Disclaimer: See Chapter One.


Fusion

Part One - Chapter 11

By Knowing Shadows

       

Zack woke up groggily and aching in the peculiar way that he recognised but couldn't quite put his finger on yet. His stomach knotted a little as his brain registered the vague, not entirely unpleasant pain, but he wasn't awake enough to really pay much attention to it. The bed was warm and he was tired.

He remembered, abruptly, that it had been a bit of a bitch to climb up the ladder to his bunk the night before because the tightness in his muscles had begun to set in. He remembered looking at the lower bunk and feeling his stomach twist itself up immensely at the sight of Cloud's sleeping face, before he looked away and tried to forget about the emotional repercussions of what he'd just done.

What had he done? He had a blurry, unrecognised notion in his brain that knew right away and was dying to make itself known, but he was still on the wrong side of sleep to be able to catch onto it. The knots in his stomach slowly began to tangle and tighten further.

He didn't want to wake up fully, he knew enough to know that. He knew enough to know that as soon as he did so the reality of what he'd been up to would come down on him and he wouldn't like it.

"Zack? You gonna wake up there?" There was a hand on his shoulder, gently shaking him. The voice was one he recognised. He felt his body rock as the hand pushed at him, and that sent a wave of that ache rushing through him, up from his lower back and renewing into something more painful just below his shoulder blades. He frowned into his pillow.

"Zack, we gotta get up. You're gonna be late for wooooooooork..."

He cracked an eye open because it seemed to be the best thing to do, not because he particularly wanted to. Cloud had his arms hooked over the top of his bunk, keeping him upright on the ladder (Zack assumed that Cloud was standing on the ladder). The blond had been let out of the infirmary in the evening after Zack and Sephiroth had stopped by to see him, and didn't seem to be showing any ill effects other than one complaint of still having a headache. He looked rather bright, actually.

Zack looked at him and remembered exactly what it was that had caused him to ache so much, and felt abruptly sick.

Cloud poked him gently in the biceps, lips curled into a small smile. "Don't look at me like that. You wake me if I sleep late. Except usually you jump on me or let something horrible loose in my bed."

He couldn't help but snicker, though the tight nausea in his belly hadn't receded. "But that was funny," he said, but it was muffled by his pillow. Cloud just rolled his eyes and raised himself up onto his toes on the ladder rung so that he could lift his arms and begin to clamber back down again, satisfied that the dark-haired man was awake. When the last of the blond's spiky hair dipped back below out of sight, Zack closed his eyes and turned his face fully into the pillow, guilt and shame crawling in his torso and stomach.

What the fuck did I think I was playing at? And just after I'd told that that we didn't - that it didn't happen anymore -

He wanted to be angry with Sephiroth for not stopping him, for refusing, but as soon as that began to rise up it was quelled by the fact that he knew it wasn't the older man's fault at all. Sephiroth had needed the distraction as much as he did, he'd seen it in the man's face, in the brief flash of something in his green eyes when he opened them to see Zack above him and not whoever he was seeing when he closed them.

That thought didn't hurt as much as he'd thought it might - perhaps because they both knew it meant nothing. Or perhaps it was because Zack had a strong suspicion about who Sephiroth had been thinking about, whether willingly or not. He had the sudden urge to walk up to Cloud and say, "Hey, did you know Sephiroth was imagining that I was you last night?" if only to see what the blond would do in response. It would be nice to see the ego boost in the boy, too, if only he could do it some other way than revealing how utterly stupid he'd been.

If he was correct, he also doubted that Sephiroth would be very happy to be caught out on it, especially if his principles as a twenty-five year old male pointed out that (nearly) sixteen might be pushing it slightly in the age category.

Zack winced as he began to clamber onto his knees to get out of bed, and as that thought came at him again. Perhaps he should bring it up with Sephiroth before he let those principles get out of control - the General's ethics tended to be a bit heavy-handed in dealing with the man. If Sephiroth's interest in Cloud didn't just go away, his mental state would be a mess if no-one could convince him that he was perfectly normal in having that kind of attraction.

Damnit, why did he have to deal with that at the same time?

Climbing down the ladder was even more of a problem than climbing up it the night before. He steadfastly refused to make a noise that might arouse questions - he couldn't face Cloud's wondering expression all day. As he stepped off the ladder, wincing against the cold feel of the floor against his bare feet, he felt himself freeze up unexpectedly as he heard a startled noise from behind him.

"Oh, Zack, what did you do to your back?" He turned then, and found Cloud already close by, frowning up at him. The blond motioned at him to turn around, and Zack did so reluctantly, knowing that what Cloud was referring to had to be the visible part of the pain he'd felt there earlier. He'd forgotten he was only wearing boxers and so any marks would be plainly visible, and he wasn't sure where there were marks - stupid, stupid, not to check before Cloud might see, might question -

He hissed when he felt Cloud's finger ghost along his back in a line just below his shoulder blades. "You've got a bruise - like a strip across here," came the cadet's concerned voice. He felt Cloud prod part of this bruise lightly, and Zack shuddered. "What did you do, get in a fight with a crowbar?"

"No," he said. He struggled to come up with a plausible excuse, but it was difficult when he could still feel Cloud's fingertips against his bare skin. "I just did some training last night and got banged around a bit." He was glad Cloud couldn't see his face, because he winced as he realised what he'd just said. Cloud wouldn't - he hoped - know any different.

Getting 'banged about' was just right - leaning against the hard edge of the bath last night for a part of it didn't seem to matter quite so much when I was concentrating on other things.

Cloud didn't say anything to that, but he took his hand away immediately and Zack had the feeling that the blond knew he was lying, even if he didn't know the truth of it. Perhaps knowing that he was lying would lead the boy to suspect whatever he'd been doing had been sexual - and then trying to hide it from Cloud would then, eventually, lead him into wondering who he might have been with, and the only person Zack would want to hide would be plainly obvious.

"You should see a doctor and see if they can give you anything to ease the pain," Cloud said. Zack didn't know if he was imagining the chilly edge to his voice. He hoped he was. "Especially if you've got other bruises." Zack froze, felt his muscles tense up painfully in his back, and Cloud finished, "Or anything else that I can't see right now."

Oh, fuck. He closed his eyes, couldn't even turn around to look at Cloud, or try to explain away the definitely harsh quality to the blond's tone as paranoia alone. Was it harsh because he knew Zack was lying or because he'd worked out it was Sephiroth? He didn't know, didn't want to ask, and couldn't anyway - he heard Cloud walk away and out of the door.

He leaned forward until his forehead was resting against the edge of his bunk, and sighed, ignoring the pull of the bruised area that sent sharp stinging sensations along his spine. Of all the dumb things to do, of all the goddamn stupid things he could have done - why this? Why the one thing he could have done to hurt Cloud so much?

Because you're a fucking man, and Sephiroth is a walking wet dream even when he's got his hair in one of those stupid loopy bun things, and he was sitting in a bath, naked, needing to get laid and you were naked, too, and you wanted it. Damnit, you were even thinking about Cloud at the time - your goddamn excuse was that you wanted to forget about him for a while. You're not perfect and you made a mistake; you just made a huge mistake because you're Zack and you never do things by halves.

God, he thought, lifting a hand to his back to rub it gingerly, you can fucking say that again. Ouch. Perhaps I should see a doctor after all, though I wish Aeris was here to do one of her-

Oh, fucking hell - Aeris -

He hadn't even thought about Aeris, not once. His thoughts had all been Cloud Cloud Cloud and not once had Aeris been there at all - she should have been first in line to send him on a guilt trip. He had betrayed his girlfriend -

He wondered why thinking about what he'd done to Aeris didn't make him feel as awful as thinking about Cloud did. Did that make him an even worse boyfriend, that he felt guiltier about Cloud than he did his own girlfriend?

His back throbbed painfully as he sank down into a crouch, head in his hands. Idiot, idiot Zack, he scolded himself, too weak-willed to abstain when an opportunity presents itself, too self-centred to care if you hurt others as long as you get what you want, too lazy to even go to your own girlfriend if there's someone closer who might give you what you want.

He hadn't wanted a girl the night before, he realised, the emotions lying so heavy in his chest shifting uneasily with the knowledge. He'd wanted to be put on his back and fucked, to have the control taken out of his hands for once - it was why he went to Sephiroth, who wouldn't know how to let up his control even if he wanted to, and not to someone like Cloud, however attractive the blond might be.

And Cloud was attractive, as beautiful as Sephiroth in his own way, and he could appreciate that without thinking about it too seriously because... - he scowled, setting his jaw -

Sephiroth has everything you want, if you stopped to think about it more carefully for once, rather than just brushing it off as a meaningless night in someone else's bed.

Think about that, Zack, as much as you didn't think at all last night.

       

The practice dummies set up in the training hall looked rather ragged and old. Most of them were almost falling apart from the amount of slices and cuts into them there were from the edges of the swords - Cloud's was on its last legs as far as its left arm was concerned. One swift blow to the thin material keeping it attached to the main body would surely send it flying off completely.

He thought about that darkly, sorely tempted. Instead, he ploughed the edge of his blade into the dummy's other upper arm, loving the bite of the metal into the solid weight at the end of it. It was surprisingly difficult to cut into flesh, he knew that from experience, even with something as powerful as the Ultima weapon - though Sephiroth had bled so easily at the end -

As he came back from the lunging swing, Cloud dug the heel of his free hand into his temple, breath caught at the sudden flash of memory that came with the thought. His head was pounding still, though he wasn't entirely surprised. Ratchett had been allowed into this training because it was so vital, but had been sent to the opposite end of the hall so he couldn't 'accidentally' hit Cloud again. He'd steadfastly ignored the older boy - he couldn't deal with that mystery when Zack...

Stop it, stop it, stop it! You're just reading into things too much, you're paranoid because of what Reno said - quit thinking about it, you'll just make yourself feel worse!

He was feeling aggressive anyway, which he blamed mostly on Zack whether he was being paranoid and untrusting or not. It helped a bit to imagine that he was going at the dark-haired man with a sword and working off that anger, but at the same time, concentrating on the older man just made his thoughts continue to darken and his suspicions more solid in his mind.

He did not...he told me they didn't anymore...I have to believe that, it could have been anyone he was with last night...but why would he hide it? Why would he lie to me? It's not like I don't know he has a lot of partners, despite Aeris...

He didn't like the part of Zack that could cheat on his girlfriend, especially as Cloud cared for Aeris so much anyway, but he could understand, to some extent, that Zack had a high libido and got stressed if he didn't...

You're thinking about this far too much. Concentrate on your training. SOLDIER is so close, so close...You can get in this time, you know it, you can feel it - you're better than even Reno, and you're a hundred times better than you were the first time you came here -

He wondered, vaguely, what it was exactly that allowed him to have retained as much of his skills as he had - surely his body wasn't trained enough...it shouldn't have been, anyway. Perhaps the Cetra had helped with that aspect...he wasn't sure. He was just grateful that, this time, he would be able to make things the way they should have been, however bafflingly impossible parts of this reality seemed to be.

He thought of Sephiroth, half-naked and addled by Mako, assaulted by images of Nibelheim in his head and seeming quite convinced that he remembered running Cloud through with the Masamune. He'd fumbled with the idea that that might have been the Cetra's doing as well, but to what purpose? Getting Sephiroth's attention? Sephiroth didn't need any more reasons to believe that he was an unnatural monster of Hojo's.

Cloud hated not understanding things. He didn't understand what Aeris had been trying to tell him by sending him that dream, if she'd sent it at all; he didn't understand why Sephiroth had been seeing the future; he didn't understand why so much about this place was...different.

Abruptly, he became aware of a hand waving in front of his voice, and a voice saying, "Cloud? Are you alright? You're not dead, are you?"

He blinked, shaking the thoughts away from him, and turned to find Reno attached to the hand, giving him a worried look. "Back from La La Land, eh?" he enquired, stopping the wave of his fingers and settling for crossing his arms over his chest.

"Sorry, I was just...thinking." Cloud shrugged helplessly. He was holding the sword slack in his grip, the point digging into the mat at his side. He hadn't realised he'd trailed off so badly in the middle of training.

"Well, Teach' said I could have a break, so I came looking for you." Reno smiled, the expression pulling slightly at the twin red scars that cut mirror patterns along his cheekbones. "I have great news for you."

"Oh?" Cloud steeled himself inwardly, knowing very well that it was probably awful news. He found his fingers tightening around the hilt of his sword, felt the irritating wrong-ness in the way he kept expecting to feel the familiar contours of the Ultima Weapon's hilt instead of this, and didn't like it at all.

"I hope you don't mind injections," Reno said, and abruptly Cloud had a disturbing flash of Hojo standing before him, his arms crossed just like Reno's. It passed quickly, leaving him only surprised and with a speeding heart. Reno didn't seem to have noticed, and Cloud caught himself in time to hear, "Because we all get trial Mako injections pretty soon. It's some sort of compatibility test - if we don't pass, there's no point in us taking the exams because all SOLDIERs get a lot of Mako treatment."

He'd forgotten this test - he realised with a start that it belonged to the faintly fuzzy period of time in his memories that he had never really thought to piece back together after Nibelheim. Now, he remembered it. He'd been a borderline pass, eventually going on to fail the exam itself.

He remembered not liking the test. The Mako had left his skin itching and burning faintly for hours afterwards. He'd spent most of that time in the shower trying to scrub his skin off, rubbing himself raw so he would have that to concentrate on instead. He'd been afraid that the burn wouldn't go away.

"Oh," Cloud said, and shivered. "Thanks for letting me know."

"Hey, you okay?" Reno reached out to touch his arm gently. "You don't have a problem with injections, do you?"

"Just Mako ones," Cloud said, and smiled to let Reno know he was okay. He was, too - just not looking forward to it very much at all. "I've heard they can be pretty painful."

The red-haired boy shrugged carelessly. He probably hadn't really thought about that very much. "As long as I pass it, I don't really care," Reno said truthfully. "I'll do anything to get into ShinRa. I haven't got anything to fall back on except..." He trailed off, eyes going distant and unfocused, before he looked back at Cloud and lifted a hand to trace at one of his scars. "A few months before I started training here, I didn't have these," he said softly. "I didn't want them."

"They suit you, though," Cloud said, winking and letting his smile widen. Reno stuck out his tongue.

"Well," the taller boy said, "even if I don't mind the injection, I won't enjoy it very much 'cause that Professor guy creeps me out."

Profess-?!

The memory of the test spun through him as he desperately searched it, and surely enough there was a flash of white and black and the glint of light on glass lenses. Cloud's eyes went wide, and he had the odd impression that being thumped in the solar plexus would feel a lot like he felt right then.

"Professor Hojo?" he managed to say.

"Yeah, that's him," Reno said breezily, not seeming to notice his shock this time as well. "He's freakin' inhuman. There are all sorts of rumours going around about the stuff he gets up to in his labs. Apparently he has a load of top secret side projects going on for President Shinra, you know? Like, stuff that would have him hung if he wasn't working for the President." Reno sounded rather excited by the mystery behind the Professor, even if he didn't like the man himself.

Cloud felt his stomach twist, feeling sick. "Don't say that stuff like it's good." He couldn't stop the words, angry even though he knew that he would have acted the same before he had been subject to one of those projects. His hands fisted, nails digging into his skin sharply. "It's not exciting and it's not a game and he hurts people! I hate that man and he should be fucking shot!"

He was aware of Reno staring at him, though he hadn't been loud enough for anyone else to pay attention to what he'd been saying. He looked away, ashamed, uncurling his fingers from around the hilt of his sword, wincing at the pain from how hard he'd been gripping it.

"Hey, dude," Reno whispered, "you know stuff about him. Like, real stuff, don't you?"

"I don't...want to talk about it." He shook his head, turning away to try and avoid the questioning. "And don't say anything to anyone, either, will you? As far as you're concerned, I don't know anything...I could get in a lot of trouble, and I'd rather...not..."

"It's our secret!" Reno assured him, holding up his hands as if to pacify the blond. His eyes were quite wide, and Cloud hoped dearly that what he'd just said hadn't been a major mistake on his part. If it got back to Hojo - or President Shinra - that he had any idea of what they were doing, and what they had done...

He couldn't...he couldn't risk something like that happening, knowing what would happen to him. Something in him had trusted Reno enough to not hold back he hadn't even realised that he'd allowed himself to trust Reno. He didn't like the thought that he could let something slip so easily.

"I'll tell you what," Reno offered quietly. Cloud turned, slowly, to look at him, and the wide-eyed look had gone, replaced by a more tentative excitement. "I'll tell you a secret."

Cloud almost felt his ears prick up, and there must have been something of it in his face because Reno stepped closer to keep his voice low, and said, "Have you ever seen a tall guy wandering around here sometimes? Wears a dark blue suit, got straight black hair down to his shoulders, and a little red dot on his forehead?"

Another memory came at Cloud, one of fire flickering on ancient terracotta walls, and the play of that same fire on shiny black hair and dark eyes and how that wan light almost hid the dark, unnatural spot in the centre of Tseng's forehead.

"Yes, I've seen him," he said.

"Well, he's one of the Turks, you know?" Cloud nodded, and thought he knew exactly where this story was going. He watched Reno's face, trying to make out his feelings towards what he felt must have been one of the first moves that led to Reno becoming a Turk himself. "And he said that they've had their eye on me to take over one of their places, if I pass the exams...so he's going to come and see some of our training sessions to just make sure that they think I have what it takes."

"The Turks don't just scout for SOLDIER candidates, you know," Cloud said blankly, and from Reno's face the boy already knew that as well, and didn't really seem to care. For the first time since he'd been here, Cloud felt older than the other boy - Reno's obvious excitement was unlike anything he recognised in the Turk he had met as an enemy. He wondered, vaguely disturbed by the thought, if that change had been wrought before or after Tseng had decided the redhead was good enough for them after all.

"I wonder why they picked me out?" Reno wondered out loud. He looked genuinely puzzled by the development, but nothing short of proud of the fact. Cloud couldn't really blame him - within ShinRa, the Turks were the most well-known of the President's side outfits, their work the most gossiped about. Being a Turk was Cool, as far as most cadets were concerned, even though none of the Turks were anywhere near as powerful in battle as the SOLDIER 1sts like Zack and Sephiroth.

But thinking of those two sent his mood crashing once more, doubt and suspicion over Zack's lies creeping in once more, so he decided to push it away by answering Reno. "You know you're one of the most talented in the group. Of course they're going to want to try and steal you away if they've got a place free."

"But still...why me?" Reno pointed a finger at Cloud, who stared at it. "You're better than I am, especially recently. You may not be the tallest, but you've got more muscles than I do..." He screwed up his nose. "Do you have to be scrawny to get into the Turks? That Tseng was skinny and all...and I once saw a picture of this really famous Turk called Valentine and he was quite skinny. Did you know that Valentine disappeared twenty-five years ago and no-one knows what happened to him?" Reno went off on a tangent happily, and Cloud fought not to smile and reply, "Of course I do. And I know what happened to him."

Sephiroth's only twenty-five, a part of him pointed out wistfully. That's not so big a gap, really... Twenty-five is still so young. And you'll be sixteen in a few days. Maybe Sephiroth needs someone younger in his life to remind him that he's still only a few years into adulthood, before he falls apart...

Twenty-five was nothing, he realised, when you thought about it, and already he'd ascended the ranks of SOLDIER to become General and led ShinRa to victory over Wutai. A few more months and the supposed 'truth' might come down on him and finally wear him down; might break his spirit until he had nothing left but Jenova's lies and no-one there to help him believe otherwise.

"So, anyway..." Reno was saying, "...Tseng said he'd be checking out some of our practices pretty soon, so don't be surprised to see him around..."

Cloud wasn't really listening.

       

There was a shiny new computer sitting on Sephiroth's desk. He looked at it in vague amusement, grateful somewhere in himself that no-one had asked any questions about how his old one had become so mangled. Thankfully, as he'd only destroyed the monitor beyond repair, he hadn't lost any files. Sephiroth was pretty sure that he would have thrown himself out of the window if he'd had to go through and re-do all that work.

God, get a life, a snide voice remarked in the back of his head. Is it all you can do to sit there and ramble on at yourself about computers? Is that how pathetic you've become, that you can't face up to your problems anymore, and hide behind something so goddamn fake and awful as this?

He could see his reflection faintly in the monitor screen, and saw his own mouth curl into a sneer at those thoughts. It didn't look very good on him, he noted - made him look more animal than man, though sometimes, with the thoughts that went through his brain from time to time, he wondered if that would be a more accurate portrayal.

More inhuman than anything, the same way that Hojo is - the family resemblance is there, so easily found if you only look...

He looked away from his reflection, startled by the sudden sharp twist to his mood, and to stop himself from putting another crack in the screen, if only to somehow break up that goddamn snarl that he couldn't quite erase from his mouth.

How could anyone ever look at you if they knew what you were, truly? If they knew just what kind of man they were dealing with, who knew that sometimes he didn't think like normal men in any way at all, what would they do then? Would it even be enough to shatter the illustrious illusions they all have of you?

But then there were Cloud's eyes, watching him with that odd sort of nothingness that was no judgement at all, only the quiet sort of acceptance and understanding of everything he saw. Those eyes that knew everything and seemed to have endured it all with him along the way.

Zack didn't have eyes like that at all, and only because he'd seen it in the blond cadet could he make out the difference in the way that Zack looked at him. It was only because of that strange ageless quality to Cloud's eyes that he really understood that, even though he tried very hard, Zack had no idea.

Oh, for Shiva's sake, stop romanticising everything - so the boy got hurt. Plenty of kids get hurt when they're young. You're not the only one, so stop acting as if a little childhood trauma makes you special. And you don't need to turn it into poetry.

He was being hard on himself, and he knew it, but that didn't help the coldness of the thoughts or the fact that he couldn't make himself believe them when it came to Cloud.

Sephiroth almost jumped when there came an unexpected rap on the door, and then the sound of someone entering. He looked up, past the computer screen to where the noise had come from, to find miserable brown eyes staring back at him.

Zack's presence didn't startle him so much as the absolutely defeated expression on his face. For a moment, as the black-haired man slid the door quietly closed behind him, Sephiroth struggled to find something to say, and failed. He had no experience of this - there was nothing in him filed away about how to deal with a depressed Zack. He didn't like it when things like this happened unexpectedly, it made him feel uneasy and he was generally surly in response to that.

Except this was probably about the night before, and that made him feel even worse - what had he done to make Zack look like that? he wondered, somewhat flustered. He'd done what Zack asked, what else had happened whilst he wasn't looking? Had he not paid enough attention again, and misread Zack's intentions?

"Hey," Zack said, leaning back against the door with a soft sigh, dropping his head momentarily so that all Sephiroth could see was the top of his head and the mess of soft spikes that started there.

"Good morning," he replied, confused.

Zack lifted his head, as if to say something, but what came out of his mouth was, "What happened to your old computer?" with a puzzled frown gracing his tanned face.

If Sephiroth had been anyone else, he might have gone slightly red. "It broke. I got a new one."

Zack continued to look slightly confused for a second or two more, and then his face cleared of that and returned to the original expression with which he had entered. Sephiroth wanted the confusion back, rather than what it had briefly masked.

So he patiently waited for Zack to speak, and wasn't surprised at all when the first thing that the dark-haired man said was, "I'm sorry."

"What for?" was his required line in this script, so he followed it, though he knew what Zack was apologising for. Well, that was partly true - he knew what incident Zack was referring to, though what there had been about it to be sorry about, Sephiroth wasn't sure. He couldn't think of anything on the spot, the partial organisation of his thoughts completely gone in the face of this. He watched his younger friend intently, trying to read some kind of clue in the way he was standing, or the lines of his face, but it was like looking at something in the script of the Ancients.

He was used to looking at most people and not really being able to read them the way that others were. His understanding of the nuances of flirting, for example, wasn't in the same league as someone like Zack's. But he'd thought that after so long, he'd have some kind of idea as to how to look at Zack and understand things the way others could. Being met with that curious, hated blankness in his head disgruntled him.

"About last night," Zack continued. He bent slightly at the waist, hips and buttocks leant against the door and his hands on his uniform-clad thighs. He was trying to avoid looking at Sephiroth, that much the older man knew, possibly out of embarrassment. "It shouldn't have happened. I'm sorry that I started it, I really am...I have a girlfriend."

Oh... That was what Zack was feeling guilty about. Sephiroth hadn't even thought about Aeris - he didn't know her, she was only present as some kind of vague, peripheral identity that didn't really encroach upon his world. Apparently, Zack hadn't really thought too much about her either. He felt oddly slighted.

"Don't beat yourself up about it," Sephiroth said. He pulled absently at a stray lock of silver that framed his face, the hair sliding smoothly between leather-clad fingers. "It was as much your fault as mine. If it was a mistake, I understand..."

Zack's head snapped up and his face was abruptly full of reproach and irritation. "I didn't mean it like that," he barked, and something of Sephiroth's surprise must have shown in his face because almost immediately afterwards the black-haired SOLDIER was saying, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..." He made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat, trailing off.

Sephiroth sat upright in his chair, gone instantly cold at Zack's harsh tone. He let go of his hair and lay his hands in his lap, curling his fingers into his palms. He kept his gaze level and chilly, and set his jaw against the angry rebuke that wanted to tumble from his lips.

The silence stretched out, and Sephiroth revelled in the discomfort even as Zack seemed to wither in it. Eventually, Zack pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead and murmured, "Seph, please...I'm sorry. I can't deal with you being like this today."

He wanted to say, "Being like what?" but refrained. Zack's tone hadn't been antagonistic that time, but as pleading as Sephiroth had ever heard him. He really couldn't deal with Sephiroth being anything other than civil and co-operative. He wondered why - when he thought about it, they had been together before whilst Zack had been with Aeris. He hadn't made a fuss about it then, and as far as Sephiroth knew, Zack's commitment level to the relationship hadn't shifted in that time.

Perhaps there's something else that's making him feel guilty. Is there anyone else he's seeing? If he can cheat on Aeris with you, what's to say he wouldn't with anyone else? Perhaps he's found someone else around here who he likes a whole lot more than he likes you...

It was an old, tortuous thought that refused to relinquish its hold on him however many times he tried to push it away.

But who else has his attention been on besides you and..?

He curled his fingers into his palms tighter as he asked, "And how is Strife doing, do you know?" He caught the immediate flinch on Zack's part at the mention of the name and felt himself bristle. But still, the thought of those two together didn't fit right in his mind - they had never given any kind of indication at all that they were involved, though it was entirely possible that he'd missed it, or that they were just extremely good at hiding it.

So why the guilty conscience and flinch when his name is mentioned, but barely anything when his own girlfriend is brought up?

"He's fine. And you can call him 'Cloud', you know," Zack said, with the air of someone changing the subject in almost desperation. "It's not illegal."

Sephiroth felt the tension in his hands loosen, and smoothed his palms over his thighs as he pondered the very odd change. "He's a cadet," he countered, and thought back abruptly to Zack's mention of him needing a 'boyfriend' the night before, and his suspicions that Zack had been trying to infer the blond as the one for that role.

He didn't need to infer it - it's bad enough that you were thinking of him at all when you were with Zack. All logic dictates that you should stay clear of Cloud Strife, not least the fact that you haven't managed to get an explanation from him about why you had a vision of running him through with the Masamune. Why, then, do you still insist on harbouring this petty fascination with him?

Zack was giving him a - surprisingly bold - disbelieving look. The implication was blatant in the twist to his features, and if Zack had truly had no basis at all for giving him that kind of glare, Sephiroth would have lost his temper. The defensiveness was there, and he let it show in his expression, making it deliberately closed off again, but mostly he was irritated that Zack obviously found it so easy to see what Sephiroth was thinking when the older man couldn't do the same in reverse.

"It's his birthday in a few days," Zack said. "And pretty soon he won't be a cadet anymore, so it doesn't matter anyway."

"And what is that supposed to mean?" Sephiroth had known the night before that Zack wouldn't say it openly at that time, would leave it to implication and inference only, but right then, he wasn't sure that that still applied.

"You know full well what it means." Zack leaned back against the door fully, raising his hands in exasperation. So, Sephiroth thought, still playing it safe by not saying it explicitly. Wise, I'd agree. "And that's all you need to know," the shorter man continued, "except for the fact that there's nothing wrong with it, and you have my encouragement."

'Nothing wrong with' -? How can he say that? Cloud's only just turning sixteen...

He wondered, as Zack gave him a long look that left no room for argument, when that niggling, growing emotion in him regarding Cloud - attraction? whatever you wanted to label it - had become so concrete a thing as far as they were concerned. There was no uncertainty in Zack's words or in his face. It seemed that, as far as the other SOLDIER was concerned, it simply Was.

Those were the worst feelings to have, because they were the ones that tended to linger.

He was unwilling to ponder whether Zack was on the right lines with his deductions. As far as he was concerned, the situation demanded that he become no more aware of it than he was - it was to stay, at worst, as the coiling tension that started low in his belly and rose, lighter, up to his chest, or the way that he found himself thinking, sometimes, about the bare join of neck and shoulder he'd caught a glimpse of the day he'd passed the cadets exiting the showers.

"There's only so much you can imply before I take exception to it," Sephiroth said softly, narrowing his eyes. He dug his fingers into his kneecaps at the sullen, offended look Zack sent him response. "I'd advise," and he bit out the words, "that you stop before you go too far."

"As a friend, Seph," Zack placated in an equally soft voice. "I'm telling you this as a friend, because I want to help you. I want to help you both."

And how could encouraging me to pursue Strife help him, Zack? I don't have time for someone who barely knows me - that thought jarred, the instinctive reaction in him to place that as a lie: Cloud did know him, somehow - or who I barely know either. What good is it to either of us?

Involuntarily, a hot, brief memory of the dream assaulted him - how, with Cloud's cheeks beneath his palms and breathing in the blond's warmth as they'd kissed, he'd felt more...more at home...than he ever had with any other partner before.

Zack had also never encouraged him with a person before, he mused. Zack had shown rather a large amount of disdain for the other men Sephiroth had been with. It hadn't been jealousy - Zack didn't want him enough to feel that. Just a plain, honest dislike.

And those had been people he hadn't known. Cloud was someone that Zack knew a lot better than Sephiroth did, and he was still pushing the idea of something happening between them?

No! I won't let him do this to me - even if he's not really a child, I still...

He's too close to being just a boy. It's just that last stage, where you know they're really young men, but in your mind you can still see them at thirteen or fourteen. It's a dangerous line - plenty would be less than understanding if they found out anything...

So the question is, do you want to tread that line again or not?

"...But anyways," Zack said into the silence, quietly, "Cloud's recovering okay. He's gone to class today. I just warned the instructors to let him take it easy, otherwise he's likely to end up back in the infirmary."

Wrenched from his thoughts, Sephiroth frowned across the room. "What did they do with Ratchett? Surely they're not keeping him in the same class."

"Nothing they can do except keep them on opposite sides of the room," Zack replied. He pushed himself away from the wall, as if sensing the dissipation of tension, and came towards Sephiroth's desk. "Ratchett's on guard duty every other night until exams are over, and he's assigned shitloads of extra duties like you wouldn't believe." Zack's slightly sadistic tone echoed Sephiroth's train of thought: that it wasn't exactly an undeserving punishment. "But he won't say why he did it. Arrogant little bastard, I tell you. I recognised him, though," the dark-haired man went on, perching himself on the edge of the desk. He had his palm planted in the centre to lean his weight on, and Sephiroth stared at it, for a moment seeing paler skin and grass instead of the wooden desktop.

Stop it, stop it now.

"He was there that night I managed to convince you to come out with us," continued the other SOLDIER. "Hanging all over us. Thought we wouldn't notice that because he looked older we wouldn't work out he wasn't a SOLDIER. He didn't stay long." He sent a mock-accusing look at his superior. "Not that you stayed long either, Mr. Boring-Party-Pooper."

Sephiroth felt himself grow cold, thinking back on that night and the rather vivid impression that Cloud's attacker had left on him. He continued to stare at Zack's hand, how the tendons moved beneath his tanned skin as he shifted his weight. "If you'd like," he said to Zack's knuckles, "I can speak to him - I can deal with arrogance better than you can."

"Only 'cause it's like chucking stones at a fuckin' fortress."

"I'll take that as a compliment."

"Take it whatever way you want."

       

The morning of Cloud's birthday was heralded by a loud yelp as Cloud was pounced on by Zack. Considering that it was before six in the morning, he got several pillows thrown at him and was forced to go back to bed for a few more hours before he was allowed to do anything else.

"Zack, why the fuck are you up at this time on a Saturday?" Cloud had muttered blearily, saving his other pillow so that he could pull it over his head to try and block out Zack's sunny cheerfulness.

"'Cause it's your birthday! The big 1-6!" was the helpful reply. The older man was kneeling on the bed, somehow managing to wedge his frame comfortably between Cloud and the scraping, broken wires of the bunk above. Cloud was sprawled out on his front, fingers digging into the pillow he was using to drown Zack out. Only a few tufts of blond were visible sticking out.

"And it'll still be the 'big 1-6' in a few hours time. Go away."

There was a vague disturbance as Zack tried to wheedle his way into being able to sleep with Cloud (mostly to wind the blond up, and partly because he was too lazy to climb back up the bunk ladder) but ended up back in his own bed. When Cloud crawled out of bed just after nine to get into the shower, Zack's snoring was drowning out any other noise in the room.

He locked the door to the bathroom, and double checked everything to make sure Zack hadn't fixed anything as a birthday prank. He was half-expecting the man to jump into the shower at some point (which was why he'd locked the door), based on the fact that Zack's pranks were often sexually-inclined. Thankfully, he was allowed to shower in peace, letting the warm water flow over him for as long as he dared. There was also the chance that Zack would do something to his things whilst he wasn't looking. He couldn't actually remember much of this day, except for what Zack had decided to get for him.

There was a box waiting on his bed when he came out of the shower, surrounded by a few other small packages. Zack was nowhere in the room to be found. He remembered this from so many years ago, how he'd sat on the bed and opened these presents, joyful and touched. He moved the presents carefully as he sat down this time around, and picked out the one he knew to be from his mother. He was still surprised that she had managed to send this - they were poor enough as it was, and shipping from one continent to another was expensive.

He slowly began to unwrap the pliant parcel, careful not to rip the paper. Clothes, he saw. The black, soft wool jumper had been a favourite thing of his to wear when he'd received it. He ran his fingers reverently over the warm, slightly fuzzy material. There was a note inside, and he picked it up to read the few simple words there: Dear Cloud, Happy Birthday! I'm sad that I can't see you so grown up. I hope this fits. You always complain that it's cold in Midgar no matter what month it is, and you always did like roll necks. Love, Mother.

Cloud smiled warmly, glad that he could still feel that love for his mother, even though they had never been particularly close. She had never known him the way that most mothers seemed to know their children. He remembered their conversation in Nibelheim, about her wish that he get a girlfriend, and no matter how many times he said that he didn't want a girlfriend, she didn't think it strange enough to ask why.

There were a few other presents from the people in the same dorm area as him, just small, inconsequential things that he treasured anyway, and then he grinned at the wrapped box, taking it up excitedly. He made sure not to rip the paper again, and smiled widely at the jewellery box before opening it.

There was a note, and a single silver stud nestled in the velvet, winking up at him. The note said, 'Time to enter the realm of men, and get a gun put to your head! Your appointment is for 2:30pm, so make sure you're ready in here to go by 1:30. Love, Zack.'

He pulled a pair of smart black slacks and a belt out of his trunk, took the roll neck and went to get changed. The roll neck was thin enough that he wouldn't swelter in Midgar's mild 'summer', and close-fitting without being too tight. He admired himself in the full-length mirror after he'd messed vaguely with his hair. It was probably just the way he was dressed, but he looked older, somehow, more like the self that he was used to seeing in his reflection.

When I get into SOLDIER, I won't be a boy anymore at all, he thought, And then Sephiroth has no reason not to at least listen to me. Maybe, even, if he sees me like this, he'll think I'm less of a child...

Cloud felt somewhat handsome for one of the first times in his life, and he stared at himself for a while longer, imagining how much better he'd look and feel when he got his earring back.

He didn't know how long he'd been standing there, but suddenly there was a knock on the open door and a voice saying, "Someone's looking good today."

When Cloud looked, he could see Zack in the mirror, looking him over. He didn't think Zack had ever seen him dress smartly before. He spun around in a circle, arms held out from his sides, and said, "What do you think?"

Zack laughed softly, smiling, crossing his arms and leaning against the doorframe. "Forgive me if I say, a) black suits you, and b) good enough to eat."

"You think so?" Cloud looked back at himself in the mirror critically. He wished that he could make himself taller. He was too short for a man - he would only lose the last vestiges of his boyhood when he fully developed the stockier build that Zack sported, and that would only really come after five years of Mako treatment at Hojo's hands.

"Don't tell me you've been deciding that all morning," Zack said, rolling his eyes but not moving from the doorway. "I didn't expect to find you here until later, when we got you jewellery-fied in Sector 5."

"Thanks for that, though," Cloud said softly, meeting his friend's eyes in the glass. "I've always wanted an earring."

"Yes, well, from my expert's point of view, I can safely say that you'd suit one. And it would complete your look for today - you'll have people jumping you left, right and centre, believe me." Zack winked at him playfully.

"Good enough for a birthday, then..." Cloud mused aloud, and smiled at his reflection. Somehow, the smile that he'd always considered too goofy looked just right on him. Do you think even Sephiroth could fall for this? he wondered, and for the first time the feeling that blossomed in response contained hope.

       

Zack hadn't been joking about Ratchett's amount of guard duty. Sephiroth found the blond posted at one of the back entrances - like the one where he'd first taken that glimmer of interest in Cloud's abilities, and why did everything come back to him, anyway? The cadet was sitting down, back to the wall and his rifle between his knees, muttering to himself about the unfairness of the situation.

Sephiroth allowed his expression to turn to a disgusted scowl. How he'd ever mistaken this boy - and this one was a boy - to be an adult, he would never know, and hopefully no-one would ever find out to ask the same question.

He came forward, out of the shadows, and it still took a while before Ratchett noticed his presence. It bothered him - he could care less about security, and it wasn't that he was an attention-seeker, as it were. Instead, it was that he found that he'd rather this were the night he'd come in from one of the President's missions, his cheek bloody and his body aching, and the blond boy on guard able to feel him and acknowledge his presence even when he'd made no attempt to make himself known.

The emotion was jumbled up in his chest, a mess of other things connected, but he knew what he meant.

He saw Ratchett's eyes catch onto his movement, and the boy reared up, startled. "Sephiroth!"

"At ease," Sephiroth said, and stopped, keeping himself a good few metres away. There was no desire for proximity on his part, at least, though he saw Ratchett look him over, the same thing in his eyes that there had been on Zack's idiotic night out. "First of all, if you're posted on guard duty, do some guarding." Again, not that he cared, but his aggravation towards the cadet needed an outlet of some kind. "Second of all, if you touch Cloud, or any other cadet, again, I would have to make life here for you very difficult if you wouldn't have already been chucked back to whatever backwater town you come from."

He hadn't meant for it to come out quite like that. He'd had that line all prepared in his head and it hadn't come when he'd asked for it. But Ratchett's eyes widened, chastened for a moment, so it had the same effect.

It didn't last long. "So are you fucking him, too?"

"There is no 'too'," Sephiroth snapped. He could feel his chest going tight with anger. "There is no 'fucking'. There is nothing, and the only one who has any problem accepting that is you, it seems. And if you speak like that to me again, you won't have the chance to give some other person a concussion, because I'll kick you out myself."

His mouth was running away with him, he thought distractedly. His mouth never ran away with him.

Ratchett was silent but sneering.

       

Hojo's lab was surprisingly bare and uncluttered on the Monday when the cadets lined up for the Mako test. Cloud stood in line nervously, looking around and feeling frozen all over. He remembered it being full of boxes and assorted scientific equipment from his travels as part of AVALANCHE, but most of that had either been cleared away or hadn't even entered the lab at this point in history. Cloud wondered how much of that stuff had had to do with the Jenova Project.

He'd moved on from the spot since then, but he'd had to stand by the container that might very soon contain Jenova's head for a while, and had felt decidedly sick. His stomach was still churning, though, and the smell of the lab - all of Hojo's had smelled the same, a faint of something like old, stale blood and chemicals, but not quite - was putting his nerves further on edge.

Five years spent in a lab a lot like this was enough to make anyone feel queasy.

Reno was in the line ahead of him, the cadets having been put in alphabetical order, and had already received his injection with no problems. Cloud had been able to see from his standing point, as he'd been watching every cadet ahead of him. Reno had watched Hojo slide the needle into his arm, unconcerned despite Cloud's slip about what Hojo got up to. Everyone had had to take their shirt off so that Hojo could put attach medical pads connected to a machine, presumably to take the measurements that would deem them suitable for Mako treatment or not. Hojo would also give a lot of the cadets a long, calculating once-over, which Cloud didn't find reassuring at all.

Cloud didn't know if Hojo had planned Sephiroth's descent into insanity at Nibelheim, but if he had (and Cloud couldn't really see another reason for sending Sephiroth to the reactor where Jenova lay if not for the purposes of the project) then he had a reasonable idea of what Hojo was looking for.

He balked at the thought, wondering what had been in him that had landed him on that mission. What would happen if he didn't find it this time around, and some other boy was sent in his place? Cloud frowned, watching as another cadet settled down into the chair beside the lab equipment set out for the test, Hojo standing impatiently as he waited to attach the pads.

Hojo didn't really look any younger, Cloud noticed. His hair was still greasy, still long and pulled into the ponytail, his skin still that pallid, off-white colour that spoke of too many days spent inside. Cloud liked to think that it reflected Hojo's inner-sickness, the evil that festered inside and had completely eaten away at any humanity that he might have once had.

He supposed that Hojo had had something redeeming in him many years ago for Lucrecia to have married him. And Lucrecia had been human enough to keep Vincent's heart for so many years.

Thinking of Vincent cast his mind to their last meeting. He wondered if Vincent had told the others of their conversation, or about Sephiroth's gravestone, or if they had found him on the mountain. He hoped his other body hadn't died of exposure if they hadn't, though he doubted that that would kill him, even if he thought that the Ancients weren't watching over him.

That was if coming here hadn't killed his body anyway, and the Cetra's intentions had been for him to stay in this time instead. Looking at Hojo as they shuffled ever closer, he sincerely prayed that that wasn't the case. If he failed and Sephiroth lost his mind to Jenova once more, and Cloud ended up back in the lab, he wouldn't survive again. He'd find a way out if Hojo didn't kill him first, Planet and AVALANCHE be damned. He was under no illusions of his character - he wasn't strong enough to endure it a second time.

"Strife, Cloud."

He looked up from where he'd been idly watching the floor in his absent-mindedness, startled to find that they'd shuffled forward so far and he was now being called up. Eyes darting a little, he could see Hojo standing by the chair, watching him. As Cloud watched, he saw Hojo's eyes screw up a little in concentration as he, in turn, regarded the blond.

He tried to make himself look confident as he approached, but felt like he was walking to his own certain death. Hojo motioned for him to take off his shirt, and, fumbling a little with the buttons, Cloud did so.

He half expected there to be some kind of immature snickering behind him as he revealed his chest, but there was none. Maybe they were all as frightened as he was, deep down - or maybe there just wasn't as much about him to laugh about as there had once been. Maybe he wasn't quite as scrawny as he imagined he was.

All that training's got to be building up some musculature, silly boy, he chastised himself absently as he turned and sat in the chair. It was only slightly warm from other people's body heat. Now you can actually handle a sword right, you'll have been building up a bit more than you were before - you liked the look of yourself in the mirror on your birthday, didn't you? Don't you think a skinny-fit sweatshirt like that would show that you were scrawny if you were?

Cloud wasn't used to thinking good things about his body, especially now that he'd returned to the time before Nibelheim. It was at once exhilarating and frightening.

He was jerked out of his desperate reverie by the feel of the cold medical pads being stuck to different areas of his torso, and the shivery feeling of Hojo's fingers against his skin, pulling it taught where he was sitting so that the pads would stick properly. He tried not to shudder away from the shorter man, did not look up at him either, and tried to think of something else to distract him whilst Hojo finished touching him.

Sephiroth. Sephiroth and his new earring. Yes, that would do -

He hadn't seen much of Sephiroth over the past days at all, ever since that morning in the infirmary. He realised that he was sort of used to the older man flitting in and out of his new life, and the absence had been felt keenly. He realised that, as he'd been wandering the halls, or coming back from the showers, he'd been keeping an eye out for a flash of silver and black or the feel of green eyes on him from somewhere, but it hadn't come. He also realised that his fear of catching Sephiroth's attention was lessening in place of a new anticipatory feeling - he'd been disappointed when he hadn't seen Sephiroth around. Disappointed when Sephiroth's attention hadn't been on him.

"Lift up your arm, please," Hojo's voice entered his haze, cold and calculating as usual. Automatically, he did so.

Getting the earring done hadn't hurt, but he'd known it wouldn't. There had been a swift, sharp sting as the gun had pressed the stud through his ear, but it was only a momentary thing and after that, he couldn't really feel anything different from normal. Zack had been grinning at him with his long, handsome face, his dark eyes crinkled up at the edges. "Tooooold you it would suit you," he'd said as the jeweller had held up a mirror for him to see the glinting in his left lobe. He smiled at his reflection, and realised that he felt more like his old self in that moment than he had for a long time, but it was a good thing.

And then, on the way back to the dorm room, feeling oddly giddy and happy, they'd passed Sephiroth.

Cloud winced and flinched a little in the chair as Hojo slid the needle into his arm. He glanced up at the syringe, at the sickly green Mako and how the plunger pushed it down and down and down into his arm. He could feel the pressure of the Mako being pushed into his veins, and bit his lip.

On the afternoon of Cloud's birthday, Sephiroth had been passing with paperwork to the downstairs office for them to take off of him (so he'd told them). They'd stopped in the corridor, and Zack hadn't exactly screamed out, "Look at Cloud! Look at Cloud!" but he'd still made Cloud's presence more noticeable. The sling of an arm around his shoulders as he'd rattled on about something or other had drawn Sephiroth's polite gaze from Zack to Cloud by the movement, and he had had the distinct pleasure of a most definite look over from the older man.

Yes! part of him had screamed, somehow managing to drown out the other part which had been most definitely nervous of that look. Not that it had even been a specific Look - it didn't mean anything, but as Sephiroth had taken in the pressed black trousers and roll neck, and then come back to study the glint of the earring, he'd seen something change, and felt it.

"Happy Birthday, Cloud," Sephiroth had said in his low, smooth voice, and Cloud had smiled at him, hoping that it looked as handsome on him then as it had in the mirror earlier.

Sitting in the chair in Hojo's lab, Cloud jerked as he felt the first stab of pain go through him, feeling the obscene, sluggish burn travelling from his arm as the Mako began to spread. He bit his lip harder as Hojo pulled the needle out and quickly swabbed the skin before placing a quick, efficient dressing to it. He then turned to the computer screen readouts as Cloud fought against a low hiss of pain.

No, this is exactly as it was before...Why did Aeris not change this for me? Surely it would have been better to make me more tolerant - maybe she overlooked it, but goddamn the real thing is gonna hurt like a bitch when it comes to them -

"Hmm," Hojo murmured, and Cloud raised his head from where he was watching his fingertips turn white where he had pressed them against the dressing. His vision swam ever so slightly from the speed at which he snapped his head up, and for a moment, the familiar Mako burn and the smell of the lab caused the cold silver metal walls to become dark - bookshelves, from floor to ceiling, but just as cold, because they were underground, underneath the Mansion -

And, Cloud remembered, struggling to pull back that more joyous memory from his birthday, though Sephiroth hadn't smiled back at him, his face had softened and lost all its traces of unfriendliness. As they'd parted ways, Zack had laughed to himself and said, "So only when it comes to you will he listen to me, after all." Cloud had no idea what he was talking about, but Zack's light-hearted attitude gave him the impression that it was also a good thing.

"High reactivity to Mako," Hojo continued, though Cloud didn't know whether it was just to himself or not. "Perhaps slightly too high...but passable." He then turned from the computer to Cloud, fixing the blond with his cold stare. "You have a borderline pass. You may enter the exams. Congratulations." The last word seemed like the wrong thing to say, and Hojo's voice lent it a tone that spoke of sarcasm without actually being sarcasm.

Cloud closed his eyes in relief.

       

Zack found him, that evening, trying to scrub himself raw in the shower, the water turned up much hotter than it normally would have been. The blond's skin had gone red all over, and the bathroom had been full of steam, and Cloud had been sniffling faintly from the shower stall, where he'd been determinedly scrubbing at his knees when Zack had first approached. He hadn't noticed Zack until the dark-haired man had reached in and turned the shower off, and smothered him in a huge, soft bath towel to lead him out.

"Hey, come on, Cloud," he murmured gently to the trembling blond, "don't get upset. It's alright, I promise, it'll get better..."

When he'd entered SOLDIER, Zack remembered that everyone had hated the actual Mako showers. They tended to make people feel violently sick afterwards, and most SOLDIERs were given two or three days off after a treatment to recover.

Cloud would need the full three, he thought morosely as he sat the cadet down on the edge of his bed and went about searching for something loose of his own that Cloud could sleep in that night. He settled for a pair of his boxers, deciding that any kind of shirt or top would just be too scratchy or itching to wear. Cloud had barely moved, shaking where he sat with his eyes half-closed, oblivious.

He managed to get Cloud to stand up and dried him off carefully before awkwardly sliding his boxers up Cloud's legs to rest on his hips. The blond hadn't protested at all, just watched him quietly, the breath hitching in his chest when Zack touched his sensitised skin.

He was about to get Cloud into bed when the blond said, "I might be a borderline pass, but I still got in. I can still get into SOLDIER."

Zack bit his lip, unable to look at Cloud's face, and wondered if the pain that was coming Cloud's way because of this could truly be worth that kind of devoted single-mindedness.

 

 

 

End Chapter 11.

1) I think Sephiroth is slightly OOC in some parts (though we really know very little about his actual, sane personality), but I don't know... He's confused, poor boy. And Ratchett makes him feel bitchy (Ratchett is there for a reason, though he's not awfully important. He just...sets the ball rolling in Part 1, as it were.)

2) I told ShinigamiAya that this fic could quite easily go off into Zack/Cloud - I think, though, at the moment, it could really end up in any combination of the three. Oh, if only I wasn't so conventional about my shounen-ai and loved S/C so much...But I so want Zack to be happy, too!

3) Zack waking Cloud up - I think they got momentarily possessed by Tsuzuki and Hisoka. Complete with puppy-ears-and-tail versus Hisoka-Frown-Of-Doom.™


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