Disclaimer: See Chapter One.


Part One - Chapter 13

By Knowing Shadows


Cloud taped a note to the back of the dorm door so he wouldn't forget. It had Reno's scrawling, spidery handwriting tracking across it in several lines, proclaiming the date and time and known details of the field exam for those who'd passed the Mako trial. Cloud trailed his gaze across the paper languidly, smiling to himself.

He remembered, when he had originally lived through this, that he'd been dreading this date. He'd known he'd fail, knew how weak he was compared to the other cadets and the SOLDIERs, but still there had been some small glimmer of hope in him that refused to be quashed, and he'd gone through the humiliation of it anyway.

I'm a glutton for punishment, he thought to himself, but he was content enough in that moment that the thought didn't really sting. Not only once, but I'm going to do it again. Only this time, it'll be different. I'll show them all just how good I can be.

There was a strange calmness that came with the certainty that this time he would pass the exams, even though he was still excited. He didn't know how to explain it properly, but it was a good feeling - one he wasn't used to, and something he treasured. If Cloud had learned anything in his life so far, it was that life was never stable so it was better to make the most of things as they came. They didn't tend to last.

On that train of thought, he wondered whether he should take up Sephiroth's offer before it was retracted. Maybe Sephiroth hadn't been serious about sparring anyway - Cloud would be no match for him until he had become a SOLDIER, so it would be a ridiculous thing for them to fight together - and why would Sephiroth want to waste time sparring a cadet?

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

Cloud shook his head as he collected his things for lessons. No use worrying about it now - there was nothing he could do until later. Maybe he would ask Zack if Sephiroth was serious or not. The thought that Sephiroth might not be - might be mocking him - hurt, which Cloud thought was pretty ridiculous, but he couldn't help it.

This whole thing was ridiculous, he thought, irritated. The constant worry, paranoia, never knowing...it was driving him insane. He knew, more intimately than all perhaps bar one, what it felt like to dangle at the end of someone else's strings, knew how awful it felt to have no control, to be forever following someone else's will, someone's else's expectations, only to realise too late just how completely he'd been manipulated, not doing what he wanted at all...

He refused to be like that again. This reality, on whatever plane it might exist, it was for him to change by not being what he used to be. And he was no longer the Cloud Strife that had once been here, that much was sure. He wouldn't fail Aeris, wherever she was and whatever she herself had done for him. He owed her this, at least, for not being able to stop her death.

He owed Sephiroth this.


Sephiroth put a gloved hand over his mouth to cover his yawn, shaking his head afterwards to clear it. It was barely past lunchtime and already he was tired. He rubbed at his temple absently, gazing down at the papers littering his desk and wishing fervently that they would all spontaneously combust. Or, if that was impossible, conveniently flutter into the path of a wayward Fire3 spell, which, of course, would not have been from his own materia, no, not at all.

He hadn't become General to do this, he mused. Wasn't entirely sure, half the time, why he'd become General at all, but he'd been born for the army - there was nothing else out there where his skills would be needed. And when he didn't have to sit in an office all day doing paperwork, he quite enjoyed the physical aspects of it. If it wasn't for that, he might quit just to spite Hojo. And tell the bastard in person, just to watch him sputter and go red with fury. Which was always a satisfying sight.

He sat back in his chair and stretched, arching his cramped back, and wistfully thought about how damn pleasant it would be to take Cloud for the sparring practice he'd offered, if only to ease his boredom. Of course, there'd be other benefits - not the least of which would be the look of surprise on the blond's face if Sephiroth approached him out of the blue. Just the second it would give him to see past the reticence.

Tilting his head back in the chair, he reached up and pushed his hair back from his face, closing his eyes for a moment. Thinking about it, making such a spectacle of himself at the practice the day before hadn't been the best idea, particularly so soon after that other damn boy had accused him of sleeping with Strife already. Favouritism was frowned upon, and in an all-male environment, it was easy to think the worst as to why. Sephiroth had never had the desire to get to know any of the cadets, so he'd never been in danger of it, but now...

But it was done. If it happened only once, no-one could accuse him of tutoring. He'd only said he'd wanted to gauge Cloud's abilities, which was fair enough. He'd never been one to follow the rules, anyway - he had enough power within ShinRa itself to have few who would stand against him, whatever he did.

And the chance to see Cloud alone like that...what it would offer far outweighed the drawbacks. He hoped. Getting past the blond's perpetual wariness was tiring, but he hoped it would be worth it. Zack obviously thought so, and Zack was usually a good judge of character. He'd not led Sephiroth astray yet.


Reno was in a strange mood when Cloud found him in their practical class. He was standing with the other cadets as Cloud approached, looking restrained. The others were talking animatedly with each other, sometimes to Reno, and he would reply, and there would be energy in it, but then he would close into himself again. Cloud was frowning when Reno met his eyes as he drew near.

"Can't say anything," Reno told him, but looking like he desperately wanted to.

Cloud's frown deepened. He hooked his fingers into his belt as he stood. "How come?"

Reno looked at him for a moment, obviously fighting with himself. His mouth tightened as he pursed his lips, but then he let out a breath in a loud whoosh as he shook his head. "Nope, can't say. It might not happen."

"What might not happen?" Cloud insisted, but Reno shook his head, biting his lip as if he had to physically restrain himself from answering. Cloud continued to frown at him, as if this might draw out some information, but it did not, and just served to make Reno a little antsier than he was to begin with. He tried to speculate, but all he came up with were blanks, since he'd never seen the boy like this.

The lesson was a little different, which was fun. They were split into two groups, one was led outside whilst the other remained and was told that they were going to simulate the kind of situation they'd find in the exam. The inside group would be playing "the resistance," and would secrete themselves about the building. The other group would be acting as the SOLDIER group, coming in to try and exterminate them without being wiped out themselves. Reno had been put in that group – Cloud struggled to hide his excitement as he and his team-mates in the other group dotted themselves around the building, waiting in ambush. He and another dark-haired boy had been assigned to a doorway near the gym, where they would wait and pick off anyone who came by. They had reasoned that no large groups would come this way as many would have been picked off already, and that if a large opposition did happen to appear, their side was obviously screwed anyway.

Cloud sat with his back against the wall for a little while, his partner on the other side of the door, both with their swords propped between their knees, listening to see if they could make out any skirmishes nearby. Surely Reno's group would be in by now. Katona's larger group had been stationed on the ground floor to take out as many as they could, leaving any stragglers to those on the 2nd floor. He couldn't hear anything yet.

He tapped his fingers soundlessly against the hilt of his sword. Their group had been larger – did that mean that they expected the cadets to be outnumbered in the exam and were testing them now? Perhaps Reno's group had been given something other than just swords to fight with that gave them an advantage that was – would they have materia? Cloud's heart pounded in anticipation at the thought, looking longingly at the empty slots in his sword. He wondered if Yuffie had taken the opportunity to take all his Mastered materia from him yet, if he'd been found and brought off the mountain. He supposed that he must have been – but would the death of his body automatically mean the death of his mind, or that part of him which Aeris had sent here? He didn't know. Maybe his body was gone, but he could somehow survive like this. And that would mean no going back, if it were true.

Too much he didn't know. Too many possibilities to speculate. Cloud rubbed his forehead irritably and slowly spun his sword so that the point dug into the carpet beneath him as it turned.

He'd made a hole in the carpet when his partner abruptly started to climb to his feet, gaze darting nervously. Cloud looked up at him and frowned, catching the other boy's eye. "What's wrong?" he mouthed, wondering if he'd not heard an approaching party. As he started to get up, too, he watched as the dark-haired cadet mouthed back, "It's too quiet."

They'd not heard any skirmishes yet. They should have done, unless Katona's group had completely wiped out Reno's. Which was silly, because someone would have come told them the game was over. They would not be able to hear what was going on down on the floor below, but they should have heard something from their own. Cloud pressed his back against the wall next to the door frame and listened very hard. Silence. There was nothing. He scowled, glancing over to where his partner was standing in a similar fashion, looking worried. Catching the boy's attention, Cloud mouthed, "How long since we started?"

The boy looked at his watch. "Half an hour," he replied. They definitely should have heard something by now.

Cloud tightened his grip on his sword, hefting its reassuring weight in one hand as he continued to listen. "Should we go?" he mouthed, nodding his head towards the door, but his partner shook his head. Cloud glanced at the window in the door and nodded towards it, and the other boy shrugged, so Cloud listened again for a moment, and then quickly glanced through the window into the corridor beyond. It was empty and quiet. He took a longer look, mouth turned down in annoyance. Nothing. What was going on?

His partner was beginning to look a little frightened. "What's happening?" he whispered. "What's going on?"

"No idea." Cloud stepped back from the window to his position against the wall. "I think we should check."

"What if they've all been wiped out and we walk into a trap?" the other cadet whispered furiously, wide-eyed.

"It's only a simulation," Cloud replied. "And if that's true, then we surrender. On the other hand, if we stay in our position, we could get trapped. This room is a dead end. If there is a large party coming this way, we should move. We'll have more of a chance."

The dark-haired cadet considered that for a moment, not looking convinced in the slightest, but saw Cloud's determination and reluctantly nodded his head. "You can't go alone," he admitted, and tightened his grip determinedly on his own weapon. Cloud nodded and grinned fiercely in encouragement, taking the lead. Leaning his head against the door, he listened again for a minute or so. Still nothing. Glancing out the window again, it was empty still, so he quietly pushed down the handle on the door and pulled it open so they could slip through. His heart was thumping, and he was high on adrenaline.

It was eerily quiet. He'd never heard the building sound so quiet - there was usually some kind of noise, something going on in here. To hear it suddenly sound abandoned with quite frightening. The sound of his heart pounding was all Cloud could hear. They kept their backs to the wall, slowly making their way down the hall to where another corridor joined it from the left, making the stem of a T-junction. If someone was nearby, they were very good at being quiet, so they had to be equally so, which was easier with only two people than it was with many. He hoped that meant that there weren't any large group of opposition around here.

Reaching the junction, Cloud listened hard and then darted across the gap, motioning for his partner to stay where he was (who only looked too happy about that). That new corridor had been empty, too. There had to be someone around somewhere, even if it was one or two of their own, stationed and wondering at the quiet as much as they were. Perhaps they'd already gone to investigate.

They'd have to be careful. It could be a ploy to lure them all out, one by one as their curiosities were piqued. Cloud knew he was good, but not good enough to take on a large group by himself if his partner was this nervous.

"Let's see if any of our own are near," Cloud whispered, and the boy nodded. They made their way down the adjoining corridor, more and more aware with each passing second of every sound around them as they came across yet more deserted corridors. They searched the first half of the 2nd floor to find it completely deserted. Cloud's partner became more and more jumpy the more they searched. There weren't any signs of scuffles, either, so Cloud guessed that others had been as unnerved by the quiet as they had, and gone to see what was happening. Either that or they had heard something elsewhere and gone in that direction. Either way, they had apparently moved of their own accord.

"Where could they have all gone?" came the half-panicked whisper in the quiet next to Cloud. He turned to find his partner's dark eyes wide and fearful. "If they did fight, they were completely outmanoeuvred if no signs were left - what if we're walking into a trap?"

"Calm down," Cloud whispered, trying to sound soothing. "Don't get nervous now - this isn't real. We don't know what happened. Just be watchful. Let's go check the other half of this floor, okay?" A nod, and they moved on. Cloud was sure that if anyone was here, the sound of his heart would give them away, it seemed so loud in his own ears.

They skirted around the stairs that led back down to the ground floor as fast as they could, and ducked down another deserted corridor, Cloud leading the way with his partner watching his back. This one had a corner, and when they rounded it, Cloud's eyes went wide. "Whoa," he breathed, staring at the large burn mark that had scorched the carpet and part of the wall, starkly black against the blank magnolia paint.

"Shit," his partner hissed. "They've got a fire materia!"

"Remember, our group was larger than theirs," Cloud hissed back. "They had to have some kind of advantage. I thought they might have materia. Just think of it like this - it probably means we will in the exams."

"Yeah, but so will the people we're fighting against. This isn't fair. It's not materia practice - not in a sim like this. It's too dangerous to give it to untrained people."

Cloud knelt and ran a finger over the burn in the wall. It was still faintly warm, so it was definitely from this simulation. But the other boy was right - it was unfair to give one side materia and not the other when, in reality, they would probably both have it. And it was dangerous - if everyone was going to be as wound up as they were, someone was going to get seriously hurt.

"FUCK! Ah!"

Both their heads snapped round, back to the corner they'd just turned, and Cloud jumped to his feet. They backed up automatically, and then there was an abrupt sound that Cloud knew well - a slightly hissing sound, and a whisper of coldness in the air, and ice growing along the wall as the spell froze along the corridor. Two figures appeared at full pelt - two of their own - one slammed into the wall, ice catching him under his feet, the other was a little better prepared and crouched into a skid around the corner, stumbling as he tried to get back upright whilst still running. "Run! Run!" he screamed, and Cloud didn't need to be told twice.

The four of them pelted down the corridor without looking back, and kept on running, twisting down different paths until they eventually came to a halt, breathing hard. Cloud strained his ears but couldn't hear anything else - they seemed to have lost their followers for now.

The one who'd skidded into the wall collapsed, chest heaving. "The fuckers," he hissed. "The goddamn fucking fuckers." His companion nodded and practically fell down next to him.

"What materia do they have?" Cloud whispered frantically, crouching down to keep his voice as low as possible.

"They don't have any!" the second man hissed. He looked caught somewhere between anger and fear. "They've got the goddamn General with them!"

"What!" Cloud's partner's voice sounded strangled. "You have got to be fucking kidding me!"

"No!" the other one said emphatically. "We were in a group of about six, and we went to see what was going on the ground floor because nothing was happening up here. We got down there, and there was a group of about eight of the others waiting, and fucking Sephiroth was there. They fought us, and he stayed out of it, but as soon as we get in a killing blow, he pretty much roasts us - they took out four of us, we made a run for it. And then we bumped into you."

"How many of them did you take out?" Cloud's mind was spinning. Putting Sephiroth on the other team put them at a major disadvantage. They might as well roll over and surrender now. But Sephiroth wasn't doing anything until one of his own team got pulled down...

"We got five."

"Three left." Cloud let out a long, calming breath. "This is practice for our exams - Sephiroth is coming with us. He's not stepping in now because he won't in the exam unless it's to stop us from getting killed. And if they're up here now, we need to keep moving. Come on."

Luckily, they hadn't been caught up with yet. They made their way down the corridor they were on, and came across a point where two walkways crossed. They paused after ascertaining that no-one else was lurking around the corners. "Which way?" one of the newcomers asked. His friend looked at each place in turn. "I vote right," he said after a moment. "It leads to the gym. That's a through-room. I say we stay in the vicinity of the gym, so if we get caught we can get to it and at least have some room to fight back. The changing rooms are also a through-room. We're not trapped that way." The others nodded, and they turned right.

The journey to the gym was tense. Cloud couldn't imagine how much more nervous they could get in the real thing. His heart would probably burst. He supposed, though, that he'd feel better when Sephiroth was on his side, and not somewhere in the near vicinity hunting his ass down.

He wondered if the men they were going to fight would be this afraid once they found out who was backing up their opposition. Maybe they wouldn't be as scared as Cloud's group were, but then again maybe they would be, considering that they would know that Sephiroth would kill them.

"Here it is..." They all stopped at the gym door, peering warily in through the window. It looked empty. Cloud pressed his ear against the door and listened, but there was nothing, so they went in carefully.

A glance told him there was no-one watching from the observation area where Cloud had once been watched himself. "We should check the changing rooms," he said, and there was a nod from the boy who'd skidded into the wall, who then followed him as the other two made a proper inspection of the gym and its other exit to ascertain its safety.

The changing rooms were deserted. They checked each and every single shower and toilet cubicle, but there was nothing. No-one hiding in wait for them. Cloud sank back onto a bench with an exhausted sigh.

The other boy grinned at him. "Being scared shitless takes it out of ya, doesn't it?"

Cloud snickered. "Yeah, it -" But he was cut off by the sound of a door being thrown open in the main gym area, and sudden shouting. He jumped to his feet as he heard a familiar voice yell, "Stop right there!"

They'd not taken down Ratchett yet. Cloud's heart was in his throat - they looked through the small window in the door between the changing rooms and the gym, and saw the three enemy cadets, just as Cloud's earlier partner dealt what would have been a killing blow against the back of one cadet's neck, blade stopped short. Cloud watched as the cadet, realising he'd been had, gave into a particularly theatrical stage death until he lay sprawled out on his belly on the floor. Distracted by this, Cloud's partner did not see his own 'death' coming until he felt the flat of Sephiroth's blade against his own throat.

The other boy could not take down two cadets and Sephiroth by himself. Cloud's search partner burst through the door with a yell to draw attention to himself and away from his outnumbered partner, and Cloud ducked in behind him, knuckles white where he was grasping his sword hilt so tight. He noted that the other two enemy cadets, Ratchett being one of them, had been converging on Cloud's other team member. They all allowed themselves to be distracted by the yell, and one had the flat of a sword up against him as soon as he'd turned his head to see who was making the noise.

Ratchett caught this out of the corner of his eyes and spun with a speed that caused something in Cloud to feel uneasy. The flat of the blond's blade came against his enemy's legs, and he said, "You're disabled."

Cloud's team mate held up his hands in defeat and lay down on the floor, leaving Cloud and his search partner against Ratchett, with Sephiroth lingering near the door they'd come into the gym through. Cloud's eyes were drawn to the General, found green eyes gazing back at him from where the man was leaning back against the wall, Masamune draw but lowered. Something in the way he stood, the aura around him, told Cloud that Sephiroth was enjoying himself, but he couldn't be sure. He wrenched his eyes away, back to where Ratchett was levelling his sword against Cloud's search partner. The taller blond's gaze flickered between his two opponents, calculating how likely it was that he'd triumph over both of them. He decided to go for it despite the odds, giving Cloud a chilled glare before lunging at his nearer opponent.

Cloud circled warily as he watched the fight, keeping his back away from Sephiroth just in case. Ratchett was good, and had considerable strength (which didn't surprise Cloud much, considering he'd had the full force of it pounded into his skull not so long ago). Cloud knew that Ratchett would win this, and only hoped that if he waited, he'd be given a good chance of getting in a blow to take him down.

Sephiroth remained at the edge of the room, a constant but unchanging presence that set Cloud's nerves on fire. Every time Cloud glanced over, the older man had not moved much, apparently relaxed and nonchalant, watching the proceedings. Every time he glanced over, Sephiroth seemed to know and across the room green eyes would meet his, bright beneath a dusting of dark lashes.

Ratchett swung his sword hard against the other cadet's, a low, frustrated growl escaping his throat. "For Shiva's sake, why won't you just-Ah!" He'd seen an opening, and went for it - his zealousness caught the other boy off guard until he had a sword point resting just over his belly. "One more down," Ratchett said, and the cadet raised a hand to signal his defeat and flopped down on the ground on his back, chest heaving as he caught his breath. Ratchett grinned fiercely, breathing hard, and as Cloud hefted his sword in readiness, he looked over, eyes lighting up. His grin shifted as he glanced to Sephiroth and then back to Cloud, and it seemed to say how ironic, which was what Cloud was thinking but wouldn't say.

Even with all of his attention on Ratchett, Cloud heard the rustle of leather as Sephiroth shifted.

He came at Cloud without warning, but his movements weren't enough to catch Cloud off guard. His arm shot up, sword blocking the blow, and he launched into an offensive that didn't allow Ratchett to stop and recover fully. The blond scowled at him, grunting as he only barely managed to parry, stumbling backwards to get out of Cloud's reach. Cloud let him, blood singing in his ears, knowing that this fight was his. When Ratchett looked at him, he knew that the taller boy knew it, too.

"Winning over an exhausted opponent is hardly a fair victory," Ratchett sneered.

Cloud shrugged. "I doubt that excuse will stop the enemy from fighting you in the exam, so I'm not going to let it stand, either."

Ratchett snarled furiously, circling around a piece of gym equipment that forced Cloud to put Sephiroth at his back, which made his hair stand on end. Unwilling to let the other boy dictate the terms of this, he pushed an unexpected assault, forcing Ratchett back and back until there was enough distance between Cloud and Sephiroth that he felt more comfortable. The older blond tried to meet his blows, but he was sluggish, and it wouldn't last long. Cloud swung his sword up, forcing Ratchett to parry his blow in an awkward tangle of arms, and smiled tightly as he caught the blond's eyes and twisted his sword so that the flat of it lay against Ratchett's flank above his hip.

Cloud stepped back, let the other boy's furious expression wash over him, and watched as Ratchett sat down with a thump before lying down on his side, looking away from him. Cloud stared at him, wondering how one person could be so unsporting when the others showed none of his anger or bitterness. No-one else that he'd seen had sulked at having been beaten.

"Too easy," Sephiroth's low voice said, and Cloud turned to face him. "Even if he'd been at full strength you could have walked all over him."

Cloud shrugged, aware that Ratchett could hear this very clearly, and not wanting to garner any more of the other boy's hatred against him. "He's a good match," he said carefully. "Am I the last one?"

Sephiroth shook his head. "I don't know what happened to the other groups. You may or may not be the last." He pushed himself up off the wall, rolling a shoulder. Cloud watched the metal guards shift over one another in a strangely fluid motion at the movement. When Sephiroth lifted the Masamune, the blade catching the lights, Cloud started, eyes flickering from the glinting metal to Sephiroth's face.


"Even if you are the last, you just took down my team mate," the taller man said, and Cloud knew his eyes had just gone as wide as dinner plates. "According to the rules of this simulation, that means I have to take you down."

"You've got to be -" Cloud raised his own sword, backing away, feeling panic rise up. There was no way Sephiroth was going to fight him now - He frowned abruptly, saw Sephiroth take note of it and smirk. "Oi," he said, surprised at how indignant he sounded, "this is cheating."

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow, taking a step forward before leisurely taking up his battle pose, side on with the Masamune raised in a horizontal line at chest height. It made Cloud's breath catch. "This is cheating?" Sephiroth asked. "You agreed to this. And how was I to know you would be the last one here?"

"This isn't sparring!" Cloud argued. "Not the way you meant it! I'm not prepared!"

"You're warmed up, the adrenaline's pumping, you have a sword...I can't see how you'd be better prepared." Sephiroth was fighting a smile - Cloud could see it.

"How am I supposed to get anywhere near you when you've got the Masamune?" Cloud continued desperately. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see several of the 'dead' cadets raising themselves up on their elbows to watch what was going on.

Sephiroth regarded the long line of the blade for a moment, and Cloud thought for a moment that he might relent and get a shorter sword for this. But then his gaze snapped back to Cloud, and he said, "You'll just have to be inventive."

The only warning Cloud got was when Sephiroth tensed to strike, and he let out a heartfelt "Shit" before legging it across the gym, hoping desperately that he might be able to make it to the other door before Sephiroth caught him. He only made it halfway before he heard the whistle of metal through air and threw himself to the left in a roll, stumbling upright and dancing round so that he could see Sephiroth. The other man was standing where Cloud had just been, and smirked at him fiercely.

He couldn't outrun Sephiroth. The man had much longer legs than him, and was just too fast. If Sephiroth insisted they fight, then they would fight, Cloud had no choice in the matter. And though he knew there was no way he could win, he couldn't deny that his heart was pounding with excitement.

Sephiroth took up his opening position again, just as leisurely as he had before. "Now that we've established that," he said, "shall we?"

Cloud raised his sword in one hand, the other held out for balance, and took a deep breath to try and centre himself. "If you insist," he said, but rolled his eyes to show he was joking.

"I do," Sephiroth murmured, voice a low purr in the air, and it almost undid him. Cloud's arm came up reflexively as the older man bore down on him in a flash, and there was the shriek of clashing metal as the shock went up Cloud's arm. He must have made a sound because it hurt - good God but he'd almost forgotten how strong Sephiroth was. He danced backwards out of range but it was hard when the Masamune was so long, and he had to block two more strikes, almost falling over a bench in the process, before he could catch his breath. His arm ached already from those first few blows, muscles trembling. Sephiroth saw, gaze flickering from Cloud's face to where he held his sword, and Cloud hoped to whatever power might be listening that Sephiroth would temper his strength more. If he didn't, Cloud would be beat within minutes, and all it would look like was that Sephiroth was making some kind of example of him with such a humiliating defeat.

"You should concentrate on building up musculature," Sephiroth commented. "I can't fault the way you handle a blade - it's just strength you need."

"I know that," Cloud said, though he knew he was glowing from the praise, backing up around the gym equipment as Sephiroth followed. When he found himself in a clearer space where he wasn't quite so likely to fall over machinery or the other cadets, he snapped his blade forward, steeling himself to meet Sephiroth's counter attack with the intention of another quick strike. Ready for it, the swords did not clash as violently as before, and Cloud was snapping his back and forwards, aiming for Sephiroth's left flank. The Masamune blocked and pressed, Sephiroth easily taking the offensive away from him and forcing him to dance backwards as he forged forwards. Cloud let him, feigning putting more effort into parrying than he actually was. He stepped over one of his own team-mate's bodies, still on the floor, catching the frightened look from the floor, and waited until Sephiroth was forced to do the same before abruptly staggering to the side and slicing forwards. The older man caught his strike, taking an awkward but controlled step to do so, pushing Cloud's blade away with the Masamune's. He snorted, amused at Cloud's move, but there was no mockery in it.

"You're a fast thinker," Sephiroth mused, sending the Masamune in a lazy arc towards him, which Cloud blocked easily. "Now let's test just how fast." And then he leapt forward, raining blows, and Cloud almost lost it out of pure instinctive fear. But somehow he was counter-attacking, catching each blow before it could land, some easier than others, some coming dangerously close. He could not push an offensive, didn't even dare attempt it, all his strength was being used to try and fend the other man off. He couldn't even think, acting on pure fighting instinct and fast reflexes to get his sword where it needed to be to parry the flashes of shining silver blade. His arm and shoulder ached something terrible.

Sephiroth swung the Masamune at his feet; he had to jump over the blade, stumbling back when he landed, breath coming in ragged gasps as his heart pounded violently with exertion. This level of combat was too much for him to sustain for long. It had taken Hojo's interference for five years, and then months of hard training the world over to get good enough to take Sephiroth down. Whatever advantages Aeris had left with this body, it was nowhere near enough.

He could feel his arm beginning to give way. "Sephiroth!" he cried, desperately, because he could not afford to injure himself so close to the exam. "Stop! Please!"

He did not, but it didn't matter, because the next blow was a strange one, catching his blade so awkwardly that the spasm of muscles in his wrist and hand caused him to drop his sword. Stunned, he couldn't even think what to do when Sephiroth abruptly dropped low, and the next thing he knew he was on his back, his legs swept out from under him. He lay there sprawled, heart pounding so hard he was half-afraid it would burst like a rabbit's when it was pushed to the limit by a fox. He stared dumbly at the ceiling, his right arm one big throbbing ache from shoulder to the tips of his fingers.

Sephiroth appeared in his line of vision, standing at his side, and Cloud's breath hitched painfully in his heaving chest when he felt the cool line of metal against his throat. "Yield?" came the low request.

Cloud couldn't even get the word out; his throat was parched dry from gulping air. He couldn't nod or move his head because he was afraid he'd cut himself on the Masamune. He moved his lips, trying to say the word, but failed the first few times until he managed a rasping, "Yield." The Masamune instantly disappeared, and so did Sephiroth, and Cloud closed his eyes.

This was not what he'd expected when he'd got out of bed that morning.

He was sure he hadn't blacked out, but he jumped when he felt someone trying to pull him upright, eyes snapping open. Sephiroth was kneeling next to him, trying to get him into a sitting position, eyebrows furrowed into a frown. Mortified by his helplessness, Cloud struggled to sit up, head pounding. Sephiroth, one hand between his shoulder blades to steady him, reached down with his other hand and produced a cup of water. "Drink it," he said quietly, letting Cloud take it in his left hand. As Cloud took a grateful gulp, he heard the older man say, "If it ever came to a fight between you and Zack, I would probably have to put money on you."

Cloud raised surprised eyes to Sephiroth's, slowing his sips to savour the coolness. Then he lowered them, ashamed as he abruptly realised what the General had been doing. Sparring with Zack had had the same goal - getting him to fight on instinct so that the other man could gauge his true abilities. Where Zack had failed, Sephiroth had not.

The water became cold fear, sliding down his throat all the way to his belly, gripping his chest. Would he be questioned now? Would they sit there and call him on his strange talent, demand an explanation? Sephiroth had told him he had questions, but they would wait until a more appropriate time - was this it? Could he hide no longer?

"Ability such as yours is rare," Sephiroth murmured, low enough so that no-one else could hear. "Why hide it? Why take so much effort to do so?"

Cloud shrugged, keeping his gaze lowered. "I didn't want to cause waves," he said, and supposed that that was true.

Sephiroth's hand, warm even through leather and fabric, made a soothing half-rub down to the middle of his back - so casual it was probably unintentional - as the silver-haired man sighed. Cloud suppressed a shiver. "Too late for that," he said, and the heat of him disappeared as he got to his feet. Startled, Cloud looked up, and Sephiroth held out a hand. "Come on," he said, and Cloud took a gloved hand and let himself be pulled to his feet, legs shaky. Sephiroth gave him a look that wasn't quite a smile, but could have been thought of as friendly as far as someone like the General was concerned. Cloud offered a tentative smile in return.

Sephiroth suddenly turned to where all the cadets were sitting up with wide eyes, watching them, and said, "You can get up, but stay in the room until you're told to go. I'll go see if the simulation is over yet." There was a chorus of "Yes, sir," and then Sephiroth swept out of the room. Cloud watched him go, heart in his throat, until his attention was caught by an abrupt shout, "That was totally awesome! What did it feel like, huh, Cloud!"

Considering the awe shining in the other cadets' eyes, Cloud thought it wasn't such a bad thing if he became known for that fight. Ratchett stayed apart when the other rushed forward to question him, and his glower of hatred burned from across the room.


Sephiroth was gone when a tannoy system announcement told them all that the simulation had ended and they were instructed to return to the amphitheatre on the ground floor. Cloud was being followed in awe, and as soon as they reached their destination all but Ratchett rushed off to their normal group of friends, most likely to tell them of Cloud's impromptu duel with the General. Cloud felt his face burn with both embarrassment and pleasure. He searched the throng for Reno's familiar form, but a hand gripped his sleeve harshly before he could move. Cloud looked round, startled, and found Ratchett's pale-lipped figure standing nearby.

"What do you want?" he asked, tensing himself for some kind of fight.

Ratchett scowled. The expression seemed to be the one that came most easily to him, and Cloud rather thought it ruined what would have otherwise been a handsome face. "Don't think that just because he set out to prove he hadn't sparred you before, that it means anything, Strife."

Cloud glared at the other boy. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said coldly, pulling his arm away with a rough jerk. Ratchett let go, turning away from him and stalking off in another direction. Cloud made his way to Reno, who had seen the brief confrontation and looked concerned, but one of the SOLDIERs at the front started talking before Reno could say anything.

"That was your first taste of what the exam will be like," he called, loud enough for everyone to hear. "No doubt those of you not on the General's team were a bit surprised to see him. So will your opponents in the real thing. He will have materia in the real thing, as he did here, but you won't. As far as our intelligence goes, these people are the stragglers of the group, and rely on brute force and not magic. Sephiroth will be there to protect you - in the exam, if he or any of the examiners have to step in to save your sorry hides, you will be awarded penalties, depending on the circumstances. This exam is for us to test your abilities, not those of the SOLDIERs accompanying you. Is that clear?"

There was murmured assent, sounding slightly cowed. Cloud wondered what had happened to the other people to make them sound like that. He wondered if those who had found Sephiroth's blade aimed at them had realised just how much they had to learn and that was the reason. Even Cloud had not been a match in any sense of the word - Sephiroth belonged to a whole other level of SOLDIER, of man. Cloud understood that.

"For those of you interested," the SOLDIER continued, "though it does not matter, Cloud Strife was the last person to be taken down, which means that his side won. Pick yourselves up if you don't want that to happen in the real thing. You don't have long left. Dismissed."

There was a collective sigh of relief as the cadets began to disperse, and Cloud turned to Reno to say something but the SOLDIER who'd spoken before had crooked a finger at him and was motioning for him to come over. Cloud gave Reno an apologetic look, who mock-saluted him, before he jogged over to the instructor.

He saluted them respectfully as he neared. "Sirs."

There were three of them, but only the one who'd already talked to the group as a whole spoke to him. The instructor looked him over critically. "General Sephiroth sings your praises, did you know that?" he asked, face breaking into an abrupt, prideful grin. "Told us he duelled you, and you can keep up a defence against him."

Cloud flushed with pleasure. "Only a defence, though," he said. "And not for very long. I thought he was going to break my arm."

The older man laughed. "Yep, sounds like you battled the General alright. I'm assuming he left your arm intact?"

"Yes, sir. Aches, is all."

"To be expected. We'll take that into consideration in the next few days, don't worry." He rubbed his hands together a little, as if warming them. "Just be careful before the exam, okay? Make sure you pass. I think the General would be most displeased if you didn't."

Cloud raised his eyebrows. "Yes, sir."

The SOLDIER nodded, and dismissed him. Cloud was pretty sure his eyebrows were still raised when he got back to his dorm.


By the evening, Cloud's arm was really beginning to protest the work out it had had in the gym. He was sitting cross-legged on his bed, reading a magazine and rolling his shoulder to keep it from stiffening when Zack came in through the door. The noise made him glance up, and when Zack spotted him, a slow grin spread across his face.

Cloud rolled his eyes and went back to his magazine.

"Sooooo…" the dark-haired SOLDIER began casually as he sauntered over. Cloud was glad it was only them in the room. His other room-mates had grilled him earlier when they'd found him.

"So what?" Cloud asked, turning a page of the magazine and not looking up.

He could tell that the older man's grin had widened at that, and felt his body rock as Zack plonked himself down on the mattress opposite him, pulling up his legs so he could sit like Cloud was. "So, I hear yourself and His Highness had a run in today?"

Cloud couldn't help but laugh, looking up with a smile. "If that's what you want to call it, yes. Who told you? And what did they tell you?"

Zack's grin shifted so it was a more genuine expression, warm and gentle. "You look good when you smile. You should do it more often. And all we had to do was have Sephiroth beat you up in public…"

Cloud snorted, hitting the SOLDIER with his magazine. "He didn't beat me up."

"So I heard," Zack chortled. "All the cadets are talking about it, and some of the officers overheard them, so they're talking about it. And I heard it from them. Said the rules of the sim today was that Sephiroth was to ‘take down' whoever ‘killed' a member of his own team, and you happened to be one of many unlucky individuals who fell into that category. Except you actually duelled him, and didn't just roll over and die within five seconds like everyone else did."

"We didn't duel, not really," Cloud said, feeling his face heat up again. "He's too fast - I just tried to block him."

"But that fact that you can, that is what makes all the difference." Zack snatched the magazine from him and hit him instead. "That's for being dumb."

"How am I dumb?" Cloud retorted, taking back his magazine for protection.

"The pair of you are." The blond felt himself flush, not believing the other man for a second because the implications were ridiculous. Nevertheless, he had felt a certain measure of…closeness…that hadn't been there before. Just thinking about it, everything, made him feel warmer - the rush of blood in his ears when they'd fought, not caring for the others around them; the feel of the Masamune against his throat and knowing his life was in Sephiroth's hands; the chilled water gliding down his throat even as he'd been so very aware of the heat of the silver-haired man's hand on his back…

"Hey," Zack said, hand on Cloud's chin to lift the blond's head. "Don't go all introvert-y on me. You know what I heard today?"

"No…" Cloud frowned, unable to shake his head because of Zack's hand on him. "What?"

"There was one cadet who was there who said it was the most amazing thing he'd ever seen. That it was beautiful." Zack smiled again. "We all know that watching talented people spar is a sight to behold, but it takes something special for bog-standard cadets to come out and say it's ‘beautiful.' You know that."

Cloud pursed his lips for a moment. "You and Sephiroth are beautiful," he said, voice very quiet. He made to pull away, but Zack's fingers tightened even as he sighed, forcing Cloud to look at him again.

"Not in the same way." He stroked his thumb briefly against Cloud's skin, asking for forgiveness for the roughness of his hold. "You know that, too. Continually convincing yourself that you're unworthy will keep you alone and depressed forever." His smile, then, was wistful, almost sad. "I wish I had seen you two today. I can only imagine what it was like, but I know that cadet was telling the truth. You and he make it beautiful because you love him. That is all the difference."

Cloud did not fight his hold, but his gaze slid away like water through his fingers. He remained silent.

"No reply?" Zack snorted. "I thought you would have denied it…"

"I love him." It cut Zack off, a surprisingly strong statement, and so obviously true that it was impossible to refute.

After a moment, the dark-haired man said, "Well, you know that admitting to the problem is the first step towards curing it, they say…"

Cloud still had the magazine in hand and thwacked Zack hard until they were laughing and rolling on the bed, finding long abandoned ticklish spots, all seriousness forgotten.


He forgot to ask Reno what he had been so jittery about, and it wasn't until the next practice they held that he had a chance to ask. He ducked in at the last minute to avoid being accosted by curious cadets who wanted to know first hand about what it was like to fight the General, and snuck up beside Reno. "Hey," he said, poking the red-haired boy in the side, making him jump.

It earned him a swift punch to his bicep, though it was accompanied by Reno's playful grin. "Hello," he said. "I hear you've been a busy bunny."

Cloud rolled his eyes. "Not you, too. I'm getting sick of answering questions about it." He smiled. "I forgot to ask about your thing that you were looking for, or whatever it was. Did it happen?"

Reno shook his head, crossing his arms over his thin chest. "Nah, he didn't turn up. Maybe today - ah!" Eyes brightening, Reno nodded his head to where a figure had silently appeared in one of the entrance ways to the amphitheatre. Cloud recognised the blue suit immediately, and the long, slicked back black hair. Tseng hadn't really changed, though it was obvious he was a bit younger here. His expression wasn't quite as severe as Cloud was used to, his mouth more relaxed than normal. The Turk's eyes were still cold, but that was a look Cloud had seen in the eyes of many who killed often. He had seen it in his own in the years after Meteor.

Tseng's dark eyes swept over them, searching out Reno, it seemed, but they lingered on Cloud first. Cloud wondered if Tseng had heard about his fight against Sephiroth, and if that might draw their attention to him. He had no intention of joining, but he'd heard horror stories about those who'd refused a rank offered to them. He kept his eyes averted, and when the practical started, he made sure he did not make a spectacle of himself. Reno tried extra hard, very aware that he was being watched, but Cloud wasn't sparring him that day. Out of the corner of his eye he watched as Reno made a quick lunge with his sword that his opponent was just too slow to fend off, effectively winning the match.

His own duel went much more languidly. Cloud's arm still ached somewhat, though not nearly as much as he'd thought it might, but he was careful anyway. His mind was elsewhere, though there was always a part of it focused on the hear and now, this match, just enough to be able to parry the oncoming blows with ease, and with not much thought...just instinct, knowing that what his eyes saw, his arm had to follow...

This was child's play...He realised now how much he missed the feel of his blood racing, pounding through his veins in excitement and anticipation and not knowing whether he'd come out on top or not. Having to think on his feet, having to focus all his concentration on a fight, strategising as much as fighting back on that instinctual level that bypassed concrete thought and made him pure fighting machine, nothing more than quicksilver in the air, and consumed with that liquid fire of joy when he found a partner to match him, someone to push and be pushed by. Someone who understood the power of a thin strip of sharpened metal whistling through the air as much as he did, and knew how to use it.

Fighting Sephiroth would be like that when they were both in SOLDIER. Then, they would be the 'beautiful' that Zack had talked of. Whatever they were now was nothing more than a pale imitation of what it could be, he knew that so deep down inside him that there was no argument. He knew it on the same level as he knew he loved Sephiroth.

I love him...I said that to Zack...I think it's the first time...the first time that I've ever said it aloud...

It was…freeing. Something inside him that he had kept hidden for as long as he could remember, though it was as much a part of him as the need to breathe. Zack had known - obviously he had, or he wouldn't have said so - but still, it had been laid between them now, where it had obviously only been a nebulous suspicion before. He trusted Zack enough not to betray him with that knowledge.

A whistle blew, signalling for those who had not yet finished their matches to do so and call it a draw. Cloud's opponent dropped his sword gratefully, breathing hard. "God," he gasped out, hands on his knee as he bent over. "I knew it was going to be hard when I got paired with you but...this is...ridiculous."

Cloud smiled sheepishly. "Sorry."

He was waved off with an answering smile - no hard feelings. Cloud was glad, half afraid that somewhere down the line he would become resented by the others, which would make life unnecessarily difficult. Not that he'd been particularly popular before, but he hadn't wanted to single himself out as someone to bully, either.

Zack was convinced that Cloud's scrap in the gym with the General would serve to make him a legend amongst the cadets, but Cloud thought that was going a bit far.

By the time he found himself at Reno's side again, the redhead was managing a good impression of nonchalance, refusing to look in Tseng's direction. Cloud rather suspected that Reno was impressed beyond belief by Tseng's cool, unconcerned demeanour didn't wish to seem so young and excitable in comparison. However, the air around him was tinged with nervous energy, and Cloud grinned at him, shoving the taller boy playfully.

For Reno, it seemed that the last lot of instructor's spiel couldn't pass quickly enough, and Cloud couldn't blame him. Reno had been a drifter, that much he knew, before he'd tried for SOLDIER, and the Turks had given him a place and stability he craved. However much it spoke for Reno's moral standards, he fitted with the Turks like Zack slotted in with SOLDIER.

Tseng appeared out of the shadows as soon as they were dismissed for the day, striding purposefully towards where they stood. Reno flashed Cloud a nervous grin before starting to make his way across to meet the Turk halfway, and Cloud watched, surprised when the dark-haired man fixed him with a long look and said, "You there, I'd like to speak with you."

Reno glanced back over his shoulder at the blond, expression the most confused that Cloud had ever seen it, and he knew that his own face mirrored that. He wandered over, lugging along his practice blade in one hand.

Tseng was giving him a chilly look over as he neared. It wasn't unfriendly, as such, just professional and calculating. Cloud was used to that look - no-one could do it quite so well as Hojo. "What's your name?" the Turk asked.

"Cloud Strife, sir," he replied, keeping his voice neutral.

Tseng frowned at him, the slight creasing of his skin on his forehead pulling at the dark spot there. "I've not noticed you before," he said, sounding a bit puzzled. Cloud felt his stomach pull in apprehension as understanding began to dawn, and he didn't reply, opting to stand politely and make sure his expression stayed as it was.

When Tseng was finished looking Cloud over again, he raised cool dark eyes to Cloud's face. "Are you aware of what unit I'm from?"

Cloud met his gaze, letting a frown come through. It wouldn't do good to show that he could level the same stare back at Tseng, because it might encourage the man more. "The Turks, sir," he said.

"Are you aware of what the Turks do, cadet?"

"They...scout for SOLDIER candidates," Cloud replied, affecting a slightly confused voice, hoping that naivety would put the man off.

"Amongst other things, yes," Tseng said diplomatically, and Cloud wasn't entirely sure that the Turk leader was fooled by his act. Cloud wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't - the Turks were one of ShinRa's many open secrets. Hopefully he'd just think that Cloud was stupid. "I'd like to see the two of you and your skills in a more private environment," he continued, nodding to the dispersing crowd of cadets as they wandered noisily to the showers. "This is hardly the place to determine such things."

Cloud tried to think of a polite way of saying "I don't want to join the Turks" without ruining his facade of stupidity, and couldn't.

Reno cleared his throat, catching Tseng's attention. "When, sir?"

"I'll have to decide and send messages to you both," Tseng said thoughtfully. "Soon, though. Before the SOLDIER Entry Exams. Strife, you are dismissed. Reno - I'd like a private word."

Cloud sent Reno a brief look of apology before the red-head was herded away, dread settling in his stomach. He hadn't thought of this happening, though some small part of him had been aware that the Turks looked for the more talented cadets when they were looking to recruit. Vincent, for example, had been a natural marksman, as far as Cloud had heard, and had been snapped up away from SOLDIER.

Considering that the Turks were pretty much of legendary status amongst the SOLDIER cadets, Cloud doubted they'd ever had one refuse to join their ranks. Which put him in a difficult position - knowing what the Turks did, how they acted, how they fought, and knowing that he didn't want that - how would he be able to be the first cadet to do so? He'd heard of refusals, of course, but he was sure they'd come from older individuals whom the Turks had tried to poach from actual SOLDIER ranks when none of the cadets had measured up to standard.

There wasn't even a chance that he could get away with holding back his swordsmanship, considering that Tseng had watched him in that practical. As he meandered after the other cadets to the shower room, he ran a hand absently through his hair, sighing. Too many things to think about; too many complications. Too much he had to watch out for, in fear his secret might be revealed.

He tried to forget about it in the showers, standing with a hand against the tiled wall and letting the hot water beat down on his back, head lowered. Again, he stayed longer than necessary, until the normal shouts of the more boisterous cadets had faded out and there was just the sound of the water, and the smell of it in his nostrils. He found it comforting. The heat, the closeness of the air, offered a respite.

He wasn't the only one who seemed to have sought out that peace and comfort, and if he'd had his head turned into the spray of the water he wouldn't have been able to hear them. As it was, he closed his eyes and fought the embarrassed flush as he caught a quiet gasp of "f-fuck..." from the next stall over, and the quiet shush from a different voice. Then, he couldn't hear anything over the sound of the showers for a while, until the next groan came, voice unchecked.

Cloud turned his head into the spray so he didn't have to listen. He knew more than a few cadets here who wouldn't have done the same; would have strained their ears and reached for themselves like they would in their own beds when they thought it was safe to do so without anyone noticing. Instead, his mind went briefly back to the dream of the field, where Sephiroth had taken his mouth with no doubt that it was his to take. For a brief moment, he couldn't help but imagine that Sephiroth was with him then, pressing him back into cool, wet tiles with the same domination that he'd shown in Cloud's sleeping hours.

He pushed the image away roughly even as it sent a sharp spike down through his belly, and reached to turn off the shower. He ignored whatever he could hear from the next stall, determinedly closing his ears to it, and dried himself off before dressing.

Thinking about Sephiroth like that would only hurt, he told himself as he made his way back to the dorms, because it just would not happen. He'd told himself that for years, though, and it hadn't stopped him from dreaming.

The dorm was empty when he got there, and he dumped his things on his bed before falling on it with a sigh, relaxing for a moment. That was, until he realised that something was digging into his cheek. With a scowl, he moved himself so he could reach it, and found a slip of paper lying on his pillow. Shoving his elbows underneath him so he could read it, he frowned at the elegant, unhurried script. It didn't take long for a pleased smile to spread across his face - 'Since you were so convinced I was cheating, I'm willing to have a re-match, if you're willing to spare me some more of your time.' It was signed with just an initial.


Despite having a name that was known the world over, Sephiroth did not receive many unexpected visitors in his office, eager for just a glimpse of him and uncaring of any consequences to barging into his work place. He supposed that he might have done, if he'd been in any other occupation - or even if he were slightly lower down in the SOLDIER rankings, or maybe if his sword wasn't quite as long and painful looking as it was, and so forth. Or if he wore more welcoming colours - for example, anything other than black and silver. Sephiroth supposed that there were many reasons that people found him intimidating, but he hadn't found himself complaining yet.

On the odd occasion, he'd lamented to himself silently that his reputation obviously wasn't menacing enough to scare Zack away. He often found himself thinking this as the SOLDIER in question went on and on at length about some subject about which Sephiroth had no real interest, usually pertaining to women.

He'd had his scheduled meetings for the day. He'd sat and looked professional whilst some official had sat in the chair opposite him and gone on and on about something that had absolutely nothing to do with him, until he'd pointed this out and the man had gone slightly red. He'd had his obligatory listen to Zack, who often wandered in on his way on some errand (usually taking a long detour in able to get to Sephiroth's office) in order to tell him something else. He was pretty sure he'd met his people quota for the day, however low that quota might be compared to other people's. And, as he looked at the diminishing pile of paperwork on his desk with great satisfaction, he was going to get out of work at a reasonable hour that day. All in all, life was good as far as he was concerned.

He couldn't help but look up and blink when he heard a knock on the door. He wasn't aware that anyone had an appointment to see him, and certainly not at this hour, because whilst he might have considered it reasonable, that by no means it was within normal office working hours. His meeting-free evenings were where he normally got the majority of his work done because there was no-one else around to distract him.

"Come in," Sephiroth called, keeping his voice free of concern or confusion, and sat back in his chair.

There was a pause, and then the door handle turned and the door pushed open just enough to let Cloud Strife half-appear. He glanced quickly around the office, as if he expected someone else to be there. Sephiroth clasped his hands together on the desk, pleasantly surprised, and letting his demeanour soften to show it. "Cloud."

When Cloud's eyes met his, they were as confident as he had ever seen them, a blue as clear and rich as the summer sky, but there was still that hint of wariness that he was so used to seeing. Clearing his throat a little, the blond said, "Is this a bad time?"

"Not at all..." Politely, Sephiroth closed the folder he'd been looking through, though it also served to keep the contents away from any prying eyes. Most chose to take the move as a sign of complete attention. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

The rest of Cloud slipped in through the door, closing it behind him with a soft click. He was all limbs, wearing a blue tank top that showed off his pale arms, and dark trousers that accented the length of his legs.

- they'd be just as long clad in nothing but skin, but you wouldn't really notice that if they were wrapped around your waist -

Mortified, Sephiroth looked down as Cloud came closer, pretending to be doing something by pushing the folder further towards the edge of the desk.

"I got your note?" Cloud said in his low, soft voice, tone rising at the end in a question, as if he wasn't entirely sure he'd got the right person.

"Ah, yes." Sephiroth supposed it had been bold of him to leave it, there for anyone to see and just signing it with an initial wasn't enough to stop anyone with half a brain from working out who it was from, if they'd heard even the slightest mention of their impromptu battle in the exam simulation. He was ready to look up again, then, and Cloud was standing a few feet from the desk, not entirely casual but not too formal either, but still entirely too inviting and with absolutely no idea of it. "Did you want to do it again? I didn't hurt your arm, did I?"

"Oh, no," Cloud said, holding out the limb and twisting it briefly to show that it was in perfect working order. "It's fine. And yes, I do - of course I do." He smiled, too self-conscious by half, but the expression lit up his face, a welcome change from the usually flat mouth and worried eyes. "I just...I'm supposed to spar with Reno, and I don't know when, so it'll have to wait until I know what's going on with him..."

"Reno?" Sephiroth frowned, the name familiar but not one he could instantly put a face to. After a second, he recalled a red-haired man, thin and lanky but taller than Cloud, with a somewhat angularly handsome face marred by street scars. Tseng was interested in him. He also recalled Zack talking about the boy, though - what had he said? 'That shit Reno,' or something to that effect - Reno had been the one to tell Cloud of the General's apparently well-known sexual habits.

Zack had warned him about that. He hadn't really thought about it at the time.

"Yeah...he's a friend of mine," Cloud said, expression turned wondering as he watched Sephiroth's face.

"Ah," the older man said, and felt his stomach drop with disappointment. Reno was a friend, and one to whom Cloud adhered more than he did the General, if this was anything to go by. Reno's arrangements were coming first. Which meant he would have to be careful, if that was so - Reno could say anything about him to Cloud, and it was likely that the blond would believe it.

Reno already had said things to Cloud about him. He wondered if Cloud had taken it as negatively as Zack seemed to think he might have - inexplicably, the thought hurt. He wanted to explain, to say something in his defence - but couldn't. He fought the sudden worried urge, covering it, and kept it from being shown in his eyes. "Well, as soon as you know, we could arrange something, if you wish." He let his mouth pull into a slight smirk. "I'll even leave the Masamune behind."

"That was rather unfair," Cloud admonished gently, as if Sephiroth's promise of future good will was all but due, and it caused the smirk to lose its edge, becoming gentler and more amused. "We could always swap..."

Sephiroth snorted, the sound causing Cloud's serious expression to fade away and reveal the sly smile he'd been trying to keep at bay. "No doubt it would be highly amusing to watch us duel if we did, but, unfortunately, I am the only one who can handle the Masamune."

"I know." And Cloud did. He knew he did, and Sephiroth knew he did. And instead of the long, niggling ache to know how and why Cloud knew, it was muted by the warmth of knowing that someone, somehow, understood, without question and without fail.

And not long after, when Cloud had disappeared back to his dorm, Sephiroth tapped his fingers restlessly on the top of his desk. He pushed down on the dark, sudden train of thought that told him Reno would do nothing but drip poison in Cloud's ear and try to tear at that fragile, peaceful middle-ground that was still no more than newborn between them, and which he abruptly realised that he would not hesitate to fight for.




End Chapter 13

1. Yes, I know, I suck at updating. Stone me if you want :P I had exams and revision for, like, ever... .

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