Actions

Work Header

The Key to Survival

Chapter Text

The key to survival

is the soul.

 

“Ma!” Cloud hollered, ducking into their small home from the snowy outdoors. He was ten now. Ten-years-old and still the shortest to be ten in all of Nibelheim. But his eyes glowed faintly whenever the world got just a bit too dark.

His mother wore an apron over her dress, cooking wolf stew in their cramped kitchen with her pale hair pulled up and out of her face, though her spiky bangs occasionally got in the way, making her huff in annoyance.

“What is it, Cloud? Don’t yell,” she said, softly serious.

“I’ve got the money for dinner this week, unless you want more wolf?”

Agatha Strife closed her eyes for a moment and wondered, not for the first time, how her ten-year-old could successfully hunt monsters when life demanded it. Cloud, she knew, rarely made much sense.

“The money," she said. "I’m so sick of wolf.”

“Can’t complain too much, in this cold,” Cloud said, kicking off his boots by the front door and closing it behind him. “But I’m sick of it, too.”

“You’re eleven tomorrow,” said his mother, absently stirring the bubbling stew.

Cloud grunted and removed his winter-coat, placing it neatly on the rack by the door. He approached his mother and pushed up the sleeves of his sweater to the elbows. He bared his forearms for her inspection.

She gave them a cursory glance.

“Blank as ever,” Cloud said, and pulled his sleeves back down. He walked away, towards the living room. “I know it worries you, but I don’t mind not having the marks. I’m not a psychopath or anything. I just don't have a soulmate. Big deal.”

Agatha stared the faded red lines scrawled across her own right arm: Dagrun. Cloud’s father and her own soulmate. A man long lost to unfortunate circumstances.

“They don’t normally show up past ten,” she said, still staring at her own arm.

“I don’t need a soulmate, Ma.”

She narrowed her eyes at the back of Cloud’s head.

“If you say so.”

 


 

“How long have you had it?” Genesis asked, staring at the name on Sephiroth’s bare arm.

 “I was born with it.”

 Angeal, holding Genesis’s hand, commented, “It’s an odd name.”

 Sephiroth shrugged. “To Hojo, it means I am a failure. Having a second half means I am not whole on my own."

A pregnant pause.

“Probably a good thing then. Can’t imagine how things would’ve turned out if Hojo had kept you,” said Genesis.

Sephiroth, who had been discarded into Hollander’s care at the tender age of seven, couldn’t help but agree.

Angeal was thinking. “I’ve never heard of anyone getting one before birth. Not before the age of five.”

Sephiroth, who was now fifteen, pulled his shirt-sleeve back down.

“I’m going to become the highest ranking officer in Shinra. I’ll prove Hojo wrong for calling me a failure, and then I’m going to find my soulmate and flaunt him in that mad scientist’s ugly face.”

Both Genesis and Angel were grinning, but it was Genesis who prodded, “Him? I think that name could both ways.”

“No,” Sephiroth disagreed and retrieved his newly acquired sword from nearby.

Genesis eyed it and snorted.

“There’s no way you can use that thing in battle. It’s longer than you are tall. Impossible.”

Sephiroth gave Masamune a few awkward swings and smiled, shark-like, at his friends.

“I’ll prove you wrong, too.”

 


 

Cloud was fourteen and hauling another wolf carcass down a mountain trail. There was a dead dragon further up, too, but he knew better than to push his luck. He wasn’t a village favorite by any means. He didn’t need to arouse more suspicion. He was already getting tired of waiting for Gaia’s inevitable sign—a sign for him to act. The strength was already within him. He could feel it in his limbs and belly. He knew his eyes had a subtle glow that quickened with his moods. He didn’t have a sword, but he’d been training alone in the woods for years. There was an entire mountainside, now leveled, that could attest to his strength.

His left arm itched; he scratched at it absently.

He reached the village, traded the butcher a wolf carcass for a few gil, went to the store, picked up a gallon of milk to take home, and scratched his arm, again and again. It itched so fiercely that by the time he got home his arm welted up from all the scratching.

His mother was cooking supper, but when she saw him scratching, she put down the soup ladle and approached.

“Your arm, Cloud?”

“I don’t know what I must’ve stumbled into. Could be a rash, I guess,” he said, quite irritated by all the itching. When she gestured, he offered his bare arm, the left one. Agatha was smiling as she traced the welts rising on his skin.

“I’ve never heard of it happening so late,” she said with genuine warmth.

Cloud stiffened.

“What are you talking about?”

“Don’t scratch. I have a cream. It’ll be clear by morning.” Agatha strayed off to the bathroom, to the medicine cabinet, to retrieve the itching cream.

Cloud blinked several times, like an owl, and did so again when she returned and began to treat his arm.

“This is…a soulmark?”

His mother smiled sweetly.

“Someone left-handed, too. How unusual you are, my love.”

Cloud didn’t sleep that night. Instead he watched his own skin, as the swelling sunk and the letters rose, in swooping black, one-by-one, until a name was spelled out across his left arm, and didn’t that make sense? The left arm. Of course.

When the sun rose, Cloud contemplated throwing himself into the reactor, for surely this had to be some kind of nightmare.

 


 

 Genesis and Angeal, shameless as ever, were curled up together on the living room floor, naked as babes and clearly having just enjoyed one another.

Sephiroth, used to their antics, but not quite these antics, merely stepped around them. It wasn’t quite so hard to hide his shock at seeing them post-coital, but this had been a first for them, hadn’t it?

“Gen is still a bit underage,” he told them, somewhat disapprovingly. They were soulmates though, so did it really matter? Genesis was a month shy of 18. Angeal was 19 now. Sephiroth was 18 himself and a Commander for Shinra, but still without a soulmate of his own. He tried to pretend it didn’t bother him to see his friends so happy.

“You could join us, you know,” Angeal was the one to offer, and Sephiroth, truly shocked, froze in his tracks.

“We’ve talked about it,” Genesis said. “It’s fine.”

Sephiroth was equally touched and offended.

“I don’t need your pity,” he said, perhaps too quickly, “but thank you for offering.”

Genesis and Angeal accepted this and returned their attentions to each other. Sephiroth retreated to his room, shut the door, and tried not to regret it.

 


 

Agatha was no longer pleased.

“That can’t be right,” she said, reading the name on her son’s arm. Cloud’s expression was bitter.

“I should’ve known,” Cloud said, cryptic as ever.

Agatha lost it. “Why? Why should you have known something like this? You make all of these odd comments and kill wolves in the woods. When that one’s name appears on your arm, you say that? Cloud, why?”

Cloud bowed her head. “It’s what I deserve.”

She slapped him, hard. Cloud rocked in place, more shocked than hurt.

No. Not my son! You deserve better.”

Cloud, cheek stinging, eyes aglow, offered his mother a crooked grin. “Better than Sephiroth? He’s famous, wealthy, and in the military.”

“You deserve better than the death and destruction that Shinra brings.”

“But I have things to do. The Planet told me. I know how to stop a catastrophe. I have to do it…even if it means doing it this way.” He stared at his own arm and, to his mother’s shock, blushed brightly.

Agatha, suddenly disgusted with her own actions, backtracked.

“He is rather pretty,” she said, reaching out to run her fingertips over Cloud’s red cheek. “They say his voice is gorgeous, and he’s always strutting around in leather. I can’t get over that hair though. All gray. Like an old man.”

“He’s not that old, Ma,” Cloud protested halfheartedly and still red-faced. “And I…I’ve always liked it. His hair. The leather. His voice.”

She raised a brow at that last bit. “You always know more than you should.”

Cloud met her eyes and said, “I always wanted him. I've just never had the chance to...save him from Shinra and Hojo and Jenova...and himself.” 

“How are you going to tell him?” his mother asked. “He’s not going to be easy to reach.”

Cloud glanced over at the phone. The landline.

“It’ll cost a fortune to make that call. Do you really think they’ll let you talk to him?”

Cloud smiled.

“Watch me.”

 


 

Sephiroth was going through some paperwork on his computer when the two-way from his secretary buzzed to life.

“General, sir?”

“Yes, Samantha?”

“There’s a…well, a call for you on the line.”

“Who is it?” His mind was already compiling a list of possible candidates, but his expectations were quickly foiled.

“An assistant of Dr. Hojo, I’m afraid. From the Science Department.”

Sephiroth suppressed a shudder and picked up the phone, simultaneously cutting off the speaker to the front desk.

“Commander Sephiroth speaking.”

“Huh, it worked.”

Sephiroth frowned. The caller was obviously male. Young. A child? Why was a child calling him?

“If this is prank,” he growled.

“It’s not. I’m uh…well.”

Uncertainty. Embarrassment. Child.

“Speak or hang up. I have better things to do than argue with children.”

“I’m fourteen,” the boy growled into Sephiroth’s ear. “And I have information pertaining to you, asshole. I’m not actually from the Science Department.”

“Then why are you calling me? Who are you? Who do you work for?”

“I’m fourteen,” the young man repeated. “I work for no one. I hunt wolves in the mountains to feed my Mom, for Gaia’s sake!” After a breathy pause, he added, “And I’m from Nibelheim.”

Mountains. Cold. Reactor. Useless information.

“Why are you calling me?”

“It’s…arg! Hush, Ma! Stop rushing me! I’m trying, okay? I’ll tell him! Jeez!”

Sephiroth was glaring at the phone. In the background, he could hear a woman’s voice saying something indistinguishable through the static.

“I’m going to hang up,” Sephiroth threatened.

“No! Wait! Please?” The young man panicking now. “I just…oh hell. My name is Cloud.”

Cloud? Cloud!

Sephiroth nearly dropped the phone. His sharply drawn breath must’ve been audible.

“Yeah…so, there,” said Cloud, sounding nervous. “Your name popped up on my arm yesterday.”

Sephiroth was shaking.

“I’ll...send a chopper?” Gaia, he sounded like an idiot, but his soulmate was real. He was real! And fourteen! Too young!

“Oh Gaia, no. I get motion sickness. Look, I’ll come to you, alright? To Midgar. I’ve been saving up for a bike anyway. Just um, make sure they let me in at the door?”

“What do you look like?” Sephiroth asked eagerly, then backtracked. “For the lobby attendants. I’ll need to know.”

“Blond spiky hair, blue eyes. Trust me. I’m hard to miss.”

There was a long, drawn out pause.

“Um, S-Sephiroth? Are you alright over there?”

“I’m in shock probably.”

Cloud, to his delight, laughed, and Sephiroth reveled in that sound.

“You sound amazing,” Sephiroth whispered, half to himself.

Oh,” Cloud said. “Um, wow. Okay. I don’t really know what to do with that information right now, so…”

“Just get here,” Sephiroth demanded.

“As fast as I can,” Cloud promised.

 


 

6 days and 17 hours later, Sephiroth was holed up in his office, watching the clock with his two friends. He hadn’t told them about Cloud, but they knew something was up.

“You haven’t left the building in a solid week,” Genesis accused. “You’re usually so eager to get out of here. What the hell is wrong with you?”

“We’re worried, Sephiroth,” Angeal said.

Sephiroth opened his mouth to snap at them, but he was interrupted by his desk phone. He snatched it up a mere nanosecond into the first ring.

“Mr. Sephiroth? There’s a young man in the lobby to see you. Says he’s from Nibel-“

“I’m coming. Don’t let him leave!” Sephiroth practically snarled. He threw the phone down and shot around his desk to the office door. He was through it and down the hall before Genesis or Angeal could really register what had just happened. They both stared at the office door, where it now hung from the hinges in tatters.

“Angeal?”

“Yes, Genesis?”

“Did our dear friend just rip off his own door to get to the elevator?”

“Yes, Genesis. I’m frankly more surprised that he didn’t just jump out the window. What the hell do you think is going on?”

Genesis turned to leave the office. “I don’t know, but I’m sure it will be entertaining.

Chapter Text

The key to happiness

is the truth.  

 

There was a young man standing in Shinra’s lobby who stuck out like a sore thumb, and it wasn’t only because of his absurdly spiky hair. The lobby was always cluttered with passing SOLDIERs and infantrymen, Turks and politicians in three-piece suits, and business ladies in all their finery.

However, Cloud was wearing a thin black sweater, which he had torn the sleeves off of, and a pair of well-worn black jeans and leather riding boots. There was a cloth wound around his left forearm, concealing his soul-mark. His skin was chapped and pale—a cold pallor touched by a long ride on a motorcycle. He was muscular in a wiry, underfed kind of way.

He’s small, was Sephiroth’s initial thought, and then Cloud turned around, as if by instinct, and their eyes met. Mako green met sky blue, and Sephiroth’s heart was very suddenly in his throat.

“What took you?” he said far more gruffly than he intended to. Only a lifetime of military training kept him from fidgeting unnecessarily with his hands.

“The bike broke down about half way through the trip. I had to get it repaired. It slowed me down a lot,” drawled Cloud, and Sephiroth soaked in his Nibel accent with poorly-disguised glee.

They were drawing attention. Others in the lobby were trying to eavesdrop, and they weren’t being very subtle about it. Why was Sephiroth talking to some poor kid? They gossiped far too loudly, and Cloud looked uncomfortable under their scrutiny. 

“Are you hungry?” Sephiroth asked, hoping Cloud would accept the invitation for what it was: an escape from prying eyes.

“Yeah,” Cloud said, and with a small smile. “Hungry and broke. I practically had to beg that mechanic to fix my bike.”

“Let’s go eat somewhere. My treat.”

Cloud was relieved.

“Okay.”

 


 

Sephiroth was gone most evenings. Nowadays, his two dear friends couldn’t pin him down. When he returned from missions, Sephiroth practically vanished from the Shinra building. Genesis and Angeal were left with half-baked rumors, curiosity, and one very tight-lipped General Select.

“How did you manage that damn rank already?” Genesis was griping at him one afternoon. He, Angeal, and Sephiroth were sitting together at their usual seats in the SOLDIER cafeteria. 

“There’s high demand and no one else to fill the limited positions. Why are you complaining? You’re filling my Commander spot,” Sephiroth said.

Genesis glowered at his lunch, while Angeal piped in, “Still doesn’t explain where exactly you keep disappearing to all the time.”

Sephiroth feigned disinterest. “Meetings with various people for the position. That’s all. It’s just work.”

“I’ve talked to Lazard, Heidegger, all of the bigwigs,” Genesis growled. “There are no meetings. Where are you really going?”

Sephiroth shrugged. “It’s classified.”

“From your SIC? Really? Don’t give me that shit, Sephiroth!”

“Genesis,” Angeal warned. “Lower your tone.”

Genesis tore a chunk out of a bread-roll and chucked it at Sephiroth’s head. This earned a hysterical laugh from a few Second Class bystanders. Sephiroth offered them his best glare and mentally tucked away their names for future punishment.

“You can tell us, if something’s wrong, Sephiroth,” Angeal then said genuinely. “We are your friends.”

“There’s nothing wrong,” Sephiroth said flatly, and then jumped a little as his PHS started to ring. He pulled it from his pocket, glanced at the caller ID, and then flipped the phone up to his ear. 

“I’m eating.”

Angeal and Genesis gawked. Sephiroth never let a call interrupt a meal. In fact, neither of them had ever even known him to even leave the ringer on. He claimed the sound was irritating.

“I can call back later,” was the tinny reply. Both Angeal and Genesis were enhanced enough to hear the caller’s speech. It wasn’t a voice either of them recognized.

“No, it’s fine. Is something wrong?”

I’m probably about half way home. This is the only place I’ve had signal. Figured I’d let you know.”

“Any issues so far?”

No, the new bike is perfect.”

Sephiroth smiled slightly.

Well, I’d better get going.”

“Be careful.”

I will.”

Sephiroth hung up and continued eating his lunch with slightly less enthusiasm.

“What was that?!” Genesis practically shrieked.

“Or rather who?” Angeal queried.

“Don’t worry about it,” Sephiroth said around a sigh. “I’m going to my office. I’ve got work to do.”

 


 

When he turned fifteen, Cloud got a call on the cellphone that Sephiroth had procured for him when they first met.

Untraceable and completely free,” Sephiroth had said back on that first day, which had been perhaps slightly more practical than the military-grade motorcycle that he had bought Cloud not an hour later.

“Is that your sugar daddy again?” Tifa asked with a smirk. They were sitting on the water tower, as they often did on most afternoons.

“Shut up, Tifa,” Cloud said and answered the phone.

I’ll be there in two hours,” Sephiroth said before Cloud could pose a greeting.

 “How exactly?”

 “I got a bike.”

Cloud glanced at Tifa, who was doing a bad job of pretending not to listen. “I hope you’re planning on being inconspicuous.”

I’ve possibly found the ugliest hooded-coat in all of Gaia. The disguise has worked so far. I’ll hide the bike a few miles out of town and hike in.”

Cloud laughed.

Tell your mother? I wanted to warn you sooner, but I didn’t have time.” Sephiroth sounded nervous. “That woman terrifies me, you know.”

“Aw, it’s just Ma. You’ve talked to her plenty.”

Only on the phone. She made threats, I endured them for fear of my life.”

Cloud laughed again, and Tifa watched him with raised brows.

“Well, I don’t know how much I can do in the way of warning. She’s kicked me out of the house for the morning. Probably cooking for the occasion,” Cloud explained.

“I’ll go tell her!” Tifa declared, standing up suddenly and slipping a bit on the icy roof. She titled her head to one side: the perfect false depiction of innocent curiosity. “What am I telling her exactly?”

That’s Tifa, right?” Sephiroth asked darkly.

Cloud sighed, now well acquainted with the fact that his soulmate was something of a jealous bastard. Seeing as it was Sephiroth, both as he remembered from another life and knew now, he really shouldn't be surprised.

“Yes. Stop growling at me. Tifa, tell Ma that my sugar daddy is coming to visit.”

Tifa burst out laughing and headed off to share the news.

Sugar daddy?”

“You’re the one who keeps buying me shit.”

You like it.

Cloud chuckled. “Yeah, I don’t mind so much. But listen, Seph.”

Hm? What’s wrong?”

“I think I have to tell you a bunch of stuff, about…well you.”

“Are you referring to the suspicious hints surrounding my life that you’ve been making for the past year? The improbable, impossible things that you inexplicably seem to know? Like the fact that my two best friends are degrading because of the dumbass scientists who experimented on us as children? That sort of thing?”

Cloud swallowed. “Yeah, that sort of thing.”

Whatever you have to tell me, I will believe you. I trust you.”

“You promise? Because you’re going to think I’m completely insane, and I wouldn’t blame you for that.”

“Cloud,” Sephiroth said around a chuckle, “you make more sense than anything else in my life, including my overbearing friends. I’ve learned more from you about myself than I had ever hoped to learn at all.”

“That’s deep.”

How many years now until you’re legal?

Cloud was happy that Tifa wasn’t around to see him blush.

“Three.”

Ugh.”

You haven’t even seen me since I left Shinra that day. It's been what? A year? I could be ugly and fat for all you know.”

You could eat a dragon and you’d still be skinny as hell.

“Hey! It’s harder to get food out here, and I don’t stay indoors much.”

Cloud, your skinny ass is gorgeous. That’s why I couldn’t let you stay with me in Midgar. I would’ve certainly done something illegal. My stupid fans also probably would’ve murdered you by now, which would have been quite unfortunate. I would have had to go on a killing spree, before even getting to mourn you properly.”

Cloud’s face was bright red. A year ago, he would’ve never thought he’d have Sephiroth saying such things about himself. Now, he couldn’t seem to get the man to stop. The real kicker was that Sephiroth apparently didn’t talk this way to anyone else. Just Cloud. He was only every truly himself for Cloud. It was still startling.

“You barely knew me then. Even now, it’s just the phone calls. I might be completely different when you’re not around.”

Hm, I don’t care about that. This just means that I get the best version of you.

Cloud cracked a grin.

“I think I love you.”

You do. There is no ‘think’ about it.”

“You’re such an asshole.”

No apparently I’m your sugar daddy.”

“Not for much longer, if you don’t get here soon.”

Or soon after, if your mother murders me for molesting her son.”

“Is that a big possibility?”

Don’t tempt me, Cloud.”

“I make it my job to tempt you.”

Sephiroth laughed. “I’ll see you soon. I need to get moving, if I’m ever going to make it that far.”

Cloud smiled.

“See you soon.”

Chapter Text

The key to romance

is mutual respect.

 

Cloud took a seat in General Sephiroth’s desk chair. And wiggled.

“I think your ass has fucked up this chair,” Cloud announced. “It sucks.”

“I’d happily spend less time in it, had I a choice,” said Sephiroth. He was sprawled across the small sofa across from the desk in the full leather get-up, though his clothes were shredded and there was quite a bit of blood spattered across his person. Not his own blood, of course, but blood all the same.

“You always have a choice,” Cloud said gently, then eagerly began prodding Sephiroth’s computer for entertainment.

“You’re not supposed to be on there,” said the General without looking up.

“I guessed your password this morning. There was nothing else to do while I waited for you to show up.”

“Had I known you were visiting, I would’ve planned to be here.”

“It was supposed to be a surprise, dummy. Less work for you. You’re already exhausted as it is.”

“If you join SOLDIER, then you’d have a good reason to stay here. I could see you more often.”

“Counter-productive,” Cloud stated flatly. “I can’t run around fixing the planet’s issues with all of Shinra breathing down my neck. They’re half the cause of those problems anyway.”

“Should I quit?”

Cloud stopped scrolling through a score of highly classified files and looked up. “Would you?”

Yes.”

Cloud got up and walked across the room to the couch and haphazardly draped himself across Sephiroth’s body.

“Ew. Get off. I’m sweaty,” the man protested.

“Nah, I want to cuddle.”

“Why?”

Cloud pressed his face against Sephiroth’s chest. “Because you’re a fucking romantic.”

Sephiroth was miffed. “Did you think I wouldn’t quit for you?” He sounded offended.

“Most people, even normal people, wouldn’t. No.”

Sephiroth huffed and wrapped his arms around Cloud, who announced: “You smell like a dead animal.”

“Thank you. I did tell you to get off. It’s too late now.”

“Let’s go take a shower.”

Sephiroth rolled his eyes. “You are going to get me in trouble. I’m still trying to figure out how you got into my office without anyone knowing.”

“Mm, it’s a secret.”

“You smell like dust and mold. It can’t be that big a secret.”

Thank you,” Cloud mocked, propping himself up on his elbows. “I want to see you naked. Can we do that?”

Sephiroth groaned. “No.”

“Mentally, I’m like forty. It’s not creepy.”

“No, Cloud. I don’t care. You don’t look forty, and I’m the only who understands that you aren’t technically a teenager.”

Cloud collapsed messily back onto Sephiroth. “Spoilsport. I want sex. I have the body of a teenager. Soooo many hormones.”

“So go have sex with someone your own physical age.”

“Ew, no. I want sex with you, idiot, not anyone else.”

Sephiroth ran a gloved-hand through Cloud’s messy hair. “I appreciate that, you know. But you could, if you wanted to. I’ll still wait.”

Cloud actually snorted. “You’d murder anyone who so much as made a pass at me. Don’t lie.”

Sephiroth didn’t deny the fact, but after a long moment of thoughtful silence, he did come up with an alternative.

“Let’s fight," he suggested.

“Spar?”

“We haven’t before. You said you could beat me.”

Cloud grunted affirmation. “Killed you. Three times.” He coiled his fingers in his soulmate’s hair. “I don’t want to do that again.”

“You won’t. I said a spar, not a death match.”

“Sounds fun, but I don’t have a sword. I’m not fighting you with a SOLDIER practice sword. You’d slaughter me.”

“We can find you a good sword.”

“And I’m supposed to be a secret, right? I’m sorry, but I fought you once after Meteor and you threw half the city at me.”

“I’m not going to throw buildings at you, Cloud.”

Cloud looked skeptical, hopeful, and then disappointed.

“No. Someone’s bound to notice us fighting. It’s not worth the risk.”

The General sighed. “Then what the hell are we supposed to do?”

“Monopoly?”

 


 

Cloud sat in the valley of packaging paper and stared at the jigsaw masterpiece that was First Tsurugi with wide, worried eyes.

“He has GOT to stop buying me things,” he said, torn between gratitude and an immense feeling of inferiority.

“Oh, hush, Cloud,” said Agatha cheerfully, “that idiot loves you with all his heart.”

“Yeah, and the very depths of his bank account,” her son muttered, running his fingertips along the length of the assembled blade.

“So what’s the occasion?”

Cloud gave his mother a dead-eyed look and recited the two words that had been scrawled on the back of a receipt and tucked behind the mailing label of Tsurugi’s packaging.

“Happy Tuesday.”

Agatha burst out laughing.

“It’s not funny, Ma! I’m starting to feel inadequate. What’s going to happen when everyone finds out that I’m The General Sephiroth’s fucking soulmate? How the fuck are people going to react to this.” He gestured around the room and to the rather impressive amount of stuff that they had been gifted from Sephiroth over the past few years.

“Language, Cloud. And somehow, I doubt Sephiroth cares what everyone thinks.”

Cloud grimaced. “Well I do, and I’ve never been very good at dealing with that sort of thing.”

“So get him a present. Even the odds.”

“What on Gaia could he possibly want? He can afford to buy anything.”

“Apparently,” Agatha said, fighting a snicker, and Cloud glared at her.

“You’re not helping.” He slumped. “It’s bad enough that you took to him so quickly. He was absolutely horrified of you during that first year. It was hilarious. I swear he talks to you now more than he does me.”

“I adore that man,” Agatha said, “because he adores you.” She patted her son on the head. He shook her off.

Ma.

She grinned. “Alright, alright. Well goodness, Cloud. I’m sure you could give Sephiroth a damn shoestring and he’d tie it to his ridiculous sword and boast to everyone about how pretty it is. It’s the intent, that counts.”

“I know, Ma. I’m not twelve. I don’t need life lessons, at the moment.”

She snorted. “Right. Well, I’ll leave that one alone, and give you a real suggestion.” At his hopeful look, she continued, “Don’t you keep mementos from all the beasts you kill in the wild?”

Cloud looked momentarily dumbstruck, and then he grinned triumphantly.

“You’re a genius, Ma.”

 


 

Sephiroth never went through his mail. That was one of Samantha’s, his secretary’s, many responsibilities. She picked out the important bits and sent the fanmail to be burned somewhere, or perhaps stored, or auctioned. Sephiroth didn’t really know, but he liked to imagine the most ridiculous scenarios for the final destination of the sometimes-terrifying-fanmail.

Samantha was, however, informed that any mail from Nibelheim was to be brought directly to the General immediately upon arrival. If he wasn’t in Headquarters, he was to be contacted on the emergency frequencies. Samantha didn’t question this, for she was far too aware of the man’s eccentricities to question anything anymore. He wasn’t like, freakishly out-there, but the man certainly had a few subtle oddities that she didn’t quite know how to process. So when the packages arrived from the Strifes, she went through the correct channels and ended up sitting in a Comms room with a couple of Turks.

“Yo, General!” Reno practically shouted through a headset. Samantha sat, quite reluctantly, next to him.

Through a wall of static, they heard the man reply: “Speaking.”

“Your hot secretary says to tell you that you’ve got mail.”

There was short pause. “Understood. Tell Samantha to lock it up in my office. No one is to enter on pain of death.”

“Roger that, sir,” Reno replied, then offered Samantha a winning smile. “On pain of death, yo? Just what’s so important about that mail?” He waggled his eyebrows.

“I don’t know,” she said shortly, clearly unimpressed, “but I wouldn’t stake my life on it either way.”

 


 

Ten hours after the secretary contacted Sephiroth, he appeared in Shinra headquarters without warning. Samantha was at her desk, organizing some files, half of which she dropped upon seeing him.

“Good evening, Ms. Hart.”

“Good evening, General Sephiroth.” She took a second to collect herself, before continuing, “Mail is on your desk. Sir, weren’t you in Wutai?”

Sephiroth made a noncommittal noise and disappeared into his office.

“Never boring,” Samantha muttered, and began to clean up the files she’d dropped.

 


 

Just outside of Kalm, a band of would-be terrorists were waiting to meet with Shinra’s general for an ultimatum. Everyone knew that the meeting would likely end in bloodshed, but that was far from anyone’s mind when Sephiroth stepped off of the chopper and into the hot zone.

“About time you showed up,” Genesis snapped, and then paused. “What are you wearing? It’s…grotesque.”

Around Sephiroth’s neck was a leather cord lined with…well, teeth. Monster teeth, talons, claws, small bones, scales, and what looked suspiciously like an eyeball. Somehow it made the esteemed General looked about ten times more imposing than usual. Even Angeal was stunned.

“Sephiroth, that’s um…why are you wearing that?”

The man in question smirked and ran the words of Cloud’s letter through his mind one more time. He had it tucked into a pocket for safekeeping. Cloud never really had the need to write him letters, since they had phones, but this…this had been a first.

 

Dear Idiot,

I love you, but you buy me too much shit. Given, it’s good shit—shit that I actually like, but it seems really unfair that I’ve never gotten you anything in return. So, if you wish to continue to buy me shit, then I give you this: a conglomeration of monster mementos that I’ve been collecting since I was six, strung up like a fancy noose for your convenience. I will burn every gift you send me from here on unless you wear this atrocious necklace of horrific romance into every future battle that dares draw you forth. Also, the yellow shoestring is from Ma. It was a joke. Please don’t actually wear it.

Love,

C. S.

 

The next gift Cloud received in the mail was a Midgar newspaper clipping of General Sephiroth walking purposefully around town in full battle-gear, wearing the most terrifying accessory known to man.

Also in the package was a fashionable magazine flaunting sleeker replicas of the necklace, draped across the throats of supermodels and actors. Apparently, the “monster necklace” was a new trend that even the SOLDIERs were taking up.

Fortunately, what no one had noticed in the newspaper photos, other than Cloud himself and his mother, was the neon shoestring tied to Masamune’s hilt.

Chapter Text

The key to any mystery
is a single secret.

 

There was a strange woman standing on the visitor’s side of Samantha’s desk—a woman with pale hair and a friendly, open expression. She wore a gray pantsuit that looked a bit worn, in a shade that was slightly outdated. She looked familiar, but the secretary couldn’t place where she’d seen the woman before. And so began the first conversation in a series of events that would leave Samantha even more miffed about her boss.

“What can I help you with, ma’am? Are you lost?”

To Samantha’s surprise, the woman chuckled.

“No, miss. I’m not lost. I know exactly where I am. I’m here to visit the General.”

“I see.” The woman's accent was peculiar, and she couldn't quite place it. Samantha pretended to shuffle some papers. “What’s your business with General Sephiroth? Do you have an appointment?”

“No, and I doubt I’ll need one. He’ll see me.”

Samantha forced a smile. “While that may be true, I’m afraid there’s not much I can do for you. General Sephiroth is attending business.” In a meeting with several Department Heads. “The General also has an important deadline to meet this evening so I know he’ll be busy in his office for several hours at least.” Which would turn him into a great grump for several hours. He hated all-nighters and consumed copious amounts of coffee to endure them: coffee which his secretary was acquired to fetch. There was a good reason why Samantha didn’t have a social life outside of Shinra. Sephiroth worked her to death.

“He’ll see me,” the woman repeated certainly. “I’m family, after all.”

This gave Samantha a shock. “F-family?”

Did Sephiroth have family?

“Don’t worry, love. I’ll just take a seat over here and wait for a bit.”

And with that, the strange woman plopped herself unceremoniously into a plastic chair, crossed her legs, and waited patiently.

For a grand total of seventeen minutes.

Samantha spent all the time up to that moment wondering how this odd lady had actually bypassed all the security protocols to even get to the General’s office.

And then the woman whipped out a cellphone and dialed a number. The secretary eavesdropped on the following conversation unashamedly.

“Oh, you answered!” said the woman, sounding pleased. “I heard you were busy.”

A pause. Samantha tensed up, immediately suspicious about the call’s recipient.

“I decided to visit you.”

Samantha dearly wished she could hear the other end of the conversation. Was it her boss? And if so, how did this crazy lady have The General’s number?

“Yes, I’m here.” The lady observed her nails, then said, “no, it’s just me, I’m afraid.”

A pause.

“Well, aren’t you sweet, and don’t worry. He’s fine. I just got a bit lonely.”

Another pause.

“Oh, you don’t have to do that. I can wait.”

Pause.

“Well…if you insist. I’ll see you soon then?”

Pause.

“Thank you, love. Goodbye.”

The woman hung up, and not five minutes later, General Sephiroth walked in from the hall, confirming Samantha’s suspicions. This crazy lady had her boss in check.

“Agatha!” Sephiroth said, sound slightly breathless, as if he’d rushed to get there—as if he could even get breathless. His expression was boyishly pleased. He was smiling, which Samantha observed this with mild horror. She had never seen a genuine smile on his face before, and it looked strange. The closest Sephiroth ever got to smiling were those sort of evil little smirks he sometimes developed in the presence of Commander Rhapsodos and Commander Hewley, but that was it. None of this innocent, adoring shit.

As Sephiroth pulled the woman into a fond, yet brief, embrace, Samantha was forced to reassess the situation. The secretary came to several conclusions: the sanest being that the woman was Sephiroth’s long lost aunt and the craziest being that she was his secret sugar momma. But this lady was at least 15 years older than Sephiroth, and Samantha refused to accept that The General had fallen for some old, crazy bat.

“You’ve met my secretary?” Sephiroth asked the mysterious Agatha, as if he were eager to show off for her. “Her name is Samantha. She holds the record so far.”

“For what?” asked Agatha.

“Not getting fired, quitting, or mysteriously vanishing.”

Agatha cackled, making Sephiroth’s odd little smile curl into a full-fledged grin. It was gorgeous, and Samantha was too shocked by it to get properly offended over the fact her boss and his…aunt or something were laughing at her.

“I’m sorry, Samantha,” said Agatha, wiping tears from the corners her of eyes, and then doing something even more absurd than making The General smile like a schoolboy. She slapped Sephiroth’s shoulder playfully and said, “This idiot’s got the worst sense of humor.”

“I thought you appreciated my sense of humor.”

“It’s not me who readily encourages you, if you’ll recall.”

Sephiroth’s grin softened at this. Samantha saw the red in his cheeks and nearly died on the spot. General Sephiroth was blushing.

“Have you eaten yet?” he asked, trying to change the subject. Agatha, bless her, let him.

“Not a thing.”

Sephiroth held out his arm. “We’ll eat in the cafeteria. I promise they won’t charge you a gil. I’ll take you somewhere better tomorrow.”

“General, sir!” Samantha piped in urgently.

His glowing eyes honed in on her, and his response was patient and polite, which was a far cry from the usual gruffness he responded with when questioned. Samantha suspected his guest had something to do with it.

“Yes?” he said, all restraint.

“You have a deadline on those papers from the Science Department this evening.”

His expression was very briefly considering, and then, “Professor Hojo can go play in traffic. I’ll read those contracts in the morning. Go home. You get the evening off.”

“I…what?” “

He rose one rather threatening eyebrow.

Yes, sir.”

 


 

Agatha sat next to Sephiroth in the SOLDIER cafeteria, chatting amiably and picking at their Shinra-ordered dinners. Across from them was Genesis and Angeal, both wearing gobsmacked expressions.

"So you saved her from a dragon in Nibelheim on a mission a few years ago?" Angeal asked with a frown. "And you remained in contact, because..."

"I enjoy talking to her," Sephiroth stated for the third time.

"No offense," said Genesis, "but this is weird. Even for you, Seph."

"No weirder than Angeal taking on a student," Sephiroth said flatly.

Genesis pouted fiercely. "We're not talking about Zack Fair."

"Clearly you and Angeal have argued about him at least once today."

"Sephiroth," said Angeal. "Drop it."

"Yes, drop it, dear," Agatha chastised. "These are your best friends, right? Don't antagonize them on my account."

"I don't understand. What are you doing here, Miss Strife? Nibelheim is quite out of the way," Genesis remarked.

Agatha shrugged. "I thought a visit was due. After all, Sephiroth is like a son to me."

Sephiroth regarded his plate of food intensely. Genesis and Angeal knew that look, though they had rarely seen it before. Sephiroth was flattered by the comment. Moved. Even a bit embarrassed. Like a son and doting mother.

"Well, then!" Genesis said a bit too loudly. "Mama-Strife, apparently we're not getting rid of you easily-" Sephiroth glared at him "-so I have one very important question that you simply must answer, so that I may determine your true worth."

"'Mama-Strife?'" Agatha said, torn between amusement and indignity at both the nickname and trial, but then she squared her shoulders and leaned eagerly forward. "Alright, then, Commander. Hit me."

Sephiroth buried his face in his hands and groaned. He knew what was coming. Angeal actually chuckled a bit at the man's distress. He knew as well.

So Genesis asked, "When the war of the beasts brings about the world's end, what will happen?"

Agatha's smile was slow and knowing. She replied confidently, "The Goddess descends from the sky, and those who seek either redemption or forgiveness will find that there lies more beyond the veil than just a simple ending."

Genesis' jaw dropped, and Agatha radiated satisfaction. Angeal and Sephiroth turned their own dumbfounded expressions upon her.

"I greatly enjoy Loveless," she explained with a small shrug. "I've always wanted to see one of the plays."

"Miss Strife," Angeal said with wide eyes, "if I didn't already know that Genesis is my soulmate, I'd be worried."

"Oh Goddess!" Genesis crowed with delight, finally over his shock. He shot around their table to the empty seat to Agatha's left. Sephiroth, on her right, glowered at him as Genesis threw an arm around her small shoulders.

"You are my new favorite person!" the Commander said happily. "How long are you staying, Mama-Strife? I want to take you to a Loveless production."

Agatha frowned, finally a bit uncomfortable. "Well, I'd love to go to one, but I'm afraid I can't really afford it."

"Pssh! I said that I would take you, which means I'd happily pay for you to see a showing."

"Are the theaters very fashionable?"

"Only the richest and most powerful in all of Midgar dare attend," Genesis told her magnanimously.

She slumped a bit. "Well, that's out of the question then. I barely found clothes nice enough to wear into Shinra Headquarters, let alone wear to a high class production. And don't lie to me, General," she said as Sephiroth tried to protest, "I stick out like a sore thumb here. The look poor Samantha gave me earlier said it all."

Sephiroth looked cross. "Did she now?"

"Oh, don't you dare fire that poor girl! She's cute as a button and just trying to do her job. I know you give her a hard time."

Sephiroth looked away, saying nothing.

"Mama-Strife," Genesis peeped, hoping to win back Agatha's attention. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She knew that Sephiroth and Genesis had something of a rivalry going on, but she hadn't realized it would be this bad. She'd have to be careful not to unevenly divide her attention on them.

"Let me take you shopping tonight then. Please? I'll buy you a whole new wardrobe, and then we can show up all those idiots at the theater. It'll be glorious!"

She worried her bottom lip for a moment.

"Okay."

Sephiroth's head whipped around so fast that he blurred.

"Excuse me?" he said, clearly offended by something. "You'll let Genesis take you out shopping, but you won't accept any of the money I've sent you?"

Angeal was frowning again. At first he'd been making faces at the over-eager Genesis, then it was the impending fuss between Genesis and Sephiroth over Agatha's affection, but now he was worried for Sephiroth's very sanity.

"You've been sending her money?" Angeal asked and went ignored.

"I can take care of myself, Sephiroth. You don't need to butter me up. I already like you." She patted his cheek, which didn't at all soften his glare. Genesis was grinning over Agatha's shoulder, as if he'd won some great battle and was now eager to rub it in his friend's face.

"Why is he sending you money?" Angeal butted in again, this time catching Agatha's attention.

Agatha blinked a few times at the question and then turned a questioning look to Sephiroth.

"Would you care to explain?"

The atmosphere suddenly went a bit frigid.

"No," he snarled, sounding angry, but his expression was stricken with anxiety.

"It's nothing bad, Angeal," Agatha said, reaching out and patting the man's hand in a motherly sort of way. "He'll tell you when he's ready."

"When it's safe," Sephiroth hissed frantically.

Genesis gave them an odd look, but Angeal was somehow reassured. In fact, he too was now eyeing Agatha with something like affection. People weren't often so forward or so kind to the SOLDIER Firsts, especially not to the commissioned officers, and they all had so few friends.

"Okay, then."

 


 

Genesis and Agatha strutted down Loveless Avenue in their new kicks. Agatha looked particularly glamorous in her new dress and shoes. As they approached the theater, drawing quite a few scandalized expressions, Agatha asked Genesis a question that had been preying on her mind since their introduction the previous day.

"Genesis, why do you keep calling me Mama-Strife? Do you know my son or something?"

"You have a son?" Genesis said, miffed, and explained, "Sephiroth has never had any family, and you act a bit like I imagined a mother might, if he had one. He sees you that way, whether he realizes it or not. Thus, you are Mama-Strife, though Mama-Seph would probably work just as well. Your son is quite fortunate to have you, but I think that my friend is, too."

"Sephiroth's a bit strange at times," Agatha said with a soft smile, "but he really does have the kindest heart."

Genesis snorted. "Yes. If you get past the prickly exterior, he's actually quite nice. Not to mention horribly awkward, a total caffeine addict, and an obsessive bastard."

Agatha, thinking of Cloud, burst into a fit of giggles.

"You got that right!" she said, and squeezed his arm gently. "But you're quite the sweethear yourself, Genesis, once you get past the snark."

"Thank you...Agatha."

 


 

Five days had passed since Agatha's arrival at Shinra, and since then, she'd been spotted with the three most famous SOLDIER Firsts all over Midgar and had roused up quite a bit of speculation within the fanclub community. But on the fifth day, while the whole group was enjoying lunch together at an upper class cafe, Sephiroth got a phone call that would bring an end to her seemingly spontaneous visit.

"No work at the table," Angeal teased halfheartedly, as Sephiroth read the number off of his PHS.

"I wondered how long our peace would last," Genesis said unhappily. "Now watch, Agatha. Sephiroth does this thing sometimes where he disappears in all his free time--just him and that damn phone."

Agatha watched Sephiroth answer on the third ring, and then, before he could so much as utter a peep, she reached across the table and plucked the cellphone from his very hand. Genesis actually dropped his silverware at the display. Sephiroth was frozen in place, hand still at his ear, clutching nothing but air. Angeal rolled his eyes and took a sip of his steaming tea.

"Well, well, well," said Agatha crossly to the mysterious caller, surprising them all. "So you finally called him."

Sephiroth lowered his hand and stared blankly at his own cup of steaming tea, thinking long and hard about the Strifes and their inconceivable ability to manipulate him.

"Shit," he said to no one in particular. At Genesis' questioning look, he threw at glance at Agatha displaying affronted respect. "I've been used," he explained to his friends, which actually explained nothing at all.

SOLDIER enhancements meant that they could all hear the following conversation. Agatha, perfectly aware of this, as she had been warned by Sephiroth and Cloud on multiple occasions of superhuman SOLDIER abilities, shrugged and put the phone on speaker.

"Ma?" said Cloud in an utterly perplexed tone. "Why the hell do you have Sephiroth's phone?"

"I was ambushed," Sephiroth said aloud, knowing the phone would easily pick up his voice. "Tricked." He leveled at halfhearted glare at Mama-Strife. "Used."

"Don't be a baby," Agatha told him. "I was happy to have an excuse to visit you."

"You could've told me."

"Uh, hello? Would someone please tell me why my mother is in Midgar?"

Sephiroth sighed and asked, "How long have you been gone?" He wanted to ask: what the hell are you up to?

"A month now, I think?"

"A month," snarled Agatha, and Genesis flinched away from the rage in her voice. "A month and you haven't called me?"

"I told you I'd be gone a while. I thought you wouldn't mind."

"When will you be home?"

"Tomorrow. Probably. I've uh, well. Something has slowed me down a bit."

Sephiroth stiffened, and Agatha's face paled.

"You're hurt?" Sephiroth asked, obviously worried.

"A little? My right arm is a bit, uh, broken. I found an old friend, but I forgot about his, uh, pet."

Sephiroth didn't say anything. He was too busy glaring at nothing, as if lost in his own inner turmoil regarding this information.

"I'm coming home right away, sweetheart," Agatha said shakily.

"Ma, I'm fine. It's not that bad."

"No, I think she's right," Genesis chimed in. "Your mother's white as a sheet, and Sephiroth looks like he's contemplating homicide."

"Who the fuck are you?"

"Genesis," Sephiroth said very quietly, knowing that Cloud wasn't likely to take that bit of information very well.

Cloud inhaled sharply, a sound that they all clearly heard.

"Right," came the pissed-off response. "Sephiroth, get my mother back to Nibelheim."

He hung up.

"No offense, Mama-Strife, but your kid is a total mood-killer," Genesis complained and stood up.

"Where do you think you're going?" Angeal asked him.

"To escort Agatha to Nibelheim. Would you like to accompany me?"

Angeal glanced worriedly at Sephiroth. "No, I think I'll take damage control on this end, if you catch my drift."

Agatha set Sephiroth's phone on the table and gently patted his shoulder. He grimaced, but stood up to hug her goodbye. Genesis led her off to Shinra HQ to borrow a chopper. Meanwhile, Sephiroth sat back down and frowned at the table in the cafe.

"So," Angeal said, "her son sounds like a real piece of work. I know you'll miss her though. I hope her little plot didn't upset you too much. I gather that she was just worried about her son?"

"Apparently," Sephiroth said flatly.

"What I want to know," Angeal said around a sip of tea, "is why she knew that her son would call you sooner than he would his own mother? And why it is that she couldn't call him herself?"

"She doesn't like cell phones. Her own home has a landline, and it gets bad reception. He also discourages her from calling him when he's out working, so he doesn't get distracted. His job can sometimes be quite dangerous."

"That's suspicious. I wonder what it is that he does for a living."

Sephiroth said nothing to fill in that particular blank. He was thinking--worried that Angeal had already guessed, or at least was well on the way to guessing.

"Alright then," Angeal continued, "who is he to you? Why did he call you first?"

Sephiroth thought about it, and thought about it, and looked at his phone, and thought about it some more, and then he came to a decision.

"You have to keep this a secret," he said, giving his friend a sharp look.

Angeal nodded slowly. "I can do that. You know I can."

Sephiroth glanced around, oddly nervous, and added, "you can't tell Genesis, or mention it to Agatha, or...not anyone, Angeal."

"I swear I won't. Not even Gen."

Sephiroth sighed a little, and met Angeal's eyes. "Agatha's son's name is Cloud," he said, wondering if Angeal even remembered. After all, he'd only shown his friends the name on his arm once, and that had been quite a few years ago.

He waited a moment for the realization to set into Angeal's features. When it didn't, Sephiroth's heart sank a little, so he continued:

"Cloud is sixteen. I've known him since he was fourteen."

Angeal still wasn't catching on. "Okay, so what does that mean?"

Sephiroth made an exasperated noise, and swept a hand across his right arm, over the sleeve of his suit, over his soul-mark. "Cloud called me one day, in my office. He was just some kid, and I was an utter asshole to him, and then he told me his name, and I realized."

"Realized what?" Angeal was making a very confused face, until Sephiroth gave him a deadpan look and patted his own arm. Angeal's eyes went wide, and he completely lost his composure. His mouth was hanging open.

"Cloud," he said, "Oh Planet! Cloud! That's why it sounds familiar!"

The man's shock morphed very quickly into a wide grin.

"You found him! Oh, that explains so much! The running off on odd missions. The phone thing. No wonder you're so sweet on Agatha! She's his mother!"

"Keep it down," Sephiroth hissed, looking around without actually turning his head.

"Oh shit," Angeal said, equally as excited, but now more quietly. "I can't tell Genesis? Why can't I?"

"Cloud's underaged, and he looks even younger than his actual age. If the media finds out...if Shinra finds out, I don't want to think about what will happen. We're trying to keep things quiet until he turns 18, at least."

Angeal was still just shy of grinning. "So you like him? What does he look like? Can he fight?"

Sephiroth couldn't stop the smile tugging at his lips.

"Yes, I like him. He looks like Agatha, but with spikier hair, and yes, he can fight." Sephiroth's eyes were gleaming. "He might even be able to defeat me in battle."

Angeal leaned forward, eager as a gossip-y schoolgirl.

"Tell me more."

 

Chapter Text

The key to friendship
is trust.

 

Sephiroth was sulking, fuming, pouting. Clearly the man was upset, and his mood was potent enough that people were actually noticing. It wouldn't be such a big deal, except for the fact that The General had a reputation for being particularly frigid and/or indifferent to anyone who wasn't challenging him in battle. Honestly, even a challenger would have to be particularly impressive to break through the man's first facade and bring out the smirky, infuriating bastard that Sephiroth occasionally channeled in battle. But even that version of the man was a study in carefully controlled composure.

The Sephiroth who was leading a troop of green SOLDIER Thirds around the slums of Midgar, however, was not.

It was a punishment task, one that Sephiroth had incurred through sheer avoidance. Apparently, missing meetings and ignoring paperwork for a week really was a Big Problem, and the folks at Shinra definitely noticed when their leave chits and special permissions requests weren't getting approved.

Agatha was gone. Genesis was smug. Angeal was concerned. Cloud was pissed and completely ignoring him.

He endured one long, miserable week, before Sephiroth finally gave into his insecurities and let his stress out for the world to see--in particular the term "world" applied to a very disgruntled group of new SOLDIERs, who followed Sephiroth around the dredges of Sector 7 like lost puppies, as the man himself slaughtered monsters left and right in a truly gruesome fashion.

Zack fair, a Third himself, was unfortunate enough to be standing a bit too close when the Masamune skewered some goopy trash monster. Zack was now covered in stinking blood and entrails. Despite his extroverted nature and the disgusted noises of the other Thirds on his behalf, Zack said not a word about his new, smelly predicament, or whose fault it was. Because honestly, Zack wasn't entirely sure that Sephiroth wouldn't turn that singing blade on Zack himself in this mood.

Sephiroth was currently glowering at the filleted carcass of a...well a something several feet from a dumpster. It was hard to tell anymore what the thing had been before The General had gotten to it, but the group hadn't been able to see it alive before turning the corner to catch up to him.

For Gaia's sake! This was supposed to be a training mission for the Thirds! A grand opportunity to be trained under arguably the most famous and powerful warrior on the Planet! And yet the man hadn't mustered them at the start of the mission, hadn't briefed them or even given them a single clue as to how they were to spend the day. He hadn't said a single word. Instead, Sephiroth leveled a terrifying look at the group and marched off into the darkness under the plate with Masamune drawn. Not knowing what else to do, the Thirds had followed. Like ducklings. With swords.

That had been six hours ago, and frankly, Zack had had enough. He decided to risk it. Someone had to, he knew, and he also knew that no one else would even dare. He probably had a better chance of survival anyway, seeing as Angeal was his mentor, and Sephiroth reportedly liked Angeal, though it was hard to imagine the man liking anyone at the moment.

Here goes nothing.

"General, sir?" he barked...well, yelped.

Sephiroth paused midway through yet another dismemberment and turned very slowly to look at Zack with barely contained fury lining his features and one raised and rather threatening brow. The dude looked totally crazy.

"What do you want, SOLDIER?" he said in a tone like glass: smooth and clear yet with all the potential of cutting you up.

Zack could have said a million things: can we go home? is the mission over? how can we assist you?

But Zack said, "What's wrong?"

Sephiroth looked a bit surprised to be asked that question, as if shocked that anyone in their right minds would ever dare to ask him something so personal, but he answered anyway, "I dislike it when people are angry with me."

Zack nodded frantically, grasping at straws. Hoping for best results, he resorted to his usual tactics. He babbled, "Yeah, that really does suck. My soulmate got mad at me the other day, and boy let me tell you, it was awful. It felt like my whole life was ruined, but then we made up, and everything was good again. But it really does suck when that happens. It makes you want to kill things, because there's just nothing else that you can do to make it better. I get that."

Sephiroth blinked. "You do?"

"Yeah, I do!"

The General looked around, his eyes falling on the group of nervous Thirds standing behind Zack.

"You're dismissed," he told them, to which they collectively sighed and fled.

Zack remained, knowing that he hadn't been dismissed.

"You want to go somewhere and talk?" Zack said.

"Not particularly. There are...confidences that I must keep, so I cannot." Sephiroth looked rather mournfully at the ground.

"Well, I have another idea. It might help get your mind off things."

The General seemed open to the idea.

"You can come meet my soulmate. She's sweet and adorable and she's really good at cheering people up."

To Zack's relief, Sephiroth nodded.

 


 

Agatha stood at the threshold of her own home, and gawked in shock at the man standing in her kitchen. He was draped in a tattered, crimson cloak; dressed to the nines in a black jumpsuit, had glowing red eyes and a particularly deadly looking claw for a left arm.

He was also wearing her pink frilly apron and leaning over a sizzling frying pan. For the moment, he was frozen mid-stir with a spatula and eyeing her with something like muted curiosity.

Agatha shut the front door to her house and said loudly: "Why is there a vampire in my kitchen?"

"Ma!" came Cloud's voice from the living room. "Leave Vincent alone and come here please. I need to talk to you."

Agatha's temper was immediately incited. The vampire in the kitchen refocused on the frying pan, but said quietly, "It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am."

"Don't you ma'am me," she growled, before stomping off to the living room, where she gawked at the sight of her very injured son, who had clearly been couched for quite a while.

Agatha rubbed her temples and begged the gods for patience. No wonder he'd hung up on Sephiroth. If that man knew half of how badly Cloud was hurt, he'd have come to Nibelheim himself. Shinra be damned.

Agatha seated herself in an adjacent armchair and met her son's eyes. Cloud was bruised everywhere that she could see. There were cuts on his face and arms, wounds stitched up and bandaged. Worst of all, he didn't look guilty, but he would soon.

"Is there any part of you that isn't currently being held together with tape and bandages?"

Cloud sighed. "It's not that bad, Ma." Clearly he was impatient. But before she could react, he snarled, "I can't believe you went all the way to Midgar just to hijack Seph's phone."

Agatha's eyebrow twitched. "We've had this argument. It's done, and you're in no position to be spitting curses. Do you have any idea how worried I was? How worried he was? And for Gaia's sake, Cloud! You're mad at him now? Why? That man has no idea how to deal with rejection. Genesis has already called me. Sephiroth's a mess and you're not answering his calls?"

"I didn't reject him," Cloud said, truly miffed by the idea. "I'm just a bit irritated with him. That's all. I don't like for all of my conversations to be on display for all of SOLDIER to hear. Besides, apparently he's a bit pissed at me too and I'm not ready to argue with him. Also...there's Genesis." Cloud balled his fists in the blanket that was draped over his lap. "I swear Sephiroth never shuts up about him. Them and their stupid rivalry. And yet for some reason, they're 'best' friends."

Agatha put a hand to her chest. "Aaaaw! Are you jealous of GenGen?" she gasped.

"GenGen?!"

"Angeal, too?"

Cloud's expression soured even more, and he didn't answer, which was answer enough.

"I'm not going to get in your soulmate business. You and Sephiroth are going to have to figure that stuff out alone. But." Agatha reached out and patted Cloud's arm reassuringly. "You're The General's favorite person. Genesis and Angeal complained incessantly about how he's always ditching them for his phone, though they don't know why just yet." She shook her head. "He's all yours. Right now, you're the one who needs to be honest with him. Jealousy doesn't suit you, Cloud, and neither does petulance."

"I'll call him," Cloud said, "in a few days. Once I've figured out what to say."

"Good," Agatha said, cheerful now that things were going her way. "Now, please explain the vampire in the kitchen, and how his 'pet' nearly killed you."

"Vincent's not a vampire." Cloud grimaced. "You put that together quick."

"I'm not an idiot."

"I know."

Vincent chose that moment to walk into the living room.

"Dinner's ready," he announced a tad uncertainly.

Cloud sighed and Agatha chuckled, despite the fact that she was wondering why her son didn't have any normal friends. Regardless, the woman stood up and strolled into the kitchen to see whether or not the vampire was actually a decent cook.

 

Chapter Text

The key to discord
is agreement.

 


Sephiroth had a flower girl tucked under his arm. Aerith was a storm of green eyes and long brown hair. She was as sweet as the blooming of spring and as feisty and wild as the summer storms that followed.

She was kind enough to say, "Cloud doesn't hate you, you big dummy," yet cruel enough to add, "but Gaia you are kind of a needy bastard."

Sephiroth's expression was sour as he gave her shoulders a gentle squeeze.

"I hate you," he decided, and pressed his face against her shoulder.

She chuckled and took the opportunity to thread her fingers and a strand of small purple flowers, through Sephiroth's silver hair.

"It's lucky Zack trusts you so much, otherwise I couldn't let you get away with this," Aerith said.

"With what?" came the muffled reply.

She stared thoughtfully into the rafters, before declaring: "Aggressive cuddling."

Sephiroth made a disgusted noise, though whether it was in agreement or protest was not easy to discern.

"You don't even know Cloud," he said.

"True, but he must be something special, for you to love him so much."

"He's perfect."

"Mmhmm."

Sephiroth pulled his face away and unwound his arm from her person. He studied the soulmark she wore uncovered on her right forearm, envied her the ability to do so without fear. He then noticed something purple out of the corner of one eye, and his train of thought was thoroughly derailed.

Aerith noticed his disgruntlement, of course, and her eyes glittered with mischief.

"I dare you to wear those flowers in your hair for the rest of the day," she said.

Sephiroth, never one to back down from a challenge, gave a reluctant sigh.

"Fine."


 

Vincent Valentine was sitting in Agatha Strife's favorite armchair, while the woman herself carded her hands through his pitch black hair.

"I can't believe that scientist bitch. What sort of human being can do that to a person? To Sephiroth? To you?"

"Agatha," Vincent protested, "please don't."

"Let it go, Ma," Cloud insisted from where he was still stranded on the couch. "Gaia knows, Vincent never will."

Vincent offered Cloud his best glare. It was quite formidable, though Cloud hardly noticed. He'd contended with worse.

"Pity her though. She did end up in a shitty situation. I'm glad you told me, Vincent dear," Agatha cooed. "And I'm sorry I called you a vampire."

"That isn't the issue at hand anyway," Vincent said with a shrug. "Cloud needs to talk to Sephiroth."

"He does," Agatha agreed. "It's been what? Three days? He's probably devastated."

Cloud said, "He's more stubborn than you give him credit for. He might be pouting, but otherwise, he's still about 10 feet up Shrina's ass."

"He doesn't know any better," Agatha said. Then, with mirth, "not until you show him how nice it feels to be up someone else's ass. Hint, hint, Stormcloud."

Cloud rolled his eyes and quickly changed the subject. "I'm underage, Ma. Anyway, Vincent, is that woman's name on your arm? Was Lucrecia your soulmate?"

"No," Vincent said softly, and added, "Chaos is."

Cloud nearly fell out of his seat. "You're shitting me!"

"No."

Even Agatha looked shocked. "You mean the most powerful of all the thingies that are locked inside your body--the God--is your soulmate?!

Vincent's expression was blank.

"Yes."

Cloud was rubbing his temples. "Well put, Ma. 'Thingies'. Really?"

Agatha smirked and added: "Well, that's kinky."

 


 

"I'm seriously starting to question your sanity," Genesis declared as he followed Sephiroth out of one of the department head's more serious meetings. "Or perhaps just your sense of fashion, if you have any that is. First the ugly necklace and now flowers? What should I expect next? Will you dye your hair blue? Get a nose piercing? Get some kind of offensive tattoo?"

"Aerith dared me."

Genesis stopped in his tracks long enough for Sephiroth to get several strides ahead. He caught up again just as The General was boarding a private elevator.

"That flower girl might be scarier than all of SOLDIER combined," Genesis said. "Just one place below Mama-Strife, of course."

"Undoubtedly," Sephiroth agreed. "Thank goodness Zack is her soulmate. She'd be a right terror without the puppy fawning all over her."

"Speaking of soulmates," Genesis piped up, "what was the name of yours? I don't recall. It was some kind of ambiguous name right? Sky or something?"

"It's not relevant," Sephiroth droned, pressing the button for the SOLDIER elite's special floor.

"You're probably right," Genesis said as the elevator started to descend. "Can't imagine you with some fangirl leech."

"Fanboy," Sephiroth had to correct.

"Still on that train, huh?"

"Mmhmm."

Genesis appeared thoughtful. "For some reason, that's actually a bit easier to imagine." He gave his friend a studious once-over. "You'd look good with a bit of jailbait, I think. Nice contrast."

"That's disgusting," Sephiroth growled, genuinely offended. "I'm no child molester."

"I'm not saying that you are. I'm saying that--oh, you know what? Forget it. You're going to die old and alone at this rate anyway. Don't worry though, Angeal and I will say nice things at your funeral."

The elevator dinged to a stop and Sephiroth stomped out of it and into his office, slamming the door so hard that it cracked at the hinges.

"Damn it! I just had that fixed," Samantha said from her corner, glaring down the hall at a miffed Commander Rhapsodos, who was just barely out of the elevator himself.

"Sorry, Sammy," he called out. "He's pissy about something this week. Still haven't figured it out yet."

But I will soon.

 


 

Cloud picked up the phone on the second ring.

"Please save me from my doting mother," he answered without looking at the caller ID, thinking that surely it was Tifa again.

"Only if you'll forgive me for whatever shit I did that pissed you off the other day."

"Seph?" Cloud said with genuine surprise. "You called me?"

"I miss you. I hate Genesis. I'm realizing that Angeal is much less intelligent than I originally assumed, and I'm resorting to cuddling with a sort of crazy girl from the slums to make up for the affection I usually receive from you."

"Cuddling? Slums? Aerith?"

"She's terrifyingly sweet. Like your mother. It's completely platonic, I promise you."

Cloud was so damned pleased that his mother had dragged Vincent out for a walk so he could have this conversation.

"I'm still healing, nearly functional though. Was worse than I told you. Forgive me for that, and I'll forgive you for showcasing our conversation to your two weird friends."

The growl that ripped through the receiver was not wholly unexpected.

"You were hurt worse than what you told me?"

"I had a bit more than a broken arm."

"Cloud."

"Sephiroth."

"Conniving little shit."

"Gorgeous understanding bastard?"

"That's not going to work."

"Seems to be. You're trying not to laugh. I can hear it."

"I fucking hate you."

"Love you too, honey."

They both laughed.

"Come to Midgar next, once you've healed up. Sleep with me in my bed. Make me feel better."

Cloud grimaced, knowing that he had to make a very cut-and-dry condition. "Kill Hojo."

"...pardon me?"

"Things are changing too much, and he's a huge contributing factor. Can you kill him without getting caught?"

"He's the only father I've ever known," was Sephiroth's reply, and Cloud knew that he had his answer. He had no doubt that Sephiroth hated Hojo, but there was attachment there. There was dependency, even half-abandoned and old as it was.

"How much do you trust your friends?

"Less so than I did before I knew you, when you told me how easily they would betray me."

Cloud closed his eyes. "Tell them about the degradation. Tell them that there is a cure, that they must kill Hojo to get it."

"You want me to manipulate them."

"Yes," Cloud said firmly. "This is bigger than you or me. It's bigger than them. It must happen, and it must happen now."

"Sometimes I think I can almost guess what that other Sephiroth must have been like, to have made you this way."

"And?"

"And it makes my blood boil in two very different ways. I want to be him, and I want to kill him."

"Don't be jealous," Cloud said with a tiny smirk. "He and you, you and him? You're one and the same. The only difference is that in this world, Gaia threw me a lifeline."

"And what is that?"

"My name on your arm and yours on mine. Soulmates were not so obvious before."

"How strange to contemplate."

"Yes. Now, about Hojo?"

"He'll be dead tomorrow. I promise."

"Good."

 


 

Samantha used to be one of those people. One of the many who fawned over Shinra's officers like they were Gods, but then she landed her job as General Sephiroth's secretary. By her fourth day on the job, she had cut her ties with The Silver Elite, Red Leather, and Keepers of Honor.

She didn't necessarily make this decision out of spite.

She was worried first about The Turks who visited her boss often and did an excellent job of both pissing off The General and leaving pissed off in turn. The more she learned about Shinra's spies, the more paranoid she became.

She worried next about Sephiroth himself, because even when happy, he was still a rather terrifying man, but not for the reasons one would expect.

Sephiroth was scary for other reasons.

For example, on Samantha's second night on the job, she had been sitting dutifully at her desk when the air in the room grew oddly thin. It had actually been rather difficult to breathe. Just when she was starting to get really concerned, her boss magically appeared in front of her desk.

There hadn't been a flash of light or anything. He was just there, flipping through some papers casually, as if he hadn't just teleported to the empty space three feet in front of his secretary.

What made matters worse was that he didn't appear to notice that anything was wrong. Samantha was still frozen in absolute shock when he looked up, blinked once, shrugged, turned around, and walked back into his office.

Of course, it happened many more times after that, but after a month or so, Sam had grown a bit immune. She would later find out even more of his weird, inexplicable habits.

Samantha didn't unsubscribe from his fanclub that night. No. It took one more incident to push her over the edge.

She was coming back from lunch on day three and looking for The General. Several people directed her to the SOLDIER Firsts' private training room. Carelessly, she had walked in without knocking and immediately stopped in her tracks.

Genesis and Angeal were sitting on the empty bleachers, completely wrapped around each other, sucking each other's faces off, and giving zero shits that she had just walked in the door. Sephiroth sat nearby, looking bored as hell as he flipped through some gardening magazine. It was then and there that Sam came to one glaring conclusion.

SOLDIER's top three badasses were all utterly gay.

Sephiroth finally noticed her and sauntered over to acquire his lunch. He said something vaguely threatening about Genesis and Angeal, while digging through the bag of Wutain takeout, to which she simply nodded and pulled out her phone.

"What are you doing?" Sephiroth asked suspiciously.

"Unsubscribing to their fan clubs."

The General smirked. "You may do well here after all."

Samantha glanced meaningfully at the gardening magazine that he had tucked under one arm.

"So...you too then?"

"It's rude to stereotype," he replied, then added, "but yes. Me, too."

"That's okay. I unsubscribed from The Silver Elite yesterday."

He tilted his head to one side, which was honestly more predatory than cute. "Oh? What gave me away?"

She smiled. "It certainly wasn't your glaring homosexuality."

"What then?"

She frowned. "You really don't remember?"

"Remember what?"

She shook her head.

"It's nothing. Don't worry about it. I'm still here for the job, after all."

Sephiroth had only shrugged and walked away, content with his lunch.

Several years later, Samantha faced a new challenge involving her precarious boss, and that challenge was none other than Cloud Strife.

Samantha had strolled into Sephiroth's office, as she would on any other day, knowing for damned sure that The General was out. She nearly screamed upon seeing the stranger sprawled across Sephiroth's couch, fast asleep and using his own coat for a pillow. Once her heart-rate finally calmed down, she took in the scene.

Cloud was clearly a bit young, younger than Sephiroth at least. He was very thin, but as muscular as any of the SOLDIER's who came and went around Shinra. He was almost worrying pale and had the wildest hair.

But that did nothing to account for the truly massive and complex looking sword tucked up against the wall. Or the fact that she had never seen him come in. Samantha tried to reconcile that she'd had suspicions about Shinra's ventilation system for a long time. It was a running joke between she and her friends, after all.

Honestly, the most concerning part of the whole situation was the fact that Cloud's soulmark was uncovered, and Samantha had seen Sephiroth's signature enough to know that the scrawl across the young man's left arm was probably legitimate. It would also explain her boss's unexplained disappearances over the past year or so.

And now, thanks to her idiot boss, Samantha had to do something brave.

"Excuse me," she said and nudged Cloud's arm.

She watched in awe as he stirred to wakefulness, and those very blue eyes honed in on her far too quickly.

"Aaah, Samantha, right?" Cloud asked, rubbing his face. "Damn, I fell asleep. Where is Sephiroth anyway?"

"In a meeting. Someone assassinated the Head of the Science Department," she explained, blushing a bit because Cloud was honestly adorable and sexy and sadly very, very taken.

"Right," Cloud said and then seemed to remember where he was.

"Shit. Don't suppose you didn't notice my soulmark?"

"Couldn't miss it," she replied honestly. "Might want to be more careful about that, ya know?"

"Yeah." He rubbed the back of his head and smiled.

"I'm Cloud Strife," he introduced and held out a hand.

She gasped and shook it.

"You're Agatha's son! Oh, that explains so much! I thought she was Sephiroth's sugar-momma! Which was really strange considering the fact that I know he's gay!"

"Everyone loves Ma," Cloud said with a little eye roll. "Sorry about that. Hope she didn't cause you any trouble."

"Only almost."

Cloud laughed. "Well, please don't tell anyone, okay? I'm still a bit underage and Seph's famous. You do the math."

"Cross my heart," Samantha said and grinned. "You're his dirty secret!"

"Angeal knows," Cloud shared and made room for her to sit next to him on the couch. "Genesis doesn't."

"Ooooh?"

Cloud nudged her in the side. "I can see why you lasted so long in here."

"It's a trial," Samantha agreed.

"So...Hojo's dead, huh?"

Samantha nodded and failed to look solemn. "Honestly, I thought he was a creep."

"He was."

Samantha gave him a curios look just as another figure walked into the office. Cloud was on his feet and across the room in an instant.

Samantha watched in awe as the big bad General wrapped Cloud in a gentle embrace.

Gaia, she thought, they're so precious!

"There are flowers in your hair," Cloud observed.

"Aerith," was the explanation provided.

They parted, both smiling. Cloud walked around Sephiroth's desk and plopped down in the man's sacred throne.

"This chair still sucks."

"Leave my chair alone," Sephiroth said, joining Samantha on the couch and slumping a bit. "So," he said to her, "cat's outta the bag?"

She nodded. "I won't tell a soul, sir."

"Good. I'm too tired to deal with it anyway. Oh, and Cloud?"

"Yes, darling?" Cloud said cheekily, already pecking away at Sephiroth's keyboard like the nosy little snot he was.

"You owe Genesis and Angeal a cure for degradation."

 

Chapter Text

The key to fitting in
is standing out.

 

"I can't believe I agreed to this," Cloud hissed as Sephiroth fixed his tie. "I look like a Turk intern or something."

"You look adorable," Sephiroth corrected, and Cloud pouted at him. 

"Adorable?" he parroted unhappily.

Sephiroth sighed. "Yes. There's nothing wrong with looking cute. Now be still."

Cloud obliged as Sephiroth went about the task of smoothing out every wrinkle in Cloud's rent-a-tux. Sephiroth's own suit was a pricey, pinstriped affair in black-and-white. His silver hair was pulled back into a complicated knot. Cloud glared jealously at it. His own hair was its usual mess of spikes. His suit was obviously cheap and the best he could manage on short notice.

"I know you don't want to be here for this stupid party, Cloud, but Angeal and Genesis want to meet you properly."

"Genesis doesn't even know about us."

"It's not about that. You saved their lives."

"No, I didn't. Aerith did. She should have come as your plus one."

"She is Zack's date for the evening," Sephiroth chided, fussing with Cloud's collar. "This suit is preposterous," he muttered under his breath.

"Sorry," Cloud mumbled, embarrassed.

"You have nothing to apologize for, Cloud," Sephiroth said gently. "And you did save their lives. No one would've known about the degradation if it wasn't for you. Aerith couldn't have come up with the cure without your help. And damn it I wish I could've bought you a proper suit."

Cloud chuckled a bit at his frustration. "I could just go in fatigues and an old t-shirt."

"I will not have all of Shinra falling at your feet tonight," Sephiroth growled.

"Pffft, as if they would."

Sephiroth frowned. "You have no idea how attractive you are, do you?"

Cloud gestured to his own hair. "Really? You find a chocobo's ass attractive?"

"You have got to stop spending time with Zack."

Cloud grinned and wound his arm around Sephiroth's.

"To the party?" he suggested.

Sephiroth nodded.

 


 

 

When they arrived, Cloud and Sephiroth were pointedly not touching, not wanting to give off the wrong impression. The party took place in Shinra's huge lobby, which was done up well for the event. All of Shrina's bigwigs were present, along with many SOLDIERs and their guests, and a handful of vicious reporters.
As soon as Sephiroth stepped into the room with Cloud slightly trailing behind, the general was bombarded by the crowd. Reporters wanted quotes. Shinra's managers wanted to talk about work. SOLDIERs wanted to socialize.

Cloud just wanted to go home. Completely unnoticed, he stepped around Sephiroth's adoring horde and walked further into the lobby. He got a few odd looks from various Shinra personnel: a few recognized him, but most had never seen him before.

Finally, he found a few familiar faces.

"You're Angeal and Genesis, right?" he asked, having only vague memories of the two from his first trip down the timeline. They had never seen him before Aerith cured their degradation either.

"Goddess, you look so much like your mother," Genesis observed. "How is my dear Agatha, little Strife?"

"She's good," Cloud replied awkwardly, having no idea how to act around Sephiroth's only close friends.

"Pleasure to meet you, Cloud," Angeal greeted with an outstretched hand. He was smiling.

"Hi," Cloud said, and returned both gestures.

"Quiet one, aren't you?" Genesis said and noted Sephiroth's presence across the room. "He left you alone?"

Cloud shrugged. "I'm still not entirely sure why he asked me to come. I'm not a big fan of parties, especially fancy ones."

"That's our fault. I apologize," Angeal said. "But we wanted to thank you for telling us about the degradation. If you hadn't told Sephiroth, I'd hate to think what would've happened."

"We would have died," Genesis said bluntly. "Thank you for saving us from that."

Cloud blushed and scrathed the back of his neck, unable to meet their eyes. "Aerith is the one you should be thanking."

"Rest assured that we will bombard her with out gratitude as well," Genesis declared. "How did you know about the degradation?"

Angeal elbowed Genesis in the side. "We promised Seph not to ask that."

Cloud took a step back.

"I still find it hard to believe that this quiet little thing is related to Agatha. You sounded much more lively on the phone that day," Genesis said.

"I'm not always quiet," Cloud said, expression darkening at the reminder.

"Soft-spoken, maybe," said Zack, appearing behind Cloud and tossing an arm over his shoulders. "Hiya, Cloudy!"

"Hey, Zack."

"Puppy," Genesis and Angeal said in unison, making Zack protest rather loudly.

"Where's Seph?" Zack asked.

"Being eaten by reporters," Cloud mumbled. "Where's Aerith?"

"Oh, she's around here somewhere. So, what's new?"

They chatted amiably about work-things, which left Cloud a bit bereft. He ducked out of the conversation and geared up to rescue his soulmate from an adoring crowd. He was just starting to push his way into the fray, when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He spun around to greet Sephiroth's secretary.

"Hi, Sammy," he said with a smile.

"Hi, Cloud! Sorry to interrupt. I know you were about to dive in." She gestured to Sephiroth's ever growing audience. "He's probably about to have a conniption in there."

"I dunno. Sometimes I think he likes the attention. You don't see him stopping it."

"Oh, Cloud," she said pityingly. "I'm sorry."

"Nah, it's alright. I'm being an ass. I'm just not used to big parties, and Shinra makes me nervous."

"It was like that for me when I first started working for the general."

"Sort of a nightmare," Cloud agreed wholeheartedly, "like you don't know if you're walking into a science experiment, a battle with super-soldiers, or about to be swept away quietly by the Turks."

"That's exactly it. If I were you, I'd stay in Nibelheim and wait it out. He'd have to go visit you then, and you wouldn't have to step foot in this crazy place."

Cloud rolled his eyes. "If I stayed in Nibelheim, he wouldn't last a month here. He'd move in with me and Ma and quit Shinra to become a mercenary or something."

"Were the commanders giving you a hard time?"

"I think they're like that with everyone though?" Cloud guessed, and Samantha laughed and nodded in agreement.

"True."

Cloud turned to face the crowd again. "How do I even get in there?"

"I believe in you?" Samantha offered.

Cloud grimaced, and rather than the polite shuffle he was willing to try earlier, he switched to a more forceful tactic. Cloud squared his shoulders and barreled through the onslaught of people, nearly knocking half of them onto the floor.

The attack was so shocking that the entire crowd suddenly focused on him, and the rest of them actually moved out of his way so that he could reach Sephiroth, who looked positively gleeful at Cloud's antics. Cloud cleared his throat and did something he didn't like to often do. He channeled his inner Zack.

"Alright, everyone. You've had your fun. You get to see him all the time, but I didn't get dragged to this party for you to hog Seph's attention. Guy's like family, alright?" Cloud wrapped a hand around one of Sephiroth's forearms and led him away. To everyone's shock, Sephiroth followed.

Once they were well and away from that catastrophe, Sephiroth moved to face Cloud.

"What was that?" Sephiroth asked very seriously. "You weren't acting like yourself."

Cloud grimaced. "Remember all that stuff I told...about my memories being kind of...out of whack?"

Sephiroth nodded.

"I can be Zack when I want to. I don't like to do it, but sometimes it's the best way to handle a situation."

Sephiroth crossed his arms and looked thoughtful. "What would you have done without that influence in your head?"

"Probably would have left you in there," Cloud admitted.

Sephiroth put his hands on Cloud's shoulders. Their eyes met. "I don't want you to be like Zack, no matter what bad situation it might get me out of. I only want Cloud."

Cloud felt his face warm. "But I wanted you with me, and you weren't coming."

"So find a Cloud-way to rescue me," Sephiroth suggested, "not a Zack-way."

Cloud narrowed his eyes. "You let those people contain you. You cater to them. I know you're not too polite to tell them to fuck off."

"Cloud."

Cloud's words were heated, "Next time, don't invite me to a party if you're just going to ignore me."

Sephiroth's eyes widened.

Cloud continued, "I know this place is pretty much your home. It's all you know, but you need to break away from it a little bit. Don't let them own you. That's how things went bad last time."

"I'm trying, Cloud."

Cloud stepped out from under Sephiroth's hands. "If you have any respect for me, or the whole reason that I'm even here, then try harder."

Sephiroth looked ashamed, which was why he reacted poorly when Rufus Shinra himself came over to scold him for leaving the crowd at all.

"General Sephiroth. I understand that your friend is a rare visitor who is somehow important to you, but this is a work-function, and you are expected to handle social situations with more grace. That display was shameful, and you're lucky I don't--"

"Rufus," Sephiroth growled, eyes narrowed to slits. He drew himself to his full height and towered menacingly over the Shinra prince. Cloud shuddered, having not seen this particular side of Sephiroth since Before.

"I am a product of Shinra. I work all hours of the day. I lead your armies and win your wars. I am the face of SOLDIER, and for the early years of my life, I was this company's guinea pig. I am in no mood for social niceties today."

"Oh," Shinra snarled, clearly intimidated but too self-important to back off. "And what will you do if I require such a task of you?"

Sephiroth's voice was charged with fury. "I will do the one thing that scares this company the most," he said. "I'll quit and take your every secret to our enemies."

Rufus grimaced and offered Cloud his best sneer before walking away.

Cloud inhaled deeply.

"Quit Shinra," he said and grabbed Sephiroth's hand, heedless of prying eyes. "Now."

"Why should I?" Sephiroth's tone was now devoid of emotion. He did not tighten his fingers in Cloud's hold. "You don't trust me. You've sacrificed nothing for me. Why should I do anything of the sort for you?"

Cloud closed his eyes. "I have every reason to hate you. I have every reason to believe that you are still the monster I remember. I have had every chance to kill you. I still remember how it feels, and despite everything, I know I can still do it. Please...don't make me do it again...not over something so stupid."

Sephiroth's fingers twitched in Cloud's grasp. "I'm...not used to being told that I am wrong, that anything I do is wrong. I'm used to being adored and feared and followed."

"I'm not a follower," Cloud said sharply.

"No, you're not," Sephiroth replied and finally squeezed Cloud's hand. "Take your coat off. Roll up your sleeves. If I'm quitting, then I'm also done hiding you from the world. You're mine and I'm yours. I want everyone to know."

Cloud smiled and removed his coat, rolled up his sleeves. Sephiroth copied him, and they tossed the unwanted clothing over the back of a nearby chair. They took a moment to admire each other's names sprawled across bare skin.

Sephiroth sighed. "We have to tell Genesis, Zack, and Aerith. It's only fair that they find out first."

"Then we leave?" Cloud asked hopefully.

Sephiroth leaned over and pressed a quick kiss to his forehead.

"Then we leave."

 



Genesis and Zack gawked at their soulmarks. Aerith looked delighted. Angeal sipped at a glass of champagne and watched Genesis' reaction guiltily.

"Goddess above," Genesis whispered. "It all makes so much more sense now!"

Aerith squealed happily. Zack laughed and curled an arm around her shoulders.

"This is so awesome!" Zack said, grinning. "You two are perfect for each other."

"There's another thing," Cloud said.

"I'm quitting Shinra," Sephiroth tacked on, "tonight."

Exhilaration turned to concern. Genesis put his own glass of champagne on an empty table.

"Well, then. Should we go pack now?" he asked very seriously. "I'm not leaving this hovel without my sword and my materia."

"I have a few things to grab at the church," Aerith chimed in.

"Yeah, I might have some stuff to grab, too," Zack added thoughtfully.

They all turned to Angeal, who shrugged. "I'm not leaving my sword behind either."

Cloud and Sephiroth exchanged a shocked glance, when Aerith spoke again:

"But where will we go?"

 



Agatha hummed cheerfully as she stepped around Vincent to check the stew she was making. Somehow it always came back to that damn wolf stew, but between her and Vincent, they always found a way to make it taste more interesting.

There was a knock on the front door.

"Vincent? Be a dear and go see who's at the door, would you?"

"People will talk, if they see me here," Vincent remarked.

"People do little else," she said joyously, and Vincent clanked off to open the front door.

"Oh, hello Cloud," he said, and then tilted his head to one side to take in the small entourage behind the blonde.

"And friends," Vince added, meeting Sephiroth's eyes at just the wrong moment.

Cloud smiled brightly. "Hi, Vincent!"

"You," Sephiroth muttered, "are the one who got Cloud hurt before."

Vincent started to protest, but Cloud gently nudged him out of the way.

"Ma!" Cloud called loudly, and the stampede of awol SOLDIERs and one flower girl moved into the warmth of the Strife household. Agatha came around the corner and balked.

"GENGEN!" She yelled and tackled the red-clad man to the floor. Cloud's mother then spent a fairly long time greeting each of the men individually, before finally rounding on Aerith and pulling her into an excitable hug.

"So what's the occasion?" Agatha finally got around to saying, nearly out of breath from enthusiasm.

"Well," Cloud started, "how do you feel about some new roommates?"