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Sacrifice at World's End

Chapter Text

It was Friday. It was 4pm and in Shinra’s vast central gymnasium, sixty or so new potential SOLDIER cadets fidgeted edgily, waiting to hear their fate. It was the end of the induction month into Shinra’s prestigious SOLDER cadet programme and they all knew that historically only a third of the cadets from the first four weeks made it through to the course itself. A thrum of exhausted excitement and nerves filled the room.

There were only two hours to go before they were free for the weekend. Most of them intended to hit the gaudy bars of the slums that night and get royally drunk to either celebrate or drown their sorrows, depending on the news they were about to receive. Around them, the complicated and well worn gym equipment stood idle for once. Watery sunlight filtered through the high, narrow windows reflecting particles of floating dust in their lukewarm rays. The room smelt of sweat, teenagers and worn leather.

Cloud Strife fiddled with the itchy cowl-neck of his uniform and adjusted the straps on his knee pads with trembling fingers. He’d survived the first week’s eliminations, which had trimmed the worst flotsam from the course but now it was the first month’s cut. Those who passed today would become SOLDIERs or be recruited by the Turks. Those who were thrown out were given the opportunity to join the infantry if they wanted.

Gathered around him were his new squad-mates, waiting to hear whether they had survived the final eliminations or not; whether their future lay with Shinra’s finest or if they’d be packed off unceremoniously to return to the boring jobs they’d tried so hard to escape.

‘Damn, I’m so nervous, my mouth’s as dry as a chocobo’s jock strap!’ declared a cadet next to Cloud. It was Danny Smith, an auburn-haired, lower plate Midgarian, orphan, and ex-slummer whose previous ‘career’ had involved stealing cars or anything else that wasn’t screwed down, for that matter.

‘Do you think we’ve all made the cut?’ hissed Rabbit, a tall reedy youth on Cloud’s other side. Rabbit’s real name was Stevie Collins but had earned the nickname early on because of his disproportionately large front teeth.

‘I’m sure I have,’ sniffed Jay Jeffries, an ex- surfer from Costa del Sol. ‘Don’t know about you though, you weedy wanker’.

Rabbit shot him a good natured, ‘Piss off!’

Cloud grinned and let out a shaky breath. He tried to tune out his friends’ teasing banter by watching the particles of dust dancing in the last of the sun’s rays but it was impossible. He didn’t think he could be this nervous and not be passing out. Academically his scores had been good, consistently finding his marks in the top quarter of the year. Physically, however, he struggled, possessing speed and a half decent sword technique but lacking the same brute strength as many of his fellow cadets. Whether it would be enough to survive the first month, however, remained to be seen.

All three of the teenagers around him were in Cloud’s dormitory. They were all eighteen and all shared the same dream of becoming SOLDIERs. Although the majority of the new cadets were taller than he was, they were for the most part equally skinny and underdeveloped but they all knew that wouldn’t last long once the regime of ruthless training and mako injections really kicked in.

‘Why are they keeping us waiting?’ whispered Rabbit. ‘Maybe General Sephiroth is going to turn up,’ he added hopefully.

‘Nah,’ whispered a guy called Josh Hill. ‘He don’t bother with us grunts. He only mixes with top brass. He’ll be in some top-notch meeting now, mark my words.’ Josh was a stocky, sandy-haired local born and bred and his one claim to fame was that he had once seen Sephiroth crossing Loveless Avenue in front of him and consequently considered himself an expert on the silver General’s comings and goings.

Danny scoffed. ‘Whatever. He might be having a ‘massage’ down the Honeybee Inn for all you know!’

Josh looked scandalised. ‘He would never do that! General Sephiroth would never have to pay! Anyway, he’s above that sort of thing, he’s a warrior, he’s...pure.’

The others, including Cloud, snorted with silent laughter. Like everyone else in his squad, except for Josh Hill, he hadn’t seen Shinra’s famous silver General yet. It was disappointing to say the least as Sephiroth had been his main reason for wanting to join the army in the first place. Now he might be kicked out without even having clapped eyes on his idol in the flesh, a sight, by all accounts, that was both awe-inspiring and terrifying.

‘All I can say,’ Danny went on, changing the subject, ‘is that if Chocobo Tits here passes the cut today, we all will!’

‘Oi!’ Cloud gave Danny and friendly shove. Danny just laughed and ruffled Cloud’s blond spikes.

Just then the gymnasium doors flew open and a dark haired SOLDIER second class came bounding in, flanked by two third classes. All conversations in the room stopped instantly and everyone snapped to attention.

Cloud recognised the dark haired man instantly; he’d seen him around the lower corridors of the Shinra building, talking to cadets and infantrymen alike. A source of boundless enthusiasm and encouragement, the young SOLDIER seemed very popular with everyone from secretaries to the top brass.

‘That’s Zack Fair,’ Josh hissed at Cloud. ‘He’s General Hewley’s apprentice, lucky bastard! That’s what I’m aiming for, a mentor!’

Josh clearly hadn’t reckoned on a SOLDIERS enhanced hearing because Zack Fair looked straight at him.

‘You only get a mentor by showing extreme promise, Cadet,’ said Zack, giving Josh a stern look. ‘It’s something you can all aim for though if you are willing to put in the hard work.’ Then he smiled. ‘I’m SOLDIER second class Zack Fair, as most of you probably know. Now, I’m aware it’s Friday afternoon, it’s been a long week and I’ll bet you are all dying to get down to the bars. However, this is the final test before we make our decision as to which of you will be qualifying for SOLDIER and which will be packing their bags today, so make it count. If you survive this cut, it will be my task in future to help you improve your stamina for sword wielding. It’s a lot harder than it looks and believe me, you do not want to die just because you get a stitch in the middle of a fight.’

There was a ripple of apprehensive laughter.

Zack beamed at them and clapped his hands together loudly. ‘Right, let’s see what you can do. Outside everyone! I want ten laps of the training grounds as fast as you can! First three qualify for SOLDIER automatically.’

Cloud felt the simultaneous surge of adrenaline from the assembled cadets. He knew he had to come in the top twenty at least to stand any real chance of qualifying, especially when he struggled with materia classes and swimming. Running he was good at though...running from Nibel wolves, running from dragons, running from the brainless bullies at home...oh, yes, running was something he was good at. This was his best and last chance to make a real impression. Ten laps of the vast asphalt training ground though! It had to be a good five miles at least. This would be a test of pure speed and grit more than a strategic use of stamina.

Outside, the air was crisp, slightly misty with the faintly chemical smell that it was impossible to escape in central Midgar. Cloud edged his way to the top third of the crowd of cadets so he could get a clean getaway. He didn’t want to come last just because he managed to get boxed in or tripped up. Over by the doors to the gym, he noticed some members of SOLDIER and even a couple of men in black suits had gathered to watch the run. Turks, he guessed, keeping an eye out to poach any promising candidates from SOLDIER.

Zack Fair went over to greet the group then walked quickly back to the assembled cadets.

‘Right, good luck guys!’ Zack shouted at them. ‘Remember what’s at stake here. Okay, THREE, TWO, ONE.. GO!’

There was an initial scramble as the top third of the cadets made a sprint to get in front. Cloud winced as he felt more than one sharp elbow make contact with his ribs as runners shoved past him. He kept his pace fast but steady and let the initial surge of cadets tire themselves out in the first lap or so.

Keeping a steady eye on the amount of runners in front of him, who had already begun to slow after their initial burst, Cloud kept a strong, even pace amongst them. A quick glance over his shoulder assured him that two thirds of the field were already a few meters behind, Danny and Rabbit included. Cloud knew from experience that he couldn’t relax though. There would be other experienced runners both in his group and the ones behind who would be pacing themselves, ready to strike near the final two laps when everyone else was flagging.

By the time they had almost reached the line for the seventh lap, Cloud was starting to feel real pain. There was a a sharp stitch in his side and his lungs were beginning to sting from the cold, acidic air. He shut his mind off from it as best he could and, gritting his teeth against the discomfort, pounded after the others in his group. To his dismay though the front runners, maybe fifteen in total, were slowly easing away from him as they began to sense victory.

As they neared the line to cross for the eighth lap though, a flash of silver by the gymnasium door caught Cloud’s attention. Standing watching them with Zack Fair and the growing group of SOLDIERs and Turks, was none other than Shinra’s most famous First, General Sephiroth.

Cloud was so shocked he tripped hard and nearly fell but luckily managed to right himself with a few stumbles and flaying arms. Mortified at how undignified he must have looked he managed to straighten himself up and continued to run, catching up the small space that had appeared between him and the first group.

Another runner passed him. That was sixteen already in front, he guessed. He couldn’t risk falling behind any more, especially in front of such a distinguished audience. He was just debating if he had any energy left for a quick spurt to join the top ten runners when he sensed another cadet closing in on him. Suddenly, Danny appeared at his side and shot past him at a spanking pace.

Without thought, Cloud took off after him. Ignoring the now piercing pain in his side, he used Danny’s momentum to give him second wind as they belted their way up the group of sixteen runners, passing them one by one. It was the cue for those runners to dredge deep and put in a final spurt too and Cloud found himself in the midst of a frantic print for the finish line.

Feeling as though his lungs were going to burst, he fought harder than he ever had in his life to keep up with Danny. Together they shot past the finish line with a small group of other cadets, with Danny coming in fourth and Cloud managing a respectable fifth place

Slowing his sprint to a gradual stop, Cloud doubled over in agony, catching his breath, his lungs on fire, sweat dripping off his face, hair plastered to his forehead. He glanced up to see if Sephiroth was still watching there among the others but to his dismay, the General was nowhere to be seen.

‘Fuck me, Chocobo Tits, you can certainly run!’ coughed Danny, who was also doubled over trying to get some air into his lungs.

Cloud managed a pained grin. ‘You know us country boys...tough as old boots!’

Rabbit stumbled over to them. ‘Nice one, you two,’ he wheezed. ‘I only managed tenth and that was only because some bloke in front of me threw up!’

‘Cadet!’ Cloud heard Zack Fair calling out.

With sixty odd cadets on the field, Cloud didn’t even bother to look up. There was no way it could be directed at him.

‘Hey, Spikey!’ bellowed Zack, loping towards them across the parade ground.

Now Cloud knew that the second class was talking to him. He straightened up unsteadily and saluted.

‘At ease,’ said Zack, stopping in front of Cloud. ‘Not bad, not bad at all. You’re a fast runner...good stamina.’

‘I’m from Nibelheim, Sir,’ Cloud panted. ‘Lots of mountains, high altitude, thin air...wolves,’ he babbled between gasps.

‘Zack,’ corrected the dark haired SOLDIER, ‘call me Zack.’

Cloud blinked. ‘Cloud Strife. I mean, Cadet Cloud Strife, Sir...Zack.’

Zack grinned. ‘Relax, blondie,’ he patted him on the shoulder. ‘Well done. Thought you were finished at the sixth lap. Good recovery.’

And with that, Zack walked off to the front of the crowd of tired, sweating cadets. By now, even the stragglers had passed the finish line. ‘Right, everyone...attenshun!’

Instantly the cadets fell silent and hobbled to attention in serried ranks.

‘This is the moment you all find out if you have managed to get into SOLDIER or not,’ Zack went on.

Cloud could scarcely breathe. This was it. He’d have to crawl back to Nibelheim in shame and even worse, tell Tifa that he hadn’t even survived the stupid cadet program.

From a set of double doors at the far end of the training ground emerged a huge bear of a man. Raven haired with arm muscles bigger than Cloud’s thigh, he walked towards them. Cloud instantly recognised General Angeal Hewley from posters and newspapers as one of the three elite First Class SOLDIER Generals of Shinra.

Angeal stopped just before them and greeted Zack with a nod then gave the assembled cadets a kind smile.

‘Cadets, I will get straight to the point,’ he intoned, his voice deep and serious. ‘I’m going to read out names...if your name is called you will go and stand by the doors to the gym.’

Angeal Hewley then began to read names aloud and in random order. No one had any idea who would be staying or leaving and as their name was called, gave their comrades perplexed looks as they went to stand by the doors. Cloud tried hard to guess who might be staying from having watched the other cadets for four weeks and based on the results of the run. He was guessing roughly that the group by the door were had passed the grade. ‘Josh Hill, left,’ announced Hewley.

Josh gave Cloud and the others a baffled look and went to stand with the group by the doors. That was it, Cloud knew he’d failed. Josh was a good all rounder. When another of their crowd, Ben, followed him, Cloud felt the weight of despair. He was the only one of his dormitory left bar Danny, Jay and Rabbit. He gauged by now that a good third of the cadets were standing by the double doors. He dropped his gaze to examine his leather cadet boots...scuffed from hard work and his best efforts, they were boots he would very soon no longer have the right to wear.

Angeal had finished reading the names. ‘Alright, those by the gym doors, thank you for your interest in SOLDIER but I’m afraid the journey ends for you here. The rest of you, congratulations!'

There was a simultaneous, deafening cheer and delirious backslapping from the assembled cadets. Even Angeal was smiling widely at their euphoria. Cloud just stood there stunned, taking the random congratulatory slaps on his back from other cadets, unable to move. He had made SOLDIER...He had made SOLDIER? Surely not! But how? Why him? He wasn’t even that good.

‘Enjoy your first night off duty,’ Angeal called over the ecstatic din. ‘Dismissed.’ With that he left the training ground followed by a beaming Zack Fair.

Danny slung an arm around a stunned Cloud’s shoulders. ‘Well done, Chocobo head!’ he grinned. ‘Now let’s see if you can drink as well as you can run! First round’s on you!’

Chapter Text

SOLDIER. I am in SOLDIER, thought Cloud , dazed. Oh only a junior Third, it was true, but he was still in the Program. A SOLDIER. His brain simply couldn’t assimilate the idea.

As soon as they’d got back to the barracks, he had showered, slipped on a pair of jeans and a smart t-shirt then phoned Tifa to tell her the good news.

After that, all fifty or so successful ex-cadets, including Cloud, had made their way to the lower plate with one aim in mind; to get riotously drunk on cheap booze. Now, at ten thirty at night, they had all pretty much achieved their goal.

Their number was down to about twenty five, the rest having slowly fallen by the way as the night had progressed, either passed out or simply crawled back to their barracks. Some had decided to stay in their favourite bars, chatting up girls with their new-found status as SOLDIERs.

This was the fourth bar they had been to so far and the celebratory atmosphere amongst their still large group of SOLDIER cadets was electric and contagious. It was the largest and grimiest bar so far, rammed with people, unbearably hot and smelt of sweat and stale beer. The nicotine stained walls were peeling here and there and the carpet was sticky with spilt drink. The pounding dance music was starting to give Cloud a head-ache.

‘I’m done with this shithole,’ declared Danny, downing his sixth pint of the evening. ‘If we leave for the upper plate now we can bar crawl our way back to barracks. I’ve got a cousin who’s a waiter at Black Materia on Loveless Avenue. Might be able to get him to sneak us in.’

‘Sneak us in?’ Cloud laughed. Black Materia was one of Midgar’s most exclusive and fashionable nightclubs. You had to be a member just to get in and even if you were, the entrance fee was extortionate. ‘There are over twenty of us and if you hadn’t noticed, we’re pretty rowdy...and wasted!’

As if to compound this, a huge roar went up from the crowd of new SOLDIER's as one of them, now wearing only his underpants and boots, was attempting to do a handstand on the bar to loud encouragement from the rest of the new recruits.

‘I’m not inviting them,’ scoffed Danny. ‘Just you, me, Jay and Rabbit.’

They rounded up Rabbit, who had been having a sneaky cigarette behind the slot machine and left the bar.

Outside, the air was cold and a slight fog clung around the street lamps. Cloud shivered in his t-shirt. A fine and slightly metallic-smelling drizzle had started to fall as they made their way through the dingy slums to the train station. Curfew was at midnight and there was no way could miss that. That gave them less than two hours.

Getting off the train on the Upper Plate, Danny folded away his new Shinra issue phs and beamed at them.

‘Cousin’s just text me to say he get us into Black Materia but we have to behave and do what he says. That means no yelling, singing or swearing...or dropping your strides!’

‘I can behave,’ said ex-surfer, Jay, with a hiccup.

Fifteen minutes later all four of them were ensconced in a discreet corner booth in the Black Materia.

‘This is more like it!’ Jay beamed, gazing around the plush nightclub as Danny’s cousin, Steve, brought them their drinks. There were cocktails of varying colours and strengths as well as several long rows of shots, which they downed in one go.

‘Just behave yourselves, please,’ Steve begged.

‘We will,’ said Danny, ‘you know me.’

‘Yes, I do know you,’ said Steve, pointedly, ‘that’s why I’m worried. My job’s on the line if you mess up.’ He put down a jug of water and some glasses in the vain hope that they would keep themselves hydrated and walked back to the bar.

‘This place is amazing!’ said Cloud, gazing around in awe as he recognised several famous Midgarian actors and models almost instantly. He had never been anywhere like this before. The walls of the club were painted black and decorated with huge gold leaf baroque mirrors. Large, dimly lit chandeliers hung here and there from the black painted ceiling. On a raised area of the club was a roped-off VIP area, where most of the celebrities were either sitting or dancing on the spot to the fantastic music.

‘I’m gonna dance,’ said Danny and promptly pushed his way onto the packed dance floor and began gyrating like he’d just dropped a lit cigarette down his trousers.

‘I’m going to join him,’ said Rabbit and vanished into the throng, leaving Cloud with Jay.

‘We ought to make a move after these drinks,’ said Cloud, sucking his gaudy cocktail through a straw. ‘We do NOT want to be late back on our first night as SOLDIER’s.'

‘Relax, man,’ drawled Jay, who was sitting next to him, staring at the couples on the dance floor and grinning inanely. He must have had even more to drink than him, Cloud gauged.

A couple of dances later a flushed and sweating Danny bounded up to their table and ordered another bottle of vodka from a passing waitress.

‘Guess who I’ve just seen!’ he shouted over the music.

Jay didn’t respond, just gave Danny a glazed stare.

‘Who?’ asked Cloud.

‘See that guy up there in the VIP booth?’ said Danny, inclining his head towards the cordoned off area.

Cloud looked over and it was then that he noticed a man sitting in one of the front private booths, long fingers idly twirling the delicate stem of a glass filled with red wine. His dark red hair gleamed in the soft lighting, contrasting with his crisp white shirt, which was unbuttoned halfway down his chest to give a glimpse of bare, honey-coloured skin underneath.

‘That, Spikey, is General Genesis Rhapsodos,’ declared Danny. ‘The second most powerful SOLDIER in Shinra...and one of our new ‘bosses’! They say he’s a military genius, second only to Sephiroth. I hope we don’t have to serve under him though...I’ve heard he’s a total bastard!’

Cloud couldn’t help but admire the cut of the General’s dark suit and elegant shoes as he caught a brief glimpse of burgundy leather soles when he crossed one leg over the other. Those shoes alone would have cost a year’s wages for anyone in Nibelheim, he reckoned, and that was if they could even get hold of them.

Posters and magazine photos had not done him justice, Cloud decided. The Red General’s face had an almost doll-like perfection, his movements graceful yet masculine. He also looked desperately bored and even though his young, dark-haired companion at the table was talking to him, he replied only in monosyllables while lazily examining the contents of his glass.

‘Who is that guy with him?’ he asked Danny.

‘Some model,’ said Danny dismissively. ‘I’ve seen his face on billboards around Midgar.’

Cloud was hypnotised by the pure aura of authority and confidence that was radiating from the Red General, like beams off a lighthouse. The man must have felt eyes on him because he suddenly looked up, straight at Cloud. Their eyes locked for what seemed like seconds but was also longer than was strictly polite. Cloud realised with a jolt that man’s insolent gaze literally seemed to glow. SOLDIER eyes.

Cloud had heard various rumours around Shinra of course but was astonished to see that they really did shine in the dark, like a cat’s eyes. And now Rhapsodos was watching him in a calculated steady way, like a cat would stare at a cornered mouse. A second later, he looked away again with almost insulting indifference.

Jay seemed to recover from his booze-induced trance. ‘Stop drooling, Spikey,’ he grinned, ‘That dude is waaay out of your league.’

Cloud shrugged, knowing that was the harsh truth. ‘He’s hot. No harm in looking.’

‘Whatever does it for you, mate,’ laughed Danny. ‘Anyway, the only way you’ll get near one of the Firsts is in battle or if they decide to mentor you. And General Rhapsodos never mentors anyone, so I’ve heard.’

‘Neither does Sephiroth,’ put in Jay. ‘Besides, he spends most of his time in Wutai.’

Their fresh bottle of vodka arrived and panting Rabbit joined them from the dance floor. They poured out some more shots, toasted their success for the umpteenth time and Danny and Rabbit went back to the dance floor. Jay, having got his second wind, followed them.

Finding himself alone, Cloud flipped open his new phs. He was shocked to see that it was almost midnight. If they left now and ran at top speed, he reckoned they would barely make it back to Shinra HQ in time for curfew. He looked up to try and signal his friends but they were too engrossed dancing with a group of girls to notice him.

Deciding he needed to pee before trying to drag them back to barracks, he eased his way out of the booth and made his way towards the gents at the other end of the club. As he did, he passed the VIP area. The booth where Genesis Rhapsodos and the model had been sitting was now empty.

Reaching the gents, he was about to open the swing door when a young, dark-haired man came out. Cloud instantly recognised him as a famous underwear super-model who had been sitting with the Red General.

‘Oh, hey, could you do me a favour?’ the model accosted him. ‘My neck chain has got caught in my hair at the back, I can’t see to undo it.’

‘Sure,’ said Cloud.

The model turned and lifted his shoulder length hair so that Cloud could un-knot the delicate silver chain clasp from the man’s hair, which wasn’t easy as he had to be at least six feet tall, making Cloud stretch as far as he could on tiptoe to see what he was doing.

‘There,’ said Cloud. ‘All done.’

‘Thanks.’ He turned back and gave Cloud a smile. ‘Are you a model?’ I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere.’

‘What me?’ said Cloud momentarily caught off-guard. ‘ No.’

‘You should be,’ said the man. ‘Here.’ He reached to the back pocket of his smart jeans and pulled out a business card. ‘This is my agent. Give him a call. I’m sure he’ll have no problem finding you work.’

Before Cloud knew what was happening, the model had snapped his picture on his phone and showed it to Cloud. It was actually quite flattering, accentuating his large blue eyes and soft, spikey blond hair, which was less manic that usual after the exhausting, hectic night.

‘Accosting Twinks again, Dino?’ drawled a cultured but slightly spiteful voice behind Cloud.

Cloud spun around to find himself face to face with Genesis Rhapsodos. Up close the Red General was even better looking, he decided, and those eyes, which had shone almost white in the dark from a distance, were actually a soft shade of greeny-blue. A very straight nose and a well- contoured mouth only added to the fact that Genesis Rhapsodos could easily have been a super-model himself, had he not joined the military. He also smelt delicious...some kind of sandalwood, spice and apples. It made Cloud’s head spin and went straight to his groin.

Feeling awkward at being so close, Cloud took a strategic step backwards.

‘I’m not accosting anyone,’ said Dino, unfazed. ‘Just telling ...’

‘Cloud Strife,’ offered Cloud.

Dino smiled. ‘Just telling Cloud here that he should be a model.’

Genesis considered Cloud with those cool, slightly hazy blue eyes. Tinged with mako, they took on a hue of the summer sea at Costa Del Sol. He reached out lazily and took Cloud’s chin gently between his long slender fingers, tipping his face up and turning it this way and that. The General was a good half a head taller than Cloud so he found himself looking up a pair of delicately flared nostrils.

‘Hmm, pretty,’ mused Genesis, ‘but far too short to be a model.’ He let Cloud’s chin go dismissively.

‘You can’t judge all the male population of Midgar by the standards you set for SOLDIER,’ Dino chided.

‘SOLDIER?’ said Genesis, raising a perfect Titian-coloured eyebrow. ‘This cute little bit of jailbait wouldn’t last a week in SOLDIER.’

Cloud felt crushed, as though his euphoric success of the day had never even happened. Suddenly he felt like a small boy again, being scolded by Mayor Lockheart. ‘I’m eighteen, Sir,’ he said pointedly.

Genesis turned and considered him once more with those intense eyes. ‘So, not jailbait then,’ he said faintly amused, ‘but definitely still a virgin.’

Cloud felt himself blush hotly. ‘I’m a SOLDIER Third Class, General, and I was a cadet in the regular army before that,’ he added. ‘I’ve worked very hard to get where I am...and frankly my sexual status is no one's business but my own!'

Okay, maybe that was a bit strong but it was the vodka talking.

A glint of anger flared in the sea-blue eyes. Genesis Rhapsodos clearly didn’t like being talked back to, even if he was in the wrong. ‘Really?’ he drawled, his eyes sweeping up and down Cloud’s body. ‘Then all I can say is, if you are a SOLDIER, then Shinra must be getting even more desperate than I thought they were.’

With that devastating repost, the Red General, First Class Genesis James Rhapsodos turned on his expensive heels and stalked off.

Cloud felt like he’d been slapped...no, it was more like a vicious punch in the guts. Mortified at being so insulted by the second most influential and powerful senior member of SOLDIER, he could only stare after the very tall, straight back of Genesis, making his way towards the exit of the club.

‘Sorry about that,’ said Dino, giving him an apologetic smile. ‘Gen’s....well, Gen. He can be an evil shit sometimes. I don’t think he means it, it’s just what he does. I’d better go. Remember, give my agent a call.’

Cloud watched as Dino followed Genesis out to the exit and went into the Gents to have a pee. He had no intention of giving the agent a call but tucked the card away in his shirt pocket anyway and went back out to find Danny and the others. Glancing at his phs again he found it was now well after midnight.

He found his friends sitting in their booth with the two girls bawling with laughter and swapping raucous cadet stories.

‘Guys, we gotta go,’ said Cloud, desperately. ‘We’ll be well past curfew by the time we get back!’

‘S’ok,’ drawled Danny, making no move to leave. ‘I know a back entrance,’ to which the assembled cadets guffawed with bawdy laughter.

Eventually, with much cajoling, Cloud managed to get Danny, Rabbit and Jay to agree to leave. They tumbled out of the club singing and out onto the damp, privileged pavements of Sector 8’s upper plate.

The earlier fine drizzle had turned into proper rain now. Smartly dressed theater goers were making their way home, huddled under large umbrellas or stepping into stretch limousines.

The sudden blast of cool air must have woken Rabbit up a bit because he glanced at his watch. ‘Shit, look at the time!’ he said, alarmed. ‘We’re gonna be so late back!’

‘S’ok,’ slurred Danny, swaying on the spot. ‘We’ll be fine, don’t worry.’

Jay suddenly leaned over a pot plant outside a smart restaurant to throw up noisily. ‘Blue!’ he wailed miserably in between retches. ‘Why is my vom blue?’

Cloud had to laugh. He may not have been as drunk as the others but he’d had enough to see the funny side. ‘Told you not to drink those slammers,’ he hiccuped

They had only managed to get about a twenty meters down the road when all four of them were accosted by a scantily clad pretty girl, loitering outside a deep red door. A name-plaque outside read, ‘Colette, Model’.

‘Hello, guys,’ her sticky red painted lips parted in mockery of a smile. ‘Want to come up for a drink?’

‘Abso-effing-lutely!’ beamed Danny, making to follow the girl.

‘Dan..’ protested Cloud, catching hold of his arm. ‘We have to get back...seriously!’

‘A few minutes won’t matter,’ said Danny, gently removing Cloud's hand and grinning genially at the girl.

‘Yeah, a few minutes is about your speed too,’ teased Jay.

‘Look, you lot do what you want,’ said Cloud, exasperated. ‘I’m going back to barracks.’

‘Yeah, go on, give your right hand a good seeing to!’ said Rabbit, doubled over laughing.

Grinning, Cloud flipped them a finger, then turned and walked straight into someone. It was like hitting an iron girder. He promptly fell onto his backside on the wet pavement.

‘Gaia, dude!’ he gasped, rubbing his left elbow. ‘You’re a fkn brick wall!’ Gathering his wits, he blinked up at the ‘wall’ and felt the blood drain from his cheeks.

Looming over him was an impossibly beautiful man, wearing an immaculate black suit, his long silver hair cascading over one broad shoulder.

Behind him, Cloud heard Rabbit mutter, 'Shit.'

Cloud might have only seen General Sephiroth at a distance that day on the training ground but there was no mistaking the silver Demon of Wutai, General and SOLDIER first class Sephiroth Crescent. Bereft of his usual black leather and silver pouldrons he was even more breathtaking.

On his arm was a striking blond woman, draped in furs and diamonds and wearing a scarlet silk dress that clung to her curves like it was moulded to her skin.

Shinra’s silver General looked down at Cloud, with something akin to curiosity. Cloud just gawped back at him as a thousand thoughts jostled for place in his mind in those brief moments. He was drunk, he had missed curfew and he was sprawled on the filthy pavement next to a youth who was, once again, expunging blue vomit over a low wall this time. It really couldn’t get much worse.

‘You really ought to watch where you’re going,’ said Sephiroth, in his deep sensuous purr. ‘I might have taken you for a pick pocket.’

Briefly, Cloud wondered how the Silver Demon could command armies with a voice like. Deep and dirty was the only way to describe it. Frankly, it was a miracle his troops could keep their clothes on long enough to actually fight! Then he blushed at the subtly veiled threat. What if he had been a pick pocket? He suddenly imagined himself dangling limply from the pointy end of a huge sword, like a puppet with no strings.

‘I’m not a pickpocket,’ he stammered hastily.

The corners of Sephiroth’s beautiful mouth twitched into a faint smile. ‘Well, if you are, you’re a very bad one,’ he said.

Then to Cloud’s utter astonishment, the silver General of Shinra leaned forward and offered a hand to pull him up. Dazed, Cloud took it. Sephiroth’s grip was dry, smooth and almost painfully firm.

Once on his feet, Cloud managed a rather erratic salute which owed more to enthusiasm than grace.

‘General Shephiroth,’ he tried not to slur. ‘I’m so sh...sorry.’ He swayed precariously on the spot, aware that behind him, Jay had momentarily stopped puking his guts out to gape at the General.

Sephiroth’s scrutinising jade gaze didn’t move from Cloud’s face. ‘Who are you?’

Cloud gulped. ‘I'm a cadet, sh...sir. Sorry, Third Class SOLDIER.’

Suddenly, the expression in the General’s face was as frigid as morning in Icicle Inn.

‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ the blond woman smirked. ‘You really shouldn’t have said that.’

'Don't interfere, Scarlet,' said Sephiroth.

Cloud decided he really didn’t like the woman, Scarlet, at all. Despite her unquestionably beautiful face and full red lips, she exuded malice.

Sephiroth’s face, however, had become a mask. ‘I meant your name, SOLDIER,’ he said, coldly military now.

Cloud’s belly dropped to his boots at the General’s sudden change of attitude. This wasn’t good.

‘Strife, sir. Cloud Strife. SOLDIER Third Class C Division.’ He tried to stifle a hiccup but it came out as a weird choking sound.

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed. ‘You're not going to be sick, are you Soldier?' he asked, 'because if you throw up on my shoes I will skewer you right here and now!'

Cloud shook his head, not daring to speak.

'You should have been back half an hour ago, SOLDIER,’ Sephiroth went on, coldly.

‘It was my fault, Sir,’ piped up Danny, ‘I made him stay late. He was trying to get us to leave but we were having such a good time!’

‘We’ve been shelebrating, Gen...I mean, Sir,’ Rabbit put in. ‘We all got into SOLDIER today!’

Sephiroth ignored him and regarded the new Thirds icily. ‘All of you, my office tomorrow 1100 hours. Do not be late!’ And without another word, he walked to a huge tank of a black SUV, parked at the kerbside. He opened the passenger seat for the woman then got into the driver’s seat himself. A moment later, the car roared away down the street towards the Shinra Tower.

'We're sooo fucked,' moaned Rabbit.

Jay was staring after the receding car in an almost religiously lustful trance. ‘Man, I’m straight,’ he was saying,‘but that guy...!’

‘..is gonna chop our balls off tomorrow,’ finished Danny. ‘C’mon, guys, let’s not make it any worse than it is...let’s go.’  

Chapter Text

With a sigh of relief, Sephiroth watched as Lt Zack Fair left his office, energetically banging the door closed behind him, shaking a small photograph of President Shinra presenting him with a medal for his efforts in Wutai off the wall.

‘And don’t slam my door!’ Sephiroth shouted after him.

A second later, his door opened once more and the bouncy second’s cheerful face appeared around the frame. ‘Sorry!’ he said and shut the door with exaggerated softness.

Sephiroth groaned. He couldn’t even remember why Zack had come to see him anyway. It was like trying to entertain a four year old with ADHD. The young second was into everything all at once, putting his muddy boots on his desk, moving his paperwork around, examining his few souvenirs, helping himself to his special, handmade cookies from the specialist cake shop on First Avenue and generally causing mayhem whilst chatting at the speed of light.

Alone at last in blissful silence, Sephiroth leant back in his large, black leather chair. His office was designed specifically by him to induce maximum calm and serenity. With plain white walls, the vast room, which took up an entire third of the 67th floor of Shinra Tower, was decorated in glass and chrome. There was even a waterfall in a glass case cascading down one wall to add to the calming effect and had even been designed so he could change the colours of the water according to his mood. A huge window, that took up one entire wall, offered a panoramic view of Midgar. On a good day, when the pollution wasn’t too bad, he could make out the wastelands beyond the city limits and the mountains beyond that.

To the left, he could just see the green expanse of ‘Shinra Heights’ Midgar’s billionaires' district. Five miles outside the city, a suburb of huge mansions had been built, complete with their own swimming pools, tennis courts, heli pads and the best security money could buy. It was big enough to be considered a small town. Because nothing grew in the wastelands, Astroturf abounded in the front and rear gardens of the houses. Rows of palm trees and exotic plants, imported from Gongaga, were kept alive by specially sourced earth and a hundred strong team of speciality gardeners. President Shinra and his son Rufus owned the two largest of the mansions and Genesis another only slightly smaller one. Sephiroth had even considered buying one of the stunning houses himself but with constant missions to go on, he doubted he would spend enough time there to make it worthwhile. Genesis, however, who had vast inherited wealth, plus his exorbitant Shinra salary, didn’t care about that and only used the house for weekends, when he could be bothered.

The phone on his desk rang, breaking into his thoughts. He picked it up somewhat irritably.

‘Yes, Beth, what is it?’

‘Sir,’ said his PA, ‘I have a Mr Dino Valentino on the line for you.’

Dino Valentino, famous underwear model and a friend he had made when Dino had been asked to model the new SOLDIER second uniforms at an exhibition the year before.

‘Put him through,’ said Sephiroth. ‘Hello, Dino, what can I do for you?’

‘Seph!’ came Dino’s disembodied voice. ‘I didn’t think your PA was to put me through! Bit of a dragon, isn’t she?’

‘That’s what I pay her for,’ said Sephiroth evenly.

‘Yeah, well I was just making sure you’re still coming to the La Rochelle ball tonight? I’ve put you on the guest list.’

‘I’ll be there,’ said Sephiroth, reluctantly. He wasn’t really that keen on high-profile fashion events or after-parties for that matter. Still, Angeal and Genesis were always badgering him about the need to attend more frivolous ‘do’s’ rather than the usual military, sports or work gatherings enjoyed, so he guessed this particular event qualified as well as anything else.

‘Great,’ Dino was saying. ‘By the way, I met one of your new SOLDIER recruits last night. I was at Black Materia with Genesis and this kid gives Gen a mouthful, it was so funny! You should have seen Gen’s face, I thought he was going to combust!’

‘Who was it?’ asked Sephiroth, intrigued despite himself.

‘Can’t remember his name, but he said he’d just passed the SOLDIER first cut. You can’t miss him though. He’s got this wild spikey blond hair and big blue eyes...very cute actually. Said he’s eighteen and he’s got a country-boy accent. Oh hang on, I’ve got a photo, I’ll send it over to you.’

A second later, Sephiroth’s phs pinged an incoming message. Opening it he was confronted by a pair of very familiar large blue, soulful eyes and a mop of blond hair.

‘Was his name Cloud Strife by any chance?’ he asked Dino.

‘Yeah, that’s him! Crazy name. Crazy kid...obviously didn’t know he was inches away from being set on fire by our mutual friend.’

After finding out the full details of Strife’s exchange with Genesis, Sephiroth thanked Dino and hung up, whilst trying to keep the grin off his face. Really, the new SOLDIER was incredibly lucky not to have felt the full force of a Firaga for his cheek to the Red General.

He glanced at the clock on his wall. Customised and made out of three Wutaian daggers, it pointed to 1045. Fifteen minutes before he had to discipline the new SOLDIER’s who had missed curfew the night before. They had not even been sworn into SOLDIER properly and they had gone on a drunken beano. Not that he had any objection to them enjoying themselves and letting off steam occasionally but not adhering to timescales was a serious breach of rules.

He pulled their files up on screen.

There were eight new recruits in total, plus the four in Strife’s little group. Of the others, three were caught out late by him as he returned in his car to Shinra Tower. Two were caught trying to sneak back into the barracks through the kitchens and the other three were found that morning fast asleep, travelling in circles on the Midgar rail system.

Sephiroth picked up his phone. ‘Tseng? Can you spare someone? I need a favour.’

***

Cloud waited in the silver General’s office outer office with the other eleven recruits who were due for disciplinary meeting with Sephiroth. They were all desperately hung-over and practically trembling with fear. They were also all wearing their new SOLDIER third uniforms and each was wondering exactly the same thing; would this be the last time they would ever wear it. There were twelve MP’s waiting outside the outer office, waiting to escort any discharged recruits back to barracks to change into their civvies and leave the building.

Cloud sat rigidly on his chair and interlaced his fingers together on top of his lap to stop his hands from shaking. He couldn’t believe he’d finally managed to make SOLDIER only to be kicked after less than twenty-four hours!

He glanced at the clock just as it reached 1100 and Sephiroth’s PA’s phone rang.

She picked up the receiver. ‘Yes, Sir, I’ll send him.’ She hung up. ‘Shane McKay, the general will see you now.’

Cloud felt sorry for Shane. He’d come second in the race the day before so had automatically qualified for SOLDIER. Now his legs were shaking so hard it was a miracle he could actually stand up. He went to Sephiroth’s door and knocked.

‘Enter,’ came a deep voice from the other side.

Shane went in but barely two minutes later he came out looking ashen.

‘I’m out,’ he said to the others.

‘What do you mean, Out?’ asked Danny, in disbelief. ‘Out as in discharged?’

Shane nodded miserably, gave them all farewell hugs and left the office.

The same repeated itself for the others, leaving only Cloud, Danny, Rabbit and Jay, waiting to hear their fate.

Jay was called first. Five minutes passed but he didn’t come back out. Then Rabbit was called. He didn’t return either.

‘What’s going on in there?’ hissed Danny. ‘Is he murdering them or something?’

Cloud shook his head. ‘No idea,’ he said although privately he thought it was much more likely that his comrades had been taken away by the Turks, perhaps through one of the secret passages that were rumoured to run all through the Shinra building like a rabbit’s warren. Either his friends were dead by now, were being held in some Turk cell or Sephiroth was playing mind games with them all.

Then it was Danny’s turn. When he didn’t return either, Cloud was almost numb with dread.

‘Cloud Strife, you can go in now,’ said Beth.

He knocked on the office door.

‘Enter,’ came the same deep voice from within.

Cloud let himself into the huge, bright office, deliberately not staring around at the impressive room like some country bumpkin.

Instead, he fixed his eyes on Sephiroth, who was sitting at his desk, signing papers. The General didn’t look up, so Cloud stood patiently to attention, waiting to be acknowledged.

It gave him a rare to chance to study Sephiroth at close quarters, especially the strangely glimmering silver hair that was currently scooped up into a long ponytail. His long fringe, hanging loose on both sides of his face, just reached his jaw. He was wearing his trademark boots and leather trousers but with a loose black sweater over the top.

Cloud risked a sneaky glance around the impressive room to see Sephiroth’s famous black leather battle coat hung on a coat rack near the door. The even more famous sword, Masamune, was resting in a black lacquered stand on a bookcase. His quick recce of the room also confirmed that there was no sign of his friends but on the plus side, no blood splatters on the walls either.

Sephiroth signed the last paper with a large fluid scrawl then suddenly looked up from his work.
Cloud gave the best salute he could, considering he had the hang-over from Hel.

‘At ease, cadet,’ said the silver General, dropping his fountain pen on the desk and leaning back in his chair with a creak of expensive leather.

‘General, sir!’ began Cloud. ‘I want to apologise. I’ll never do it again, I swear...!’

‘Be quiet,’ Sephiroth cut in, wearily. ‘Your file says you’re from Nibelheim.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Cloud.

‘I’ve been there,’ said Sephiroth. ‘Now, what is it they say? It’s a quaint little drinking town with a mountain problem.’

Cloud’s mouth twitched in to a nervous smile. ‘I’d say that’s pretty accurate, Sir.’

Sephiroth reached for his mouse and clicked something on his computer. He gazed at the screen momentarily before looking back at Cloud.

‘You grades aren’t bad,’ he said. ‘And your sword work is good. What are your ambitions?

‘I want to be a First, sir, like you and General Hewley.’ Cloud was damned if he was going to add General Rhapsodos to that list.

By the almost imperceptible look of amusement on Sephiroth’s face, it hadn’t escaped his attention either. Maybe he’d already heard about his exchange with Rhapsodos the night before. Cloud sincerely hoped not.

‘It’s good to have ambition but we have rules for a reason,’ Sephiroth was saying.

Cloud nodded. ‘Yes, sir. I’m sorry...’

Sephiroth raised a hand to silence him. ‘Rules are there for your own safety and the safety of your comrades, both here at HQ and on the battlefield. If you can’t follow rules then you are no good to me or Shinra.’

‘No, sir,’ he muttered. He was just debating whether he dared ask what happened to his friends when Sephiroth leaned back once more and considered him with that inscrutable green gaze.

‘One week’s latrine duty.’

Cloud’s eyes widened with both shock and relief. Was that it? Surely not! Most of his comrades had just been discharged and as far as he knew, probably Danny, Rabbit and Jay too, if not worse. Confusion struck him temporarily dumb.

Then he noticed Seph was staring at him and he realised his mouth was hanging open in disbelief.

Quickly, he pulled himself together. ‘Yes, sir!’ he snapped off an enthusiastic salute and turned to go.

‘I haven’t finished,’ said Sephiroth.

Cloud stopped in his tracks.

‘For the second week,’ Sephiroth went on, ‘ you will work in this office where I can keep an eye on you. You will help my PA, Beth, in any way she sees fit, whether it’s filing or shredding or fetching coffee. I expect you here from 0600 hours when I start work until 1900 hours when I finish. You can make up any time you miss in class in the evenings and weekends. Now go and see General Rhapsodos, you owe him an apology...and make it good. Dismissed.’

Sephiroth leant forward once more and lowered his head to return to his paperwork, indicating that the meeting was at an end.

Cloud was rooted to the spot, still stunned. Apologise to Rhapsodos! That was worse than cleaning latrines!

Sephiroth looked up sharply. ‘Go, soldier, before I change my mind and make you clean the toilets with your own toothbrush!’

‘Yes, SIR!’ Cloud saluted and left the office in a daze.

Chapter Text

As Cloud closed the door to Sephiroth’s office, he realised that he hadn’t asked the General where he could find Genesis Rhapsodos.

Beth, who was currently making a coffee at the drinks stand, glanced up at him. ‘It’s the door opposite.’

‘I’m sorry?’ he said.

‘General Rhapsodos’ office,’ she said kindly. ‘Go out into the corridor and it’s the door opposite. His name’s on the wall, you can’t miss it.’

Wondering how she knew he had been ordered to see the Red General, Cloud thanked her and went out into the wide, silent corridor. Actually, Genesis Rhapsodos’ office door would have been impossible to miss, even if Beth hadn’t told him where it was. It was painted deep, glossy red. Odd that he hadn’t noticed it on the way up to see Sephiroth but he was probably too distracted.

He went over to it, knocked and opened the door. The outer office was much like Sephiroth’s. Functional, modern and brightly lit.

Genesis’ PA was altogether different from the coolly efficient Beth though. For a start she was no more than twenty five, had masses of curly blond hair that hung to her waist and wore a flatteringly tight black dress and four inch heels. The name plaque on her desk announced that her name was Selina Banks.

‘Er, hi,’ said Cloud. ‘ SOLDIER Third Class Cloud Strife to see General Rhapsodos.’

Selina picked up the phone. ‘Genral, Sir...?’ She paused, clearly listening to whatever the Red General was saying. ‘Yes, Sir, I will.’ She hung up and turned to Cloud. ‘Take a seat.’

Cloud sat down on the only free chair, an uncomfortably hard seat near the door.

It was now almost midday. He hadn’t had the stomach for any breakfast and at this rate he would miss lunch and have to wait until supper at 5pm. With several hard classes in between, he would be famished by then.

He looked out of the window but they were so high up the tower there was nothing to see except hazy sky.

1205. There were no magazines or anything to occupy him except to listen to Selina’s rabid tapping on her computer keyboard. Occasionally she would glance over at him and give him an apologetic smile, only to continue clacking away again.

1215. The other guys would all be sitting down to lunch now. Cloud’s empty stomach growled in protest. He knew what was happening of course. General Rhapsodos was pilling on the pressure by deliberately making him miss lunch, damn him.

A few hasty inquiries amongst the other new SOLDIER’s that morning had confirmed what he feared and already suspected; that Rhapsodos was a volatile, unpredictable yet brilliant tactician with a fearsome temper if crossed. And Cloud had crossed him.

12.20. Infuriated, Cloud clenched his teeth and forced himself to breathe slowly – In. Out. In. Out.

The sudden sound of Selina’s internal phone ringing nearly made Cloud jump a foot off his chair.

Selina answered it. ‘Yes, Sir, I put the file in the archive folder. Oh and General Hewley called. He said do you still want to join him and Lt Fair at the La Rochelle party tonight? Yes, Sir, I’ll tell him.’ She hung up and dialed another number. Cloud zoned out her conversation with General Hewley. It was now 1230 and he was feeling queasy from hunger. He was just inwardly cursing General Rhapsodos with every swear word he knew when Selina’s phone rang again.

‘Yes, Sir,’ she said and hung up. ‘You can go in now,’ she said to Cloud.

Cloud stood up, straightened his uniform and walked to the inner door. He gave what he hoped sounded like a confident knock – not too loud, not too quiet.
‘Come in,’ answered a very familiar, elitist drawl.

With shaking hands, Cloud let himself into the Red General’s office.

Nothing could have prepared him for how different this office was from Sephiroth’s. Where Sephiroth’s work-space was high-tech and minimalist, this looked like the lounge in a very exclusive gentleman’s club.

The walls were covered in carved wood panels and there was a crackling fire in a grate. A large, green chesterfield sofa against the far wall was covered in cushions and there was a cashmere checked blanket folded over one arm for impromptu naps, Cloud guessed. Several antique book cases were filled with leather-bound tomes and there was an intricately carved, cherry-wood desk in the center of the room, which was covered in reports and paperwork, as was most of the floor around it.

Rhapsodos, however,was not at his desk. He was standing by the long glass window, his back to Cloud, gazing out over the West side of Midgar, towards the sea.

Like Sephiroth he was wearing black leather trousers and his long boots but this was topped off by a smart, red-silk shirt, it’s sleeves rolled up to the elbow. A thin black designer belt was in place instead of the embossed Shinra stomach guard.

He turned around and Cloud saluted.

‘Sit,’ he ordered. Cloud obeyed, dropping into a leather armchair opposite Rhapsodos’ desk.

The general, however, didn’t sit down at his desk. Instead, he walked over to face Cloud and leant against the front of it, crossing one long leg over the other, arms folded across his chest. His well polished boots were no more than a foot away from Cloud’s scuffed ones.

‘Mister Strife,’ he said at last.

Oh, oh, thought Cloud. Not good. ‘I wish to apologise, Sir, for my conduct as the club,’ he said. ‘It was wrong of me to talk back to you. It’s just that I have worked so hard for this chance to be in SOLDIER...a chance I never thought I’d get...’

‘A chance you very nearly threw away last night,’ said Genesis, darkly.

‘I’m very sorry, Sir,’ repeated Cloud, remembering that Sephiroth had told him to ‘make it good’. ‘If there’s anything I can do, really, anything to make up for what I said.’

Genesis considered him coldly. ‘For some inexplicable reason, Strife, General Sephiroth has decided not to discharge you from the SOLDIER programme. Be assured that if it had been solely up to me you would have been packing your bags last night. Consider yourself extremely lucky that he has obviously seen something in you that totally evades me. However, your insubordination will not go unpunished. I’m sending you out on a monster clearance in the slums this afternoon. We’ve had complaints of a nest of young Marlboros near sector three.’

‘Yes, Sir,’ said Cloud, with relief. ‘Who shall I report to?’

‘No one,’ said Rhapsodos. ‘I’m sending you alone.’

Alone! To fight a nest of Marlboros? Even baby ones were lethal! The General was sending him to his death and he knew it too! Vengeful bastard, thought Cloud furiously, vicious, vengeful bastard!

‘You’re a SOLDIER now so I’m sure it won’t be much of a problem for you,’ Rhapsodos went on.

Cloud was sure he noticed a malicious twitch at the corners of the man’s mouth.

‘According to your trainer’s reports,’ the General continued, ‘your sword skills seem to be adequate to deal with that kind of mission easily. Now, get down to the stores and get kitted out. Dismissed.’

Cloud knew there was no point in arguing. He stood up and with a slightly less enthusiastic salute, and was about to leave the office, when he stopped and looked over his shoulder at the General. He was still leaning against the desk watching him with a slightly hooded blue gaze.

‘What is it, Strife?’ he asked irritably.

‘What happened to my friends...Sir?’ he asked.

‘Friends?’ inquired Rhapsodos. ‘I didn’t know you had any.’

Cloud opened his mouth to retort but thought better of it. ‘Sir,’ he muttered and left the room, closing the door with slightly more force than he intended. As he stalked out into the corridor once more, he thought that it was probably impossible to loathe anyone as much as he loathed the Red General.

He briefly debated telling Sephiroth about this ‘mission’, guessing that Rhapsodos was probably acting without consulting him but Cloud knew that being a tittle tattle wouldn’t put him in a good light with either man. No one liked a snitch, after all.

Feeling utterly dejected and made his way down to the stores, and probably to his own gruesome death.

***

Sephiroth caught up on the last of his paperwork for that morning and stood up to stretch. Fortunately the ceiling of his office was so high that not even he could reach it with his fingertips, even standing on tiptoe.

He loathed sitting for sustained periods of time and in less than an hour he would be in a long, tedious meeting with the crème of Shinra’s executives while they droned on about issues that had absolutely nothing to do with him. Even worse, he knew there would be nothing more than a plate of sandwiches and tiny cakes to look forward to.

Time for lunch. A hefty, hot meal full of cabs and protein, that’s what he needed. And a stiff drink; he needed that even more. He picked up the phone to his PA.

‘Beth, can you order me a double Kalm beef stew with some of that crusty bread from the deli on Second Avenue, oh and half a bottle of Mideel Merlot...and hold all calls and visitors for an hour. I’m taking a break.’

He hung up and, pushing a new pile of paperwork to one side, he reached for a glossy car magazine. Flipping it open at the center pages he settled back comfortably to read about the Valco X26, the newest and sleekest sports car money could buy. Only fifty would ever be made and the price tag of a million Gil reflected that.

Despite a vast salary from Shinra. He didn’t spend much, as being on missions so often meant there wasn’t the opportunity. He had a wardrobe containing simple but expensive clothes and shoes. An equally sleek and expensively furnished duplex apartment on the sixty-ninth floor of the Shinra tower also meant that he didn’t need to worry about expensive accommodation either. He spent out only on the latest electrical gadgets and odd evenings out but that was it. His salary accumulated in his bank account quicker than he could spend it.

Even his social life was streamlined and minimalist, just as he liked it. He socialised regularly with Angeal, Genesis and even, slightly reluctantly, the incessant Puppy. Occasionally, he would have dinner with Rufus, Tseng or even Scarlet to discuss business. His few carefully selected lovers, beautiful women or occasionally even beautiful men, were all respected members of Midgar society who knew how to be discreet. He never slept with fellow SOLDIER’s or below, it was simply not professional. After all, how could he lead men into battle when they’d seen him at his most vulnerable. It just wouldn’t work. That didn’t mean that he hadn’t considered it a few times though.

Thoughts wandering, he pulled up Cloud Strife’s file again on his pc again. Huge blue eyes and a shock of pale blond hair greeted him. Five feet eight inches tall, nine and a half stone, skinny. Good runner. Slightly above average grades. Shows some promise with the blade. Fast...

A gentle knock on his door pulled his attention away from the young third as Beth came in wheeling a mahogany trolley bearing the large portion of stew, wine, sparkling water and a small crusty loaf.

‘You didn’t mention any dessert,’ said Beth, laying the various plates and glasses on his desk, ‘so I took the liberty of ordering you a hot sticky toffee pudding and caramel ice cream. The sugar should keep you awake during the meeting.’

‘You’re a star,’ said Sephiroth, genuinely.

Beth blushed at the rare compliment and left his office.

He had barely taken one mouthful of the stew when his enhanced hearing picked up the sound of a pair of military boots thumping along the corridor, making paintings tremble on their hooks. He knew the approach of a furious Genesis Rhapsodos even before the man burst into the outer office.

Sephiroth picked up his phone. ‘Beth, let him in.’

A moment later, his office door flew open with controlled force just gauged accurately enough not the send it crashing into the wall behind. Genesis strode towards his desk, wearing a rather fetching red silk shirt, Sephiroth couldn’t help noticing.

Genesis waited until Beth had shut the door behind him.

‘You let The Brat off!’ he fumed at Sephiroth. ‘Why, when you expelled about ten others for the same offence?’

‘And good afternoon to you too, Gen,’ said Sephiroth, calmly, taking a mouthful of his food.

‘Answer me!’ demanded the red-head.

Sephiroth chewed slowly, mostly to wind his fiery second in command up even more. After all, he reasoned, you had to take your entertainment when and where you could when you worked for a company as stressful as Shinra.

‘I take you’re talking about Cloud Strife?’ he said at last.

‘He was insolent and insubordinate!’

‘Not to me,’ reasoned Sephiroth.

‘He’s a brat!’

‘I think he shows promise,’ said Sephiroth. ‘He just needs knocking into shape a bit.’ He glanced up at the red head quickly. ‘No. That’s my job.’

Genesis huffed.

Sephiroth grinned. ‘Help yourself to a glass of wine,’ he offered, knowing the red head would never refuse.

Somewhat mollified, Genesis fetched himself another glass from Sephiroth’s drinks cabinet and helped himself to a small glass of the dark liquid. He swirled his glass and took an appreciative sip, then sat down in the chair opposite Sephiroth’s.

‘I’m also slightly pissed off you didn’t come to the landing pad yesterday evening to welcome me back,’ said Genesis. ‘I’ve been gone three months!’

‘I was having dinner with Scarlett,’ said Sephiroth, breaking off a corner of bread and wiping it around the plate. He knew it was bad manners but the stew was too delicious to waste. ‘She was running some new weapon designs by me.’

‘Dreadful woman, I don’t know how you can stand her,’ said Genesis. It was then his eyes lighted on the open magazine next to Sephiroth’s computer.

‘Oooh, what’s this?’ He put his wine glass down and walked around the desk to Sephiroth’s chair then perched a firm, well formed butt cheek on the edge of the desk. He leaned forward and examined the picture of the car, practically resting his cheek against Sephiroth’s.

He was so close that Sephiroth could smell his cologne, a vague warm scent of sandalwood, apples and cinnamon, soft and sensual, it seemed as though his very clothes were seeped in it. A strand of flame red hair tickled his cheek wafting the same heady scent. Sephiroth felt his breath hitch.

Genesis must have noticed too because he turned his face slightly towards him until their cheeks were all but touching, lips but centimeters apart. ‘Mmm, you smell nice,’ he murmured. ‘Is that new?’

Sephiroth was used to Genesis flirting with him, making risqué remarks and often smouldering at him across board meeting tables. He couldn’t decide though if it was for the red-head’s personal amusement or genuine desire.

His fellow first was stunning though, with a sparky, fiery, sarcastic personality that he found funny and endearing, as well as strangely exhilarating. Sometimes he wondered what it would be like, taking his ferocious sparring partner to bed; would he show the same imagination and zest between the sheets?

Sephiroth stared resolutely at the photograph of the car. ‘Yes, it’s called Midgar Nights.’

‘Very apt,’ purred Genesis, appreciatively. ‘Warm, passionate, sultry...and dangerous.’ He paused for a moment then gave a soft chuckle and straightened up but still stayed perched on the desk, his knee touching Sephiroth’s forearm.

‘So, what do you say? Are you up for some fun?’

Sephiroth gulped. ‘Sorry?’

‘Buy the car,’ said Genesis. ‘You can afford it.’

‘I don’t need to,’ said Sephiroth, ‘They’re giving me the first one.’

Genesis snorted. ‘Of course they are,’ he said with a hint of bitterness. ‘Everyone wants the famous silver General of Shinra to endorse their merchandise.’

‘You can afford one anyway,’ Sephiroth pointed out.

‘I could,’ agreed Genesis, ‘if I hadn’t missed the shortlist deadline, darling, because I was in Gaia-forsaken fucking Icicle Inn!’

He gave the magazine a little shove of dismissal. It moved a fraction to knock into Sephiroth’s mouse. Suddenly his computer screen was filled with the face of a very familiar blue-eyed blond.

‘Ah...The Brat,’ he murmured, amused. ‘I might have known.’

‘I was just checking his file,’ said Sephiroth, swatting Genesis’ hand away from his last piece of bread.

‘Sure you were,’ said the red head, standing up and sitting back down in the chair.

Sephiroth gave him a cold look. ‘You know well enough I never have relations with anyone under my command.’

Gen laughed. ‘Good Gaia, Mr Crescent, I do believe you’re actually interested in him! Didn’t know you liked them that young though, I mean, does the little shit even shave yet?’

Sephiroth ignored him, clicked his mouse and the picture vanished instantly to be replaced by spreadsheets from the financial department.

Genesis drained his wine and poured himself another glass. He leaned back in his chair once more looking sulky and resigned. When he wasn’t being fiery or seductive the Red General exuded an air of boredom brought about from vast inherited wealth. Genesis Rhapsodos was what most people would call ‘high maintenance,’ and Sephiroth had to deal with it on an almost daily basis. it was both exhausting and fascinating.

‘I can’t believe we have to attend this damned meeting in a minute!’ the red head was saying. ‘I’m so sick of this...I mean, why do they even need us there? It’s not like t they’d even listen to our input about canteen budgets or staff transport and I honestly don’t give a shit about the potato crop outside Kalm! It’s boring, unnecessary and a waste of our skill set! Not to mention my valuable sleeping time...I’ve just come back from a mission, for Gaia’s sake!!’

Seph eyed him steadily. ‘Have you finished?’ he inquired.

‘Possibly,’ Genesis sniffed.

Sephiroth couldn’t help the grin that spread across his face. ‘50 Gil says Heidigger picks his nose in the first ten minutes.’

Genesis laughed. ‘A hundred says ol’ pa Shinra will be snoring by 1500 hours.’

Chapter Text

That evening, the ever-present gaggle of press photographers and TV cameramen were gathered outside the barrack entrance to Shinra Tower. As the cold night drew in, they hugged their hands around polystyrene cups full of steaming coffee to fend off the encroaching chill and chatted dolefully amongst themselves.

Staking out the Tower was a daily and nightly ritual for them and they rotated in shifts so that the building was covered twenty-four hours a day, in the eternal and often vain hope that they might just catch a glimpse of Sephiroth.

What they got, at almost 1900 hours that particular evening, was a young SOLDIER third, returning from a mission on foot. At least, he looked like a SOLDIER, it was hard to tell for sure, he was so covered in stinking intestines and goo that he barely looked human.

Nonetheless, true to their profession, and to alleviate boredom as much as anything, the assembled press snapped pictures and fired questions at him.

‘How did you get in that state?’ shouted one.

‘Have you been on a mission?’ yelled another.

‘SOLDIER, what’s your name?’ And so it went on.

Cloud ignored them and stumbled up to the barrack entrance to show his pass to the guard, who examined the slimy ID with distaste then motioned for Cloud to pass.

Disconsolately, Cloud practically dragged himself through the barrack hallways, enduring the laughs and jibes of fellow SOLDIERS, who had had no idea who he was, except that he looked like a swamp monster. Even his trademark blond hair was plastered down with blood and other unidentifiable substances.

He was beyond exhausted, aching, grazed, clawed and bitten all over. Worse still, he’d have to shower before he went to the mess so he’d miss supper for sure. He was starving and cursing Genesis Rhapsodos to Hel and back every painful step of the way.

‘Holy crap!’ he heard someone say behind him.

He turned to see Lt Zack Fair standing beside a coffee vending machine with an edgy but slightly scruffy looking red-head in a dark suit. Zack, however, was looking very sharp in an altogether smarter black suit with a dark blue shirt. Cloud barely recognised him out of his Second’s uniform.

‘Is that you, Spikey?’ Zack asked incredulously. ‘What in the name of Holy have you been doing?’

‘Sir,’ Cloud saluted and a piece of intestine flew of his hand and stuck to the wall next to Zack’s shoulder.

‘Woah, Spike, steady on! I’m going out later,’ said Zack, jumping out the way. His companion laughed.

‘Man, you look like shit, yo!’ said the red-head.

‘I think some of it might actually be...poo,’ said Cloud miserably.

‘This is Reno, by the way,’ Zack introduced the red-head. ‘He’s a Turk.’

Cloud nodded at Reno in greeting, taking in the Turk’s un-tucked shirt, the strange red-slash tattoos on his slim cheeks and, more baffling, the pair of goggles perched atop his forehead.

‘Did Seph do this to you?’ Zack was asking.

‘No Sephiroth only put me on latrine duty for a week,’ said Cloud.

‘Well, you’re certainly dressed for it, yo,’ teased Reno.

Cloud pulled a face at him. ‘This mess is courtesy of General Rhapsodos, 'he informed them, ‘because he and I had an, um, ‘altercation’ in Black Materia last night.’

Reno’s grin broadened. ‘Yeah, I heard.’

‘How do you know about that?’ asked Cloud.

‘I’m a Turk,’ said Reno almost insulted. ‘So fkn funny though! No one talks to Gen-Rhap like that and lives!’

‘I think that’s what he had in mind,’ said Cloud, looking down at his shredded new uniform, decorated in hanging innards. He looked like a ghoulish Christmas tree.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Zack, ‘Genesis has pulled some shit like that on me too in the past.’

‘And that’s supposed to make me feel better?’ muttered Cloud. General Rhapsodos sent me to almost certain death, he wanted to scream.

‘Hey, go and get showered,’ said Zack. ‘I’ll bring you some strong coffee and try and rustle you up some whiskey for it too. You’re in Room 112, right?’

‘I’ll get you some food,’ offered Reno.

‘You can’t, the canteen is shut,’ said Cloud.

‘Not to me, yo.’ Giving Cloud the benefit of another impish grin the young Turk vanished through a door next to them that Cloud hadn’t even noticed was there.

Leaving Zack to search for alcohol, Cloud made his way to the communal SOLDIER showers and washed thoroughly. After, he put antiseptic cream on the worst scratches on his arms and legs and changed into his spare Third’s uniform from his locker. He then binned the old one, hoping he wasn’t going to be charged for a new one. There was no way he could afford that. He hadn’t even had his first pay packet as a SOLDIER yet and he’d promised to send half of that home to his ma. A quick recce in the large mirror over the sinks confirmed that his face had fortunately only sustained a few minor scratches.

Feeling much better after a wash, he took the lift up to the SOLDIER third floor and let himself into his small bedsit that all Thirds were given. It comprised of no more than a tiny kitchenette, a shower room and a sitting area, with a tv and a sofa, which also doubled as a bedroom. The bed itself was stored in a recess in one of the walls. The only window gave out to a view of the vast air con system of Shinra Tower, which was ugly and gave off a constant whirring sound but on the plus side, this tiny space was all his and certainly beat having to share a dorm with five other grunting, snoring guys.

There was a loud knock on the door and Cloud opened it to reveal Zack carrying three steaming mugs of strong black coffee and a half empty bottle of whiskey.

‘I got the booze from Angeal’s desk,’ said Zack, coming in. ‘He doesn’t drink anymore anyway so he won’t miss it.’

Even before Cloud had a chance to close the door, Reno turned up with a tray of hot soup, a steak and a large slice of chocolate cake.

‘All I could get, yo,’ he said, putting the tray on Cloud’s small coffee table.

Cloud could not have been more grateful. He sat down opposite Reno and descended on the food like he hadn’t eaten for a week. While he stuffed his face, Reno put on the tv and settled cross-legged on the floor. Zack poured a shot of whiskey in all their coffees and sat on the tiny sofa, so as not to crease his suit.

‘So,’ said Reno, taking a gulp of his drink. ‘Do you want me to do a little revenge prank on Gen-Rhap for you?’

Zack laughed. ‘Yeah, like that time you put jello in all his desk drawers!’

‘I liked the pink glitter one best,’ said Reno. ‘I could still see bits of it in his hair a week later!’

Cloud ate and listened as they swapped stories and invented even more outrageous pranks to do on the Red General. He laughed along with them, even suggesting a few ideas of his own.

‘Seriously though guys,’ he said, cutting the chocolate cake in to thirds and sharing it with them. ‘We can’t do anything. If he finds out it’s got anything to do with me, I’ll be doing worse than cleaning lavs and killing Marlboros.’

‘You did well though,’ said Reno. ‘I was watching you on the cameras.’

‘Wait, you have cameras in the slums?’ asked Cloud.

Reno regarded him like he was a bit thick. ‘Duh, we’re Turks. We have cameras everywhere.’

‘Some backup would have been nice then,’ said Cloud dryly.

‘None of my business, dude,’ said Reno, shoving a piece of cake into his mouth. ‘Pretty impressive fighting though.’

Cloud sighed. The exhaustion from the long stressful day suddenly slammed into his body and he leant back against the wall.

‘The worst of all this is that my friends are missing,’ he said. ‘I think they may be dead.’

Reno looked up from the tv. ‘What, you mean the dude with the big teeth, the slum rat and the crazy surfer? he asked. ‘We’ve got them in the Turk holding cells for a couple of days to cool their heels. Tseng threatened them with some shit to rattle them a bit but apart from that they’re fine.’

‘Thank Gaia for that!’ said Cloud with relief. ‘I really thought they’d gone for good.’

‘Oh, did Seph do that thing where they go in his office and never come out?’ asked Reno amused.

‘Yes!’ said Cloud. ‘I thought he’d killed them.’

‘Nah,’ said Reno, ‘he just likes doing that. There is an emergency tunnel in his washroom that goes down to the car park. He uses it when he doesn’t want to see someone.’

‘Really?’ said Zack, a thoughtful look on his face. ‘I didn’t know that.’

Reno shot a faint wink at Cloud.

Cloud bit back a smile.

***

Sephiroth decided that if he had to speak to one more boring businessman and his plain, vacuous wife, he would completely lose his sanity.

Gazing around the glamorous grand hall of Rufus Shinra’s mansion at the glittering gathering of Midgar’s finest, he wished more than anything that he was vegging out alone in his apartment watching tv in a pair of sweatpants and eating a disgustingly calorific and probably gorgeously greasy takeaway. Instead, he was wearing a rather restricting dinner jacket with a fitted white shirt and, even more annoyingly, cuff-links. He’d ditched the bow tie about three hours ago though.

Here, healthy state of the art canapés were circulated by waitresses who described each diminutive morsel on the trays in great detail. Sephiroth privately thought that a snail could eat more. He tried a few but nearly gagged at the fashionable mixture of weird flavours.

He’d even tried to get drunk but the concentration of mako in his system was so high it was virtually impossible. At least Angeal, Genesis and Zack had turned up too but they were off somewhere, ‘pressing the flesh’ and doing their PR duties as Firsts and a Second. He tried to do the same, talking to a few important dignitaries, but the sheer banality of their conversation almost gave him a panic attack.

Deciding he needed some fresh air, he put his empty glass down on a nearby table and made his way to the front door. Outside he breathed in the relatively fresh air as he stood on the stone steps to the mansion. Late comers were still arriving in all their sartorial splendour and passed him with muttered greetings of ‘Good evening, General.’

The night was actually rather beautiful, he decided. Rufus’ house was only five miles away from Midgar but you could even see the stars out here, like diamonds strewn on black velvet.

The first, and so far only, dark blue metallic Valco X26 was parked on display at the front of the house, on a red carpet cordoned off by red rope. There was a small crowd or partygoers standing admiringly around it. Two armed MP’s were guarding it though, to make sure no one got too close. This was the car that would presumably be his soon. He wasn’t sure about the colour but as it was free he couldn’t really be too fussy. He supposed he could always have it re-sprayed at some point.

‘Evening General,’ said one of the guards, spotting him. ‘Would you like to start her up?’

The guard handed Sephiroth a rectangular piece of crystal which served as the car’s key.

Sephiroth took it from him, stepped over the rope and opened the car door. He got in and sunk comfortably into the soft leather sport seat. Starting up the car, it roared to life then settled to a smooth, husky purr. For a moment he just listened to the wonderful sound, enjoying some peace and quiet away from inane chatter of the party.

The passenger door opened and someone slid elegantly into the seat next to him. It was Genesis.

‘Stunning, isn’t it?’ said the red-head.

Sephiroth didn’t respond immediately, he was just staring at the mood lighting of the dials on the dashboard.

Genesis closed his door and suddenly they were alone, cocooned in a confined space behind darkened windows, surrounded in the smell of new car and luxury leather. Sephiroth’s nose twitched in appreciation as those smells were soon joined by Genesis subtle, heady cologne.

‘All the latest gadgets too,’ said Genesis, reaching forward to press a button. Instantly, the car’s tv came on. The Midgar eleven o’clock news had just started.

‘Oh, Shiva,’ groaned Genesis. ‘Not more of old man Shinra banging on about conserving energy!’

He reached forward to switch it off but Sephiroth caught his wrist. They both stared transfixed as a female reporter, who was unmistakably standing next to the barrack entrance to Shinra Tower, began talking.

“Midgar is celebrating tonight, all because of the efforts of one man,' she was saying. "SOLDIER Third Class Cloud Strife single-handedly successfully cleared out a nest of Marlboros which have been plaguing citizens for weeks.” In the corner of the screen was a picture of what looked vaguely like a human covered in dripping slime and gore. “An insider told us that Strife has only recently been promoted to SOLDIER.” Cloud’s recruitment photo popped up on the screen next, in all its blond, blue-eyed glory. He looked the epitome of angelic innocence. ‘We wish this young SOLDIER all the best for the future and hope he is amply rewarded for his bravery.”

The report ended and went on to a story about school truant figures.

Sephiroth turned the tv off then gave his second in command an accusatory glare. ‘You sent him out on a monster hunt alone?’ he asked, appalled.

Genesis tried to look innocent and failed. It simply wasn’t in his range of facial expressions.

‘Well it wouldn’t be Angeal,’ Sephiroth concluded, ‘so it had to have been you. Damnit, Gen he’s not even enhanced yet, he could have died!’

‘So he could,’ mused Genesis. ‘Oh, stop fussing. Just think of it as a great PR stunt. You really should have more faith in your new SOLDIER recruits, you know...and, sadly, it looks as though The Brat is actually rather talented.’

‘Genesis,’ said Sephiroth, disapprovingly.

The red-head just laughed unrepentantly and leant forward to press several more dials on the car’s dashboard, virtually lying across Sephiroth’s thighs to reach some of them. ‘Wow, look what they can do! What a fabulous car.’ Genesis sat up but didn’t move back to his own seat. Instead, he turned to face Sephiroth, his lips barely an inch from his commanding officer’s. ‘You want it, don’t you?’ he murmured.

Despite himself, Sephiroth felt an annoying tightening in his trousers. Genesis was a menace, he decided. His eyes met those of his SiC, whose perfect mouth had curved into a little private smile. ‘I already told you,’ said Sephiroth, evenly, ‘I can have this one if I want.’

‘But you don’t want this one, do you?’ said Genesis. ‘For a start it’s metallic blue. No, you want your own customised one. A matte black one. One with black titanium alloys and silver suede upholstery, maybe?’ Gen paused for effect. ‘A convertible...?’

If there were such a thing as car porn, this would be it, thought Sephiroth. ‘No such thing exists,’ he pointed out.

‘No, it doesn’t, does it?’ said the red-head almost wistfully. ‘In that case, I propose a new bet.’

His lips were still heart-stoppingly close to Sephiroth’s.

‘And what would that be?’ asked the silver General, trying to keep his voice steady.

‘I’m bored with piffling bets about Heidigger’s bogeys and Scarlett’s bra size, let’s raise the stakes. If I lose, I will buy you one of these cars and get them to customise it to your wildest fantasies.’

‘You said you aren’t on the list for one,’ Sephiroth pointed out.

‘I wasn’t,’ said Genesis, ‘but this afternoon I got Tseng to phone one of the guys who was on the list to convince him to give up his place.’

‘You had him terminated?’ asked Sephiroth, horrified.

‘No, of course not! Gaia, Seph, you’re so extreme! No, I just got Tseng to persuade the guy to buy a jeep instead. For his family.’ Genesis gave Sephiroth an evil grin, the meaning of which was not lost on the silver General.

‘I know...I’m bad,’ said Genesis. ‘You can punish me if you want.’ He regarded him slyly. ‘What do you say?’

Sephiroth felt his pulse quicken. ‘I’m not going to punish my second in command.’

‘Not that,’ said Genesis. ‘About the bet, I mean. What will you give me in return if I win?’

Sephiroth considered this. He knew well enough what Genesis was alluding to but he was damned if he was going to acknowledge it, as much as the idea of bedding the red-head intrigued him.

Beside him, Genesis waited patiently for his answer.

Then it came to him. ‘I will pay for your entire Shinra apartment to be designed, and furnished, by Alicia Kazan,’ said Sephiroth.

Alicia Kazan was Midgar’s, and that mean Gaia’s, most sought after, prestigious interior designer. She was so in demand that only the enormously wealthy or influential could hire her. Actually, to say she was for hire would be vulgar, it was more like she did people a ‘favour’ for extortionate amounts of money. He also knew that Genesis had fallen out socially with Alia some time back and she would never willingly work for him, a fact that was a constant source of private umbrage to the red-head. Despite their fall-out, he was still a massive fan of her work. But if he, Sephiroth, were to employ her...

Genesis’ eyes widened momentarily and he smiled widely. ‘And an Alicia Kazan bed too?’

‘If you must,’ said Sephiroth, mentally adding several thousand Gil to his estimated price. It was almost worth it to see the look of pure happiness on his friend’s face though.

‘So,’ said Genesis, sitting back in his seat. ‘What’s the bet? It’ll have to be special...and challenging as well! And be warned, I am determined to beat you on this one!’

‘Good, I’m getting bored with winning,’ quipped Sephiroth.

‘Bastard,’ said Genesis but he was too delighted to be angry.

Sephiroth thought hard and then slowly an evil idea began to form in his mind. ‘The first one of us to get Cloud Strife’ he said.

‘What?’ scoffed Genesis. ‘That’s not even a challenge. He’s a green recruit, easy pickings! Don’t waste my time.’

‘I haven’t finished,’ said Sephiroth. ‘You don’t just have to get Cloud to sleep with you. Sex is predictable and boring anyway and certainly not a challenge...’

Genesis opened his mouth to protest but Sephiroth held his hand up to silence him.

‘The winner,’ Sephiroth continued, ‘and this is the important bit, has to make Strife fall in love with them.’

Genesis expression became rigid, his eyes steely. ‘No.’ His tone was emphatic. ‘I’m not doing it.’

‘What’s the matter?’ Sephiroth teased gently. ‘Don’t think you can make him like you after that stunt you pulled on him this afternoon?’ He was sure he saw a muscle in the red-head’s jaw clench. ‘I’m afraid that’s the deal anyway, take it or leave it.’

‘Fuck. You.’ murmured Genesis.

‘That is not part of the deal,’ said Sephiroth, amused. He had Genesis Rhapsodos cornered...something that always gave him a mild rush of sadistic pleasure.

‘Your plan is flawed anyway,’ said Genesis. ‘How can we possibly prove that he ‘loves’ one of us?’

‘Easy,’ said Sephiroth. ‘An engagement. Strife’s a mountain boy, he’s old fashioned. He will only agree to that if he really loves one of us.’

Genesis looked totally scandalised. ‘Engagement equals marriage and that IS NOT among my life goals!’

‘Isn’t it?’

Genesis blinked. ‘Stop smiling at me like that!’ he fumed. ‘You are totally insufferable!’

Sephiroth laughed and turned off the engine. They both got out of the car to see Angeal and Zack standing behind the rope, waiting for their turn to sit in the beautiful machine.

‘So,’ said Angeal, genially, ‘which one of you is going to take that little beauty for a ride then?’

Genesis caught Sephiroth’s eye and he smiled slyly. ‘I am. I’m by far the better driver.’

***

‘Naff,’ declared Rufus the next afternoon.

‘What is?’ asked Genesis, as he collected tennis balls from the net for his service. In the well tendered gardens of Rufus’ mansion in Shinra Heights, they were making it the best of three games as they were currently one game all. The house was far enough away from the pollution of Midgar for even the sun to cast its watery warmth on them. In layman’s terms, it was actually a lovely spring day.

‘This bet you’ve got going on with Sephiroth,’ said Rufus, handing a stray ball to him. ‘Everyone is talking about it.’

‘And what bet would that be?’ inquired Genesis. ‘We’re always betting on something.’

‘The one involving the new SOLDIER third,’ said Rufus. ‘Cloud Staff, or whatever his name is.’

‘Cloud Strife,’ corrected Genesis.

‘It’s naff at best, unprofessional at worst,’ Rufus went on.

‘It’s only a bit of fun, Rufe,’ said Genesis. ‘It means nothing. It’s not like he’s a cadet or anything and chances are the kid won’t even make it through a couple of months in SOLDIER. He’ll be gone soon.’

‘And what happens when this Strife finds out, eh?’ inquired the young vice president of Shinra.

‘We’ll worry about that when, and if, it happens,’ said Genesis.

‘I disapprove,’ said Rufus.

The corner of Genesis mouth quirked up in a smile. ‘I never had you down as stuffy,’ he teased.

‘I’m not.’

‘Then put a bet on me,’ said Genesis. ‘Everyone knows that Sephiroth is socially stunted and that the only reason he gets laid is because people come to him. He couldn't seduce anyone if he tried. He hasn't even slept with Scarlet, for Gaia's sake!'

'He's the only one who hasn't,' muttered Rufus.

'Speak for yourself,' said Genesis with a haughty sniff.

Chapter Text

For the next week, Cloud dutifully completed his latrine punishment, on time and with great diligence. He caught up on his studies at night, thanks to Zack who brought notes and homework to him, then did half an hour’s sparring with his new friend until bedtime.

On the Tuesday, Danny, Jay and Rabbit returned from their stay in Turk custody, bruised, grubby and dishevelled but otherwise unharmed and the four of them got drunk in Cloud’s room as a celebration. He hadn’t seen either of the Generals since his mission to the slums. Genesis was away in Kalm and Sphiroth had been deployed on a sudden, emergency mission to Wutai.

Who he had seen, however, was Rufus Shinra. The young Vice President had summoned him to the main meeting room of Shinra Tower on Wednesday afternoon to present Cloud with the Company’s Silver Leaf medal for outstanding service to the public. The President himself had been there, along with other dignitaries and Directors of the company. Cloud had been promoted to Corporal, given a token pay rise and Rufus had assured him that he would not have to pay for his shredded uniform. A fresh one was promptly presented to him with his new mark of promotion embroidered on the sleeve.

He was now SOLDIER Third Class Corporal Cloud Strife. To say that he was thrilled would be an understatement. He may be cleaning toilets temporarily but he was a decorated SOLDIER cleaning toilets. It had almost been worth cheeking Rhapsodos for.

For the second week of his punishment from Sephiroth, he turned up at six o’clock on the Monday morning at the General’s office and spent the long day doing whatever menial tasks Beth allotted to him. It certainly beat cleaning the SOLDIER lavatories and as she seemed so busy, he actually felt good about helping her out.

‘We can leave at five-thirty if the General is not here,’ Beth informed him and so he sought out Zack Fair and sparred some more.

On the third day there was still no sign of Sephiroth so Beth let him go at 5.15pm so he could catch up on his studies.

To his dismay, however, as he left the office, he found Genesis Rhapsodos leaning against the wall opposite, typing something on his phs. The Red General was looking louche in a pair of black jeans and a rust coloured sweater that matched his gleaming hair. On his feet were a pair of very fashionable combat boots, which were certainly not Shinra issue.
Cloud’s immediate reaction was to walk as fast as he could in the opposite direction and he would have too but Rhapsodos glanced up from his phone and spotted him.

‘Ah, Corporal Strife,’ he said. ‘Congratulations on your promotion.’

Cloud saluted. ‘Thank you, Sir,’ he said, warily. The General’s tone was not unfriendly but he was ready to make a run for it just in case.

‘Actually, I want a word with you,’ said Rhapsodos, pocketing his phs. ‘I’ve been looking into your file. Your grades are improving.’

‘I’ve been working hard, Sir,’ said Cloud.

‘Quite,’ said Rhapsodos. ‘I did notice, however, that you seem to struggle with material wielding. Do you find it a difficult subject or do you just not like it?’

Cloud decided honesty was the best policy. ‘I find it hard, Sir,’ he admitted.

‘Would you like me to give you some extra tuition?’

Cloud could barely believe what he was hearing. Private tuition from Shinra’s materia master? It was said that Genesis Rhapsodos was even better at wielding that Sephiroth.

‘You’re not still angry with me?’ he asked dubiously.

‘History,’ said Rhapsodos with a dismissive wave of his hand. ‘Time to move on. I think you show promise, Corporal. I was very impressed the way you handled the task I set you.’

Task. TASK! Thought Cloud savagely. You practically sent me to my death!

‘I would really appreciate any help you could give me, Sir,’ he found himself saying instead.

‘Good,’ said Rhapsodos, pushing himself elegantly off the wall and picking up a black leather hold-all off the floor next to him. ‘Let’s start now, follow me.’

Rhapsodos led him down to the SOLDIER training rooms on the 49th floor and into one of the non-simulation rooms. This room, however, had metal walls and material dummies all around it.

‘This is the materia practice room,’ Rhapsodos informed him. ‘I need to find out what you know first before we can move on.’

‘That’s not much, Sir,’ Cloud admitted.

‘Call me Genesis when we’re in here,’ said the Red General.

‘Yes, Sir, I mean Genesis.’

Genesis gave him a small smile over his shoulder as he put the leather holdall down on a bench seat and brought over a tray of Shinra-issue materia.

‘Now,’ he said. ‘Here we have a barrier, ice and fire...my personal favourite. See that dummy over by the door? Try to hit it with the fire.’

Genesis sat down on a nearby bench to watch him, crossing one long leg over the other.

Okay, this is not intimidating at all thought Cloud. Nonetheless he tried to conjure the fire summon but it fizzled and died. Not so much fire as a damp squib.

‘Try again,’ said Genesis, taking a sip out of a silver hip flask.

Cloud concentrated and this time a feeble flame shot out and burnt the floor. The third time wasn’t much better.

He turned to Genesis. ‘Sorry, I don’t want to waste your time. I’m just not cut out for materia.’

‘Let me be the judge of that,’ said Genesis, placing the flask on the bench and standing up. He went to his hold all and pulled out a long, intricately carved wooden box and opened it. ‘Come here, Strife.’

Cloud walked over. Inside the worn velvet upholstery of the box were seven materia orbs of varying and beautiful colours.

Genesis took a pale green one from its nest and examined it almost lovingly. ‘You see, Strife, the materia Shinra let you practice with is man-made. It’s weak, it’s crude and it’s inferior. This, however, is my personal collection and they are all mastered, purely natural and of the very highest quality.’

Cloud gazed back to the box in awe. He knew enough about material to know that these combined orbs were worth a fortune alone.

‘Here,’ Genesis, placing the green orb in Cloud’s hand. ‘This one is a magic. See how it feels.’

Immediately, Cloud could feel the difference. He felt nothing when he held the Shinra issue materia but this one radiated a deep and primal power. It was faintly warm too.

‘Extend your hand, palm up,’ Genesis instructed and came to stand behind him, turning Cloud’s body gently to face the dummy once more. His arm reached out to take Cloud’s hand in his and extended it at full length. The orb began to gleam dully in Cloud’s palm.

‘Now,’ said Genesis. ‘Relax.’

Easier said than done with Genesis Rhapsodos’ groin touching the small of his back thought Cloud bemused but he tried anyway. Genesis’ hand was still under his, holding his arm extended as he cradled the material out in front of them. This close, Cloud could feel the warm hardness of the man’s body and the pure muscle developed from years of hard training.

‘Close your eyes,’ Genesis murmured behind him. ‘Focus on the feel of the materia, its weight, its power. Channel your thoughts so that you become one with it. Breathe slowly, that’s right.’

Cloud was trying, he really was, but Genesis long, strong body behind him was hopelessly distracting.

‘What do you feel?’ Genesis almost whispered.

‘Excuse me?’ gulped Cloud.

‘The materia, Strife,’ said Genesis. ‘Concentrate.’

‘Oh, erm, nothing....no, wait, it’s getting warmer! Tingly...’

‘Good,’ said Genesis. ‘Now, you have to ask it what you want it to do. Communicate with it...join with it. Become one with it.’

Cloud nodded, eyes tightly shut. He could feel the heat rising up his forearm, the electricity surging through him like a life force of unimaginable power and then...!

‘OH!’ gasped Cloud as a burst of flame left his hand suddenly and scorched the training room ceiling, leaving a huge blackened mark.

Genesis actually laughed, hard and hearty, a sound Cloud never expected to hear from the man.

‘Premature materia ejaculation!’ said Genesis. ‘Don’t worry, it happens to everyone at first. You almost set fire to your first enemy though...a very good start, well done, Strife.’

Although Cloud was sure he could have cooked an egg on his embarrassed face, he felt the compliment was genuine enough. He went to hand the materia back to Genesis.
‘No, keep it,’ said the General.

‘You can’t give me this!’ protested Cloud. ‘I mean, it’s expensive! Really expensive!’

‘I can do whatever I want,’ said Genesis easily. ‘I want you to practice in your lunch hour and I expect to see an improvement in your accuracy tomorrow evening.’ Genesis glanced at his watch. ‘Okay, dismissed, Corporal. I have to be somewhere and you don’t want to miss supper again, I’m sure.’ He gave Cloud an amused look and, picking up his holdall, left the training room without a backward glance.

Cloud glanced down at the gleaming green ball in his hand then at the scorched ceiling. He still had fifteen minutes to make it back to the mess hall before ‘last orders’. He supposed a little more practice wouldn’t hurt. Facing the dummy once more he extended his right arm, closed his eyes and concentrated.

***
When Cloud arrived in Sephiroth’s office on Friday for his last day of punishment duties, he found Beth already there. On her desk was a large, elaborate round box, full of hand-made chocolates from Midgar’s finest chocolatiers.

‘I thought I might have a secret admirer but sadly they’re for you,’ said Sephiroth’s PA, handing him a note.

Inside, in elegantly scrawled handwriting was a message.

‘‘Congratulations on your first Firaga last night, Strife. Clearly all your practice has paid off. I am proud of you. Same time tonight and I think we’ll try Ice this time in case you burn the building down, Genesis R.”

Cloud felt himself smile. Genesis Rhapsodos was proud of him! A compliment he never on the face of Gaia expected to receive from the volatile Red General. Certainly the man had been astonished the night before when Cloud had, on the third attempt, managed to incinerate the materia dummy to ash. He didn’t confess to Genesis however that he’d been up until three in the morning the night before, practicing. It had certainly been worth it though.

Opening the box, he offered one to Beth, who took a brandied chocolate covered cherry, then chose one himself with a soft chocolate outside and delicious praline centre.

‘Mmm,’ Beth managed between blissfully chewing. ‘These are the best in Midgar. I can only afford a small box at Christmas! Someone is certainly spoiling you.’

The phone on her desk suddenly rang. ‘Hi. Oh okay, thank you.’ She hung up. ‘Sephiroth has just landed. Go and make sure his office is tidy and all those reports from yesterday are posted. Don’t rush, he’ll be in de-briefing for a good hour or so.’

Cloud did as he was bid. Lunchtime came and went but there was still no sign of the Silver General. Beth informed him that Sephiroth was probably in meetings with the President and Lazard, as was his usual habit after being on an important mission.

As time crept on, Cloud sincerely hoped Sephiroth wouldn’t turn up so he could leave for his materia lesson with Genesis and especially to thank the red-head for the gorgeous chocolates.

Around 4.30 in the afternoon, though, Sephiroth turned up, still in full battle dress, dusty and scratched from his mission, Masamune strapped to his back and his duffle bag in one hand. He looked both incredibly intimidating and utterly exhausted, Cloud thought.

‘Hold my calls, Beth,’ he said and giving Cloud a brief nod, he shut himself in his office.

It was only the blinking of the red extension light going on and off that indicated he was making phone call after phone call.

Cloud finished the last of his filing and was just wondering if Beth would let him go for the day when her phone rang.

She picked it up. ‘Yes, Sir?’ She listened for a moment. ‘I’ll send him in.’ She hung up.

‘He wants to see you, Cloud,’ she said.

Cloud closed the filing cabinet and walked over to the General’s door. He reminded himself that he had nothing to fear. He had carried out all his duties to the letter. He gave the thick wooden door an efficient rap.

‘Come in,’ came the muffled reply.

Cloud let himself into the office, closing the door behind him. Sephiroth was sitting at his desk, scribbling his signature to a pile of papers. He looked newly showered, his hair was still slightly damp and he was now bereft of his famous battle coat, leaving an expanse of pale, beautifully muscled chest and equally powerful arms on show. Cloud tried not to stare as he snapped off a salute.

‘At ease, Corporal,’ said Sephiroth, looking up and indicating Cloud to sit in the chair opposite him. ‘I’ve had good reports of your conduct during your punishment. I also believe Lt Fair has been giving you extra sparring practice while I’ve been away.’

‘Yes, Sir,’ said Cloud. ‘In his own time.’

‘Very commendable of him. I’m very interested to see what he’s taught you. Zack’s style is strong and effective but lacks subtlety sometimes. He tends to rely on brute strength, like Angeal.’

Sephiroth stood up and walked over to a long slim object on top of the cabinet behind him. It was wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. He picked it up and walked back to Cloud.

‘I found this in a shop in Wutai and I thought of you. It’s rather rare actually,’ he said handing the object to Cloud.

Cloud untied the string and unwrapped the paper to reveal a five foot long katana in an intricately decorated scabbard. He pulled the gleaming blade slowly from its cover.

‘It’s beautiful!’ he gasped. ‘Thank you, Sir!’

Sephiroth looked pleased. ‘I know you’re more of a broad sword person but it’s good to be versatile.’

Cloud turned the blade this way and that, so that the light glinted off what looked like a lethally sharp blade.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked Sephiroth.

‘Nothing Sir, it’s lovely...it’s just that I wouldn’t know how to use it,’ said Cloud despondently.

Sephiroth opened his mouth to say something but his office door was suddenly opened and Genesis Rhapsodos stalked in. ‘Oh stop fussing, woman!’ he was saying over his shoulder. Then his eyes lighted on Cloud. ‘Ah there you are, Strife. You’re late for our appointment.’

‘Appointment?’ inquired Sephiroth, the dark slits of his eyes narrowing slightly.

‘Yes, I’ve decided to help Cloud with his materia use,’ said Genesis airily. ‘He’s been struggling but it turns out he’s actually rather good at it, once he was given some decent stuff to work with...and a decent teacher.’ He gave Sephiroth a smug smile.

Sephiroth had gone so still he seemed practically turned to stone. ‘Is that so?’ he said at last.

‘Certainly is,’ said Genesis, then his eyes lighted on the katana. ‘Oh, what a pretty little thing,’ he said.

‘It’s a gift from Sephiroth,’ said Cloud.

‘Nice,’ said Genesis dismissively. ‘Not sure that would stand a chance next to a proper sword like Rapier though.’ He smiled swiftly. ‘Come along, Strife, I haven’t got all day.’

Cloud stood up. ‘I’m sorry, Sir,’ he said to Sephiroth. ‘Thank you so much for the sword.’

Sephiroth said nothing, his face stony. His eyes spoke volumes though. He was furious, although why exactly Cloud wasn’t sure.

‘Well, good afternoon, Sephiroth,’ said Genesis putting a hand gently in the small of Cloud’s back and guiding him out of the office.

The minute they had gone, Sephiroth picked up his phs and began typing a text. ‘You conniving shit! Why didn’t I think of that?’

Genesis’ reply came a second later along with a winky emojo. ‘Because, my friend, you don’t have the moves, I do.’ xx

‘You took advantage because I was stuck in Wutai!’ Spehiroth typed back.

‘Indeed,’ agreed Genesis and sent back another emojo, blowing a kiss this time. ‘But I am on a third date with The Brat.’

‘That proves nothing,’ wrote Sephiroth. ‘You’re one of his senior commanding officers, he could hardly refuse.’

‘True but I’m still with him though... alone,’ taunted Genesis. ‘And what are you doing? Sitting in your office texting me!’

Sephiroth was so angry, he could barely text back. ‘You know what this means, Rhapsodos. IT IS WAR!’

Then he threw his phone across the room onto a leather sofa.

Chapter Text

Out of force of habit the next morning, Cloud was up by 6 am and by half past was running around the perimeter of the training ground with Danny.

Four laps in and Cloud suddenly noticed Reno, who was leaning against a wall smoking and looking subversive. He was watching them run, whilst talking intently with another young Turk. Occasionally their laughter would reach him across the ground.

Cloud had begun to notice lately that other SOLIDIER’s and even Turks had started acting strangely whenever he was around or simply passing by.. Maybe it was because Genesis was giving him private lessons but it didn’t seem to be jealousy. It was more than that. It was just... odd. He’d begun to notice even his fellow SOLDIER’s looking at him with furtive grins, nudging each other and even quickly folding up bits of paper and stuffing them in their pockets as he approached. He had even caught Danny and Jay acting in a similarly suspicious manner the evening before but they had just waved at him and vanished into the lift before he could question them.

‘Dan,’ he panted beside his friend. ‘Is there something weird going on? I mean something to do with me?’

Danny barely skipped a beat. ‘Weird, no...nothing that I know of.’

‘It’s just that people keep...grinning at me,’ said Cloud.

‘Probably your hair, mate,’ said Danny and spurted on ahead.

After their run, Cloud went back to his little studio flat to shower. Having planned to meet Jay, Rabbit and Danny for a swim after, he put on his bright yellow trunks, just as there was a knock on the door. It was still only 8am and most SOLDIER’s tended to enjoy a welcome lie-in at the weekends.

The only other person could be Zack but he was on a mission. Opening the door he was confronted by Luxiere, a SOLDIER second. He eyed Cloud’s swim trunks disdainfully but didn’t comment.

‘General Sephiroth wants to see you,’ said Luxiere. ‘I was told to escort you to him immediately.’

Cloud felt his belly drop to his bootless feet. He didn’t like the sound of this. Remembering how angry Sephiroth had been the day before, this didn’t bode well at all.

‘What, now? Dressed like this?’ he asked.

Luxiere tutted in exasperation. ‘Put some trousers on Corporal. I’ll wait outside. Oh, and the General says to bring the katana, whatever that means.’

Five minutes later, Cloud left his tiny apartment with Luxiere, dressed in his full Third’s uniform, Sephiroth’s gift in his hand.

Cloud fully expected to be taken to Sephiroth’s office but when they got out of the lift on the Firsts’ office floor, he led Cloud to another lift at the end of the passage. Luxiere pressed a code into the electronic pad next to the doors and they opened. This lift was far more luxurious than the other one. There were only eleven numbered buttons to chose from. They ranged from 59, which they were on now, to the last button which was 69. The final one was marked ‘Penthouse’.

Luxiere pressed button 69 and they glided upwards. Almost instantly, the lift came out into daylight as it travelled up the final few floors on the outside of the building, giving an incredible, if slightly vertigo inducing, view of Midgar’s south side.

Reaching floor 69, the doors opened and they stepped out into a vast circular corridor which contained only one door.

Cloud followed Luxiere to the door where the Second knocked. It was opened a moment later by Sephiroth, wearing a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt, his hair pulled back into a long ponytail. He was barefoot.

‘Thank you, Luxiere,’ he said. ‘Come in, Strife.’

Luxiere saluted and made his way back to the lift. Cloud followed Sephiroth into what was a large entrance hall with a black marble floor. The walls were white and covered in framed black and white contemporary art.

‘What is this place, Sir?’ he asked.

‘My apartment,’ said Sephiroth, opening a set of double doors.

Cloud stepped in behind Sephiroth and gasped.

He was in a huge sitting area with the largest tv he had ever seen fixed against one wall. Three white leather four-seater sofas were arranged around a black marble topped coffee table. A floor to ceiling window ran the entire length of the sitting room, giving out onto a long balcony that gave a 360 degree view of Midgar.

To the left was an open plan and state of the art white and chrome kitchen with a centre island surrounded by barstools, also white and chrome. To the right, behind some black wooden Wutaian screening, was a sleek dining table with a dozen chairs around it. Beyond the dining room was a curving staircase which led to an upper floor and beyond that a fully equipped gymnasium. The entire apartment, apart from the kitchen seemed to be carpeted in white. Cloud dreaded to think of the devastation Zack could cause amongst all this pristine luxury.

‘Is this all yours, Sir?’ he asked in wonder.

‘Call me Sephiroth,’ he said. ‘And,yes, it’s all mine. Drink? Orange, apple, water...?’

‘Orange, please.’ Cloud followed Sephiroth to the kitchen and as he did, passed a wall covered completely with swords, mostly katanas of varying sizes but there were others too, broadswords like Angeal Hewley’s and even thin rapiers similar to Genesis’. The Masamune however, had pride of place in the centre.

‘Where did you get all these?’ asked Cloud.

‘I started collecting them when I was first sent to Wutai,’ explained Sephiroth, pouring their drinks. ‘It’s taken me years to get that many.’

‘From fallen enemies?’

‘Mostly.’

Cloud propped his own katana against one of the sofas and joined Sephiroth in the kitchen. It was so immaculate he doubted any cooking was every done in it.

‘Does Genesis have an apartment like this too?’ he asked.

‘Similar,’ said Sephiroth. ‘It’s on the floor below which is split in two. Gen has one apartment and Angeal the other, although their styles are slightly different to this; less contemporary.’

Cloud could imagine. ‘Who has the penthouse?’ he asked, taking the proffered orange juice from the General.

‘Rufus Shinra,’ said Sephiroth. ‘Sit down, Cloud.’

Cloud sat on one of the stools at the island and watched as Sephiroth took his apple juice and sat down opposite him.

‘I’ve asked you here because I have decided to take you on as my student,’ said Sephiroth. ‘I don’t normally mentor anyone, as you’ve probably heard but I’m willing to make an exception in your case.’

Cloud was so stunned he just stared at the General, eyes wide.

‘Well, say something, corporal or I’ll change my mind,’ said Sephiroth waspishy.

‘You...want to mentor...me? he asked incredulously.

‘That’s what I just said. ‘I know Genesis is teaching you materia wielding and he’s the best so with me you will concentrate solely on sword work.’

Cloud couldn’t believe what he was hearing. ‘I don’t know what to say!’

‘‘Yes’ is usually a good start,’ said Sephiroth dryly.

‘I...yes! Gaia, yes! That would be amazing!’ said Cloud. ‘Thank you, Sir..Sephiroth, I mean!’ Private materia lessons with Genesis and Sephiroth as his official mentor! It was too good to be true. He didn’t care if the others were jealous. This was his future and he was going to make it to First if it killed him.

‘I’ll work the hardest you’ve ever seen anyone work, ever!’ he promised.

Sephiroth’s mouth twitched into something that could be considered a smile. ‘I’m sure you will,’ he said. ‘When do you start your mako shots?’

‘In a fortnight,’ said Cloud, the beaming smile dropping off his face. He knew that if he showed intolerance he would be instantly out of the programme. Danny had already had his first round as was in bed for almost a week, sick as a dog.

‘Don’t worry about that now,’ said Sephiroth, sensing his anxiety. ‘You can always do an oral course. It takes longer and it’s not as strong but it’s not as harsh either. You’ll still get good results.’

Cloud had no idea that an oral course was even an option. No one had ever mentioned that, it was always injections or nothing.

‘So,’ said Sephiroth, draining his apple juice. ‘Let’s have a quick spar now, try out your new sword, eh? I’ll go and change.’

He went upstairs and returned shortly after in his black leather trousers and his boots but still wearing the T-shirt. Taking his pauldrons only, he picked Masamune off its stand. Cloud grabbed his katana and they made their way back downstairs again, using both lifts, to the 49th floor.

Sephiroth let them into one of the empty training rooms and, propping Masamune against the wall, started rooting around in a store cupboard.

‘Here, wear these,’ he said, throwing a mask and some pauldrons at Cloud, who strapped them on and then put on the mask.

‘Ok,’ said Sephiroth, ‘let’s get your stance right first. It’s different to wielding a broad sword. This is about speed and flexibility.’

Sephiroth moved his feet with the toe of his boot, made him bend his knees slightly and adjusted his grip, then he picked up Masamune and they faced each other in the en-guard position, a good ten feet apart.

‘Hit me,’ said Sephiroth.

‘What?’

‘Try and hit me with your sword, Cloud,’ he said.

‘I might be blond, but I’m not stupid,’ Cloud muttered to himself under the mask.

‘I heard that, Strife,’ said Sephiroth.

Cloud bit his lip. ‘Shit.’

‘And that,’ said the General coldly. ‘You, Strife, are a pathetic little runt of a mountain hick who is never going to be a First!’

Cloud blinked then felt something snap inside him and he charged, taking a wild swing at Sephiroth’s shoulder guard.

Sephiroth barely moved and swatted his blade away like it was an irritating fly.

There was another one of those faint smiles on the General’s face. ‘First rule, never attack in anger. Also, adjust your grip. Your hands are too far apart. Ok, Again.’

Cloud tried his best but once again Sephiroth was ahead of him and simply side stepped. Cloud found Masamune’s razor sharp blade at his throat. He gulped.

‘You might have just as well sent me an email with that last move, Strife. I read it a mile off.’

Cloud blushed hotly.

‘Also, you’re leaving yourself too open and your stance is unbalanced. Right, again,’ said Sephiroth.

Again, again and again Cloud tried. Each time the spars got slightly longer but in the end Sephiroth ended it with some incredibly cool and effortless counter attack that, more often than not, simply disarmed Cloud altogether.

‘Keep your grip lighter,’ advised Sephiroth. ‘Your knuckles are going white. Let’s go again.’

Sephiroth, Cloud soon discovered, was perfectionist and a slave driver but he was also thorough and an excellent tutor. Over the next two hours he pushed Cloud to the very limits of his endurance.

‘Right, we’ll stop there for today. You’ve done well,’ said the General, taking a sheet of paper from his trousers and handing it to Cloud. ‘I’ve made you up that sheet with an exercise regime to build up your stamina and work on your balance and agility. Make sure you do them every day. You can have tomorrow off but I expect to see you here at 2000 hours on Monday when we’ll do some katas.’

Cloud gave him a somewhat ragged salute and left the training room, making his way painfully back to the Third’s floor. He was soaking with sweat and so sore he could hardly walk, even his legs were shaking with effort. He’d used muscled that he didn’t even know existed. Getting himself a long cold drink from the vending machine outside the canteen he was just tottering his way back to his floor when met Zack coming out of the Second’s common room with Reno. Fresh back from his mission, he was still in his rather dusty uniform.

‘Spike! What’s happened!’ said Zack horrified.

‘I’m fine, I was just sparring with Sephiroth,’ said Cloud.

‘Sparring? Oh...thank Ifrit!’ said Zack with relief. ‘I thought maybe...never mind,’ he added quickly.

‘Sephiroth bought me this katana so we can practice,’ said Cloud, holding up the sword to show them. ‘He thinks versatility is important.’

‘Yeah, I’ve heard that about him,’ said Reno under his breath. Zack nudged him sharply.

‘Cool,’ said Zack. ‘Well, I was about to ask if you wanted to make up a foursome for a game of Badmington but you look like you need a lie down. Maybe another time.’

‘Sure, that’d be great,’ said Cloud, and limped off back towards the lift, fully intending to sleep for the rest of the day.

***

That evening Sephiroth was putting the final touches to his apartment for the bi-monthly Gourmet Night. It was a regular event now between him, Angeal and Genesis after Angeal had once cooked them a sublime Beef Wellington. Now they took it in turns to host but all of them chipped in to help with the cooking in whoever’s apartment they found themselves. It was a rare chance for them all to be together, chatting about work and generally unwinding after various missions. Lately, even Zack had been invited although Sephiroth took care to keep him away from eating too much sugar.

He’d lit some large white pillar candles on the dining room table and even folded the black napkins into bishops’ hats, as Genesis had taught him. The lights were dimmed, comfortable cushions had been fetched from the bedrooms upstairs and long-stemmed glasses were laid out on the marble coffee table. He had beers cooling in the fridge for Zack and Angeal and an expensive decanted bottle of red wine breathing for Genesis.

He had also drawn the blinds over the long windows because he’d once been told by Tseng that Reno had a habit of having a nose in when he was passing outside in the helicopter. As a result, Sephiroth had long ago stopped walking around his living room naked and had floor to ceiling blinds fitted. There was soft chill-out music on the surround sound and he had even left his front door on the latch this evening so his friends could walk straight in.

Going back into the kitchen, he checked all the ingredients were laid out for them to start preparing. Tonight they were making Genesis’ famous Banora cheese soup for starters, followed by Costa del Sol style garlic shrimps in a buttery lemon sauce and saffron rice, then a rather alcoholic crème brulee to finish. After, they planned to make their way through the second series of Midgar CSI, if anyone was still awake.

He was in the kitchen putting some spicy Wutaian peanuts into bowls when Angeal and Zack turned up with two bottles of wine and a box of beer.

Zack deposited the box of beer in the kitchen then immediately bounded over to the tv’s remote control and began flicking through the channels at a rate of knots.

‘Don’t break anything, pup,’ called Angeal, wearily sitting down on a stool at the kitchen’s centre island.

‘Need a drink?’ Sephiroth asked his friend.

Angeal sighed. ‘Make it a strong one.’

Sephiroth grinned and reached for his special stash of Dumbapple rum out of a cupboard. He poured Angeal three fingers worth in a glass and, as a second thought, the same for himself.

A moment later, they both nearly choked on their drinks as Sephiroth’s door opened with such force it nearly flew off its hinges as Genesis arrived in a soft, red suede coat, which was billowing out around him.

‘Hey, Gen!’ called Zack.

Genesis ignored him and stormed into the kitchen, face slightly flushed, eyes glittering dangerously and clutching a fifty year old bottle of red wine.

‘Will you stop abusing my doors, Genesis!’ snapped Sephiroth. ‘They cost money, you know! And that goes for you too, Fair!’

Genesis was not to be deflected. ‘Tell me it’s not true,’ he demanded. ‘Tell me you aren’t going to mentor The Brat! Because if you are, that is one low, fucking devious bastard thing to do, Crescent!’

‘What’s this?’ asked Angeal frowning. Alerted by the shouting, Zack had come over to stand beside him.

‘What. Is. This?’ shouted Genesis. ‘THIS is about thinking someone was your friend and finding out that they are a low, fucking devious bastard!’

‘Calm down, Gen,’ said Angeal.

‘I will NOT calm down!’ said the red-head, glaring at Sephiroth. ‘You’ve taken him on as your student. You never mentor anyone, let alone a measly Third! That is just...despicable!’

Sephiroth allowed himself a small smirk. ‘It is, isn’t it? Round two to me, I believe.’

‘Is this about that business with Corporal Strife?’ demanded Angeal.

‘Might be,’ said Genesis cagily. He put his bottle of wine down carefully on the centre island. ‘You might want to lay that down, it got a bit jiggled about,’ he advised Sephiroth.

Angeal was glaring at them both. ‘Well, I think what you’re doing with Strife is an absolute disgrace and a dishonour to your positions as Shinra SOLDIER’s!’ he said. ‘This is a new low even for you two. I was even accosted in the corridor today by Rufus of all people, asking me which way I was betting! I didn’t even know about it! How long has this been going on?’

‘Since Rufus’ bash,’ said Genesis, calming slightly in the face of his old friend’s disgust.

‘I suppose it was your idea, Genesis,’ accused Angeal.

Genesis looked duly reprimanded. Angeal only called him Genesis when he was really annoyed with him.

‘Actually, it was mine,’ said Sephiroth.

Angeal looked totally gob-smacked. ‘Then you are as bad as each other. I’m surprised at you, Sephiroth.’

‘What’s going on?’ asked Zack.

They all looked at him incredulously.

The young Second shrugged. ‘I’ve been on a mission for the last four days. Total black out. I’ve missed all the gossip.’

‘These two,’ explained Angeal in distaste, ‘have some sordid competition going between them to see who can get Corporal Strife into bed first. As far as I know the whole of SOLDIER is betting on it, if not the entire company!’

‘Spikey?’ said Zack. ‘Does he know?’

‘No,’ said Genesis.

‘Poor guy,’ said Zack with feeling.

‘I want you two to stop this now,’ said Angeal, turning back to the other two Firsts.

Genesis looked uncomfortable. ‘Actually, that might be a bit difficult,’ he said. ‘We’re both giving him extra training. If we suddenly stop he’ll wonder what’s going on. Anyway, I’ve ordered the Valco X26...convertible. It’s Seph’s prize if he wins.’

‘And I’ve already got a meeting with Alicia Kazan for Gen,’ said Sephiroth. ‘Even I wouldn’t cancel that!’

‘I don’t care how you do it, but stop this and stop this now or I won’t be responsible for my actions,’ said Angeal.

Something must have caught Zack’s eye because he suddenly yelped and bounded over to the doorway. ‘Hey, Spikey! What are you doing here?’

The three Firsts all looked up at once.

Cloud was standing in the doorway shyly, holding two bottles, one of wine and one of something that looked sinisterly alcoholic.

Chapter Text

Genesis was the first to recover at the sight of a slightly wary-looking Cloud standing in the doorway of Sephiroth’s apartment.

‘Cloud!’ he said, instantly all charm, ‘Come in, let me take those for you! Oh, Nibelheim punch,’ he said examining the second bottle. ‘The last time I drank this stuff I woke up two days later in Bone Village with no idea how I got there !’

Over in the kitchen Angeal was looking livid. ‘Seph, what is Strife doing here?’ He hissed across the kitchen island.

‘You invited your student, so I invited mine,’ said Sephiroth airily.’ He stood up to go and greet Cloud. ‘Be nice,’ he whispered as he passed Angeal.

‘Of course I’ll be nice,’ Angeal retorted. ‘It’s not him I’m angry with it’s you and that renegade red-head!’

‘Dinner smells gorgeous,’ said Cloud, following Genesis into the kitchen and greeting Angeal.

‘That’s my Banora cheese soup!’ said the red-head proudly. ‘Just wait till you taste it! Angeal has made crusty wholemeal rolls to go with it.'

‘Zack, you’re on rice duty tonight,’ Angeal called to his student who was currently surfing the TV channels looking for the Midgar Music Awards.

‘Why me?’ Zack pouted.

‘Because we’re all busy doing the other courses and Angeal is making dessert,’ said Genesis.

‘Gods, why can’t we just use packet rice like everyone else?’ moaned Zack coming into the kitchen.

‘Because this is Gourmet Night, pleb,’ countered Genesis.

‘Don’t worry, Zack,’ said Cloud, ‘I’ll help you make it. My ma taught me, it’s really easy.’

As Cloud went about teaching Zack to make perfect saffron rice Genesis watched them indulgently for a moment.

‘No, you let it boil first then turn it down to simmer,’ Cloud was instructing. ‘Did you salt the water?’

‘Er...no,’ said Zack.

‘Seems like The Brat can actually cook,’ Genesis whispered to Sephiroth, as he reached across him for some onions.

Soon, all five of them were helping to make dinner together and the rather clinical, impersonal kitchen was warm, cosy and full of laughter. They all chipped in, peeling vegetables, washing salad and stirring sauces. Even Sephiroth cracked the occasional grin.

Dinner was served in Sephiroth’s sleek black and silver dining room. Red wine was poured and more pillar candles lit and Genesis put on some cool jazz. They settled down to eat, the red-head specifically choosing to sit between Sephiroth and Cloud to deliberately scupper any chance of his friend chatting up the blond.

‘I think we’ve surpassed ourselves this time,’ Genesis declared as they finished their desserts.

‘It was certainly one of our best ones,’ agreed Angeal sitting back and rubbing his stomach appreciatively.

Genesis lounged back in his chair in contentment.

“The goddess descends from the sky
Wings of light and dark spread afar
She guides us to bliss...” he sighed, dreamily.

‘What a beautiful poem!’ said Cloud.

They all looked at him aghast.

‘Thank you, love,’ said Genesis genuinely.

‘What’s it from?’ asked Cloud.

Angeal groaned and Zack sniggered.

‘What’s it from?’ said Genesis, incredulously. ‘It’s from Loveless, of course. It’s a book, a play and soon to be a film. They did ask me to play one of the leads in the new movie but I can’t, of course, I have my duties here.’

Sephiroth rolled his eyes.

‘Are you sure you’ve never seen it?’ Genesis asked.

Cloud shrugged. ‘We didn’t have a library in Nibelheim and I’ve been too busy to read since being here. I can’t really afford to go to the theatre...’

‘I understand,’ said Genesis, sympathetically. ‘In that case, it would be my pleasure to take you to see it one evening. Say, Monday? I have my own box, it’s quite the experience.’

‘Um... sure, I’d like that’ said Cloud, shooting a glance at his new mentor, ‘as long as Sephiroth doesn’t mind me missing training for one evening.’

Under the table, Genesis pressed his thigh against Sephiroth’s and gave him a sluttish look from under auburn lashes. ‘I’m sure he won’t.’

Sephiroth gritted his teeth. ‘No, please feel free, Cloud. I’m sure Genesis could use some company. It must be so boring for him watching it on his own every evening.’

‘Funny,’ said Genesis sourly.

Angeal stood up. ‘Gen, help me make the coffee.’

Genesis followed his friend into the kitchen. As soon as they were out of sight, Angeal spun round to face him.

‘I told you to drop this thing with Strife!’ he said.

‘You heard what The Brat said, he wants to go,’ said Genesis. ‘I’m not forcing him to do anything he doesn’t want to. He thinks Loveless is beautiful!'

Angeal looked exasperated. ‘Well, don’t you dare make a move on him then!’

‘My, if I didn’t know better I’d think you were jealous,’ Genesis taunted. ‘How are you getting on with the pup anyway?’

‘There’s nothing going on between me and Zack,’ said Angeal quickly. ‘Anyway, he’s in love with some flower girl from the slums.’

‘How very dreary,’ sniffed Genesis. ‘Well, you like flowers and growing stuff, ’Geal. You’ve already got lots in common. Sounds like a possible ménage a trios to me.’

Angeal looked scandalised. ‘Sometimes I think there is something seriously wrong with you, Gen.’

Genesis just laughed.

Neither of them had heard Zack approach. ‘Why do you call Cloud The Brat?’ he asked, from the kitchen entrance.

Genesis looked slightly thrown for once, unsure how much Zack had heard of the conversation. ‘Because he was once rude to me and that’s why Seph chose him for our little ‘competition’ because he was sure I could never make Cloud like me enough to win the bet.’

At the dining table, Sephiroth found himself alone with Cloud and an uncomfortable silence. Cloud looked around the dining room awkwardly then gave him a shy smile.

Sephiroth wracked his brains for something to say. Small-talk wasn’t his forte, everyone knew that. Genesis had once given him a list of things to say in social situations in case he got stuck, which was admittedly quite often.

He cleared his throat. ‘So, Cloud, how have you been?’ he asked.

‘Since you saw me this morning?’ asked Cloud bemused.

Sephiroth blinked those unsettling green eyes. ‘Yes.’

‘I’ve been fine, thanks,’ said Cloud. ‘And thanks for the invitation tonight.’

Sephiroth nodded sagely and tried to remember the next question on Genesis’ list. ‘What do you do when you’re not in classes or training?’ he asked.

‘Like, hobbies you mean?’ asked Cloud.

‘Yes, hobbies,’ Sephiroth aknowledged.

‘I don’t really have much time for them,’ admitted Cloud. ‘But I like riding. Chocobos are lovely. I think if I hadn’t joined the military I might have bred them but it’s too cold for them in Nibelheim.’

An idea suddenly occurred to Sephiroth. He may not been keen on social events but sport was another thing entirely. He supported Midgar football team, enjoyed playing tennis and had even learned to ski. ‘The Chocobo Gold Cup is on soon. Would you like to go?’

Cloud’s eyes widened and his face spread into a captivating smile. ‘I would so love that! Yes, please!’

‘Good,’ said Sephiroth.

Another silence fell between them and they were both grateful when Zack bounced back into the room followed by Angeal and Genesis who were laden with coffees and hand-made chocolates. Afterwards, they decided to hit the Nibel punch while Genesis regaled them with hilariously indiscreet stories about the President and Scarlet. They were soon feeling the effects of the lethally strong liquor, despite their enhancements.

‘There’s a rumour Scarlet’s got her own knee pad under old man Shinra’s desk,’ declared Genesis. ‘Reno told me it needs re-upholstering, it’s so worn out. A bit like the Prez himself, actually.’

‘Gen,’ Angeal gave him a cautionary frown.

‘What?’ said Genesis. ‘Oh, Cloud will find out what this company is like sooner or later. He might as well hear it from us.’

After they had finished the punch, they settled down to watch Midgar CSI.

‘Come and sit here, Cloud,’ said Genesis, patting the seat on the sofa next to him. Cloud did as he was bid, not noticing the look of fury that Sephiroth directed at Genesis or the red-head’s superior grin in return.

Sephiroth made a point of sitting on the other side of Cloud. Angeal took the other sofa and Zack sat in the armchair opposite. Almost as soon as the titles rolled, Angeal fell asleep, snoring softly.

Throughout two entire episodes, however, Zack kept one eye on the TV and one beadily on the threesome on the sofa.

Presently, Genesis felt a gentle weight on his shoulder and glanced down to see that Cloud had dozed off, his head resting against him. Genesis gently lifted his arm and put it around Cloud’s shoulders, pulling him closer. Cloud sighed in his sleep and settled comfortably, his arm draped across the red-head’s waist.

Genesis gave Sephiroth a sly smile. ‘So,’ he murmured. ‘Now the competition begins in earnest.’

Three episodes into Midgar CSI and Zack decided he was going to turn in for the night. Quite plainly, he had no intention of leaving Cloud alone with Sephiroth and Genesis though. He walked over and gently shook the blond awake.

‘Hey Spikey, time to go,’ he said.

Cloud opened his eyes, dazed then blushed hotly when he realised he’d fallen asleep sprawled across the Red General’s lap.

‘I’m so sorry!’ he said, pushing himself in to a sitting position whilst trying not to touch any intimate parts of the Red General.

‘Think nothing of it,’ said Genesis magnanimously. ‘I’m flattered you feel comfortable enough with me to use me as a pillow.’

Feeling someone on his other side, Cloud turned to see Sephiroth , who was still sitting rigidly on the other side of him like a disgruntled maiden aunt.

Zack helped Cloud to his feet then almost shooed him out of the apartment while he was still thanking everyone for a lovely evening.

‘I’ll make you all a Nibel stew next time,’ offered Cloud as Zack practically manhandled him through the front door.

‘Oh, please don’t,’ muttered Genesis, so only Sephiroth could hear. ‘Interesting. It seems that the Pup is protective of The Brat. What do you make of that?'

‘You really should stop calling him the Brat,’ said Sephiroth.

The commotion Zack had made leaving had woken Angeal. He stood up, stretched lazily like a huge bear and followed the two younger men out and off to his own bed with a yawned, ‘See you guys tomorrow.’

Only Sephiroth and Genesis were left, amongst the colourful detritus of the dinner party.

‘That was a good evening,’ Sephiroth acknowledged.

‘I thought it went well too... for me anyway,’ Genesis gave Sephiroth a tiny wink. ‘C’mon, Crescent, I’ll help you clear up.’

‘My cleaning lady will sort that out tomorrow,’ said Sephiroth, reluctant to move after so much food.

‘Yes, I know that but I also know you,’ said Genesis. ‘You’ll do it yourself before she even turns up because you can’t stand the mess. It’ll take half the time if I help.’

Sephiroth had to smile. Genesis knew him so well. He followed his fiery friend into the kitchen and together they loaded the dishwasher, cleaned pans and padded around the kitchen together in a way that, to any outsider, would have been the epitome of domestic bliss. Hands brushed together accidentally as one washed wine glasses and handed them to the other to dry and shoulders bumped gently as they cleared the table.

Soon both dining room and kitchen were as pristine as they had been before.

‘You know, you’d make someone a lovely wife,’ murmured Genesis, giving Sephiroth’s backside a playful squeeze.

In a movement almost too fast for even Genesis to see, he found himself pinned up against the fridge, arms held in an iron grip above his head. The full weight of Sephiroth’s body, pressed hard against his, made it virtually impossible to move. Sephiroth’s mouth was almost touching his, his normally cool green gaze burning intensely.His pupils had dilated until they were almost round.

Genesis’ heart was hammering so hard he could scarcely breathe. ‘Seph...’ he began.

But he couldn’t say anymore because Sephiroth’s mouth crushed against his to become a deep and heady kiss that seemed to last forever.

‘Gaia, Seph!’ Genesis gasped as Sephiroth finally broke away and began dropping small hot kisses down his smooth neck to his collar bone whilst ripping off his shirt and flinging it on the floor.

Sephiroth shed his own T-shirt and they were bare chest against bare chest, groins pressed hard together through the fabric of trousers, eliciting a desperate moan of pleasure from the red head. Mouths joined once more, Sephiroth tugged open his belt and whipped it out of his trouser loops and flung it across the kitchen. He dropped his zip and did the same for Genesis. Now only the thin fabric of underpants separated their hardness.

‘I forgot my phs,...’Angeal’s voice suddenly rung out from the lounge. Then he saw them and stopped dead in his tracks.

Practically naked, panting and disheveled they both just stared back. Time seemed to stop then, to add to their discomfort, Genesis’ trousers chose that moment to fall to his ankles in a heap.

Angeal turned on his heel and stalked out of the apartment without a word.

For a second both Sephiroth and Genesis stayed in the same position, stunned. The damage had been done, however. Angeal’s untimely arrival had doused their ardour as effectively as a bucket of cold water.

‘Fuck, Seph!’ said Genesis, dazed. ‘What did we nearly do?’

‘I know, that was bad,’ agreed Sephiroth, stepping back to quickly zip up his jeans and search around for his T-shirt.

Genesis pulled up his trousers and found his discarded shirt hanging off one of the bar stools, then paused to admire Sephiroth's firm, perfect backside as he bent over to pick up his belt. ‘Only it wasn’t bad though was it? It was hot as Hel actually.’

‘It must never happen again,’ said Sephiroth crisply.

‘No,’ Genesis let out a sigh of barely concealed disappointment. ‘Did you see Angeal’s face though?’

Sephiroth gave up on threading his belt through his jean loops and looked at his friend’s still flushed face and slightly glazed eyes. He couldn’t help it, the corner of his mouth twitched into a grin.

And Genesis started to laugh.

Chapter Text

Cloud woke in his bed in his tiny apartment the next morning and his first thought was panic that his alarm hadn’t gone off. Then he remembered it was Sunday and stretched out blissfully in the slightly scratchy, Shinra issue bed-linen. The clock on his wall showed that it was almost 9am. He was aching all over from sparring with Sephiroth but it was a good ache. It proved he’d worked really hard.

He rolled over stiffly, with every intention of drifting back to sleep when fragments of last night’s events slowly came back to him; the fantastic food, Zack and the Generals swapping hilarious stories about the Shinra directors and other employees and remembering that Genesis had offered to take him to see a performance of Loveless. Then he groaned with shame. He’d actually fallen asleep within the first few moments of Midgar CSI, and on Genesis Rhapsodos lap of all places!

He remembered Zack shaking him awake just after midnight only to find that the red-head’s arm was around his shoulders and his arm was around the man’s slim waist. It was seriously over-familiar, bearing in mind that Genesis was a very senior officer and, even worse, that he hardly knew the man at all but the only person who seemed put out was Sephiroth.

In a rather strange display of protectiveness, Zack had then insisted on escorting Cloud back to his digs and lowering the ready-made up bed for him. Then Zack had made sure he had a glass of water by the bed and closed his curtains. In fact, thought Cloud bemused, he had just stopped short of actually tucking him in like his mother had when he was six.

Having every intention of doing absolutely nothing today, he pulled the covers over his head and settled down to doze off once more when there was a firm rap on his door. He debated ignoring it but then reasoned if it was Zack it would be fun to gossip about the night before. Wrapping the duvet around his naked body he stumbled to open the door.
What he didn’t expect was to see, however, was General Genesis Rhapsodos standing there, looking natty in a long dark navy trench coat, a pair of sunglasses perched rakishly on his head. Cloud rubbed his eyes in an attempt to focus properly.

‘Good morning, my dear,’ said the red-head, pushing straight past Cloud into the tiny apartment. Cloud closed the door and turned round to see Genesis looking about the small space in distaste.

‘You don’t have a cleaner,’ said the red-head, taking in the strewn pairs of socks, grubby T-shirts and dirty dishes piled in the sink.

‘No,’ said Cloud.

‘It wasn’t a question,’ said Genesis disparagingly. ‘This place is a health hazard. Now, what were you planning to wear when we go out tomorrow night?’

‘Um...’ Cloud clutched the traitorously slipping duvet tighter around him. ‘My uniform?’

Genesis looked horrified. ‘Don’t you have a suit of any kind?’

‘No,’ admitted Cloud.

‘As I am taking you out tomorrow, you need clothes. I want you to look like you belong with me. I do have an image to uphold, you know.’

Without asking permission, Genesis walked over to the hanging rail that served as Cloud’s wardrobe and began sifting through his few pitiful items of clothing, mostly ripped jeans, T-shirts and one pale blue checked shirt.

‘Is this all you’ve got?’ asked Genesis, not even bothering to hide the contempt in his voice.

Cloud nodded.

Genesis turned and regarded him curiously then. ‘Why are you wearing your duvet?’ he asked. ‘Oh well, I suppose it's better than most of your clothes. Anyway, get changed, I’m taking you shopping,’

Shopping with Genesis Rhapsodos was an eye-opening experience. He wasted no time in whisking a bemused Cloud to Marcel Le Jean on First Avenue who was, according to Genesis, his favourite designer. They were both plied with Champagne as Genesis plucked garments off the rails, held them up to Cloud then piled them onto the heap the already laden shop assistant was carrying. Not once did he even glance at a price tag.

For their trip to the theatre, Genesis chose Cloud a beautifully cut dark suit with a pale blue shirt to bring out the colour of his eyes. He also picked out a pair of black leather shoes with the burgundy soles shoes Cloud had so admired on the red-head the first time he’d seen him at Black Materia.

Standing in front of a long mirror in the shop, clad in his new theatre outfit, Cloud barely recognised himself. Genesis’ approving smile assured him that he looked as good as he felt.

‘I will pick you up tomorrow evening at 1930 hours,’ said Genesis, as they returned to the barracks. ‘Make sure you’re ready. I never want to see you wearing that duvet again,’ he flashed Cloud a disarming smile, ‘...unless I’m in it with you, of course.’

And with that parting shot the Red General left him holding half a dozen glossy designer shopping bags. Cloud watched as, ignoring a group of adoring fans clustered by the main gate, Genesis strode haughtily into the Shinra building like he was royalty, which in Shinra terms he probably was.

Feeling slightly whoozy from the whirlwind shopping trip and too much Champagne, Cloud walked quickly into the barracks, keen to make it back to his apartment before anyone saw him with the bags. Knowing his luck, they would probably think he’d stolen them. In fact, that was probably preferable to admitting that General Rhapsodos had bought it all for him and all the questions that would provoke.

Alas, he only made it as far as the Thirds’ common room before he came face to face with Zack. The young second seemed to spend more time on the Thirds’s floor than he did on his own lately, thought Cloud.

‘Gaia, dude,’ he said when he clapped eyes on Cloud’s bags. ‘How much did you say your pay rise was?’

‘Genesis took me shopping,’ explained Cloud. ‘So I don’t let him down tomorrow night.’

‘Hmm,’ Zack nodded slowly. ‘Cloud...do you fancy a trip to the slums? I know this great noodle bar. We can eat and have a wander round Wall Market.’

As far as Cloud was concerned the only ‘date’ he wanted was with his bed. Scratchy sheets or not, he was exhausted and slightly hung-over from the Nibelheim punch.

‘I’d like you to meet Aerith too,’ added Zack, probably sensing his reticence.

Cloud wavered but not for long. He really liked Zack and was curious to meet the girl that had apparently made such an impact on the young soldier. ‘Sure, just let me drop these bags off and we’ll go,’ he said.

Zack followed Cloud back to his apartment and while Cloud tried to drag a comb through his hair, Zack admired the Katana that Sephiroth had given him with almost religious awe. 'This must have cost a pretty penny,' said Zack. 'What are you going to call it?'

'Gen's Nemesis,' said Cloud without thinking. They both laughed.

Barely twenty minutes later they were riding the Midgar train system to Sector 6.

Getting out, they wandered slowly through the colourful crowd to Wall Market, stopping at shops and stalls to buy street food, sweets or just gaze into windows at weird and wonderful merchandise.

Presently, they reached a run-down weapons shop. In the window were small handguns, shotguns and even gunblades, alongside swords of different sizes and lengths. Most had seen better days, as the inhabitants of the slums could only afford cast-offs from the upper plate.

‘Let’s go inside,’ urged Zack.

Cloud opened the door stepped inside the shop, setting off a bell that announced their arrival.

The place was even more dilapidated than its exterior had led them to expect. Layers of dust from worm eaten ceiling beams seemed to cover almost everything and on the beaten earth floor periodic rat droppings could be seen. The air smelt stale and dry.

Finger smudged glass counters contained old military medals, bits of obsolete SOLDIER uniforms and more weapons of every type. Rows of inferior, manufactured materia orbs were on display near the till.

From behind a multi-coloured plastic fly screen emerged a man, whose dark eyes and pale sweating skin reminded Cloud of a dead fish left out of water for too long.

‘Can I help you, lads?’ he asked, wiping his nose on the back of his hand.

‘We’re just looking,’ said Zack.

The man watched them beadily. ‘SOLDIER, are you?’

‘Yeah,’ said Zack, looking around the suspended swords and guns adorning the worn walls.

‘Hmm,’ the man huffed. ‘Your type come in here and waste my time, most of you. Always looking for a bargain too.’ The man sniffed meatily. Cloud felt his stomach turn over.

‘What’s that?’ asked Cloud, pointing to a heavy tarnished blade, hanging over the door from which the man had emerged.

The shopkeeper followed his gaze. ‘Gattai Ken,’ he said.

‘What’s that?’ asked Cloud.

‘A fusion sword, very rare. It’s made up of six individual blades. Seen better days though. The guy I bought it from said he found it in the wastelands. I didn’t believe him of course, I’d say he stole it like as not.’

‘Can I see it?’ asked Cloud.

The man seemed to weigh up whether taking the sword off the wall was worth his while or not. He considered Cloud and sucked what looked like the remains of pizza out of his teeth. Then, without a word, he pulled a stepladder over then climbed up four steps to lift the sword down from its hooks. Getting off the ladder, he placed the weapon carefully on the counter.

Up close the sword looked even larger, with two long slim handles wrapped in red leather and a hand-guard. It was tarnished from lack of care and use but Cloud could see it had once been a great sword.

‘It breaks into several pieces,’ said the shopkeeper, ‘for dual wielding, if you’re into that sort of thing or just when you need either a heavier or lighter weapon.’

‘It looks like a Buster sword,’ said Zack, coming over to stand next to Cloud.

‘Looks like,’ said the man, ‘but it’s not.’ He proceeded to take the sword apart, bit by bit, blade by blade until six separate portions lay on the counter in front of them. It took time as the pieces were dirty and grated apart with lack of use. ‘This main blade is the only one with a double edge,' said the shopkeeper.

He pulled the blade in two length ways and the edges clicked apart to reveal the complex inner portions. There was a hollow blade, two back blades mirrored with a saw toothed edge and two side blades which were identical dagger-like swords.

‘This one was probably custom made as it has no discernible markings,’ said the man. He pointed to the tarnished main blade where there were only four small crudely shaped heart engravings, like they had been gouged out with a sharp knife.

Cloud reached out and traced the uneven pattern with his finger tip. The blade was cool and smooth to the touch, despite its sad condition. He picked it up. The handle settled comfortably in his palm but it was heavy. Too heavy.

‘She speaks to you, doesn’t she?’ said the man watching him steadily.

Cloud nodded.

‘It’s a pile of shit, Spike,’ said Zack.

Cloud ran his finger tips over the different pieces. Rust and dirt come off on his skin. ‘It’s not a piece of shit, it’s beautiful. I want it.’

Zack sighed. ‘How much?’ he asked the shopkeeper.

‘Ten thousand Gil.’

‘What!’ gasped Zack. ‘You’re out of your mind! It’s a rusty piece of junk! Well maybe not junk, but it’s certainly not worth anything near that! I can buy a new one for two thousand.’

‘Not like that one you can’t,’ countered the man.

‘No, mine would be all shiny and new and actually work properly,’ Zack retorted.

Cloud was still examining the blade, touching the metal almost caressingly then he smiled ruefully at the shopkeeper. ‘Thank you for showing it to me but I can’t afford it.’

‘No, of course you can’t,’ said the man, ‘but know this, it’s not often that a swordsman finds his perfect weapon. It’s like a soul mate...or a lover. You know instantly.’

Cloud watched the man put the Gattai Ken back together again and put it back on its hooks then he followed Zack out of the shop.

‘Ugh, what a creep,’ said Zack. ‘C’mon, let’s go eat.’

Zack led them to a small, rather ropey looking Wutaian noodle bar, that also looked the wrong side of hygienic. It was, however, packed and they had to queue for fifteen minutes just to get served.

‘Don’t be put off,’ Zack assured him. ‘The food is amazing!’

Paying for their order, they went outside and found a nearby low wall to perch on. The noddles were indeed amazing, as were the dumplings Cloud ordered.

‘How are you getting on with Seph and Gen?’ asked Zack through a mouthful of food.

‘Good,’ said Cloud. ‘Sephiroth is a very patient teacher and even Genesis is being nice to me. I swear he was flirting with me this morning.’

Zack propped his chopsticks in his noodle box. ‘Spike,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how to say this but, well...you’ve heard about The Bet, right?’

‘Bet?’ asked Cloud ramming a pork gyoza in his mouth. ‘What bet?’ he mumbled between chews.

‘Seph and Gen have this competition going between them... as to who can get you into bed first.’

Cloud stopped eating, his chopsticks resting on the edge of his food box, just staring at the noodles inside. ‘So that’s why they’re paying attention to me,’ he said slowly. 'And I thought it was because I showed promise.' He stood up suddenly and his noodles fell to the floor. ‘Fuck! Fuck them and Fuck Shinra!’

‘Shh, Spike!’ said Zack, standing up to try and quieten him down. ‘You can’ t say that, not even here. There are Turks everywhere!’

Cloud spun on him, his face stricken. Everything began to swirl around him and he swayed on the spot.

‘Sit down,’ said Zack, guiding him back onto the wall. ‘Breathe deeply. You’re just having a panic attack, it’s okay. I’m here.’

It took a few moments for Cloud to calm down to a point where he could coordinate his thoughts. ‘Sorry, Zack,’ he said. ‘I think it was just the shock.’

‘No prob,’ said his friend.

Cloud was quiet for a moment, just staring into the empty food box. ‘So what are the stakes for this bet?’

‘If Seph wins Gen buys him a customised Valco X26. If Gen wins, Seph gets his apartment completely redesigned by Alicia somebody.’

‘Kazan,’ muttered Cloud miserably. ‘Alicia Kazan.’ He had seen the designer’s glossy book in Sephiroth’s office. ‘I really thought they liked me, that I showed promise...that I was worth helping.’

‘You do show promise, Spike, ’ Zack assured him. ‘And they do like you, I know that for a fact.’

‘Genesis doesn’t. He calls me The Brat,’ said Cloud.

‘You heard that?’

Cloud nodded.

Zack hated what he’d caused although it was none of his fault. The look of utter betrayal on Cloud’s face cut him to the core.

‘I’m so sorry,’ said Zack genuinely. ‘I thought you should know from me before you hear it from someone else.’

Cloud felt like his world had fallen apart. ‘I just feel so bloody stupid!’

Zack didn't know what to say, so he took their empty food cartons and threw them in a nearby bin. ‘C’mon,’ he said. 'Let’s go and see Aerith. She always makes me feel better.'

In a daze, Cloud followed Zack through the maze of artificially lit streets and alleyways to Sector 5.

There, in the centre of the run-down area, was a derelict church. Zack eased open one of the large wooden doors, a few inches, the sound of its rusted hinges grating loudly along the empty street. Carefully, they squeezed through the gap.

Inside, the light was soft, shining on the broken and scuffed pews. Some of the church’s stained glass windows were broken or fallen out altogether. In its centre though, was the most unexpected sight. A large patch of delicate yellow flowers were flourishing. Beside them, a young girl in a pink dress was kneeling on the floor tending them and humming softly to herself.

She looked up as they approached. ‘Zack! You’re always so late!’ she laughed, standing up and running into his arms. He spun her round, dropping a kiss on her forehead. ‘This is my friend Cloud,’ he said putting her down at last.

‘Hello,’ she said to Cloud, extending a dainty hand for him to shake.

‘He’s in SOLDIER too,’ Zack informed her. ‘I wanted to bring him here to see you because some stuff is going down and he’s having a bit of a rough time at the moment.’ He then proceeded to explain to Aerith about the bet between the Generals.

‘That’s a very cruel thing to do to you, Cloud,’ said Aerith . ‘And these are people you call your friends, Zack? Honestly!’

‘Hey, it’s not my fault!’ Zack protested. ‘I only found out about it last night!’

‘Don’t let it get to you, Cloud’ said Aerith kindly. ‘You are special and don’t believe you’re not.’ She put her hand reassuringly on his bare arm. For a brief second her eyes widened slightly then seemed to glaze over and she spoke:

“There is no hate only joy
For you are beloved of the Goddess
Hero of the dawn, Healer of Worlds”

Then her eyes cleared suddenly and she blinked at him. Her hand dropped to her side.

‘Aer!’ Zack yelped. ‘Stop doing that creepy shit! It’s just weird.’

‘Sorry,’ said Aerith, looked fazed. ‘I don’t even know I’m doing it half the time.’ She slipped her arms around Zack's waist and hugged him again.

Cloud walked off a little way to give them privacy and gaze at the frail flowers, marveling that something so fragile could thrive in the depths of the gloomy slums.

Presently, they left Aerith in the church and started to wander back to the station via Wall Market, in silence.

‘Spike,’ said Zack, eventually, ‘I have an idea.’

‘No more food,’ pleaded Cloud. ‘My stomach feels like a football!’

Zack grinned. ‘What about you play Seph and Gen at their own game?’

‘I don’t follow,’ said Cloud.

‘String them along,’ said Zack. ‘Big bets are being laid on this. Even Rufus Shinra has put up a million Gil so they say. All you have to do is let me know who you’re going to choose and I’ll bet on them and then we’ll spit the winnings. We’ll make a fortune, especially if you pretend you like one of them more than the other!'

‘I’m not sleeping with either of them...not for a bet, or money or anything else,’ said Cloud.

'Fair enough,' said Zack. They continued to walk in silence for a moment then Zack said suddenly, ‘Follow me, I’ve got an idea.'

Cloud let Zack lead him back to Wall Market and in minutes they were standing outside the sword shop again.

‘I told you, I can’t afford it,’ repeated Cloud making to walk off but Zack caught his arm.

‘Wait,’ said his friend. ‘Remember what Reno said about revenge?’

‘Yeah, so?’

Zack gave him a wide, mischievous grin. ‘Time to have some fun of our own.’

Cloud let Zack lead him back into the shop. The shopkeeper, who was thankfully blowing his nose behind the plastic curtain this time, came out when he saw them. Oddly enough, he didn’t seem particularly surprised by their return.

‘That sword,’ began Zack, ‘the Fusion one. I’ll give you 7000 Gil for it.’

‘Zack...!’ Cloud began to protest. Neither of them had that kind of money.

The shopkeeper tucked his damp, grimy handkerchief up his even grimier sleeve and laughed hoarsely. ‘It cost me 8500.’

‘Zack, what are you doing?’ said Cloud. ‘Neither of us have that kind of money!’

‘Excuse us a moment,’ Zack said to the shopkeeper and pulled Cloud to one side out of earshot. ‘I have a new bet,’ he whispered. ‘You refuse the advances of Seph and Gen for three months and I’ll buy it for you.’

‘Why three months?’ asked Cloud mystified.

‘Because what those guys are doing to you is shitty and because they always get everything they want. It’ll be fun to see them thwarted for once.’

‘Thwarted, eh?’ said Cloud amused. ‘Big word, Lt Fair.’

‘Yeah, well, I’ve been hanging out with Angeal,’ shrugged the puppy.

Cloud considered it for a moment. ‘Okay,' he said slowly. 'I’ll do it.'

‘Great!’ said Zack, happily. ‘Now let’s go bargain with this snotty-nosed fucker.’

In the end Zack negotiated a purchase price of 9000 Gil on the Fusion sword, on the proviso that he could put down a 1000 deposit for it to be put by and pay the full amount as soon as he had the funds.

The shopkeeper took the money from Zack’s card and unhooked the sword off the wall. He wrapped it carefully and put it in a box with a copy of Zack’s receipt and scrawled SOLD on the front.

'Don't tell Sephiroth and Genesis I know about the bet, will you?' said Cloud, as they made their way to the station.

'No way, that would spoil the fun!' Zack grinned.

They returned to Shinra Tower and Zack went off to see Angeal for extra training.

Dejectedly, Cloud returned to his apartment. Closing the door, he dropped down onto the sofa and stared at the exquisite katana and the materia, both taking pride of place on his only shelf. He had been so thrilled and honoured to receive those gifts and now they seemed just a hollow gesture, part of a plan to get him into bed to win some tawdry bet.

He sighed. Was Aerith right? Was he special? He certainly didn’t feel it. As confidence blows went this was a sure nine out of ten.

Revenge, Zack had said. Play the Generals at their own game. And the reward...the amazing Fusion sword.

He allowed himself a small smile. Maybe this could be fun after all.

Chapter Text

The following evening, Cloud put the finishing touches to his appearance in his small, slightly tarnished bathroom mirror. He had taken particular care for his date with Genesis. He was newly showered and had put on the suit and shirt the red-head had bought him and even his hair looked respectable for once.

Whatever happened he must not lose sight of his objective and that was Sweet Revenge on both them for using him as the object of some sordid bet. He had lain awake most of the night before considering his options. As he could see it there were only two. The temptation to tell them both Generals to get lost was almost overpowering but then he wouldn’t get the sword and ultimately he wouldn’t put it past one of them, especially Genesis, to get him kicked out of SOLDIER on some trumped up charge. He knew enough of Genesis by now to know that he was capable of being both vengeful and ruthless.

The other option was to string the two Generals along long enough in order to win his bet with Zack for the fusion sword then hope they would lose interest and go for easier, less challenging prey. That meant being really nice to them both without being so nice that he fell for either of them and ended up in their bed, especially before the three months was up. Three months was a long time though. He would be nineteen in a couple of months; he couldn’t play the coy virgin forever.

He glanced at his alarm clock. The sickly green luminous dials showed that it was exactly 7.pm. At that precise second there was a firm rap on his door.

Cloud opened it to be confronted by Genesis, looking swish in all black; trousers and shirt, topped off with a beautiful long suede coat, lined in red silk. On his left wrist flashed an elegant platinum and diamond watch. Cloud was quickly learning that Genesis was nothing if not flashy.

‘You look fabulous, dearest,’ said the red-head approvingly.

‘That’s all thanks to you, for buying me all these great clothes,’ Cloud gave him his most winning smile. He had to be careful not to overdo the fawning in case Genesis became suspicious but the red head didn’t seem to notice, in fact he seemed pleased by his gratitude.

They left Cloud’s flat and made their way towards the lift. About halfway down the passage they came across Reno, leaning against the wall, smoking a sneaky cigarette.

‘Good evening, Slum Rat,’ said Genesis urbanely.

‘Yo, Gen-Rhap,’ countered the young Turk.

For a brief second Genesis’ eyes narrowed malevolently at the other red-head but he was clearly in too good a mood to let Reno get under his skin for once. Without a word, he stepped into the waiting lift. With a quick glance at Reno who gave him a cheeky wink, Cloud followed.

They reached the busy main reception area and Cloud tried to ignore the nudges and stares and muted gasps from Shinra staff and military personnel alike. Mortified, he realised that even more people than he guessed must know about The Bet between the two Generals. He was now seemingly famous but for all the wrong reasons. And here he was, appearing brazenly in the company of Genesis Rhapsodos, all suited up and clearly on a ‘date’. Knowing Genesis, it was probably fully his intention to parade him through reception all along rather than take the lift straight down to the car park.

Anxious to get outside as soon as possible, he hurried alongside the General who stalked ostentatiously through the crowd and out of the front doors of Shinra Tower. Outside a sleek black limousine was waiting for them at the kerbside, its engine idling. The fully liveried chauffeur got out to open the rear door and they both slid into the back seat. As it drove off, Cloud turned his head to see literally dozens of people pressed up against the windows of the reception, staring after them. If Cloud was ever in any doubt how many people actually knew about The Bet, he wasn’t anymore.

To give Genesis his due, however, he knew how to court someone. Their limousine whisked them through the busy streets of Midgar and presently they arrived at the threatre on Loveless Avenue. They were escorted immediately to a private, red velvet upholstered box with a wonderful view of the stage. Drinks were brought to them while Genesis briefly explained the plot of the play before it started. Cloud listened carefully, aware the whole time that quite a few members of the audience in the stalls had their opera glasses trained on them. He was starting to feel paranoid.

For all Genesis’ help Cloud still managed to get lost about a third of the way through the play. Nonetheless, he appreciated the prose and stunning costumes and watched it, engrossed. At half time, Champagne and canapés were brought to them, while the rest of the audience crowded into the bars below.

When the second half started, Genesis casually draped an arm around the back of his chair. Instead of moving away though, Cloud edged closer.

‘Thank you so much for bringing me here,’ he whispered.

‘You’re very welcome,’ said Genesis, pulling him even closer. ‘It’s so nice to share this with someone who appreciates it.’

Cloud’s eyes drifted back to the stage. A woman in a long dress was giving a monologue:

“There is no hate, only joy
For you are beloved by the goddess
Hero of the dawn, healer of worlds”

Cloud stiffened.

‘What’s the matter?’ whispered Genesis, sensing him tense.

‘Someone said that to me yesterday...a girl. It was a bit weird actually.’

‘Oh, and who was that?’

‘The girl that Zack is seeing,’ said Cloud. ‘Aerith.’

‘Interesting,’ said Genesis thoughtfully. ‘That would be the flower girl then, the one that Tseng is keeping an eye on. I wonder why she would quote Loveless to you...especially that verse.’

‘Why is Tseng watching her?’ asked Cloud.

‘Not sure,’ replied Genesis, not taking his eyes from the performance. ‘But it has to be important if he’s involved.’

Cloud hoped he hadn’t said too much but Genesis didn’t mention Aerith again. Presently, the play ended to a ten minute standing ovation and they left the threatre.

Genesis had booked dinner at L’Oiseau Argent, probably Midgar’s finest restaurant, which was under the glass, domed topped roof. Sadly, however no stars could be seen because of the city’s vaguely green haze of pollution but the restaurant itself positively glittered with Midgar’s wealthy and famous.

‘General Rhapsodos!’ the Maitre D greeted him reverently. ‘Wonderful to see you again. I have of course reserved your usual table.’

‘Thank you Henri,’ said Genesis. He put the palm of his hand in the middle of Cloud’s back indicating that he should follow the man and Genesis took up the rear as they walked through the packed dining room.

Heads turned and diners nudged each other as they were shown to a discreet corner booth with a great view of the rest of the restaurant.

Cloud gazed around the large dining room in wonder and tried not to gawp like the country boy he was but it was difficult. The customers were the glitterati of Midgar, and therefore Giaian, society. They ate their meals in revered silence as waiters scurried here and there with fiery flambés and delicious smelling dishes of all kinds. Thanks to Genesis shopping trip though at least he didn’t feel out of place despite the fact that other diners were casting curious glances in their direction.

‘Why does everyone keep staring at us?’ asked Cloud.

‘Because, my love, I am one of Shinra’s three elite Generals of SOLDIER and you are beautiful,’ said Genesis matter-of–factly. ‘And The Hero of the Slums, thanks to me.’

‘You nearly killed me,’ said Cloud.

‘Not at all, you were quite up to the task. Have more faith in yourself.’

The waiter brought them menus and took Genesis’ wine order.

‘The duck in plum sauce here is second to none,’ Genesis was saying, ‘but have whatever you like.’

Delicate amuse bouche were placed in front of them, so prettily decorated they were almost works of art in themselves.

‘I don’t know whether to eat it or take it home as an ornament,’ said Cloud when the waiter had gone.

Genesis grinned. ‘If you don’t eat it, I will.’

Cloud didn’t need telling twice. He tucked into the minute dish with relish.

He decided to take Genesis’ advice and ordered the duck for his main course. When it arrived, pink and luscious, it was so tender it positively melted in his mouth. He had never tasted anything like it and told the red-head that. Genesis looked genuinely pleased.

‘One of my great pleasures in life,’ said the red-head, ‘is enjoying fantastic food with people I like. Sadly Sephiroth, although one of my dearest friends, is one of those people who eats to live; I, however, live to eat...and drink great wine, of course. Give me ten years and I’ll either be thirty stone...or dead.’ He flashed Cloud a slightly rueful smile.

‘Then let’s live for the day,’ said Cloud, lifting his wine glass to toast Genesis. Their glasses clinked together.

‘I like you, Cloud,’ said the red-head. ‘We got off to an unfortunate start, totally my fault. I apologise unconditionally.’

‘That’s okay, I forgive you,’ smiled Cloud taking a sip of the heady red wine.

‘And you appreciate Loveless, which is tragically rare in this heathen city.’ He gave Cloud an almost chaste smile, which on Genesis looked as out of place as nun’s habit on a hooker.

Periodically through their meal, high ranking members of Midgar society came over to greet Genesis briefly or to discuss some matter or other but none of them stayed more than a couple of moments, as if by some pre-arranged code of etiquette. The food at L’Oiseau Argent was too good to interrupt for long.

For dessert Cloud chose a chocolate fudge brownie with salted caramel ice cream, decorated with physalis, which Genesis loudly and accurately described as ‘sex on a plate’.

After dinner they returned to Shinra Tower in the gliding silence of the limousine once more.

‘You must come up for a drink,’ said Genesis. ‘I want to show you my entire materia collection. It’s really rather amazing though I say it myself.’

Cloud tried not to quip that it was the classy equivalent of being invited up to see someone’s ‘etchings’ but he was too curious to see the red-head’s apartment to care.

They took the lift up to Genesis apartment on the 68th floor. As Sephiroth had said, Genesis’ apartment took up half of the entire floor. Opposite was another door with ‘Hewley’ printed on a name plaque. There was, however, no name plaque next to the red-head’s door.

‘I like my privacy,’ Genesis informed him, swiping his security card and letting them inside.

Cloud had always suspected it would be different to Sephiroth’s almost clinical living space but nothing had prepared him for the pure sumptuous luxury that Genesis had managed to create in the Shinra Tower.

Crystal wall lights gave a muted glow to light up the opulent sitting room. Red wallpaper covered the walls, the dark red furnishings were of the highest quality and the carpet so thick he sank an inch into it as he walked. Three big sofas were arranged around a black marble fireplace, in which a merry fire crackled in the grate. An antique coffee table took pride of place in the centre, covered in various publications of Loveless, some clearly very old, others new.

Genesis had obviously ordered an employee of some sort to light candles, put on some delicate classical music and light a fire for them. Frankly, Cloud wouldn’t put it past the red-head to actually have a butler but he couldn’t see anyone else in the apartment.

‘Wine?’ asked Genesis, taking off his coat and making his way to the coffee table where some red liquid had already been decanted into a crystal container, alongside two red crystal glasses.

‘Thanks,’ said Cloud who was getting quite a taste for it now. He slipped off his jacket and put it carefully over a chair back.

Like Sephiroth, Genesis also had a vast TV but it was on a stand in a corner. Cloud suspected it was rarely used though. There were, however, books everywhere, on tables and bookshelves – books on design, novels, history and art covered every surface and some were even stacked on the floor.

Genesis handed him a glass of wine and sat down on the largest sofa. ‘Come here,’ he murmured.

Cloud half sat, half lay down next to him, sinking deeply into the soft cushions.

Genesis pulled him close and they lay together comfortably, listening to the music, sipping their wine and making small-talk.

Presently, Genesis placed his glass on a side table then took Cloud’s and did the same. He reached up and gently brushed Cloud’s hair away from his cheek. ‘You’re so beautiful,’ he murmured. ‘I was the envy of very man and woman in that restaurant tonight. They were all staring at you....wanting you.’ He leaned forward and kissed Cloud, the lightest brush of his lips.

Cloud returned the kiss, heady and subtle. Desire burned in his belly as their kisses deepened.

Then unhurriedly, Genesis unfastened each button of his shirt, at last opening it to reveal Cloud’s chest in all its smooth, golden glory. Slowly he dropped small kisses down to a rosy pink nipple and gave it a gentle nip. Cloud’s breath hitched.

Genesis smiled knowingly. ‘I have a gift for you,’ he said. From under one of the cushions he pulled a long black box with a red bow.

‘What is it?’ asked Cloud, sitting up a fraction.

‘You won’t know unless you open it,’ said Genesis.

Carefully, Cloud unwrapped the ribbon and opened the box. It was the latest Zolex watch, the absolutely must-have luxury timepiece in fashionable circles. Its iconic gold and mother of pearl face gleamed richly in the candle light.

‘So you are never late to any of my lessons again,’ said Genesis, ‘and as an apology for sending you to clear out that Marlboro nest with no back-up. That was wrong of me.’

‘Yes, it was, ‘agreed Cloud, taking the watch out of its box and examining it. As a masterpiece of design it was simply stunning and way out of his pay grade.

‘Here, let me,’ said Genesis taking it from him and fastening it deftly around Cloud’s slim wrist.

Cloud admired it in wonder. ‘Thank you, it’s gorgeous,’ he said genuinely.

Genesis was watching him, his eyes a hazy blue, clouded with green. ‘So are you,’ he murmured.

Cloud looked up and smiled despite himself. No one had ever thought him ‘gorgeous’, not even Tifa. And even if she had, she would never had said it to him so directly.

Genesis hands were currently sliding up inside his shirt, warm and strong.

Cloud’s body gave an involuntary shudder of pleasure. This was going to be a lot harder than he imagined. Genesis, he decided, was seriously hot and why did he always have to smell so fantastic? It was not fair.

He thought of Zack’s 1000 Gil deposit on the sword. His friend would never get that money back if he failed now. Reminding himself that Genesis and Sephiroth had actually callously betted on bedding him, his resolved toughened. Time for a little fun of his own.

Cloud pushed himself up and straddled Genesis. He could feel the red-head’s hardness through the fabric of his trousers against his backside as he began to unbutton the man's shirt. Open at last, Cloud couldn’t help but admire Genesis’ impressive stomach muscles. Mako enhancements or not, this guy clearly worked out regularly and hard. Cloud leaned forward and his lips met the red-heads again. The kissed for what seemed ages until Cloud finally sat up again. By now Genesis was so hard it was like sitting on an iron bar.

In a movement of pure evilness, Cloud ground down on the man, giving his hips two slow rolls. He was rewarded by a hiss of pure pleasure from the red-head.

Cloud gave him a soft smile and leaned forward, sliding his naked chest caressingly up Genesis’ until his lips reached his ear. ‘I have to go,’ he whispered.

‘Why?’ said Genesis, his eyes opaque with lust.

‘It’s past curfew,’ Cloud pointed out. ‘I don’t want to get in trouble again.’

Genesis gave him a languorous smile. ‘I’ll clear that with your duty sergeant, don’t worry.’ He pulled Cloud gently down into another embrace. ‘Trust me,’ he whispered.

Cloud gulped. He felt himself waver, his resolve faltering.

‘Stay,’ Genesis’ lips touched his ear, his voice husky with desire. ‘I’ll give you anything you want.’

‘I don’t work for the Honeybee, you know,’ said Cloud, pretending to be offended. ‘Anyway, I don’t want to set myself apart from the other guys. It’s bad enough that they know Sephiroth is mentoring me and you are giving me private materia lessons .’

‘Do they give you trouble?’ asked Genesis, ‘because if they do you must let me know.’

‘No,’ said Cloud truthfully, ‘ but I don’t want to risk it,’

Even Genesis could see the sense in that. ‘Alright...go if you must go.’ He said but pulled Cloud down for one last, deeply sensuous kiss then let him go.

Cloud got up to go to the door and Genesis followed him. ‘See you for training tomorrow at 1730 hours,’ said the red-head.

‘Sure,’ said Cloud giving him a flirty look and went to leave but to his surprise, a shirtless, barefoot and inappropriately swollen Red General saw him to the lift. Fortunately, it was already there, its doors open. Angeal must have just returned from somewhere.

Genesis gave him a brief peck on the lips. ‘Until tomorrow.’

‘Yes,’ said Cloud and stepped into the waiting lift. He pressed the 59th floor and the doors closed. It wasn’t until he was six floors down that he dared to lean against the glass walls and he closed his eyes and let out a groan of frustrated desire. Bloody Genesis...he was lethal. One date and he’d almost succumbed. He would never win his bet with Zack at this rate. It also occurred to him that he hadn’t even seen Genesis’ famous materia collection.

Reaching the 59th floor, he stepped out and didn’t immediately noticed Reno lurking beside the water dispenser. He seemed to be doing a lot of ‘lurking’ recently, Cloud had begun to notice, and usually wherever he was. Between Reno and Zack, he was starting to feel like he was being stalked.

‘How’s things, yo?’ inquired the young Turk.

Cloud knew exactly what he was asking. The damned Turks had their noses in everything.

‘You mean have I slept with either of the Generals yet?’ said Cloud. ‘Don’t you know? I thought you had cameras everywhere.’

‘Not in the Generals’ apartments. Tseng won’t allow it,’ said Reno. ‘We’re not perverts, yo,’

‘That’s not what I’ve heard,’ retorted Cloud.

‘Oi, watch your mouth, chocobo head,’ warned Reno. ‘Or I’ll dig you a hole so deep not even your Generals will find you.’

Cloud didn’t doubt that he would for one moment. There was something about the ex-slum rat that radiated edgy, slightly psychotic danger. He debated telling him about his side bet with Zack. They seemed to be friends after all. He didn’t know how Reno felt about Sephiroth but he knew for sure that the young Turk wasn’t a particular fan of Gen-Rhap, as he called him. It might even be useful to have him on his side.

‘Can you keep a secret?’ asked Cloud.

‘I’m a Turk, you tit...it’s what we do,’ Reno rolled his eyes.

Cloud told him then, about his bet with Zack for the fusion sword. Reno laughed heartily.

‘No one must know,’ said Cloud. ‘I mean no one! Just you, me and Zack.’

‘Sure, sure, no problem,’ said the Turk, ‘those Generals are gonna be soo pissed if they find out though!’

‘Probably,’ Cloud admitted. ‘When, or if, I decide who I’m going to choose, I’ll let you know so you can put some money on it but for now nothing’s going to happen between me and the Firsts.’

Then Reno’s eagle Turk eyes caught sight of something by the line of Cloud’s collar. ‘Are you sure about that, yo?’

‘What?’ asked Cloud. He hurried to the nearest reflective surface, which happened to be the chrome borders of the glass lift.

What he saw were two red marks which, by tomorrow morning, would be oval bruises. Shit, Rhapsodos had marked him without him even realising! Seph would go spare!

He turned back to Reno who was grinning from ear to ear. ‘Good luck with hiding those. I could see if Cissnei’s got some concealer if you like, yo.’

Chapter Text

Missions permitting, every Tuesday morning Sephiroth met with his department heads of SOLDIER to get an update on training schedules, to discuss any adjustments that needed to be made or talk about any trainees that were either falling behind or way above average.

As a result he pretty much knew every SOLDIER Third or Second’s profile. He didn’t need to get personally involved in this but he felt it important. It meant that knew what to expect of each of his men if they were suddenly posted into a war zone. It was vital, if not life saving, information and he was privately pleased to note that Cloud’s sword work had improved considerably since he had been given the practice sheet. He also noticed, rather grudgingly, that Cloud’s materia wielding had come on in leaps and bounds too. If he could only get Rhapsodos to stop hogging the Third’s time, he could get in some one on one sparring practice.

This particular morning he was on his way back to his office when some rookie Thirds virtually tumbled out of a classroom, laughing and ribbing each other. Then they saw him. As usual, everyone fell into an alarmed silence whenever they came face to face with him. He really ought to work on that. Respect from his men was one thing but sheer terror was another.

Amongst them he recognised Cloud’s friends, the ones he’d handed over to the Turks briefly for punishment. There was the one with the goofy teeth, the dim surfer dude and the ex-slummer. They all jumped to attention the second they saw him.

‘Sir!’ they chorused.

‘Where is Corporal Strife?’ he asked.

‘He’s still in the classroom, Sir,’ said Goofy Teeth.

Sephiroth walked past them into the room. It instantly brought back memories and not particularly pleasant ones at that of being part of a class...of being too clever and too strong for his own good and of being an outsider because of it. Fortunately, after less than a year, Hojo argued to the President that he should be given private tuition and it was granted.

Cloud was sitting near the front with Sergeant Fellows, who seemed to be giving him extra work and a pile of books.

‘Don’t worry if you can’t get it all done,’ Fellows was saying. ‘Just do your best.’

‘What’s going on?’ asked Sephiroth.

Both Fellows and Cloud snapped to attention.

‘Corporal Strife’s first mako course is tomorrow afternoon, General,’ said sergeant Fellows. ‘He may be out of action for a day or so, so I have given him work he can do without having to come to class.’

Sephiroth’s eyes flicked to Cloud. His little chin was held upwards, his salute text book perfect. For a moment, Sephiroth was proud yet again of his student then his gaze slipped from Cloud’s face to the dark circles under his eyes and to his pale, smooth neck. Just below the collar line he could plainly see two bruises, unmistakably made by a set of very even teeth. Genesis’ teeth. He knew because he had been given a similar mark on his shoulder two nights before. He felt a sudden, uncustomary flash of anger.

He turned to Fellows, ‘Thank you, Sergeant, dismissed.’ The man left the classroom.

‘At ease, Cloud’ said Sephiroth. ‘What time are you due at the labs tomorrow?’

‘1600 hours, Sir,’ said Cloud.

‘I told you to call me Sephiroth when we’re alone,’ he said. ‘Would you like me to come with you for your shots?’

Cloud’s face lit up and he nodded. ‘I’d really appreciate that, Sir...I mean Sephiroth. Some of my friends have said it’s, well...it can be painful.’

Sephiroth nodded but said nothing. ‘Meet me this evening at 1800 hours on floor 49. We need to get some sparring in before.’

Cloud’s face fell slightly. Sephiroth knew what he was thinking; he would miss his last dinner for at least a couple of nights. Mako shots were notorious for destroying appetite and even if you could eat, it never stayed down long enough to be of any benefit.

‘Don’t worry, we can have dinner in my apartment after,’ he assured the blond.

‘Thank you but it’s just that I’ve got materia wielding with Genesis a 1730,’ said Cloud.

‘I’ll cancel it,’ said Sephiroth and with that he left the classroom and stalked back to his office.

‘Beth,’ he said to his PA, ‘get General Rhapsodos to come to my office in ten minutes.’

He knew Genesis would hate being summoned like an underling and the thought gave him a frisson of pleasure. He walked into his office, took off his leather coat and sat down at his desk. There were sheaves of paperwork that needed signing but it all swam before his eyes in a blur of meaningless words. Of all the gifts he had, one was an agile, tactician’s brain and he put it to good use in the ensuing minutes.

By the time the ten minutes was up, he’d reached a decision just as Rhapsodos practically swaggered into this office without even bothering to knock.

The red-head walked round his desk to the back of Sephiroth’s chair and put his arms over his friend’s shoulders. He leaned forward, hands sliding over Sephiroth’s bare chest and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

‘Guess what I was doing last night,’’ he murmured.

‘I know what you were doing last night,’ said Sephiroth, trying to ignore Genesis’ hands sliding over his bare skin. ‘You dragged Strife to the theatre.’

‘Mmm, and after that?’ purred Genesis, ‘I took our little Bet out for an amazing meal and we ended up making out on my couch. Get your cheque book out, Crescent, you're going to need it.’

‘Making out?’ said Sephiroth disparagingly. ‘What are you, fourteen? This has no bearing on the bet. It was quite specific...an engagement or nothing.’

‘Actually, I think it does have a bearing on the bet,’ said Genesis. ‘Because I have to say our little chocobo is pretty hot to trot... with me anyway.’

‘That’s nice,’ said Sephiroth coldly. He spun his chair around, dislodging Genesis from his position so that the Red General had no option but to let him go and stand up straight.

‘I’m sending you to Wutai,’ said Sephiroth.

‘What!’ said Genesis, shocked.

‘There’s been an insurgence in the east, nothing too serious but I need someone senior there,’ said Sephiroth.

‘You can't just send me off like that, I have duties here, not least materia wielding with Cloud this evening.’

‘I can do it, and I am,’ Sephiroth replied crisply.

Genesis’ eyes narrowed in anger. ‘That’s cheating!’ he fumed, ‘cheating and downright out of order! Just because you’re losing our bet!’

‘I am not losing,’ said Sephiroth, ‘and I don’t intend to either. You leave in one hour.’

‘Send Angeal,’ said Genesis.

‘He’s doing intense training with Fair this week.’

‘I’ll bet he is,’ said Genesis dryly.

‘You’re the best man for the job anyway,’ continued Sephiroth, ignoring the remark.

Genesis was conflicted between the flattery and the knowledge that he’d been skillfully outmaneuvered at the same time.

‘I won’t go,’ he declared.

‘Then I will have you court martialed for a refusal to obey a direct order from a superior officer,’ said Sephiroth.

Genesis seethed. The stone cold truth was that Sephiroth was his senior, albeit by a whisker, whether he liked it or not. ‘And how long is this ‘mission’?’ he inquired.

‘Just until you subdue the rebels...one week, two...a month. Whatever it takes.’

‘You...!’ for the first time in his life words failed Genesis Rhapsodos.

Sephiroth gave him a wide, almost evil grin. ‘Bastard?’ he suggested.

‘Not even close,’ said Genesis and with that he saluted ostentatiously and flounced towards the door.

‘I haven’t dismissed you yet,’ Sephiroth called after him.

Behind his back, Genesis gave his friend a two fingered salute of another kind entirely and then he was gone.

Sephiroth picked up his phone. ‘Tseng, make sure Rhapsodos gets on that flight to Wutai.’

Chapter Text

Just before lunch that afternoon, Sephiroth was graced in his office with a visit from Zack Fair, bearing an inordinate amount of reports for signing from Angeal. It was something he usually dreaded and, if he anticipated a visit from the excitable Second, would often put anything of any value in his desk drawers to avoid breakages. Today, however, the bouncy teen was a welcome sight.

‘Sit down a minute, Zack,’ said Sephiroth, indicating the chair opposite him. ‘Not on the desk!’ he snapped as Zack went to put his dusty boots up on his paperwork. ‘I need to ask you something.’

‘Fire away,’ said Zack, lowering his legs.

Sephiroth sighed. He only let Zack get away with his appalling lack of formalities in front of a senior officer because he was Angeal’s student. Otherwise, he would probably have disciplined him severely months ago.

‘As you probably know,’ said Sephiroth, ‘Cloud went on a d....an evening out with Genesis last night, which I understand was a bit of a success.’ He glanced up at Zack to see if there was a reaction but for once the young SOLDIER’s face didn’t betray anything.

‘I’m meeting Cloud this evening for training,’ Sephiroth went on, ‘but I want to take him somewhere a bit more exciting.’

‘Like what?’ asked Zack. ‘I mean, you’re not really known for being exciting. You’re known for being a great General, for being ridiculously clever and really talented and probably a bit terrifying too but you can also come across as a bit, erm....boring?

‘What do you mean?’ Sephiroth frowned.

‘I guess you work so hard, you don’t have time for much fun.’

‘No, Fair, I asked you a question. What do you mean, I’ m boring?’

Zack bit his lip. ‘Well, you don’t like socialising, not really. You don’t eat out much. You obsess about training and work, your choice of reading matter is quantum physics, you are a total neat freak and ...’

Sephiroth put his hand up to silence him. ‘Thank you for that character assassination. So, what should I do with Cloud? You’re his friend, you’re about the same age, what would you enjoy?’

Zack thought for a moment then he smiled broadly.

***

Hot, sweaty and tired, Cloud left his last class, which was an hour and a half of full on sparring, changing partners every couple of minutes. The thought that he now had to work out with Sephiroth one on one made his muscles scream in protest.

Slinging his bag over his shoulder he planned to rush back to his flat for a refreshing shower before meeting up with the General for another punishing work out.

‘Were challenging A Division to a game of water polo,’ said Danny. ‘D’you Fancy it?’

‘I can’t, I’ve got session with Sephiroth,’ said Cloud.

‘A ‘session’, eh?’ said Rabbit slyly. ‘Never heard it called that before.’

‘I have,’ muttered Jay.

All three of his friends laughed.

‘Pack it in, guys,’ said Cloud, grinning. ‘I’m sparring with my mentor, nothing more. See you for a drink in the Thirds’ bar later, eh?’ He went to walk off.

‘Give Sephy my love!’ Jay called after him, inciting more guffaws from his comrades.

Cloud laughed. ‘Piss off, you gits,’ he called over his shoulder and returned to his flat to pick up “Gen’s Nemesis” for his spar with Sephiroth. As he came out of the lift, however, he found Luxiere waiting outside his door.

‘Can I help you with something?’ asked Cloud.

‘You could,’ said the Second, ‘don’t know if you will though.’

‘Oka-y,’ said Cloud slowly. ‘And that would be?’

Luxiere looked quickly up and down the corridor to see if anyone was there then lowered his voice. ‘Who you gonna chose?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘The Generals....which one are you going to, you know....shag? Only I’ve got a bit of money on Genesis. Am I right?’

‘I don’t know yet,’ said Cloud tetchily. He was getting fed up with this. ‘Sorry, I have to go. I’ve got a lesson to go to.’

‘I know,’ said Luxiere. ‘Sephiroth asked me to tell you to meet him at the heli- pad on the roof in fifteen minutes. Here’s the code for the lift.’ He handed Cloud a piece of paper with six digits on it. ‘Enjoy,’ he said and walked off.

Fifteen minutes. Cloud let himsel into his flat, took probably the quickest shower known to man and changed into a fresh uniform. Picking up the katana, he left the flat and made his way to the heli-pad as directed.

Stepping out onto the roof of Shinra Tower was an experience in itself. It was altogether larger than Cloud had anticipated and it was so windy he had to brace himself just to stand up straight. Three helicopters were sitting on the tarmac roof. But these were nothing like the military ones he had been up in so far, which were battered, utilitarian and seated eighty or so SOLDIERS for static line jump drills.

These choppers was different altogether. They were small, maybe only large enough to take six people. All three were glossy black with the Shinra logo painted on the side. They were built for speed and Cloud guessed they were the ones the Turks used.

This was confirmed a moment later when he was approached by a man in a dark suit, his black hair pulled into a ponytail. In the centre of his forehead was a tilaka. From descriptions he had heard, the man had to be Tseng, Director of the Turks and Reno’s boss.

‘Sephiroth is waiting for you in the first chopper,’ Tseng said, pointing to the only bird whose rotor blades were moving as it ticked over.

Coud went over to the helicopter and, opening the door, climbed in. Sephiroth, who was dressed in his full battle gear and wearing a headset, was busy doing routine checks before take-off. He looked up and handed Cloud a head set to put on.

‘I thought we were sparring this evening?’ said Cloud over the noise of the engine.

‘I’m your mentor,’ said Sephiroth. ‘We train as I see fit. And this evening I want to make you familiar with the terrain around Midgar.’

‘Cool,’ said Cloud, putting on the head set. He adjusted the mouthpiece. ‘Can you even fly one of these?’ he asked.

Sephiroth gave him a steady look, a faint smile on his face. ‘Buckle up.’

Cloud fastened his seat belt and they took off quickly, sweeping extravagantly past Sephiroth’s apartment, over Midgar’s sectors and out to the scorched earth that surrounded the city.

They passed the artificial greenness of the luxurious mansions of Midgar Heights and then swung towards the sea. As they moved further away from the Iron City the sky began to clear and soon the evening sun could be seen.

Sephiroth expertly steered them close to a long deserted beach and landed just far enough away not to whip up a sandstorm.

‘Leave your sword for a moment,’ he said as they got out. They walked the short distance to the beach itself. It was completely empty, stretching for miles and miles in both directions, populated only by birds of various varieties. The sea was a little rough but a stunning jade colour. Cloud took his boots off and luxuriated in having his bare toes in the soft, warm sand. He breathed in deeply. The breeze was soft with the scent of the sea. Not since Nibelheim had he inhaled such fresh air.

‘It’s beautiful!’ he sighed.

‘The sea is too polluted to swim here sadly,’ Sephiroth explained. ‘But I come here sometimes when I need to get away. I find it calming.’

Cloud looked behind them. Midgar was far enough away that all that could be seen of it was a greenish-gray a haze of pollution.

‘Come on,’ said Sephiroth. Cloud dragged on his boots, followed his mentor back into the chopper and they took off once more.

This time Sephiroth flew slightly inland to a rocky desert area and landed again. It was a wide open space, surrounded by rocky outcrops and little if no vegetation.

‘This is where we’ll spar,’ said the Silver General.

And spar they did until Cloud was so exhausted he could barely pick up his sword without his arm trembling.

‘Enough for today,’ said Sephiroth at last. ‘You’ve done very well – good steady improvement. You’ll find you will be a lot faster and stronger after your mako shots too. Hungry?’

‘Starving,’ admitted Cloud.

‘Then well find somewhere to eat,’ said Sephiroth, walking back to the helicopter.

The sun was sinking slowly now as Cloud climbed back in and they took off once more. He was expecting to head straight back to Midgar for dinner but instead Sephiroth flew towards the rocks and up to a high plateau which was large enough to land on.

They climbed out once more and Sephiroth brought a picnic basket and a thick ground sheet out from the back seats. They walked to the cliff edge where he spread out the sheet and they sat down.

Sephiroth opened the picnic basket to reveal chilled beers and a positive feast of food - crusty bread, ham, cheese, pasta salads, eggs, small meat pies and even some sushi. He took off his long leather coat and dropped it on the ground sheet.

They sat, their legs dangling over the edge of the precipice, eating their way through the picnic in companionable silence. It was strange, he didn’t feel he needed to make constant trivial conversation with the Silver General. Out here, in the deserted wastelands it was enough to just enjoy the freedom and silence away from the city. Sephiroth obviously felt the same. It was the first time Cloud had seen the man anything resembling relaxed.

After, they lay back, side by side and watched the sun making its way slowly towards the horizon.

‘How was it for you in Nibelheim, growing up?’ asked Sephiroth at last.

‘Not good,’ Cloud admitted.

‘I was born there,’ said Sephiroth. ‘In the Shinra mansion, the one on the hill.’

Cloud knew it only too well. A large gloomy house, high up on a hillside that dominated the town; even the bravest of the town kids wouldn’t venture in there. Rumours still persisted that the place was haunted by a vampire.

‘I couldn’t wait to get out of that place,’ Cloud confessed. ‘My father left before I was born and the village folk in Nibelheim don’t take very well to single mothers. The other kids...well, they just parrot what their parents say, I guess. I won’t tell you what they called me but it wasn’t nice.’

‘I was never bullied,’ said Sephiroth, ‘but I was always an outsider. I had to make my way up the SOLDIER ranks as you will. I was good and I rose very quickly so I was ostracized by my classmates.’

‘When did you move to Midgar?’ he asked.

‘I was about two, I think. They moved the whole science department out of the mansion.’

‘And they took you?’ asked Cloud confused. ‘What about your parents?’

‘All I’ve been told is that my mother is dead and her name was Jenova. I have no idea who my father is, or even if he’s still alive.’

‘Who brought you up?’

‘Hojo.’

‘Professor Hojo, the scientist? The guy I’m seeing tomorrow? ‘asked Cloud.

Sephiroth nodded.

‘Where did you live, I mean if your mum was dead and you don’t know your father?’

‘Live?’ Sephiroth frowned as though the idea had not really occurred to him before. ‘I had rooms in the lab.’

Cloud couldn’t believe what he was hearing. ‘You lived in a laboratory?’ He leant up on one elbow to look at the man beside him.

‘It was nice enough,’ said Sephiroth. ‘I was well taken care of. I had private tutors and trainers and plenty of books to read. I was being groomed become General of the army from a young age. There was no time for frivolity.’

Cloud just stared at him. ‘You had friends though, right?’

Sephiroth considered it. ‘No, not until Gen and Angeal came along. They were the only ones who came even close to being like me, who understood me.’

And Cloud had thought that he’d had a weird childhood. And then he felt what he thought he never would – he felt sorry for Sephiroth, the Silver General of Shinra, The Demon of Wutai. He was nothing more than a human attack dog and as much as he was paid, he was no more than a slave to the company he served. Slowly he was getting a glimpse of what made Sephiroth tick. A lonely child, considered a freak for his strength, intelligence and unusual looks. Hardly surprising he lacked certain social skills. No one had ever bothered to teach him differently. He guessed that idle conversation wasn’t exactly needed when you were slicing your way through enemies on a battlefield.

The General was staring up at the scudding clouds with no particular expression on his face but Cloud was struck suddenly by how truly beautiful he actually was. At that moment he looked anything but the savage Demon of Wutai and more like an angel. His faultless profile looked as though it had been perfectly and delicately cut from stone. He must have been a very pretty child too. How anyone could not have shown him any love made Cloud’s blood boil. At least he’d had his ma.

He lay back down again. ‘How you feel about Genesis and Angeal, that’s how I feel about Zack,’ he confessed.

‘Zack is protective of you,’ said Sephiroth. ‘He is a good friend.’

‘I know.’ Cloud was thoughtful. ‘Seph...I mean, Sephiroth, what happens if I have an adverse reaction to the mako shots tomorrow? Will I be thrown out of SOLDIER?’

‘We’ll worry about if it happens,’ said Sephiroth. Suddenly he sat up and nudged Cloud. ‘This is it,’ he said.

Cloud propped himself up on his elbows and gasped as they watched the as the sun slowly lowered into the sea, first a circle of bright yellow, then a ball of almost blinding, burning orange, finally turning the sea silver as it sank out of view, leaving them in total darkness.

Sephiroth must have been prepared though because from his bag, he pulled out a powerful LED light and switched it on.

‘We’d better get back,’ he said.

***

Cloud parted company with Sephiroth on the heli-pad and made his way downstairs to join Danny, Rabbit and Jay in the Thirds’ common room for a few games of pool. After two orange juices, because he wasn’t allowed to drink alcohol before his mako shots, Cloud left with his friends and they wandered back to their separate flats. They parted company beside their respective doors and Cloud, being the furthest flung of the rooms, wandered down the corridor on his own to his minuscule room.

He let himself in and was just about to lower his bed from the wall when his phs pinged an in-coming message. It was a text from Genesis.

“Sorry about missing training with you this evening, dearest. I had to go to Wutui suddenly to suppress an insurgence. Just arrived. Hammering with rain. Gaia awful place! Good luck with your shots tomorrow, love, wish I was there for you. Let me know how you get on. Thinking of you. G xx”

Cloud smiled and typed back. “Thank you, will do. Good luck with your mission X.” He was about to press send but then stopped. Why was he smiling at his phs like an idiot. Genesis was part of The Bet...that rotten Bet between the two Generals that was both demeaning, disrespectful and downright heartless. Keep them dangling, he said to himself, keep them wanting. Steeling himself, he deleted Genesis’ message without answering it and lowered the bed. He was about to go and brush his teeth when there was a knock on his door.

He opened it to find Zack standing on his doorstep, holding up a four pack of beer. ‘I know you can’t drink before your mako shots but these are for me. I’ve come to wish you luck...and watch the latest episode of Midgar CSI.’

He gave Cloud such a beaming smile that he couldn’t resist. He closed the door behind Zack and poured him a beer then found an unopened packet of potato chips in his kitchen cupboard. Turning on the TV, they settled on the small couch together and Zack proceeded to tell him what to expect of the next day’s procedure.

‘It’s not too bad,’ said the Second, ‘you’ll probably feel a bit queasy for a few hours. Just use it as an excuse to stay in bed and watch TV. Do you want me to come with you?’ he offered.

‘Thanks but Sephiroth’s coming with me,’ said Cloud.

‘He is?’ Zack looked almost shocked. ‘Wow, I never thought he’d set foot in that place voluntarily.’

Cloud shrugged. ‘He told me he lived there as a child, which is weird.’

‘Yeah, really weird,’ agreed Zack. ‘I tell you what though, him agreeing to go down to the labs with you is as big a sacrifice as he would make for anyone. He literally hates it down there.’

‘Why?’

‘I can’t really tell you all the details because it would be betraying a confidence,’ said Zack, taking a gulp of his beer, ‘I only know because Angeal told me once when he was drunk...how Seph was brought up. What those so-called scientists did to him down there, when he was a kid.’

Cloud remembered Sephiroth’s sad story when he had told him that he hadn’t even had any friends growing up until he was introduced to Genesis and Angeal at the age of seventeen during the Wutai war.

‘You can’t leave it like that!’ protested Cloud. ‘You’ve got to tell me now.’

Zack glanced down at his glass, as though debating whether to tell him or not. ‘Keep this to yourself, right, but the Shinra scientists, Hojo in particular, wanted to breed a super soldier at any price. They chose Sephiroth, for whatever reason, probably because he was an orphan. They operated on him, they pumped his system full of shit and chemicals, they made him train for ten hours a day, they made him fight monsters in a cage so he either killed or was killed.’

Appalled, Cloud could think of nothing to say.

‘I shouldn’t be defending him,’ Zack sighed, ‘because he’s part of this stupid Bet thing but I like Seph and I know that it’s not his fault the way he is...it’s because for most of his early life all he knew was pain, fear and loneliness. He’s damaged in a way no person should ever be. Oh, he seems okay on gourmet nights but deep down he’s so full of rage and betrayal that there’s a chance that he could snap at any moment and when he does, who knows what he could do.’

After another beer and another episode of Midgar CSI, Zack left and Cloud lay down on his hard, scratchy bed but for a long time he couldn’t sleep. All he could think of was Sephiroth, living in the labs and being ruthlessly and emotionlessly trained to become a killer by people whose only concern for him was to create the perfect Super SOLDIER. His heart clenched with sadness for the man whose childhood had known only violence and coldness.

Chapter Text

After a scrappy night’s sleep and three classes the next day, Cloud made his way down to the labs in the subterranean basement of Shinra Tower with a feeling of dread.

He stepped out of the lift at a floor marked L1 Zero and into what appeared to be another world. For a start, everything was white, brightly lit and as minimalist as a space station. Long corridors spread out in eight different directions around a central reception area, in a direct echo of above-ground Midgar. Dozens of doors lined the corridors, all were shut and all looked specially enforced to contain Shiva only knew what. The place had to be seriously sound-proofed though. Not one sound could be heard except the occasional swish of an electrical door opening and closing again.

To Cloud’s relief Sephiroth was already there waiting for him, a rigid expression on his face, once more in full battle gear, the masamune strapped his back. Cloud couldn’t decide if the General looked simply intimidating or utterly petrifying. By the reaction of the various science department staff though, he decided it was probably the latter. They scuttled around him, giving as wide a berth as they could as they went about their duties.

‘Are you alright?’ asked Sephiroth, when he saw him.

‘Yeah, fine, thanks,’ said Cloud smiling at his mentor with a confidence he didn’t feel. ‘Thank you for yesterday, it was amazing!’

‘Glad you enjoyed it,’ said Sephiroth. ‘And don’t worry, this will be over soon, then you’re allowed to take a couple of days off.’

‘I am?’

‘I will insist on it,’ Sephiroth gave him the ghost of a smile.

A man in a white coat, whose name badge declared that his name was Dr Evans, came over and ordered Cloud to change into scrubs behind a curtain. He was then led down one of the corridors to the left, with Sephiroth following close behind, to one of the doors and into a small white room. Inside there was nothing except some monitoring equipment and an examination bed. On a stainless steel trolley beside the bed some syringes full of bright green substance were laid out in a neat row. In the centre of the white tiled floor was a drain. Cloud didn’t want to know what that was for but he could guess. The room smelt strongly of antiseptic and bleach.

‘Please sit down on the bed,’ Dr Evans said. ‘The professor will be here in a moment.’

Cloud did as he was told. He glanced at Sephiroth who returned his look grimly. After what Zack had told him the night before, he felt really bad about bringing the man down here, to a place that clearly held horrific memories. He took a deep breath and sat on the bed, swinging one leg to a fro in a nervous twitch.

‘I’m so glad you’re here,’ he almost whispered to Sephiroth.

‘No problem,’ he replied. ‘Just try and relax.’

The door swished open and a tall, whiplash-slim man with long black hair pulled into a ponytail, stalked in. Cloud knew instantly that he must be Hojo from descriptions he had heard and also the sudden feeling of tension radiating from Sephiroth. The Professor totally ignored Cloud and turned to Dr Evans. ‘Who is this?’ he said, taking Cloud’s file from his assistant.

‘Cloud Strife, Professor. SOLDIER Third Class, here for his first course.’

‘Hmm,’ Hojo flicked through the file quickly. ‘From Nibelheim, I see.’ He still hadn’t even looked at Cloud. He handed the file back to his assistant. ‘150 cc’s I think to start. We’ll take it from there.’

It wasn’t until Hojo turned around that he spotted Sephiroth standing discreetly by the door.

‘Why are you here, Sephiroth?’ said Hojo, coldly.

‘Just keeping an eye on my student,’ said Sephiroth, his tone even. ‘I know how you tend to get...carried away.’

Hojo glared at him. Cloud had a feeling he wanted to order Sephiroth out but didn’t. Was that fear, he saw in the Professor’s face? He couldn’t be sure but Sephiroth certainly looked like Hel incarnate in his battle leathers, a rigidly fixed expression on his face. It was easy to overlook how beautiful he was when he looked like he was about to slice someone in half, mused Cloud.

Hojo walked over to Cloud and wrapped a strap around his upper arm. Up close, Cloud noticed that he had the coldest, blackest eyes, totally devoid of expression.

‘Syringe,’ Hojo demanded of his assistant. Dr Evans picked up one of the syringes and after checking for air bubbles, handed it to the professor.

Hojo took it, slapped Cloud’s vein a couple of times and pushed the rather thick needle into his skin. Cloud winced and gritted his teeth as the burning sensation spread quickly through his veins. He was waiting for the agony that his friends had complained of but none came. Slowly the burning subsided a little. He felt a little shaky but apart from that, not too bad.

Sephiroth was watching him intently. ‘You alright?’ he asked.

Hojo spun on him. ‘If you insist on being here, Sephiroth, I’ll ask that you refrain from interfering!’ He turned back to the bleeping monitoring screen beside Cloud. ‘Interesting,’ he mumbled. He flipped open Cloud’s file again. ‘We’ll try another 150.’

‘Why are you doubling it?,’ said Sephiroth, his tone low and threatening . '150 is the recommended dose for first timers.'

‘Don’t tell me what to do in my own laboratory, ‘General’ and I won’t tell you what to do on the battlefield!’ snapped Hojo. 'This SOLDIER is from Nibelheim, he has a resistance to the normal dose.'

Cloud shot a nervous look at Sephiroth but he didn’t respond. Instead the General was watching Hojo’s back with a look that could have set a Behemouth on fire from fifty paces, fingers twitching as though he wanted nothing more than to grab the masamune and drive it neatly through the scientist’s bony frame.

Hojo took another syringe from Dr Evans and repeated the procedure, sticking another thick needle into Cloud’s arm.

This time the feeling was completely different. Almost instantly, Cloud felt like his entire body was on fire from the inside out. He felt the blood literally drain from his face, he shuddered uncontrollably then he let out a cry of pure agony and fell backwards, eyes rolling back in his head.

He would have hit the wall behind but he felt strong hands catch him just in time. Then he felt someone scoop him up into powerful arms, bridal fashion and caught the smell of expensive leather.

‘What are you doing?’ he heard Hojo demand.

‘Taking him with me,’ Sephiroth responded. ‘I’ll look after him now.’

‘You’re not taking him anywhere, he needs to stay here for tests,’ the scientist was almost shouting. ‘His reaction is abnormal and as a member of SOLDIER he is the property of Shinra and consequently the science department. You are contravening company policy!’

‘So arrest me,’ said Sephiroth and stormed out of the lab, scattering assistants and scientists alike, still carrying a semi-conscious Cloud. He took the blond to the lift and up the 75 floors to his apartment.

Kicking the doors open, he took Cloud upstairs and laid him on the bed in the largest of his spare bedrooms. By now the young SOLDIER's body was shaking uncontrollably. Sephiroth put a hand on his forehead. The teen’s temperature was up, too high in his opinion. He fetched ice and water from the kitchen and some face cloths. He soaked one in the water pushing cloud’s damp hair off his flushed face, he gently wiped the blond’s forehead and scalding cheeks. He put the air conditioning on and fetched a bucket in case his patient wanted to throw up and couldn’t make it to the en-suite bathroom in time. Very slowly Cloud's shuddering seemed to subside.

There was really not much else he could do for the moment so he sat down on the edge of the bed and watched Cloud sleeping like he was dead to the world. He reached out and took hold of one of Cloud’s hot hands, so small against his own.

‘It’s ok,’ he murmured. ‘You’ll be ok. I’m here.’

Cloud didn’t react. Sephiroth knew it was a bad time to leave anyone in this condition on their own so he shrugged off his battle coat and lay down on the bed beside him. For a moment he just watched Cloud sleeping then he pulled his phs out of his pocket and pressed a quick dial number.

‘Beth, cancel all my appointments for the rest of the day.’ He hung up and looked back at Cloud. The teens face, now devoid of expression, looked almost childlike in sleep. Thick blond lashes, damp from tears of pain, fanned out on his still slightly flushed cheeks, his full mouth faintly turned down at the corners in misery.

It was just supposed to be a bet, a silly competition between him and Genesis. Now he had real and strange feelings for the young SOLDIER, lying for all the world as if he were dead, in his spare bedroom. The earlier sight of him with Hojo leaning over him like a malevolent vulture was more than he’d been able to stand. Memories so traumatic he could barely think of them had come flooding back. No one had protected him but he would do everything he could to protect Cloud from the fate he himself had suffered.

No doubt Hojo would exact some gruesome revenge on him for whisking Cloud away from under his nose but he’d worry about that when it happened. He certainly wasn’t going to leave Cloud in the labs to be filled full of more suspect chemicals in the name of scientific progress.

Sephiroth let out a deep sigh and picked up his phs once more. For the first time in his life he felt uncertain as to what to do. He punched out another speed dial number. ‘Hi, Angeal... I need to talk.’

***

Cloud slowly drifted into consciousness aware of three things. One, he was naked. Secondly he was not in his own bed; the sheets were far too soft and well-ironed. Thirdly was that he could hear gentle breathing close by and that wasn’t his either. He propped himself up on his elbows with a groan of discomfort. Beside him Sephiroth was lying fast asleep, still in his clothes but not his leathers, just a pair of jeans and a baggyT-shirt.

His movement must have disturbed the General though because those strange green eyes flickered open and focused on him. His first thought was that Sephiroth looked exhausted. Dark circles underscored his eyes and he looked like he’d lost weight.

‘How do you feel?’ Sephiroth asked.

‘Not sure,’ Cloud frowned. ‘My head feels like it might fall off any minute...but I think I’m a bit better. I was really out of it. How did I end up here?’

‘I carried you back,’ said Sephiroth, getting off the bed and stretching. ‘You’ve had a really high fever for two days. I had to keep putting you in a bath of cool water to bring your temperature down.’

That explained why he was naked anyway. ‘Thank you,’ said Cloud. He tried to sit up further but Sephiroth leaned across the bed and pushed him back down gently. ‘Rest.’

‘Have you been here all this time?’ asked Cloud.

‘When I could be but when I got called away Angeal or Zack took over watching you. Do you feel up to keeping some food down?’

‘I can try,’ said Cloud. His stomach felt tender like he’d been kicked by a chocobo but he could feel the vague rumblings of hunger too.

‘I’ll make some soup,’ said Sephiroth and went downstairs.

Cloud lay back and examined the serenely sleek bedroom. All decorated in soft pale and dark greys, it was both restful and soothing.

He looked around for his phs. It was on the bedside table, alongside various medicines. He picked it up to find about twenty messages from his friends, wondering where he was and if he was alright. There were also four messages from Genesis. He skipped straight to them.

“Turns out the rebellion isn’t as bad as we thought and only in a very small affected area. Already managed to kill the rebel leader’s sic so hopefully it will be cleared up soon. This place is a shithole...can’t wait to come back and see you. G xx.”

“I just heard about your mako shots from Seph. Poor angel, are you okay? G xx.”

“Sweetheart, I’m worried about you, call me. G xx.”

“Seph says you’re being looked after well. I’ll be back soon. Don’t worry about replying if you’re not up to it. Miss you, baby. Gxx”

Cloud found himself once again smiling inanely at the phone. Good grief! What was happening to him? The realisation that he missed the flamboyant red-head too was not a good one. Sephiroth was being so sweet to him too it made him ashamed that he craved Genesis’ hot kisses and expert touch. To make it worse, his treacherous body was doing all sorts of weird things the more he thought about the Red General.

He was about to type back, “I miss you too,” when he heard voices downstairs. He closed his phs quickly and put it back on the side table.

It was Zack; he would recognise his voice anywhere, although he was surprised he could hear it so clearly. Zack was downstairs, probably in the kitchen. Strange.

‘How is he?’ Zack was asking.

‘Better,’ said Sephiroth, stirring something liquid. ‘He’s lucid at least.’

‘I was really worried,’ said Zack. ‘Will it affect his chances of staying in SOLDIER?’

‘I don’t know yet,’ he heard Sephiroth reply, ' but as Hojo gave him double the dose so, no...I don't think it will affect anything.'

A moment later Zack came bounding up the wooden spiral staircase and into the bedroom.

‘Man, are you OK? You were so out of it,’ said the Second, perching on the edge of the bed.

‘Was I that bad?’ asked Cloud.

‘Hel, yeah, one of the worst I’ve seen! We were worried you wouldn’t make it!’

‘Zack!’ Sephiroth admonished, coming up with a bowl of chicken soup and a glass of water. He shooed Zack off the bed and put the tray down in front of Cloud then he propped him up into a sitting position with pillows. ‘Only eat what you can manage,’ he advised. ‘And if you want to be sick just let me know, the bathroom’s just there.’

Cloud nodded and picked up the spoon in slightly shaking fingers. Almost immediately, it bent practically double. ‘What the Hel!’ he gasped.

Zack laughed. ‘Looks like your shots worked anyway.’

‘Woah, am I really that strong?’ said Cloud in wonder, looking around for something else to pick up.

‘Just eat your soup,’ said Sephiroth quickly, clearly concerned for the well-being of his furnishings.

Cloud managed to finish his food, albeit slowly. Even better, it showed no immediate signs of making a reappearance either.

‘Get some sleep now,’ said Sephiroth, pulling the covers back over Cloud.

‘I feel so much better for that,’ said Cloud. ‘I can go back to my flat, really. I’ve put you out enough.’

‘Absolutely not,’ said Sephiroth. ‘If you do that you’ll only relapse. Zack, out,’ he ordered.

The Second left reluctantly, followed by Sephiroth. At the door, the First turned back.

‘Sleep,’ he said to Cloud, ‘or you won’t be well enough to go to the Chocobo Gold Cup on Sunday and I’ll have to take Zack instead,’ Sephiroth grimaced.

Cloud laughed and gave a feeble salute. ‘Yessir!’

When Sephiroth had closed the door behind him, Cloud picked up his phs again. The screen still showed Genesis’ thread of messages. Telling himself he was only doing this as part of his plan to torment the Generals, Cloud typed back, “Miss you too X” and pressed ‘send’.

Chapter Text

By the following morning Cloud had already recovered enough to get out of bed, take a long hot bath and totter downstairs in one of Sephiroth’s ludicrously long bathrobes to find Zack cooking them both huge cheeseburgers and cheesy fries. The previously immaculate, space-age kitchen looked someone had held a food fight in it. Sephiroth, Cloud reasoned, would probably either pass out or kill something when he saw it.

‘Seph’s got a long meeting this morning so Angeal has given me the day off,’ said Zack, ‘so we can just eat and veg out.’

Taking their food, they settled down on one of Sephiroth’s sofas to watch the opening ceremony of the Gaia Olympics. Of course, all of SOLDIER were barred from competing because of their enhancements but it still made for fun watching.

‘So, you’re ok now?’ asked Zack, watching Cloud tucking into his food with relish.

‘I feel great,’ he said, his mouth full of burger. ‘Amazing actually...or maybe you’re just a really good cook.’

Zack looked chuffed at the compliment. ‘Yeah, junk food I’m ok at...Gourmet Night is still a bit of a challenge though.’

‘Then maybe we should have a Gourmet Junk Food Night,’ suggested Cloud.

Zack just laughed. ‘Oh yeah, I can see Genesis agreeing to that one! His idea of junk food is a filet steak without ‘jus’!’

They both laughed.

‘How you getting on with Seph and Gen, anyway?’ asked Zack, squirting ketchup on the remains of his burger.

‘Alright...good actually. Everyone says Sephiroth is emotionally stunted,’ said Cloud, ‘but he’s not, he’s just wary and has trust issues. I think he’s shy too, in his weird way.’

‘Weird is accurate,’ said Zack, with feeling.

‘I like weird,’ Cloud admitted. ‘He’s like me in many ways. Two weirdo, geeky outsiders together.’

Zack was watching him beadily. ‘You like him, don’t you?’

Cloud tried not to blush and failed. ‘Maybe,’ he admitted.

‘Just remember the sword,’ Zack grinned. ‘I’ve already spent a grand on that rusty bit of crap so you mustn’t lose the bet. What about Gen?’

‘Oh, Genesis is just...’ Cloud paused, searching for the right words. ‘Hot as fuck.’

Zack burst out laughing, nearly spitting his mouthful of burger out.

‘I’m struggling to keep up my side of our bargain to be honest,’ said Cloud. ‘He does this great thing with his...’

‘Stop...please!’ Zack begged. ‘Do not want to know.’

‘Tongue,’ Cloud sniggered.

‘Not listening!’ squeaked Zack, covering his ears. ‘Oh look, ol pa Shinra is opening the ceremony!’ On the screen an old, overweight and slightly doddery man was being helped to a podium. He gave a rather vague speech about it not being the winning but the taking part that mattered, then switched on some flaming torches, which heralded the start of the games.

‘Gaia, he can hardly string a sentence together,’ said Cloud in dismay. This man ran Shinra and therefore more or less the whole world as they knew it.

‘Thank Ifrit Rufus more or less runs the company now,’ said Zack with feeling. ‘Fancy another burger?’

Cloud did.

***

The day of the Chocobo Gold Cup dawned bright and hazily sunny by Midgar standards. The whole of Shinra Tower was a hotbed of excitement and betting frenzy. Cloud was relieved that, for once, the betting and speculation didn’t involve him, Sephiroth and Genesis.

He had moved back to his flat the night before because he didn’t want to be any more of a burden to the General than he already had been. That morning though, he had text Sephiroth.

‘What should I wear to the races?’

‘Something smart,’ came the reply.

Well that wasn’t really helpful, thought Cloud, but it wasn’t like he could ask Genesis for advice because he was still in Wutai so he chose the suit the red-head had given him but discarded the more formal shirt in favour of a black T-shirt. He picked up some black sunglasses and put on his new watch. In fairness he looked like a gangster but a successful one and he felt the look was perfect for going out with Sephiroth. He was dressed and ready by the time his mentor arrived to pick him up just before midday, wearing a stylish black linen suit, his silver-white hair tied loosely back.

Sephiroth did a double take when he saw him. ‘Have you joined Don Corneo’s gang?’ then he smiled in that minimalist way he had. ‘Only joking, you look good.’

The left Cloud’s flat and made their way down to Shinra’s subterranean car park using another private lift.

‘Nice watch,’ said Sephiroth, as they descended.

‘It was a gift from...’

‘Genesis,’ put in Sephiroth. ‘Figures. And what did you have to do for that?’

Was that jealousy Cloud detected in the other man? Surely not. Also he resented the implication that he’d ‘worked’ for the watch in some way.

‘It was a gift to say sorry for sending me on that Marlboro mission on my own,’ said Cloud defensively. ‘Nothing more.’

‘Glad to hear it,’ said Sephiroth crisply. ‘And before I forget, here is something for you.’ From his pocket he pulled out two swipe cards and handed them to Cloud. ‘One is for my apartment in case you ever need to let yourself in and the other is for your new flat. One became free on the Seconds’ floor so I pulled rank. It’s much nicer than the one you’re currently in and you’ll only be one door away from Zack. Actually, I’m not altogether sure if that’s a good thing...’ he frowned and Cloud had to laugh.

‘Thank you,’ he said genuinely. ‘This is a better present than you’ll ever know. My current sheets practically take my skin off every time I turn over.’

‘I know,’ said Sephiroth. ‘I’ve been there too, remember? After the Thirds’ living quarters, the Seconds’ were like a five star hotel.’

Cloud already knew that. He’d been in Zack’s apartment a couple of times, enough to know that it had a separate double bedroom, a bath as well as a shower and a decent sized lounge. The Seconds also had Shinra supplied shampoo, towels and half decent bed linen.

They reached the basement and stepped out of the lift and into the car park.

Parked next to Sephiroth’s black tank of an SUV was the latest Valco X26, in metallic electric blue. Sephiroth pressed a button on a small key and the car’s doors unlocked with a soft bleep.

‘Is this yours?’ gasped Cloud. He’d only seen photographs of the car in glossy magazines and as far as he knew, this one was still the only one in existence.

‘It was given to me,’ said Sephiroth matter of factly.

‘For free?’ Cloud gaped at the car, wide eyed.

Sephiroth smiled faintly. ‘Nothing’s ever free. They gave it to me, hoping that I will use it and, in doing so, promote it. Today seems as good a day as any.’

Cloud soon found out that Sephiroth didn’t exactly drive, more like he raced every other vehicle on the road at full throttle, jumped red lights and weaved between the traffic like he was skiing a slalom course. Very soon they were out in the suburbs and then shooting down the motorway out of Midgar.

The chocobo racetrack was situated north on some wide open planes. It stood, looming out of the desert lands, a vast amphitheater with thousands of seats. The multicoloured flags of all the nations of Gaia flapped around its tall walls. A queue of people, already several hundred metres long had begun to form under the lukewarm desert sun, waiting to be admitted.

TV stations were out in force, as were reporters, interviewing members of the crowd and filming minor celebrity guests as they arrived.

The approach of the Valco, however, caused a near stampede of press to try and get photos of whoever was inside. Thankfully, the car’s blacked-out windows made that impossible, plus the fact that Sephiroth put his foot down hard on the accelerator and screeched the car through them all, making press and cameramen alike leap out of his way in fear for their lives. He pulled the car deftly into the VIP area at the side of the stadium, past armed security guards and into the safety of the underground private car park.

They were immediately greeted by stewards and shown straight into the building to the VIP enclosure. Here, the glamorous and wealthy members of Midgar society rubbed shoulders with models, actors, professional gamblers and their flashy girlfriends.

If Cloud had thought being seen in public with Genesis was high-profile, being with Sephiroth was like going out with a rock star. The man was accosted at every turn by people who shelved their natural fear of him temporarily to greet him or ask him vacuous questions. He barely replied though and walked away as quickly as he could, his expression grim. As a fellow introvert, Cloud could only sympathise with him.

‘Let’s get a drink,’ suggested Cloud.

‘Good idea,’ said Sephiroth, making his way to the bar. He was just about to order them a bottle of champagne when there was a stir over by the main doors. Whoever the new arrival was, they were instantly swamped by the fawning crowd.

It wasn’t until the crowd cleared slightly that Cloud saw it was Vice President Rufus Shinra, accompanied by Director Tseng, looking immaculate in his dark suit as usual. The young VP greeted a few more dignitaries then made his way over to them.

‘I hear you came in the Valco today, Sephiroth,’ said Rufus. ‘I’ve ordered one myself in white. How do find the drive?’

‘Fast,’ said Sephiorth.

‘Yes, I’ve remember that about your driving,’ Rufus turned to Cloud. ‘Hello...?’ he began.

‘Cloud Strife,’ supplied Sephiroth.

‘Of course,’ smiled Rufus. ‘My brave young Corporal, the Saviour of Midgar,’ he extended his hand to shake Cloud’s. ‘You’re quite the celebrity yourself now, at Shinra at least.’

Cloud cringed at the reference to The Bet; he was also in no doubt that Rufus knew exactly what his name was but the young VP was a game-player, maybe even more proficient and dangerous than Genesis Rhapsodos. In fact, Cloud couldn’t help thinking those two belonged together. It would be a match made in heaven...or Hel, whichever way you looked at it. They certainly possessed the same almost lazy, elitist drawl. He had heard that the VP had a considerable amount of money on The Bet too and wondered which of the Generals he was backing to win.

‘You must join me in my private box,’ Rufus was saying, linking his arm through Cloud’s, ‘I can’t have my little Hero of the People mixing with the hoi polloi. You get the best view of the races from up there anyway.’

Cloud would have hardly called the guests in the VIP rooms ‘hoi polloi’ but Sephiroth at least looked relieved at the idea of getting away from so many people.

Rufus’ private box was located in the centre of the stands to give optimum visibility of the race track. A glass fronted construction, it gave by far the best view of the stadium. There were big armchairs, a private bar and a delicious-looking spread of food laid out on a nearby table. Reno and Rude were already there in their capacity as Rufus’ bodyguards. Reno shot Cloud a discreet wink when he saw him with Sephiroth. Well, that explained who Reno was betting on anyway, thought Cloud amused.
He and Sephiroth sat down at Rufus’ table and their drinks order was immediately taken by an elegantly liveried barman.

‘So, Cloud,’ said Rufus. ‘Tell me, how is Sephiroth as a mentor? You’re the first student he’s ever taken on, you know. Quite extraordinary. You should be very flattered.’

‘I am,’ said Cloud, giving Sephiroth a smile. ‘He’s an excellent teacher, really thorough too but he does work me very hard...to the good though, I’m improving a lot.’

‘Hmm,’ said Rufus, eyeing Sephiroth through half lidded eyes, as a big black panther-like creature came and lay down next to Rufus’ chair. Idly he stroked the creature’s long, silky ears. ‘This is Dark Nation, he’s my baby, aren’t you, Natie? It’s okay, he doesn’t bite, unless provoked or ordered to...a bit like Sephiroth, really,' he added lightly.

Cloud felt another stab of pity for Sephiroth. Rufus clearly regarded his most senior General as a human attack dog of war, ruthless, soul-less, and socially dysfunctional. He glanced at Sephiroth to see if he’d noticed the slight. Judging by the frigid look in those jade eyes, he had.

Down on the racetrack, a group of cheerleaders, garishly dressed from head to toe in yellow with feathery tails, were dancing and chanting:

“Chocobos, Chocobos
We all love ya, don’t ya know!
COME ON, Chocabos!”

One of Rufus’ staff came over to them to give them a list of the runners.

‘Must put money down on my favourite,’ said Rufus airily. 'I’ve been studying their form for some time and I believe I know who the winner will be.’ He gave Sephiroth an unreadable look.

Cloud excused himself to go to the Gents, not so much because he wanted to go but more the escape the oppressive atmosphere that there seemed to be between Rufus and Sephiroth. Checking to see that the two men were distracted looking at the racing form, he went up to Reno.

‘What gives between Sephiroth and Rufus?’ he whispered at the Turk. ‘It’s like Rufus really hates him, or something.’

‘They used to date, yo’ said Reno. ‘Seph finished it and the Vice Prez can’t or won’t forgive him.’

‘Oh,’ said Cloud, glancing back. Rufus seemed to be hissing something at Sephiroth who was just glaring back at him. Well that put a whole new light on things anyway, he thought.

‘Was it serious?’

‘The relationship?’ Reno shrugged. ‘Rufus thought so, I guess. They were together nearly a year. Ended just before you came along.’

Ok, not good, thought Cloud. He went off to the black marble and gold restroom, washed his hands and had a quick spray from one of the many bottles of colognes on display. When he returned to the box, Sephiroth and Rufus were still sitting at the table, not talking to each other.

When Sephiorth saw him, he pulled a fistful of Gil out of his jacket pocked and pressed it into Cloud’s hands.

‘What’s this for?’ asked Cloud.

‘To bet with,’ said the General. ‘Just chose a chocobo you like the look of and put money down on it if you think it might win. C’mon, let’s go check them out.’

Leaving a sulky Rufus, Sephiroth led Cloud over to the large picture window. The glass had been retracted now so that the box was open to the sounds of the crowd and the squawking of the pedigree birds. Vast TV screens dotted around the stadium showed live footage of the chocobos being lead around the central enclosure by their trainers, prancing proudly and full of pent up energy.

Sephiroth explained the types of bets. There were so many that Cloud's head started to spin.

'Just bet to win,' advised Sephiroth. 'If your chocobo wins the race then you win...it's simplest.' Once they had made their choice for the first race, Sephiroth then called over one of Rufus’ staff to take their bets down to the bookies.

Once the races started, Cloud was transfixed. He had never been to a chocobo race in his life, let alone the Gold Cup. Carried away by the feverish enthusiasm of the crowd he jumped up and down yelled encouragement to his chocobos, then let out a yelp of joy when they won.

In his excitement he more than once grabbed Sephiroth’s jacket sleeve. ‘Sorry,’ he said to his mentor, realising that he was behaving like a young kid.

‘No problem,’ Sephiroth smiled indulgently. ‘Although I’m thinking I might be in danger of actually losing a sleeve when the final race comes on.’

‘This is so much fun!’ said Cloud, who had accumulated around 800 Gil in winnings so far. He tried to return to money to Sephiroth but he refused.

‘No, it’s yours. Put it on the final race if you want.’

‘Noo, I’m not putting it all on! What if I lose it! No, I’ll buy you something,’ Cloud assured him. ‘Maybe a nice dagger for your collection. ‘There’s this little shop under plate...'

He didn’t have a chance to finish though because at that moment, someone came up behind them and put their arms around both their shoulders.

‘Hello, my lovelies,’ came an elegant purr.

Both he and Sephiroth turned their heads at once to see Genesis, looking tanned and smiling, if a little tired.

Sephiroth frowned. ‘I thought you were in Wutai.’

‘I was,’ said Genesis. ‘Mission accomplished. I flew in just over an hour ago and went to report to you then I heard you were here.’

‘You found time to change then, I see?’ said Sephiroth, pointedly looking at the red-head’s rather natty dark green suede bomber jacket and smart black trousers.

‘Yes, well, my uniform was rather filthy – something to do with spending almost a week fighting in the pissing rain and mud,’ Genesis gave him a slightly sharkish smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.’ He turned to Cloud. ‘Hello, angel,’ he murmured, dropping a kiss on his cheek. ‘Gaia, I’ve missed you!’

Cloud was sure he saw Sephiroth grit his teeth.

‘So,’ Genesis went on, ‘I’m taking a couple of days off for some R&R at Icicle Inn. I’ve rented a really cute log cabin. The skiing is particularly good there this time of year as well and I fully intend to do lots of lounging around in hot tubs and having massages. It will give me a good chance to recharge the batteries, so to speak. Of course, because of my recent activities in Wutai, I’m going to need a bodyguard in case of an assassination attempt. You know how the Wutaians are big on reprisals. I believe Corporal Strife is free.’

The two friend’s stares met in silent challenge.

‘He can’t go,’ said Sephiroth flatly. ‘He’s my student and he’s in the middle of a strict training programme. ‘I won’t sanction it.’

‘I already have,’ said Rufus, who had come over to stand near them.

Cloud knew that not even Sephiroth could over-rule the Vice President, anymore than he himself could refuse the mission. He glanced over at Reno who shrugged helplessly. What it meant was that the Vice President’s word was final. Only the President himself could overrule him and he was practically senile anyway.

Genesis raised an eyebrow at Sephiroth and smirked. ‘Check mate, I believe, Mr Crescent?’ he murmured.

For a brief second Cloud didn’t know if Sephiroth was going to laugh or run Genesis through with the nearest thing that came to hand.

He must have chosen sense out of valour because he said, ‘Have a lovely break, Genesis,’ in a tone that suggested he wished the red-head a life threatening accident instead.

‘You know what, Seph, I think I will,’ said Genesis. ‘Oh and don’t worry about Cloud’s training schedule...I’m sure I can teach him lots of useful, new things.’ He gave Sephiroth an evil grin then he turned to Cloud. ‘I’m leaving in an hour, dearest. Make sure you’re at the airport on time....use your new watch, that’s why I bought it for you.’

And with that Genesis bade Rufus goodbye and swept out.

Cloud didn’t dare look at Sephiroth but when he did, he saw icy fury that made him shrink back. ‘I guess I’d better go. Thank you for a lovely day, I had such a great time!’

‘Dismissed, Corporal Strife,’ said Sephiroth, icily.

Cloud was cut to the core. After the last few days, when he and Sephiroth had got so close, he couldn’t believe the coldness in the man. It was like a switch had been flipped and it wasn’t even his fault. It was an order from a superior officer, backed up by the vice president. It wasn’t like he could refuse!

‘I’m so sorry,’ he said and fled the room.

He bolted down the stairs to the main gate and jumped in the nearest taxi. ‘Shinra Tower, please.’

Chapter Text

Cloud arrived at Midgar International Airport to find a first class ticket waiting for him at the desk and a message from Genesis inviting him to join him in one of the private lounges.

He found the red-head ensconced in a quiet booth overlooking the runways, already tucking into chilled champagne and an eggs Benedict.

‘Darling, you made it!’ he beamed, as Cloud joined him. ‘Order whatever you want.’ He signaled a waiter who came over.

Cloud put in his order of orange juice and a cream cheese bagel then took out his phs to text Sephiroth. His fingers hovered over the keys, unsure what to type. Eventually, he settled on, “I’m sorry I had to go so suddenly today, I had such a good time, thank you! I’ll see you in a couple of days. Cloud.” He was about to end it with an “x” but somehow it seemed a bit familiar to a man who had never actively shown him any actual affection and had always acted in the most appropriate manner. The same could certainly not be said for Genesis.

The flight which was six hours, passed quickly enough. Cloud watched a couple of movies and ate a decent supper, while Genesis dozed in the seat behind him.

It was dark when they landed at the airport just outside Icicle Inn and thick snow covered the airport terminal. Cloud turned his phs back on but there was no return text message from Sephiroth. His mentor must still be fuming with him for leaving so suddenly with Genesis. Mixed feelings of anger and dismay made him snap the phone shut and shove it into his jacket pocket. Sephiroth was just being unreasonable and petty in his opinion. It wasn’t like he had been able to refuse the mission with Rufus Shinra sanctioning it personally, for reasons that clearly went far beyond anything to do with him anyway. Rufus' interference had obviously been some kind of vendetta against his ex-lover anyway.

‘Are you okay?’ asked Genesis, as they cleared passport control.

‘Yes,’ Cloud smiled. ‘Fine...thanks.’

‘Good,’ said Genesis, giving him a slightly suspicious look.

He followed Genesis to the car hire desk where the General picked up a four wheel drive to take them to the cabin he had booked just three miles out of town.

Pulling into the driveway, which had been cleared of the recent fresh snow for their benefit, Cloud realised that ‘cabin’ had been a misleading description. It was actually a beautiful luxury log chalet, lit up like a Christmas tree for their arrival, surrounded by fir trees and mountains. The bright lights from the house reflected off the snow making it glitter ethereally.

‘Make you feel homesick?’ asked Genesis, stopping the car by the front door.

‘I shouldn’t say this but Nibelheim was never this pretty,’ said Cloud in awe.

Genesis smiled. ‘It’s got an indoor pool, a hot tub and a sauna too. I think we’re going to have a nice relaxing time.’ Getting out of the car he collected their bags from the boot and unlocked the front door, letting them into a large sitting room with a high ceiling, entirely made of polished wood. Thick rugs and large soft sofas were arranged around the fireplace that was already laid with large logs for their use. At the far end was a dining room and beyond that a kitchen. A wide wooden staircase led upstairs to the bedrooms.

‘Well, bodyguard,’ said Genesis dropping their bags in the hallway. ‘Shouldn’t you be checking our accommodation over for any Wutaian Ninjas sent to assassinate me...and pick out the best bedroom while you’re at it.’

‘Sir,’ grinned Cloud and, taking the bags, made his way up a curving wooden staircase to explore. There were three large bedrooms, big soft beds with crisp white linen and all had their own marble and wood bathrooms. From the upstairs windows, the views were even better. He could make out the valley, the ski slopes and in the near distance, nestled between snowy mountains, the warm twinkling lights of Icicle Inn.

‘Area is secured, General,’ said Cloud coming downstairs, still playing along with the bodyguard charade. ‘And the bedroom directly across from the landing is the biggest, so I would suggest that one. It also has a good defensive position in case of unexpected attack.’

‘Good job, Corporal,’ said the red-head.

While he had been exploring, Genesis had lit the log fire in the sitting room and opened some wine from the rack of bottles that had been supplied for them. He handed Cloud a glass of red.

‘I shall hold you personally accountable if I get stabbed in the night,’ said the red-head, giving him a wicked smile and taking an appreciative slug of his wine. ‘After this I fancy a hot tub,’ he declared. ‘I fully intend to enjoy myself to the limit after that poxy mission!’

He drowned his glass of wine in one and strode back outside. Glass in hand, Cloud followed him round to the side of the house to a lit, decked area where there was a large hot tub. Plumes of smoke were rising from the hot water as it met the sub zero air outside. Lit from inside, the water shone pale emerald.

He watched as Genesis stripped off his clothes without a care in the world and climbed into the steaming water. He whacked the button at the side and the water bubbled into life.

‘Come on in, Mountain boy,’ teased Genesis. ‘Get your kit off and join me...it’s wonderful in here.’

Cloud weighed up the options and decided to might as well have some fun out of this whole bizarre mess. Besides, being with the handsome red-head was never a hardship. He walked over, put his glass down on the edge of the tub and, without breaking eye contact with a softly smiling Red General, he slowly stripped naked under the man’s watchful gaze.

‘That extra training has paid off, I see,’ remarked Genesis, his eyes raking over Cloud’s naked body appreciatively.

‘Thank you,’ said Cloud and climbed into the hot tub. It was deliciously warm and scented with lavender.

‘Well, this is a first,’ said Genesis, ‘I don’t usually share a Jacuzzi with my bodyguards.’

‘Lucky I’m not a real bodyguard then,’ murmured Cloud.

Genesis reached out and Cloud allowed himself to be pulled close to the red-head. Under the water, the General’s body felt hard and slippery.

‘I’ve missed you,’ he said kissing Cloud on the lips. ‘I’m so glad you’re better. Was it that bad?’

‘Seph said he thought I might not make it,’ Cloud admitted.

A look flashed briefly in Genesis’ eyes. ‘Seph, eh? My, aren’t we getting familiar,’ he said but he was smiling and leaned in to kiss Cloud again.

For a few moments they just sat, relaxing in the hot water, staring at the inky sky, flecked with a billion tiny stars, enjoying the moment.

‘It’s no good,’ sighed Genesis. ‘I need more wine, let’s go back in.’

He switched off the hot tub and they grabbed their discarded clothes, hurrying barefoot through the snow into the cabin. The fire was crackling merrily in the grate now, casting a warm glow over the whole room.

‘Go and sit by the fire,’ advised Genesis, dropping his clothes on a nearby chair and fetching a spare duvet from the linen cupboard under the stairs then he joined Cloud who was sitting in front of the fire shivering, his knees drawn up in front of him, arms hugged around his slim frame.

Genesis threw some cushions on the floor and they lay down together, wrapping the duvet around themselves. Their legs entwined and Genesis pulled Cloud into a hug.

‘Are you warm enough, dearest?’ he murmured, gently stroking Cloud’s slightly damp hair off his face.

Cloud nodded. The red-head’s body felt so good, all smooth and well muscled at the same time, radiating a delicious heat that warmed him instantly. ‘I’m wearing a duvet again though,’ he pointed out.

‘Yes, but I’m in it with you this time so you’re forgiven,’ said Genesis, kissing him tenderly. Cloud abandoned himself to the sensation; it felt too good not to.

Breaking away, Genesis propped himself up on one elbow and pushed the duvet down slightly to lazily admire Cloud’s nakedness, a small smile on his face. His dark red hair seemed to positively shimmer in the soft fire light. Shadows from the dancing flames only accentuated his delicate bone structure and made his eyes glitter soft cerulean. Slowly, he slid a hand over Cloud’s chest and down to his belly, now flat and well muscled from all the extra training.

‘You’re perfect,’ Genesis whispered.

‘So are you,’ said Cloud. It was the truth after all.

Genesis smiled at the compliment and began planting small kisses on Cloud’s chest making his way down his torso to his hipbone.

By now Cloud manhood was standing to attention like a drill sergeant in front of Sephiroth. Genesis gave him a couple of leisurely strokes then took him entirely into his warm, wet mouth.

Cloud nearly jumped a foot off the floor.

‘Relax,’ said Genesis, raising his head.

‘It’s my first time,’ Cloud admitted.

‘I know,’ said Genesis. ‘I guessed that correctly at our first meeting, remember?’

At the memory of their first encounter at Black Materia, Cloud blushed hotly.

Genesis grinned and went back to his ministrations, slowly running his tongue the length of Cloud’s furious erection, circling the head with little teasing flicks and sucking gently, then taking him fully into his mouth again to suck harder. He seemed to have refined it to some kind of art form, using fingers, hand and mouth simultaneously to elicit cries of almost painful pleasure from his blond lover.

Cloud’s brain was becoming an incoherent mush of desire. It was the sweetest most delicious torture; he didn’t know how much more of it he could take but apparently not much because only moments later he exploded with a cry of pure ecstasy.

He lay panting for a moment, seeped in the afterglow of his first non-self induced climax. There was really no comparison, he thought blissfully.

‘Oh, Gaia,’ he groaned.

‘Nice?’ inquired Genesis, smirking at him in that knowing way he had.

All Cloud could do was nod.

‘Let’s take this upstairs,’ suggested the red-head.

‘What, the duvet?’ asked Cloud playfully.

Genesis grinned. ‘All of it. I am too important to be covered in carpet burns. It’s bad for my image.’

Cloud, still wrapped in the duvet, stumbled up the wooded stairs to the main bedroom. Genesis fetched a bottle of whiskey and two glasses and followed him in all his naked glory. At the doorway to the room, Cloud abandoned the duvet and tumbled into the crisp, welcoming sheets of the bed.

Genesis put the bottle and glasses on a side table and climbed in next to him.

They just lay together for a few moments. Aware of the red-head’s own erection standing at impressive full mast, pressed against his thigh, Cloud slipped his hand down the man’s body to encircle the engorged cock.

‘Can I do that to you?’ he asked. ‘What you just did to me?’

‘I’d be disappointed if you didn’t, frankly,’ said Genesis.

‘I don’t know how to,’ Cloud admitted. ‘Will you show me?’

‘It’s not difficult just use your tongue like I did. Watch your teeth though...I might be mako infused but some injuries are just not acceptable.’

Cloud shifted slightly so his eyes were level with the red-head’s erection. Remembering the way Genesis had worked on him, he began tentatively, licking it like an ice lolly.

Genesis fingers laced through his hair and a sigh escape the red-head.

Thinking it might be boredom, Cloud raised his head. ‘Is that ok?’

Genesis eyes were closed. ‘Yes, fine. Use your hands as well,’ he said, gently guiding him. ‘Here, like this...that’s it.’

There was so much to remember, it was like rubbing your head and tapping your tummy...or juggling oranges.

‘This is harder than sparring with the katana,’ said Cloud.

‘And just as lethal if you get it right,’ grinned Genesis.

A few moments later, Cloud raised his head again. ‘Are you going to come?’ he asked.

Genesis opened his eyes. ‘Well, I was planning to, if you ever stop asking me questions,’ said the red-head goodnaturdly.

‘Sorry,’ said Cloud.

‘You can use your hand if you’re fussy but if you’re having problems with mako tolerance it’s a good way of getting an extra low key dose.’

‘Oh.’ So that was what Sephiroth meant about orally ingesting mako. Cloud felt his cheeks flush again at the thought.

When Genesis did come it was hard and quietly. He lay still for a moment. ‘Fuck, Strife!’ he breathed at last. ‘That wasn’t half bad...once you stopped talking, that is.’

Cloud grinned and edged up the bed to join him once more, crawling into Genesis’ open embrace. They lay together drowsily for a few moments, feeling the effects of the long day’s travelling, the hot tub and satisfying sex.

‘What shall we do tomorrow?’ asked Genesis.

‘You can teach me to ski,’ suggested Cloud. ‘You did tell Seph you’d teach me something useful.’

‘I thought I’d already done that,’ said Genesis.

Cloud sniggered. ‘I can hardly tell him that when he asks.’

‘Oh, I think you should,’ said the red-head evilly, ‘but do it when I’m there, I want to see his expression. So, tell me your greatest desire, apart from sleeping with me, of course.’

Cloud didn’t even need to think about it. ‘I want to be a SOLDIER First,’ he said without hesitation. ‘Your turn.’

‘Easy. One day I’m going to beat Seph in a one on one fight, wipe that smug smile off his pretty face. I’ve got so close so many times but in the end he just manages to pip me to the post on points. One day,’ he added wistfully.

‘Hmm, I’d like that too,’ said Cloud. ‘I’ll probably have to wait until he’s old and decrepit though or he’ll slaughter me.’

‘So, we’re looking at eighty years old then?’ said Genesis, with a small yawn.

They fell silent again. They had forgotten to close the curtains and outside the snow could be seen steadily falling, a trillion white dots against the black sky. In the warm privacy of their cozy bedroom, Cloud suddenly felt a real closeness to the fiery red-head.

‘Tell me a secret,’ whispered Cloud. ‘Something you’ve never told anyone else.’

Genesis’ smile slipped from his face. ‘I can’t. You wouldn’t want to know my real and only secret.’

Cloud didn’t press it.

***

The next morning, Cloud slowly came to consciousness, aware that he was enveloped in two strong, warm arms. He didn’t need to turn over to know that it was Genesis by his delicious, familiar smell. It seemed to permeate his very hair.

‘Morning, little Swallow,’ Genesis murmured in his ear.

‘Why do you call me that?’ asked Cloud, turning in his arms to face him.

‘Because you did,’ Genesis grinned. ‘Don’t tell that bastard Hojo though or he’ll give you a double dose again next time just for the Hel of it.’

‘Don’t call me that in front of Seph,’ Cloud pleaded.

‘Oh, no?’ Why?’ Genesis said wickedly and flipped Cloud onto his back in one swift movement. He lay down on top of Cloud and pressed their bodies together, gently rotating his hips, their mutually hard erections rubbing against each other.

Cloud let out a groan of pleasure. ‘You should really come with a Shinra official warning label...you’re dangerous!’ he sighed, closing his eyes.

Genesis chuckled and sat up between his thighs and pulled Cloud closer to him by his legs. Slowly he ran his hands admiringly over the blond’s body.

‘I want you, Cloud Strife,’ he said softly. Not taking his eyes from his, he trailed his hands down to the blond’s buttocks. He gave them a gentle squeeze and pulled Cloud even closer so that he was perfectly aligned for a smooth, swift entry. He reached forward for a small tube on the bedside table, which Cloud hadn’t even noticed before.

Realising what was about to happen, Cloud flicked his hips away slightly. ‘Not yet, it’s too soon.’

Genesis mouth twitched into a smile. ‘I could force you, you know, with almost no effort.’

Cloud felt a tinge of panic. It wasn’t meant to get this far. It was true he had no chance of defending himself against someone as strong as Genesis; he had to think quickly.

‘You won’t though because you’d consider that vulgar and no challenge. And I know you like a challenge.’

‘How well you know me,’ said Genesis letting him go and dropping back onto the pillows next to him.

‘Besides,’ added Cloud. ‘It’s cheating and unethical to your fellow First.’

‘What do you mean?’ frowned Genesis.

‘We’ve slept together; you’ve already won The Bet more or less anyway,’ said Cloud.

Genesis turned to face him. ‘You know about the Bet?’

Cloud nodded. ‘I know that you and Sephiroth are betting as to who can get me into bed first and you have... and we’ve done stuff. I mean, everything else is just a technicality.’

Genesis regarded him almost sadly. ‘Except that The Bet was never about sex, Cloud, not really, just so you know.’

‘What was it about then?’ asked Cloud.

‘Love,’ said Genesis. ‘We were supposed to make you fall in love with one of us enough to want to get engaged.’

‘What!’ Horrified, Cloud sat up quickly. ‘Engaged as in get married? And I suppose you would have dumped me after you’d won the bet.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Genesis truthfully. ‘I don’t suppose either of us thought that far ahead. It was just a stupid bet.’

‘Stupid doesn’t even cover it!’ Cloud was shocked, no it was worse than that, he was mortified, humiliated and beyond angry. ‘I have to go,’ he said scrambling off the bed.

‘Cloud, stop it,’ said Genesis wearily. ‘Stay. We can sort this out.’

‘You can’t sort this out, it’s over! You two...I haven’t even the words!’ Cloud began to drag on his clothes, throwing others in his bag.

‘I know this all started as a tasteless game, dearest, but I have real feelings for you now.’

‘Don’t...just don’t,’ said Cloud storming into the bathroom to get his toiletries. ‘I don’t trust you anymore,’ he said coming back into the bedroom.

Genesis was watching him from the midst of the ruffled bed. ‘You’re falling in love with him, aren’t you?’ he said. ‘Sephiroth.’

Cloud stopped shoveling clothes in his bag but said nothing. Love? What was that anyway? What he felt for Tifa? For his ma? For Zack maybe? No that was friendship, it was different. Maybe what he felt for Genesis? He was pretty sure that was just pure unbridled lust.

‘By the Goddess, you are!’ exclaimed Genesis, realisation dawning.

Cloud swung on him furiously. ‘That makes two of us then!’ he retorted.

Genesis blinked. ‘What makes you say that?’

‘Shit, Gen,' scoffed Cloud. 'Everyone knows you love Seph...except Seph himself probably!’

‘You knew all along about this whole Bet thing and you’ve been playing us both.’

‘Not all along,’ Cloud confessed.

‘And you slept with me, knowing it. You are a tease of the very worst kind,’ said the red-head but he was smiling with something akin to admiration.

‘And you are a total bastard,’ Cloud said. ‘Now I’m going back to Midgar to tell Sephiroth that he’s a total bastard too!’

‘Oh by the Goddess, I think I love you,’ grinned Genesis.

‘Shove it!’ said Cloud and stormed out.

Chapter Text

The six hour flight back to Midgar did nothing to abate Cloud’s anger, in fact if anything it made it worse. He spent the entire trip seething and planning on what to do on his return. By the time the plane had landed at the airport, he’d decided to give his notice in to the SOLDIER programme.

Taking the train back to Shinra Tower, he stormed into his tiny flat and threw his bag on the threadbare sofa. He sat down next to it and put his head in his hands.

He couldn’t stay at Shinra now; his career was effectively over whichever way he looked at it. He could never trust either of the Generals again and he was pretty sure that after what he’d said to Genesis, he would be booted out for good this time. Genesis was clearly in cahoots with Rufus Shinra so it would be no problem to have him dishonourably discharged. The only option was to hand in his notice.

Still, he hesitated. After all his hard work to get into SOLDIER, which he’d done totally by his own efforts, then managing to secure Genesis as his materia tutor and Sephiroth as his mentor, it all seemed such a terrible waste. Then he reminded himself that it was all based on lies anyway; Sephiroth had only decided to mentor him to win The Bet, likewise Genesis’ offer to give him one on one materia lessons. All they had wanted was to get enough access to him so that they could try to get him to fall in love with them.

He let out a shaky breath. All his dreams had come to naught. He supposed he’d have to go back to Nibelheim or try to find work somewhere in Midgar, in a bar maybe or waiting on tables or working for a private security firm perhaps. Whatever, he would always have the stigma of being a failed SOLDIER on his CV.

Taking out his phs he checked to see if there was a message from Sephiroth but there was nothing. He debated messaging him again to tell he was back but decided he didn’t want to look needy or face more of the Silver General’s wrath.

A knock on his door broke into his thoughts. He was in no particular mood to see anyone right now.

‘Zack, is that you?’ he called.

‘No, yo!’ came a slummer’s voice. ‘It’s Reno, open the door!’

Cloud got up listlessly to find the young Turk on his doorstep looking half presentable for once. At least his shirt was tucked in.

‘Rufus wants to see you,’ he said.

‘Rufus Shinra?’ asked Cloud.

Reno rolled his eyes. ‘You know of another Rufus, yo?’

‘What does he want?’ asked Cloud.

‘Just come with me, dude,’ said Reno, his expression turning flinty. He eased open his jacket to give Cloud a glimpse of the night stick, hanging from his belt. Again, he sensed that scary edge that had caused Reno to be promoted so quickly from rookie to be Tseng’s second in command.

Cloud had no choice but to follow the Turk in silence up to the private lift, where Reno pressed the button for the penthouse.

Getting out at the lift Reno led him to large wooden carved Wutaian double doors and knocked. Almost immediately a butler answered the door.

‘SOLDIER Third Class Corporal Strife to see Rufus, yo,’ said Reno.

‘I’ll tell Vice President Shinra you’re here,’ said the butler, glaring at him disdainfully, ‘and do remember to call him Mr Shinra at least, how many more times do I have to tell you!’

Looking exasperated, the man let them into a hallway. This too had a heavy Wutaian influence, decorated in black and red lacquered wooden walls. Around the room on pillars were Wutaian war helmets and full armour on stands, all artfully lit by subdued spotlights.

‘Wait here,’ the butler ordered them.

Cloud gazed around the room at the fascinating artifacts.

‘They say most of this stuff was given to Rufus by Seph, from the guys he killed in the first Wutaian war,’ said Reno. ‘Some of the armour’s still got splats of dry blood on.’

‘They’re amazing!’ said Cloud genuinely.

The butler returned barely a moment later. ‘Corporal Strife, if you’d like to follow me. Stay there, Sinclair,’ he ordered Reno.

Reno pulled a face but slumped down onto a nearby chair to wait.

Cloud followed the butler through another set of double doors. If he had thought Sephiroth’s living quarters were luxurious, Rufus’ apartment was in another league altogether.

Here the Wutaian theme continued with polished wood floors, carved screens and minimalist black lacquered furniture and yet more armour.

Rufus was sitting on a long low sofa by the picture window. Like the one in Sephiroth’s apartment, it gave a stunning view of the lights of Midgar.

The young Vice President was looking urbane and handsome in his usual get-up of black and white layered clothing. At his feet, curled up comfortably, was Dark Nation. The creature lifted its head to briefly check Cloud out then lay down once more.

The butler left the room and Cloud was alone, facing the Vice President of Shinra. Rufus didn’t invite him to sit down so Cloud stood at parade rest.

‘Explain yourself,’ said Rufus.

His tone was neither cold nor particularly friendly, just businesslike and Cloud realised then that he must have spoken to Genesis. He dreaded to think what the First must have told him.

‘I wish to hand in my notice from SOLDIER, sir,’ said Cloud. ‘I have thought about it extensively and realise that it isn’t for me.’

Rufus expression didn’t change. ‘Resignation not accepted. I’m sending you back to Icicle Inn. I believe you and Genesis got along rather well, though I am surprised to see you back so soon seeing as I specifically authorised you to act as his bodyguard.’

So that was it; Genesis must have told him everything. Cloud fought a blush and failed, but whether it was a flush of anger or embarrassment he wasn’t sure.

‘Sir, I don’t believe General Rhapsodos needs a bodyguard,’ said Cloud. ‘He is perfectly able to look after himself.’

‘Don’t be insubordinate, Corporal,’ snapped Rufus, losing his veneer of cool. ‘You are going back to Icicle Inn and that is a direct order. You walked out on a mission authorised and approved by me and you will return there tonight or face severe disciplinary measures. I believe Professor Hojo has requested your presence in his laboratory...’ Rufus let it hang in the air.

Cloud felt the blood drain from his face.

‘I think there’s something you need to realise, Corporal Strife,’ Rufus went on, his tone warming slightly, ‘that members of SOLDIER don’t simply ‘quit’ when the fancy takes them. Do you have any idea how much total time, effort and money goes into the training of just one successful SOLDIER candidate from scratch? No, I didn’t think so. You show real talent and are too valuable to lose on a whim. I am therefore promoting you to Second in the hope that it will improve your loyalty.’

Cloud couldn’t have been more shocked if Rufus had slapped him with a wet fish.

‘Well SOLDIER, are you going to thank me?’ asked the VP.

‘Sir, I’ve done nothing to deserve that,’ said Cloud. ‘I mean, what about the Firsts, they might object, especially Sephiroth? Surely he needs to agree to that too.’

‘Sephiroth is the senior General and he does what I order him to,’ said Rufus coolly. ‘Your new Second’s uniform is on the table there. Go back to your digs, put it on and get back to Icicle Inn. There is a flight in an hour and a half. Tseng will escort you to the airport.’

Cloud was too stunned to move.

‘Good night, SOLDIER Second Class, Corporal Cloud Strife,’ said Rufus pointedly.

Too dumbfounded to speak, Cloud saluted neatly and left in a daze. He had done nothing to deserve the promotion. Surely Rufus wouldn’t have just done that to protect The Bet! How much money had he really put down for Genesis to win anyway?

He found Reno in the hallway, cigarette and lighter in hand, looking around to see if he was near a smoke detector.

‘That was quick, yo, what happened?’ asked the Turk getting quickly to his feet.

‘I’ve been promoted to SOLDIER Second Class,’ said Cloud, leaving the apartment followed by Reno.

‘Woah! Congrats,’ said Reno, cracking a grin.

‘And he’s ordered me to return to Icicle Inn...as Genesis’ bodyguard.’

Reno wasn’t stupid, or a Turk for nothing. ‘The dude’s betting on Genesis,’ he said without hesitation. ‘Is he right?’

Cloud shook his head. ‘I don’t know Reno...I just want this Gaia-awful Bet thing to be over.’

‘Easy,’ the Turk shrugged. ‘Bang one of them. Tell everyone. End of.’

‘It’s not quite that simple,’ said Cloud.

***

It was still snowing when the plane landed at Icicle Inn at almost midnight. Fortunately Cloud had managed to get some sleep on the flight this time. He sincerely hoped Genesis would be still be awake or he’d be spending the night in the wood shed.

Taking a taxi to the chalet, he was relieved to find all the lights on, as before. He paid the driver and knocked on the door.

It was opened a moment later by Genesis, wearing a deep red toweling bathrobe and drying his hair with a matching towel. In his other hand was a large whiskey.

‘Ah, the return of the prodigal bodyguard,’ he smirked. ‘Come in, dearest, you’re letting all the warmth out.’

Cloud went in and shut the door. In the lounge a large fire was crackling merrily in the grate. He dropped his bag on the dining room table.

‘Congratulations on your promotion,’ said Genesis, pouring him a drink and handing it to him. ‘The uniform looks good on you.’

Cloud took a sip of his drink and sat down by the fire.

‘I forgive you for your rudeness to me earlier,’ said the red-head, sitting down opposite him. ‘Just.’

‘How much money do you and Rufus have on this Bet anyway?’ asked Cloud, in no mood for Genesis’ games.

‘I can’t speak for Rufe,’ said Genesis, ‘but I would never bet on myself, darling, that would be crass. No, I merely enjoyed your company. If I’m totally honest, the place seemed rather drab without you.’

Everything in Cloud’s fiber screamed at him not to believe the red-head. He was exhausted with game-playing and being treated like a pawn in some mysterious game of chess he knew nothing about.

‘I think we should go to bed,’ said Cloud, draining his drink in one go.

Genesis looked slightly taken-aback. ‘Sure,’ he smiled, knocking back his own drink. ‘I’m on a serious monster clearing mission tomorrow in Junon so I’ll be leaving early. Have a lie in, you can show yourself out when you’re ready.’

Cloud followed the Red General up to the main bedroom...their bedroom. Genesis took off his bathrobe and climbed into bed, leaving the sheet so that it barely covered his slim hips. He put his hands behind his head and regarded Cloud in that idle, smoldering way he had.

‘Aren’t you going to get undressed?’ he asked.

Cloud didn’t answer but moved closer to the bed and looked down at the red-head. ‘So, you think you love me, do you?’ he asked asked softly.

Genesis continued to watch him steadily as Cloud reached forward and opened the bedside drawer. He pulled out the small bottle of lube.

‘Turn over,’ he said to Genesis.

The red-head’s eyes widened a fraction as realisation dawned. ‘Oh for Gaia’s sake, Strife, don’t be ridiculous!’ he said. ‘That’s not how this works.’

‘Turn. Over.’ repeated Cloud steadily. ‘I won’t repeat myself.’

Intrigued and amused Genesis complied and turned onto his front. ‘You’d better prep properly or I’ll hit you across the room,’ he said over his shoulder.

Cloud had heard his comrades talking about what some of them got up to in the Third’s showers. He had a pretty good idea what to do, even if he’d never done it himself.

He pulled the sheet back to reveal Genesis’ firm round buttocks, presented to him in all their peachy glory. In one deft movement, he whipped one of his new SOLDIER belts out of its loops.

Time for a little revenge of his own.

****

It was the early morning sun through the open curtains that woke Cloud the next morning. On the pillow beside him was a note in Genesis' elegant scrawl.

“Last night was amazing, my love. Who would have thought! See you as soon as I get back from Junon. Gen XX”

Cloud smiled and stretched luxuriously in the disheveled bed. Revenge was sweet. After using his belt liberally on the red-head’s buttocks until they were puce and striped, he’d literally pounded Genesis into the mattress with all his strength for what seemed like hours. He’d been amply rewarded by the noises of ecstasy coming from the red-head and amused that the Red General could behave like someone’s bitch when it suited him.

Now all he had to do was exact revenge on Sephiroth, an altogether more terrifying prospect.

Chapter Text

Arriving back at Shinra Tower that evening, Cloud began moving his stuff into the new Second’s apartment that Sephiroth had secured for him before his promotion. It didn’t take long as he had very little in the way of belongings anyway. Once settled, he made himself a cup of coffee with his shiny new kettle in his ample-sized new kitchen then wondered what to do for the rest of the evening. He wasn’t hungry, having eaten on the plane.

He would have invited Zack over for an impromptu flat-warming drink but he knew that he was away in Kalm with Angeal on a recruitment drive for the company.

He was just debating whether to go down to the Thirds’ common room to meet up with Danny and the others for a game of pool, when his phs pinged an in-coming message.

Opening it, he saw that it was a text from Genesis. “Hope you got back safely, sweetheart. Can’t stop thinking about you and all the things I’m going to do to you when I get back! I think we should take a couple of days off and stay at my house in Midgar Heights. You’ll like it there. Love you, my Little Swallow ;). G XX”

Cloud smiled to himself and text back “Sounds good, Cloud x.” Idly, he wondered if he could win a prize of some kind for getting one of the Generals to fall in love with him, instead of the other way around. He’d have to run the idea by Zack when he returned.

He hadn’t put much thought into how he would get revenge on Sephiroth for the whole Bet situation. He doubted the same stunt he’d pulled on Genesis would work on the Demon of Wutia though. Sephiroth would probably turn him into a human shish kebab with the masamune if he dared attempt anything like that.

He still hadn’t had a text back from Sephiroth either, which he was starting to think was beyond ridiculous. Surely the man couldn’t hold a grudge that long. He opened his original message to his mentor and saw that it hadn’t even been opened. This was crazy, he decided, and started to type:

“Hi Sephiroth, I am back in Midgar. Can we spar again soon?”

Delete.

“Hi Sephiroth, I realise that I upset you at the races but...”

Delete.

“Hi Seph, are you okay...?”

Delete.

Maybe he should just phone him. The worst that could happen was that Sephiroth could tell him to get lost and tell him he didn’t want to mentor him anymore...actually that was pretty bad but before he could change his mind, Cloud pressed the speed dial button. It went straight to answer phone. “You have reached Sephiroth Crescent. Leave a message or if it’s urgent contact my secretary.”

Cloud hung up and glanced at his watch. It was nearly 2100. Not even Sephiroth’s secretary worked that late. Reaching a decision, he left his new flat and made his way to the private lift on the Seconds’ floor with every intention of going up to confront Sephiroth for ignoring him.

Just as he reached it, however, he found Reno lurking by a vending machine, pretending to read a magazine.

‘Well?’ asked the Turk, looking up. ‘Any update? Did you get it on with Gen-Rhap? Do I need to put a bet on yet?’

‘I can’t talk right now, said Cloud and stalked past him to the private lift, tapping in the code to allow him access.

‘I take it that’s a ‘no’ then,’ said Reno dryly.

The lift arrived and the doors opened.

‘It’s complicated,’ said Cloud and stepped inside, pressing the button for the 69th floor. As the glass doors slid closed, he left the Turk standing there staring after him as the lift glided upwards.

Stepping out on Sephiroth’s floor, he made his way to the General’s door. It was only when he got closer he noticed the entry keypad was smeared with blood.

Worried now, he pressed the door bell. There was no reply. Neither could he pick up any movement inside.

He knocked on the door. ‘Seph! Are you in there?’ Still no reply.

‘SEPH! Open the door!’ He banged on it hard this time but he was greeted with only silence. He tried the door but it was locked.

The keycard! Sephiroth had given him a card to his apartment only the day before! It was in his flat. Running back to the lift he went down to the 61st floor again to see Reno walking slowly down the corridor, smoking a cigarette.

‘Reno!’ gasped Cloud. 'I need you!’

‘Must be my lucky day, yo,’ the young Turk gave him an impish grin.

‘Not like that, idiot!’ said Cloud desperately. ‘I need your help. There’s blood on Seph’s keypad and he’s not answering! Look, wait here, I’m just going to get the key!’

Cloud ran to his flat, picked up the key and returned to find Reno waiting for him by the private lift. Together they went up to the 69th floor. Everything was as Cloud had left it, the blood still smeared on the keypad.

‘He’s probably just killed some monsters or cut his hand training,’ said Reno.

‘I hope so,’ said Cloud but something felt very wrong. For one thing the General was such an obsessive neat freak that he would have washed the blood off immediately. Taking a deep breath, Cloud swiped the key card through the pad on the wall and opened the door.

The first thing that greeted him was a trail of wet blood on the marble floor, leading to the lounge.

‘Looks like something got dragged,’ said Reno, trying not to slip on the thick red liquid.

‘No shit,’ said Cloud, dryly. ‘Guess who’s been watching Midgar CSI.’

‘No need to be sarcastic, yo,’ sniffed the Turk.

They followed the long streak through the doors to the sitting room where it continued along the once beautiful white carpet around the curved corner to the base of the staircase. There, at the bottom of the stairs lay Sephiroth in a thick pool of blood.

‘What the...?’ began Reno.

They both rushed over to the General’s prone form. He was lying face down still in his leather trousers and boots but his coat was nowhere to be seen. Both of his bare arms were soaked in blood and his face was almost totally smeared in it, as was most of his hair. It was a truly gruesome sight.

‘Is he dead?’ asked Reno.

Cloud dropped to his knees to feel for the pulse in Sephiroth’s neck then let out a shuddering sigh of relief. It was faint but he could just feel it. ‘No but his pulse is really weak. He’s lost so much blood.’ He leaned closer. ‘Seph? Seph, it’s Cloud can you hear me?’ The man’s eyelashes flickered slightly but his eyes didn’t open. ‘What happend?’

It was then that Cloud noticed the blood on Sephiroth’s arms seemed to be coming from cuts on his wrists. Carefully, he turned one of his arms over and nearly threw up. The entire length of Sephiroth’s inner forearm was covered in deep, four inch long slashes all the way to the elbow and they were still pumping blood.

‘What the fuck!’ exclaimed Reno, kneeling down quickly to examine Sephiroth’s other arm. It had exactly the same injuries. ‘Looks like it’s been done on purpose by a knife or scalpel or something,’ he said. ‘They’re far too even to be monster wounds.’

‘They’re still bleeding too,’ said Cloud. ‘That’s not right; any SOLDIER’s body should have repaired wounds like this really quickly, especially one as enhanced as Sephiroth. I’ll phone Angeal, he’ll know what to do.’

He pulled his phone out and called Angeal’s number. It just rang and rang. He tried Zack’s then but that just blurted a recorded message, “This number is temporarily unavailable.”

Cloud was starting to panic.

‘Fuck, he looks bad,’ said Reno. ‘He’s gonna bleed to death, we have to call Hojo.’

A faint grunt, almost inaudible to the un-enhanced, came from Sephiroth.

‘No, no wait!’ said Cloud. ‘For all we know Hojo did this to him.’

‘Why the Hel would he do that?’ asked Reno.

‘I don’t know but Seph said Hojo would be angry with him for taking me out of the lab when I had my mako shots the other day and he would hardly have done this to himself!’

‘I’ll call Tseng,’ said Reno. ‘They’re friends.’

While Reno called his boss, Cloud tried to see if Sephiroth could speak or at least understand him.

‘Seph, it’s Cloud,’ he said. ‘Can you hear me? Hold in there, we’re getting help.’

Reno came back. ‘Tseng’s in the slums, he’ll get here as soon as he can.’ The Turk looked down at the prone General. ‘We need to do something and fast.’

Cloud bit his lip. There was only one other person to call. With shaking fingers, Cloud pressed another number. It was answered on the second ring.

‘Rhapsodos!’ came the red-head’s panting voice. ‘This had better be good, or very bad...I’m kind of busy!’

In the background were what sounded like gunshots, men screaming and the roar of enraged monsters.

‘Gen...?’

‘Cloud, is that you? Are you ok...?

Cloud was touched at the concern in the red-head’s voice, considering that he sounded to be in the midst of a full on raging battle.

‘It’s Seph,’ said Cloud. ‘I think Hojo’s done something to him! He’s arms are all cut up and he’s bleeding out...I don’t know what to do!’

‘Oh, fuck, not again! Ok, hang on a sec!’

There was another almost deafening hail of bullets and then the sounds of the battle became muted slightly.

‘Right, I’m under cover,’ Genesis out of breath. ‘Don’t move him. Phone Dr Emanuel, she’s an assistant of Hollander’s...used to work for Hojo but you can trust her, she’ll help. I’ll text you her number...and whatever you do, do NOT call Hojo! Gotta go!’ And to the sound of explosions, Genesis hung up.

A second later a phs number pinged up on his screen. He rang the number immediately.

While Reno tried to gently wipe some of the blood from Sephiroth’s face, Cloud filled the Doctor in with the details.

‘She’s on her way,’ he told Reno, hanging up. ‘She said to bind his wounds as best we can to help stem the bleeding. Towels, anything...’

‘I’ll see what I can find,’ said Reno, taking off upstairs to the bathrooms.

Barely ten minutes later, Dr Milla Emanuel turned up. She was not at all what Cloud expected, for one thing she looked no older than in her early twenties with a dark glossy bob and fashionable glasses. In her hand was a large medical bag.

She took one look at Sephiroth. ‘Yep, that looks like Hojo’s work,’ she said. ‘It’s not the first time I’ve seen things like that.’

‘Why would he do that?’ asked Cloud.

‘Probably a punishment, nothing more,’ said the doctor, as though it was a daily occurrence, which it probably was in that maniac's lab. ‘He’s been restrained too...see those marks around his wrists. They were made by metal bonds.’

Cloud peered closer to see what looked like angry grazes around Sephiroth’s wrists. He hadn’t noticed them earlier because of all the smeared blood.

‘Why isn’t he healing?’ asked Cloud.

‘I’d say he’s been given a strong anti-coagulant, that’s why it won’t stop bleeding...probably Hojo’s warped idea of a joke.’

‘Can you do something?’ asked Cloud desperately.

‘SOLDIER, I’m a doctor, of course I can ‘do’ something,’ she said simply. ‘I’ll give him a reversal agent, that should stop the bleeding,’ she said, rooting around in her medical bag and extracting a syringe and a vial of liquid, ‘but he needs a blood transfusion quickly. Hojo keeps bags of Sephiroth’s blood in a special freezer in his lab.'

As Cloud and Reno watched as she slowly injected the liquid into Sephiroth’s arm, they heard soft footsteps on the staircase.

‘Hojo!’ gasped Cloud but it was only Tseng.

‘How is he?’ asked the Turk Director walking over to the bed to look at his friend.

‘Well, he’ll live,’ said the doctor, ‘but it was a pretty close thing.’

‘I don’t understand how Hojo managed to do that to him,’ said Cloud. ‘I mean, Sephiroth is supposed to be really strong, isn’t he? How would anyone subdue him enough to do something like this?’

‘Probably a tranq gun,’ said Tseng, leaning forward to gently lift Sephiroth’s hair this way and that whilst examining his neck. ‘And there it is.’

Cloud leaned forward to see a vivid red pinprick in the base of the General’s neck.

‘I saw him on the monitors going down to the labs yesterday,’ said Tseng. ‘Hojo probably got him down there on some trumped up excuse and shot him.’

‘Right, I need to go and get the blood now,’ said the doctor, gently removing the empty syringe and packing away her stuff. ‘I know where Hojo keeps it but I’ll need some help getting in there.’ She looked at Reno. ‘You’ll have to come with me.’

‘Why me, yo?' protested the red head.

‘Because you’re a Turk,' said the doctor. 'Sneaking around is your forte. Besides, you know all the secret passages in this place and don’t tell me they don’t exist because I know they do.’

‘I’ll come too,’ offered Tseng.

They left together and Cloud found himself alone with the still prone General.

‘If you can hear me, Seph, stay with us,’ he said. ‘We’re doing all we can for you.’

Suddenly, his phs rang. ‘Hello?’

‘Cloud? It’s Angeal. Tseng told me what’s happened. I’m on my way back now. Does Genesis know?’

‘Yes, I just called him.’

‘Good. And, Cloud...?’

‘Yes?’

‘Whatever happens do NOT call Hojo!’ With that Angeal hung up.

Cloud looked back at Sephiroth’s wounds. The profuse bleeding seemed to be slowing down but the cuts were still livid, ugly scars across his forearms. Under the remnants of smeared blood, Sephiroth’s face was as pale and unmoving as a marble death mask.

‘Please pull through, Seph,’ he murmured. ‘Please...’

After what seemed an eternity but probably no more than an hour, the doctor and Reno returned with the blood, Tseng having been called away. Between him and Reno, they carried the General up the stairs to his bedroom and laid him on the bed and Dr Emanuel then set about preparing the equipment for the blood transfusion.

Unable to watch any more, Cloud went downstairs to make a pot of strong coffee for them. When he came back upstairs, the doctor was gently bandaging Sephiroth’s wounds.

‘The cuts will heal by themselves now that he’s stopped bleeding,’ said Dr Emanuel, gratefully taking a coffee from Cloud.

Soon Sephiroth was sleeping soundly.

Reno and the doctor left and Cloud was alone with Sephiroth once more. Without disturbing him, he changed the blood stained bed linen as much as possible and covered his mentor with a duvet from the other bedroom in case he felt cold due to excessive blood loss.

Barely half an hour later Angeal and Zack turned up. Angeal, who looked ashen with worry, went straight over to Sephiroth and sat down next to him on the bed and took hold of his hand. 'Is he responsive?' he asked.

'Not unless you count a grunt,' said Cloud.

Angeal shook his head. 'That piece of scum!' he said with feeling. 'Ever since Seph was a kid that creep Hojo has been doing things like this to him.'

‘Hojo won’t be pleased that we helped him either,’ said Cloud.

‘Fuck Hojo,’ said Angeal angrily.

Both Cloud and especially Zack looked up at the General in shock.

‘I’ve never heard you swear before ‘Geal,’ said Zack.

‘He’s my friend,’ said Angeal by way of an excuse.

Zack put his arm around Cloud’s shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, Spikey, he’ll be ok. He’s as strong as a Behemouth, he’ll pull through.’

‘I still don’t understand why Hojo would risk Sephiroth’s life like that,’ said Cloud incredulously. ‘He’s Shinra’s greatest asset.’

‘Don’t let Genesis hear you say that.’ Angeal allowed himself a small smile. ‘The truth is Hojo doesn’t care. He believes that if he kills Seph he can bring him back to life. It’s never been tested of course but that has never worried Hojo. I don’t think he even regards him as human.’

‘Do you think Rufus knows Hojo's done this?’ asked Zack.

‘Rufus probably authorised it,’ said Angeal bitterly.

Cloud’s phs rang. It was Genesis. The noise of battle in the background was more distant now.

‘How is Seph?’ asked the red-head.

‘Stable, I think,’ said Cloud.

‘Thank the Goddess,’ said Genesis. ‘Is Angeal there yet? Can you put him on?’

Cloud handed Angeal his phs. Taking it, he walked out into the passage talking in muted tones but words like ‘nearly died’ and ‘thanks to Cloud’s finding him’ reached him before the bedroom door drifted shut.

Even Zack seemed subdued for once.

‘Can he do it?’ asked Cloud. ‘Could Hojo really bring Seph back to life?’

‘In theory, yes,’ said Zack. ‘All of us with mako in our systems can be ....regenerated. Mako is the essence of the lifestream after all. Don’t ask me how though.’

‘It’s not natural,’ said Cloud.

‘No, Genesis says we’re all monsters.’

Presently, after agreeing on a rota for looking after Sephiroth between them, Angeal and Zack left to grab something to eat, offering to bring something back for Cloud but he wasn’t hungry.

‘I’ll stay with him tonight,’ he offered.

When Angeal and Zack had gone Cloud carefully climbed onto the bed next to Sephiroth to try and grab some sleep himself but he only managed a fitful doze. During the night, Sephiroth shifted occasionally in his sleep. His eyes would flicker open unseeing, then close again. Sometimes he would frown or groan or even mutter incoherent words.

‘It’s okay, Seph, I’m here,’ said Cloud.

About four in the morning, Sephiroth stirred. ‘Cold,’ he muttered. His body was shivering but he still didn’t open his eyes. Cloud felt his skin...it was cold like an uncooked chicken taken out of a fridge.

He crawled out of bed to put the heating up then fetched another duvet from the third bedroom. He put it over his mentor then stripped off his own clothes and got into bed next to Sephiroth. He snuggled up to him, holding him close. He wasn’t sure he was actually doing any good. He was far too small to cover Sephiroth’s body effectively but it seemed to help. Perhaps it was just knowing that there was someone close who cared was enough for the man but gradually his shaking started to subside and he lay still, breathing evenly.

Weak with relief, Cloud dropped a kiss on his mentor’s pale, cool cheek.

Sephiroth let out a small sigh and arms closed around Cloud. ‘Gen.’

It was no more than a breath and if Cloud hadn’t had his first mako shots he might not even have heard it.

He lay awake for the rest of the night in the dark until a steely dawn crept through the slats of the blinds. Then, assured that Sephiroth was sleeping soundly and peacefully, he carefully eased out of bed, dragged on his clothes and crept out of the apartment.

Chapter Text

At 1000 hours that morning a large black helicopter landed on the roof of Shinra Tower. As soon as the doors opened a certain Red General jumped out onto the tarmac, red coat billowing behind him, kit bag slung over his shoulder. His uniform was still covered in splattered blood from the mission, his face pale with worry.

He strode straight over to Angeal, who was waiting to greet him beside the double metal doors.

Genesis gave his old friend a greeting hug. ‘How’s Sephiroth?’ he yelled over the rotor blades.

‘Don’t worry, he’s fine,’ Angeal shouted back with a smile. ‘Back to normal, in fact.’

‘Thank Ifrit!’ said Genesis, relieved. He followed Angeal through the doors and into the stairwell. Away from the wind and the noise of the helicopter’s blades it was blissfully silent except for their boots, clunking down the metal stairs.

‘I’ve just been in to make him breakfast but I told him to stay in bed this morning, just in case,’ said Angeal. ‘We’ve got the 30th Anniversary Gala tonight.’

Genesis groaned. ‘I’d completely forgotten about that.’

‘You know, if Cloud hadn’t found him he would have died.’

‘Fucking Hojo,’ spat Genesis vehemently.

When they reached the lifts at the bottom, they stepped inside and Angeal pressed the button for the 68th floor. ‘I guess you want a shower before you see Lazard.’

‘That can wait,’ said Genesis, leaning around his friend to press the button for the 69th floor. ‘I want to check on Seph first.’

‘Looking like that?’ chuckled Angeal. ‘You know what a germaphobe he is. He’ll have shit fit if you go into his apartment in that state!’

Genesis just grinned. ‘I’ve seen him looking worse.’ When the lift reached the 69th floor he got out. ‘See you later,’ he called to Angeal as the lift doors shut once more and let himself into Sephiroth’s apartment. Their friendship was such that all three of them could simply let themselves into each other’s living spaces anytime they liked. It was a measure they had decided on for safety as well as convenience.

The place looked much the same as usual...clean and immaculately tidy to the point of obsession. It wasn’t until he reached the base of the staircase to the upstairs that he stopped dead in his tracks. There, on the pristine white carpet, was a dark stain as large as a man’s body. Genesis hadn’t realised until then exactly how much blood Sephiroth had lost. It was a miracle he had survived at all.

‘Seph?’ he called.

There was no reply. Tiptoeing around the blood stain, he made his way upstairs to the master bedroom. There, lying on his back, was Sephiroth, fast asleep, arms relaxed at his sides, his breathing even. He was still wearing his leather trousers and boots and there were traces of smeared blood on his face and on that beautiful silver hair. On the bedside table was a plate with a half eaten bacon sandwich and a cooling cup of tea.

Genesis tiptoed over to the bed and sat on the edge beside his friend and gently stroked his ashen, blood smeared cheek.

Sephiroth’s eyes flickered open and he looked around dazed then smiled faintly. ‘Gen,’ he murmured.

‘Hello, you,’ said Genesis softly. ‘How do you feel?’

‘Good, I think.’ He looked down at his forearms. The scars were no more than very faint pink lines now. By the afternoon they would be gone completely. ‘Actually, I think I feel great.’

‘You’re not ill at all are you!’ said Genesis, grabbing a pillow to hit him with. ‘You shit! I nearly killed myself to get back for you!’

Laughing, Sephiroth shoved the pillow aside and caught Genesis’ wrists. He pulled him close so that the red-head’s lips were almost on his. ‘You care,’ he murmured.

‘Of course I care, you div!’ he said. Daringly, he leant forward fraction dropped a light kiss on Sephiroth’s lips. After all it wasn’t the first time they had kissed. Sephiroth didn’t push him away so Genesis took it as a good sign. ‘I thought I’d lost you for good this time,’ he said.

‘It will take more than that to get rid of me,’ Sephiroth smiled.

‘Hmm, let’s hope so....and I can’t believe no one cleaned you up. You’re covered in blood.’

‘At least it’s my own blood,’ countered Sephiroth. ‘You smell like an abattoir.’

‘Thank you,’ said Genesis, dryly. ‘I have actually just got back from a mission, you know. I haven’t even been to see Lazard for de-briefing yet. I thought coming to see you was much more important, even though there’s seemingly absolutely nothing wrong with you!’

‘I heal quickly,’ said Sephiroth. ‘Where’s Cloud?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Genesis. He hoped his little chocobo would still be in his new flat, tucked up in bed, as it was Saturday and most SOLDIER’s liked to lie in. It was an encounter he’d been looking forward to ever since that night in Icicle Inn and he had all sorts of deliciously wicked things planned to do to his mouthy little brat. ‘Angeal says he saved your life.’

Sephiroth nodded sagely. ‘I remember...stuff. I remember him talking to me even though I couldn’t talk back and then some woman’s voice....’

‘Dr Milla Emanuel,’ Genesis supplied. ‘I told Cloud to phone her. She used to work for Hojo...now works for Hollander. She gave you a blood transfusion.’

‘Yes, I remember that,’ he said. ‘It hurt like f...’

‘Yes well it saved your life so stop whinging,’ interrupted Genesis. ‘Although if I’d let you die I would have won this poxy Bet by default!’

Sephiroth gave him a faint smile. ‘More fool you then. How did you get on with Cloud in Icicle Inn?’

‘It was ...interesting,’ Genesis grinned. ‘He may look like a cherub but between the sheets he’s a...’

‘I don’t want to know,’ interrupted Sephiroth crisply.

‘But don’t you want to know what he did to me?’ asked Genesis evilly. ‘How we....’

‘Gen, don’t make me hurt you,’ Sephiroth warned.

Genesis laughed heartily. ‘I knew it, you like him! You are actually jealous! You of all people!’

‘I just think he’s a promising talent,’ said Sephiroth.

Genesis snorted. ‘I’ll second that.’

‘Stop it,’ Sephiroth chided gently.

‘Anyway, he’s spending a couple of days with me at Midgar Heights next week so get prepared to lose. I think I might have this one in the bag.’

Sephiroth propped himself up against the pillows. ‘I might have made some progress myself if Hojo hadn’t decided to turn me into a cold cut.’

‘Any idea why he did that to you?’ asked Genesis, ‘or was there just nothing on TV last night he liked?’

Sephiroth smiled faintly. ‘After Cloud had his mako shots, Hojo wanted to keep him in the lab. He’s interested in his mako tolerance, something to do with being from Nibelheim but I brought Cloud back here instead. I wasn’t going to leave him there alone for that maniac to carve about.’

‘So instead he carved you about,’ said Genesis. ‘Seph, one day you are really going to have to kill that man, you know...before he kills you. It would be so easy.’

‘It would,’ Sephiroth conceded, ‘but I don’t want to face a firing squad for first degree murder...not even for such a good cause.’

‘That won’t happen,’ said Genesis dismissively. ‘Everyone knows what he is. No one would bring charges against you.’

‘Rufus would,’ said Sephiroth simply.

‘Rufus is a bitch,’ sniffed Genesis.

‘Maybe but as Vice President of Shinra he’s a very powerful ‘bitch’,’ said Sephiroth, ‘and an extremely wealthy one, which amounts to the same thing.’

Genesis smiled. ‘Did you know he’s got a million Gil on me to win our damned Bet?’

‘Why does that not surprise me,’ said Sephiroth bitterly.

‘What exactly did you do to that guy anyway?’ asked Genesis, picking up the remnants of the bacon sandwich and biting into it appreciatively. Angeal’s bacon sandwiches were legendary.

‘Apparently he loved me and wanted to get married. I don’t...’ he paused, brows furrowed in thought. ‘I can’t feel that... love I mean. I don’t think I even know what it is.’

Genesis thought his heart would break because more than anything in the world he wanted to hear that Sephiroth loved him, unconditionally and exclusively. He shoved the rest of the sandwich into his mouth and stood up with a sigh. ‘I’m going to go and get showered,’ he said, chewing. ‘If you’re not up to the Gala tonight, Angeal and I will cover for you. Just let me know.’

‘I’ll be there,’ Sephiroth assured him.

Genesis turned to leave then stopped and looked over his shoulder. ‘Good to have you back, Mr Crescent.’

‘Good to see you again, Mr Rhapsodos,’ said Sephiroth, amusement dancing in his eyes.

With a swift parting smile Genesis went downstairs and left the apartment.

Returning to his own living quarters, he stripped out of his dusty and bloodied uniform and turned on the taps of the large double shower, with its multiple tropical rain shower settings. Within seconds steam was misting up the glass and he stepped in, letting the hot water caress his body. He washed his hair in his favourite apple and cinnamon shampoo then stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel around his hips.

He had debated texting Cloud to let him know of his return but decided that surprising him would be more fun.

Drying himself and his hair, he put on a pair of black jeans and a black T-shirt then grabbed a small item from his kit bag and left his apartment.

****

The shrill sound of his alarm woke Cloud. 1030 hours. He groaned and dragged himself out of bed. Four hours sleep was simply not enough, he decided, especially if you’d been awake all night, making sure your mentor didn’t relapse from being carved about like a Christmas turkey. If it wasn’t for the Anniversary Gala he’d be able to stay in bed until his workout with Sephiroth, which was thankfully never before mid-afternoon on Saturdays. Not today though; he had a lot to do.

Stumbling into the bathroom he brushed his teeth, tried to make some sense out of his hair then went back into the bedroom. Stopping briefly by the wardrobe’s full length mirror he was momentarily cheered to see that all his sparring with Zack and Sephiroth was paying off. His shoulders were broader, his waist slimmer and he had a beginnings of a very nice six pack going on. Even his arm muscles were becoming impressively defined.

He was just dragging on a pair of boxers and some sweatpants when there was a knock at the door. Why was Zack always early when he didn’t want him to be and the other teen had a key too! Why hadn’t he not just bowled in as he usually did, bearing a welcome bag cream cheese bagels and pint sized cups of frothy coffee?

‘Use your key!’ he called out, searching in a drawer for some socks.

‘I would if I had one,’ replied a smooth, cultured voice from the other side of the door.

Cloud stopped his frantic sock search and stood up. That most definitely wasn’t Zack.

Bounding over to the door, he opened it to be greeted by a smirking Genesis, leaning against the door jamb looking unfeasibly handsome dressed head to toe in black. Cloud was immediately enveloped in a heady waft of the red-head’s favourite signature after shave.

‘Good morning, my darling,’ said Genesis, dropping a kiss on his upturned mouth and walking past him into the apartment, kicking the door shut with the toe of his fashionable combat boot. He gazed around the flat with mild interest. ‘Well, this is certainly an improvement on your last hovel, I must say.’

‘Er, thank you?’ said Cloud bemused by the back-handed compliment. ‘It’s got a great view of Loveless Plaza from the bedroom as well.’

Genesis’ titian eyebrows quirked upwards. ‘Really? Show me.’

Cloud glanced at the clock on the wall. ‘I would but I’m due somewhere...,’ he began.

‘If it’s to see Seph he can wait. He’s still in bed. Now, show me, I want to see it.’

Cloud led Genesis into his bedroom. It was actually messier than he remembered from five minutes ago; the double bed looked like someone had had a fight on it. Random pairs of socks littered the floor and a pile of dirty washing was stashed in one corner ready for him to take to the launderette downstairs.

‘Ah, a bit more like you in here,’ said Genesis amused.

Surreptitiously kicking a pair of dirty underpants under the bed, Cloud went over to the window. Luckily, it was a slightly less smoggy day than usual and the elegant buildings of Loveless Square could be seen clearly, less than a quarter of a mile away.

‘It’s one of the best views from this side of the Tower,’ said Cloud.

Before he realised it, Genesis had come up behind him, curling his arms around his naked torso and dropping tiny light kisses along his bare shoulder. ‘Mmm, beautiful,’ he murmured.

‘You’re not even looking,’ admonished Cloud, with a laugh.

‘I’m looking at the only thing that counts,’ said the redhead, smoothly running his hands over Cloud’s chest, stopping only to tweak a nipple and eliciting a quick intake of breath from the blond. Cloud melted against him, despite himself.

Genesis chuckled softly and reached one hand into his jeans pocket then Cloud felt a cool, metal object pressed into his hand. He looked down to see a beautiful black leather plaited bangle nestled in his palm. The clasp was made of two platinum wolf heads facing each other, their teeth gripping a ring studded with clear stones that glittered expensively even in the dull light.

‘They’re diamonds,’ confirmed Genesis. ‘I saw it and thought of you. Apparently they’re supposed to be Nibel wolves.’

‘Wow, I love it, thank you!’ said Cloud. It wasn’t a lie. He held out his wrist for Genesis to put the bangle on then twisted his arm this way and that, fascinated by the facets of the glittering clear stones as they sparkled with a thousand coloured prisms of light.

In one easy movement, Genesis spun him round and pushed him up against the window pane. Cloud gasped as his bare skin met the cool glass and Genesis’ hard body pressed against his. Genesis’ eyes were heavy lidded, and filled with unimaginable wickedness.

‘Gaia, I’ve missed you!’ breathed the redhead.

‘Yeah?’ said Cloud playfully. ‘How much?’

‘More than you’ll ever know,’ purred Genesis, his free hand running down Cloud’s chest to his belly. When the same hand slipped under Cloud’s waistband to grip his burgeoning erection, Cloud felt his body shudder helplessly, as heat surged into his belly.

Genesis smiled down at him, his lips brushing against Cloud's, then fisted a handful of Cloud’s hair, pulling his head back gently to expose his long, pale throat.

‘I want you,’ he breathed against Cloud’s neck. ‘Now.’

‘I can’t,’ Cloud managed to gulp. ‘Zack..,’

As if to compound his words there were two sharp raps on the front door and it flew open.

‘Hey Spike, you ready?’ called Zack from the lounge and a moment later he appeared in the doorway of the bedroom, a small brown paper bag in one hand and a cardboard tray with two coffees in the other. He froze.

Genesis looked over his shoulder, eyes narrowing irritably as he let go of Cloud’s hair. ‘What do you want, ‘Puppy’?’ he asked.

‘Spike...,' began Zack. ‘I mean Cloud...I need to borrow Cloud, sir.’

‘Go play with your favourite ball or something,’ said Genesis disparagingly. ‘We’re busy.’

Zack stood his ground. ‘I’m afraid I have to insist, sir,’ he said. ‘It’s to do with the Gala presentation rehearsals. It’s tonight. Rufus is there, supervising arrangements. Sorry.’

Genesis let out a huff of annoyance. ‘Alright,’ he said. 'Far be it from me to stand in the way of Rufus’ little shindig.’ He cupped Cloud’s face in his hands. ‘I’ll see you later, dearest,’ he murmured and with a last vitriolic look at Zack, he left.

'I'll just go and put these in the kitchen,' said Zack quickly.

'Yeah, thanks,' muttered Cloud. He located a clean T-shirt, dragged it on and left the bedroom. He found Zack in the kitchenette, tucking into one of the bagels. He shoved the paper bag towards Cloud with a questioning look.

‘Don’t,’ said Cloud with a grin. ‘Don’t you dare.’

‘Just saying,’ said Zack, his grin even broader.

‘I know, I know!’ Cloud almost whimpered.

‘You’re weakening, Corporal,’ said Zack. ‘You’ll never get your fusion sword at this rate.’

Cloud groaned. ‘I know. It’s bloody Genesis, he’s dangerous! I mean, what is it with that guy, seriously?’

‘You know what your problem is,’ said Zack unusually serious for once. ‘You’re getting too attached to both of those bastards. Answer me one thing truthfully. If either of them asked you to get engaged right now, would you?’

Cloud bit his lip. He couldn’t answer. In his heart, he knew his friend was right; he was in deep, probably too deep. He’d been playing with fire by leading both Generals on and he’d inadvertently fallen for them both, for different reasons. Then there was the inescapable fact that Sephiroth and Genesis clearly had a thing for each other, even though neither of them were seemingly willing to admit it to the other one. And then there was Rufus. Whichever way this went, it couldn’t end well.

Zack must have guessed what he was thinking. ‘Just eat your bagel,' he said. 'I’ve got an idea.'

****

As was their Saturday morning routine, Cloud was enjoying a game of volleyball in the main exercise hall with Danny, Jay and Rabbit after his grueling spar with Zack. After, he would have his two hour training session with Sephiroth before having the afternoon free to go down to the slums visit the local bars or simply chill out playing video games. Sometimes Zack joined them too if he wasn’t on a mission with Angeal. This afternoon, however, he and Zack would be sparring again in secret, as they had been for the past two weeks. Not even Sephiroth and Angeal had any idea about their clandestine rendezvous.

‘Corporal Strife!’ someone called from across the hall.

Cloud turned to see Luxiere coming towards him. That usually meant only one thing, that Sephiroth had decided to diverge from their usual sparring lesson for something more extra-curricular. After the first time they had gone to the wastelands, Sephiroth had taken a fancy to whisking him off periodically to fight monsters or go on field missions and had even started to show him how to fly the helicopter, something Cloud particularly enjoyed.

‘Hold on, guys,’ Cloud told the others and left the court to walk towards the other Second. ‘Okay, where am I being taken today?’ he asked amused.

Luxiere looked as serious as ever. ‘General Sephiroth would like you to meet him in the underground car park in fifteen minutes by his parking bays.’

‘And that’s it? No advice on clothing or katanas?

‘That’s all he told me,’ replied Luxiere. ‘Don’t be late.’ With that, the Second turned and marched off.

‘Sorry, gotta go!’ Cloud called back to his friends.

‘Where you going today, the ballet?’ Danny called after him. The others guffawed.

Over his shoulder, Cloud grinned mouthed a good-natured, ‘Fuck off,’ at them and went off to his flat get changed.

Barely ten minutes later, he went down to the underground car park to find Sephiroth already there, wearing his leather boots and trousers but a short leather jacket instead of his ankle length one. His long hair was tied back in a ponytail and he was astride a rather impressive silver motorbike.

‘Get on Strife,’ he said, handing Cloud a pair of goggles.

‘Where are we going?’ asked Cloud, slipping on the goggles and climbing on the bike behind his mentor.

‘You’ll see,’ said Sephiroth cryptically.

A moment later Cloud realised that Sephiroth rode a motorbike in the same way that he drove a car...with no regard for speed restrictions, his own safety or anyone else’s for that matter. Cloud clung onto his mentor’s waist as firmly as he dared as they sped towards Sector 4 and out into Belhelmel Square.

Sephiroth skidded to a halt outside an exclusive car and motorbike showroom, displaying the latest shiny models under spotlights.

Sephiroth dismounted and Cloud followed into the showroom.

‘Ah, General Sephiroth!’ exclaimed a man with a large unkempt mustache and a shiny grey suit. His name badge declared that he was Gerald Smyth, Chief Sales Executive. ‘Please come this way. I have completed all the paperwork. You can take the bike away anytime you like. I have fitted it with a few special extras...free of charge, of course.’ He laughed nervously.

Cloud followed his mentor over to a quiet corner of the showroom where a new, glossy black Zanda 760 motorbike was standing by itself, a bold SOLD placard next to it.

Cloud walked towards the bike in silent, reverential awe, admiring the meaty yet sleek lines. This was a serious machine with a serious price tag.

‘If only you knew how many people have wanted to buy it!’ the salesman gushed on. ‘I’ve had to tell them, ‘No, it’s General Sephiroth’s!’’ Sensing that Sephiroth was in no mood to talk, the salesman said, I’ll just go and get the paperwork,' and scuttled off.

Sephiroth walked over to Cloud who was still reading the bike’s stats off a shiny card. ‘Do you like it?’ he asked.

‘It’s stunning!’ he said honestly.

‘It’s yours. To say thank you for saving me last night. If it wasn’t for you, I’d probably be dead by now.’

For a moment Cloud was too astounded to speak. ‘You didn’t need to do this.’

His mentor shrugged. ‘I wanted to.’

‘Thank you!’ said Cloud. ‘I don’t know what else to say. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!’ Well, apart from you, he wanted to add.

‘Thank you is enough,’ said Sephiroth, clearly pleased that his gift had been so well received. ‘I remember you once told me you liked bikes...and that you used to have one at home.’

‘I did but nothing like this! It was more of a moped really.’

‘But you know how to ride one don’t you?’

‘Yes, of course,’ said Cloud, still overawed.

‘Good, you need to be able to get around without using the train all the time.’

After the necessary paperwork was signed, the salesman kitted Cloud out with some new leathers and some appropriate boots. Then the motorbike was wheeled outside, where both Cloud and Sephiroth mounted up on their respective bikes and roared off towards the exit of Midgar and out onto the wide plains, a huge dust cloud billowing up behind them.

Cloud had a struggle to keep up with his mentor but not because his new bike lacked power, merely because he didn’t want to kill himself in the process as they sped around rock formations and hairpin bends, the warm fresh wind blowing in his face, the thrill of the open road making his heart race.

Eventually, Sephiroth drew to a gradual halt overlooking a rocky outcrop. Cloud stopped beside him and looked back. They had to be at least twenty miles out of Midgar. He could see the tall tower of the Shinra building just rising out of the greeny grey smog.

Both he and Sephiroth cut their engines and sat in silence for a moment, admiring the view.

‘I owe you an apology, Cloud,’ Sephiroth said at last.

‘You do?’ asked Cloud puzzled.

‘I’m assuming by now that you have heard about the Bet between Genesis and myself?’

‘The one involving me?’ asked Cloud.

Sephiroth nodded.

‘Yeah, Zack told me,’ admitted Cloud.

‘I thought he probably would,’ said Sephiroth. ‘I just wanted to let you know that I have decided to put a stop to it. It was thoughtless and selfish of us to involve you and I apologise.’

‘Oh.’ Cloud, who had been only half heartedly planning revenge on his mentor since the Hojo Incident, was taken aback by the apology. Then he thought of his fusion sword. He’d never get the Gattai Ken now and Zack had spent a thousand Gil of his own money on it already.

‘It was a shit thing you did,’ he said. ‘Both of you.’

‘I know,’ admitted Sephiroth. ‘I can only say I’m sorry. As recompense, I’d like you to accompany me tonight to the Gala and sit on the Presidential table with me.’

‘I can’t,’ said Cloud.

‘Why not? You are going, aren’t you?’

‘Yes, but I’m, er...seeing someone. I said I’d go with them.’

Sephiroth’s expression darkened. ‘Genesis?’

‘No...not Genesis.’

‘Then who?’ Sephiroth persevered.

‘I can’t say. They asked me not to tell anyone.’

Chapter Text

At seven thirty that evening, Sephiroth stood in front of the long silver mirror in his bedroom, putting the final touches his outfit for the Gala. As General of the Shinra SOLDIER army, it was his duty to look as people expected him to. ‘Dignified yet scary’ as Genesis was so fond of saying.

Tonight he felt as though he had probably achieved both of those. Over his black dress trousers and crisp white shirt, he eased on the black military style double breasted jacket that was the First’s official formal uniform. Heavy with rows of clinking medals and gold tasseled rope, it skimmed his hips and accentuated the width of his shoulders. He fastened the gold buttons and then tied the black moiré sash around his waist, making sure the ceremonial knot was flat and slightly to one side. Slipping on his most elegant shoes, he re-checked his reflection quickly. His hair, newly washed and blow dried, hung straight and glossy to his backside. For the benefit of the Gala, he’d had a foot cut off it so as to look less outrageous...Genesis’ advice again. Pleased with the result, he went downstairs.

Stepping carefully over the rug he’d put down temporarily over the bloodstain, he went into the kitchen. Angeal and Genesis would be turning up in a minute so he took three crystal tumblers down from a cupboard and poured them a generous shot of Banoran Rum, in anticipation of a long and boring evening.

Lifting his glass he took a deep gulp as Genesis’ voice called out from the doorway to the lounge. ‘Hope you’ve got the booze ready!’

A moment later the redhead came into the kitchen followed by Angeal. They were wearing the same uniform as his except that Genesis’ was adorned with a deep red sash and Angeal’s with a dark blue one.

Sephiroth handed them both a glass and Genesis lifted his in a toast. ‘Here’s to being bored titless for the next six hours!’

They clinked glasses and downed the fiery liquid in one go. Sephiroth topped them up again.

‘Zack not with you tonight?’ Sephiroth asked his dark haired friend.

‘No,’ said Angeal. ‘He said he would see me there later...something about final arrangements needing to be made. He’s been acting a bit strangely this week to be honest.’

‘How can you tell the difference?’ quipped Genesis, necking his drink once more.

Sephiroth bit back a smile but Angeal looked unimpressed. ‘At least I’m not trying to bed my student.’

‘Who said anything about ‘trying’,’ Genesis snorted, reaching for the bottle to pour himself another glass. ‘Anyway, Cloud’s not officially my student, he’s Seph’s and, as far as I know, Seph’s not made much headway in that department...unlike me. All I need to do now is produce the ring and ....voila. I win the Bet.’ He gave his silver haired friend an insolent wink.

‘Not necessarily,’ said Sephiroth. ‘Sometimes slow and steady wins the race. Besides which I told Cloud today that I’m not doing the Bet anymore.’

‘Thank Gaia for that,’ muttered Angeal with relief.

‘What!’ exploded Genesis, thumping his glass down on the kitchen counter. ‘You can’t do that! Just because you’re losing...’

‘I’m not losing,’ said Sephiroth calmly. ‘I’ve just made a personal decision. I don’t feel comfortable with this anymore.’

Genesis just stared at him. ‘Oh, no, no, no, no! You don’t get out of it that easily. A bet is a bet...besides, I’ve ordered the Valco for you!’

‘I’ll buy it off you,’ said Sephiroth.

‘That’s not the point! I want my apartment decorated, like you promised,’ Genesis railed on. ‘And people have put a lot of money on this! You can’t worm out of it because of a ‘Personal Decision’.’

‘Why not?’ asked Sephiroth. ‘Cloud knows what we’re up to so neither of us can win now anyway. We’re not exactly flavour of the month with him.’

Genesis’ expression turned sly. ‘I don’t necessarily agree actually,’ he said ‘Our little chocobo might know about the Bet but he can still choose one of us to win regardless...if the fancy takes him.’

Angeal groaned. ‘Please stop this.’

‘What do you mean?’ frowned Sephiroth, ignoring Angeal.

Genesis rolled his eyes. ‘I mean, O’ Dense One, that one of us can still win him over. He can still make an active choice to chose one of us, we just have to ‘persuade’ him in one direction or the other.’

Sephiroth looked unconvinced. ‘Won't work. He doesn’t trust us anymore.’

‘Then we will just have to win his trust back,’ said Genesis.

‘Guys,’ interjected Angeal. ‘We really need to show our faces at this Gala.’

Sephiroth glanced at the wall clock. They were already twenty minutes late. ‘Let’s go,’ he said and they drowned their drinks in one.

Making their way down to the tenth floor in the private lift, they stepped out onto a red carpet to find themselves in the midst of a long, slowly meandering line of dignitaries and officials from all over the Eastern Continent, snaking slowly along the corridor, chatting and laughing idly with their glittering wives, girlfriends and other VIP’s.

They were immediately greeted with a stream of ‘Good evening, Generals,’ from the line of important guests as they took their place in the queue. Genesis and Angeal made an effort to make small talk with the surrounding guests but Sephiroth gritted his teeth and tried his hardest not to engage with anyone, giving monosyllabic answers if anyone dared to approach him. As much as he mildly disliked social occasions, huge formal celebrations like this one made him want to go into full-on shut down. However, this was a purely invitation only event, being hosted by the President and Vice President. Even he couldn’t get out of this particular evening.

Finally reaching the vast chandelier bedecked ballroom, the three Firsts made their way to the seating plan by the double doors.

Their places were easy to find. They were on the largest and best placed table in the room with the President and his son Rufus.

‘Scarlet, Heidigger, Reeve Tuesti, Lazard, Tseng,’ said Genesis, reading the place settings on their table. ‘We’re in for a wild night,’ he concluded dryly.

Idly, Sephiroth scoured the seating plan to see where Cloud would be sitting. Then he found it; four tables away from theirs, along with eight other Seconds. ‘Corporal Cloud Strife’ had been placed next to ‘Lt Zack Fair’.

‘I’m going to get a drink,’ Genesis announced predictably.

Sephiroth turned away from the seating plan and followed Angeal and the redhead over to the long, glossy rosewood bar. Genesis ordered a bottle of whiskey for them but Angeal declined and settled for a spritzer.

Sephiroth took his drink and turned to face the huge room. The President had certainly outdone himself this time. There must have been at least seventy large circular tables, expensively decorated in crisp white linen tablecloths with glittering cutlery, bowls of sweet smelling exotic flowers and place settings. Each table had about ten decanted bottles of wine sitting in the centre, ready to be poured by dozens of waiters. Apart from the members of SOLDIER, all the other men in the room were wearing dinner jackets and bow ties, their partners in glittering dresses and showy jewelry.

Sephiroth hadn’t really needed to consult the seating plan to have guessed which one was the President’s table, however. It was by far the largest. He could already see Scarlet, Rufus and Tseng standing beside it, talking.

Slightly more mystifying, however, was a large, raised stage directly in front of the President’s table. Four catwalk type runways extended out of it between the other tables.

‘I wonder what the stage is for,’ said Genesis mildly amused. ‘Perhaps they’re going to model the new cadet uniforms for us. I simply can’t wait; all those scratchy cowl necks and baggy-arsed trousers.’ He pulled a face.

The ballroom was almost full now, the noise of conversation and loud greetings as people arrived and saw others they knew began to grate on Sephiroth’s enhanced hearing, threatening to turn his mild annoyance into a thumping headache. Reaching forward, he picked one of the small programme booklets off a nearby table to see what was in store for the evening but it gave little away as to the planned events, listing only the dinner menu, various speeches and something enigmatically listed as Displays.

It was then that he spotted Dino Valentino a few feet away. The famous model was talking to some guests but he glanced over when he felt Sephiroth’s gaze on him. He excused himself from the other guests and walked over to them.

‘What’s going on tonight?’ asked Sephiroth.

‘Can’t say I’m afraid, ’ said Dino genially.

‘Can’t or won’t,’ muttered Genesis, into his drink.

‘All I can say is that it’s mostly Rufus’ idea,’ said Dino. ‘They just drafted me in to organise the choreography.’ He clapped Sephiroth on the shoulder with a smile. ‘Gotta go, talk to you later.’ And with that he vanished into the crowd.

‘Choreography?’ Genesis raised a bemused eyebrow at Sephiroth. ‘You don’t think Heidigger’s going to dance, do you?’

‘Gaia save us,’ muttered Angeal.

Sephiroth followed his two friends over to the President’s table. No one was sitting there yet except Heidigger. The president was talking to Midgar’s mayor nearby with Rufus and Scarlet, who looked like she’d been poured into a black velvet dress, was chatting up some local council member, probably trying to secure the rights to test her weapons outside the city’s walls rather than thirty miles away, as was the norm.

‘Do you think it’s true that Scarlet is the President’s full time mistress now?’ asked Angeal.

‘If she is, she has a stronger stomach than I do,’ retorted Genesis. ‘Oh, look...here she comes. And why does she insist on wearing her tits as earrings?’

As if on cue, Scarlet sashayed over to them. Sephiroth could see what his friend meant. The tight black dress was so scooped and boned at the front that it forced the Weapons Development Head’s bosom up so high it was a miracle she could even breathe.

‘Ah, look at you three,’ she said as she reached them. ‘The most handsome men in the room!’

‘Hello, Scarlet,’ drawled Genesis, giving her a peck on the cheek. Sephiroth contented himself with a nod of greeting but she came over to him and put her hand on his arm. He stiffened at the contact. He might enjoy the odd dinner with Scarlet but the relationship was purely of a business nature.

‘I’ve organised a little treat for you tonight, Seph-Seph,’ she smiled.

‘Seph-Seph?’ Genesis sniggered.

Scarlet ignored him and went on, ‘You’ll enjoy it, I promise.’ And with a sultry smile, she wandered off to talk to Tseng.

‘That woman wants to get in your pants,’ said Genesis.

‘They wouldn’t fit her,’ muttered Sephiroth distractedly.

‘Ha ha, very funny,’ said Genesis plonking his bottle of whiskey on the table and attracting the attention of a vastly overweight man with a long, bushy beard.

‘Ah evening, lads,’ beamed Heidigger, hauling himself to his feet to shake their hands. ‘Should be a good evening,’ he said then plopped himself back into his seat once more, breathing heavily with the effort.

The three firsts sat down at their designated places. Sephiroth was grateful to find himself between Genesis and Angeal.

Genesis leant towards him. ‘How did Heidigger even find a suit big enough to fit him?’

‘They say he gets them from Camping General on Emerald Road,’ grinned Angeal from his other side.

‘Crisis,’ Genesis sighed. ‘There will be a shortage of tents and parachutes this year then. I must warn Lazard.’

Sephiroth was happy enough sitting between Genesis and Angeal but to his chagrin he was only one seat away from Rufus who had sat down on Genesis other side, studiously ignoring him but currently involved in an intense chat with the redhead.

As Angeal was currently talking to Reeve on his other side, Sephiroth glanced around the huge room at the glamorous crowd. He managed to pinpoint Cloud’s table which was beside one of the runways. It was almost full of Seconds dressed in their formal uniforms. There were still only two empty seats though, one assigned to his blond student and the other to Zack Fair.

On the table directly next to him were the heads of the science department. Wearing suits for once rather than their usual white coats, they almost looked like real members of the human race. Hojo was in their midst, long black hair pulled back but shiny and clean for once. Beside him was Hollander. Catching Sephiroth’s eyes on them, Hojo turned to fix him with those beady black eyes and he bared his teeth in something resembling a smile.

Without returning the smile, Sephiroth turned his back and reached for one of the carafes of vintage wine in the middle of the table. Without waiting for a waiter to pour it, he glugged a third of the bottle into his empty water glass. This was one evening he didn’t want to be sober for.

As he took his first deep drink, a trumpet blasted out across the room in a jaunty call to arms making him jump slightly and an MC called out loudly, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen! Welcome to Shinra’s Thirtieth Anniversary Gala. Please take your seats, dinner is served.’

‘Why do they always insist on announcing dinner like a cavalry charge,’ grumbled Genesis.

Waiters rushed here and there serving their first courses, which were slices of thrice stuffed chocobo breast with apricot and sesame salad. Now that everyone had their food, the noise in the room had abated to polite chatter, the tinkling of cutlery and crystal glasses being knocked together in toasts.

When they had finished and their plates had been cleared away, the MC called for attention once more. ‘Pray silence for Director Lazard Deusericus,’ he announced pompously. The room fell quiet.

Lazard stood up from his place next to Rufus and thanked the MC. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ he intoned. ‘First of all, I want to say how wonderful it is to see you all here tonight for the thirtieth anniversary of the Shinra Electric Company.’ A round of applause greeted this. Lazard smiled and continued, ‘Thirty three years ago my father, President Ronald Shinra, was working as a humble engineer in Kalm...’

Sephiroth, who knew Ronald Shinra’s biography backwards, zoned out and afforded himself another look back at Cloud’s table. The two seats were still unoccupied. Strange. Curiosity about the identity of his student’s date was starting to gnaw at him and why had this ‘date’ asked Cloud to keep his identity a mystery? It wasn’t like you could ever keep a secret at Shinra, not amongst SOLDIER’s anyway. It was impossible to keep away from gossip, even for someone as normally private as he was.

He was just considering dropping the blond a quick text when, under the table he felt Genesis long thigh nudge against his. Glancing at the redhead, he saw that he doing a commendable job of actually looking interested in what Lazard was saying while sneakily texting on the phs on his lap.

A second later, a soft vibration in Sephiroth’s pocket signaled an in-coming message. Discreetly, he pulled the phone out and flipped it open. It was a message from Genesis on their group chat. “Do you think Scarlet’s giving the Prez a hand job under the table?”

Sephiroth had to bite his lip to stop himself grinning. He saw Angeal reach for his phone too then a second later his honourable friend coughed to stifle a laugh. Sephiroth looked over at Ronald Shinra. There was no doubt, he did have a strange, inane smile on his face and his eyes looked glazed, lips slightly parted. Scarlet, however, had one arm on the table resting her chin in her palm, whilst gazing up at Lazard but the other hand was nowhere to be seen.

“Looks like he’s close too,” Angeal typed back.

“Too much info, guys,” Sephiroth typed back. ‘I’m planning on being able to keep my food down tonight.’

“His eyes are going all boggly.” Genesis’ message pinged back. “Must be on the vinegar strokes.”

Sephiroth had to pull on all his self control not to laugh out loud. Vaguely he was aware that Lazard was still dutifully doing his rags to riches speech about his father. Another message buzzed into his phone. He glanced down to see yet another note from his redheaded friend.

“A-n-d if I’m not mistaken he’s about to blow...” Genesis had typed.

‘So I all hope you have a wonderful evening and thank you all for attending,’ finished Lazard sitting down.

Suddenly loud applause broke around the room just as the President of Shinra suddenly exclaimed, ‘AHH!’ then seemed to gather his wits and clapped inappropriately loudly at his son’s speech. Sephiroth was sure he saw Scarlet wipe her hand discreetly on her napkin before joining in the over enthusiastic applause.

Sephiroth didn’t dare look at either of his friends but he was vaguely aware of Angeal’s shoulders shaking in mirth next to him. His phone buzzed in another message.

“It’s classy moments like those that make life worth living in this shitty company,” Genesis had typed.

‘That’s treason,’ Sephiroth typed back.

‘So’s this,’ responded the redhead, followed by a rather large emoji hand with the middle finger extended. The way Sephiroth was holding his phone it was pointed straight at the President. Genesis turned his head and gave him the faintest wink.

Fortunately a distraction was created by the arrival of their main course, Wutaian filet steak with Dauphinoise potatoes and red cabbage. After came more tedious speeches by the mayor and the Chief Executive of Midgar’s most prolific building companies before a choice of delicate desserts, coffees and handmade petit fours were served.

Discreet glances over his shoulder at intervals confirmed to Sephiroth that neither Cloud nor Zack had taken their seats yet.

Bottles of liquors were brought to their tables and suddenly all the lights were dimmed except the spotlights on the stage then music that sounded suspiciously like the sound of marching military boots, suddenly blared through surrounding speakers.

The spotlights spun and from behind a false wall, male dancers, dressed in camouflage marched out onto the stage, swirling staffs, thumping them on the stage in time to the music as fiery pyrotechnics exploded to loud applause from the audience. The dancers then made their way to the back of the stage. The spotlights dimmed to a strange dark green, the music slowed then the MC’s voice came over the speakers. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you... SOLDIER!’

Sephiroth and Genesis exchanged a bemused glance.

‘What the ...?’ began the redhead as and the music rose a notch.

Spotlights came on full force and the music became a powerful pulse of beats as Third and Second members of SOLDIER marched out and down the stage. Topless and covered in camo paint, their impressively muscled torsos oily and clenched, they carried the very latest of Scarlet’s weapons strapped across their fronts.

Sephiroth stared in appalled disbelief as his best looking SOLDIER's, their faces strategically smeared with black paint to highlight their cheekbones, strutted down the catwalks like butch supermodels. For once, even Kunsel had abandoned his usual helmet to show off a remarkably good bone structure and even Luxiere was pouting like he was born to it.

Angeal was frowning. ‘Not a very honourable way for SOLDIER’s to behave,’ he muttered.

Sephiroth was inclined to agree. Seeing men he’d stood beside in bloody battle swaggering around bare-chested and covered in oil was undignified and inappropriate to say the least.

The slightly shrill tones of an elderly blond reached him from a table behind him. ‘This is amazing!’ she trilled. ‘I’ve never had so much fun at one of these do’s before!’

He glanced over at Scarlet and she gave him a flirty smile back. Sephiroth felt his jaw clench. He might have known she’d had something to do with this. Next to him, he felt Genesis sit up slightly in his seat.

‘Do you think they’ll strip?’ asked his redheaded friend, perking up.

‘What do you care?’ said Sephiroth. ‘You’ve already seen half of these men naked in the showers.’

‘There’s always the other half then,’ Genesis grinned. ‘Oh, chill out, everyone’s enjoying it.’

A quick look around at the faces of the women in the room confirmed that they were enraptured by the display of half naked, muscular men striding back and forth across the stage.

The lights dimmed again to rowdy applause and then came on again to highlight a solitary figure in the middle of the stage.

Sephiroth started at the sight of the familiar, dark haired figure. It was Zack. Like the others he was also bare-chested, wearing only black combat trousers and short boots. The music slowed slightly and he began a complicated, graceful Kata with Angeal’s borrowed Buster sword, his muscles rippling impressively under the lights. The crowd applauded wildly. Genesis nudged Sephiroth and grinned. ‘Look at Angeal’s face.’

Sephiroth glanced at the dark haired General, expecting to see fury. Instead, Angeal was watching mesmerized, smiling with undisguised pride as he pupil practically danced through the complex movements without a single fault.

When Zack finally stopped he stood still as drums rolled and the music changed. The lights, now a fusion of different blue hues began to swirl around Zack. A ripple of anticipation went through the audience as another figure strode out onto the stage to stand on the opposite side. A blond. A blond with a five foot katana.

‘Oh! It’s Cloud!’ gasped Genesis enthralled. Sephiroth froze as he suddenly recognised his student. Like Zack, the blond was also stripped to the waist and wearing only black combat trousers and boots but without camo paint his pale torso glimmering under the spinning lights.

In a flash, the music changed to a fast primal drum beat and the two SOLDIER’s on the stage rushed each other, coming together in a theatrical and perfectly choreographed sparring match which had the entire audience enthralled. Zack spun round, jumped and ducked as Cloud thrust, parried and leapt in the air, in an awe inspiring display of strength, savage grace, raw power and skill which drew gasps of wonder and frantic clapping from the crowd.

Despite their frenzied encouragement, however, Sephiroth knew that only a handful of people in that room could actually fully appreciate the sheer dedication and practice that must have gone into the breathtaking ‘fight’ and Sephiroth was one of them. He found himself staring, spellbound, almost forgetting to breathe.

‘Holy shit!’ said Genesis next to him as Cloud spun in the air to land a perfectly placed hit at Zack, which the Puppy blocked gracefully.

‘Gods, they must have been practicing for weeks!’ said Angeal, eyes fixed on the stage.

‘Look at Hojo staring at Cloud like some kind of meaty dish,’ Genesis murmured in Sephiroth’s ear. ‘What a scum bag.’

Sephiroth glanced over his shoulder at Hojo. He was indeed watching Cloud intently, not even bothering to disguise his interest.

At last they finished as Zack skillfully disarmed Cloud and the show ended with Cloud on his knees, the dark SOLDIER’s buster sword to his bare throat. The place erupted with thunderous applause and Angeal leapt to his feet, clapping madly.

Zack held out his hand to help Cloud up and they stood side by side, ribs heaving with exertion, bodies glimmering with a fine sheen of sweat, faces flushed and beaming with the rush of their success as they bowed to the ecstatic crowd.

‘SOLDIER’s Second Class, Corporal Cloud Strife and Lt Zack Fair, everyone!’ yelled the MC over the noise.

People’s chairs slid back almost simultaneously as they stood to give a standing ovation. Neither Cloud nor Zack were able to hide their wide but exhausted smiles. They both waved at their audience and jogged off the stage.

It took several long minutes for the clapping to subside and guests to take their seats once more.

Genesis leant forward, lips touching Sephiroth’s ear. ‘Now that was hot, don't you agree?’ he whispered.

Across the table the President was beaming from ear to ear. ‘Absolutely marvelous!’ he blustered. ‘Well, done Rufus! I never expected that at all. Amazing display. You certainly captured the essence of SOLDIER.’

‘Did you know they had that planned, ‘Geal?’ Genesis was asking his friend.

‘ I had no idea,’ said Angeal beaming. ‘Zack must have sneaked into my flat to borrow the Buster without me knowing.’

Genesis glanced at Sephiroth and raised his eyebrows, a wicked grin spread across his face. ‘Looks like our little Bet is even more talented than we thought,’ he said.

More coffee was served along with liquors of every kind. Music started up and the stage was lowered into the floor for the guests to dance if they wanted. Most of the guests stood up and started to mingle or make their way to the bar, whilst a few of them headed for the dance floor.

‘Ah, there they are,’ said Genesis, nudging Sephiroth’s arm. He turned in his seat to look in the same direction as the redhead to see Cloud and Zack coming from the backstage area, dressed in their ceremonial SOLDIER Second suits. They were applauded all over again as they made their way around the tables, being congratulated and graciously accepting compliments.

Eventually Cloud and Zack reached their table. They stood side by side, shoulders bumping gently against each other, almost flirtatiously, laughing and smiling as they received congratulations from the President, Rufus and Scarlet.

Zack flung his arm around Cloud’s shoulders companionably. ‘We’ve been practicing in private for weeks!’ he told them all, practically bouncing on the spot in excitement. As the two teens made their way around the table to accept compliments, however, Zack didn’t remove his arm from Cloud’s shoulders.

Rufus was watching Genesis and Sephiroth beadily. ‘Looks like your Bet has found another distraction,’ he said spitefully.

Genesis, who was seething quietly, said nothing. As Zack and Cloud made their way over to Sephiroth, Angeal gave his student a huge bear hug, forcing him to let go of Cloud. ‘Amazing! Really amazing!’ he said.

‘Good technique,’ acknowledged Sephiroth.

Not to be outdone, Genesis stood up and slid an arm around Cloud’s waist. ‘You were fantastic, my love,’ he purred. ‘And quite the hottest thing I’ve seen in ages!’

Cloud blushed deliciously and was about to reply but Hojo suddenly appeared at their sides.

‘Very impressive, Corporal,’ he said to Cloud. ‘Come down to the labs tomorrow, I’d like to do some tests, maybe increase your mako dosage. Your strength and speed are truly impressive.’

‘It’s alright, Professor,’ drawled Genesis, ‘He’s had his extra mako dose for this month. Orally.’

Cloud’s cheeks reddened even further and Hojo looked disgusted. ‘Nevertheless, he needs to come in for further tests,’ said the Professor. ‘I’m sure we can improve on your natural speed, Strife.’

‘Why don’t you turn your attention to some other poor wretch and leave Cloud alone,’ said Genesis, his tone taking on a warning edge.

‘Hmm, like you perhaps?’ said Hojo, eyeing him beadily. ‘How have you been feeling lately?’

‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ snapped Genesis. ‘I feel perfectly fine...and even if I didn’t I would rather boil myself in oil than put myself in your hands!’

Hojo almost smirked. ‘As you wish,’ he said, bowing slightly and walking off to a group nearby.

‘Gaia, I hate that man,’ muttered Genesis.

‘Thanks for that,’ said Cloud genuinely.

‘No worries,’ replied Genesis. ‘Just keep away from him as much as you can. If you ever have to go down to the labs, make sure you take either myself or Sephiroth with you.’

‘I will,’ Cloud assured him.

More guests had started to fill up the dance floor as a band began playing a foxtrot. Cloud left Genesis talking to Tseng and went over to Sephiroth.

‘Did I do alright?’ he asked almost shyly.

Sephiroth allowed himself a smile. ‘You have made some astonishing progress,’ he said. ‘Under my tutelage, of course.’

Cloud laughed and positively glowed under the rare compliment. He stepped forward, his fingers gently touching his mentor's. 'Thank you for agreeing to train me.'

Sephiroth's long fingers acknowledged the touch and half curled around Cloud's. 'My pleasure,' he said.

‘I’m sorry I lied to you earlier,’ Cloud continued, ‘it’s just that it was supposed to be a surprise.’

‘I forgive you,’ murmured Sephiroth with a small smile.

For a moment they shared a look then Genesis suddenly appeared at their sides.

'Right, I'm bored with this, ' announced the redhead. ‘Let’s all go back to my house. I’ve got some devastatingly strong brandy from Icicle Inn...guaranteed to take the hairs off your chests, if you have any, of course.’ He winked at Cloud. ‘Time to party!’

Chapter Text

Leaving the President, dignitaries, politicians and other VIP’s to waltz the night away to the band, the SOLDIER Seconds and even some Thirds who had been models, including Danny, all dispersed to find transport to Midgar Heights.

Making sure they didn’t all slope off together from the Gala and arouse suspicion, they left in waves of half a dozen or so at a time for their pre-ordered taxis.

Seeing the quite clearly drunk President attempting a lumpy foxtrot with Scarlet on the dance floor, Genesis went over to Angeal and Sephiroth.

‘OK, let’s go guys,’ he said, signalling to Rufus that they were leaving. The Vice President replied with an ‘I won’t be long behind you,’ look.

Sephiroth followed Genesis and Angeal as they made their way to Shinra’s underground car park. Zack and Cloud trotted along behind, still nattering excitedly about their success at the Ball.

Down in the car park, Genesis’ official limo was waiting, its engine purring. He opened the back door for Cloud, just as Sephiroth opened the passenger door of the Valco for the blond.

Zack had other ideas, however. ‘Spike, come with me and ‘Geal,’ he said enthusiastically, slinging his arm around the blonde’s shoulders again and guiding him over to Angeal’s SUV.

‘Sure... or we could go on my new bike and meet them there,’ suggested Cloud. ‘Come and see it...it’s awesome, Seph bought it for me today.’

Cloud lead Zack round the other side of the Valco to where the bike was standing next to Sephiroth’s under its new canvas cover. In one movement, Cloud stripped the cover off to reveal the stunning, glossy machine.

‘Shiva!’ gasped Zack. ‘Can you even drive this?’

‘Of course,’ said Cloud, mounting the bike. ‘Hop on!’

Zack got on the back seat behind Cloud.

Genesis and Sepiroth exchanged a perplexed look as they watched Cloud start up the bike’s engine.

‘See you all there!’ Cloud shouted over the roar of the bike’s engine and sped off out of the garage to the sound of Zack’s whoops of delight.

‘What just happened?’ said Genesis bemused.

‘I think you both just got stood up,’ said Angeal, trying unsuccessfully to hide a smile. ‘You might as well come with me. I’m not drinking so I don’t mind driving.’

Sephiroth locked up the Valco, Genesis sulkily dismissed his driver and they both climbed into the Angeal’s four wheel drive.

****

Unable to resist Zack’s yelps of excitement at the bike’s power and speed, Cloud decided to take him for a decent spin on the meaty machine, roaring out of Midgar indecently fast and taking the darkened motorway out into the wilds on the same route he had with Sephiroth earlier that day.

Doubling back when they reached the rocky outcrops, he decided to really open the bike up. Reaching 150 miles per hour, on the flat straight road, they found themselves approaching the luxury gated community of Midgar Heights before they realised it. Slowing down to a stop at the security barrier, they both showed their SOLDIER passes to the uniformed guard and informed him that they were attending a party at General Rhapsodos’ house. The guard had clearly been given a guest list by Genesis because he checked their names off a sheet of paper and allowed them to pass.

Obeying the speed restriction this time, Cloud drove the bike slowly down the exclusive tree-lined avenues, passing huge houses, some of which could not even be seen from the road for trees and high walls.

‘Will you look at these gaffs!’ gasped Zack. ‘They’re like mansions or something. I had no idea people even lived like this!’

Cloud had to agree. They made the Shinra mansion at Nibelheim look positively modest by comparison.

Reaching a roundabout with a large fountain in the middle, he turned left down another wide, quiet avenue, brightly lit with ornate street lamps. He knew where to go; Genesis had text him the postcode the day before when he’d invited Cloud to spend a couple of days with him there after his mission.

“It’s called Rhapsodos Hall, you can’t miss it, there’s a sign on the pillar outside” the red head had typed.

Halfway down the avenue, Cloud could hear the sound of pumping dance music even before the house even came into view. A couple of metres on there were a set of high double gates, open to admit party guests. On a pillar to one side was a sign with ornate script which did indeed read, ‘Rhapsodos Hall.’

Through the gates and down the end of a long meandering gravel driveway was an imposing Elizabethan style manor house, complete with beams and lead-light windows and red brick chimneys. It looked slightly incongruous amongst the palm trees but impressive nonetheless. Lights shone from every window, the drive and surrounding lawned areas were already full of cars. The heavy wooden front door was open, a liveried butler standing to one side to greet some guests who were currently getting out of a car. Cloud could see Angeal’s SUV parked by the garages.

‘Should we go in now?’ said Cloud

‘Nah, let them stew a bit,’ said Zack. ‘You wanted to make them jealous, didn’t you? Pull over under that tree by that small park.’

Cloud bumped up the kerb into a small park area and parked the bike behind a hedge so it was concealed from the road. He and Zack climbed off and sat down on the soft grass.

Cloud was silent for a moment, listening to the sounds of a party in full swing coming from Genesis’ house next door. By the volume of noise and the sound of splashing, he guessed most people were in the back garden, messing about in a swimming pool.

‘Still wanna do this?’ asked Zack, unusually perceptive for once.

Cloud nodded slowly. ‘Seph told me he’s calling off the Bet and that he’s really sorry for the way he and Gen treated me over it.’

‘And you don’t believe him?’

‘I don’t know what to believe anymore, Zack.’

‘You know they’re in love with each other, don’t you?’ said Zack. ‘All that competitiveness and the Bet stuff is just some kind of weird, fucked-up foreplay for them.’

Cloud looked down and dejectedly plucked at a bit of grass. ‘I still want some payback for what they did though. I know it’s petty but I do want to make them jealous. Like you said, they always get their own way. I know that anyone who catches their eye just rolls over for them. I don’t want to be like all those others. I want to be different.'

‘So the apology’s not enough then?’ asked Zack.

Cloud remembered Sephiroth breathing Genesis’ name when he was asleep and recovering from Hojos gruesome revenge. ‘No. They do love each other, you’re right. I was always just a game to them.’

Zack sighed. ‘I think it’s more than that now,’ he said, ‘but, hey, whatever you want, Spike. I’m happy to play along, you know that. I’ll always have your back.’

Cloud smiled with gratitude at his friend.

‘I checked on your sword today,’ said Zack. ‘Just to make sure that greasy git hadn’t sold it but it was there. Still in the box, with your name on.’

‘You do realise that if one of them does win this bet, I won’t be able to actually afford the sword,’ said Cloud, gloomily.

‘Forget it,’ said Zack. ‘I don’t get much time to spend money anyway. You’re a mate, it’s a gift.’

‘Oh, no!’ Cloud protested. ‘I’ll pay you back the 1000 Gil, I swear, even if I have to borrow the money off one of them.’

‘Then you’ll have to tell them what you want that much money for,’ Zack pointed out. He stood up, brushing the grass off his uniform. ‘I think we’d better show our faces at this party. We've been gone long enough.’

It wasn’t worth riding the bike for such a short distance, so Cloud pushed it down the gravel driveway to the front of Genesis’ house.

‘Good evening, sirs,’ said the butler at the door. ‘Can I take your jackets?’

‘We’re good thanks,’ said Zack breezing past the man, followed by Cloud.

‘Most of the guests are out on the patio,’ the man called after them. ‘Just go straight through the house.’

Cloud thanked him.

Inside the house was much like a much larger version of Genesis’ office, with antique wood paneling in all the rooms, crackling fires in grates and dimmed chandeliers everywhere. Lit candles adorned every surface, adding to the feeling of warmth and luxury along with deep piled Persian rugs.

As instructed, Cloud and Zack walked through the house and out of double doors leading to the pool area. It was packed; there had to be at least two hundred people there already. The DJ from Black Materia had even been coaxed over at short notice by Genesis, and probably a vast sum of money, to play the latest dance music. The party was already in full swing, as guests danced around the palm lined patio at the back of the house, mostly barefoot with drinks in hand.

Steam was rising off the out-door swimming pool, which was lit from under the turquoise water. Someone had put bubble bath in the pool and hit the hydro mechanism. Great clouds of pink bubbles were expanding all over the patio and in the water, floating off into the night sky. Bamboo candle lights were lit all around the borders of the garden, giving it a magical air.

Genesis, it seemed, had invited an eclectic mix of artists, models, musicians as well as the cast from the latest Loveless production. Most of the SOLDIER Seconds and even some thirds were also there, especially those who had modeled at the show, some still in their camo gear and war paint, strutting around enjoying the attention they were getting from the arty types. Cloud spotted Danny in the Jacuzzi chatting to Kunsel and waved in greeting. He was surprised to also see Reno and Cissnei though. He’d always had the impression that the red-haired slummer and Genesis didn’t like each other or perhaps it was just that the young, streetwise Turk was a useful colleague. Perhaps he and Genesis just had a love/hate relationship, enjoying bitching each other up. It was frankly anyone’s guess.

He spotted Genesis then, standing at the impromptu pool bar with Sephiroth. Both of them had abandoned their formal military jackets, rolled their shirt sleeves up to their forearms and undone their first few buttons at the neck. By the look on Genesis’ face, he was clearly agitated about something and seemed to be arguing heatedly with Sephiroth.

As Cloud approached with Zack, he caught the terse conversation.

‘Why did you buy him that monster of a bike?’ Genesis railed. ‘What if they’ve fallen off...or crashed!’

‘They won’t fall off,’ said Sephiroth calmly. ‘Cloud is a very competent rider.’

‘Well, where are they then?’ demanded Genesis. ‘They set off before us and we’ve already been here nearly forty minutes!’

‘We’re here,’ said Cloud. Both Generals turned round at the sound of his voice. Sephiroth looked visibly relieved but he wasn’t sure if Genesis was going to knock him out or pull him into a bear hug. ‘I just took Zack for a spin on the bike,’ he explained, remembering to slide his arm around Zack’s waist to give it a gentle squeeze.

‘It’s awesome!’ beamed Zack. ‘We took it to 150...smooth as silk!’

Genesis’ jaw tensed. ‘Yes, well, perhaps next time you’ll be considerate enough to tell us you’re going to be late when we’re expecting you somewhere,’ he said tersely and stomped off.

‘He was concerned,’ said Sephiroth, his expression stoic. ‘As I was.’

Cloud let his arm drop from Zack’s waist to his side once more. He was genuinely touched by his mentor’s words but he didn’t want to be distracted from his plan. He wanted some sport with both Generals first after what they had done to him...just to teach them a little lesson.

‘There are a lot of people here,’ said Cloud, gazing around. ‘I thought it was just going to be us lot and a bottle of Icicle Inn booze.’

‘Gen spent the entire afternoon organising it,’ said Sephiroth. ‘He likes parties.’

‘Spare swimming trunks in the poolhouse, everyone,’ Genesis was shouting over the music. ‘Ladies...you’ll just have to wear your undies!’

‘But I’m not wearing any!’ squealed a local socialite.

‘No change there then, darling,’ quipped Genesis.

‘I haven’t got a bikini either!’ declared Cissnei. Luxiere picked her up and threw her into the pool fully dressed to loud guffaws and shrieks of encouragement from the other SOLDIERS. The female Turk emerged a moment later, spluttering and raking her hair out of her eyes.

‘Luxiere, you total shit!’ she screeched, dragging herself out of the pool to chase him around the garden with a folded garden umbrella.

‘What will the neighbours think?’ chuckled Zack.

‘I’m the neighbour and I don’t give a shit,’ said Rufus, passing at that moment with his arms around a bosomy blond of indeterminate sex.

Cissnei’s dunk was a cue for SOLDIER’s to start showing off against each other doing two fingered push ups, positively glowing from the awed attention of the civilian guests. In contrast a group of actors from the latest production of Loveless were tauntingly dancing under a raised gazebo by the pool singing ‘You think you’re a man but you’re only a boy.’

Sephiroth went to the kitchen to locate a bottle of whiskey and went back outside the join Angeal on a large sun-bed to watch Cloud and Zack horsing around in the water, pushing each other off lilos, then starting a four-a-side lilo fight with Reno and Danny.

Angeal looked on indulgently, laughing at the antics of his Puppy.

‘Unarmed combat!’ shouted Rufus, a large cigar in the corner of his mouth. ‘Naked!’

The surrounding crowd bellowed with delight. ‘NAKED! NAKED! NAKED!’ They began to chant.

‘No freakin’ way!’ said Zack laughing.

Keeping their swim trunks on, Zack and Cloud climbed out of the pool and walked to the perfect lawn. They stood about three feet apart.

‘Ok,’ announced Kunsel, standing between them. ‘I’m the ref and what I say goes. No dirty fighting, no spitting, no biting...and no groping! On the count of three...one, two THREE!’

Kunsel leapt out of the way and the two Seconds charged at each other. Zack dived in first, almost too quickly for Cloud to see and grabbed his leg, flipping him hard onto his back. Cloud counter attacked by swinging his legs up to kick Zack in the chest. Zack darted back, grabbed Cloud’s arms, twisting him around once and throwing him to the floor. Cloud was up in an instant and they fought, kicking, punching and throwing each other all over the lawn. Finally, as the stronger of the two, Zack managed to get Cloud in a headlock to tumultuous cheers.

‘Would’ve been better naked, yo,’ commented Reno.

Zack grinned and pulled Cloud into a full, hot mouth on mouth kiss to even louder cheers as he helped him up off the grass.

Rufus was chuckling. ‘Oh dear, I think I’d better back Zack in this Bet!’ Everyone in hearing distance laughed

‘Did you see Gen’s face?’ Zack whispered in Cloud’s ear. ‘He looked like he wanted to rip my arms off.’

‘You don’t think we’re overdoing it, do you?’ asked Cloud.

‘Noo, Spike, they deserve it. A taste of their own medicine will do them good for once.’

‘I know but...’

‘Shit, Spikey, you really got it bad, haven’t you?’ Zack ruffled his damp hair playfully.

Sephiroth had watched the Puppy kiss Cloud with an odd feeling in his gut he couldn’t quite identify. He looked around to see if he could see Genesis. He was usually at the centre of every party, the loudest and the most outrageous, but there seemed to be no sign of him.

He made his excuses to Angeal and went on the search for his red-headed friend. He tracked him down eventually to the vast master bedroom upstairs.

He found Genesis curled up in the middle of the huge four poster, surrounded by lit, scented candles on every surface, wearing only his formal trousers.

‘Go away,’ muttered Genesis.

Sephiroth sighed and walked over to perch on the edge of the bed. ‘Is this about Cloud and Zack?’

‘It’s humiliating, is what it is,’ Genesis ranted. ‘You heard Rufus! He wants to bet on Zack...he thinks Zack has more chance of seducing Cloud than we do! I mean US! SOLDIER Firsts and Generals of Shinra! Famous, rich, cute and, let’s not forget, intelligent for Gaia’s sake!’

‘Genesis,’ said Sephiroth gently. ‘Stop it.’ He went to pull Genesis into a kiss but the red head was too wound up and pushed himself free. Sephiroth caught him again and he stilled as though he no longer had the will to struggle.

‘Gen, it’s okay,’ said Sephiroth softly.

Genesis relaxed against his friend, breathing in the soft vanilla smell of Sephiroth’s hair. ‘It’s not though is it?’ he said. ‘I feel old now. Old and decrepit.’

‘You’re barely thirty,’ Sephiroth pointed out.

‘And Cloud is what? Eighteen? Zack is only nineteen! I feel like a perv.’

Sephiroth chuckled gently. ‘You are a perv and you always have been. That’s what I like about you.’

‘Stay with me tonight,’ said Genesis.

Any doubts Sephiroth had about sleeping with a fellow SOLDIER vanished in that moment. Genesis looked so sad and so vulnerable that he couldn’t possibly refused him. He undressed under his friend’swatchful gaze, as the red head tried to act nonchalant and failed dismally.

Genesis had seen Sephiroth bare-chested, bare legged but never totally bare before. It was an awe-inspiring and utterly fabulous sight as the silver General stood before him, stark naked, his fabulous hair cascading around his body. He looked like a marble statue of some exotic God.

Sephiroth noticed his reaction and his mouth twitched into a smile. He climbed into bed and watched as Genesis kicked off his trousers and pants in one swift move and crawled under the crisp, white sheet. He scooted closer to Sephiroth in the vast bed until their bodies were touching.

‘Aren’t you annoyed though?’ asked the red head, ‘about Cloud and the Pup?’

‘Are you?’

‘Yes,’ said Genesis.

‘You like him,’ said Sephiroth. It wasn’t a question.

‘So do you,’ accused Genesis.

Sephiroth was watching him with those eerie green eyes, glowing slightly in the soft candlelight.

‘What?’ asked Genesis.

‘I like you too,’ murmured Sephiroth.

A heavy silence fell between them.

When Genesis didn’t look as though he was going to respond, Sephiroth continued, ‘That time in the kitchen,’ he said, ‘if ‘Geal hadn’t turned up...’

Genesis continued to hold his gaze. ‘I thought you didn’t want to,’ he said at last. ‘You said it must never happen again.’

‘I was wrong,’ said Sephiroth.

Chapter Text

Hours later they lay together in each other’s arms. They had made love, slowly at first, then hard and fast and then later tenderly, simply enjoying the luxury and unexpected privilege of being together.

‘We should have done this years ago,’ murmured Sephiroth, idly playing with a lock of Genesis silky hair and luxuriating in the feel of the red head’s warm body next to him in the huge comfortable bed.

‘Mmm,’ said Genesis, a sleepy smile on his lips, ‘was good.’

‘It was a lot more than ‘good’,’ said Sephiroth, gently tightening his arms around him.

‘Should have made your move earlier, Crescent,’ chided Genesis, stretching deliciously in his arms.

Sephiroth buried his nose in the red head’s sweet-smelling hair. Even after a night of hot, sticky passion he smelt so good.

‘The truth is, I was afraid to get too attached to you,’ Sephiroth confessed. ‘Every time you go on a mission, I never know if I’m going to see you again. It terrifies me.’

Genesis raised his head from where it was resting on Sephiroth’s chest and considered his new lover. ‘I’m not that easy to kill, y’know, same as you,’ he said gently.

‘Just as well,’ said Sephiroth dropping a light kiss on his lips. ‘I think I need a shower before I fall asleep.’

Genesis grumbled at having to move out of the warm bed but got up nonetheless and followed Sephiroth into the huge bathroom. Like the rest of the house, it was opulent and luxurious with a large roll topped bath big enough for two people to sit comfortably. Ignoring the bath, however, Sephiroth turned on the taps of the large double shower and chose the tropical rain shower setting.

‘I’ve seen helicopters with less buttons and knobs than this shower,’ said Sephiroth, walking in under the under the myriad jets of water. It was like being in a monsoon.

Genesis stepped in after him and reached for his favourite shampoo. ‘Here, let me wash your hair,’ he offered, squirting a large blob in his palm and began gently soaping Sephiroth’s hair, running his fingers through the gossamer silk strands, admiring how it clung to the other man’s wet, beautifully muscular body.

Sephiroth reached for some shower gel and they leisurely soaped each other down, kissing now then until Sephiroth turned him to face the glass wall of the shower and gently soaped his back and shoulders, his hands sliding down towards Genesis’ backside. Carefully, he slipped one finger inside the red-head and was rewarded with a gasp.

‘Nice?’ he murmured.

‘Yeah’ was the response.

Sephiroth dropped a kiss on his neck and slid in another finger, knuckle deep and twisted gently. Genesis groaned this time and the silver General added a third finger. Genesis was practically squirming against him.

‘Seph, stop teasing!’ he begged.

Sephiroth needed no further encouragement. He removed his fingers and in one slow, steady movement he slid deep inside the red-head.

Genesis bit is bottom lip and shuddered as he was breached. He let his head fall back against Sephiroth’s shoulder, eyes closed, pale throat bared.

‘Does that feel good?’ Sephiroth breathed against his ear.

Genesis gulped and nodded. It was all he could do. He was trapped between Sephiroth and the soapy, steamy glass wall of the shower, one of his friend’s arms bracing him around his chest, the other slowly stroking his hardness. Genesis wondered briefly if it was possible to die of pleasure as Sephiroth moved in and out with such torturous slowness he thought his heart might give out.

‘Seph, harder!’ he pleaded.

Sephiroth picked up the pace.

‘Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck...!’ Genesis groaned and blurted every expletive he could think of in his fervour.

‘Stop swearing, it’s putting me off,’ Sephiroth panted in his ear.

‘I can’t help it,’ Genesis groaned. ‘Oh, my fucking G...! He was silenced suddenly by Sephiroth’s free hand being clamped over his mouth.

The silver General responded with deep, hard strokes, riding them both to an explosive climax under the gushing water.

Genesis’ legs almost gave way but Sephiroth held him firm. ‘It’s okay, I’ve got you,’ he whispered.

They both stood for a moment, legs shaking, hearts hammering simultaneously in the aftermath.

Then Sephiroth let go of him and gently eased out. ‘Are you alright?’ he asked.

Genesis nodded, dazed. ‘We’d better finish our shower or Midgar will have a drought alert at this rate.’

After, they towelled each other off and went back into the bedroom. Exhausted, they climbed into the huge bed and snuggled close, kissing lazily.

*****

Downstairs the party showed no signs of abating and even Angeal had changed into some swim trunks and was relaxing in the Jacuzzi with Zack and a bottle of wine. Scores of people were dancing on the lawn to the infectious music or splashing around in the swimming pool.

Cloud, who had just won a game of pool against Reno in the Leisure Room, located in the house’s basement, went back upstairs to the bar to get a drink.

Over by the ornamental fish pond he saw Rufus was busy chatting to Dino Valentino whilst his gaze discreetly darted around looking around for something or someone. Then it hit Cloud. Sephiroth and Genesis were missing. In fact, now he came to think about it, he hadn’t seen them since his unarmed combat with Zack three hours previously.

Instead of ordering a drink, he went over to Angeal and Zack. ‘Have you seen Seph and Gen?’ he asked.

‘Not for a while,’ said Angeal unconcerned. ‘They’re probably getting drunk somewhere on that Icicle Inn brandy.’

‘Don’t forget you promised to take me out on the bike tomorrow morning,’ said Zack, ‘so don’t drink too much.’

‘I won’t,’ said Cloud. He left them to go and look for Sephiroth and Genesis. He decided he wanted to apologise to both of them. His relationship with Sephiroth was more of a mentor and student, almost exclusively professional, but Genesis was different. He felt bad about flirting with Zack in front of them, after all he and the red head had grown quite close in a way that could almost be considered lovers. Despite his anger over the Bet, he felt he'd behaved abysmally all night, ignoring them both for the most part, to hang out with Zack.

Going back into the house he searched the endless downstairs rooms, each as luxurious and flamboyant as the last. There was no sign of either Generals though. Stopping at the base of the wide, curving staircase, he debated looking for them upstairs. Maybe Genesis had simply gone to bed and Sephiroth had taken a taxi home. He decided to try anyway.

Aware that he was still in swim trunks, although they had long since dried in the warm air, he climbed the stairs. He looked into room after room but they were all empty. At the end of the corridor was the only room he still hadn’t tried. It was also the only one with double doors. Cloud guessed it must be Genesis’ bedroom. He padded along the corridor, his bare feet soundless on the soft carpet. Reaching it, he knocked.

‘Fuck off!’ came Genesis muffled response from inside.

‘Who is it?’ called a deeper voice, unmistakably Sephiroth’s.

‘It’s Cloud,’ he said. From inside he could hear a muted conversation – two voices, unmistakably the Red and Silver Generals, trading hissed words about something.

‘Come in,’ called Sephiroth at last.

Cloud tried the door but it wouldn’t open.

‘I locked it in case Rufus came prowling around,’ he heard Genesis say.

A moment later a key was turned in the lock and the door opened. Cloud found himself face to face with a totally naked Sephiroth. He tried not to gape but it was impossible. His mentor’s body was a literal work of art, from his height and perfectly formed musculature to his shimmering cascade of hair. With sheer force of will, he stopped his gaze dropping lower than the man’s waist.

‘Can we help you with something?’ called Genesis haughtily from the rumpled sheets of an impressive four poster bed. ‘Shouldn’t you be playing with your new Puppy, or something?’ The bitterness in his voice was plain to hear.

Cloud tore his eyes from Sephiroth. ‘I just wanted to say sorry,’ he blurted.

‘Sorry for what?’ inquired Genesis, looking bored.

Sephiroth must have taken pity on him because he stepped aside. ‘You’d better come in, Cloud,’ he said.

Cloud walked inside the sumptuous room and Sephiroth closed the door behind him. Leaving the blond standing where he was, he went back over to the bed and climbed in once more next to Genesis. The red head curled up against him like a possessive cat.

‘Speak,’ said Genesis. ‘And make it good, I’m tired.’

Cloud cleared his throat, faltering under Genesis’ cold gaze. He couldn’t blame him for being annoyed he supposed, after flirting so heavily with Zack. ‘I just wanted to apologise for trying to make you both jealous,’ he said.

Genesis regarded him from half lidded eyes. ‘Do we look jealous?’ he asked archly.

At that moment Cloud decided that they most definitely didn’t look jealous or even cared that he’d been blatantly making up to Zack all evening. In fact, they looked for all the world, like two people who very much belonged together.

‘I wanted to say it was a childish thing for me to do,’ Cloud ploughed on, ‘but what you both did to me with the Bet thing...it was hurtful and humiliating.’

‘Whatever,’ said Genesis looking bored. ‘Either get in or get out. Choice is yours. I won’t make the offer twice.’

‘Gen,’ chided Sephiroth gently.

Cloud glanced at Sephiroth but his face was an unreadable mask, as usual although the man was watching him steadily with those hypnotic green eyes.

Genesis turned his head to look at Sephiroth. ‘What?’ he said tetchily. ‘He’s been playing games with us all along. I do not appreciate being made to look stupid.’

‘We’re hardly blameless in this and you know it,’ Sephiroth pointed out.

‘No more games,’ Cloud assured them. ‘I promise.’

Genesis considered him, his greeny-blue eyes slitted with suspicion. Then he sighed and threw back the sheet. ‘Get in then,’ he said. The challenge was clear.

With barely a moment’s hesitation, Cloud stripped naked under the watch full eyes of both Generals, then he crawled in next to Genesis. The red head shifted to accommodate him and reached his arm out as an invitation to Cloud to lie next to him. He moved close and Genesis curled his arm around his shoulders. Cloud laid his head on the red head’s shoulder.

‘So, you’re saying that all that stuff with Zack was just to piss us off?’ asked Genesis.

‘Yes,’ Cloud admitted. ‘I wanted to get my own back on you both for the Bet.’

He saw Genesis’ mouth curve into a subtle smile. ‘Little shit.’ Despite the words, it was said almost fondly. ‘I should be furious with you, y’know.’

‘You were, I seem to remember,’ put in Sephiroth.

‘I think I probably still am,’ said Genesis. Without warning he pushed Cloud onto his back and straddled him. He dropped a languorous kiss on the blond’s lips, idly exploring Cloud’s tongue with his own, then lay down on his other side so that Cloud was sandwiched between him and Sephiroth.

Cloud now found himself next to his naked mentor, the man’s long powerful body pressed against his.

Sephiroth reached out to slowly caress Cloud’s cheek, tracing his jaw line with his thumb. A moment later Cloud was kissing the most terrifying man in the world. The Demon of Wutai’s tongue was circling his, pushing deeper into his mouth. Cloud responded, melting against that that hard, muscular body until another hand came around to cup his chin and turn his face away. Then Genesis was kissing him again, deeply and with smouldering passion.

It wasn’t for long though because as Genesis pulled away and the two Generals were kissing each other over him, just inches from his face. Then they broke away to kiss him once more and so lit continued in gentle, affectionate rotation, taking turns to kiss each other and sometimes all three of them together.

Before Cloud fully realised what was happening, two very different hands were slowly caressing his torso, sliding over his belly and down to his thighs. Cloud could feel the tension pool in his belly to an almost unbearable throb. He trembled as Sephiroth’s hand circle his cock while Genesis’ gently kneaded, pressed and fondled his balls with expert ease as they took it in turns to kiss him and each other. Despite himself, Cloud’s body arched into their touch.

He slid his hands down the two sleek bodies either side of him. Finding what he was groping for, he firmly encircled the hard, silky erections of both Generals and he began long, even strokes simultaneously with both hands.Through a haze of pleasure, he moved his hands firmly but gently up and down the smooth, shafts of the other two.

‘Seems that our Cloud is ambidextrous,’ murmured Genesis amused.

‘Very useful in a combat situation,’ Sephiroth put in seriously.

Cloud made a noise that was meant to be a laugh but came out as a giggle. It was cut short though as Genesis inserted a long finger into his mouth. Instinctively, he sucked on it sensuously until it was removed and a moment later, he felt it pressing against his hole. He cried out when the finger was slid deep inside him, hitting that overly sensitive part immediately, twisting and sliding in and out.

Cloud’s hand movements on both Generals were becoming more erratic, pumping both of them harder and faster and eliciting groans of pleasure from them both. He was practically squirming now with the need for release and was certain he couldn’t hold it off any longer. ‘I’m going to come!’ he gasped.

‘Not yet,’ Genesis whispered in his ear. ‘Concentrate, Cloud. Remember your materia training. Focus.’

‘Oh Shiva!’ groaned Cloud, almost delirious with pleasure. ‘Feels soooo good!’ He was faintly aware that he was bucking against Genesis finger. In response, the red head added another finger, pushing in even more deeply and Cloud cried out as he felt stars explode behind his eyes.

‘Seph, you ready?’ asked Genesis breathlessly.

‘Mmhm,’ responded the Silver Demon. In response his grip tightened on Cloud and he pumped faster. In seconds Cloud let out a yell as he came hard, splattering himself and both of them.

Sephiroth and Genesis pushed his hands away to take care of their own climaxes and simultaneously came all over Cloud, thickly covering his belly and chest and adding to the slippery mess already there.

For a moment all three lay still, catching their breath. Utterly spent, Cloud was aware of the not altogether pleasant sensation of the previously warm white goo cooling on his torso in great globules.

‘You’re a fucking mess, Strife,’ said Genesis amused. ‘Your turn to get the tissues, Crescent.’

‘I can use the sheet,’ offered Cloud, fumbling vaguely for the cotton fabric.

‘Don’t be disgusting,’ said Genesis. ‘Seph!’

With a slight grumble of irritation, Sephiroth reached over for the box of tissues and diligently set about cleaning Cloud up, as the blond lay there, totally drained but content, abandoning himself to his mentor’s ministrations.

‘There, good as new,’ said Sephiroth at last, dropping a kiss on his lips.

‘Not quite,’ said Genesis fussily. ‘He’s got some in his hair.’ He grabbed another tissue from the box and wiped a blond lock. ‘Can’t leave that there, your hair sticks up enough as it is.’ He flung the damp tissue at Sephiroth who put it in the bin with the others.

‘Right, goodnight, you two,’ said Sephiroth, rolling over, plumping up his pillow and lying down comfortably, his back to them.

Genesis, who clearly enjoyed a post coital cuddle, pulled Cloud into his arms.

Cloud felt the red head’s lips touch his ear. ‘Did you enjoy that?’ whispered the red-head. ‘What I did with my fingers.’

‘Mmm,’ said Cloud with a small contented smile. ‘S’mazing.’

‘Imagine what it would feel like with me inside you,’ Genesis purred. ‘Moving slowly...in and out, filling you, stretching you...coming inside you.’

Cloud felt a delicious frisson of anticipation surge through his body. Genesis must have noticed because Cloud felt the man’s lips smile against the shell of his ear.

‘I’m going to fuck you, my love,’ whispered the Red General, ‘so hard I’ll make you scream my name.’

‘Genesis, stop trying to cheat,’ Sephiroth’s voice floated over to them from the other side of the bed. ‘I’m trying to sleep here. You’ll still do anything to win this stupid Bet, won’t you?’

Genesis chuckled softly. ‘You can’t blame me, after all only Cloud can decide who wins. Which one of us do you want, baby?’ he asked. ‘Your choice.’

Next to him Cloud felt Sephiroth roll over to face him once more, so close that he could feel the man’s breath in his hair, that marble-hard body resting along his.

Drowzily, Cloud tried to co-ordinate his pleasure addled thoughts. ‘Both of you...together,’ he murmured. ‘Then you’ll both win.’

He was sure he heard Genesis’ breath hitch. The increase in Sephiroth’s heartbeat was barely discernible but it was there nonetheless, picked up by his slightly enhanced hearing.

‘That won’t work, darling,’ said Genesis, ruefully. ‘As appealing as it sounds we’re both far too big...we’ll split you in two, especially as it’s your first time.’

Despite that, he felt both Generals begin to harden against his thighs once more.

'We'll talk about it tomorrow,' said Sephiroth. 'It's nearly 4.30, we should try to get a couple of hours' sleep at least.'

‘Sunday tomorrow,’ sighed Genesis contentedly. ‘We can spend all day in bed. Utter bliss.’

They lay there in the silent afterglow of amazing sex, listening as the as the noise from the party slowly dwindled. Gradually it was replaced by the sounds of people leaving, of laughter and shouts of farewell echoing in the night followed by cars being started up and the crunch of gravel as they drove away and soon Cloud succumbed to blissful sleep.

*******

The sound of a gentle ping heralding an incoming phs message invaded Cloud’s subconscious.

His eyes flickered open to find himself in a huge four poster bed with soft white sheets and thick, dark red drapes. Daylight was seeping through a gap in the rich, heavy curtains. Confusion set in for a second then he remembered where he was. On one side of him, Sephiroth was asleep on his back, his wildly extravagant hair draped around him and across the sheets, his long black lashes fanned out on his pale cheeks. On his other side, Genesis was lying on his side facing him, an unusually peaceful look on his delicate features. Looking around, Cloud spotted his phs on the bedside cabinet to his left.

Carefully, so as not to wake Genesis, he leant over the man and retrieved his phone. Lying down once more, he flipped it open. There was a message from Zack.

“Slut,” it read, followed by a hysterically laughing emoji.

Cloud grinned. “How do you know where I went last night?” he typed back.

Ping. “Reno,” responded Zack immediately. “He did his Turk thing and heard you all having fun in Gen’s bedroom. Rufus is furious with you and Gen, lol. You know how he’s still got a thing for Seph! You certainly know how to make powerful enemies! Haha!”

“Oh shit,” Cloud responded grimly.

Ping. “Yeah,” Zack replied. “So who won the bet? Everyone wants to know.”

“Neither of them,” Cloud text back. “Not yet.”

Ping. “Oh, OK,” Zack replied with a confused emoji. “I wanna hear all about it. Don’t forget you promised to take me out on the bike this morning. I’m busy this afternoon with Angeal so call me as soon as you’re properly awake...if you can still walk.” Winky emoji.

‘Cloud,’ grumbled Sephiroth groggily. ‘Turn that fucking thing off.’

On his other side, Genesis began to stir, disturbed by the noise.

‘Sorry, it’s only Zack,’ said Cloud. ‘I forgot, I’d promised to take him out on the bike early on today. He couldn’t see much last night because it was so dark on the plains.’

Genesis yawned elegantly and sighed. ‘Run along then and play with your Puppy,’ he said.

Cloud laughed and leant forward to kiss him. ‘Stop it,’ he said then he dropped a kiss on Sephiroth’s cheek. ‘Sure you don’t mind if I go? I won’t be long.’

‘No, go on, piss off and amuse yourself with your new pet,’ said Genesis in a tone which made Cloud wonder if he was actually joking or not; having been on the sharp end of Genesis’ spiteful tongue more than once at the beginning, he was still never quite sure.

‘I promise I’ll come back after,’ said Cloud. ‘Only, Zack can’t make this afternoon because he’s busy and we’ve got classes all day for the rest of the week.’

‘Cloud, just go,’ said Sephiroth, still half asleep. ‘But drive slowly.’

‘I will,’ promised Cloud. He crawled off the bed and dragged on his trunks After brushing his teeth with the new travel toothbrush Genesis had left out for him, he kissed both Generals goodbye and left.

Barely ten minutes later both men heard the bike’s engine roar to life and then it sped down the driveway in a shower of gravel.

‘Did that even sound slow to you?’ inquired Genesis.

‘Depends what you mean by slow,’ said Sephiroth. ‘There’s my idea of ‘slow’, then Angeal’s notion of ‘slow.’ I’d say that was mine.’

There was a moment’s silence as both men lay quietly, trying to find the thread of sleep once more but then suddenly Sephiroth started to laugh.

Genesis blinked himself to lucidity. ‘What?’ he turning his head on the pillow to look at his lover.

‘Cloud is still a virgin,’ said Sephiroth. ‘We can’t even win the Bet with two of us trying.’

Genesis grinned. ‘He’s coming back later.’ He eyed Sephiroth with infinite wickedness. ‘But which one of us will win?’

‘Toss a coin,’ suggested Sephiroth with a huge yawn.

‘Too boring,’ said Genesis but he looked thoughtful suddenly. ‘I’ve got a better idea. Let’s fight for it.’

Sephiroth blinked those strange cat eyes at him. ‘Fight for what?’ he asked baffled.

‘Cloud... winner takes all. The other one backs off. Think of all those bets people have put on! It’s the only way we can stop this thing with any integrity. It’s a matter of pride.’

‘Let it go, Gen,’ said Sephiroth, reaching out to pull the red head to him.

But Genesis didn’t move. ‘What’s the matter? Scared you’ll lose?’ he taunted.

‘You’ll never beat me,’ Sephiroth pointed out.

‘Of course I can beat you,’ huffed Genesis.

‘First time for everything, I suppose,’ said Sephiroth with a grin.

‘Fuck off,’ Genesis grinned widely.

Sephiroth laughed. ‘Okay, get dressed and call Angeal. We’ll go to HQ now and finish this once and for all.’

Chapter Text

Angeal was already waiting in the VR room when Genesis turned up, dressed in his leathers, rapier at his side.

‘Which simulation do you want? Kalm, Gongaga...Junon?’ he asked.

‘Junon,’ said Genesis, ‘seeing as I’ve not long come back from there.’

Angeal pressed a button and the Junon canon and surrounding cliffs pixelated around them. ‘Where’s Seph?’

‘He’ll be here in a minute,’ said Genesis, leaning his sword against the wall and hopping onto a nearby ledge to sit cross-legged. ‘He’s just phoning the carpet company. Apparently the blood stains are too deep to clean off, so he has to have the lot replaced. Personally I think he should make Hojo pay for it.’ He took out his phs and text Cloud. "Darling, if you get back and we aren’t there, the maid will let you in. We won’t be long XX." Then he pocketed his phone and took a copy of Loveless out of his jacket pocket.

‘Should he even be sparring with you?’ said Angeal concerned. ‘He nearly died a couple of nights ago.’

‘He seems fine now. In fact, he was more than fine last night,’ Genesis raised his eyebrows at his old friend with a meaningful grin.

‘So I heard,’ said Angeal, a beleaguered look on his face. ‘The whole of SOLDIER are talking about your little threesome this morning. News travels fast, it seems.’

‘Well you can tell them that neither Seph or I have won the Bet...yet.’

‘I really don’t want to know,’ said Angeal. ‘The sooner you call an end to this ridiculous business, the better.’ He leant against the wall, his arms folded across his front, eyes closed as if trying to shut out the entire unpleasantness of the situation.

Genesis grinned. ‘I can promise you it won’t be long now,’ he said then opened his book and began to read:

“Infinite in mystery is the gift of the goddess
We seek it thus, and take to the sky
Ripples form on the water’s surface
The wandering soul knows no rest”

‘Loveless Act 1,’ Sephiroth’s deep voice came from over by the door.

‘Ah, you remember!’ Genesis smiled. ‘Glad to know my efforts to educate you in the finer things in life haven’t been totally wasted then.’

Sephiroth walked towards them, dressed in his full battle leathers. ‘Hardly surprising when you’ve beaten the damned thing into my head for years.’

Genesis smiled and snapped his book shut. He put it down next to him and hopped off the ledge. ‘A warm-up first I think. Are you ready Mr Crescent?’

‘Waiting on you, Mr Rhapsodos,’ said Sephiroth amused.

‘Gen, take it easy. Don’t underestimate Sephiroth this time,’ Angeal muttered.

‘Noted,’ said Genesis and with that both of them charged at the silver General.

In the first few moments the combined attacks of both Angeal and Genesis barely made Sephiroth’s breathing quicken as he fended them off with ease. As their swords crossed in simultaneous attack, he blocked it with the masamune and shoved both Generals back, away from him.

‘Is that the best you two can do?’ Sephiroth taunted.

‘All hail Sephiroth, huh?’ said Angeal, knowing that even his brute strength was no match for the silver General’s skill and raw power.

‘Ok, warm-up over,’ said Genesis impatiently. ‘Stand back Angeal, this doesn’t involve you. This is my fight with Sephiroth...just me and him, alone.’

‘Genesis, no!’ said Angeal but his friend ignored him.

‘You wanted us to finish this Bet, didn’t you?’ said Genesis. ‘Anyway, it’s about time the world had a new hero, don’t you think?’ Briefly closing his eyes, he charged rapier with fiery magic.

Sephiroth smirked. ‘Come and try.’

‘You’re always so smug,’ said Genesis, ‘but for how long, I wonder?’

Angeal watched helplessly from the side as his two friends battled, slashed, parried and fought for all their worth, weapons clashing with sparks and flashes of light.

Frustrated by Sephiroth’s speed and superior strength, Genesis lobbed Firaga after Firaga at him but Sephiroth parried them all. Genesis pushed himself further, driven by fury, frustration and pride, casting larger and larger balls of fire.

‘Stop it!’ Angeal leapt forward to grab his arm. ‘You’ll kill us all!’

But Genesis was beyond placating. A red mist of rage had descended. All he could see, all there was in the world to him at that moment was the desperate need to beat Sephiroth...just once.

‘Leave me alone!’ he shouted at Angeal and propelled him away with a fist of flames. Genesis turned on Sephiroth again and their fight escalated into blinding speed and violence as Genesis gave his all to beat his nemesis.

‘Enough!’ shouted Angeal, blocking a downward sweep of the masamune with the handle of the buster sword.

‘Out of my way!’ Genesis summoned another ball of fire but rapier clashed hard with Angeal’s sword and a shard shattered, flying in to the air and falling to pierce Genesis’ shoulder. With a cry of pain, he fell to one knee, clutching the wound. He knelt there for a long moment, breathing hard.

‘Just a scrape,’ said Genesis, standing up at last. ‘I’ll be fine, don’t worry. I’ve had much worse.’ He stooped to pick up rapier and walked slowly towards the door of the VR room reciting:

“Though the morrow may be barren of promises
Nothing shall forestall my return”

He left the room and made his way slowly down the corridor. He only just made it into the waiting lift though before a piercing pain in his shoulder made him collapse onto his knees, an involuntary gasp escaping his lips. For a moment he stayed there, panting, until the agony subsided. He got back to his feet slowly, using the lift’s wall to steady himself.

Mercifully, he managed to make it back to his office without meeting anyone.

‘Hold my calls, Selina,’ he said to his secretary, as he walked through the outer office.

‘Are you alright, sir?’ she asked.

‘Yes...yes, I’m fine,’ he said and went straight into his private office, closing the door behind him. Shrugging out of his red coat, he stumbled over to the sofa and collapsed onto his back.

Under his Shinra issue black top, he could feel sticky warmth. He slid his fingers inside the fabric. As he drew them out once more he saw that they were covered in blood.

Pushing himself to his feet again, he went into his bathroom and, with a grimace, slipped off his top. Blood was oozing from the wound. He took a facecloth and washed it best he could. Up close the cut looked angry and red and considerably deeper than he’d first thought. From a cupboard under the sink he took out a first aid kit, which he kept for just such occasions, and put a dressing on the wound. He went back to the sofa and lay down again just as the extension beside him rang.

‘Yes, Selina? What is it?’

‘It’s General Sephiroth to see you, sir.’

‘Send him in,’ said Genesis.

A moment later, his door opened and Sephiroth came in, still in his leathers. In his hand was the copy of Loveless he had left behind. He looked surprised to not see Genesis at his desk.

‘How are you?’ he asked walking over to the sofa and placing the book on the side table.

‘Ok,’ replied Genesis, trying to keep his voice steady. He couldn’t remember anything having hurt so much; it almost stole his breath away.

‘Let me see,’ said Sephiroth, reaching to pull the dressing aside but Genesis batted his hand to one side.

‘It’s just a scratch, stop fussing.’

Sephiroth looked unconvinced but obviously decided not to press it. ‘You fought really well, probably the best I’ve ever seen,’ he said. ‘You even had me on the back foot a couple of times.’

‘I still lost though,’ said Genesis grimly.

‘No, you didn’t. There was no clear winner. It’s not your fault Angeal’s sword broke. Now, get that wound to Hollander, get him to check it over now. You can’t be too careful. Promise me?’

Genesis was touched by his concern. ‘Ok, ok, I promise.’

‘Good,’ said Sephiroth. His phs suddenly rang. Flipping it open, he saw Lazard’s name illuminated on the screen. ‘Sephiroth,’ he answered.

Lazard wasn’t one to waste words. ‘We’ve just heard our fort at Foguang in North Wutai has been wiped out...all seventy men have been killed. We think it’s a breakaway rebel faction from the Da Chao mountain region. I’m sending you out there with a force of no more than six SOLDIERS...who you chose is up to you but I want our response to be swift, decisive and above all top secret. Tell only the men you are taking with you.’

After Lazard had given him a few more instructions, Sephiroth hung up. He knew Genesis had heard every word. Phone calls were never a secret if a SOLDIER was nearby, their enhanced hearing picked up everything.

‘I’ll come with you,’ said Genesis, making to sit up but the movement made him wince in pain. Sephiroth noticed and gently pushed him back down onto the cushions.

‘No, I can manage without you. Just get yourself off to Hollander. I’ll see you in a day or two.’ He was about to leave but Genesis caught his wrist and pulled him into a deep kiss.

‘Take care,’ whispered The red head when they finally broke apart.

‘Always,’ said Sephiroth and with a swift smile, he left.

Chapter Text

Leaving Genesis, Sephiroth strode across the corridor to his own office. It was Beth, his PA’s, day off. All Shinra secretaries worked a five and a half day week, with a half day on Saturday or Sunday on rotation in case of emergencies, as now. For once though he didn’t need her. He went into his own office and sat down at the desk to call the SOLDIER Seconds he had already decided upon for the mission; Luxiere, Kunsel, Bates, Ferguson and Galvin. With him that made five. Operation Silver Eagle it was to be called, according to Lazard. Sephiroth felt the corners of his mouth twitch...the Director of Soldier did so love making up ridiculous mission names.

Who to choose for the sixth man though? Zack would have been his next choice but then he thought of the mission statement; to locate and neutralise an unspecified number of rebels believed to be hiding out in the mountainous North Wutai area. More specifically the Da Chao range, the most inhospitable of all. He needed someone with experienced knowledge of such a bleak and savage terrain and that was not the Gongagan; his expertise was jungle warfare. In the absence of time to source a local guide, he thought immediately of Cloud. As a native of mountainous Nibelheim, the newly promoted Second would be the obvious choice.

He opened his phs and selected a quick-dial number. It was answered on the second ring; in the background he could hear the sound of a meaty motorbike’s engine being cut.

‘Cloud, where are you?’ asked Sephiroth.

‘I’m dropping Zack off at HQ, just going to pick up some clothes and come back to Gen's house,’ said the blond. ‘Is there something wrong?’

‘Come to my office immediately,’ said Sephiroth.

Something in his tone must have alerted Cloud because he said. ‘Sir! I’ll be right there,’and hung up.

In barely the time it took for Sephiroth to drink a cup of his favourite Wutaian coffee, there was a knock on his door.

‘Come in,’ he called.

It was Cloud, still in parts of his formal Second’s uniform from the night before. He looked tired and slightly disheveled but Sephiroth was impressed that he gave a salute, as was befitting a formal meeting. At least the blond had a sense of boundaries, despite what had passed between them the night before. For all that he had a sweet, if slightly confused, smile on his face.

‘Sit down,’ said Sephiroth.

Cloud sank into the seat opposite him.

‘I’m going on a search and destroy mission to the Da Chao mountains in Wutai. I will be accompanied by five Seconds...I want you to be the sixth. As the only Second who is a native of Nibelheim, and therefore acquainted with mountain terrain, you will be our guide. As this is a top secret mission, not a word to anyone, especially Zack.’

‘I understand,’ said Cloud. ‘Is Gen...I mean, General Rhapsodos coming too?’

‘No,’ said Sephiroth. ‘General Rhapsodos will be staying here as my SiC. Besides, he sustained a small injury this morning so he needs to rest up.’

‘Injury? Cloud allowed himself a small grin. ‘How? Getting out of bed?’

Sephiroth responded with a cool look which wiped the smile off the blonde’s face instantly.

‘We had a spar,’ he said. ‘It’s nothing serious, just a small wound but I want him to rest and get over it. Now, go down to supplies and get yourself kitted out for mountain warfare. We leave at 1300 hours. Dismissed.’

‘Sir,’ said Cloud, getting up from the chair. He snapped off a smart salute and went to leave.

‘Oh, and Cloud,’ said Sephiroth.

The blond stopped and turned around.

‘I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that we are on a mission so don’t call me Sephiroth in front of the other men.’

‘Understood, Sir.’ Cloud gave him a bright smile and left.

******

Outside in the corridor, Cloud wondered if he had time for a quick detour before going down to supplies. The other Seconds would probably be down there now so it would be fairly busy anyway. Taking a chance, he went to Genesis’ office opposite. Selina was not there so he knocked on the door of the inner office.

‘Enter,’ said a cool, cultured voice.

Cloud opened the door and let himself into the room. He felt instantly transported into another world...a world far away from the harsh reality of army life, missions and bellowing drill sergeants. There were soft strains of some classical music playing and a crackling fire in the grate. Deep red drapes were pulled halfway across the large window and the room smelt of Genesis’ delicious signature cologne with a top note of antiseptic.

The red General was lying on his couch, pale but otherwise sleekly beautiful as always and still in his black leathers. His famous red coat was flung over a nearby chair. On his left shoulder was a large, fresh dressing. ‘Hello, sweet,’ he smiled, hoisting himself up on the cushions with a slight wince.

Cloud walked over and perched on the edge of the sofa. ‘Are you okay?’ he asked concerned. ‘Seph said you both had a spar and you got hurt.’

‘I’m fine,’ said Genesis, taking his hand, interlacing his long fingers through his. ‘It was just a scratch. It’ll heal in an hour or so.’

‘And why were you two sparring exactly?’ asked Cloud, as though he was scolding a ten year old. ‘I left you both in bed! I was only gone for a couple of hours at most. All you had to do was have breakfast and I would have been back. What is it with you two that you have to keep fighting each other every five minutes!’

‘Because we’re stupid, competitive idiots, that’s why,’ said Genesis ruefully. He looked down at their entwined fingers.

‘Was this about me?’ asked Cloud.

Genesis let out a soft sigh. ‘Yep.’

‘Because of the Bet?’

Genesis gave him a tired smile; no, it was more than that; there was something slightly beaten about it, a weariness that ran soul deep. ‘What else?’ he said.

‘I’m not supposed to tell anyone – Seph’s orders,’ said Cloud, ‘but as you’re his SiC, I think it’s ok to let you know that I have to go away for a couple of days.’

‘I know,’ said Genesis giving his hand a small squeeze. ‘I overheard Seph’s conversation with Lazard. Take care. Wutai can be a brutal place, I don’t want you to get hurt.’

‘I’ll be ok,’ he said. ‘I’ll be with Seph, he’ll look after me.’ He leant forward and gave Genesis a soft kiss.

‘I’m going to miss you, little chocobo,’ said Genesis when he drew away.

‘So, I’m not a Brat anymore then?’ asked Cloud, with a teasing smile.

‘Oh, you’ll always be that, my love,’ said Genesis. ‘Go...and make sure you come back to me in one piece. I couldn’t bear to lose either of you.’

*******

On the launch pad on the roof of Shinra Tower, stood the ten man helicopter that was due to fly them to the military airbase just outside Midgar. Dressed in his full battle leathers, the masamune strapped to his back, Sephiroth watched his team of Seconds boarding with their kit and carrying their white waterproofs for arctic warfare. Sephiroth’s own white kit was currently packed in his large duffel bag, ready to change into on the journey to Wutai.

Five veteran Seconds was enough, he decided; tough men with with hard faces, often still bearing scars as testament to many past battles. Men he'd fought with the first time in Wutai.

Cloud was the last to arrive and came to stand beside him as Luxiere walked over and saluted. 'Sir, we're ready,' he said, glancing at Cloud questioningly.

'Corporal Strife will be serving as our guide,' said Sephiroth. 'As a native of Nibelheim, he is more than familiar with the type of terrain we will be fighting in.'

Luxiere gave Cloud a curt nod. 'Right, Strife, get yourself on that chopper, on the double!'

With a sharp salute at Sephiroth, Cloud jogged over to the helicopter and climbed in. Inside, the atmosphere buzzed with the smell of fresh sweat and anticipation...not fear though. These men did not show fear, even if they felt it. They nodded at him in greeting, their faces serious as they introduced themselves respectively as Ferguson, Galvin and Bates. Kunsel and Luxiere he already knew. Their attitude towards him was clear; whatever they knew or had heard about the Bet would be left behind at HQ. Now he was one of them. Securing his kit, Cloud strapped himself in.

Sephiroth was about to follow Cloud into the chopper when, behind him, he heard the metal door bang shut. He turned around to see Genesis standing there, wind ruffling his hair, his red coat draped around his shoulders, billowing in the breeze.

Sephiroth went over to him. ‘What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be resting,’ he chided gently.

‘You know I always come to see you off if I can,’ said the red head.

‘Did you go to see Hollander? What did he say?’

‘Nothing much,’ said Genesis. ‘He gave me some painkillers and he’s running some routine blood tests.’

Sephiroth took his hand and led him around the side of the stairwell out of sight. ‘This mission won’t last more than a couple of days at most,’ he said. ‘Then I’ll be back to look after you and cook you breakfast in bed every morning.’

His beautiful red-head looked heart-rending at that moment, eyes glittering slightly in the morning light. ‘Please take care,’ he said. ‘I don’t want this to be the last time I see you.’

‘It won’t be, I promise,’ said Sephiroth.

‘I still don't understand why you're taking Cloud. You've fought in that area at least twice before. You don't need him. If this is just a way of getting him away from me so you can win that bloody Bet, then that's just childish!'

'At least seventy men have died out there, Gen. Slaughtered in their beds, some of them. This isn't a joke.'

Genesis looked duly chastised. 'Just look after Cloud,’ he said. ‘He’s too inexperienced for this type of stealth mission.’

‘Stop worrying, we’ll be fine,’ said Sephiroth. ‘I’ll make sure I bring your Brat back in one piece.’

Genesis allowed himself a smile at that.

‘General, Sir!’ called the co-pilot from the helicopter. ‘We’re ready!’

Sephiroth signaled that he was coming then turned back to Genesis, pulling him into his arms and holding him tightly. ‘It won’t take more than a day or two to find these rebels and no more than five minutes to dispatch them once we do but don’t panic if you don’t hear from me. It’ll be total black-out.’ He gave Genesis a deep and slightly rough kiss as the red head melted against him, then he turned to go but the other General caught his wrist.

‘I love you, Seph.’

It was barely a whisper, almost carried away by the wind at the top of Shinra Tower.

Sephiroth felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. ‘I love you too.’ And with that he strode over to the waiting helicopter and jumped in. A moment later, it took off.

Genesis couldn’t bear to wave goodbye; he opened the metal door and stumbled down the staircase without a backward glance, barely believing what he’d just heard; Sephiroth had said he loved him...something he would have given anything to hear in the past. Now it seemed almost unbearably bitter sweet. ‘Please come back to me,’ he whispered to himself, as he reached the lift.

Choking down a hard ball of emotion that seemed to be burning in his throat, he stepped inside the lift just as his phs pinged an in-coming message. It was from Rufus. “I want to see you now. Penthouse.”

Genesis sighed, pretty much guessing what the young VP wanted to see him about but there would be no avoiding it. He might as well go now and get it over with. With a vague feeling of malaise he couldn’t quite identify, he pressed the button for the 70th floor.

Getting out at the penthouse floor, he rang the ornate bell outside the carved Wutaian doors. They had been looted from a temple, he seemed to remember – exquisite things, covered in carved dragons, trees and pagodas.

The door was answered by Rufus’ butler, who showed him out onto the VP’s vast curving balcony. Up this high the air was slightly sweeter than at street level but still carried the bitter twang of mako on the breeze. Already in the distance, he could make out Sephiroth’s helicopter making its way to the airbase. He tore his gaze from it to find Rufus lounging in his favourite spot under a white gazebo. He had a cocktail in one hand and was looking for all the world like he was on a beach in Costa del Sol, if it had not been for his pristine white suit.

Rufus had turned this corner of the terrace into a perfect ‘garden’ with potted plants and trees and luxury garden furniture. Strategically placed bamboo screens gave him optimum privacy from any air traffic to and from the Tower.

‘General Rhapsodos,’ Rufus greeted him, urbane but unsmiling.

‘Rufe,’ said Genesis slightly warily. ‘What can I do for you?’

‘What can you do for me? Well, let’s see...for a start you can stop calling me ‘Rufe’.’

Genesis suppressed a groan. He was in too much pain for this. In his pocket was the bottle of painkillers, given to him by Hollander. He hadn’t taken one yet because he wanted to be lucid to see Sephiroth off on his mission but wanted one now...badly. The dull ache in his shoulder was sapping his concentration, making him feel slight queasy. ‘Is there a problem?’

‘Yes, there is a problem,’ said Rufus. ‘I backed you in this ludicrous Bet because you assured me you could seduce Corporal Strife and I stood to win an awful lot of money. I did NOT back you to end up in bed with Sephiroth!’

‘There’s nothing going on between Seph and I,’ said Genesis. ‘I just like flirting with him because he looks cute when he’s uncomfortable.’

‘Don’t insult my intelligence, General!’ snapped Rufus. ‘I know you slept with him and Strife at your house last night. The whole of SOLDIER and above know about it.’

‘That’s all we did, just sleep. We were all tired,’ said Genesis, feeling himself sway slightly on the spot. If he didn’t sit down in a minute, he’d fall down.

Rufus stood up so quickly he barely registered the movement until the young VP slammed his glass on the table so hard it shattered, spilling peachy coloured liquid all over the glass. ‘Liar!’ he shouted. ‘Reno heard you...all three of you! And you were most definitely not sleeping! In fact he said you sounded like you were having a really good time!’

Bloody Turks, thought Genesis savagely; always poking their noses in things that didn’t concern them. From his pocket he heard another ping of an incoming message on his phs. He ignored it.

‘You and Sephiroth are close,’ continued Rufus, his voice lowering slightly. ‘You always have been. For all I know you were sleeping together when he and I were going out. Maybe you’re even the reason we’re not together now!’

‘That’s not true and you know it!’ protested Genesis. If only, he wanted to say, but knew it would hardly help his case. He’d lusted after Sephiroth long before Rufus and the General had become lovers. Since the first time he'd met him on the battlefields of Wutai to be precise.

Rufus took a deep breath as though trying to get himself back under control. ‘As you are no doubt aware, Sephiroth has been sent on a stealth S&D mission to the Da Chao mountains to eliminate a new threat there. I am therefore sending you to Wutai for the final push to clear out the last of the resistance and put on a show of force. Two hundred of your men will leave with you now...another hundred are already out there waiting for you.’

Genesis stared at him aghast. ‘What! I only came back from there three weeks’ ago!’

‘Well, you’ll still be familiar with the territory then, won’t you?’ said Rufus’ wryly.

It was with a supreme effort of will that Genesis didn’t hit him. ‘Why isn’t this order coming from Lazard, as Director of SOLDIER?’ he asked.

‘It has,’ said Rufus. ‘I just wanted to tell you myself. You leave at 1800 hours.’

Genesis knew there was no point arguing. A direct order from both Lazard and Rufus Shinra had to be obeyed or he would face a court martial.

‘Sir,’ Genesis saluted and left the penthouse. 1800 hours was almost six hours away; at least he'd get the chance for a couple of hours' rest.

Once in the lift again, he pulled his phs out of his pocket and flipped it open.

It was a message from Hollander.

“Come to the lab, I need to talk to you urgently.”

Chapter Text

Thirteen hours later, the Shinra military helicopter landed somewhat haphazardly at Fort Shuri, in darkness and in the middle of a howling blizzard.

The fort, an ugly concrete structure, lay just behind enemy lines to the east of the Da Chao mountains and was manned by no more than forty men, all infantry except for their Commander, Major Adam Rudd, who was a SOLDIER Second.

The Commander was already waiting for them when the chopper set down, wrapped in layers of clothing, his face barely visible. Sephiroth jumped out of the helicopter first, followed by the Seconds. He went straight over to Major Rudd who saluted him.

‘Welcome, General,’ he shouted over the howling wind. ‘I hope you had a good trip. Let’s get inside, shall we?’

Sephiroth followed the man into the fort, with the six Seconds taking up the rear. Inside the building was bare and utilitarian but thankfully warm and quiet after the wild storm outside.

The Commander shed his head covering to reveal a grim expression and a face that looked at least ten years older than his thirty-six years.

‘Report, Major,’ said Sephiroth, as they made their way down a long, bland corridor.

‘Three days ago at 0316 hours,’ said Rudd, ‘we received an SOS call from Fort Foguang. All it said was, “We’re under attack. Send reinforcements.” That was the last we heard. When we got there it was too late and the buildings were on fire.’

‘Casualties?’ asked Sephiroth.

‘All seventy-two men, Sir,’ said Rudd, ‘mostly with their throats cut. We think some were killed before they even woke up. They were attacked at night with no warning; it was nothing short of a slaughter. We managed to rescue most of the bodies though and packed them in ice ready for shipment back home.’

‘Any idea what we’re dealing with?’ asked Sephiroth.

‘My guess would be about forty or fifty men were involved in the attack, no more. We don't know their exact numbers but we believe they’re hiding out in the Da Chao somewhere, probably not too far from here. We tried to track them but fresh snowfall made that impossible. Also, they are expert at covering their tracks.’

Sephiroth glanced around at Cloud then turned back to the Major. ‘Thank you. We’ll eat and rest now then leave at dawn.’

‘You’ll have to go on foot, Sir,’ said Rudd. ‘A chopper will alert them of your arrival; even if they don’t see it, they’ll hear it. It’s only about twenty miles though...no problem for SOLDIER’s.’

‘No,’ agreed Sephiroth.

The Seconds were shown to a dormitory with several bunk-beds where they left their kit then went to the deserted mess for a hot meal of cottage pie, vegetables and some sort of steamed pudding for dessert, rustled together at short notice by a bug-eyed, half-asleep cook.

They all sat down to eat together at a large table, including Sephiroth.

‘What’s the plan for tomorrow, Sir?’ Kunsel was asking.

‘We’ll check out the fort to see if they’ve left any clues,’ said Sephiroth, ‘Hopefully we can pick up any tracks from there. If there were that many men involved in the attack, it shouldn’t be too difficult, should it, Strife?’

It was the first time Sephiroth had spoken directly to him since they’d left Shinra HQ. His attitude to Cloud had been purely professional throughout, for which the blond was grateful. He didn’t want to be singled out for special treatment in front of his fellow Seconds. These men were hardened SOLDIERS. The last thing he wanted was to be perceived by them as the General’s potential ‘bit of stuff’. He was a SOLDIER too and wanted to be taken seriously and respected as such, even if he was still inexperienced by their standards.

‘No, Sir,’ said Cloud. ‘It shouldn’t be a problem. People always leave some signs behind, especially if there are a lot of them. You just have to know what to look for.’

The SOLDIER called Galvin gave him a friendly clap him on the back. ‘Good lad, we’re counting on you.’

‘Yeah,’ said Ferguson, the oldest of the Seconds. ‘You find ‘em and we’ll send ‘em to meet their maker! That’s what we do.’ He grinned evilly at his fellow comrades who returned equally sinister grins.

‘That’s right,’ agreed Luxiere. ‘While I think of it, don’t forget this is a stealth mission so hand in your phs’s, dog tags, wallets and anything else that can identify you to Major Rudd before we go.’

They ate in silence after that, all caught up in their own personal thoughts about what the next day would bring. After, dinner they went their respective bunks, Sephiroth having been given a room on his own down the corridor.

Cloud changed into pajamas more for warmth than modesty and lay down in his bed. It was narrow, the mattress hard and the blankets scratchy. He closed his eyes as Luxiere turned the lights out and heard the SOLDIER climb up to the bunk above his, the springs creaking in protest as the man lay down.

‘Hey, Strife,’ Ferguson called across the room from his bed. ‘Shouldn’t you be bunking with the General? I’ve got 500 Gil on Sephiroth to win the Bet!’

‘I’ve got 1000 Gil on Rhapsodos to win,’ said Luxiere. ‘Stay where you are, Strife and that’s an order!’

They all laughed, including Cloud.

‘Oh, c’mon, Luxiere,’ protested Bates. ‘Pulling rank? That’s not fair!’

‘Everything’s fair when you’ve got 1000 Gil riding on it,’ Luxiere pointed out.

‘Oi, Strife!’ said Ferguson. ‘Give us the heads up. Who’s it gonna be, the Silver General or the Red General? I could do with a tip, I need to buy a new car.'

‘Yeah, tell us,’ said Bates, ‘we could all be dead tomorrow!’

‘How does that make sense?’ Kunsel joined in. ‘If you’re dead you won’t be able to collect your winnings anyway, you tit!’

They bickered good-humouredly for a few minutes more until it grew quiet. Shortly after, Cloud heard a few muffled snores from nearby beds. He shivered, pulling the thin blanket around him tighter and thought wistfully of Genesis’ soft four poster and how warm he’d been with the red-head’s arms around him, the full, hard length of the man’s body next to his. He debated texting the red-head, working out that it was eight o’clock in the evening back at Midgar.

Pulling his phs from under his pillow, he turned off the message alert, then typed, “Just got here. Had dinner and in bed now. Miss you. X.” He pressed send.

Almost immediately a message illuminated the screen. “Missing you too but do you have any idea what time it is? You just woke me up. XX”

“?? It’s 8pm in Midgar!!???” Cloud typed back confused.

“I’m sure it is but I’m in South Wutai,” came the response. “Rufus has sent me out here for a ‘My Army is Bigger than Yours’ show of strength. No idea how long he intends to keep me in this Gaia forsaken place. How is it where you are?’

“Cold,” Cloud typed back.

Another message came back. “Snuggle up to Seph, he won’t mind. Just make sure that’s all you do though.” It was followed by a winky emoji. “Goodnight, angel, take care. XX” arrived a second later.

‘Goodnight xx,’ Cloud text back, then closed his phs.

The temptation to sneak into Sephiroth’s room was overwhelming but there had been nothing in the man’s demeanour to suggest he would welcome such a move, despite their night together with Genesis. Still, after Genesis’ text, he was pretty sure Sephiroth wouldn’t kick him out either.

Pushing the scratchy blanket off him he sat up slowly, with only the barest squeak of the springs. He was about to swing his legs over the edge when Luxiere’s stern voice muttered through the darkness from the top bunk.

‘Strife, don’t you dare!’

Cloud couldn’t help smiling but didn’t reply. Instead he lay back down again, pulling the horrible blanket up to his chin and lay there shivering until he fell into a fitful sleep.

****

Dawn arrived early in North Wutai.

Cloud was woken by a shrill klaxon heralding reveille at 0400 on the dot. Dragging himself out of bed, he dressed quickly to avoid catching pneumonia in the cold dormitory and found himself ready even before Kunsel.

Breakfast was a hasty affair that involved porridge, sausages, eggs and lashings of hot coffee. This time, Sephiroth didn’t join them. The fort’s infantry, who were eating breakfast at the same time, regarded their little group with a mixture of interest and wariness. Cloud guessed it was the first time they had probably seen so many SOLDIER Seconds together and even he had to admit they made for an intimidating sight by their sheer size alone, not to mention the amount that they ate.

Half an hour later dawn broke and they left the fort, kitted out in their white over clothes, sunglasses, white hats and snow boots and began the long trek to Fort Foguang, with Sephiroth briskly leading the way. Bates and Ferguson, who were both expert climbers, had brought ropes, crampons and other equipment necessary in case their search led them high into the mountains.

The blizzard had blown itself out in the night, leaving clear blue skies and a fresh coating of snow. Cloud tramped along contentedly behind Sephiroth, breathing in the crisp mountain air and enjoying the warmth of the sun as they followed the well-worn track through the open ground. When the sun was high in the sky they stopped to eat ration bars and drink some water then continued their journey for what Cloud gauged to be another seven or so miles until they reached Fort Foguang.

Or what was left of it.

Sat in a clearing on the borders of a large, dense forest, the former strategic position had been reduced to blackened concrete walls and charred wooden beams. Apart from the shell of the building, nothing remained above waist height, fire having well and truly gutted the place.

Despite the recent snow fall, the ground was still churned up around the perimeters of the fort, bearing testament to the savagery of the battle that had taken place there. Surrounding tree trunks were heavily scarred with holes from bullets which had missed their targets in the darkness. The firing had been so ferocious in some places that smaller trees had been severed in two.

‘Holy shit,’ breathed Galvin. ‘This was some frigging fire fight!’

‘Our guys must have hit something!’ said Bates. ‘Where are their dead?’

‘They probably took them,’ offered Ferguson.

Sephiroth was looking around, taking in the expanse of treetops and the ploughed up ground. ‘Luxiere, Kunsel, check out the interior...Cloud, see if you can find some tracks,’ he said.

‘Sir,’ said Cloud.

He left his comrades and walked around the perimeter of the building, following several tracks outwards only to find that they only led to deep indents where bodies had fallen. The snow was still stained red in some places. Finding nothing of use, he widened his search towards the trees. The forest floor was much more helpful. The trees were so tightly packed that even the snow from the previous night’s blizzard had hardly fallen and although someone had made a passable attempt to cover tracks, they were faintly visible just below the surface. Years of hunting wolves for his mother’s stews in Nibelheim had made this barely a challenge though. Cloud leant down and began carefully brushing the snow aside to reveal snapped twigs below the fresh dusting. Someone had passed this way and recently at that. After further searching he was in no doubt that the assailants had run off in different directions to make it harder for anyone to follow them. Cloud knew though that at some point they would have all met up to return to their hideout, he just had to find that trail.

He went over to Sephiroth who was busy studying a map by the entrance to the fort.

‘Sorry, Sir,’ said Cloud. ‘This might take a while. There are tracks leading off everywhere.’

‘Take as long as you need,’ replied his mentor. ‘It’s time saved in the long run.’

Cloud went off once more to follow his most promising lead whilst the other Seconds scoured the destroyed fort for any evidence that might help them find the attackers.

Making his way back into the trees, Cloud followed the single track of footprints that had most taken his interest. These were light and hinted at someone disguising their footfall by wearing soft covers on their shoes. About half a mile deeper into the forest he found what he was looking for. Here, footprints were coming from both right and left, joining the track to make one heavier line of footfall. The gap between the marks had lengthened. They had been running in single file.

Cloud sprinted back to Sephiroth. ‘I’ve found it! The tracks join about half a mile in.’

‘Where are they heading?’ asked his mentor.

‘North, Sir, towards the mountains,’ said Cloud.

‘Good work, Corporal,’ said Sephiroth, giving him the faintest, discreet smile. Cloud responded with a little smile of his own. He thought for one moment that Sephiroth was about to reach out to give his hand a reassuring squeeze when Ferguson jogged over to them.

‘I found this in what used to be the mess hall,’ said the Second. He handed Sephiroth a rather ornate Wutaian dagger.

Sephiroth examined it carefully. ‘Ok, let’s move out,’ he said. ‘Round up the others and from now on we use only sign language or whisper. If they don’t already know we’re here, they will soon.’

Ferguson jogged off to the others and Sephiroth handed the dagger to Cloud. ‘You never know, it might come in useful.’

‘Thank you!’ Cloud gave his mentor his most winning smile and wedged the pretty thing in his waistband.

With Cloud at the front and Sephiroth behind him, the others followed them deeper into the forest, along the tracks made by several tens of men. The further they went, the easier it was to see the trail. No new snow had fallen here at all, stopped by the thick overhead branches and their prey had obviously thought that hiding their tracks this far into the woods wasn’t necessary.

‘How many men?’ Sephiroth murmured, so quietly that only a SOLDIER would hear it.

‘Hard to say,’ Cloud whispered back. ‘Maybe forty. The ground is pretty churned up.’

They kept walking but a few hundred yards up, Kunsel suddenly stopped in his tracks, staring straight ahead, a frozen look on his face.

Cloud followed his gaze. There, hanging from a tree branch in front of them was what looked like a decapitated bear’s head, still dripping blood.

‘What the f...?’ began Kunsel.

‘It’s a warning,’ said Sephiroth. ‘They know we’re here.’

They walked forward carefully to avoid any booby traps until they reached the gory sight. Around what was left of the bear’s neck were what looked like a penis and balls, not human though. Below the gruesome appendages hung a note, written in Wutaian and burnt into a piece of wood with hot wire.

‘What does it say?’ asked Cloud.

‘You don’t want to know,’ advised Kunsel.

‘It says ‘Go back, Shinra dogs,’’ said Sephiroth.

‘Only less politely,’ added Kunsel.

‘Something along the lines of ‘this is what will happen to us if we don’t leave now,’ supplied Bates.

’They’ll never find yours, Bates,’ teased Ferguson.

The others all allowed themselves an apprehensive chuckle. Except Sephiroth; he was staring at the bear, an unreadable expression on his face.

Dusk was approaching fast and all the darker for being in the forest. Up high, in the distance they could see the peaks of the snow covered mountains of Da Chao.

‘I estimate we’ll reach the edge of the forest by mid morning tomorrow,’ said Sephiroth. ‘We’ll make camp here tonight.’

Each man had carried a tent sheet, which they set up with poles to make a shelter for the night. It was just big enough for six men. Sephiroth had his own one man tent which he pitched next to theirs. His reasoning was that having the masamune lying around other sleeping bodies was lethal to say the least. They put down ground sheets and sat in a circle outside to eat.

‘No fire tonight,’ said the General. ‘It’ll give our position away. And keep your weapons close at all times.’

Cloud didn’t want to ask his next question but he couldn’t help himself. ‘If things go wrong, how will Shinra know where we are?’

Sephiroth pulled off his glove and pushed up his multiple layers of sleeves. He pointed to the slightly raised flesh inside his wrist. It was no more than half an inch long and barely a millimeter wide. ‘It’s a tracker,’ he said.

Cloud frowned at the raised skin. It was the first time he’d even noticed it. ‘How long have you had that?’ he asked.

‘Since birth,’ said Sephiroth, rolling his sleeves back down once more.

Cloud was shocked. Hojo had literally micro chipped Sephiroth like a dog.

Sephiroth must have noticed his horrified expression. ‘It’s not as bad as it sounds,’ he said. ‘If communications fail or in the event of capture, they can always find me. Apparently I’m too valuable to the company to lose.’

Cloud simply thought it dehumanising. Increasingly, the things he was learning about Sephiroth’s childhood disturbed him more and more. Shinra’s Silver General, the Demon of Wutai and the company’s poster boy was micro-chipped like a worrisome pet – it just seemed wrong on every level.

After supper, such as it was, Sephiroth allotted the watches. The first, lasting two hours, would go to Kunsel and himself, the second to Luxiere and Bates, the third to Galvin and Ferguson.

‘I can take a watch too,’ said Cloud.

‘No,’ said Sephiroth. ‘You’re too important to us as a guide. You need to rest.’

Those not on immediate watch, crawled into their tent, zipped themselves in their sleeping bags fully clothed, swords by their sides and endeavoured to grab some sleep.

Cloud tried but at every sound from the forest - howling wolves, grunting bears and the rustling leaves from various night predators, his eyes shot wide open in fear.

The night wore on endlessly and he eventually dozed off. He didn’t know how long he’d slept or even if he’d really slept at all but something must have crept into his subconscious because he suddenly shot awake. That very second he heard Galvin screech at the top of his voice:

‘AMBUSH!’

The next thing he knew there was a hard thwack against the tent, followed by a bright light and sudden scorching heat.

‘Fire!’ yelled Luxiere, leaping from his sleeping bag. ‘Fucking get out! NOW!’

Cloud didn’t need telling twice. Kunsel and Bates were out of their sleeping bags almost faster than he could see. Cloud wriggled out of his and, grabbing his katana, followed the two Seconds, all three of them bursting out of the tent’s entrance. Cloud glanced back to see both their tent and Sephiroth’s engulfed in flames, orange lighting up the night.

The other Seconds were already engaged in a fierce fight, each fending off at least three assailants. All around him, black clad figures were falling from the trees, the silver of sharp weapons flashing in their hands. Kunsel and already engaged two, slicing and stabbing with practiced speed. They fell to the ground immediately as more attackers leapt onto them from above. Around him, the other Seconds were similarly occupied, slashing their way through the assailants like butter. Suddenly a black clad figure bore down on Cloud to deliver a killing stroke. He swung the katana in a perfect arc, slicing the man neatly in two. He fell before he could even scream but he was instantly replaced with another and another. Cloud swung like he was threshing corn, ploughing his way through the seemingly never ending onslaught.

A few meters away, he suddenly caught sight of a streak of silver, swiveling and flying around in the orange light as Sephiroth twisted and spun, swinging the masamune as best he could in the confined space as more dark shadows rushed from the trees. Hampered by the dense forest, he had resorted to using his fists and feet to lash out, sending his attackers flying backwards, crashing into the tree trunks with a sickening crack of bones. The men’s screams of agony filled the night as their bones were crushed.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, the attack stopped.

The frenzied battle could only have lasted minutes before they were surrounded by black-clad corpses, littering the ground around them and an eerie silence, broken only by the crackling of fire.

‘Woah! What a rush!’ said Luxiere, buzzing with adrenaline, his face afire with exertion and gleaming with sweat.

‘Shiva’s tits!’ gasped Bates. ‘What the fuck was that!’

Galvin was horrified that he’d been caught out on his watch. ‘Sorry General,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what happened! I didn’t even hear them approach!’

‘Not your fault,’ said Sephiroth. ‘They were using the trees.’

‘Who even does that?’ asked Ferguson, who felt equally guilty about being caught on his shared watch with Galvin.

‘Shinobi,’ said Sephiroth flatly.

‘Ninjas?’ asked Bates, disbelievingly.

Sephiroth nodded and to prove his point he stepped forward and removed a shuriken from where it had become embedded in a nearby tree trunk.

‘Gaia, no wonder we didn’t hear them, Galv,’ said Kunsel. ‘They could creep up on a rabbit! How many did we get, anyway?’

‘Looks like maybe fifty or so,’ said Sephiroth. ‘Kunsel, go and make sure there are no survivors.’

‘Sir,’ said Kunsel and went to search the strewn bodies for any signs of life.

Luxiere allowed himself a small chuckle. ‘Well, I guess if we can survive that we can survive anything. Everyone okay?’ he asked, glancing around at his fellow SOLDIERS.

He received simultaneous, relieved mutters of ‘Yeah,’ from his comrades.

There was a moment’s silence as they allowed themselves to catch their breath then Bates looked around, squinting in the semi-dark, as if searching for something.

‘Where’s Strife?’

Chapter Text

The fires were dying down now, after burning the tents and most of their equipment, the flames had fortunately not been able to take on the damp bark of the trees but still offered some light.

‘When did anyone last see Strife?’ Sephiroth asked the assembled Seconds.

‘He was fighting over by that tree,’ said Ferguson. ‘Swinging that katana of his like a real pro! I saw him take down at least five men on his own.’

‘Search the area,’ ordered Sephiroth. ‘See if you can find his body.’

The five Seconds spread out into the woods, checking under the amassed corpses of Shinobi fighters, searching for a blond head of hair.

They returned to Sephiroth shortly after looking grim.

‘Nothing,’ said Luxiere.

‘All I found was this,’ said Ferguson, holding out the Wutaian dagger he had given Sephiroth earlier. ‘It was behind those trees over there.’ He pointed to their left, towards the looming mountains.

The General took the dagger, now smeared with blood.

‘They must have taken him, it’s the only explanation,’ said Kunsel.

‘How would that have even been possible?’ said Bates, ‘They were so quick.’

‘Perhaps they knew what they wanted beforehand,’ said Luxiere. ‘Maybe they raided with the sole purpose of taking one of us hostage. The fight was just a diversion.’

‘And we’re all too big to carry so they took Cloud,’ finished Kunsel.

‘A SOLDIER could be worth a lot to them as a propaganda tool as well as an invaluable source of information,’ said Ferguson. ‘They know we heal quickly so they could effectively torture us for days...but one of us could be even more valuable if they can discover the secret of our enhancements.’

Sephiroth seemed to pale even more in the dwindling light. ‘Cloud isn’t properly enhanced yet and knows almost nothing of Shinra’s classified information,’ he said. ‘When they discover that he will be worthless to them. They will either kill him or try to demand a ransom.’

‘Shinra doesn’t pay ransoms,’ Kunsel pointed out. ‘It’s company policy.’

‘Exactly,’ said Sephiroth.

It was almost pitch black again, the fires having virtually died out completely.

‘What do we do?’ asked Bates. ‘We have no idea where they’ve taken him and he was our only tracker.’

‘Tracking was part of our basic training,’ said Sephiroth dismissively. ‘We also have information that they are hiding out in the Da Chao, so that will be our course.’

‘The Da Chao mountains cover hundreds of miles!’ protested Ferguson. ‘We’ve got no climbing equipment left either. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack! We should go back to Fort Shuri, inform Shinra and get reinforcements.’

Sephiroth gave him a cold look that brokered no argument. ‘And by then Strife will probably be dead. I am not leaving him here and that is an end to it. We do this alone. We’ll search again at daybreak but our priority right now though is to find shelter for the night and somewhere to lay low in case the Shinobi return.’

As they had lost their tents, sleeping bags and most of their equipment in the fire, they salvaged what they could from the scene, including raiding the corpses for extra weapons, food and any other useful items before heading north towards the Da Chao.

Using only the light of the full moon and their enhancements to guide them, they walked through the forest for a few miles until they found an area of dense foliage, rocks and deep ditches, surrounded by trees.

In the gloom, Sephiroth identified a fallen tree, over a deep ditch. ‘This will do,’ he said ‘We’ll make a pit shelter.’

The SOLDIER’s gathered long branches lashing them together with pencil thin branches to construct a flat cover as a camouflaged flap.

‘That’s all we can do for tonight,’ said Sephiroth when they had finished.

They climbed down into the ditch and Luxiere pulled the large cover across the top. Suddenly the six men were plunged into complete darkness. Inside the ditch was damp and cold but would offer protection from wind or snow as well as cover in case the Wutaians returned to look for them.

By the light of a torch they shared out their meager rations and then hunkered down for the night under whatever bits of covering they had managed to salvage.

Soon, the sounds of another blizzard reached them, wind wailing through the trees, dropping more branches, leaves and debris onto the top of their shelter.

If any of them did manage to get any sleep, they were woken a couple of hours later by the sounds of the forest coming alive with various animal calls.

Sephiroth uncurled himself from his uncomfortable position under a piece of rescued tarpaulin and reached up to push the lid of the trench open a fraction only to be covered in a coating of newly fallen snow. He shook it from his hair and shoulders and peered out of their shelter. The blizzard had finished, leaving a six inch covering of fresh snow on the ground. Judging by the light, dawn was just breaking, the sky streaked with orange and indigo as the sun peeked above the mountains. At the thin slither of light, the others stirred in their trench.

Fully awake within moments, they ate the last of their rations in silence then Sephiroth pushed back their makeshift cover far enough for them to climb out of the ditch. Checking the area first for any signs of the enemy or dangerous animals, he turned to the others. ‘All clear, let’s move out,’ he said.

They put the cover back in case they needed to use the shelter again later, covering it with more snow and branches to disguise it. Only a few meters away was a fresh running river so they took the opportunity to fill what canteens they had with water.

Sephiroth, who had been carefully observing Cloud’s tracking techniques the day before, crouched down to brush the new snowfall aside gently, searching for anything to indicate which way the rebels had fled. It took him barely twenty minutes to locate the footprints and an abandoned cigarette butt. One set of prints was noticeably more pronounced than the others.

‘Either that guy is a real fat-ass or he’s carrying something heavy,’ observed Luxiere, peering down at the intents in the snow. ‘Maybe a Chocobo-SOLDIER?’ He looked hopefully at his General.

‘Looks like they headed towards the mountains as we thought,’ said Sephiroth. ‘This is now also a rescue mission.’

‘Let’s go, then,’ said Kunsel, making to set off.

‘One moment,’ said Sephiroth.

As the others looked on in bemusement, he pushed his sleeves up on his right arm. Taking the Wutaian dagger from his waistband, he made a tiny incision along the inside of his wrist. With barely a wince he pulled out the tiny tracking device, broke it in two and threw it into the freezing river. Almost immediately the cut started to heal itself.

‘There,’ he said, giving the others the faintest smile. ‘Now we officially no longer exist. Let’s go.’

*************

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Cloud woke with the oddest sensation of heat in his brain. He opened his eyes with difficulty and even then they seemed to open only to slits. He was in a room but everything was upside down. He closed his eyes again and re-opened them as far as they would go.

Vaguely he became aware that he was suspended from the ceiling by his feet, hands tied with rope. Below him, was a small puddle of blood. His blood. He was having trouble breathing. Broken nose then, probably cracked ribs as well; he’d been beaten up by the bullies at home enough times to know what that felt like. Judging by his excruciating headache, a head wound too although hanging upside down wasn’t helping either. His eyes felt like they were about to pop out of his sockets.

Then something else seeped into his consciousness...he was naked. Naked. Hanging. Upside down. What the...?

Then it all came back to him. The first time he’d come to consciousness after being seized from the forest battle, he’d found himself bound to a chair in this same room. Nothing had changed now that he was upside down; the same bare concrete walls, the same worn table, the scuffed wooden chairs. The two men.

His guards.

One was short and skinny with a whiney, nasally voice, the other had a disproportionately large frame for a Wutaian and the gruff growl of a heavy smoker. Both of them spoke for the most part in Wutaian. Privately he’d nicknamed them Nasal and Gruff. Both wore a mixture of uniform and jeans, indicating that they were not regular Wutaian army.

Then there was the third man.

His interrogator.

The man only entered the room when he wanted to question him. His face was always covered, showing only his brown eyes but he was clearly from Midgar, judging by his accent. A traitor then, Cloud guessed. Not SOLDIER though; his eyes were mako-free. An ex Turk perhaps, judging by his proficiency with torture.

On the first night, after Cloud’d been knocked unconscious and seized from the forest, the Midgarian had asked him the same questions over and over again for hours whilst he bled from a head wound sustained during his capture.

‘Name, rank, service number and date of birth?’ the Midgarian had demanded.

Shaking with terror, Cloud had been only too happy to supply that information. ‘Cloud Strife, Corporal, 455821, 20th of August 21007, sir!’

‘What are you doing in this area? This is not Shinra held territory,’ Midgarian had said.

‘We were sent to check out Fort Foguang, to assess the damage.’

Behind his mask the Midgarian’s eyes slitted with suspicion. ‘You expect me to believe that Shinra sent their Star General, the Demon of Wutai, just to check out a burnt out fort?’

‘I don’t know, sir,’ Cloud had replied. ‘I’m just a tracker.’

‘You’re lying. You’re wearing the uniform of a SOLDIER Second and you are decorated, Corporal.’

‘I’m from Nibelheim,' Cloud had replied. 'We have mountains there too. They thought I would be able to help with tracking.'

'What's the secret of SOLDIER?' demanded the man. 'What makes them so strong?'

'Mako...injected,' said Cloud. 'That's all I know. That's all they did to me but I’m not even properly enhanced yet.'

The Midgarian had then spoken to the two guards in Wutaian. Gruff had prodded the unhealed wound to the back of Cloud's head as if to verify his statement.

‘See, if I was an enhanced SOLDIER that would have healed by now,’ Cloud had made the mistake of saying.

Gruff had hit him hard across the face. ‘Do not answer back!’ he shouted with a heavy Wutaian accent.

The questioning continued. Every time he said he didn’t know an answer, which was the truth, the Midgarian would nod at Gruff to hit him around the face. Sometimes the questions would go on for hours it seemed. When they had finished with him, he was half dragged, half frogmarched by Nasal and Gruff to a small, stone walled cell with a thick metal door. It was so cold in there that he couldn’t stop shivering. It was impossible to sleep. He took to crawling into a corner and curling in on himself to conserve as much body warmth as possible. He tried to break the ropes around his wrists but all they did was creak. He could also feel his body trying to heal itself but there simply wasn’t enough mako in his system. Now he half wished he’d taken Hojo up on his offer of extra shots.

A couple of hours or so later the interrogation would begin all over. The door of his filthy cell would grate open and Gruff and Nasal would manhandle him to the same room, tie him to the chair and Midgarian would come in to ask the same questions again.

He’d already lost count of how many times they’d interrogated him or even how long he’d been there. It could have been hours or even days. None of the rooms had windows and it was impossible to gauge the passing of time except when the two Wutaians came to drag him off for the interminable cross-examinations.

After the first time, it was always the same line of questioning.

‘We know there is a build up of Shinra troops to the south and that the Red General has been drafted there,’ said the masked Midgarian. ‘Why is that? What’s their purpose? Is there heavy artillery?’

‘I don’t know, sir, I’m not privy to that information.’

‘What are Shinra’s plans for Wutai? Are they planning an invasion?’

‘I don’t know, sir!’ Cloud had said desperately. ‘They don’t tell me anything! Please, let me go! I won’t say anything. I’ll say I got lost in the mountains and fell or something!’

Frantically, he had tried to remember the basic interrogation training he’d been given at Shinra. Give away as little as possible, only name, rank, number and date of birth. Don’t try to deceive by offering false information; don’t look into the interrogator’s eyes, you may give away something without meaning too. Don’t engage in conversation. Be polite but neither helpful nor unhelpful. Yes, he remembered now...he’d tried that one and got suspended from the ceiling for his trouble.

And that was where he found himself now, strung up like a side of beef.

Though he could barely open his eyes, he could just see his clothes piled on the dusty floor in the far corner of the room, his katana resting on the top, his snow boots beside them.

He had no idea how long he’d been hanging like this either. Frustrated by his apparent, continued failure to co-operate, they would question him and if they didn’t like his answer, they had taken to hitting him around the torso with wooden planks until he lost consciousness, or pretended to, as now. When he woke, it would start all over again. They winched him down only long enough to dribble some water in his mouth and spoon feed him a bowl of vile, thin broth containing two squares of unidentifiable white meat before he’d be hoisted up once more.

Hearing a movement over by the table, he saw Nasal scrape his chair back and walk over to him. Cloud shut his eyes quickly. Reaching him, the Wutaian guard grabbed a handful of his bloodied hair and pulled his head back, as though he was examining him to see if he was conscious, then let his head go once more, obviously deciding that he was out cold.

He said something to Gruff who laughed and replied something unintelligible. Then he got up too and both men left the room.

Cloud opened his eyes once more to find that he was alone for the first time in he knew not how long. He felt tears prick the corners of his eyes then run down his temples into his sweat-matted hair. Shinra must know he had been abducted by now. Surely Sephiroth would have told them. The Silver General must have survived the fight, he was all but indestructible, after all. Had the company really abandoned him here to die? Was life really that cheap to Shinra? In his heart he knew the answer to that only too well.

‘Seph,’ he whispered through cracked, swollen lips, ‘where are you?’

Chapter Text

Genesis lay on his cot in his campaign tent and tried to rest. He was so tired he hadn’t even bothered to remove his First’s uniform or boots.

They had taken control of four forts in four days. Off his face on pain killers, he’d led his men into battle to encounter very little resistance once the Wutaians had seen what they were up against. A three hundred strong army of Seconds and Thirds led by him had effortlessly quashed any insurgents, accepted surrenders, liaised with disgruntled local warlords and negotiated peace treaties. The war with Wutai was all but over, save a few rebellious factions to the north Da Chao region. That morning a messenger had arrived to say that Lord Godo wished to discuss his full, unconditional surrender to Shinra.

All in all, a very satisfying few days’ work, thought Genesis.

Yesterday, he had received hearty congratulations from Lazard and slightly grudging ones from Rufus. Fuck him, thought Genesis bitterly. Or perhaps that was the problem. Maybe if he’d taken their acerbic young Vice President to bed he wouldn’t be stuck out here in a tent, in the middle of a field, twenty miles from Wutai Village in the pissing rain. If he was honest though he did feel some sympathy with Rufus; it must have been deeply humiliating to be to be dumped by Sephiroth and for everyone to know that he, Rufus Shinra, the second most powerful man on Gaia, couldn’t even hold onto the affections of a General of his own army.

Genesis’ compassion for Rufus was quickly overshadowed, however, by something far more serious. He had his own problems.

The blood tests taken after his injury had come back positive. Apparently, he was suffering from something called Degradation. Hollander had tried to explain in layman’s terms how his body was attacking itself from within. It was something to do with the process carried out on him as a child to enhance him and that he’d been the first, the prototype SOLDIER of Project G. They’d made a mistake early on out of ignorance, said Hollander. They had infused his cells with those of some two thousand year old entity they had found buried in the Northern Crater, believing it to be an Ancient. By the time they found out that the ‘creature’, named Jenova, was a hostile alien parasite, it was too late.

Hollander explained to him that the SOLDIER process, however, had been perfected in Sephiroth. Of course, thought Genesis wryly. Even now it appeared that he was second best to the Silver General. In the past, the thought would have infuriated him but now he was too shocked to take in the more complex details, only registering the fact that he would be dead within one year if no cure could be found. Now all he could think of was that they only had a year together left. One year. Just one year at most to be with Sephiroth and Cloud.

During that time, according to Hollander, his physical appearance would degrade too; his hair would turn white, his skin become dry and he would suffer from increasingly weak mental abilities. In other words, he would not go out with a glorious ‘bang’ in battle as he would have liked, instead he would slowly whither to a pathetic, feeble-minded shell before death finally and painfully took him.

Hollander assured him that he was doing everything he could to find a cure but he wasn’t optimistic. Only maybe, if he could replace his defective cells with healthy ones from Sephiroth it might help, but even then there was no guarantee it would work and for that he would need the man’s permission, as well as Hojo’s. It would be a long, painful process too, even if he could get Sephiroth and his ersatz ‘father’ to co-operate in the first place.

Genesis felt the rise of smouldering fury and disgust. He’d only ever given his all for Shinra and they had used him in the vilest way possible. They had experimented on him as an infant without even knowing fully what they were doing or even caring and done the same to Angeal, then Sephiroth. He could blame Hojo and Hollander all he liked but ultimately the work had been sanctioned by Old Man Shinra. That gross man had literally played God with their lives for his own profit.

He was in severe daily pain now, only able to function under the influence of strong painkillers, injected directly into his shoulder and after he was high as a kite. He had kept it from his men and commanding officers as best he could but it was getting worse. It affected his concentration, made it harder to think clearly, to make quick decisions.

There had been no news from Sephiroth, or indeed Cloud after their last texting session. That had been five days ago. He guessed that they had both had to give in their phs’s, as was usual on such a mission but it shouldn’t have taken that long. Two days maximum, Sephiroth had told him and his friend was never wrong. Where the Hel were they?
He fumbled for his phs on the side table and phoned Angeal. His friend picked up on the third ring, panting slightly. Genesis had more things to worry about than inquire why.

‘Is Seph back at HQ yet?’ he asked.

‘No, I still can’t reach him,’ said Angeal. ‘Must be a more complicated mission than he thought.’

‘Ang?’ said Genesis.

‘Yeah?’

‘I don’t suppose there’s any chance you can take a few days off and fly up there, is there, to check on him?’

‘I doubt it,’ said Angeal. ‘Lazard’s got me bogged down with both of your paperwork, plus my training duties and classes and mentoring Zack. I’ll be lucky if I get a day off for New Year’s at this rate. Are you okay?’

‘Yeah,’ Genesis nodded at the phone. ‘I’m fine and I understand. See what you can find out while I’m stuck in this pisshole and let me know as soon as you can. See you soon, Ang.’

‘And you, Gen,’ said Angeal.

The fondness in his friend’s voice almost choked Genesis as he hung up the phone. As much as he was desperate to talk to someone, he couldn’t possibly tell his old friend what was happening to him, to his body. The fact that it may be affecting Angeal too without his knowledge was more than he could bear. Whatever time Angeal had left before he found out, he should be free to enjoy his life in ignorance.

A sudden tapping on the flap of his tent snapped him out of his thoughts.

‘General, Sir?’ came a voice from outside. Genesis recognised the voice of Colonel Davenport, his Second in Command, an experienced Second from the first Wutai war.

‘Come in,’ he called out.

The tent flap was pulled to one side and a tall man with a rugged, short beard came in. ‘Sir,’ the man saluted. ‘You asked to be kept informed about General Sephiroth’s mission to the Da Chao.’

‘Operation Silver Eagle?’ said Genesis with a smirk. ‘Lazard invents such corny mission names. I can’t say our mission name without wanting to burst out laughing....Operation Red Hornet...I mean, really!’

The man didn’t even smile, in fact he looked extremely uncomfortable. ‘What’s the matter?’ asked Genesis, immediately on alert.

‘It’s about Operation Silver Eagle...,’ the man began.

Genesis was off his bed in an instant. ‘They’re back?’ he asked, brightening. ‘At last!’ He flipped open his phs then stopped when he saw the look on his SiC’s face.

‘No, Sir. Apparently we’ve lost contact with them. They seem to have...vanished.’

‘What do you mean, they’ve vanished?’ Genesis felt the blood drain from his face.

‘Just that,’ said Davenport. ‘Shinra has reported them MIA, presumed dead. I’m really sorry Sir.’

‘Missing?’ he echoed. ‘How? Sephiroth wears a tracker and has done ever since he was born! He can’t go missing, that’s the whole point!’

‘I don’t know, Sir. I’m only reporting what I’ve heard, as you asked me to.’

Genesis barely heard himself say, ‘OK, dismissed, Colonel. Thank you.’

‘Sir,’ replied Davenport with a salute and he left the tent.

Genesis slumped into a chair, the pain in his shoulder forgotten for once. With shaking fingers, he dialed a number on his phs. It was answered almost immediately

‘Genesis?’ said Lazard, his voice crackly over the poor line. ‘Is there a problem?’

‘Yes, there is,’ snapped Genesis, unable to keep the fear and anger from his voice. ‘What’s happened to Sphiroth’s mission?’

‘Operation Silver Eagle?’ asked Lazard. ‘We don’t know.’

‘How can you not know?’ echoed Genesis, trying to keep his temper under control. ‘I thought one of the company’s more disgusting practices had been to implant a tracker in Sephiroth’s arm.’

‘I’m afraid that stopped transmitting five days ago,’ said the Director of SOLDIER. ‘We can only presume now that he and his men were killed in action.’

‘Presume? PRESUME!’ shouted Genesis. ‘Never presume anything! Sephiroth has had that implant since birth...it could have just malfunctioned, for Gaia’s sake!’

‘I’m assured that is not possible,’ said Lazard. ‘The tracker is replaced regularly with the latest version. Hojo needs to know where Sephiroth is at all times in case he....goes rogue. He could do untold damage.’

Genesis bit back his disgust and tried to keep calm.

‘Well, perhaps the equipment in Hojo’s lab is faulty,’ Genesis suggested. ‘You can’t just decide that Sephiroth is dead because of some stupid piece of electronic equipment! This is your star General and Shinra’s poster boy you’re talking about here...a human being!’

‘Well, technically...’ began Lazard.

‘Fuck ‘technically’!’ Genesis raged. ‘He’s my friend. What if he’s in trouble, what if they’ve been taken prisoner? Is that how you’d treat me too? I demand that you send out a search party now!’

‘Gen,’ said Lazard, soothingly. ‘I appreciate your concern but there are hundreds of miles of inhospitable terrain around the Da Chao, not to mention blizzards and hostiles. We can’t afford the man-power. All our resources are focused on South Wutai right now...focused on you.’

‘Then let me search for them,’ said Genesis. ‘I’ll take fifty men. I’m only twenty miles from Wutai Village. I can fly up to the Da Chao and still be back by Wednesday to see Godo. A day won’t make any difference. Even if we only recover their bodies it will be something!’

‘No,’ said Lazard. ‘We've already sent a chopper to scour the area where the last signal was received. There' s no sign of them at all. I need to stay where you are with the army. You’re needed there to negotiate the surrender of Lord Godo.’

‘Lazard...!’

‘No, I forbid it,’ said Lazard. ‘And that is an order, General. They’re gone, there’s nothing you can do.’

Genesis hung up numbly and dropped into his chair once more. He gazed fixedly at nothing in particular, deep in thought, unaware of the passing of time. The enormity of the news barely sunk in. He had one year to live and now Sephiroth and Cloud were both gone. One year and he'd spend it alone, rotting, until he suffered a painful and undignified death, all because the President of Shinra sanctioned his body to be used as a guinea pig without his consent. And what of his parents? Had they given their permission for this grotesque thing to happen to him just so they could boast to their high society friends that their son was a SOLDIER First, a Shinra lapdog? The disgust he felt for himself was almost palpable.

As dusk fell, his brain addled by anger and the bitter sting of betrayal, he’d reached a decision and picked up his phs once more. There were ten missed calls; he hadn’t even been aware of it ringing, he’d been so distracted. He only half registered the names as he went straight to ‘contacts’ and pressed a button. Once again, the phone was answered promptly.

‘Hey, how’s things?’ greeted his friend cheerily. ‘Have you heard from the Silver Git yet?’

‘Angeal, I have to see you...’

*******

The muffled sound of voices reached Cloud from somewhere close. His eyelids flickered as he slowly drifted into semi-consciousness. It sounded far away, or very close, he could no longer be sure; maybe even the other side of the door. He was still strung up by his feet, blood making his ears throb but he strained to decipher who was talking anyway.

‘I swear, there’s no sign of them, no tracks, no nothing.’ Gruff’s voice.

‘How could they completely vanish?’ said the Midgarian. ‘Six enhanced super SOLDIERS? They’re not exactly discreet..or small!’

‘Nonetheless, we’ve looked for them everywhere.’ Unmistakably Nasal’s voice. ‘Their tracks vanished four days ago.’

Four days? Four DAYS! Cloud tried to process this information. Exactly how long had he been held here? How many days...or was it weeks? He had no idea.

‘My bet is that they’ve returned to Fort Shuri,’ Gruff was saying. ‘Probably just declared the boy K.I.A. It’s the obvious and most convenient thing to do.’

Cloud couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Sephiroth had abandoned him! His own mentor had given up and left him here to die for the sake of ‘convenience’! The realisation almost stole the breath from him.

‘What have you managed to learn from the boy?’ asked a voice with a more subtle Wutaian accent he didn’t recognise.

‘Nothing,’ said the Midgarian. ‘He either knows nothing or he’s stubborn as hell. Personally, I’d never go through what he’s been through for that shitty company.’

‘Hmm, try once more,’ said the subtle Wutaian voice. ‘If not, kill him. He’s no use to us anymore.’

‘Couldn’t we ransom him?’ Nasal was asking. ‘At least get some money for our trouble.’

‘Shinra don’t pay ransoms,’ said the Midgarian flatly.

Cloud heard them come back into the room and feigned unconsciousness, as was his habit. Suddenly though a freezing bucket of cold water was thrown over him. Despite himself, he gasped and his eyes shot open to see Nasal and Gruff standing in front of him, the inevitable planks in their hands once more. The Midgarian, in his mask as usual, was standing slightly to his left.

‘What do you know about Operation Silver Eagle? Where are the Shinra dogs that were with you?’ demanded Gruff.

‘What?’ asked Cloud faintly.

‘Where is the Demon?’ demanded Nasal.

‘Demon?’ Cloud repeated. It was barely a croak in his dry throat.

‘I repeat...where is the Demon? Shinra’s Silver dog?’ said Gruff.

Through the fug in his brain, he realised they were talking about Sephiroth.

‘I...I don’t know,’ muttered Cloud. ‘You were watching us the whole way...you must know.’

Another whack from the plank landed across his back.

Cloud let out an involuntary groan too weak to do anything else.

‘The Red General’s troops are moving north to Wutai Village,’ said Gruff. ‘Is that in order to meet The Demon to attack the north?’

Exhausted from lack of food, water and sleep, Cloud had no idea what they were on about. ‘I don’t know, sir,’ he practically sobbed. ‘I told you, I don’t know anything, I swear! Please stop... please!’

He heard the Midgarian sigh suddenly and he stepped closer. ‘Look at me, Cloud Strife,’ he said, his tone softening for once. ‘Your comrades have deserted you... your General has deserted you. So much for SOLDIER honour. You might as well tell me everything you know. Your loyalty to Shinra is wasted. They don’t care about you or your suffering. They don’t care about anything except power and money.’

Cloud knew he was right about Shinra but he still couldn’t believe that Sephiroth would abandon him. He remembered the gift of the katana, the beautiful motorbike that he would never see again, those powerful, bare arms around him, those beautifully shaped lips kissing him in passion and he closed his eyes briefly in grief, feeling the tears fall unchecked once more.

‘Tell me everything,’ the Midgarian’s tone was almost warm now. ‘Tell me and I’ll let you go free. We would be pleased for you to join us. You have shown yourself to be...resilient and loyal... traits we admire and reward, unlike Shinra.’

‘Who...?’ muttered Cloud.

‘Avanlanche,’ said the Midgarian. ‘We are an organization dedicated to the overthrow of the Shinra Electric Company for their misuse of mako and the environmental repercussions on our planet. Our world is dying, Cloud Strife...only by stopping the use of mako can we save it. We need tough, loyal soldiers to carry out these missions. I make you this offer...but only once. Join us.’

Cloud was only half listening. He was feeling distinctly strange now, floaty and other-worldly. He wondered if this was what it felt like to die. If so, it wasn’t so bad really...

‘This is a waste of time,’ Gruff’s voice broke in. ‘He’s never going to talk and they are not coming to get him. We should kill him now. We’re wasting time.’

‘Yes, I suppose so,’ said the Midgarian with a resigned sigh. ‘Let him down. Do what you want with him; I have more pressing things to see to.’

Cloud heard the Midgarian leave the room and then the pulleys groaned as he was lowered. He hit the cold concrete ground and lay there, too exhausted to move.

He heard Gruff and Nasal having a bicker about something, probably which one of them was going to kill him then he heard a gun being loaded.

He kept his eyes closed. He didn’t want to watch his own death, or for his last sight on Gaia to be his captors’ scuffed, dirty boots.

One of them walked over to him. By the heaviness of the footsteps he guessed it was Gruff. ‘I am sorry, little one, you have been brave,’ said the Wutaian and cocked the trigger slowly.

Cloud began to pant, keeping his eyes tightly shut. In those last brief seconds thoughts of his ma, the snowy village of Nibelheim, Tifa’s beautiful smile, Genesis’s elegant, wicked smirk... and silver hair, so iridescent and soft...and a heart-stopping curve of lips so soft against his own. All this flashed through his brain in one massive kaleidoscope of memories. Then he held his breath.

BANG!

Chapter Text

Running.

Running and shouting. Men yelling at each other, the sounds of gunshots, the clash of steel against steel.

Why could he hear anything at all, he was dead, wasn’t he?

Slowly, Cloud willed himself to open his eyes. He was still in the same room, still naked on the dirty stone floor but the room was empty. The metal door was wide open against the concrete wall. Was that what the bang had been, just the door being flung open? Had he passed out briefly in shock as he’d been ‘shot’?

He moved slightly so he could check around. He was definitely alone. In the near distance, his enhanced hearing could pick up the sounds of scuffling, of shouted orders and yells in Wutainese.

They were under attack.

He didn’t care who by, this was his one chance. He certainly didn’t want to be captured and interrogated again by some rival faction of Wutai rebels, who might be even worse than the Midgarian.

A quick check confirmed his hands and feet were still bound with rope. He tried not to dwell on the livid purple bruising on his torso, it was vital to stay focused on his one chance to escape. His katana was still in the corner with his clothes. If only he could reach it, he could use the sword to cut his bonds but he was still attached to the pulley by the ropes around his ankles. Forcing himself to ignore the pain in his ribs, he sat up best he could and began to untie the strong, complicated knot, praying his jailers wouldn’t come back. Hampered by having his wrists tied, he worked as quickly as he could. Once he was loose from the hated pulley, he crawled as quickly as he could across the floor to his clothes.

Reaching the sword, he unsheathed it and holding the hilt between his bare feet, blade upwards, he began to saw at the ropes around his wrists with the razor sharp blade. It took only moments before his hands were free. He could still hear the frantic sounds of a fight somewhere close by and the chilling screams of men dying. He had to get out.

Wincing with pain, he dragged on his clothes, grabbed the katana and hobbled to the door. Peering out, he saw the corridor was empty. The walls were rough hewn stone, as though the passage had been carved from sheer rock. He crept forward, looking for a way out then flattened himself against a wall at the sound of running feet. Maybe twelve or so men ran past at the top of the corridor, too intent on what they were doing to notice him.

There were doors leading off the corridor, mostly open. He peered inside a few which contained only Spartan-looking beds, a desk and a chair. The place smelt damp and airless, like they were underground. To his dismay, there wasn’t a single window in any of the rooms, only bare light bulbs hanging from the ceilings. At the end of that passage he found another corridor with rooms leading off. The sounds of the fight were closer now. Hearing more footsteps running, he slipped inside one of the rooms. This one seemed to be some kind of makeshift dressing room. Hung around on hooks were various Wutaian uniforms but amongst them Cloud spotted one of the black outfits worn by the men who had attacked them in the forest.

Cloud thought quickly. If he dressed up as one of them he’d have more chance to escape but he might also attract the attention of whoever was attacking them. It was worth the risk. Quickly, he pulled the slightly large outfit over his own, wrapping a black cloth mask across his face and over his now grimy blond hair. All that poked out were puffy, swollen blue eyes. Satisfied that even his own ma wouldn’t recognise him, he crept back out into the stone corridor.

The fighting seemed to have moved inside and was getting uncomfortably close. The bloodcurdling screams seemed only feet away from him now, down another passageway. Ahead he could just make out a glimmer of daylight.

Taking his only chance, he ran towards the light as fast as he could, suddenly bursting out of what looked like the mouth of a cave into blinding sunlight. Ahead of him lay a vast expanse of smooth glittering snow...and he was dressed in black! Beyond that though was a dense, dark forest. All he had to do was run as fast as he could and he might just make it. His training came back to him then. As an escaping prisoner, put as much distance between you and your pursuers as possible, his Sarge had told them, then lie low for a couple of days. It would force them to widen their search and waste their time. The further away you got, the more bored they would become searching. He only hoped so.

Ignoring the acute pain of his ribs, he took a deep breath and ran towards the forest as though death itself was chasing him, which it probably was.

‘There’s one escaping!’ he heard a shout from behind him. ‘Get that Shinobi bastard!’

Then behind him he heard the sounds of someone gaining on him, someone in unnaturally and ruthlessly fast pursuit. A second later he was grabbed from behind by crushingly powerful arms and thrown hard to the ground, jarring his ribs. He let out a shriek of agony.

Looming above Cloud, his assailant came into focus and he found himself staring at a very familiar pair of cat-green eyes. Sephiroth’s eyes. Except that it didn’t look like Sephiroth. The man’s face was blood-spattered, eyes ferociously wild with his signature hair hidden under a hat and covered by a hoodie. As terrifying as he looked, there was no mistaking those fine cut features though.

Cloud winced as his head and face covering was roughly ripped off.

Sephiroth blinked in confusion. ‘Cloud?’

‘Traitor!’ shouted Bates and raised his broadsword to land a killing blow. Even without breaking eye contact with Cloud, Sephiroth shot out his hand and caught the Second’s wrist in mid-swing.

‘Stand down, SOLDIER!’ he ordered.

Bates dropped his arm immediately.

‘I’m not a traitor!’ cried Cloud and pulled up his layers of clothing to reveal his battered torso.

‘Area’s secure, General,’ said Luxiere coming over to the them. ‘No sign of our chocobo though. Then he looked down at Cloud in disbelief. ‘Holy Gaia, Strife, is that you? What the Hel did they do to you?’

By their collective stunned expressions, he knew he must look bad.

‘He needs a cure and quickly,’ said Sephiroth. ‘Let’s get him inside.’

Sephiroth scooped him up in to his arms, as they were joined by the other Seconds, and carried him back into the rebels’ hideout, stepping over piles of dead bodies, mostly sliced in half by the SOLDIER swords or simply decapitated. There had to be at least two hundred of them. Cloud was sure he saw Gruff’s body amongst them but it was hard to tell - it was nothing short of a massacre.

‘You came for me,’ muttered Cloud faintly.

Sephiroth looked down at him with those strange, exotic eyes. ‘Of course,’ he said, a tiny concerned smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

Inside the cave, Sephiroth lay him on a table in what must have been the rebels' mess hall. There was a rusty stove in one corner and shelves covered in battered pots and pans. Cloud was shaking now but whether it was from cold or trauma, he had no idea.

‘Kunsel, Ferguson,’ snapped Sephiroth, ‘clear all the dead out and throw the bodies into the ravine. Luxiere, see if you can find the radio and signal Fort Shuri for assistance. Bates, get some blankets.’

‘Sir,’ they chorused and left.

Cloud found himself alone with his mentor. He was still shaking, his teeth chattering. ‘They said you’d all gone mm-missing,’ he managed to say. ‘I thought you’d gone back to the fort without me.’

‘We were hiding in a dug outs during most of the day,’ said Sephiroth. ‘We had no choice. They kept sending out patrols to look for us.’ He picked up a discarded tea towel and wiped the worst of the blood off his own face, then removed his hat and hoodie. Underneath, his striking silver hair was braided back into a long plait.

‘Lie still, Cloud,’ he said. ‘I’m going to cure you. Injuries?’

‘Nose,’ confirmed Cloud.

‘I can see that,’ said Sephiroth, taking a full cure materia from the inside of his jacket.

‘Cracked ribs I think,’ said Cloud. ‘May be broken, I don’t know.’

‘I doubt it the way you were running,’ said Sephiroth, allowing himself another thin smile. He undid Cloud’s various shirts and underclothes to examine the bruising. A second later Cloud felt crackling heat sliding up his torso and the strange crawling sensation of bones knitting together. He watched fascinated as the bruising slowly dispersed until his body looked pale and perfect as before. His mentor then repeated the procedure to his eyes, mouth and cheekbones.

‘There, you look almost cute again,’ said the General, smiling down at him. ‘Just your nose to go.’

Sephiroth leaned forward and gently stroked Cloud’s face, his lips within inches of Cloud’s. ‘It’s good to have you back, little chocobo,’ he murmured.

Cloud tilted his head into his touch then without warning, two strong fingers gripped the sides of his nose and snapped it to one side. There was a stomach churning crack and Cloud let out a yell of pain and shock as his nose was freshly broken. Seconds later though he felt the healing warmth once more as the delicate bone and cartilage knitted together.

‘Sorry about that,’ said Sephiroth. ‘I had to distract you to re-break it. It was starting to heal crookedly.’

‘Lucky for you that you’re my General,’ huffed Cloud, ‘or there would be no limit to the names I would be calling you now.’

Sephiroth grinned. ‘Do it if it makes you feel better. I can take it. Are you alright to sit up?’

Cloud nodded. He took Sephiroth’s hand and pulled himself up, swinging his legs tentatively over the edge of the table.

Bates came back with three clean blankets and Sephiroth proceeded to wrap them around the blond’s shoulders then he found a clean cup and some water for Cloud. ‘Don’t drink to fast,’ he advised. ‘You’re pretty dehydrated.’

‘I’ll see if there’s any food in these cupboards,’ offered Bates, beginning to search for anything that might serve as dinner for seven hungry SOLDIERS. ‘There’s lots of tinned stuff, but nothing fresh. At least we can have a hot meal of sorts tonight though.’

Cloud’s empty stomach gave a loud rumble of anticipation.

Luxiere came in to the room. ‘General, all the radios have been destroyed, they’re completely unsalvageable. I don’t know if they managed a distress call first or not and we still don’t know how many more are out there.’

‘We’ll stay here tonight and start making our way back to Fort Shuri tomorrow,’ said Sephiroth. Make sure you secure the entrances and organise a watch rota, just in case. Take Bates with you.’

‘Sir,’ said Luxiere and both men left.

‘How far are we from Fort Shuri?’ Cloud asked.

‘About a seventy miles.’

‘What!’ gasped Cloud. ‘You came all this way to get me?’

‘Gaia, no, I was just carrying out my mission as ordered,’ said Sephiroth, a teasing twinkle in his eye. ‘Want to try and stand up?’

‘Sure,’ said Cloud. He took Sephiroth’s proffered arm and eased himself off the table. He felt oddly stiff, as though he’d spent the night sleeping on a hard floor but apart from that he felt no pain. Catching sight of himself in the mirror by the door he was heartened to see that, apart from dirt and smeared blood from his old injuries, his face looked as good as new.

‘Thank you, said Cloud.

Sephiroth went to hug him but Cloud stepped back. ‘You may not want to do that, I need a shower...really badly,’ he protested.

‘I don’t care,’ said Sephiroth and pulled him into his arms, hugging him tightly. ‘I thought I’d lost you,’ he murmured into his hair.

‘You nearly did,’ said Cloud, melting against Sephiroth’s hard body, gripping him for all he was worth.

Sephiroth raised his hands and brushed Cloud’s matted hair off his face. He dropped a gentle kiss on his lips. ‘What would I have told Genesis?’ he said. ‘I promised to keep you safe. He would never have forgiven me.’

Cloud smiled, thinking of the fiery, handsome red-head. He was looking forward to seeing him again more than he would even admit to himself.

‘When Genesis finishes his mission, we’ll all go away somewhere nice together,’ said Sephiroth.

‘Costa del Sol!’ said Cloud, brightening.

Sephiroth laughed. ‘If you want. Then you can decide once and for all which one of us is going to win this wretched Bet.’

‘I told you,’ said Cloud, giving him a minxy smile. ‘both of you.

‘Stop it,’ said Sephiroth softly.

‘You should smile more often, y’know, said Cloud. ‘It suits you.'

‘You and Gen make me smile,’ admitted his mentor.

‘And Zack?’ asked Cloud.

‘Shiva, no! He makes me want to burn down entire towns!’

Cloud chuckled. ‘I missed you and Gen so much,’ he said. ‘I really thought I’d never see you again.’

‘I know, me too. Although how I can miss that irritating, arrogant, pesky red devil is quite beyond me.’

‘Because you love him,’ said Cloud simply.

Sephiroth didn’t answer; he didn’t need to. Cloud understood. He knew finally and irrefutably that he loved them both too.

Chapter Text

With the hideout secured for the night they all went into the kitchen where Kunsel had managed to rustle them up a half decent hot meal of heated soup, tinned vegetables and some kind of cubed beef in gravy. It was the first hot meal any of them had had for days and Cloud privately thought it was one of the best things he’d ever tasted. It was heartening, he thought, how facing almost certain death made you appreciate everything so much more; the smell of the food, the feel of the rough wooden table top, Sephiroth’s long thigh pressed against his...

Over dinner they went over the details of that afternoon’s fight, as seasoned SOLDIER’s were wont to do. Luxiere explained to Cloud why it had taken them so long to find him. First they had run into a large sloth of ferocious bears then Ferguson had fallen down a ravine and they’d lost the tracks the rebels had left. When they eventually found the well hidden route their quarry had taken, the entrance to the hideout itself was so well guarded it was another half a day before they could attack it.

‘There was a guy, a Midgarian,’ said Cloud suddenly. ‘He was the one that mostly interrogated me. Did you find his body?’

‘If you mean John Caster, we did,’ said Luxiere. ‘He was a known traitor, an eco terrorist with Avalanche; he was on Shinra’s Most Wanted list. Not sure what he was doing all the way out here though.’

‘He seemed very interested on how SOLDIER’s got their strength,’ said Cloud. ‘He was pretty gutted when he found out my body couldn’t heal itself yet.’

‘That would explain why they took you,’ said Kunsel, chomping on a mouthful of beef and potato. ‘He’d probably suggested to the Shinobi that they kidnap a SOLDIER so they could find out the secret and enhance their own troops. I’m guessing he hadn’t counted on you not having had your full course of injections yet.’

‘What else did he ask you?’ Sephiroth asked Cloud.

‘It was mostly about General Rhapsodos’ mission,’ said Cloud, ‘but I didn’t know anything about that either. All Genesis told me was that his troops were sent out here as a show of strength, like a kind of peace-keeping force.’

‘The fact that he didn’t tell you the truth may have kept you alive as long as it did,’ said Sephiroth. ‘They probably thought you knew more and were hoping you’d crack eventually. Genesis is actually out here to force the unconditional surrender of Lord Godo. When he’s done that he will work his way up here and subdue Wutai once and for all by any means necessary.’

Cloud considered this new information. It was lucky Genesis hadn’t told him that. He hadn’t had to lie to the Midgarian interrogator. What did they call that? Plausable Deniability? Yes, he’d been very plausible, so plausible they had decided to kill him eventually because he knew nothing. Sephiroth was right though, he would have been killed sooner if he’d told them the truth.

After supper they were all able to bathe in tin baths by heating up snow in saucepans on the gas stove. They let Cloud go first as he was by far the filthiest of all of them. It took an age for all of them to wash but it was a delicious luxury to be clean once more nonetheless.

A further search of the hideout revealed that there were several large dormitory rooms with about thirty beds in each. The five Seconds each picked a bed for themselves in the first room. Cloud was about to follow them but Sephiroth stopped him.

‘You’re staying with me,’ said his mentor. ‘I’m not letting you out of my sight again.’

Cloud followed Sephiroth to find that he had located what was probably the rebel leader’s sleeping quarters. It contained only a double bed with a wooden frame, a desk and two shabby armchairs but at least it was private. Sephiroth had another bed brought in from one of the dormitories for Cloud and had it placed close to his. Being fastidious, he then found some clean linen, changed the beds and found some extra blankets.

‘Hang your clothes over the furniture,’ advised Sephiroth. ‘They’re still damp.’

They both stripped quickly because of the cold and draped their clothes around the room on every available surface, then got into their respective beds. Cloud pulled the covers around him and shivered, wondering how the rebels had stood living in such gloomy, dank conditions. The mattress was hard and lumpy but on the other hand it was certainly an improvement on the cold concrete floor of his small cell. He couldn’t stop shaking though, the cold seeming to permeate his very soul.

It was the first time since his rescue that he’d been alone long enough to reflect on what had happened the past few days, of the sheer terror, the helplessness and despair that no one would ever come for him and that the last thing he’d ever see in this world would be a freezing, damp cell.

Close by he could hear Sephiroth’s deep, even breathing and wondered if the man was asleep yet or not. Part of him whished that his mentor was still awake so that he could talk through what had happened to him, in some vain hope that it might help come to terms with the ordeal; on the other hand, he was slightly wary of waking Shinra’s Silver General. The man was probably even more tired than he was. So instead he lay awake in the pitch darkness for a while before feeling himself being dragged into an exhausted, troubled sleep.

*******

He was in the dark, running so hard he thought his chest would burst! There was a light at the end of the long tunnel but as hard as he ran, he was barely moving. Gruff and Nasal were chasing him, closing in on him with hot iron pincers, whips and planks of wood with nails sticking out of them. Huge and monstrous, his pursuers were covered in postulating sores, their mouths open in a gruesome sneer, revealing rotting, stinking teeth. They were reaching out for him, grabbing for him. He tried to get away from them but his legs barely moved. Then their hands were on him, their foul breath in his face...!

Cloud screamed.

Before he knew what was happening, he felt a weight on the mattress and the bed creaked as someone slipped into the bed and tried to pull him into a hug.

Cloud tried to lash out but his wrists were caught in an iron grip.

‘It’s ok, it’s ok,’ said a man, his voice deep, soothing. ‘I’m here, it was just a nightmare.’

Cloud was panting, his heart hammering so hard he could scarcely breathe.

‘Shhh,’ Sephiroth’s reassuring voice reached through his panic. ‘It’s alright, you’re fine...you’re safe.’ He pulled Cloud close to him and this time the blond clung to him.

Sephiroth hugged him, allowing Cloud’s breathing to even out slightly then he gently brushed his sweat bedraggled hair off his face. ‘Was it bad?’ he asked.

Cloud nodded. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.’

‘Don’t worry about that,’ Sephiroth reassured him, dropping a light kiss on his mouth and lying down next to him. ‘Are you sure you’re alright?’

Cloud nodded. ‘Yes, quite sure,’ he said, giving his mentor a shaky smile. After the grotesque nightmare, all he wanted was to luxuriate in the closeness of someone so beautiful and clean-smelling.

Suddenly there was a sharp knock on the door. ‘Everything ok?’ It was Luxiere, his voice croaky with sleep.

‘Fine,’ Sephiroth called back. ‘Strife just had a nightmare.’

‘Sir,’ said Luxiere and stomped off back to his bed.

‘They probably think I’m doing unspeakable things to you,’ Sephiroth murmured when the sound of receding footsteps had gone.

‘Sounds fun,’ Cloud murmured in the darkness. He shifted closer in Sephiroth’s arms and pressed himself against his long, hard body. Soon he became aware of a long, hard erection pushing into his belly.

Without waiting for an invitation, Cloud moved in for a deep, sensuous kiss, slipping his tongue into Sephiroth’s warm, wet mouth as their legs entwined. Reaching his hand down, he slipped his hand between the General’s legs and encircled the man’s hardness, marveling yet again at the silky smoothness of the skin and the fact that his finger tips didn't even touch around the thickness. Sephiroth was, quite simply, huge. Slowly, he stroked it for a few moments, drowsily enjoying the increasingly uneven breathing of the man then Sephiroth shifted slightly to roll on top of him, effectively trapping Cloud under fifteen stone of pure, solid muscle. They kissed again, slowly. It was incredibly intimate in the confines of the small bed, a curtain of slithering silver hair around them.

Cloud felt a delicious tingle in his groin every time Sephiroth moved even a fraction. Instinctively, he shifted his hips against his mentor, their erections pressing and sliding against each other. Cloud increased the movement and Sephiroth responded by grinding down hard against him.

‘Seph!’ he gasped, his arms gripping hard around Sephiroth, pulling him as close to him as he could.

Sephiroth may not have been as vocal in bed as Genesis but he made up for it with sheer, dominating power, taking hold of Cloud’s arms to bring them up and grip his wrists above his head on the pillow. Cloud found himself pinned down helpless and squirming with desire under Gaia’s most powerful man. It was hot beyond belief. Taking the initiative, Sephiroth rode them both hard to the edge.

Cloud came first with a yell of pleasure as an orgasm ripped through his body, not caring who heard. Sephiroth followed mere seconds after but with a satisfied sigh. They lay where they were for a moment, panting and spent, enjoying the sweet afterglow then Sephiroth rolled off him and wiped them both clean with the sheet.

Cloud giggled. ‘Gen would be horrified,’ he said.

‘What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.’ Sephiroth grinned and settled back pulling Cloud to him once more. They lay in silence again for a few moments, Cloud enjoying the comforting feeling of the other man’s even heartbeat so close to his own. For the first time in almost a week he was truly warm too...Sephiroth’s body gave off enough heat for both of them.

‘We’ll phone Genesis when we get to Fort Shuri and let him know you’re safe,’ said Sephiroth.

‘How long do you think he’ll take to finish the mission?’ asked Cloud.

‘It shouldn’t take more than two, maybe three weeks. Depends how many small pockets of resistance he finds up here but I think we got rid of the main one. Two hundred and thirty men, by Luxiere’s reckoning.’

Perhaps it was the unbearable stress and trauma of the past few days but Cloud felt tears prick the corners of his eyes as he hugged Sephiroth for coming to his rescue.

‘Cloud, can I ask you something?’ asked Sephiroth, almost reticently. ‘Did your guards do anything to you?’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Cloud.

‘Anything...inappropriate?’

‘You mean apart from stringing me up naked by my feet and beating me with bits of 4x2? No, they didn’t.’

‘Thank Gaia for that,’ said Sephiroth with feeling.

‘Don’t worry, your Bet’s safe,’ teased Cloud. ‘My virginity is still intact.’

‘That wasn’t what I meant.’

Cloud smiled. ‘I know you didn’t.’

Silence fell between them once more.

‘Oh, Happy Birthday, by the way,’ said Sephiroth suddenly. ‘Sorry I didn’t have the chance to get you anything. I’ll make it up to you when we get back to Midgar.’

Cloud had completely forgotten about his birthday; he’d lost track of time as a captive. He worked it out now that he was nineteen as of yesterday. He wondered if his ma had tried to call him and was worrying herself sick because he was on a secret mission and he knew Shinra would fob her off with some generic excuse. He’d make sure he phoned her as soon as they reached the fort, time difference be damned.

He nuzzled the General’s neck. ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to get me anything. You just gave me the best gift in the world, you saved me.’

*******

In the end, Cloud had a half decent night’s sleep, during which he only woke twice after particularly vivid nightmares. For his part, Sephiroth was patient and understanding in such a way that Cloud guessed he can have only suffered the same effects of PTSD himself at some point.

Old habits died hard in SOLDIER’s, it seemed, because Sephiroth chivied him out of bed, regardless of their broken night, at 5.30 am. After dressing in their now dry clothes they went to the kitchen. Bates was already busy making up seven bowls of porridge in front of five bleary-eyed Seconds. They all gave Cloud curious looks but whether it was to do with the Bet or not, he couldn’t be certain but he was sure he saw a couple of them smirk. Whatever they wanted to say, however, they didn’t because Sephiroth was there and they knew that not even Seconds were safe from his lethally cold fury if something upset him. Cloud knew too that his relationship with Genesis Rhapsodos also made him all but untouchable. For all that, he didn’t want to encourage their resentment either. These were still his fellow SOLDIER’s after all. He’d probably be on many more missions with them.

‘Sorry if I woke you last night, guys,’ said Cloud feeling partly, if not fully, responsible for their disturbed sleep.

‘No one’s gonna blame you for having nightmares after what you went through,’ said Ferguson, giving him a kindly smile, whilst spooning cold tomato soup out of a tin straight into his mouth.

‘Nah,’ said Bates. ‘I screamed myself awake every night for a year after my first stint in Wutai. Nothing to be ashamed of.’

Cloud gave them a grateful smile. It broke the ice and after he felt he been re-accepted into their ranks, whatever they surmised about his relationship with their General.

With a large, if slightly unusual breakfast inside them, they left an hour later for the trek back east to Fort Shuri. They took four small tents, food and weapons from the hideout and set off for the long journey down the mountainside, through forests and across wide, snow covered expanses. They walked slowly for fully enhanced SOLDIER’s for Cloud’s benefit, who although cured, was still weak from his ordeal.

As the first night fell, they pitched camp on the edge of a forest by a river, ate their weird rations and turned in for the night. Sephiroth insisted that Cloud share his tent with him. It was practical, as it was bitingly cold but also because the General was still loath to let his protégé out of his sight at any time. They huddled together, still fully dressed, their single sleeping bags zipped into a double.

Each night from then on he shared Sephiroth’s tent and to his relief the other Seconds seemed to accept the fact. It was viciously cold after all and it was important to stay alive, whatever it took. After that first night in the rebel hideout though he and Sephiroth never did anything again other than cuddle and kiss; the man didn’t even try to win that part of the Bet. Cloud would have thought he had an almost non-existent sex drive except that he knew the General had slept with Genesis and been Rufus’ long-term lover, so he guessed he was no blushing virgin. Maybe he just perceived it as cheating to try and make a move without Genesis being around to have at least a chance to win.

In the end, it took them three days to cover the distance back to Fort Shuri. They were attacked a couple of times by small factions of rebels but once the men saw they were dealing with SOLDIER’s they tried to run off. The Seconds and Sephiroth gave chase and made quick work of dispatching them.

At the end of the third day, they reached the fort in darkness as snow began to fall again. Guards posted on the walls of the fort spotted them approaching and sounded the alert.

Even before they reached the gates, Major Rudd came out to greet them, flanked by two infantrymen, a look of utter disbelief on his face.

‘General, Sir!’ said the Major, reaching them. ‘We thought you were dead! A Shinra helicopter was sent to search for you but found no trace of you at all.’

‘We had...complications,’ said Sephiroth, flatly. ‘Mission completed anyway.’

‘Well, it’s good to see you back, Sir,’ said Rudd.

Sephiroth didn’t reply, marching straight past the Major into the fort. Rudd followed behind with the Seconds and the other two infantrymen.

Once they were safely inside the fort, Sephiroth turned to the Major. ‘I need to use your radio.’

‘I’m afraid it’s out of commission, Sir,’ said Rudd. We’re awaiting some parts from Mime. They should be here by tomorrow evening.’

‘What’s the latest on the main army to the South?’ asked Sephiroth.

‘General Rhapsodos’ mission? The last I heard army was camped about thirty or so klicks out of Wutai Village, in the Guiyan region, Sir,’ replied Rudd.

‘I’m requisitioning your helicopter tomorrow,’ said Sephiroth. ‘We need to get to the camp. Corporal Strife needs to see a doctor; he sustained some serious injuries during the mission. We will leave at first light.’

‘No problem, Sir,’ said Rudd. ‘I will collect your effects from the stores. I’m sure you’d all like to eat and get some sleep now.’

None of them was going argue with him about that. Exhausted from the trek they ate a light, and admittedly, delicious supper, showered and went straight to bed, after gratefully retrieving their phs’s and other personal effects from the Major. Cloud then phoned his ma, who scolded him for not answering her calls, considering it was his birthday, but forgave him when he explained his mission had been top secret. When he told her he’d been on the mission with the great General Sephiroth, she was so impressed that her son personally knew such an important figure that she practically chewed his ear off with questions about the man. It took him nearly an hour to get her off the phone in the end.

Ounce again, Sephiroth insisted Cloud stay in his room, which turned out to be in the infinitely more comfortable officers’ quarters. This time though, Sephiroth didn’t even bother with ordering him a spare bed. Cloud was quickly finding out that his mentor basically didn’t give a damn about what people thought, undoubtedly considering himself far above such petty moral judgments. In some ways he was probably more like Genesis than he even realised.

While Cloud got changed into the sleep pants he’d left in his kit at the fort, Sephiroth sat on the edge of the bed to call Genesis. Across the room, Cloud’s enhanced hearing listened as the red-head’s phs didn’t even ring, just blurted an automated message:

“The mobile you have called is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later.”

Sephiroth frowned and hung up. He punched in another quick dial number and a second later, Angeal’s deep, warm voice filtered through the ear piece. “You have reached Angeal Hewley. Please leave a message after the tone.”

‘That’s strange,’ said Sephiroth, looking vaguely troubled, as he put his phs on the bedside table. ‘Angeal always answers his phone. We always tease him about it.’

‘Perhaps he’s in the shower,’ Cloud suggested, climbing into the comfortable bed and laying down with a blissful sigh. The bed may not have been up to Genesis’ standards but after the last week of sleeping rough, it felt like heaven.

Sephiroth undressed and climbed in next to him. ‘You’re not going to have a nightmare tonight, are you Strife? Otherwise I might have to smother you with a pillow.’

‘I promise, Sir,’ Cloud grinned.

‘Good,’ said his mentor and pulled him close. Once again they did nothing more than kiss for a few moments before Sephiroth settled comfortably and fell asleep. For his part, Cloud nestled against his mentor, soothed by the deep, steady rise and fall of the man’s chest as he slept. With strong arms around him, he felt safe and content. Briefly he allowed himself the tiniest tinge of excitement about seeing his fiery red-head tomorrow before falling asleep himself.

He woke the next morning, feeling refreshed and well-rested. Maybe Sephiroth had cast sleep on him, he didn’t know, but for the first time since the start of the mission he’d had a solid, unbroken night’s sleep.

After an early breakfast, just as the sun began to rise over the snowy landscape, the Seconds climbed into the waiting military helicopter. Sephiroth, with Luxiere as his co-pilot, flew them over the forests and mountains where Cloud had been held captive then south towards the Guiyan area in South Wutai and Genesis’ assembled army.

Four hours later they approached Guiyan. From the windows they could make out the rows of khaki-coloured tents helicopters that signaled the presence of a large amassed army.

The camp was there but where there should have been the bustle of men moving around going about their duties there was nothing.

‘Where is everyone?’ asked Luxiere, his voice crackling over the head-set.

Cloud looked out of the window. The camp did indeed look abandoned, devoid of the usual to and fro-ing of troops running various errands or doing exercises; in fact he couldn’t see a single soul. Even the trucks and jeeps were gone. Only two military helicopters stood desolately on the camp’s perimeter.

‘It looks deserted,’ put in Ferguson.

‘Perhaps they’re on manoeuvres,’ said Kunsel.

‘Maybe they’ve gone to accept Godo’s surrender,’ said Bates. ‘Thank fuck for that, we can all go home now and get out of this shithole.’

Sephiroth put the helicopter down next to the other two choppers and switched off the engine.

They all got out and walked towards the command tent, which was easy to identify by its sheer size alone, the Shinra flag flying from its centre post.

Where once there would have been an official, formal greeting laid on for the famous Silver General, there was nothing. No one came out of the tents, no one ran to meet them.

‘Am I the only one who’s creeped out by this?’ hissed Bates, as they walked through rows of seemingly abandoned tents.

Just as they reached the main tent, a man came out to meet them, wearing the uniform of a highly decorated Colonel of a SOLDIER Second.

‘General Sephiroth!’ the man looked even more taken-aback at the sight of the General than Rudd had.

‘Colonel Davenport,’ acknowledged Sephiroth.

‘We were told you were KIA, Sir!’ said Davenport.

‘You were told wrong,’ said Sephiroth, dryly. ‘Where is General Rhapsodos?’

Davenport blinked, a look of blank confusion on his face. ‘You don’t know, Sir?’

‘Know what?’ snapped Sephiroth.

The Colonel paled. He clearly didn’t want to say what was coming next. ‘General Rhapsodos has defected. He took three hundred men with him, all Seconds and Thirds.’

Cloud had never seen Sephiroth look shocked. He’d begun to think that the man was simply unshockable in any way.

‘Defected?’ Sephiroth echoed.

‘He was told you were dead, Sir,’ said Davenport. ‘We all were.’

‘Where are they now?’ asked the General. ‘The army?’

‘We’re not sure, Sir. We’ve lost track of them.’

Sephiroth’s cold rage was more terrifying than if he’d ranted. ‘How the fuck did you lose track of three hundred men?’ he seethed. ‘SOLDIER’s at that! They’re hardly inconspicuous’

The Colonel was actually trembling. It occurred to Cloud briefly that if Sephiroth had been Genesis the man would have been on fire by now.

‘They left in the middle of the night, Sir,’ said Davenport. ‘We lost track of them three days ago. We know they went in the direction of the eastern continent but there isn’t a force in the army that can stop that many SOLDIERS, except maybe you.’

‘Take me to Rhapsodos’ tent,’ snapped Sephiroth.

Davenport led the way and Sephiroth followed. Cloud wasn’t sure if he should stay with the other Seconds or not but decided to go with his mentor, to Hel with protocol.

Genesis’ tent was exactly how he had left it. The bed was rolled up neatly and a few books were stacked on the desk, Loveless being conspicuous by its absence. Rapier was missing, as were his clothes. Next to the books were the red-head’s phs and Shinra ID card. Clearly, Genesis was not intending to return.

Suddenly, Davenport’s phs rang. ‘Excuse me Sir, I have to take this,’ he said and left the tent.

Sephiroth went over to the desk and opened up his friend’s phs to see that there were over one hundred missed calls, including his own, and just as many messages, all unread.

Blind confusion set in Sephiroth’s face. ‘Why?’ he said. ‘Why would he throw everything away – his career, his future...?’ ‘Me’ was left unsaid.

Cloud wanted to hug him but didn’t dare; the devastation in Sephiroth’s face was agonizing to see. ‘Genesis must have had his reasons,’ he said. ‘I’m sure he’ll contact you soon to explain.’

Sephiroth looked down at the abandoned phs in his palm. It had been left because it was a tracking device, and Genesis would have known that. Hardly surprising that he would have left it behind.

‘Maybe,’ he said, pocketing the device so he could read the messages later. ‘We need to get back to Midgar. Now.’

Chapter Text

It was dusk when the helicopter set down on Shinra’s rooftop. Angeal and Zack were already there, waiting for them. Even through the slightly grimy helicopter’s window, Cloud could see that the older man’s face looked haggard with worry.

Sephiroth jumped out of the chopper immediately and strode over to his friend, and the two men hugged.

Cloud climbed out as Zack ran to meet him, throwing his arms around the blond and scooping him into a huge bear hug, practically crushing the air out of him.

‘Spike! Are you okay?’ asked Zack. ‘Man, I thought you were a goner! Seph told Ang you’d been captured! That really sucks.’

‘I’m alright now,’ Cloud assured him, comforted by his friend’s concern. ‘Seph rescued me.’

‘He would,’ said Zack cheerfully. ‘Never leave a man behind, that’s his motto!’

Zack let him go and they followed Angeal and Sephiroth down the stairwell towards the lifts, leaving the other Seconds to unload the chopper.

‘What do you know about Genesis’ defection?’ Sephiroth was asking Angeal as they stomped down the metal staircase. ‘Did he give any reasons?’

‘Not as such,’ said Angeal. ‘He called me to say he was sick and that the wound he sustained in the sparring session refused to heal...something about Mako leaking into the soft tissue and affecting the healing process.’

‘He told you this?’ asked Sephiroth.

Angeal nodded.

'And he didn't think to tell me?'

'We all thought you were dead, Seph. We had no way of contacting you. Gen said..,’ Angeal took a steadying breath. ‘He said that there was a chance there wasn’t a cure and that he’d be dead within the year.’

They had reached the lifts now. Cloud glanced at Sephiroth’s face and was confronted by a look of such devastation that he wished he hadn’t.

‘What does Hollander say about it?’ Sephiroth managed to ask as they stepped into the waiting lift. Angeal pressed the button for the 69th floor.

‘Hollander’s disappeared too, although whether he’s gone to join Gen or not, I don’t know,’ said the raven-haired General. ‘Zack and I are being deployed to Fort Tamblin tomorrow with the rest of the Seconds and Thirds as reinforcements. Lazard is afraid the Wutaians will take this opportunity to rise up again.’

Sephiroth nodded slowly but looked as though he was barely taking it all in.

They reached the 69th floor without another word Sephiroth got out of the lift, followed by Angeal. The older man practically blocked the doors with his huge frame, effectively stopping Cloud from following his mentor.

‘See you at 0500 sharp tomorrow, Zack,’ said Angeal before he stepped out and the doors closed behind him.

‘C’mon Spike,’ said Zack, putting a reassuring arm around the blond’s shoulders. ‘I’ll see you back to your flat.’

Back in Cloud’s rooms Zack pulled a bottle of whiskey from the inside of his military jacket like a magician producing a rabbit. ‘Happy belated birthday, man!’

‘Thank you!’ said Cloud, taking it from him. ‘How did you know?’

‘I looked in your file, duh,’ beamed Zack.

‘We’ll have some now,’ said Cloud, going into the kitchen to fetch two coffee mugs and pouring them both three inches of honey-coloured liquid. He came back and handed one to Zack.

‘Don’t tell Angeal,’ pleaded Zack, taking the mug from him. ‘He’d go garritty if he knew I was drinking before a mission!’

They clinked mugs together. ‘Good to have you back, Spikey,’ said Zack.

‘Good to be back,’ said Cloud with feeling.

They both took a deep swig and let out a sigh of satisfaction.

‘D’you want to go out or eat or something?’ offered Zack.

Cloud shook his head and flopped down onto the sofa, leaning his head against the back rest and stared at the ceiling. He was beyond exhausted and still struggling to process recent events. His thoughts were spinning in every direction.

Zack sat down next to him with the bottle and poured them both a top up. ‘Seph phoned Angeal from the chopper,’ he said. ‘He told him you’d been tortured.’

Cloud nodded again, taking another deep gulp. The liquid was warming and numbing but he felt like he’d need the whole bottle to blot out the past week or so. That was all he felt like doing right now...getting mindlessly drunk.

‘Do you want to talk about it?’ asked Zack kindly.

Cloud shook his head. ‘Not really. Not yet anyway.’

They chatted for a while longer about inconsequential stuff but Cloud couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for his dark haired friend. He wasn’t being exactly fun company this evening; it must have been like trying to offer solace to someone after a bereavement which in a way was how Genesis’ defection had affected him.

‘I’m sorry Zack,’ he said at last. ‘I need to go to bed.’

‘Sure, sure,’ Zack smiled understandingly and got up. ‘Just remember if you want to talk tonight, you know where to find me.’

Cloud thanked him. When Zack had gone, he finished his drink then slowly unpacked his kit, which had been left outside his door by one of the other Seconds, then undressed and got into bed. It was his first night alone since his rescue and it felt strange being in bed without the comfort of another warm body next to him. He’d become accustomed to the feel of strong arms around him and the steady, even heartbeat so close to his own.

He wondered what Sephiroth was doing now. He hoped Angeal had stayed to talk to him and offer him comfort. Cloud would have wanted to be there too but Angeal had made it quite clear that he wanted to be with his old friend alone. He shoved down a slight twinge of jealousy, knowing that even if Angeal stayed the night with Sephiroth, they were not and had never been lovers. Who was he to deny Sephiroth the comfort of an old friend...especially one that had been so close to Genesis.

Before he switched off his bedside lamp he sent Zack a text. “Thanks so much for tonight and the present. I’m sorry I was miserable company. Have a safe mission and take care.”

Cloud turned off his lamp and lay down once more. A second later his phs pinged an in-coming message. “Hey, no worries, Spikey. We’ll go out and get rat-arsed as soon as I’m back. Ang says to look after Seph for him.”

“Will do,” Cloud typed back and closed his phs.

Reading into the message, Cloud realised that Angeal must have left Sephiroth on his own after all. That would be so like the silver General to want to be by himself. Cloud thought of him lying in that vast bed, in that vast empty apartment, alone with his thoughts.

It was only supreme effort that stopped him getting dressed again and going upstairs to offer his own comfort to the man. He guessed though that if Sephiroth had wanted him there, he would have messaged him.

Cloud turned over onto his side and closed his eyes, preparing himself for a broken night’s sleep.

********

The next morning, after Sephiroth was given an informal dressing-down from Lazard for risking the lives of four top seconds and himself to rescue Cloud, the blond was duly summoned down to the labs to see Hojo. Sephiroth had text him in the morning and insisted on accompanying him, even if it meant enduring a fifteen minute tirade from the Professor about cutting out his tracker. Hojo then installed another one in the General's arm with a great deal of bad grace.

After, under Sephiroth’s watchful eye, Hojo examined Cloud, tutting, muttering and huffing the entire time and then seemingly satisfied with the way he’d healed, gave him a mako booster shot. This time, Cloud felt only mild discomfort and was even able to get off the examining table without help.

‘Come back to see me next week,’ said the scientist, ‘I want to get in another dose before the end of the month. Off you go.’ He waved a dismissive hand at them both as though they were nothing more than two annoying errand boys.

Neither Cloud nor Sephiroth needed telling twice. They were out of the laboratory and into the lift in record time. Leaving the labs always felt like an oppressive weight had been lifted, thought Cloud. Every moment spent in there felt like his very life force was being drained away. How Sephiroth had lived there for most of his childhood and come out relatively human confounded him completely.

Sephiroth pressed the button for the Third’s floor. ‘I’m going to be very busy for the next few days,’ he said, ‘so I won’t be around to mentor you. It’s a good opportunity for you to get caught up with your classes though.’

Cloud hid his disappointment as best he could but the truth was he wanted to be with Sephiroth, to talk to the only person he knew who had been as close to Genesis as he had. The sadness at his loss was a chasm that no one else could fill and now to be deprived of Sephiroth’s company was crushing.

To take his mind off things, Cloud spent the next few days working out in the main gymnasium and, with no sign of his mentor, he threw himself into all his classes with gusto. Having been on his first really serious mission, lessons in orienteering, survival and shelter construction suddenly took on a new vital relevance.

In the absence of Zack as well he took to sparring with Kunsel and Ferguson and even did some unarmed combat with Reno, when the red-headed Turk was free. As Thirds, Danny, Jay and Rabbit had been sent to Wutai with Zack and Angeal as part of the reinforcements so he couldn’t even play pool with them in his downtime. He had never seen Shinra HQ so empty. Indeed, if anyone wanted to attack them, now would be a perfect time to do it, he thought grimly.

Apart from a heavy, self-imposed workout routine, he also diligently practiced materia wielding on his own for hours, sometimes deep into the night. Somehow it brought Genesis closer. He would stand in the materia training room with the lights out, recalling vividly that first time when Genesis had stood behind him, teaching him how to become one with the magical orb. In the darkness, all alone, he could practically feel the red-head’s hand under his, the strong lithe body behind him and felt his breath hitch painfully with loss.

It wasn’t until the early evening of the fourth day, just after a particularly grueling bout of hand to hand combat with Reno, that Sephiroth sent him a text.

“Come to my apartment. 1900 hours. S.”

He went back to his flat, showered, changed, then made his way up to the 69th floor without meeting another soul. Using the key card that Sephiroth had given him, he let himself into the apartment to find his mentor arranging expensive-looking takeout food onto plates, a bottle of champagne chilling in an ice bucket. There was also a white chocolate cake with what looked like nineteen lit candles on it. Sephiroth had even laid the dining table formally just for the two of them.

Sephiroth gave him a faint smile when he saw him. ‘I ordered that special linguine you liked so much from Signor Margutta’s,’ he said. ‘Happy birthday, Cloud.’

Cloud was incredibly touched that Sephiroth had remembered not only his favourite dish but also his birthday with all the other problems he was currently dealing with.

‘You really didn’t need to do this, Seph,’ he said, standing on tiptoe to drop a kiss on his mentor’s lips.

‘I wanted to,’ said Sephiroth, going to open the champagne. ‘I’ve just been a bit caught up with stuff the last few days.’

Sephiroth took out his phs and filmed Cloud while he made a wish and blew out his candles so he could send it to Zack. He then poured them two long flutes of champagne and they sat down to enjoy the delicious meal.

After dessert of the gorgeous cake, topped with double cream, Sephiroth went upstairs to phone Angeal in private, leaving Cloud alone.

He settled down on the sofa and flicked the channels on the TV until he found the news. There was still no mention of Genesis’ defection. Old Man Shira’s grip on the media was clearly despotic.

When Sephiroth came back downstairs, some twenty minutes later, he looked even paler than usual and totally exhausted.

‘Bad news?’ ventured Cloud.

‘Genesis and the army have been spotted heading for Banora,’ he said, sitting down on the sofa next to Cloud.

‘His hometown?’ asked Cloud, baffled. ‘What’s there for him and three hundred men?’

‘His parents, I suppose,’ said Sephiroth. ‘There’s something else. Hollander has stolen the technology to make copies of Genesis from the troops that defected with him. Angeal thinks it may be a way of finding a cure but I honestly don’t see how.’

Cloud frowned. ‘Copies? As in clones?’

‘No, they won’t be identical, just look similar.’

‘Maybe Hollander wants to try out cures on them rather than risk doing it on Genesis,’ said Cloud thoughtfully.

Sephiroth sat in silence for a moment. ‘I can’t believe this is happening,’ he said at last. ‘He was my friend.’

‘He’s not dead,’ Cloud pointed out. ‘Find out where he is, go to see him. He must have had his reasons to do something so extreme, to turn his back on you and Angeal as well as Shinra.’

But Sephiroth shook his head. ‘In Shinra’s eyes he is a deserter and a traitor. Rufus has made it clear that any attempt to contact him will make me a traitor too and I will be shot on sight...as well as Gen.’

Cloud was horrified that the company would hold the lives of its two top Generals so cheaply. Then again, he was hardly surprised. Shinra had been quick enough to declare the seven of them KIA in Wutai without conducting a proper search. As long as they had Hojo, they had the means and the knowledge to make more Generals and more SOLDIERS, ones that would not suffer from degradation or question the company’s dubious practices.

‘You’ll see Gen again, I know you will,’ said Cloud. ‘He wouldn’t just leave you like that, without a word.’

‘It seems that he did,’ said Sephiroth then he stood up. ‘I have something for you.’

It was dusk over Midgar when Sephiroth took him in the private lift down to the Shinra garages and over to his parking spots. There, next to his and Sephiroth’s motorbikes, where the blue Valco should have been, was the most stunning car Cloud had ever seen. Matte black, with glossy black alloys stood the new, customised Valco X26, its soft roof retracted to expose the silver suede and piano black interior.

Cloud looked at his mentor in confusion. ‘This was supposed to be your prize for winning the Bet, wasn’t it?’ he said. ‘Why have you got it now?’

‘It was delivered yesterday,’ explained Sephiroth. ‘Apparently Genesis failed to cancel the order...or maybe he didn’t, there’s no way of knowing now. Get in.’

Cloud sank into the plush sports seat and gazed around in wonder as Sephiroth reached into the glove compartment and handed him a piece of paper. It was a note, in Genesis elegant scrawl.

“Congratulations, my dear friend, I hope you and the Brat will be very happy in your new life! It should have been the three of us together but the fates are cruel, there are no dreams, no honour remains. All my love, Genesis. X”

‘Oh, Shiva!’ whispered Cloud, feeling that tight, familiar ball of pain in this throat. ‘This isn’t because he forgot to cancel it...he knew.’

‘Maybe,’ said Sephiroth. He slotted the key into the dash and the car roared to life. Within seconds they had left the garage, racing through the darkening streets of Midgar towards the city gates and out along the highway heading west.

Presently Sephiroth slowed the car and drew up outside what looked like a large farm house. ‘Close your eyes and don’t open them until I say you can,’ he instructed.

‘YesssSIR!’ Cloud chuckled.

Sephiroth helped him out of the car and led him by the arm along a gravel pathway. Cloud heard him knock on the door and a moment later, it was opened.

‘Ah Mr Crescent,’ said a man’s voice. ‘Thank you for phoning first. Please come this way.’

‘Cloud, keep your eyes closed,’ warned Sephiroth.

‘They are, they are!’ protested Cloud as they walked to the left. A few paces further and the smell of warm straw and fresh dung reached his nostrils, along with the sound of gentle squawking. Sephiroth stopped walking.

‘I’ll leave you alone,’ said the man. ‘Just come to the house when you’re done and I’ll lock up.’

‘Thank you,’ said Sephiroth, as the man’s footsteps receded, crunching in the gravel. ‘Okay, Cloud, you can open your eyes now.’

Cloud blinked his eyes open and found himself being stared at by a gleaming, raven feathered chocobo with bright, inquisitive eyes, standing in a small paddock on his own.

‘Oh a black!’ he gasped

immediately the bird trotted over to the wooden railings and Cloud reached out to stroke glossy its elegant neck. ‘He’s beautiful!’ he said. The bird responded by nudging his arm gently.

‘He’s yours,’ said Sephiroth. ‘He’s too young to ride yet but I remember you said you liked chocobos and I thought you might find it fun to train him yourself. He’s a thoroughbred of course.’

Cloud turned and flung his arms around his slightly startled mentor’s neck then turned back to admire the bird’s strong straight legs, broad chest and excellent proportions; a thoroughbred indeed. ‘What’s his name?’ he asked.

‘That’s for you to decide,’ said Sephiroth. ‘I think Mr Anderson calls him Coal at the moment, which is rather unimaginative considering he’s black.’

Cloud thought for a moment, enjoying the contented cooing of the bird as he made a fuss of it. ‘I’m going to call him Gen-Gen,’ he declared. ‘After absent friends.’

He looked over his shoulder to see that Sephiroth was watching him, a sad smile on his face. ‘That’s a good name.’ He stepped forward to stand beside the blond. ‘Cloud, I was thinking,’ he began. ‘If you wanted to move in with me that would be agreeable. I’d appreciate the company and I have two spare bedrooms. I’m not expecting...’

‘Seph,’ Cloud cut him off. ‘Stop it, I’d like nothing more, you know that.’

Sephiroth allowed himself another of his tiny smiles but a happier one this time. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘We should be making a move back now. The birds need to be bedded down for the night.’

Later that evening, once they had returned to Shinra Tower, Cloud went to his Second’s flat for the last time, packed his few belongings and officially moved in with Sephiroth.

Chapter Text

A week later, Rufus held another glitzy award ceremony, attended by Midgar’s most important dignitaries including politicians and the Mayor, in the huge conference hall of Shinra Tower.

A PR exercise to detract from ugly rumours that had begun to circulate about Genesis and Angeal’s disappearance, it was also to decorate Cloud and the other Seconds with a Distinguished Service Medal for their work in neutralising the rebel threat in North Wutai. Cloud also received a special award for bravery and loyalty to the company for not giving away any Shinra secrets under torture, or under ‘considerable pressure,’ as Old Man Shinra put it in his speech.

Cloud later privately pointed out to Sephiroth that he hadn’t actually known any secrets to impart to the rebels but Sephiroth simply said, ‘Gen and I were your mentors. We were... close, the three of us. If they had known the extent of our relationship they would have tried to ransom you, after they had found out every personal detail they could about us from you. I think you would have suffered far worse at their hands.’

Cloud hadn’t thought of it that way. He had been, albeit informally, both Generals’ lover and as such would have been extremely valuable to the rebels if they had found out.

Life with Sephiroth, he soon discovered, was not exactly what he had expected either.

His mentor was always up by 5am and off to his office by 5.30, often even before Cloud woke up. Where the silver General went during the day was often a mystery; frequently he wasn’t even in his office. Sephiroth would then return late in the evening, sometimes as late as 9pm, eat something simple and fall into bed exhausted. He went away on a couple brief missions but Cloud didn’t know where and Sephiroth never took him along. All he knew was that his mentor would come back even more withdrawn each time. He never volunteered any details on where he’d been and Cloud didn’t ask, although he did wonder if Sephiroth was discreetly trying to track down Genesis. As much as he wanted to though he dared not broach the subject, being still slightly wary and in awe of Shinra's Silver General.

In the end, Cloud hadn’t taken one of the spare bedrooms. He had moved into Sephiroth’s room that first night, requisitioning the spare bedside cabinet for his pants and socks, put his shampoo and toothbrush in the bathroom, hogged a third of the walk-in wardrobe and generally settled in.

At night he slept in Sephiroth’s bed but just like on their return trip from the Da Chao, however, they only ever cuddled and kissed but the intimacy and company seemed to comfort the other man. Sometimes they talked about Genesis before falling asleep, other times they didn’t speak at all. Not once did Sephiroth try to take things further. It was almost as though he felt that he would be being unfaithful to Genesis while his friend was still alive and Cloud loved him all the more for it. For his part, Cloud was happy to at least be near him.

A quick check with Reno also confirmed that all Bets were also temporarily on hold until the possible return of the Red General.

‘Anythin’ new you wanna tell me?’ probed Reno one day, as they finished one of their unarmed combat sessions.

‘Nope.’ Cloud couldn’t help the grin that spread across his face. ‘Sephiroth is a perfect gentleman.’

‘Fuck,’ Reno had muttered with customary bluntness and Cloud had to laugh.

It was the truth though. Not only was Sephiroth polite, courteous and thoughtful, he was also unexpectedly romantic in his strangely awkward way. He bought Cloud small presents; a sleek little dagger he’d seen, bunches of sweet-smelling flowers, a bottle of limited edition hand blended cologne. He took him out to dinner often too. Sometimes the restaurants were swanky and glamorous, other times they were simply backstreet bistros with great food. It was almost as though the years of knowing Genesis had taught him the niceties of courtship.

During the days, Cloud continued his stringent SOLDIER training schedule and then took his motorbike out of the city in the afternoons to visit Gen-Gen for an hour or so. The young chocobo was always pleased to see him and was proving impressively easy to train.

Alone until late most evenings, Cloud began to find that he enjoyed cooking in Sephiroth’s sleek, state of the art kitchen. He had taken to scouring the internet for interesting recipes that the man might enjoy and would make two portions of everything, leaving a neatly packaged microwavable serving out for his mentor for when he turned up very late. Sometimes, when Sephiroth came home at a reasonable hour they would sit down and eat together, then listen to music or watch TV. Those were his favourite times when they would relax together in a semblance of domestic bliss.

On one such night, Cloud knew that Sephiroth would be home early and was preparing the man’s favourite filet Wutain steak, truffle fries and asparagus with dipping sauce when his phs rang.

‘Zack!’ he said beaming into his phone. It was always a pleasure to hear from his friend. ‘How’s things?’

‘Spike...I don’t know what to do,’ Zack’s voice sounded distant, strange even. ‘It’s Angeal.’

‘What about him?’ asked Cloud, studiously stirring the Hollandaise sauce, whilst tucking the phone between his shoulder and chin.

‘He’s gone,’ said Zack.

Cloud stopped stirring, oblivious to the gently curdling sauce. ‘What do you mean ‘gone’?’

‘He just disappeared in the night’, said Zack. ‘When I woke up this morning, his tent was empty and he’d left his phs behind. I think he might have joined Genesis.’

‘Defected, you mean?’ said Cloud in disbelief. Angeal was the very last person he would have imagined abandoning Shinra. The man would deem it dishonourable for a start. He took the saucepan off the heat. ‘Does Seph know?’

At that moment the door opened and Sephiroth came in. One look at his face confirmed that he did know.

‘Hang on, Zack, Seph’s here,’ said Cloud quickly. ‘I’ll call you back in a minute.’ He hung up.

Sephiroth looked ashen, his face a frozen mask. ‘Angeal has left to join Genesis,’ he said. ‘Lazard has ordered me to hunt them both down and kill them. I can’t do it. They were my friends. I can’t kill them.’

Cloud didn’t know what to say so he stayed silent and watched as Sephiroth stripped off his leather coat and threw it over a chair. He tried not to gawp at the spectacular body he wanted so badly but still hadn’t had.

‘I’ve refused the mission,’ Sephiroth went on, coming into the kitchen, ‘so they’re sending Zack instead. Lazard has just given authorisation for him to be promoted to First.’

‘They’re ordering Zack to kill Angeal?’ said Cloud appalled. He knew how much the young SOLDIER hero-worshiped his mentor. An order like that could destroy him.

‘They are traitors now, Cloud... Gen and Angeal,’ said Sephiroth slowly. ‘It’s only how Shinra would treat any other traitor. I also found this in my locker this morning.’ He handed Cloud a piece of folded paper.

Cloud opened it to find a neat, handwritten note. It read simply. “Join us. The Company is not what you think.” It was signed ‘A’.

‘This is from Angeal!’ gasped Cloud. ‘How did he get it into your locker?’

‘He has a key and he would know how to sneak in here,’ said Sephiroth, taking the note from him. He scrunched it up in a ball, put it in the stainless steel sink and burnt it with a small but impressively accurate fire spell. ‘Even having such a note in our possession could be construed as treason,’ explained his mentor. ‘I’m sorry, Cloud, I won’t be eating tonight.’ And with that Sephiroth turned and went upstairs to bed.

Hearing the bedroom door close softly, Cloud looked down at his perfectly prepared meal with a sigh. He ate his quickly, standing up at the counter then scooped the rest of it into a plastic pot to feed the stray dogs in the slums. Picking up his phs, he went into the lounge to phone Zack.

Over the following days, he began to seriously think that Angeal’s defection would be the final straw that would break Sephiroth. Instead, however, the man withdrew even more into himself and worked even longer into the night. The only contact they had now was when they shared the vast bed. Only then would Sephiroth pull him close to show that he still cared but they rarely spoke.

Some evenings he’d come home to find the silver General curled up on the bed re-reading Genesis’ old texts on the red-head’s phone. Other times his mentor would be drunk and Cloud would leave him on the sofa to sleep it off. Cloud felt helpless. Nothing he did seemed to pull Sephiroth out of his pit of silent despair. It was heartbreaking to see. What Cloud wouldn’t have given just to see him smile again, even just once.

He even debated asking Lazard for a week’s leave so he could search for Genesis himself but he knew that Sephiroth would be furious with him for interfering.

He couldn’t help wondering where it had all gone wrong, they had all been so happy the night of Genesis’ party when all three of them were together at last in the red-head’s four poster bed but in his heart he knew the answer to that; it was the stupid fight. The two men had fought over him and if Genesis hadn’t been wounded none of this would have happened. There was no escaping the unpalatable truth. He, Cloud Strife, a hick nobody from Nibelheim, had single-handedly caused the downfall of two of Shinra’s most powerful Generals.

*******

The following day, as Zack and Tseng returned from Banora, Shinra issued a public announcement stating that Angeal and Genesis had been killed in action and that Zack Fair had been promoted to SOLDIER First.

For Cloud, initial shock had been replaced by a shred of relief as Sephiroth assured him that the two missing Generals were still alive but that Shinra intended to try to hunt them down in secret to avoid a PR catastrophe. Genesis and Angeal were immensely popular with fans and the general public alike and Lazard was reluctant for them to be seen either as martyrs or the subject of a massive manhunt.

After debriefing Zack was straight on the phone, texting Cloud. “I’m back from Banora. Do you fancy that drink we promised ourselves?” he typed.

“Sure, when?” replied Cloud.

“Tonight, 1800? At the Goblin Bar, on Loveless."

Cloud text back a thumbs up emoji and, realising he only had half an hour to get ready, changed quickly into a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Leaving a note for Sephiroth, he grabbed a jacket then left the Shinra building. As it was rush hour, the walk towards Sector 8 through the throng of bustling commuters took slightly longer than expected. A light, mako scented drizzle had started to fall, making the roads sparkle under the street lamps. Night, when it came, fell quickly in Midgar so it was almost dark by the time he reached the Goblin Bar on Loveless Avenue.

Cloud remembered that Genesis had told him once that the Goblin was one of his favourite bars to chill out in after a hard mission, mainly because it was next to the Loveless Theatre and many of the actors frequented it. In fact, he’d informed Cloud proudly, he was such a regular there that a booth at the far end was actually nicknamed ‘Rhapsodos Corner’ by the staff.

Pushing the door open, he went inside and immediately realised why Genesis liked it so much. The decor was dark and restful and the place intimate. Some soft jazz was being piped through speakers around the room. Despite the early hour it was already filling up with smartly suited office workers having a quick drink after work before going home to their families. No one paid much attention to him as he looked around the room for Zack but predictably the bouncy brunette was not among them. That was no surprise though, Zack was notoriously unpunctual at the best of times.

Seeing that Genesis’ booth was currently vacant, Cloud went straight over to it and sat down, facing the door so he could spot Zack when he came in. If he had ever been in any doubt about Genesis’ story, he wasn’t now. On the wall above the table was indeed a discreet brass plaque on the wall. On it, engraved in looping black script, were two words...‘Rhapsodos Corner.’ His mouth twitched into a small, wistful smile as he picked up the drinks menu.

‘What can I get you?’ said a female voice. ‘One of our famous cocktails, a beer...wine maybe? I can particularly recommend the Pinot Noir this week.’

Cloud looked up to see a merry-faced, middle -aged waitress, wearing the club’s all black uniform, smiling down at him. Printed on her name badge was ‘Amy’.

Cloud decided he wanted something strong and flavourful. He settled on a cocktail. ‘I’ll have a Rhapsodos, please.’

‘So would I, honey, but he doesn’t come in here anymore,’ she grinned. ‘He designed the cocktail himself, you know...General Rhapsodos, that is. It’s one of our most popular drinks, and also the strongest. Take care, it’ll blow your socks off.’

Trust Genesis to invent the most powerful cocktail in the place, thought Cloud amused.

‘I’ll definitely have one then and a nice cold beer too for my friend,’ said Cloud, knowing that Zack had no truck with anything as concocted as a cocktail.

‘OK, one Rhapsodos and one beer coming up.’ She gave Cloud a wink and went off to fetch the order.

She returned within minutes with the two drinks. ‘Enjoy,’ she said, leaving Cloud a bowl of peanuts and mini-pretzels.

Cloud took a tentative sip of the creamy, Banoran rum and brandy cocktail. It was delicious and arguably the most potent thing he’d ever drunk. If Zack didn’t turn up soon, he’d be flat on the floor by the time his friend showed his face.

The bar was filling up quickly now. When the door opened for what seemed like the umpteenth time, Zack Fair walked in. He was wearing black jeans and an oversized sweatshirt top with the hood up but despite his efforts at disguise he was distinctive as SOLDIER by his height and glowing eyes alone.

Almost immediately he spotted Cloud and stalked over, oblivious to the stares of groups of girls by the bar, admiring his long-legged progress across the room to the booth. There was no denying it; Zack Fair was a fine figure of a man and Cloud mentally slapped himself for even thinking such a thing.

Over by the bar, Cloud’s enhanced hearing picked up the girls’ excited exchanges, mostly consisting of, ‘That’s Zack Fair!’ and ‘He’s soooo hot!’

Zack must have heard them too but ignored them and flopped into the seat opposite Cloud.

‘Ah, a cold beer, thanks Spike! Oh, man, I’m sooo tired,’ he said, pushing off the hood. His hair was disheveled and there were dark circles under his eyes. Taking a long draught of his beer, he put his glass down, smacking his lips with appreciation and gave Cloud an exhausted smile. ‘Drinking a Rhapsodos, eh?’ he noted. ‘It must be your first because you’re still conscious.’ He grinned but the smile didn’t quite reach the troubled look in his eyes.

‘Well you said we should get rat-arsed,’ said Cloud, ‘so I’m getting a head start.’

Zack nodded and took another long gulp of his beer. ‘So how’s life with Shinra’s Silver Hunk, then? I heard you’d moved in. Does that mean you lost our bet?’

Cloud chuckled. ‘You’re as bad as Reno. No, me and Seph haven’t done anything yet.’

Zack raised an eyebrow. ‘I always knew Seph was a slow mover but how long is it now since we started this bet over your sword? Two months...three?’

‘A lot has happened,’ said Cloud, ‘and with Gen going missing now I don’t know how that affects things.’

‘I told you, I’ll buy you the goddamn thing,’ Zack offered, raking his fingers through his hair and turning to signal the waitress for two more drinks.

‘I’ll just have a beer this time,’ said Cloud. ‘I still want to be able to speak in half an hour.’

His friend grinned and went over to the bar to adjust the order.

When he came back and sat down, Cloud leant forward in his seat slightly. ‘How did it go in Banora? Seph won’t tell me anything except that Gen and Angeal are still alive.’

Zack looked suddenly distraught. ‘I need a couple more of these under my belt before we even think of going there!’ he said, waving at Amy for two more beers.

Cloud respected the man’s reticence. Their new drinks arrived and instead he decided to lighten the atmosphere by regaling Zack with stories of life with Sephiroth. Soon they were both laughing as Cloud told him about the man’s obsessive neatness, his OCD with cleanliness and how he had quantum physics books on his shelves yet enjoyed winding down by watching cartoons and soap operas.

‘Angeal told me that’s because he was never allowed to watch them as a kid,’ said Zack but a shadow seemed to fall across his expression when he mentioned his mentor.

Trying to keep the conversation light, he asked Zack about Aerith and his friend brightened genuinely at last. Cloud could tell that he was falling hard for the flower girl and was genuinely pleased for him.

As the evening worn on they went to another bar, then another. By the time they hit the third one along Loveless Avenue they were both pretty drunk. Although it was late and the place was busy, they managed to find a quiet corner with a couple of stools at the end of the bar and ordered some shots.

When they came, Zack picked up one and did a toast, ‘To absent friends,’ he said and knocked the drink back in one. Cloud followed suit, knowing he’d regret it tomorrow. He could already feel a headache coming on. They drowned two more of the shots then Cloud seized his chance.

‘Zack, please tell me what’s going on with Gen and Angeal?’

Zack’s face was haunted as he leant both elbows on the bar top. ‘Oh, man,’ he shook his head. ‘You really wanna know? Okay, I’ll tell you but Seph will probably kill me for it. He doesn't want you to know but Genesis burned down Banora, he killed some of the townspeople and his parents as well. I don’t think they were his real parents, more like foster parents, but they brought him up, y’know. He’s really sick, Spike. He’s so weak...I mean, I never liked the guy and I think it was mutual but it wasn’t good to see him like that.’

‘You actually saw him?’ asked Cloud.

Zack nodded. ‘Some weird shit has happened to him...he’s got a wing, a freakin’ black wing for Gaia’s sake!’

‘A wing?’ Cloud thought he’d misheard. ‘What, like a bird, you mean? Are you telling me he can fly?’

‘Yeah, he can fly alright,’ said Zack, sucking on another shot. ‘Flew right up into the sky in front of me...only one wing mind. Fuck knows how he can control one wing, you’d think he’d just go in a circle but whatever! And get this, Angeal has one too! He sprouted this huge thing just like Gen’s but white and he said he he’d become a monster! What the Hel’s going on, Spike?’ Zack looked so lost that Cloud wanted to hug him and would have done had they been in private.

‘I don’t know,’ said Cloud, honestly. ‘Seph barely says anything to me anymore.’

Zack sniffed. ‘Genesis has got Hollander making copies of himself for whatever fucked up reason. Shinra’s orders are to eliminate Genesis and all his cohorts...Angeal as well. Seph thinks we should go on the mission and deliberately ‘fail’ to kill them. I’m not sure Lazard will buy that though; Sephiroth never fails a mission...ever. That’s why he’s first General of the army of Shinra, after all.’

Zack took another downed another shot and ordered them both another two. ‘Seph met with Hollander and he offered to give Gen some of his cells to help cure him but Hollander refused, saying he wasn’t viable as a donor. I think Seph was Genesis’ final hope of a cure.’

So that was where Sephiroth had gone on one of his ‘missions’, thought Cloud, to offer the only thing he could...a cure for his friend only to have it thrown in his face.

A silence fell between them as Cloud allowed this new information to sink in through his booze-soaked brain. ‘Gen’s defection is all my fault,’ he said miserably.

Zack looked up, bemused. ‘How d’you figure that one?’ he asked, his eyes almost crossing with tiredness and too much alcohol.

‘That stupid fight they had...it was over me. Over that stupid crappy Bet.’

Zack plonked his new shot down on the table so hard some of the liquid slopped over the top onto the table. ‘Never think that, Spike!’ he scolded. ‘Those two idiots were always sparring. It could have happened anytime. Never think it was your fault. Genesis would have defected eventually anyway, I’m sure of that. He was getting disillusioned with the company even before you met him.’ Zack drank the shot and glanced blearily at his watch. ‘Shit, I have to go get some sleep. I’m leaving for Modeoheim tomorrow with Tseng. There have been more sightings of an army led by, and I quote, “A well dressed red-head”...sound familiar?’ he gave a bitter little smile.

‘I want to see him, Zack,’ said Cloud desperately. ‘I have to see Gen, even if it’s just for one last time. Clear it for me to go with you to Modeoheim.’

Zack frowned. ‘I dunno, Spike. I’ll have to ask Lazard. You’re pretty invested in this, after all.’

‘Pleeease,’ begged Cloud. ‘Maybe, just maybe I can talk him round.’

Zack looked doubtful. ‘I’ll ask, man, but I won’t promise anything.’

Chapter Text

Reno pointed his hand gun and squeezed the trigger. Despite Cloud’s state of the art electronic ear muffs, the deafening bang that followed made his head throb sickeningly.

He was already regretting his bar crawl with Zack the night before. Maybe drinking himself into a virtual stupor hadn’t been the best idea, knowing he was meeting the young Turk for target practice early the following morning. He certainly didn’t envy Zack having to fly all the way to Modeoheim today.

On Saturday mornings Cloud had taken to hanging out with Reno for target practice. After all, it helped to be versatile in all weapons if he was to make First and that was his ultimate aim after all. Swords were all well and good but if you didn’t have one on you when you needed it or found yourself disarmed, it helped to be conversant in all weapons, besides, he rather enjoyed the friendly competition.

Reno holstered his gun and gave Cloud a cocky grin. ‘Fifty Gil says you can’t equal that, chocobo head.’

Squinting at the target at the end of the Turk’s long indoor shooting range, Cloud could see that the red head had scored a perfect head shot on the paper target.

He raised his gun and aimed. Trying to keep his hand steady, he gently pulled the trigger. A second later one eye on the paper target sported a neat and very accurate hole.

‘Woah!’ beamed Reno, clapping Cloud on the back. ‘Nice one, SOLDIER-boy! I’ll make a Turk of you yet!’

‘No thanks,’ grinned Cloud but his comment was drowned out by the sudden, hideous shrieking of an alarm. He groaned. Even with the ear muffs on he felt like his head would explode. ‘What the name of Holy is that?’ he whimpered.

Immediately serious, Reno pulled his gun out of its holster. ‘We’re under attack!’ He grabbed some rounds of ammunition and stuffed them into his trouser pocket. Not bothering to put his suit jacket back on, he grabbed his nightstick and ran out into the corridor.

Cloud took a handful of extra bullets too and shoving them into his sweat pants’ pocket, followed him.

Outside, the corridor on the 28th floor was eerily empty, the only sound being the ear shredding wail of the alarm.

Gun in hand, Reno crept stealthily down the passage towards the door, with Cloud keeping close behind him, his gun also at the ready. At the door, Reno pushed it open slowly and, finding the next corridor empty too, crept out.

This was the Turk training floor and was usually fairly busy at all times of the day and night but was now deserted.

‘Where is everyone?’ hissed Cloud.

As if to answer his question a door at the far end was suddenly flung open and a figure appeared. A red-headed figure; tall, elegant, beautiful...and heart-stoppingly familiar.

‘Gen?’ Cloud gasped in disbelief.

The figure didn’t reply or make any sign that he recognised him, it just stared at him.

‘Genesis!’ Cloud called out again. He made a move to rush forward to the red-head but Reno caught his arm in a strong grip.

‘Wait!’ he said. ‘Where’s his red coat?’

Cloud looked back at the figure. It was true; he wasn’t wearing the familiar leather coat of Genesis Rhapsodos, only a dusty Seconds’ uniform. Instead of Rapier, a standard issue broadsword was in his left hand. There was also a slightly vacant look in the man’s eyes.

‘Rhapsodos is right handed,’ Reno hissed back.

Genesis was right handed, now that Cloud came to remember, but the figure looked identical in every other way.

Reno edged forward but just as Cloud was about to follow him the door swung open again and about thirty ‘Genesis’ figures spilled into the corridor, effectively blocking their only way out.

Cloud stood riveted to the spot. It was then that he noticed that some of the figures bore less resemblance to Genesis than the first. Some were only half transformed, others seemed to have trouble moving properly. Some looked heartrendingly like his former lover, others were mere mockeries of the Red General, semi-altered faces, missing patches of red hair showing bald scalp and glazed eyes. They had spread out in the wide corridor and were coming towards them.

‘Who are they?’ whispered Cloud.

‘I’m guessing some of the SOLDIERS that defected with Gen-Rhap,’ said Reno. ‘The copies Hollander is making of him....decoys maybe so he’s not easily identifiable by Shinra, who knows.’

‘Why would they let him do that to them?’

‘Loyalty? Ignorance? Take your pick, yo,’ said Reno. ‘But right now we have to fight our way out. You ready?’

Cloud nodded, fervently wishing he had the katana with him.

‘Good practice for your marksmanship skills,’ Reno winked at him then opened fire, felling about fifteen copies in as many seconds. They fell with inhuman screeches as his bullets accurately hit their intended targets.

Cloud stared at the perfect ‘Genesis’. The man was striding towards him now, his sword raised.

‘Shoot him, Cloud!’ shouted Reno above the gunfire. ‘Kill him or he’ll kill you!’

Cloud found himself frozen to the spot, his gun pointed straight at ‘Genesis’. It was him, he was sure of it, even down to the gleaming bluish-green of his eyes. Maybe he simply didn’t recognise him, after all Zack had said the red-head was sick. Perhaps his illness was affecting his mind?

‘Gen, it’s me, Cloud!’ he tried once more but the man continued to advance on him with glassy murderous intent in those eyes.

‘Fkn do it!’ yelled Reno, firing at a constant stream of ‘copies’ coming through the door.

‘I can’t!’ he yelled back at Reno. ‘It’s Gen, I know it is!’

Even more copies were piling through the doors now.

‘It’s not him!’ shouted the Turk. ‘He’s a copy like the rest!’ Suddenly, Reno spun round and without preamble shot ‘Genesis’ neatly through the temple. The figure fell at Cloud’s feet, in a slump, twitching slightly before it stilled.

It seemed to wake Cloud from his stupor and he began firing at the remaining copies that Reno hadn’t already felled. Within moments they were nothing more than a pile of bodies around their feet. They both re-loaded.

‘Go get Sephiroth,’ said Reno. ‘There could be hundreds of these copies all over the Tower. I’m going to find Tseng.’

Cloud ran out into the main atrium of Shinra Tower. Through the huge internal glass windows he could see the other floors below where similar red-headed copies were attacking members of Shinra. Admin staff and secretaries alike fled screaming along the corridors as some of the men attempted to fight off the copies with anything they had to hand, chairs, coat racks even umbrellas only to be sliced or stabbed by Genesis’ mutant army.

Cloud ran as fast as he could to the private lift and pressed the button for the 69th floor. As soon as he stepped out on Sephiroth’s floor the first thing that struck him was that up here the hateful alarm could not be heard. Using his access card, he burst into the General’s apartment and almost collided with the man coming the other way in full battle dress.

‘The Tower’s being overrun by Genesis copies!’ Cloud panted.

‘I know, Lazard just called me,’ said Sephiroth, grabbing masamune off its stand. ‘Stay here,’ he ordered.

‘I want to come with you!’ said Cloud. ‘I can help.’

‘No, you’re too emotionally involved,’ said his mentor. ‘You’ll be a danger to yourself and to me.’

‘Seph....!’

‘Stand down, SOLDIER!’ snapped Sephiroth.

Cloud didn’t argue. He watched Sepiroth leave the apartment then paced back and forth across the lounge. If the ‘copies’ were in Midgar, surely Genesis was too? He had to see him but he was too wary of Sephiroth to disobey his direct order.

He rushed over to the long windows and went out onto the balcony to see if the front of the Tower was overrun but he was too far up to see anything although he could hear the screaming alarm even from this height. He could only guess at what was going on downstairs.

Going back into the apartment, he made a cup of tea for something to do but was too agitated to drink it. The moments dragged by. He put on the tv but predictably the news wasn’t covering the security breach, despite the alarm which could probably be heard halfway across the city.

An hour must have passed before the door to the apartment suddenly flew open and Zack strode in, covered in blood.

‘Get ready, we leave for Modeoheim in fifteen, if you still want to come that is? There’s been a sighting of Genesis near the reactor.’

Cloud didn’t even need to consider it. He rushed upstairs and hurriedly dragged on his uniform. Picking up his already packed kit bag he bounded downstairs. As an afterthought, he grabbed two bottles of decent red wine from the rack and shoved them into his kit bag. He’d reimburse Sephiroth for them later.

Outside in the corridor he found Zack waiting for him, pacing agitatedly in between doing squats.

‘Is Seph coming too?’ asked Cloud as they hurried to the lift.

‘No. He’s refusing the mission,’ said Zack.

‘Does he know I’m going?’ Cloud didn’t like the idea of sneaking off without telling his mentor where he was off to, especially after their earlier confrontation.

As they stepped into the lift, Zack pressed the button for the heli-pad. ‘Yeah, he knows, he sanctioned it. He said if anyone stood a chance of getting Gen to come back, it would be you.’

Chapter Text

‘We’ve been hit!’ Tseng’s voiced cracked through Cloud’s headset. ‘Brace for impact!’

The helicopter veered hard to one side and began to spin out of control. Cloud looked out of the window to see that the snowy, rocky ground below was seemingly coming up fast to meet them. One of the kit bags chose that moment to work its way loose from the back and literally fly across his line of vision to land hard against the wall of the chopper. His first thought was that sincerely hoped it wasn’t his bag. The wine bottles would be smashed to pieces.

Zack rushed past to retrieve the errant bag before it caused any more damage to the chopper.

‘What’s happening?’ shouted Cloud over the din.

‘The rotor tail’s fucked!’ Zack yelled back, flinging himself into the seat next to Cloud and strapping himself in. ‘Anti-aircraft fire. We’re going down!’

‘Do you think it’s Genesis?’ asked Cloud.

Zack just shrugged. ‘Dunno man.’

Cloud glanced opposite him at the young trooper they had brought with them called Mikey Chambers. He was only seventeen and he looked petrified. Cloud gave him what he hoped was a reassuring smile. He’d faced death himself once. Facing it twice was just annoying and ridiculously unlucky...and bloody inconvenient at this particular time. He wanted to see Genesis and nothing was going to stop him, he’d already decided that.

Tucking his chin down, he placed his hands under his legs and tried to breath steadily as the chopper spun down.

‘Here we go!’ came Tseng’s voice.

Despite the snowy ground the impact when it came was brutally hard and the chopper bounced several times, wrenching its passengers hard in their seatbelts before skidding fast across the ground and eventually coming to a sharp, body-jarring halt as the machine hit a large rock. For a moment there was silence, then Tseng’s voice came over the headsets again.

‘Fire in the hold,’ said the Turk, his voice deceptively calm. ‘Let’s make a move, guys!’

Cloud grabbed his bag and stumbled out of the chopper after Zack and landed face first into three feet of powdery, freshly fallen snow.

‘Spike! Spike, you okay?’ Zack’s voice reached him from somewhere nearby.

Cloud struggled to his feet. He seemed unharmed except that the front of his uniform was drenched though. ‘Fine,’ he called back. ‘I think.’ Glancing over his shoulder he saw that both Tseng and Mikey had managed to get out too. Behind them, the helicopter was indeed on fire.

‘Thank Ifrit!’ said Zack, reaching his friend. ‘Seph would skewer me if you got hurt. OK let’s move out quickly in case that whirlybird decides to explode on us.’

With Zack leading, the three of them followed him to a broad snowy pass that led around some mountains. It wasn’t too cold as the sun was still shining but in a hour or two, dark would start to fall and the temperature would plummet quickly.

‘There’s no signal out here,’ said Tseng, pocketing his phs.

‘We’ll just have to walk to Modeoheim then,’ Zack told them. It’s only on the other side of that mountain...shouldn’t take too long. C’mon, mountain boy, show me what you can do.’ Zack ruffled Cloud’s hair.

‘I’ll do better than you, jungle boy,’ retorted Cloud goodnaturdly. He flung his kit bag onto his back and together they began to stride comfortably up the mountain pass, with Tseng and Mikey trailing behind.

‘Don’t fall too far behind!’ Zack called back to them. ‘It’ll be getting dark soon.’

In the end it took them just over an hour to reach the outskirts of Modeoheim. Once a busy mako mining town it had fallen into disrepair some years before and was now dilapidated, abandoned and slightly creepy.

The four of them took cover behind an outcrop of snowy rocks so they could do a quick recce of the town’s layout without being spotted.

‘The reactor’s over there in the Modeo Ravine,’ said Tseng pointing to a large metal construction on the edge of the town to the left, now rusty with disuse. ‘That’s where our intel says Genesis is holed up.’

Outside the building, a couple of Genesis copies were pacing around the perimeter. There was only one reason for the guards. The Red General had to be there.

‘Okay, Spike,’ said Zack. ‘You ready? Let’s go.’

Leaving Tseng and Mikey to check over the rest of the town for more copies, Cloud followed Zack down a snowy slope and round the outskirts of the buildings to the reactor.

Sneaking past the the two guards, they crept inside the run-down building, careful to make as little noise as possible with their boots on the metal floor. The place itself was a maze of ugly metal lined corridors which were permeated with the bitter smell of mako. It was gloomy, dusty and smelt strongly of rust.

Cloud couldn’t help thinking that the Genesis he knew who loved gourmet food, gorgeous clothes and soft clean linen on his bed would never voluntarily hang out in such a depressing place. He thought of the half-formed copies he’d seen and began to dread what he’d find when he finally came face to face with the man.

Zack’s enhanced hearing was the first to pick up the sound of voices. He stopped walking and signaled Cloud to keep quiet. Together they crept forward slowly.

‘What are you doing?’ a man was saying, just beyond them. ‘You need me Genesis!’

That’s Hollander, Zack mouthed at Cloud. They both crept forward until they could see a bearded, slightly overweight man wearing the white coat of a scientist. The man had the tip of a very familiar red sword pointing at his neck.

Cloud inched further until he could see the back of owner of the distinctive sword. Genesis. Only, the Genesis he knew had changed. His fiery auburn hair was now streaked with grey; even his trademark red coat was faded and worn. But that was the least of it; from his left shoulder sprouted a vast, glossy black wing. He glanced at Zack who gave him an, ‘I told you so,’ look.

‘No one else can stop your degradation except me!’ Hollander was saying, edging backwards away from the point of the sword.

‘Jenova cells can,’ said Genesis, moving forward, keeping the ruby point of Rapier on the scientist’s neck, ' and if not, I will accept my fate but I will take the world with me.'

Zack had seen enough. From behind Cloud he charged forward with his sword and knocked Rapier away from Hollander’s neck but Genesis blocked him.

‘Lt Fair,’ said the Red General and swept Zack’s sword out of the way. ‘Come to gloat?’ Then he spotted Cloud, standing in semi shadow mere feet away and the smirk slipped from his face. 'I thought you were dead.'

'Seph saved me,' said Cloud.

Hollander took advantage of Genesis’ momentary distraction and ran off.

‘I got it!’ said Zack and ran after the scientist, leaving Cloud alone with Genesis.

‘Gen,’ said Cloud taking a few steps closer. Now that he could see his face, despite his grey hair, his former lover didn’t look old at all, just tragic and very beautiful.

‘Don’t,’ said Genesis, retreating into the partial shadows. ‘Don’t look at me.’

Cloud walked towards the man. ‘I brought something for you,’ he said, putting his kit bag on the dusty floor and extracting the two bottles of wine.

‘Ah, Chateau Magritte, one of my favourites,’ said Genesis, taking them almost caressingly. ‘From Sephiroth’s collection, I’m guessing.’

‘It was short notice,’ Cloud shrugged. He was sure he saw a tiny smile touch the red-head’s lips.

‘Thank you,’ said Genesis, ‘It was a very sweet thought.’

Cloud moved forward into the shadows to hug him but Genesis and stepped back. ‘No....don’t. I can’t bear for you to see me like this, please go.’

‘Gen!’ said Cloud. ‘It can’t end like this.’

Genesis put the two bottles of wine down on a nearby wooden crate next to Rapier. ‘But it does I’m afraid, my love.’

‘No, it can’t! I love you.’

‘Cloud, I’m the monster that Shinra made me. You can see me as I really am now. A freak of nature...or should I say a freak of science.’

‘Don’t say that!’ cried Cloud. ‘There must be a cure. Surely Hollander...’

‘Hollander is useless, he can’t cure me, he just lied for his own ends. Only Jenova cells can help me now.'

‘Jenova?’ somehow that name rang a bell in Cloud’s memory. Where had he heard it before?

‘Hollander says no one knows where Jenova is being kept,’ Genesis continued. ‘I don’t even know what it is yet, but I’m looking. Maybe I’ll find it, maybe I won’t...’

‘What about Hojo?’ asked Cloud. ‘He’s bound to be able to cure you...I mean he’s vile, I know, but it’s worth trying at least!’

‘Hojo won’t help,’ said Genesis flatly. ‘To him I’m just Hollander’s failure. What I have is incurable, I will be dead within the year unless I can locate these ‘Jenova cells’.’

‘Gen, come back to us, we can look after you, we’ll look for the cells together!’ Cloud pleaded. ‘Seph needs you...I need you. You were right, the three of us belong together!’

‘Do you really think Rufus will allow me to resume my old life if I return? I’ll be imprisoned until I die or face a firing squad.’

‘He won’t do that. Seph will talk to him! Rufus still has a soft spot for him...even though they bicker all the time.’

But Genesis just shook his head. ‘I can’t,’ he said.

‘Can’t or won’t,’ challenged Cloud.

‘Won’t,’ said Genesis. ‘I won’t let you see me degrading. Leave me some pride. Remember me as I was, my beautiful little Brat. I will always love you. Thank you for the wine, it will remind me of more pleasant times and dull the pain for a while.’ He turned to pick up rapier and the bottles. ‘Dreams of the morrow hath the shattered soul, pride is lost, wings stripped away, the end is nigh...such is the fate of a monster. Goodbye, my dearest.’

Then slowly the vast wing began to flap, a steady whooshing sound and Genesis flew up, through a hole in the decayed rafters and out of the building.

Cloud stood there, numbly, long after his lover vanished into the darkness.

Suddenly his phs rang. Taking it out of his pocket he saw Sephiroth’s name on the screen.

‘Yes, Sir?’ said Cloud dully.

‘Report. Did you meet him?’

‘Yes,’ Cloud told him word for word what had happened during his exchange with the red-head.

‘Then you can do no more. I want you to return to Midgar, now. I sent a helicopter earlier; Reno will meet you at the top of the ravine in thirty minutes.’

‘What about Zack?’

‘He’s to stay there and locate Angeal,’ said Sephiroth.

‘Sir,’ acknowledged Cloud glumly and hung up.

*******

Cloud spent the five hour flight back to Midgar sitting in silence in the co-pilot seat next to Reno, staring dejectedly out of the window at the pitch black of the night.

Occasionally small clusters of lights could be seen on the ground, signalling a small town or village but soon it went black again. Where was Genesis now, he wondered. Was he hiding in one of those small villages perhaps? Did he sleep in that Gaia-awful reactor? Did he even have a bed? He hoped he was enjoying the wine at least.

Reno gave him a sidelong look. ‘You’re a bundle of laughs tonight, yo,’ he commented dryly.

‘Sorry,’ said Cloud, pulling himself out of his musings.

‘How was Gen-Rhap?’

‘Sad,’ said Cloud. ‘Sad, lonely and betrayed.’

Reno nodded sagely. ‘Yep, working for Shinra can do that to a person.’

When they landed back at Shinra Tower it was nearly 11pm. Refusing Reno’s offer of a stiff drink, Cloud went straight to Sephiroth’s apartment. It was empty. On the kitchen island was a note in Sephiroth’s controlled, neat hand.

“There have been developments. I have had to go to Modeoheim. I will be back by Wednesday. S x”

Feeling utterly dejected Cloud left the note where it was and went straight to bed. Shattered from the remnants of his hangover and the long, stressful day, he fell asleep almost immediately.

He spent the next two days robotically going about his classes and training then ate in the mess with Reno when the Turk was free. As Danny and the others were still in Wutai and as far as he knew Zack still in Modeoheim, he had nothing better to do that concentrate on materia wielding. Remembering the antique box that Genesis had full of mastered materia he wondered if the red-head had left any behind. He couldn’t imagine him minding if he borrowed some just for extra practice. Genesis would probably be pleased that he was making the effort to improve his skills in the craft that he personally held so dear himself.

After a light supper on his own in the apartment that evening, Cloud took the lift down to the 68th floor, where Angeal and Genesis’ apartments were, now both deserted. Cloud took the copy of Genesis’s key card that the man had given him weeks ago and was about to swipe it when he noticed a small green dot shining the key pad. It was then that he realised the door wasn’t even locked. He turned the handle and let himself in.

The first thing that hit him was the familiar scent of the red-head’s cologne, now soft and muted. Fumbling for the light switch, he turned it on and the crystal wall lights lit up, casting their subtle glow around the opulent room. Stepping inside, he closed the door behind him.

The apartment was exactly as he remembered it from that first date after Loveless. Books were still stacked on every surface and the cushions on the sofas were still indented from where the man had sat. There was an open copy of Loveless on the coffee table next to the antique box of materia. Opening it, Cloud found that three slots were empty. Magic, Command and Summon were missing. Of the five, it would make sense that he would take those. He’d been sent to war, after all.

Cloud went into the kitchen and picked a bottle of what he knew was one of Genesis’ favourite wines and opened it, pouring himself a large glass. He felt a bit guilty but it was a toast to the memory of the man. He took a sip of the liquid, savouring the creamy flavour and fragrant smell as it filled his senses. Going over to the music system, he put on of the delicate nocturnes that Genesis had played on their first date and went to sit on the sofa where they’d had their first kiss that night.

Cloud sat there gazing into space, enveloped in the sad music, sipping the delicious wine. When that was finished, he poured himself another glass and silently toasted the man he’d so loathed at first then fallen so hard in love with.

‘I’ll never see you again, will I?’ he murmured sadly to himself.

When he’d eventually finished the glass he took off his boots and curled up into the deep cushions. He closed his eyes and in moments was fast asleep.

He didn’t know how long he slept but it must have been deeply because he never heard the door open and someone come into the room. It was only when he heard the door close softly that his eyes flew open.

He jerked wide awake and was on his feet in seconds in fight or flight mode, as was a SOLDIER’s habit. ‘Gen!’

Instead of Genesis though it was Sephiroth who stood in front of him, wearing only a pair of black sweatpants. He was barefoot, his hair hanging around his shoulders, slightly disheveled. His eyes were bleary from lack of sleep and there were dark circles under them.

‘What are you doing here?’ asked Sephiroth, his voice slightly croaky from tiredness. He didn’t sound annoyed though just curious.

‘Same as you, I’m guessing,’ said Cloud. ‘Just remembering old times but I fell asleep.’

Sephiroth sighed deeply and dropped onto the nearest sofa. Cloud sat down next to him and lent fo a hug. Automatically, the man put his arms around him and pulled him close.

‘Gen looked so sad, Seph,’ said Cloud. ‘I couldn’t get through to him. Did you see him in Modeoheim?’

‘I didn’t go to Modeoheim in the end. Cloud, I need to tell you something,’ He paused. ‘Angeal is dead.’

Cloud raised his head from Sephiroth’s shoulder. ‘What! Why?’

‘He was suffering from the same sickness as Genesis. He forced Zack to kill him rather than live as a ‘monster’, his words not mine.’

For a moment, Cloud was too shocked to speak. ‘Where is Zack now?’

‘On his way back to Midgar. He’s in a bad way.’

Cloud could imagine. He knew how close Zack was to Angeal, closer perhaps than any of them even realised. ‘I should go and see him,’ he said but Sephiroth shook his head.

‘He will likely go straight to see his flower girl. She seems to be good at giving him comfort, better than any of us, I’m sure.’

Cloud rested his head back down on Sephiroth’s shoulder but the man reached up and cupped Cloud’s face gently, raising his chin so that he was looking up at him.

‘Looks like it’s just you and me now,’ said his mentor. He leant forward slightly and kissed Cloud lightly on the lips.

Cloud needed no more encouragement. He moved in for a deep kiss, his agile tongue slipping into the General’s mouth. Sephiroth responded and they kissed for a long moment, taking comfort from the closeness of each other, trying to blot out the tragedy that surrounded them.

Cloud pulled away no more than a fraction. ‘Seph... I want you.’

The slit pupils of Sephiroth’s eyes dilated slightly but he barely hesitated. He stood up and scooped Cloud up to carry him, bridal fashion, into the red-head’s bedroom and practically threw him onto the bed. A waft of Genesis’ signature cologne rose from the covers to envelope him. Cloud’s breath caught in his throat, the memory almost too painful to bear.

There was a framed photograph on the bedside cabinet of Genesis and Sephiroth together on a rare holiday fishing near Kalm. They were both smiling, looking relaxed and happy.

‘Angeal took that photo,’ said Sephiroth.

Tearing his eyes from it almost reluctantly, Sephiroth undressed Cloud slowly, his eyes lingering at the sight of each bit of newly bared flesh. When Cloud was naked, he stripped off his own clothes with considerably less care, leaving them where they fell on the deep carpet. He climbed in the bed pulled Cloud to him. They kissed slowly at first then more passionately.

Presently, Sephiroth got up and knelt between Cloud’s legs. Leaning forward he opened the bedside cabinet drawer. Almost immediately he found what he was looking for and brought out a small tube of lube.

‘Gen always was prepared,’ said Sephiroth wryly.

‘And Zack called me a slut,’ Cloud chuckled.

Sephiroth smiled ruefully then looked down at Cloud.

‘Sure you want to do this?’ he asked.

‘More than anything,’ Cloud assured him.

Sephiroth put some gel on his fingers and spread it slowly around Cloud’s pink entrance. Cloud jumped slightly as the cold gel touched his skin but that was more nerves that anything.

Slowly, Sephiroth eased in one long finger up to the knuckle. Cloud winced at the intrusion but it was weird rather than painful, as it had been when Genesis had done the same to him. Sephiroth moved his finger slowly in and out, then another added another, twisting as he went in deeper. He added a third finger and Cloud took in a ragged breath.

‘You ok?’ inquired Sephiroth.

Cloud nodded.

Sephiroth reached for the gel and liberally coated his own erection.

Then he gave Cloud a slightly wistful smile. ‘Are you still sure? Last chance to change your mind.’

‘I’m sure,’ said Cloud, feeling anything but sure. He shivered slightly when he felt the tip of Sephiroth’s cock against his entrance.

‘Try to relax,’ said Sephiroth, pushing in no more than an inch.

‘Ow, ow, ow!’ whispered Cloud.

Sephiroth stopped moving to give Cloud the chance to acclimatise to the intrusion then he moved in a fraction more. Cloud let out a soft moan.

‘Do you want me to stop?’ asked Sephiroth.

‘No...no, but it hurts,’ Cloud panted. ‘Just do it quickly!’

Sephiroth gave one smooth, even push. Cloud let out a yelp of pain which the other man stifled with a kiss.

‘It’s okay,’ murmured Sephiroth soothingly. ‘It’s done.’ He lay still for a moment for Cloud to adjust once more then began to move with long, slow strokes.

Cloud wrapped his legs around Sephiroth’s waist and they began to move together in perfect time, their pace increasing with every stroke. Cloud thought he might pass out with how incredible it felt. He could vaguely hear someone crying out in pleasure with every stroke realised that it was him. Soon they were both slippery with sweat, lost in the pleasure and the memories. Surrounded by the warm scents of their mutual lover, the sadness almost breathtaking; it was almost like having Genesis there with them and the knowledge that they knew this thing between the three of them would now never happen made it devastatingly bitter-sweet.

He looked up at Sephiroth to see that the man’s pupils were completely dilated and as round as his own. On his usually stoic face was a look of such tenderness that Cloud couldn’t help himself. ‘I love you, Seph,’ he whispered.

That finally pushed Sephiroth over the edge and with a few hard, swift strokes he came, Cloud following immediately after. They lay as they were for a few moments, hearts hammering, panting into each other’s mouths. Sephiroth gently brushed the sweat soaked hair off Cloud’s face and dropped a kiss on his lips. With an exhausted sigh, he lowered his head to rest his cheek on Cloud’s shoulder, still holding him close. A moment later Cloud felt something wet on his bare skin and realised that it was tears. The Demon of Wutai’s tears.

Cloud tightened his arms around the man. ‘Don’t,’ he murmured. ‘Please don’t.’

‘I want him back,’ Sephiroth muttered against Cloud’s neck.

There was what felt like a burning ball in Cloud’s throat making it hard for him to breathe. ‘I know...me too.’

Sephiroth eased slowly out of Cloud and lay down on his back next to him. His long dark lashes damp with moisture, his ridiculously long hair sticking to their glistening bodies.

‘Maybe we can still save Gen,’ said Cloud at last. ‘He said he needs something called Jenova cells, whatever they are.’

‘Jenova?’ Sephiroth turned his head on the pillow to face him, his eyebrows scrunched in a frown. ‘Jenova was my mother...’

Just then Sephiroth’s phs rang. He sat up, wiped his eyes and picked it up off the bedside table to answer it.

‘Lazard?’ he said. ‘Any news?’

Cloud eased off the bed to go to the bathroom to leave Sephiroth in peace for his conversation with the Director of SOLDIER.

When Cloud came back into the bedroom he found Sephiroth had finished his call and was sitting up in bed, texting. He looked up at Cloud.

‘You’re going to see your mother sooner than you thought,’ he said. ‘I’m being sent to Nibelheim, along with Zack.’

‘You’re taking me too?’ asked Cloud, unable to keep the eagerness out of his voice.

‘I need a guide and I really can’t think of anyone better,’ Sephiroth smiled.

Chapter Text

The first thing that Cloud noticed was that his hometown seemingly hadn’t changed at all since he’d left. That had been four years ago.

It was still quaint, with pretty beamed buildings, clustered around a central market place, now covered in a light dusting of snow. Narrow lanes led off from the square, full of small shops, pubs, greengrocers and bakeries. Nibelheim’s only hotel dominated the square along with the Mayor’s office, a doctor’s surgery and a general store.

They had left Midgar early that morning in order to reach the town just after lunch. It had been Sephiroth’s idea so that Cloud would have a chance to spend some time with his mother while he and Zack interviewed the townspeople to gather information on some missing Shinra personnel. They would then visit the reactor the following day to investigate a reported fault.

Cloud was delighted to have Zack with them although the newly promoted first wasn’t his usual enthusiastic self. The weight of Angeal’s death was clear to see and although Zack was trying valiantly to hide it, his eyes had lost some of their eager sparkle.

Sephiroth set the Shinra helicopter down just on the outskirts of Nibelheim, near the town’s only garage. All three of them disembarked, followed by trooper Mikey Chambers. Cloud was pleased to see that the young infantryman had also been sent with them. The rookie seemed to have gained confidence since his first mission to Modeoheim and near brush with death in the chopper.

‘Where is your mother’s house, Cloud?’ asked Sephiroth, as they began walking into the town.

‘Over there by the trees.’ Cloud pointed towards a small log-built farmhouse in the near distance beside a cluster of tall pine trees. There were some chickens in a pen to the side of it next to some clean clothes flapping on a washing line. Although the house looked slightly shabby in daylight, it was obvious that it would look cute and cosy lit up at night, especially once the winter snows came.

As their group walked into town, children stopped playing in the streets and shopkeepers and customers alike stared out of windows to gawp at them. Most of the attention however was directed at Sephiroth, cutting a formidable figure striding up front in his full battle dress, the masamune strapped to his back. The abysmal TV signal in Nibelheim would have meant that most of these people would have very rarely seen Shinra’s Silver General and then only on their televisions. Cloud knew only too well that no fuzzy pictures of the man could ever compare to coming face to face with all six feet five of him dressed in his famous black leathers.

Cloud held his head up high, his shoulders back, proud of his decorated Second’s uniform and the prestigious company he was keeping. He saw some of the boys who had bullied him back in school, now shop boys and bar staff, staring at him from their premises.

‘So, how does it feel to be back home after all this time?’ inquired Sephiroth, smiling over his shoulder at him.

‘Pretty good,’ said Cloud, noticing Harry Evans, one of the worst bullies, giving out free newspapers on a street corner. It amused him to think that a neatly aimed punch to the jaw of the ex-bully would send Harry ten feet in the air, thanks to his new enhancements and relentless training. A wicked side of him almost prayed that Harry would pick on him to give him the excuse but he knew that would never happen, certainly not with Sephiroth around.

Just then an overweight man in a black suit with gold ceremonial chains around his shoulders came jogging heftily towards them. It was Mayor Lockheart.

‘General Sephiroth, sir!’ he reached them panting and dabbing his forehead with a hanky. ‘I am Mayor Lockheart, we were informed you were visiting our town to investigate the recent monster activity’

‘That is correct,’ confirmed Sephiroth. ‘We have also had reports of the disappearance of several Shinra operatives.’

‘Well, it’s an honour to have you here,’ Lockheart babbled on. ‘I would personally like to welcome you to Nibelheim and would be pleased if you would join my wife and I for dinner tonight.’

‘Thank you,’ said Sephiroth, coolly ‘but I have a prior engagement.’

‘Oh,’ the Mayor’s face was a picture of deflation and Cloud loved Sephiroth all the more for his rebuff.

The night before, he had told his mentor about how Mayor Lockheart had always blamed him for an injury Tifa sustained while trekking up Mt Nibel when Cloud had only been following her in an attempt to keep her safe. He was consequently blamed for her injury by the Mayor which essentially condemned Cloud to be ostracized and bullied by the entire town for years for something that hadn’t even been his fault.

‘Of course, I understand, you must be a very busy man,’ said Lockheart. ‘Well my daughter Tifa will act as your guide tomorrow. The paths up to the reactor can be treacherous.’

Sephiroth inclined his head in thanks, his face a frigid mask. Cloud bit back a smile; literally no one could ‘do’ frigid quite like the Silver Demon.

Lockheart looked duly flustered. ‘I believe rooms have been booked for you at our lovely hotel, so if you will allow me, I’ll take you there.’

Suddenly, a dark-haired girl in a short leather skirt, ran out from the Mayor’s office to Cloud and practically threw herself into his arms giving him a huge kiss on his cheek.

‘Cloudy!’ she exclaimed. ‘Wow, I love your uniform, don’t you look grand! And you’re decorated too!’ Her eyes shone with admiration.

Cloud caught Zack’s expression of wide-eyed amusement and Sephiroth’s stony-faced one.

It was only then that the Mayor actually looked at him. ‘Cloud Strife? Is that you?’ he said in disbelief. ‘I didn’t recognise you!’

‘He’s grown,’ said Tifa, giving him a flirty smile. ‘And look at these muscles!’ She reached up and squeezed his top arm, her hand lingering for a moment on his bare skin.

Cloud didn’t dare look at Sephiroth. He could feel the twin rays of disapproval from the man’s eyes six paces away.

‘Yes, well,’ Mayor Lockheart blustered, sensing an atmosphere. ‘Let me show you to the hotel...it has a very good restaurant too and I can highly recommend the Nibel stew!’

Inside, the hotel was decorated in typical mountain style with log-beamed ceilings and polished wooden floors. A healthy fire was crackling in the grate, giving off a sweet smell of burning pine cones. Despite the remoteness of the town, Cloud knew that the hotel was often fully booked. Mostly the customers were weekenders, who came for the good skiing or travelling salesmen. Sometimes even Shinra personnel stayed there.

Sephiroth’s PA had booked them three single rooms and one suite. The third single room was just for propriety’s sake though; Sephiroth had already made it quite clear to Cloud that he would be sharing the large suite with him.

‘Chambers, keep watch in reception,’ ordered the General. ‘Fair and I will find out what we can from the townspeople this afternoon and we’ll go to the reactor first thing tomorrow morning.’

‘Sir,’ said Chambers, taking up his post by the main entrance.

They collected their keys and made their way up the wide, curving wooden staircase to the first floor landing.

Cloud followed Sephiroth to their suite at the end of the corridor, while Zack went off to find his room on the floor above.

Sephiroth let them in to a large, bright room with a seating area and an antique four poster bed. Locally woven, ethnic Nibel rugs covered the polished floorboards and there was a decent sized TV, a complimentary bottle of Nibelheim brandy and home baked cookies in a glass jar. The bathroom was tiled in local Nibel slate with a deep freestanding bath in the middle of the room. It also had imposing views of the snow-capped mountains beyond the town.

Sephiroth glanced at the clock by the bed. ‘You’d better go and see your mother,’ he said, ‘or you’ll be late for lunch.’

‘Yeah, that’s more than my life’s worth,’ grinned Cloud.

He noticed Sephiroth wince slightly and rub his temple with his fingers.

’Are you okay?’ He asked concerned.

‘Fine,’ Sephiroth assured him. ‘Just a small headache. I will meet you for dinner at 2000 hours in the hotel restaurant.’ Reaching out to pull Cloud close, he dropped a kiss on his lips. ‘Give your mother my regards.’

*******

It was just after 7.30pm when Cloud finally returned to the hotel from visiting his mother and made his way up to the suite he was sharing with Sephiroth. Predictably, she had been inordinately proud of his success in SOLDIER and insisted on taking dozens of photos of him to send to distant relatives all over Gaia. She then fussed over him like he was an eight year old again, told him he was too skinny and needed to eat more and gave him a bottle of conditioner for his hair. Cloud was grateful that she actually stopped short of offering to wash it for him in the sink, as she used to before he left home. After, they had sat down to a huge lunch of one of her best dishes, Nibel Wolf pie with buttery mashed potatoes and green beans, followed by apple crumble and cream.

Now though Cloud felt like he'd swallowed a football his belly was so full as he trudged up the stairs to the suite. He was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to eat anything tonight and was about to tell Sephiroth as much but when he reached the suite the man was not there. He decided to shower and change anyway, choosing a pair of simple black trousers and the pale blue shirt that Genesis had bought him, in what seemed a lifetime away now. He wondered what the red-head was doing right now...or even where he was. Maybe holed up in some draughty barn, or in some damp cave somewhere. He glanced around the comfortable, warm suite and wished that Genesis was here with them now. He knew his ma would have loved to meet two of the most powerful men in Shinra...SOLDIER’s at that! She had spent at least an hour that day asking him incessant questions about Sephiroth – what was he like, what were his interests, did he have a girlfriend? Ah, yes...the girlfriend question...

Cloud grinned to himself as he left the suite and went downstairs to the dining room. He found Sephiroth there already, tucked away in a quiet corner at the best table in the busy room. It was decorated much like the rest of the hotel, with the same log beams, wooden floorboards and colourful rugs. There were even red checked cloths on the tables. Cloud knew that, if not exactly gourmet, the food was plentiful and homely and certainly smelt delicious.

Sephiroth had changed too and was looking hopelessly exotic in such a parochial setting, wearing a silver grey cashmere sweater and dark grey trousers. Cloud felt a lurch of pure lust. In front of his new lover was an open bottle of red wine and in a wine cooler beside the table was a bottle of champagne.

‘Planning on a good night’s sleep then,’ noted Cloud with a grin. He noticed that the other diners were doing a valiant job of trying to ignore them both but he still caught a few sneakily curious glances as he sat down.

Sephiroth just gave him one of those enigmatic little twitches of his lips that Cloud now knew passed for a smile. ‘How was your mother?’

‘Great,' said Cloud. 'She was so proud of me, it was really sweet. She’s asked if I can possibly do some jobs for her around the house tomorrow? She’s got a leak in the roof and some broken fencing. I know you need me at the reactor but...’

‘That’s no problem,’ said Sephiroth. ‘Zack and I can deal with that, it’s more important that you help your mother.’

‘Thanks...also, she’d love to meet you,’ he added almost shyly.

‘You told her about us?’ asked Sephiroth, looking up from the menu.

Cloud nodded. ‘Was that wrong?’

‘No.’ Sephiroth glanced around the room as though checking if anyone was watching them. Seemingly for once, everyone seemed engrossed in their food. ‘I was going to leave this until we got back to Midgar but I’ve decided I can’t wait that long.’ He pulled a small object from his trouser pocket and put it on the table in front of Cloud. It was a small, black leather box.

Cloud stared at it then looked up at Sephiroth.

‘Open it,’ he prompted.

Cloud picked up the box and, with slightly shaking fingers, eased it open. Nestled on black satin was a thick silver ring. A sword ring, but not just any sword; It was unmistakably the masamune, custom made and utterly beautiful.

Cloud looked back up at Sephiroth, eyes wide with disbelief. ‘Is this what I think it is?’ It came out as barely a whisper.

‘Will you marry me, Cloud Strife?’ asked Sephiroth solemnly.

‘Oh Gods!’ gasped Cloud, a smile spreading across his face, so wide it threatened to never stop. He was so choked up that all he could do was nod like an imbecile. With no thought of the other people in the restaurant, he stood up and threw his arms around the slightly startled General’s shoulders.

Seemingly the rest of diners had been surreptitiously watching them after all because it was greeted with cheers, applause and calls of ‘Congratulations!’ from the busy room.

For the first time in weeks, Sephiroth actually laughed. ‘I love you, Cloud,' he murmured. 'I know I’m not always good at showing it but I will try harder, I promise.’

‘You don’t have to change, you’re perfect as you are!’ said Cloud, sitting down again, a fierce blush on his cheeks as Sephiroth took the ring from the box and slipped it on the third finger of Cloud’s left hand. Cloud turned his hand this way and that, examining the exquisitely detailed work. As a declaration of love it could not have been more meaningful; he was literally wearing a copy of the masamune, Gaia’s most famous and deadly weapon, crafted into an engagement ring, a gift that could only have come from one man.

‘I designed it myself,’ said Sephiroth.

‘It’s ...just beautiful!’ said Cloud still overawed.

‘This will cause the most dreadful scandal of course, back in Midgar,’ said Sephiroth, as their waiter came over to crack open the champagne, ‘but I’m past caring. My old friends are either dead or have deserted and poor Zack is devastated about Angeal too. It’s time for me to live my life as I want to...with the person I want and to hell with what Shinra or anyone else thinks.’

Cloud was just grinning at him stupidly.

‘What?’ asked Sephiroth.

‘My ma is going to be so happy!’

In the end, neither of them was particularly hungry and Sephiroth’s faint, niggling headache seemed to have returned so they settled on just a main course of Nibel wolf stew. Served with crusty bread and slow-cooked in Nibel ale, it was sublime.

‘We should go to bed,’ said Sephiroth at last, putting his spoon down in his empty bowl. ‘It’s been a long day and I have to be up early to go to that damned reactor... and you need to go and see your mother not looking like you’ve been awake all night.’

‘Are you going to keep me awake all night then?’ Cloud gave him a playful grin.

Sephiroth’s jade coloured eyes slanted evilly. ‘That’s the plan.’

*******

For the first time in his military career Sephiroth overslept the next morning. Not that he cared. When he and Cloud had both finally fallen asleep, it was probably the best nights’ rest he could remember in years, if not ever.

In the end it was a phone call from Zack that eventually woke them both by calling Cloud’s phs.

‘Well that’s your Gattai Ken out the window,’ came the Puppy’s teasingly disapproving voice.

Cloud was too happy to feel guilty. ‘You heard the news?’

‘The whole hotel seems to know about your engagement to Shinra’s Silver General,’ said Zack. ‘Apparently you made quite a spectacle at dinner last night.’

‘Sorry Zack...I’ll get Seph to reimburse you for the sword.’ Cloud pulled an ‘I’ll tell you later’ face at Sephiroth who was gazing at him with a mystified expression.

‘Nah, forget it man. Congratulations! It’s about time Seph was happy. By the way, I’ve been waiting for you in reception for over an hour....just sayin’.’

They were both showered and dressed within twenty minutes; Sephiroth back in his battle leathers and Cloud in a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, ready to do a hard day’s manual labour for his ma.

Cloud pulled on a jacket and stared critically at his reflection in the long mirror by the bed. There were purple circles around his eyes, which, despite their lack of sleep, looked a remarkably vibrant blue; a blissful blue, in fact. ‘How do I look?’ he asked Sephiroth doubtfully.

‘Thoroughly fucked,’ said Sephiroth with a mischievous glint in his eyes.

‘Great, just the look I was after for going to see my ma!’ muttered Cloud but he was too euphoric to let it bother him.

They went downstairs to reception to find Zack sitting on a sofa by the fire, flicking through some tourists pamphlets, still waiting for them.

‘I sent Chambers out to talk to some more townspeople to see if he could find out more information on the monster sightings,’ said the First. ‘It seems they’ve also been coming from the mountains to the east.’

‘We’ll worry about that later,' said Sephiroth. 'Let’s sort this reactor problem out first.’ He turned to Cloud and gave him a light kiss on the cheek. ‘This shouldn’t take long. I’ll meet you at your mother's as soon as I'm finished.’

‘I hope it won’t take long,’ said Zack. ‘I’ve planned some skiing this afternoon. Tifa’s going to show me some good beginner slopes. Always wanted to try it.’

Cloud and Sephiroth exchanged an amused glance, knowing that they were both thinking the same thing; with any luck Tifa would help take Zack’s mind of the loss of Angeal, even only for a short while.

Outside the hotel they parted company and Cloud set off towards the edge of town and Molly Strife’s house.

Sephiroth and Zack found Tifa waiting them on a bench outside the Mayor’s office.

‘Ah there you are,’ she said standing up. ‘Are you both ready? Let’s go.'

Chapter Text

Sephiroth and Zack followed Tifa out of the town, followed by Chambers, whose duty was to look after the Mayor’s daughter, while they investigated the reactor. They walked past the Shinra Mansion and onto the snowy pass which led to the reactor, over rickety bridges and past a myriad of cave entrances. The higher they climbed the thicker the snow became and the colder the wind.

‘Some of the monsters might be using these cave networks,’ said Sephiroth. ‘We’ll check them after.’

Presently they reached the reactor, a typically large, ugly brick and metal building on the top of a hillock.

Sephiroth pulled a set of keys from his coat pocket. ‘Chambers, stay here and look after the girl. Zack come with me.’

‘Sir!’ said Chambers.

‘I want to come too,’ said Tifa, making to follow them but Chambers blocked her way.

‘Miss, you have to stay here with me,’ said the young trooper.

‘Shinra personnel only are allowed beyond this point,’ confirmed Sephiroth and continued up the stairs to the large door.

He turned keys in several locks then tapped a code on the keypad to the side and the door swung opened easily to admit them. Zack followed him inside as Sephiroth flicked the main switches. Lights immediately illuminated the cavernous room. Inside it was also much like any other reactor. Windowless and cold, a metal and concrete construction with an overwhelmingly acidic mako smell.

Sephiroth rubbed his temples.

‘You okay?’ asked Zack.

‘Mmm, just a niggling headache I’ve had for a couple of days. The smell of the mako isn’t helping.’

‘Yeah, not enough sleep’ll do that to you too,’ teased Zack.

‘That’s enough, Fair,’ warned Sephiroth brusquely.

Zack grinned. ‘So what’s supposed to be wrong with this place anyway?’ He asked as they walked along endless corridors, over metal grating high above pools of raw mako. It cast its sickly green haze around the rooms as it mingled with the electric light. ‘Why send us, I mean it’s not like we’re engineers or something.’

‘Perhaps they know we’re the only ones who can dispatch nests of monsters if we come across them,’ said Sephiroth.

‘Well it sure stinks,’ said Zack pulling a face. ‘I can’t imagine anything wanting to live here.’

They had reached the center of the reactor, a vast chilly room. There was a central staircase, flanked on both sides by metal pods arranged in tiers, illuminated from inside and casting a green hue from a small window in each one. There were rows upon rows of them, maybe fifty in all.

They walked up the steps. At the top were huge double doors, above which was a concrete name plaque, which read, ‘JENOVA’. The doors were sealed shut.

‘Jenova was my mother’s name,’ said Sephiroth, confused. He tried the keys on his fob but none of them fit.

‘You don’t think Hojo’s imprisoned your mother in there, do you?’ said Zack.

They exchanged a look.

‘Frankly, I wouldn’t put anything past him,’ said Sephiroth.

‘You wanna break the doors down?’ said Zack.

‘In a minute,’ said Sephiroth, going back down the stairs again. He went over to examine a flickering light near a section of pipework beside one of the pods.

‘Here is the damage,’ he said. ‘It’s just a faulty valve.’

‘I’ll fix it,’ said Zack, keen to get out of the place as soon as possible. He located a store cupboard and found some tools. It took him only a few moments to repair the damage and and re-attached the pipe properly. ‘Okay, that’s it, I’m outta here. We’ve done what we came to do.’ He turned to go but noticed that Sephiroth was not following.

Instead, the General was peering through one of the small windows into one of the strangely illuminated pods. Zack saw him recoil as though in revulsion and step back.

Despite his desire to get out of the place as soon as possible, curiosity got the better of Zack and he went over to peer into the window himself. Inside was what might have once been human, although it was difficult to tell.

Gaunt to the point of emaciation, the creature's grey skin was stretched tautly over its bones. What lips it had were tatty and bloodied, as though it had tried to eat itself to survive. It had one eye only; the other not having formed was just a bulge where the socket should be. Judging by the suppurating boils on its skin it had clearly been there for quite some time.

‘What the Hel is that?’ asked Zack, repulsed.

‘I imagine it was once human,’ said Sephiroth in disgust. ‘And at a guess I’d say some of these pods contain the missing Shinra personnel.’

‘Are they dead?’

‘This one is,’ confirmed Sephiroth.

They went from pod to pod. Each one contained a further abomination, each more deformed than the last. None of them looked to be alive but it was frankly hard to tell.

‘Who would do this?’ asked Zac.

‘Who do you think?’ said Sephiroth. ‘Who do we know with no morals or concern for human or animal life?’

‘Hojo?’

Sephiroth nodded then suddenly let out a cry of pain and doubled over, clutching his head.

‘Seph..! Are you ok?’

Sephiroth righted himself, breathing heavily as the pain slowly subsided. ‘Yes, yes, I’m fine. It’s passed. Can you hear that?’

‘Hear what?’ asked Zack.

‘Someone talking.’

‘Nope,’ said Zack. ‘Hey, Seph, you’re starting to creep me out here.’

Sephiroth didn’t respond, just stared at the double doors at the top of the stairs an odd look on his face.

‘What are they saying?’ ventured Zack.

‘It’s....not exactly clear. It sounds like another language. One I haven’t heard before.’

‘Probably one of those freaks in the pods,’ suggested Zack looking distinctly uneasy now.

Before either of them noticed that they were no longer alone, a tall figure emerged silently from the shadows by the door.

Zack swung round in an instant, Buster sword raised then gasped. ‘Genesis!’ he said in disbelief.

A well aimed bolt knocked the sword from Zack’s arm, tearing the muscle in his shoulder at the same time. Zack yelped and dropped to his knees, clutching his arm.

‘Gen!’ said Sephiroth, startled.

‘Hello, my dear friend,’ said Genesis, walking forward further into the light.

With every fiber of his being Sephiroth tried not to look appalled at the sight of his old friend and lover. Even having been forewarned by Cloud of what to expect, it did not diminish the shock of seeing the former handsome red head with almost white hair and a huge black wing sprouting from his left shoulder.

Sephiroth walked towards the man, opening his arms with every intention of giving him a hug but then stopped. ‘Can you put that thing away?’ he asked, trying to trivialise the monstrous appendage dangling from Genesis’ shoulder in a vague attempt to normalise it.

Genesis duly retracted the wing. With a sound of creaking bone and gristle and a rustle of feathers and it was gone, vanished somewhere into the red-head’s back.

Sephiroth stepped forward and pulled Genesis into his arms and held him tightly for a long moment as though he never wanted to let him go, distraught at the feel of how much weight his friend had lost. When he pulled away at last, Genesis stroked his cheek gently.

‘Still so beautiful,’ murmured the red-head.

‘So are you,’ said Sephiroth.

Genesis smiled ruefully. ‘Don’t lie, not even to please me. I know how I look and what I am.’

‘What are you doing out here in this Gaia-awful place, Gen?’ said Sephiroth. ‘Come back to Midgar. I’ll make sure Rufus doesn’t harm you in any way. I'll take care of you.'

Genesis shook his head. ‘Not like this, not until I find a cure... although my research has led me to believe that there is one.’

‘Then take it,’ said Sephiroth. ‘What are you waiting for?’

‘You.’

Sephiroth blinked. ‘What do you mean, me? I can’t help. Hollander said...’

‘He lied to you,’ Genesis cut in. ‘He just didn’t want to admit that Hojo’s creation was perfect and his was...defective. Your cells and only your cells can help me now. My friend, you are the bringer of life.’

‘I don’t understand...what do you mean ‘creation’?’

‘Jenova,’ said Genesis. ‘It’s the Jenova cells in you that mean you’ll never degrade like Angeal and I.'

‘Jenova? My mother, you mean?’

Genesis didn’t say anything. ‘I need your cells, Seph,’ he continued. ‘I’ll force Hojo to do the operation, it’s not that painful really.’

‘Don’t ask that of me,’ said Sephiroth.

‘I know it’s asking a lot. I know what he’s done to you all your life...’

‘No, you don’t,’ said Sephiroth grimly. ‘You don’t know the half of it, only what I have told you. I won’t put myself in that man’s hands again...ever!’

‘Not even for me?’ Genesis asked softly.

Sephiroth faltered. ‘There must be another way.’

‘There isn’t. You are my only hope,’ said Genesis. ‘Seph, what do you really know about your parentage?’

‘NO! Genesis, please!’ said Zack from where he’d fallen, still clutching his wounded shoulder.

Genesis reached out and touched Sephiroth’s cheek again. ‘My poor love,’ he said. ‘They told you your mother’s name was Jenova didn’t they? I don’t know what images you’ve conjured up in your head about her but whatever it is, it’s nowhere near the truth. They lied to you in the worst possible way.’

‘Gen, you’ve lost me, what are you talking about?’ said Sephiroth, tiredly.

‘I’m going to tell you the truth because I love you,’ said Genesis. ‘You need to know Seph. You need to know the grotesque things that Company has done to us...to you, me and Angeal and maybe hundreds more we know nothing about.’

‘Stop it, Genesis!’ begged Zack.

‘Your real mother’s name was Lucrecia Crescent,’ Genesis went on, ignoring Zack. ‘She was a scientist working with Gast and Hojo on the Jenova Project.’

‘And what is the Jenova Project?’ asked Sephiroth.

‘Do you really not know what Jenova is? Then I will tell you. The ‘thing’ they call Jenova was excavated from a two thousand year old rock layer. She’s a parasite, an alien...a monster, if you like. Her cells were used in Jenova Project G which gave birth to Angeal and monsters like myself but we were considered by Hojo to be ‘sub-standard’,’ continued Genesis. ‘Project S...’ he paused for effect, ‘used the research from countless failed experiments to create a perfect specimen. You. With your mother’s consent, they fused Jenova’s cells with yours before you were even born. In short, Seph, you are only half human.'

Sephiroth stood still, staring at Genesis unmoving, his face a rigid mask.

‘SOLDIER First Class Sephiroth!’ snapped Genesis.

That seemed to jolt Sephiroth out of his state of shock and he stood to attention despite himself, so ingrained in him was his military training. ‘I don’t want to hear this!’ he managed to say.

‘Why because you can’t bear to hear the truth – a truth I have to live with?’ said Genesis. ‘Why should I be the only one to suffer, knowing what I know? We are no better than those things in those pods. Wake up Seph and face the truth. The Company that you have been so loyal to all these years has fucked us over!’

‘No!’

‘Don’t believe me? Then look in Shinra Manor. Hojo’s notes are all there....how they made you...how they made all of us, in all its gruesome detail!’

‘Enough!’ shouted Sephiroth. ‘You abandoned me...us! You didn’t even bother to talk to me about it and now you’re just coming to me and telling me this vile thing just because you want my cells! I don’t know if I can believe you or not. I’m not sure I trust you anymore. A real friend would have told me at the start and not deserted without a word!’

‘A real friend wouldn’t deny someone he loves a cure,’ said Genesis gently. 'And you do still love me, don't you?' He reached out his hand to Sephiroth. In his palm was a Banora white. ‘Seph, if you don't help me I will die before the year is out. I'm just thirty, for Gaia's sake, I don't want to die - especially not like this. Please,' the desperation was clear in his voice. 'Help cure me, we can sort this mess out together after. My dearest love...I offer you this silent sacrifice.’

‘No! You betrayed me,’ said Sephiroth and shoved Genesis’ arm, knocking the apple from his hand. ‘I can’t think! I have to go.’ He turned on his heel and stalked off out of the room.

‘You are a monster indeed, Seph,’ Genesis’ choked voice called after him. ‘Devoid of compassion and empathy as only a real monster can be. They made you well!’

‘Why did you tell him?’ cried Zack. ‘Why?’

“When the war of the beasts brings about World’s End, the goddess descends from the sky, wings of light and dark spread afar, she guides us to bliss, her gift everlasting.”

And with that, the wing emerged and Genesis flew away once more into the shadows.

Chapter Text

It was almost four in the afternoon by the time Cloud finished cleaning his paint brushes. He wiped the white gloss from his hands with the remaining turpentine and put everything back in the kitchen cupboards where he’d found it. All in all, it had been a very satisfying day. He’d fixed the slipped tiles on his mother’s roof, mended some collapsed fencing and painted some internal doors for her.

‘All done, ma!’ he called out.

She came in from the garden, her hands covered in dirt from weeding and examined his handy-work. ‘That’s lovely, thank you, Cloudy! Damn, I don’t want to let you go, it’s so nice having a strong man about the house again.’

‘I don’t earn bad money, ma,’ said Cloud. ‘Just pay if you want something done, I can afford it. And don’t forget that Sephiroth is going to be your new son-in-law soon, he’d be really annoyed if he knew you got up onto the roof by yourself trying to mend things.’

‘Shinra’s General doesn’t want to be paying for my silly house repairs,’ said his mother.

‘Ma, he’s a millionaire,’ Cloud pointed out. ‘I’m sure he’ll be able to cope. In fact, I haven’t spoken to him about it properly yet but we were discussing getting a house by the sea near Kalm for weekends. We could build a house for you in the grounds. It’s only about two hours’ flight from Midgar. It’s pretty there and the climate is much better than here.’

Molly smiled then, a look so full of pride and delight that Cloud struggled to think of a time he’d seen her so content.

‘The whole town is talking about your engagement, y’know,’ she said. ‘Even Mrs Meakes at the greengrocers – she’s always been such a snob but she gave me some free arugala this morning.’

‘Wow, that’s generous,’ teased Cloud.

She gave him a playful slap on the arm. ‘Stop it, you! It’s for the salad tonight.’

He grinned and walked to the front door.

Molly Strife stood on the doorstep of her house and hugged her son. To any casual passer-by who didn’t know them, they could have been brother and older sister. She had the same pale blond hair, cut into a long, slightly shaggy bob and bright blue eyes. In truth, she looked at least ten years younger than her thirty-seven years.

‘Careful, I’m all painty,’ he said laughing, trying not to hug her back.

‘Oh, don’t worry about that, I’m hardly wearing my Sunday best! Now what time will you be bringing Sephiroth over? I have to prepare dinner.’

‘I’ll give you a ring as soon as he’s back from his mission,’ said Cloud. ‘He might even be finished now.’

Leaving his ma waving on the doorstep, he set off back towards the hotel. The streets were fairly quiet this time of day, most people being either at work or preparing evening meals for their families.

He stepped into the hotel and went up to the suite to find that Sephiroth wasn’t there yet. He wondered if he should ring him but guessed that may not be a good idea if he was still on the mission. Instead he sent him a text.

“Back from ma’s. Let me know when you might be finished...she’s making us roast moose with baked potatoes, batters etc...all the stuff you love! See you soon xxx...oh, she wouldn’t stop going on about the wedding plans so be prepared, haha! She’s already looking at hats!”

He tossed his phs on the bed and ran himself a deep, hot bath with bubbles. Over the sound of running water though he heard his phs ring and hurried to answer it but it was only Zack.

‘Hey, is Seph with you?’ he asked. ‘Only my ma is getting all flustered about when to put dinner on.’

‘Er, no,’ said Zack. ‘We got separated. I’m not exactly sure where he is right now.’

Cloud’s first thought was that he sounded cagey. ‘What do you mean you don’t know where he is? He’s six feet five with silver hair down past his arse and dresses head to toe in black leather. How hard can he be to find?’

Zack said nothing, which was weird in itself. Cloud was unaccountably on alert.

‘What happened at the reactor, Zack?’

Zack wasn’t one to beat about the bush. ‘Genesis turned up...I dunno how, he just appeared. Anyway, he told Seph stuff about his mother.’

‘Jenova?’

‘No, his real mother,’ said Zack. ‘Genesis told him terrible things, Spike. Seph’s locked himself in the Shinra mansion and won’t talk to me.’

Cloud walked into the bathroom to turn his bath water off. ‘You’d better tell me everything,’ he said.

*******

Leaving the drawn bath, Cloud dragged on some clean clothes and went downstairs to reception where Zack was waiting for him.

‘Seph’s holed up in the library,’ Zack said, as they left the hotel together. ‘There’s a light on under one of the doors and I can see a shadow moving. The door’s locked from the inside though so I asked him to open it but he ignored me.’

Cloud tried to call Sephiroth’s phs but it went straight to answer-phone. As they made their way to the mansion, Cloud listened with increasing disgust and disbelief as Zack told him the truth about the General's past.

Reaching the mansion, he followed Zack inside. A couple of lamps were on in the reception hall and in some of the downstairs rooms, just enough to see their way.

It could have been a lovely house and probably was once. There were high ceilings, ornate wood paneling and delicate period furniture, now all dusty, their upholstery faded with the years. There was even a grand piano in what would have been the drawing room but the lacquer was cracked and dull now. Thick dust covered everything; it had a kind of shabby-chic look about it although to be fair it was more shabby than chic.

The fireplace was full of ash, spiders’ webs and dust, abandoned when Shinra’s scientists, staff and entourage had decamped for Midgar twenty seven years before with the then two year old Sephiroth.

‘Careful, some of the floorboards are rotten,’ said Zack. ‘I put my foot thought one earlier, nearly ended up on the floor below!’

‘So, where is Seph?’ asked Cloud.

‘The library is this way,’ said Zack.

Cloud followed him up the wide, curving staircase to the first floor. There were doors leading off along the corridors into other rooms but they were all in darkness, giving the place an unpleasantly sinister air. Only a closed door at the far end of the passage had a light shining beneath it.

Cloud knocked on the heavy wooden door. ‘Seph?’ he called. ‘Are you in there?’

No answer.

‘Can he even hear us?’ he whispered to Zack.

‘I should think so,’ said Zack. ‘His hearing is extremely enhanced, don’t forget.’

‘Seph!’ Cloud knocked on the door again. ‘Don’t forget we’re due a ma’s for dinner in a couple of hours.’

Nothing.

‘Should we break the door down?’ asked Cloud.

‘Er, I wouldn’t bro,’ said Zack. ‘If he doesn’t want to talk to us, we’d do well to leave him alone. This is Sephiroth, don’t forget. Sephiroth and masamune.’

Cloud glanced down at the engagement ring on his finger, then knelt down and put his right eye to the lock. Through the keyhole he could just make out a vast room full of books, ring binders and portfolios.

‘Seph!’ he called through the small hole. ‘It’s Cloud...can I come in?’

There was no reply.

‘There’s nothing we can do,’ said Zack. ‘We’ll just have to go back to the hotel and wait for him to turn up.’

They returned to their rooms at the hotel but by 8pm when there was still no sign of Sephiroth, Cloud had to call his mother and explain that there would be only one of them for dinner.

The following morning he woke in the suite he shared with Sephiroth to find the other man's side of the bed empty and un-disturbed. He called Zack.

‘Have you heard anything?’

‘No,’ said Zack. ‘Isn’t he with you?’

‘No,’ confirmed Cloud, worried now. He hung up and called the hotel’s restaurant and ordered a hot breakfast and a flask of coffee then he got dressed and went downstairs. The restaurant manager had put the food on a tray as requested and Cloud took it and made his way to the mansion.

Inside, it looked less sinister than it had the evening before, just tired and neglected. He made his way upstairs, carrying the tray. In the gloom of the corridor he could still see that the light was on under the library door. He put the tray down beside the door and knocked.

‘Seph?’ I’ve brought you something to eat and some hot coffee with lots of sugar, just like you like it.’

Silence.

‘Why don’t you came out and eat,’ said Cloud. ‘Whatever you’re doing in there, I can help you.’

Still silence but he was sure he saw a shadow move across the light.

‘Seph, please open the door,’ he said. ‘Ma was so upset she couldn’t see you last night. She was so looking forward to it.’ He deliberately didn’t mention the wasted food or the excuse he’d had to make for his fiance’s non-appearance. His mother had been less than impressed and only appeased when Cloud explained that Sephiroth was held up on some top secret Shinra business. ‘After all, he is a General of the whole army, ma,’ he’d reminded her.

There was still no noise coming from the room so he said, ‘Don’t let your food get cold,’ and reluctantly left.

Back in the hotel room, he sat on the bed, debating what to do. After lunch he went back to the mansion to find the food and coffee untouched and stone cold. The light was still on, however, and he could vaguely hear the shuffling of paper, the gentle thud of books being put down and the scratch of pen on paper.

‘Seph, I don’t care what Genesis said to you – it makes no difference to anything, not to me, not to us and not to your career. You’re still you and you still have friends...people who love you.’

Nothing.

‘Seph,’ he said softly. 'I know you can hear me. Please open the door.’

There was a pause in the scratching sound of the pen, then it resumed again.

‘Sephiroth, this is silly,’ he attempted a little laugh. ‘Come out and talk to me. We can work through this together. Zack says you should talk to Aerith, she’s really clever – she can help, I’m sure of it.’

As there was still no reply, Cloud left and returned to the hotel once more. That night he returned to the mansion with Zack, some dinner and a jug of cold water.

‘C’mon, man, talk to us!’ Zack pleaded. ‘Gen had no right to tell you that shit. It’s probably not even true anyway...you know what a drama queen he is.’

Silence.

The consecutive nights were all the same. Cloud gave up taking food. Instead he took to sitting outside the library door on the floor, just talking to himself really in the vain hope that Sephiroth would open the door. As was often the case, he could see a shadow moving back and forth as it disrupted the slither of light.

‘I went skiing today with Zack and Tifa,’ he said. ‘Zack kept falling on his butt, it was hilarious! He’s got a bruise the size of a melon on his left arse cheek! You should have been there!’

There was never any reply but he didn’t give up. The next night, he returned and sat back down on the floor again to ‘chat’ to his lover through the locked door.

‘We’re going sledging tomorrow,’ he said. ‘Do you want to come along?’

Silence greeted his question. Cloud had come to expect nothing more.

‘Ok,’ he said wearily. ‘I’ll take it that’s a ‘no’. I’ll come and see you tomorrow night then.’ Defeated, he stood up sadly and made his way out of the mansion.

Perhaps if he could find Genesis, and tell him what damage he’d done maybe, just maybe, the man could talk Sephiroth round....after all they had known each other since they were in their early teens and been through Hel and back in Wutai together. The only problem was that he had no way of contacting the former-redhead.

On a whim, he left the mansion and, using the torch on his phs, climbed the slippery mountain track as far as he dared. It was bitingly cold, icy and all around him nocturnal animals made their eerie hunting noises, calling to each other as they stalked, chased and killed their prey, that died with haunting screams.

He stood still, shivering, and took a deep breath then bellowed at the top of his lungs, ‘G E N E S I S!’. Birds flew from the tree tops and assorted creatures dashed for cover. What followed was a creepy, leaden silence. He stood there as long as he could in the slicing cold, listening in vain for the flap of a vast wing, until he could no longer feel his toes in his boots. Then, feeling more dejected than ever, he turned and trekked back down the mountainside to the hotel.

He found Zack and Chambers sitting in the lounge in front of a merrily crackling log fire, nursing a couple of whiskies and looking glum. Zack ordered one for him, and he joined them, sinking gratefully into a deep soft sofa.

‘Zack, I don’t know what to do,’ he confessed.

‘There’s nothing we can do, man,’ said Zack. ‘If Seph doesn’t want to come out, he won’t.’

‘Then he’ll starve to death in there,’ said Cloud. ‘He hasn’t eaten or drunk a thing I’ve brought for him. Even if he doesn’t eat, he can’t last long without water.’

‘Seph’s different,’ said Zack. ‘Who knows how long he can last without sustenance. He’s not like us, Spike. He’s not...’

‘Human?’ offered Cloud bitterly.

Zack said nothing, just looked uncomfortable.

And therein lay the problem, though Cloud. Sephiroth was different to any other human on Gaia and it was that very brutal bit of knowledge that had driven him to lock himself away in the first place.

‘We can’t force him to eat or drink if he doesn’t want to,’ said Zack. ‘I guess he’ll come out when he’s ready. All we can do is wait and be there for him when he does.’

On the sixth night, at his wits’ end, Cloud returned to the Shinra mansion. This would be his final attempt to get some reaction from Sephiroth, he decided. Even he had to admit that it was going nowhere.

Dressed warmly, he walked across the square, up the hill and let himself into the house for the last time. The light was still on under the library door. He sat down outside and lent against the wall as he had taken to doing on so many occasions. There were no sounds from inside.

‘Seph,’ he said softly.

There was no reply.

Cloud let out a ragged sigh. ‘Do you remember when you took me up in the helicopter for the first time and you flew me to the beach? It was the first time I’d ever been barefoot in the sand before. Then after you flew us up to that crag and we ate the picnic and watched the sun slowly go down. I think I fell in love with you right then at that moment.’ He paused. There was still no noise from inside the room. ‘I loved you because you’re so like me in so many ways, you’re awkward and dorky and you hate small talk and you’d rather lie in the wilderness watching a burning disk of red dip into the ocean than go to a nightclub. You are utterly and amazingly human and I want you back in my life!’

Silence.

‘Seph! I’m begging you, stop this! I can’t bear it anymore...I love you so much!’

He knew that Sephiroth could hear him because he heard an intake of breath from the other side of the door. And then he heard it, no more than the softest hiss in the air, a desolate whisper of despair.

‘Forget about me, Cloud.’

Cloud stumbled back to the hotel and went straight to bed. He curled into a ball under the sheets and shook with silent tears.

*******

He didn’t know what time it was when a frantic pounding noise invaded his subconscious. As it got louder and louder he realised someone was banging on the door of the suite. His eyes flickered open.

‘Cloud! Cloud, wake up!’ Zack was yelling in between more pounding. ‘The town’s on fire!’

Cloud scrambled out of bed and opened the door. As he did the acrid smell of smoke reached his nostrils.

Zack was standing there, his face smudged with what looked like black soot. ‘Seph’s set fire to the whole town!’

‘He’s WHAT?’ gasped Cloud horrified.

‘Nibelheim is burning!’ said Zack. ‘You have to go get your ma, make sure she’s safe!’

Cloud flung on his uniform, grabbed his and Sephiroth’s kit bags and the katana and ran downstairs. Zack was in reception with Chambers, busy helping evacuate the hotel’s guests, many of whom were still in their pyjamas and dressing gowns and looked terrified.

The hotel’s dining room was already on fire. Cloud watched as the table he and Sephiroth had sat at that first night went up in flames.

His biggest concern now was to get his ma to safety. He ran out into the main square to find the whole town ablaze, people running frenziedly back and forth, some with buckets of water, trying in vain to douse the twenty foot flames as they ripped through shops and houses alike.

He ran as fast as he could out of town towards his mother’s house but even from the distance he could see it, no more than a ball of flame.

‘NO!’ he screamed and sprinted towards it but was beaten back by the colossal heat. All he could do was stand and stare as the house burned, flames leaping high into the inky sky.

‘Ma! MA!’ he yelled but there was no way he could get within ten feet of the house, so intense was the blaze. He dropped the kit bags and katana in the dirt but all he could do was to stand and watch as his childhood home as it burned.

‘Cloud!’

He turned to see Zack tearing towards him across the field. He reached him, gasping for breath. ‘Seph’s gone insane! He’s killing everyone, even Mayor Lockheart!’

‘Tifa?’ asked Cloud paling.

‘I dunno,’ gasped Zack. ‘He’s on his way to the reactor now. I think he’s going to blow it up. We have to stop him!’ Zack’s eyes suddenly flickered to the burning house and widened in horror. ‘Your ma?’

Cloud nodded dazedly.

Zack pulled him into his arms and held him tightly. ‘Dude, I’m so, so sorry,’ he said. Cloud hugged him back, too numb to speak. Then Zack pushed him away a fraction, holding him by his shoulders and looking him straight in the eyes. ‘We have to stop him, you know that don’t you, or hundreds of people will die. Are you up to it?’

Cloud nodded again. ‘You go, I’ll follow.’

Zack ran off. Cloud stashed the two kit bags in the barn and unsheathed the katana then ran to the Shinra mansion and up the long treacherous path to the reactor.

Chapter Text

This time Cloud didn’t hesitate and he didn’t stop. He ran as fast as he could up the snowy perilous path to the reactor, once more with only the torch light of his phs to guide him, icy air burning his lungs.

Reaching the reactor, he found the door wide open, light spilling out from inside across the snow, turning it a sickly green. Just inside the door, he found an unconscious figure lying in a heap on the floor.

‘Teef? Tifa?’ He knelt down beside her and shook her gently.

Her leg was twisted at an unnatural angle and on closer inspection it looked as though her right arm was broken too. There were tear tracks through the soot blackened dirt on her face.

She stirred, eyes opening slowly. ‘Cloud,’ she said weakly. ‘He killed father..!’

‘Do you mean Sephiroth? Did he do this to you?’

She nodded feebly. ‘I hate SOLDIER, I hate shinra, I hate you all!’ She gave a strangled sob.

Cloud couldn’t blame her. She, like him, had lost everything they loved and cared about in one night. Quickly, he took off his jacket and laid it over her. ‘I’ll be back with help, Teef, just lay still.’

He left her and ran deep into the reactor. Somewhere close by he could hear the sounds of a ferocious fight, the clash of steel, the lethal hiss of a familiar blade then the sickening thud of something or someone falling hard from a great height.

He hurried towards the sound. Turning a corner he found himself in a vast, high ceilinged room with row upon row of pods with glass windows. A metal staircase led up to another room, above which was a sign which read Jenova. Halfway up the steps lay Zack, bleeding profusely from a wound he couldn’t see. He ran to his friend, crouching down on the step next to him.

‘I trusted him, Spike...I trusted him!’ said Zack. ‘I don’t know what’s happened...Seph’s lost his mind!’

‘Tifa is wounded too,’ said Cloud, making to get up. ‘I’m going to get help.’

‘No!’ said Zack, grabbing his sleeve. ‘There’s no time, you have to kill him!’

‘I can’t do that!’ said Cloud appalled.

‘You have no choice, Spike. He’s going to blow up the reactor. When it goes, it will poison everything in a 200 mile radius! Nothing will survive! Not people, not animals or plants...not even us!’

‘Where is he?’

‘Up those stairs, in that room,’ Zack raised his hand a fraction to point to the room marked Jenova.

Cloud left Zack and sprinted up the rest of the stairs. Reaching the room he immediately saw Sephiroth, standing in front of some kind of large glass container which was even taller than he was. Cloud edged forward. So absorbed was the General that he didn’t hear him approach.

He could hear Sephiroth’s voice, deep and even. ‘Mother...how could they do this to you? Vile, ignorant monsters...’

Standing close by, its point embedded in the wooden floor was Angeal's Buster sword. Silently, Cloud put the katana down; it was too delicate a weapon to defend himself against Sephiroth should he need to. Slowly he reached for Angeal’s sword and eased it out of the wood with a creak.

Sephiroth didn’t even turn around; he was so distracted it would be an easy kill but Cloud knew he couldn’t do it. Even as he thought of his ma, of Tifa and Zack, he couldn’t kill the man he loved. Sephiroth, his Sephiroth, loved him. This man had asked him to marry him. He remembered how he’d been that night in the restaurant and the ring that he’d designed especially for him but Sephiroth had to be stopped, at least long enough to try and reason with him.

All the thoughts passed through his mind in no more than an instant. He knew he had no choice, he had to stop Sephiroth’s blind rampage somehow and he knew he could never fight him one on one.

‘Forgive me,’ he whispered. With one deft lunge he plunged the Buster sword deep into Sephiroth’s side. There was a crack of glass as the sword came out the other side and hit the container.

Sephiroth barely made a sound as he collapsed to his knees, clutching his side, finally revealing the ‘mother’ that he had been talking to.

Inside the container was the most grotesque thing Cloud had ever seen. Submerged in clear liquid, a mockery of the female form was suspended by various tubes and machinery. Intestines dangled from various parts of its body and on its head was a metal helmet bearing the words JENOVA, under which long silver hair floated in tendrils in the liquid. More tubes and pipes came from the helmet and other parts of the creature’s body leading to machinery and dials which were keeping it alive, he guessed. One iridescent pink eye shone out, staring at him intently.

This semi-rotting, repulsive thing couldn’t be Sephiroth’s mother! Cloud refused to believe it. Whatever lies his fiancé had been told in his life by the evil men who had raised him, this was the foulest of them all.

Noticing a movement from the prone man in front of him, Cloud jerked himself out of his stupor. Knowing that Sephiroth had only temporarily been incapacitated and would start to heal soon, he had very little time. Leaving the injured man, he rushed back to Zack.

His friend was still lying where he’d left him, flat on his stomach on the metal steps.

‘Zack, I’m so sorry, I couldn’t kill him, I couldn’t do it!’ Cloud confessed, ‘but I’ve injured him, badly, hopefully enough to buy us some time so I can get help.’

‘Call Tseng,’ said Zack faintly. ‘I trust him. He’ll know what to do.’

Cloud pulled his phs out of his trouser pocket but there was no signal. He was about to go back outside to see if he could find some reception when he heard it; the sound of someone’s faltering footsteps. It was unmistakably the sound of an injured man trying to walk, coming from inside the Jenova room. He ran up the stairs once more to be confronted by a truly terrible sight. It was Sephiroth but not the Sephiroth he knew. There was a blank expression on the man’s face but his eyes exuded such fury he looked almost possessed.

Cloud watched as Sephiroth limped towards him, masamune in one hand. Under his other arm was the decapitated head of the creature from the cylinder.

‘You!’ hissed Sephiroth, glaring at him with hatred, as though he didn’t even recognise him. ‘How DARE you attack me!’

‘Seph, it’s me, Cloud!’ he said desperately. There was no spark of recognition in those eerie green eyes as his fiancé closed on him with murderous intent.

‘I can’t fight you, you know I can’t!’ said Cloud backing away a few steps.

‘Is that why you stabbed me in the back instead?’ he demanded. ‘Coward!’

‘I had to stop you anyway I could. You killed my ma! You murdered the townspeople, the mayor...and you hurt Tifa...and Zack is bleeding out on the stairs!’

‘Weak pathetic humans,’ Sephiroth snarled.

‘Seph, what the fuck is wrong with you!’ shouted Cloud.

‘Lift up your sword,’ said Sephiroth.

‘No,’ said Cloud.

‘DO IT!’ ordered the General.

‘No! I won’t fight you!’ said Cloud.

‘Then I will kill you where you stand!’

There was a blur of movement and Cloud cried out as the white heat of agony shot through his body. He glanced down to see the masamune embedded in his chest. White lights danced before his eyes and a wave of dizziness hit him as he felt himself being lifted off the ground, impaled by the huge sword. Then he felt nothing as adrenaline flooded his body. In that moment he didn’t know where his strength came from as he gripped the blade and heaved with all his might as he lifted a stunned Sephiroth off his feet and flung the man to one side, deep into the reactor’s core.

Cloud eased the sword from his body and let it fall to the ground with a clatter. He had to get out – had to phone for help. He stumbled out of the room vaguely registering that Zack was still lying prone halfway down the stairs. He only reached the top of the steps, however, before the whole world tilted and swayed before him. Blackness overcame him and he fell.

*******

‘Are they alive?’ A horribly familiar voice wheedled its way into Cloud’s semi-consciousness.

‘This one is, Professor,’ said another man’s voice.

‘How about that one?’ asked the man he now knew as the 'Professor'. Then it hit him. Hojo! Cloud knew he recognised that voice. It couldn’t be! What was the scientist doing in Nibelheim?

Cloud felt the toe of a shoe prod him in the side. He let out a faint groan then someone knelt beside him. He could just see the hem of a white coat.

‘He’s alive but it looks like he’s sustained a major stab wound to the chest,’ said the other man.

‘Hmm, well let’s get them out of here,’ said the Professor.

Every instinct told Cloud to run...to get out of there as soon as possible in any way he could. He tried to move but a bolt of pure agony shot through his chest.

He felt himself being heaved onto a stretcher by two sets of hands. Opening his eyes a fraction he saw that Zack was also being similarly manhandled onto another stretcher by two men in white coats. His friend looked unnaturally pale and lifeless.

‘Is the lab ready?’ Hojo was asking.

‘Yes Professor,’ replied one of the assistants.

‘Good. Search the reactor. If the masamune is here then Sephiroth must be too. Look everywhere. Let me know as soon as you find anything.’

Cloud felt himself being lifted and carried down several flights of stairs amid much bumping and cursing from the lab assistants as they negotiated corners and banisters. Every movement felt like a thousand knives piercing his chest.

Then suddenly he was in a room with blindingly bright lights and he was being lifted again, this time onto the cold, hard surface of an operating table. He felt metal restraints being attached to his wrists and ankles. SOLDIER restraints. A sharp needle was stuck in his arm, emptied and then removed.

‘Ah, you’re awake,’ Hojo’s face suddenly came into focus above him. ‘Keep still. You’ll live.’

‘Zack?’ he managed to croak.

‘Right here next to you,’ said Hojo. ‘You’ve both sustained serious injuries. That will teach you to pick a fight with my son, won’t it?’ The Professor chuckled as he began cutting the bloodied uniform off Cloud’s body with a pair of scissors, exposing his chest wound to the cool air.

‘So, you chose Sephiroth in the end for that silly Bet, did you?’ said Hojo, as he worked away. ‘I don’t blame you. He was by far the superior specimen.’

Cloud glanced down at his left, bound wrist. His engagement ring was missing. When had they removed that, he wondered?

‘Looking for this?’ inquired Hojo, holding the ring up in front of him. ‘I wanted Sephiroth to breed but you put a stop to that, didn’t you? Never mind, there are other ways, once we find him.’ He put the ring in his lab coat pocket.

‘He loved Genesis too...’ Cloud began, damned if he was going to take all the blame for Sephiroth’s lack of paternal ambitions.

‘Oh,yes, that red-headed pest,’ said Hojo in disdain. ‘I could have cured him, you know...Hollander’s failed experiment. Rhapsodos was inferior in every way. It was a simple cure too. Hollander was just too stupid to see it but I had no intention of helping him out.’

‘You mean you let Gen and Angeal degrade because of professional jealousy?’ asked Cloud, stunned at such callousness. Saving Sephiroth’s friends would have prevented this entire, futile tragedy.

Hojo seemed to consider it for a moment. ‘Yes, I did. That and the fact that it wasn’t worth my time trying to cure either of them.’

Cloud heard someone else came into the room.

‘Have you found him yet?’ asked Hojo.

‘No Professor,’ replied a male voice.

‘Keep looking.’ Hojo turned back to Cloud. ‘What did you do to my son, Strife?’ he asked.

‘Son?’ Cloud was feeling distinctly odd now, floaty and devoid of pain. It was really rather nice. Having to make conversation was annoying; he wanted to just be left in peace to enjoy the sensation.

‘Sephiroth...my son!’ Hojo snapped irritably.

‘He fell...’ said Cloud, feeling his eyes close slowly.

‘Where?’ pressed the scientist.

‘Down...’ and then Cloud sank into unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

Where was he?

For so long all he could remember were the sounds of his own screams until his voice was broken from the strain and was no more than a hoarse groan.

‘Zack?’ he croaked. Nothing.

Sometimes Zack was there, sometimes he wasn’t.

*******

Cloud? Was that his name? Yes. No it was Specimen CS 1. No, it was Clou...Str...something. He fell back into darkness.

*******

Sometimes Zack could just reach out and touch his fingers reassuringly with his own, straining against their bonds. Sometimes he couldn’t.

Sometimes Zack was there, sometimes he wasn’t.

Sometimes he was floating, lungs filled with something that burned, suspended.

He’d forgotten so much. His name....Cl....

Darkness.

*******

CRASH! A sound of something breaking. Glass!

He was falling. Something holding him. Arms.

‘Cloud! Cloud!....Spikey!!

Someone close by was talking. The muffled sounds of an urgent male voice reached him as though through cotton wool.

‘Spike! I need you to walk. Help me...c’mon! We’re getting out of here!’

Legs. Walk. Needed legs. He couldn’t feel them. The voice was familiar though, a distant memory.

‘Z...’ he tried to form a word but couldn’t.

The sound of a fight and then he was carried once more out into light and the long forgotten scent of fresh air, of grass and flowers reached him, of warmth and sunlight. Warm arms wrapped around him. Zack. He wanted to speak but couldn’t. Sleep....needed sleep.

*******

Travel. Movement...days, maybe weeks even. Light then dark, then light again. Day and night? He had no idea. Didn’t care. No pain, that was good. Always moving though. Being carried. Voices talking sometimes. Did he know them? He couldn’t remember.

‘Stay here, Spike, you’ll be safe.’ That voice again. Zack...yes! That was his name. Friend. Someone ruffled his hair.

He opened his eyes a fraction. A blurry familiar image was walking away. He lifted his arm...Zack! Don’t go...

Machine gun fire! He knew that sound. Heard it before. Again and Again it sounded, pounding into his brain, never seeming to end.

Then it stopped suddenly. A single, final shot echoed around the rocks. Then silence...terrible silence.

'Zack?' he whispered.

There was no reply. Instead he heard two sets of heavy footsteps approaching. They stopped in front of him.

'Is this the other specimen they're after?' asked a man.

'Yeah, I guess so,' replied the second.

Someone reached down and grabbed a handful of his hair, wrenching his head back.

'Do you want to do it or shall I?' asked the second man.

'Nah don't waste the bullets,' said the first man. 'He's half dead from mako poisoning anyway. He won't survive another day out here.'

Then he heard them march away. Truck engines started up and there sound of several military vehicles driving away.

It began to rain suddenly. Cool drops of water on his hot skin, turning the ground soft under his hands. He dragged himself through the soggy dirt towards a body, lying in the mud.

‘Zack?’ he said. It was his friend, bleeding from countless wounds, his blood mixing with the rain soaked earth into puddles around him.

‘For the both of us,’ rasped Zack.

‘Both of us?’ he asked.

‘You’re gonna live,’ said Zack. He reached up his hand and pulled Cloud's head down to his chest. ‘You’ll be my living legacy.’ His arm fell back into the mud and reached for the Buster sword beside him and handed it to Cloud. ‘My honour, my dreams, they’re yours now.’

‘I’m ...your living legacy?’

But Zack didn’t answer. He lay there, in the filthy mud, and his eyes closed slowly.

Zack was gone.

Cloud threw back his head and screamed at the sky, at the Gods, at the world for the man who had been there for him, protected him, saved him.

He knelt beside his friend for what seemed an age with a pain more savage than anything he’d ever felt before. ‘I won’t forget,’ he murmured.

Slowly, he struggled weakly to his feet. ‘Goodnight, Zack,’ he said softly, then turned to go.

The rain had stopped now. Somewhere in the distance he could see the familiar smoggy outline of Midgar across the vast wasteland. He had to reach it...there was a reason but he couldn’t remember it now. Had to get there though. It was important.

Cloud trudged away, leaving his friend, dragging the heavy Buster sword behind him, stumbling through the deadlands as a hot, parching sun came out from the scudding clouds.

He wasn’t sure how far he managed to walk, every step felt like dragging led weights. Then, too tired, weak and hungry to go on, he collapsed into the dirt. Strangely the respite felt good, to not be walking, to rest at last. Overhead he vaguely registered the sounds of birds of prey circling. He felt blissfully tired, as though he never wanted to wake up.

Living Legacy, that’s what Zack had said. Yes. He had to live, for his friend who had sacrificed himself for his freedom. With renewed intent, he tried to get to his feet but couldn’t. He knew then that he would die here, on this parched landscape, a mere twenty or so miles from Midgar. Why was it so important to go there...?

Vaguely, through the fog of his exhaustion, he heard it then; the faint, unmistakable sound of a motorbike approaching. It became louder and louder then stopped close to him. The engine was cut and he heard someone climb off, their boots crunching on the stony ground as they approached him.

A pair of scuffed leather boots came into focus and stopped in front of his eye line.