Disclaimer: See Chapter One.

Author's sincere apology: I'm so sorry this took so long. This was due to many factors (collectively called LIFE), but I did not want to rush this through and give you something that wasn't the best that I could do. You all stick with me through these long waits so it's the least I can do. Even so, I don't like this chapter so much, even though things are beginning to progress now.

(Major thanks must actually go to L'arcenCiel, actually, whose music kept me sane when writing this, what with everything else going on with me as it was at the time!)


Part One - Chapter 12

By Knowing Shadows


Sephiroth sat staring at the phone on his cleared desk, tapping his gloved fingers on the dark wood as he watched the shiny black receiver. He'd been doing this for a little while, indecisive, and there was nothing he hated more than indecision. Zack had not turned up for work, which was unusual. He'd also not informed anyone of why he hadn't turned up, which was even more unusual.

Usually he'd let his secretary sort that out, but he'd rather hear from Zack himself, he thought to himself. He'd rather find out first hand that nothing was wrong…

What on the Planet could be wrong, though? Why, this time, was he thinking like this? It had been a long time since Zack had last missed work - when it came to SOLDIER, Zack was surprisingly reliable - but there had to more than that behind his worry. He couldn't really work out what it was, though. Maybe he knew something had been scheduled for the other day concerning the dark-haired man but couldn't now think of it...but what would it be that he could forget it?

He sighed and straightened in his chair, stopped tapping and smoothed his gloved hands over his thighs. He took a deep breath through his nose and felt calmer. Why he was getting worked up was beyond him - it was unlike him, he knew that, but at the same time he hadn't really felt like himself for a while anyway.

He didn't like feeling like this. His carefully controlled order was being disrupted piece by piece and he couldn't stop it.

Perhaps Zack had just slept late by accident. It wasn't unknown.

Sephiroth shook his head and brushed a stray few strands of hair behind his ear, letting a long breath out. He should just call Zack and get it over with rather than sitting there agonising over nothing - that was odd, too, the fact that he hadn't just picked up the phone and demanded that Zack get his lazy ass into work.

Irritated at that, he picked up the receiver abruptly and held it to his ear, reaching over to put in the number of the room where Zack stayed - Cloud's number also, he realised.

For God's sake, you're ridiculous!

He concentrated on the harsh monotone of the ringing in his ear and supported the phone by his shoulder, leafing through the files in front of him so that he could pretend that he'd been busy the whole while rather than sitting there staring at his phone for the past however-long-it-was.

Sephiroth realised, when Zack picked up at the other end after five rings, that he hadn't really expected the man to be there.

"Hello?" Zack said, not sounding at all like a man knowing he was supposed to be at work.

"Hello," Sephiroth replied flatly, slipping into his 'I'm-not-impressed' voice without even trying.

There was a pause as Zack realised who it was, and then, "Ah. Hi."

Sephiroth waited, not saying anything. The best way to make someone uncomfortable was to say nothing. He knew very well that he was exuding anger down the phoneline by doing nothing at all, which tended to work better than anything else when intimidating people.

"Look, Seph, I'm sorry I didn't let you know that I wasn't going to be there." Zack sounded vaguely sheepish, but not as much as Sephiroth had been expecting. "But I didn't know until this morning, and then I had other things on my mind."

"Such as?" Sephiroth lay his hands flat on the desk across the papers, admiring the stark contrast between the paper and the leather of his gloves. On a whim, he stripped off the gloves and lay his hands out flat again, palm down, examining the long fingers and pale, smooth skin. He rarely looked at his hands - he hated them. There was the tattoo, so black against the near-white of his skin that it seemed to burn on the back of his eyes every time he saw it, mocking him when he closed his eyes only to see it still. Someone had once told him he had pianist's hands, and he hated that too because he wished that that was the only thing these hands had ever done.

After a pause, Zack continued, "The cadets had their Mako trials yesterday. It seems that Cloud is sensitive. So I'm looking after him this morning."

Something cold clasped his chest for a moment, brief and sharp. "Is he all right?"

"He wasn't last night. I found him trying to steam himself to death in the shower. He slept all night, though, so I suppose it's not that bad if he could do that. He's still asleep now. I didn't want to wake him up. I informed his instructors what had happened and they said it couldn't be helped."

Sephiroth nodded, eyelids falling closed a little way as the tension in him eased at the assurance. "Did Hojo pass him, though, despite that?"

"Yes." It came short and sharp and displeased, and Sephiroth knew to some extent how Zack felt - Cloud had worked so hard these last few weeks only to have this setback, as well as the fact that once he got into SOLDIER the hardship would only just begin. Sephiroth knew exactly how much Mako showers hurt just for non-sensitive people.

"Well, there's not really anything we can do, it's up to him," Zack continued quietly, not sounding pleased at all with that thought. "Sorry I didn't let you know before, like I said."

"...I understand." And he did - and knowing that he did was a sharp, bittersweet pain.

"I'm not gonna stay with him all day, just to let you know. It's just until I'm sure he's okay. We've got to go and see what's-his-face in the other building today for finalising the exam dates and stuff, don't we? You could come down and meet me here and then we can go off and see about that. It's only a little bit out of the way." Zack sounded entirely reasonable - he often did - but still, Sephiroth couldn't help but be suspicious of Zack wanting him to be in the same room as Cloud. He wasn't really certain that he wanted to see a sick Cloud at all - who knew what that would provoke in him?

"...I'll be there soon," Sephiroth said softly into the receiver, and was already replacing it to its cradle when Zack's delighted, "Great!" rang down the line.


Sephiroth had half-expected Zack to be lying when he got there - Cloud wasn't sick at all, just an excuse to get them in the same room - but he wasn't. When he slid quietly in the door, he could hear Zack's voice urging Cloud to try and get some sleep rather than attempting to get up.

"For Shiva's sake, I'm fine," Cloud muttered stubbornly. "I just…I just need to get in the shower."

Sephiroth closed the door silently, keeping to the side so that he could observe them for a moment without either knowing he had arrived. He could see Zack standing by a bunk, hands on his hips as he glared down at the figure he couldn't see entirely. He could see Cloud's bare legs over the edge of the bed and frowned at the firm curve of muscle that was the blond's pale, near calf, shifting his weight uneasily. He watched as Cloud bounced his knees nervously, heels lifting up from the floor to do so, and found himself staring at the defined arches of the cadet's feet.

"Yeah, and do what?" Zack said somewhat scathingly. "Trying to boil yourself alive like you were yesterday? You must have been in there for hours."

Cloud didn't say anything, but leaned forward. Sephiroth could see him place his hands over his knees and the top of his head bent over them. He could just make out the bare flesh of one hunched shoulder from where he stood. The blond couldn't be naked, could he? But he dismissed the thought, even though he knew how much Mako-sensitised skin was prone to itching and irritation.

"I feel…" Cloud eventually murmured into the quiet, "I just feel dirty. I just want a shower. That's all. I swear. I'll be five minutes, and you can drag me out after that if you think I'm doing anything wrong. Please."

Zack sighed, looking at the floor as he tapped one foot thoughtfully. Then he nodded, and Cloud uttered a grateful "thank you" in his low voice before standing. Zack moved out of his way to let him pass, barely giving the long legs and slim bared torso a second glance as the blond walked past.

Sephiroth couldn't help but think about how, in comparison, Zack's naked skin didn't bother him in the slightest as he followed Cloud's retreating back. The blond weaved a little as he walked, as if slightly unsteady. The boxers he was wearing - the only thing he was wearing - rode low on his hips, as if they were a little too big on him, and Sephiroth realised that they must have been Zack's, used precisely because their size would be less likely to irritate the blond's skin. Whilst he wasn't as defined as the SOLDIERs, the basis of that musculature was definitely there, leaving him pleasantly toned rather than 'built.'

There was only a young man in that frame, he thought. There was no 'boy' in the breadth of his shoulders or in the firm, lean stomach.

He realised, leaning back against the door, that the blond's physical appearance had been one of the last walls of his protests, and that it had just fallen down in a rather spectacular manner.

"I can't believe he didn't notice you were there," came Zack's voice suddenly, and it wasn't until he looked over sharply that he realised his eyes had been firmly planted on the closed bathroom door, behind which Cloud now stood. "I think the Mako fucked up his Sephiroth-Precision-Radar."

Sephiroth lifted his lip in a faint sneer at the smug look on Zack's face, but pushed himself up off the door to cross the room. "I think you're being overprotective. He looked fine enough to me."

"Mm, fiiiine indeed," Zack leered, licking his lips and laughing out loud when Sephiroth shot him a warning look. The black-haired man lifted his hands, snickering as he said, "Okay, okay, I'll back off, he's all yours…"

"That's not what I…" He trailed off, because Zack would just laugh at him some more, and because he wasn't sure if it would be the truth. He shook his head instead, leaving Zack still grinning inanely at him. It would do no good to banter with Zack over this - the black-haired man's joking manner was probably the least helpful thing for him right now, and the most likely thing to irritate him. He would have preferred that Zack had some of Cloud's quiet, solemn aura that drew him so much; would have felt more comfortable trying to untangle that growing mess of emotions in him with someone like that, if Cloud hadn't been at the centre of that mass to begin with.

It's too fast coming on, too fast…faster all the more because you don't know him and the untouchable is always the most desirable…

They heard the shower being turned on from behind the bathroom door. They both glanced over at the noise, though it wasn't loud, and they couldn't see anything. Zack frowned and bit his lip slightly, worrying the skin as Sephiroth watched him. To see such a reaction in Zack made his gut twist a little, and his brows furrowed as he closed the distance between them a little. "Is he not as fine as he seems, then?"

Zack met his eyes for a moment, and then shrugged. "I don't know…" He sighed, defeated. "I just can't tell with him, sometimes. I'm just worried that Hojo passed him anyway, I mean…Mako sensitive isn't a brilliant thing to be if you're a SOLDIER…"

"And he still wants to be in SOLDIER?" Sephiroth looked from Zack to the bathroom door and back again, his frown still in place.

Zack laughed uneasily, morosely. "You have no idea."

His frown deepened at Zack's sudden change in mood. He crossed his arms over his chest, hooking a thumb under one of his chest straps. The leather of his glove was warm against his skin. He wore these gloves too much, he supposed. "He's very determined," he said aloud. "And I don't doubt he'll get in."

"It would devastate him if he didn't," Zack said softly. He held up his hands helplessly. "He gets worse and worse, you know? He's totally obsessed…"

"You're worried about his mental condition?" Sephiroth raised an eyebrow, genuinely surprised. This was the first he'd heard of any such concerns - and from Zack, who knew him best? Granted, something about Cloud gave off that vague sense of fragility, but nothing so bad that he had really picked up on it before.

Zack was looking back at the closed bathroom door, his frown still set in place. He moved to sit on the lower bunk where Cloud had been when Sephiroth had entered, and something in that movement settled uneasily with him. He watched and waited for an answer, unwilling to push when Zack seemed so obviously - suddenly - serious. He wasn't sure if he was ready to hear what Zack had to say anyway.

"I wouldn't say he has any real problems," the dark-haired man said eventually. "Nothing that I can really pinpoint anyway. I don't know…I haven't really thought about it. It's just…after he had the Mako trial, all he could say when I found him was about how he was going to get into SOLDIER…and I thought…I thought, 'how can he be this determined when it causes him so much pain'? It just doesn't seem right. He doesn't deserve to be hurt so badly when he's already worked so hard to improve himself these past few months."

Sephiroth did not mention Zack's apparent dismissal of any suspicion regarding Cloud's miraculous "improvement," but watched him for a long time, mulling over what to say. They heard the shower being turned off in the silence, and Cloud's apparent willingness to stick to the agreed time seemed to ease some of the tension in Zack.

"I think he was hurt when he was younger," Zack said suddenly, steadfastly watching the door and refusing to look at Sephiroth as he said it, as if he wasn't sure he should be sharing his thoughts. "I don't know how or why, but I think he was. And he's trying so hard to get into SOLDIER because it'll make him feel worthy again."

Another brief silence as they both pondered how appropriate it was to have aired that particular theory, and then Sephiroth murmured, "I think so, too."

There was, after all, that particularly fine quality to Cloud's features and pale skin that lent itself so beautifully to being ripped apart at the seams.

I was the same…I was exactly the same…I bruised so easily, used to break so easily, until I realised that no-one was going to save me and I made myself cold to it all…

"I just can't bear to think of him being hurt that bad," Zack continued softly. He was still staring at the door. "I don't want to be right about this, Sephiroth. He's my friend. He doesn't deserve to be hurt anymore."

Sephiroth didn't know how to respond to that, so he didn't, though he felt the same pain in his own chest as Zack did. He didn't know how to express it the right way.

His friend turned to look at him then, and it startled Sephiroth to find all that attention suddenly focused on him. "That's why I think you could help each other," he said, and, still surprised, Sephiroth could find no answer to that either. He looked away, uncomfortable, and wondered why friendship was reputed to be such a good thing when a friend's knowledge of you could sting so much.

Trust was the thing. Once you allowed yourself that measure, there were no more barriers, and a person could do with you what they liked. Sephiroth hated that feeling. He needed the security which distance provided.

Had he let Zack too close after all? He suspected as much, sometimes, but was never sure - Zack had never betrayed him in a way that he could recognise, but this -

"I don't know what you expect of me, Zack," he said, softly, watching the bathroom door for signs of Cloud's emergence. "And I don't understand why you are so fixated on Cloud and myself becoming…" He trailed off, unable to finish, because there was still that strange vagueness to the discussion if it had not yet been named - somehow, he could still escape the ramifications of it if it wasn't verbally defined. He didn't know what to call it, anyway; he only knew that Zack had latched onto it and suddenly he was being forced to confront the strange tightening behind his ribs and Name it.

What would he do once Zack decided it needed Definition?

Why could Zack not leave it alone?

"Huh," Zack said quietly, and he was also watching the door. "You know, that's the first time you've actually admitted that it's him."

Sephiroth went still for a moment, Zack could see it out of the corner of his eye, and then turned a little to retort, "I'm beginning to tire of you pushing this on me. Before you decided to make a deal of it, I was doing fine ignoring - "

The bathroom door swung open, cutting Sephiroth off. His head snapped up at the sound of the hinges, and wide blue eyes were staring at him from the doorway. The blond's lips were slightly parted, as if he'd planned to start saying something as soon as he'd come through but stopped. His hair was standing in damp and matted bedraggled spikes, and he was clutching a towel in front of him - he was still in Zack's boxers and nothing else. They stared at each other for a moment, and then Cloud's gaze shifted questioningly to Zack and back again.

Zack reclined back on his elbows leisurely, as if to make a point that he'd derive a lot of amusement out of their awkwardness. "Seph can't do without me at work," the black-haired man said haughtily, grinning. "Came to find me, you see. Just can't bear not to see me."

Cloud seemed to have regained some of his wits by then, and Sephiroth watched him roll his eyes. The expression warmed him, he found, reminded him that there was a lot about Cloud he hadn't yet seen beyond the frightened awe.

"I'll bet," the blond said then, meaning to sound joking, but he looked at Sephiroth as he spoke, and his eyes were anything but.

Sephiroth's eyebrows drew together a little, and Cloud caught the expression. He seemed startled that the older man had registered the apparent undertone, biting his lip. Unsure of what to make of it, Sephiroth kept his expression as it was, until Cloud eventually looked away and murmured that he'd better get dressed and go to training.

They watched him leave in silence once he had dressed in the bathroom, Sephiroth's eyes involuntarily lingering on the curve of the dip in the blond's lower back as he disappeared around the door. He closed his eyes and sighed.

It was too fast. Too sudden.

Eventually, Zack said from the bed, "He knows about us. I think he knows about what happened in the officer's bathroom the other day, though I don't want to ask to make sure."

"Did you tell him?" Sephiroth turned from the door, not angry but not entirely pleased by that revelation.

Zack shook his head. "That shit Reno did. Apparently he knows one of your other conquests."

"I hate that word," Sephiroth snapped. "You know I do. Do you consider yourself a 'conquest', Zack?"

The SOLDIER shook his head rapidly. "Of course not. But Cloud knows about all of this, thanks to his little Turk-wannabe friend. You'd better keep that in mind."

"Zack -"

"I know, I know, stop talking about it. Sheesh."


Tifa stroked the back of Cloud's hand gently, watching and re-watching the invisible arcs that the movement that the pad of her thumb traced over the blond's pale, smooth skin. His skin was warm in her hand, but devoid of life - his fingers remained still and unmoving, as did the rest of his body save his chest.

What's happened to you? she thought, still staring at the hand she held in hers. Where have you gone? Why did you leave us? Why did you leave us at all?

She had never understood Cloud. This was something she was only now coming to realise. At times in her life she'd thought that she and Cloud had shared some kind of understanding, that she knew him, but then something had happened to leave her feeling adrift again, aware that the man had not been as close as she'd believed.

Had it been Cloud, acting like they were closer than he obviously felt, or had it been Tifa and Tifa alone who had seen that closeness? She didn't know. Age and experience allowed her to see things more objectively, but that didn't stop it from hurting.

She had loved Cloud. She had felt it when she was 13 and realising that the blond boy was going to leave Nibelheim. She had felt it when she was 15 and waiting for that glimpse of blond hair that she hadn't seen in two years, felt it when she was 20 and Cloud had miraculously appeared again in Sector 7, still sick with Mako and confused over what the last five years had contained for him.

She realised that, at 29, she still felt it. It had only moved from the forefront of her mind to somewhere deeper, had not changed or faded even when she had met Richard. Hadn't changed even on her wedding day. She sat on her chair by Cloud's bed, staring at the fine bones in his long fingers and wrist, and her chest hurt like it had the day they'd realised that Cloud had left them of his own accord after Meteor.

Tifa pressed her lips together a little, raising her head to look up at Cloud's face, turned towards her against his pillow. Still pale, paler than could be healthy, and his hair had lost its vibrancy. It was lank and greasy through no fault of his own since he'd been here - the thought of some of them having to wash Cloud just seemed too odd to think about when they remembered him as a strong man, and Tifa's thoughts had been so scattered since she had seen him again that she just couldn't find the energy to go about organising people to help her, or just getting some of the men to do it.

Cloud would no doubt find it humiliating if he was aware of it. What did Aeris think she was doing, to leave Cloud like this? Why leave him? Vincent had relayed the Cetra's message that they would "make or break" him - it didn't sound like he was coming back.

Had she done it so that she and Cloud could be together again? Tifa wondered. The thought made the pain in her chest hurt all the more. She knew they had been close - Cloud had been devastated by her death. It seemed that only then did he really become determined to destroy Sephiroth and Jenova. Before that, he had seemed...distant. Undecided. They were searching for Sephiroth, yes, but then what would he do once they found the man? Cloud had been remarkably reticent when it came to things like that. He seemed to wander forever, and had just happened to wander into AVALANCHE and then into the path of Jenova and his former General. He had lacked direction.

It was unusual for Cloud, considering what he had been like as a child. It had troubled her at the time, as had his strange memories of Nibelheim.

And then, after Meteor, he wandered again. And had now wandered into the Cetra's path, away from them - away from her - forever, it seemed.

What right did Aeris have to do that? What right did she have to take Cloud away from the people who loved him?

But then, had Cloud gone to her willingly? Had he prayed, night and day, for Aeris to come for him, so that he could be with her once more? Tifa closed her eyes, breathing deeply through her nose. She didn't know what to feel - anger at Aeris, or at Cloud? Should she be angry at all? Jealousy, she couldn't help - hurt, also. Was she right to feel those things? She didn't understand what Aeris had done to Cloud - was he in the Lifestream? If so, again, why leave his body? Why not just kill him outright? They had the power to do that - Cloud was more closely tied to the Lifestream than anyone else she had known except for Aeris, surely they could kill him easily.

She needed to know more. And she knew that Vincent knew something she didn't, and that made her angry. Did she not deserve to know these things? What else had Vincent seen or been told that they didn't know about?

Did Cid know, too? He had been remarkably quiet since his impromptu visit to Nibelheim. She didn't know what he'd gone to see, or if he'd found it. She knew he wouldn't tell her if she asked, so she didn't. He and Vincent were too close as friends, they probably knew the same things, told each other what it was about Cloud that kept them from making as much of a fuss as she seemed to be doing.

Cloud Strife had made her paranoid, she realised, opening her eyes again and shaking her head. There was just too much that she didn't know about him. And so she had come full circle in her thoughts, and realised she'd just go around forever and ever if she didn't stop herself.

It was good, then, that there was a knock on the door, then. Tifa dropped Cloud's hand back on the bed, and called, "Come in!" The door shifted open enough to emit her husband's familiar form, and she smiled at him, though it pained her to do so. She did love Richard, there was no doubt about that, but it wasn't the same as she felt about Cloud. Her love for Richard was no less strong. It was just that those feelings for Cloud had never gone away. She didn't know why.

Richard looked Cloud's prone form over warily, as if he expected the blond to jump up at him at any moment with the Ultima weapon. "How is he?" he asked.

"The same," Tifa said. She knew that his wariness had almost as much to do with his knowledge of her emotions regarding Cloud as it was fear of him as a person. She could understand that, and she felt awful that she couldn't just make the love for Cloud just go away. He had been her first love - there was always something special in that; always something that lingered. "I just wish I knew what Aeris was doing with him."

Richard nodded, coming further inside the room to stand by her. He drew her up from her chair into his arms and she gladly went to him, wrapping her arms around his neck so she could derive some comfort from him for the moment. "Where's the sprog gone?" she wondered aloud into the man's warm chest.

He snickered. "She's fascinated by Mr. Valentine. I caught her hiding trying to watch him. I think she wants his cloak."

Tifa smiled. "Does Vincent know that?"

"She's surprisingly sneaky. I don't think he's noticed her following him around yet."

"She'd get on with Yuffie," Tifa said thoughtfully. She turned her head against Richard so that she could look at Cloud again. "Yuffie wanted to come but there's nothing really much to see, and she's got her hands full with running Wutai..."

"I still can't get over the fact that you saved the world, know both Yuffie Kisaragi and President Reeve, and yet we still run a bar in Kalm. Not even in Midgar. Kalm."

"Ugh, you wouldn't like Midgar. I'm glad I didn't reopen the bar there." She studied the long, straight line of Cloud's nose, and then the dark, thick lashes against his cheeks. "I wouldn't want to have taken Cloud back there."

Richard was quiet, raising a hand to stroke her hair for a while. She knew that he wasn't entirely used to being surrounded by all these figures out of a modern legend. It seemed surreal to him, and she couldn't really blame him. Each one of their group was quirky in their own way - she wasn't entirely surprised that her persistently curious daughter had taken a shine to Vincent, possibly the most memorable member of their party after Cloud Strife himself. Vincent's strange, quiet nature would also intimidate Richard. Almost the opposite, Cid's brash personality also made it difficult for Richard to feel at ease with any of them. Cloud was too like Vincent, and being the flagship of AVALANCHE after all was enough to raise him that far above them. Nanaki was another matter entirely, being of a totally different race. All the talk of Aeris would be even more surreal, and Yuffie was (even in her rulership) too loud and scatty an individual. Reeve was now President of two continents, but it was difficult for her to take him that seriously when she'd first met him through the persona and disguise of Cait Sith. Barret, who lived in Kalm with Marlene, was the only other one that Richard had had any regular contact with.

Eventually, Richard said, as they both watched Cloud's oblivious form, "Do you think he'll ever wake up?"

Even standing within her husband's arms, Tifa didn't find it hard to say, "If I have anything to do with it."


Cloud found that the training that day hadn't been as bad as he'd expected. The effects of the Mako seemed to have worn off - he hadn't felt anything untoward at all. It was all normal. Pleased, he performed well and several of his instructors congratulated him on it, which was something he wasn't used to. He was far more used to being yelled at for being clumsy or unco-ordinated, or getting nothing at all. It was nice to be praised, but at the same time he felt like a fraud.

He thought about Sephiroth and Zack a lot that day, and the awkwardness between them all, especially in the last few days. Things had never been like this between them before. It was unsettling to feel so out of joint now. He didn't like it at all, but wasn't sure how to fix it, knowing that a lot of it had to be his own doing, however inadvertent.

He needed to talk to Zack and apologise, that much he had decided. He had become so paranoid these days, he couldn't believe he had reacted so badly to Zack's bruises. It seemed so...unlike him to act like that. Even if his suspicions were right, and Sephiroth and Zack had... It wasn't his business, was it? They were two consenting adults, and Cloud had no claim on either of them. It was unfair to expect Zack to live his life around what Cloud wanted, especially when it was so unlikely that Cloud would ever get what he wanted anyway.

So that was decided. He would do that after dinner when he got back to the dorm (assuming that Zack would be there, too, of course). And then there was the question of what to do about Sephiroth...

He tried working through it systematically, knowing that despite his adoration, there was another important reason for wanting to get closer to the man - he needed to gain the man's trust and respect in time for it to help him persuade Sephiroth to leave Nibelheim alone. It seemed that neither he nor Sephiroth knew exactly how to act around one another, despite Sephiroth's declaration that night they'd spoken in the rec room that they put all the unanswered questions behind them for now. Cloud supposed he wasn't really helping - after all, he didn't really make any attempt to go out on a limb to speak to Sephiroth.

Safer to not do anything, after all - but that'll get you nowhere. What had his mother told him once? Oh, yes - "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got."

He liked that saying. He said it again in his head and he found it encouraging. He'd need that if he ever actually got around to going out on that limb. But why would Sephiroth want to talk to him, anyway? That was another problem - would he have to wait until he actually became a SOLDIER before Sephiroth would feel comfortable spending any time at all with him?

He thought about this as he showered after training, ignoring the banter around him of the other cadets and SOLDIERs calling to each other from cubicle to cubicle. He daydreamed a little, trying to imagine how he might talk to Sephiroth and grab the man's attention; how neither of them would be lonely anymore with someone else to talk to who understood.

By the time he'd finished in the shower, most of the others had changed and gone. There was the sound of water in a few other cubicles still running, but very little chatter. Cloud sighed as he switched off the flow and rolled his shoulders, enjoying the stretch of his weary muscles before grabbing his towel and tying it around his waist to step out.

He realised, as he dressed, that he missed the fact that there were others out there who had some idea about ShinRa, about Hojo, about everything. Now he was back here - wherever here actually was - there was no-one who really knew. Although...Sephiroth would understand about Hojo and ShinRa to some extent, if not almost entirely. Sephiroth probably felt the same as he did - that there was no-one else out there who knew the things he did, had suffered the same kind of horrors no-one should ever have to face.

So close, and yet so far.

Later that evening, he found Zack sparring in the training centre. He sat at the side of the mats to watch as he and another SOLDIER 1st circled each other warily, waiting for the other to move. He pulled his knees up to his chest and lay his cheek against them to watch happily. One day that could be me, if I try hard enough.

Cloud smiled to himself as he watched Zack easily beat his opponent. Zack really was in a league of his own compared to the other SOLDIERs, even if Sephiroth was still the pinacle that everyone aspired to.

It was with thoughts of the General still floating about in his head that he began to drift off to sleep. And then abruptly he was being shaken awake, and he started in fright. He snapped his head up with a sharp noise of distress to find laughing brown eyes staring down at him. "Didn't know I was that boring to watch," Zack said with a grin, pushing Cloud's shoulder playfully. "You're not supposed to fall asleep."

"That's what happens when SOLDIERs get old," Cloud teased, grinning even as he braced himself against Zack's palm thwacking the back of his head. He snickered, and clambered to his feet when the dark-haired man pointedly didn't offer him a hand.

"I will never be old," Zack commented flippantly, waving distractedly as the two began to exit the training area.

"'Act your shoe size, not your age.'" The SOLDIER laughed at that, and Cloud smiled, forgetting what he'd wanted to talk to the other man about for a moment, happy to just walk and talk with Zack and revel in the knowledge that, despite everything, they were friends.

He thought of Tifa briefly, how he'd once blindly considered her a friend when they'd been younger, so eager to please that he'd let the mockery, the insults, everything, wash over him as if they were nothing at all. He knew that she had been sorry for it when they'd met again, but somehow he doubted that she understood just how hurtful she'd been.

Then again, not many people seemed to understand.

Zack's arm slung around his shoulders pushed that thought away and he smiled again. He had no idea what Zack was chattering on about - probably something about Aeris - but that didn't matter. He was happy to concentrate on the warmth of the older man's presence in general, the chatter just welcome background noise.

He also remembered that, at times, just being with AVALANCHE in a group had been satisfying like this, when he could forget the reason that they had formed. He'd not really considered himself a social person, really, but he guessed that his joy in the presence of others pointed out that he was.

And then, stupidly, because it didn't seem so bad at that moment, he said, "I'm sorry about the way I acted the other day. I didn't mean to - I was just grouchy and I overreacted because of Reno."

Zack's arm tightened around his shoulders but he wasn't sure if it was a squeeze of forgiveness or just the other man's muscles tensing. Zack was silent for a moment, and Cloud realised it had been the wrong thing to say then. It hadn't been as safe as he'd thought.

"Don't worry about it," the SOLDIER replied, eventually, and after a brief pause went back to whatever he'd been saying beforehand, and this time Cloud didn't listen because he could hear the slightly strained tone to his voice. It pained him. He tried to ignore it but, luckily, after a few minutes it was gone, and only the slightly tight feeling in Cloud's belly remained.


Practice was filled with a general sense of anticipation. Practice bouts were entered into with more relish and enthusiasm than was normal for the early morning, the chatter was louder, more excited. People's faces seemed brighter, livelier. Cloud noticed these things whilst realising that the same was true of himself. There was a general sense of coming to the end of things - two years of practice had led to this. It had heightened that morning because it was entirely obvious that they were about to be given details of the exams. All the instructors were there that morning, hanging around in a large group talking over papers whilst the trainees sparred to try and burn off some of their restless energy.

Cloud supposed it wasn't helping anyone that Sephiroth had come in with the instructors and was hanging around watching the trainees. He had no idea what the man had come in for, because no matter how hard he racked his brains he didn't remember this having happened before. So he waited, slightly nervous but altogether more excited than anything else. Reno had found him and commented blithely on how all the cadets were trying to impress Sephiroth and how he found this quite amusing when you compared the wide gap between skill levels of the cadets and the General. Cloud snickered at this, knowing it to be entirely true.

Reno gestured widely with the sword in his hand, indicating the empty space around them. "Fancy a spar? Might as well join the bandwagon!" Cloud grinned and agreed, knowing that he, like everyone else, had far too much energy that needed an outlet with the promise of the final exams and the General's unexpected appearance that morning.

The redhead was good with a sword, but it didn't really suit him and Reno had said that he knew it. When he got into SOLDIER he said he would try and switch to something else, but at the same time he didn't really enjoy guns either. Cloud was reluctant to suggest anything, thinking back on how much damage Reno could do with a nightstick and wincing at the memory. Of the two of them now, Cloud mused as they circled one another, he supposed that he was the better with their current weapons, so he had nothing to fear.

He enjoyed sparring with Reno. The other boy's style was so different from his own that he had to pay more attention than he would have normally. It was a nice change, considering that he would probably have to spar a SOLDIER to get a really good challenge and doing that now would raise far too many suspicions. Still, he ached to do it - when he thought of sparring Zack his chest hurt with how much he wanted it, wanted to be pushed to his limits again and feel the adrenalin rush through him like it used to. It was like a dance, something intricate and beautiful at its best and he knew its steps; however, he had yet to find a partner to match him.

Reno's blade clashed with his own and the pushed against each other, but not seriously. They used it to lean together, grinning. "You're playing with me," the redhead observed, but it didn't seem to bother him at all. "I've not seen it this clearly before."

Cloud cocked his head, still cheerful despite how dangerous the topic could turn. "I'm not playing," he assured the taller boy. "Just enjoying myself."

Reno let out a loud bark of laughter. "I can see! Far be it from me to take away your fun..." And he pulled back for them to continue the spar. Cloud spun, laughing, to push Reno back across the mats with a brief offensive. When they encroached too far on another pair's space, he let Reno take the offensive and danced back across the mats, Reno following. Yes, Cloud could see that Reno wasn't suited for swordplay, he couldn't lose himself deeply enough for the sword to become what it needed to be - for him, it was still a hunk of metal he was holding, something separate from himself.

He was concentrating too hard on Reno to notice anything else, and it was only when the redhead lowered his sword without preamble, looking past the blond's shoulder, that Cloud became aware of his surroundings. He could feel it then, the heat of the other man's gaze on him, and wondered how he'd missed it. He turned, lowering his own sword, and Sephiroth was leaning back against the protective barrier between the spectator seats and the circle of mats, arms crossed over his chest and watching him quietly.

Cloud bowed in respect, keeping his head dipped for a little longer than was strictly necessary. "Good morning, sir," he said, and behind he could hear Reno's echoing greeting.

"Good morning," Sephiroth replied, his low voice showing that there was no anger or irritation in him, so Cloud supposed neither he nor Reno had been doing any wrong. That, at least, was something.

Cloud didn't know what to say after that, not liking the formality that he would have to use if he did not wait for Sephiroth's lead. He took a moment to try and calm his nervous energy down, heart still beating fast and no longer from exertion, and Sephiroth said drily, "This is the first time I think I've ever seen you actually duel someone. You're impressive."

Cloud felt his cheeks heat up and his lips pull slightly in pleasure at the unexpected praise, and saw Sephiroth notice it all. He could see that Sephiroth was in a good mood like everyone else. He wondered why, but was pleased beyond belief that, he, somehow, seemed to have contributed to it. "Thank you, sir," he said.

Sephiroth waved a gloved hand a little, dismissively. "You don't need to be so formal," he said, and Cloud nodded, thrilled. He was pretty sure he was still smiling but he couldn't help it. The general excitement was making him feel bold - far bolder than the other morning when he'd walked out of the bathroom half-naked to find Sephiroth there, unexpectedly.

He stepped a bit closer then, testing his boundaries, and because he knew from his own experience that Sephiroth would prefer not to have to speak loud enough that everyone else could hear him. Sephiroth watched him approach and there was nothing in his face to tell him to stop. Daringly - wondering if even this might be too far - Cloud asked, "What're you watching us all for?"

"The instructors are going to announce details of the practical exam." He hadn't taken his eyes from Cloud's and, miraculously, Cloud hadn't dropped his gaze yet. He realised that he'd read Sephiroth right - the older man lowered his voice a little so that only Cloud could make out his words. "I wanted to have a look at the cadets because I'm going to be there as accompaniment."

"Accompaniment?" Cloud echoed, startled.

Sephiroth nodded. The usual harsh, sharp expression wasn't there. Cloud liked it like that - without the pull between his eyebrows and the severity of his mouth, he looked younger, and it wasn't so hard to ignore the age gap when he looked like that. "The place where we're heading is quite big, perhaps a little too big for the number of people going. There's nowhere else suitable, unless anyone wants to try and take on seasoned Wutaian warriors." There was a dark humour in his voice, lips curving just slightly for just a moment at the thought.

Cloud smiled, an image of Yuffie briefly flashing in his head, but it wasn't really her he was thinking about.

This is...this is the side of him I want to see...We're just talking about work but still, he's so...he's not so closed off anymore. Why? What's he doing? Why is he showing this to me

"And still..." Sephiroth said thoughtfully, quietly. "Perhaps I'll get to see in real life what you feel you can't show here." He nodded in the general direction of the sparring pairs, and Cloud realised he'd forgotten all about them, about everything but Sephiroth. "Either that," the other man continued, "or maybe one day we should spar together."

Cloud started laughing because he couldn't help it, and it was when Sephiroth gave him a startled look that he abruptly cut himself off. "You're serious?" he said, disbelieving, eyes wide.

"I admit, I find myself curious to gauge your abilities for myself," the silver-haired man said, still looking a little bit surprised from Cloud's reaction, though the look soon disappeared, schooled away behind the mask of calm indifference. "And I was the one who offered..."

And then, suddenly, Cloud saw it clear as day, like something obvious had been in front of him for a long time and only now had his mind been able to make sense of it.

"And I was the one who offered..."

'I've put my hand out, made the first move...and now all I await is your response...'

Heart thumping very hard in his breast, Cloud said, "I would be honoured."

When Sephiroth nodded in acknowledgement and acceptance there was a definite half-smile, something Cloud had very rarely seen in sanity but all too often in madness. Sephiroth pushed himself up so that he was standing properly, once more towering over Cloud, and said softly, "I should go to the instructors, they're probably waiting for me - I shall take my leave." He inclined his head again, and walked past him, not touching but still close enough to make Cloud's blood sing. Cloud turned to watch him go, not knowing what to do with himself.

He realised, when he came back to himself, that some people were staring, and Reno was giving him a wide-eyed look like he'd never seen him before. "Wow," the redhead said. "What did he say? I couldn't hear!"

"Shut up," Cloud said hotly, cheeks suddenly burning with embarrassment. "Just don't say anything."

Reno made a motion like he was zipping his lips together, and grinned slyly at him.

Cloud had to get Reno to relate the details of the exam to him later on that day because he hadn't been listening.




End Chapter 12.

1. Just a note on the structure of this fic: It's always been planned out in three parts (hence why these chapters are all "Part 1: Chapter X"), though not all parts will have the same amount of chapters (parts 1 and 2 cover equal lengths of time, whilst part 3 should be shorter as it deals with one main incident). There are also two short (one-chapter) side stories planned, one that will be placed as a divider between parts 1 and 2, and the second between 2 and 3. The first plans to deal with some of Sephiroth's past as a way of explaining some of his behaviour towards Cloud. The second will deal with how Cloud's mental instability has affected his feelings towards Sephiroth (something that Vincent and Cid have already vaguely mentioned). And an epilogue on the end. Just to give you some idea of how this will be laid out, etc, and some vague idea of the scale of it (I'm going to be old and grey by the time I actually finish this fic).

2. Hahahaha, Sephiroth has the same seiyuu as Tatsumi Seiichirou from Yami no Matsuei. "No, Tsuzu- I mean, Cloud, I will not give you a bigger monetary allowance for field trips. That means no desserts, Cloud. What do you mean, I must be talking about somebody else? And of course I always wear glasses."And, new AC-trailer:drool:

3. I quite enjoy writing from Tifa's view, I think she's underrated by most fans as a character. I wonder how much of the game would have changed if Tifa had said, "Cloud, shut up, your memory suxxors!" when Cloud first told the story of Nibelheim, rather than keeping her silence, or if she'd not been such a bi-atch to him when they were kiddies.

4. Last, but definitely not least - a big thanks must go out to my wonderful beta, Dina, and of course to all the people out there who read and/or review this fic. That is what keeps me going when I sit there and wonder why I undertook this project.

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