Disclaimer: See Chapter One.


Part One - Chapter 5

By Knowing Shadows


There was nothing about Midgar that Sephiroth could praise. He made no pretence of the fact that he disliked the city intensely – if it weren't for the fact that he worked there, and felt that he had nothing to offer anywhere else but the army, he would probably have left a long time ago. Despite his hair, he had enough of the Wutanese look about him that he might very well have ended up there. Far, far away from Hojo.

It was on Zack's insistence that they walk through Midgar on their way back to HQ. Zack was avoiding going back to work, of course, though it was a foolish way of going about it since the SOLDIER was currently favouring his right foot; a small injury from their last scuffle before making their way back. Sephiroth walked slightly behind him, endlessly amused by watching Zack's slight limp and listening to his muffled curses.

It had been the rebel group again – another pocket causing trouble on behalf of their as-yet-seen leader. They had scattered, mostly, but a few had remained and caused them to be delayed on their way home. It hadn't mattered to Sephiroth because all it meant was that there'd be a little bit more paperwork to be done once he returned, but Zack had been annoyed because it meant he would miss his scheduled date with his current girlfriend, a local girl from Sector 6 called Aeris Gainsborough; which was who Sephiroth had been roped into going with Zack to see.

Which had reminded him how much he didn't like Midgar.

He ignored the stares – they meant nothing. He concentrated on keeping up with Zack, who seemed to be walking fast just to prove that he wasn't that badly hurt, and probably aggravating his ankle whilst doing so. Sector 6 was one of the poorer sectors, falling further into disrepair every year at an alarming rate. The church, which had once been the pride and joy of the sector, was now abandoned, standing on the outskirts of the sector with its stained glass windows being the only point of colour in what was otherwise a mostly grey place.

The fact that it was so drab in the sector was probably what made Cloud Strife stand out so much. At least, that's what Sephiroth told himself it was, as his gaze alighted on a mop of bright blond hair topping a figure slinking along the other side of the residential area to Zack and himself. He frowned, watching the cadet's slim frame making his way in the opposite direction to them.

Zack hadn't spotted the blond so Sephiroth watched him for a few moments more in silence on his own. He moved oddly at times, this boy, almost as if he expected his body to do something it wouldn't do, but he had to look closely to see it at all. And look closely he did – the opportunity to observe someone as seemingly gifted as this boy outside of the training barracks might not come again for a long time.

At the moment, he would probably not make a terribly difficult opponent, Sephiroth decided, tucking a longer strand of silver hair behind his ear. Their physical stature was different enough to make it an unfair fight without taking skill into account. The blond was only a little on the short side, but was still about a head shorter than Sephiroth, perhaps a little more.

"Zack," Sephiroth said, and watched out of the corner of his eye as his friend came to a stop, giving him a curious look. The elder of the two nodded towards Cloud's retreating figure. He saw Zack's face light up as he spotted the blond, vaguely intrigued by the reaction.

"Cloud!" Zack cried, already starting towards the blond and grinning. Cloud froze, hearing Zack's voice, eyes widening slightly. Sephiroth, content to stand where he was, watched all this with feigned disdain, looking at them out of the corner of his eye as he pretended to study the creases in his leather gloves.

The boy turned to Zack as the black-haired man approached, lips pulling into a smile that didn't reach his worried blue eyes. Perhaps he hadn't wanted to be seen here by them, but for what reason Sephiroth couldn't begin to fathom. Sector 5 was the place to cause scandal – not Sector 6. In fact, what was he doing there anyway?

There were only so many creases in a glove that he could study, so Sephiroth let his hand drop down to his side and raised his eyes to the pair across the dirt road. He couldn't really hear what Zack was saying – not that he wanted to, it would invariably be about the mission he had just attended – but was grateful for the man's overactive mouth this time, since it kept Cloud's attention on him instead of on the General. Sephiroth allowed himself a brief, unmasked look at the boy this time, wondering how the kind of skill he suspected lay there could be contained in such a figure. His first impression had always been of blond, spiky hair, blue eyes and pale skin. Too effeminate, Sephiroth mused, to inspire fear in anyone, and too young for the kind of looks he would inevitably draw because of it. Sephiroth saw that Zack's worry over his friend was easily justified. Cloud was the kind of person who needed the protection that Zack offered, even though he was probably capable of taking care of himself.

Somewhere in the back of Sephiroth's mind, he also knew that he did not want to be the one to force Cloud to have to take care of himself.

Abruptly, Sephiroth pulled his mind away from that when Zack jerked a thumb over his shoulder at his superior officer, and Cloud looked up at him, following the gesture. Sephiroth didn't look away in time, and Cloud visibly jumped when he found the other man's eyes on him, skin going very pale and eyes going even wider. Something passed over the blond's face – too fast, but undeniably pain mixed with something else – but it disappeared as the boy looked away, a light blush rising across his cheekbones.

Sephiroth continued to regard the blond as Zack led him over, wondering what he'd done to deserve that look other than just stand there.

"You two have already met, right?" Zack said, cheerfully ignoring the awkward silence between the two in question. "Seph, Cloud, blah blah blah. Anywho! Seph was just accompanying me to the wonderful Sector 6 to see my girlfriend. Isn't he wonderful? Since you're here, you might as well come with, right?"

"Girlfriend?" Cloud suddenly asked, startled. A moment later he looked down at the floor again, obviously not having meant to have said what he had.

"Yeah, you know, I was telling you about her the other day!" Zack said, smiling and seemingly oblivious to Cloud's strange reaction. Sephiroth, however, wasn't. "Pretty brunette with big green eyes. She sells flowers. She's a real sweetie – you'll like her! Come on!"

Zack had already started off towards the houses – back the way that Cloud had come – and Cloud followed closely, biting his lip worriedly. Sephiroth allowed the boy distance before he followed, green eyes fixed upon the shorter figure's shoulder blades.

There's something about that boy...

He followed quietly as Zack steered the younger boy back into Sector 6, thoughtful. He watched the movement of Cloud's head as he turned to look up at Zack. "What's her name? Your girlfriend?" Something in the back of Sephiroth's mind had already warned him that the answer would bring about a strange reaction in the blond, so he didn't find himself surprised as Cloud's shoulders tightened when Zack cheerfully said, "Aeris Gainsborough!"

What do we have here, I wonder..?

"Oh," Cloud said softly, turning his face back so that Sephiroth could no longer see anything of his features. "I'm sure she's very nice." He sounded very young then, small and sad and reluctant.

"She's gorgeous," Zack enthused happily, eyes almost crinkled closed because he was smiling so widely, directing the expression down at Cloud. "I can't wait for you to see her. I've been trying to get you down here for ages, remember? Gee, and you can't even remember her name! I must have told you it a couple thousand times already..."

"Have you?" Cloud asked, in a voice that suggested he was only half-listening. Zack hadn't noticed, and began to go off on another enthusiastic rant about Aeris. Sephiroth blanked him out, knowing that Cloud had basically done the same.

What is it that I don't like about all of this?

It had been nagging at him ever since he had seen Strife performing the Third Class kata, and even though he was no closer to working out why the boy made him uneasy that didn't mean that puzzling over it had gone away. There was something - something wrong...

He almost missed it because of his musing, but the movement of Cloud's head did catch his eye. He was turning to look at Zack again, but wasn't looking at Zack - instead, Sephiroth could see a sliver of blue as Cloud looked right out of the corner of his eye over his shoulder. Of course, as soon as blue eyes met curious green, Cloud's head snapped around again.

So he does remember that I'm here.

Zack must have caught Cloud looking over his shoulder as well, because he glanced at Cloud and then at Sephiroth, smiling. "You can walk with us, you know. It's allowed. We don't bite. Well, I don't. But, you never know - Cloud might."

"Zack." The whisper was desperate and humiliated, and Sephiroth couldn't help but feel pity towards the blond, watching as his fists clenched as the General moved forward to walk on Zack's other side.

"I never listen to Zack," he offered in a low voice. He paused for a moment, and then added, "So I wouldn't worry, Cloud." Daring the boy's first name earned him another quick, embarrassed look. The boy didn't reply, though - obviously either didn't know what to say or didn't dare - and so they fell into silence as Zack practically bounced his way over to the back of the residential circle, where a gap in the houses and a splash of light shone through. Zack skipped on ahead - he could think of no better word for it - and Sephiroth found that once the dark-haired man could no longer see Cloud, the blond began to lag a little bit.

What is going on? Why doesn't he want to go here?

Beyond the gap in the huts stood a proper house, standing in what seemed like a little area of paradise compared to the rest of Midgar. A two-tiered garden stretched beyond the house, full of brightly coloured flowers. The change from black and white to the technicolour of this place was almost startling.

Cloud meandered to a stop at the threshold, staying close to the edge of the last of the huts. His blue gaze had fallen on the house, where Zack was knocking at the door. The blond seemed to be very hesitant - not wanting to go further, but knowing that he should.

As far as I can see, there are two explanations. Either he knows Aeris and might be jealous that Zack's with her, or...

He didn't like the reversal of that first explanation (which was his second explanation) at all.

Sephiroth did not go much further than Cloud, preferring to stay outside. Zack had been let inside, leaving the two alone. He turned to face the figure halted to his left, who became aware of the attention very quickly. Cloud gave him a startled look - all wide blue eyes - before lowering his gaze almost guiltily.

Stop trying to ignore me, for heaven's sake. Whatever it is that you're doing, just stop it.

"Do you know Aeris?" he found himself saying before he could stop himself. He crossed his arms over his chest, the leather of his sleeves surprisingly cold against the bare skin of his chest that he touched.

The boy shook his head, though it was after a period of hesitation that Sephiroth noticed and was therefore too late to be convincing.

Oh, wonderful. This is going to get us nowhere.

"I've heard Zack talk about her, that's all," Cloud offered after a moment with a small shrug of his shoulders. He met Sephiroth's eyes for another moment, longer than he had allowed himself to do before. Sephiroth never flinched, instinctively lifting his chin in defiance against the searching gaze, but eventually the blond looked away, lips set in a thin line.

Sephiroth opened his mouth to say something else when Zack reappeared, waving at them. "Oi, I'll have to come back later 'cause she says she's real busy right now. Sorry about that. Back to HQ, right?"

Cloud didn't look at him once on the way back.


"I think he knows her."

Zack looked up at him from where he had been absently tapping the end of a pencil on Sephiroth's desk. "Huh? Who knows who?"

Sephiroth leant his elbow on his desk, leaning forward a little to indicate to Zack - who occupied the seat on the other side of the desk in the General's office - that he wanted to lower his voice. Zack obediently leant forward as well, curiosity bright in his already glowing eyes.

"Cloud. I think that he knows who Aeris Gainsborough is," Sephiroth murmured. He watched as Zack's features fell into an expression which pleaded 'Please enlighten me for you lost me about half an hour ago.'

"What if he does?" Zack hazarded slowly.

"He denied it when I asked him, though." Sephiroth moved back so that he could lift his arm off of the hard wood, giving the paperwork in front of him a disdainful glare. "But his reaction to her name and her house intrigued me."

And I don't really think he has a 'thing' for Zack. I can't see it. He would have given off signs of that even before Aeris was mentioned. But still...

"Everything about him deserves intrigue, especially recently." Zack snorted softly at his own words, shaking his head. "I don't know how he could know Aeris, though. Aeris has always lived here, she says, and Cloud came from Nibelheim. It is a myyyysteryyyy," the SOLDIER chortled, obviously not too bothered.

Sephiroth nodded in agreement, pushing the paperwork to one side to indicate that he would do no more that evening. He was sick of it. Especially since they had just returned from fighting, after all. He sat back fully in his chair and took off his gloves, lifting one bare hand to rub gingerly at his temples. "A mystery that makes my head ache, though."

Zack laughed, taking great joy in his superior's consternation. He found his gaze drawn, however much he fought it, to the number tattooed onto the back of the General's raised hand. "Give up, man! Even I can't figure out Cloud. You still trying to puzzle out how he knew those kata? Or how he heard you that night? I can't work it out either, so don't worry."

"Haven't you asked him?"

"No. I don't dare. I get the feeling he'll go all defensive on me, and I only managed to get past that with him a couple of months back. To be honest, I've just left him to it. I think he's just coming into his own - he's been like a different person these past weeks. More confident, more skilled, less clumsy...It's good for him." Zack shrugged, then stood up, easing the ache in his sore muscles caused by sitting for too long. "He doesn't seem happier, though, which I don't like. I mean, even you have been giving him attention, and that's enough to flatter anybody."

"He knows I'm trying to work him out," Sephiroth said, looking down from Zack's face as he massaged his temples again. He needed to sleep. "He's very intelligent. He makes me uneasy - it's like you're standing with someone much older than fifteen when he's there." It felt strange to admit that - he who let no-one bother him. And here was one boy who had managed it without even trying.

His companion was silent for a long time. Then, he said, "I got that feeling, too. Just these past couple of weeks." Zack was giving him a dubious look and Sephiroth could feel it. Zack didn't like worrying about things, but rarely did he ever try and pass something off for something that it obviously wasn't.

"I don't think you should just think of it as 'coming into one's own'. There's more to it and I don't like it."

"He bothers you that much?" Another doubtful look, coupled with a reflection of tone in Zack's low voice.

Sephiroth lifted one shoulder in a non-committal shrug. He wasn't really sure how he felt about it, but there was something...

...Something about the boy...

"Should I talk to him?" Zack asked slowly, rubbing the back of his head helplessly.

"How would I know if you should?" Sephiroth let the request flow over him and away. He had never liked to be asked for advice; not that he was often asked for it. He could feel a rather large headache on and thinking about the enigma of odd cadets wouldn't help. Sleep, however, looked very appealing. Wearily, he stood up and picked up his discarded gloves, pulling them back on for the walk back to his quarters. "What I do know you should do is embark on some one-to-one training. As far as I can see, he'll have no problems passing the Entrance Exams, but you just need to make sure he's up to scratch on the areas he'll be weakest on - weight, size disadvantages, etc. He doesn't deserve to let that hold him back."

When he looked up, Sephiroth found Zack grinning. "And what about distractions?" Zack asked slyly, his grin widening even further.

"What about them?"

"You should come see us fight. See if he can do that whilst being watched by someone high up. I noticed he was acting funny around you today." As Sephiroth stepped around the table, Zack took the opportunity to nudge the elder in the ribs, winking.

Sephiroth shoved Zack's arm away gently and began to motion for the dark-haired man to lead the way out. Zack shot him one last teasing grin - which Sephiroth ignored - before moving out. Both men nodded politely to the late-working secretary they passed and then headed off down one of the still-lit corridors towards their relative sleeping areas.

Zack's teasing remarks played across Sephiroth's mind as they walked. He'd heard them before - though certainly not about Cloud Strife, who was still new enough under his scrutiny to still command attention - but the boy had been acting strangely around him that day. Of course, he chastised himself scornfully, there were hordes of people who acted oddly around him. The boy was no different.

So why could he not convince himself of that?

You survive on your instincts. You have done so even before you ever saw a battlefield. Why are you so doubtful of them now?

The blond was unassuming in every way - from a distance, at least. Zack spoke a lot about him, and had done ever since he had arrived, but Sephiroth had paid no attention. Another nameless, faceless cadet he could not know - wasn't allowed to get close to - and so he had never bothered to even feign attentiveness. He couldn't help but wonder, now, if that had been an error. Perhaps they had been continually overlooking an untapped resource that SOLDIER needed within its ranks. From what he had seen, the cadet's startling ability was well into SOLDIER 3rd class level, perhaps even 2nd, and for how long had it been that way? How long had Cloud been taught beneath his level?

Sephiroth made a mental note to pull up Strife's old test scores when he had the time. But there was no point moving Cloud up now, so close to the exams. He would go through them like any other cadet, and hopefully - certainly - pass. It would be normal. No attention would be drawn to the blond. Sephiroth had the feeling that the boy balked at attention; had not learned to ignore it the way that Sephiroth had. So, this was the best way.

"I'm heading off now," Zack said, startling the General enough that it showed, and the dark-haired SOLDIER raised an eyebrow at him, a sly grin beginning to curve his lips. "Have fun, why don't you?"

Sephiroth wasn't quite sure what Zack meant by that, or what Zack had been grinning about, but he let it slide, as he so often did when he didn't understand. He wondered just how long he had been musing, because they were standing outside the door to Zack's resident dorm area.

The object of his consternation lay behind that door, Sephiroth thought, and scowled.

"I'm, uh, going to talk to Cloud about Aeris." That caught his attention. Zack's expression was uncertain, his eyes seeking approval for his choice. "I'll let you know how it goes, okay? Best to get it over and done with, as they say."

Sephiroth nodded absently, mind only half-concentrating on Zack's relieved look. "You do that. I'll see you tomorrow."

Zack grinned at him in farewell, and then quietly ducked behind the door. The General moved on towards his own quarters.


He could tell from the snores and light breathing that most, if not all, of the guys under his jurisdiction were asleep. Zack tiptoed across the floor towards his bunk and sat down gently on the edge of Cloud's bed to take off his boots. He would probably wake Cloud up when he clambered up above him to his own bed anyway.

Cloud didn't stir, stretched out under his blanket on his belly, most of his face obscured by his near arm. It was a warmer night than most of the recent ones had been, which was probably why the cadet was sleeping so soundly.

If you only knew half how much I pay attention to you, you'd be surprised.

Perhaps, now that Cloud seemed to be doing so much better, he wouldn't need Zack to watch over him so closely.

Yeah, whatever. You'd do it anyway!

Sliding his boots under the bed and out of the way, he watched the soft rise and fall of the blond's back as he breathed, debating whether or not to wake him up. Perhaps it would disturb one of Cloud's few good nights, but he didn't want anyone else to really overhear them. During the day, everyone was up and down and all over the place - privacy was hard to find unless you were an officer with private quarters. And now, with the others asleep and if they talked in whispers...

Go for it. Seph's expecting you to do this. Can't disappoint the General now, can we?

He grinned at the thought, and then reached over to gently shake Cloud by the shoulder. The boy's eyes fluttered open not long after, and his blue eyes were fogged with sleep. He blinked and turned over slightly when he realised someone was sitting on his bed. Zack couldn't stop from widening his amused smile as Cloud squinted at him in the dark, pulling a face.

"Zack?" Cloud fell onto his back and threw an arm across his face. "...What's wrong? What time is it?"

"About midnight," Zack supplied helpfully, far too cheerful for the hour.

Cloud obviously thought so too, because he pulled another face at his superior. "What did you wake me up for then? I was having a really great dream-"

"About Sephiroth, I'd wager."

"No," Cloud snapped, sounding far too much like a sullen teenager to be believed. Even if his tone hadn't betrayed him, the guilty slide of his eyes away from Zack's would have alerted the SOLDIER that he'd hit jackpot.

Zack snickered quietly. "Don't worry. I won't tell anyone. Not that most of the people in SOLDIER aren't guilty of the same thing." Cloud's sleepy glare held none of its usual effect. "I was going to ask you about something, actually. And no, it wasn't about Sephiroth, so don't panic." The glare deepened. "Okay, okay, I'll stop teasing. Anyway...I wanted to know if you knew Aeris."

Cloud was too disorientated and tired to mask the surprise that showed in his eyes, or the next flashing emotion which looked suspiciously like panic. "No," he said, expression turning suddenly puzzled. Zack watched him, the shock of surprise warm in his chest. "I've never met her."

Sephiroth was right.

"You sure?" he pushed gently, almost hopefully. The surprise suddenly gave way to a fierce bitterness at the knowledge that Cloud was lying to him. Lying, to Zack, who'd done nothing but encourage and help a boy who'd have been swallowed and chewed up by this place if he hadn't had the help.

Cloud shook his head, and the sleepy confusion was a mask so perfect that Zack would have been fooled had he not already known it was fake. "I don't know her. Why? Did you think I knew her?"

Zack found himself shaking his own head, and standing. Cloud watched him, eyes wide in the dark. "No, it was just...nothing. Don't worry about it." He clambered up the ladder to his own bed without further conversation, angry and not knowing whether it was justified or not.

He's lying to me!

Zack lay on his back staring up at the ceiling for a long time before he slept. At some point, Cloud offered a timid, "Goodnight," but Zack didn't answer.

Good. At least he knows I'm not happy with him.

A part of him nagged guiltily that perhaps there were circumstances that could explain the dishonesty, or that he was misreading the signs and Cloud was telling the truth, but he quashed that with little effort.

Sephiroth's headache would return tenfold when Zack was through ranting at him about this.


Neither Tifa nor Nanaki were ready for when Vincent's dark form leapt out of the sudden rain that hampered their vision, yelling something that was lost in the wind. He was carrying something wrapped in blankets and Vincent's own cloak, turned into the ex-Turk's chest.

"-inside!" Tifa eventually made out as Vincent kicked open the door to Cloud's home. "Get inside! Quickly!"

Tifa and Nanaki followed blindly, infected by Vincent's panic, and Tifa pulled the door closed behind her, turning at Nanaki's gasp to find Vincent laying out a figure on the rumpled bed in the hut. Pulling back the soaked blankets and cloak, the flash of pale blond made Tifa's hands fly to her mouth in shock.


"Someone activate those fire materia around the room until it's warm. He's ice cold." Vincent had fallen into his calm, collected voice, but Tifa barely heard it. She stared down at the pale, thin figure Vincent was hurriedly stripping out of wet clothing, frozen to the spot. Gods, he was so thin - testified as a white chest appeared, and Tifa could count most of the ribs. What did he eat up here, where nothing grew and there was so little to hunt?

"Tifa!" Nanaki cried, breaking her out of her shock and forcing her gaze away from Cloud's still-handsome face. "You need to help Vincent with Cloud. Get him out of his clothes and wrap him up in those dry blankets."

"Oh - of course." She literally fell to her knees on Vincent's left, trembling fingers tugging insistently at the wet material that stuck to Cloud's skin. A little while later they were wrapping him in blankets, as tightly as they could do.

They lay him back, eventually, and Tifa pressed her fingers to Cloud's throat. A pulse, slow but strong. So slow...a dull thud against her fingers that went too long quiet (long enough to make her begin to panic) before thumping again.

"What's wrong with him?" she murmured, more to herself than anyone else, and let her fingertips trail lightly across the line of his cheekbone.

"I don't know. Exposure...I don't think he's got hypothermia, or shock..." Vincent shook his head, glancing at Nanaki as the feline padded up and sat down. "I don't know what happened. We'll just have to wait."

Tifa nodded, feeling her eyes sting. She sighed and lowered her head, shaking it sadly. "Why is he doing this to himself? Why can't he come back to us?"

Nanaki raised his eyes to Vincent, who remained silent, his own gaze settled on Cloud's pale, drawn face. "Perhaps," Vincent said finally, "this is what he thinks he deserves."

"That's so...stupid!" He'd expected the outburst from Tifa, who saw nothing but what Cloud wanted her to see. He didn't look at her as she continued, "He's done nothing but good things! How could he think that being stuck up on a mountain freezing to death is what he deserves?!"

Vincent let her continue, aware that Nanaki's sharp eyes were watching him suspiciously. He ignored that as well, choosing to turn his attention to the worn figure in front of him. The smell of the Lifestream was strong, clinging to the blond's thin frame as if it were a part of him.

What have you done to him?

There was no answer except for the silence where the Cetra might have been, and Vincent had expected no more or less than that. If they were watching, they gave no sign. Vincent wondered, vaguely, if Cloud himself had asked the Cetra to oblige him in some matter, and this state was something of his own doing.

"Do you think if we shake him he'll wake up?" Nanaki said abruptly, who had moved close enough to Cloud that Vincent could see the animal's nose wrinkling against the smell.

Vincent shrugged, the corner of his mouth twitching a little at the thought. "We could always try." Thinking that it would do little to no good anyway, Vincent reached down and grasped Cloud's shoulders. Tifa had fallen silent and she watched as the dark-haired man proceeded to shake the blond's unconscious body. Cloud's head snapped back and forth listlessly.

Give him back to us. I doubt that there's anything even the Cetra can do to ease his pain except grant him a painless death.

Abruptly, something crackled across Cloud's skin and Vincent pulled his hands back in pain, dropping Cloud onto his back. In the wake of his fingertips arced trails of green mist that quickly dissipated in the still air. A second later, Cloud looked perfectly normal.

"What was that?" Nanaki prodded Cloud gingerly with a paw, waiting for the same reaction and getting nothing.

"The Cetra. They must have him somewhere. That is why he smells of them." Vincent shook his head and reached out again, brushing his fingertips hesitantly against Cloud's forehead. Nothing happened. Frowning, he grasped Cloud's shoulders again and before he could even move, pain flared in his hands. Green mist arced from where Vincent's fingers had been for a few moments before fading.

This time, however, there was a difference.

"Leave him. He is protected with us far more than he could ever be with you."

It was both one voice and many at the same time, fierce with anger. As soon as it was there, it was gone, leaving a gaping hole behind that stung in the back of Vincent's mind. No-one said anything, and Vincent was left with the distinct impression that he was the only one who had heard anything.

Cautiously, he placed a hand flat against Cloud's clammy forehead. What are you doing to him?

There was a moment of nothingness, and then the faint pressure in his head returned a bare moment before the Cetra spoke again. "We are giving him a peace he never attained in life."

A vision assaulted him of the gravestone but whether that came from the Cetra or not, Vincent couldn't tell. Never attained in life? Is he dead?

"He is still alive. However, we will allow him to pass on if he so desires."

The voice was cold, devoid now of even the initial anger, and Vincent felt his body jerk back from Cloud, shock running through him at the words spoken to him. He sat back, staring at the blond's still body. If Cloud so desires? If he had wanted to die, he would be gone already. Why are the Cetra doing this?

He had intended the thought to be private, not even realising that the Cetra may have heard him. His blood ran as cold as their voice as they spoke one last time to him. "We will make or break him. Either way, Cloud Strife will find rest."


Sephiroth sighed softly, leaning back in his chair and tapping the ends of his gloved fingers on the edge of his desk.

The paperwork left behind had taken little time to complete, especially after he and Zack had pulled the late night before get back on top of it, and now sat in a pile in a tray waiting to be taken off elsewhere. There was nothing else to do, which was both a blessing and a curse. Sephiroth stared thoughtfully at the blank computer screen in front of him, and then reached out to switch the machine on.

He could probably get in trouble for some aspect of what he was doing, Sephiroth mused, even though he was the General and full access to the personnel files should have been a given. ShinRa, however, had never been run on logic and Sephiroth knew this better than anyone.

His fingers moved swiftly over the keys as he typed in a search. Cloud Strife's file appeared immediately, and he realised that he'd almost been expecting some kind of password option to come up, as if there was something about the boy that he didn't know and might explain everything.

Getting slightly desperate, aren't we?

He pulled up the personal details first, curiosity peaking more than anything. Sephiroth frowned at the pale, thin face in the picture that was presented to him, surrounded by a familiar mop of blond hair. Cloud looked vaguely frightened and it wasn't hard to imagine him being so. There was nothing out of the ordinary, he saw as his eyes flickered down the page. He was just a boy from an out of the way town, like any other.

Yeah. They say to look out for the unassuming ones, don't they.

Sephiroth leaned forward in his chair, placing one elbow on the desk and resting his chin in the cup of his hand as he tapped a couple of keys. A second window appeared over the profile one, labelled "Scores". Green eyes gazed once more down the page, taking in numbers and notes with increasing surprise.

This doesn't make sense...

‘A quiet, distant student whose level of determination is only let down by his lack of innate talent'...'Test scores continue to lag behind those of his peers'...

Sephiroth narrowed his eyes, continuing to read as his confusion increased. As he approached more recent test scores, nothing had improved at all. Cloud continued to be the runt at the back of the class, who tried but just didn't have what it took to make it.

I don't understand...

What Sephiroth had seen of the boy was nothing like this. He scowled at the screen, unable to comprehend the records. Perhaps there had been some mistake..?

And then, quite suddenly, in the past few weeks the regular test scores had jumped high, and the comments had changed from ‘lags behind' to ‘shows incredible improvement in so little time' and ‘astounding progress'.

It's almost as if a different person suddenly appeared and took Cloud's place. The change is too sudden to just be ‘improvement'.

The General stared at the screen for a long time, trying and failing to figure out what was going on. An enigma, this boy...a puzzle waiting to be solved, and Sephiroth had never shied away from one before.

Sephiroth decided, as he shut off the computer, that he would have to take Zack up on his earlier suggestion of coming to keep an eye on the training. He sat back in his chair for a moment, silent, before picking up the finished paperwork to hand in for filing.




End Chapter 5.


1. I hate plot building. I need some yaoi.

2. Thank you for being patient with me/this fic, everyone. I appreciate it.

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