Disclaimer: See Chapter One.


Part One - Chapter 3

By Knowing Shadows


"I called her up,
And I said you know that I'm drowning?
Put on your raincoat again,
Cause even the sun's got a price on it.
And there's something believing
In her voice again,
Said there's something believing instead of just leaving."

Tori Amos – The Wrong Band


In the end, Cloud crawled his way into the dorm at half past four in the morning when the morning guard turned up to relieve him. It was surprisingly cold, and he shivered violently whilst pulling off most of his clothes and sliding between even colder sheets. He dearly hoped that it would warm up soon. He didn't remember Midgar ever seeming to be this cold – colder than the Nibelheim he usually endured – but then again, he was comparing an older, battle-hardened body on a mountain to a much younger boy's body who would not know the meaning of the word ‘winter' until much, much later on in life. So this, to the young Cloud, would be freezing.

Maybe, he thought to himself as he tried to ignore how hard he was shivering, I'll go to sleep and wake up back in my hut, in the real world. Please, oh please, let me wake up there. With my sword and my materia and my goddamn grief. Even without Sephiroth.

Without Sephiroth?

He screwed his eyes tight and curled in on himself, discarding that thought as soon as it even came to mind. The sorrow that had become second nature to him, the unrelenting pain at what he had done, had caused this. The Cetra, so moved by the force of this self-horror, had caused this. Without Sephiroth, and without the subsequent pleading for a second chance, he would still be on his mountain. With his sword, with his material, and without Sephiroth.

I never had him to begin with, but I'd never give him up for anything. Even if this is what it's brought me.

He had killed people before Sephiroth. Many, many people, and all they had given him was a pity for himself as his remorse, maybe even his human soul, had gradually eroded away with each life taken. They had meant nothing to him, and they had died as well as the people who had meant everything. Their deaths had been nothing and that had scared him more than anything else.

The idea of anything without Sephiroth was almost ludicrous.

Maybe killing Sephiroth had been the last straw, so to speak. His death, his life snuffed out by the sword of someone who loved him, had maybe killed them both. It made him feel pathetic when he thought that he had been reduced to this snivelling, cowardly wreck who could not face the world and could not face himself because of the death of one person.

His mind dwelled upon this fact most nights and it was brought more to his attention that night than it had in a long while. Willing his own damning conscience to leave had never worked, so he had been forced to work through the whole situation until his only consolation had been the belief that possibly, just possibly, he wasn't as pathetic as he thought he was because, after all, Sephiroth's death was just the icing on the cake.

Not that it made him feel much better.

It wasn't just him, I know that now. He wasn't the first, but he was the last. My father was the first. My mother was the second.

Lying in the bed, thin covers pulled tightly around his small body, Cloud locked his jaw in place. His face ached where his eyes were forcefully shuttered. It was almost as if by closing the outlets, his pain could be controlled.

Thinking about his parents was still painful – though his mother was still alive for this Cloud. In his mind, his parents had been dead for years. His father he couldn't even remember, and his mother was a little shining, smiling light in the back of his head. The loss of his parents – the only people who he could ever convince himself had really, truly loved him – had been a major blow, even more so when doubled with the fact he had lost his mother with his only true friend and then, by his own hands once more, his only true love.

It had been a tangled web of horror, that day in Nibelheim. His mother murdered by Sephiroth; his friend massively wounded by Sephiroth; and then Sephiroth thrown to drown, to burn, in the Mako - hardly a dignified, painless procedure – by Cloud. It had haunted him for years, still haunted him to that day. The pain could be brought right back to the surface by the mere mention of anything connected with that incident and it had not dulled. The edge of that twisting knife needed no whetstone to stay sharp.

Don't think about it. Don't think about it. Don't think about it.

Zack would be horrified if he knew how melancholy his young friend would turn out to be. Scratch that, Zack will be horrified when he realises how melancholy I am. It's not like I'll be able to hide from him. He's going to realise something's wrong sooner or later.

Strangely, the thought of Zack only made the throbbing dread that was balling up low in his stomach intensify. He pulled his knees tightly into his chest as if the pressure against his breastbone would ease the mental anguish, but it didn't. He wouldn't be able to sleep at all, so he would be a wreck when it came to classes.

Whether he wanted to or not, he would be lying to Zack until he told the older man about everything. Every time that Zack called his name and he answered it would be a lie. At this point, Zack still had no idea that anything was wrong. He still believed that the Cloud he was talking to was the one he really meant.

He hated himself because of Zack.


The bed didn't warm up for a long time, which left Cloud struggling to get some rest whilst trying to stop his teeth chattering. His very bones felt cold. They felt heavy. He ached all over, mentally and physically. When the bed eventually warmed around him he cautiously moved onto his back, trying to ease the pain in his tense shoulders. Lying in the dark, the dorm deathly quiet and devoid of even the lightest snores, Cloud suddenly felt very alone. In that moment, it began to sink in just how lonely he would be if he didn't find a way back to the mountain. He would never really fit in here, however much he might want to. He would always be set apart, even if it was only in his own mind, because of what he knew and who he was.

Don't think about it. Don't think about it. Don't think about it.

He turned restlessly onto his side, the blankets rustling as he did so. He sighed softly, opening his eyes a little to stare at nothing. Vaguely he wondered what had happened to the Cloud who had been in his place before he had woken up in this bed the day before, but reasoned that the younger Cloud was probably getting the better half of the deal, wherever he'd gone, if he'd even gone anywhere.

What am I going to do? I never wanted to come back here, despite what the Cetra may think they are doing. This place...it brings back too many painful memories. Memories...why do they have such a hold over me? I live my life around them, yet all they are are things that have already passed. I let them rule my present and dominate my future. Where might I be now if I had merely forgotten?

The loneliness – the sensation of being cut off, in his own little world – continued to grow as the minutes passed, settling in his chest as a sodden feeling. His eyes shone dimly in the little moonlight, the moisture on his eyelashes blurring his vision until all he could see was dim, dark shapes. He drew a deep breath, but it was shaky and louder than he intended. He closed his eyes, and the bridge of his nose and one cheek felt wet.

I want to go home.

He opened his eyes again when he heard a soft noise above him, and in the darkness he saw a long arm appear over the edge of the upper bunk. The fingers wriggled, closed on the palm and opened again as if gesturing. Nothing was said from the owner.

Cloud would have smiled had he not been so close to tears. What might have been that smile was pulled into an unwilling grimace. He lifted his hand and allowed Zack to lace their fingers together. It was meant to be a comforting gesture, but all Cloud could think of was that he must not make any further noise.

Zack didn't let go until dawn came, but Cloud silently fought his tears of panic and fear for far longer, face buried in his pillow as the rest of his body shook.

I'm lost.


He felt depressed throughout most of the day. His only bright spot was the fact that it was Friday, and they got the weekend off just like at any other type of school-place. He felt exhausted, which he supposed accounted for a lot of his mood. When they had both gotten up, Zack had pulled him to one side and given him a swift hug, but hadn't said a word to him, for which Cloud was grateful. What he might say if Zack wanted to know why he was crying was beyond him; he was too tired to think of any plausible lie.

His early morning shower had done a little to lift his spirits. He worked through classes grimly and without conversation, pouring all his energy into bettering himself rather than letting there be any chance of beginning to wallow like he had during the night. He escaped practice classes with little more than a few bruises, but they still hurt. He knew that by nightfall he'd have some lovely blackening spots on his shoulders and legs.

Cloud was pleasantly surprised to find himself invited by several of his classmates to sit with them at lunchtime as they ate. He declined the offer without really knowing why, saying that he might, if welcome, join them another time. The boy who had invited him, a slightly older cadet by the name of Reno, had nodded a confirmation and jogged off with his friends. Cloud found it hard to think of this young, inexperienced boy as the man who would one day join the Turks. Maybe he could dissuade Reno whilst he was here that a nightstick shouldn't be his weapon of choice. It might save himself a lot of pain later on. Nightsticks hurt.

Instead, he found himself a quiet corner table and settled down to pick at his food, feeling nauseous at the sight of it. That day it was even one of the nicer choices, but he couldn't bring himself to eat it. He sighed and pushed the tray away from himself, longing wistfully for a chance to somehow smuggle his mother into the ShinRa kitchens to make something decent for once.

Cloud looked up in surprise when someone slid into the seat opposite him, but closed his protesting mouth when he saw it was Zack, offering "Hello" instead of a shove-off.

Zack grinned. "Why, hello there to you, too. Why aren't you eating? Savour the chance of recognisable food."

Cloud laughed, but it sounded false even to him. Zack's expression faltered a little before he gallantly picked it back up again. Cloud realised that it had never occurred to him before that Zack might smile as an act only – and not really be happy. He smiled, trying to ease his friend's obvious worry. If it worked, he had no idea. "I'm not really hungry. I think my stomach has had enough of the stale rations they try to tell us is food, and given up on the ShinRa menu completely!"

Zack snickered, brown eyes dancing. "I can see why. Don't make this a habit, though, will you? Don't turn anorexic or bulimic or whatever on me. It wouldn't kill you to put on a bit of weight, Mr Bag o' Bones."

Cloud looked down at himself. "I'm not that bad, am I?"

"You will be one day if you don't eat properly. Remember, it's my job as your superior officer to keep you safe and healthy. As a friend, I'd never do anything less."

Cloud smiled. "Friends, yeah?"

Zack smiled, but Cloud could see from his eyes that he thought the question was strange. "Of course! You'd never be without me, would ya, really?"

"No," Cloud said, mind taking an uninvited stroll towards the time in which he would have to do without Zack, because Zack was dead.

Zack must have sensed the touch of sadness to Cloud in that moment because the smile faltered again – it was amazing how easy it was to see that hesitation in expression now, while he'd never noticed it before – before sliding smoothly back into place, pretending it had always been there. He didn't say anything, and Cloud didn't know whether he was glad or not.

"How did your classes go?" Zack asked, taking the opportunity to dig into his own food with relish. The taller man was always hungry, and Cloud smiled. Zack had even eaten the monstrosity that Cloud had made once that tried to liken itself wistfully to a cake, just because it was the nearest thing to him and his stomach had grumbled plaintively. Cloud's principles of tasting his own cooking didn't stretch that far in that case, and he had been quite glad to let Zack taste the whole cake for him.

"Not too bad," Cloud replied truthfully, folding his hands in his lap beneath the table. "Same as usual. Still getting picked on by the sadist teachers, but other than that, it's good." He remembered something, briefly, which he knew would cheer Zack up on his behalf. "Reno and his friends invited me to have lunch with them, though."

"Really?" Zack had never wanted him to be, or feel, alone, because it was something that Zack would have hated in his position. "Why didn't you sit with them?"

Cloud inwardly cursed, not having thought of this in his initial inspiration. Thinking quickly, he decided lying would not help. "I just felt a little down earlier, and thought they wouldn't need me dampening their parade. But," he added with more enthusiasm, eyes brightening as Zack watched, "they did invite me tomorrow."

Zack watched him for a second, dark eyes thoughtful. Cloud steeled himself for Zack's imminent question about his depression, momentarily distracted as a group of older cadets brushed past their table noisily. "That was good of ‘em," Zack said once they'd gone, deciding not to mention anything. The older, cynical Cloud appreciated the subtlety of that slight watchful pause from someone whom subtlety normally sidestepped. The younger Cloud wouldn't have caught it; would have gone on thinking that Zack had just dismissed the issue in favour of lighter conversation. Now, he could see that Zack had filed it away, and had let him know that it had, indeed, not been dismissed at all.

I always knew there was a lot more to you than I ever appreciated. I was too young, too nïave, and too bewildered by the world to pay the sort of attention to you that I should have. The attention I only paid in my memories. In hindsight.

He almost laughed, but managed to restrain himself.

"Oh!" Zack suddenly sat straight in his chair where he would normally slouch, eyes brightening as he thought of something. "I just remembered! I saw Seph this morning, and he mentioned you."

Cloud felt a wave of hotness, combined terror and hope, wash over him faster than he could comprehend. For a moment it seemed as if Cloud had stopped breathing. "Huh?"

Zack gesticulated with his fork on his hand as he spoke, and Cloud wondered if the other man noticed that the piece of chicken speared on the end of the utensil looked like it was about to fly off in his face at any given moment. "Yeah, saw him doing paperwork," he was saying when Cloud managed to get his focus back. "He mentioned that he saw a cadet on duty last night when he got back from Sector Two who actually heard him coming. He described you and asked if I knew who you were."

Even if I've not got the same body, I've still got the same trained mind. That's the only way I heard him.

"He asked you about me?" Cloud echoed in a small voice, letting the fact sink in. It was a strange thing, he mused, to have him show some morsel of interest in you in a good way when you're so used to him only being interested because he wants to use you.

"Yup. He was pretty impressed. Even I can't hear him coming when he wants to be quiet. I mean, he's not that modest about how good he is. He's been brought up knowing he was faster, stronger, whatever, than everyone else."

"I know," Cloud murmured aloud to himself.

"You do?" Zack looked surprised.

I knew it. I might as well just announce to the entire ShinRa corporation that I know more than I should. Then the Science Department can have me. Wouldn't Hojo have a field day if I told him just what he'll be getting up to in a couple of years time.

Cloud was just thinking of a response when Zack grinned. "I'm repeating myself again, aren't I? I knew I'd probably said something like that before. You know me. Just ignore me if I keep going round in circles, would you?"

Cloud smiled, half in relief. "Sure." His mind raced on ahead of him, trying to think of a different subject to talk about. "So what was Sephiroth doing in Sector Two anyway? He had blood on his face when I saw him." He scowled internally at himself. You can't get away from Sephiroth no matter how hard you try, can you? Like so many other pathetic losers, your little world revolves around him. He defines your existence, he always has and always will, and you're quite happy to let him.

Zack waved his hands breezily, making a low, non-committal sound in the back of his throat. "Old man Shinra got word of a rebel group based there. Sent them all sorts of polite, flowery objections in the form of SOLDIER 3rds, but half of them got killed. The 2nds got back okay, but they were only sent with a message that the President said he'd send out Seph if they refused to disperse their numbers. They refused, so Seph got sent out to disperse their numbers for them."

"You know, if they were really serious about their cause, you won't keep them down. There'll be others out there." A vision of Jesse, dying on the pillar platforms, and of Wedge's broken, bleeding form sprawled on the ground, made Cloud flinch. That hadn't stopped Barret, or AVALANCHE. Or anything.

Zack shrugged. "Pfft. It's not really my problem anyway, so why get involved? Let Shinra deal with it, and Seph if they feel he's got to. There's no-one out there who can match the General."

Except me. There was no pride in the thought. Only sorrow. No-one...except me.


He'd worked out from the date (handily provided in a theory class) that he had six or so months until Nibelheim. Six months...to do what?

He tried not to let it occupy too much of his time, but knew that he'd have to give it thought or everything would be wasted. It was in everyone's best interests that something was done. Cloud, selfishly, knew he wanted to change it more for himself than anything else, because he knew he'd never survive Nibelheim again. And then, he thought, where will everyone else be?

The end of the day's classes heralded a whoop from all the cadets, thought a small, relieved smile was all that displayed Cloud's similar feelings. Friday was one of Zack's busiest days, so he wouldn't be back at the squad's dorm room for another few hours. Cloud's mood dropped, realising he'd probably spend most of those few hours moping around feeling sorry for himself, and probably end up doing something overly dramatic like slice his wrists or try and drown himself in the shower. He wasn't sure whether any of those outcomes were really a cry for help at all like so many were, if he was honest.

He dropped his things off on his bed and waved when the two others in the room - people he barely knew, but who were friendly enough - acknowledged his arrival warmly. He had never really tried to make friends with these people, deciding that it would be safer just to stick with Zack. Zack had been the one to push friendship with Cloud, because Cloud would never have dared initiate anything with a SOLDIER 1st Class.

I'll try. This time round, I will try. He glanced back at the two figures, who had gone back to being engrossed in a card game. They were both about the same height and same build - 5'9'' and thin, with broad shoulders. They were a few years older than him, as were the other two who shared this room with them and Zack. One had short blond hair and grey-blue eyes, and the other, a brunette with eyes to match, had one of the more friendly demeanours in ShinRa. Anthony Clarkson and Jeremiah Kerrin, respectively.

Just not right now.

He rummaged around his clothes drawer until he found some loose black sports trousers and a t-shirt, getting into them quickly. His time would be better spent elsewhere, he had decided, and the only other place he could think of going was the gym/training centre. Out of classes, it could be freely used by anyone, from cadets eager to train to SOLDIER 1sts who just wanted to spar. Zack often went there to have some friendly rounds with his fellow SOLDIERs. Sephiroth, Zack had once told him, could sometimes be goaded into these, even if he humiliated anyone he came against.

Self-conscious, and half-hoping he wasn't going to see fifteen-year-old Cloud, he checked himself in the mirror. He couldn't stop the wave of disappointment when that was exactly what he was faced with, as gangly and awkward-looking as he felt. At least he'd got a little of his colour back. His blond hair was still as messy as he remembered it was, and he tried to pat it down in shame. It refused to be moulded. Cloud sighed as he gave up. There was no use. He would always look like that.

The t-shirt was an old one, and it clung a little more to his frame than he would have liked. The trousers, as if being awkward, seemed to be particularly loose, and hung low on his thin hips. The t-shirt didn't quite reach the waistband of the trousers, leaving a thin strip of midriff on show. He scowled at the reflection of his navel, then decided to ignore it. Not that it mattered anyway. They were all men here. Wasn't like he was showing anything indecent.

Stealing a clean towel from the bathroom, he packed it with a water bottle in a small duffel bag, slung it over his shoulder and said a swift farewell to Clarkson and Kerrin before he left for the training centre.

The training centre was a five minute walk away, but everyone who passed seemed to stare at him so he hurried along at a half-run, making it to the entrance in around half the time. As he looked around, he realised with a smile that the place was relatively free of cadets. Most of the people sparring in the circular, matted area were SOLDIERs. He stood at the edge with a few other bystanders, watching their skilled interplay with awe, wishing he might dare ask one of the 3rds for a practice bout to help him. He had noticed that he'd begun to regain a little of his old - his future? - skill, so he didn't feel quite so helpless anymore.

This main area of the training centre was designed almost like a mini-amphitheatre. In a circle all around the circular floor area were rows of seats, rising up almost to the high ceiling for people to watch the proceedings. On one side, the side where Cloud now stood, a section of the seating was cut away as a path, which lead back behind the seats to the corridor which ran the length of the building. If you joined this corridor and turned right, it lead you out of the main entrance. Turning left, however, lead you beyond the amphitheatre to the small gym rooms and the swimming pool.

After quarter of an hour, Cloud turned away and made his way to the other areas of the centre. The gym, he saw, was almost empty. Two other cadets were there, sweating profusely on the treadmills. A SOLDIER was using the weights. Another was using a practice mat in one corner, practising sword kata. Cloud put his duffel bag down and watched the SOLDIER doing kata. It was a high-level sequence that Cloud instantly recognised. The kata were warm-up exercises used in classes, and that was what Cloud had come to do before using any of the equipment.

There were three practice mats along one wall and the SOLDIER was using the end one. He wasn't using his own sword, just one of the tatty old wooden practice sticks. They still balanced almost like a real sword, though, of course, nothing like a Buster Sword.


The old sequences of sword movement rushed back at him in welcome memory as he stood on the centre mat. For the first time, his body almost felt fluid and responsive in its movements as he moved to perform the kata. This was only a low level one, something that would have done nothing to warm him up had he been using the Ultima Weapon, for example. Going through these movements, though, would give him a pretty good idea of just how much this body could do, and handle, since he was still not used to it.

He moved with what he hoped was practised ease. Certainly it wasn't difficult, and he itched to be able to move onto something similar to what the SOLDIER he had been watching had performed. Discipline, however, kept him from leaping straight to the more complicated, more straining moves before he had worked his way up to them.

It felt wonderful to be able to do this again, and was his first experience of real peace since he had woken up here. He always felt calm, focused, when he did these. It was a familiar, welcome sensation. The whole body moving, working together for these few moves.

He worked up through the movements steadily, barely aware that he was sweating. His body put up only a little protest as he moved to the more complicated sequences, but he ignored it. It was exhilarating, and somewhat heartening to know that he wasn't quite as weak as he thought he was.

It wasn't long after that when his muscles refused to work so much anymore. He stood, letting the practice weapon fall to the matting below, and caught his breath. He hadn't realised just how tiring the exercises had been. Doesn't look like I'll be doing anything else now, does it? Silly Cloud. You should have known this would happen. Think before you act!

His hands had been resting on his knees where he'd bent over a little to ease the ache in his lower back. He stood, lifting his head as he stretched out his arms to ease the tension across his shoulders, and frowned. Above them, on the opposite side of this small gym room, lay an observation place. He remembered sitting there many times, watching people practice in awe.

As he'd looked up, he saw the door at one end closing as someone left. The two cadets and the two SOLDIERs had left whilst he had been practising. He was the only one in the room to watch.


Cloud wondered who might have been watching him as he made his way back through the centre to the entrance on his way back. He'd been practising for far longer than he'd thought - over an hour - and realised he might as well just head to the dorm and shower whilst waiting for Zack.

There were only a few people sparring when Cloud passed the main room in the centre again. Most had left. Friday nights were when people left early to enjoy Midgar. No-one would really be staying at the centre when they had the weekend to enjoy.

I wonder if Zack will take me out to Midgar sometime.

Speaking of the Devil, Zack was one of the few people left sparring. Cloud's eyes widened as he dropped to the sidelines to watch the dark-haired man sparring with a fellow SOLDIER 1st. This was real training - both had real swords. Zack wasn't using the Buster Sword, however, which would have been too dangerous for even this.

Zack had real skill. Watching him move like this was a self-indulgent pleasure for Cloud, almost on par with watching Sephiroth's swordplay. He wondered, as he sat at the side, how much of his skill was in fact his own, and not what he had so selfishly taken from Zack's memories after they had escaped Hojo's clutches at Nibelheim. It still frightened him to this day, not quite knowing if all his behaviour was his own and not something influenced by that piece of Zack inside him that Cloud refused to let go of.

After all, what else had he had? Zack, his friend, his saviour, had been savagely taken from him by ShinRa and he'd had nothing left. His desperate attempt to salvage something of his beloved friend, in his less than stable, healthy state, would probably cause the rest of his life to hold these confusions.

Even after he had found himself in the Lifestream, with Tifa's help, he wasn't sure how to separate himself from Zack entirely. He'd done what he could, and kept a little just to feel as though he wasn't so alone.

He snapped out of his reverie as a door nearby opened. He felt that familiar blinding presence before he saw him, and held his breath as Sephiroth appeared into view, his eyes on Zack as he continued to easily pummel his partner into the mattress, laughing all the way.

As Zack's partner recovered on the other side of the practice mat from the grinning SOLDIER, Zack waved at Sephiroth. The General nodded acknowledgement, standing less than ten feet away from Cloud, just to the side of the cut away area of seats. Cloud, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the barrier between him and the seats, felt himself tensing, and rolled his shoulders to try and relax.

Zack launched into another round with his sparring partner. Sephiroth, arms folded across his chest, watched them. Cloud drew one knee up to his chest, wrapping his arms around his shin, and watched Sephiroth out of the corner of his eye.

It was impossible not to watch Sephiroth when he was in the room. He called for attention, if not for who he was, then for his presence and appearance. You couldn't just ignore him. Cloud just hoped that it wasn't too obvious that he was watching the General instead of Zack's sparring.

Sephiroth let his arms drop to his sides and moved from where he stood. Cloud dropped his gaze to the floor just to his right, trying to keep his breathing steady and quiet. He could hear the sound of leather and then it stopped as a pair of boots came into his view. Black, as ever, and so familiar it made his heart ache.

What does he want?! Why can't he just leave me be to stand in the shadows?! I don't want to be noticed, I don't want to be-


He looked up then, out of necessity. The uniform, with the boots, brought back so many painful memories it was difficult to breathe. For a moment, they weren't in the training centre at all, but Nibelheim, burning and screaming in its fall. He was sitting on the dusty ground, and his Angel of Death was watching him through the fire before he turned away-

"Cloud Strife?"

His name was repeated with something commanding in the tone, demanding his attention. Cloud pulled himself away from his thoughts and focused, allowing himself to look up at Sephiroth properly for the first time since he'd been here.

He hadn't changed. Looking at him still made Cloud want to run his hands through his hair, and those sharp green eyes still made Cloud feel like he was being turned inside out. Sephiroth's mouth had never been cruel, it had just never been friendly either, and those pale lips still begged - or maybe it was just Cloud begging? - for less-than-wholesome attention. Sephiroth's skin was still flawless, still perfect. Cloud knew of more than one person whose desire for the General included a longing to mark that white skin; to mark the General himself. It was that idea of possession that Cloud found almost disturbing. These people wanted Sephiroth because they wanted to prove their power by owning him. Sephiroth was never meant to be owned, in any sense of the word. Sometimes, he wondered if they even liked Sephiroth that way at all, or if it was really just a disguise for a power trip. To overpower Sephiroth would be...unimaginable. And something that some people obviously dreamed about.

"Y-Yes, sir?" Cloud stammered, belatedly remembering that he ought to stand, to bow, something.

It was only when Cloud had reached his knees that the General realised what he was doing. He motioned with one black-gloved hand for him to stop. "I'm off duty. There's no formality necessary."

Cloud almost scoffed, but instead sank back down to his former position, staring up at the taller man. He almost felt like a dog sitting at its master's feet, waiting for something.

Sephiroth watched him, frowning, for a few seconds. Cloud dropped his eyes back to the floor, unable to hold the older man's gaze. Technically, I'm older than he is by about five years at this point. He's, what, 25, 26? As far as I'm concerned, I'm 30.

He would have laughed had it not been so hard to make any sound at all.

"Look at me." It was spoken quietly but firmly, and drew Cloud's eyes upwards again. Sephiroth continued to inspect him, Cloud inwardly squirming under the scrutiny. Sephiroth shook his head, breaking the gaze himself. When he lifted his head again, Cloud was still staring.

"You've impressed me twice, two days running," Sephiroth murmured, his voice low enough that only Cloud could hear.

"Twice, sir?" Cloud frowned, confused, his mind going blank.

"You've hearing that seems to be above that of a lot of SOLDIERs, which you demonstrated last night." There, a strange expression settled over Sephiroth's features. He looked somewhat puzzled, but that wasn't quite what it was. "And we don't teach some of those sword practices until you reach 3rd class."

Cloud just stared, dumbfounded. Two thoughts battled for dominance in his mind, the first being something along the lines of Sephiroth was watching me? and the second being, You are such an idiot, Cloud. You're supposed to be a weak little cadet who can't even make it into SOLDIER and you're showing off 3rd class techniques to the superior officers? Is it just the one brain cell that you have, Strife?

"I..." Cloud faltered.

"Hey!" Zack jogged over, happily oblivious to any conversation he might have been interrupting. "How's it going? Stop scaring Cloud, he's such a delicate flower."

Cloud couldn't help the furious blush that spread across his cheeks, looking down to try and hide it, fists clenching. Thank you so much, Zack. Just ruin any chance I ever might have had.

"I very much doubt that." Sephiroth's voice was measured and meaningful. Cloud could feel his eyes on him. "I hope, Zack, that you're coaching Strife for the SOLDIER Entrance Exams?"

Cloud's eyes widened as his head snapped up. "The what?" He mentally calculated. Six months to go until Nibelheim, and I had three months before it to mope over not getting in. Three months. Three months to go until the Exams. The SEE. Oh my God.

"The SOLDIER Entrance Exams." Zack provided this, gazing at Cloud oddly. "Why?"

"I just had a thought," Cloud admitted truthfully. Inside, this thought grew and expanded until he was almost bouncing up and down for joy.

Sephiroth would never listen to a cadet about Nibelheim. But he might listen to a SOLDIER.

A minute ago, he had been cursing his stupidity at using skills he shouldn't know. Now, he was praising it.

I never got this attention before, and attention is what I need to change stuff, right?

I think I know what I got sent back for.




End Chapter 3

Seph: ::looks at Cloud:: "My spider-sense is tingling!"

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