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Per Tempus

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Per Tempus

 

Chapter 1

 

Cerulean eyes peered lazily into the early morning sky. Taking a sip of his coffee, Cloud Strife stood at his apartment window and gazed down at the still sleeping city of Midgar below. The sun was peeking from above the horizon, slowly bathing the city in its warmth. Soon, the sleeping city would be crowded and busy with people who were on their way to work for the day. All Cloud was waiting on was a phone call, and in any second now, he just knew his PHS would buzz. Cloud needed an assignment, a mission, or even a fight to the death with some nasty despicable enemy. He needed something to occupy his brain aside from mindless everyday tasks thrown at him by corporate douche bags. Maybe they would send him off somewhere across the globe like last time. Hell, a field trip to the slums would be better than sitting in an empty apartment alone. Well, let's take that back, Cloud didn't mind being alone. In fact, most of the time, he preferred it, but sometimes, the loneliness overwhelmed him. He missed being out on assignment with his mentor and friend, Lieutenant SOLDIER First Class, Zack Fair.

It had been two weeks since the two of them had returned from Costa Del Sol. Their mission was to retrieve a special type of materia—it's origin confidential and unexplained. Zack and Cloud spent the better part of the month hacking and slashing their way through foreign enemies to attain this mysterious smoky gray orb; and upon their return to Midgar, Cloud was promoted to SOLDIER First Class. A grim smile crept onto his lips. It wasn't that he was ungrateful. It just seemed that most days since becoming First Class have been filled with meetings, paperwork, and more paperwork. Cloud was resting his head against the window and cradling his coffee mug in his hands when it happened.

His PHS buzzed.

A burst of excitement overcame him as Cloud placed his mug on the windowsill and fished his PHS out of the pocket of his sweatpants. Glancing at the screen, a small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth seeing that it was an email from his mentor.

Recipient: Cloud Strife
Sender: Lieutenant Zack Fair
Subject: Punctuality

Rise and shine, kiddo! The General wants the two of us in his office at 0730 and no later. You know how the man is about tardiness, so I am begging you to PLEASE show up on time!

See you soon, buddy!

-Zack

PS: Please be on time, Cloud.
PPS: He becomes absolutely intolerable when people are late, so, please Spike, try your damnedest.

Cloud checked the time before he put his PHS down and smiled in amusement. He still had another forty-five minutes before he had to be on the 50th floor so he padded to the bathroom for a quick shower. Within seconds, he was leaning blissfully into the shower's stream, and although the water trickled lazily from the spout, the scalding heat made up for it. The blond worked shampoo through his hair, scrubbing his scalp in a frenzied manner. As he reached for the conditioner, Cloud briefly wondered how much product the General had to use daily to contain the mass of his flowing silver hair, and he chuckled to himself. Hell, he could hardly contain his own head of stubborn hair. Zack always said that it reminded him of a golden chocobo's ass end. Tufts of blond locks stuck out in spikes—hence the nickname that Zack so graciously blessed him with—but no matter what Cloud did to tame it, his hair remained a force to be reckoned with. He stood idly in the shower, letting his thoughts drift into different directions.

What was this meeting about anyway? Was he going somewhere? Was Zack going with him? Could there be a chance that he would be sent somewhere outside of ShinRa Tower? Cloud scoffed to himself. He was aware that he sounded like a petulant teenager that had been grounded from going out with friends, but he ached to embark on something new. What was his purpose staying holed up in ShinRa Tower? Why promote him at all if this was all there was? What did Sephiroth want with a green First Class SOLDIER? All of these questions plagued the blond's mind as he shook the excess water from his hair before tackling it with a towel.

Sephiroth.

Also known as General Sephiroth, commander of the ShinRa army as well as its most valuable First Class SOLDIER--or if you were Zack Fair: Seph.

Now, Cloud had never spent much time around the General—hell, he hadn’t even met the man yet—and in no way was he on a first name basis with him, but the blond had idolized him for years beforehand. General Sephiroth was not only a war hero, but also a very powerful weapon raised and designed by ShinRa Inc. Sephiroth being raised in the underground labs was no secret; however, Cloud preferred to leave the heavy details in those classified manila folders.

He had watched the General in the training rooms with the cadets while he was still a SOLDIER Third. He stalked them like a panther stalked its next meal, waiting for a member of the herd to drop their guard. Sephiroth cast his glowing eyes on each opponent as if he were back on the battlefield in Wutai and attacked at random when no cadet volunteered to spar. Cloud had always been weary of the fearful cadets because sparring one on one with the great General Sephiroth was a dream that he had longed to attain for a while now but has yet to have the opportunity. He had thought about asking the General personally for a sparring match but had ultimately decided against it. Cloud had no intention of embarrassing himself like that.

Cloud was dressed in full SOLDIER First Class uniform attire and had begun to comb his fingers through his hair, cursing it for its defiance. Per usual, the golden tresses protested wildly at the effort he put forth to tame it.

“Perfect.” He grumbled to himself in the bathroom mirror, frosty blue eyes glaring back at him. After ruffling his hair in an attempt to at least give the restless blond spikes some shape, Cloud sheathed his sword across his back and hauled ass from floor 23 to floor 50.

The elevator ride was swift and painless. There weren't any other passengers there to stare at Cloud strangely, or to wildly gape at him when his eyes met theirs. As much as the civilian population knew about the SOLDIER program, knowing and seeing were apparently two different things. They praised SOLDIER for their many deeds, but they also feared them.

SOLDIER was an elite group of ShinRa army men who were enhanced by mako—a power form of energy that was naturally provided by the planet but harnessed for its effects on the human body by ShinRa. SOLDIERs were the wheels that turned in the war machine that was ShinRa Inc., and Sephiroth was the “Power On” switch. The people of Midgar knew that as long as they were compliant, they were safe. After all, the people understood that they were no match for the mako-enhanced warriors.

Cloud began receiving mako-infusions by needle two years ago when he had become a SOLDIER third. His eyes rapidly began to change from a baby blue to a sharp blue green within the first three weekly injections. His vision, strength, and stamina were all enhanced to extraordinary levels—which became a necessary requirement to wield his monstrous weapon. Rather light for such a hefty beast, Cloud's buster sword was 250lbs of Midgardian steel—a top tier weapon material and subsequently cost a very extensive amount of gil. Cloud had saved for over a year and a half to afford his sword of choice, and it still remained the best purchase he had made since becoming a SOLDIER.

As the elevator doors opened, Cloud could identify the sound of Zack's familiar voice. His unruly black hair was clearly visible from down the hall as Cloud neared closer. He spoke rather excitedly to a nearby SOLDIER Third. Zack was rambling on to the Third about needing a vacation when Cloud clapped a hand on his shoulder from behind, snagging his mentor's attention.

Violet eyes were bright as he turned to Cloud.

“Hey, Spike!” Zack, who had little to no regard for personal space, threw his robust arms around the blond in a brief hug. “Would you look at this?” He exclaimed, eyes sparking with amusement. “Do my eyes deceive me? Someone is on time!”

Cloud playfully shoved his Lieutenant. “Oh, would you shut up?” He sighed, stealing a glance toward the SOLDIER that guarded the General's door.

He was definitely a Third, but Cloud didn't recognize him. Hazel eyes met greenish-blue in question, Cloud broke eye contact when Zack finally spoke.

“You know, Kunsel, you can tell him we're here.” He paused with a smirk tugging at the corner of his lips. “Unless you just want to keep staring at Spike all day.” He chuckled, winking at a very distressed Kunsel and a vastly annoyed Cloud before continuing: “In fact,” He raised his voice to the General's door, “We're a few minutes early, Seph, come on!”

Kunsel's gaze flicked back to Cloud, his eyes seemingly asking why Lieutenant Zack Fair was here embarrassing him. Cloud shrugged, offering a small smile of encouragement before mouthing the word 'sorry'. Hazel eyes narrowed as their gaze shifted back to the Lieutenant. Kunsel opened his mouth in what Cloud assumed was a request to speak freely.

Perhaps he would tell his Lieutenant to shut the fuck up, Cloud thought, stifling a chuckle.

The General’s door opened

Cloud could only imagine the sight that Sephiroth had walked out on.

A noisy, energetic Lieutenant, a First with striking blue eyes and hair similar to the hind side of a golden chocobo, and a royally pissed off Third who was obviously in fear of losing his position as his door guard, all stood silently awaiting the General's instructions. Cat-like green eyes focused on Zack.

“Lieutenant Fair.” He grumbled, eyes thoughtful and distant.

Zack, of course, responded in cheer. “Yes, sir?”

“Is there a particular reason you are outside of my office shouting at this hour of the morning?” Curious emerald eyes met cerulean before glancing back at Zack accusingly.

The Lieutenant gaped in dramatic shock. As if he, of all people, could ever be accused of being loud. “Well, sir, I was—er,” He glanced up at his general with a weak smile. “I was honestly just alerting you of our presence.”

Sephiroth's eyes rolled heavenward as he stepped aside to let the two SOLDIERs in. “As always, Lieutenant Fair, I appreciate your thoughtfulness,” was the dry reply.

Zack laughed heartily as he thrust his hand out in order to shake his superior's. Cloud remained silent and to the side as the two exchanged pleasantries, and momentarily studied the General.

He had only been in the same vicinity as the silver-haired warrior twice in his career here at ShinRa, and each time he looked taller than before. Cloud had always admired Sephiroth and wouldn't deny that he felt a little star struck as he took in his ethereal presence.

There he stood in all of his uniformed glory.

The Masamune clung to his back as long silver hair cascaded down its length. He was tall, muscular but not burly, wrapped in skin comparable to smooth, unblemished porcelain. His facial features, much like the rest of his being, were strong and sharp—hardly feminine, yet captivatingly wicked. Cloud had heard from multiple SOLDIERs that his tongue also had the ability to be just as sharp as well as callous. Even standing there, idly entertaining Zack's banter, he lured bystanders with his enticing magnificence. Cloud was definitely an enticed bystander as he stood there and gawked at his leather clad superior.

Green eyes were on him now, scrutinizing Cloud's gaze. Tearing his eyes away, he forced them to the floor.

Fuck.

“Strife.”

Double fuck.

“Sir?” Cloud answered with a salute, wiping any expressions from his face that may have shown his humiliation at being caught staring.

“At ease.” Sephiroth nodded with a tug to his lips before continuing, “Thanks for coming on such short notice.”

Piercing eyes peered down at Cloud, raking over his form with an inquisitive arch to his brow. “I believe we haven't properly met, I'm Sephiroth.”

A well-toned arm dressed in the finest of leathers extended toward Cloud. The blond blanked, temporarily forgetting what a handshake was before hastily bringing his hand to the General's.

“Cloud Strife, sir, SOLDIER First Class, Cloud Strife.” Gods above, that grip.

“Lieutenant Fair has spoken highly of you, Strife.”

“Cloud.” The blond mumbled the preference and after a curious glance from the General, he added, “Sir.”

Sephiroth hummed in acknowledgment.

And like every silence around Zack, it was brief: “So, Seph, what's the plan? Are we off to Wutai? Hunting monsters? Hunting wild, Wutain monsters?” Zack rubbed his hands together excitedly, earning an exasperated glare from his superior.

“No, Lieutenant.” Sephiroth sighed, “You and I will be traveling south to Junon on ShinRa's orders.” The General flicked his gaze to the blond, catching his eyes. “Strife will remain here in Midgar to further assist in training Third Class SOLDIERs.” Sephiroth took a seat at his desk, mindlessly moving the loose paperwork that littered it.

Cloud wasn't upset, although, he suspected that he would be. He hated the idea of being holed up in ShinRa Tower while his mentor and “Seph” made plans to high tail it to Junon, but an order was an order. Cloud let his gaze fall on his mentor. Zack's face was riddled with chagrin, but the lieutenant knew that Sephiroth had the final say.

After an expectant look to each SOLDIER with no objection or response, the silver-haired general went on, casting his ethereal stare on the blond. “Cloud,” He began, voice almost a purr, eyes unwavering, “You'll meet me here at 0600 tomorrow morning.” He eyed the blond SOLDIER, who nodded in understanding. “I will, of course, need your punctuality, Strife. Lieutenant Fair and I are scheduled to depart no later than 0700 sharp. We will have one hour to review the schedule and my expectations of you.”

Cloud's gaze shifted to Zack, who was lounging in one of the General's chairs and watching the weight of anxiety deflate his protege's once confident demeanor. Cloud focused on breathing, because if he could at least do that, he could make it out of this room. Sephiroth wanted him to do what? Train Thirds? There were SOLDIERs who were significantly more qualified to train the future Firsts, and Cloud was a Second two weeks ago. He opened his mouth to speak, but green eyes locked with his own, and the General spoke.

“Am I clear,” A pause before a raised brow, “Strife?”

Fuck me.

Could he do this? Would he be able to take the reins for however long his superiors would be gone? Honestly, did he ever have a choice? An order was a damned order, and Cloud suspected that was why Zack had not breathed so much as a word since planting his ass in that chair.

He knew. Cloud narrowed his eyes at his mentor, who averted his guilty gaze to the floor in return. Well, this was just...wonderful. What if he failed? Then what? Would he lose his SOLDIER First Class title? The blond stared bravely into the expectant emerald pools and sighed internally. Punctuality was not his strongest attribute. Nevertheless, Cloud did what any First Class SOLDIER did in his current position. He saluted.

“Sir, yes, sir.” Cloud mimicked confidence, refusing to look uncertain under such observant eyes.

A small, barely-there smile touched the General's lips, and it was gone just as quickly as the silver-haired warrior masked his features. Sephiroth was once again stoic and expressionless.

“Very well, Cloud,” Cloud felt the hair on his arms rise, inwardly cursing the way Sephiroth articulated his name. The languid softness veered his mind into uncharted, turbulent waters of confusion. Sure, he admired the man, but such a reaction seemed almost inappropriate for someone of his rank—

“You're dismissed.”

Cloud nodded curtly, partly in acknowledgment of the discharge but more so to shake away any other intrusive thoughts that his brain could possibly muster. He had begun to turn on his heel to make his escape when Sephiroth spoke again. A calm leather clad hand raised in effort to halt the SOLDIER.

“Wait.”

Cloud stilled, an icy blue gaze falling on Sephiroth. Cat like eyes, lit with a touch amusement, shifted to Zack.

“Strife.”

Fuck.

“I've been informed by your Lieutenant that you require more in-depth combat training.” Sephiroth's gaze was on him now, bringing a tinge of red to the blond's cheeks.

Cloud shifted his vision, casting an icy glare to his Lieutenant who shrugged slightly. Goddamnit, Zack.

“I'm sorry, sir, more in-depth training?” Cloud feigned ignorance. Deny, deny, deny.

“Forgive me,” He began, green pools unwavering, “You show little to no weakness when it comes to combat, that’s not what I meant, but Lieutenant Fair seems to think that we can sharpen your many strengths with more training.” After no interruption from the discombobulated blond, Sephiroth continued, “Should you find the time and feel up for the challenge; I would be delighted to help you...” Green orbs burned as they subtly raked over Cloud’s form, “perfect... any skills you fear you may be lacking in.”

What the fuck was that?!

The blond opened his mouth to articulate some form of response before Zack, who was lost on the double meaning, chimed in.

“Yeah, kiddo, I had mentioned to Seph that you had really been wanting to spar with him for some time, and--”

Here we go.

Like a deer in headlights, still floored by how ethereal eyes had moved over him, Cloud remained glued to where he stood. He sank into his own thoughts as Zack rambled, obviously doing his best to justify his intent. In reality, sparring with Sephiroth could be an advantage that no other SOLDIER, save for Zack, has had. He could learn a lot from the warrior, and Cloud had no doubts about that. The only question Cloud had was--

“Why?” The question hung in the air, and after seeing his superiors blank, Cloud mentally slapped himself for speaking at all. Why would the General of ShinRa's army offer to train with some First that he hadn't met until today? Insecurity wormed its way into Cloud's every thought, picking apart his confidence-- as if he had much to pick apart to begin with.

It's because you're not cut out to be in SOLDIER. You never were. This is their last-ditch effort to save you before they kick you out of this ivory tower, and send you packing back to Nibelheim. You're nothing to them. You may be less than that, actually, since Zack is begging Sephiroth for help with you.

Cloud lifted his gaze, pushed back the malevolent voice that condemned him to failure, and straightened his posture as Sephiroth stood from his desk chair.

“You misunderstand, Strife,” Sephiroth’s tone was low as if attempting to calm a wild animal. “I’ve reviewed your file with Lieutenant Fair, and your progress has been rapid, if not unparalleled. I was under the impression that you intended to come to me for extra training anyway.” Green eyes glinted in question.

“Yes, sir, I had thought about coming to you directly,” His eyes narrowed slightly at his Lieutenant, “but I was going to do so at my own pace.” A pale brow rose, urging the blond to elaborate. “My plan of action did not include asking for your time on the first day that we met, sir.”

I don’t normally do this on the first date, General. Cloud internally mocked.

A ghost of a smile touched Sephiroth’s face, sending an unprecedented tingle down Cloud’s spine.

“Lieutenant Fair, could you give us a moment, please?” His voice was soft as he addressed his friend, who smiled brightly before casting Cloud a knowing smile.

Oh, fuck.

Widened blue eyes shifted back and forth between the exchange as their possessor fought to form a rational thought. In a frenzy of jumbled thoughts, Cloud stepped forward, holding out his arms in an attempt to stop his Lieutenant.

“You really don’t have to--”

“Strife, sit.” A trace of annoyance tinged the General’s command.

Cloud gaped, and as if in a trance, fell into the chair behind him.

Oh, okay, fuck me, I guess.

“The task I am assigning you is not necessarily a difficult one, but a crucial one. Our Third Class SOLDIERs are detrimental to ShinRa’s overall operation, and require the utmost attention. With that being said, there are certain measures needed to be taken before tomorrow.” Sephiroth stated, sparing a glance toward Zack's retreating form.

Cloud shifted in his seat upon hearing the door click. He could still make out Zack's voice as he bantered with Kunsel, who remained tellingly quiet—conversations with Zack were usually one-sided.

Sephiroth sat himself in the chair across from Cloud and brought a pale finger to his lips in contemplation. The changed air in the room stiffened the blond's bones, unnerving and distant. Without a familiar face present, his mood began to shift from reserved to panicked.

Surely, no mistake had been made on his part—unless the perceptive General noticed the tempered unease from earlier. Of course, the three blind mice would be able to discern what a culpable fool Cloud really was. Anxious and ready to escape to his quarters on floor 23, Cloud kept his gaze locked on the floor, waiting for Sephiroth to elaborate.

The silence drew on, beckoning Cloud to lift his eyes in question.

“Where are you from?”

Cloud blinked.

“Sir?”

With a neutral expression, Sephiroth clarified, “I am placing a fair amount of responsibility on your shoulders based off of an opinion formed by Lieutenant Fair. I would prefer it if we had a basic sense of familiarity with each other. Wouldn't you agree?” Emerald glowed as they studied blue, waiting to hear the blond's answer.

Cloud nodded hesitantly and cleared his throat. “Yes sir, I suppose I would.”

“So, Strife,” A pause, “where are you from?”

“Nibelheim, sir.”

“Nibelheim? On the western continent? How did you end up here?”

Cloud tensed as he struggled to come up with something that didn't include having to tell the General that he once had SOLDIER posters hanging in his bedroom as a young teen. However, sometimes, his mouth completely ignored his brain and said whatever it wanted.

“I wanted to be like you.” Cloud winced.

What the fuck did you just say?

“I mean,” He straightened in his seat, and after a curious glance was thrown his way, he was determined to clean up the word vomit that he had just spit up and onto Sephiroth's boots. “I mean that I wanted to be in SOLDIER, sir.”

Green eyes were unblinking and seemingly unfazed by Cloud's admission, “How did your family feel about your departure to ShinRa?”

Cloud shrugged, brushing off the memory of his mother begging him to stay in Nibelheim. She wanted him to stay there. She wanted him to marry and grow old with Tifa Lockhart, the mayor's daughter and Cloud's childhood friend. Truth be told, Cloud almost took his mother's advice several times, but he had his dreams. He had his goals and plans for a future that he knew he would have to strive to achieve. Sephiroth had defeated a nation and brought the Wutain ruler to his knees by the time he was seventeen years old. He was a fearless warrior, immaculate in every meaning of the word. He had pushed through countless enemies on the battlefield, defeated scores of monsters throughout the course of his legendary career, and here sat Cloud Strife, who had just been eyed by him so provocatively, it had made the blond blush. Sephiroth's gaze burned through him, pressing him for an answer.

“My father died when I was 7, sir.” Lie.  Cloud's father had abandoned them when he was 7. Perhaps that was why Cloud had said it. The man was dead to him anyway. A brief silence passed, and when Sephiroth said nothing, Cloud continued. “It had always just been me and my mom. I wanted to make her proud, and she is, sir.”

“I see.” A small, however, genuine smile played on the General's lips, “When did you last speak with her?”

Cloud hummed as he visibly relaxed, welcoming casual conversation, and lifted his fingers to his chin in contemplation. “Two days ago?” He nodded as he remembered, “Yes, sir, it was two days ago. She was pis—I mean, upset that I haven't made a trip back home. I told her that ShinRa had to actually let me leave first.” His eyes rolled heavenward in mock annoyance, but his mood darkened rapidly when he remembered that this was not his Lieutenant he was talking to. Cloud stiffened.

This was his General.

Sephiroth either deliberately ignored Cloud's sudden change in energy, or he was just as emotionally dense as Cloud. Nevertheless, the blond was thankful for it as the General continued his game of 20 Questions. Icy blue pierced contemplating green, refusing to whimper away.

“Is that what you want?” The question, although a clear one, could have also been a trick one, and that thought alone made Cloud hesitate. It must have shown because Sephiroth chuckled before clarifying, “I am genuinely asking, Strife.”

The SOLDIER's eyes widened slightly in disbelief, “I would like to be on the next assignment to Nibelheim, sir.” Cloud’s confidence was climbing.

Sephiroth nodded slowly, “Very well, give the Thirds as much of your time as you can possibly spare, and if I see satisfactory results, you will be more than welcome to assist me in Nibelheim next week.” Sephiroth cocked his head in question. “Do we have a deal, Strife?”

Cloud's mouth was dry, so he nodded his head profusely and fought the urge to correct the General's name for him.

“We'll be there for a week.” He eyed Cloud ruefully, “Surely, I don't have to ask you to remember to pack warm clothing?” Sephiroth spoke as if he'd already decided that Cloud would be joining him on his journey.

Cloud grinned, his spirits soaring. “I'll try my best not to forget, sir.”

“Do you recall seeing the mako reactor as you grew up?” Sephiroth continued his interview, expression now void of any previous emotion.

Cloud narrowed his eyes, as if trying to remember that far back into his life. In actuality it really hadn't been that long, but to Cloud it seemed like centuries had passed since he had been home. “A few times. My friends and I used to sneak through the fences as children and play on the back side of the reactor.” Cloud said as he smiled, gazing into a far-off memory. Sephiroth's face twisted incredulously.

“You do realize now that you very well could have fallen into a mako spring and died, don't you, Strife?”

“I am aware, sir.” The SOLDIER said still smiling. Feeling brave are we, kiddo? Zack's voice echoed inside his head. Hell yeah, he was feeling brave, all he had to do was impress Sephiroth with the Thirds, and in a week's time he'd be on the way back home to Nibelheim as SOLDIER First Class, Cloud Strife. He'd see his mother, and he may even get to see Tifa. He briefly wondered how she would be doing after all these years.

“Very well.” Sephiroth continued, “It seems that the reactor is experiencing a technical malfunction, and it seems to be causing a literal stink around the town.” His features softened, “I am surprised your mother did not mention that to you.” Sephiroth pushed a strand of hair away from his eyes.

“She doesn't get out much, sir.”

“Never to Midgar?”

Cloud laughed aloud, “No way in hell.” As he noticed an amused silver brow rise, he added, “Sir.”

“Call me Sephiroth.” The General sighed.

“Call me Cloud.” The blond challenged with a quirk to his lips.

Feeling extra suicidal today aren't we, bud? Zack's voice rang out again, slightly more urgent sounding than last time. However, Cloud didn't feel threatened as the General’s demeanor seemed to perk up.

“Somehow...” Green eyes glowed as they studied their opponent, “I am led to believe that 'Strife' is a name that fits you better than 'Cloud' ever could.”

Cloud sat back in his chair and beamed, “You have no idea.”

“I'm sure you will enlighten me.”

His words seemed playful but were tinged with a trace of some other emotion that Cloud could not discern. He watched as Sephiroth rose from his seat, silver hair falling into place as if it had not been ruffled by the back of the chair at all. Cloud stood with him, anticipating another brief handshake before his dismissal. As expected, Sephiroth extended his hand which was no longer encased in a black leather glove and grasped the blond’s.

“0600, Cloud.” He reminded softly, still grasping the SOLDIER’s clammy hand. “Don’t be late.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, sir.”

Blue eyes collided with green once more before Cloud was dismissed.

*************

Cloud was half in and half out of a conversation with his Lieutenant as he picked at his less than desirable tray of what ShinRa liked to call “lunch” with his fork. Zack was tremendously excited for his student and was going on and on about how “Seph” was unbearable during travel, but that Cloud would ultimately enjoy his company when they had finally reached Nibelheim. He had told the blond numerous stories over time that had all enamored Cloud, and this time was no different except that he was distracted. Ethereal green orbs had tattooed a spot in his mind along with pale strong hands that had held his own in mutual respect.

Get a grip and focus, Strife. You’re not some prepubescent girl with a crush, and you have a fucking job to do.

“Spike, are you even listening to me?”

Cloud blanched at the sound of his nickname, and offered an apologetic smile to his Lieutenant, “Sorry, Zack, I don’t think I got much rest last night.” He lied.

You’re getting good at that…too good. He pushed the guilt back, knowing damn well he couldn’t tell Zack the real reason why his undivided attention was so scarce right now. Zack seemed to see right through the facade.

“No worries, kid, I get it. He wore my ass out too.”

Cloud heard the loud clank as he dropped his fork, not that he was using it to eat the mush on his tray.

“Wh—at?” He stammered.

Zack bellowed with laughter before explaining, “I mean mentally, Cloud. Seph is big on mental interpretation. He likes to poke and prod around inside of your head, and while that is not always a bad thing…” Zack eyed Cloud as he trailed off, “It can sometimes wear you down.” He took a sip of his mystery ShinRa shake. “Just be cautious with your mind and its thoughts, Spike. He doesn’t need to see all of either of them at one time.”

Cloud processed his mentor’s words, attempting to decipher their meaning without having to ask Zack to elaborate, but failed. “You think he’s manipulative?” Cloud wondered aloud, causing Zack to shake his head diligently.

“No, I don’t think that.” He swigged at his shake again, “I have learned that Seph doesn’t know much about boundaries, and I am afraid that your outlook on him may lower yours. I just want you to be careful. Remember that he is your General before he is your friend. He is the leader of ShinRa’s Army, and while he has a way with…words…” He spoke slower and more deliberate, careful not to embarrass the blond, “I want you to see them for what they are; a tool for digging. It was what he was trained to do.”

So, Zack had picked up on that after all, and was doing what any friend would do in a similar situation, expressing concern. Cloud spoke to lighten the mood, “Don’t get your warm and fuzzies all over me, Lieutenant, I’ve already showered once today.”

Zack snorted, leaning over to sniff a blond tuft of hair on Cloud’s head that was defying gravity, and an exaggerated face of disgust filled his features. “I don’t know, kiddo, if you’ve showered in the last week, I sure can’t tell.”

The two SOLDIERs shared laughter and conversed further before parting ways to return to the dull daily routine that was laid out for them by ShinRa. As Cloud mindlessly moved through his day, the hours seemed to drag on. He knew it was due to the anxiety that awaited him in the morning, but Cloud also felt a nervous form of excitement. Poke and prod as Sephiroth may, this was Cloud’s chance to show the General what he was capable of. The malevolent voice inside of his mind was quieted and nowhere to be admonished since the meeting this morning, and although Cloud knew it would not last forever, he basked in the silence of his own confidence.

It was 2100 by the time Cloud had completed his scheduled routine, and as he trudged down the hall of the 23rd floor to his apartment, his body craved the feeling of his bed. Normally, his daily tasks were completed by at least 1700, but he had taken it upon himself to go a few rounds in the training room under simulation. His Lieutenant would never know that he had let a bunch of simulated cadets whoop his ass. Zack would never let him live it down, and he was already paying the price of his own mental distraction.

What a stupid idea. He chided internally as he let himself into his quarters. Bee-lining for the bedroom, he concluded that supper was out of the question tonight. There was no way he would be going to the 1st floor cafeteria—the only one that remained open full time—at this hour. All due to Cloud’s muscles, and how they screamed and screeched in protest as he made his way to his apartment.

Cloud let himself fall face first into his bed, feeling the weightlessness carry him off. His tortured muscles relaxed as he swung an arm over to set his alarm. Tomorrow would be the start of a new journey within the walls of ShinRa, and soon, that journey would take him home to Nibelheim where his mother would be waiting with open arms. Cloud smiled into his pillow before letting sleep overcome him, unaware of the twisted nightmare that would claw its way into his dreams tonight and burrow itself permanently into his mind by tomorrow morning.