Disclaimer: See Chapter One.


Part One - Chapter 9

By Knowing Shadows


Cloud drifted in the warm haze of sleep for a long time, ghosting past the vague whispers of dreams that tried to entangle him. They promised everything, treacherous in their eagerness to please. They promised him a moment, a respite from the cold, unforgiving world that would greet him when he woke. They promised him wonderful, surreal situations to engender why he was lying wrapped in someone's arms, safe and warm, and not alone like he usually was. They knew just the way to hurt him the most in that moment when the last vestiges of sleep wore off and he realised that he'd been tricked once again.

He hadn't fallen asleep with someone for a long time. The last time he could remember doing so was the night before AVALANCHE had gone to destroy what remained of Sephiroth and Jenova in the Northern Crater, where he'd held Tifa in his state of terrified dread as she dozed. It didn't really count, he thought, since he hadn't slept and it had been anything but comforting. The only time he could think of before that was before Tifa had found him at the train station on Sector 7 - he and Zack had been on their way to Midgar from Nibelheim. Zack was planning for them to become mercenaries and never to work for ShinRa anymore, not after what they'd discovered and endured in the five years thence.

Zack had held him as they slept in the back of the truck. Then again, Cloud hadn't really slept much then either - gripped by the Mako coursing through his body, he hadn't really been able to tell up from down and consciousness from unconsciousness. He supposed that his memories of being held were actually Zack's, who'd probably been speaking to him all along, and he'd just taken it in, able to use it later on to hide his failed self from the world.

Have I never been held like this, then? Never...never just as I sleep?

He had his face buried against Zack's shoulder. He knew it was Zack, as surely as he would have known it if it had been Sephiroth. In his state of semi-wakefulness, he felt his face screw up, trying to physically hold back the onset of the emotions that always came with thinking like he often did. God, but he had to stop. His fingers, resting on Zack's opposite shoulder, curled tightly into the loose material of the other man's shirt. He felt Zack shift against him, murmuring unintelligibly in his sleep, and that roused him fully. The clawing tendrils of his dream-desires reluctantly withdrew, taking the blessed fogginess of sleep with them.

His friend was very warm. In fact, he was too hot where his body was pressed to Zack's, since he was still dressed and there was also a blanket over them. Still, he lay in the semi-darkness and tried to doze, comforted by the older man's presence for the moment. Zack had that relaxing effect on him - had it on a lot of people, Cloud was sure. He was safe there within the protective circle of the dark-haired man's arms - held away from the world, and the burning flame that was Sephiroth. It was nice to be the one who was being protected, for once, rather than the other way around. He was so used to being the strong one - God, he'd been the leader of AVALANCHE, killed the most famous swordsman in the world - that it was a welcome and altogether strange sensation. Not that he minded. He imagined, sometimes, when he daydreamed, that this would be similar to being held by Sephiroth. He liked to imagine the feeling, as he thought it might be if it ever, in that million-to-one chance, happened. He would be in much the same position as he lay now: pressed against a broad, warm chest with his head buried under a strong chin, and arms around his waist. He could capture that image in his head and it was perfect. The surge of warmth that filled him when he recalled that picture was both exhilarating and disheartening.

Perhaps Zack got to wake up like that some mornings.

He tensed again, fingers tightening in Zack's shirt once more before he forced himself to relax, pushing the bitter, angry thought away. What did it matter anymore? Zack said that it never happened now, so it didn't have any bearing on anything. Still, the thought that it had been Zack - among others, Cloud remembered - who had caught onto the one thing that he had always wanted and never attained (and repeatedly, his mind provided unhelpfully, with accompanying, much-too-detailed mental pictures) was...discouraging.

Shut up! I won't listen to you anymore! I'm better than that, I know I am. I know it. Perhaps I wasn't back then, but I am now. I have just as much to offer...

But he didn't, really. Zack was handsome, older, funnier. What was Cloud? A broken copy. A man who still hadn't found out who he was and where he belonged, if he belonged anywhere at all. A man who had so little to give on his own that he had taken on somebody else's personality and memory to make himself a more desirable person, and because he was too much of a coward to let the other person go and live on without them. Seeing Zack now, the man that he had wanted to be, brought that all back sharply and drove the knife in deep.

And if Reno was right? If Sephiroth did take an interest in him, it would only be a repeat of what had already come to pass before. Aeris had fallen for him because he had been wearing Zack's façade, and if Sephiroth had already shown interest in Zack then any shown in Cloud would be for the same reasons - lingering traces of a dead man they couldn't have and whose place was shoddily filled by Cloud's smaller, lighter frame.

He had been a coward. More of one than he could ever comfortably admit. And it would be so easy to slip back into being that same boy he had been, but he wasn't going to let himself do that.

Cloud let out a long rush of air through his nose and turned slightly, easing Zack's hand from where it rested on his hip and held him to the taller man's body. Zack snorted in his sleep, twisting again to get comfortable once more. Cloud's lips curved as he saw the darker man's expression screw up disdainfully for a mere second before his features eased again, then he gently pushed himself onto his hands and knees and clambered quickly over Zack's still body to get out of bed and the still-oh-so-tempting shelter of his friend's warm arms.

The other occupants of the small room were still asleep. He could just make out their lumpy forms on their bunks. The room was still mostly dark - it had to be quite early - and Cloud carefully picked his way as quietly as possible across the floor towards the bathroom. He was good, by now, at going unnoticed.

The light in the bathroom blinded him when he turned it on and he shielded his eyes, blinking, as he closed the door to prevent it from waking anyone else up. Safely cut off from the rest of the room, Cloud quickly stripped as he made his way to the shower. The water was cold when he turned it on, so he withdrew his hand from the spray and waited, gaze flickering to the mirror on the wall. Cloud had never liked to look at himself naked. Never. He remembered standing in this same position 15 years ago, staring at the short, pale reflection and hating that it was him. Later, he had learned how to look at his body objectively. He'd never shaken that feeling over the years. Now he looked at himself and counted the limbs all present and counted for, body unmarred and unbroken. That was good enough for some people.

He stepped into the warm water after that, away from the introspective dangers of the mirror and what it showed him. After he'd showered - cleaned away all of the dirt and scrubbed himself until he was red - he'd be able to face Zack again. He'd be composed and calm and aloof. He wouldn't look at Zack and see the sour flash of memory of his own reflection. If Zack was Sephiroth's type, then how could Cloud ever live up to it? Of course, he'd always known that he would never have Sephiroth, but there had still been that small flicker of hope that persisted, as it always did with those in love.

Perhaps if you stopped mooning over him like a goddamn puppy then you could concentrate on the important things, like getting into SOLDIER and working out how to stop Nibelheim from happening all over again. Or, of course, you could sigh and get flustered over the most unattainable man in the world and waste your energy doing that instead, but who cares? It only means that you'll probably have to spend another five years with Hojo, perhaps even longer if you manage to piss him off in the process of doing a last minute hack­-job at getting Sephiroth to stop from burning down Nibelheim. Not that that matters.

Cloud smiled wryly into the shower spray, running soapy hands through his hair. God, but he was a whiny little bastard at times, he thought scathingly. Maybe the Cetra had sent him here not to stop Sephiroth, but to realise that there was no point in still loving the man when there was no rational reason for doing so. How did they think that he was going to get over someone like Sephiroth when the man was so close? When he kept doing things that Cloud couldn't explain or understand? How did Aeris think that he would ever stop loving him? Did she not think that he'd tried?

Of course, Sephiroth was a force all of his own. There was no stopping. There could be a lot of struggling and resistance, there always could, but all was futile in the end.

Please, Aeris...if this is what you're trying to tell me, I already know it. What I have...is not healthy, I know. But I can't stop...I can't...I need help if that's what you're trying to say to me...

There was the odd, heavy silence in the back of his mind where the Lifestream was, the kind that meant he had been heard but was not due an answer.


Nibelheim was a dead town. Cid watched it from the controls of the Highwind as the airship hovered above nearby, and cursed as he thought of ShinRa. So desperate to cover up their biggest fault - their biggest fault ever had been in Sephiroth, Cid was quite willing to believe - that they'd rebuilt the town as if nothing had ever happened.

It's a completely shitty plan, Cid thought, and it seemed to make the business of covering up Sephiroth's little 'episode' a lot more complicated. He supposed, watching the largest building in the town as it loomed behind the other houses, that Hojo had needed his lab. And Shinra condoned it. He fucking well condoned Hojo experimenting on all the little soldiers he could get his grimy paws on.

Nibelheim looked friendly enough, in the quaint way that you knew the residents were all crazy. Not that knowing Cloud and Sephiroth had solidified that idea, not at all. Now that had been funny - Cloud's face had been priceless when Cid had reminded him that Nibelheim was, in the twisted test-tube type sense of the notion, Sephiroth's hometown as well. Cloud's surprise had been amusing - he obviously hadn't considered the implications of the General's origins - but then he'd fallen silent and said, eventually, "Yes - I remember. He said that he recognised Nibelheim although he didn't know why." After the shock, Cloud's expression had taken on the slightly unhealthy turn that Cid knew meant that he had just realised it wasn't his memory at all, but that of the other man who constantly shadowed his life.

Crazy people, the lot of 'em. One tries to take over the Planet and the other takes on someone else's memories and hides up in the mountains talking to dead people. And they're only the two that I know about.

Cid looked away from the town at his crew, who also seemed to be absorbed in watching Nibelheim in the sleepy dawn light. "Land, you shitheads!" he snapped, breaking the tense silence. "What do I pay you for?!"

There was the sudden clamour of activity as the crew started to rush about - Cid grinned widely - and he turned back to the window, taking a cigarette from the packet in his pocket and lighting it as Nibelheim started to draw nearer. The town gave him the willies. He'd rather be anywhere else but here, but then no-one else had any common sense at all. He had more common sense in his little finger than the rest of AVALANCHE put together - especially Tifa, who couldn't see past the end of her own nose because she was so wrapped up in the ideal of Cloud that she had firmly implanted in her head. Cid rather liked his altogether more realistic view of things. Vincent said that he was harsh, but Cid just thought that Vincent was going soft in his old age (his favourite mental image of Vincent handing out sweets to every passing child never failed to make him laugh).

That said, Vincent was not going to be going easy on him when they got back to Kalm after this little excursion. He'd intended to leave Kalm without anyone noticing except, obviously, the Highwind's crew, but as he'd turned to give Kalm one last cursory look before he boarded the airship, he'd spotted Vincent's pale, angry face watching him from an upper window of Tifa's home. He sent the man his own furious glare - he honestly didn't care if Vincent was angry with him. In his own view, Vincent was being as much of a fuckwit as he ever had been. Sure, the older man had this mysterious thing going on with Cloud, but whatever reasons Vincent had for keeping everyone in the dark just didn't seem to make any sense and helped no-one.

Cid was nothing if not practical.

The Highwind landed with hardly a jolt, which made Cid much happier. It hadn't taken him long to drill into his crew that if they treated his ship with less than the utmost love and attention then Cid would have no qualms in tying them to the propellers before going on a long haul journey.

"Sir..?" ventured one of the pilots, and Cid turned to him with a stern expression. "Stay here," he ordered. "I won't be long." I hope.

Of course, most of Nibelheim was still asleep as he entered the silent square and looked up at the tall buildings. It was quite surreal, venturing into what was essentially a ghost town but where people still lived, only to keep behind their closed doors. Crazy people, he reminded himself. All like Sephiroth and Cloud, except worse. How you could get worse, Cid wasn't sure, but there had to be some way of doing it.

He strode quickly through the square, past the well and towards the mansion, where it sat in the shadow of the Nibel mountains. He followed the line of sight up to the mountains themselves, and suddenly wished that he'd stopped to ask Tifa where it was, exactly, in the range of mountains that they'd found Cloud. All she'd said was something about a hidden path.

Oh, well. It can't be that hard to get to.

As if to mock him, the heavens opened and it started to rain. Cid was drenched within about ten seconds flat, scowling to himself as he stood near the gates to the ShinRa mansion. Another reason to be added to his list of why he didn't want to be here, then. It was cold rain as well, biting as it stung his skin. Eventually, he grudgingly started on his way again, cursing under his breath as he half-slipped on the wet rock of the path.

I fucking hate Nibelheim. This place is even more miserable than Midgar, and that place would be enough to send Yuffie suicidal.

Hugging himself against the cold, Cid absently kicked a stone in his path in silent disgust with the place. No wonder Cloud left. The weather was depressing enough by itself, let alone the town's sordid history. He watched the stone as it skittered across the path and under a bush. As he approached it, he fished his foot gingerly under the foliage to try and hook the stone back, before realising what he was looking at.

There was a path, carefully hidden but recently trodden, judging by the way the greenery had been trampled, now that he knew what he was looking at. After a moment, he started to snicker.

Ahahahahahaaaa. Vincent - Nil points. Cid - 27 million points. You lose, sucker.

He started up the path with more of a spring in his step, cheerful. He had to reign himself in when he realised that the way got narrower and more dangerous, but it didn't stop himself from grinning at the thought that he'd come across it so easily. The day was looking up.

Half an hour later, Cid was beginning to lose his cheer, wondering if he'd been prematurely triumphant, because he hadn't come across anything that constituted shelter, and even with all that Mako running through his veins, Cloud needed something to sleep on other than rock. "This had better be the right path," he muttered as he edged along a bend, looking up from the path for once to assess the route ahead, "or I'll..." He trailed off, squinting through the rain, and suddenly brightened once more. "Or I won't do anything," he said to himself, "because I seem to have picked a fucking winner!"

There was a rough shelter just up ahead. Cloud's rough shelter.

And, when he reached it, it wasn't locked. Almost crying for joy, Cid pushed in through the door out of the cold wetness and blessed the boy for having the sense not to try and kill himself from exposure. It was also surprisingly toasty - there were several little green Fire Materia orbs around the room that were gently glowing away to themselves, just enough to give out heat. Cid almost fell to his knees to thank the blond for such wonderful foresight.

There wasn't much in the hut, Cid realised as he actually looked around. Taking minimalism to the extreme, how...not surprising. He thought it was a bit sad that Cloud had so little - the most famous recluse on the Planet owned little more than a few planks of wood, a table, a few blankets and some Materia.

But why did he come up here? What was so painful for him with us that made him bloody well leave? Or did he just flip completely?

"Oh, fucking hell," Cid swore as he realised that the most likely place that he'd find anything was still out in the rain, if there was anything at all. He was gambling on there being something beyond the hut, where Vincent had found Cloud. He'd look mighty silly if he went back to Kalm with nothing - and Vincent wouldn't have looked so angry if there was nothing here to see.

In fact, Cid thought with a small shiver of trepidation, he'd never really ever seen Vincent angry before.

The thought made him grin unexpectedly, and he gathered up the Fire Materia, stuffing them into his pockets and keeping one cupped in his hands to try and keep him warm as he battled the elements. Giving the room one last look, he opened the door and stepped outside, wincing and expecting to get blown over by the wind. Actually, the rain had quickly died down to mere drizzle, the wind low. He sighed in relief, and stepped onto the worn path fully to look along its length. It curved around another bend so that he couldn't see where it led. Fucking typical.

The lure of knowing what Vincent seemed to know was too strong, however, and he started along the flat, slippery rock with the warmth of the Materia in his hands to keep him going.

The drizzle was annoying, but Cid got the distinct impression that the weather just seemed to have given up - perhaps it had been trying to put him off, and once he'd reached the hut there had been no point in going to further lengths to chase him away. After all, all he wanted to see was where the path led...

It seemed to lead to a rock ledge, jutting out slightly from the rest of the rock. Cid frowned - there didn't seem to be anything there except for more rock, as far as he could see. He struggled on, curiosity refusing to wane until he'd made sure that there was nothing there, and swore that next time he got an idea into his head he'd steadfastly ignore it, especially if it meant going anywhere where the weather was anything less savoury than that of, say, Costa Del Sol.

But...there was something there, Cid realised as he got closer and closer, though he couldn't really make it out. Another stone, upright but apparently fashioned by human hand.

What the-? So Strife turned to sculpting whilst he was gone - big deal. Brilliant plan, when you think that he's sitting on a huge pile of what he needs to do it. What's the huge fuss? Making me come out into the rain and climb up a bloody mountain just for a stone...

The pilot clambered up, eventually, onto the ledge, less than happy with the thought that he'd just have to turn back disappointed if this didn't turn out to be something hugely momentous. Not that there's anything momentous about a piece of rock, of course, but -

Cid would be able to remember the curious silence in his brain as his eyes alighted on the headstone for a long time. He felt himself begin to trace each letter of the name in turn with his eyes because, all together, it just didn't seem to make sense and all it met was the blank wall that had suddenly come down around him.

He couldn't remember how long he'd stood there in the miserable, cold rain before it began to sink in, and everything began to fall into place. Little things that Cloud had done or said over the time that they'd known each other that just hadn't made sense, or that he realised that he'd misunderstood at the time...

Cid shook with anger, reaching for a sodden cigarette. "That fucking bastard."


He'd been perched above Kalm since not long after dawn, straining his ears for the sounds of the Highwind's engine, worrying. Vincent didn't really worry often, not over people, but when things came to Cloud Strife he seemed to be developing ulcers.

I should have stayed silent. I should have refused to say anything - I know the way Cid's mind works when it comes to these things...

But the deed was done, now, and all he had left to do was wait until Cid returned. Perhaps Cid wouldn't find the headstone, but something in Vincent's chest knew that he had. There was an odd, empathic kind of dread tightening his ribcage, because Cloud wasn't awake to be able to feel it himself. Of course, Cloud must have lived with this sort of feeling for most of his life, especially after he'd joined AVALANCHE, the fear of exposure constantly gnawing at him whilst he was in the middle of having his life torn apart again.

He hoped, for Cloud's sake, that Cid could find in himself the decency to try and understand that that was the way things were and, for better or worse, it would not change. It could not change.

Cid was, underneath the brashness, too astute not to know what Cloud's gesture meant.

And then, as if to remind him that this confrontation could not wait, there came the faint droning of machinery on the wind.

Vincent lifted his head to the sky, straightening from where he sat against Tifa's chimney on the cool roof tiles. He'd come up here so that he'd know when Cid was coming back, and get there before anyone else did. He knew Cid, knew Cid's moods, and the man was likely to be furious, at least to start off with. He couldn't risk Cid going to Tifa in that anger, because he would invariably spell out Cloud's most hidden, darkest secret with all the tact of a charging elephant. With the pilot's colourful appliance of language, he was also likely to make it sound much more...sordid...than it was. It would hurt too many people on too deep a level. He couldn't - wouldn't - allow Cloud to be torn to shreds over this.

It would also be wrong to let Cid throw a tantrum over the news. Once he calmed down, Vincent knew that Cid would also appreciate how much of a betrayal it would have been to do so to a man who had sacrificed so much and couldn't even defend himself anymore.

And now they both knew just how much Cloud had sacrificed.

The Highwind was coming up over the mountains to the south, Vincent realised, which was why he hadn't seen the airship before he heard it. She breasted the peaks, metal body gleaming in the morning sunlight and bearing down on the town. She seemed to carry an air of slight menace, as if taking up the state of her irritated captain, and Vincent continued to watch the airship approach before breathing slowly through his nose and beginning to climb down off of the roof.

It was still relatively early. Perhaps they could have this fight without everyone noticing.

He clambered silently down the drainpipe, choosing to leap the last few metres to the ground, taking the impact in his stride, crouching to take the strain off of his ankles. He looked up at the Highwind's approaching bulk and then glanced around the square at the other houses. Everything seemed to be rather quiet. He looked back up to the sky, and the Highwind was already passing over the overgrown ruins of Midgar, the noise of the engine beginning to build up. Cid had the newest engines that had been developed due to his connections with Reeve, but Vincent's hearing was almost as good as Nanaki's and so the 'stealth' element to the machine was lost on him. Cid had to have known that he'd know that they'd gone, and he wasn't stupid enough to not know where they'd have gone to.

Couldn't you just...leave it for my sake? Have I ever done anything to make you not trust me? Why won't you trust me on this and let Cloud be? He deserves peace and quiet, by Shiva...He almost died for us. I can't imagine...what it must have been like...

He could imagine that it had been worse than losing Lucrecia, but he had never experienced pain beyond that, and so the actual magnitude of what Cloud had done he doubted anyone could really understand. And Cloud's circumstances...weren't what anyone would call normal. Most people forgot that. Vincent didn't. Every time that he saw Cloud, he could see himself strapped to a table in Nibelheim, Hojo's pallid face looming over him, the light reflecting from his glasses just enough that the silver of whatever instrument he was holding would pick it up and gleam...

Vincent had seen pain through a thin wall of glass, when Cloud Strife knew it like a lover.

The Highwind began to slow as it crossed the plains towards Kalm, easing to a hover about half a mile away from the outskirts of town. Vincent started walking towards it as the ship began to descend, turning in a slow half-arc as it did so. He could almost feel Cid glaring at him from the airship. He wouldn't be surprised if Cid was glaring at him.

He reached the entrance to Kalm as the Highwind touched down and the quiet thrum of the engines ceased. He went still then, watching the unmoving form of the Highwind in silent anticipation. Perhaps it would be better to keep Cid as far from Tifa as possible, keep him closer to the Highwind -

A ladder was dropped down the side of the airship from the outer deck, and Cid's unmistakable form began to clamber down it. Vincent held his breath for a bare moment - Cid usually took the time to see that the Highwind was settled, that the crew was tending to the machine in the way that he wanted -Which means that he wants an explanation, and he wants it now. Am I ready to give him one, when Cloud has no idea of what I'm doing and can't approve it?

Not that Cid doesn't know now, of course.

He started off again with long, sure strides across the grass as Cid's feet hit the same turf and the pilot turned to make his own way towards the other man. He couldn't quite remember ever feeling quite this much trepidation - but then, he'd never had quite the personal involvement that he had now. He'd failed to protect others before, so many times, how could he let himself fail again now? Especially Cloud, with whom he shared a certain affinity, though the blond didn't know it.

Still, Sephiroth, so many years after your death, so many things are tied to you, and your hold is as strong as ever, however unwitting it may be.

Cid's face became clearer quite quickly, and his face was pale and drawn and somewhere beyond thunderous. Vincent pooled the distant coolness into his chest, trying to harden himself against the already volatile emotions that he could feel just below the veneer of calm that he held.

The pilot's mouth moved quite suddenly, and then there was a loud shout of, "You fucking pansy-ass shit-faced bastard!"

Oh well, at least Cid's verbal skills weren't impaired by being out before noon, though he'd certainly heard worse.

Cid half-jogged the last few steps as they met halfway between the ship and the town. He saw Cid clench and pull back his fist, eyes flickering in that direction as Cid began to swing, and reached out with his metal claw to catch the other man's arm. Cid's knuckles smashed into the unyielding metal of his hand but the pilot barely seemed to notice, snapping his hand back and whipping his other arm up, fingers curling in Vincent's mantle.

"Why the fuck didn't you think it wasn't important enough to tell us about Cloud, huh?!" the younger man snarled, absolutely furious. "Did you not think that it mattered?!"

"Of course it matters," Vincent said stiffly, easing the strangling pull that the pilot had on his clothes by arching just onto the balls of his feet. "It matters terribly. The question, Cid, is whether AVALANCHE would have been able to handle it if I or Cloud had told you."

"Bloody HELL, Valentine!" Cid pushed him back roughly, causing the dark-haired man to stumble as he regained his balance. "How can you stand there and be so calm?! This is your flesh and blood we're talking about and even you know he was irredeemable, so how could Cloud...how could he..."

My flesh and blood? Vincent thought, amused at how, even now, Cid couldn't say the actual word. It had taken more courage than Vincent would ever admit to tell Cid about Lucrecia, and what that meant regarding his love's son. Cid had been quiet, though shocked - hadn't reacted like this at all, but Vincent wasn't expecting him to be quiet this time. Cid's silence on that occasion had been merely down to finding nothing to say. Vincent doubted that that would be the case again.

"This is...it's absolutely nuts!" Cid scrambled for the packet of cigarettes in his pocket and a lighter, pausing in his rant to light it and inhale deeply. Vincent watched him warily, taking in the tight, drawn lines of the pilot's face and the hard anger in his eyes. A small part of him wanted to tell Cid that giving himself cancer was hardly going to help, but he'd get lanced straight through the gut for it, so he refrained.

"Cloud can't help it," he said in the brief silence before the younger man could start shouting again.

Cid snorted around the cigarette pursed in his lips. "Mm, so that's what you were going on about yesterday with your little speech about having to 'work with what we've got' or whatever you were babbling on about. Well, you know what, I don't give a shit about that!" He made a wide gesture with his arm in the direction of Tifa's house. "This type of thing doesn't just not matter because you can't help it! I can't believe that - I just can't - It doesn't make any fucking sense!" Cid through his arms up, turning his back to Kalm and Vincent for a moment.

"It makes perfect sense." Too much sense. And Cloud doesn't even see it himself, really. He doesn't see...just how bad it is...

"Oh, right, yeah, 'cause everyone just goes about obsessing and God-knows-what about your mortal enemy for a decade after you killed them!" Cid snapped back. "Stop bullshitting me and pussy-footing around the issue, Valentine. We are going to go sit down, have the strongest drinks ever created, and you are going to tell me everything. Perhaps after I actually know what the hell is going on with those two, it'll make as much sense to me as it apparently does to you!" He made an odd growling sound in the back of his throat and then grabbed Vincent by the arm, making off at a determined stalk across the field into Kalm.

"We can't go to Tifa's," Vincent hissed, pulling back with a sharp yank. "She can't know about this, not yet. She won't understand, especially if she keeps on acting like she is at the moment."

"I'm not stupid," Cid snapped, turning back to him. "Understatement of the century to say that Tifa wouldn't understand. But I am not standing out in the middle of a fucking field discussing this. The best place to go is Tifa's - she'll be too busy working and we won't look suspicious, like we would do if I stand and yell at you out here all day. We find a nice corner, get some drinks and then we talk about this like civilised men because I am tired of being angry with you."

Vincent nodded, a part of him still apprehensive about being so close to Tifa when something so potentially explosive had come up. Cid was never...tactful, so allowing him to do what he wanted was always placing more of a risk on the situation. But then, what he said also made sense, it would just mean that they had to be discreet.

Cid gave him a long, coldly furious look, and then started off towards Kalm. After a moment of watching the pilot's tense figure, Vincent followed behind. "I'm...sorry," he said, loud enough for Cid to hear, but was ignored.


Zack woke up to find the extra warmth along his side slowly dissipating, and the quiet background murmur of the water in the shower. He stretched out under the blanket, feeling the distinct pleasure of it spreading for a moment along his limbs and arched back. He remembered, in a split second image that was gone as soon as it came, searing in its intensity, having arched this way in someone else's bed, the pleasure not quite the same but sharper, more demanding, and his superior's form moving over - inside - him.

He let the stretch go out of surprise, blinking to himself in the semi-darkness. Why am I thinking of that? he wondered, gone cold in the wake of the brief, heated memory. Was I dreaming about him? Not that he often dreamed about Sephiroth, but he didn't usually wake up thinking about past encounters like that, so there had to be-

There should be...someone else in bed with me?

The sudden, disjointed thought caught him off guard, and he sat up, looking around at the rumpled covers and trying to think of what had happened the night before. Blearily, he glanced around the room and realised that he was in the dorm for his small 'squad', and lying in what seemed to be Cloud's bed.


Woohoo, came an unbidden thought, its tone hard to place but somewhere between sarcasm and flat dullness. You scored a minor. The old Zack-charm still working, obviously. Naturally you couldn't wait the enormous stretch of about a week or so until he becomes legal, of course...

He pushed that aside, certain without knowing why that nothing of the sort had happened. Even if Zack had tried something with the blond, the boy was so wrapped up in Sephiroth that if he'd succeeded it would have been almost rape.

Or it could be the fact that you're fully dressed, of course. Pick whichever explanation for the lack of sex seems likeliest.

In any case, Cloud seemed to have slept in the same bed as him the night before. A vague sense of pain flowed through him as he tried to sift through his disorientated mind for memories of the night before. He frowned, pressing the heel of his hand briefly against his forehead before letting his fingers slide up and into the tangled mess that was his hair. He could see an image of red hair framing a long, pale face, a mouth pulled into a smirk that always seemed to have a hint of maliciousness in it. Ah, yes, Reno had been having an informative chat with Cloud about things the taller cadet shouldn't have known and should have kept to himself anyway. And now Cloud knew all about Sephiroth and him. From the sounds of it everyone knew about them. And he'd sent Reno away, and Cloud had been somewhat off, not cold so much as wary, cautious. The blond hadn't looked at him very much.

Another complication to add to my ever growing list, how wonderful. I know the way Cloud's mind works - I know the way he'll see this...

Zack yawned, pulling his hand out of his matted hair to cover his mouth. The break in his thinking caused the sound of the shower turning off to reach his consciousness, and as he opened his eyes he realised that that must have been Cloud, who was no longer with him and who seemed to be the only person out of bed, judging by the faint snores coming from nearby. The blond couldn't have been gone long, since his flank still bore the very last vestiges of someone else's fading body heat.

One day, soon, I have to sit Cloud down and we need to have a long talk about all of this...stuff. We'll fight over what's going on with Sephiroth over and over and we're just avoiding the real question, which as nothing to do with Seph at all: what's happening to Cloud? And what is that doing to me?

He swung his legs over the side of the bed quietly, stifling another yawn as he pushed himself upright. Cloud was an evasive creature, seemingly skilled in the art of avoidance, but Zack could see where Cloud apparently couldn't that all it was doing was damaging them. Something had happened about two months ago to cause this, though for the life of him he couldn't figure out what.

Cloud also tended to be less guarded when he was startled or tired, as most people were, so perhaps if Zack bugged him now he might get something, before Cloud wandered off to class and, undoubtedly, the troublesome Turk-wannabe. His lip almost curled in distaste at the thought of the redhead. The boy wasn't even in SOLDIER and his reputation already was easily the size of his overly inflated ego. What did Cloud see in someone like that?

He had to stop thinking about Cloud anyway, he told himself sternly as he surveyed the quiet, dark room. The blond was not the be-all and end-all of everything, but yet he seemed to be attracting attention as easily as he breathed, whilst seemingly doing nothing. How could you fight something that you couldn't see?

I shouldn't have to be fighting anything anyway. Perhaps it's a problem with me. Maybe I just need to spend more time with Aeris. I haven't been able to see her lately as much as I'd like - maybe that's the reason I'm fixating on someone else, though not in the same way that I would think of Aeris.

Everyone, Zack saw tiredly as he kept the protective thought of Aeris in the back of his head, seemed to still be sleeping, which was understandable. Zack couldn't believe that he was out of bed, and it wasn't even 6am yet. Necessity normally dragged him out of bed five minutes before work.

But then, Cloud liked to sleep as well. And he was already in the shower, so he'd obviously had trouble as well. Zack winced, moving slowly and quietly across the floor to the closed bathroom door. Yes, of course Cloud was uncomfortable, who wouldn't be, after what he'd been told.

Okay, sort this out, and then stop thinking about Cloud.

Before Cloud had arrived, Zack had never looked on his encounters with Sephiroth with anything like guilt, or discomfort. It just...happened, every now and then. He liked it when it happened - who wouldn't? Sephiroth was the most physically attractive person that Zack had ever known, and experienced enough that he'd shown Zack a few things, which he hadn't thought possible. There was nothing other than desire involved from both sides and they both knew that, which made it safe and, as far as they were concerned, harmless.

The act itself still was harmless, when he thought about it. And then Cloud had come from Nibelheim, and instantly fallen into the trap that many of the cadets did, awed and blinded by the General's 'magnificence.' Most got over it after a while - the attraction fading until it just lingered at the back of their minds. Cloud's hadn't faded or gone away, only grown. Though the knowledge that Cloud liked Sephiroth was not a secret between them, the exact nature of those feelings was, and Zack remained unsure of exactly how far Cloud had fallen. Cloud clammed up whenever Zack pushed the matter, always had done.

Now, though, he looked back over those memories of the General and felt guilt. He looked at Cloud and was reminded of how little emotion there was between he and Sephiroth when they fell into bed, and yet someone else out there was waiting who deserved it much more than he did, getting nothing.

Although, Sephiroth has shown some kind of interest in him. Damn, but he's so hard to read - I have no idea if that interest is professional or not -

Part of him hoped that it was strictly professional, because Sephiroth would devour Cloud. He was too strong, too confident and too emotionally detached from everything to be what Cloud needed. Sephiroth had never shown real interest in anyone. Zack very much doubted that he ever would.

At least, he's never shown it...and he's so good at hiding it that maybe I just never knew when and who he was interested in...I just don't know...

He shook his head - too early for such musing, it taxed his brain - and hesitated a moment at the bathroom door, placing his hand on the handle. He pushed down and opened it slightly, calling out softly, "Hey, Spike?"

There was no sudden rustling movement to cover up nudity, and Cloud's voice floated back warily, "Yeah?"

"Can I come in?"

There was slight hesitance as Cloud seemed to mull over the strange request. "Uh, okay," he murmured, tone of voice a little guarded, unsure. Zack pushed the door open a bit more, slipping in quietly before closing it behind him. He shielded his eyes abruptly, startled by the bright light, and squinted painfully at Cloud, who was frowning questioningly at him. The blond was only half-dressed, in the process of pulling on a shirt, but he had paused, clothing forgotten as he regarded his friend. His hair was still damp, sticking to his cheek in wet golden strands.

And what if Sephiroth's interest is purely personal? It's not as if he's a child, for Shiva's sake. He's almost 16, and he already looks legal. He's a little short and a teenager, not underdeveloped. What would be wrong about them being together? Wouldn't it be good for Sephiroth to actually show something every now and then, even if it's stirred by someone nine years younger than him?

"Was there something you wanted?" Cloud suddenly said, and Zack looked up to meet his eyes. There was still the slight look of worry in them, but they had become brighter with humour and that tinged his voice as he said, "Or did you just come to ogle?" He raised an eyebrow questioningly, lips twitching.

Zack snorted, mood lifting at the joke. "Just came to see the show," he answered easily, leaning back on the door and crossing his arms over his chest, giving the blond a deliberate leer. Cloud gave him a flushed grin at the tease, cheeks going red, but then proceeded to hastily pull on his shirt. Zack watched the easy arc of his body as he pulled the clothing on over his head. No, Cloud wasn't underdeveloped at all, really, and who could blame Sephiroth if he'd found himself looking? He was a man, after all, far from the untouchable god that many seemed to think he was.

"Show's over now," Cloud said, skin still tinged a little pink. Zack couldn't believe that he still got like that when good attention was sent his way - if he hadn't known Cloud that wasn't, he would have thought that the boy was inundated with offers. "What did you want?" the blond continued, but there was no uneasiness in his voice.

He's a damn good actor. I'll give him that.

"I wanted to check that you were okay after yesterday." Zack jerked his head backwards, "Just without them lot waking up and listening." He flashed a disarming grin on instinct, though Cloud seemed to know him well enough to see past those.

"Oh..." Cloud waved a hand dismissively, but he didn't look away, as Zack had expected. "It's nothing, honestly...well, it's not nothing, and I'm not going to pretend that I'm jealous and all that, but still...I understand why you did it."

That was entirely...too easy, especially when it came to Cloud. It gnawed at him, but not because Cloud was lying - didn't think he was, to be honest - but because, for some reason, Cloud shouldn't have dismissed it so simply.

"Cloud," he started, not knowing exactly what was going to come out of his mouth but certain that he needed to say something. "Cloud, just this once, I want you to listen to Reno. There is a chance...just a chance...that something might happen. But I don't - Sephiroth doesn't take partners other than as bed ones." No matter how much I try setting him up otherwise - maybe his standards are too high, I don't know... "He's never found anyone, I don't think, and to be honest...I don't think he'll ever find anyone special."

There was just a hint of insult in Cloud's expression and the sudden shift in his stance, which made Zack wince. "Yes, I'm well aware that I'm not in Sephiroth's league," the blond said softly, and his voice held only a bare touch of cold offence. "I don't need both you and Reno reminding me of that."

Dealing with Cloud was like holding a glass vase in your hand that was already riddled with the finest of cracks. It was like dealing with Sephiroth, except worse. "No, Cloud, that's not what I meant!" Zack waved his hands as he spoke, hating the way that Cloud was watching him. "If you weren't in his league, he wouldn't even look at you, let alone pay the amount of attention that he has paid you lately, so you can stop thinking that right now." Perhaps, Zack thought worriedly, that was too much encouragement, but Cloud's face only showed the slightest change, even though that change softened his expression somewhat. "It's just...you should know that Sephiroth...if he ever did do something like that..." Zack shook his head - why did these conversations never go right? Why wasn't he as damn eloquent as Sephiroth and Cloud? "He'd just hurt you. He wouldn't mean to, not really, but you would just end up hurting...and I don't want to see that happen to you." He thought of Reno again, who'd said much the same thing, and hated him.

Cloud continued to frown at him for a bare second - long enough to see that he was contemplating something - before saying, "So why did you do it?"

"Because I'm not...I wouldn't be as emotionally involved as you would be." It sounded too clinical when put that way, but Zack couldn't think of any better way to put it without making Cloud sound like a whimpering schoolgirl. And it was vague enough that any degree of affection could apply - he was once again reminded of exactly how little he really knew about Cloud's emotions regarding Sephiroth. What he suspected and what truly was could be very different.

He thought about telling Cloud that Sephiroth only ever took up with those who had expressed an interest beforehand - Reno had been entirely too correct when he'd called it "taking up the offers" or whatever he'd said. They were offers - Zack's had initially been drunken and desperate, and he didn't like to think about it out of male pride more than anything. Sephiroth had no idea about Cloud, and that was likely to stay that way unless Cloud made it known - which he wouldn't unless he thought he would gain something from it.

He decided against telling Cloud that.

"I understand," the blond said softly, with a small shrug of his shoulders, turning away from him then to bend down and pick up some socks. Zack felt like he'd just kicked a puppy when all he'd intended to do was nudge it, and the feeling was awful. Cloud hopped a little on one leg as he pulled on a sock, and said, "Thanks."

"You don't mean it," Zack said after a pause, keeping his voice soft, and saw how Cloud fought not to tense up. Ah, yes - Cloud hated people seeing through him for even the barest of moments, though Zack couldn't even begin to guess why. What was Cloud hiding that no-one should see?

God, this is so like having a conversation with Sephiroth. It's scary.

"It's okay," he continued, when Cloud didn't move, "I'm not angry or anything, and I understand why, I think...but you don't have to pretend that you're grateful. If I were you, I'd be exactly the same."

"...What else do you expect me to say?" Cloud asked, but his back was still turned. Zack much preferred it when Cloud had been looking at him. "You and I both know that it hasn't changed anything. If he asked...we both know I wouldn't be able to say 'no'."

"He won't ask, I don't think..." He won't, because he doesn't know. And if he did know, I don't think he'd take you anyway, because he'd know that it was unfair on you. Zack ran over that train of logic a few times and couldn't see any fault in it, which relieved him. He won't ask.

"Well, then everything's okay, then, isn't it?" Cloud said, his face very still. If Zack applied the principles of Sephiroth Reading to that expression, it meant that Cloud wasn't 'okay' at all but refused to let anyone know it. Neither of the two were as good at it as Zack was - neither could quite turn the mask of indifference into cheerfulness, a transformation that would have been complete and would have worked.

That's a goddamn lie. Out of all of us, Cloud's the master. How long have you gone on thinking that he was okay? How little do you really know about him? You know nothing, and only now you're beginning to learn that. Sephiroth is good, but you always know something's going on even if you don't know what. But Cloud...with him you don't even know something's wrong. Lately he's just...beginning to lose control over everything, isn't he? And it took that for you to notice, Zack. What kind of a friend are you?

"Is it?" he said. "With us, I mean."

Cloud instantly brightened, breaking out into a smile, which caught Zack off guard. "You're so paranoid," the blond said airily, moving forward to reach out and lay a hand against Zack's arm. "Don't worry about it, alright?"

Zack lay his own hand on where Cloud's lay against his biceps. The skin was warm to the touch - somehow, he had expected it to be cold. He smiled down at Cloud, and said, "Sure. No worries, yeah?"

Cloud squeezed his arm before gently pulling away. "Right. I'm going to head down to get in some extra practice now, so I'll see you later, mm?" He flashed white teeth in a startlingly cheerful grin before picking up the wet towel and his other things. Zack watched him leave, staying where he was, until he heard Cloud leave the squad room entirely.

Maybe I am being paranoid, he thought absently, because he never said 'yes'.


The moon had long since risen at the end of that day before Sephiroth was anywhere close to finishing his workload. The skin around his eyes was tight with strain and tiredness, and he could feel the start of a headache coming on. He hated to admit that he could be overworked, but right then he was all up for some kind of protest against it. There was at least another two hours' paperwork sitting in front of him - what time was it anyway? Blearily, he lifted his heavy head to look at the clock on the wall and wasn't at all surprised to find that it said it was 3am.

He pushed the chair back enough that he could bring up his legs, knees to his chest and feet resting on the edge of the desk to stretch out the muscles, gone stiff from sitting down for so long. With a sigh he pressed his forehead against his thighs just above the knee, grimacing, hugging them back to his body tightly to pull on the backs of his thighs.

Life was, he mused, entirely too complicated and always seemed to go in the direction that you didn't want it to. Life was always there to remind you that it wasn't nice, wasn't helpful, wasn't practical or ethical or any of those things that Sephiroth valued so greatly.

It made him angry.

It wasn't even as if he was angry with any particular person or thing but himself, really. He couldn't remember being this angry with himself for a long time, though, and it was...disconcerting. The fury was something that unbalanced him and he hated to feel unbalanced more than he hated anything - that amount of loss of control was unacceptable. He commanded an army, the largest on the Planet, what good was he if he couldn't control himself first?

It will pass soon enough, just like the others, he thought disdainfully. You get worked up over nothing, these days - the slightest twinge of attraction and you leap at your own throat - what way is that to live your life? You're pathetic. The rest of the world deals with things like these, stop whining and acting like yours is the only problem.

I wouldn't be having this much of a problem if he wasn't so...young.

Sephiroth was...fastidious by nature. His mind kept going over and over his late-night conversation with Cloud Strife, picking at the strange tightening in his belly that had so distracted him at the time - by Shiva, some of the things he'd said to the boy had been downright suggestive. What had he been thinking?

You weren't, that's why, you idiot. That feeling should. Not. Be. There. And the more you think about this at 3am, the worse you'll think it is. It was enough to distract you, but nothing more. You've had a lot worse, and you dealt with those just fine.

He'd seen Cloud only once in passing that day, and that was what had started this. He'd been passing down a corridor and a group of cadets had turned into it. They'd gone instantly silent when they spotted him, most of them going as white as ghosts, and Cloud had been somewhere near the back, instantly discernible not just because of his hair. The flush across his cheeks had only been very faint, but Sephiroth had noticed it, and Cloud knew that he had. They'd only locked eyes for a moment before the blond had turned away with the rest of the group, but that one, vividly expressive look had reminded him so much of the night before that it had plagued him for the rest of the day.

He couldn't interpret the look Cloud had given him. It reminded him that he wasn't quite sure where he stood with Cloud, and that bothered him as much as the niggling, unwanted stirring in his stomach did. Sometimes he could almost convince himself that he frightened the blond more than anything, but he knew, somehow, that that wasn't right. It was all tied up in that one gaze, laid out before him but it was as indecipherable as if he was reading something the Ancients had written.

He wasn't as good as most at reading people, brought up as the only child amongst a plethora of scientists who'd only wanted him for his scientific value and hadn't bothered to let him come into real contact with people his own age and muddle them out for himself. His early social interaction had all been with Hojo and Professor Gast, and Hojo had wanted Sephiroth all for himself so now he only remembered Gast as a vague, blurry image. Gast had been kinder than Hojo, but he was still a scientist, not yet as dissatisfied with ShinRa as he would soon become.

His first real social contact had been at the academy, of course, after Gast had left. He hadn't really been able to function very well, and became cold and withdrawn because he couldn't understand these boisterous figures surrounding him. He'd used the same tactic with Hojo a lot of the time because he couldn't understand that either, when he'd picked up from Gast's hesitant signals that the way he was treated wasn't normal. People tried to pick fights with him and they had, before he had been warned against this, ended up with broken limbs. They soon learned that he was much stronger and faster than they were, and began to leave him alone. This had suited him just fine - he was used to being alone, preferred it because being social was a lot of wasted effort as far as he was concerned. Hojo had told him many times that he was going to become the greatest SOLDIER that ShinRa had ever known, and he knew that becoming such a leader would mean that he had to be ruthless, amongst other things. Why make friends only to have to cast them off later?

Hojo had been dutifully appalled at his behaviour, and Sephiroth remembered the dressing down he'd received very well. It was the first time he'd truly realised that Hojo just didn't work the same way as other humans did, because Hojo's despair had been directed at the fact that if he became known for violence, he was unlikely to attract a good enough partner for "breeding".

By "breeding," Sephiroth knew that Hojo meant "sexual relations with women." He'd failed to inform the Professor that that idea hadn't really been met with much relish. He thought of women and cool sort of indifference settled over him - it still did. The same happened with regards to most people. When someone had come along who had sparked any interest at all, it generally wasn't the gender that Hojo had in mind.

Zack had been the most frequent of those mild, fleeting interests, who he hadn't met until after they'd both joined SOLDIER. Their friendship had grown out of necessity rather than anything else. He'd been scheduled for a "routine test" with Hojo and broken out during it, his brain too addled with Mako to know what he was doing. He'd been 22 at the time, and Zack 19. Zack had found him half-naked and confused out of his wits, purely by accident, and after that Zack had known too much to be alienated.

During that time at the academy, he'd had to learn mostly from scratch how to interact with others, and Zack had helped a lot. By now, he'd thought that he'd had quite a sound grip on these things, but then someone like Cloud came along who made him realise how little he really did know, and how much he wanted to learn. Cloud was more of a puzzle than Zack had been, and he wanted to know why. He wanted to know why he looked at Cloud and knew, somehow, that they were more alike than either would ever realise.

Ignore it - how could he ever be like you? How could he ever have gone through the kind of things that you have? And it's not even like this is melodramatic or self-indulgent - no-one else has gone through the same things!

Reports - reports and things, he had lots of them. He had to finish them before he got up and went to bed, if he went to bed at all. He sighed, pulling on his legs before lowering them to the floor once more, and leaned forward to type a few things into the computer. It blinked at him for a few moments, and he wished dearly that it would explode. Then he wouldn't have to do anything, and he'd be much happier.

It blinked cheerfully at him once more before a screen appeared with a short list - thank god he didn't have that much to go through on the computer, then. One flashed at him - marked as important by someone else in the system, no doubt - and he clicked on it curiously. A concern marker, as he'd suspected - unusual activity at the Nibelheim Mako reactor, and a subsequent request for some military investigation.

Nibelheim? Isn't that where -

He had a vague memory of Zack in mid-ramble, talking about some of the new cadets and how one had come from Nibelheim - how far away it was, how remote - and how this boy had hair a lot like his, except he was blond.

Oh, for the Planet's sake, you have got to be kidding me.

A quick dance of his fingers across the keyboard brought up Cloud's file and the blond's familiar pale picture, and there, under the "hometown" subheading lay "Nibelheim, West Continent." He stared blankly at it, wondering just how much more ridiculous this could get. His eyes flickered over the rest of the profile, resting just long enough on the birth date to realise that Cloud would turn 16 in about a week's time.

Ah, yes, quite young indeed, he couldn't stop the more cynical part of him thinking, but at least from next week you couldn't get put in jail for it.

He brought his legs up so that his feet rested on the desk again, glaring at his knees for a long moment in fury. His loss of temper happened in a split second and a split second only, where he lashed out at the computer screen with a sharp growl, a boot and enough power to send the heavy monitor crashing off of the desk to the floor in a shower of sparks.

In the long stretch of silence that followed, he decided calmly that he would let Nibelheim be for the moment, until it proved to be a real problem.




End Chapter.


1. Wow, this made it past 200 reviews! Thank you so much, everyone, and I can only get on my knees and beg forgiveness that I'm not able to spend more time on this thing to get chapters up faster. It would be so much easier if you all didn't seem to like this so much O_o;;

2. Nibelheim - there must be a little sign outside saying "Centre for the Maladjusted/Most Miserable, Place on the Planet." Anyone born there is just doomed from the start.

3. Q: What one thing would you take to a desert island, Shadows?

A: It'd have to be two things, because I am never going anywhere ever again without the FFVII Piano Collections and I need a CD player to go with it. Any former travesty Square has done in the name of 'music' (*cough*FFX-2!FFX-2!*cough*) has been and will forever be forgiven for releasing that album.

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