A/N: The new trailer for Crisis Core Reunion has me so excited! I'm really looking forward to replaying it on the Nintendo Switch. I've been meaning to post this for a while, but seeing Genesis and Angeal in the trailer granted me the burning motivation to get this out to you.
Thank you for continuing to read my fanfiction. It means a lot to me! If you have any suggestions or things you would really like to see in future updates, please let me know!
As always, the superior version of this fic is on my A03 profile!
Angeal swept his greatsword in a great arc, the air howling as it tore it in two. He was apathetic; his face showed no signs of exertion despite his exhausting status as marshal of his extreme boot camp, approaching the fourth hour of blood, sweat and tears required for the day's training regime. His eyes seemed fixed on a distant point, as though he were only half paying attention. He could go on for much, much longer than this—especially since he was holding back so much of his true strength.
The lights of the stadium beat against his brow, shone against his skin. He sighed, suppressing laughter at Zack's failure to rise from the ground, laughter that would have spilled from him heartily if it weren't so pathetic.
Cloud and Zack were entering their second month of training. They had more company on other days, rotating girls and boys their age, participating in different blocks of their training—but Zack and Cloud were the only ones who were forced to commit to every wave of this conditioning, pushed further than anyone else dared to tread. Every day was packed end to end with an intentional choreography to better train their bodies, hearts and minds. Each time one of them thought that it was no longer possible to find the stamina to continue, somehow they kept pushing, mystified at how they could make it through another day. The proof of their trials had now begun to show on their bodies, leaner, carved muscles making them feel older, making them suddenly become taken a little more seriously, more mature than how they'd looked before all that they were came to be processed at this facility.
Both Cloud and Zack were struggling in the gravel, Zack laying on his back and Cloud on his side, each trying to catch their breaths. Each boy was drenched in sweat, red from exertion, their lungs sore from having the wind knocked out of them one or two times too many. Their bodies pleaded for rest as they tried to roll out of the way of another swing of Angeal's blade. This time it crashed down heavily, cracking into the ground where it landed with a measured strength. The grass split, dark brown earth tumbling out like it were merely dust under the pressure of such hardened steel.
"Your opponents won't take it easy on you just because you're tired." Angeal's searching weapon came within a hair's breadth of Zack, the one whose legs had stopped working, making it difficult to roll out of the way or rise himself back up to his feet. Zack lacked the same motivation as Cloud. Cloud felt as if he were on a divine mission, and this had caused him to treat his training with a certain reverence that now led him to slightly outpace Zack—only minutely, but enough for Angeal to notice. Angeal picked on Zack often like this, singling him out to push him to grow stronger, to embody the extra force he knew that Zack would require to become the proper competition for Cloud, subject 16A2—but also to protect him in for what tribulations would await Zack in the future, to grant him the necessary skills required to defend himself.
Cloud panted, using the last of his strength to launch himself behind Angeal's back so he could take a spell to himself now that the spotlight was finally off him and his actions.
"Get up." Angeal looked down at Zack, now standing across his waist.
Zack's eyes were teary despite two months of bright eyed and bushy tailed training. "I—I can't." Zack struggled to breathe, at the breaking point of his exhaustion.
The purpose of this training was that one of the boys had to retrieve a small piece of fabric from the back of Angeal's belt. They had tried and failed to do so for the past week, sometimes training like this for seven hours before Angeal had to call it quits for the evening, telling them with a disappointed sigh that they'd try again tomorrow. Angeal made it look effortless but to the two boys it began to feel like their victory was a complete impossibility as the days stretched on longer. Cloud stared at the bright orange fabric as it danced in the breeze Angeal's Buster Sword made as Angeal hoisted it back behind his shoulders.
The offending fabric was his goal. He had to obtain it to progress. Their training could not advance to the next stage until it was secured in his grasp. It was the barrier to meeting Sephiroth, the block in his path to return to his rightful place beside his Master, to be useful. Cloud glared at it, his brain running as hot as his body as he desperately searched within himself for a strategy to grab it without Angeal noticing.
"Remember this moment." Angeal's voice held the telltale tone which meant a brief lecture was coming, an instilling of his weathered wisdom he was doing his best to teach the two boys. "Remember how this feels. This is why you train—why you train hard. It's not your opponent that kills you. You die when you give up."
Zack groaned, motivated by Angeal's words to try and brace himself so he could at least try to get back up onto his elbows. Angeal paused, almost inspired by his promising demonstration of willpower.
"I won't give up." Zack struggled to get the words out, reaching for Angeal's ankles to pull himself up. Angeal lunged backwards, drawing his weapon back out, showing he wasn't about to go easy just because of some sweet words. By coming backwards, Cloud was now closer than ever to his victory. He had watched closely, now familiar with the way Angeal moved. He mirrored Angeal's footsteps, making sure that his own matched the sound they made so Angeal wouldn't be alerted. Cloud was one step away from being able to reach out and grab the orange fabric. Cloud carefully held his breath, trying his best to mask his presence.
Zack noticed Cloud, trying his best to keep his face straight. He realized he had to stall. They were going to finally win . All they had to do was make Angeal take a single step.
"No matter what…" Zack's muscles screamed as he pulled himself up by his core, crawling until he was on his feet. His legs trembled and wobbled as he lifted up his fists. "I'll never give up!"
Angeal paused, laughing. It was a hearty laugh, with an unexpected warmth. He let his weapon fall to his side, drawing his leg back from a fighting position. That was it! Cloud could finally grab it!
Without hesitation, Cloud body slammed Angeal, ripping the fabric out from the belt while he climbed aboard him. Angeal responded with lightning reflexes, throwing his weight into the brunt of his blade sharply, throwing Cloud spiraling and tumbling into the dirt with great force.
Cloud's face was marred, his nose seeping blood. The exposed skin outside of his night-black uniform was shredded in twisted wounds that looked like claw marks from where his body skidded against gravel. The demonstration, a fraction of Angeal's true strength, left Cloud terrified.
Angeal patted the back of his belt, searching for the orange fabric in disbelief. Zack collapsed to his knees, beaming with happiness.
Cloud raised the hand that now proudly held the orange flag in its fingertips. Zack cheered.
Angeal clapped, nodding softly as the boys celebrated their well earned victory the best that they could. "Congratulations. You make a good team."
Angeal turned away from the boys, dismissing them early thanks to their success. He was nearly out the gate before he turned back to them, both of them collapsed on the ground as they could finally once and for all relax.
"Get your rest." Angeal hoped that they were still conscious enough to be able to hear his words. "Your next mission won't be so easy."
Cloud settled into his bunk bed. He was happy, deeply, profoundly happy. The shape of his happiness was new, outshining any of the achievements of his old life. Today, they had eaten well—large hunks of medium rare meat with butter and the forbidden carbohydrates of potatoes, something that Cloud dearly loved, being their reward for a job well done. His shower was like bliss for his sore bones. Cloud reclined underneath its powerful streams, still smiling gently as he watched his blood slide down his skin and spiral down the drain.
He and Zack had enough hours to really enjoy being clean, full, and comfortable. They rested now in their beds, with Zack cheerily reading a comic book full of propaganda that he'd convinced one of their guards to hand over. Cloud could hear each time Zack laughed, or gasped, how each of his emotions shook their shared metal bed frame all at once.
Cloud had opted to take his time to simply be one with his thoughts. He stared out from beyond his pillow and his standard blankets—blankets that could never feel warm enough now held some comfort beneath its scritchy fibers. Their room was tiny but practical. Neither boy was permitted to bring any possessions of his own. The room housed a single desk, two steel chairs, a bunk bed, a tiny chest to store changes of uniform, as well as two large metal hangers, presumably for the weapons they would be given at some point in their training. There was no window, only cool, concrete walls, a blinking fluorescent light above their heads. Cloud stared into the folded pile of his uniform, on his chair, his promise of the future, the gift representative of his new mind.
"You should read this!" Zack held open a page and cast his arm down across the metal railing that kept his bed in place. The comic book unfolded, flopping down to the page so Cloud could see. On its pages were a cartoon version of Sephiroth and his brothers, somewhere in a war torn battlefield. "It's awesome!"
Cloud took in the contents, his eyes fixed upon the thick lines that designed Sephiroth's caricature. How far it felt from the real thing. Cloud sighed, thinking how few people could truly hope to know Sephiroth as he actually was. Oh, how much he wished he would get the chance to see him. At the same time, he wished he could take the page from Zack and keep it all to himself, to preserve some way to look into the lines to remember the face of the real Sephiroth in his memory, plain as day. Zack would never understand—couldn't possibly begin to understand.
"Yeah." Cloud mumbled, lost in thought. He wondered if he could ever earn the right to be painted on the same canvas as Sephiroth.
"Hey," Zack scooped himself up, holding himself against the iron bars before ducking his whole head down. "They used that mind stuff on you. What was that like?"
Cloud sighed with the fond memory of it. It made him feel like he could melt. He'd avoided the topic with Zack for quite some time, being brief or short, pivoting the conversation into compliments about Sephiroth as a person rather than an observation into how Cloud himself might feel about it.
"It just…" Cloud searched for the words. The usual voice that told him to be very careful with his words, to frame them with precision, rose within him again. "Feels like everything. All at once."
"So…" Zack looked puzzled while he tried to think about it. Cloud was sure his mind was too occupied by some fantastic action scene to try and interpret the time Sephiroth had watched them. "Bad? Scary?"
Cloud thought about it for a moment.
"Yes." Cloud answered simply. "And no."
"What does that even mean?" Zack looked helplessly confused.
"I don't really know." Cloud laughed softly. "It's hard to explain."
"Sounds like it…" Zack's eyes were drawn back to the pages of his book. He leaned back up, flopping down into his bed, dismissing Cloud.
What Cloud couldn't say was that he never wanted the feeling to stop.
Cloud and Zack were early to the pitch, the artificial sky still a dark purple by the time they were ready and in position. Angeal was late, which was extremely unusual; he was always the one to chastise them for being even a little too close to on-time, requiring strict punctuality. Each morning the boys came out, Angeal was always in the center point of the field, standing and waiting. It seemed like he was a statue, like he was always there, the great mountain of the training grounds.
Zack's breath funneled into curls of steam, the cold chill biting into his exposed legs and arms. Zack got to squats, always wanting to seem busy and taking any demonstrations of his training attitude seriously. Cloud sat on the green, conserving his energy, playing with blades of grass between his fingertips, wondering what the next phase of their training could possibly be.
It happened slowly, but Cloud began to feel a slight pressure in his skull. He grew anxious, excited, attention darting from each potential door that Angeal might walk through. The way his mind felt was so strikingly similar to that time—but it was also far too different. Something was very erratic about it. It felt like a totally different flavor of invasion.
Angeal made his way through the largest set of doors, the ones that all of the lower classes were strictly prohibited from using. Angeal's expression told his story for him; he looked uncharacteristically annoyed and exhausted.
Three silver-haired elite stalked after him, all chatting to each other loudly, without any care to who heard and what they might have thought about it. Cloud's blood ran cold as he realized it was the triplet Princes, ShinRa's finest. He'd never seen them in real life before and they commanded a profound respect from deep within him, an acknowledgment of superior beings. Fear and awe overtook him. Zack's face alone expressed that he'd felt the same.
"I want that one." Kadaj grinned, his teeth glinting.
"He's definitely more interesting." Yazoo spoke quietly to his brothers, low enough so that the others wouldn't hear.
"But I want that one!" Loz cried out in protest against Kadaj.
"You'll get your turn." Kadaj pet his younger brother's wide shoulders, speaking to him with a dismissive gentleness. His sharp eyes watched Cloud ferociously.
Their presence terrified Cloud. Something in his mind felt like it was falling apart in the same telltale way that it had felt before, this time with a hint of undeserved pleasure. He knew this sensation and he would not fall victim to it by anyone who wasn't Sephiroth. He tried to swim against the current of his thoughts, tried to maintain his rational faculties despite the downpour of pressure from the three sets of vibrant green slitted eyes as they stalked him, sizing him up with an intrigued hunger.
The orange cloth from Angeal's back really did seem so simple now.
"One at a time." Angeal seemed annoyed by their antics already, pinching the bridge of his nose. He put his hands on his hips, and he began to order the triplets around with a strong voice he hadn't had to use with Cloud and Zack. "Here's what's gonna happen. One of you sits out. The other two pick between 16A2 and 16R5 over here. You don't get weapons. You fight."
"That's it?" Kadaj snickered as though it were a joke. "Mother needed me to do this?"
"I have no idea what your mother wants." Angeal looked like he was nursing a heavy migraine.
Cloud and Zack had selected their weapons of choice at yesterday's training. They were overjoyed when they got to tour a small sample of the standard issue weapons at ShinRa's disposal, spending an unhealthy amount of time pouring over details until they'd come to a satisfactory conclusion. Angeal had made no remarks, simply nodding and offering a simple 'is that your choice?' before writing it down in his thin notebook.
Zack had no idea what he would be using his weapons on yesterday, but nonetheless he was excited, pumped to finally get to pick one for himself. He'd chosen a weapon very similar to Angeal's, fannishly meticulous about its details. It was a lot lighter than Angeal's Buster Sword, but although it was shorter, it looked like it was in perfect scale to Zack's body. He tentatively swung it, his clothes swinging in the same direction as his aim from the sheer force of it. He stopped dead in his tracks as Angeal started to walk away, leaving the center of the field all to Sephiroth's younger brothers.
Maybe if Zack hadn't been training under a First for the past two months his blood would have run cold and stayed that way, all just from the sight of them. But now, Zack was eager to demonstrate his skills and ultimately his worth. Foolishly, he'd deluded himself into thinking he was at a similar level of strength.
"Wait!" Zack called out to Angeal. Cloud wrestled wordlessly with himself. "What are we supposed to do?"
Fear and admiration hit Zack like a ton of bricks. Survive , he thought, in a fight against Jenova's heirs? He swallowed, knowing there was no escape now.
"Sir!" Zack called out but Angeal was finished, paying no attention to the boys now. It was no longer his duty; as far as he was concerned, there was no reason for him to pay much heed to the consequences.
Kadaj rolled his wrists, performing idle stretches at a breakneck speed. He resembled a cat, lithe and quick, his body arcing in smooth lines as he readied himself. Their uniforms matched the Firsts' save for the cap and the cape, a mess of leather and belts spilling across their waists. Their boots were polished, steel-toed and glinting under the bright lights of the arena.
Yazoo's fingers filtered through his long, silver hair. He was disinterested in fighting, thinking it pointless to play any game he knew his victory was secured in. With a bittersweet tenderness, he offered the invitation to their most sensitive brother.
"Loz," Yazoo kept his voice quiet, not wanting to allow the unworthy the satisfaction of hearing his voice. "You play with the boring one."
Loz's face lit up with joy at the chance to play in such an exclusive game before the true realization of why he had been picked set in. Like a child, his eyebrows furrowed and he raised his voice. "Why does he get to have all the fun?!"
Kadaj smirked, adjusting his powdery white gloves across his wrists, securing them snugly. "Because I'm the oldest."
"By a few minutes!" Loz's emotional range seemed strange in contrast to his massive size. He easily outweighed—and out measured—both Yazoo and Kadaj, yet he was quick to let his feelings reign over him.
"Listen to me, brother," Kadaj stepped forward, never once taking his eyes off of Cloud. "We trust you to take out the trash. Then we can have our fun together. We've gotten so good at sharing, wouldn't you agree?"
Loz seemed to enjoy that answer. He smirked, crushing his knuckles together. He nodded. Zack gulped.
Cloud's shortsword shivered in his trembling grip. He swallowed, feeling his sweat pool across his skin. He knew this feeling. It felt impossibly different than it had before with Sephiroth, in the way no two dreams ever feel quite the same—but Cloud knew with all of his soul that he was having a nightmare. Foreign thoughts began to circle in his brain, as though his very mind were being stirred, rolled over, combed through. His memories began to waver; somewhere, in the three sets of eyes beyond human that stared into him, he felt a sense that they were picking through them, cataloging him. Before Cloud's breath could even shiver out of him, he witnessed Yazoo covering his mouth, laughing softly at Cloud's weakness and fear.
Cloud had selected this sword because it was simple, uniform. It lacked the complexity and showmanship of Zack's selection, but in this Cloud found a sense of comfort. It was a tool, an extension of himself. Though it currently fluttered in the empty air like a feather, Cloud reassured himself that it was merely a reflection of himself. He told himself to steel his mind, to fortify himself, to remind himself of how different the real signature of Sephiroth felt as it burned through him—the one that he would never dream of escaping.
He and Zack were at their peak of energy. They'd had a few days to recover, so none of their muscles stung. In fact, they begged to be used. Cloud didn't have a plan, but he figured he could manage the bare minimum required of this task—survival.
Zack and Cloud exchanged looks. Zack looked sicker than Cloud, struggling under the psychological pressure that the Princes exuded. Cloud smiled weakly. Don't give up.
A whistle blew, and the game was on.
Loz launched himself to Zack in one fluid motion. He seemed almost as if he were in flight, like a great cloud of thunder. Zack lept, rolling out of the way. He wasn't na ï ve enough to try to swing just yet. Loz brushed his lips with the back of his hand, the air crackling around him with an invisible energy. Zack felt himself shrinking anytime he made eye contact with those draconian eyes.
Cloud tried to watch both Kadaj and Zack's fight at once, unsure of where to place most of his attention. It seemed Kadaj was staying still, waiting for something. He shifted his full attention for just a split second to Zack and Loz and it was enough. Before Cloud could even blink, Kadaj was breathing against his neck, behind his shoulders, a dangerous and vulnerable position for the enemy to be in. Cloud gasped, flipping his head back to face the intruder but failing—Kadaj had vanished in a quick blur.
Cloud's heart raced. He felt as though he were going insane. With panic, he scanned all of the field as fast as he could, squinting to find a sign of Kadaj, of black smears in motion across the horizon. He found none. Kadaj was nowhere to be seen.
"Behind you," Kadaj sang, voice quavering in a low, teasingly mischievous whisper.
Cloud rolled backwards, slicing his blade down sharply into empty air. He could see plumes of shadowy feathers in his peripheral vision, but they faded as quickly as he could notice them. When Cloud swung his blade down again, Kadaj's laugh seemed to come from all angles, even raining down upon him from the heavens.
Loz purposefully baited Zack, the two bobbing and weaving together in a fight that looked more like a dance. Zack had a great command over his weapon, but it was hopeless. Loz let blows land, roaring with laughter at how the sword bounced off him—how, even with so little of his strength, he could slam his fists into the metal and it would ring out with a sharp clang, sending Zack soaring back on his feet.
Zack's—and Cloud's—weapons were essentially useless.
Cloud thought hard for a moment with the space within him that remained his own. Could the point of this test be to perform beyond their weapons? To discard that which was not necessary? He didn't have much time to wonder.
Kadaj flashed before his eyes, materializing like he'd rippled from a pool of water. His hand appeared first, taking Cloud's weapon into it as effortlessly as taking candy from a child. Before Cloud could blink, Kadaj sent it soaring to the opposite end of the arena, finding its place harpooned in the dirt. Cloud could never hope to reach it now.
Zack struggled against Loz until his blade buckled. The metal began to bend, looking like it were melting around Loz's fist as Zack stared in horror. The pooling liquid condensed, the replica Buster Sword buckling and bending into the source of the heat, dripping down into the ground with a sizzle. Zack absentmindedly released it from his grip, the fear taking hold of his mind. The sensation of hypnosis was like a warm honey he could no longer resist once the fear tore an entry point with its teeth.
Zack's weapon cracked to the ground and his arms went slack against his hips. Loz's grin grew at least two sizes and he hoisted a thick hand against Zack's neck, crushing it with a fierceness that sent Zack into black the moment he'd applied any force. He released him, no longer interested in the slightest with an unconscious playtoy and set his sights on Cloud.
Cloud wanted to scream.
Cloud tried to brace himself, struggling to hold his ground while Loz came soaring for him. Before Loz could reach him, however, Kadaj resurfaced. He struck Cloud firmly in the tenderness of his stomach, an unforgiving act of violence that took Cloud's breath away. Everything in Cloud's stomach spilled out to decorate the grass, his spit soaking into his uniform. His mind spun, swimming from lack of oxygen.
I won't give up.
He repeated it to himself like a mantra, feverish in his repetition. He couldn't hear Loz or Kadaj anymore, even though he could see that Loz certainly was talking to someone, upset about something. Cloud shakily brought his fists to his cheeks, pretending that he was fit to engage in battle against a man that could literally melt metal with his fists alone.
Loz rammed his fist into Cloud once and it was all over.
Sephiroth was sipping his favorite tea, sitting in his treasured study. He was immersed in an ever-growing stack of books, this particular stack including a number of nonfiction research journals on Nibelheim and its history. His interest in Cloud had ignited an interest in the circumstances of Cloud's life. He couldn't imagine what Cloud was like, but perhaps by combing through these pages he would be provided some means of perspective that would make this entire situation easier to understand.
Before he could get too immersed in his selection for tonight's leisure, two of his younger brothers came tumbling in through the large wooden doors. Sephiroth's frustration at being interrupted was palpable.
"We got to play with your dog first." Kadaj teased, overjoyed to hold anything over Sephiroth's head. He threw a ball of fabric at Sephiroth. It landed on his desk, unfurling into its true form. "You know, the one that we know you're always thinking about."
Sephiroth's anger exploded within him. There was no point to speak; they could see everything within his mind, and he theirs. Sephiroth experienced the flash of pleasure as he was granted the memory of Kadaj pummeling his fist into Cloud's abdomen. Jealousy washed over him. Kadaj giggled.
"Have fun!" Kadaj pulled on Loz's arm as though he were a domesticated pet.
"I got him really good too, you know." Loz looked proud, puffing out his chest while he was dragged out of the room.
Sephiroth stroked the black fabric that had now returned to its rightful shape on his desk. It was Cloud's uniform shirt, stained with saliva, still wet from his sweat. Sephiroth ran his fingers down it, imagining how it might feel against Cloud's skin.
Kadaj's memory pulsed in his mind, looping the exact moment where Cloud's flesh had caved and bent to Kadaj's body. Sephiroth gripped Cloud's stolen T-shirt tightly in his fist. Its smell was sweet, soothingly familiar, satisfying a deep and visceral craving that no writings on the boy's hometown could satisfy.
He definitely had a use for this.
He felt Kadaj and Loz shrink away, their glowing presence between the walls of their shared penthouse home fading further and further away until he knew for certain his mind was all his own.
Feeling the remains of what had come from Cloud Strife himself, that which had been inside of the boy himself, now one with the glossy material of his stolen uniform, made Sephiroth groan. The very cells in his body craved it with urgency. Before he'd realized, he'd laid his palm flat against it, pressing into it as though it were the only salve for his many wounds.
His nails dug into it, tearing crescent shaped slices into the material before he regained his composure, realizing that he wouldn't be offered another gift like this for quite some time.
Sephiroth acknowledged that they were scraps, ridicule from his younger siblings who looked at him with jealousy and resentment, but they could never understand the way his body responded to Cloud and everything that Cloud had grown to represent. There was a morally perfect, profound truth to the entire world as he'd ever known it, a secret locked inside the shape of that perfectly ordinary boy, a string of words Sephiroth felt but could never understand. This special hatred, this wonderful disgust, the sickest pleasure he'd ever known, drummed through his body the more he'd contemplated it.
Sephiroth clutched the shirt furiously in his grip, stepping into the adjoining room. He closed the door behind him and turned the lock.