Chapter Fifteen


Cloud groggily rolled onto his side, burying his face deeper into the pillow as he felt the sun rays warming him through the window. He felt more content than usual, and more refreshed, as though he had gotten the first good night's sleep he'd had in quite some time. Despite feeling well rested, however, he didn't want to pull away from the comfort of the bed just yet- it felt too much as though he was leaving a rather pleasant dream. Then he thought, Wait, what bed?

He sat up straight, and for a frightening moment couldn't place where he was until he recognized it as his and Zacks' room in Lavitia, though he didn't see the other man anywhere. The previous night returned to his memory. That's right, we were on the beach… how'd I get back to the room? Most likely, he thought, he'd fallen dead asleep and Zacks had carried him back. Embarrassing… He rolled out of the bed, realized he was still in the clothes he was wearing the night before, and made his way to the bathroom.

Pulling his shirt off over his head, he caught a whiff of a familiar scent and realized it was the cologne Zacks had been wearing last night. He sort of stopped and stared at the shirt in his hand for a moment, almost as though he'd never seen it before. Then he turned to set it down on the counter top, his left hand subconsciously drifting upward to run through his hair as he looked at the mirror- and stopped. He remembered the comforting feeling of Zacks stroking his hair as they lay at the beach, and ruffled it with his hand a bit as though mocking the sensation. He took hold of a strand, watching himself twist it a bit with his fingers in the mirror, then turned red and told himself to stop being dumb as he realized he would have liked to have woken up the same way he had fallen asleep.

He looked away from the mirror, casting his gaze downwards and rubbing his eyes, and caught sight of something on the counter between his fingers. A note…? He reached for the piece of paper curiously and recognized Zacks' handwriting, reading it aloud in his mind. Hey, Spike! Sleep well? Sorry for getting you all sandy. Had to run off to take care of a few things, but I'll be around later. Meeting this evening with Rufus to discuss the next plan of action. Keep out of trouble, eh? –Zacks

Cloud frowned, disappointed- he wanted to see him. Where had he gone off to so early?

P.S., the note continued, Oh, yeah. At the beach last night? You looked like an angel. A small, smiley scribble followed the last sentence.

Gah! Cloud quickly moved to set the note back down on the counter, fumbling and almost dropping it in the process. Suddenly, he could hear the man's affectionate whisper in his head, speaking the words he had almost missed on the verge of unconsciousness: You know, Cloud… I really do like you an awful lot. His heart skipped a beat and he tightened his grip on the edge of the counter, unable to tell whether the feeling in his stomach was delight or fear. He released the counter-top, told himself to get a grip, and decided to figure it out after he was clean.

After he'd finished and stepped out of the bathroom, he sighed, trying to figure out what he should do in the meantime, since Zacks wasn't there. He rubbed his temple as he felt a slight headache coming on, and then frowned as he remembered the strange headache he'd gotten the night before, after leaving the rose garden. That hadn't seemed very normal at all- especially because of those vibrant flashes of light he had seen the moment he closed his eyes. Where did they seem familiar from? Ah-! That's it! They were like that dream he'd had- way back in Gavriel, after passing out from accidentally drinking from Ras' dragon's breath. He'd had that bizarre dream about Hojo- before he'd hardly met the man, really. It had those same flashes of light in strangely vivid color. Well, that's odd…

Cloud frowned. It had to be just a coincidence, because there was nothing in common between when he'd had the dream and when he'd had the headache last night. Unless there was something as potent as dragon's breath in one of the food's he'd tried last night, which he doubted. He snorted- knowing his luck, he was probably just allergic to roses or something. The important thing now was that he remembered he had better see Hojo. It had been a while, and he didn't want to fall behind with his magic or give the man any more reasons to be bitter.

As he stepped out into the hallway, he decided he would try to find Hojo on his own, instead of looking for someone who might know where he was, since he wanted to see more of the building anyway. That, and he was sort of hoping he might run into Zacks somewhere along the way.


"…And just what seems to be the problem?"

Cloud flinched at Hojo's voice from over his shoulder, and hesitated to reply. He had, to his chagrin, found the alchemist rather quickly. It seemed he was only lucky when he didn't want to be.

"I…er…can't do it," Cloud offered pitifully as he turned around to face those cold spectacles.

"You can't use fire?" The man pressed.

"I can get it started- sort of- but not every time and not enough for any practical purposes. I've tried, I just- it's hard…" Today, of course, had to be the day when Hojo would ask him to use fire. And he, of course, still hadn't gotten grasp of it.

"If you can use it at all, you can improve. Maybe if you practiced more and spent less time frolicking around with that sword-swinging buffoon-"

"-Shut up! What has Zacks got to do with it?" Cloud snapped angrily, cutting the other man off. Insults were nothing new as far as Hojo and Zacks were concerned, but Cloud wasn't about to let the alchemist blame his own inability with fire on Zacks.

Hojo was quiet, and as Cloud watched the other man narrow his eyes at him, he realized he had never talked back to the man before, and wondered if he had just pressed the wrong button.

The alchemist was studying the blonde, displeased- it almost felt as though the boy was about to slip outside of his control. "…Nothing. Absolutely nothing."

Cloud felt himself release his breath as he thought the other man was going to drop it…

"…Or at least, that's how it should be." Hojo's face suddenly turned more frightening than before, "But you, you insolent little whelp, are going to be just as bad as he is at this rate. You don't appreciate the gift you have- not like you used to, perhaps not at all. Perhaps I was mistaken, Cloud, in thinking you wanted to harness the abilities laid out before you, waiting for you, if only you put in the effort to reach out for them!" He spoke quickly and heatedly, practically sputtering out the last of it, "You can't do it, you say? You can't do it, or it's not worth your time?"


"Don't you interrupt me, boy, I'm not finished yet," The man hissed angrily as he stepped closer, closing the distance between the two and not allowing him to get a word in edgewise. "Do you have any idea how many years I worked, how many years I strained, to capture even a glimmer of the possibilities that lay before you? And yet, distracted by some over-zealous swordsman, you run about leisurely, the time you spend doing anything purposeful split between magical skill and other, mundane training that is good for violence alone! Spending time learning other skills, with out full dedication of the rest of your time to practicing, will obviously hinder your magical improvement. Obviously that blundering idiot you spend so much time with would have you think otherwise, so yes, he does have something to do with it- quite a lot, I'd say." "

Cloud stared. What…? Where did that even come from? Did he not want Cloud to practice swordsmanship and hand to hand? Just because it took up time, or because it meant he spent more time with Zacks? And running about leisurely? Now Cloud was pretty sure that was Hojo he spotted at the party last night- doing what, keeping an eye on him?

"…We made a deal, Hojo, that's why I'm here. I help you with your lab work, you help me improve my abilities with magic. So, if you want me to practice more… then that's all you need to say." Cloud's voice was calm, but his eyes told a different story. Who did Hojo think he was? Was he really watching Cloud at the party, and if so… what the hell? The blonde didn't flinch as Hojo seemed to somehow look him over without the man's eyes ever leaving his own. What he did with his time, whether wasting it or otherwise, was his own damn business. If Hojo felt he needed to spend more time practicing, then that was all he really had a right to comment about.

"…Don't you understand?" The alchemist questioned darkly. "Whatever study you choose to dedicate yourself to, it is meaningless unless you go as far as you can- push its boundaries as far as you are able! See where it can really take you! You're talent obviously lies with magic, so naturally that's where your dedication should lie."

Cloud was not going to say 'yes, sir' and bow his head, as he was sure the alchemist wanted. Not this time. "My dedication should lie where I see fit, and again, if you want me to practice more, that's all you have to say- you're my instructor for magic, not my life-"

"It should be your life!" The alchemist snapped, backing away until he reached the bookshelf behind him. "And I thought it was! "One of the reasons I suggested our little arrangement was because I thought we saw eye to eye on that, Cloud- something essential for efficiency amongst multiple individuals working together-!"

"Seeing eye to eye with something is different from being exactly the-!"

"As your instructor, your mentor, I can see more clearly the effects your decisions will have on your future, decipher more accurately what is in your best interest-!"

"My best interest or yours-!"

"They are one in the same, boy!" Hojo shouted before further narrowing his eyes and clasping his hands behind his back, "Just as they always have been! I don't think you even realize the disrespect you are showing me as my pupil-!"

Cloud snarled, meeting the man's hardened glare, "As your pupil, not your puppet-! Ahg!" Suddenly pain laced through his temples, and he felt his knees buckle underneath him, familiar flashes of colored light bursting behind his tightly closed eyelids. It was like the headache he had gotten last night, only far worse. He tried to crack an eye open, but amidst the pain found he couldn't even see. Shit! Shitshitshit! Why now! He began to feel nauseous, and wondered vaguely if his mind was going to explode…

"..oud? Cloud, can you hear me? Look at me, boy- that's better. Are you alright?"

Cloud lifted his head to see Hojo kneeling in front of him, searching the boy's features with what looked like concern. "Did… did I pass out?"

"You may have, briefly…" Hojo frowned, and took hold of Cloud's arm, "Here, come sit…" Cloud didn't really want the other man anywhere near him, but he didn't trust himself to stand on his own, so he didn't say anything, allowing himself to be led to a chair. "You must have gotten yourself too excited- it's very unlike you, you know."

"…Yeah… I guess," Cloud replied uncertainly, trying to piece together what could be going on with his head.

"Now, let's not let ourselves be so at odds with each other. We have…different opinions of Zacks, but I was merely trying to express my concerns… many individuals your age seem to loose track of themselves easily, and regret it later. There's no reason to get so worked up..."

Cloud wasn't really listening to what the man was saying, more concerned with his own thoughts at the moment. That had really hurt, and speculating wasn't really getting him anywhere. Maybe he should ask Hojo- the man would be more likely to have heard something about it, he figured…

"Uh, Hojo," Cloud spoke up, making the alchemist pause middle of whatever he had been saying, which must not have been that important, "Something sort of similar happened last night, but it wasn't as bad. Both times, though, I saw a lot of bright flashes of color... I was wondering if you might know what's going on…"

Hojo raised a curious brow, "Last night was the first time it happened?"

"Um…" Cloud considered mentioning the dream in Gavriel the flickering colors reminded him of, but decided it was too likely it was just a coincidence, being a Dragon's breath induced dream and all, and he didn't want to sound stupid. "Yeah. Just last night."

"What were you doing when it happened the first time?"

"Just... I was at the party, and was sort of taking a break from it in the gardens. That's it."

"There's a good chance it is just stress, then. Consider: You just finished a long trip here to Lavitia, this is an unfamiliar climate your body may still be adjusting to, just now you were more than a little upset, and last night, when you were 'taking a break', it may have been a delayed reaction to dealing with such a large amount of people."

Or having that stranger try to kiss me, Cloud thought wryly but kept to himself.

"Little things are probably acting as a last straw. As for the flashes of color, they may be similar to when individuals have mild stress-induced hallucinations. It will probably just ride out with time, I doubt it's anything to worry about."

"…Yeah, thanks. Um… about fire magic," Cloud brought up tentatively, "Should I just focus on that, and let you know when I've gotten a hold on it, or…?"

Hojo adjusted his spectacles, "No, no, we can still work on other things in the meantime. In fact, for now, perhaps it would be best to try wind..."

"Wind?" Cloud raised a brow. He hadn't tried that yet, and though he wanted nothing more than to get out of here as quickly as possible a moment ago, his curious side was now more interested in staying here.

"Yes. If you can work with wind well, you may be able to use it as a crutch for your fire magic- temporarily, of course. But first you'll have to get used to the wind element." Seeing the blonde's interest, Hojo continued, "Drawing it out is supposed to similar to water. Here," he headed over to his many shelves, scanning over a few until he found the one he was looking for. "I'll lend you this for now; it may help you with fire as well."

Cloud's eyes lit up as he caught sight of the author, taking the book gingerly, "One of Ghast's books…"

"If I recall correctly, you've said before he was one of your favorite authors. I do not lend out books from my personal collection- this is a rare exception. Now go on, I have personal matters to attend to in the meantime."

"O-of course…thank you…" Cloud quietly slipped off the chair and headed towards the door, somewhat transfixed by the book in his hands.

Hojo sat down at his desk, lacing his fingers together and resting his chin on his hands as he watched the boy leave from behind his spectacles. As the door closed shut, he gave it an ugly glare, ruminating over what had just occurred. He would have to be careful, thanks to the influence of that stupid swordsman. It was hard enough as it was, trying to find someone with the necessary skills who was easy to manipulate- and by both accounts, Cloud was more than he could have hoped for. Stupid boy. When a puppet tries to cut its strings… it only falls.


Cloud leaned on the thin railing, looking out over the indoor courtyard he'd found. He was still worked up from the argument with Hojo, and felt conflicted with the desire to yell at something and the desire to curl up and hide somewhere. And now he wasn't sure what to do with himself. Running his thumb lightly over the edge of the book's binding brought him some comfort, and he turned his attention away from the courtyard to admire it. It may have been Hojo's property, but it was Ghast's work, and he had always taken comfort in that man's words back home. He was amazed Hojo had actually lent it to him- he supposed it was the alchemist's way of apologizing. And it worked, too. In fact, he realized as he gently opened the cover and ran his hand down the first page, he couldn't help but think of Ghast affectionately- almost like the father he'd never had. The blonde smirked at himself for that, considering he'd never met the man. …God, I'm pathetic. He sighed, closing the book and pulling away from the railing. Before anything else, he decided, he should go back to the room and drop off the book to make sure nothing happened to it.

When he'd made his way back, he discovered there was still no sign of Zacks. He put the book safely away with his things and wandered out on the balcony into the midday sun. He held up his hand and glared at it for a moment, before trying fire magic again… and failing miserably. Damn it. It always felt as though he was so close to gaining control, and then it just slipped away. He didn't want to try helping it along with wind just yet, because it took all of his concentration just to get the pathetic flicker he was currently managing- using two elements at the same time would be out of the question unless he was as comfortable with them as he was with lightning and ice. Frustrated, he sat down with his legs crossed and repeatedly tried again. This continued for about twenty minutes before he realized he wasn't getting anywhere, and was having more trouble focusing than usual- probably because, for one, he was still unsettled from his argument with Hojo, and for two, because he was still thinking about Zacks. He stood up, shaking his head and stepping back into their room. Time to start on that book, just to settle his mind if nothing else.

It worked, for a little while. Ghast's words were just as intriguing and comforting as usual, often managing to insert a bit of humor and personality into what would otherwise have been dry. But the book had been in Hojo's care so long that the scent of his lab- a scent Cloud hadn't been aware of until he recognized it just now- had embedded itself into the bindings. Once recognized, the harder it became to ignore, and he had to give up on reading in the hopes that he would manage better later. It wasn't that he wasn't grateful to the man for lending it to him, he just didn't want to think about earlier that morning.

He stood up, rubbing the back of his head with one hand as he looked around the room. Then he realized that was something Zacks always did, and quickly dropped his arm.

...I really do like you an awful lot, the other man's voice echoed in his mind, and suddenly he felt sick, a multitude of voices rising up in his head. What if you were only dreaming? That was not a dream. He was joking. That was not a joking voice. He didn't mean anything by it. He meant –something- alright, or he wouldn't have said it. He's fooling you, playing with you- He wouldn't do that. –Just wants to get a reaction out of you. Stop it. He's not like that. Then what is he like? Perfect? Why would he be interested in someone like you? Shut up- I don't know- I don't know. Even if he wasn't kidding, he flirts with everyone. Don't think you're something special that can't be discarded-! Shut up! Shut up, you're just scared-! Shut up! You don't mean anything to him! Shut up- Shut up- Shut up- Shut up-!

"Shut UP!" Cloud shouted, hands going to the sides of his head as he ducked down, almost curling into himself. There was a moment of silence after that, and Cloud pulled his hands away from his head as he slumped back against the wall behind him. So were his insecurities driving him to insanity now? He slung up an arm to smack himself on the forehead, "Fuck- Ow!" He looked at his hand in confusion, the light smack having hurt his skin more than it should. And with dawning realization, he realized that on top of everything else that had made this day quite horrible enough, he must have managed to get sunburn while he was out on the balcony earlier. You have got to be kidding me… Closing his eyes, his hand reflexively went to smack his forehead again at the ridiculousness of it all, and he immediately regretted doing so. "OW-!" …I am an idiot.

He climbed back to his feet, breathed out heavily, and decided it was time to get out of the room again- maybe he should get some air in that courtyard he passed earlier. He stepped out the door, and as he walked the halls, he tried his best not to think about today being one of the worst days he'd ever had, and tried even harder not to think about how it wasn't over yet. In fact, he was trying so hard not to think about it, he wasn't really looking as he turned the corner and walked face-first into someone else, knocking himself backwards to land on his butt in the process.

"I'm sorry, I-!" As he looked up, he froze, recognizing the familiar face. That Turk…Tseng… That's right. The one he'd met the same day he'd lost his mother. He stared sort of stupidly, not sure what to say.

The Turk went down on one knee to be at Cloud's level, and smiled. "Just who I was looking for. I've got something for you," he reached inside his jacket and took out a crisp, sealed letter, holding it out to him.

Cloud paused, reaching a hand to take the letter before leaning back to decrease their proximity, "Uh…thanks…"

Tseng seemed to watch him a moment longer, before standing and offering him a hand. Cloud hesitated- after all, he was a Turk, and the more encounters he had with them, the less he knew what to think of them. Not wanting to be rude, however, he gently tucked the letter in his pocket and accepted the help to his feet, then stood there a bit awkwardly, once again not knowing what to say. The man moved to walk past him, patting him twice on the shoulder, stopping when he was at Cloud's side. "…Keep getting stronger, Cloud."

And then he walked off, leaving Cloud confused. That seemed to be a theme today. Cloud turned to lean against the wall and closed his eyes a moment, briefly wondering if the world was conspiring against him, before heading off to find that courtyard. It didn't take him long before he found himself leaning on the familiar railing, listening to the trickling noises of the nearby fountains. Then, right next to his ear, he heard someone say, "Boo."

He nearly had a heart attack as he jumped what felt like two feet in the air, whipping around to see a rather pleased Zacks laughing at him. "Gah! You…" He was about to yell at him, but then realized that he didn't really care. He was just happy to finally see him, heart attack or no.

"Man, someone's a little tense!" Zacks flashed him a grin and Cloud's heart skipped a beat. Expecting some sort of response, Zacks raised his brows with concern as he boy just stared at him, "Oi, Spike…you okay?"

The day's stress seemed to hit him all at once like a brick wall, and without give a damn, Cloud threw his arms around the taller man's waist, closing his eyes tight.

"Whoa-ho…hey there, buddy…" Zacks was surprised- this was a first. He lifted a hand to run it over the hair of the boy whose face was buried in his chest, and looked down at him fondly, wrapping his other arm around the blonde's shoulders. "…Bad day?" he spoke warmly.

Cloud didn't bother saying anything, leaving his silence as confirmation. They stood like that for a few minutes, before Cloud pulled away and looked at him, "…Bad day."

Zacks just grinned and ruffled the boy's hair, before noticing the paper sticking out of his pocket. "Hey, Whassat?" he asked, pointing to it.

"Oh…" Cloud had been so thrown off by running into Tseng that he'd forgotten about what the Turk had given him. "That's…a good question, actually." Zacks quirked a brow as Cloud pulled out the small, sealed letter, and narrowed his eyes as he thought he recognized the stationary. Cloud didn't protest as Zacks moved to look over his shoulder and read it as well.

Dear Cloud,

I feel I owe you an apology for the way I acted last night in the gardens. I'm afraid I wasn't quite myself at the time, as I may have been a bit under alcohol's influence. I do, however, remember our conversation quite clearly, and I enjoyed your company very much.

Oh boy. It was this guy again. The letter continued,

I was hoping you would come to see me this afternoon in my personal study, on the third floor in the eastern-most wing, so that I might apologize in person as well as properly introduce myself.

Hoping to speak with you again soon,

Cloud squinted at the elaborate signature, R…Rufus Shinra. Oh. Wait a minute- "WHAT THE HELL!

"That's what'd I'd like know!" exclaimed Zacks, "When the hell were you talking to Rufus?" Oh, that son of a bitch…

Cloud made a pitiful noise of disbelief, looking at the note again, "…Last night, apparently. I didn't know it was him! He seemed sort of stressed and… I don't know, awkward?" Like your one to talk, he chided himself.

"Awkward?" Zacks blinked, "Rufus? Man, I guess he wasn't kidding about having knocked back a few…" Zacks reached to look at the note himself and Cloud let the man have it, walking away a few steps and rubbing his eyes.

Zacks looked over the words again and inwardly growled. He knew how Rufus's mind worked, and he didn't like this. He looked over to where Cloud was now pacing, and was pretty sure Rufus didn't mention his name on purpose. He could use it as a trump card.

Cloud, meanwhile, was trying to run through anything and everything he probably shouldn't have done. What exactly had he said last night? He was sure he was ruder then he should been- how had he been supposed to know? Sure, the guy was dressed nice, but- Oh god, Cloud thought, stopping his pacing as realization dawned on him, Rufus Shinra tried to kiss me. He paled.

"So…" Zacks walked to Cloud's side with a questioning tone, "What exactly did you talk about…?"

"I don't even know- nothing, really…" He really could hardly remember anything other than the fact that the man had tried to kiss him, now- the conversation had been sort of silly, as far as he could recall. "Just random questions- roses, crowds, money, that's about it," he replied exasperatedly.

"That's about it?"

"Yeah, that's about it, why?"

Zacks was frowning as he handed the letter back to him, "…Maybe you shouldn't go."

"What! How can I not go! I don't have the excuse of not knowing who he is anymore, I can't just ignore the letter! The last thing I need is to be on Rufus Shinra's bad side! I need to apologize- I didn't know who I was talking to, I probably said something I shouldn't have!"

"Yeah, yeah…" That's how he wants you to think, Zacks thought as he ran a hand through his hair. He was disgruntled. Rufus was trying to be competition. "Smarmy little… Cloud, he's a jerk. And he's manipulative."

Cloud quirked a brow- Zacks sounded put off. "…Okay…"

"Just… I don't know. Just watch out for him, alright? Don't trust him. He sends out asshole vibes, you can feel it as soon as you get near him. Even if he was nice last night, trust me. Asshole. He likes to buy people, y'know?"

"I never said he was nice. Just sort of there, and we only talked because he was hard to get away from- it's not like I'm trying to make friends with the guy, or something."

"…Okay. Well. Good." He probably just wants to hit on you, anyway.

"…So…I'm going to go take care of this now, I guess…" As Cloud turned to leave, he frowned- he'd only gotten to see Zacks for all of five minutes, "Are you going to be around?"

"Of course! I've wanted to bug you all day, you think you can get rid of me that fast? I'll be waiting back in the room for you, so make it quick or I'll come and drag you out of there." Literally, Zacks thought to himself, giving Cloud a little salute as the boy regretfully walked away. He wasn't kidding, either- the pompous prick was moving in on the wrong territory, and Zacks wasn't going to give him a chance.