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Worth a Shot

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1.

 

It's the Sergeant who changes everything; though Vincent Valentine's mere existence is what puts Cloud Strife onto a whole new path in life. The Sergeant, who first spent two months putting Cloud through basic training and then watched over his progress in the following six months as an Infantry Ensign, is the one who starts it though. Drill Sergeant Sull watches over all of Cloud's squad, of course, and is in charge of their growth as troopers, and has had a hand in bringing forth many a skilled Infantryman – but with Cloud, he excels because of one simple thing.

"Listen, Ensign," the old sergeant says, pulling him aside. "I've been looking at your mission records and the comments from your squad leader and… well, I think maybe you should take some time off. Think things through. Military life isn't for everyone, you know."

A gentle way of saying that Cloud has failed one way or another with most of the tasks given to him and the Sergeant wasn't sure if it was worth it to let him wear the uniform again. Cloud takes it with about as much grace as he can – his past failures all piling up, and thrusting their individual knifes into his back, starting with the dozens from Nibelheim, and with the failure of the SOLDIER exams plunging in the first sword. He nods, tries not to cry, and applies for the leave that is usually very rarely granted, but which in his case is approved immediately.

Three weeks leave from ShinRa's Infantry Corps. He knows then that the Sergeant and all his squad mates don’t expect him to come back or that if he does, it will only be to apply for a discharge. It would be dishonourable, of course, because for all his faults he was physically and mentally classified as able, and ShinRa was bad at letting people go. But failure was failure.

Cloud doesn't have the money to stay in Midgar without the small pay of an infantryman. So he pulls all his funds together to get himself a ticket from Midgar to Junon by train, Junon to Costa Del Sol by ship and from there he would probably have to hitchhike to Nibelheim – and walk the rest of the way. It feels like the worst of his long line of failures, to be forced to go back home with his tail between his legs, with nothing to show for the trip that had taken all of his life's savings and pride to accomplish.

But he makes it, because there is nothing else he can do at that point.

Nibelheim hasn't changed – still dark, cold, aloof and glaring at him as he enters it, in civilian clothing - the uniform left in a storage unit in Midgar – the same weak Cloud as the one who had left. His mother hasn't changed either, though – she welcomes him with a tight hug, with tears and smiles. She wonders about the new muscles at his arms, his chest, and stares open eyed at the army rifle at his back, wondering why they had let him keep it.

Why? Because ShinRa was bad at weapons control. Because the rifle is an extremely cheap make. Because he has adjusted the stock and the butt so that it fits his shoulder better, and thus doesn't fit anyone else that well. And because his Sarge is a nice man and knows he'd get himself killed by monsters without a weapon to defend himself with.

"I'm still in the military, Ma. I'm just on leave," he says instead, shrugging and putting the rifle away.

Nibelheim hasn't changed and no one but his mother is happy to see him back – even Tifa seems disappointed but then, he hadn't been able to keep his promise, he wasn't a SOLDIER or a hero. He wasn't even all that good as an Infantryman. Cloud though has changed- and if the half a year in service had taught him nothing else, it had taught him its schedule. He still wakes up at five thirty a.m. sharp every morning, even without the squad leader screaming in his ears. He still rolls out of the bed and to the floor, meeting it with his hands and feet and immediately beginning with the minimum ten push ups. He still feels like he has to take a run, even on leave, and so he does, running to the ShinraMansion and back four times. And he still, after all of it, has to take a shower to get rid of the sweat and give himself time to catch his breath.

And then he gets bored, because what usually follows the brief exercise doesn't happen here. There is no mission for the squad, no patrolling or monster extermination, no drills, no training missions, no guard or escort duty. Nothing. He sits in his old bedroom for almost an hour before the energy he isn't exerting begins to push through and he has to do something just to keep himself occupied.

He takes his rifle, intending to see if he can match the monsters of Nibelheim the way he hadn't been able to before. He is a decent shot with the rifle now that it fits him better, and though he has only a limited amount of ammunition he still has enough to waste a bit – four clips in total, thanks to his squad leader having a thing about being overly prepared.

At first he considers going up the mountain, but as he is passing by the empty ShinraMansion, a flicker of movement stops him. Remembering there are some monsters in the mansion, he takes his rifle there instead, figuring that as a ShinRa Infantryman it's only his duty to clear the place as much as he can. Though the gate is locked and rusted through and he has to vault over it, the front door of the mansion itself is open. And inside, he finds the exercise he had been looking for, in dozens of small and large beasts infesting the house, nesting in the half rotten beds and closets and shelves.

He is through his first magazine and considering retreat just to save his bullets, when he finds himself no longer alone. Silent as a grave, a dark haired man in a red cape watches him from the doorway as Cloud clears one more bedroom of a nest, killing the monsters and crushing their eggs – nearly scaring the life out of the infantryman when he turns and finds himself on the receiving end of a red, solemn stare.

"Your marksmanship is pitiful," the red eyed man says to him, ignoring the barrel of the rifle Cloud has pointed at him. "Why was someone like you sent to clean out the mansion?"

"I wasn't. I'm here just to…" Cloud hesitates. Train? Exercise? No, not really. If he had wanted that, he would've gone up the mountain and tried to kill monsters at a distance. "I'm on leave. I got bored."

"So you're here to waste ammunition," the dark haired man says disapprovingly and pulls out his own, small calibre handgun. Before Cloud can even blink, a shot echoes and a monster just behind him falls to the floor, dead. The gun is immediately holstered and the red eyed man turns. "Save your bullets and leave. These monsters aren't worth it," he says.

"Wait!" Cloud cries out, looking between the dead monster and the red eyed man. The man had shot the creature just between its eyes, without taking more than a split second to aim, without even supporting his gun arm – just point, bam, and a dead monster. Cloud could've never done that. Hell, the Sarge couldn't have done that.

"Teach me," he demands – pleads, really, because if he had that sort of aim, that sort of accuracy, if he becomes that good… then maybe he could become something in the military.

The red eyed man pauses, looks at him, and narrows his eyes. "Why?" he asks.

"Because I suck and I want to get better," Cloud says and swings the rifle strap from his shoulder.  Originally, he had wanted to learn swords. But after the utter failure in the SOLDIER exam – after the horrible moment when he had only barely been able to lift the weapon and the hit of another's sword against it had made it drop and his hands shake for hours – he didn’t much want it anymore. He can use guns, though, you don't need to swing them or block with them and you don't need to get up close and personal with them. Guns however, he could use them with something like skill and he could disassemble, reassemble and maintain them with skill that could've been called good, if not for a couple of better guys in his squad.

And he wants to be better at them. He wants to excel at something. To be proud of something he can do.

"Please," Cloud says when the red eyed man just stares at him. "I suck at everything. I'm the worst in my squad. I'm slow and I'm clumsy and I can only keep up whenever it's too cold for everyone else. I want to be worth something."

Whether it's the words or the desperation in his voice or something else, it makes the other man turn. "Show me," he demands and Cloud hands his rifle over, watching how the man examines the readjusted stock, and reshaped butt. "You made this?"

"I modified it. It was too long before," Cloud says awkwardly.

"Hm," the gunman says, testing the weight and sighting the rifle. He doesn't take a shot, though, only tests the weight and balance and the modified stock with the sort of expertise that Cloud had only seen once, when his squad had been assigned to watch over a Turk sniper.

"How long is your leave?" the man asks, finally lowering the rifle.

"Three weeks – uh… two and five days, now," Cloud says, trying not to sound too excited – before realising that it would never be enough. You needed months, years, to be good with a gun. Two weeks? What could anyone learn in two weeks?

"Alright. You will come here every morning at eight," the red eyed man says. "How much ammunition do you have in total?" he demands to know and Cloud answers. "Do you have any way of getting more?" the man asks, and Cloud shakes his head. "It'll have to do then," he man says and hands the rifle over.

"Tomorrow then?" Cloud asks, uneasy and anxious.

"No. We start now," the red eyed man says and turns to leave, Cloud stumbling after him.

 

2.

 

Stance, legs shoulder width apart, shoulders level, arms relaxed. Grip, rifle butt at the shoulder, right hand around the pistol grip, fingers at the trigger, left hand supporting. Breathe, in, half out, hold. Aim. Cloud eyes the target silently for a moment before taking the shot. He doesn't pause to check if he had hit it, but repeated the litany and the motions. Stance. Grip. Breathe. Aim. Fire.

"Better," Vincent says quietly, after he has taken three shots in total and could relax. The red caped man walks over to the target pinned to a tree in the forest behind the Shinra mansion, taking the piece of paper ripped from a book and coming back to Cloud to show that on the simple, hand drawn target, he had almost hit the bull's-eye once. "You have good eyes, and your hands are level. All you need to do is learn to aim properly. That will come with practice."

Cloud nods, rubbing his arms a bit uneasily. It has been only a week that he has been under Vincent's tutelage, but he had already added twenty meters to his range, and can now hit the bull's-eye three times out of five at his old range. He hasn't been able to do that ever, and can't quite understand how such simple tricks had taught him so much, so fast. His stance had been atrocious, according to Vincent, and his grip all wrong – and apparently holding a full lungful of air was what always had made him miss at the crucial point. Get rid of those and suddenly he is hitting the target every time, and bull's eye more often than ever.

"The equipment is limiting you as well – that rifle is pitiful. With proper equipment, you might have the workings of a sniper in you, actually," the gunman muses, eyeing the target thoughtfully.

"A sniper?" Cloud asks, startled.

"You have the eyes and the patience for it, and you got the handle of the techniques fast enough," the gunman says, dropping the target paper.

A sniper. That is certainly something he had never considered. A good shot, yes, he would very much like to be that, but a sniper? Like the Turk who had taken out a man nearly seven hundred meters away, without ever being seen, without giving the target any warning? Could he really do the same?

"H-how different is it, between snipers and using normal weapons?" He asks tentatively, trying to wrap his mind around it.

"As far as firing the actual weapon, much. You'd need practice in using a scope, and larger calibre weapons. Also, you would need better awareness of your surroundings, or an observer," Vincent says. "In sniping you need to take the weather conditions into consideration and be able to calculate the distance, and of course counteract any possible effecting factors. And of course, you need a weapon you know to the fullest of its capabilities. A sniper also needs training in camouflage and stealth, as the whole point of sniping is doing it unseen and undetected. You will also need physical fitness, better than you currently have. A sniper might need to lie still for hours, for days, without eating or moving, after all."

Cloud swallows. That is a tall order, especially the physical fitness part – the thing which was holding him up with his regular duties. Camouflage is easier, as well as the awareness of weather conditions and distance – he is already pretty good with those. A sniper, though… that would be something. Nothing like being a SOLDIER, but something. "Can you teach me?" he asks, more thoughtful than eager this time.

"With this?" Vincent asks, looking at his rifle disapprovingly. "I can teach you the techniques, but not the skill, not with this. You would need a proper sniper rifle for those."

"Then teach me what you can," Cloud says. "I'll figure out the rest somehow once I get back to Midgar."

And that, that is something. Because before he hadn't been certain if he was going to return. Now he wants to. He wants to show what he's learned so far and wants to get his hands on better targets, better weaponry – unlimited amounts of ammunition to practice with – and he wants to implement his new skills to their fullest. He wants to show that he is not a loser anymore, and more than anything he wants to get even better.

One taste of what he could become isn't enough. He is desperate for more.

"Very well. This, though, will require more space than this," Vincent muses, looking around them in the forest clearing. "We shall go to the mountain, and start there."

And they do. In the following days, Vincent takes him through all the tricks and ways of calculating distances and observing the weather without someone there with proper equipment to back him up. Cloud learns to read the rustling of leaves and waving of branches as numbers rather than distant wind phenomena, and he learns to leave little markers in the scenery, which further helps him. A strip of cloth is a very good way to read the wind, when tied to a stick or a branch – though dangerous to use in field conditions.

He also learns how a sniper is to move. A sniper doesn't walk unless he is absolutely certain of his cover – he crawls, and there were several ways to crawl. And while learning how to crawl low, medium, high, and on his hands and knees depending on the terrain, he also learns to find the proper spots – ones which are concealed but have a good view, where he can have the perfect aim while being able to keep an eye on the terrain, the wind, the weather and the air.

"Always have your back covered," Vincent says, as Cloud sights with the now extremely limited manual sight of the infantry rifle, trying to get the perfect read on a nibel wolf that is drinking from a fountain in the valley below. "Unless you work in a team, your back is your most vulnerable spot because you need to keep your eyes forward, so make sure you know what's there. If you can, make sure that if something comes up on you from behind, you hear them – scatter leaves or twigs or anything else that makes a sound there, if you can't do anything else."

Cloud hums and takes a breath. There is a whole different litany for firing when you're on your belly, and he can't hold his breath like before, can't aim like before, because of the limits of his position and of the rifle, which he had propped against a rock for lack of a proper stand. But there are upsides too. He can support his elbows down and it's easier to keep the rifle level.

Wind. Distance. Breathe. Watch for target movements. Aim. Fire.

The nibel wolf jerks with the shot, falls and doesn't get up.

"Hundred and seventy four meters," Vincent observes. "Good."

"Thanks," Cloud murmurs, lifting his head and looking down at the valley, a bit disbelieving that he could really do that. But he had been shooting for the last days more than ever, and using so many different methods that he was starting to figure out the ins and outs of the rifle, its moods and quirks. He was running out of ammo, even, after all of the shooting, and was on his last clip now.

Hundred and seventy was nothing for a sniper, though. Good for having made it without a scope and with a mere standard infantry rifle, but only that. Good.

"My leave is almost over, though," he says, lifting the rifle from where he had propped it, and swinging the strap onto his shoulder. "I gotta head back to Midgar the day after tomorrow."

Vincent says nothing, just stares down at the nibel wolf, silent as the wind tugs at his cape. Cloud looks at him silently and then away, uneasy. Though what they had been doing had been only about shooting, and they hadn't exchanged much personal information – just getting the man's name had been like pulling teeth – he… will miss the man. During these weeks Vincent had been a constant, comforting presence, a guiding hand in a way even the Drill Sarge had never been, and certainly none of his squad mates could compete. It had been… nice.

Who knew why Vincent had bothered. Cloud was nothing special, really, and had probably only annoyed the man in the beginning. But Vincent had taught him, still was, and Cloud had learned so much. "I want to thank you somehow, for teaching me," he says, looking up again. "Is there anything I can do?"

Vincent frowns, turning his eyes to him. When Cloud just stares at him earnestly, the man turns to look away, before turning completely to leave. "I have enjoyed the company," he says. "That is enough."

"No, it isn't," Cloud argues, falling in step with him. "You've just been teaching me, and you get nothing from it."

Vincent chuckles darkly and looks at him with a strange sort of warmth which feels dark and dangerous at the same time. "It only seems so because you do not know the circumstances," he says. "I slept before your waste of ammunition woke me from my nightmares below the mansion. This period has been… peaceful. And I have," he adds, quieter now, "enjoyed the company."

Cloud blinks at that at first, confused, trying to keep up. Sleeping below the mansion? Then the last words and the tone they had been spoken in catches up with him, as well as the look Vincent is giving him – almost shy, a little sad.

"Vincent?" he asks softly. "How long have you been alone?"

The gunman sighs, looking away and shaking his head. "Long enough to forget," he admits. "What year is it now?"

The question seems so ludicrous that for a moment Cloud doesn't answer – after all, there was no way Vincent didn't know. Was there? But the look on the man's face is serious, a bit longing, a lot sad – and so very bitter. Not something someone who is joking would wear.

"It's the year zero," Cloud says softly. "Of the new millennium."

"Year zero," Vincent whispers, frowning at the distance. "Then it has been… twenty three years." He smiles wryly and shakes his head. "Fifty years of age, hm. Feels longer. Except…."

"What, you mean, you're fifty years old?" Cloud asks, disbelieving, giving him another look. Granted, he hadn't given Vincent's looks much thought – he was a handsome man, pale skinned, dark haired, but most of the time it was the red eyes, the golden claw, the cape, that drew his eyes rather than the face. The young, perfect, unblemished face. "That's not possible, you’re barely thirty! Hell, barely twenty!"

"I have slept and in my sleep I have not aged. That is the way of things now," the gunman answers with a shake of his head. "For that matter I am not entirely sure if I can age, anymore, even outside of sleep."

Cloud frowns, looking at him closely and with a glance at him Vincent sighs again and then, with thoughtful voice, begins to explain.

 

3.

 

Cloud’s return to Midgar surprises most, but his new skill and determination with marksmanship surprises everybody. He ignores them at first as he, with determined eyes and steady grip, shoots his way through the previous records of the firing range and then breaks first his own personal record and then the records of his entire squad in disassembly, maintenance and reassembly. He even ignores the way his squad mates look at him, like they don't know what's happening.

At least up until the point his squad leader gets him a better rifle – the SR-RIR 12, which came with a lot of spare parts, including a bi-pod and a scope for sniping. It's still not exactly a sniper rifle, and has relatively small calibre bullets, but with it Cloud breaks his own hundred and eighty four meter record, and leaps to four hundred and fifty nine the first day – six hundred and twenty two by the end of the week. Their success rate goes through the roof after the captain decides to put Cloud into a high position and have him snipe everything the rest of the squad misses in their many, many monster extermination missions.

After that it's only matter of time before he's called in for retraining and put into a sniper course. In the weeks that follow, he goes through several different rifles, small and large calibre, with scope after scope. It takes him three weeks to realise the trainers are shoving everything ShinRa has at him in hopes of him finding a rifle that suits him the best and a scope he is most comfortable with. He eventually does, though the end result surprises most – the SR-224 Long with point fifty calibre ammunition is a behemoth of a rifle, with kickback that can break skulls when fired wrong. It weights almost fifteen kilograms with the scope and at first is a bit awkward for Cloud to carry, as unaccustomed as he is, but he is so very willing to adjust to it, just for the chance of having the thing.

That, and the SRH-02 Anti-Tank Rifle, which weighs almost fifty kilos and fires twenty millimetre rounds, which he learns to love after watching it decimate the targets at nearly a kilometre away… but they only let him play with that beauty in special situations.

Implementing everything Vincent had taught and told him, using all the tricks he knew and pushing himself as far as he could go; he eventually makes it to a kilometre, four hundred and eighty meters with the SR-224 Long. It's enough for him to celebrate even, because that makes him one of the ten best snipers ShinRa has – and five of those ten are all Turks. It also earns him a promotion from Ensign to Warrant Officer, and his squad a definite increase in mission difficulty.

And this, after only a few months of training.

"It seems that your break did you some good," his old Drill Sergeant says when Cloud is in for his monthly review. "What did you do during that break? Because I would love to get some other guys doing the same, if it gets them this motivated."

"I met a guy, sir," Cloud shrugs. "He taught me some tricks about shooting."

Thinking of Vincent makes him a bit uneasy now, though, because thinking of Vincent makes him think of ShinRa in a certain, not that appealing light. Not that he has ever thought that ShinRa is that great or anything like pure, but after what Vincent had told him, he has been a little more aware of the shadows behind the shine. Lots and lots of shadows, all tinted Mako green and acidic and ruining someone's life.

And it reminds him just how much he misses Vincent. It had been hardest, during the sniper training because ShinRa's trainers did things differently than Vincent had, this stance, this breathing pattern, this tactic. Not always wrong, sometimes they were even better than what he had been using before, but they were different and taught so differently, shown completely wrong. He misses Vincent’s quiet comments and orders to readjust his grip, fix his stance, breathe properly. And however short the time had been, he misses the guarding presence at his back.

It is around that time, when the military beings to buzz with the SOLDIER mass desertions. Well, not quite buzz, the whole affair is kept something like a secret, but it's an open secret and for a while everyone whispers. The SOLDIER corps wasn't that big to begin with, just a little under a hundred and fifty in total, but when something like eighty of them defects all at once? It is news, it is big news. And it makes the infantry squads really busy, when the SOLDIER corps loses their ability to keep up with their mission lists and the simpler ones begin to be sent their way.

Cloud loves it. His squad is already starting to become known as the Sniper Squad because of him, so they get the missions best suited for him. And so he finds his spots on cliffs, on roof tops, on hills, in vehicles – a few times he even gets to do his thing from a moving helicopter – and he fires. The SR-224 Long becomes an extension of him as he takes out target after target, first just monsters, but then more and more people as his skills and nerves are proven. Eventually, it begins to show even in his wallet, after the surplus of missions starts to cash in.

When the Turks approach him, he is and isn't surprised – people had already been talking about the possibility and the major in charge of their squad had even warned him that the Turks had better uses for a sniper than the Infantry did. Cloud meets someone named Tseng at the shooting range, ignoring the man and his suit for long enough to fire his rounds and check his progress before looking up.

"Good shooting," the man says approvingly. "You have good eyes."

"Thank you, sir," Cloud says worriedly and what follows is a sort of back handed interrogation, as the man asks him about his process and how he had learned and what he thought of this and that – of ShinRa and of the Turks, of dealing with the company's enemies in the shadows. As a sniper, he was already used to it, wasn't he?

Except, Cloud definitely doesn't want to be a Turk. Vincent had been a Turk and gotten burned for it, burned and cut and remade into something else. He'll shoot, sure, monsters and people too if they're trying to do something that might put other people in jeopardy. But he doesn't like the idea of doing so in secret, as a Turk, because whatever else Turks were, they were assassins too, they were the clean-up crews, they were the people who enforced the secrets and spread the lies. And Cloud wants nothing to do with that.

Maybe some of his feelings bleed through or maybe Tseng sees something of his opinions about the company in his face, but the man eventually leaves with a nod and Cloud doesn't hear from him again.

Whom he does hear from, though, surprises him. A mere week after his brief meeting with Tseng, he gets a message from a strange number to his PHS. "I am coming to Midgar. I found I could not sleep anymore," it says and Cloud wastes no time in asking when he'd be there and when they could meet.

 

4.

 

"Okay, I know you're fond of that get up, but you just can't go around looking like that," Cloud says upon their meeting, looking pointedly at the ragged cape Vincent wears. "You'll draw attention."

"I am aware," the gunman answers with wry amusement. "There are however some upsides to drawing attention."

Like the fact that people in the Seventh Sector slums – where Vincent had somehow procured lodgings for himself – are under the impression that Vincent is a former, failed performer who hadn't been able to let go of his character. They treat him with a mixture of amusement and sympathy and let him go about his business without bothering one way or the other, though the gun at his hip probably helps.

"I made it to sniper," Cloud admits, as they find a quiet spot in the slums, sitting on the rooftop of one of the huts, watching the so called streets below – which are really nothing but spaces which lacked some of the clutter. "I went through sniper training, even. Speed course."

"So I see," Vincent muses, looking at the heavy sniper rifle which Cloud never leaves behind anymore – not that he strictly speaking should be carrying it around. The rifle is expensive as hell and they don't like him lugging it around to random places, but then again… it is his rifle, now. ShinRa's poor weapons control gives him a lot of leeway too. "Tell me about it," Vincent asks, and Cloud tells him – his average range, his records in and out of field, and his success with the anti-tank rifles.

"Mind you, I can't get one of those for myself," Cloud adds. "Too much firepower for an infantryman, apparently, and I can't carry it anyway, too heavy. But still," he sighs, thinking about the SHR-02 Anti-Tank Rifle. If he could carry it around, he would. Oh, he so would. He would nickname the thing and sleep with it and everything.

"Compensating," Vincent says with quiet amusement

"If this is compensation, I'll compensate with pride," Cloud grins, patting the SH-224 Long fondly. "So," he then says. "What were you doing before you came here? I left Nibelheim months ago. You didn't just lie around in your coffin, trying to fall asleep all that time, did you?"

"No, I didn't. I did research. I visited a… place," Vincent answers thoughtfully. "I found some answers."

"That's good, isn’t it?" Cloud asks, leaning forward a bit to see Vincent's face below the dark hair and the shadows cast by the red bandana. There is almost a forlorn look about the man's face. "Were they good answers?"

"Not really," the gunman says and shakes his head, looking away. "But I know more now."

Cloud doesn't answer at first, not sure what to say – there is a world of secret meanings somewhere in Vincent words and despite what the gunman has told him he has no way of untangling the meanings. Eventually he shakes his head and stands up, stretching and then adjusting the weight of the rifle better on his back. "What are you planning to do now? You gonna stay in Midgar?"

"Yes, however…" Vincent considers it for a moment and then shakes his head. "I don't know," he admits, looking away with a strange look about his eyes. "I will… think of something to do with my time."

Later that week, Cloud's squad is reassigned from their usual regiment to the 13th and put under SOLDIER First Class, Sephiroth, who was put in charge of the Wutai front. Cloud is a bit uneasy about being sent to war – likely to be very different from the simpler missions he has been doing until now – but there is little he can say against it, it is the military after all. And a chance to really prove himself and his marksmanship does seem enticing.

He and Vincent meet the night before his deployment, and after listening to his goodbyes and assurances of a safe return, the gunman gives him a gift. A seemingly simple nine millimetre hand gun, very similar to the one Vincent himself uses – except it isn't.

"The Quicksilver. It's still the sturdiest handgun made," the gunman explains while Cloud tests the grip and the sights, before detaching the clip, reattaching it, and chambering a round. "There is only so much time, but there is something I would like you to learn before you go."

"I thought you already taught me everything," Cloud says, confused.

"Everything about sniping, and I was never an accustomed sniper. This is about handguns," Vincent says, and pulls out a knife. "I am going to show you how to use a gun against a blade."

What he teaches are three blocks one could do with a handgun, granted that the gun was strong enough to take a blade without taking damage. The Quicksilver is very sturdy, though, and takes the blade with little more than a metallic twang, without even a scratch to show for it afterwards. And so Cloud learns how to direct an attacking blade away – to the side, down, or up depending on the angle of attack – in a way that leaves him with a direct shot at the attacker's vitals.

"I didn't know you could use guns like this," he murmurs afterwards, while testing the motions again.

"It is merely common blocks you can do with a knife, only modified for a gun," Vincent answers. "But it may save your life."

"Do you know more stuff like this?" Cloud asks curiously.

"Yes. I developed an art of it, back when I was… in service," Vincent admits and then hands him the holster for his model of the Quicksilver. "However, a gun is a gun and its very purpose goes against close encounters. If you can shoot them at a distance, do that rather than letting them close. Remember that."

"I will," the sniper answers, holstering the gun and then looking at his mentor thoughtfully. "I'll… see you when I get back. And I'll message you when I get there."

"Do that," Vincent agrees.

The next day the long ride to Wutai commences – first a helicopter ride to Junon, from there they and about two hundred other troopers are crammed into a troop carrier to be flown to the ShinRa base in Wutai. Swallowing his nausea as much as he can, Cloud hugs the SH-224 Long and idly wonders if they brought the anti-tank rifle, and if he would get to shoot it.

After a night of flying, they touch down in the hottest region in Wutai, where tents form a city of their own and there are military personnel everywhere. "Welcome to Wutai," Sephiroth greets them grimly. "I'm supposed to give you a speech but I have only one piece of advice to give. Don't die."

Cloud's squad is sent out almost immediately, to a high hill that overlooks the only way into the military camp. There they relieve another, exhausted sniper squad that has been holding the ground alone for a month and more, and who are more than ready to get back to base for baths and proper rest if nothing else. At first Cloud is a bit confused about why they need a sniper patrolling the place, especially since they gave him one of ShinRa's newest – and super expensive – night scopes to go with his old scope, as well as two whole boxes of ammunition.

He finds out very quickly, that evening when the monsters begin to come, first in a trickle and then as a horde, and he has to put them all down, one by one. Wutai's rush tactics, it turns out, includes the use of monsters, lots and lots of monsters. How they had been tamed or set to do what the Wutaians wanted no one knows, but every night finds a new horde to rush the camp gates and every night they have to be put down without giving the Wutai snipers anything to shoot at – which meant that a sniper had to do it. And to make matters worse it wasn't only at night, but sometimes also during the day which made sleep a rare commodity for the one who had to deal with them all.

Cloud goes through clips like candy and brings his hit score from eighty seven percent to ninety five – and is more exhausted than he has ever felt when the first week is over. A week after that the previous squad relieves him and his squad for two weeks of downtime, and Cloud has to be supported all the way to the base.

"Good work," is all SOLDIER First Class Sephiroth has to say, but Cloud is half asleep by that time and can't hear.

The downtime doesn't turn out to be downtime at all. He gets the chance to catch up on his rest, wash, do some serious rifle maintenance and get his strength back before he is sent to support a rush operation. Sephiroth himself leads the attack on a Wutai village that is said to be the source of most of Wutai's western weapons, channelling them from the Western Continent to Wutai – and Cloud gets to sit on the roof of a truck, hidden behind blast shields, shooting everyone the SOLDIER or the men he leads misses.

Vincent tutelage saves his life then, though it does not save his squad. Four Wutai soldiers sneak up behind them, and silently slice the throats of four of the seven in Cloud's squad and by the time he looks up from the rifle scope, the rest are engaged in a mortal fight of knives and swords where they can't quite get their infantry rifles to bear. Horrified, Cloud watches one man's guts slipped and another's heart pierced before a Wutaian makes a go at him and he hurriedly rolls away, the sword missing him by hair's width.

He draws the Quicksilver in the middle of his roll and fires, once, twice, before having to block the attacking knife of the third Wutaian. The knife deflected with the gun barrel, Cloud directs the blade away and twists the gun, taking the attacker out with a bullet to the armpit – and then turns and takes out the fourth and last attacker with a bullet to the hip.

Except, horrifyingly enough, he had not hit a vital spot once and all his attackers are still alive and suffering, lying crumbled amidst the remains of Cloud's squad, bleeding to death by slow, painful wounds. As a sniper he had never gotten this close to a target in months, and it unnerves him beyond belief, the blood, the shaking, the moaning; it makes his hands shake, his stomach churn and he feels a little like running.

Vincent's voice in the back of his head calms him, speaking from back in Nibelheim when Cloud had started to learn the basics of sniping. "Don't go for the centre of mass, no matter how tempting," the man says. "When you take a shot, it must count as a kill. Aim for the vitals, for the head." And then, in much quieter voice, "If you must kill, do it quickly and painlessly."

Steeling himself, Cloud readies the Quicksilver and executes the attackers one by one with perfectly aimed shots to the forehead, before pushing them down from the truck's top and turning to his comrades. They aren't suffering – the Wutaians apparently followed Vincent's maxim and had gone for the kill every time.

"Sorry, guys," Cloud murmurs. He can't say he much loved any of them – they had hated him when he had first been assigned to the squad, and he can't forget the pushing and shoving he had gotten in the beginning. They had gotten better later on, when he had become a sniper, but the memories of the start and the bruises he had gotten at their hands, lingered.

He arranges them in a row, closes their eyes and then turns back to the SH-224 Long, pushing aside all ShinRa had taught him about working in a squad, about observers, and falling back to Vincent's tricks about being a lone, unsupported sniper.

His hit count rises to hundred percent that night.

 

5.

 

After the attack is over and the regiment returns it is to find his squad dead with Wutaians lying scattered about the truck and Cloud very nearly out of bullets. Sephiroth looks at him very thoughtfully as Cloud's squad mates and the dead Wutaians are taken away, and when he finally comments it is only to ask: "Why execute the Wutaians?" in a calm, cool voice.

It takes a moment for Cloud to realise that the man would've expected him to let the Wutaians suffer, to die slowly, after what they had done. And maybe Cloud might've, had he been closer to his squad, but… probably not. It just wasn't something people did. Scratch that, it wasn't something he did.

"I'm a sniper, sir, it's my job to aim for the instant kill," Cloud answers without giving a more thorough explanation of his motives. "Next time I won't miss the first shot," he has to add, however, more to himself than his commander. He didn't want to see his targets in that light ever again.

Sephiroth says nothing to that, only asks if he would like to be reassigned and if not then did he have any preferences on his new squad mates. Cloud didn't – he wasn't all that close to anyone in the military – and said so, with a quiet comment that other than patrolling the bottleneck by the camp, he would probably work best by himself.

"Without support?" Sephiroth asks, raising a single eyebrow.

"I'm a small guy, sir. I can hide much better than a squad of big, noisy guys can," Cloud shrugs, and with a thoughtful nod Sephiroth says he'd consider it.

In the end Cloud isn't assigned to a squad, except for when it's his turn at the bottleneck. On the field and during operations, however, Sephiroth gives him free rein and more – first go at the camo gear, his pick of any weaponry, even his pick of vehicles and free rein on the field so as long as he achieves his objective. Cloud doesn't have much expertise with four wheeled vehicles, but he knows his way around a motorcycle well enough and takes the quietest of them when it's time to roll out, and when Sephiroth calls to ask him if he's in position, he has his place readied, covered, and he is practically invisible in the foliage. He even ditches the scope most of the time, to keep the lens from reflecting and giving him away.

Somewhere along the way, someone – the Wutaians most likely – begins to count his kills. Ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred – two hundred and forty eight men and four hundred and fifty nine monsters by the time the war ends, a record for any sniper in ShinRa's or anyone else's employment, and this without counting his kills outside the battlefield. When Sephiroth finally goes to the Wutai capital to supervise Wutai's surrender, Cloud is asked to go with him as one of the major players on the field.

"Death From Above. I thought you'd be bigger," one of the Wutai warriors says at the sight of him, leaving Cloud a bit miffed and unnerved by the nickname. He hadn't thought he had gotten one – though it's better than Sephiroth's name, which was the Demon of Wutai.

But in the end the treaty is signed, and though most of the troops stay in Wutai to enforce it, Cloud is sent back to East, and to Midgar. He is in the same transport as Sephiroth – even in the same helicopter – and while he tries to keep the nausea inside him inside rather than spilling out, the SOLDIER considers him thoughtfully.

"I've looked into your records, Warrant Officer," the man says. "Your entry to ShinRa Infantry was through the SOLDIER exam."

"Yes, sir," Cloud agrees, gripping the pistol grip of the SH-224 Long and trying not to shake.

"Have you considered retaking the exams?"

Cloud has to pause at that, and look up with narrowed eyes. "I'm… a sniper, sir," he says then, a bit confused – because he has never seen a SOLDIER without a sword, and he can't use one to save his life.

"Yes," Sephiroth agrees, with a tone that asks him and? Like the whole thing wasn't absolutely ludicrous. A sniper SOLDIER. Wasn't the whole point of SOLDIER that they were super soldiers with swords, strong and fast enough to take anyone with any weapon, even a gun? Hell, weren't SOLDIERS capable of stopping bullets?

"Since the Mass Desertion Event, there has been a manpower shortage in SOLDIER," Sephiroth says thoughtfully, folding his arms and looking away. "I have been asked to keep an eye out in my troops, in case there are any likely candidates for the SOLDIER corps. So far, you are the only one who has caught my attention."

Swallowing, Cloud looks away. SOLDIER. Gaia, how he had wanted that, but now… he was comfortable as a sniper, he knew how to be a sniper, and SOLDIER… SOLDIER was one of ShinRa's science projects, according to Vincent. And he hadn't really even considered a re-try at the SOLDIER exams, not after he had seriously gotten into shooting, satisfied with his lot in life at last.

"I'll… think about it, sir," he says eventually, gripping the gun and thinking hard and fast.

The first thing he does after getting to Midgar and going through the motions of settling into a new bunk and an old way of life, washing and cleaning and sending all his uniforms to be washed, is to rush out to the Sector Seven slums. Vincent waits for him there, silent and quietly welcoming and listens to everything Cloud has to say with a serious expression and contemplative eyes.

"You should not let my hang-ups stop you from doing whatever you wish. SOLDIER is a science experiment, but it is a highly successful one, as far as its main objective goes," the gunman says, as they walk about the piles upon piles of rubble and waste. "If nothing else, it would make you strong enough to carry your beloved anti-tank rifle around as much as you'd ever want. Sephiroth, however…."

"Yes?" Cloud asks, frowning, and Vincent looks at him thoughtfully, as if considering whether he was old enough to hear something.

"There was a reason as to why I was… detained, by Hojo," Vincent says, and then explains some more of ShinRa's most gruesome history – of the experiments and failures and eventual success in Sephiroth, birthed by a woman Vincent had loved, with the genes of an alien inside him. ShinRa's greatest human experiment, greatest success – their best, most beautiful monster.

"Yikes," Cloud mutters, running a hand over his sniper rifle absently, seeking comfort.

"Quite," Vincent agrees. "I believe Sephiroth to be unaware of this, however, and of everything else concerning his birth. And…" he trails away, considering. "And there is a… minute chance that Sephiroth and I might be… related."

Cloud snaps his eyes up at that. "What?" he asks, just to be sure because Vincent is fifty and had just admitted loving the woman who was Sephiroth's mother, and this… this is a bit weird. "You mean he might be your kid?"

"He might be. The possibility is minuscule as best, but it is there," Vincent says, shaking his head. "Lucrecia, for all her kindness… is a secretive woman."

Drumming the rifle stock with his fingers, Cloud considers it for a moment. "And he doesn't know, huh. Are you going to tell him?"

"To what end? The chances are small and I do not know for sure, and as for telling him… I do not see the benefits," Vincent admitted, looking away. "He is a grown man. And he does not even know of my existence."

Biting his lip, Cloud considers his friend – his mentor – who has so many hurts and hidden secrets and nightmares that will last them all to the end of Gaia itself. Vincent has done so much for him, taught him so much and he doesn't much like seeing him like this. "Is there a way to find out for sure?" he asks. "If he's yours or not?"

"There are… ways," Vincent admits, looking at him from the corner of his eye. "A genetic sample would be required."

"Like what, a blood sample?" Cloud asks and frowns. That would be impossible to get.

"A strand of hair would do," the gunman says and turns to him. "Could you procure it?" he then asks in tone that reveals his actual interest in the matter, the desperation to know for sure.

"I don't know," Cloud admits. "But it would definitely be easier than a blood sample. I'll see what I can do."

 

6.

 

Week later, Cloud files the forms to enter the SOLDIER exam, taking them to Director Lazard's office himself. The director looks at him thoughtfully as he accepts the papers, glancing at them and nodding before resting his chin on his crossed fingers and commenting: "You are a sniper, I assume? And I believe you have taken the exam once already. What makes you think that this time will be different?"

"The fact that this time around, I am a sniper, sir," Cloud says. He isn't worried – if he fails this time it won't crush his heart, he will simply go back to the way things were before, and he rather likes it that way.

"Hm. Very well then. Good luck with the exams," the Director says with a lazy, contemplative smile and Cloud salutes and makes his exit.

The exam starts the exact way it had before – with a ten kilometre marathon that had very nearly killed Cloud last time. This time though he is used to it and more, with years of military service and the rigors of sniper duties behind him. He makes the trek with the rifle on his back – all the examinees have to carry random gear up to ten kilos, and he with a fifteen kilo rifle meets the requirements without the examiners having to add to his load.

Then there is two hours of random exercise, with no breaks between the marathon and the exercise. Squats, push ups, pull ups, crunches, weight lifting, some more running, and so on and so on – basically, two hours of mindless physical labour whose sole purpose is to find their limits and exhaust them to the point of near catatonia. Cloud falls out of the struggle around the end of the first hour, and is pulled aside by the examiners – which, sadly, doesn't mean that he is free to rest, of course not. Because then, only after he has been exhausted to the point of near death, does the actual test begin.

First, physical combat which he fails, only managing to stand the attack of a SOLDIER Third Class for five minutes, with his Quicksilver ringing loud against the man's sword before it is twisted from his hand and he is put under a knife point. "Again," the Third Class commands, and the struggle repeats – once, twice, five times in total, until Cloud's hand shakes and he doesn't think he can grip a gun again.

Then, in special allowance for specified expertise, he is hauled to a shooting range, and set to display his sniper skills. His training and practice kicks in there, and he loads the SH-224 Long with automated motions, chambers his rounds, breathes, aims and shoots and shoots and shoots. Bull’s-eye, bull’s-eye, bull’s-eye.

And then, the last part of the test, is the fifty question exam, which ranges from military tactics to history to politics to Materia studies, to weapon knowledge and everything in between. It's intentionally set to be taken after the examinees' power reserves have been exhausted and Cloud feels more than dead on his feet and dull minded as he writes down the answers, one by one, until the test slip is full and there is no more room to write.

He falls asleep at the desk after handing his paper over and doesn't wake up until two hours later when the final exam taker is finished and the SOLDIER examiners are dismissing the whole lot of them. He barely makes it back to his bunk after that, and sleeps the rest of the day, the whole following night and a big chunk of the following day, and wakes up bruised, aching and wanting to die – just like last time. Except this time, he had done maybe a bit better.

Two days later – still feeling like a corpse walking – he is called to Lazard's office again. "Well," the man says. "Your physical endurance is better this time around, but still only barely within the acceptable criteria. Your marksmanship is, however, stellar even under duress. Have you considered spending more attention on your hand to hand combat? The Third who fought against you mentioned that you had an interesting way of using your small firearm."

"I have, sir, and I am getting lessons from a… friend," Cloud admits. "But I've only started it recently."

"Hm," the Director nods, eyeing the papers which are probably the results of Cloud's exams. "Your written test was above average as well. Normally I wouldn't permit this; the SOLDIER Corps is mainly composed of close range fighters and Materia users and as a long range attacker it is unlikely you would even require much Materia in your arsenal. However…" the man trails away frowning. "However, the circumstances are special."

Cloud breath catches and it feels like his knees buckle, but Lazard doesn't notice as he stands up and holds out his hand. "Welcome to the SOLDIER Corps, Warrant Officer Cloud Strife, SOLDIER Third Class," he says with a little, crooked smile and they shake. "Tomorrow you will report to the science department for your physical examination and Mako reactivity tests."

"Yes, sir, thank you, sir," Cloud whispers, and leaves in a daze.

Vincent's congratulations are less amiable, but quietly heartfelt. "I can teach you the forms of the close-range gun fighting," the man says thoughtfully. "However, it is hard to say how well you will take to it. You do not have the instinctual movements fitting for such a style. If I were you, I would consider larger weapons."

"I’ve got my rifle, but that's a bit difficult to use in close combat," Cloud muses.

"Only because you haven't tried. And as big as your rifle is, there are swords much, much bigger than it," Vincent points out. "And modifications can always be made."

Cloud considers that and nods, deciding to see where that thought would take him. First, though, came the Mako reactivity test and then… the Mako treatments, which he is not quite looking forward to. Vincent has some Mako treatments, which give his red eyes the slightest, almost unnoticeable gleam, and the man doesn't seem to consider the added strength worth the pain it had taken to get it. Cloud wouldn't mind the extra strength, though; as it is likely the only thing that would ever make him grow stronger than he is now.

The reactivity test goes, thankfully, without much of a hitch – it turns out he has fifty eight percent reactivity, slightly higher than average which was forty two percent, but not as high as some. With that known and the Mako tanks adjusted to his levels, the treatments begin.

It feels a bit like dying, to spend a day floating in the Mako. A bit like being burned alive and drowned in flames. A lot like being reborn. He comes out of the tank weak as a newborn, shaking and shivering and feeling like he's covered in acid. The shakes continue until the next morning, and he still stumbles a bit the day after, but eventually they subside – only for the process to be repeated.

He is in for his sixth treatment and locked tight inside the Mako tank when the ShinRa Headquarters are attacked. Waking from the pained, energy filled haze that the Mako always puts him in, he opens his eyes and sees through the haze of burning green the robots attacking the laboratory and its people, cutting them down in easy, nonchalant swipes. Cloud can do nothing but watch – the tank's glass is bullet proof and his treatments are nowhere near enough to make him break that, but the robots deal their own doom by firing a barrage of armour piercing rounds into the row of tanks, shattering the glass and spilling the Mako all over the floor.

The rest of the new SOLDIER Thirds slump in their tanks, most of them out cold, one of them bleeding, but Cloud is wide awake. He lunges out, beneath the tallest robot's feet and towards the lockers where his gear is stored. Naked, weak and shivering he somehow manages to open the door and get the rifle, and even load it before the robots turn on him and begin their advance, clicking and whirring and spilling out smoke.

The sniper rifle is good enough against the smaller, saucer like robots, but the bigger ones with two legs and entirely too many machine guns have armour plates and even at close range the point fifty rounds aren't enough.

"Damn this," Cloud mutters, giving his SH-224 Long a look of solemn grief, and then throws the weapon away before grabbing a towel to wrap around his waist and running out of the science laboratories and to the nearest emergency weapons locker. It's already broken open and all the rifles and small fire arms distributed out, but every locker is equipped with at least one anti-tank rifle, in case of experiments or robots going haywire. "Hello, beautiful," Cloud murmurs at the sight of his old friend, the SRH-02 Anti-Tank Rifle, and reaches for it.

For all his shaking and shivering, the weapon feels lighter than his own sniper rifle ever had. The ammo case is a little heavier, but he doesn't much mind it - hoisting the case's strap onto his left shoulder and the rifle strap to the right he supports the heavy rifle against his waist and returns to the science department for a second round.

It doesn't last very long – the SRH-02 is his favourite for a damn good reason, and the fact that the rounds are almost as long as his forearm plays a big part in it. Firing the thing was slower than he was used to – every round had to be loaded individually – but he gets the hang of it pretty quickly and luckily for him, the enemies aren't all that fast.

"Boo-yeah," he murmurs, after raining pure destruction onto the robots. Then, after sparing a glance at the scientists and his fellow new Thirds, he turns away and heads to the halls, to see what else he could make blow up in pretty sparkly flames.

He is half way through the ammo case when he makes it down to the entrance, and finds a single SOLDIER taking out what looks like half an army with just a sword – and here it's not just machines, but some of the attackers are human as well. After a moment spent watching, Cloud supports the SRH-02 against the railing of the second level of the entrance hall, and loads a round before taking careful aim at the lower level. The other SOLDIER whirls around with wide eyes as the robot near his back explodes in great gust of flames and smoke, and sees him, loading another round.

"What the hell, man, that was way too close!" the other SOLDIER yells at him.

"I could've let you get gutted, sir, if you'd prefer," Cloud answers and aim. "Now get the hell out of the way, sir!"

The SOLDIER dives and Cloud fires before popping out the empty shell and reloading. After a moment of disbelieving staring, the other SOLDIER retakes his sword and turns to the smaller, saucer like robots and starts taking them out with broad, forceful swings while Cloud takes out the bigger robots with round after a round, turning the ShinRa HQ entrance into a practical display of a proper war zone.

The adrenaline is running out by the time the robots stop coming, and as the other SOLDIER finishes the last saucer with a forceful downwards thrust, Cloud begins to shake with exhaustion. "Nice shooting, man!" the black-haired SOLDIER calls at him

"Thank you, sir," Cloud answers, and promptly collapses against the railing, coughing up blood out of sheer exhaustion. Sputtering and wiping his lips, he slides to the floor, the Anti-Tank Rifle falling to his lap and making him hiss – the barrel is hot and burns against his bare thighs and nearly sets the flimsy towel around his waist on fire.

As he pushes the rifle to the floor and rubs a weary hand over the new burn marks, there is a hiss of an elevator descending and then footsteps, coming closer. "You're out of uniform, SOLDIER," a familiar voice says after a pause, and Cloud looks up to see Sephiroth, looking down at him with a raised eyebrow.

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir," Cloud says, making a weary salute. "Would get up to salute properly, sir, but I don't think I can stand."

The First Class' eye brow rises a little higher before he pulls out a PHS and dials. "A medic team to the entrance hall. There are… fifteen injured or possibly deceased infantry men and a Third Class SOLDIER here," Sephiroth says, glancing him up and down and noting the gleam of green still lingering to Cloud's bare skin. "I presume he is out of an interrupted Mako cycle – and he seems to have over exerted himself and is coughing blood."

"Thank you, sir," Cloud says, leaning his head back against the railing and swallowing in faint hope of getting rid of the taste of blood in his mouth. It doesn't work.

"Report, SOLDIER Strife," the First Class commands, and Cloud does as ordered tiredly, detailing the attack on the science lab, the breaking of the tanks, of how he had gotten his rifle and then, when it had proven inadequate against the bigger robots, had gone to the nearest emergency weapon's storage for something better.

"I then moved down levels with the SRH-02, taking out the bigger robots until I ended up here, sir, where I aided another SOLDIER in taking out the forces attacking the entrance," Cloud finishes tiredly, his vision a little blurry now, his hands shaking in his lap as he tries to remember the details. He had lost track somewhere between floors twenty and one, though, and can't quite remember if there had been any robots there. Maybe?

"Hm. How many of them did you take out?" Sephiroth asks.

Tiredly Cloud glances at the ammunition case. Four rounds left which means, "Twenty six in total, sir," he says. "That without counting the smaller ones I took out with the SH-224 Long in the science lab."

"Good work, SOLDIER," Sephiroth says approvingly before looking away. "Sit tight. The medics should be here soon."

"Yes, sir," Cloud says and almost gives in and just passes out there and then – before his eyes are drawn to the flash of silver of the First Class' hair. "Sir," he calls quietly, too tired to think straight. But he can remember, the hair – Vincent wanted some of the hair. "Sir, can I make a request?"

"A request?" Sephiroth asks, frowning and turns to him. "What sort of request, Third?"

"A strand of your hair, sir."

The words seem to take the First Class aback a bit and for a moment the man just blinks at him. Had Cloud had any strength left, he would've been a bit embarrassed, but all he can do is blink back and wait for an answer while sitting there slumped against the railing, mostly naked and half dead by the feel of it. He wants to pass out, but this is important, somehow. He can't remember how just then, but it's important. He'd pass out once he had his answer, positive or negative.

Then, after a moment, Sephiroth chuckles. "A dare by the other Thirds, I presume?" he asks.

"Just a request, sir," Cloud says, not really having the brain power left to figure out what the question meant. "I mean no offence," he adds, just to be sure.

"Hm," the First Class hums amusedly and then walks over to him briskly while reaching for the nape of his own neck. Cloud is just barely aware of something being placed into his fingers, and how his fingers are closed into a fist when everything goes blissfully dark.

 

7.

 

Interrupting a Mako cycle is, it turns out, a very bad idea. The cycles are calibrated precisely to work in a sequence of anaesthesia which is in the air the subject breathes through an oxygen mask in the tank, then Mako which fills the tank itself, and then a whole cocktail of medicine also fed through the mask after the bath, which take care of most of the negative side effects of the Mako itself. The medicine is also calibrated very precisely and in the end heals most of the damage the Mako causes – and basically prevents stuff like cell disintegration, Mako addiction, organ failure and possible side effects like mutation and so forth that could happen after prolonged Mako exposure.

Cloud had gone essentially without the medicine that recovered SOLDIER from their treatments and kept them alive. And though people could survive without the medicine cocktail – there were natural Mako exposures and people who had survived them after all… well, they did the surviving… very badly.

Cloud is in middle of major organ failure by the time he is taken into the infirmary – and thus he ends up missing the rest of the assault and what people call one epic summon battle very nearly on top of ShinRa HQ. He spends two days in a medically induced coma, and feels like living hell when he wakes up, seriously regretting his decision to join SOLDIER.

The only upside is that despite two days of treatments and doctors going over him again and again, he is still holding the neatly coiled silver strands in his clenched fingers when he wakes up.

He doesn't find out what the attack was about and doesn't really care in his brief stay in the infirmary and the following downtime, as he recovers both from the near organ failure and the massive exhaustion. He is on sick leave until his body stabilises, and can neither do any rigorous physical activity nor come in any contact with Mako for a while – not that there is any danger of that. Until the science department is repaired and the Mako tanks refitted, nobody will be getting any more treatments for a while.

In that downtime, he gets to know Zack Fair, the other SOLDIER who had been holding the entrance, pretty well. "I heard there was a sniper that was taken into SOLDIER but hell; I didn't think he'd be like… a sniper!" the man gusts at him. "You really use just rifles? That's weird. For a SOLDIER, I mean."

"Saved your ass, sir," Cloud answers, thinking longingly at the SRH-02. He had pretty much busted the rifle with his overuse – one wasn't supposed to go through that many rounds with the thing in so short a time span, and the poor weapon had over heated to the point where the barrel integrity was shot to hell, but still… it had been beautiful. And not just firing the thing, but being able to carry it alone, it and the ammunition case.

Best day on the job ever.

"True enough – though I could still keep at it afterwards," Zack grins and then looks at him thoughtfully. "How are you feeling, Spiky? You looked pretty bad, for a while there."

"Small ulcer and overexertion, nothing more," Cloud shrugs, rubbing at his stomach. Though of course it had been worse than that. It was mostly the ulcer that had made him cough up blood. They had only been able to heal it partially and he was now on a diet of bland gruel until it healed the rest of the way, but it had definitely been worth it. "I'll survive, sir," he adds.

"Stop with the sirs. We're both SOLDIER, Spiky," Zack says. "And saving my ass constitutes a good excuse to ditch the formalities, doesn't it?"

"I suppose so, Zack," Cloud answers with a smile and then glances away as his phone beeps with the arrival of an email. Given that there was only one person who ever emails him, Cloud reaches for it immediately, flipping it open and quickly reading through the few lines from Vincent.

"Ooo, a text from your girlfriend?" Zack asked curiously, leaning forward a bit.

"Just a friend," Cloud answers, flipping the phone shut after quickly typing a short answer. Vincent is wondering how he is doing and whether he has the strength and the time to meet. And he definitely does, now, with some recovery time behind him and with the long time to wait until he can do anything again. Lots and lots of time, which could definitely use some killing. And he has something to give to Vincent anyway.

Cloud grimaces a bit, remembering his offer to Vincent and the rather embarrassing success of that little mission – which now sits on his bedside table in empty potion phial, all two long strands of silver hair. He can't really believe that he had actually asked Sephiroth for his hair. He'd never be able to face the man with a straight face after this. Hell, Sephiroth probably wouldn't be able to face him either, not without cracking up about how much of a fool he had made out of himself.

"What?" Zack asks curiously as he flips the PHS shut.

"I promised my friend to do something stupid. Wasn't actually expecting to do it, but I did," Cloud sighs. Well it wasn't really stupid and Vincent had a damn good reason of wanting it done, but still. It was easy to say that he would get the hair, but another thing to do it. It was Sephiroth after all, SOLDIER First Class, the Hero and Demon of Wutai. And Gaia damn it, Cloud had actually done it.

"Stupid. What sort of stupid?" Zack asks.

Cloud sighs again. "Hair from Sephiroth's head," he admits, and then grins sheepishly when Zack bursts out laughing. He would've felt insulted, but he's gotten the oddest impression that Zack is a bit heart broken – something had happened during the attack and Cloud had heard something about Zack being sent to Modeoheim? Whatever it was, the man who had met him in the infirmary hadn't been the same one he had seen cheerfully swinging his sword at the robots, not quite – and it was good to see the lingering shadows in the man's glowing eyes vanish, even if it's just to laugh at him

"You actually got a hair from Sephiroth?" the recently made First Class asks, wiping the tears of laughter from the corner of his eye. "How did you manage that?"

"I asked," Cloud admits embarrassedly, and then adds, "While mostly naked, covered in Mako, and half unconscious in the entrance hall," though mostly to himself because he's a huge masochist some times, and yeah that hadn't been embarrassing at all.

Zack laughs some more at that.

Later that day, after Zack has gone off somewhere to do important First Class SOLDIER stuff, Cloud heads to the slums to meet with Vincent, making his way slowly and stopping to take breaks often – too much movement makes his stomach twinge with pain and his lungs burn. The memory of wielding the Anti-Tank Rifle like it weighed nothing feels like a dream now, when it seems like all he can do is just barely lift his arms.

He's late for the meeting, but Vincent says nothing about it. "Where is your rifle?" the gunman asks instead at the sight of him, unarmed except for the Quicksilver in its holster at his left hip, where the weight, which he had before barely noticed, makes Cloud feel unbalanced.

"It got trampled by a robot," Cloud sighs. He should've never left it behind the way he had, but the calibre had been just too small. Now he is without either an SRH-02 or the SH-224 Long, and feeling practically butt naked. Not that he would've been able to lift either in his condition. "Director Lazard has promised me a new gun, though, one to my specifications thanks to my effort during the assault," he adds, brightening up a bit. He has already a rough design for the thing, and if the Weapons Department would deliver….

"Hm," Vincent says and then nods. "Your eyes are glowing," he then says, eyeing them thoughtfully.

"I'm already half through a Third's initial treatments," the SOLDIER sniper shrugs. "Most start showing around then. It might fade a bit, though, until I get my next treatments since it will be a while," he adds and then reaches for his pocket. "I have something for you, by the way," he says, and then hands over the potion phial with its silver strands.

Vincent's eyes widen at the sight of them. "You… got them," he says as he accepts the phial. "How did you get them?"

"I asked," Cloud laughs and explains the situation, while Vincent looks at the coiled strands in the small glass bottle with something like mixed trepidation and excitement in his red eyes. "So," Cloud says, nudging at him with his elbow. "Now what?"

"Now I get a paternity test," Vincent whispers, his fingers closing around the bottle tightly.

He wastes no time with it either. There is apparently an underground laboratory in the Sector Six slums, which occasionally helps people for money, generally concentrating on the creation of various illegal drugs. It's not like Vincent can go to the ShinRa laboratories though, not with Sephiroth's hair, so Cloud doesn't wonder at the decision. Nor does he wonder at the speediness of it – for all Vincent's appearances and pretences, this is important to him. Possibly one of the most important things in his life even.

The lab gives Vincent four days to wait, and on the fourth day Cloud is there. They sit silently on their usual rooftop, Vincent with his cheap, second-hand PHS at hand, looking at it. While waiting, Cloud looks around them, at the slums, at the rare few people there – this part isn't as inhabited as some of them, because the Plate dumped their trash not far away which meant that any time, a load of garbage could rain down from the ceiling. Therefore, not a very safe place to be. They weren't too worried though, since the hut was still standing and its rooftop was clear, the dumping hole wasn't directly above them.

There was someone running around in a SOLDIER First uniform – not a very smart thing to do in the slums, the people there didn't care much for ShinRa's workers which was why Cloud himself only came in civilian clothing. "Is that Zack?" Cloud murmurs, standing up and peering down. Yes, that hair was unmistakeable, and he was swinging the very striking and very recognizable Buster Sword in those long, arching sweeps that Zack used.

"A friend of yours?" Vincent asks quietly.

"A SOLDIER First. The one whom I fought with during the ShinRa HQ invasion," Cloud answers with a shrug. "What the heck is he doing here?"

"Exterminating monsters, by the look of it," Vincent answers, still looking at his phone.

Cloud shrugs and shifts to the edge of the rooftop to watch. Of course the slums are filled with stuff that spawned from Mako and waste, but they weren't strong enough to bother a SOLDIER with, not even a measly Third Class like him. Back when he had been just a grunt in an infantry squad he had seen a lot of the under-plate monster extermination, though, and even then it had been relatively easy to handle.

"He looks like he's having fun," Cloud murmurs with amusement, at the sight of Zack roaring and swinging at the odd, enormous worms that the slums were full of. Then there is a beep of an incoming message, and he turns his head to see Vincent instantly pressing a button on the PHS and then reading through the no doubt very brief report from the illegal lab.

At first there is no sign of what the gunman thinks – no change whatsoever on his face. Then the PHS lowers and the man bends his head, hiding his face in shadows. "Vincent?" Cloud asks, a little alarmed and quickly returns to his side, to take the PHS before it could fall and to look at the few words of the message.

It's a match.

"Whoa," he murmured, quickly closing the phone before turning to Vincent. "Hey," he said quietly. "At least you know now, right?"

"I don't…." Vincent says, stopping almost mid-word and then clenching his hands, human and metal, into fists, both of them shaking. Cautiously Cloud touches them to feel the tremor, and then brings his hands up to Vincent's red covered shoulders, to feel them trembling too.

"Hey," the SOLDIER sniper says gently. "It's okay."

"It isn't," Vincent hisses. "This too. This too!" he almost snarls, twisting a little and almost away from Cloud's hands. "How many times do I fail? How many sins am I left with? It was bad enough that he is Lucrecia's son and I did nothing to help him, but this? This? Gaia…" the man stops there, his voice actually quivering, his shoulders trembling.

Not knowing what else to do, Cloud shifts closer and throws his arms around the man, just to stop the god-awful trembling. Vincent always seemed so unmovable that it's unbearable just to see him like this. "It's not that bad," he says, holding on tight while the man tried to back away. "You didn't know and failure isn't a sin. It's only a failure."

"But I could've done something," Vincent chokes out. "I could have – I was not forced to stay in Nibelheim, I slept because I chose to. I could have done something, anything."

Cloud holds on tighter as the trembling gets worse, only shifting a little back so that he can see Vincent's face. "Vincent," he starts to say, but stops at the look of distress in the man's face, knowing all his reassurances would be inadequate for this. He smiles instead, trying not to tremble himself in the wake of the man's emotional agony. "It's going to be okay," he promises, resting his forehead against the red bandana.

"Is it?" Vincent asks, his hands coming to Cloud's elbows and clinging almost desperately. "I don't know what I am supposed to do, Cloud. What can I do?"

Cloud shakes his head, not knowing either. "Right now, let's just get out of here," he says. Vincent needs privacy and security, not the open space of a sector slum. "Come on," he adds while gently tugging Vincent up with him, to his feet. "Let's go to your place."

Vincent bows his head and probably only follows because Cloud takes his hand and doesn't let go, insistently pulling until the man stumbles – actually stumbles – after him. From the corner of his eye Cloud can see Zack not far from them, looking at them, but he ignores it and instead leads Vincent towards the Sector Seven slums, and from there through the small crowd of people gathered around the general store towards the ramshackle shack that is Vincent's home in Midgar.

He's been there only once before but the emptiness of the place still astounds him – and the fact that the only piece of furniture in the small, crowded little room is a large, dark coffin. Cloud's been wondering about that one for a while, but he ignores it now and instead merely pushes the surprisingly heavy lid aside, to reveal a rather well cushioned inside and a pillow – so, whatever the reason, it is where Vincent sleeps.

"In you go," Cloud says, pushing Vincent towards the coffin. The man doesn't struggle, just steps in and sits down, looking distracted and anguished, frowning, looking at nothing. Cloud eyes him for a moment, thinking of pushing him back and closing the lid over him, but… somehow leaving Vincent alone in that darkness doesn't seem right. The man would probably only keep brooding and overthinking and only end up emotionally exhausting himself.

The sniper hesitates only a moment but… well. It's not like he’s in any hurry to go anywhere.

"Scoot over," he orders and this time Vincent blinks and actually looks up in surprise, as Cloud steps into the coffin as well. The man's eyes widen a bit but he shifts back as Cloud sits down beside him, and without giving the man a moment to object, the SOLDIER pushes him to lie down before pulling the lid shut, lying down himself and finding that inside there was a handle to use to move the lid and close it completely.

The silence inside is perfect, and with surprise Cloud realises just how noisy it was in Midgar. Machinery, the constant hum of ventilation, of lights, of electricity – all gone inside the coffin, replaced by the soft sound of cloth as they shift, and their breathing.

"Well, this is peaceful," he murmurs with wonder, straining his hearing but… no, the only thing he hears is their breathing. "Is this why you sleep in a coffin?"

"My hearing is more acute than most people's. And I don't sleep, I merely rest," Vincent says in a hushed, dark voice that makes Cloud shiver and turn awkwardly in the crowded space, to face him.

He can see the man's eyes in the darkness, glowing ever so faintly with the Mako inside his veins. Vincent seems to be able to do the same because the eyes don't shift, staring right back. It was a bit creepy at first, because aside from the faint light of those eyes the darkness is as perfect as the silence but… it's not a bad sort of creepy.

"Then rest," Cloud says. "Think about things later."

The eyes shift, look away and then narrow in the darkness. Sighing, the SOLDIER reaches out, feeling around Vincent's chest and shoulder until he can wrap his arm around the man without the risk of putting out an eye or something. The shivering starts then and Vincent's eyes seem to vanish as he closes his eyelids, but Cloud doesn't mind. He just holds on, eventually wrapping his other arm around the man too, in a vain attempt at keep him from shaking apart.

He isn't sure when he falls asleep, but he wakes sometime later on his back, with Vincent's head resting on his chest. Cloud doesn't know how he can tell, but he knows Vincent isn't asleep and thus doesn't bother to hide his motions as he reaches for his hip and for his PHS to see the time. It's nearly midnight.

"Feeling any better?" Cloud asks, lifting the arm resting on Vincent's shoulders a bit, but not removing it.

"A bit," the man admits softly, not moving either. "But still… lost."

"We'll figure it out," Cloud promises with a yawn and closes his eyes. "This thing is very comfortable. I want a coffin too," he murmurs while stretching languidly. Quietly Vincent chuckles, resting his golden gauntleted hand on Cloud's stomach, the other wormed somewhere below Cloud's shoulder.

Neither of them bothers to move for a long while.

 

8.

 

Eventually Cloud is given a clean bill of health and the Mako tanks are repaired – and so he goes back into his Mako cycles, this time without interruption. The more he gets them, the better he handles them and by the twelfth and last of the initial treatments, he can hardly feel the burn of the Mako anymore.

After that begins the training – the SOLDIER training, which is vastly different from the other, more human sort. Mostly it consist of building muscle mass and learning to control it once it had been built – which means lots and lots of weight lifting. Cloud doubles his original record on the bench press within the first day, and then triples that in the following week until he's lifting sums that make his head spin a bit when just looking at them. How had ShinRa even developed weights that high, he isn't sure – but after two weeks, he's lifting two hundred, three hundred kilos without breaking a sweat.

"That's the whole point of SOLDIER, Spiky," Zack says amusedly while standing by as his spotter. The First supervises the SOLDIER Thirds sometimes, due to lack of manpower and the fact that the man is currently the second fastest SOLDIER in completing his missions – second only to Sephiroth – which leaves him with lot of free time. "Super strength, super speed, super everything. How are your eyes, by the way?"

"Bothering me," Cloud answers with a grunt and lifts the two hundred and eighty kilo bar back to its rack. His eyes aren't yet used to their Mako infusions so they go back and forth between short distance and long distance like a zoom out of whack – once they'd settled, he would be able to see as well with his human eyes as he can with a scope, but that is a long ways off. Now he is, like every other Third, left stumbling into things he ought to have been able to see, if his eyes hadn't been locked in on that fly at the back of the room.

His hearing has been getting better – to the point where sounds from across the hall where someone is turning in their sleep keep waking him at night. It is making him head to the Sector Seven slums more often than not during the middle of the night, there and to Vincent's blessed, sound proof coffin. Thank Gaia SOLDIERS don't have a curfew.

"You're going to love it when they do," Zack grins. "Lazard is already drooling at the thought of your future hit record."

"Gonna need a gun for that," Cloud sighs and sits up. The Weapons Department had taken his sketches but were still considering the implications of the weapon he wanted – so he still had to wait. Thankfully until his body settled into the Mako infusions, he wasn't going to be let out on any missions, so he has the time to wait. And until then, he has the Quicksilver and any rifle from the armoury he cares to as much as look at. Perks of being the only SOLDIER sniper in existence.

With his "warm-ups" done in the gym, he heads with Zack to the training rooms and picks up one of the many practice swords. Though he can lift them now and hold them level, he still isn't anything like skilled with a blade so he's getting some private tutoring with things with an edge, in preparation for the future. Of course he will never be that good with a sword, not after getting used to guns and pistol grips, but if he learns the basic swings, blocks and whatnot, he'll be satisfied.

"So, who's the guy anyway?" Zack asks, while showing Cloud the blocking stance and then taking out a practice sword himself – thank Gaia he doesn't use the Buster Sword.

"What guy?" Cloud asks, and blocks the first attack a bit clumsily, but without giving any ground, the enhancements covering him where skill doesn't.

"The guy you're seeing in the slums. The one with the red cloak and the gauntlet," Zack says, wiggling his eyebrows. "I got a girlfriend who lives in the slums, so I've seen you there a couple of times. Especially lately."

"He's a…" Cloud starts to say, hesitates – and nearly gets his ankles cut off for his trouble. Stumbling backwards, he grimaces and then takes a stance. "Does it matter?" he asks a bit defensively, wondering if the swipe had been on purpose.

"Hell, I don't care. Guy or gal, it's all fine to me," Zack says with a grin, whirling the sword and making for a lunge at Cloud – this one he blocks more successfully. The First grins again. "I'm just, you know. Curious. I mean he looks a bit… well. I haven't seen people with capes outside theatre and movies, you know?"

"Yeah, there is that," Cloud agrees, shaking his head and then making for attack of his own – which Zack blocks with infuriating ease. "It's a bit hard to explain," he says then. Especially now, after the paternity exam results and their new, strange, wonderful habit of ending up in Vincent's sweet and silent coffin.

"He seems cool," Zack points out, making for another swipe.

"Frigid, even," Cloud laughs and blocks. "But yeah. He is."

They don't talk for a while, just exchanging blows until Cloud's hands begin to shake with the force of meeting swords. As he takes a break, Zack turns to help some other Thirds practicing in the hall and with a sigh Cloud stretches and tries to catch his breath, still thinking of Vincent and… of Sephiroth.

They still have no idea what to do with the knowledge that Vincent is the First Class SOLDIER's biological father. Sephiroth is already in his mid-twenties so it isn't like the man needs a father to look after him – hell, the man is the strongest person on Gaia as far as physical ability goes, he needs no one looking after him. But at the same time… it kills Vincent a bit to not know how Sephiroth had really been raised and what he really thinks of his real parents – if he even knows about Lucrecia, his mother, and about Vincent.

And it kills Cloud to watch Vincent silently agonize over it.

He is still thinking about it when a hush falls over the room and people turn. It feels a bit like a kick to the stomach when Sephiroth enters the training room just when he had been thinking about the man. The look on Sephiroth's face is closed off and cool and as he glances around the room Cloud gets the impression he's looking for a fight.

"Oh, hell no," Zack says when Sephiroth's eyes land on him. "I am not getting beat up by you again. Find someone else to pulverise."

Sephiroth scowls at that and then looks at the Thirds speculatively, dismissing them all without a sound. What makes his eyes land onto Cloud, the recently made SOLDIER doesn't know, but they do. "Strife. Have you yet tested your gunmanship against a SOLDIER swordsman?" the First Class asks.

"No, sir," Cloud says, a bit tentative and unsure. Gunmanship against swordsmanship? Isn't that a bit uneven?

"Come with me," the man orders and turns without waiting to see if he does. Cloud winces a bit and glances at Zack who gives him a look of sympathy and then motions him to go. With a sigh, Cloud does.

Sephiroth leads him first into the armoury and tells him to pick any weapon he likes – and preferably a lot of ammunition. A bit worried now, Cloud takes a twin of his old sniper rifle, a SH-224 Long and four clips for it, before checking how much ammunition he has for the Quicksilver, and then taking a few clips for it as well. When Sephiroth just looks at him, Cloud turns and picks another Quicksilver – ShinRa's standard small firearm – from the rack and checks its clip before strapping a shoulder holster for it over his Third Class uniform. That doesn't seem to satisfy Sephiroth though, so with a sigh Cloud empties the Quicksilver racks, putting two more into the back of his belt, one in his boot and completely cleans the ammunition shelves, until he's a walking firearms arsenal.

"Satisfied?" Cloud asks, feeling a bit ridiculous.

"It'll do. If you can fire them," Sephiroth says with a quirk of an eyebrow and then leads him to a place Cloud has yet to see – the hologram training room. The Thirds only train in your normal boring room with no gimmicks, but the Seconds and Firsts get to fight against hologram simulations and virtual realities. A lot of the Thirds were really looking forward to the chance to test themselves on the virtual realities. Cloud had been too, except against Sephiroth?

"I'll go with a large environment, as you likely need more space than average," Sephiroth says while keying in the simulation. "Random weather conditions alright with you?"

"I have no idea what that means, sir, but sure," Cloud answers a bit uneasily, adjusting his grip on the SH-224 Long's pistol grip. He can wield the thing one handed now – it's a bit weird. He doesn't get much chance to think about it though, because they are soon heading into the room itself and then… the surroundings change.

And suddenly they're standing in a desert, complete with hot, sandy wind blowing in his face and tugging at his clothing. "Whoa," Cloud murmurs. "I didn't think it'd be this realistic."

"Hm," Sephiroth nods, unsheathing his sword with a soft metallic screech. "I'll give you two minutes to get into position. Then we fight."

Cloud hesitates, looking around and then at Sephiroth. "Just to be absolutely certain, sir, you want me to… shoot you?" he asks. Because SOLDIER or not, a bullet is still a bullet. And the SH-224 Long does fire a big calibre.

"Yes, Third, I want you to shoot me. If you can," The First says amusedly, and swings the sword down. "You have one minute, forty one seconds to get into position," he adds.

Cloud winces and then hefts the sniper rifle. "Yes sir," he says, figuring that the man probably knows what he's doing and there is nothing to do but try. So, with that he turns, and runs into the surrounding terrain, with every intention of hiding, finding a good sniping position, and shooting the hell out of the rifle.

The fight turns out to be the hardest of his life. The first shot he takes is an intentional miss – would've gone just pass Sephiroth's ear – except for the fact that the man blocks it with his sword. After that, the kid gloves are off and Cloud shoots and shoots and shoots – Sephiroth blocking every shot and then turning to him, having figured his location by the direction of the shots, which has Cloud hurriedly scurrying back and finding another position.

He is out of ammunition for the rifle at record speed – and then Sephiroth is already there, coming at him. Cursing, Cloud pulls out the first of his five Quicksilvers and begins to fire at point black range while backing away, weaving through the rocky terrain and then starting to run when the First just keeps coming at him.

"Oh, fuck me," he murmurs, when the tip of Masamune comes just close enough to cut a few strands of blonde hair, and throws the first empty Quicksilver aside, pulling the two at the back of his belt and wielding double-handed. He isn't as good with his left as he is with his right, but hell if it matters. He should've brought a damn machine gun for this fight – and the damn Quicksilver isn't even semi-automatic!

Sephiroth just smiles at him from between the flurry of easy swipes that block each and every bullet, sending them ricocheting somewhere into the surrounding area. With an almost casual flip of his wrist, the man somehow twists one of the Quicksilvers out of Cloud's right hand, sending it right after the ricocheted bullets. Narrowing his eyes, Cloud switches hands and fires free handed right at the man's face, grimacing as these bullets, too, are deflected.

"Problem, SOLDIER?" Sephiroth asks.

"I'm just peachy," Cloud snaps, and the hammer clicks empty. Cursing, he throws the weapon itself at the First and while Sephiroth laughingly blocks it, Cloud pulls out his fourth Quicksilver from his boot and fires that from ground level, this time taking out a full clip and making ready to switch once he runs empty.

In the end, he doesn't make it that far. There is what Cloud can only describe as a whirl of silver and then Sephiroth is there, right in front of him, sword at his neck. Grimacing, Cloud blocks it with the handgun, but doesn't get up – can't really, with the sword still pressing down at his gun-hand, keeping him down. The fight had been ridiculously uneven from the start – with him, despite all the firepower, being seriously outgunned.

"You need faster guns," Sephiroth comments, not removing the sword and slowly pushing it down, making Cloud seriously strain himself to keep it from his throat.

"Yes, sir," the Third grunts and then uses his free left hand to pull the last Quicksilver – his own, the one Vincent had given him – from his hip and fires. Sephiroth jumps back with a chuckle, avoiding the hit easily and landing with fluent grace a few meters away. As the man readies for another attack, holding the long nodachi level with his shoulders with its tip aimed at Cloud, the Third lifts both his hands with their guns in surrender.

"Sorry, sir," he says. "I'm not quite a match for you. I'm just wasting bullets here."

"True," the First says and lowers the sword with an easy, almost casual swipe. "But there is potential there and your aim is true, except for the first shot which I think you intended to miss."

"Well, I was firing at my superior officer without knowing if he can take the hit or not, sir, give me a break," Cloud mutters, standing up and eyeing the Quicksilvers with dismay. They were good guns, sturdy and strong and durable, but he was so getting a semi-automatic next. Or maybe a full automatic. Something that fired bursts at any rate.

"You'll know better the next time," Sephiroth says and sits down by a hologram of a rock, pulling out what looks like a sword cleaning kit.

Sighing Cloud holsters the guns and then goes to find the ones he had discarded along the way. As he picks up the weapons, he glances at the First Class thoughtfully, wondering. Vincent doesn't know what to do with the knowledge he has and is only certain he wants to do something but not willing to do the wrong thing. Cloud just wants him to settle and stop fretting about it so much, but of course that wasn't likely to happen anytime soon. Not unless Cloud interferes.

It's not like he can just go and ask if Sephiroth knows who his real father is, though, or if he cares. "Sir," Cloud says, hesitating a bit and then making the decision. If Sephiroth minded the question, he would just not answer it and that was that. "What do you think of… professor Hojo?"

The First Class pauses in the middle of a careful wipe of the blade and looks at him sharply. "You know the professor?" he asks with narrowed eyes.

"I've heard of him," Cloud says tentatively, wondering if he made a mistake.

Sephiroth eyes him silently for a moment before looking away. "Hojo is a walking mass of complexes," he says then coolly, turning to his sword again. "A great geneticists and a fool. Scientific in his methods but not likely to spend any time theorising. Successful as a scientist. A failure as a father."

"Father?" the SOLDIER sniper asks quietly. "You think Hojo is your -?" and then stops, clapping a hand over his mouth and turning away, horrified what he had let slip.

"What?" Sephiroth asks, raising his head sharply again and looking at him closely. "What do you mean about that?" he demands to know, standing up. "Answer me, Third!" he then snaps, gripping his sword handle tight.

Cloud swallows and glances backwards a bit embarrassedly. "It's not really my secret to tell," he says, scratching at his neck. "But I guess you do have the right to know," he then adds, grimacing. If it was he in Sephiroth's position, he would've liked to know. Granted, he doesn't know what Sephiroth's position is, exactly, but if he thinks that Hojo – the same Hojo that had corrupted Vincent's very existence – is his father…. Yeah, Sephiroth deserves to know.

"When I asked for your hair… it was for a paternity test," the sniper admits, and winces when Sephiroth's blade twitches. "I don't know what Professor Hojo has told you. But he is not your father."

"Then who…?" the First asks, glancing at the blade and then quickly sheathing it with a forceful thrust and holding it back, to hide the shaking of his hand. "You know the person who is. Who is it? Where is he? And why -?" Sephiroth cuts himself off there, scowling.

Cloud hesitates and then shrugs. "Yeah, I know. But this is kind of…. There's more to this than I can really explain, and I don't know everything. And he only found out after the test, he didn't know before that, only that there was a small possibility because he and your mom, uhm," he shrugs embarrassedly, not really wanting to talk about Sephiroth's mom. Or thinking about Vincent with Sephiroth's mom. That was just… weird, everything considered.

"Listen; let me talk with him, see if I can arrange a meeting between you two? And, also, please don't talk about this to anyone, sir?" he adds, a bit desperate.

"Why not?" Sephiroth asks suspiciously.

"Because if ShinRa knew – if Hojo knew… well, I'm not sure if they'd be willing to let him be," Cloud says, shrugging awkwardly. "There's a reason he didn't know. And probably why no one told you."

The First Class scowls but nods and Cloud relaxes a bit. "Just give me a couple of days sir. I'll see if I can get his ass in gear and arrange a meeting."

"He doesn't wish to meet me?" Sephiroth asks quietly.

Cloud sighs and shakes his head sadly. "That's not it. He just doesn't know what to do."

 

9.

 

Vincent isn't too happy about the arranged meeting – but at the same time, he is. Cloud soothes him through the burst of rigorously controlled panic in the silence and peace of the coffin, holding the man tight until his mind settles and he seems to find some equilibrium between his uncertainties, failings and what has to be done.

"If he truly thinks that Hojo is his father then yes, he deserves to know the truth," the gunman murmurs against Cloud chest, as they lie curled and wrapped around each other in the darkness. "Only, I don't know… so many things can go wrong."

"Yeah, I know," Cloud murmurs, resting his chin on the top of the man's somewhat messy long hair, running his fingers up and down his back. "But you got to do this. If you don't, you'll never get any peace from it, you know."

Vincent says nothing, just sighs and for a moment they're silent, thinking and worrying about it. Cloud keeps stroking the man's back soothingly through it all, and eventually breaks the silence. "He didn't seem that mad, though, or surprised," he says. "Just desperate to know. I don't think he's been all that happy with Hojo for a father."

Vincent shifts a bit against him, uneasy. "Twist the knife in my wound, why don't you," the man mutters in a way that makes Cloud chuckle and wonder where the hell he had picked up that sentence from – it was rather unlike Vincent. The gunman shifts again, relaxing a bit, and then lifting his head, his red eyes gleaming in the perfect darkness.

"Thank you," he says simply, and with a smile Cloud slides his hand over the man's back, to his shoulder and then up the collar of the cape to his neck, feeling his way through the dark with intimate familiarity born from the many hours they had now spent in the coffin.

"You're welcome," he says and lifts his head a bit while pulling the man forward and to him. Vincent follows his guiding hand to him with a sort of uneasy desperation that probably has a lot to do with the decades spent alone, and they meet in the middle somewhere in the darkness, locking lips comfortably and then hungrily as Vincent seeks a distraction and Cloud offers it readily.

It is a bit strange maybe, with so many things in between them. Age, for one – Vincent is over thirty years older than him, even if none of it shows on his face. Strength too, because though Vincent has Mako in him, he is not enhanced in terms of physical might and Cloud isn't quite in control of his new found strength – his hands bruise more than he would've liked them to. The fact that Vincent is the father of his superior officer is a bit strange too, but completely inconsequential, as it has no effect on anything. But really, Cloud doesn't even care – Vincent could've been a hundred years old and the great grandfather of the president of the whole damned planet for all he cared; he still would've been Vincent.

And Vincent is all Cloud wants, right then.

They shift in the darkness, easy and almost comfortable in the tight space, until Cloud is on top and has easy access to the belts and buckles in the way. Vincent sighs against his lips, as Cloud eases the straps of the cape's collar open to get his hands onto the leather beneath. "Leave it," Vincent murmurs, low and rough, taking his hand and pushing away from the buckles and moving it further down, to his belt.

Cloud chuckles, shifting backwards, raining kisses onto the bared neck before attacking the buckle in earnest and then the buttons before opening the zipper. Vincent shifts beneath him until what has to be bared is, and Cloud has perfect access.

Then it's just soft sighs and quiet moans in the darkness, while the smell of leather, gun metal, oil and ancient times around them shifts, replaces by something heavier, something darker. Cloud listens and breathes and experiences everything through his skin, wishing for more space and light and loving the lack of them, easing Vincent through the tremors with a gentle, still slightly clumsy but learning hand.

"Come here," Vincent gasps, breathless and shuddering. With a swallow and a choked moan Cloud moves above him again, with shaking hands opening the heavy, SOLDIER symbol adorned buckle and letting the thick belt fall beside them. With a dark, low chuckle Vincent turns around, to lie on his stomach and Cloud kisses the back of his neck desperately while reaching down, to touch and feel and have.

Later, after catching their breaths and giving their bodies some time to cool, they decide upon a meeting place and time and Cloud takes out his PHS, to send Sephiroth the email. "No backing out now," he murmurs idly, his hand easing itself beneath Vincent's leather jacket and to the untouched skin there.

"Mm," Vincent hums almost lazily, and quietly they wait for the dawn to come.

The meeting takes place the next day; in Sector Five slum’s junk yard where Vincent knows there isn't any security or cameras to see. Sephiroth is already there, surrounded by a horde of dead, low level monsters when Cloud and Vincent arrive. The man looks on edge and his eyes narrow when he sees Vincent, but he says nothing, merely takes a cloth to wipe his sword's blade clean.

"Sir. This is Vincent Valentine," Cloud says, just to break the awkward, unstable silence.

"You're not… what I expected," Sephiroth says thoughtfully, glancing over Vincent from head to toe, his eyes lingering on the gauntlet. The two of them are about the same height and when standing so close to each other it's easy to see the resemblance. Sephiroth has a lot of Vincent's facial features, having inherited the best of them.

"Yes spending time in Hojo's care can do that," Vincent says quietly, eyeing Sephiroth with equal consideration. He smiles faintly, almost sadly. "Aside from the colour, you have your mother's hair."

"My mother," Sephiroth murmurs and slowly sheathes the sword. "What happened to her? Where is she?"

"Lucrecia is sleeping, like I was," Vincent says, looking away and at Cloud who had found a place to sit on top of a pile of metal rubble. "If you go to her cave, I suppose she might wake up. She won't for me, anymore."

"Lucrecia? I thought my mother's name was Jenova," Sephiroth says, now sounding a bit confused.

Vincent glances at him sharply, and then grimaces. "I guess Hojo really did lie to you about everything then," the gunman says and while Cloud leans back to watch, he begins to explain, the way he had explained to the sniper a long time ago, but this time with all of the details and nothing left out.

It is a horrible tale, but of course it would be, with ShinRa's science department involved. Sephiroth listens with ever widening eyes, not saying a word as Vincent details the Jenova project and the mistakes made in the beginning, the misconceptions – his own fondness for Lucrecia Crescent, and her rejection of him. "I objected for her sake, but it was no use. Hojo would brook no arguments and shot me," the gunman finishes, touching his chest. "And used me as spare experimental material. When I woke up, the mansion was empty, and I was alone. And I never knew."

"Never tried find out either," Sephiroth says sharply and Vincent flinches.

"Would you?" Cloud asks with narrowed eyes, making the First Class turn his eyes to him, looking like he had forgotten that Cloud was even there. The sniper snorts softly, resting his elbows on his knees. "The woman he loved betrayed him, the man he worked for shot him and experimented on him and he wakes up years later to find himself alone with bunch of monsters. After that, would you really want to know?"

Sephiroth scowls but only shakes his head before turning to Vincent. "So, why come forth now, if not then?" he asks.

Vincent bows his head. "I should have done something before. But I did not have the… strength of will to bother," he admits quietly. "I suspect I would have kept on sleeping, had Cloud not come," he adds, glancing at the sniper. "After he came and left, I found I could not put my mind at ease anymore. So I read through the research documents in the mansion, until I found out about another project, that of Lucrecia, and went to see. I found her, and… I heard about the possibility of your parentage from her."

"And then I got the hairs from you and we had a lab do the test," Cloud shrugs.

Sephiroth doesn't answer, shaking his head again and turning away, thinking hard by the looks of it. Cloud shrugs at his back and looks at Vincent, who still has his head bowed. Gaia, but he hopes he did the right thing, pushing the issue – hopes that this won't only add to Vincent's regrets and burdens.

"I will… do the test myself," Sephiroth says finally. "Some of your hair, Valentine, if you please," he says and with a nod Vincent rips few strands off, handing them over. Sephiroth nods and coils them nearly before pushing them into his pocket. "And I will see Lucrecia. Where is the cave?"

"In the western continent, on the shoreline of the WutaiSea," Vincent says. "If you have a map, I can point it out."

Sephiroth doesn't have a physical one, but he had one on his PHS, where he marks the location after Vincent pointed it out. Then, with a nod, Sephiroth asks for Vincent's number before pocketing the PHS. "I will be in contact, eventually," the First Class SOLDIER says and then glances at Cloud. "Third," he says, nodding.

"Sir," Cloud nods back uneasily and together he and Vincent watch as Sephiroth walks away in long, energetic strides.

"Was that a mistake?" Vincent whispers. "And if so, how big of a mistake was it?"

Sighing, Cloud jumps up and gathers the man into his arms. "It'll be alright," he promises. "Somehow, it'll be alright. I swear."

 

10.

 

For a while nothing seems to happen – and then everything seems to happen all at once. Cloud wakes up one morning to find a message from Director Lazard, sent to every SOLDIER, informing them that all of the scheduled Mako Treatments would be halted for the moment due to an unfortunate accident that had claimed the Head Scientist's life that night. Hojo, it seems, had been torn apart by a monster during a science experiment, and though the investigation was on-going it seems that it was to be ruled as a laboratory accident.

And Sephiroth is conveniently enough on a mission when it happened.

Then the Science Department begins to buzz with the sudden and completely unexpected return of a long lost scientist, Lucrecia Crescent, who returns at the request of her son, First Class SOLDIER Sephiroth, to take over control of the suddenly headless Science Department. How Sephiroth manages to have her take the position of the Head Scientist just like that, Cloud doesn't know. Maybe he has the president in his back pocket or maybe he has his sword on the president's throat, but whatever it is, it works instantly.

"Is this good or is this very bad?" Cloud wonders after telling Vincent about the sudden change. Vincent just stares at nothing, uneasy and disturbed but trying not to show it.

At first the changes seem non-existent, and it seems like the Science Department continues as it ever has. When the changes finally start happening, they seem very minute at best – a shift in schedules, a different way of handling the test subjects, the slightest changes in staffing, and of course the Mako Treatments are still on hold for now.

Director Lazard though takes the whole thing in stride – most of the SOLDIER corps consisted of Third Class SOLDIERs, who are little better than mere cadets in the grand scheme of things, and he is busy arranging training missions and trying to bring the best Thirds up to the level where they can be safely promoted to Seconds. He also takes the Mako treatment downtime as the perfect excuse to put lots and lots of SOLDIERs in lectures and classrooms and force the understanding of Materia into all of their heads. Cloud isn't too excited about returning to a classroom after so long, but after figuring out that Vincent is about as good with Materia as he is with a gun, he pays close attention.

He also, finally, gets his weapon. The Weapons Department produces it with mingled disgust and excitement and there are a whole slew of people watching when Cloud gleefully carries it off to the hologram training room, where a suitable virtual reality is quickly readied for proper testing.

The weapon – designation SR-GB-01, but he is so not calling it that – is a thing of beauty. One hundred and twenty one centimetres long from the butt of the stock to the tip of the topmost blade, with a weight of forty two point three kilograms and is extremely top heavy. It fires twenty millimetre rounds and has a fixed loading revolver cylinder for the ammunition with the capacity for six shots. And of course, from top and bottom the long barrel is supported by blades, turning it effectively into a gunblade – except, it's definitely more of a rifle than a blade with just a gun attached like some gunblades.

The firing is a bit difficult at first, as the topmost blade makes the addition of sights impossible, but he figures out how to use it in the same fashion pretty quickly. The kickback is powerful, but not as bad as with anti-tank rifles – and the range is very nice. As is the fact that the Weapons Department was happy to offer him a variety of ammunition, ranging from the normal armour piercing to high explosive shells, to what can only be described as a miniature rockets.

If Cloud hadn't already been in love, he would've confessed his undying devotion to the gun. It was beautiful.

"And this time you can't even say that I'm compensating," he grins later, when showing the weapon to a somewhat amused Vincent.

"You can still compensate without any need to do so," the gunman says. "What are you going to call it?"

"Hmm…" Cloud hums, running his hand along the side of the topmost blade. "How about Fenrir?" he asks, glancing at Vincent's newest gun – the Cerberus, a three barrel semi-automatic revolver with breach loading, which the man had just recently acquired from Gaia only knew where.

"If you'd like," Vincent answers, amused, and with a grin Cloud swings the massive rifleblade to his back before leaning forward and pulling Vincent into a celebratory kiss.

How Sephiroth finds out about it, seeing that the man has made no contact with Vincent what so ever, Cloud doesn't know, but one day the sniper is called to the science department to meet with Sephiroth and Lucrecia in the Head Scientist's personal office, where the two proceed to, well, question him about Vincent.

"I don't suppose this affair you have with Valentine is merely a passing fancy?" Sephiroth asks, sitting on Lucrecia's desk, looking more relaxed than Cloud has ever seen him. "And you wouldn't be willing to reconsider the wisdom of it."

"No, sir. Sorry, sir," Cloud answers, resting his hand on Fenrir which hangs from a strap on his shoulder, a constant comforting presence in a way even his original sniper rifle hadn't been. "ShinRa might have my loyalty to a point, sir, but it doesn't extend to my love life."

Lucrecia smiles faintly from behind the desk, glancing at Sephiroth who just frowns at Cloud. "That might make things a bit difficult for us," Sephiroth muses.

"How so, sir?" Cloud asks suspiciously.

"As of his disappearance, Vincent has been considered dead," Lucrecia explains softly. "Hojo filed him as missing in action, which eventually turned into deceased in the line of duty. It is our intention to change those records so that, by all appearances, Vincent's death was a cover-up and in truth he was assigned as my bodyguard. That way… he can come out of the slums, if he so wishes, without having to fear any repercussions."

"And he'd be added to ShinRa's pay lists," Cloud says slowly, his eyes narrowing.

"Well. No. Turks have very low life expectancy so their retirement age is the lowest in ShinRa. Being fifty years of age, it is within Vincent's rights to file for retirement," Lucrecia chuckles and then looks down, looking a bit guilty. "I thought this would be a… way to pay back some of the debt I owe him, for everything."

"But considering that according to this story, you and Valentine would have never met … your … affair would be in direct conflict with it," Sephiroth says. "As well as your friendship."

"Hm, Cloud hums, drumming his fingers against Fenrir's barrel. "Why haven't you talked about this to Vincent yet?" he asks then. "I know he hasn't heard a word from either of you since his meeting with Sephiroth."

"We wanted to make sure we could do it, before possibly giving him any false hopes," Lucrecia says quietly. "I want to do something right."

"I see. Well, you ought to have consulted with him. He was a Turk, and probably better than either of you when it comes cover-ups. And besides, he's been living in the slums for months and people have noticed him – Zack's seen him too, you know, with me," Cloud sighs and then shrugs. "But well, no one says we can't pretend to meet and get to know each other and fall into a relationship later, after the whole thing starts and all that. But you need to talk with Vincent first."

"Zack's seen you two?" Sephiroth asks, frowning.

"He has a girlfriend in the slums, so we run into each other every now and then," Cloud shrugs. "But he can probably keep a secret."

He warns Vincent about the upcoming meeting with his so called family, but isn't there when it actually happens; Lazard sends him on a monster extermination mission – he gets sent alone too for some reason – so he's busy. After he comes back, it's to find himself on the brink of promotion to Second, only pending on the Mako treatments, and in the midst of the cover up concerning Vincent's existence.

Zack is aware of it too, catching him into a headlock in the corridor when he gets back and asking him in an amused, laughing whisper that, "You're banging Sephiroth's dad? Damn, Spiky," in a way that makes Cloud for the first time feel a bit mortified about Vincent's unfortunate family relations. Thankfully Zack is more than game with the whole thing, and is the one to "introduce" the only SOLDIER sniper to the, by now legendary, ex-Turk gunner.

Vincent is a bit different when they meet. His hair had been brushed and the ragged bandana replaced by a new, neater one; the cape gone, replaced by a red coat and the golden gauntlet replaced by a less flashy one. Even his odd, metal boots changed into actual leather ones – which Cloud is secretly grateful for, after having hit his toes way too many times on the damn things.

"You're a sniper? With that?" Vincent asks, looking at Fenrir thoughtfully and fingering the grip of the Cerberus idly. Then in echo from long ago he demands, "Show me," and Zack very gleefully rushes them both to the hologram training rooms.

They have a surprisingly big audience, probably summoned by the fact that both Zack and Sephiroth, the only SOLDIER Firsts left, are both so keen on watching. While hefting Fenrir from his shoulder and detaching the straps he carries it in, Cloud considers his mentor, his friend, his lover and realises that for everything Vincent has taught him and all they had done over the months of their co-existence, they had never actually tested their marksmanship against each other.

Vincent seems to realise that too, as he calmly breaks the Cerberus open to load the revolver. Grinning and already loaded, Cloud grasps Fenrir and gets ready to fight.

It is nothing like his abysmal, doomed fight against Sephiroth, because this time it's bullets flying from both directions and though Vincent is fast, it's a different sort of speed. Vincent is fluid and can shift into what can only be described as liquid shadow that shifts back and forth and takes no impact from the thirty millimetre rounds Cloud fires at him. Meanwhile, Cloud is so familiar with weapons that every time Vincent aims at him he can see the direction the bullet will go in his head and duck out of the way without getting hurt.

In the end, their clash of weapons ends up being just that, Cloud swinging Fenrir heavily like a very badly balanced sword and Vincent meeting it with barrel of the Cerberus and deflecting. Here what Cloud knows of Vincent comes into play because he's seen those moves, this guard, that reflection, and knows which way the gun will end up at the end of it. Vincent knows the same about his weapon, though, and so the fight devolves into both of them trying to avoid each other's barrels while aiming their own at their opponent, neither quite gaining ground.

Somewhere between Vincent's expertise and skill and Cloud's superior physical strength, there is a balance of capabilities and in the end the fight is quite even – up until the point their eyes lock and the fire that had originally made them reach for each other in the dark flares up. Leaning forward Cloud smells the familiar gunmetal and oil on Vincent, still there even after the clean-up and licks his lips. Vincent's pupils dilate at that and his breathing deepens – and what had been an even, almost friendly fight turns heated as Cloud swings heavier and Vincent blocks harder.

It ends up with the barrel of the Cerberus below Cloud's chin and the blade of Fenrir at Vincent's throat, both of them breathing hard and heated and unable to break eye contact. Right then, with Vincent so close, breathing hot air just against his cheek, his hair once more a beautiful chaotic mess, Cloud really hates the whole cover up and the fact that he can't just lean forward and have what was so agonizingly close.

"Later," Vincent says in low, barely audible tone: a promise. Cloud manages to detach himself with some difficulty, pulling back Fenrir as he does and trying to look like he hadn't been about to pounce. It probably doesn't work.

And somehow he knows that behind the glass in the observatory room, Sephiroth is probably face palming.

 

.

 

"So this is Nibelheim," Sephiroth murmurs while looking at the village. It doesn't seem all that impressive, but then Cloud and Vincent both had warned that it wouldn't be – that it was just a small backwater village with nothing all that impressive about itself, only the Reactor and of course the mansion. Shaking his head the First Class glances at the Second Class SOLDIER at his side. "How does it feel to be back?"

"A little strange," Cloud answers, smiling crookedly. "Especially considering the mission," he adds, fingering the stock of his rifleblade.

Sephiroth nods and looks ahead before glancing at the two infantry men who were their, rather needless, support for the mission. With Cloud there to offer all the long range support anyone could ever need with his Fenrir, there was pretty much no chance what so ever that anything could get at them. But Lazard had demanded it, so they probably ought to make sure to bring the troopers back home safe and sound.

"One of you stands guard, the other can ask around the village about their monster problems. Strife and I will confirm our reservations at the inn," Sephiroth said, and the troopers saluted before turning to their duties. With Cloud trailing after him, Sephiroth heads forward and into the village, where the few people scattered about the square give them curious looks, their eyes widening at the sight of Cloud.

"Friends of yours?" Sephiroth asks, amused.

"Not as such, no. I don't think they expected me to come back, after the last time," Cloud admits, with a small smile. "I was on leave from the Infantry the last time and people here sort of thought I had failed and gotten kicked out of the military after that. Admittedly, they weren't that far off the mark."

"You were going to be let go?" Sephiroth asks, surprised. Knowing Cloud's abilities with a rifle and how damn easily the young man takes Mako – he is already one of the strongest regular SOLDIERS there had ever been, even surpassing Zack in sheer physical strength despite his diminutive frame… it's rather hard to believe that he had ever been under the threat of getting the boot.

"I was a bad trooper. I would've gotten the boot if I hadn't met Vincent and he hadn't taught me how to shoot," Cloud says. "Which, luckily for everyone, happened during my leave."

"I see," the First Class answers, shaking his head. Though he does accept and even understands his father's and the Second Class's rather… strange relationship, it doesn't mean he is all that willing to consider it in detail. "Well, let's check our reservations and then we'll head up to the mountain first."

"Yes, sir," Cloud says and they do as planned. The inn keeper gives Cloud some wild eyed looks, especially at the massive rifle the Second Class lugs around, but Sephiroth ignores it and confirms that there is enough space for their little team before turning to leave.

"Sir, we've arranged a guide for you to the mountain and the Mako Reactor," the innkeeper says tentatively at his back and Sephiroth pauses, frowning.

"With SOLDIER Strife being local, I hardly think I need another guide," he says, not willing to pay any extra – with Lazard being so damned stingy, he would have to pay for it himself.

"SOLDIER? So you made it to the SOLDIER, Cloud?" the innkeeper asks, looking a bit disbelieving. "How did that happen?"

"I guess they just like my wonderful personality," Cloud answers, swinging Fenrir a bit and making the innkeeper pale.

"Work now, SOLDIER, intimidating the locals later," Sephiroth says amusedly, while heading for the exit.

"Yes, yes," Cloud answers following him, before explaining how they could get to the mountain. "It's a couple of hours' trek on foot if the bridge is broken, and it always is," he says. "If we go that way, we'll pass by the ShinRaMansion on the way."

"Let's do that then," Sephiroth says and they set out, out of the village and up to a slightly higher plateau where the ShinRa mansion is, sitting in a sort of hollowed valley and mostly hidden. Sephiroth doesn't bother to force the gates open just yet – there'd be time for that later – and instead just looks at the mansion in the distance. "This is where you and Vincent met," he states.

"Yeah. I got stupid bored and went in there to shoot some monsters. Vincent didn't approve of the waste of bullets," Cloud grins.

Sephiroth nods – that does sound like Vincent. "I was born here," he murmurs quietly.

"Probably better not to think about it that way, sir," Cloud says, with a compassionate pat onto the shoulder. "It's just a place, a horrible place, but just that. The fact that you were born here doesn't make it your home."

"No. No, it doesn't," Sephiroth agrees and they leave the mansion gates to head up the mountain instead. The trek is fairly long and filled with a variety of monsters, most of them flying, which Sephiroth handles with easy swings of Masamune – since Cloud has been put under a strict leash about the use of ammunition and since Fenrir handles rather clumsily as a blade, it isn't worth his effort.

The blond sighs a bit morosely as he stands back to watch him fight. "Maybe I should've gone with normal rifle rounds. That way I could actually do something," he says almost sadly.

"You should carry handguns," Sephiroth answers amusedly, wiping his blade clean.

"I do. I'm under ammunition restriction on those too," the other SOLDIER sighs. "Though I think that's just the Director punishing me for overuse of Fenrir."

"Probably. That's what you get for having unique ammo."

They continue on, steadily making their way up as the air turns cooler and the winds gather speed. It's howling by the time they make it to the reactor itself, and Sephiroth has to admit that there might be a good point as to why the Nibelheim reactor is fully automated and has no human staff what so ever. The weather conditions are rather rough, even for ShinRa employees.

"It'll probably be pretty gruesome," Cloud comments as they eye the reactor.

"Probably yes," Sephiroth agrees and grimly they advance forward. Gruesome doesn't begin to cover it, however – the reactor has all the benchmarks of one of Hojo's playgrounds, full with failed experiments in a long lines of pods, somehow still alive while supported by a steady flow of Mako. While Sephiroth eyes the pods darkly, Cloud pulls out his small firearm, and checks the clip.

"Let's get to work," the blond says almost gently and while Sephiroth just nods, the Second Class begins opening the pods and one by one quickly executing the failed experiments with precisely aimed shots to the head. It is efficient, but not all that emotional and Sephiroth can see the blond muttering quiet apologies for each and every target, before putting them out of their misery.

Sephiroth watches the process for a moment longer, secretly admiring the calm of the sniper and wondering if this too was something Vincent had taught Cloud, before sighing and pulling out his Materia, to begin the clean-up.

It takes them only half an hour or so to empty all the pods and turn them off, leaving behind only a few blackened spots where the subjects had been before Sephiroth had burned their remains out of existence with rigorously controlled spells. With this part of the operation done, they turn to the door leading deeper into the reactor before heading up, Sephiroth keying in the password and then stepping forward and inside as the doors opened.

There, just beyond the reactor core, the rather grossly idolised shrine to Jenova waits them.

"I'll take this one," Sephiroth says and Cloud stays back with a nod, to watch how Sephiroth tears through the shrine to get to the actual tank with Jenova in it. He has to take a moment at the sight of her – Lucrecia and Vincent both had warned him, but the thing was even more hideous than he had expected. Too human to be anything but grotesque, with its mutated wings and the tubes and pipes running into its system, supporting its make-believe life that Hojo had, somehow, been able to instil into it.

With a snort, Sephiroth powers the tank down and watches how the Mako flows out and Jenova crumples to the bottom without the support of the liquid. Once the tank is empty, the machinery pulls the glass out of the way leaving Sephiroth with nothing but air between him and the thing Hojo had called his mother.

"Abomination," he murmurs and aims Masamune. It takes him less than a couple of swings to completely dismember the corpse of Heaven's Dark Harbinger, and only one orb of Materia to completely disintegrate what remained.

Cloud says nothing as Sephiroth returns past the reactor core, and silently they begin their way down, and towards the village to finish the clean-up mission at the Mansion. As they walk, Cloud takes out his PHS, typing a message as they head downwards.

"To Vincent?" Sephiroth asks, raising an eyebrow.

"Just letting him know. He worries too much. Just letting him know everything went okay and Jenova has been turned to ash," Cloud shrugs. "And some other things your sensitive ears probably don't want to hear about your dad."

"Yes, please spare me," the First Class rolls his eyes and the blond grins at the phone before flipping it shut.

"Do you want to look through the reports at the mansion before we clean up the laboratory?" he asks thoughtfully while pushing the PHS into his pocket.

"Not really. I've heard enough and I'd rather not know the details," Sephiroth admits. He had been curious, when he had gone to Lucrecia's cave under the pretence of a mission nearby, but… no. He isn't all that curious anymore. He knows what he is, what he can do and what the implications are – the how, when and where isn't that important to him.

Though he can't help but wish that he could've found out a little earlier, in time to save Angeal and Genesis from their part in the whole mess. At least Angeal, even if Genesis couldn't have been saved after all the atrocities he had committed… but perhaps it was better for them to die. And for Sephiroth too, eventually. Die and take the filth that was Jenova with them.

"Stop it," Cloud says suddenly, punching him on the shoulder and actually almost making him stumble.

"What?" Sephiroth demanded, frowning.

"You’ve got that look. Vincent gets that look too and then he broods for hours. Didn't think it was genetic," the Second snorts and punches him again for good measure, making Sephiroth scowl.

"I'm still your superior officer," he growls warningly

"You're not my superior anything if you start brooding like a teenage boy," the blond says and grins at his glare. "What? Lucrecia told me to look after you, so I am. Can't tell me not to do my duty – she outranks you so I'll take her orders over yours. Especially since she's the one who authorises my Mako treatments."

Sephiroth snorts at that. "True enough," he mutters, rubbing at his shoulder and frowning. "I think you might've actually bruised me," he says with surprise. The last one able to do that was Angeal.

"I carry around some sixty kilos in weapons and ammunition, what do you expect?" the blonde asks. "Zack can probably do it too, what with him swinging that Buster Sword around the way he does, but he's too nice."

"True," Sephiroth agrees. He rather likes the idea, of the new generations of SOLDIER becoming strong enough to match him. Maybe one day he would be able to have even spars with Cloud and Zack – and though they could never be anything like what him, Angeal and Genesis were, they would be… enough. "I shall have to provoke him a bit the next time I see him. Maybe I'll get a good spar out of him," he decides and they head towards the ShinRaMansion – to burn it to the ground, if need be.

And to put the last of Hojo's evils to rest.