloud’s eye could track. All he saw was a glint of the red dawn light on steel, and then a spray of blood. The proud leader staggered, then fell to the ground, blood flowing from his throat and spattering the others who had begged for his life.
Several people from the village began to sob, but Sephiroth turned from them indifferently, addressing instead the Lieutenant responsible for Cloud’s squadron.
“Burn it down,” he said, gesturing to the village full of weeping elders and frightened children.
“Yes, sir,” the squad leader said, readying his materia.
As a warrior he would one day become, Cloud was most powerful when he wasn’t thinking at all, when he let his instincts guide him. And right now, all he could see was the little girl clinging to her grandmother’s hand, half-hidden behind a wooden house that would burn like a torch when the fires were set.
“No,” he said, and his legs carried him forward until he was standing between Sephiroth and the village.
For the first time since the exchange began, Sephiroth looked something other than indifferent. He raised an eyebrow, slight surprise and curiosity on his face.
“These people are no threat to us,” Cloud said. “There’s no reason to burn down their homes.”
“I gave you an order,” Sephiroth said. “That is reason enough. If you continue to question your commanding officer, I will have you punished.”
Cloud’s body trembled with fury and with fear, but when his hands gripped the hilt of the sword at his back, they were steady and strong. He drew it slowly and held it before him, watching the steel of the Masamune and the unnatural glow of Sephiroth’s eyes.
“Hmm.” Sephiroth looked bored. “Let this be an example to the rest of you.” His quiet voice carried along the line of silent soldiers.
It took one strike of the Masamune to knock the sword out of Cloud’s hands. A second thrust, as swift and decisive as the first, drove the blade into his chest. Searing pain bloomed around the cold steel, and Cloud lifted one hand, dumbly, to touch the side of the sword. For a moment Sephiroth held him there, suspended in agony. And then he pulled back and watched indifferently as Cloud slumped to the ground, clutching at his bloody chest.
“Set the fires,” Sephiroth said. His voice was distant and cold, and his black boots left footprints in the bloody mud beside Cloud’s head. The last thing Cloud saw before closing his eyes was a cascade of silver hair, stained deep red at the tips, and the gleam of the dawn light on the long, slender sword.
Reno walked the perimeter of the smoldering village, muttering unhappily to himself. Never again, he swore, would he do his President Shinra impression where there was any change Tseng might overhear it. It was a shame, too. Reno’s impressions were wickedly hilarious. He was sure of it.
But, according to Rude, he “lacked situational awareness” when he was being funny. Which was an overly complicated way of saying the wrong people had overheard his completely innocent joke. A chain of events he preferred not to relive followed, the result of which was his presence here, trailing behind Sephiroth’s regiment with mud and blood and other disgusting chunky things clinging to his boots, doing dirty work for Hojo, of all people.
Never one to be far from Sephiroth, Hojo had moved most of his expensive lab equipment to a station in a remote corner of Wutai so he could watch over his favorite experiment like the complete and total creep he was. Reno’s job, right now, was finding the perfect subject for Hojo’s newest pursuit.
As Hojo’s experiments tended to have a ninety percent mortality rate—making it a complete miracle that Sephiroth reached adulthood at all, fucked in the head though he may be—Reno couldn’t just snag a volunteer from the front lines. He had to find someone who was mostly dead but not all the way, who couldn’t be healed with materia and put back on the battlefield.
It would have been an easy task except Hojo had stipulated that his subject be: one, male; two, between the ages of sixteen and eighteen; and three, not from Wutai. The third condition was by far the most frustrating one, as there were plenty of dying Wutai soldiers scattered everywhere, but when Sephiroth and the other SOLDIER Firsts were around, Shina’s people tended to be either completely dead or on the mend. Reno had seen Sephiroth heal someone who took a blade straight through the heart.
So he followed the regiment, resigned to continue on this hopeless chase for literally forever, in the rain and the mud and with the huge fucking bugs flying around, because that was just how—
Something skidded beneath his foot and he landed on his ass in the mud, yelping. He groaned, mud oozing into the gap between the top of his boots and the cuff of his black trousers. One of his hands was completely coated in the grime, and he could feel it weighing down the tips of his hair. He was very glad no one was around to see it.
He turned to see he’d slipped on the handle of a Shinra standard-issue sword, which had been left carelessly beside a young recruit who was currently in the process of bleeding out through a hole in his chest. The blood was still bright red, still flowing, and there was a very slight rise and fall to the boy’s chest.
“Hells yeah,” Reno said, sitting upright with glee. “Hojo, you sick fuck. Have I got something for you…”