Disclaimer: See Chapter One.


Part One - Chapter 8

By Knowing Shadows


Zack found himself doing what he had caught Sephiroth doing not so long ago. He watched Cloud in the lunchline from his position against the far wall by one of the exits, arms crossed over his chest.

If he'd been in a better mood, he would have thought that the nervous glances he was getting were funny. All he got from it then was a small sense of satisfaction that his expression obviously reflected how he felt. He wondered if Cloud would be cowed when he was spotted – he bloody well deserved to be.

Shut up, Zack. You're being unfair and you know it.

He was, when he looked at it objectively, taking how Cloud acted far too much to heart. He doubted that the boy even knew he was doing it, whether it was through plain stupidity or not. In his fouler tempers, Zack liked to think that it was plain stupidity. But those moods were few and far between, and he wasn't subject to one of them now.

Cloud stood in the line behind a tall, lean redhead whom Zack vaguely knew as the guy that the Turks had their eye on, Reno. Zack, like most of the SOLDIER officers, disliked the Turks immensely because, when there was a place going, they liked to try and steal the best candidates before they could be formally accepted into the public army. President Shinra generally favoured the Turks, the most precious of his side outfits, which meant that when the Turks got their claws into someone, that person usually got dragged away. Zack had lost a friend to them once, and the only reason Sephiroth had been spared was because, as far as Zack knew, he had been singled out as General since the day he was born.

God, I'll have to warn Seph, ‘cause if Cloud draws their attention...

He could see what Seph had been looking at before, now. He watched the way that a veil dropped over the blond's eyes sometimes, almost like the way it did with Sephiroth when the older man didn't think anyone was watching. He found himself watching an actor.

Reno said something over his shoulder at Cloud, who smiled up at the other boy and replied back. Zack felt a small twinge of relief that ate into his irritated resolve; Cloud seemed to have bucked up his ideas immensely over the past two months and appeared to be getting on a lot better with both his fellow candidates and his instructors. This could only be a good thing, and something Zack had been encouraging since he had first met the boy, but it was a startling change.

Maybe that's why I'm angry. It's not just that he and Seph seem to be getting all buddy-buddy, as it were; it's that he's getting on with other people as well.

He had liked the feeling of someone depending on him; having to look after Cloud had brought him a close friendship that he treasured.

Oh, grow up, Zack. You're a big boy now. Don't need no-one, remember?

Cloud shoved Reno in the back with his tray to shift him, because he'd been talking at the shorter boy and hadn't noticed the line move. Cloud smiled to himself, the small secretive little expression that Zack often saw these days. It was the kind of smile that older people got when they saw the generation below acting the way that they used to act and remembered it in hindsight – the kind of smile that implied knowledge or experience or age. It had never failed to puzzle him, how Cloud could be so young and so old at the same time, and how it had become that way so quickly.

It had crossed his mind that perhaps Cloud had been hiding before – the innocence and naivety and affability merely feigned – and now he was seeing the real Cloud Strife, the one moulded by his experiences at his hometown. Cloud rarely spoke about Nibelheim to anyone, but Zack knew that he hadn't been happy there. He suspected bullying but he had never asked – Cloud got a wild look in his eyes whenever the town was mentioned, so he hadn't dared delve deeper than that.

Perhaps that was why he was angry, because Cloud had suddenly revealed himself and Zack felt lost in the wake of it. Even worse, in this wake Cloud had been snatched away, having attracted the attention of the one man that he had been under the spell of for as long as Zack had known him, perhaps even longer.

Well, ‘snatched' wasn't strictly true, but Zack liked the drama of it.

Cloud got served at the hatch and followed Reno's path to the table that the taller boy had moved to. Zack pushed himself off of the wall and continued to train his stare on the blond as he slid into a seat across the hall and fell into conversation with the other boys there – although the others seemed to do most of the talking.

Or perhaps even this was a mask – not the true Cloud, but a put-on to make him more popular. But even so, where had the sudden talent in class come from? Whichever way he looked at it, it made no sense, and no-one was willing to help him to make it make sense.

He kept to the edges of the hall, rather than cutting his way across towards Cloud. He had things to say and didn't want them to wait. Zack had never really been a patient man. Anyway, Cloud was due for more classes soon and Zack was heading out later so it wasn't as if he had a choice, was it? It wasn't like he wanted to do this in front of a full dining hall –

Cloud had spotted him, lifting his head and staring at him with wide, questioning eyes. Catching the blond's inattention, the others stopped talking to look in Zack's direction. None of them knew Zack other than as a SOLDIER 1st Class, and they all shot worried glances at Cloud.

"Hey y'all," he said as a greeting, flashing a smile. It disarmed them slightly, but Cloud wasn't fooled. He frowned instead, standing. "Oh, you don't need to get up, Cloud – "

"I'm not doing this here, Zack," Cloud said firmly. He motioned to the hall, stern and upright, and Zack suddenly felt ashamed that he'd even thought of doing so. "Not here."

"Sure," Zack grinned, but he knew that there was no humour in his eyes. "I just wanted a chat – no need to let your lunch go cold – "

"I'm not hungry." Cloud gave him a sharp look, and then turned his head to offer the confused people at the table a slight smile. "Just throw it away, will you? I just gotta go talk for a sec."

A few of them made vague noises of agreement, but Reno watched Zack with the cool, direct stare that the SOLDIER knew was part of what made him so appealing to the Turks. He refrained from sticking his tongue out of crossing his eyes – he was a SOLDIER 1st, damnit! – and stepped back to allow Cloud out. He got another sharp, knowing look from the redhead when Cloud had gone past and couldn't see it, which irked him greatly. He rolled his eyes and followed Cloud's graceful form across the dining hall to the exit.

That was another thing that had confused him – Cloud had never been graceful or elegant. He was always just the wrong side of clumsy; physically and socially inept. It had been sweet in its own way, though his heart had always gone out to the boy for it.

This Cloud – and it was a ‘this Cloud', he realised; couldn't think of them as being the same – was focused. Focused and, despite how it looked with Reno earlier, more introverted than ever.

"Where do you want to go?" Cloud asked when they'd exited the canteen. He glanced over his shoulder, slowing his walk so that Zack could catch up with him, with nothing but curiosity in his face. Zack suspected that he was only hiding the darker emotion that had been there when he had first approached the boy.

"The others will be out, so we could go back to the dorm, if you like." Zack shrugged. "I just wanted to ask you how it went with Seph, you know – " He was cut off by the subtle shift in Cloud's expression, where the mask of calm neutrality slipped and the mouth and eyes tightened and went cold.

Of course you don't just want to ask that, you want to find out what the fuck's been going on and Cloud knows that, you dumbass. Give the kid more credit. You should have learned that recently.

The mask slid back into place but there was a spark of apprehension in the blond's eyes that matched the twisting feeling in Zack's gut. Cloud turned and started off in the direction of the dorm, and Zack followed. The corridors were empty – most of the people who would have been strolling along them were eating, of course – and Zack tried to ignore the itching, burning need to just yell and scream or something – something that would give some kind of ground to stand on again.

I can't stand this anymore.

"So, how did it go?" he asked. He tried to keep it conversational but he'd never been good at hiding strain – he was too confrontational, too quick to leap on things that he thought needed to be fixed. "I haven't really seen Seph to talk to and I'm curious as all hell."

Cloud made a soft, amused "huh" sound in the back of his throat, lips curving slightly into a small smile as he looked over for a moment at the man by his side. "You're always curious."

Now this was something he knew how to handle – the gentle joking, at least, gave him something to work with. "And curiosity killed the cat, I know, I know." He grinned, thinking it strangely ironic that he was actually dying to know. "But you seem better today, so I assume it went okay?"

Cloud shrugged, gaze sliding away once more. "It was alright. We just talked a bit. It was...awkward." There was pain, there, and Zack ached for him. He knew that this had to be pretty close to one of Cloud's nightmares – the boy loved so deeply and so hard...

"So what'd you talk about?" He refrained from tagging on "'Cause, you know, I know nothing" bitterly afterward, but only barely. He wasn't a bitter person by nature, hated feeling angry, but there was just something there that had sparked it off, something inside of him that had reacted to the blond in a way it hadn't before.

"He apologised to me for something he said...he asked me why it had upset me so much, but I couldn't..." Zack saw the abrupt flash of sadness in the cadet's eyes, so bright and terrible that it couldn't be hidden. "I couldn't really say why...so I think I made him angry."

Guilt ate at him after that, and Zack looked away because of it. See? You're overreacting and all you're going to do is hurt him because of it...

What if he really can't tell me what happened? But what could have happened that was so awful that he couldn't? There's nothing, is there? So why is he being so bloody stubborn about it?

I will find out.


Cloud could feel the tension rolling off of Zack. The dark-haired man kept giving him odd little glances where his eyes darkened with something almost like anger, going pale around the mouth. Cloud's stomach twisted itself into painful knots as Zack continued with the strained small talk, his voice light but forcefully so. Cloud hated it. He knew that this fight was coming and wanted it over and done with. Zack was relentless when he managed to get an idea in his head.

How can I assure him that he'll never lose me as a friend? How can I get that through to him?

"Seph won't stay angry at you for long," the SOLDIER was saying airily. "If he's even mad at all. I've seen him around and he doesn't look mad." Zack waved his hands agitatedly as he spoke. Cloud watched him out of the corner of his eye, stomach muscles tight against apprehensive nausea. They weren't far from the dorm, only another minute or so walk. He wasn't entirely sure how Zack was going to act when they got inside, and he wasn't sure which possibility was worse: his friend's silent, accusatory fury or his screaming rages. Cloud had seen them before, though thankfully neither had been directed at him at the time.

And what can I say to him that will make him feel better? It's not up to me whether he knows what Sephiroth saw or not - that's Seph's discretion. I can't tell him why I got so upset either. But, the Planet knows that I'd rather die than push him away because of something like this - I can't lose him -

In Cloud's melancholy, the conversation had died down and they'd reached the dorm. Zack opened the door, motioning for him to enter first with a gracious but faltering smile. Cloud tried his best to send his own back, hoping that it would be reassuring. He wasn't sure if he'd succeeded, so he ducked past the older man into the damning silence of the room.

Zack shut the door quietly behind him. Cloud wandered to his own lower bunk bed and sat on the edge of it, back straight, waiting for his friend to follow. He could hear Zack's footsteps on the hard, cold floor, and raised his head as the taller, darker figure appeared around the corner of the bunk for him to see. Zack settled on the lower bunk opposite his, almost three feet away, clasping his hands in his lap.

"Please, Zack," Cloud said, leaning forward as his chest tightened. "I know why you're upset and there's nothing to be upset about. Please don't be angry." Please, Zack. I couldn't stand it if you were angry at me. You're my best friend and you always will be.

Zack shook his head, air whistling past his lips as he exhaled slowly. "I'm not upset...Just worried."


"You trust me, yeah?" Zack looked across at Cloud for the first time, his eyes dark and pleading and his face drawn.

Cloud nodded hastily. How could he ever think that I don't? "Of course, Zack, of course I do. I trust you more than anything."

"So why don't you trust me enough to tell me what's been going on?" The dark-haired SOLDIER's stare was frank and direct, but his nervousness and hurt were easily seen - Cloud could see them boiling just below the thinly spread veneer of calm. "Why is it that suddenly you don't talk to me anymore?"

What? "I do talk to you, Zack!" Oh, please, don't think things like that! "But...what you can know about what happened, I don't have permission to say. You'll have to ask Sephiroth - it's more to do with him, really..."

Zack made an indistinct noise in the back of his throat, mouth pulling down and eyebrows furrowing as he scowled, standing up abruptly to pace. "What's with all this secrecy nonsense anyway?" He waved an arm as he glanced at the blond sitting on the bed, heated with a sudden influx of irritation. Cloud stared at him, a vague sense of horror settling across his lungs that Zack was angry at him. "What's all this between you and him anyway? He didn't know you existed two months ago and suddenly there's this huge deal about you being able to pull off a few moves!"

That hurt, a swift aching sting low in his chest. "Zack - "

"It's true, Cloud," the older man snapped. Cloud shut his mouth, sitting back at the rebuke. Zack paced once more, three steps each way, before coming to a stop in front of the blond, towering over him. The anger seemed to have drained out of him suddenly, flooding out and leaving sagging shoulders behind. Cloud forced himself to look up and meet Zack's gaze. It was still heavy and unflinching, an edge of coldness to it that Cloud wasn't used to seeing. "You've changed, you know that? You used to at least talk, you know. These days you're so quiet. You're so focused on getting into SOLDIER now."

That's right. I used to talk all the time before Nibelheim. And then...there just didn't seem to be any point.

"I wasn't going to get in if I kept up with what I was doing before, was I?" Cloud said sharply. Where was Zack to get off saying things like that? Aren't you happy that I'm going to get in to SOLDIER? You know how much that means to me, don't you?

"That's not..." Zack made another frustrated noise, throwing up his hands. "Cloud, if this is what just getting into SOLDIER will do to you, I don't think that it's such a good idea for you to carry on - "

"Excuse me?!" Abruptly, Cloud straightened, eyes widening. The anger pooled into his chest in response, hot and painful. "There is no way that you just said what I think you did - "

"But what if I'm right?" Zack shot back, cutting him off. "What if SOLDIER's not good for you? What if I lose a friend because of it?"

"This isn't all about you!" Cloud spat, balling his fists tightly and narrowing his eyes. "It doesn't matter what I want, or that I've been wanting to be a SOLDIER for most of my life, does it? I'll just let that all go, shall I? What would I do, Zack? What would I do without this? This is all I ever wanted - "

"Sephiroth is all you ever wanted." There was a strong, burning bitterness behind those words. Cloud bristled, mouth shifting painfully as Zack elaborated, "Sometimes I think that he's the only reason you're here."

Cloud looked away, locking his jaw and unable to look at the man standing across from him. A sense of betrayal - betrayal that Zack didn't understand just how much SOLDIER meant beyond Sephiroth - broiled under his skin, heavy and smothering. How could Zack not see? How could he not see that SOLDIER was what he had come to Midgar for? Did he not understand how much courage it had taken to leave Nibelheim - having never seen Sephiroth before, only hearing stories - and come to the city, a place where he was more than likely to be more miserable than before just for a chance to try out for SOLDIER? He was worthless without SOLDIER. There was nothing else out there to prove that he was stronger than the others; to prove that he had something to give.

Silence had fallen, abruptly broken as Zack dropped to his knees, reaching out for the hands that were clenched on Cloud's lap. "Oh, God, I'm sorry - I didn't mean that - I'm not thinking straight -" He clasped the fists resting on cotton-clad thighs and was batted away. The blond gave him a sharp glare, so pale that he was almost the colour of the bed sheets.

"Yes. Yes you did," Cloud muttered. He stood up, moving around Zack with purposeful ease and making for the exit. "I'll be back later."

"Cloud!" Zack straightened, starting off for the blond before he knew it, one arm outstretched. "Wait!"

"No!" Cloud spun around, still backing up. Zack stopped, stunned by the reflective sheen across the bright blue of the boy's eyes. "I'm too angry to talk to you. Even if you didn't mean it, I can't - I just don't - believe..." He trailed off, head shaking in disgust, and disappeared around the doorframe silently.

You're such an idiot, Zack. You couldn't have said anything more stupid than if you'd just told him that Sephiroth hated him. Way to go.

Zack growled with frustration, sitting down on Cloud's bunk. "This is impossible," he moaned. "Just impossible."


Sephiroth felt that he probably abhorred the cadets more than anyone else, because his paperwork load usually increased just before the exams. It always fell to him to sort these things out for one reason or another - usually because the exam itself was proper field practice in a real situation and the intelligence reports for such things went to him most of the time. It was amazing how much paper was needed to secretly send a bunch of wannabe rookies to an important area where they would then blow this cover within about five seconds of entering battle.

He raised his palm to his mouth and yawned into it, tiredness sweeping through his body. He just wanted something to eat and then he would go to bed and sleep. The canteen would be closed by now, though, so he would be stuck with vending machine food. He wasn't particularly fond of sugary/salty junk food - never been allowed it as a child and had therefore never developed a taste for it. It would do for now, however. He hadn't eaten all day.

His mind had been so focused on the idea of food that he'd forgotten to bring his shoulder plates with him when he'd left the office, having removed them earlier on in the day because they were making his muscles ache. It was strange to wander ShinRa's corridors in what felt almost like bare shoulders; strange and unsettling. He wished that he'd gone back to get them because he was sure that he could almost feel the ShinRa filth settling on him in the short time that he'd been without the armour.

He saw the vending machines up ahead, in the 'leisure area' - a glorified smoking room, in Sephiroth's opinion. His mood picked up at the thought of it, and his footsteps echoed loudly as he stepped from the corridor into the larger space.

He slowed down to a stop within a couple of paces, eyes drawn across the room away from the flashing machines to the figure nearby. Cloud was sitting by himself at one of the corner tables, his back turned. He was dressed in a pair of plain trousers and a dark jumper, the first time that Sephiroth had really seen him out of uniform, and perhaps it was that which made him look out of place again – superimposed, almost – but perhaps it was not. From Sephiroth's vantage point, it looked as if Cloud was nursing a plastic cup of ShinRa special hot chocolate, the kind that used a vague sprinkling of powder and looked so unsavoury that most people avoided it. Cloud was staring down at it, only half awake, turning the cup around and around in his bare, frozen looking hands. With his head bowed, the collar of his jumper left the back of his neck bare. His skin looked like it would have been soft had he touched it.

It had been just over a day since he and Cloud had spoken – however disastrous that had turned out to be. He was beginning to think that he couldn't escape the boy. When he'd just stopped wondering about things, the blond would be there to bring it all back again. It would have seemed more romantic if he'd believed in fate, but he didn't, and all that he felt now was a vague sense of consternation that wasn't even really that.

He walked over then, his footsteps light but enough to alert Cloud to his presence. All he needed was to startle the boy after yesterday. He wasn't really a boy at all, Sephiroth knew, but some part of him recognised that he needed to keep the distance that the word implied. There was something within Cloud that was too close to some forgotten ideal within his own mind and distance meant safety.

He stopped, a few feet behind Cloud, and stared down at the tense shoulders – Cloud knew exactly who was there, of course, without turning around – for a brief moment. He considered reaching out, to feel the hard warmth of the muscles beneath his hand just to see what kind of reaction he'd get. His fingertips itched all of a sudden, and the thought of someone else's body heat – that vague sense of it he could already feel from Cloud even with the distance between them – filled him with a sudden, acute sense of loneliness.

"May I join you?" He kept his voice light, making sure that there was nothing but polite curiosity in it even when they both knew there was no room for anything like that between them. The awkwardness needed to be addressed, that much Sephiroth knew. Beyond that, he wasn't entirely certain.

"Sure," Cloud said with a vague shrug. He drew the cup of hot chocolate against his chest, fingers tight around it. Sephiroth watched Cloud's knuckles grow whiter as he pulled out a chair and sat down. A fine tremor had set up across the surface of the chocolate, hardly noticeable.

"Do you often stay out this late?" Sephiroth said, folding his hands in his lap. What could he say to bridge that gap? He doubted that he would get any help from the other party. But why should it matter if Strife was being cold or not?

Cloud was shaking his head. He was still staring down at the slowly cooling cup in his bare hands. "No. Zack was being a jerk, that's all. But that's nothing new."

Sephiroth nodded, wondering what Cloud would do to keep warm when the drink went cold. It was chilly on this floor – Sephiroth could feel it even through the comfortable leather of his gloves. Cloud's hands looked very white. "Is he giving you grief about me?"

Cloud shrugged in a strange, lop-sided non-committal way. "It doesn't matter. It's not his fault, really." He lifted a pale hand to run through the short hairs at the back of his head. Sephiroth watched the nervous movement in contemplative silence.

"It's not ours, either," he said eventually, and Cloud shrugged again. Sephiroth fought the urge to roll his eyes – so defeatist already, this boy, or at least he acted like it – and aimed a steady glare at the blond. Cloud didn't look up, of course, but even then, cold and tired and strained, Sephiroth was keenly aware of the intensity of the boy's focus upon him, despite how the blond might look.

A period of quiet followed, a prolonged moment of anticipation where each fumbled for something to say and hoped that the other would be the first to say it. Sephiroth studied the lines of Cloud's face in his own discomfort, the slight curve of the jaw and the pale wisps of feather-blond that framed it. He was handsome, but his youth made it almost effeminate.

His lips formed words before he realised what he was saying. "You know as well as I that this can't continue forever." He made a vague gesture with his hand that caught Cloud's attention and made him look up as Sephiroth was indicating the both of them. Cloud looked slightly panicked, a spark of wildness in his eyes as he sat back in his chair. "You and I."

"You and I?" Cloud echoed, his voice slightly breathless. Sephiroth felt an involuntary shiver tremble across the skin between his shoulders in reaction to it, feeling the first stir of something warm and unnameable in his stomach. "What do you mean?"

"This." He didn't need to make another motion between them because, by the uncomfortable flinch that the blond made as soon as he spoke, Cloud already knew what he meant. "It makes life unnecessarily...difficult. Especially since I suspect that we will both we working together in the near future."

That startled Cloud, making his slim frame go rigid in the chair, which Sephiroth hadn't thought it would. Was he so ignorant of his own ability, or just expecting failure so much that it clouded everything else, warping it beyond the boy's recognition?

Or had he heard something...something that might make the boy jumpy just being in his very presence. And then the idea of working together...was that why Cloud acted so strangely around him?

"Together?" There was a tiny undercurrent of hope that coloured Cloud's tone and face, lighting the darkness in his eyes. Sephiroth nodded, watching with curiosity and surprise as the spark brightened. He didn't think he'd ever seen such an expressive face before.

So he hasn't heard...?

Abruptly that light dimmed, Cloud's expression becoming closed and wary. "Why, sir? I mean, you're..."

"I know what I am." The General. A SOLDIER. A monster. Take your pick. Forcefully, Sephiroth cut off the bitter, angry thoughts, tightening his lips. "If what I've seen or heard is any indication, you will most likely gain a high position within SOLDIER." As long as you don't drop back down to your earlier test scores, that is. He suspected after much deliberation that the jump in the scores wasn't due to any sudden emergence of latent talent - despite what the teacher comments were - but rather some sudden motivation on the blond's part to concentrate and focus more. Most people had talent, but the key to it was the focus, and therefore being able to draw on that talent.

"...Thank you, sir." Cloud fidgeted in his seat under the praise, and Sephiroth had to keep his jaw locked against the upturn of his lips when he saw the faint flush of the cadet's pale cheeks.

"And even if you weren't going to make it into SOLDIER, you know as well as I that we have a point of...connection." Cloud's head snapped up, mouth slightly parted and cheeks reddening further, which Sephiroth suspected wasn't entirely due to the memory of their talk in his office. The awkward, distracting feeling in his belly surged for a moment as he mulled over what he had just said.

Wisely, he thought, he didn't say any more and Cloud didn't either. He was willing to leave their discussion on his visions - or memory, whatever it was - where it was left yesterday, and it seemed that Cloud was as well. He supposed it was just as well, since he had intended to talk to the boy to ease the tension between them. It wasn't good for work relations, but he knew that couldn't have been the only reason. Usually, he knew that he just didn't care.

It's dangerous to care, and you know that it is. It's irrational, irresponsible and the damage it causes is more irreparable the further you fall. Stop this now, before it's too late.

He had trained his mind long ago to protect him from the wants and follies of the human heart, since he'd learned a long time ago - too young, too young - that feeling never benefited anyone. What was the point, he had raged at one time, in allowing yourself to fall for the same traps as everyone else did? He was better than they were - stronger, faster, more intelligent, and it tore him apart that even though he was all of those things, he was still the puppet of the same emotions that drove everyone else.

Cloud was watching him quietly and those wide blue irises were a gentle burn across his skin. He felt the start of the shiver across his shoulder blades again.

"So," Sephiroth said, trying to distract himself from trying to analyse that feeling, "I suggest that we leave certain things behind us, until such a time comes as it may be forced to the forefront again." Sephiroth held out a hand across the table in the still, chilly air, watching Cloud unwaveringly. The cadet's gaze flickered from his face down to his hand and back again before he cautiously held out his own hand, taking it away from the hot chocolate for the first time. Even through his gloves, Sephiroth could tell that Cloud's fingers were cold. They were slim and white against the leather.

He must have been sitting here for a long time, worrying about this. I don't think that Zack appreciates how much his opinion must mean to Cloud.

The blond drew his hand back, a smooth movement against Sephiroth's own. He drew back as well, sliding his palm uncomfortably against his leg under the table. Cloud was staring at him again, thinking that he couldn't see, and there was something in the twist of his lips that Sephiroth couldn't quite place, though he was sure he'd seen it in countless other people. Perhaps he'd even felt it himself, once. He kept his eyes lowered to the table, wondering - staring at the drink across from him that gave off no steam.

Keep deluding yourself, Sephiroth. Keep telling yourself that this isn't going to end up how you think it will. How it always has before. How it will again.

His fingers curled in against his thigh. Goddamnit, but he wasn't -

Cloud stood up suddenly, startling Sephiroth from the sudden twist in his thoughts. He looked up in surprise, and found wide blue acres staring back at him. "I need to go now, sir," Cloud said softly, but in the quiet that surrounded them his voice was very clear. "Thank you...for this. I'm glad that we had a chance to sort things out."

"It was no trouble."

Cloud dropped his head in a half-bow, the blond spikes of his hair dipping with the movement. Then he turned and fled. Sephiroth leaned back in his chair, watching the strong figure in silence as he left. As he disappeared out of sight, the silver-haired man felt the air close in on him and the sudden weight across the already aching muscles of his shoulders.

He's pretty, isn't he? sneered a low voice. And so young...

He ignored it, turning away from the exit that Cloud had taken as he stood up. There was more potential there than he'd originally thought; more beneath the cool exterior than even Zack had led him to believe.

He's dangerous. And you're a fool.

That voice knew him entirely too well.


Cid let one frothy drink in his hand thump heavily onto the tabletop, finding himself disappointed when it didn't startle the taller, darker figure at the table. He offered the oblivious man a withering look before sitting down heavily in his own chair. One might have been forgiven for thinking that a large weight lay upon his shoulders but Cid Highwind always moved like that – big and heavy, though he was neither. He put his own drink on the table and sat for a few seconds, drumming his fingers pointedly on the table as he waited for Vincent to notice him.

It had not been a pleasant few days and he was in dire need of a good evening of drunkenness. Perhaps he could drag Valentine down with him. But first of all, he had a few questions to ask.

I don't get anything of what the fuck is going on, but I would bet my airship that Mr. I'm-Allergic-to-the-Light over there does.

He hadn't said anything to Vincent however much he'd been dying to. Cid personally thought that he'd been very good about this, but he refused to admit that he hadn't lasted out as long as he may have originally intended to. It made him feel better anyway.

Vincent was watching him drum his fingers but hadn't moved other than to lift his head slightly to be able to see. They were seated in the corner of Tifa's bar in Kalm, as out of the way as possible to avoid being overheard as well as being seen and recognised. Word had indeed spread fast, as Tifa had warned them, and now the entire town knew that they were there. Of course, the shyer people wouldn't approach and a lot of Kalm's population were thankfully that way inclined, but it didn't stop the looks that they got – the looks that were filled with awe but a hint of disappointment that Cloud Strife wasn't with them. Cloud was always the one they wanted to see, their "front man" as Cid liked to call him. Cloud had laughed dismissively at the name, just after Meteor, waving his hand and smiling, just slightly. He hadn't liked the attention that saving the world had brought, just knowing that they'd succeeded and all that had been destroyed was ShinRa and Midgar – neither really a loss at all.

Cid took a long swig of his drink – good beer, this stuff, something he hadn't had for a while. He was pleasantly surprised that Tifa could still get hold of it, but then again it wasn't really a surprise considering who she was. Cid rather liked the attention and privileges that fame brought, especially when people were too afraid of you to actually pry much. What it meant to Cid in practical terms was that he got loads of free drinks at the pub and never paid for parts that he wanted for the Highwind, or just about anything else either.

Cloud had never been happy other than with knowing that they'd destroyed Jenova, Hojo and Sephiroth. Or, at least, Cid had always assumed that along with all the others, until Cloud had gone. The fucker had just upped and left one day without telling anyone. Cid had started to wonder, then, when they realised that Cloud had left of his own accord. He'd mentioned to Vincent one day that he didn't think Cloud had ever been happy and the taller man had just looked at him, asking in that one moment why Cid hadn't noticed before.

And now Strife was back. To be honest, he hadn't expected to see the kid again, except maybe when they found his body in however many years time and gave him a huge hero's burial. Cloud could usually stay hidden when he wanted to.

Cloud's return had been playing on all of their minds. Cid hadn't been quite this stressed since their final battle with Sephiroth. At least now he had access to alcohol and cigarettes to try and calm his nerves. Not that it was working much.

Vincent had been more silent than usual. Most people wouldn't have noticed, but Cid had. He seemed very preoccupied and the pilot often found him standing just inside the door to Cloud's room, staring at the motionless figure on the bed. Tifa had seen that the Ancients had spoken to Vincent upon the mountain. She told Cid what Vincent had told her, and it seemed that this was what had sparked the determined glint in her eye. For his own part, Cid was once again chilled and awed by the seeming callousness of Aeris' people.

Mouth set in a thin line, Cid waved a hand at Vincent. The other man's dark eyes lifted immediately and enough of his face was visible that Cid knew he was frowning. He smiled grimly and took another gulp of his drink – he'd need that – before getting straight down to business. "So what crawled up your ass?"

Vincent's expression deepened to a scowl. "Excuse me?"

Cid rolled his eyes, reaching into his jacket pocket for another cigarette. "What's bothering you so much? And don't think I can't tell, ‘cause I can. So spill." Ah, who needed subtlety in this day and age? "And it's not just that Cloud's back so don't pull that one either."

The black-haired man looked indignant for a moment and shook his head. "I was just thinking that it's not a good idea for Cloud to be here."

"You mean Tifa?"

"It'll cause trouble. It already is." Vincent's eyes glanced towards the bar, where Richard was busy serving. He looked tired and drawn.

"No shit, Sherlock," Cid said, following Vincent's gaze. He felt sorry for the lad, was the best way that he could put it. "I heard them fighting last night."

And who wouldn't be upset with your wife's ‘other man' staying in the house? Cloud's a dolt if he never saw how Tifa felt about him. Why he wasn't interested I don't know – I don't even think it had anything to do with Aeris.

He'd also told Vincent once, on another of his great philosophical tirades about Cloud, that he was completely convinced that the word "enigma" (and a few others besides) had been invented solely to describe AVALANCHE's then-leader.

"I was thinking we could move him," Vincent said, but he didn't sound convinced. He took his first sip of the drink that Cid had brought over for him. "But Tifa would never hear of it, of course."

"Of course not." Tifa had never known what was best for her. They'd thought she might have learned when she'd settled down with someone else. But all good things must come to an end, Cid mused thoughtfully. "Personally I think Tifa needs to make her bloody mind up whether she wants Cloud or not."

"You can't just choose," Vincent said sharply. "A lot of things would have been a lot easier if you could. We just have to accept that and work with what we have."

Cid blinked and directed a questioning look across the table. Vincent looked away, but Cid could see that his eyes were sad. Vincent wouldn't explain what he'd actually meant by that, the pilot was sure, however much he poked and prodded. He shook his head, sighing. "So if Tifa won't let him go, what do you reckon she's actually planning on doing?"

His companion shrugged. "Waking him up, I suppose."

"How? She said the Ancients have him. How are you supposed to negotiate with the fucking Lifestream?" Cid scoffed, glad that he never got such fantastical ideas. He was quite happy with things that he could touch and bang around, thank you very much, rather than all this airy-fairy spiritual stuff. That had always been the domain of people like Cloud and Sephiroth, and they'd both ended up out of their bloody heads – or close to it.

"The thing is, I'm afraid that she may be able to make good on her word," Vincent murmured.

Cid snorted, lips tight around the cigarette end. "You've got to be shitting me. Since when would Tifa be able to do that? Cloud, yes, but Tifa – "

Vincent shook his head, holding up a hand. "Think about it, Cid. She went into the Lifestream with Cloud. Even if she had no Mako in her before, she does now. She found Cloud in there. She could probably do it again if she wanted to."

He has a point. Cid put his chin in his palm, elbow on the table. "Why would it be a bad thing if she did wake him up?" Vincent seemed convinced – what did he know that the others didn't?

The Highwind pilot pinpointed that as the exact moment when Vincent turned to ice on him. His eyes went hard and blank as he stared across at his younger companion. Cid had once been quite intimidated by the other man's coldness, but not anymore.

"I don't know many details," Vincent said – liar, Cid thought instantly. "But I think that he's gone for a reason. I don't think that we should interfere."

"And what reason would that be?" Cid rolled his eyes. He himself had never been one for disguising or hiding the truth. Perhaps he just wasn't intelligent or quick-witted enough to think of any lies, but he'd never really wanted to find out if that was true or not. "I know you know, Dead Boy. I can read you like a fucking book. Not that your secrecy and all the rest of it aren't a huge giveaway or anything."

He saw the twitch of the mantle over Vincent's mouth that meant that he had deigned himself fit to be able to smile. It was gone after a moment, and Cid could almost have mouthed the words in his head as Vincent said, "I can't tell you, unfortunately." There, he lowered his eyes almost guiltily to the table. Cid watched him, raising an eyebrow. "Tifa doesn't know that I know. But Cloud...wouldn't want her to know. Especially not her. He didn't want anyone to know."

"Didn't want anyone to know?" Cid raised his eyebrow further. "So how come you do? What did you do - beat him or something?"

Vincent snorted. Cid marvelled over how the other man could still make something like snorting seem elegant as well as eloquent. "By accident, is all."

Cid filed that away safely in the back of his mind. How could he have found out by accident, then? What had Cloud done or said to Vincent that had given it away? Perhaps there was something he had, something he'd made -


"So you really believe that this thing that no-one's supposed to know is the reason he's gone?" he said, but his mind was working, thoughts barely half-formed before the next came along, everything turning his concentration back to something Tifa had said when he'd landed by the mountain town.

"Vincent brought him back from somewhere behind the hut. He's so cold, what can we do?"

The darker man was watching him quietly again, having fallen silent. Cid stared right back at him, and offered a bright smile.

Vincent was being over-dramatic, the pilot thought scornfully. He usually was - and what good was Vincent doing Cloud by sitting there like a mystic and saying 'I know what's wrong with him but I won't tell you'?

He's been living on a mountain for nine years, Cid. What better place to start looking?

It was always surprising to Cid how many people never heard the Highwind's engines at night.


"Have you had the intelligence reports through yet?"

Sephiroth looked up from the papers on his desk for only about the second time since Zack had entered the room. He blinked once, startled out of his concentration by the sudden question, until Zack explained, "For the SOLDIER exams." Sitting on a clear corner of the General's desk, he swung his legs a little, needing to spend some of the nervous energy in his limbs.

Sephiroth tapped his gloved fingers on the top of the desk. Zack had a gnawing feeling in his gut that somehow he had got wind of his and Cloud's fight. "Oh, those. Yes, of course. I meant to talk to you about them." Sephiroth sat back in his chair as Zack's mind gasped, mock-incredulously, Sephiroth forgot something?! Dear God! It was odd, though, but Zack guessed that the man had had other things on his mind. The more cynical part of him, the part that was a glutton for punishment, thought that it could probably guess what.

"...was thinking about sending them to Corel," Sephiroth was saying. "Apparently that anti-ShinRa group we've been trying to 'discourage' has a base up in the mountains there, not far from the town. Not that heavily guarded, but the reports aren't all that detailed so I'd rather go up with them as backup, since my schedule won't be that bad after I finish the paperwork for it."

"Uh-huh," Zack said in agreement, but gave the man a shrewd look. Sephiroth levelled a cold, blank stare back at him, as if daring him to say what was on his mind. Zack didn't dare - who would when they were up against Sephiroth? - but quietly stewed. They could send anyone. Any member of SOLDIER 1st was capable of backing up SOLDIER cadets, and Zack couldn't remember the General having gone on any of the field exams as backup. "So it'll be you, the cadets and the examiners. Who's examining?"

"The usual two. But they're getting older so I didn't think that they should be sent up alone when there's a chance that there's more up there than we expect. Unfortunately, there's nothing else that I can okay as an exam - there are still a few more pockets of resistors in Wutai but I know that they're all experienced fighters. It would be a massacre if I sent the cadets there." Sephiroth shrugged. one-shouldered, letting his glare soften and shift from Zack's face. His profile was shadowed and his frown pronounced because of it. Zack wondered what he could possibly be concerned about. Cloud still thought that he hung the moon.


He'd been unfair on the cadet. Of course, he'd known it at the time, even as he said the words, but he had been angry and that had been hot in his veins, a driving force that was entirely separate from most of his brain but powerful enough to supersede it. Cloud hadn't spoken to him since yesterday, and hadn't come back to the dorm that night until very late. Zack had pretended to be asleep when he'd heard the blond come in.

You have to apologise. Tell him that you know you're being irrational - but it's so hard not to be jealous when suddenly you've got to compete with the General.

Zack had the feeling deep down in his chest that he was the only one competing, though.

"...Zack? Are you listening to me?"

His head snapped up, and he found himself staring into Sephiroth's glowing eyes, darkened with irritation. He had been looking at Zack like that all the way through the 'meeting', the cold calculation in his face that made him the most successful General that the Planet had ever seen. Zack felt himself quail a little - sure once more that somehow Sephiroth and Cloud had spoken together since yesterday's fight - and nod slightly too eagerly. "Sorry. I'm listening now."

"I was talking about the groups for the exams. How we should split them up."

"Oh, right. Well, we won't know exactly how many are entering until after the prerequisites. They're in, what, two weeks, I think? We'll either have to guess for now or wait. We usually guess, though, don't we? I don't know, I'm not involved most years." Zack shrugged. "'S up to you, ain't it?"

Sephiroth continued to stare at him for a second, a pause long enough that Zack fidgeted on the desk. "I normally estimate," Sephiroth said eventually. His face seemed too deliberately blank and cold. Usually Zack had some inkling of what was going on beneath the mask, and he felt uneasy now because he didn't think he had any idea. Sephiroth could have been planning to murder him right there and then and he wouldn't have the slightest clue. "I imagine that perhaps twenty cadets will make it through the prerequisite tests. Say, groups of four or five, then. Four or five groups should be enough to cover the base, especially if I'm there as a sixth and the two examiners count as a seventh."

"It sounds...fine to me." A faultless plan, for one made up in about ten seconds. He expected no less from the man. Perhaps Sephiroth even believed that he really was going just to be backup.

Stop making excuses, Zack. I know why he's going, and he's not stupid enough to fall into denial about it. He's just betting that I won't confront him.

God, it wasn't like him to be so damn possessive over someone. Why had it changed? He might have acted like this over Aeris, but Cloud? Why did it bother him so much that Sephiroth had finally taken an interest?

You should be happy for Cloud. You know how he feels about Seph - how he's always felt. It had always been the one constant ever since Cloud came, the one thing that never seemed to have a beginning and that he couldn't imagine ever having an end. But you always knew that Seph would never know about it and would never be interested because Cloud was nobody. Too young, too immature. But now he is somebody and, somehow, he's more grown up than you'll ever be.

"...should rest, Zack. You're obviously not feeling yourself today." Sephiroth stood up, the chair legs scraping across the floor and pulling Zack back to himself more than the older man's words had. He'd gone back to staring into space again.

"Huh?" he questioned blankly.

Sephiroth rolled his eyes, something that Zack very rarely saw him do. "Go and sleep, Zack. You're no use to anyone like this. Go and...talk to Cloud or something." He waved a hand dismissively, turning away, and Zack felt his back straighten as he pushed himself off of the table. So Sephiroth did know.

"I'll talk to Cloud when I feel like it," he said testily, annoyed that Sephiroth seemed to think that he was so obviously in the wrong. He had gone a little too far, admittedly, but surely he hadn't been wrong for the entire fight?

"What's wrong with you?" Sephiroth suddenly snapped, spinning back around to face the younger man. "This is unlike you, Zack. You need to get some rest and calm down about things or you'll go and say something idiotic, if you already haven't." He made another, almost disgusted, hand movement. "And then you need to talk to Cloud."

Zack shook his head, sighing as he stood before the desk, leaning back on it with his palms flat on the wood. His heart hammered in his chest. "What did Cloud tell you?"

"Just that you weren't on the best of terms. He was worried about it, though he didn't say as much." Sephiroth had moved to one of the bookcases and was looking along the shelves of titles. Zack could only see the strong line of his back. Suddenly Sephiroth took a book out and started flipping through it. Zack pushed up off of the desk and walked over slowly. The older man turned to him before he made it, holding out the book. "I've got some maps and tactical information on the Corel mountains. I'll get someone to write it all up and do copies for everyone involved. Then whoever's organising the exams can get on with it, can't they?"

They shared a long, meaningful look, before Zack took the book from his superior's hands. "Of course. I'll pass it on."


Cloud found himself staring up at the criss-crossed wires that supported the mattress of the bunk above him. He lay back on his own bed, hands behind his head. He'd noticed, sometime in his long period of indecision that day, that some of the wires had snapped, hanging curled down so that if Cloud ever sat up in bed abruptly he'd probably gauge his eyes out on them. He'd been looking up at where the wires were broken and trying to work out how many more could go before it became dangerous when someone lay on the mattress that it supported.

And if it breaks and some of the wires come down, you'll get them straight through the torso. Lucky me. Perhaps I'll die quickly - if I'm asleep I won't be aware of it for long, I suppose.

His morose thoughts were interrupted as the dorm door opened and a voice called out, "Cu-loooouuud? You in here?" The room must have looked empty - his other roommates had left long ago.

"Here," he called out softly, and heard the door being closed. It was rather reminiscent of the lunchtime before, he mused dully, thoughts of the argument driving blunt knives against his breastbone. He reached up and touched one of the sharp ends of a snapped wire with the soft pad of his thumb.

"Oi," said a voice just off to his side, quiet but mischievous. "Planet to Cloud. Are you receiving?"

He smiled, lowering his arm and turning his head to look up at the tall, slim figure standing by the bed. "Hey, Reno." He rolled over, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and sitting up. Reno had the ever-present faint trace of a smirk about him, even now. He looked much like Cloud remembered that he would in five years time: a sharp, angular face with intelligent eyes and a mobile mouth, and long red hair held back by a headband so that it didn't obscure his vision. He was a street kid, Cloud understood, and could well believe it in the swaggering confidence the taller boy exuded that came with having survived by himself all this time; the confidence which did nothing to hide the darkness in Reno's eyes, or the fact that he was no more a child than Cloud was.

Cloud couldn't help but feel amused that he was finding such kindred souls in his old enemies. What didn't strike him as so amusing was the fact that, in exchange, he seemed to be losing an old friend.

"Hey, Blondie," Reno replied, his smirk becoming stronger. He reached up a flipped an errant lock of red hair back behind his headband. "I came to see how you are. You seemed a bit distracted in class today and then just rushed off. I saw your big SOLDIER friend on the way and asked him where you were, and he got all huffy and pale and just wandered off." He shrugged, as if playing down the incident, but his eyes hadn't left Cloud's face.

Cloud remembered that he had felt intimidated by Reno when he'd reached Midgar the first time around. The redhead had been cool, first off, but he'd also seemed cleverer and somehow above the others, without even trying. Cloud, reminded of this as he looked up at the cadet's pale face, now thought that he knew why. Perhaps that was why Reno had approached him this time, because he could see someone who seemed to be on the same level as he was.

"Oh, he and I had words yesterday, is all," Cloud said, answering Reno's unspoken question. "He owes me an apology. I wouldn't worry."

"I'm not," Reno said carefully, clearly implying that he thought Cloud was. Which was true, of course, but he wasn't going to tell anyone just how concerned he was actually feeling.

He shrugged uneasily, glancing away from Reno's continuous stare. "We'll sort it out, anyway."

The redhead suddenly grinned. "We could always beat him up, just for the hell of it. And call it revenge."

Cloud snorted, letting his tension slide for a moment as the other cadet's expression grew stronger with mirth at the idea. "Yeah, and we'd end up in the hospital wing in boxes within about five seconds flat."

"Nuh-uh." Reno shifted his weight, leaning it on one leg as he placed a fist on his hip. "Your brawn and my brain-"

"Brawn!" Cloud spluttered, rocking forward as he let out a bark of laughter.

"Shut up. Yes, brawn," Reno repeated, rolling his eyes. "Mr. Dark Horse that you are. We could take him on. You have no idea how satisfying it will be to knock him around a bit - "

"He's my friend. I can't beat him up." The idea was ridiculous in itself, but he had a sudden flash of Zack's shocked face as he realised that he'd lost to the blond, and it was satisfying and not funny at all. "And I'd get expelled unless it was in training."

"Mm." Reno smiled again. "Well, we'll get around to it sometime. All you'd have to do is ask him to train and you could invite me alone as backup. You with your big SOLDIER friends..." The humour faded from his eyes, replaced with curiosity. Slowly, the curve of his lips lessened. "How come you know the General anyway? It's spreading like wildfire, about you knowing him...of course, half of them don't believe it, but..."

I knew this would happen. Cloud sighed, running a hand through his hair. "Zack knows him, is all." Reno's expression shifted, something subtly changing so that he looked vaguely uncomfortable. Cloud tried to ignore it. "I don't really know him as such...we've just spoken a bit." I would give anything to be able to go back and change what we did talk together about, Cloud thought, cheeks heating as memory returned to him unbidden. Shame the Cetra never respond to what I actually ask for.

"That's more than about 99.9% of everyone else has done," Reno responded, the odd look still haunting his features. "Perhaps," he said, a little strained, "you're lucky to be counted in the same part of that statistic as Zack is."

"It doesn't mean anything." Not that I didn't wish it did. Cloud shrugged again helplessly. "You called me a Dark Horse - that's the only reason he's spoken to me."

"Uh-huh." The redhead nodded, watching Cloud intently for a second. "Um..." He cleared his throat awkwardly, dropping his gaze then. "I wanted to...talk to you about Sephiroth, actually."

"...Oh?" His stomach abruptly contracted, going heavy and solid. Cloud let out a low, soundless breath, clasping his hands nervously. He'd gone cold - why couldn't anyone just leave him alone? Surely just being back here was hard enough...

"Yeah. I, uh, didn't think you were aware of something and thought I should tell you, you know." Reno shrugged uncomfortably. Cloud watched him silently, noting the way that the other boy wouldn't look at him. Embarrassed, perhaps, but that wasn't like Reno -

"...uh, you've probably heard stuff about Sephiroth, right? Rumours and things." Reno reached up and twined a stray lock of red around one long finger and in that moment he turned his gaze back to Cloud's, watching the blond's face for signs of recognition.

Cloud nodded slowly, feeling the first flush of heat across his skin. Yes, of course he's heard - everyone had - but he'd never really taken any notice of them because it was too close to his own dreams, and he knew that getting that close would get him burned. He'd been burned enough already, and had learned not to stray too far from the safety of the shadows. Colder, yes, but less of a risk.

"Well, I happen to know that he actually does, you know, um..." Reno seemed to be searching for the right words, as he bit his lip. Cloud could tell what was on the tip of the other boy's tongue; had waited for it to be said all of his life but it hadn't been and all that he had been left with was rumour and mystery. "...He does swing that way."

"Oh." It shouldn't have been embarrassing, but somehow it was, as well as thrilling. Cloud knew he was blushing, and knowing that made it even worse. Still, there was a trill in his blood and it was wonderful. "How...how do you know..?"

There was a pause, the only sound being Reno's uncertain shift of his weight. Cloud had gone still again, and after a moment of unbroken eye contact between them, Reno said, "He's not celibate, you know. He doesn't need to be - the Planet knows how many people there are tripping over themselves to be with him. I mean, he's never slept with a cadet before as far as I know but...sometimes he does take up the offers that he's given."

It shouldn't be so surprising - you knew that he couldn't be celibate. But it never really crossed your mind, did it? Too wrapped up in yourself to ever really think about him.

Cloud wrung his hands - they'd gone cold again. What was Reno doing by telling him this anyway? What did it have to do with him? "I don't see why..."

"You're very pretty, you know," the redhead said suddenly, sharply, his eyes gone narrow as he tried to instil some kind of knowledge in the blond, who didn't seem to be quite there yet. He stared up at Reno's lanky figure questioningly, but his only response was that disconcerting, intelligently pointed look and he still couldn't -

Oh. It hit him quite suddenly what Reno was talking about, and he felt his cheeks grow very warm indeed. "I don't think that anything will happen-"

"He's going to notice that you're attractive sooner or later, if he hasn't already." The cadet's voice was as sharp as his expression, and just as cold. "And to be honest, if he asked, you wouldn't say no, would you? I don't think anyone would. I just wanted to warn you that he might...um..."

"Ask to sleep with me?" Cloud's voice had gone suddenly strangled. He coughed, trying to clear his throat as his heart pounded. Surely Reno couldn't be serious - what would Sephiroth ever see in him? Not even a pretty face, he was certain, because he was nobody.

It's safer to be nobody.

"No, I mean..." Reno sighed, shaking his head and rocking on the balls of his feet. "I just thought that I should tell you what my friend said. Pass the advice on, you know. Just in case."

So I'm not allowed to say yes if he ever asked? For God's sake, I'm not 5 anymore! I can take care of myself! "Thanks, Reno," Cloud heard himself say, far more coldly than he'd intended, "but I don't think-"

"He fucked your SOLDIER friend, Zack, you know." Reno watched Cloud's face, his voice devoid of any inflection. The blond went stiff, rigid. Cloud felt numb coldness seep into him. "And they're not together. They never were. Sephiroth's never actually been with anyone, I don't think."

Ah, so the real reason behind this comes out. Cloud the poor blushing virgin, idealistic and naïve... "Yes, I knew what you meant when you said that he 'takes up the offers.'" I'm not naïve anymore. Not anymore. "Thank you for...warning me." He felt angry again, for some reason. Betrayed once more.

"Hey, Cloud, don't get like that," Reno sighed. "I was just trying to help. You remind me a bit of me. I just don't want to see you hurt, especially if you've been hurt before the way that I have."

"Did you sleep with him?" Cloud found himself snapping before he could help it. Reno's eyes went wide and he shook his head as Cloud found himself balling his hands in his lap. "No, I haven't. Don't think he's ever fucked a cadet, like I said. But I know someone who did. An older guy. So I thought I'd pass on the advice."

Cloud smiled crookedly, his heart still weighed down by the idea that Zack - Zack - had been sleeping with Sephiroth. Had he been sleeping with Sephiroth all the time before, the entire two years that Cloud had first been striving to enter SOLDIER? "It's okay. Thanks."

"It's cool, you know." Reno smiled, but it lacked the usual spark. Cloud realised he must look very pale or upset for Reno's to smile like that. The redhead stood up slowly, knees clicking. "I'm going to head on down to dinner. You want to come or want me to get something for you or..?"

Cloud opened his mouth to decline the offer when another voice spoke up from the side, icy cold. "I already took the liberty."

Both their heads snapped around, and Cloud saw out of the corner of his eye that Reno went very still and white as they took in Zack's taller, darker form standing not very far away, carrying two trays. His face was stony. Cloud hadn't heard the door open.

"I'd have thought you'd be the last person to go spreading around gossip, Reno," Zack said slowly.

Reno looked like he was about to say something, but he stopped himself. The only betrayal of the calm of the rest of him was the minute, frustrated working of his jaw. Cloud knew what he wanted to say. But it's true, isn't it? You did get fucked by the General.

He hadn't known that. God, if it was true, how hadn't he known? Because Zack knew you liked Sephiroth. He was hardly going to tell you, was he?

"You should head on down to the canteen," Zack said, jerking his head back over his shoulder. "I've got some stuff to talk about with Cloud."

Reno nodded stiffly and gave Cloud one last indecipherable look before brushing past Zack and leaving the room. Zack and Cloud stayed as they were until they heard the door close securely. Then Zack pulled his attention from Reno to the blond in front of him, and moved forward to offer a tray.

"I got us some food," he said, all the traces of anger suddenly gone from his voice. He was smiling. Cloud stared up at him, not knowing what to say in the face of the sudden mood swing. "I thought we could talk. I was out of order and stuff."

"Oh." Cloud reached out dumbly and took the tray of hot food. His fingers brushed Zack's, and the sudden image of the SOLDIER and Sephiroth together, all slick bare skin and desperate movement, assaulted him. Sephiroth's pale body against Zack's darker tanned skin would be beautiful, he thought, and it made him nauseous.

"Hey," Zack called out, waving his hand in front of Cloud's face. The blond jumped, startled out of his unwelcome reverie, and the taller man's face swam back into focus, his expression apprehensive.

"Sorry," he said, setting the tray down on his lap so that he could look away and Zack wouldn't see his eyes. "Thanks...for the food." He wasn't sure if he could eat it. He stared at it numbly.

Why the hell does it matter so much? Reno was quite eager to stress that it's just sex. So what if two people decide that they just need something to relieve stress, or whatever? It's not against the law, it happens all the time...but still...

It's because Zack never told you. All this time, and he never told you. You never found out. People knew, and you didn't. Why didn't they tell you? Was everyone laughing at you, Cloud, because they knew and you didn't? Perhaps Zack and Sephiroth used to laugh about it...

Shut up! They weren't laughing! Why would they laugh? It's not funny...

"Hey, Cloud?" He looked up again, and then around as Zack's weight settled itself down beside him on the bed. "Are you alright?"

"Oh, yeah," he lied, picking up his fork and sticking it into the sludgy mashed potato that had been slapped onto the plate. "I'm...okay." Change subject. Change subject. You'll go mad again if you keep thinking about those things. You'll be just like you were those first few years on the mountain until you just didn't have the energy to care anymore, except about killing Sephiroth. "You wanted to talk to me? About yesterday?"

"Yeah..." Zack looked relieved, lifting a hand to run it through his black hair as he set the tray down on the floor and shifted so that he was sitting cross-legged on the bed, facing Cloud's still form. "About yesterday. I'm real sorry. I really am...I didn't mean those things. I was just angry and...I just wanted to hurt you."

"Why were you angry?" Cloud turned his head then, seeing Zack's downtrodden expression. "I mean, I know it was because of what happened between Seph and me, but..."

Zack shrugged sharply, palms resting on his thighs. "I dunno, really. I suppose...'cause Sephiroth hasn't taken an interest in anyone who's tried out for SOLDIER like this for a long time and I know that he means a lot to you. I just kinda felt like a third wheel...and I hate feeling like that."

Cloud nodded. Just like I thought. Oh Zack, I know you inside out, you know that? But even this temper is strange for you... "It's okay. But, Zack...it was just that one incident. It was never meant to happen or anything. You're my best friend and you always will be, whatever happens. I don't want anything to come between us." Not even Sephiroth.

Zack smiled brightly, the first Zack-like expression that Cloud had seen all day. It cheered him up for a brief moment and he smiled back, and then fell back to the tray in his lap. In the awkward silence that fell, he dutifully ate what he'd been brought. He heard Zack pick up his own tray and start to do the same.

Of course, it'll never be the same if you leave it as it is. Not if Zack heard what Reno was saying.

But could he ask? Could he actually say the words and bear the answer?

They'd finished and Zack was leaning over to take Cloud's tray when he finally decided. "Zack," he said, and could feel the dark-haired man pause beside him. The bed went still. "Did you?"

The silence seemed to deepen and stretch. Cloud couldn't meet Zack's eyes, even though he knew that the other man was staring at him. He didn't know what to expect if he did look up. He knew Zack better than he knew himself, but this...

"Yes," came the soft answer. "Yes, we did."

"Why?" Cloud found that his voice was more controlled than he'd expected. Somehow, hearing the admittance from Zack's mouth hadn't been so painful. It would have been, he thought, if Zack hadn't sounded so...regretful.

"Because sometimes there's no-one else to make it less lonely."

It was a fair enough answer, Cloud thought dully. Truthful, honest... "Do you still..?"

"No, no, not..." Zack made a soft noise in the back of his throat, halfway between frustration and surrender. "I'm with Aeris now. But even before...I've only...just once. Just once, while you've been here. Before I knew how you felt. And after that, I couldn't...but then I realised that it was best if I didn't. For all of us."

For all of us? "Oh." Cloud nodded, digesting the information with an intense feeling of relief. God, so they hadn't...thank God they hadn't... "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because I didn't want this to happen. You're my best friend, too. It changes things, doesn't it? It can't help but change things..." Out of the corner of his eye, Cloud saw Zack reach out to him. He felt the soft touch of Zack's hand against his arm. "I'm not in love with Seph, Cloud. I'm not. And he doesn't love me. It was just...sex. Just like Reno said. It was never frequent. Just when things got...bad. It was a way to forget." He paused. "Please, Cloud. I'm sorry."

He laughed, then, turning to see Zack's startled face. He wasn't quite sure why he was laughing. He couldn't decide whether it was funny or not. "Oh, Zack, you don't have to be sorry. I know...that things get bad. I just thought...that you might still be..." Cloud shook his head, trying to dispel the thoughts. "I'm going to go insane one day, you know. I just think things and..."

"I know," Zack said softly. "I know."

"I get tired," Cloud said, and saw the answering sorrow in Zack's eyes, mirroring his own. "So tired." He shrugged, not knowing what else to say. For a moment, he was back on the Nibel mountainside again, staring out into the dark storm and wishing that he had more courage than he did.

"Hey, shush." Zack slid his fingers around Cloud's arm, pulling the distracted blond toward him as he straightened his legs out. He saw Cloud's eyes focus on him for a brief second, coming back from whatever grey place he had been in. Awkwardly, he managed to gather the cadet at his side, the boy's blond head resting on his shoulder. After a pause, Cloud moved his arm around Zack's waist, turning into the warm embrace. "We'll get through it, okay. It'll get better. We just need to be patient. All good things come to those who wait, you know."

"I've been waiting for a long time," Cloud murmured softly.

"Well, then hopefully we won't need to wait much longer."


It didn't take Cloud very long to fall asleep, as Zack had thought. When the blond was well away, he got them both into a more comfortable position, knowing that he wouldn't be moving far that night. The others who slept in the dorm didn't say anything when they came in, casting brief questioning looks their way before moving on. Zack was left to think, wishing that he couldn't feel Cloud's pain so acutely, and unable to sleep.

God, but he hoped that what Reno had said about Sephiroth wouldn't turn out to be right.




End Chapter 8.


1. Just a quick note, but just in case some people are wondering what the hell I am doing with the characters (let alone the plot), you have to remember that not only has Cloud lived through the events of the game, but also an extra 9 years in solitude (incidentally, I do so love how AC's Cloud almost mirrors mine in this respect, hehehehe.) And Zack...well, to explain why he might seem OOC would be to give away some of the plot, but there are reasons.

2. This took so long because I spent a fair amount of time re-writing bits that I'd already done because my computer twice decided to corrupt the file and I didn't manage to save everything. This thing did not want to be written, I tell you.

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