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Blood of the Wild

Chapter Text

Hollander looked closely at the results of the third test he’d run on his sample. The readout was the same as the previous two. Somehow, someway Angeal and Genesis had stabilized. He would have to look more into that later at some point. Study what they were doing and where they had been to discovered how they’d cured themselves. For now he had another task to see to- running scans on the samples from the new batch of recruits. It had taken some talking but he had convinced those in charge of Soldier that it would be more prudent to do the mako tolerance testing before putting the time and money into training cadets who, in the end, may not even be able to join the elite fighters due to poor tolerance. After all, why invest so much into someone who will ultimately fail because of their biology?

The tests were completed and the results were set to the side. He would prepare to send the final results after he’d looked over the samples a few more times. He was always careful to keep some of each sample untainted for comparison. He needed test subjects for experimentation- his true motive for running the tests. After Project J, Hollander had been reduced to a mere subordinate with Genesis and Angeal being listed as failures. The new tests that proved they were no longer degrading would eliminate that listing, but he wanted to discover how it was done before he presented the proof. It wouldn’t be enough for him to triumph over Hojo, though. No. To do that he needed something more. He needed to not just succeed but truely excel at something his rival had failed at.

The recruits and cadets offered him that opportunity even if no one had realized it. since the simple screening was deemed too unimportant for the Head of the Science Department to waste his precious time on, it fell to Hollander to do the job since it had been his idea. Just as he had hoped when he’d brought the topic up for debate. The process had already yielded several promising candidates that he was keeping careful watch on. Others he sent to Hojo to look over because he was “concerned” about their reaction. It was necessary to keep the other doctor busy so that he didn’t realized what Hollander was up to. Also to keep the bastard from stealing his potential subjects.

Hours were spent testing each sample meticulously, watching for any unusual reactions to the mako. There were a few who had reactions to watch for, though nothing to truly catch his interest yet. Once the basic mako tests were finished he went back over the samples, studying both the infused an untainted samples. There was only one file he’d set to the side for himself by the time he was two-thirds of the way through. The doctor came to a complete stop at sample SC1602762.

He opened the file to check the results of the original mako test. Bold red letters spelled out NEGATIVE at the top, declaring the recruit to have failed the test and yet… The supposedly untainted sample of the subject clearly had mako in it. Curiously he flipped through SC1602762’s file in hopes of finding a clue to make sense of what was in front of him. Date of birth- not of use. Eyes, hair, height, weight- basic information that gave him nothing. He skimmed the papers until he landed on the birthplace and place of residence.

Playing a hunch based on the location, the man retrieved some pure mako to expose the subject’s samples to. The sample had reacted badly with the tweaked and processed mako that was used to enhance the Soldiers in the first test. The second test with the pure mako went much better. The subject’s body, likely due to where he lived, had adapted to the exposure of pure mako and was now unable to handle the lab’s mako. How interesting.

Further studies of the sample suggested an ability that may be the answer to his problem. Now all he had to do was get the boy into his lab and care without Hojo trying to interfere. A slow smile crossed his face as he took a look at the second test result. He had the perfect answer to that particular problem. All he needed was for the Soldier to return from his mission.

Chapter Text

Cloud Strife nervously nibbled at his lips as he waited for his assigned Soldier to show up. There had been six cadets in the room where the science tech had gathered him but one by one Soldiers had sown up and walked off with them. Now he was the only one left and he still didn’t know what was going on. Time dragged on until finally, blessedly, the door opened and a Soldier walked in just as he was wondering if he should leave.

Standing just inside the door wa a man nearly a foot taller than the young blond, with pale blue eyes and spiked raven hair. The Soldier was wearing a First Class uniform and a smile that was friendly with a hint of mischief lurking at the edges. Cloud wasn’t sure what to do and was about to introduce himself out of habit when the man started moving. An arm was thrown around his shoulders and he was being lead out the door, then down the hall.

“Heya! My name’s Zack. Sorry I’m late. I just got back from a mission and dozed off.” They came to an elevator where the Soldier, Zack, cheerfully punched the down button. “So it’s my job to explain what’s going on. First off, you should know that this is a good thing. Some people have unique reactions to mako. You and the others in the room where like that. When something like that happens, they like to go through the files and if they find someone in Soldier who had a similar reaction them the Soldier is made the cadet’s mentor. Gives them someone who will understand what they are going through. Since you reacted like I did, they paired us together. Right now we’re going to Hollander. He’s gonna be the one in charge of you since he’s in charge of me, cause Angeal was my mentor and he goes to Hollander. Got it so far?”

Cloud blinked up at the friendly smile before offering a hesitant nod. What he’d gathered from that speech was that Zack was his mentor because their reactions were similar. Which meant he’d be spending a lot of time with this Soldier. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing just yet. Uncertainty didn’t stop him from pressing closer to Zack’s side when the doors to the lab came into view. He may not have been in Shinra long but he’d already heard stories about the kind of things that happened in the labs. The Soldier looked down at him with a kind smile, giving his shoulders a reassuring squeeze. The blond was able to offer the tiniest smile in return before they went through the doors and entered Hollander’s lab.

“You’re late.” Was the terse greeting from behind one of the many shelves.

Zack had the decency to look sheepish as he hugged Cloud to his side. Not that the blond was complaining or planning to move from his spot of safety until he absolutely had to. “Yea, sorry. I took a longer nap than I meant to after I got back from my mission.”

“Humph.” The doctor waved off the explanation, moving over to an examination table. “Come boy, there’s no need to be afraid. We’re going to be doing a basic secondary test.” He picked up some wires as Cloud leaped up onto the table at Zack’s subtle urging. “What this test will do is give us an idea of how your body as a whole will react to the injections. Zack, as your assigned mentor, will be present for the duration of the test unless you say otherwise.”

“He can stay.” Cloud insisted, perhaps a little too quickly but he didn’t care. Actually he felt safer knowing the Soldier would be present so he didn’t hesitate as much as he may have otherwise when directed to remove his shirt and lie down. He saw Zack settle into a chair and allowed himself to relax just a bit as the doctor brought over a syringe filled with a green liquid that glowed faintly. In his peripheral vision he thought he saw Zack give a small frown but when he tipped his head toward his mentor to get a better look all he could see was the same calming smile he’d been given outside the lab doors.

“I’ll be watching the readouts on the monitors at my desk. Zack will be watching for anything physical that may not be picked up by the machines. If you feel faint, dizzy, nauseous or anything unusual, then you need to alert us to it immediately.” After receiving an affirmative the doctor when to his desk, taking the samples he’d collected before and after the injection with him.

As he set about retesting the samples for the ability he suspected the blond to have, Hollander kept an eye on the interaction between the two of them. While his main focus was on his original experiments, Angeal and Genesis, he had every intention of using these two as well. It would not only increase the chances of his success but prove he could do what Hojo never could. For it to work, however, he needed the two of them to bond. From what he could tell when they had entered things were going well on that front. He was even more certain that they were off to a good start when Zack scooted his chair closer and started an animated tale of a previous mission that he had been on with Angeal to entertain Cloud while they waited. The small blond seemed genuinely interested in the story, even if he remained fairly quiet through the telling.

The readouts were steady, indicating that Strife’s body was handling the modified mako mix without issue. And not only had his tests confirmed that he had what Hollander was looking for but the infused sample was showing traits that could prove useful to his ends in the future. Now that he had his answers and samples he could use the next few days figuring out how to implement his plans. For now he was able to send the two younger males on their way. He had enough to work with for now.

*

Zack continued to study the little blond next to him as he chatted about anything that came to mind. The fifteen year old seemed quiet and shy but otherwise healthy so far. The Soldier couldn’t help but worry though. He knew what the mako was supposed to look like and there had been a subtle difference in the mako his new student had been given. He wasn’t sure if there had been a change in the solution in the whole Science Department or if Hollander was up to something but he figured he should bring it up to Angeal and Genesis the next chance he got. Maybe even Sephiroth.

They probably wouldn’t know what the deranged scientist was up to either- if he was up to something- but at least they could be on guard if they were told. Unfortunately that was about the most any of them could do, especially since they didn’t know what the old man was scheming. And Zack was fairly certain he was, even if he didn’t have any proof of it. Maybe it was some kind of warning instinct but there was something telling him that the crazy guy was plotting something big and they needed to be prepared to handle it.

“Okay, so, we need to get your things and then get you settled into my apartment.” He couldn’t help but laugh at the wide-eyed look of bewilderment and panic that flew his way, even with his worries haunting his thoughts. “Sorry, sorry. I’m not laughing at you- well, yea, I am but not to be mean or anything. It was just the look on your face.” He received an almost equally amusing look of indignation and disgruntlement. “Seriously though, you will be moving in with me and I’ll be training you. You’ll be getting injections of mako, unlike the cadets in basic training, but not on the same level as a Soldier.” The raven clasped his hands behind his head and turned around, casually walking backward so he could face his student while they talked without stopping their walk. “The first few months will focus on getting you in shape and teaching you the basics. After that they’ll increase the injection amount a bit and we’ll move on to the more advanced stuff. The faster you pick things up, the faster your training level will be bumped up. So everyone is on their own time table.”

“So,” Cloud quietly spoke when Zack paused, “it’s theoretically possible for me to learn everything and pass in half the time that the, uh, the basic cadets would?” He wasn’t certain he’d actually be able to accomplish such a feat but he still wanted to know. Privately the blond wanted to ask how the raven managed to walk backwards without running into anything considering he never once looked over his shoulder to navigate his path.

Zack gave an encouraging grin at the hesitant question. “Exactly.”

Well that was awesome news, even if he still wasn’t sure what to think of the announcement that they would be living together. He mentally shook himself. Really, what was he balking for? He had been expecting to potentially share a room with a whole bunker of other cadets, considering he wasn’t actually sure how their living arrangements were set, and now he was being told that he’d be sharing an apartment- an actual apartment!- with a single First Class Soldier who was going to personally train him. Cloud should be thrilled. Instead he felt kind of cheated. He hadn’t gotten here because he’d earned it through hard work and training or anything of the sort. No. It had been given to him because he was genetically special in a way that was similar to the older teen in front of him.

Zack watched the play of emotions on the cadet’s face with mild concern. The expected excitement was almost completely absent. In its place was an almost put out expression that he couldn’t puzzle out. “Something wrong Spike?”

Spike? Cloud blinked himself back into the present, letting the nickname slide without comment. A heavy sigh left him as he tried to figure out what he wanted to say. “It’s just… It doesn’t seem fair that I got all of this just because of a glitch in my biology. I didn’t earn it.” The youth fought to keep the pout off his face but if the amusement on the elder’s face was anything to go by he failed spectacularly.

Zack, for all that he tried, couldn’t stop the chuckle that escaped if his life depended on it. “I can’t wait to introduce you to Ang. He’ll love you.” It was too bad the man had left on a mission of his own the previous day. Still smiling, Zack took up the same position he’d had earlier with one arm hooked around the shorter teen’s shoulders. “Come on, let’s get you moved in so we can get to know each other properly and talk about a training plan.” The raven already knew some of the basics about his student, having been given his file to read, but he wanted to know the blond as a person. It would make their time together much more pleasant. And it didn’t hurt that the young blond was incredibly cute...

*

Cloud couldn’t sleep. There was just too much going on in his head for him to drift off. So much had happened in such a short amount of time. He felt so overwhelmed. Thankfully Zack seemed to understand that without being told and had decided that the next few days should be set aside for them to learn to adjust to each other. Cloud was more than fine with that because as it stood he wasn’t quite sure what to make of the tall raven teen.

After retrieving his bag of belongings they had gotten him settled into the second bedroom of Zack’s place. They had talked over dinner the elder had made, sharing stories of growing up in their hometowns. It had been fun, comparing growing up on a mountain to growing up in a jungle. Cloud had found himself relaxing and opening up in a way he hadn’t before. The blond had even surprised himself by letting slip a couple of things that he hadn’t even told his mother- not wanting to burden her with his problems.

Already things were looking up, even if he wasn’t sure he deserved to be here. Zack had commented off-handedly that if he wanted to earn his place in the cadet program then all he had to do was pass through his training swiftly and excel at what he was taught. Easier said than done, but that was kind of the point. Cloud was eager to start training and it was a strain on his patience to wait. He understood Zack’s reasoning, though, and was determined to go through with the raven’s plans.

The Soldier was friendly- more so than what Cloud had ever experienced before. He was also fond of casual physical contact, something else that Cloud was unused to. He’d really only had contact with his mom, unless you counted all the fights, and even with her he’d gotten a bit distant as he’d aged. Zack was also so cheerful that occasionally Cloud was unsure how to properly respond. The man was ridiculously tall as well, forcing Cloud to tip his head way back to look up at his face. All of this Cloud could learn to live with- was learning to live with- but the more comfortable he became around the man, the more he noticed how handsome and well built the Soldier was.

Huffing a frustrated sigh at himself, Cloud yanked the sheet he was using over his head in an effort to shut out the world and quiet his mind enough to get the sleep he needed.

*

Zack stood, feet braced, fists on his hips, spine straight, as if he were about to start issuing battle commands to the weapons racks assembled in the room before him. Cloud stood more timidly at his side, slightly intimidated by the sheer number and varieties of weapons in the room. How in the world were they supposed to pick the weapon best suited to him out of all of this?

“Right. When you fight your weapon is a part of you, so we need to find which of these is an extension of you.” Zack wandered through the racks, dragging Cloud along with him so the blond could give a few test swings with whichever weapon he was handed. Zack really wished Angeal was back to help with the weapon selection but the man hadn’t even been gone for a week on his two week mission. It was such a shame too. The burly Soldier was able to look at how someone moved and narrow down what weapon type would best suit a fighter based on his study of their natural body movements. Often he was able to find the exact weapon that would be perfect for them, though he insisted that it was always best when a fighter was drawn to his own weapon. Something about a battle soul or a blade calling to it’s true wielder. Zack hadn’t ever really understood that part of the lecture.

Cloud drifted off on his own as Zack seemed to get lost in thought for a while. So far he’d decided he felt most comfortable with a sword in his hands verses a staff or similarly shafted weapon. Axes, hammers, and maces were out because he didn’t like how they were end heavy. He’d dismissed whips and flails without even trying because he didn’t like how the length of the weapon was generally uncontrolled, even if you could control the end itself. Zack had let him try a pair of kukris and he had liked the feel of using each hand separately, though he hadn’t much liked the shortness of the curved blades. He had liked the broadsword but it had been a bit too heavy for him to properly wield. He doubted he’d ever be able to handle anything like Zack’s claymore- he just didn’t have the height for it.

Keeping all of this in mind Cloud walked along the racks, hand out, fingers hovering over the weapons but never quite touching them. He didn’t realize that his eyes had unfocused or that his mind was blank except for finding his sword and not running into anything. He felt a tingle in the tips of his fingers on his outstretched hand just before they grazed metal. The shock of the feeling brought him back into focus and Cloud found himself in front of an odd looking sword. He picked it off the rack to study it closer. It wasn’t quite as heavy or large as the broadsword but it was designed similarly. The whole weapon looked to have a nearly imperceptible crack that ran the entire length of it. It took only a few seconds more to find the hidden catches that held it together. Flipping them loose he split it down the crack into two seperate swords, one slightly longer than the other.

Zack watched in bemusement as his student breezed off and went into something of a trance. He finally snapped out of it when he came to one of the simple prototype fusion weapons. He could tell, even before the blond tested the blade, that this was going to be the one he trained with. This had to be what Angeal was always going on about. Besides it was obvious to him that the young teen loved the blade. This was great news! Cloud had a weapon that he could connect with which meant training could begin.

*

Cloud bit back a groan as he stepped into the hot water, allowing it to ease his sore muscles. The first day of physical training with his new weapon and without it had been spent finding his limits so that Zack could gauge what kind of further training was needed to get him where he needed to be for Soldier. Cloud was inordinately pleased with the praise Zack had given him. Especially when the elder had commented that he was a lot more fit than most recruits they got in the program. Cloud figured that was thanks to the fact that he had spent most of his childhood climbing around a mountain.

Whatever the reason for it he was glad. His higher limit meant that he could start at a higher level than first anticipated and he could get through his training faster. Especially since Zack had complimented him on how quickly he picked up techniques, even with his unusual sword. The Soldier even commented that he may start teaching the cadet materia before the week was over. The blond was especially excited to learn magic but he’d stayed calm, not wanting to risk his mentor changing his mind about it.

Sighing deeply Cloud got ready for bed and settled in to sleep. It had only been a few days and already the apartment felt like home. He wondered, when he became a First and got his own place, if it would feel like home too.

*

Hollander reviewed the surveillance video, pleased to see how close the two teens were getting. So far things were going smoothly. The cadet’s next lab visit was in a couple days and the doctor already had the next injection prepared. It was designed to help bring out the additional traits he had discovered in the small blond. Once they were more developed he could find a way to transfer those traits to his other subjects. He was certain he’d discovered how to advance those traits more quickly and had received the needed supplies to do so. As much as he wanted to see the final result Hollander reminded himself to be patient. He would have to time it all carefully if he wanted everything to go according to plan. A careful record would need to be kept so that Hojo couldn’t try to claim his work and to ensure that the results were favorable to Hollander.

It would be at least the third visit before the blond would be developed enough for him to use his samples as a base for creating new injections for the other three. After that it would take time for the blond to reach the necessary stage for him to complete the research. More time would be put into altering Zack and Angeal. Even more would be spent on Genesis. The eldest Soldier would be put through the most changes. If the doctor worked it right he could try to get Genesis on the same, or nearly the same, time table as the blond. He could afford to wait a bit on Zack and Angeal so that their changes would be occuring around the same time. He’d even selected a few other Soldiers under his care to undergo the experiment once his main four were at a satisfactory stage.

It would be worth it. He would succeed. Finally he would prove that he was superior to Hojo. Sephiroth may have been perfect but he was a singular anomaly. Hojo had been unable to recreate his first success or even come close to him. Hollander had been able to create two! And he had modified a third to nearly the same level. Soon he would have a fourth to his name. And then many more.

Chapter Text

Angeal smiled down at the redhead beside him. Bright cyan eyes danced up at him, just as happy to be home as he was, if not more so. Genesis had been sent out a month before him on a mission that was supposed to take a week and some odd days. The small mission had turned into something much larger when the simple task of finding and eliminating a single supposedly mako mutated local creature had turned out to be an elaborate trap. Genesis had managed to evade their enemies, finally getting back to the small fort Shinra had in the area, only for the base to be basically sieged. And they still had no certainty as to who had set them up. There was always AVALANCHE as a possibility of course, but the tactical maneuvers pulled off by the enemy hadn’t been like anything they had encountered before. It unsettled the burly Soldier to know so little but Turks had already been dispatched to investigate. There was nothing more for them to do but wait for the results and prepare themselves as best they could with what information they had.

For now, he was hoping to have some downtime with his crimson lover. If they were lucky maybe even Seph would be able to join them after he finished for the day. It was difficult for the three of them to spend as much time together as they liked but they went out of their way when one had been gone as long as Gen had been. Before that though, he wanted to touch base with his former student. He’d been unable to contact Zack while he was away due to the nature of his mission and he’d missed the teen’s cheerful disposition.

Genesis, for all that he pretended to complain about the over enthusiastic nature of the new First, had been perfectly willing to not only allow him time to visit Zack but accompany him as well. Which was as much of an admission from him that he had also missed Zack as Angeal thought he’d ever get out of the redhead. Truthfully Angeal was glad that both his lovers were as fond of the young man as he was- even if the first introductions hadn’t gone as smoothly as he’d hoped with the elder Soldier and the teen. On the other hand things went much better than he could have prayed for when introducing him to their silver lover.

The red First hadn’t expected to like the boy when Angeal had taken on a Third Class student. It meant he’d have to give the brat attention he should be paying to the two of them. Sephiroth had been prepared to endure the same hero-worship he frequently got from those who bought into Shinra’s propaganda. The first time meeting Zack had been a surprise for both of them- though only one would have called it a pleasant one.

Apparently it had taken the teen all of five seconds to decide that they both looked far too dour and serious. His plan to fix the situation involved him glomping the smaller redhead, calling him adorable, and then twirling him around like he was a doll. Genesis had been beyond indignant. Zack was lucky to still be alive. For that matter so was Sephiroth, who’d made a hasty escape to the bathroom, where he could lock the door and laugh without being too audible to his lovers. Gen had been on the brink of completely wrecking Angeal’s apartment- probably the whole floor actually- by the time he was set back down on his feet.

Angeal hadn’t been quite sure what to feel- exasperation, amusement and horror were all present- but he’d quickly set all those feelings aside and set about soothing the ruffled feathers of his elder lover before there was any property damage. Bodily damage had still occurred but it was minimal and Zack didn’t hold a grudge considering it had only taken a quick heal to get him smiling again. Genesis had declared that Angeal needed to keep his puppy on a leash for future visits. He’d forgiven the teen eventually but he’d never forgotten that brief glimpse of shrewd calculation he’d seen on Zack’s face before he’d been assaulted.

It was that same look he was facing now, which was the reason he found himself resisting the urge to duck and hide behind his larger lover. Fortunately for all involved he didn’t seem to be the target this time as the smaller raven First darted off and popped back up in front of them holding a small blond aloft by the hips. Large, vivid blue eyes blinked at them in obvious confusion. He felt more than a little sympathy for the child. He knew what it was like to be surrounded by giants- both his lovers and Zack were all over six feet after all and he was not- but the blond looked even shorter than him. He was still growing though, so he wouldn’t always have to look quite so far up at those around him.

“Look Angeal! I got a student! I call him Spike!” Zack thrust his arms out, still holding his poor student out to the older Firsts in his living room. This wasn’t how he’d planned to introduce them but Angeal looked drained and Genesis looked like he’d been run over by an entire convoy. A little humor could go a long way and he hoped Cloud wouldn’t be too upset by this.

Seeing as he couldn’t properly salute while being held at least a foot off the ground by his escentric mentor Cloud nonetheless did his best to do so. “Cadet Cloud Strife, sirs.”

“Commanders Genesis Rhapsodos and Angeal Hewley but Genesis and Angeal are fine, little one. There’s no need to be formal here. Zack would have a fit if we insisted on it anyways.” The redhead First gestured to himself and the even taller raven First when he said their names, reaching out to ruffle blond spikes by the end of his speech. Cloud resisted the urge to pout at being called little seeing as he couldn’t actually deny the truth of it. Even if Genesis was the shortest of the three Soldiers, he was still taller than Cloud by several inches.

Angeal looked at his former student with fond exasperation. “Zack,” he said sternly while crossing his arms, “drop him.” Unfortunately the effect was ruined by the smile that was trying to break past the frown and reveal his true feelings on the matter.

Zack gave an exaggerated pout and hugged Cloud close like a child trying to keep a favorite stuffed animal. Ignoring the blond’s flailing he gave his former mentor his biggest puppy eyes. “But he’s mine Geal…” He didn’t normally act so childish but every now and then the three Firsts needed a good laugh or a smile. Zack took it upon himself to ensure it happened as often as he could manage- even if it meant doing something that should be embarrassing but wasn’t for him if it was for a good cause.

Genesis was too worn out and tired to even try to hold back the quiet laugh that escaped him, but for the cadet’s sake he buried his face in Angeal’s side to muffle the sound as much a possible. Between his lover and his friend Angeal found himself chuckling as well. “Our apologies Cloud. We’re quite tired from our mission and really should rest. Just to be clear- we are not making fun of you, we are laughing at my puppy’s antics.” If the blond had to deal with the same harassment Genesis got for his size then he had a hunch the cadet may take an issue with that idea if he didn’t deal with it quickly. He knew he was right when Cloud’s face relaxed and he realized the teen had been fighting to keep his true expression hidden.

Zack finally allowed Cloud to drop down to his feet and Holy Shiva! He’d thought Zack was tall but Angeal was just unfair to the rest of the planet. He blinked up at the Soldier- way, way up. “Puppy?”

“Hey!”

Angeal ignored Zack’s protesting. “His nickname is Puppy or Pup. Courtesy of Genesis.”

“He earned it fair and square, Geal. Don’t you deny it.”

“Shouldn’t the two of you be heading off to snuggle or something?” Said Puppy grumbled, trying to derail the conversation before Angeal or Genesis decided to regale his student with tales of his own trouble causing training mishaps. Though he supposed it would serve him right. He had caused Angeal a lot of headaches and even more trouble- not all of which could be blamed on his friendship with Reno. Cloud would hear about it eventually no matter what he did but he’d like to put that off for a while longer if he could, please and thank you!

“Hmm. I suppose you could be right for once.” Genesis wrapped both his arms around one of Angeal’s and rested his head on the man’s bicep. He was interested in the blond enough to notice how those azure eyes went wide as their owner inferred what was going on. The cadet seemed strangely bewildered at the information and he wondered where the boy had come from. Same sex relationships hadn’t been common in Banora but they weren’t unknown either. There had been a few in the village and the people had accepted them regardless of whether or not it was approved of by the couples families. By his reaction, Gen was willing to bet that it wasn’t something he had encountered before. It was possible he hadn’t ever heard of such relationships but then Genesis thought it would have taken him longer to figure out the relationship between the two Firsts. Similarly if he’d come from a place intolerant of such things he would have probably had a more visceral reaction.

Gen would have liked to investigate the matter more but Zack and Angeal had apparently finished their stare-off. Gen decided he must truly be beyond tired because he discovered that not only had they finished but that his taller lover had already said good-bye- for both of them- and was leading him away. Ah well. It wasn’t like he’d never seen the cadet again. There would be time later for him to get to know Zack’s new student.

*

As it turned out Seph was able to spend the night with the two of them, though he’d had to leave early in the morning to be in a meeting. He and Angeal had slept in as much as they could. The burly man had left an hour ago to get a routine post-mission check-up. Due to having been gone so much longer Genesis was being called down to Hollander’s lab for a more thorough examination. He wasn’t thrilled about it but he couldn’t really argue after being gone for a month and a half. The Commander was surprised to see Zack’s little blond sitting alone on a table, hugging a pillow and frowning uneasily. The elder immediately went on alert. While he hadn’t wanted to discuss it in front of the blond, Zack had called late last night to tell the three older Firsts about the strange things that had happened at Cloud’s last two visits.

“Well, hello again.” He called softly, not wanting to startle the boy. With Hollander possibly messing with the mako mix it was unlikely that Zack was away for just any reason.If he was actually away and not just out of sight for the moment.

“Oh!” Cloud turned toward the voice, instinctively clutching the pillow closer for a moment. “Hi.” He wondered if the lab held the “no formality” rule that applied in Zack’s home. Considering the Commander gave a smile and no reprimand he supposed it did.

“Can’t say I expected to run into you so soon. Waiting for your shot?” Gen asked gently, stepping over to hop on the table next to the blond. Those silent alarms were blaring when he received a nod. Usually the mentor was present to keep the cadet calm and help keep an eyes on him while they adjusted to the mako. There were very few things that would prevent them from being there, the first of which was the cadet not wanting them present, which he seriously doubted to be the reason for this cadet. If Zack had stepped away for a moment then he should have returned by now which meant he wasn’t here at all. Cloud must have understood what he was thinking to some degree by the expression on his face because he was quick to explain the First’s absence.

“Zack got called on an emergency mission down in the Slums. He’ll be done in a few hours. This is the third visit for me so I know what’s gonna happen.” He subconsciously shifted closer to the older man, seeking the same feeling of comfort and safety he usually got from Zack. “Right now I’m getting one a week but Zack said with the way I’m advancing in my training he thinks I’ll start getting two a week within a month or so.” He didn’t need to share so much information, it certainly hadn’t been asked for but he was hoping for something from the redhead, even if he didn’t know exactly what. Despite the fact that he knew Zack’s news was good, he wasn’t overly happy to hear it. He didn’t like the doctor one bit- though he supposed it was a bit better than being sent to Hojo, who he’d run into once in the halls.

Both scientists gave him the chills but at least Hollander made the effort to treat his patients as living things and acted somewhat like a decent human. Cloud didn’t really buy the act Hollander put on but Hojo… That man wasn’t human in any way. The single meeting they had left him feeling violated all over, inside and out, despite the fact that Hojo had done nothing more than eye him. It had been easy to tell that Hojo was considering what kind of specimen he would be and what kind of experiments could be done on him. Luckily for Cloud, Zack had been there and was quick to pull him protectively to his side. It hadn’t deterred the foul man in the slightest even as they walked through the doors to Hollander’s lab. He’d been looking back and had caught the brief look of disgust Hojo threw at the nameplate before the doors closed and he was in the relative safety of the lab. Hollander was definitely the lesser of the two evils but that didn’t mean Cloud had to like him.

“Well, I’m sure my exam won’t be until after your’s. I could stay if you’d like.” He gave a reassuring smile to the nervous teen. “As a cadet you have the right to have your mentor present and can demand a substitute if they are absent. Zack probably sent a message asking one of us to stand in for him anyways and we missed it because of our own exams.” At least, Gen was relatively sure Zack would have done so. He was already quite protective of his student- with good reason. Unless Hollander had done something to stop the message from reaching them. Genesis was liking the situation less and less the more he learned.

The blond perked up at that information and even more so at the offer. “I would like that very much. Thank you.” Cloud smiled widely, having received exactly what he’d been looking for from the Soldier. He was no longer worried about being alone with the shady scientist. He didn’t know what was going on but he could tell by Zack’s behaviour that there was something going on. Genesis seemed to be aware of whatever it was and that help put him at ease. Maybe Zack had said something to the elder man when Cloud hadn’t been around to hear. While he appreciated that Zack was trying to protect him, he’d still rather be warned even if the raven didn’t know everything yet. He’d have to bring it up later.

Genesis was momentarily stunned by how beautiful the teen was when he smiled like that. He snapped out of it enough to smile back, fascinated as an adorable blush tinted the other’s cheeks. The arrival of Hollander startled them both out of the little trance they had fallen into. The doctor seemed surprised to see Genesis present, slowing his step a bit before resuming his walk to his desk.

“I wasn’t expecting you so early.” The man shuffled a few items around and looked up at them, adjusting his glasses. “I’m afraid you’ll have to come back later. The boy has an appointment first.”

The Soldier was about to reply to the dismissal when the cadet impressed him by speaking up in a surprisingly strong voice. “He’s here to cover for Zack.”

Hollander fought back a fierce scowl at that statement. “I see… Have a seat then.” He waited for Genesis to move off of the table before stepping forward to start applying the monitoring wires. This was a complication he hadn’t expected. He’d carefully arranged for a lab specimen to be released in the Slums not far from where Zack’s flower friend lived, even though he knew she was of interest to Hojo, to draw the Soldier away from the blond. He’d been counting on the cadet’s ignorance and the Soldier’s concern for his friend to gain some time to be alone with the subject. There were a few more additives to this injection and he had a second one lined up to administer once the first had run its course through the subject’s body. He’d wanted more time to study the changes without a First Class Soldier hovering around.

Once both of the males were settled into their places he brought the first shot over and injected it before Genesis could interfere. He took the samples he needed with him as he retreated to his desk, ignoring the First’s uneasy frown. Genesis was less predictable and more observant than Zack and he could only pray that the redhead stayed where he was.

If he played this right he could use this meeting to his advantage. He waited an acceptable amount of time- during which at some point the Soldier had pulled out that blasted book and begun reading to the cadet- then came over with the second shot. He placated the two by claiming some of his readings were unbalanced and the shot would stabilize them. He took another sample afterward and returned to his desk. He studied the samples while he waited for the second shot to flow through the delicate veins. Rhapsodos was back to frowning uneasily and the blond was slightly agitated but both were staying in their respective places. It took several long moments, where Hollander acted like he was ignoring them, before Genesis started reading again after his interruption.

While the two kept each other occupied, Hollander used the samples from the cadet to start a new mix for Genesis. He could use the mission Rhapsodos had been on to get him into the lab on a more frequent basis so that he could begin the experiment on the elder subject. The redhead looked irritated when Hollander interrupted again but this time he took a sample from the Soldier, citing that he could run some tests on it for anything out of the ordinary that may be the result of his mission. With no real argument to that, Genesis allowed Hollander to take the samples he needed to finish what he was doing. He returned to his desk to read the monitors, ensuring that Cloud was stable and progressing as desired before turning to his mixes. Using the samples from the Soldier and the cadet he created a mix for Genesis that would develop the desired traits and prepared a shot for it. Now he just needed a reason for the difference and an excuse to have Genesis come back weekly for more shots and further testing.

Actually… He already had that answer. And he could use it to get Angeal in the lab as well. He may even be able to understand how they had stabilized because of it. All he had to do was show that their current tests read differently than they should. Neither of them had been aware of the deterioration so they wouldn’t know that the tests showed something positive unless he told them. Instead he could say that there was something from their mission that was causing their systems to accelerate and that it could be dangerous if left on it’s own. Then he’d have to make a new mix for them to counter the effects, which would explain the new injections. He’d be able to call them down for weekly check-ups as long as he could show them something was happening to their bodies. And he could argue to them that the new injections were reacting with whatever the enemy had placed in their systems to explain the changes happening to them. Then all he needed to do was find a way to get Zack in the lab as well. Perhaps he could claim a possible contagion. That would also help excuse the blond’s changes as well.

For now he just had to wait for Zack to return and pick up his student so that he could begin with Genesis. The red First wouldn’t let Hollander do anything until he felt that the cadet was “safe”. The scientist had no illusions that any of his subjects truly trusted him, but he knew they were more likely to go along with whatever he did as long as he made sure they didn’t feel threatened. Made them think he was only trying to help them. It was a trick his rival had never really mastered and he silently gloated over that fact. He was just putting the final pieces into place for his grand plan when Zack came through the doors with a bit more haste than was really required. The older teen’s expression relaxed when he caught sight of the blond cadet being watched over by the red First.

“Mission complete.” He eased over to the two with a relieved smile on his face. Genesis noticed it was a bit strained at the edges and figured that was due to uneasy frowns on both Cloud’s face and his own. At least he hoped so. The only other reason would be because something had happened to the flower girl.

“Your student if free to go for now. There were some odd readouts that concern me but I believe I have him stabilized for now. I want him to come back a little earlier next week to make sure nothing is wrong.” Hollander frowned down at the screens and papers for effect. “I would like Angeal to come down for a check-up as well. There seems to be something in Genesis’ blood work that maybe contagious. For safety and security reasons, I would like to check your blood as well before you go. I’ll have the blood work sent over from the base to see if anyone else was affected by whatever this is. I’ll need to inform Hojo of the abnormalities so he may check Sephiroth- though it’s unlikely that anything has gotten into his system. Better to be safe.” The doctor listed off the tasks more for his audience than himself. It was necessary to convince them that something was truly going on with them. It would be easier to convince them if they weren’t the only ones “infected” by the enemy. There would be far less suspicion if there were others who they thought were outside Hollander’s reach being changed as well. It would also expand his subject pool.

Notifying Hojo would be unpleasant and had a minor risk of tipping the other man that he was up to something but as long as he kept everything controlled then he would remain in charge of the Soldiers involved in his experiment. Chances were that the arrogant asshole would barely acknowledge his message- his specimen was too perfect to be affected by anything after all so there was no need for concern. Mentioning Sephiroth was more to convince the redhead to comply than anything else. He knew that both of his main subjects were close to the younger experiment. If he suggested that what was happening to them could spread to him then they should put up less of a fight. Not that he actually cared but they did and he was willing to use that.

Zack tossed a hesitant look toward Genesis, who pursed his lips but gave a nod for him to let Hollander take his samples. Once the blood was taken the raven lead Cloud out of the room. “I’ll send Ang down.” He called over his shoulder, sounding both like a promise and a threat in one.

“If it helps you any I can show you the readouts so you can see the differences yourself.” Hollander offered. He knew the Soldier would want to see it with his own eyes to confirm what the doctor was claiming. Offering without being prompted would help convince them that he wasn’t trying to hide anything. They would still be cautious around him- he didn’t expect complete trust- but they would be more compliant this way.

“I believe once you have run Zack and Angeal’s blood it would be easiest for us to look at all four at once.” Genesis set his book on the chair and carefully folded his coat on top of it. “We can call the two of them back down after you’ve finished with the two of us.”

“Of course.” Hollander went through the motions of a standard check-up, asking all the questions he was expected to ask before he began asking for more information. “Have you felt any differently recently? Your tests results show that your systems are operating at a higher level.”

“I haven’t been tiring out as easily, if that’s the kind of thing you mean.” The Soldier’s voice was hesitant, wary.

“Hmmm… I thought so. It seems okay for now but I’m concerned that if the level keeps rising you may essentially burn out. I think I know what’s needed to prevent it from happening but I can’t be certain of any side effects.” Hollander went and retrieved the shot he had prepared earlier. “There is no way to predict accurately how it will interact with what’s already in your system.” He lied easily and waited while Genesis considered the situation. He did nothing until the younger man willingly presented his arm for him to administer the shot. While he could had simply given it to the redhead it was better to have the subject’s cooperation. It would also help for when Angeal came in for his own exam. He took a sample after the shot and took it back to his desk to wait for his son to arrive.

It was a longer wait than he had anticipated but he was able to use the time to study the sample from Genesis and start what he thought would be needed for Angeal’s shot. He was just finishing creating the papers he’d need to present the four of them with to “prove” there was something in their bodies when Hewley arrived. The exam for the large Soldier proceeded much that same and before long he had injected the younger Banoran with his own specialized mix. The two teens were summoned to look over the results and the doctor used the time it took them to arrive to create a mix for Zack. He held off on Cloud knowing he’d be pushing his luck if he tried something too soon with the blond. Instead he planned to wait for the next visit to “find” something going on with the cadet. Naturally as he didn’t have as much mako in his system it would take longer for the “infection” to spread in his body and therefore would take longer to detect.

When all four had left, satisfied with the information he’d given them if not completely comfortable, he allowed himself a smug laugh. Hollander sent word to the base about the possible contagion and needing samples from all the Soldiers to test for safety. He shot a brief hastily worded and rather vague message to Hojo, knowing the man wouldn’t take him seriously anyways. Once that was done he began creating a base mix that would cultivate the desired traits in his test subjects. The four he had were personalized to bring out the changes as quickly as their bodies could manage but it would be too much trouble to create a personal mix for every specimen he was going to have. He could use their samples as a base but that would only do so much. Best to find a mix that would achieve positive results with relative speed among a wide range of subjects.

Once his first four subjects reached a certain stage in their progression then he would be able to use a single solution for all of them. He still needed to discover what it was that had saved his original two specimens but for now it would have to wait. He had a much more important experiment to focus on and as long as they didn’t begin deteriorating again then the answer could afford to wait. If he were lucky then the answer would be found in the course of their alterations.

Chapter Text

Cloud’s nose twitched as he tried to settle in for sleep. He couldn’t quite place it but there was a warm, spicy scent in the apartment that was keeping him awake. It reminded him of cinnamon and sun and forests. The blond had noticed the scent the past few days but it was either getting stronger or his sense of smell was improving. Possibly a combination of the two but he wasn’t certain. All he knew was that he was having trouble sleeping because of it and occasionally during his waking hours he had trouble focusing. Oddly enough the scent, as far as he could tell, seemed to be coming from Zack. He wondered if it had anything to do with the oddities Hollander had found in them.

Half way through his second month of training he’d started making two visits a week to the lab but one of those visits were usually more focused on the strange infection that he had caught from the others. Hollander had discovered it in him the week after he’d first found it in the First Class Soldiers. At first the doctor had claimed that it wasn’t affecting him as strongly as it was the Soldiers. About half his visit was spent normally and then they focused on the infection because they couldn’t do as much about it with it only in the first stages. Once it had hit a certain stage Hollander had said they could keep better track of it and had added another visit to his schedule.

All of the Soldiers- including ones from the base that had been brought in because of signs of infection as well as those in headquarters that had been infected- were put on a limited mission list. Genesis had been put on the list first. The red First had been aching all through the third month of treatment- focused mostly in his abdominal area. Angeal and Zack had been put on the list after that, though their aching was later and less intense. By the time the fifth month had passed everyone of the afflicted had suffered from the same aching, though only some of them had the same pain as Genesis.

While most- if not all- of them were suspicious of what was happening, none of them really knew what was going on. Cloud knew that Genesis and Sephiroth were both highly skeptical and believed that Hollander was either behind what was happening to them all or at least knew more about what was happening than he was sharing. Angeal was willing to believe that the scientist was hiding information but hesitated to accuse the man of more. Even then he argued that perhaps the man was waiting until he knew more before telling them. Zack was on the fence between the two sides in a way. He was convinced Hollander was withholding information but he didn’t really want to believe the man was doing something to them without them knowing. That was something he expected from Hojo. He couldn’t deny, however, that the first visit Cloud had in the lab the cadet had been given mako that wasn’t what it was supposed to be. Cloud wasn’t sure what to say and usually sat quietly while the four debated and argued their sides.

Throwing off the blankets Cloud grumpily stalked into the kitchen to get a drink of water. He was careful as he pulled down the glass. After half a year of training and shots he had a problem with breaking them when he was tired because he gripped them too hard by accident. Still, heading back to his room Cloud was convinced he wouldn’t change anything. He had a mentor that he got along well with and he’d meet the three strongest First Class Soldiers in all of Shinra that he also got along well with to his surprise. Even more startling was that he frequently ended up cuddled next to Genesis when the redhead was around. He would have thought Zack to be the one he was curled up with regardless of if others were present. There was something soothing about the man’s scent- roses and strawberries and chocolate- and it comforted him. The scent of Zack and Angeal- rain and earth and ginger- drew the blond in an entirely different way but he couldn’t say why. Seph’s scent was a subtle- too faint to properly name- but called to him in a way that was similar to the two raven males.

Besides, he’d never say it but it was cute how Zack and Angeal would do nearly everything and anything for them while they were snuggled in. Even Sephiroth was in the habit of doing what he could to avoid disturbing them. Not because he was wary of Gen’s temper but by his own words because they looked too adorable to bother. The man was far more gentle than Cloud would have guessed. Something he first learned while the General fretted over his lovers during the painful aching they had endured. Genesis had been thankful for the aid, even if he fussed over the reason why he needed help. Angeal hadn’t needed as much attention but had accepted what was offered without complaint. Zack had been a handful for Cloud to deal with to the point where Seph had physically held him down until he agreed to behave for the blond. Cloud had been extremely grateful and had baked a special recipe for him to show it.

It hadn’t been as much of a surprise as it probably should have been when he learned that the three of them were together. He’d already figured out that the two Banorans were in a relationship during their first meeting. Same sex relationships were nearly unknown in his home but there was one set of old ladies at the edge of the village that had no children and had never married. It wasn’t common knowledge that the two of them had been together- but he’d still known somehow. Still, he felt finding out three men were together should have had more of an impact on him. Instead he’d taken it in stride and when he thought about it he wondered if he’d known on some level he hadn’t been aware of. Which brought him back to scent.

Even before he’d really started noticing the scents around him, he’d been aware on some level- something some friends outside of Nibleheim had mentioned to him before. When he’d first meet the two Banorans he noticed they were in a relationship not because of the hints that had been dropped but because of their scents mixed all over each other. His third visit to the lab had been frightening because Zack had been called away. But then Genesis had shown up with his calming scent and Cloud had been fine. At Cloud’s first meeting of the General, the man had been absolutely covered in Gen’s scent with Angeal’s mixed in nearly as strongly. Cloud had chosen not to think about what would have made the scent that strong at that point in time. Later, when he finally did allow himself to consider it he’d blushed so red his face had felt like it was going to burn off.

Curling back up into bed the blond decided he’d think about it more tomorrow. For now he needed to try to rest. Breakfast was planned between all of them and he didn’t want to oversleep for it. As he drifted off an idea occurred to him about who he could ask.

~*O*~

Zack woke up feeling groggy and like he hadn’t slept at all. He knew he had but the sweet smell that was all through the apartment hadn’t let him properly rest. He didn’t understand it at all. The closest he could think to describe it was vanilla and honey and mint. To make matters worse he didn’t even know where the smell was coming from. He’d looked through the whole place- except Cloud’s room- trying to find anything new in his home that could account for it but came up empty handed every time he looked. He’d even asked Angeal but the burly man was having his own problems of a similar nature. Ang was able to tell him that both he and Cloud carried the smell around with them and it seemed to be stronger on the small blond. They had concluded that it was probably something in the cadet’s room producing the smell. Zack had respected the teen’s privacy so far and had stayed out but now he was seriously considering going in to find whatever it was.

Angeal had a smell that was just as sweet in his place but less noticeable. It was also in Seph’s and Gen’s but was strongest in the redhead’s home. Seph could faintly smell it but he was less affected than him and Angeal. Unsurprising to the other two. Genesis had made a few offhand comments about smells but he described them as being musky, not sweet. It was confusing to say the least.

On top of the lack of rest, he noticed Cloud a lot more than he had before. Usually in the most awkward moments with the strangest urges accompanying them. Of course he’d known that the blond was cute when he’d first meet him but recently he’d catch himself watching him like he was a hunter stalking prey. More than once he’d held himself back from pinning the teen down and biting his neck hard. Like he wanted to mark Cloud as his property or something. And he didn’t seem to be the only one fighting it back. He’d actually growled at one of the Soldiers who had been transferred from the base because the man had been prowling up to Cloud with a feral look in his eyes. The man had been shaken out of whatever trance he’d been in but both of them had been startled by the unexpected episode.

Genesis had complained that he’d had a couple of the transfers invade his personal space but that wasn’t the part that had bothered him. The part that had upset the redhead was that he’d felt defensive instead of angry with them. The need to back away from them had almost made him actually do it and Gen didn’t back down from anyone. Not even Seph. When Angeal had come across the group, he’d been uncharacteristically aggressive with them. There were other incidents occurring within the group of infected as well. Sephiroth had started to take notes on who was being the most aggressive and who were usually the victims so he could try to keep everyone in line. Thankfully most of them seemed to be neutral but there were enough of the others that it was still a chore to keep track of them.

Sighing in irritation Zack went to the kitchen to start breakfast. He needed to make enough food since the other three Firsts would be coming over and Gen would not be happy if Zack screwed it up. Again. Picky bastard. He heard shuffling behind him just before the sweet smell swirled passed him. The fridge opened as Cloud got drinks out for everyone to set at the round table.

“Morning Spike!”

“Morning.” Zack frowned at the quiet and unusually dreary greeting. Before he had a chance to question the blond there was a brief kock and the sound of the door opening.

“Good morning you two.” Angeal smiled as he walked into the kitchen, setting down the small platter of fruit he’d brought over to contribute to breakfast.

Zack spun around to smile at his visitors. “Hey guys. Take a seat, foods almost done.”

“A vast improvement over last visit already.” The redhead took the seat closest to Cloud as he frequently found himself doing. He noticed that the blond seemed lost in thought, having only barely given them a nod in greeting as he set out their drinks.

“Genesis…” Seph slid into the chair next to his shortest lover with a small warning glare. The last thing he needed was any of them fighting. He got a dismissive snort in response but the eldest stayed silent.

Angeal sighed and stepped over to help plate the food. Just once he’d like a peaceful morning without any of them trying to antagonize another. Unfortunately for him it seemed Zack and Genesis had made it their unspoken personal goal in life to rile each other up. He breathed heavily out of his nose, both to suppress a sigh and to clear his head of the overwhelming sweet scent that seemed to follow the little cadet. The burly man had started to notice an equally distracting scent coming from his red lover and the two of them together were making his thoughts slightly foggy.

Zack shook his head to clear his thoughts as he took a seat on Cloud’s other side, wishing his sense of smell was weaker so he could think straight. “So, any news from Hollader about what we were infected with?”

“None.” Angeal took the remaining seat between Zack and Sephiroth.

“I have considered asking… Hojo… if he would look into the matter. Given the lack of answers we currently have. But…” The silver General didn’t need to finish the sentence or list his reasoning any further than that. His hesitancy to actually involve the other scientist was obvious and needed no explanation.

Genesis scoffed openly, having already voiced his vehement opinion when Seph had first brought up the topic. Getting Hojo involved would be the worst decision they could make. They had a better chance of getting answers by barging into the lab and threatening Hollander. He was prevented from sharing said opinion with the two new additions when the blond’s soft voice chimed in. “I have an idea that doesn’t involve scientists. They might be able to explain some things but I would need to get a letter back home and then wait for a response…”

Four pairs of mako bright eyes stared at him before Sephiroth spoke for them. “Very well. Write your letter. We will ensure it gets there quickly.”

Cloud nodded and left the table to gather some paper and a pencil.

~*O*~

Hollander looked down at the syringe in front of him. He’d already submitted the official report of his successful experiment to those who needed to know, now he was faced with a decision. The mako-free shot he had created was designed for himself. He knew from testing that he would be a beta which would free him from the complicated behaviors of the alphas and the omegas. With no mako in his body the changes would take longer and would be more subtle. The pro to injecting himself would be that his subjects would be less suspicious, especially when he started explaining the changes that were happening to them. The con was that he would be part of the hierarchy and would need to fight his instinct to submit to an alpha.

So he debated if the gain was worth the risk. If gaining more of their trust and cooperation was enough of a reason to join them. He needed a bit more time for the changes to finalize in his first four subjects but he could, in theory, get it by offering a bit of information. A tactic that would only work so long as they believed him. Damn it! He was so close.

He had succeeded in his experiment, he only had to wait for their superiors to see his reports. He needed a few more weeks for the last stage to take place. Time. It all came down to needing time. Time to be recognized for his efforts. Time for the last change to happen. Time he was running out of as things grew more tense within the group of his test subjects.

He could gain some time by explaining some of the changes to them. Tell them that the mako and the “virus” was bringing out some of the more animal traits in them. But it may not be enough to get what he needed. If he took the shot, became one of the “infected”, then not only would he gain time but he could regain some of the trust that had been slowly slipping away over the last several months. He just had to decide if it was worth it.

Was changing what he was worth triumphing over his rival, Hojo?

He rolled up his sleeve and picked up the needle.

Chapter Text

The letter felt heavy in his hands as Cloud tried not to run to the apartment he shared with Zack. Locking to door securely behind him, the blond collapsed on the couch. He hesitated briefly, wondering if he should wait for the others, but quickly ripped the envelope open. The start was much the same as his own had been,were he’d filled in his friends on how things generally were and telling them about life in Midgar. They told him how things were going back in the mountains and the signs that they were coming of age. After the normal pleasantries were out of the way they started answering the questions he’d finally asked in his own letter.

They shared the belief that what was happening to them was not an infection but a deliberate alteration. The three of them suggested that it started with him, explaining that it had probably happened while they played. Growing up one of the things they used to do was drink from and swim in a few natural springs that they hadn’t known had traces of mako in it. But the rocks leading to the springs were sharp and they frequently got cuts and scrapes climbing to it. The theory they had was that there was a mingling of blood through the minor injuries and mixed with the mako. There had been small signs of it before- in all of them, not just him- but not enough for them to really notice it. The transfer was so minor that none of them had ever considered it a concern, so they’d never talked about it or brought it up to any adults. Pausing in his reading, he supposed that made some sense. Hollander had seemed unusually focused on him when he first started going to the lab. Plus the mako mix he’d been given was different than what he was told was the normal mix.

The next few paragraphs of the letter was talking about the dynamic of the tribes and the hierarchy of the packs as well as the differences between the two. Cloud had heard his friends use both words before but hadn’t previously understood that packs were closely bound, often family, mates and close friends. Tribes were more loosely bound and was typically made of numerous packs. An example they gave was that the four of them would have been considered pack back home, while the other children in the village would have been called tribe. He stopped long enough to get some paper and a pencil to start writing his questions down so he wouldn’t forget them later. He’d thought tribes and packs were the same thing. The details about the two concepts described in the letter would prompt more questions from the others on top of his own and he wanted to make sure all their questions eventually got answered. He could translate the simplified example easily enough for the Soldiers which should help some.

The hierarchy they described of alphas, betas, deltas, and omegas was easier for him to grasp than tribes and packs were. In part because he knew Manamea was an omega while Taayin and Django were alphas so he’d witnessed how they interacted. Having grown up with them it made understanding things slightly easier but he knew he’d have to figure out a way to describe things to the Soldiers and he’d have more questions to ask now that he was part of it. The three were kind enough to spend at least a few paragraphs on each class so that they could try to figure out who was what and what to expect. The details about their mating habits and cycles made him red in the face but he knew that the information would be important for the future. He appreciated their thoroughness no matter how uncomfortable explaining it to the elder men would be. And the irony of the youngest in the group explaining the “birds and the bees” to the older members was not lost on him.

The final page held the most surprising information in a way. Mana had gone into his first heat and triggered both Yin’s and Dj’s ruts. Apparently the three of them were now mated because both had marked him during the cycle and a bond had formed. Part of him felt that should have been at the beginning of the letter but since the situation was also used as an example to help explain the cycles he could understand why it was after everything else. It also gave room for them to explain marks and bonds.The letter ended with well wishes to him and the rest of the afflicted Soldiers, along with instructions to keep them updated on what was going on.

He flipped his notebook to a new page and drafted a quick letter that he would work on more after he’d had more time. The first thing he wrote was a congratulations to their new mating. He knew his small omega friend had been interested in both of their alpha friends for years now. He was fairly sure that both the alphas had reciprocated that interest but neither had ever been willing to admit it because neither considered themselves worthy of Mana, who had been described to him as a “perfect” omega. End result was that the alphas were likely less sure about the mating because of stupid reasons. Yin being blind and Dj being mute didn’t lessen their appeal in Mana’s opinion. As far as he was concerned it enhanced it, even if most omegas were too dumb to see it as far as he could tell. Stupid societal norms and enforced stereotypes. Cloud agreed wholeheartedly.

He’d meet a “proper” alpha that had been hassling Mana once and absolutely had hated the guy less than a minute after meeting the jerk. He’d been insulting to both the other alphas for being “cripple” and unable to “properly uphold their duties as an alpha” because of their so called disabilities. If that hadn’t been enough to make Cloud want to stab him in the eye with a stick, the way he treated Mana would have done the trick. He’d somehow managed to treat the omega as being so weak and fragile that he needed constant care and protection while still implying that his only purpose was to be strong enough to constantly bear offspring. Cloud had felt demeaned and he had been human, completely ignored and definitely not part of the conversation at the time.

What was it they had called him after he’d finally left? … Knothead. They’d called him a knothead. Cloud would have to remember that insult for later. He’d better ask for a better understanding of what it meant though, just to be sure he was using it right. Along with a list of other terms and their descriptions.

He gave a brief update on what little had happened since he’d sent the last letter and then left it so that he could put in his questions and the questions of the others. He was just writing a description of how they each smelled to the others on a seperate page when the door opened and one of the men he’d been writing about entered. It was not Zack, as he’d first expected. Instead it was a calming sweet scent that indicated Genesis was nearby. Cloud smiled and scooted over to make room on the couch beside him. Now that he had read the letter his attachment to the Commander made much more sense.

Based on the descriptions Cloud was guessing that the two of them were either deltas or omegas, both of which were affectionate. (He was hoping for deltas to avoid the mating heats but was seriously doubting that was the case.) They were often drawn together in order to satisfy their need for affection as well as their need to give affection without having to worry about the pheromones from betas, and especially alphas, that usually escalated things to a mating level. Though not always. Not that deltas and omegas couldn’t mate, just that their wasn’t as much of a biological drive to do so. It wasn’t disapproved of either, simply because such couples were able to bear twice as many children.

The blond felt the couch dip next to him and an arm tugged him into a warm side. He smiled and turned toward the redhead. “Hey, how was the day?”

“Boring. Some of the other infected were trying to cause trouble but Seph took care of it before it got interesting.”

“They’re probably alphas. The others think that they are going through all the stages that would normally happen at an accelerated rate to catch up to where their bodies should be biologically. Alphas tend to be more aggressive during their coming of age phase. They should settle down in a few months or so, after their first rut.”

“The others? The friends you wrote a letter to? And what the hell is a rut?”

“Yea. Got a letter back. Here, this will explain things.” Cloud handed the papers over to the elder man. It shouldn’t have been so impressive how quickly the Soldier read through the information but it was. He was still adjusting to how fast they could accomplish things.

“Hmmm. This information should be helpful for dealing with the whole lot of us. The others should be here soon. Seph will be here once he’s done with the troublemakers. The other two are in a meeting and should be back in an hour or so.” He folded the letter back up and tossed it onto the coffee table. The two silently settled back on the couch and flipped on the television to wait for the rest of the Soldiers to arrive.

~*O*~

There were only five afflicted involved in the incident this time, one of whom looked indignant as opposed to aggressive this time. From what information he’d been able to gather one of the men had made a pass at the indignant male, his friend had stepped up to defend him, the first Soldier’s friend had gotten involved and the final Soldier had used their distraction to hit on the indignant Soldier before he’d stepped in to keep everything from escalating. Things like this were becoming more common and escalating faster every time it happened. Honestly Sephiroth was running out of ideas to deal with it. Especially since all the infected were off the main mission list. None of them could leave the city and the missions in the city were mainly for the trainees.

Seeing as the indignant one was the victim and had done nothing wrong he was let go. The two who had been defending their friends were given a light disciplinary duty, he’d figure out what exactly later. The remaining two, who were both instigators in their own ways, would be given a heavier disciplinary duty after they had gone to the lab and been cleared by Hollander. Many Soldiers felt being sent to the lab for any reason should be counted as a disciplinary action on it’s own. While he understood the feeling, he didn’t count it.

Sighing, he typed up a brief report that he would finish properly after he’d decided what tasks he’d assign the guilty. He knew he should have assigned the punishment already. He should have finished the paperwork and been done with it. But it just wasn’t in him to do it today. There was too much going through his mind about the whole situation. There were far too many questions and far too few answers. Even his patience was being tested to the limit.

Finally it was time to call it a day and meet up with the others. Seph was looking forward to seeing his two lovers, as he usually was, but he found himself looking forward to spending time with the two teenagers as well. He’d been rather fond of Zack before but had gotten much closer to the smaller raven since this whole mess. Cloud was a bit of a surprise- especially with how close he and Genesis had become. It wasn’t one he was upset with, however. Cloud was cute and sweet and it was good to see the temperamental redhead getting along so well with someone else. Even if it meant that things between Angeal and Zack were becoming oddly strained.

It wasn’t overly noticeable, the two ravens were obviously- to him anyways- fighting themselves to keep things normal between them. The silvette wondered what behaviour it was that they were suppressing and how long they could keep it up. He could only hope that they figured some things out before the tension snapped. He also couldn’t tell if Cloud or Genesis had realized the other two were acting oddly or not so he couldn’t ask them if they knew what was going on.

Still, even with all of the questions, some of the tension eased out of his shoulders when he opened the door to Zack’s apartment, which had somehow become their regular meeting place. Two forms stirred on the couch and he looked over to see the two smaller males of the group once again curled up together. The General smiled at the sight of the napping two, slightly disappointed to discover that his entrance had caused them to wake. A pair of tired smiles was shot back at him. Curiously Gen waved him over and when he complied the elder pulled him down behind the blond, who gave a muffled grunt as he repositioned for comfort.

“Letter came for Cloud today. His friends responded, so we have more information now. Didn’t ask anything yet. Figured it’d be better to wait for everyone to get together first.” The redhead’s voice was quiet with sleep as he curled around the small teen to rest against his silver lover.

Sephiroth smiled down at the two and shrugged internally. If he was going to be dragged into a snuggle pile with them he may as well nap too. “We’ll read it and talk about what in it when they come home.”

It wasn’t until he was drifting off that he realized he’d called Zack’s apartment home...

Chapter Text

Angeal flexed his fingers, willing his body to go lax in his chair. He and Zack were the only two left in the room now that the meeting was over. The burly man could see the muscles of the teen were wound as tight as his own. Silence stretched between them. Always an uncomfortable feeling, especially when Zack was usually a chatterbox. Eventually the two of them got up to leave the room. The walk back to Zack’s apartment was just as silent and uneasy. With every step Angeal fought the bizarre need to slam Zack into the wall and show him who was the more dominant male.

It was a strange sensation. It also made no sense to him at all. Zack was his own person, a First Class Soldier and didn’t need to answer to him in his everyday life. Even so, the urge was strong and growing each day. He was certain that Zack was fighting a similar feeling. Training between them was becoming more intense than it had ever been before to the point that actual damage was becoming a real danger. Neither knew what to make of it and had started putting off their sparring session. It was better to hold off until they knew what was going on and why their behavior was changing.

The journey back to the apartment felt longer than ever before. By the time they were inside Zack was ready to snap and even Angeal looked close to losing his limitless patience. The scene they walked in on brought them both up short. Instantly the tension between them lessened as they breathed in the scent of the others. Genesis and Sephiroth were curled around Cloud, all three still slightly sleepy from their nap as they watched television. Cloud gave them a bright smile and a wave.

“Lovely, now that everyone is here we can get things done.”

“Genesis,” Seph sat up and moved over some to make more room on the couch for the other two, “at least let them get their boots off.”

“But I want answers now Seph.” The redhead grumbled, but also made some room on his side for one of the ravens to sit.

“I’m sure all of you do. Just let them get settled and I’ll tell everyone what I can.”
Cloud said as he was shifted around between the two Soldiers. He saw the other two give them an odd look. “Letter came today. I’ll tell you everything and then you can ask questions.” Realization dawned and they both began taking off their boots and harnesses.

Angeal lowered himself behind Genesis while Zack flopped down behind Sephiroth. Cloud leaned forward to grab the letter.

“Okay so first off you need to know that my friends are not… human. I don’t know if any of you have heard of legends about moombas but the stories are not quite what the real creatures are anymore. They’ve evolved. The original moombas were small, harmless things that were rather cute. They were intelligent but limited in their human speech. They weren’t fighters and couldn’t do much more than a normal untrained human could. The modern ones are larger and more articulated. They can speak as easily as we can and they are capable of fighting and using magic. They still have the longer lifespans of the original species but unlike them they can shift into human form once they get old enough. Usually it’s when they hit about the human equivalent of 18 to 20. The three I made friends with are able to do it now, which is unusual because they’re only about the equivalent of 15 or 16.” He set the letter back down and watched as the silver haired man picked it up.

“It’s important that you have that background so you can understand what’s going on with us. The moombas are more animal in nature which is where most of the animal instincts are coming from. Most are feline-like in nature but some are more canine-like and their fur comes in different colors. Kind of like how humans have different ethnic types and skin colors. They are divided into Tribes and Packs. A Pack in our case would be the five of us together because of how we’ve bonded together. A Tribe would be all of the affected Soldiers all together. They also classify individually as Alphas, Betas, Deltas, and Omegas.

“Alphas are the most dominant of the four and tend to be the leaders. They can be aggressive, especially when provoked. Their instincts are directed more towards protecting and providing. Betas are like a less version of Alphas. They protect and provide but aren’t as driven toward leading and are less aggressive. Omegas are kind of the opposite of Alphas in some ways. They will lead if an Alpha isn’t present or the only ones present aren’t considered worthy. They aren’t aggressive unless they are threatened usually. The instincts of an omega are more for caring and affection. Deltas are basically a lesser form of Omegas. Except they almost never lead.

“Alphas are drawn to Omegas for mates and Betas usually choose Deltas. There are other combinations of course but those are the most typical.” Cloud paused for a breath and to clear his mind. Getting through this next part was not going to be comfortable. “Alphas have a mating rut where they need to mate with someone- Omegas are best for it because they put off the pheromones that will keep an Alpha calm. Omegas have a mating heat and are best with Alphas for the same reasons. The heat or rut usually occurs for the first time when they hit their coming of age stage, which is about the mid-adolescent age. When puberty firsts hits Alphas tend to be quick tempered and easily provoked and Omegas are defensive and skittish. Once the first one is over their bodies balance out and their personalities are reasserted. The mating cycles are a regular thing that will need to be dealt with throughout their lives.”

He checked the expressions of the others to make sure everyone was understanding everything he was saying. “Male Omegas and some male Deltas are able to bear children, so that’s something we are going to need to warn the others about. And we need to tell them about mating bonds. They mate for life and when they choose a mate they mark them which forms an actual bond they can feel between mates. It can be broken through a ritual but it is risky to do it. Usually it’s only broken by death. I think that’s about all the basics… Everyone understand them?”

“I think we all got it. Do you have any idea what the four of us are?”

“Oh, that. I believe it’s most likely that Genesis and I are Omegas or Deltas. The way our scents calm each other and the need for affection would indicate one or the other. I think Angeal and you are probably Alphas. I’ve seen the way you’re trying not to get confrontational with each other. Like I said Alphas are aggressive before their coming of age rut and during any rut after that. Betas don’t get as… intense as you two do when you stand off. And you do stand off. No matter how much you try not to.” Cloud frowned at his mentor to show him that he didn’t appreciate being lied to. Again.

“Any way to tell which of the two we are?”

“Behavior. Like I said Omegas tend to be defensive and skittish before their first and around all consecutive heats. You were upset a few weeks ago because you nearly backed down when confronted by some Alphas, well I’m guessing they were Alphas anyways- that would suggest that you are an Omega. You aren't really known to stand down when challenged. And you had that abdominal pain- which might have been your body developing what it needed to bear children.” Cloud paused to keep his face straight at the almost horrified look Genesis gave him. “I haven’t really been around any of the Alphas besides you guys and I didn’t have that pain, so I don’t know for sure about me but it would seem that maybe I’m a delta that can’t bear children.”

Sephiroth looked up from the letter that he had been reading. The idea of having a child was appealing but he didn’t think any of them were ready for the responsibility. There would need to be talks and planning and the buying of supplies. Plus it would put Genesis out of the field. It was an idea that merited further thought. Later though. “Just the same your friends mentioned something about sending possible help. Do you know what they mean by that?”

Cloud bit his lip while he thought. “Well, they could be coming here themselves but it would be dangerous. Especially since they are young and newly mated.” His foot tapped while he ran through the other options. “There was some human doctors that had asked permission to study the moombas. Two of them. A Clive Winslett and Malik Bendict. It’s possible the three of them might ask the two doctors to come and take a look.”

“Hmmm. They will have to be discreet. Scientists tend to be territorial over their projects and if Hollander is the one behind these changes, he won’t like anyone else getting involved.” Seph refolded the paper and set it down.

“We’ll we won’t ask them to do anything. At this point it’s unlikely that they’d be able to reverse the changes anyways.” Genesis tapped his fingers while he thought out loud. “At least with them around- provided they come- we’ll know what Hollander’s doing to our bodies.”

“It sounds to me that we should finish the return letter.” Angeal placed the notepad and pen on the table in front of Cloud. The blond nodded and picked the items up.

“Okay, so I’ll read what I’ve got and you guys tell me what you want to add…”

Chapter Text

Hollander frowned at the results again. Angeal and Genesis continued to remain stable and he still hadn’t figured out how. At least they had progressed to the desired stage. Now all he had to do was wait for their biology to kick in. Cloud was either ahead by a couple weeks or behind by a bit. If he was behind at all then it was due to his younger age verses the experiment. Zack would hopefully help boost the blond along with that thanks to the fact that they lived together and that Cloud was the only “natural” one of the four. The results of his own blood showed he was progressing smoothly, soon he would be far enough along that the altered Soldiers should be able to start sensing the change in him. It would be better for his purposes if they approached him on the subject, rather than him bringing it to their attention.

He wasn’t known for being quite that forthcoming with information after all. It wouldn't do to raise their suspicions this late in the experiment. Not when he was so close to winning. The last test would be the mating cycles. If he proved successful then not only would he prove triumphant over his rival, but he may well have created a whole new stage to the Soldier Program. The gap between his first two subjects and Hojo’s had closed quite a bit since he had begun the new injections, indicating that the additional genetic material boosted the effects of the mako’s enhancements. Of course the fact that they were now stable was a likely contributing factor but he wasn’t going to let anyone know about it just yet.

In fact he had recently been given a sample of Sephiroth’s blood for testing purposes, much to Hojo’s silent rage. Oh, the other man hadn’t dared to openly argue with the President’s orders but Hollander knew his rival. And he knew how much he hated the idea of anyone but himself touching his perfect specimen. Once he was done with Hojo’s subject he would be granted access to all of the Soldiers. He would win, and Hojo would finally be the one answering to him. With that pleasant thought in mind, the scientist turn to start the tests he needed to run on the silvette’s blood.

~*O*~

Cloud turned a page in the book Genesis had loaned him. It was on more the more advance uses of materia. The redhead had pretty much taken over his materia lessons. Not that he didn’t still work with Zack on it, just that it was more putting theory into practice with the raven and learning with the red commander. Kind of how his sword work was turning out actually. Angeal had taken on the more instructing role while Zack put him through the actual motions. They had put him to bed today though. He hadn’t been feeling well when he went to sleep and they were concerned about him.

They had every right to be worried, he felt, considering that he could feel his face flushing from the start of a fever and he was starting to feel a dull ache form inside him. The blond was having trouble focusing on the words in front of him, a heavy fog was slowly settling into his mind and he wasn’t sure if it was because he was fevered or if maybe he was more tired than he thought. Sighing heavily, Cloud closed the book and set it to the side. He wasn’t going to be able to remember anything so there was no point in trying to read it. Instead he pulled one of the many blankets over him and readjusted the pillows so that he was essentially in a nest of bedding on the couch. Zack would be back soon to keep him company, until then he’d just watch a movie or something.

~*O*~

The office was silent as the silver haired man carefully wrote out a bullet point report of the letter Cloud’s friends had sent. The plan was to bring some of the changed Soldiers in a few at a time and go over what they currently knew. He wasn’t entirely happy with the plan- if only because he would have preferred for the two doctors that had studied the original species to confirm things first- but the general consensus among the group was that waiting was too risky. They didn’t have any idea what kind of time table they were dealing with when it came to the changes happening and those affected needed to be warned ahead of time. The compromise was that he would be informing the Soldiers that the information being given was incomplete and possibly subject to change pending further study.

It was difficult to stay focused on the task however. Last night Cloud was been feeling unwell and this morning Genesis had been displaying similar symptoms. While it wasn’t completely unheard of for a Soldier to become ill, it was extremely rare. The mako was able to counter most germs and bacteria that caused illnesses. Viruses were the thing most likely to get past the mako but even then it wasn’t often. The few times a virus had beat the mako, the cases had been severe. Which was why he was worried. The only thing that allowed him to work at all was the possibility that this was another side effect of the changes they were still going through.

Sephiroth finally finished with the report and slid it to the side. Unable to think of anything else he picked the letter back up and read it again. There had to be something in it that would give him a clue as to what was going on with the two… Omegas. The man straightened in his chair and let the papers fall back to the desk as everything clicked into place with that realization. Cloud had thought that he was a delta but if what Seph was thinking was right them he was an omega. And one who who might be going into his first heat. The silver man grabbed his phone and stood, making his way out of the office while he called Zack and Angeal.

~*O*~

“I’m not really certain how comfortable I am with this course of action.” The redhead grumbled as he was carefully helped through the halls by his silver lover. The fire was beginning to build inside him and it was making it difficult for him to properly focus. He knew that this plan was iffy at best though. Or at least he thought so. To be fair he’d zoned out part of what had been said because he was distracted by the lingering scents that clung to Sephiroth from Angeal and Zack.

“It’s our best option right now.” Seph explain calmly. Again. “Angeal and Zack will stay at his place. From what Cloud has said heats and ruts pass more easily and smoothly if they have a companion. Just because Alphas and Omegas are genetically designed to see each other through a mating cycle does not mean others can not help. By putting you and Cloud together in Zack’s apartment, you can help each other. The chances of an accidental pregnancy is much slimmer this way because the letter states that omegas do not dominate when they are in heat. Though I believe they can if necessary. The two of you will figure out other ways to get through it though. You have always been the most… creative of the three of us when we are together. When this is over we will talk more about it. There is a likelihood that Zack and Angeal will be going into rut soon. We will need to discuss if we are all okay with them helping each other through it. Fair is fair after all.”

Gen’s brows furrowed. “And Cloud consented to this?” He’d been pretty sure that the blond teen was a virgin. Did he really want his first time to be like this? It seemed so empty. Hardly fair to the beautiful teen. He deserved much better for his first time.

The silvette sighed sadly. “He has. At this point he’s further along than you are. While he isn’t entirely happy with how things have happened, Cloud has said that he will have no regrets with you being his first. I can not be certain that it isn’t the heat speaking but he seemed fairly coherent when I went to talk to him after locking down the two Alphas.”

“As long as he won’t regret it and all five of us agree that this is for the best, I have no complaints.”

“The heat should last at least three days but could drag on for five. I will stop by after the third day to see how the two of you are doing and to check if you need more time.”

“Hopefully for all our sakes this passes with three.” Genesis stopped them at the door and dragged his lover into a kiss. “We’ll get through this, love. Take care of the other boys for us while we’re busy.” The commander gave a small fond smile before entering the apartment.

~*O*~

Well, well, well. Hollander sat back from his examination of the sample. Test showed that Sephiroth would unsurprisingly be an alpha most likely. But what had caught his attention was something else entirely. He’d finally discovered what had stabilized his two original experiments. While he found it personally distasteful that both Angeal and Genesis were apparently lovers to Sephiroth, he commanded them for gaining the genetic material they needed to survive the degradation. Even if neither of them had realized they were in danger of dying. The man chose not to focus on how they had gained the sample and contemplated how he could use this new information to his advantage. While he’d planned to breed Genesis with Angeal, being given control of Sephiroth as well changed some things. Any offspring he sired was going to be worth studying. The question was how to ensure it occured the way the doctor wanted.

Perhaps with some manipulation all three of them could form a single specimen for him to study. It would be difficult and take a great deal of time but once he was Head of the Science Department he could devote himself to the possibility. For now, he turned to the task of creating a new mako shot for the general. With the amount of mako and genetic alteration to him the changes would happen much faster no matter what Hollander did. Still he wanted the changes to take effect as soon as he could manage. He was so close to finally winning.