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Unplanned Parenthood

Chapter Text

The day started at the recruitment table with more than a bit of bewilderment.

“Hey, kiddo,” a concerned SOLDIER Third greeted. “What are you here for?”

The boy raised an eyebrow. He was an unusual sight for the recruitment area, barely topping four feet, unless one counted his wild, bright blond hair that tangled in spikes atop his head, adding a good five inches to his height. His eyes were a bright blue, the sort that usually changed to some other color after babyhood, but despite his height, thin build, and overall looks suggesting that he was someone likely to be bullied, he held himself like one casually confident in his worth, simply existing in the space he filled rather than trying to fill more of it or shrinking so he took up less.

“I understand this is where one turns in the paperwork to enter the SOLDIER cadet program.”

The boy had a soft accent, but not one the men at the desk recognized. Perhaps his family had moved to Midgar some time ago, rubbing out the edges until only traces remained.

“That’s right. Are you waiting for someone?”

The boy blinked.

“I’m here to turn in paperwork.”

“Is your older brother joining or something? Sorry, kid, but everyone’s got to turn in paperwork for themselves.”

“No.” The boy’s brows furrowed in confusion. “I’m joining.”

At this, the friendly Third grew much more serious. Negotiations with Wutai were heating up, and the common consensus was that the whole thing would reach a boiling point soon. And then – war. Whether the boy in front of him, small as he was, somehow miraculously passed the SOLDIER training and trials or was shunted off to the infantry, the battlefield was no place for a child. The boy in front of him couldn't be more than eight!

"What's your name, kiddo?" the man asked, coming out from behind the recruitment desk to kneel in front of the boy.

"Cloud. Cloud Strife."

"Cloud. My name is Mike." Mike smiled in a reassuring manner. "Look, Cloud. I know you're probably eager to prove yourself, but being a SOLDIER is hard. I'm sure you're plenty strong, but, until your body is a little more grown up, SOLDIER won't be a good place for you."

The boy was silent for a moment. He seemed surprised. Then his expression closed off. When he spoke again, his high, young voice was hoarse.

"Thank you for your concern, but... I have no choice."

"Is your family hurting for funds that badly? Look, kiddo, if it's like that –"

Mike knew the situation was grim for many below the plate, but this? Sending a child to war? He quickly dug in his back pocket for his wallet.

"No, it's..." The boy bowed his head. "I have no family left.”

"Oh, kiddo..." the Third said, reaching out to comfort the child.

The boy shook his head, swallowing and sealing away his grief behind a facade of adult composure. Mike's heart broke just a bit seeing such an adult mannerism on a child in this situation.

"It's fine. I've mourned. I'll move on. That's why I'm here. To move on to the next thing."

Mike knelt there staring for a long moment. The boy was on his own, clearly still brokenhearted and guilt-laden, whatever he might try to pretend. Mike couldn't in good conscience let someone torn apart by grief – especially a child – go into a combat situation. Even aside from the obvious danger to the child himself, he could easily become a danger to those around him by rash risk-taking. While ShinRa had psych evals to prevent things like that, they'd been known to be a bit lax, and this child showed signs of being able to hide his problems quite well. Unfortunately, all he could do on recruitment duty was jot a note of warning to watch for risky behaviors, not reject an application. And... he just kept circling back to the fact that this was a child.

Disregarding his ethical issues with the boy joining, he had a personal bias. It was common knowledge within the SOLDIER program that the process to create a SOLDIER left you sterile. He'd accepted that, because he could really use the larger paycheck and because he wanted to make the world a safer place for his baby cousins, but that didn't mean the knowledge didn't hurt sometimes. He'd wanted children someday, and while he was fine with adopting, his girlfriend, when the topic of the future had come up, hadn't been. He loved her – he was thinking of proposing, though he didn't want to do so just before a war – so he wasn't going to sacrifice the happiness he had with her for a possibility of something more with some other girl, but the ache of a dream lost was still there.

Still... while he couldn't be a father to this boy, perhaps he could at least keep him from the war, keep him from self-destructing long enough for the child to get back on his feet.

"Say... Cloud. I really don't feel right letting a kid into the army. Rumor has it a war is starting soon, and that's nothing I want you seeing, let alone being a part of. If you need somewhere to stay, I have a guest bedroom you could use. Just... please, kid, don't do this to yourself."

"Kid, are you even old enough to join?" the second man at the table finally spoke up. Technically, there was an age limit. You had to be of legal age to join. Trouble was, that varied place to place. In Junon, it was sixteen. In Gongaga, it was twelve. In Midgar? It was pretty much whatever age you decided it was, especially below the plate, though almost no one joined up before they were old enough to put on some visible muscle mass. Still, while he wasn't as chatty as Mike, it didn't mean the idea of child soldiers – or child SOLDIERs – sat right with him. He was perfectly willing to use some misdirection to keep that from happening.

"I'm fourteen." Both of the SOLDIERS gave him doubtful looks at that, which the boy ignored. "That's legal where I come from. And... thank you for the offer, Mike. I truly appreciate it. But I have decided. It's... for the best."

"You sure, kid?" the second SOLDIER prodded. "No offense, but you're pretty short. You look soft, and your accent won't do you any favors. If you go through with this, you'll be subject to a lot of bullying. Officers aren't always around to stop it, and there's a rare few that encourage it."

"I'm sure."

The second man sighed.

"Fine. We can't stop you. But you need anything, you come to us, alright? Ask for Mike or Hanley. Someone'll point you to us."

The boy hesitated, looking a bit stunned. His lips parted just a millimeter, then firmed up again, and he bowed at the waist.

"Thank you. I may take you up on that." He glanced up at them through pale eyelashes. "I look forward to working with you, sirs."

The second man – Hanley – let out a bark of laughter at that.

"You seem confident you'll make the cut! Well, you've got the SOLDIER moxie, at least. In that case, kid, I look forward to working with you, too."

The boy grinned. He handed over his paperwork and was sorted to a bunk in short order. As the boy trotted off, the two sank back into their chairs behind the recruitment desk, lost in grim thoughts of children in warzones. No one disturbed them. It was barely past 0730. While recruitment opened at 0700, few bothered to show up before at least 0800.

At last, Hanley stirred from his thoughts.

"Mike."

"Hmm?"

"Call Zack."

"Why?"

Hanley sent Mike a look that said clearly, "This is why you're still a Third."

"He likes to hang out with the recruits, and he could charm a malboro into living in a pot on a windowsill. That kid, Cloud, seems like he keeps his troubles close to the chest, but Zack has a habit of ferreting things out if he thinks something's bugging one of his friends. Not to mention if something serious goes down, he's got ins with the high-ups. If we set Zack to look out for him, the kid might have a chance at at least making it through this alive."

"I meant, why don't you call him yourself," Mike muttered. It hadn't been what Mike meant, and they both knew it, but at least he could try.

Mike dialed up Zack. Between him and Hanley, Mike was much better equipped to deal with the inexhaustible and gregarious SOLDIER Second. The introverted Hanley had already had his Zack dose of the week. He'd be miserable if he had to talk with him again without considerably more time to recharge.

"Hey, Zack? I've got a favor to ask...."

Chapter Text

Zack couldn't figure Cloud out, but by the end of a week he found he couldn't help but love him to bits. He was the ridiculously mature, zip-lipped, psychotically focused little brother he'd never thought to want but wouldn't trade for anything.

"Cloudy!" he shouted as he barreled down the hall toward a familiar beacon of bright hair – a beacon just barely visible through the clot of much taller bodies headed toward whatever class they had next.

As the other cadets plastered themselves against walls and dove through doorways to avoid being bowled over, Zack saw just a flash of that strange expression (the open, bleeding edges of grief, guilt, and disorientation) he sometimes saw when he startled Cloud before it smoothed over into a poker face Seph would be proud of. Of all Zack's skills, he was gladdest of his ability to read people's emotions. He'd tested and honed that ability against Stone King Sephiroth himself. There was no doubt. Something about him reminded Cloud of some hurt. But there was also no denying the subtle way Cloud lit up when he was around.

"Hello, Zack," Cloud said, sidestepping once Zack was airborne for a flying tackle hug and letting the SOLDIER sail past him.

"Clouuudyyyy," Zack whined from where he sprawled on the floor. "No fair!"

"Indeed," Cloud said with a stern look on his face. "No, Fair! No tackling the unenhanced cadets with your ridiculous SOLDIER strength! Bad!"

Zack gaped. His little Cloudy had just made a joke at him. Progress! At last! While Cloud obviously (to him, at least) enjoyed his company in his own quiet way, this was the first time he'd relaxed enough to tease him. His eyes lit up with mischievous glee.

"How dare you! To use my last name against me in such a pun! Oh, the humanity!"

Cloud didn't quite laugh, but the corners of his eyes crinkled up, and his lips curled just slightly into a smile. Zack saw his tense shoulders relax by a millimeter. Zack grinned, then leapt up and grabbed Cloud by the hand.

"Anyhow, come on, let's go!"

"What? Where? Zack, I have classes."

"Not anymore you don't! You're coming with me!"

"Zack. You know full well you didn't bother getting me an excused slip. I have to go to class."

"Cloudy! The classes don't matter. I matter and the SOLDIER exam matters. And there aren't any points for going to class. Trust me, I know. I hardly ever bothered to show. Too much sitting. I spent the whole time beating up imaginary monsters with my practice sword."

"And how am I supposed to pass the exam if I never go to class, huh? I don't have your build. I can't pass based on my ability to twirl giant broadswords like batons. This is important to me, Zack."

"I'll train you myself if it comes to it. Just come on!" Zack pleaded, tugging at Cloud's hand, but not hard enough to actually make him move if he didn't want to. One of the first things his mentor, Angeal, had drilled into him was that he was never to use his new strength to force people to do anything unless it was a life or death situation.

Cloud's resolve visibly wavered, firmed, then wilted like a cut flower in the heat.

"Fine. Where are we going?" Cloud sighed over Zack's cheers.

"To see Angeal! I've been telling him all about you, and he wants to meet ya!" Zack called behind him as he hauled Cloud toward the elevators.

"Zack, the Commander? Seriously? Were you even going to give me any warning at all if I didn't badger you?"

Cloud's accent was coming out thicker than usual, and his voice had an odd sort of strain to it. Zack glanced back to see a furrow between his brows, his shoulders tensed up, and a look in his eyes that Zack couldn't place. Zack slowed to a stop and turned back to crouch down in front of Cloud, catching his eyes and holding both his hands in his own.

"Hey. Cloud. What's wrong?" Zack tilted his head and shoved it forward a little to catch Cloud's gaze again when he tried to look away. "Hmm?"

"What if he doesn't like me?" Cloud muttered at last.

That was a lie. The question was a dodge. Zack could tell. Whatever was eating Cloud about this, that wasn't it.

"First of all, he will. Second of all, even if he doesn't, I'm not gonna stop being your friend. Third of all, that's not what has you worried. Now what's wrong, Cloud?"

Cloud shook his head, looking more like he was shaking off a thought than refusing to share.

"Are you worried if you make a bad impression he'll keep you from becoming a SOLDIER?"

Cloud sent him a withering look for that one.

"Please. Everyone's heard how honorable he is. He wouldn't do that simply because he didn't like someone."

"Glad you know that. Then what is it, Cloud?"

"It's nothing, Zack. Drop it."

Zack hesitated, but Cloud's body language said this conversation would get him nowhere. He dropped it.

"Alright. Okay." Zack drooped a bit dramatically in hopes of making Cloud smile again. It didn't work. "I get that you need time to prepare yourself, though he, Genesis, and Sephiroth really aren't as intimidating as they seem. Well, maybe Sephiroth is. And Genesis. Okay, Genesis is scary and mean. He's always trying to set me on fire. But Angeal's nice! If I tell you ahead of time, would you be okay with meeting him some other time, at least?"

"We can meet him now. It really is nothing, Zack. Just... a memory, is all."

This time, Cloud's eyes were soft. The set of his shoulders and the line of his neck said he was still wary, still anxious, and to no small degree, but that softness was also genuine. Zack hesitated a moment before nodding.

"Okay. Thanks, Cloud. But if you need to get out of there, for a memory or anything else, you just tell me and we're gone, okay? We country boys have to stick together, after all."

A pained, nostalgic sort of twitch yanked at the corner of Cloud's lips, and he nodded.

"Great!" Zack shouted, startling his friend with the sudden switch. "Then let's go, Spiky! Come on!"

And with that, he threw Cloud onto his back and sprinted off at full speed, ignoring Cloud's indignant hollering and the way Cloud's arms tightened around his throat and his heels dug into his gut in instinctive panic at the unexpected piggyback ride.

As Zack zipped around corners, dashed through hallways, and hurtled up flight after flight of stairs, whooping and laughing like a maniac the whole way, Cloud called down increasingly creative curses on his ancestors and heirs alike, no longer having an ounce of attention to spare on fretting about the rapidly approaching meeting.

Chapter Text

The sound of Angeal's name being chanted excitedly did not make him look up from tugging at his hair as he read over the latest transcripts from the negotiations with Wutai. Nor, at first, did the curses being rained down on his protégé – because that was definitely Zack's voice doing the chanting.

That was, the curses didn't register as odd until he realized that the voice railing that he hoped Zack's children were even more hyper than him (a rather cruel fate, if you asked Angeal, who, much as he loved Zack, could at times just barely cope with his energy even with his SOLDIER enhancements) was shockingly high and young.

"Ha! Joke's on you! SOLDIERs can't have kids!" Zack's upbeat but weirdly choked voice preceded him through the doorway.

"If anyone will manage, it'll be you, and then I'll babysit and send them home to you hopped up on sugar!" growled the child's voice.

Zack burst through the door of his office, breathlessly laughing his head off. His airless voice was explained by the two thin arms in a chokehold around his neck. Tiny feet dug into Zack's stomach, and his hands supported thighs no longer than Zack's forearms.

"Zack...?" Angeal began, unsure what to continue with. Fortunately, Zack took it out of his hands.

"Angeal! Remember my new friend I've been telling you about? This is Cloud. Cloud, this is my mentor, Angeal!"

As he spoke, Zack crouched down. Shaky legs slipped from his middle to wobble slightly on the ground before steadying, and a small palm came up to swat the back of Zack's head.

"Honestly, Zack, you'll leave me grey as Sephiroth before I reach twenty if you keep this up."

A blond boy slipped from behind Zack's form, shaking his head. And, goodness, he was short! It was one thing for Zack to say he was a "dinky thing," but it was another entirely to see his four foot two frame stood next to Zack's five foot five and growing one. He wore a cadet uniform, rolled up at the cuffs. A belt at the waist, a fresh hole bored into the leather with whatever had been available several inches past where the last of the prefabricated holes lay, was all that kept the standard issue pants up. The boy had foregone the pauldrons and knee guards, which, given their relative size, had probably been the better part of valor. He looked up at Angeal, revealing deep blue eyes and a closed-off expression.

"Sir."

... And that was it. No excited bouncing, no nervous fidgeting, just one small, silent cadet at parade rest. Zack at his side was already plucking at his pants legs and glancing eagerly between the two of them. How had these two become friends?

"There's no need to be formal with me when we're not on duty. Cloud, right?"

The boy nodded but otherwise didn't move. Angeal glanced at Zack. He'd said his friend in the cadets was "like a mini Seph sometimes, honestly, you should see him, Ange, just zip, and suddenly no expression, body language all shut down, won't say a word over what he absolutely has to, it's so weird," but, until this moment, he hadn't really grasped that.

"So how did you and Zack meet?"

He knew one side of the story; Mike had called Zack and asked him to look out for one of the new recruits. Looking at him now, he could see why someone might worry. It certainly had him in what Genesis would call an "honorable snit" when he'd found out someone so young was trying to get into SOLDIER when war was threatening. Fourteen his foot. If Cloud was a day over nine, he'd swallow his Buster Sword. Still, Zack was giving him a look that said to get him to open up, and he was more than worried enough about the boy to attempt to pry without any prompting.

"He approached me my first day."

Not a word more than asked for. No details whatsoever. Even Zack was beginning to look worried. He reached out and lightly touched Cloud on his shoulder. When Cloud looked at him, he cocked his head, brows furrowed in a concerned, questioning manner. The child's eyes softened just a bit, and he shook his head. Angeal wondered what he was missing. Cloud glanced between him and Zack for a moment, then sighed.

"He sat down across from me in the cafeteria. He told me about his time as a cadet, and we spoke of our hometowns."

Still hardly any information, nothing that told Angeal anything new, yet he got the idea it was a concession. One to Zack, not to him or social convention.

"Ah. So why did you decide to become a SOLDIER?" he asked, stepping out from where he was still leaning over the transcripts on his desk to lean against the front. Perhaps if there was no physical barrier between them, Cloud wouldn't feel the need to stick to a bare-bones report style of answer.

"I had no choice."

"There's always a choice," Angeal replied automatically.

"No. Not always."

The boy locked gazes with him, staring him down. Ah. And there was the steel Zack had spoken of. And steel like that didn't come in a boy that young unless there'd been pain to forge it. A change in topic to something less... incendiary was in order.

"Hmm." He glanced to the side and happened to catch sight of the clock. It was coming up on three in the afternoon. He raised an eyebrow. "Don't cadets usually have classes at this time?"

Zack laughed nervously and rubbed a hand over the back of his hair.

"That's my bad. I dragged him away to meet you. Don't blame him."

"Zack. I consented. It's fine," the boy immediately intervened, shifting slightly in a way that placed him just a bit in front of Zack. Angeal didn't think it was a coincidence, and that worried him. Zack, too, by the way he ruffled a soothing hand through Cloud's hair.

Out loud, he chuckled.

"Oh, well. So long as you don't make a habit of it. You still have to be prepared for the SOLDIER exams, after all."

Angeal's SOLDIER hearing was all that let him pick up the muttered "that's what I told him" that accompanied the boy's sharp but heatless glare directed at the black-haired teen at his side.

"Ahh, Spiky here's got nothing to worry about, though he'll never agree. He hasn't got the bulk just yet to follow through on some of his swordwork, but from what I've seen when we practice together, he's a natural with a blade!"

Cloud snorted derisively, openly expressing a bit of emotion for the first time since he'd entered the office.

"Natural, nothing. I bled for what skills I have. You can only face so many monsters on pluck alone before you have no choice but to learn or die."

Now this was interesting. What kind of sword skills could Cloud have picked up from fighting monsters? And how good (or was it lucky?) might he be if he'd survived all of those fights to make it here?

"Tell you what, since my protégé has dragged you out of classes anyway, how about we head over to the gym? I can see where you're at and give you some pointers."

Zack whooped in response and started raining down thanks on him. Cloud, who'd looked chary just moments before, now looked resigned.

"Very well. Thank you."

By the time Angeal had locked up his papers and trailed the two to the gym, Zack had sung Cloud's praises so highly that Angeal almost felt he'd be disappointed no matter what Cloud did.

He didn't say a word as they entered the gym, instead waiting to see what Cloud would do. The boy went straight to the armory racks. He trailed a hand longingly over the largest of the buster swords before shifting his eyes to more standard blades that he just might be able to wield. He lifted one from the racks, tapped the blade in a few places, grimaced, and replaced it. The grip of another was too large for his hand, to the boy's disgust. He finally selected two to his reluctant satisfaction and headed over to the sword harnesses. Angeal raised his eyebrows but said nothing. Still, two blades for a novice of his size? When the boy had found a harness that fit his chosen weapons and jerry-rigged it to fit across his back, he turned back to face Angeal with a guarded look.

"So? How shall we do this?"

"How about we spar? I won't use my enhancements. I'll just test to see where you are."

"Bzzt! Standard conditional, Angeal. What'll you do if he surprises you, huh?"

From the look on Zack's face, he was expecting just that.

"Alright," Angeal said, mostly humoring him. "I won't use my enhancements unless I have to for someone's safety, including yours or my own, or unless you seem like you could handle more. Deal?"

Cloud studied him carefully, then looked to Zack, who nodded encouragingly.

"Deal."

The boy trod over to a large dueling mat and unsheathed his swords, settling into a stance that would, when he had a bit more muscle on him, allow him to wait at the ready for extended periods of time without tiring out his muscles. That was not a beginner's stance. Angeal cast a glance at Zack, inquiring if he'd taught him that. Zack shook his head with a grin, bouncing on his toes in anticipation.

Cloud closed his eyes as Angeal approached the opposite end of the dueling area. They remained closed as Angeal's boots thudded against the wooden gym floor. The thud was muffled when Angeal stepped onto the mat, and Cloud's eyes snapped open. And that look... the look in his eyes was very different from the guarded expression from earlier.

It was fury.

Chapter Text

Zack sucked in a breath as he saw Cloud go on the offensive. He'd sparred with Cloud several times over the past week, and there was no doubt he was shockingly skilled, especially for a kid from a backwater mountain town like Nibelheim. Cloud watched his opponent like a hawk, cataloguing every twitch and waiting for an opening. He was a composed, controlled fighter. This, though, was different. This was violence, strength, and speed fueled by emotion.

A single glance at his fighting style revealed it to be far more aggressive than what he'd seen previously, and when Zack caught a glimpse of his face, his mouth was set in a blistering scowl, and his eyes boiled with promised vengeance.

Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.

Zack dashed forward to intervene, but his mentor waved him back. He subsided with a growl – for now – but prepared to cut in the second Cloud seemed any more... wrong than he was already.

He had to admit, the fight was astounding. While Cloud was definitely slim and short, he knew how to use it to his advantage, striking from angles most swordsmen wouldn't be accustomed to fighting against, though he sometimes overreached as if used to a longer blade. While he didn't have much muscle mass, he did have some surprising strength from exploring the area around his town and some truly impressive speed and agility from running from Nibel wolves and Mako-monsters he didn't have the strength to fight. When he fought Zack, his hodgepodge but straightforward fighting style, along with his weird knack for dual wielding – and Cloud always gave non-answers whenever Zack asked about that – kept him on his toes.

Zack hadn't told Angeal anything about Cloud's fighting style, wanting to surprise him. (Well, that, at least, had gone to plan, unlike his hopes of his Spiky hitting it off with the steady, genial bear of a man.) Even if he had, though, it wouldn't have changed a thing. This new style of Cloud's was vastly different. It was much more mobile, took far more advantage of any openings, and, biggest of all, it was far more serious. When Spike sparred with him, that's what it was, a spar. This was definitely a battle.

Angeal, while not exactly threatened by Cloud's strength, speed, or agility, given his enhancements, was definitely taken aback. He hadn't fought many dual wielders before, to Zack's knowledge, though there were a few in the SOLDIER program. Mike's friend, Hanley, was one, actually. It forced Angeal to dodge where his strength and sword type normally allowed him to block. As the fight progressed and Cloud learned Angeal's patterns of movement even as he seemed to vary his every few seconds, the man even had to use his SOLDIER speed a couple of times to avoid getting run through. Even that didn't help when Cloud randomly swerved into martial arts for a kick that, due to the sheer unexpectedness, scored a hit on Angeal's ribs.

Cloud was running down, though, his stamina flagging no matter what was going on in his head to make him fight like this, his face twisted in fury, every incoming attack treated as if Angeal's blade was poisoned, every strike aimed to debilitate, incapacitate, or kill, though he'd yet to draw blood. And Cloud's desperation was growing. Where at first the fury might have been a tool Cloud was using to sharpen his senses and fuel his muscles with a burst of adrenaline, something had changed in his head since then. Zack didn't think Cloud knew where he was anymore. His eyes had gone... wild.

Enough. Spiky was in trouble. Zack was stepping in.

He used SOLDIER hand signs to tell Angeal to stand down and back off if Cloud would let him. He didn't want to risk startling Cloud with his voice until Angeal knew it was coming. Surprising one warrior in a battle was dangerous. Surprising two when they were locked in close combat could very, very easily be deadly.

"Cloud," he called softly.

He didn't respond – heck, he doubted Spiky even heard it – and took advantage of Angeal's retreat to drive him harder with his flagging stores of energy. Angeal had to keep dodging, trying not to show any aggression in the face of Cloudy's advance.

"Cloudy," he called louder. And when he got nothing back but the song of a blade through the air and quiet grunts and gasps of exertion from the two on the mat, "SPIKY!"

Cloud's head reared back in shock, and he flipped up a foot to shove himself off of Angeal's chest and get some space. His head swiveled wildly until he found Zack, and his eyes widened sharply.

The only sounds were the hushed breathing of the two SOLDIERs and Cloud's harsh panting.

Abruptly, Cloud's face convulsed as he let out a suppressed sob. He spun on his heel, holstering his swords in the same motion so he could cover his mouth and eyes with his hands.

Again the gym was silent but for the echoes of breathing and the muffled sounds of dry sobs.

Zack couldn't move. He wanted so badly to comfort him, to crouch in front of him, stroke his hands up and down his arms, tell him it was okay, he was here, nothing was gonna hurt him, it's all okay now.

He was too afraid.

Something had hurt his little brother, and he couldn't even help him.

Zack felt like crying himself.

At last (at last), Cloud took a shuddering breath.

"Sorry. I lost track of where and when I was. I mistook you for... someone who hurt someone I loved rather badly. ... Sorry."

"Cloud..."

"It's okay, Zack. It was a number of long years ago. I just got lost in the similarities. I'll... be okay. Sorry, sir."

He took a deep breath, turned, executed a brief bow to Angeal, and walked out without another word, pausing only to squeeze Zack's bicep in a comforting manner on his way past.

Chapter Text

Sephiroth knew there was someone else on the roof within moments of opening the door. Ah, well. He was content to ignore the other, whoever they were, so long as they remained quiet. This was his favorite spot to go to to get away from things. Seventy floors above the plate, it was as quiet as it ever got in Midgar. The air was also the freshest. Sometimes, if there was a breeze off the ocean, he could almost believe it was clean.

Tonight was such a night. Not a strong wind, sadly. He'd very much have liked to see the stars. Then again, he suspected it might take a hurricane to clear away the smog enough for that. He took in a deep gulp of air, savoring it like one might the first breath after a long dive. It felt sweet in his lungs, on his tongue. He couldn't wait for his next mission outside the choked air of the city. Lately he'd been tied up rubbing his temples over maps of Wutai. Nobody expected a positive outcome from those talks. The societal values of Wutai and ShinRa differed too greatly. Honestly, Sephiroth suspected they were just an excuse to go to war at the end of it. He let out a deep sigh.

After some time just savoring the almost-breathable air and letting his thoughts swirl idly, he heard a rough exhalation that couldn't quite be called a sigh and a muttered, "Accursed sky."

Sephiroth cocked a brow.

"Oh?"

He didn't bother to open his eyes. He liked to savor the wind that way. It let him block out some of the light and better pay attention to the gentle caresses of the breeze against his skin.

He heard a start. Apparently, whoever the other occupant was (high voice, shallow chest to judge by the timbre of the exhale) hadn't been expecting a response. There was a pause before he got a reply.

"I... the color over the city. It reminds me of Mako. I have some rather bad memories associated with that particular shade of green. Brighter, of course, but... it's reminiscent."

Sephiroth opened his eyes to regard the clouds. It was true. The reactors did tend to give the clouds a rather sickly hue. A little bluer, a little paler, but for someone who'd had a fair bit of contact with Mako, the resemblance was there. He turned to eye the other person on the roof.

The body laid out on its back was small. Too small and incorrectly proportioned to be an adult. Wearing a cadet uniform, though heavily adapted for size, so male. After the last few disastrous attempts, ShinRa no longer accepted female applicants to SOLDIER. Their families received letters that they were killed in action. The Science Department kept their mutated bodies. For whatever reason, corpses kept longer around Midgar. The boy had hair that tangled in wild, matted spikes around his head. The lighting made it difficult to be certain, but he thought the boy might be blond. He had an arm thrown over his face, so all Sephiroth could say for sure regarding his looks was that he was pale. His voice had a faint burr to it, the vestiges of some accent Sephiroth couldn't place.

"I'm not certain if it would be impolite to ask what experiences you've had that led you to dislike Mako so greatly. Not that I can blame you."

The boy snorted.

"Beats me. Probably. I'm not too good with the social graces, myself. Never picked up the knack."

Sephiroth took that to mean he wouldn't be telling him. Fair enough. But now his curiosity had been aroused.

"What drove you up here?"

A long sigh met that.

"You know Zack Fair? The SOLDIER Second?"

Who didn't? The boy made himself pretty hard to ignore, especially when he was the student of one of Sephiroth's few friends.

"He dragged me up to meet his mentor, Commander Angeal Hewley. The Commander offered to spar with me and give me some tips. I accepted, but..."

"Not as good as you thought?" inquired Sephiroth archly. Honestly, who just expected to be able to match up to a SOLDIER First?

"Actually, I was doing quite well until my mind drew parallels to a fight from my past. It overlaid the lines of one upon the other, and, before I knew it, I was fighting a different enemy than the one in front of me. Foolish, but the parallels were strong. It was probably bound to happen sooner or later. At least now I know to watch for it."

"Ah. I did that once. It was a mistake I never repeated."

He quelled the urge to twitch his fingers to his thigh, where a Grand Horn had scored him. His father had not been pleased. The tests that week had been extra painful, and Sephiroth wasn't fool enough to think that an accident. He shook off the memories.

"May I ask which ghost it was that dogged your steps in the fight?"

The boy let out a puff of laughter – perhaps at his phrasing? He'd been spending a lot of time with Genesis lately, and his speech tended to get a bit more fanciful when that happened. That sometimes amused people for some reason. There was a pause. Sephiroth could see his jaw working as he worried the inside of his lip, so he thought the boy might be pondering rather than choosing to keep his silence. In the end, he had his reward.

"Years ago, there was another man who considered himself honorable. Maybe he even was; I don't know. But something happened, and he twisted that honor until he forced his student, my best friend, to kill him. I don't know if he ever got over that before he died."

"I can see how that might cause a bit of double vision."

Sephiroth stepped softly over and sat at the boy's side.

"... I'm sorry for your loss."

A soft, bittersweet smile curved the boy's lips.

"Thank you."

They sat in silence for a time, listening to the distant noise of Midgar, the faint susurrations of the breeze, and each other's breathing.

"What drove you to the roof?"

Sephiroth drew in a long breath and let it out.

"Hojo, ShinRa's head scientist, likes to experiment on me. ShinRa gives him free reign, and, well, he's my father. I can't exactly stop him."

The boy shifted his arm from his face and turned to him with creased brows. It startled Sephiroth. For one thing, he wasn't used to receiving much concern. From Angeal and Genesis, maybe, but they tended to shout when they got worried about him, so he usually kept things he thought they wouldn't like to himself. For another, he was sure his face hadn't looked that young since he was seven. Just who were they letting into the cadet program these days?! Not that he was one to speak, but, being an experiment since before his birth, he was a special case.

The boy didn't act like the average child, though, when faced with him, and he didn't shout. He reached out and laid a comforting hand on Sephiroth's arm.

Sephiroth found himself turning his head down and giving a bitter smile.

"He told me I need to come in for a new battery of tests tomorrow. It's always painful when he does that."

"I'm sorry. No one should have to have his undivided attention."

Sephiroth cast a curious glance at him. The boy obliged, though he turned his head away.

"I ran afoul of him once. It was some time before my friend managed to break us out. He died in the process."

Sephiroth sucked in a breath. Dealing with his father had never become easy, but it had been hardest when he was a child, still raw to the world and without defenses built up. And to lose a friend in the process? How would he feel if his father killed Angeal or Genesis? His chest ached with surprising fierceness at the thought, and he suddenly found himself wishing with all his might that war would not come, lest he lose them to it. He reached out a hand and stroked his thumb over the boy's shoulder.

"And you came here?" he breathed.

"He won't recognize me."

The boy sounded confident of that. Still...

"What's your name?"

"Cloud Strife. And what should I call you? Sephiroth? Sir? General?"

So he did know. He'd wondered when the boy didn't react when he saw who he was talking to.

"If I minded you being informal, you'd know it by now. Just don't spread it around."

The boy cracked a smile.

"I figured."

Sephiroth smiled back, then sobered.

"Cloud. If you manage to make SOLDIER, you'll have contact with Hojo eventually."

Cloud sighed.

"I know."

"Then why in the world would you stay here?"

"Ohhh, a host of reasons. Suffice it to say that if I accomplish what I'm hoping to, the reward will be well worth the risk."

"Even if you catch Hojo's eye again?"

"Yes."

Cloud's expression was hard and determined.

"Will you tell me what you mean to do?"

"Maybe someday. I can tell you that it's nothing bad. Well, except from maybe Hojo's perspective. After all, it helps several and harms no one."

The boy's eyes were alight with humor and mischief, and Sephiroth couldn't swallow his chuckle in time. Very well, then. He could keep his secrets. With someone as young as Cloud was, he decided he was willing to trust his instincts.

Sephiroth made a decision.

"Cloud." The boy looked at him. "I can't promise much, but I'll do whatever I can to protect you from Hojo."

"What?!" Cloud tried to sit up, only to snap back down again with a clang as two swords strapped to his back disagreed with the way his body had tried to bend. He blushed and hastily unstrapped the harness around his chest.

Sephiroth's laughter broke over the sounds of Cloud grumbling, "Hang it all, first the fight, then losing track of where I was, and now I forget to put the stupid swords back? What's next? Terrorists attack the ShinRa Tower?"

Cloud froze for a moment, apparently waiting to see if his prediction came true, before returning to glowering at Sephiroth.

He gasped his way out of his laughing fit, grinning at the child next to him. He looked adorable, not a word he found himself using often. His matted blond spikes made him look like a disgruntled chocobo. He giggled a last few times before subsiding.

"I'll take the swords back for you. And anything I can do to run interference between you and my father, consider it done."

Cloud opened his mouth to protest, but looked away without speaking. He gnawed at his lip for a moment, then turned back and kowtowed in the manner of a Wutaian subject showing deep respect. Sephiroth blinked in surprise.

"Thank you," he said lowly.

Sephiroth reached out and smoothed his hand through Cloud's hair until the boy looked up.

"If anyone knows how much no child should ever be subject to that man's mercies, it's me."

Cloud reached up and gripped his hand in his much smaller one.

They sat in silence for hours, savoring the fresh air and companionship.

Chapter Text

Hanley Mitchells coughed the morning gruffness from his throat as he trudged to answer the soft knock at his door, wondering who he would have to kill for calling on him at five in the morning on his day off.

He opened the door to a short blond boy who, after a moment of bewildered grogginess, he recognized as Cloud Strife, the clearly underage cadet he and Mike had been forced to allow into the program.

"Cloud?"

"Mike's on a mission. You said I could come to you if I needed anything," he answered in a soft voice. His head was bowed, his shoulders were up, and he stood rather further away from the door than strictly necessary.

"Yeah." Hanley quickly blinked himself to full awareness, because this seemed important. "Yeah, kid, yeah, of course. What do you need? Do you want to come in?"

Cloud nodded. Hanley stepped to the side and opened the door a bit wider, letting Cloud slip past him. The cadet ducked to the side as soon as he was inside, waiting for Hanley to lock up and lead the way.

It took several false starts for Cloud to voice his request once they were situated in the kitchen, a sweating glass of orange juice set in front of Cloud, a steaming mug of coffee being steadily drained and replenished for Hanley. Mornings were not, strictly speaking, in his ideal operating hours.

"Do you have a Cure materia I can use?"

Hanley choked.

"What?" he wheezed. "Cloud, are you alright?"

Cloud gave that the look it deserved under the circumstances and went back to studying the way beads of water formed on the side of his juice glass and stutteringly rolled their way to the tabletop to join a growing ring of moisture. Hanley dropped his mug with a clatter on the kitchen table as he sprinted past, heading for the materia stash he kept with his uniforms and swords. Cloud had shown that first day that he wasn't the type to simply talk about his problems, not volunteering any information until prompted. If he was taking the initiative to come to him now, it was something he couldn't deal with on his own. He nabbed the whole bag, rummaging as he ran back for his Cure and, on second thought, Sense materia. If the boy had broken anything, it would have to be reset before he cast Cure on him.

He skidded to a halt back in the kitchen, kneeling before Cloud's chair and hastily snapping the materia into a bracer.

"Hold still," he said, placing a hand on his knee to steady and reassure him.

He cast Sense first. Nothing was broken outright, but there was heavy bruising all over his torso and legs, some rather concerning internal bleeding in several organs, and a hairline fracture in his left tibia. He hissed in sympathetic pain and outright boiling anger and began liberally dosing the boy with Cures. Bullying was one thing – he'd been mocked and shoved about enough while he was figuring out how to wield two swords at once without cutting his own leg off – but what the heck was this? He almost couldn't believe Cloud had walked up here like this. When he'd healed the worst of the damage, Cloud spoke up, his voice much stronger than before.

"That's enough. Thank you."

"Absolutely not! Sit still while I heal the rest of this."

"I have to go back with bruises, or it'll be worse."

True. Bullies didn't tend to like having their work undone. The bruises were something they could see. Hanley's cheek twitched with suppressed fury, but he stopped the flow of energy into the materia with a growl. He sagged into the table leg, not having noticed the drain it was causing on his energy stores until his mind stopped calling for blood.

Cloud got up, dumped out his cold coffee in the sink, and refilled it with hot. He handed the mug to Hanley, then rummaged in his fridge and pantry and busied himself at the counter. He came over a few minutes later with a large platter of strawberries with the greens cut off and peanut butter dolloped into the middle.

"Here. It'll help with the energy depletion. The sugar from the fruit should tide you over until your body breaks down the peanut butter."

"Thank you. Now let's go sit in the living room, because if you think you're leaving this apartment without explaining what happened, you're so wrong it's not even funny."

He took a fortifying gulp of his coffee, picked up the platter – and he'd made enough for a SOLDIER First, which was interesting, because if anything most people underestimated SOLDIER appetites – and dragged himself over to the couch to sink down with a sigh. He popped one of the strawberries into his mouth and set the platter down on the coffee table, chewing thoughtfully. It was definitely not a combination he'd think up himself, the strawberry bursting tart-sweet over his tongue a mile before the peanut butter dragged itself to join, but it wasn't bad.

"How did you know something like this would help? And how did you come up with it, anyway?"

"I once met someone from Cosmo Canyon. He was a magic user himself and made these when he could find the ingredients. Of course, normally there'd be some chia seeds in there with the peanut butter, sometimes some sunflower seeds or whatever else was in stock, and he opted for almond butter when it was available, but your kitchen is rather understocked."

Cloud sent him a jaundiced look as though it were his fault he hadn't been expecting a pint-sized cadet to come barging in in need of healing and help himself to his kitchen afterward – although, to be fair, he'd only made a snack for Hanley and nothing for himself. Which reminded him.

"Drink your orange juice. And help yourself to these. You've made more than I can eat in a sitting. Have you even eaten breakfast?"

Cloud retrieved his glass from the kitchen and pointedly chugged it. He grimaced (not a fan of orange juice, then?) and set it down gently, mindful of SOLDIER hearing in a way few were. He then began slowly nibbling on some of the strawberry things. After several minutes, the SOLDIER realized he was stalling.

"Alright, spill. What brought you to my door half dead at five in the morning?"

"If you consider that half dead, how have you survived SOLDIER life without forming ulcers?"

"Lots of antacids and packing for the apocalypse on missions. Quit changing the subject."

"Pillow fight."

"Oh, really?"

"It was hardcore."

"How lovely for you. Now, before I bribe one of the Turks to access the video feeds, what really happened?"

Cloud scowled.

"You have twenty recruits per room, eight rooms in total. That's a hundred and sixty teenage boys, most of whom are deep in the throes of puberty and dealing with a hike in their testosterone levels, all of whom have something to prove to the examiners in a month's time, and who are desperate and afraid and trying to hide it. What do you think happened?"

Hanley waited. The cadet rolled his eyes.

"You said it at the recruitment table. Bullying was inevitable. Then Zack dragged me off to meet his mentor, and they had an excuse. Er, Zack Fair, SOLDIER Second. He met me and decided we were friends. It takes a stronger man than I to resist him." Hanley manfully resisted a grin at the adult phrasing. "He dragged me off, some of the other cadets called foul and preferential treatment, and a few others objected to them beating up someone smaller. So now we have a dorm full of bruised cadets who are all too concerned about their image with each other to admit they'd appreciate a Cure. I, on the other hand, know a damaged organ when I feel one and don't much fancy the medical consequences of ignoring that. So here we are. Happy?"

Hanley tilted his head back against the couch with a sigh. The clock on the living room wall, its gears insulated until the tick of the seconds passing was muted enough not to drive a sharp-eared SOLDIER to slavering insanity, said it was still seven minutes shy of six. It just drove home the fact that he should still be in bed.

"Not particularly. How long until this happens again?"

"Hopefully it won't, once I point out that Commander Hewley loves his honor like a wife and wouldn't do anything to betray her. I mean, it."

Hanley snorted.

"Fine. Just don't get yourself killed, or I'll send flowers to all your least favorite people."

Cloud smirked back.

"I'll leave a list."

Chapter Text

Baleful beige. That was what life was right now. Bland and flavorless, with little bits poking out like anemones from a rock that taunted him with potential intrigue only to recoil when he approached, keeping all their colorful secrets to themselves.

Angeal and his puppy had spent the last three days worrying themselves sick over something. The puppy had been doing squats at a frantic pace until his thighs collapsed under him, but when prompted would only wail about how "his Spiky was hurt and he didn't know what to do because he kept sending him away saying he needed some time to himself but it had been days and why wouldn't his Spiky just tell him what was wrong?!" Genesis had no idea what that was all supposed to mean, but none of it helped his boredom one bit. What on earth was a Spiky, anyway?

Angeal had been just as fretful in a quieter, more righteous way. He'd confided to Genesis that he had accidentally hurt someone and wasn't sure how to go about making up for it.

"I apparently look like someone cruel from his past, and it gave him a flashback. I feel terrible, Gen. What should I do? Maybe if I shave my goatee?"

Genesis had called him a mother chocobo and for a moment had been sure Angeal would give him a good fight, but in the end his childhood friend had just gone back to giving him seasickness with his relentless, rhythmic pacing.

Sephiroth was the worst of all. He'd disappeared somewhere around the time the puppy and Angeal had started up with their nonsense and stayed missing for nearly a day, which always meant Hojo. Genesis had very specific ideas about the things his rival should be doing to Hojo instead of looking resigned and obeying him whenever he ordered him to do something that was clearly not in his best interest. As always when the thought came to mind, he sent up a quick prayer that ran along the lines of, "May Hojo's eyes rot in his head. May his successes be credited to another. May he be forgotten by generations to come. May his bladder be ever full, and may his lungs turn to sludge." Genesis did not think highly of those who dared hurt his friends. Those who had done it to them from such a young age that they thought they had to put up with it were a peculiar breed of parasitic insect that played no beneficial role whatsoever to the ecology and were to be exterminated at all costs.

This time when Sephiroth had reappeared, however, instead of locking himself up alone and turning away all comers, only to emerge looking wan and withdrawn, he'd been clingy as a limpet. Not to the novice eye, of course, but he'd placed a hand on Angeal's shoulder twice, let the puppy drape himself over him for several seconds with a look of increasingly frantic claustrophobia before bodily removing Zack's person from the room, and even taken Genesis to a production of "Loveless" entirely of his own volition, though it was clear he'd hated every minute of it. (To be fair, Genesis had not been overly impressed with the actors, either. He, unlike Sephiroth, however, had more than a passing acquaintance with tact and had not let on to him that he felt it was terrible.)

The strangest bit of all, though, was when he'd drawn Genesis aside on their way back from the performance.

"There's a recruit participating in the SOLDIER exams in a month," Sephiroth had said, abrupt as ever. "He was an experiment that escaped. He doesn't think Hojo will remember him, but I've told him I'll protect him as best I can from him. I can't stand up to Hojo for myself. He has too much control over me. But I'm going to try for him. I thought you'd like to know."

Then he'd turned and stalked off to pilfer the Wutai Talks transcripts from Angeal, since for some reason ShinRa had decided there should only be one copy between the three of them for security reasons, as if the subject matter or opinions of each side were any great secret. Genesis had been so blindsided by his friend's abrupt new resolve that he'd let him, but now he was eaten alive by curiosity, and Sephiroth had refused to say a word about the mystery cadet for his safety. Genesis grudgingly supposed he couldn't blame him for that. It was difficult to say where Turk ears might be lurking and harder yet to predict what they'd do with the information.

"My friend, the fates are cruel," he lamented, shaking his head to himself.

Nonetheless, he couldn't just let such a promising tale lie. Which was why he was observing cadet training to see what pretty colors this particular anemone hid.

"Anyone with potential?" he asked the hand-to-hand instructor, some uninteresting and therefore unimportant Third. While SOLDIERs focused on swordwork and materia, they had to be prepared in the event they were disarmed or caught unawares.

"We have four sixteen year olds and a fifteen year old who seem like they'll probably pull through based on their strength. Jason Kallahacki over there is definitely from the slums by his slash and dash style of attack. He's got a good chance, but he'll definitely use something nonstandard like daggers or short swords if he makes it. I'd say he'd be picked up by the Turks if it weren't for his determination to turn things around down in the slums. They have no use for that kind of an honest heart."

A loud yelp floated over the grunts, hisses of pain, and steady thuds from the cadets around the room. Genesis looked a good seven rows to the left to see a ridiculously short blond who appeared to have stuck his finger in an electrical socket standing on the calf of a much taller young man in order to pull his arm up behind his back at a painful angle. The move was far from perfect – for one thing, standing on his opponent's calf like that was likely to unbalance him – yes, and there he went – but it was surprising he'd managed at all. He must have kicked in the other cadet's knee from the back to pull it off. He cocked a brow.

"Yeah, I was getting to him. That's Lemon Drop. I mean, Cloud Strife. Sorry. Don't tell him I called him that. It's just, he's small and sour and he's got that hair. Anyhow, kid's definitely had former training, though he won't say much about it. His hand-to-hand isn't great, but it's practiced. Set him loose with a sword, though, and I hear he's tough to beat. I don't know if he'll make it, given his size, but I think if we give it a few years, he's a shoo-in."

"Hmm."

None of them seemed impressive enough to be an escaped experiment of Hojo's, though if he'd escaped early, before too many modification had been done, that could explain it. Drat. Genesis sighed and decided he might as well have some fun while he was here. His lips curled into a sadistic smirk as he palmed his fire materia and equipped it.

"Reflex test!" he sang out gleefully over a horrified squawk from the Third and began shooting off fireballs into the crowd, though after Angeal had yelled himself hoarse last time he didn’t dare cause the cadets more than first degree burns. It just wasn’t worth the hassle.

Cadets scrambled every which way to avoid the attacks, hollering in fear and pain. Genesis was not impressed with their panic (though he did enjoy it). What would they do if they were ambushed, hmm? He considered himself a savior for hopefully dissuading some of those who would otherwise barely scrape the requirements to pass the SOLDIER exam only to perish scant months later like moths on a Nibel dragon's breath.

Three minutes later, he was certain there were only three who were likely to survive a surprise attack. One was the Jason boy the Third had pointed out earlier. The second was another slums boy. Genesis could tell by the quirks in his movements as he dodged and the way when he needed a meat shield he always threw himself behind some boy or other with a poncy above-plate haircut. Theater was all about details, and Genesis prided himself on being able to pick them out with the best of them.

While the slums boys made sense, however, having grown up in seedy areas with below-par monster extermination, the third cadet was a surprise. It was the flaxen-haired youth who'd caught his eye before, the one the Third had nicknamed Lemon Drop. He never ducked behind anyone else, even when a couple of older cadets who'd apparently decided to look out for him tried to scoop him behind them. Instead, he jinked and rolled and leapt and dove and, when he had no other recourse, twisted or brought up his arms to minimize the effect of the blast. Several times he even managed to yank or shove another cadet out of the way of a fireball they hadn't seen or didn't have the momentum to evade, sometimes picking up a burn for his troubles, and his protectors followed suit. The most fascinating detail was that if Genesis didn't know better he'd say the boy was used to dodging attacks in battle, and to doing so alongside allies, no less.

Genesis felt no closer to discovering Sephiroth's mystery cadet, but now he had a delightfully bewildering knot of his own to untangle.

"Humph," he said, letting the attacks cease to the great relief of the bedraggled cadets. "Only three of you would survive an ambush against something with a strong sneak attack. And I kept to very low level spells. Improve or leave. SOLDIER has no place for mayflies that live but a day and leave their companions to weep."

He spun on his heel, relishing the dramatic snap of his red leather coat, and strode out the door with a gait he'd copied from the very best portrayals of the Hero in "Loveless," all strength and sweeping drama. He tucked himself into an alcove outside the door just as the low tones on the instructor's PHS signaled the end of the day's classes. He waited until his target passed out of the gym and slid into step beside him. The boy immediately scrunched his cornflower blue eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Whatever it is, sir, can it at least wait until I'm no longer suffering from an adrenaline crash and the dehydration headache from all the fire you were throwing around?"

Well, that was unexpected. Sour, indeed. But Genesis knew the one uniform weakness of every cadet in ShinRa.

"How about, instead of waiting, I get you a meal, one not made by ShinRa's cadet cafeteria?"

The boy froze with his foot in the air. No matter what changed in the world, the uncompromising degree to which that cafeteria "food" was unpalatable (and largely unrecognizable) was unchanging as diamond. He slowly turned to look at his tormentor cum savior.

"A meal?" Genesis nodded. "One involving actual identifiable substances?" He nodded again. "Fine. But this meal had also better include something for my headache and energy crash, or I'll be worthless. And these preceding whatever you want to talk to me about, mind."

Genesis chuckled. Seemed the cadet had surprising willpower (and self-preservation) if he was still able to think of anything past the promise of the first genuine food he would have had in two weeks.

A quick elevator ride later with a cadet who really was crashing quite hard and looking amusingly like a grumpy child refusing to take a nap for it, they arrived at the cafeteria for SOLDIERs and execs. The cadet was looking a bit dazed with his exhaustion, so Genesis loaded up two trays with his personal favorites, picked up two large Banora Whites (because, knowing his temperament, and after the first few disasters, they were not fools enough to not have them in stock whenever the dumbapples decided to be in season), and led the drooping blond over to an empty table. Realizing that if he wanted answers sometime in the next hour or so he was going to have to (ugh!) take pity on his temporary charge, he sliced up one of the apples and nudged it toward him.

"Here. Eat this first. Apples are better than coffee for keeping you awake."

The boy wolfed down the apple slices and a pain pill Genesis passed him before he could no longer resist the tantalizing scents of genuine food, of vegetables and meat spiced and marinated, grilled, roasted, broiled, and stewed. After half a month eating the only nominally edible gunk given to cadets, Genesis had no doubt this seemed like nectar and ambrosia, and he fell upon the food like a starving man.

When the boy – oh, yes, the Third had said his name was Cloud Strife – when Strife had scraped the plate utterly clean, he reluctantly leaned back and gave Genesis his full attention.

"Very well, then. I've eaten, I've recovered enough of my energy to plod through a conversation if it doesn't drag on, and, between the pill and the water, my headache's abated. You've contracted me for what I presume to be either questions or a proposal of some sort, and you've paid in advance. What do you want?"

Genesis was startled into laughter even as the cogs turned in his brain. Well, he definitely had to revise his estimation of the boy's age. He'd pegged him as around eight, but that was not a normal spiel for a prepubescent. The phraseology and terminology alike were too complex, too advanced for someone of that age. On the other hand, he really couldn't be much older. He'd underestimated this knot. Marvelous.

"When I administered that pop quiz just now, you moved like you were used to taking the safety of allies into consideration. Why?"

"I didn't want them getting hurt when I could help."

"You know what I mean, Cadet Strife."

The boy raised an eyebrow.

"Should I feel flattered that you know my name or threatened because you used my rank?" His lips quirked. "I moved like that because I am used to it."

"Explain. How did someone your age come across such experience?"

The boy let his head fall back and studied the ceiling.

"Do you know what the most frightening monster is?"

Genesis wondered where this would lead.

"A human. A human can think, adapt, and, worst of all, it is capable of unimaginable cruelty. When a human takes it into its mind to enact destruction, they can do a great deal more harm than any other monster and with a great deal less effort. Tell me, when a monster bends its mind toward violence, and it is stronger than you, what do you do?"

The boy lowered his head and locked eyes with him.

"You gather allies, and you fight."

With that, Strife returned his tray and left without another word.

Chapter Text

The next time Sephiroth saw Cloud, he was on the stairs headed up to the roof, while the boy was headed down.

"Your avoidance has Angeal and Zack worried sick, you know. Angeal is on the verge of dyeing his hair or something equally ridiculous, and, if Zack keeps up with this rate of squats, he'll soon be able to kick his enemies to death."

The boy blinked in astonishment, seeming a bit lost in his head, then chuckled.

"Sorry. I just haven't known how to face them without talking about it, and it's not particularly something I want to revisit. I'll drop by tomorrow. Any idea what I could do to make it up to him for accidentally two-timing him in the fight?"

Sephiroth's lips quirked.

"I am under the impression he feels he has to make it up to you."

Cloud snorted, and they spent a few moments in silence before Sephiroth glanced in the direction Cloud had come from.

"Are you coming from the roof?"

"SOLDIER cafeteria, actually. Commander Rhapsodos treated me to an identifiable meal in exchange for me answering a couple of questions sooner rather than later."

"Oh?"

"He wanted to know how I knew to take other people into account when dodging. The question brought up memories of... of good friends and doomed fights that were somehow won, so I left."

Sephiroth recognized that same wistful, longing tone from when the child had spoken of his dead best friend early that week. He was almost ginger when he asked the question.

"Are they gone as well, then?"

His companion tilted his head back and forth as though whether someone was alive or dead was a debatable and uncertain matter.

"They're alive," he answered finally. "But they won't remember me."

"Like Hojo?"

His lips quirked.

"Exactly like Hojo."

"Is that related to Hojo's experiments? People not remembering you?"

"No. Well." There was a long pause in which Cloud crossed his arms and furrowed his brow, studying the concrete steps under his feet. "Obliquely. Distantly."

Will I forget?

Sephiroth swallowed the question for another time. Cloud's calves were tensed. Discomfort. It was just barely visible under his baggy uniform pants, and the rest of his body seemed relaxed, but Sephiroth noticed and recognized it for something he himself did. His father would recognize a clenched jaw or fist immediately and use it against him, but he could clench another muscle that no one looked at for clues to react without tipping him off. Sometimes, at least. He did what he always wished would happen when he tensed like that and changed the subject.

"Why take the stairs? I am under the impression most people take the elevators."

"Most people didn't just leave the Commander with an answer that probably only piqued his curiosity and would rather have a bit of time before they're run to ground," he answered wryly.

"Ah. He's no doubt doubly tenacious at the moment. He knows I had an appointment with my father a few days ago, and he's always irritable when that happens."

"I don't blame him. Are you alright, on that note? No brave faces. Just truth, as one to another who curses the day they caught his eye."

He blinked and then slowly gave him a gentle smile. (When was the last time he'd used that expression? He thought it might be back when Professor Gast was still around.)

"I am. One good thing about being General of SOLDIER is that ShinRa forbids him from doing anything that puts me out of commission for any length of time."

"Good."

The silence swam about them for a time, each enjoying the presence of someone who knew how to share it.

"How did he know to ask?"

Sephiroth's voice was startling after long minutes with nothing but breathing, heartbeats, the hum of the air conditioner, and the occasional muffled slam of an office door in the halls off the stairwell.

"What?"

"You said he wanted to know how you knew not to run into other people in a fight." Honestly, though, who didn't keep tabs on where people were around them? "How did he know to ask?"

"Oh. He showed up in my hand-to-hand class and started hurling Fires at us. He claimed it was a reflex test, but personally I think he was just having fun harassing us. He has a bit of a reputation."

"Are you alright? Do you need a Cure?"

As much as Genesis was his friend (and he'd been making an effort to act like it these last few days, ever since that first meeting on the roof), there was no denying his tendency to go overboard, and that went double when he was feeling tetchy.

"Just a bit burned. I've dealt with worse."

Given what little he knew of his history, Sephiroth thought that entirely too likely. He extracted his Cure materia from a hidden pocket in his waistband at the small of his back.

"I'm not precisely an expert on the topic, but from what I understand from Angeal, having friends means you don't have to 'deal' with things when they can help."

He sent a wash of green crashing over Cloud before he could argue and got a scowl in response.

"And you're good about letting your friends help, I suppose?"

"Terrible. They usually force the issue without asking."

Cloud's eyes drifted down to the materia in Sephiroth's hand. He raised a brow. Snickered. Sephiroth, who'd chosen his words hoping to elicit that response, chuckled back, and in moments the two were giggling in the outdoor stairwell.

"I was headed to the roof before I bumped into you." (And that didn't make much sense to Sephiroth, because no collisions had occurred, but Zack had said three weeks ago that it didn't matter, it was just something that people said.) "It's the closest I've found to quiet and breathable in Midgar. Would you care to join me?"

"I'd honestly love to, but I'm running on fumes. My body just isn't used to adrenaline crashes, and after the dodge test with your redheaded friend? Mm. You'd probably wind up carrying me back to the bunks, and that doesn't do much for keeping secrets from the Turks or Hojo, now, does it?" Cloud said with a wink.

"Or I could just leave you up there unconscious."

"Ah. An offer I can't refuse!"

Cloud laughed warmly and clapped a hand to Sephiroth's shoulder, able to do so on account of being several steps higher.

"Goodnight, Sephiroth."

"Goodnight."

Chapter Text

Zack crept down the halls outside the cadet dorms on cat feet. He'd spent all yesterday afternoon setting up a prank to cheer up his Cloudy, and now was the time to reap the rewards of that. On the other hand, what kind of brother would he be if he didn't startle him awake first?

He eased open the door (he'd wrangled the room number from him on his second day at ShinRa) and slunk inside, looking around for the right bunk. A quiet cloth-on-cloth sound to his left alerted him to a brunet teen a bit taller than him shifting from his knees to his feet at the side of a bed. Cloud's bed, actually, and he apparently slept in a lower bunk.

"What are you –?" Zack began in a low voice so as not to disturb anyone's sleep (yet).

"You're Cloud's friend, right?" the teen interrupted in a matching hush and beckoned him over.

Cloud was quietly mumbling in his bed, occasionally twitching. Words were only intermittently distinguishable, but the tone wasn't anything happy. His face twisted into a carved snarl that broke on a whine into anguish.

"He's having a nightmare; why didn't you wake him up?" he hissed, reaching out to do just that.

The brunet caught his wrist in a surprisingly strong grip before he could touch him.

"Don't! We woke him up once when it wasn't this quiet, and the only reason Owen and Ishkah are still here is because there wasn't a blade in his hand when he swung. You – look, none of us buys that he's fourteen, okay? And however old he really is, he's way too mature for it. Too coordinated in his body, too well-spoken. You don't – some kids may be like that naturally, right, geniuses? But that's not what it is with him. Every time one of the other cadets tries to harass him about his skills, he always, always says he worked for them. He's not exactly humble, but he's adamant, and he's got the work ethic to back it up. He's not someone all this came to naturally, and with a kid as young as he is – however old that is – being good at violence? There's something screwed up behind that. Something that makes him aim for soft spots the second he's surprised from behind, whether that surprise is good or bad. And he doesn't exactly talk about it. Now, what does that say to you?"

Zack didn't want to say it. Especially because while it seemed to fit at first glance, it didn't quite line up. But he'd yet to see Cloud react positively to an adult. And there was his freak-out in the fight with Angeal.

"Abuse."

"No." The rejection was immediate. "Some of it fits, but a lot more doesn't. He's not anxious, he's not aggressive – well, most of the time – he has a healthy sense of self-worth..."

"Then what? I've been going crazy these past few days worrying about him, and if anything you're making it worse, and trust me, a protective SOLDIER is the last thing you want to face!"

This wasn't Zack's style, but he was worried, he was angry, and Cloud was having a nightmare that he supposedly couldn't even intervene against. No, threats like this weren't Zack's style, but he'd do what it took to take care of Cloud, and he'd ticked off the infantry officers he met as Angeal’s protégé enough with his pranks to know the method of it.

"Calm down, I wasn't holding it for ransom." He sighed. "Look, my dad works in psychology, alright? His practice mainly caters to ex-fighters of one sort or another and their families. That means he has to know the chinks that can happen in the mind of a soldier and all the ways that can come out and how that looks in their spouses and children. His nightmares, the way he wakes up if shaken from them, his violence when startled, that's PTSD: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.”

“Oh, right, okay, and he just happens to have been a part of massive fighting we don't know about?”

“Well, there are multiple types of PTSD, but yeah. That's a fighter's PTSD. Now, if I'm right, it's fairly mild as these things go. I haven't seen any flashbacks or reenactments of traumatic scenes, no confusion of neutrality for hostility.” Zack paled, thinking of the fight. “On its own, I wouldn't think it meant anything more than an abnormal reaction to abuse or some violence around him. But he's too skilled, too mature, too coordinated in his body. My little brother is nine, okay, and he brings his friends around. None of them are as coordinated as him, and they all tend to get into scrapes to prove they're tough. Cloud overestimates his reach sometimes, but his balance is rock solid. He’s good at strategy, too, especially small groups or single tough targets. When I put it all together... I think this isn't his first time as a child soldier. I know how it sounds. Just keep it in mind, okay? And look out for him. Some of us try, but he won’t listen to any of us.”

The conspiracy theorist who apparently shared a room with Cloud (because Zack refused to even consider he might be right until he had time to process it in a safe place and bounce it off of Angeal) sighed in exhaustion, the bedside vigil apparently catching up to him, and drew a weary hand over his eyes. He twitched his fingers in a sort of half-salute to Zack and clambered into the top bunk of a bed one deeper into the room. Zack let him and sank down, shifting at the last second so he would end up on the floor next to the bed rather than on the mattress. He needed some time to put this all in safe areas of his brain where he could remember them without having to think about them until later. He needed to be able to smile. Cloud was so stoic. PTSD or natural reticence (yes, he knew what the word meant, Genesis) or something else, Cloud needed smiles.

When he'd steadied himself, he realized that Cloud had finally slipped from his nightmare into a lighter stage of sleep. Zack took a deep breath, prepped his sensitive ears for a lot of angry howls for blood, and pounced on Cloud with a huge grin and a shout of, "Spike!"

Cloud jolted, head snapping up to bruise Zack's jaw. His dormmates reacted better than Zack had expected, throwing pillows and grumbling but not actually roaring in outrage at the interruption of their sleep, which may have had to do with the curling stream of vitriol coming from Cloud.

"ZACK! YOU! ... Zack. May acne plague you. May your underwear always ride up. You would not believe the day I had yesterday. I am exhausted still, and then you dare interrupt my blissful repose? Do you have a fan club? Doesn't matter. If you don't, I'll make one. And then every time you pull something I particularly don't like, like waking me up after a very insufficient night's sleep, I'll report to them. I'll ruin your reputation in the most appealing way possible. The fans will break you with their attentions in a week."

Zack had long since stopped rubbing his chin in pain in favor of staring at his friend in genuine wide-eyed horror.

"Woah..." came the first of the whispers.

"Strife?" piped up a tentative voice from a nearby bottom bunk. He was decently muscular, nothing exceptional, but the angles of scars on his arms indicated he was unafraid of fights, and not just with someone his own size. "Let me be the first to say that I have seriously misjudged you. If there is anything I can do to make you not turn that creative cruelty on me, consider it done."

Cloud rolled his eyes and plopped his head back on the pillow. After a moment, he sat back up to look at Zack.

"Well, fine, then. I'm up. Where are we going?"

Zack did his best guppy impression for a full second, groping desperately for his purpose and a position of safety.

"I – you – Angeal! We're going to see Angeal!"

Cloud dropped his head into his hands. Cloud's shoulders said he was reluctant but not totally against it.

"I've been putting that off. I don't know how to begin to apologize for that. Fine. Let me get dressed."

Zack babbled as Cloud dug out a uniform and began rolling cuffs, layering up, looping his belt around his waist two and a half times, and generally doing whatever he could to make the size XS fit.

"If anyone should apologize, it's him. He's the one who made you have a freakout. Somehow. Anyway, why didn't you ask to leave? I'd have gotten you outta there. I told you, we country boys have to stick together. Clearly I need to start paying a lot of attention to your body language, since you apparently don't know how to ask for help. Maybe I should be apologizing. I knew you were worried, and I still dragged you up there. Geez, I'm the worst friend ever. Why are you friends with me, Cloudy?"

"If I had a gil for every time I've asked myself that in this week alone."

"Awww, Cloudy!"

Cloud snorted and finished tugging on his boots over four layers of socks, probably with more stuffed in the toes, and looped the laces under and around each boot to keep it on. He shoved Zack out of the room, pointedly stepping just out of reach when Zack tried to grab him for a piggy back ride like last time. Wise to his ways already. Maaan!

"Neither of you has to apologize."

"Well, Angeal feels like he has to, and I feel like a heel, so I put together a joint apology for the two of us!"

"Wait. You put together? Does Angeal know? I mean, the Commander?"

"He wouldn't mind you calling him Angeal, you know."

"That doesn't answer my question."

Well, that would ruin the fun if he did. Actually, Zack had planned very carefully so that he wouldn't know. Not until Cloud did. He'd accounted for everything. Angeal showered once a day in the afternoon, right after he finished up at the gym. He kept a simple hairstyle that he'd worn for years so that he didn't have to look in the mirror in the morning and usually just finger-combed it on the go. Zack had carried his supplies around with him all day so Angeal wouldn't notice the smell, and he wouldn't notice the sound or set-up because Zack did it when Angeal was distracted by much louder sounds (which may or may not have involved the loudspeaker system, a small bribe to two members of IT, and an extremely popular rock CD).

Zack grinned. Cloud groaned.

Zack bounced backward out of the elevator, leading the way to Angeal's office with practiced dodges around people he couldn't see (he did this for fun a lot, but he always told Angeal it was for training). He flung open the door with no warning and readied his phone camera. He already had pictures of his masterpiece on Angeal, but he wanted one of Cloud's face when he saw it.

As expected, it was chock full of bewildered caution.

"Zack? Why does your mentor's hair look like a dress pattern?"

"What?!"

Chapter Text

Sephiroth ignored it when he saw Zack enter Angeal's office, trailing Cloud behind him like a chocobo chick. He was, after all, pretending not to know the latter boy for the sake of avoiding Hojo's attention.

"Zack? Why does your mentor's hair look like a dress pattern?"

"What?!"

Of course, investigating those extremely bewildering words was an entirely different matter. Angeal's hair looked like what?

He backed up several steps and looked in. Angeal was using his Buster Sword as a mirror, his expression warring between shock, horror, hilarity, and a bubbling anger. His hair had somehow been colored to imitate a field of wildflowers. The flowers were varied, from mums in chartreuse to yellow and orange daffodils, vivid lilacs to burgundy dahlias and fuchsias in an eye-searing magenta.

Sephiroth didn't quite know how to react. He looked at the other occupants in the room. Zack was struggling to focus his camera through tear-blurred eyes and wheezing as he leaned against the door, snapping photos of Angeal and Cloud in turn. Cloud's face, meanwhile, was slowly losing its concern and hesitance to the twitches tugging at his lips.

Sephiroth leaned over and murmured, quiet enough to seem private but loud enough that Cloud with his unenhanced hearing (and consequently Angeal) could catch the words, "I'm unfamiliar with this situation, cadet. What are you supposed to tell a friend when they make a terrible decision for their look and you'd really like to put a stop to it for their sake but you don't want to hurt their feelings?"

Cloud's mouth twitches went nearly spasmodic.

"I believe you tell them that you admire their courage to try new things but that maybe this particular thing is not for them," he responded in a high voice that was not quite steady.

He considered this a moment, then nodded, grateful for his long practice at holding onto his deadpan, although not normally under such happy circumstances.

"Angeal. Your new hairstyle is... adventurous, and certainly clever for camouflage if the talks with Wutai come to war, and I applaud you for trying something new. Genesis will be ecstatic to see you doing something different with your hair. Perhaps, however, it's something you should consider not doing normally."

Angeal let out a wordless squawk, which was the last straw for both him and Cloud. They each turned away sharply and slapped a hand over their mouths to muffle their sniggers, shoulders curling with their mirth. Zack howled with renewed laughter and snapped a few dozen new photos of Angeal and the two of them with shaking hands.

Sephiroth could never really shut down his awareness of his surroundings, no matter how relaxed or happy he was, so he saw it when Angeal finally made up his mind about what to do and lunged for Zack, who just barely managed to duck out of the way in time (although he may also have simply been collapsing from a lack of oxygen).

Sephiroth and Cloud exchanged a glance filled with mischief, glee, exasperation, and shared secrets, then lunged out the door after their respective friends to ostensibly stop a murder. The General snapped his expression closed to the one he used to deal with unruly subordinates as he dashed into the gap in traffic left in their wake. Someone paying attention, however, could note the way he kept pace with the intent-faced cadet beside him rather than outstripping him to put a stop to the nonsense in an instant and that he, like the boy who took advantage of his slim build to ricochet off walls through gaps where people had already started to refill the void left by the passage of the first pair of SOLDIERs, really just wanted to watch the show.

Chapter Text

Angeal stepped out of his bathroom, toweling his hair, and immediately doubled back to check in the mirror that every last bit of that flower bouquet was out of it. Honestly, of all the pranks Zack could pull. Cloud had seemed much more relaxed this time, though, so he supposed he'd forgive him. His mentee had good people instincts. It wasn’t just his energy that made Angeal call him Puppy.

He came out to the living room to find Zack doing squats at a pace that indicated his worry.

"Zack, relax. It's okay. I forgive you. Though if I lose standing with my men as a result of this, you will be running laps."

Instead of the expected, "Aww, Angeal," Zack quirked his mouth in a way that tried for a smile but came out looking stressed.

"Zack? What's wrong?"

"Hey, Angeal?" Zack paused and fidgeted hesitantly. "Have you ever heard of a child soldier program? Anywhere? I mean, even in rumors?"

Angeal stared. He slowly sat on the sofa.

"Depends on what you mean. Sephiroth, Gen, and I were all created for the SOLDIER program. Tests and experiments were performed since before any of us can remember, though Sephiroth got the worst of it by a long shot."

"No, I – well, were there ever any others?"

"Not that I ever met, but that doesn't mean they didn't try and fail before us. I hope that none came after, but they wouldn't tell us if any did, not unless they were 'worth something' in the eyes of ShinRa."

"It doesn't have to be enhanced. Just. Any child soldier program."

He stopped drying his hair and set the towel down, reaching under the couch to flip on a signal blocker to mute any bugs he'd missed from the Turks' last pass through.

"Zack. What's this about?"

Zack dropped cross-legged down on the floor in front of him, running his fingers absently over the textures in the hardwood floor.

"When I went down to get Cloud this morning, he was having a nightmare. I don't know what about. I went to wake him up, but some dormmate of his stopped me. He said – well, he said a lot of things, but what it meant was that he didn't think this is the first time Spike's been a child soldier. I'm – I'm worried, Ange."

Angeal got up and started to pace. Mako did a lot of things, good, bad, and indifferent, and one of them was that it heightened emotions. He needed to burn some energy so the Mako didn't force his emotions out of control. He could normally keep calm when others lost their heads, but he'd always burned hot on matters of honor, and child soldiers, especially ones he'd inadvertently hurt and who were friends of Zack's, fell squarely in that category.

"What else did he say?"

"PTSD. I mean, we both saw the fight, and he mentioned a bunch of other symptoms. And, let's face it, he's definitely had training. A lot. No way he learned all of that fighting monsters. Not Mako monsters, anyway. Said he's good at strategy, too, and weirdly coordinated and mature, which, yeah, I can attest to that. And – Mike said Cloud didn't have any family left. That fits, too. No loose ends to tie up outside the program if he's on his own, right?"

Angeal whipped around and punched the wall, standing there panting, wall materials scraping into his wrist. There was a pause, then something tapped his fist. He yanked it out of the wall and ducked to peer through the four-inch hole to the other side.

"Angeal, my friend, if you want a larger apartment, I doubt knocking down the wall to mine is the easiest way to go about it."

Angeal blushed to his roots.

"Sorry, Gen! It was an accident! I – actually, Gen? Have you heard of any child soldier programs, inside or outside of ShinRa? Not counting us, I mean."

No need to worry about any bugs in Gen's apartment. He would have a blocker on. Probably three. While Angeal generally figured the Turks could bore themselves listening to him putter about humming folk songs off-key and tending to his plants if they wanted, Genesis guarded his privacy in his own rooms much more fiercely. Angeal had an open pass, of course, and so did Sephiroth, though their tendencies to set each other off meant it wasn't much used, but that was about it. Even Zack was only allowed in when Angeal was there, too. And Genesis absolutely would not tolerate eavesdroppers on his private life.

“Nooo, I can't say that I have. Why?”

“A friend of Zack's in the cadets. It's looking like he might have been a part of something before.”

Angeal was grim, but Genesis's eyes sharpened in avarice. Genesis bored easily and was constantly combing for something new to latch onto. Keeping him contained had been hard enough when they were children. These days, Angeal mostly sent up a prayer for his latest fixation’s survival and, where possible, passed along a warning.

“Oh? Who is it?”

“His name's Cloud.”

He stared at his mentee, appalled. Clearly Zack had never paid any attention to how Genesis obsessed, or he'd never have laid his poor friend on the altar like that. That, or he'd forgotten in his panic.

“Cloud Strife?”

Angeal's head snapped back to Genesis.

“You know him?”

“I’ve met him. Child soldier, huh?" Genesis frowned. "I don't think so."

"What do you mean?"

"He's skilled at dodging and remembering allies under fire, I'll grant you. That makes sense for the theory. But when I asked him how he learned to do that, now that was interesting. He told me the most terrifying monster in the world was a human. Then he asked me what you do when a powerful monster gets destructive. He looked me in the eyes and said, 'You gather allies, and you fight.' The devil is in the details, my friends, and that sounds much more desperate, much more need-driven than a member of a child soldier program to me. If anything, I'd say he was doing the gathering, that he was the leader of whatever group it was."

Zack scooted closer.

"He doesn't react normally to command structure. I mean, he's always careful to call people by titles instead of names, but at the same time he doesn't instinctively jump to at an order, and he never goes military with me. Ever.”

“So what we've got is that he has PTSD and prior training, but he probably wasn't a child soldier before this. He's good at strategy and probably led whatever group he fought in against some monster of a man, but he's too young for that to be the case.”

“True. He might be skilled enough, who knows, but adults don't listen to kids, not really. They wouldn’t follow him,” Zack agreed, rubbing his forehead.

Sometimes Angeal forgot that Zack was only fourteen and ran into a lot of resistance from older members of SOLDIER.

“That’s another thing,” Genesis grumbled. “How old is he, anyway?”

The conversation was interrupted by a sharp, military rap.

"I'll get it!"

"It's at my door, Puppy," Gen drawled with a roll of his eyes.

He strolled out of Angeal's cubbyhole view. Quiet snicks and clicks indicated a lock being undone (fairly useless around SOLDIER strength, but ShinRa wasn't much for logic or planning most days, using wealth and military power to pave over any particularly costly mistakes) and a door handle operating.

"Sephiroth," Genesis said, sounding surprised.

"Genesis."

Sephiroth's voice carried that same subtle warmth it had tended to for almost a week now, ever since he'd reappeared from the bowels of Hojo's labs. (What had happened down there?) It twigged a memory. He'd heard that suicidal people often expressed their affection for their loved ones more in the days leading up to their deaths. Sephiroth had learned early to hide his pain, from what Angeal gleaned, and he hadn't exactly ever been in a position to learn to ask for help. If something was wrong, they might not notice until the bottom dropped out of their world along with him. He resolved to keep a closer eye on his friend.

"Have you heard about Angeal's – why have you knocked a hole in your wall?"

"Angeal's doing, actually."

Sephiroth's face appeared through the hole in the wall in that silent way he had. He never made noise when he moved unless he wanted to. Sephiroth raised a brow, causing him to flush at his lack of control all over again.

"I, um. Zack mentioned some concern for a cadet friend of his, that boy you met earlier, and... well, I found it concerning."

"Apparently, Genesis knows him, too, Seph!"

Sephiroth had on a shuttered look. His face was hardly effusive at the best of times, but when he encountered Hojo or got particularly angry or worried, his expression died like the power had been cut. It looked like that now.

"I was headed to the roof for air. I wouldn't mind company."

None of them was dumb enough not to know an order when they heard one. Two doors clicked shut, and four pairs of boots, two military issue, two stylish knee-highs, thudded quietly down the hall to the stairwell. Angeal spent the entire trip resisting the urge to tug at his hair in worry. Nothing that made Sephiroth close off boded well. The long, jagged spiral of the stairs seemed eternal.

Chapter Text

Sephiroth didn't know what was going on, precisely, but he knew it involved Cloud.

"I'll meet you on the roof," he said in low tones. "I need to collect something."

Someone, actually. Cloud. He didn't know what his friends were concerned about, though it was likely serious if it made Angeal react like that, but he figured Cloud ought to be there to state his side of things. Neither of his friends were terribly good at restraint, albeit in different areas, and, if nothing else, the young warrior deserved a warning.

Besides, while he'd technically only sworn to protect him from Hojo, being under Hojo's attention made him feel helpless. For all that he was skilled enough to kill the man a thousand times over without effort, he couldn't. He had to cling to morals. He used them to separate himself from his father, to make sure that, regardless of genetics or rearing, he would never become like him. And he had his strength and position of authority to comfort himself, to nurse like a spark when the labs were cold and his life felt dark.

Cloud didn't have a position of power, and he couldn't have Sephiroth's strength. There was every likelihood that he was strong, but his eyes didn't glow, so he wasn't Mako-enhanced, and if Hojo had found another method, a faster one, of augmenting subjects, he'd know. He'd be suffering it. In Cloud's position, he would want every opportunity to have a say in his own life, to exert some measure of control after the paralyzing helplessness of being subject to Hojo's will. So Cloud would have a say.

Sephiroth had accessed Cloud's personnel file on his PHS on his way down to the cadet level, so he slipped into the correct dorm without pausing to check the others. The lights were off, and the dorms were largely silent, as far as that went. He could hear the shifting, breathing, and heartbeats of everyone within three rooms in every direction. Most beds were empty, given that it was a Friday night and classes were light on Saturdays, which many cadets took advantage of to socialize and go out into Midgar. Cloud, however, was one of the few in his bunk, the bottom bunk of the first unit visible upon opening the door, in fact.

Fastest escape route, he thought.

Cloud was curled up at the very edge of the narrow bed, one foot pressed flat against the wall, a hand dipped under his pillow. It was a position that would let him push off if he needed to move quickly, and his hidden hand could be gripping a knife. Alternatively, he could hurl the pillow at someone to buy himself a spare second. His sleep was shallow, to judge by his breathing and heart rate. He slept like a man in uncertain territory – not at full guard, but not relaxed, either.

Sephiroth let his feet clack quietly against the concrete flooring, hoping Cloud would take some notice of it. The boy still hadn't stirred when he reached the bunk, not surprising given it was all of two feet back along the wall. He stood a few feet back, remembering how dangerous he'd been at seven. (He'd killed another human being for the first time when he was five, a fellow test subject he'd been pitted against. He hadn't had the skill back then for mercy. Of course, in Hojo's labs, the killing blow was mercy. He'd only grown more adept at the many arts of battle since.)

"Cloud."

Cloud moved. A pillow was in his face, two small feet were on the floor on their toes, and two tiny fists were balled and readied, his chin tucked down. Sephiroth followed the movement, of course he did, between his training, experience, and endless enhancements, but the boy was fast, much faster than Sephiroth had really expected. Cloud feinted left and dove right, wrenching the doorknob free from its shoddy screws with an adrenaline-fueled yank and a foot against the fiberboard beneath it, keeping his body in profile and his attention on Sephiroth the whole time, then held up the knob in front of him by the handle like a makeshift shiv. Sephiroth didn't move, save to lift his hands in pacification.

"Cloud. It's alright. Do you know where you are?"

He'd said it happened before. It wasn't a stretch to realize it was happening again. His head was caught up in another battle, another time, another opponent. He was probably still sleep-muddled into the bargain.

"Why don't you tell me, guĭyù?" he hissed.

"Gway-yii?" Sephiroth falteringly imitated. He thought it was a Wutaian word – he'd been learning the language as quickly as he could since the onset of negotiations with the isolationist country, but he had limited help in terms of pronunciation and could only learn as much as he could find. The word was not one he'd come across (unless, of course, he'd vastly misinterpreted the pronunciation guide and therefore couldn't match sound with meaning, which he knew for a fact had happened at least seven times to date).

The venomous look on Cloud's face faltered for a moment before the confusion was tucked away.

"You just can't stay dead."

With that he lunged forward, swooping in for close-quarters combat, stabbing, slashing, and bludgeoning, though Sephiroth took care that nothing connected.

"Cloud. It's alright. You're safe."

He carefully kept his tone low and even, feeling a fleeting bit of gratitude for how much it took to get him breathing heavily. It didn't do him much good. If anything, Cloud doubled the intensity of his attacks, adding in leg sweeps and off-hand feints with an expertise that astonished him.

"Mind games, is it?" he growled through his teeth, punctuated by sharp inhales at sparse intervals. "I thought you gave those up after the Northern Crater. Why is that? Just take too much effort to puppeteer me? To control me, body and mind?"

"Cloud, what?"

Sephiroth stalled for just a moment, appalled at all the different things that could mean, none of them good. He sent up a quick prayer of thanks to Genesis's beloved goddess that it was a punch from Cloud's left hand rather than a stab with the interior axle of the doorknob that caught him before he could recover. He leapt backward and re-centered himself, calling up what he’d read on PTSD to help his men should they ever need it.

“Cloud. You’re safe. Listen to my voice. You’re having a flashback. Look around you. You’re in the cadet barracks. See all the bunks?”

He narrowly swerved to avoid one of those bunks as Cloud darted in from the side.

Do not engage. Try to calm him. Bring his attention to the present. Do not engage.

“Cloud, look at me. I’m not attacking you. You’re safe. You’re in the cadet barracks at ShinRa.”

Cloud hesitated a moment, but shook his head determinedly and plunged back into the attack.

“You’re safe. You’re here with me in the barracks. You’re not with Hojo. You’re not with whoever attacked and controlled you before. You’re safe.”

Cloud slowed. Sephiroth backed up a few steps, and he didn’t follow. He took up a defensive position.

“Why should I trust you?”

“I haven’t attacked you, right? Look, I’m sitting down on the ground, okay? I’m putting myself at a disadvantage. Take your time to look around you. I won’t move, and you’ll have enough time to react if I do.”

Well, that last was a lie, given Sephiroth’s speed when he applied himself, but hopefully Cloud would take it for what it was worth.

He did. The change was gradual. A slow loss of tension in the eyes. A series of microscopic changes in his stance. The cautious drain of hostility and the plodding bloom of recognition. For Sephiroth, they were five agonizing minutes of silence and trepidation.

Cloud swallowed.

"When... when did we first meet?"

"One week ago. I came out on the roof and found you already there. You'd retreated there after a spar gone wrong with Angeal. That is, with Commander Hewley."

Cloud blew out a shuddering breath and sat.

"Ah."

He reached up with his right hand to card through his hair but stopped when the cold metal touched his scalp. He looked at the door handle in bewilderment.

"You appropriated that when you found yourself barehanded. Might I congratulate you on your resourcefulness?"

Cloud looked wide-eyed over his shoulder at the open and ill-used door and blushed fiercely.

"Um," he said hoarsely. "I guess I'll pay for the replacement as soon as I get my first paycheck."

Sephiroth huffed.

"Ridiculous. Give it here."

Cloud obediently tossed it over, and Sephiroth caught it, crushing it in his fist.

"SOLDIER strength. Normal building materials just aren't made to withstand it. And obviously no cadet could have done this."

Cloud groaned and buried his head in his hands.

"You know what I think? I think you're trying to get me so far into debt with you that I have no choice but to obey your every whim for the rest of my life."

"Alas. My sinister plan revealed."

He let his hand drag over his face before he dropped it into his lap, giving Sephiroth a look of exasperation.

"You got that already when you said you'd protect me from Hojo. Even if you don't follow through, the intent alone leaves me permanently beholden. Cut it out. You're done."

"Well, I've always been an overachiever."

Cloud's lips quirked, and they sat mute for several minutes. Sephiroth reviewed the sounds of the room and hallway and was relieved to find that their fight had been quiet enough and the sleepers heavy enough that no one would have noticed Cloud's attack or their familiarity. The hallway was empty of heartbeats and breathing, and no one in the nearby rooms seemed to be awake, save for two a couple of rooms away who were dropping off as he listened.

"May I come closer?"

Instead of answering, Cloud moved to Sephiroth's side and sat down.

"Alright?" Sephiroth asked.

Cloud nodded, but given the defensive set of his shoulders, it wasn't terribly convincing. At length, he spoke.

"I. I wouldn't mind some physical evidence that this is real."

Sephiroth placed a hand in the one lying oh-so-casually palm-up between them. After a moment's consideration, he reached around with his other arm, telegraphing his movements, and gently, tentatively pulled Cloud into a hug. He'd seen friends among his men do the same when one of them was shocky from a close call, and it felt right. The boy was stiff with what Sephiroth thought was surprise and unfamiliarity, but he didn't resist and, after an interminable minute and a half, relaxed into it, leaning his head on the man's shoulder. Sephiroth bent his head, resting his chin in Cloud's unruly, tangled mop of spikes and letting his own hair slip around his shoulders to drape them both.

"It's real. You're safe now. You're safe."

Chapter Text

“You should be setting an example, not setting them on fire! Curse it, Genesis! You're in SOLDIER, you're a First Class, and, for pity's sake, you're an adult, or you ought to be! To do things like this just for your own amusement is dishonorable in the extreme. I'd think you'd have more respect for their hard work and dreams, seeing as you're standing where they want to be.”

Ten minutes. Angeal had realized just what must have happened for Genesis to know how skilled Strife was at dodging incoming projectiles in the presence of others and had been reading him the riot act for ten minutes. It never failed to amaze him how his friend could come up with such astoundingly long-winded reprimands on the fly, yet, every time he tried to talk with some girl-next-door do-gooder he'd developed a helpless crush on (which happened with humiliating regularity; what Genesis wouldn't give for one of them to have at least gotten his attention by fighting off someone else's mugger instead of running a food drive or collecting orphans like postage stamps), he came over mute.

“Genesis Rhapsodos, are you listening to me?”

"Yes, Angeal, I am listening. But what you've been too busy shouting to listen to is that I only used low-level fire spells that were so weak that their effects could be iced away."

"Really?"

"Yes! I do actually listen when you talk, Angeal. It's not like I ignore you."

Not like he could anyway, the way Angeal yelled when he got his dander up. But now Angeal was getting that guilty, self-flagellating look. Genesis hated it when he did that. His childhood friend was a confident man as a rule, steady and assured, but the moment he felt he'd done anything even remotely reprehensible, he half destroyed himself with guilt. He therefore did his best to keep Angeal's mind off of any of his supposed sins.

"Besides, it was to their benefit. Maybe now the idiots who make it through the exams will actually improve enough to make it through a mission alive. And if they don't, I can always set them on fire for real."

Angeal's expression firmed right back up. It was like confronting a wild chocobo with multiple lures. His honor looked between the options and snatched up the shiniest one. He'd always been affronted by Genesis's cavalier attitude toward the rules.

"Don't you try that with me, Gen. I was there when you honed that air of nonchalance in front of a mirror. You know good and well that's not why you did it, and, even if you did, that's why Sephiroth demanded veto power, to make sure that no one unprepared is sent out from our division, no matter what sort of politicking goes on to force our numbers up."

And off he went again. Good old Angeal. He was as reliable as his blade.

What was not proving to be so reliable was Sephiroth, which had Genesis concerned. Normally his rival was one hundred percent about efficiency, which he found immensely irritating on account of the total lack of concern for – well, for drama and rest and joie de vivre. No matter what Sephiroth had had to fetch (and what would he need to fetch for this discussion anyway, unless he had a secret file on the boy, which would raise an entirely different set of questions), the man should have joined them on the roof in less than ten minutes, given his habits and (not superior, not impressive, but extensive was a fair term) enhancements. Now, though, it was running up on half an hour, and Genesis suspected half of Angeal's ranting was to fill the disturbingly empty air and distract the puppy from his snowballing worries.

Finally, almost thirty-five minutes into their wait and seventeen minutes into Angeal's scolding (Genesis kept track; the record was thirty-four minutes, twenty-seven seconds, which Genesis was ashamed to admit was on account of Zack and masochistically determined to beat), they heard footsteps on the stairs. Light footsteps, true, but they shouldn't have heard anything at all. Sephiroth had been trained, well, tortured out of making noise when he moved when he was four, as Hojo said he shouldn't give the enemy warning. And the enemy, which it had taken them some time to dissuade Sephiroth of when they met when he was eleven, was anything with a pulse and several things without.

The door opened, however, before the footsteps reached it. Sephiroth stepped out and held the door open for the subject of their impending discussion. What had possessed him to bring Strife?

The cadet was dressed in a tatty pair of pajama pants, the type worn in the so-called summer in regions where it never really got warm, and an extremely baggy cadet uniform shirt that hung to his knees untucked. His body language was nearly as blank as Sephiroth's had been when they met, though there were hints at caution in his breathing and empathy in the very faint lean of his body toward Sephiroth.

"Spiky!"

He also had a puppy draped across his shoulders in short order, which he bore with remarkable sangfroid.

"Spike, what are ya doing here?"

"I'm not one hundred percent certain." Strife glanced at Sephiroth, who gave him a smile that was slight but as honest as Genesis had ever seen it. It had taken him and Angeal combined sixteen months to get him to smile like that, and even then it had been on account of an unlikely victory the three of them had managed to scrape against a Bahamut summon. And here he was handing out a smile like that to someone he couldn't have known more than three weeks, and that if they'd met the first day Strife arrived at ShinRa? Just to – it seemed – reassure him? "Sephiroth told me you and the commanders were concerned about something, but he didn't specify what."

Didn't Fair say Strife always used titles?

"They didn't say. I just figured you ought to have a voice in something that clearly concerned you."

Strife blinked and stared at him for a long moment, then jostled his hanger-on until he was able to reach out a hand and catch the man's forearm in a brief clasp. Sephiroth laid a hand on the boy's and, rather than flinging away the invasion of his personal space, let it rest there for a moment, giving a careful squeeze in return before letting his hand drop, Strife following suit.

That was certainly interesting. Genesis traded a glance with Angeal, who looked equally at a loss as to what to make of the exchange. Fair was eyeing the two with keen fascination, the sparks of a very vague recognition in his expression. Angeal, meanwhile, seemed unable to decide what he wanted to protest first.

"Sephiroth! You dragged him out of bed? And all the way up here? It's cold! Where's his jacket?"

Sephiroth was curling his pinky finger, a little tell of his when he wanted to withdraw into himself. Cloud interrupted before he could go further, stepping back to stand by the much taller man and dragging the puppy with him as a consequence.

"Sir, it's fine. He woke me because he felt I had a right to be here. I'd rather that than the alternative." Angeal's protégé cringed a little and pulled himself up slightly from Strife's shoulders. Strife patted the arm curled around him, and he calmed. "And I'm from high in the mountains. This is pleasant."

Genesis couldn't help but notice how Sephiroth's finger gently unfurled, if a bit hesitantly as if reluctant that the change be noticed. He decided to cut in before Angeal could discomfort their reticent friend again. He was taking initiative in something in their relationship. Maybe not directly, but this meeting was implicitly a matter of trust, and Sephiroth had evidently thought involving someone else in that was important and acted on that without consulting them. Genesis might be unsure of that and would certainly demand explanation later, but the social confidence he must be gaining in order to do something like this was to be encouraged.

"Strife. We've had concerns brought to us from several sources about your past."

Sephiroth stiffened, just a hair, and shifted his weight closer to the boy. Interesting. What was he protecting? Genesis eyed him a moment before continuing.

"We'd like you to tell us what's causing that concern."

"Depends what the concerns are."

Ooh, clever. Fishing.

"Nice try. I think you know good and well what's unusual in your past. I've had worrying observations reach my ear from five different sources. We need an explanation."

Strife's eyes drifted over to Angeal, who hesitated but nodded, then to Zack, who was doing a passable impression of a hummingbird in his reawakened worry, then to Sephiroth, who – who kneeled next to him. Genesis did not boggle at the sight, and Shiva herself couldn't get him to admit otherwise with all her weapons of cold.

"Cloud. You don't need to tell them if you don't want to. You can keep mum about it, or I can tell them if you prefer."

The cadet shook his head.

"You don't know most of it. I'll tell them. Probably best to have it out."

A comforting hand gripped his shoulder, and Fair embroiled himself in the reassurances with a returned arm slung around Strife's shoulders and a surprisingly gentle noogie. Strife bore it with a fond eye roll.

"Never was good at this part. Storytelling. Never got the hang of it." His eyes looked distant and pained for a minute, then he shook himself free of his thoughts and continued. "My past is... complex. And to be honest, my memory of a good chunk of it is... unreliable and incomplete."

"Like Hojo's?" Sephiroth interrupted, looking startled and concerned, the little creases between his eyebrows telling.

"It's... I don't think it's related. Or. Or not directly. But with my memory being what it is, I can't entirely say for sure."

Their eyes locked for nearly a minute before Sephiroth slowly nodded. Strife took a moment to re-orient himself, then went on.

"Born in Nibelheim. Ostracized. Part of being a Strife. We've long been outcasts for something in the family history, something I didn't learn or forgot. Either is likely. But the name is Strife for that reason, whatever thing in our past it was. Anyhow. I eventually left. After all, there wasn't much to keep me there. There was only my mother in Nibelheim who was decent to me. And maybe one of the other children. I can't remember. My time in that town is... there's not much left in my mind." He took a fortifying breath. "I was captured by Hojo. Me and my best friend. We had the ill fortune to kill one of his experiments that had finally..."

The boy fell silent for a long moment, his jaw rippling as he clenched his teeth. Sephiroth took his hand and ran his thumb soothingly over the boy's knuckles. It took a bit, but he rallied.

"Sorry. He, um. He experimented on us. I didn't respond well. I was a failure. My friend absorbed the Mako treatments better, but since I was the one to deliver the death blow, Hojo was more interested in me, even if my friend did most of the work. Eventually he gave up on us and turned to more interesting projects, I guess. I succumbed to Mako poisoning, so I don't remember most of it. I don't know how my friend got us out. I don't remember anything until four years after we were captured. Woke up just in time to see him gunned down. Don't know why I wasn't. My head was so screwed up, I didn't even know who I was for a while. I wandered. Fought monsters. Met some friends. Fought monsters with them. Got Mako poisoning a couple more times in there, one of which ironically helped fix my identity issues.

"And then... something happened. I don't really understand it. At all. But I found myself back in Nibelheim. I got to see my mom again. I couldn't remember her face, before. Her name. Her habits. She existed as a theoretical entity. But after all those years, I got to see her again. She was as wonderful as I dreamed. I dragged her out with me for a picnic in the mountains. It was going to be a celebration. She didn't know. She wasn't missing any time. Years happened for me that didn't for her. For Nibelheim. I don't know how. But that was okay. Our celebration would be known just to me, and life would go on.

"And then... a dragon came. We weren't anywhere near the usual dragon territory. But in the past two decades, Nibel dragons have grown more aggressive, more territorial, and more, well, unstable. And they've always been meaner, stronger, faster. There's a reason Nibel dragons are used as a referent for tough monsters even out here where they've never been seen. Mom never had a chance. And I... all my years of training and fighting, all my swordwork, all my spellcasting, all my hand-to-hand, every bit of my experience meant nothing. Again.

"I couldn't save her. I killed it, buried her, and came here. That's it, now you know, that's everything."

Strife's body language had remained consistently blank throughout, but his face occasionally rippled with emotions, and his voice was raw. And then at the end, he'd blanked, face clean of expression, voice much more level, defenses raised again.

Fair hugged him tightly to him. Sephiroth held out a hand between them palm up, which Strife gripped in response. Angeal had softened in response to the boy’s obvious pain. Which meant it was up to Genesis to pursue some pretty obvious holes.

“You left a lot out.”

“Yeah. Well. It’s a whole lifetime for me. And I wasn’t lying when I said there was a lot of it I couldn’t remember. The Mako poisonings really messed with my head. There’s a good chunk of it that it’s safe to assume is gone forever.”

"You've had training. Who gave it to you?"

The boy snorted.

"The monsters I faced. The enemies got tougher, so I had to, too."

"The human ones or the beasts?"

"Cloud," Sephiroth spoke up softly, drawing the cadet's attention. "You said... earlier, you said that someone... controlled you, body and mind. What did you mean?"

Sephiroth's voice was gentle. Gentle. Did he just have some sort of soft spot for kids Genesis didn't know about? That would be reassuring, actually, on multiple levels. His question quite the opposite.

Strife leveled an inscrutable look at him, then studied the concrete of the roof, chewing his lip. The puppy drew back, obviously sickened by the implications, then returned to hugging him, face buried in the younger boy's hair. He got a deep breath and a response to Sephiroth's question in payment.

"It... doesn't matter. He's dead."

"Is this the same person who can't stay dead?"

More disturbing questions. Minerva's wings, was this what kept Sephiroth? A series of enigmatic yet blood-chilling half-hints that Genesis refused to admit made the breath freeze behind his sternum?

"Yes. But that's part of why coming here, being near Hojo, is worth the risk. I have a chance, here, of preventing his return."

"Let us help," Angeal broke in. "Whatever it is that you have to do, you don't have to do it alone."

"This bit, I kind of do."

"You're a child; you don't have to do anything of the sort."

Strife snorted.

"Child. Well, that is one thing I haven't been in a long time." He shook his head and tipped his head back with a sigh, letting his eyes fall closed. "Look, I've had a horrendously long week. I can talk with you all some more, but I'd really appreciate it if we could push that off until after classes tomorrow. If I don't get some sleep, there will be blood. So unless there's anything immediately urgent, I'm out. Commanders. Goodnight, Zack, Sephiroth. Thanks."

And with his quiet thanks drifting softly like down to Sephiroth where he still knelt beside him, he slipped out of the puppy's hold, freed his hand from the General's grip, and slipped away down the stairs before Genesis could think what he could badger him with as urgent.

Leaving abruptly seemed to be a habit of his. Genesis thought he might hit something.

Chapter Text

When Zack showed up to spar with his little Cloudy and found him smoothly warming up rather than spinning twin swords in rapidly paced high stakes battles with hordes of VR monsters he technically shouldn't have been able to activate without a SOLDIER present and supervising, he was deeply relieved, not that he showed it. It didn't take someone with his people-reading skills to see that the de facto swordpoint tell-all up on the roof two and a half weeks ago had blown the dust off a lot of painful memories, and, though Zack had assured Spike that the General had told his friends in no uncertain terms to leave the boy alone until he'd had time to steel himself properly against the recollections and conjoined emotions (and he was quoting Seph there, Spike, don't look at him like that), he hadn't properly relaxed until now. Given that the exams were in just a few days and that at least one of the Famous Firsts would be supervising, he had been getting pretty worried about Cloud's ability to handle it all. Since Cloud was finally calm enough not to feel like he needed to burn off excess emotion and energy before sparring with a SOLDIER, which by rights he should have been saving his energy for, Zack figured he was mostly alright.

Zack honestly wasn't sure how he'd do in the exams. His academics were a mixed bag, that was for sure. He could go ahead and write off his history score as a loss now, which was fine; Zack had done the same. (Not like he used history anyway, but it was a company pride thing. He'd found out after the fact that ShinRa had made them include a section on his company's road to global dominance, so the people who actually knew the first thing about the life of any type of soldier had made it count for only five percent of the score and then told the proctors to feel free to ignore that the history portion existed at all; no one had gotten higher than a 95% in the overall exams since they'd been given that off-the-books instruction.) Cloud's strategy was decent at best, but his tactics, especially against certain types of enemies, as his conspiracy theorist roommate had said, were through the roof. The list went on.

His practicals were a little more of a sure thing. His hand to hand was, well, nothing special, but certainly passable. As for his swordwork, he really had nothing to sweat over. Once he was enhanced, he could probably beat most Thirds and a fair chunk of Seconds. Zack had never seen him use materia, but a few passing comments gave him the impression his little buddy was well-versed in their uses from a hands-on perspective. His strength was fine for his size, not to mention his agility, and certainly a surprise, since he didn't really bulk up and wouldn't for a number of years yet. Puberty was funny like that. On the other hand, SOLDIERs could be a bit bigoted about looks (which was pretty funny when you took into account Seph and Gen's builds), and the proctors might decide that, given his size and age, he should wait a few years before trying again.

Of course, there was always the chance he could throw in enough on the "impress me" section to smooth over any gaps in the rest of his testing. The "impress me" section was basically a space to pad your resumé in hopes it would help your case. Leadership ability, other languages you knew, additional weapons skills you couldn't showcase elsewhere, and, much as it irked Zack, being photogenic (stupid PR department) were all things you could lay out in that space. Zack honestly didn't know what Cloud had under his belt – honestly, that kid was way too closed-lipped – but he'd lay decent money on there being a few impressive things he could list. Whether he would or not, of course....

Zack made a mental note for the fourth day in a row to talk to Angeal about Cloud's options. He wasn't sure if his mentor could do anything, but it seemed like a good idea to have some sort of plan in place for if Cloud didn't quite make it. He knew he wasn't the only one that didn't want Cloud in the infantry. They were treated like cannon fodder by ShinRa, completely disposable. At least with SOLDIER, there was significant money invested in their Mako augmentations, so ShinRa had a vested interest in keeping them alive. That was disregarding how the other members would treat him. Haze city? Boxing practice? Protected baby brother? (That might be worse, given how Cloud would probably rebel against that from anyone other than him; he didn't know why he was so special to his adoptive little brother, but he was going to take full advantage of it.) Mascot? ... He made another mental note to make Cloud SOLDIER's mascot. The colors he would turn on finding out had grand potential, to Zack's mind.

Still, none of that was why Zack was here. Zack was here to spend time with his Spiky and torment him into cracking a smile. If he played his cards right, he might even get a laugh. He'd gotten several jokes aimed at him, which he was particularly proud of in regards to the progress they signified, about events he should have no knowledge of, who blabbed?! He was getting better at getting Spike to relax around him.

The weirdest thing was, as Cloud relaxed more and more around him, he was getting the feeling that most of the mistrust that kept him wound like an airplane wire most of the time wasn't aimed at Zack but at himself.

It just made him more worried than ever. But Cloud hated being worried over and needed smiles, so Zack kept his face open and relaxed and made sure he'd never, ever know.

Chapter Text

Sephiroth shuffled his papers a bit to get them stacked properly, edges aligned ruler-straight, and looked around at the others who were to decide the fates of the SOLDIER candidates. For most applicants, the decision had been fairly straightforward: regular army, SOLDIER, little notes on a resumé that they'd be good for the Turks, the medical corps, PR management (and if most of this really shouldn't be their job, well, they'd all seen enough ill-prepared troops die on the battlefield before they were old enough to legally jockey at professional chocobo races, and that was just in monster skirmishes, not war; no harm in helping out just a tad).

"Alright, I know we've all put off talking about the elephant in the room." Sephiroth wrinkled his brow at his own strange phrase, though he'd been assured again and again it was common, however bewildering. He saw one of his officers' lips twitch out of the corner of his eye. "Letting him get sent to the battlefield as a SOLDIER is not an option. He's a child. Not a normal child. But a child nonetheless. War is not what most would call a good place for a child."

He blinked to hear several voices raised to the effect of, "Hear, hear!" His argument was hardly an unpopular one, he knew, but he wasn't used to receiving so much open and vocal support. The man sitting next to him even reached out to clap him genially on the shoulder, which he tried very hard not to shy away from. He failed, but the man didn't look offended, so that was good.

To be honest, he didn't really agree with his own argument. He couldn't remember a time in his life when he wasn't a weapon of war, albeit on a smaller scale than what it looked like he could look forward to soon. And Cloud was like him, when he was little. A little vulnerable emotionally, a little rough 'round the edges, more than a bit uncomfortable around most people, but undeniably a warrior and a sentient mind in his own right (not that people didn't still deny it, but that was a separate thing). Still, he realized that Cloud had the potential to set a precedent, and by no means were most children ready for SOLDIER. He'd been screamed at in one way or another by enough of them to be very aware of that. More to the immediate point, he realized that he couldn't possibly get enough votes from the "child" camp to get Cloud into SOLDIER proper, which might be for the best.

"On the other hand, not having him in SOLDIER could be even worse. He's too skilled for ShinRa to allow him to work in something other than a fighting capacity. We all know the statistics on infantry, and the Turks... let's not let that happen."

There was a quiet spell as the officers, Genesis and Angeal (neither was going to miss the chance to view and weigh in on the exam that would, at least for now, decide Cloud Strife's fate), Lazard, and a few retired veterans gave the issue some thought, flipping through his test results and working over the available options in their minds. Sephiroth let them. It would be good for them to have a good idea of the situation before he proposed his solution.

"What I suggest," he said at last, "is that we take Cloud Strife into SOLDIER, but not as a full member. He has listed under Additional Assets some familiarity with the Wutaian culture and language, more specifically the palace dialect. However he came by that, it can only be of use in this time. As far as ShinRa is concerned, he would be a full member, and I would be his mentor. This would give me power over his assignments and would let me take him with me to the political arenas where his knowledge would be of use. He would receive all the Mako treatments and be awarded Third Class, much like any other graduate. He would be given the opportunity for advancement and full access to our facilities. However, he would not be a battlefield unit until a more appropriate time, to be determined at my discretion."

He looked up from his notes to find Angeal looking shocked and gleeful.

"I knew you'd come around! Ha! See, now, Gen, I've got Sephiroth persuaded to the joys of teaching. I'll get you to agree to an apprentice yet!"

Sephiroth stared. He should have seen this coming. Teaching was one of the few things that could get Angeal properly enthusiastic. He'd been too busy considering how to fix the dilemma to consider his friends' reactions. Genesis gave their mutual friend a disdainful look before donning a positively wicked smirk.

"Oh, I don't think so. I'm allergic to dogs. Sephiroth, on the other hand, ought to do wonderfully. He's already got plenty of practice cleaning up after your puppy, so he shouldn't have any trouble when he gets dragged into things by him. Don't you think so, Seph?"

"Um..."

"I like it," Lazard commented. "It keeps him an asset without forcing him into combat situations prematurely. And," he added with a sudden, roguish grin, "I love the image of him wandering the halls with a kid trailing after him like a chocobo chick."

Genesis buried a snigger in his hands at the clueless aptness of that analogy.

Sephiroth looked around. The Board of Proctors seemed largely sympathetic to the arguments (not to mention to his having two very insane friends and a slightly demented boss). A few looked like they'd like to oppose it, but it really was a fairly elegant solution, and there weren't enough of them to block his proposal. They would if they could; Sephiroth had made it one of his first goals to get people who worked under him to stop thinking he'd skewer them if they spoke their minds once he'd come around to Angeal and Genesis. Still, he liked his odds.

"All in favor?"

Sephiroth tallied up the raised hands.

It looked like Sephiroth had a mentee.

Chapter Text

Sephiroth was worrying. He doubted any of the slum dwellers around him could tell. They seemed content enough to spite him by association and fear him by reputation, rather than pay attention to his admittedly muted body language. Of course, even if anyone had scrutinized him, they'd most likely have merely deemed him very severe. The slums weren't pleasant at the best of times, but, with altered senses, the refuse of all sorts, the stench of blood from monster kills and human infighting, what passed for food down here, the market hawkers and domestic disputes, the grunge and colors, and the taste of oil and soot and cheap meat in the air all shouted their existence into his brain. This all meant that he was concentrating very hard on hiding a rolling stomach, a pounding head, and a chest cold and clammy with nausea. And worrying.

The cause for his worry was one Cloud Strife. He'd delivered the news that he'd made it into SOLDIER – more or less – in person, seeing as he was to be his mentor, and offered him the use of his spare bedroom.

“The only people I have who might stay over have housing in the same building already. Plus, you wouldn't have to share a room with someone else, and ShinRa couldn't extract housing costs from your wage.” Cloud looked hesitant. “It seems only fitting I at least offer. And I should warn you that Zack has put in first dibs if you decide you want more traditional entry level housing.”

Cloud had paled a scosche at that, which Sephiroth took to mean that he'd been there to visit. Zack's room was an obstacle course. He knew where everything in it was, but he was the only one who did, because all of his belongings were strewn about the tiny apartment in stacks, heaps, and piles. And whenever Angeal tried to clean his disaster area up for fear of losing his protégé to it once and for all, Zack claimed that a clean room depressed him and that “clean rooms were for hospitals and displays.” He got around every day through precise foot placement, excellent balance, and carefully calculated leaps. (Sephiroth privately theorized that Zack owed his early success in SOLDIER to a refusal to clean his room back home.)

Cloud had politely accepted Sephiroth's spare key after that.

Sephiroth had begun to regret it. He'd woken up the past three nights on account of muffled noises coming from the guest – from Cloud's bedroom. Nightmares. Cloud suffered from nightmares. Several in a night. Long ones. Dark. And, if Sephiroth was right in his suspicions, based heavily in reality.

“... Control me, body and mind?”

Everyone in all of ShinRa knew not to wake a soldier, all caps or not, from a nightmare on account of likely disorientation and deadly reflexes. For once, ShinRa had put out that memo before someone had gotten hurt, albeit only at the insistence of the Turk head, Veld, in order to prevent massive public image headaches and lawsuits. (Well, Veld probably cared, though he'd refuse to admit it even to himself, about the inevitable deaths if ShinRa were negligent with this, but he knew his audience.)

It was hard not to wake him, though (and technically, with his reflexes, he could, but it was a bad example to set), especially when the outward manifestations of the nightmares extended beyond some unhappy but unintelligible muttering and shifts in position. (Sephiroth didn't need to open Cloud's door to figure out what was going on. He'd been honed physically and mentally to sort and categorize unusual noises for about as long as he could recall.) The one nightmare that had escalated to a brief scream was actually worse to listen to in the whimpering that followed.

Cloud was going about his days as if nothing were wrong. It was possible he didn't remember his dreams; he understood that to be common. Sephiroth, on the other hand, was a wreck, though he made sure he hid it well. If he didn't find some way to make sure his ward (well, he said he was legal, but Sephiroth didn't buy it, so as his mentor he was his legal guardian, and he took such things as seriously as his father didn't) was well soon, he thought he might lose it. Especially with war looming that he didn't think he'd be able to protect him from.

That was why they were in the slums today. On paper it was a monster extermination mission to get Cloud's feet wet. In reality, Sephiroth needed a break from thoughts of Cloud's nightmares and Wutai. And a way for him to evaluate Cloud's skills for himself. The labs were still working out the right Mako treatment series for Cloud given his record low on height and weight for the program, coupled with the ongoing tests to determine his most likely reactions to the treatments and Mako sensitivity. Sephiroth's treatments from when he was the same size were useless on account of the fact that he had been given treatments since before he was born.

Cloud moved through the slums as if they were familiar to him. After they'd gotten off the train in Sector Seven, he'd led them unerringly through the colloquially named Train Graveyard to Wall Market. Sephiroth hadn't known that route existed. He'd been planning to use the official ShinRa checkpoint to get to their destination (Green Park, where rising whole eater populations were making an already unsafe playground actively dangerous), but Cloud had headed off on automatic, and Sephiroth had followed. Cloud had then woven through the market crowds and winding streets of the market, dodging the hands of pickpockets smoothly but slipping what Sephiroth was fairly sure were protein bars from his own cabinet into their hands as he passed, until he came to a stop at the edge of the park.

"Sir, if you'll stay here, I'll go in to trigger an attack. If you came onto their territory, they'd avoid you instinctively, but since I haven't had any Mako treatments yet, I should be able to draw their attention by trespassing since they won't be able to sense a significant energy difference."

Cloud was good about only calling him Sephiroth in private or in trusted company, though it would be more acceptable now that they had an official point of connection. Sephiroth gave him the go-ahead. In he went.

In less than a minute's time, Sephiroth found himself glad that he'd gotten himself named Cloud's mentor rather than asking some other SOLDIER to volunteer for the task. No one else would be able to properly deal with someone so young yet so powerful and skilled. Well, Genesis or Angeal, maybe, but Genesis was hardly likely to be responsible with such a position, and Angeal already had the Puppy, who for anyone else would be a two person job.

As Cloud searched the sluggishly dissolving corpses for items they may have swallowed, coming up with one potion from the eight whole eaters he'd downed in a scant two minutes and thirty-seven seconds of rapid paced battle Sephiroth hadn't even had to consider helping out with, children began crowding up around him at the edges, hesitantly at first, but plucking up more courage quickly. And abruptly, Sephiroth realized that bringing the anomalously strong and skilled Cloud Strife to a park full of impressionable children of a comparable size and/or age had been an enormous mistake with massive potential deleterious effects on the future of the SOLDIER program and quite possibly, in an ironic twist, the children's wellbeing.

"Dang, man, where you learn to fight like that?"

"Yo, you new around here? I ain't seen you before, and I'd notice someone like you."

"Wow! That was amazing! You a superhero?"

The last was from a younger child than the others, perhaps around four or five. Cloud chuckled in a way that sounded wrong to Sephiroth, though he didn't have enough experience with the shades of laughter to identify how.

"No, I'm not a superhero."

That was what it sounded like. He sounded scraped raw, like the question had plunged a fist into an old but ill-healed wound of a memory. Sephiroth thought he might be able to do something about that. He slipped into the park and knelt in front of the child, trying very hard to make his face and body language seem open and non-threatening, like Angeal somehow managed whenever he wasn't on official duty despite his intimidating bulk. Judging by the minor retreat of the children's line, he had forgotten something. Well, nothing for it.

"Do you want to be a hero?"

The older children tensed in a cross between fear and warning, but the younger child nodded eagerly.

"Don't you go fillin' his head up with dreams," a girl threatened. She was probably the bravest of the bunch, considering she'd dared confront him directly at all. If only Mako didn't have fatal interactions in women, he'd have been glad to see her trained for SOLDIER. He gave her a slight smile and nodded his head in respect. It was more emotion than he typically showed, but he had often been told he wasn't terribly approachable. He was trying to work on that, especially around civilians.

"I'm not going to." He turned back to the little boy. "Do you know anyone who's very hurt or very sick?"

He got a hesitant nod in response. He turned to his apprentice and held out his hand for the potion he'd just looted. He never carried any of his own.

"You take this to the person and have them drink it until they're well enough to get better." He slipped a thin bangle off his wrist and fitted in his unmastered Cure materia. He always carried around both mastered and unmastered materia, the former for dire situations and the latter so that he could help level up the overall stock for the safety of his men. "And when you have the time, you practice concentrating very hard on wanting to help people get better and thinking just a little bit of energy at this little green stone while you're wearing this bracelet, and in time you'll be able to save people with this bracelet the way you can with this potion. How's that sound? You want to help save people?"

The little boy nodded eagerly, and Sephiroth twitched his lips up in a little smile and slipped the bangle up his arm until it finally found enough girth to stay put almost at his shoulder (Sephiroth felt fortunate the bangle had found purchase at all), then carefully placed the green bottle in his outstretched hands. The boy's eyes lit up, and he started walking carefully out of the park, not daring to run lest he trip and drop his precious cargo.

The girl who'd spoken up earlier stepped forward, shaking in deferred terror, with a growl.

"He ain't safe with potion. Down here, demand's so high, potion'll end your life quicker'n it can save it."

"Cloud and I will follow and make sure he makes it. After that, it's up to you to see to it that he gets a chance to learn how to use the materia."

The girl pulled her head back like a startled dog, then narrowed her eyes all over again.

"You just don't get it. It's war down here. You think I ain't killed? I have. I killed three people. And I'm nine. Your 'good deed for the day' or whatever, it won't mean nothin', 'cause down here there's always another body. I told you not to fill his head with dreams, and now he thinks he can save people, but you can't. Not down here. There's always another knife around the corner."

Sephiroth wished that speech affected him, but all he could think of was how lucky the girl was to have reached nine and only killed three people. He'd killed closer to a hundred. Cloud spoke up in his stead.

"We can't change things down here. We don't know the people or rival groups. But the boy can. He's from here, and he wants to help people, and General Sephiroth just gave him something that might let him."

Cloud walked past her to follow after the boy, and Sephiroth gave a brief, slightly stilted bow, and followed.

It took nearly an hour at the boy's careful pace to trail him to his neighbor's hazard of a shelter in Sector Five made of rusty, salvaged siding and broken power cords, where a middle aged man was slowly dying of lockjaw. The boy emerged empty handed, then went into his own "house," where his childish voice echoed out quietly from the one tiny room, "Make people get better, make people get better, make people get better..."

Sephiroth stared quietly at the door from down the jagged path and glanced down at Cloud, who was eyeing him discretely. Cloud elected to answer his raised eyebrow at length.

"I didn't expect that. It makes me wonder how much of the man who keeps coming back no one got to see before he went mad."

Cloud looked up, seeming pensive, then froze. Sephiroth followed his gaze to a young woman approaching them with a basket of flowers, of all things, slung over her arm. Sephiroth could smell them from here. They smelled fresh and green and clean like nothing in Midgar ever did, and he could feel his pounding headache subsiding.

"Hello, there," she said. She seemed slightly apprehensive, but not at all angry or anywhere near as fearful of him as most everyone else outside of SOLDIER seemed to be. "I saw what you did for that boy. It was very kind of you. I'd like to thank you and give you this, if you don't mind."

She carefully selected a white zinnia from her basket and handed it to Sephiroth, then fished out a pale lavender garlic flower and held it out to Cloud. It was then that Sephiroth realized that Cloud still hadn't moved. Hadn't breathed yet, even. He dipped his head a bit to bring their faces closer to the same level.

"Cloud?"

Cloud took a slow breath and visibly pulled his thoughts together.

"Sorry. You, um." He cleared his throat. "You look like a friend I lost many years ago. For a minute, I thought you were her."

He reached out and carefully took the flower, cradling it in his hands like it was sugarspun and liable to shatter with the slightest touch. The woman giggled at his obvious care.

"Thank you," he breathed, head tilted low and voice pitched to match.

"Yes, thank you," Sephiroth hurriedly seconded, remembering how social niceties were the equivalent of superfluous paperwork (not intrinsically useful, but necessary if you wanted anything to get done), even as he brought the zinnia to his nose and felt his stomach settle in response. "Are you sure you want to give these to us, though? These must have cost a fortune. You must have bought them from the best boutique above-plate."

She giggled again.

"No, silly, I grow them myself!"

She seemed briefly worried when she realized she'd just called the General of SOLDIER silly to his face, but relaxed when he reacted with anything but violence.

"You grow them? Really? You must have to travel acres just to get to arable land. That's dedication."

"No, not at all. I grow them here, under the plate."

She seemed both eager and nervous, but Sephiroth was stunned.

"That's... How?"

"Good luck, a lot of care, and a whole lot of love, I guess."

Cloud tilted his head up from his flower cluster, peeking up at the brunette woman.

"Could I see where you grow them?"

She hesitated for a moment, then nodded, smiling sweetly.

"Sure. It's just up the road in the old church. I'll show you."

The church was beautiful and mostly whole. Sephiroth had no idea why it wasn't being used as shelter. It was an old cathedral in the gothic style, with high, vaulted ceilings, rows of stained glass windows, dark pews, and smooth, treadworn wooden floors. The floor was broken where a pulpit once would have stood, the planks cleared away to make way for a patch of wildflowers, incongruously bright and incomprehensible in the barren, light-choked earth beneath the plate. He could feel the Mako dance in his veins at the sight of them in a mix of fear and joy he'd only ever felt it do near natural Mako springs.

"It's amazing. How are you growing them?"

"I told you," she replied cheerfully but still with that same touch of nerves. "A lot of care, a lot of love, and a lot of luck."

"That's not –"

"Sephiroth."

Sephiroth looked over at Cloud. He never used his name outside of trusted company, and for good reason.

"She's hiding."

Sephiroth furrowed his brows for a moment, looking at her, then at the flowerbed, and back. And drew a conclusion.

"Hojo had you, didn't he? And you escaped, like Cloud, and now you're both hiding in plain sight."

The woman paled drastically.

"I... I don't know what you're talking about."

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to scare you. I have no love for the man. He raised me, and... he shouldn't be allowed near children, or humans of any age, for that matter. I just... I just want to know. I'll never tell anyone if you don't say so. It's just... the flowers."

The woman slowly sat down on one of the pews.

"My mother escaped with me when I was little. She died down here, but my adoptive mother found us as she was dying and took me in. She was always so careful to hide me from ShinRa. If the flowers clued you in, then –”

"I'd never have guessed if not for Cloud. Someone helped him escape, too."

"And you're working for ShinRa?!"

Cloud made an expression that married grin and grimace.

"It's necessary."

"We should leave so as not to draw attention to you, but I'll leave you my personal PHS number. If you ever need anything, just, um... Do you have a PHS?"

She shook her head. Of course not, in the slums. Few did down here.

"There are a few working payphones, though."

"That works, then. If you have any paper, I can write it down."

"It's okay. I'll just memorize it. Safer for us both that way. I'll have Mom memorize it, too."

They exchanged numbers, and Sephiroth began memorizing the number of the payphone closest to her house so he'd be able to recognize it, only to realize he'd forgotten something rather important before he even began.

"I'm sorry, miss, but... what is your name?"

Aerith, as she introduced herself, laughed long and loud.

Sephiroth left the slums not with the symptoms of sensory overload but with the laughter of a new friend echoing in his head and a flower's stem clutched gently in his hand warding off the stench of Midgar.

Chapter Text

Sephiroth sat on the couch trying to make heads or tails of his Wutaian pronunciation guide for the umpteenth time. It was bewildering, because whoever had decided on phoneme transliteration from a character system to Common lettering had apparently not cared one whit for logic or the pronunciation of letters in the second language. He’d had to pick up tips from Veld’s prodigy Turk, Tseng, when he could catch a minute with him. Words were spelled with an x that was pronounced sh (more or less). When an i came after a u, the whole syllable came out sounding like way instead of we. Yan was pronounced yen. It was as if it were written as a cipher. (A suspicious and probably over-paranoid part of Sephiroth’s mind marked that thought for further investigation.)

Cloud, meanwhile, sat in the eating nook facing Sephiroth and the door and typing, as he had in any spare moment in the apartment for the past two weeks. (His apartment came equipped with a grand dining room that Genesis had taken one condescending look at before dramatically declaring it far too overbearing for everyday use – as if he had any room to talk – and promptly set about ordering new furniture and rearranging his whole apartment to give him a breakfast nook; Genesis, for all his gaudy flair, was very good at creating a cozy living space, though it had taken Sephiroth seven months and a day when both of his friends were on week-long deployments and he’d just gotten back from an appointment with his father to understand why that was important.)

He was, he told Sephiroth, detailing every step of his past, albeit in a fairly abridged fashion, as best as he'd been able to piece it together. Given his history of poor reactions to Mako, most of them being tied to his memory in one way or another, Cloud had thought it best to write down his past so that he'd have something to jog his memories or at least fall back on if everything went south. Being a private person with a lot to hide (Sephiroth didn’t kid himself – and why was that a phrase? – he knew Cloud wasn’t telling him everything, but that was fine; he’d wait until Cloud was ready; he could afford to trust with someone as young as Cloud), he was writing in a garble of palace Wutaian, the old Nibel tongue, a pinch of archaic Gongagan, which he assumed had been learned from Zack, and a few other smatterings of languages comparatively few could comprehend.

Sephiroth approved of his fatalism, but a part of him, a part he was still adjusting to after slowly accepting Genesis and Angeal as an extension of himself, hated it.

Actually, there was a thought.

“Cloud. You speak Wutaian, yes?”

“Well, the palace dialect. Stumblingly.”

“I’m attempting to learn the language. You know the state of negotiations with Wutai?”

“Widely accepted to be doomed to failure, most likely because ShinRa has no interest in cooperation rather than subjugation and Wutai wants no part in Mako energy.”

Sephiroth blinked. Not that Cloud was wrong. However, few dared air ugly truths about ShinRa above-plate and fewer would do it around him. None had phrased the issue quite like that before that he had heard. He nodded.

“It would be useful for me to speak Wutaian, as the war will be fought on their turf.”

Cloud blinked slowly.

“Ah. I only know the palace dialect, and not precisely fluently. It’s most likely sun and moon to many of the country dialects.”

“Sun and moon?”

“Vastly different and separated. Possibly mutually incomprehensible, at least to a non-native ear.”

There was a pause as Cloud mulled over the possible solutions.

“Wutaian grammar isn’t difficult, and I can help you some with the pronunciation, but the tonals might take some time to train your ears to recognize. Can’t help too much with vocabulary, either. The friend who taught us mostly used it as a way to fill the silence rather than to educate, so it was a bit scattered, and it wouldn’t surprise me if she taught us wrong for her own amusement.”

That… didn’t make sense to Sephiroth, but casual interactions rarely did, so he let it pass without comment.

“If you’re that useless as a teacher, I should just bring you along as an interpreter and let you make a fool of yourself rather than have me do it,” he teased. This was alright, he was sure. Genesis and Angeal teased each other like this all the time.

Cloud tilted his head in thought.

“Good idea, actually.”

Cloud nodded as if that decided things and went back to his typing. Sephiroth stared for a long minute, pronunciation guide caught halfway to his face in a forgotten task, as he properly processed the fact that Cloud had just invited himself along to a highly contentious negotiation in a blasé manner in response to a joke.

“Cloud, you do realize that was said in jest, right?”

Sephiroth was a bit hesitant about this, but he didn’t want Cloud caught up in the war when it inevitably came, and getting him involved as a translator right from the get-go (he still wasn’t convinced Zack hadn’t just made that one up on the spot, no matter what Angeal said) was not setting the proper precedent.

“It’s a good plan. The rapscallion did teach me some of their culture, some of the rituals and mannerisms we’d need to get anything done without accidentally delivering grave insult in the presence of royalty. She might have given us some wrong details so we’d make fools of ourselves, but she wouldn’t teach us anything that would endanger us. Much.”

At Sephiroth’s raised eyebrow, he explained, “She had a skewed sense of fighting ability and an utterly broken meter on what was appropriate. She was a lot of fun once you got used to her trying to steal your materia. I miss her.”

Fortunately, Cloud looked fond and nostalgic rather than pained and wistful, so Sephiroth didn’t have to figure out the proper comforting ritual.

Still, that did not change the fact that Cloud was not going.

“It’ll be nice to see Wutai again. And, hey, it’s a slim chance, but given my knowledge of both cultures, it’s possible I might be able to negotiate some kind of compromise, especially if Tseng gives me some pointers.”

Sephiroth could not deny that. And wars, much as soldiers and governments (and ShinRa) tried to deny it to themselves and the populous, mostly killed civilians these days in power moves and monsters released that weren’t kept contained. Sephiroth had no desire to be involved in the massacre of civilians, no matter how little he understood them or how much he sometimes envied them.

Apparently Cloud was going.

Sephiroth thought he might need to visit Genesis so that no matter how violent he felt over this, his overreaction would seem reasonable by comparison.

On second thought, he had better invite Angeal, too. Otherwise, between his foul mood and the way Genesis could get when he wanted a fight (always), they might level the building. The president would just have to suck up the damages to the VR room.

Chapter Text

Angeal did not know what to make of what he was seeing. It defied explanation. He was blaming Zack.

It was the only quasi-explanation he could think of for why Sephiroth was fidgeting nervously (well, clenching and unclenching his right calf muscles) in the waiting room of the labs with a foot and a half of frizzy silver curls. Curls he seemed to be ignoring entirely in favor of focusing all of his attention on Cloud. Who, to be fair, looked like he was having a very contained nervous breakdown. His breathing was just a little too regular, his face just a little too calm.

Angeal very slowly sidled closer to Sephiroth until he was facing him. Slowly and carefully, because Sephiroth with a foot and a half of frizzy curls threatened the stability of the universe, and he did not want to be the one to tip the scales for good.

He couldn't think of a single way to approach this situation delicately. Not one.

"So how did Zack get to you?" Sephiroth barely glanced at him, choosing instead to continue staring at Cloud in a frankly disconcerting manner. "I mean, me, I can almost understand. My defenses are low around him, and I'm pretty sure he planned for quite some time how to distract me so I wouldn't notice. You, on the other hand, are – how does Genesis put it? – hyperattentive to the point of borderline schizophrenia, and your senses are off the charts. So, how?"

Cloud seemed to shake himself free of his staring contest with the wall slightly, enough to look over at him disapprovingly.

"Don't flatter them. Seph and Zack both have ego to spare. I replaced his shampoo and conditioner with triple-strength curl hold versions."

Angeal stared. It made so little sense that he couldn't actually think of a question to ask. There wasn't enough of a basis of sanity to build from. He gave up entirely.

"Why are you here?"

And alive, he didn't add. Sephiroth was notoriously obsessive about his hair.

There was silence as Cloud breathed evenly with extreme prejudice. Sephiroth shot him a harsh glare, which he couldn't quite take as seriously as he'd like with corkscrew curls piled on top of each other until his hair was twice as wide as the newly-minted Third at his side.

Well, not officially. The rule was that a class promotion wasn't official until you'd had your first corresponding Mako treatment, unless the promotion was awarded posthumously. Ah. Cloud must be here for his first treatment. Which meant he must be trying to suppress panic reactions to Hojo, Mako, and the labs in general. And Sephiroth would be taking advantage of the precedent he'd set in being there for Zack's first few treatments to make sure he could be there for Cloud.

It would be honorable, Angeal decided, to distract Cloud. So he took his life into his hands.

"The hair, though."

Frankly, it was the only thing he could think of. His mind couldn't let it go. Sephiroth with curly hair didn't make sense.

Cloud took a breath that was carefully no more careful than the last. (And he clearly needed to spend some time in company that didn't include Zack if his sentences were starting to sound like that.)

"I thought it would be good for us to have an anomalous distraction. Neither of us has accidentally killed anyone yet, so.... Though, to be fair, they haven't called us in yet." He quirked an eyebrow at Sephiroth, eyeing him in the periphery of his vision. "Do they usually keep the Great General Sephiroth waiting?"

Sephiroth narrowed his eyes and flicked Cloud's hair, probably afraid to raise a bone-deep bruise if he flicked him anywhere else. SOLDIER strength could be a real disadvantage sometimes, especially around the unenhanced.

Just then, a young tech stepped out. Gangly and new-looking and late. Hojo was clearly playing power games now that Sephiroth had someone under his direct protection.

"Cloud Strife," he drawled into a waiting room empty but for the three SOLDIERs (well, two and one about to be).

Cloud stepped forward, Sephiroth at his side with his curls bobbing at the motion. The lab tech looked up from his clipboard to deliver the inevitable bored "follow me" and goggled. Angeal couldn't blame him.

"S-ir?"

The tech's voice broke over the word in his horrified confusion, because Sephiroth and riotous curls and untamed mop and what and why?

Sephiroth and Cloud raised a brow each in response, staring silently and blinking judgmentally.

And suddenly, Angeal understood. Oh, Sephiroth was doubtless displeased about the state of his hair. Once Cloud was out of danger with the Mako treatment, he'd get back at him in a thousand tiny ways (many of which would probably involve minor tortures to his newly sharpened senses and missions that nobody wanted because they were in the swamplands or something). He'd wait. But for now, he was simply having too much fun. Sephiroth had a sadistic side, and he was downright gleeful in anticipation of people's reactions.

He made a note to make sure Genesis saw it.

The tech rallied – mostly by pretending he couldn't see Sephiroth's hair, as far as Angeal could tell – and continued with his script.

"Cloud Strife, if you'll follow me, we'll begin the treatment shortly." And when Sephiroth made to follow, "Patients only past this point, sir."

Angeal had to give the tech credit. Not many could defy Sephiroth. Nonetheless, he wasn't about to make Cloud go in there alone.

"There's precedent. I was allowed back with my protégé when he was first receiving Mako treatments."

"I intend to adhere to that precedent," Sephiroth added, his face hard.

The tech narrowed his eyes, but nodded.

"Very well, follow me."

Angeal had actually been coming from an appointment with Dr. Hollander, so he had no reason to stick around, but he had a feeling. Every warrior learned to trust his gut instinct early on, so he sat down and pulled out his PHS. Might as well get some work done while he was on standby.

He read through emailed reports, lingering over the occasional oddity. One Third's report rambled about the increasing number of vagabond Wastelanders with criminal tendencies. Apparently, the detail had lost several mid-leveled materia to a team of them in a skirmish on a mission to lower the Kalm fang population before the so-called "Prowlers" ran off. He tapped his leg twice in quick succession to remind himself to speak with the Third. Calling the group Prowlers would only lead to thinking of them as monsters, which would be both stupid and prejudicial.

When the timestamp on his PHS noted that three hours and twenty-seven minutes had passed, the door to the patient rooms swung open, Cloud stepping out first with Sephiroth on his heels. Angeal could tell immediately that all was not well. Cloud's movements were fluid, his face was relaxed, and he had a faint Mako glow, as he should after his first successful treatment, but something was off. Something in his eyes. Cloud walked past him out of the laboratories without a word, and he rose to follow. As soon as the door thudded shut behind the three of them, Cloud halted and took a shuddering breath. His voice came out reedy and hoarse and lined with a definitive edge.

"Get me to the stairwell. Get Zack."

Chapter Text

Zack heard "Cloud" and "stairwell" and that tone of voice, and suddenly Angeal was nowhere near him, because he'd left and thrown himself over the railing in the stairs and was freefalling and scanning frantically for Cloud as he fell. And then he saw a flash of gold and a flash of silver and angled his body to alter his direction of fall and grabbed a section of railing, then of the concrete below it when the metal bent and tore, and maybe he took a chunk of concrete with him when he swung into the landing next to Sephiroth and Cloud, but that was fair, because the concrete took a chunk of him, too, which his Mako was healing at record speeds because of all the adrenaline in his system.

"Cloud!" he gasped, ignoring the way Sephiroth had only managed to turn aside what would have been a death stroke at the last millisecond, because not important. "Spiky, can you hear me?! Are you hurt, are you mutating, do you remember me, oh my gosh, Cloud, please, don't forget me!"

"Zack," Cloud said, and that was a relief, but he could still hear a high-pitched whine that he suspected was actually in his head, and Cloud's expression and body language said scared and keeping calm and fond and determined, and that was a bad combination. "My memories are in and out, and I'm trying to hold on, but I can feel my grip draining. You stay with me and you coax me back to now, okay? When I'm calm, give me my laptop. That should help. My memories are jumbling. I can feel them. Just... careful. You should be safe, but Sephiroth looks like him, and I might try to kill him or the Commanders. I don't want to forget, it's important. Important, important. You gotta... it's important. Just... Zack?"

"Yeah, Spike?" because Cloud was for when he was worried, and he was, he was terrified, but Cloud was going to need him, and he had to keep calm, so he'd pretend for them both.

"Zack, why is the General here?"

Right, Sephiroth almost skewered him like a shish kebob.

"I took you here after your Mako appointment. You had a reaction."

Sephiroth was definitely better at pretending to be calm than he was. And he was pretending, even to himself, just like Zack was. Zack could tell by the bend of his knees.

Cloud stared at him for a long moment, wide-eyed.

"S-sir! Mako appointment? What?"

"Yeah, Spike. You were promoted to Third. Seph went with you 'cause he's your mentor, like Angeal is to me. Remember?"

Cloud's expression wasn't promising. It had started.

"What? Zack, I failed. What are you talking about? This isn't funny."

Zack slipped that away into the parts of his mind he kept to store things to look at later.

"No, kiddo. No, you didn't, you passed. Um. Oh! You have Mako eyes now! I can show you! Um, mirror, mirror!"

Zack patted his pockets rapid-fire and looked around wildly.

"Fair, I highly doubt you're carrying a mirror, and there aren't any on the stairwell. We'll have to use the flat of a blade."

Which would be good if Zack had his sword. He'd been in the gym, and then Angeal had said "Cloud" like that, and his head had gone blank, just a white vacuum as his body moved, and he hadn't even begun to have thoughts that involved words again until he was in the empty space in the middle of the stairs with a swooping sensation in his gut. He hoped Angeal wouldn't kill him for losing his sword like that. ... Yeah, Angeal was gonna kill him.

Sephiroth sighed and drew Masamune again from whatever pocket dimension he kept it in (because it was impossible to turn corners with seven feet of sword out, and he knew Seph had tried, because he'd spent a solid three hours laughing over the attempt stories one day when Angeal had to either distract him from his boredom or deal with the fallout from another prank), tilting it so Cloud could see his eyes reflected in the tempered steel.

Cloud sucked in a breath, and Zack could see it when some cog in his mind clicked over. His eyes drifted up over the polished steel and caught sight of Zack. He eyed him tiredly with a hint of brokenness and sighed.

"How long are you going to keep coming around?"

Get him back to the present.

"Forever, Cloudy. We're friends, after all. That's what friends do."

Cloud winced and bit his lip.

"Don't do that. Don't remind me of the good times. It's bad enough I'm going to have to wake up to you dead and me unable to help disappointing everyone."

Leaving all the most important bits of that aside, "I'm not dead, Spike. Here –”

He reached for Cloud's hand, but he jerked back violently.

"Don't touch me! I can't... not you, too. The Stigma can't take you, too. Not you. I don't know if even the dead are safe." He snorted harshly. "I wonder if I'll even be able to die, when it takes me. Maybe I'll just be like him and keep coming back. I don't... I don't know if I could bear that, Zack."

He was so small, standing there with his hair tangled up in improbable spikes, eyes glowing softly from a round face, and he shouldn't sound resigned, or, worse, hopeful about his own death, and apparently this had happened when he was even younger than now, and how was Zack supposed to deal with that?

"You're not going to die, Spike."

"Indeed," Sephiroth agreed grimly, looking every inch the implacable general ShinRa portrayed him as. Except for the two feet of fluffy curls, which, later. When his Cloudy didn't want to die. "We won't let you."

Cloud's eyes flared, and he hissed some nonsense word that Sephiroth seemed to recognize, and Zack abruptly found himself watching his little brother in battle mode for a second time. Well, crud. There were better places for him to have a massive violent meltdown than almost seventy floors up on a staircase.

The fight unfolded very differently from any of his spars with the kid or the downright fiasco with Angeal. For one thing, Cloud didn't have a sword, and Sephiroth had sheathed (disappeared?) his as soon as it was no longer being used as a mirror and wasn't about to bring it out to use against Cloud, so hand-to-hand was king. For another, Cloud seemed to be in a mindset halfway between the two battle faces he'd seen. His eyes flickered to each and every tiny shift, twitch, or tensing on Sephiroth's part without losing view of the whole, scouring for an opening the way he did with Zack. But he was also burning up with rage – less than with Angeal and tempered by the exhaustion in his words, but there and fueling his adrenaline nonetheless. And that was a difference, too, because with Angeal, he'd just been burning with his anger, hot and fierce, but this time it seemed like he was more than happy to let it burn him out, to finish the fight and then just die. (Sometimes, Zack didn't know how he could tell differences like that, but he could, and he was glad of it.) And Cloud wasn't desperate. Desperation acknowledged other ends than the one it wanted. It was more that he seemed as if this man would die, and that was that. There was no other choice in the matter. It didn't matter what else happened. This man would die, whether he took Cloud with him or not.

It was interesting, too. Zack didn't jump into the fight right away, waiting for a good chance, because the last thing he wanted to do was screw it up and accidentally hurt Cloud, and this meant he got to observe the exchange of blows. Cloud, it turned out, was a big fan of pushing off of things for aerial attacks, which nearly gave him heart failure each time Cloud pushed off the wall toward Sephiroth where he stood by the railing (Sephiroth let those blows land or grabbed his wrist so he wouldn't go over if it looked like a possibility). Sephiroth, on the other hand, preferred just not letting things hit him. He couldn't tell much past that, since Sephiroth, naturally, wasn't fighting back. But Cloud, while he was passable with hand-to-hand, was no great shakes at it, and Sephiroth was never without his sword long enough in battle to need it. Even from the limited view he was getting, he could tell that, as far as technique went, he was actually the best of the three of them in this area, which really threw him for a loop, because Sephiroth. He was no fanboy, but the General had his reputation as unbeatable for a very good reason. Angeal and Genesis working together had yet to beat him. But Angeal refused to use his Buster Sword and didn't always want to lug around an extra for fights, so he concentrated on fighting with his fists mostly and made sure his apprentice could do the same. And, weirdly enough, Zack could tell that if he had the same level of enhancements as Sephiroth and nobody had materia or weapons, he could probably beat the guy. It put a different twist on his perspective of him, that was for sure.

And then Cloud changed the game.

He leapt to the rail, not to attack Sephiroth, it turned out, but to leap up to the next flight and rip off the hanging bar from where Zack had broken his fall. He shouldn't have been able to, not when he couldn't weigh sixty pounds, but the metal was weakened from Zack's ill use of it, and Cloud had gravity on his side and fresh Mako in his veins. And Cloud swung down and charged with a bar of twisted metal, jagged on both ends, and the way he was holding it, he'd skewer himself with the near end if he tried to stab Seph with the other.

Zack tackled him with a capture hold, slapping the bar out of his hands, and twisted to take the brunt of the impact with the stairs himself. The battered rail skittered over the side of the stairs and raised a din as it clanged to the bottom. Zack knew it was just perspective, but Cloud's grunts as he tried to escape the hold and his own pants of pain and exertion seemed louder by half than the clangor from the falling metal. His back was a net of pain against the concrete steps.

Sephiroth came over, his body language all nonaggression and sincerity. He knelt next to where Zack had him pinned to his chest, curls floating down around his shoulders, and ran a hand through Cloud's hair and over his cheek. Cloud tried to bite him. He started up a pattering litany of soothing phrases, his hand retreating to Cloud's shoulder so his thumb could stroke a lullaby's promise of peace into the skin there.

"Cloud, it's okay. I'm not your guĭyù. I'm not going to hurt you. I promise I'll never knowingly and willingly hurt you. I need you to calm down, Cloud. Okay? Then we can explain what's going on. I know someone hurt you, but I'm not him. You need to stop struggling so you don't hurt Zack and so we can show you your notes, okay?"

Cloud's surges hiked along with his breathing at the start, but the moment Zack was mentioned, his movements stuttered, and he went limp.

"Zack?"

His voice was quavering and raw and don't dare to hope.

"Yeah, kiddo, I'm here. We're safe. Are you gonna keep attacking Seph, or can we explain?"

Cloud was silent and still. Zack looked to Sephiroth, who nodded, and he cautiously let go of Cloud, who sat up with a guarded, half-hostile look. Cloud ignored them both – well, he kept them in his periphery, but... – and studied his left arm with a gimlet eye.

"My Geostigma's gone. How? And where is my ribbon? What did you do with her ribbon?"

Cloud leapt up in anger. Sephiroth leaned forward slightly, his curl cloud shifting with him (later), and froze when Cloud snapped up a glare that, as far as Zack could tell from where he was lying, was pretty impressive, for all that it came from an eight-year-old face.

"Cloud, I haven't seen any ribbon, and I'm not sure what Geostigma is, but since you had a history of memory-related side effects with Mako and were being accepted into SOLDIER, you recorded everything you remembered in a laptop. You're the only one who knows what you've written. Would you like to come see it?"

Cloud remained mute, staring him down with blatant distrust.

Zack had had enough of sprawling upside-down on the cold concrete steps. He tried to sit up and coughed at the pain, letting himself back down gingerly. Sephiroth hissed and hastily cast a high-powered Cure on him. Cloud's hostility dropped in favor of wariness at that, though he'd reached over his shoulder in an abortive move before he realized what Sephiroth was casting.

There was a long silence, then Cloud reached down to help him up without taking his eyes off of Sephiroth.

Abruptly, he snorted.

"Well," he said. "Let's mosey."

Chapter Text

Sephiroth kept an eye on Cloud after Zack left to find his sword and, Sephiroth presumed, have a nervous breakdown where it wouldn't affect his “little brother.” He did what he could to be unobtrusive about it, since Cloud hadn’t really lost the edge he’d had when he attacked him in the stairwell, but he was sure Cloud was aware of his scrutiny. He was set up in his preferred spot in the breakfast nook, back to a wall and facing the living room and apartment door, his eyes flicking up from his notes every few seconds to check Sephiroth’s position and run over the furniture as though he were reading sensitive intel in the middle of hostile territory. A faint, earthy scent lingered in the air from the cold mug of ashwagandha tea Sephiroth had set down near Cloud. (Genesis had sauntered into his office out of the blue one month when he'd been having persistent tension headaches, confiscated his half-empty bottle of pain pills (and he couldn’t protest, because that would mean admitting weakness, and his father had taught him very well what that lead to), and shoved a tasteful bone china teacup into his hands, telling him deadpan that he’d go gray if he didn’t find ways to de-stress.) Cloud hadn’t touched it. Sephiroth poured himself a third mug and tried not to worry.

“Your hair should be straight.”

Cloud’s voice was soft and startling. He hadn’t said a word since Zack had left. Sephiroth did his best to choke down the hope that that sentence meant he was remembering.

“It is, normally. You pranked me into this look in order to distract us both from your first Mako treatment. The reactions were amusing.”

His face flickered in confusion, and he blinked slowly before subsiding with a considering hum.

Sephiroth’s PHS emitted a low tone. He pulled it out to look at the message, then sternly forbade himself from throwing it at the wall.

“Cloud.” The boy’s attention locked onto him. “I’ve been called away to an unscheduled board meeting. I have to be there to make sure no one pilfers funding. I don’t fancy my men being left without supplies in the field.” Technically, that should be Lazard’s job, but between the whispers about his parentage and his civilian status, the other board members didn’t regard him with the same respect, or at least fear, as they did Sephiroth. “I should be back in an hour or two.”

He waited until his ward had eyed him cautiously and nodded sharply in acknowledgement before leaving, locking the door pointlessly behind him. He didn’t normally bother to, since anyone trying to get in could force or pick the lock regardless, but he felt the need to have the added illusion of safety with Cloud on his own in his state.

He was back in less than an hour. He’d been extremely irritated at having been pulled away from Cloud under the circumstances and hadn’t bothered to hide his ire. The board members behaved a bit oddly, darting would-be furtive glances at him when they didn’t think he was looking, but no one had dared to make any attempt on his SOLDIERs with him in the mood he was in. (His subordinates knew they could speak their minds without risk of death, but he made sure it was a well-kept secret.)

He opened the door to his apartment unthinkingly and froze. He hadn’t unlocked it.

The apartment was silent, the sort of silent you got when you dove down deep in a lake, where it was cold and dark and airless and devoid of the possibility of meeting another soul. Cloud wasn’t at the breakfast table. He wasn’t even in the apartment. He couldn’t hear Cloud's healthy heartbeat, rapid with youth in a way that had concerned him at first, or the quiet shoosh of blood through his veins. Cloud’s absence hit him in a clammy rush, like stepping into a puddle of cold water while wearing socks.

Cloud was missing. Cloud was somewhere with memories telling him he was in the past. Who might Cloud try to contact, not knowing they wouldn't remember him? What if he had a flashback and attacked someone? What if he went after Hojo? What if Hojo went after him?

He needed to find Cloud. He needed to find Cloud immediately.

(He also needed to breathe, he noted distantly. He didn’t think he’d done that in a while.)

He yanked out his PHS and began dialing. He’d need help. He couldn’t find Cloud on his own. He might miss him if they were both moving. Moreover, he was clever and would be difficult to find if he wanted to hide. (He didn’t trust Sephiroth the way he was now, didn’t recognize him, wouldn’t come out if he saw him.)

Sephiroth cursed the fact that Thirds were not issued a PHS until after they’d adjusted to their first Mako shot for fear they’d break them with their abrupt new strength and ShinRa would have to replace them. Well, at least Cloud hadn’t seemed to have any troubles with that aspect of Mako enhancements. When he finally turned up (because he would, he refused to consider any other possibility), he’d be able to get him issued one immediately.

Fair didn’t answer. He’d probably lost his PHS in his reckless dive down the stairwell. Genesis had turned his off again.

“Hewley speaking.”

“Angeal. Cloud is missing.”

“What?”

“I was called away to a meeting I couldn’t miss, and when I came back, he was gone. His memories aren’t back yet, Angeal. He could be anywhere.”

Thudding feet and a door slamming against a wall came through the speaker.

“Why didn’t you call one of us to babysit, you idiot?”

“To what?”

“To babysit – to look after a kid while their parents are away. Look, just, I’ll help you look. Where might he have gone?”

“I don’t know, Angeal! His memory is half gone! He doesn’t remember his time here, so how, by Bahamut, am I supposed to know where he might go?!”

“Sephiroth! Calm down and stop shouting.”

“I’m n–” He took a deep breath and spoke again, voice soft. “Sorry. … I don’t know what he remembers, Angeal. What if he doesn’t remember Hojo? What if Hojo gets him?”

His PHS rang by his ear before Angeal could answer.

“Hang on, Angeal. Someone’s calling. It’s not programmed in, Angeal, what if he’s been kidnapped, what if it’s the kidnappers?”

“Sephiroth! Calm down. You are the General of SOLDIER. You will answer calmly, and if anyone has taken Cloud, we will get him back and kill them in the process.”

“Yes. Right.” He switched lines. "Yes? Who is this?"

It was possible he may have snapped the line out rather aggressively.

"Um... General?"

A female voice. Hesitant. Not Scarlet's. He checked the incoming number again. It was slums coded.

"Aerith?"

"Yes?"

"Oh. Is it an emergency? Cloud is missing."

"Then I'm glad I called. He's here."

...

"Oh."

"I thought he might have wandered off. He seemed sort of spacey when he got here and hasn't moved much since. All I managed to get out of him was that he was 'putting his head back together.' Any idea what that meant?"

"I might. I'll be down there as soon as I can. Try to keep him from leaving. Please," he added belatedly.

"You got it!" she sang. "I'll stick him in a dress if he tries to leave. That oughta deter him!"

Sephiroth blinked a few times and hung up.

"He's been found," he informed Angeal. “He’s with an acquaintance in the slums. I'll go reclaim him."

“Alright. Stay on the line with me. Don’t hang up.”

Angeal kept up a soothing monologue that really wasn’t necessary, now that he knew Cloud was safe, all the way down to the church in Sector Seven. It occurred to him abruptly to hope that Cloud had wound up there and not, somehow, at Aerith's home. His hopes flew true.

Cloud knelt statue-still at the edge of the makeshift flower bed, fingers buried in the loose topsoil. The scent of the churned earth and the sight of Cloud's shirt shifting slightly with his shallow breaths hit him abruptly, quelling a nausea he couldn’t put down entirely to the stench of the slums, as he’d been feeling it since he’d come back to find Cloud missing from the breakfast nook where he and Zack had set him up with his laptop, and he sank down on the nearest worn pew with weak knees.

“He’s here, Angeal,” he breathed over the other man’s steady voice before he hung up, and he realized that maybe Angeal’s calm patter had been necessary after all. “He’s alright.”

He sat there, too weak with relief to stand, and memorized the natural, relaxed pace of Cloud’s breathing, unconsciously matching it with his own. He thought he might have a new favorite place in Midgar. The air had never tasted so sweet on the roof of ShinRa Headquarters.

"You got here fast," a voice chirped softly, and he had Masamune halfway out when remembrance kicked in. He hastily slipped it away and spared a moment to glance at her, where she'd somehow appeared behind his left shoulder without him noticing, before returning his eyes to Cloud. No one had been able to startle him like that in years, but, seeing as she’d told him where to find Cloud, he couldn’t entirely care, even if it did make him slightly nervous. She eyed him cautiously, then evidently decided to pretend he hadn't reacted so violently. "I like your hair."

Oh. Right. He hadn't gotten the chance to wash out the curls, if that would even work. That explained why the board members had acted like fish, then.

"Aerith. Sorry. Thank you. Thank you for calling me. And watching him."

He kept his voice low to match hers. Until he knew why she was speaking quietly, it would be foolish to do otherwise.

"Awww, Mama Chocobo! Don't worry, your chickabo is fine. Or he will be. He's getting better the longer he sits there, whatever's wrong with him."

Only Genesis had ever been brazen enough to call him a mother chocobo before, and that on rare occasions when he’d had to all but frogmarch (even Zack had looked askance at that one, so he wasn’t sure he trusted Angeal that it was a real term) a couple of SOLDIERs to the hospital bay or their rooms for medical leave or when ShinRa had attempted to be stingy with much-needed supplies for his men and he’d set the record straight on just what ShinRa would give his SOLDIERs if he wanted to keep a single one of them. And Genesis had been mocking when he’d said it. Aerith’s tone was far more lighthearted. He decided that Aerith was a novel experience altogether.

"How can you tell?"

She shrugged.

"I can sometimes. It helps that he's by the flowers."

He nodded, accepting that. She clearly had a special connection to them, since they grew at all, let alone so well, in the sun-choked, lifeless earth of the Midgar slums. He'd seen stranger things than a magical connection to flowers on missions from time to time, and certainly in the labs. At least whatever her gifts were, they didn't seem sinister. More to the point, neither did she.

He kept his eyes on his ward, not quite feeling like he could walk yet. Besides, if being by Aerith's flowers was helping Cloud, he wouldn't be the one to move him.

"Soooo..." Aerith prodded after a long moment. He raised an eyebrow at her, turning his head slightly without moving his eyes. "What's wrong with his head?"

He did owe her information for her help, he supposed.

"He had his first Mako treatment today, and it’s interfered with his ability to access recent memories,” he murmured. “It’s not a normal reaction, but it’s not unheard of for Mako to interfere with the mind. When I left him in our apartment this afternoon to go to a meeting, he was under the impression he had a fatal transmissible disease, near as I could tell. That’s when he disappeared.”

"Hmm."

Aerith nudged him over on the bench (yes, definitely a novel experience, though Zack, another distinctly novel experience, would sometimes drape himself over Sephiroth without regards to their relative stations or Sephiroth’s general discomfort) and sat next to him, sharing his silent vigil over Cloud. He stirred after what Sephiroth was nearly certain was an eternity. He stood, brushed off his hands and the knees of his pants, turned around, and startled.

Sephiroth was the first to speak.

“Please don’t run off again. I nearly panicked when I thought Hojo might have gotten you.”

Aerith’s breath caught next to him, and Cloud grimaced.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to worry you. … Sorry for attacking you.”

“That’s the second time you’ve used bits of a building to attack me. It’s becoming a trend.”

Cloud worried his lip a bit.

“Is it? … Sorry. I think I’ve got most of my head pieced back together, but I won’t be able to know what’s missing until it comes up.”

“It’s alright. I’ll help you through wherever I can. You attacked me with a doorknob last time.”

Cloud looked blank.

“How?”

Aerith giggled beside him.

“Go for a fan blade next time. Keep it fun!”

Sephiroth fought a grin, and Cloud let out a stressed sort of chuckle.

“Alright, you two,” Aerith corralled. She had a very good military voice for a fourteen-year-old girl, Sephiroth noted. “You’ve both had a long and stressful day. Go home and cuddle.”

“Thank you for your help, Miss Gainsborough, truly. If you ever need anything.”

“I’ll be sure to call. I’ll wring you for all you’re worth,” she assured him with a grin and a wink.

“I’ll let you.”

She laughed and sent them on their way, a yellow ox-eye cradled in Cloud’s hands like something delicate and irreplaceable and a spray of biting stonecrop woven by Aerith into a quick braid framing Sephiroth’s face on the right.

As he pulled his charge just a touch closer on the train headed plateside, Sephiroth swore to himself to protect her from his father, too, should he ever find her. Aerith was under his protection, and he’d kill Hojo before he let him take anyone he held dear. Cloud had taught him how permanent that could be, that first night on the roof, in a way he hadn’t thought about before. He wasn’t about to forget it.

Chapter Text

"Knock, knock!"

Zack bounded into Sephiroth's office, ignoring the fact that his door had been closed and the lights had been off from what he could see from the hallway; Angeal and Genesis (when tentatively approached bearing a peace offering of chocolate) hadn't seen him, and he wasn't in any of the gyms when Zack checked. He was now operating off of the theory that the man was pretending to be out of his office to avoid the idiots on the board.

Cloud was stretched out on the floor, sketching by the midday light from the window. For a moment, he looked his age, a child glancing up with a quick grin (and another flash of that jarring shock at the sight of Zack) from his coloring while sprawled on his stomach, right up until Zack noticed he was using a straightedge to guide his hand as he drew scaled blueprints with alloy ratios scribbled in the margins for a complex... sword? Maybe? With interlocking parts? It would never work, but he seemed to actually be factoring in spaces for spring-loaded and locking mechanisms and some sort of materia dust – Float, maybe? – worked into the metal and set in stone form into the pommel under the leather wrappings.

The idea was pretty awesome, now that he thought about it. He could dive into a two-on-one fight with strong enemies and pretend to be overwhelmed, then – boom! – split his sword into two and fight them both at once, getting the element of surprise after he'd already started the battle. Angeal's voice lectured about wear, tear, and rust in his head, pointing out how you'd have to break down the whole sword after every battle to make sure it was properly cleaned, but still. Awesome.

Still wouldn't work, but he wasn't gonna tell Spike that. Let the kid dream and figure out the impracticalities for himself. He'd learn a lot from his attempts to make it work if he kept after it.

Seph was tucked up against the side of his desk with his left flank to the door, head bent low as he oiled Masamune. He cast a quick glance at Zack as he came in, tucking his hair behind his ear to glare at him until he closed the door, then turned back to his work, the hair slipping free to fall in front of his face again. His eyes, for the brief moment Zack had got a look at them, seemed bruised with exhaustion.

"Sephiroth! Just the man I wanted to see!" he exclaimed, ignoring the huffs of obviously in stereo from Cloud and Sephiroth. "Do you have any monster bashing missions in the Plains I could snatch up? I've got to get out of the city. I'm a country boy at heart. All this metal and smog is crushing my soul!"

Seph stilled a moment. Zack read hesitance in the slight twitch of his ring finger and consideration in the way it smoothed out. Once he'd figured out the cues and learned to focus his attention in the right place, he'd found Seph's fingers to be very expressive. After you magnified the tells about tenfold.

"There's a nest of raijinchou growing overpopulated and beginning to threaten the people of the Sector 2 slums. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to rout them now and drive them out into the Plains a ways.” He looked over at Zack assessingly. Zack was pretty sure that was for show. His fingers seemed decided already on whatever he was about to say. “Take Cloud with you. The Midgar smog likely isn’t doing his lungs any favors, especially with him being used to the pure mountain air of the Nibel Range. Keep a close eye on him. I’d come along, but, what with all the madness lately, I'm falling behind on my Wutaian vocabulary goals.”

“You got it,” Zack sang over the sounds of Cloud very half-heartedly protesting that he was fine. It had been his intention to get Seph to fork over his favorite chocobo head for the day in the first place. He needed to talk with him, somewhere well away from Turk ears. He wondered whether Seph somehow knew that, or if he was just taking advantage of Zack as a convenient playmate-slash-babysitter for Cloud while Seph got some work done and caught up on sleep.

He managed to bite back his questions until they had thinned out the gar-beaked flock and looted their reluctantly dissolving corpses for the more stable bolt plumes. As he led his little buddy out of the city by the nearest gate, though – because he’d have to be an idiot not to recognize Sephiroth telling him to take his time and get Cloudy out of the city for a few hours, regardless of how long the actual mission took them – Cloud caught his wrist.

“Not south,” Cloud gritted out through his teeth. His accent was as thick as Zack had ever heard it. He swallowed. “Just. The cliffs. Don’t – not to the south.”

Not the south, huh? And the cliffs specifically. Zack slowly nodded and led them around the city to the west, where the ocean was closest, mulling it over. The cliffs were the closest things to mountains anywhere in the area, and Cloud had lost his mother in his home range to a dragon just a few months ago. Maybe it hit too close to home? Zack wasn’t so sure that was it, but he didn’t ask – not yet – adding it to his long list of questions.

They settled several miles out from the city on a remarkably comfortable lump in the parched earth, staring out at the sea. Cloudy seemed almost relaxed after a while. Zack was reluctant to disturb it. Eventually, though, need to know won out.

“So how old are you really?”

Cloud rolled his eyes and leaned over to bump his shoulder into Zack’s arm.

“Believe it or not, but I really am fourteen. I just haven’t hit my growth spurt yet.”

“Yeah. Sure. You’re my age. And I’m secretly Sephiroth’s auntie.”

“You – you’re fourteen?” Cloudy choked, eyes wide.

Zack nodded, watching as Cloud paled then flushed.

“But you… no… it’s… oh.” His blush deepened. “I appear to have miscalculated my age.”

“You don’t say,” Zack drawled sarcastically.

“Shush,” he grumbled, blush seeping down his neck. “I’m apparently actually twelve.”

Zack snorted.

“Spikelet, the only reason that’s more reasonable than saying you’re fourteen is that it’s technically a lower number.”

“I am! But my family runs short, and I probably won’t really shoot up for a few more years. But I’m twelve. Seriously.”

Zack shook his head and grinned.

“Fine, fine, you’re twelve. I believe you. Good luck selling it to Seph. But what I meant was, how old are you mentally?”

Cloud eyed him warily.

“What do you mean?” he asked slowly.

“I mean you have someone else’s memories.”

“I don’t remember telling you that,” he hedged.

Zack snorted again.

“You didn’t exactly hide it. All those battles you fought in that you won’t tell us about, that weird sickness thing you were babbling about on the stairs, an enemy that keeps coming back to life every time you kill him, and all that before you met up with us at age eight?”

“Twelve.”

“Six, then,” Zack joked, half out of habit and half to keep his stress just thinking about it all at bay. Spike smacked his arm in retribution. “And you talked about identity issues and time that didn't happen for your village when Genesis pressed you for your history up on the roof. And you’re weirdly mature and a bunch of other stuff. Plus… plus, Hojo had you. If anyone could kidnap a kid and plug him full of someone else’s memories in a few days’ time, or maybe let someone give their memories to someone else, it’d probably be him.”

Cloud was staring out at the distant haze of the ocean, breathing jagged and uneven, his face twisted in a mix of confusion and dread that was swiftly edging into panicked territory.

“Don’t,” he half wheezed. “Please, don’t...”

Zack sighed and yanked him into a hug, sending him half-sprawling into his lap.

“It’s okay, Spike. I’m not gonna abandon you or anything. I decided you were my little brother by the third day I knew you, and it’s too late for you to back outta that now just because you lied about your age two ways at once,” he teased lightly, ruffling the crazy spikes.

“Didn’t lie. Just didn’t realize,” Cloud whined, voice muffled in Zack’s stomach as he wrapped his arms around and squeezed as tight as he could. It hurt. Zack didn’t say anything, just let his (little? older? cute, ridiculous, angst-riddled midget of a lying liar who lied?) brother take the comfort he needed, squeezing him back.

Zack shushed him softly, strangling the itch to cover the sounds of Cloud’s juddering breath with chatter and ignoring the way his turtleneck had grown damp where Cloud’s face was pressed. He waited out Cloud’s comedown from the panic (and probably the release of mountains of tension from the past few days), rocking him a bit the way his ina used to do back home in Gongaga. It took a while, but he eventually calmed. Zack could tell a few minutes before he sat up by the way his breathing leveled out and his hold on Zack’s midriff tightened a bit, but he waited it out until Cloud decided he felt up to facing the world.

“You okay there, Spike?” he prodded gently when he’d surfaced.

Cloud nodded, head ducked away. A low wind had kicked up while they sat, and it pushed strands of Cloud’s bangs against his sticky cheeks, where they clung to the residue of his crying fit. Cloud’s eyes and nose were red, and, when he spoke, his cloggy tone betrayed a stuffed nose.

“Sorry,” he said hoarsely. “Haven’t cried in years.”

Zack blew out a sigh.

“Cloud. You’ve had a pretty rough week – not to mention a pretty rough life if even half of what you’ve said is true. I’m pretty sure you’re allowed to cry. And I’m your friend. And your brother, for that matter. I’m here for you if you need me, even if it’s to let you force me quiet and soak my uniform.”

A laugh tore itself out of Cloud, sounding a bit ragged still.

“I was wondering how you’d managed to keep quiet for so long,” he quipped, scrubbing at his cheeks.

Zack worried his lip, not really wanting to share this bit of himself but figuring he really ought to. He certainly knew enough about Cloud that he’d probably rather have kept to himself.

“... I don’t really like being quiet,” he admitted softly. “It makes me feel like I’m not really there or like people will forget me if they turn around. Like I’m only real if someone’s paying attention to me, you know? It’s stupid. I got lost in the jungle when I was little once. It’s really dense, and I was only about five at the time, so I was really short and couldn’t see over anything, and I was too scared to yell in case it attracted monsters. All I could think about was Tatay’s stories about how the gagighandi ate loud little boys who couldn’t be quiet when they were supposed to. It was hours before anyone found me, sheesh, it was a while before anyone even looked, because I was hyper and ran all over the village even back then. It turned out I was only like twenty yards away from the village the whole time. It was years ago, and I still swear it’s the scariest thing that ever happened to me. So, yeah. I hate being quiet. But you needed me, so it didn’t matter. It won’t ever matter when you need me, okay?”

Cloudy, his sweet little Cloudy, scooched over and nudged his shoulder into him, then left it pressed there. Yeah, Cloudy wasn’t much of a talker, but he said enough in his own way.

Zack shook himself.

“So, anyway, you never did answer my question. How old are you?”

Cloud shrugged and looked away.

“I don’t know, really. I’ve got memories from… from… from multiple sets. The one that’s… that’s most of me, I guess, kind of… left off?... when it was about twenty-four or twenty-five. Or at least that’s as far as I remember at the moment. That… person’s… best friend has some of his memories in here, too. He died when he was twenty-one. The boy this body was was about eleven or twelve when the memories… collided, or converged, or whatever you’d call it. His memories are kind of… up front. Fresh. So they influence me more than some of the others. And I think there might be another one in here, but I’m not sure. And there’s pretty big gaps in all of that, so I’m not sure how old that makes me. Or who. I’m just… me. Whatever this mix of memories is and whatever I choose to build off of them.”

He shrugged again, trying to make his words seem less important, less jarring, less incisive and revealing.

Like Zack didn’t know how that worked. Still, they could probably both use some time to process everything.

“Hmph. All the more reason for you to stay my little brother, since you only have your physical age to go by.”

Cloud gave a hesitant, twitchy little smile. He’d take that as a win.

It just left one issue to deal with (at the moment).

“So when are you going to try to convince Sephiroth you’re twelve? ‘Cause he thinks you’re, like, seven or something. Like everyone who has a lick of sense.”

“That rules you out.”

Zack shoved him.

“Yeah, I’m not super convinced, either, chickabo,” he jabbed, ignoring the squawk at the nickname. “There’s no way he’s giving up guardianship until you at least look fourteen.”

“Giving up what?!"

Zack eyed him.

“Guardianship. Look, it was always obvious you weren’t legal. Since you’re an orphan, him being your mentor makes him your guardian.”

Cloud gawped.

“Oh, come on. There’s no way you haven’t noticed. You live in his apartment.”

“He’s my mentor!”

“So? I don’t live with Angeal. Plus, he’s super protective.” Cloud’s eyes widened. “You spend your time off together. Don’t think I haven’t noticed how you two go off together and come back from your little field trips with flowers. Which is adorable, by the way. And whenever you’re hurt or spacey or something, he worries himself sick about you. Angeal told me you disappeared the other day and Sephiroth called him almost hyperventilating.”

“That’s… those aren’t…” Cloud protested weakly.

“Face it, Spike. As far as Seph is concerned, you’re his kid now. Don’t be surprised when he gives you tons of battle-themed gifts on your birthday. He’s not great at social customs.”

Cloud was still a bit staggery when Zack dragged him back up to his and Seph’s apartment.

“Cloud? Are you alright?” asked Sephiroth when he met them at the door, laying a hand on his ward’s forehead to check for fever. When Cloud just nodded silently, looking more shocky than ever, Sephiroth transferred his gaze to Zack, his glare demanding explanations pronto.

“Don’t worry. He just realized you’re his dad now. You two have a lot to talk about.”

Seph’s eyes went as wide as Cloud’s, and Zack closed the door on that look, cackling and congratulating himself on a job awesomely done.

Chapter Text

Sephiroth snuck into the company VR training room, the last one, as usual, though normally it was due to his paperwork. Genesis and Angeal were already there, and one of them had already set the display to the rooftop of Shinra HQ. He didn’t know why they’d choose the building they were already in, of all places, but it was a convincing replica, save for the fact that the air had never been so clear, the sunset never so clean in his memories.

He sent them each a small smile – Genesis where he sat almost daintily on top of a wall, carefully posed as ever, with a copy of “Loveless” tucked up in front of him, at peace in a way he never let anyone but him and Angeal see, artificial breeze running fingers through his carefully styled hair and setting his earring – ridiculous thing for a warrior that it was – swaying – and Angeal where he leaned against the wall next to him, eyes closed and stern expression relaxed into a smile, absorbing the unpressured presence of his friends contentedly. Sephiroth himself went to the edge of a protruding finger of metal, savoring the adrenaline of being so high up, feeling almost as if he could fly.

After a few minutes, he let out an unusual puff of laughter and turned back to his friends.

“I’m feeling a bit betrayed that neither of you bothered to tell me I have a son. You know how bad I am with social convention.”

Genesis lost his grip on his book. Angeal straightened in alarm.

What?

“Sephiroth, we assumed you would know. How did we not know you were dating? I feel a bit betrayed myself.”

“Sephiroth, you cannot be serious. ‘Infinite in mystery…’ No. You have to know where babies come from.”

Sephiroth blinked at the pair of them before putting on a lost look in an instant.

“... Yes? But what does that have to do with anything?”

There was a prolonged silence, buzzing with confusion.

“... And I’d still like to know why neither of you told me where the line is between guardian and parent. Because apparently I crossed that line without knowing. I didn’t know until Zack told me this afternoon, and Cloud was still reeling when I put him to bed half an hour ago.”

“You put Cloud to bed?” Angeal marveled.

“Yes. He seemed rather dazed, and I figured he might feel better after a rest. It apparently came as a considerable shock to him as well. He hadn’t even realized I was his guardian.”

“Wait. This is about Cloud?”

“Yes. Who else would it be about?”

Genesis wheezed abruptly and burst into laughter so hard that tears streamed down his face, and he nearly fell from the wall. Would have, if not for Angeal leaning on him for support as gales of laughter overtook him as well. At the sight of them so undone, Sephiroth lost his hold on the ruse and let his own laughter shake him.

Genesis pulled together just enough focus to toss a weak fireball at him, which landed in a splash of heat on Sephiroth’s shoulder.

“Let us think you had a baby, will you?!” he tried to roar around the bursting urge to keep laughing until he bruised his ribs.

“In my defense, I certainly didn’t expect you to take it that way, but how could I not keep it up?” Sephiroth said, shaking his head and casting the weakest Ice he could at his shoulder to sap a bit of the pain, wincing when it was still strong enough for crystals to form and attempt to eat into his coat. “Genesis, how on earth do I save this leather?”

Genesis leapt down from the wall, leaving Angeal to chuckle to himself over the whole thing.

“‘My friend, your desire is the bringer of life, the gift of the goddess.’”

“‘Loveless,’ Act III,” Sephiroth smirked affectionately.

“Well spotted.”

“I do hear it from you nearly every day,” he replied as Genesis looked over the damage.

“That’s because I have taste. Hm. This leather isn’t too badly worn. I should be able to deal with this with some leather soaps and oils myself. Send it back with me tonight and I’ll drop it off with you day after tomorrow.”

Sephiroth grimaced but nodded his thanks and swung the black leather duster from his shoulders, clamping down on a shiver at the abrupt temperature difference.

“Really, though, one of you should have told me. I would have liked a bit of forewarning. I had to hold it together all evening so Cloud wouldn’t see me panicking, because I am very much panicking. I’m – I’m seventeen. My father is – well. And Rufus Shinra hates his father, and I really don’t know anyone else who has kids. I’m seventeen, and I have a son suddenly, and I have no idea what to do!”

Angeal had somehow materialized in front of him. He wondered if he might be related to Aerith.

“Sephiroth. Breathe.”

Sephiroth came back to himself enough to notice that Genesis had laid his coat down neatly and was rubbing his back between the shoulder blades and Angeal was rubbing his arms. He took a couple of breaths to steady himself, not liking that he’d gotten so caught up in his stress without noticing. He couldn’t do that around Cloud. Couldn’t do it around anyone other than these two.

“Sorry,” he murmured.

The hand on his back lifted to smack him in the back of the head.

“Quit apologizing for things that aren’t your fault,” Genesis hissed tetchily.

Angeal sighed.

“We’ll figure it out together, alright? Genesis and I can be his… uncles or something. We’ll help you out whenever you have a question. We can order parenting books, and I’ll write my mother for advice. And it’s okay to mess up. No one is a perfect parent. My father wasn’t. My mother isn’t. Genesis, you, me, Zack, no one has a perfect childhood, but most of us turn out pretty okay anyway. The important thing is that you try. Children are resilient, but it’s important that you try.”

Sephiroth nodded. Nodded again. Sat abruptly and ran his hands over his face.

“Can we not spar tonight?” he asked softly. “I’m sorry. I know you look forward to it. It’s fun. I’m just. I’m so stressed right now that I don’t trust myself to be safe in a fight. And I’m so tired. I’m just so, so tired. Between Cloud disappearing the other day and his nightmares and my nightmares… Memory gets warped around Cloud. People he knew he says won’t recognize him if they see him. Mako half erases him, and he has to rebuild every time, it sounds like. I don’t know what I’ll do if one of us forgets the other.”

Genesis sighed dramatically and dipped to sit behind him, the warm leather of his red coat pressed against Sephiroth’s back. Sephiroth leaned into it, savoring the heat. He wore the duster for a reason. The chill of air conditioning against his skin always made him think of the labs. His leather, thick and warm, didn’t allow much of that to seep through.

“‘Ripples form on the water’s surface. The wandering soul knows no rest.’”

“What do you mean?”

“He means you’re borrowing trouble, Sephiroth.”

“I’m planning in case –”

“You’re worrying without any thoughts on what to do about it. You’re borrowing trouble.”

Sephiroth sighed and fell silent, not wanting to get into an argument with the two of them just now.

At length, Genesis spoke up.

“So, if the two of you have reconciled yourselves to the nature of your relationship, does that mean he’s told you how old he actually is?”

“Not hardly,” Sephiroth snorted. “He said he was actually twelve, not fourteen, that he’d miscounted the years.”

“Rubbish,” agreed Angeal stoutly.

“Doubled, more like,” Genesis drawled with an eyeroll Sephiroth could feel.

Sephiroth nodded and lapsed into silence. After several minutes of contemplative silence, he spoke again, voice pitched as low as he could manage despite his surety that Genesis had at least one signal disruptor on his person to deal with any listening devices that might destabilize this safe space the three of them had created together.

“He told me something else about why his memory is so awful.”

The timbre of the silence indicated that he had his friends’ rapt attention.

“He has multiple people’s memories. I think… I think it’s part of why people don’t remember him. If Hojo got his hands on someone who could share his memories or made someone who could do things with memories… if that person escaped? No one would recognize Cloud. He’s not the face that escaped. He just got the memories when the escapee bumped into him, I think. And I think everything got jumbled up together, so he’s not entirely certain which is which and, anyway, they’re all a part of him now. He’s not just the little boy who was Cloud Strife. He’s Cloud Strife and the escapee and the friend who died and who knows what else all mixed together.

“... So at least my forgetting him is something I probably don’t really need to worry about. Just him forgetting me. I don’t think I’d be really okay if he did.”

Angeal crouched to rub a hand down Sephiroth’s arm again, knowing from experience that he’d be treating a bleeding wound if he did it with his hair.

“We’ll figure it out,” he comforted him. “Don’t worry. We’ve made it this far. We’ll figure it out.”

Sephiroth slumped, wishing he could find comfort in that. But, then, they’d never faced war before. And he’d never had someone he needed to succeed for so badly.

He sat with his two dearest friends through the long chill of night and hoped.

Chapter Text

“You must be joking,” Genesis heard as he shouldered his way into Sephiroth’s apartment with a library’s worth of books with titles like “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and “Raising a Child with a Disability.”

“I am not,” Sephiroth replied calmly. “Get in the tub, Cloud.”

“I can do it myself.”

“I’m sure you can. Will is another matter. I’ve left it out for you to use at any time and reminded you the last four days before you got in the shower, yet your hair remains a… rat’s nest.” His voice dipped a bit doubtfully at the last, the way it so often did when he encountered an idiom he wasn’t sure of (Genesis cursed Hojo anew for leaving his friend such a babe in the woods socially even as he made him unbeata- nearly unbeatable in battle). “Now get in the tub.”

“What do you care if my hair is messy? You’ve never cared before.”

“You didn’t acknowledge that I was your guardian before. Besides, we may have to go to Wutai soon in a last-ditch diplomatic effort, and I want you looking presentable.”

Strife growled loudly.

“I’ll use the stupid conditioner, alright? Just get out! I’m not having you wash my hair like I’m a kid, for Planet’s sake!”

With that, Sephiroth was sent lurching into his living area as if he’d been pushed (Genesis could only presume he’d let Strife’s petulant shove move him), and the bathroom door slammed behind him, the shower starting up moments after.

Sephiroth stood staring at the door, looking a little hurt by Cloud’s reaction. Genesis cleared his throat with a roll of his eyes, catching his friend’s attention.

“Parents usually only bathe kids themselves until they can be left unattended without risk of drowning. Not to mention, Cloud is touchy about his age.”

Sephiroth considered that.

“His mix of memories make him more adult. So he felt offended, thought I didn’t think him capable?”

Genesis nodded.

“Or didn’t trust him. That and he was embarrassed, probably. Don’t take it personally.”

Sephiroth looked relieved, so Genesis – not particularly interested in Sephiroth’s latest fatherhood woes – took his chance to ask him where he wanted his new books. They were putting the last of them, the ones he wanted to read first, on his nightstand when they heard a muted cry and a crash.

Sephiroth was out of the room before the crash had finished sounding and pounding on the bathroom door in the next instant.

“Cloud?”

There were a couple of swallowed-down noises, the type Genesis had heard some of the Thirds make when they were still brand new and facing their first ambush from a behemoth and trying not to make their fear obvious or get the enemy’s attention all to themselves.

Sephiroth obviously recognized the sort, too.

“Cloud, I’m coming in!”

He forced the lock on the door in the next instant, and Genesis found himself grateful he hadn’t simply kicked the door in, as it seemed Strife was half leaned against it.

Sephiroth carefully nudged his ward to the side enough to open the door, revealing Strife – hair less evocative of ‘we seek it thus and take to the sky’ than he had ever before seen it and clad only in a very worn-looking pair of underpants – curled up trembling by the wall, bleeding hands tucked up to his chest, and the shattered remnants of the bathroom mirror carpeting the sink and floor tiles.

He took charge, scooping the child up to his chest and carrying him out to the kitchen, where he set him down on the counter next to the sink.

“Genesis, get your tweezers. I don’t have any.”

The next minutes, once Genesis had retrieved the tool, were spent in tense silence as Sephiroth scouted out each tiny sliver of glass in the boy’s fingers and then had him carefully shake out his clothes and hair for any pieces that might have insinuated themselves there.

At last, when Genesis had cast a Cure and Sephiroth had gently washed Strife’s hands, gently probing them for any lumps that could indicate glass he might have missed and would have to cut out (none, fortunately), Sephiroth prodded Cl- Strife to tell him what had happened.

“The reflection,” Strife whispered. “The hair. It looked like the hair one of the… the memories had. It… Hey, Sephiroth?”

Sephiroth hummed encouragingly.

“Did you… have curly hair a bit back?”

Sephiroth nodded, shooting a glare at Genesis when he started protesting.

Cl- Strife slumped, letting out a heartfelt sigh of relief. Sephiroth tilted his head forward and pressed their foreheads together, clutching the boy’s shoulders comfortingly.

Genesis let himself out, deciding that this once, just this once, his curiosity (he would be getting the full story about the curls, goddess help him) and revenge (because he should have known from the start) could wait.

Next time he saw them, Strife had his hair back in a neat braid Genesis was certain Sephiroth had done for him, tied off with an incredibly sparkly hair accessory that Genesis was equally certain Cloud didn’t know about.

….

You must be joking, Genesis thought upon catching two Thirds taking turns leaning around the corner in a distinctly unstealthy manner to snap photos of Sephiroth. There was no way Sephiroth was not aware, and usually the new recruits were at least a bit more circumspect about their hero worship for the man. And besides, Genesis was standing right there, just as much a hero and far more handsome, thank you very much.

“What exactly do you think you’re doing?” he purred dangerously from right behind them.

The two jumped guiltily but looked remarkably unembarrassed when they turned around.

“Commander Rhapsodos! We asked the general if there was anything we could do to help with Cloud – we were on recruitment duty when he signed up, and we’ve been trying to look after him – and he said to take pictures.”

“Oh, he did? Then you won’t mind when I check with him. What are your names?”

“Feel free,” the spokesperson shrugged easily. “I’m Mike Whaelens, and this is Hanley Mitchells. Both SOLDIERs Third Class.”

“Hmm.”

But when he confronted Sephiroth, the man just nodded.

“One of the books mentioned that if your child has short term memory loss, having lots of photographs to serve as a reminder can help. Obviously, it’s not the same, but I thought it might still apply.”

He looked incredibly nervous, clearly wanting some assurance that what he was doing made sense, was good for a parent to do (may Hojo’s stomach acid eat its way clean through his skin), so Genesis sighed and said it was worth a shot, making his friend’s brow wrinkle in confusion.

Two days later, after Clou- Strife’s next Mako shot, Sephiroth told him that the small collection he had on his phone had helped to calm him enough during his latest memory failure (and his friend’s eyes were tight with emotion he nearly always kept off his face) to get him to where he could attempt to piece most of himself back together, helped to jog a couple of memories later on.

(He’d said in the training room the last time they’d met up that he didn’t want to let Cloud to get his next one, but hesitance to let ShinRa know of any weakness and something, something Cloud had said were holding him back.)

Genesis suggested he hang up photos of some of the better memories on the walls of his apartment. Of course, he had a terrible sense of design, so Genesis just had to do it all over for him again later.

….

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Angeal’s puppy insisted, voice echoing in the staircase as Genesis headed down to Lazard’s office, taking the stairs to avoid any of the toadying idiots he’d likely have to deal with on the elevator. He was so bored of lectures on workplace safety and not setting coworkers on fire, after all.

He peered over the railing to see Sephiroth and the Puppy each carrying a good dozen bags.

“Seriously, all this to raise one kid? It’s not like Spiky’s very high maintenance, you know. He’s pretty self sufficient, and it’s not like he’s still a baby or anything.”

“Yes, but he only has his uniforms, none of which fit him, though I hear Angeal’s mother is knitting him a SOLDIER Third top in something approaching his size. And, besides, I have a friend in the Slums who’s adopted. I asked her to put me in touch with her mother for advice. She actually advised I get a number of additional items that I forewent on account of having materia or some other equivalent or otherwise not needing it.”

Genesis could see the top of the Puppy’s head swiveling to take in everything they were carrying.

“More?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“... What else did she tell you to buy?”

“Soap – lots of soap – glue, glue solvent, first aid, something oily to get gum out of hair, tomato soup for stench-removing baths, a stuffed toy or two, extremely sturdy pants, at least two pairs of sturdy play shoes, disinfectant, several good pairs of scissors to be kept well away from children, bribes for neighbors and babysitters –”

“Holy cow,” the Puppy muttered. “I think I’ve gotta meet your friend.”

Genesis was in just the right position to see Sephiroth stiffen and halt where he stood on the steps.

“No,” Sephiroth said a little faintly, and then more firmly, “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think any of us would survive the resulting chaos if the two of you ever joined forces. No, I don’t think I shall ever be introducing you.” And when the Puppy seemed ready to protest, “Besides, she steers well clear of ShinRa, and I’m not going to be the one to force her into close proximity with more than one of us.”

The Puppy grumbled but subsided with a huff, in what Genesis was more than sure was only a temporary surrender.

Genesis spent the rest of the afternoon wondering just who this Slums friend was and why Sephiroth had never mentioned her. Was he… could he be interested in her? He couldn’t say. Sephiroth had never shown an interest in anybody before, so he didn’t know how it came out in him. It could be that the mixture of fear, fondness, and protectiveness in his voice was normal for him when he had a crush on someone, or maybe it was something else entirely.

He ended up missing his appointment with Lazard, and Sephiroth refused later to say a thing regarding his friend, as fiercely protective of her as he had been of Strife in the beginning.

….

“Sephiroth, you have got to be joking!” Angeal laughed.

Genesis swung into Angeal’s office to find him practically in tears over a supply requisition form of all things. Angeal must have put his PHS on speaker, because Sephiroth’s voice came from Angeal’s desk, sounding a bit tinny.

“I don’t know what he’ll need,” he defended himself.

“So you just ordered ten of everything?”

Genesis took advantage of Sephiroth’s prickly silence to ask, “What’s going on?”

Angeal shoved the form at him, still laughing.

“Apparently, Cloud mentioned that he gets motion sick, and since he’s going to be heading to Wutai with Sephiroth when they finally decide to try that as an intimidation tactic…”

Genesis looked at the form. There were anti-nausea medications of all sorts, a variety of ginger teas and chews, herbal remedies, pressure point treatments, books on behavioral treatments, peppermint candies, and at least half a dozen other things.

“Sephiroth,” Genesis interjected, now chuckling himself. “Have you tried asking Cloud? What he’s tried, what works, how he got to this continent from Nibelheim in the first place?”

There was muffled noise in the background, and Sephiroth returned with answers to the effect of “nothing, everything, and with a great deal of vomit-induced weight loss.”

Genesis looked up to find Angeal’s face set in an expression that could only mean that Clo- Stri- oh, fine, Cloud would be fighting off second portions with a sword for months if he had anything to say about it. Genesis wished Cloud luck.

….

Sephiroth shoved his way into Genesis’s rooms at two in the morning and just barely made it to his toilet before vomiting.

“What on –”

“Didn’t –”

Sephiroth was interrupted by another round of vomiting. Genesis collected his hair back and tied it in a loose bun, rubbing his back until he could speak, trying to figure out whether he needed to take him to the hospital bay, end Hojo once and for all, or both.

“Didn’t want to wake him,” he rasped miserably. “He’s slept so little, but – Genesis, I don’t know what to do.”

“What’s wrong?” he demanded sternly, borrowing on years of experience being joined at the hip with the Most Righteous Angeal.

“Genesis,” he whispered, and then there were tears spilling over his cheeks, actual tears, and Genesis felt his blood chill. Sephiroth had never cried. Not once in the six years he and Angeal had known him. Not for fear, not joy, not pain, not anything Hojo had done to him – at least, not that he’d let them see.

“I think we need Angeal,” he said, and half carried Sephiroth next door, shouldering past Angeal where he was rubbing grit from his eyes on his way to meet his late night intruders and gently bullying him into bed, shoving Angeal in after him. He pilfered Angeal’s mini rubbish bin from his bathroom in case Sephiroth had to vomit again and set it in the middle of the bed, ignoring Angeal’s wrinkled nose, before slipping in on Sephiroth’s other side from Angeal, bracketing him in warmth so unlike Hojo’s labs. “Now, what’s wrong?”

Sephiroth took in a shuddering gasp, not moving from where he had his head buried in Angeal’s (very confused, very concerned) broad chest.

“Cloud has nightmares,” he whispered, “about someone coming back no matter how many times he kills him. I can’t comfort him after those nightmares. I remind him too strongly of that monster in his memories. Hojo had someone, at some point, who could pass on memories, probably take them in, too, since he has more than just two people’s memories in his head. I’m Hojo’s prize experiment. How many people have I killed? How reliable are his memories? What if he’s imagining victory to protect himself?” He took another shuddering breath and barely choked out, “What if I’m the one who keeps coming back?

Angeal sucked in a horrified breath and hastened to console and reassure him, though Genesis could tell it wasn’t working. But he stayed, the two of them pressed tight to Sephiroth’s front and back, bathing him in reassuring heat. He stayed, gently soothing his hiccups and detangling his hair. Stayed when Sephiroth finally succumbed to the unaccustomed exhaustion that dogged the heels of his wrenching sobs.

He called Lazard’s office in the morning, telling him Sephiroth was taking a sick day and that under no circumstances was Hojo to be informed. He also said that he and Angeal could be contacted in an emergency but would otherwise be staying in to take care of him.

And when Hojo called him later to demand to know where his prize specimen was, as he’d apparently failed to show for a battery of experiments Sephiroth hadn’t told them about, he only sneered, “You must be joking,” and hung up.