BUTTERFLY EFFECT by Bard Linn and Kiraya

Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all associated characters and symbols are the exclusive property of Square Enix and its associates. We're just borrowing them for a while.

When they reached the southern coast, they found a surprise waiting for them.

"Cid!" Cloud blinked in surprise. "What are you doing here?"

"Pres wants you four back in Midgar pronto. I think he's pissed." He took a long drag on his cigarette. "Let's go — the Highwind'sgot a stall for the birds. I've been told if I don't bring 'em back with ya I'll have trouble from a Turk."

Zack chuckled. Turk trouble was a terrifying warning for most, but Cid looked merely irritated. "Well, we'd better hurry, then."

"Yo, kid." Cid flicked his finger at Cloud. "Make sure you come around some time, awright? You never visited once you woke up, and I said I'd teach you how to fly."

"I already know how to fly," Cloud said, and laughed as Cid rolled his eyes. "But yeah, I'll drop by. Sorry about not visiting sooner — things have been a bit crazy."

The trip was surprisingly fast on the Highwind. Zack tried not to fidget, though he ended up pacing nervously; Cloud, on the other hand, seemed perfectly at ease, wandering around the ship and asking questions whenever he wasn't checking on the birds.

"How can you be so calm?" Zack finally snapped. While he didn't regret doing what needed to be done, he was nervous about facing up to it. The saying might've gone "better to ask forgiveness than permission," but ShinRa was stingy with both, and the President could make their lives pretty miserable without lifting a finger against them.

"Don't you remember? Unlike the rest of you, I'm currently unemployed." Cloud grinned as Zack's eyes widened. "They can't do anything to me without putting me out of commission permanently — and I've heard it from the President's own mouth he wants me back. They'll probably just shove the reenlistment forms in my face the moment we land."

Zack gave him a dirty look. "Not fair."

Cloud shrugged. "I didn't reenlist when I realized we would need to take care of Jenova." He paused. "…and some other things."

Unwilling to let Cloud slip into a pensive mode — a leftover from dealing with Sephiroth all these years — Zack threw his arm around Cloud. "So, then, we'll get you signed up again the minute we're back. Hey, you know they promoted you to First, right?"

"No." Cloud looked surprised. "…That was for dying, wasn't it? They won't keep it."

Zack rolled his eyes. "Cloud, you just managed to obliterate a nasty that's been preying on the Planet for who knows how long. You can fight Sephirothto a standstill, especially if you've got access to materia. If anyone deserves to be a First, it's you."

Cloud smiled. "Maybe."

"Look lively, boys!" Cid announced over the PA system. "ShinRa Tower, dead ahead!"

Fifteen minutes later Zack snapped off a sharp salute, Sephiroth doing the same beside him. Vincent, for his part, merely nodded.

Rufus Shinra did not ask them to sit. "Running off without permission. Stealing valuable property. Endangering company personnel. Do you three have anything to say for yourselves?"

"No, sir," Sephiroth replied calmly. Zack had wanted to protest that they had reason to do what they had done, but Sephiroth and Vincent had overruled him. If Shinra wanted their reasons, he'd ask for them.

Rufus slowly looked each of them in the eye; Zack fought the urge to fidget under that level gaze. "I should demote you all and make you go through basic training again with the green recruits, since you clearly need to be reminded of basic protocols… but that would be pointless, and we all know it. So: This incident will be noted in your permanent records, and you will be put on probationary pay with reduced benefits for at least the next six months. You will be assigned extra duty hours, and your access to company transportation is, effective immediately, suspended for the duration of your probation. Do notthink you'll be getting off lightly for this."

"No, sir," Sephiroth repeated.

"Before you go, one more thing." Rufus laid out two photos on his desk so they could see them. One showed a fire-ravaged vacation home; the other captured some sort of melted equipment. "Fires broke out in both the company villa at Costa del Sol and the underwater reactor at Junon. Forensics indicate an extremely hot flame consumed something organic in nature at both locations. There is no sign of the origin of the fire, but our tests tell us it was similar to a Fire spell, albeit much more powerful."

"Jenova?" Zack wondered aloud — and snapped his mouth shut as Shinra's gaze settled on him.

"The one in Junon," he continued, as if he hadn't been interrupted, "was close to a critical junction that fed into the city's water supply; though the pipes in that area show signs of damage, thus far it seems that no contaminants actually entered the system. As for as the villa, Lady Kisaragi and I were supposed to honeymoon there."

She had been getting ready to infect more people, Zack realized, though this time he managed to keep his revelation to himself. She might have been able to spread via the water supply in Junon, and the villa… if she had managed to get the most powerful man on the planet and his wife under her thumb, it would've been a nightmare. She could've spread more rapidly than ever before, disguised as a vaccination of some sort…

That was when Zack realized that Shinra had figured out, somehow, that what they had done was absolutely necessary, that their running off had put an end to things before it was too late… and they were still going to be punished for it! Zack clenched his teeth, and tried to stop his fists from doing likewise. Stupid bastard and his goddamned "keeping it up for appearances" bullshit…

But it had needed to be done. If they'd had waited, Sephiroth or Cloud — or even Zack himself — might have succumbed to Jenova's calls. Or maybe Jenova might have succeeded in infecting the people of Junon. It sucked that they were being punished for doing the right thing, but he wasn't going to regret it.

Shinra, ignoring Zack's not-so-subtle anger, handed Sephiroth a folder. "Make sure to give this to Strife when you see him. Dismissed."

Zack managed to wait until they were in the elevator before he began to curse the President and all of his ancestors. "I can't believe it. He knowswe did what we had to! He had proof! And yet he's still punishing us! It's just not fair!"

"Life's not fair," Sephiroth said bluntly. "We violated the regulations. He has to punish us for it, or else set an example of leniency that might encourage others to follow suit for things they personally deem life-threatening." He laid a hand on Zack's shoulder. "Don't take it personally."

"It still sucks." Zack sighed, but tried to let it go, changing the subject. "What was that he gave you, anyway?"

Sephiroth opened the folder… and smiled. "Cloud's reenlistment forms, already filled out. All he needs to do is sign them."

"Well, you didn't do half bad by them, I'll give you that," Reno grudgingly allowed as he finished checking over the four birds they had 'borrowed.'

"We did try to keep them well fed, and they certainly got enough exercise." Cloud tried not to fidget guiltily. He really wasn't comfortable with stealing, especially from someone who he had a weird not-quite-friends working partnership with. Even if it had been necessary at the time.

"They're probably in better shape now than when they left," Reno admitted. "Sure you don't want to be a jockey?"

"No thanks," Cloud replied. "I got plans."

"Gonna reenlist, huh? Good. You can help keep Sephiroth in line. Guy's enough to drive anyone crazy — I'll never understand how Zack can handle him day after day." Reno dusted off his hands. "Where's the fifth?"

"Fifth?" Cloud echoed, looking at him blankly.

"Damn." Reno sighed. "I was hoping it was you — five birds went missing around the same time. And her Ladyship, Little Miss Stickyfingers, is missing, too." He muttered a curse. "First my materia, now one of my birds… you haven't seen her, have you?"

"No, but that doesn't mean anything. I hear she's a pretty good ninja, so I might not've noticed her even if she was there same time we were." And to be fair, he hadbeen a bit distracted at the time, worrying about space viruses and purification spells and stuff.

"Even with that legendary SOLDIER sight?" Reno snorted, leaving the airship's small stable with Cloud at his heels. "Guess it ain't all it's cracked up to be."

"I hear that wall on the 38th floor's getting lonely again," Cloud said archly. "You want me to help you get reacquainted with it?"

Reno shook his head. "Please. That some sort of Nibelheim greeting or something?"

Cloud blinked. "Uh, not to my knowledge. Why?"

"Tifa did the same damn thing!"

Cloud snickered, and won a dirty look for it. "I'm sure she did it with only the best intentions."

"Figures you'd side with her." Reno sighed. "Tseng partnered her with Rude, would you believe it? It wasn't even his turn for a trainee!"

"Somehow I think you'll manage to survive the injustice." They reached a junction, and while Reno headed to the bridge — probably to wheedle his way into free transportation for the birds to either the ranch or the Saucer — Cloud headed for the exit. He figured the others would've been out of Shinra's office by now… and he'd have some paperwork to fill out.

Cloud walked into one of the SOLDIER lounges to a burst of applause. "All right, lookin' good!" Paul said with a smile.

Cloud smiled crookedly, and tugged on his new uniform — dark purple, as befitting a SOLDIER First Class. It wasn't all that different from his old Second uniform, but it still felt strange… probably because he hadn't worn one in almost four years.

Scott slapped him on the back. "It's about time — welcome back!"

"It's good to be back." Cloud grinned at his friends. Zack had insisted on throwing this party once he'd signed the papers yesterday. He'd wanted to do it immediately, but Cloud had put his foot down for postponing it at least until the next day. Zack, realizing it'd probably take that long for him to get his new uniforms, had capitulated. Cloud had taken the time to pick out a set of quarters — not far from either Sephiroth's or Zack's — and move all of his few belongings, as well as get some sleep; he was still worn out from using the Soulfire.

Finally, he'd made one brave trip into the science wing, where, at his request, Matheson had performed a single test. The results had apparently been remarkable, the J-cells changed in such a way that they were still 'active' but no longer working in the distinctive patterns that marked them as Jenova's. Matheson hypothesized that the cells were somehow becoming uniquely attuned to Cloud, and had started going about getting Zack and Sephiroth in for tests. Cloud hadn't had the heart to enlighten him on how difficult that would be. He knew Matheson meant well — and wasn't likely to use samples from them in experiments on others, unlike his predecessor — but… honestly, after his ordeal, he was probably always going to be on guard around scientists. They all would.

Aside from that, though, Cloud had been concerned about the upcoming group of SOLDIER cadets. He remembered going through the process, and recalled the hopes and dreams that every cadet had. With Jenova gone, would the enhancements still even be possible? Thankfully, Matheson had been able to reassure him on that matter. While no portion of active Jenova cells had managed to survive her wholesale destruction, it seemed the genetically reassembled pieces used in SOLDIER adaptations hadn't been psychically connected to the main body, as Shinra's supply was untouched. They would have to run tests to see what would change, in current SOLDIERs and new, and there would never be another Sephiroth, Zack, or Cloud… but for now SOLDIER would remain viable.

Thanking them again, Cloud left Scott and Paul to wander the room. A number of other SOLDIERs greeted him warmly, especially former mission partners and commanders. Joren, his last roommate, handed him a beer. "So, finally got back to work, huh?" he teased.

Cloud smiled. He had hardly been goofing off, even if almost no one knew so. "Something like that. Good to see you — things work out with your new roommate?"

"Yeah, Mark's great. Tried for First, but didn't make the cut either, so we're going to be bunking together for a while. May even try that partner program of Zack's." Joren took a sip of his own drink. "Things being what they are, though, a bunch of us are thinking we need a Zero Class, with a new uniform. Maybe black leather."

Cloud blinked. "Uh… why?"

"Because you and Zack are miles beyond the rest of the Firsts, that's why. I caught one of your fights with Sephiroth — it was amazing, considering you weren't even using materia." Joren elbowed him. "Besides, I bet Zack would like you in leather."

Cloud blushed scarlet, much to his embarrassment. "It's not—!"

Grinning, Joren amicably punched him in the shoulder. "Sure, whatever you say. Anyway, think about it. I'll see you around. Enjoy the party!"

Cloud watched him leave, feeling strangely unsettled. He knew that he and Zack were more like Sephiroth now because of Jenova's influence, but he hadn't realized the others had picked up on that difference as well. What Joren had said was clearly meant to be a compliment, but it left him feeling more than a little lonely.

Spotting two figures whose eyes didn't glow, he shook himself out of his funk and approached them. "Hey! I thought this was a SOLDIER-only party!"

"Yeah, well, we thought we'd visit and check on you." Arthur shook his hand firmly. "You look great."

"Thanks to the both of you." Cloud gave Morgan a careful hug. "You guys kept me together long enough to let my mind wander back."

"Even if you did go running off on a mission before we cleared you." Morgan shook her finger in a shaming motion, though she was clearly joking.

"Not an official one — that's why I'm not in trouble." Cloud smirked, and Morgan hit him on the shoulder. "Hey! Shouldn't you be a little more careful?"

She flushed, one hand moving to rest lightly over her stomach. "I can't believe you can tell already. That's so unfair!" Arthur wrapped an arm around her shoulders, looking proud enough to burst.

"Better sight that most, remember?" Cloud smiled at them. He didn't mention how he'd felt something different about Morgan the moment he'd touched her — like he'd just known, somehow. "Congratulations."

"You're the first to know," Arthur told him. "Maybe we'll name him — or her — Cloud. It's the least we could do. After all, if it weren't for you, we probably would never have met."

"For the love of Odin, don't name your kid after me! They'll be teased forever!" Cloud laughed. "You have no idea what I went through as a kid because of it."

"I don't know." Morgan smiled. "I have the feeling you'll be pretty famous by the time he or she is in school. The name might see a surge in popularity, even."

Cloud shook his head. "Who'd want to name a kid after me?"

Arthur's smile matched his wife's now. "You'd be surprised."

Aeris had wanted to speak to Cloud the minute she learned he'd survived using the Soulfire; unfortunately, one thing after another delayed their conversation. First Cloud had to both recover from his exertions and return to Midgar. After that, he reenlisted — and while they'd had the chance to briefly speak at his party, it hadn't offered much privacy, and Aeris had no intention of discussing her heritage with strangers in room. Then the SOLDIER exams had struck, and while Cloud didn't have extra duty sessions like his comrades, he often stayed late with them in Sephiroth's office or studied recruits in Zack's place, since Zack apparently still had to work on his SOLDIER partnership program even while the exams progressed. Aeris didn't know if Zack had begged for help or if Cloud had just opted in of his own will, but the result was the same either way: he was tied up with work from early in the morning until late into the night.

Yesterday, however, the exams had finally ended. All of the newly confirmed SOLDIERs had a day of rest before beginning training and their adaptation schedules. Once Cloud had called Aeris to let her know, she had promptly planned a picnic.

The little park she had chosen was one of the older ones below the Plate. Much of the metal had been removed from above, allowing the sun to stream onto the plants' leaves. It wasn't a large garden, but it was lovely, and had much more of a cozy feeling than the ones close to ShinRa Tower, which were formal and perfectly groomed and plastered all over the project's publicity photos. Also, it was close to her mother's house, so she'd been able to visit before setting everything up.

Reeve took out the sandwiches with a smile, and leaned over to kiss her lightly before setting a plate of homemade cookies on the blanket beside them. Cait Sith was pouring lemonade and iced tea with surprising grace as Aeris laid out the main courses — she knew SOLDIER appetites well, after all.

"Ms. Aeris?"

She looked up from the picnic blanket, to meet Marlene Wallace's gaze. Eight years old already, she looked more grown up each time Aeris saw her. "Yes?" she said with a smile.

"I need some pictures of plants for a project at school. Do you mind?" Marlene held up her camera.

"Not at all. Take your time." Aeris watched as Barret guided Marlene over to the other side of the garden, where she began taking careful pictures. She wondered why Barret had chosen to bring his daughter to a garden below the Plate when the lighting would be much better above for pictures… and then remembered that they had lived down here for quite some time. Barret undoubtedly had friends down here; maybe ShinRa finally trusted him enough to let him visit them.

A shifting behind her warned Aeris of another person entering the garden; Tifa had spotted someone who might be a threat. From his place on the blanket, Nanaki lifted his head.

"It's just me."

"Cloud, it's good to see you!" Aeris rose and moved to greet him with a hug, which Cloud returned before shaking Reeve's hand and giving Nanaki and Tifa a smile. Tifa had been rather ticked at both him and Aeris for pulling off what they had without telling her, but the match she'd challenged Cloud to when he'd gotten back seemed to have cleared the air between them, even if she had lost. Personally, Aeris was glad that Tifa hadn't gone on the mission — as a probationary Turk, she had considerably less company influence than any of the rest of them, and her punishment surely would have been harsh.

"It looks amazing, Aeris. I'm absolutely starved for real food." Cloud took a seat on the blanket.

Aeris handed him a plate and three sandwiches. "The food up there really that bad?"

"Not really. SOLDIERs get better rations than the regular infantry, but still, it's nothing like homemade." He took a bite of a sandwich and accepted a glass of lemonade from Cait Sith. "Who's this?"

"One of my inventions, Cait Sith," Reeve explained as he began to pile food on his own plate. The little cat, for its part, bowed in greeting. "He helps me out with the little things from time to time."

Cloud grinned. "Tseng really doeshave competition." He turned to Aeris. "So, what did you want to talk about?"

"The Soulfire — you managed to use it successfully. If you could teach me, maybe…" Aeris trailed off, seeing Cloud's serious expression.

"Look, I know you want to learn, but… I can't do it anymore. I can't spirit-walk at all. I'm not sure if all that power deadened my senses, or you fixed whatever Hojo broke in the first place with Great Gospel, but…" He shook his head.

Aeris felt her heart sink. All her life she had wanted to find someone else like her. She had thought she'd found it in Cloud… but now it was gone? "You can't do anything?"

"I can still feel the Lifestream a little, when I'm close to it like this. It could probably get my attention if it needed to. And I can sense little things about people when I touch them — like if they're getting sick, or are injured somehow, or are pregnant. Other than that… I don't think so." Cloud shrugged.

Aeris fought to hide her disappointment. She had been able to tell about injuries and illness as a child… though she had to wonder who Cloud had been around to be able to sense pregnancy. She hadn't actually done it herself; most of her coworkers either took steps to avoid it or were past childbearing age. "Maybe you'll get better if you practice?"

"We can try," he agreed. "If nothing else, it'll get you ready to teach your own children." She blushed prettily, and Cloud grinned. "Have you two picked a date?"

"July thirteenth," Reeve said. "The President's wedding is supposed to be in the beginning of June, so that should give us enough of a break to get everything set up. Speaking of which, you might be interested to know that Ms. Kisaragi finally showed up again this morning. Rufus is beside himself. He gave her a lecture about running off and abusing his trust, but all she'd say is that she was doing what was necessary for company profits. I think Rufus might have underestimated what he's gotten himself into. Apparently she found a summon called Knights of the Round?"

Nanaki looked impressed. "An ancient Spirit — very powerful. It's mentioned in some of my grandfather's books."

"And how have you been, anyway?" Cloud asked. "It's been quite a while since we've talked…"

Nanaki inclined his head. "Very well, thank you. We've got solar panels in Cosmo Canyon now to supplement the wind turbines, and it's been quite a help. Mr. Tuesti and Aeris are a joy to work with." He grinned a toothy feline grin. "I look forward to attending their wedding."

"You and me both." Cloud snatched another sandwich and three cookies to follow it, and Aeris smiled. All else aside, it was good to have him back.

Cloud smiled as he left the garden. Lunch had been absolutely wonderful; Aeris's cooking was as good as ever, and the company had been delightful. It was too bad that Tifa had had to leave early, but as a probationary Turk she still had training to do on top of her duties. He hadn't known Reeve well before his time away, but it had been a pleasure to get better acquainted — the man was articulate and sharp as a tack. He wondered if he could convince him to play chess with Sephiroth; he had a feeling they'd both enjoy it.

Cloud slowed and turned off the path leading topside to the SOLDIER barracks to wander elsewhere. Officially he should return to await orders, but he'd been in a strange state of limbo since their return from destroying Jenova — neither on medical leave nor on active duty. He supposed Sephiroth and Zack still had to figure out somewhere to put him; after everything he'd been through, he wasn't exactly a 'regular' SOLDIER, so they might (hopefully) want something more challenging than monster-killing missions… He just wished they'd come to a decision soon; hanging around Midgar doing nothing for another few months would drive him insane.

Sensing a familiar presence, Cloud paused, looking around. His feet had led him to one of the seedier, less well-populated areas below the Plate, just the sort of place… Chaos?

::Your senses can't be entirely deadened for me to be this apparent to you, boy.:: The voice's amusement was clear in his mind. ::We're putting the younglings through their paces.::

Cloud took a moment to process that before it dawned on him — Vincent was working with the probationary Turks. Would I be in the way?

::No. Besides, a teacher should keep track of the fruits of his labor.::

Puzzling over that tidbit, Cloud let his instincts guide him until he spotted Vincent. Crossing the remaining distance between them, he spoke. "Hey. Busy?"

Vincent inclined his head in welcome. "Observing. The teams are competing in a capture exercise."

Cloud's eyes scanned the scene, noting Turk trainees running around the complex, ducking for cover. His eyes widened when he realized they were using real weapons and materia. "Are you tryingto kill them?" Cloud asked, his heart skipping a beat as he noted a familiar figure — Tifa was on the field. That must have been what Chaos was referencing.

"This will be the least of their worries if they manage to survive."

Cloud shifted on his feet. He wished he had his Restore on him, just in case. He would never forgive himself if Tifa got killed because he couldn't save her in time.

::Remember that. He feels much the same every time you go to fight.::

The SOLDIER started, looking at Vincent in surprise. He never thought Vincent would worry — he certainly didn't show it. The Turk raised an eyebrow in silent inquiry. "Something Chaos said."

For a moment, there was only the sounds of battle as one team continued to disable the members of the other. Cloud winced at Tifa was frozen by a Stop spell, though he was pleased to see she managed to knock out two members of the opposition before she was hit by it. Finally Vincent spoke again. "You shouldn't deal with him so carelessly."

"I owe him." Cloud shrugged. He never would have made it on the mission to kill Hojo if it hadn't been for Chaos; even if the killing blow hadn't been his, it had been his first encounter with Soulfire, which had saved them all in the end. "Besides, he's an interesting conversationalist." Completely amoral by human standards, but as Chaos would have reminded him, why should such standards apply to a nonhuman?

The spirit chuckled approvingly in Cloud's mind at that, as his host said, "He may have another goal in mind."

"Everyone always does. You taught me that, remember?" Cloud winced, realizing how bad that sounded. "I mean, not that younecessarily do, but—"

"I know what you mean." Vincent gestured for him to stay put, then moved forward to address his students, whose capturing team had successfully completed their mission.

Cloud watched him go over each trainee's performance, criticizing mistakes and recognizing strengths without bias. He was fairly familiar with this technique, having listened to it more often than he could remember… but he wasn't quite sure how he felt seeing others on the receiving end of it from him. It surprised him when he finally realized he was jealous. He had never wanted to shareVincent. His training was something that had been uniquely his, when he had so little of his own in his childhood—

Stop it.Cloud forced himself to take a deep breath and look carefully at his emotions. Between his time in Hojo's hands and his work with Aeris to entrap Jenova's puppet, he had become quite familiar with the practice of self-reflection. What was really bothering him so much about this scene? Yes, others were receiving Vincent's full attention in training, but it was hardly as individualized as his own instruction had been. Vincent was his mentor, his friend, and in some ways, a member of his family, like his father. They would never have that; Turk regulations and culture discouraged that sort of bond.

He realized with surprise that he was jealous of Vincent.

Vincent had found his own niche with ShinRa, carving out a new place for his life to begin again, perhaps for the first time since Hojo had captured him. Cloud, on the contrary, even after returning to SOLDIER, still felt out of place. While Reno's pictures with the chocobos has helped, many other SOLDIERs continued to tiptoe around him. Returning from the dead, fighting Sephiroth to a standstill more than once, escaping the President's wrath after running off — never mind he hadn't been on the payroll at the time… it seemed too good to be true. They had no idea the price he had paid for any of it — not that he'd ever want to tell them; the memories weren't something he cared to revisit, and besides, it wasn't any of their business — but…

It left Cloud feeling terribly lonely and unsettled. For a moment, he was jealous of Zack and Sephiroth, who fit together so well in every way that they would never really be alone, perfect partners.

Stop that. With the discipline gained from fighting Jenova's call, Cloud firmly throttled his emotions. The only thing to do was to find his own place. He knew Zack and Sephiroth were still working on something, but if nothing came of it by the end of the week, he'd make his own way. In the meantime, he was going to be happythat Vincent had found a place of his own, dammit. What did Cloud expect, that he'd go back to living alone in a shack in the mountains? Really, he was being ridiculous.

::Good to see you haven't completely regressed to adolescence.:: Chaos' mental voice held a distinct sense of scorn. ::I deal with enough brooding from this one. I don't need it from you too.::

I bet that's a side effect for anyone who spent time in Hojo's 'hospitality.'Sephiroth had a tendency to brood too.


Vincent dismissed the trainees, instructing them to heal injured comrades before returning to Cloud's side. He raised an eyebrow at Cloud's fond smile. "You're a good teacher."

"Perhaps." Vincent shrugged. "It's not something I think I would've sought out."

Cloud's smile grew a little bigger. Maybe he had done Vincent a favor, then, by waking him up years ago.

::Absolutely. As long as I've been stuck here, he's rarely moved unless under pressure, or within familiar circumstances.:: Chaos' voice was annoyed. ::We might have moldered away to nothing in that basement, even if there were no locks or seal on the coffin.::

Interesting. That answered a question for Cloud — why Vincent hadn't left Nibelheim when he'd first gone to Midgar. It didn't seem like a good trait for a Turk, who had to be flexible by nature… but on the other hand, it would mean he'd be easier for the company to use and control. Not while I'm around, though."Well, your students reflect well on you." Tifa had grown in leaps and bounds while Cloud was away, and he recognized enough of her improvements to realize a lot of it was due to Vincent's influence.

Vincent smiled at him. "Yes, they do." Cloud flushed with pleasure, realizing that he was included in that statement. "Have they found you an assignment yet?"

"No." Cloud sighed. "I think they're trying to find something to keep me occupied that won't bore me. Or something." He grinned as an idea occurred to him. He might as well keep himself busy, and maybe it could be more of a permanent thing if he ended up doing regular patrols, if only to stretch himself. "But if they don't come up with anything… want to run a session with a SOLDIER? The experience might be useful to them at some point."

"A good idea. Some of this group are becoming too confident in their own abilities." Vincent nodded to himself. "What did you have in mind?"

Cloud's grin widened. "Oh, just a dose of reality..."

Sephiroth watched Zack with concern. He had dark circles under his eyes and was nodding over his paperwork despite the fact that it was only ten. "How late did your meeting run?"

"Two AM." Zack yawned. "You'd think it wouldn't be so hard to find compatible SOLDIERs. I should be good at this by now."

Sephiroth shook his head. "Most of the easier pairs were already established, so now you're left with more… complicated personalities." He didn't doubt that Zack would successfully create another set of SOLDIER pairs before the end of the week, though. The man had managed to accommodate his own demanding personality, after all. "You need to get more sleep."

"It's only the extra duty hours."

Sephiroth silently disagreed. Zack worked far longer than he was required to in order to manage both the cooperative program and all his work as Sephiroth's aide. "You need to change something, or you're likely to end up on another enforced vacation. I've noticed a few specialists watching you closely." If needed to, he'd submit for Zack's medical leave himself.

"I'll think about it." Zack shuffled through the paper's on his desk. "Huh. Official petition from Tseng to borrow Cloud for a bit. I thought we'd be getting a request to send him off somewhere after yesterday."

Sephiroth's lips twitched in amusement. Cloud wasn't one to loiter, even if he didn't have a formal assignment. The Turk trainees had looked more than a bit downtrodden when they had returned to the tower after Cloud's little exercise. "He probably feels Cloud made an accurate assessment of the situation; Turks don't have much experience combating the enhanced, and that could be a problem for them at some point."

"I don't know if I like the idea of him spending so much time with them, though." Zack frowned. "They did try to make off with him once…"

This was very true. Sephiroth was also worried that Cloud might eventually transfer into the Turks, if only to find some place to fit in. He had noticed the looks their fellow SOLDIERs directed at Cloud, having endured the same for most of his life, and knew how discomfiting such a situation could be. The Turks, however, being a rather motley outfit, were more accepting of irregularities about their members. Now that Valentine had rejoined their ranks, they would be adapting to the concept of an enhanced Turk; Cloud joining them as well would only benefit them in that regard.

At the same time, though, Sephiroth didn't want to lose Cloud, who over the years had become a fine SOLDIER and a good friend. The question was what to do with him that would actually allow him to perform at the level he was capable of. "Have you thought any more about Cloud's assignment? I don't want to leave him in limbo for much longer."

"I've had a few ideas. Let me think about it some more, and I'll talk to you about it over lunch." That was the last thing Zack said as he continued to work, sorting papers and typing with one hand as he ate his breakfast at the same time. Sephiroth tried to push through his own paperwork a little more quickly than usual; there were things on Zack's desk he could certainly handle, if he finished early. Cloud's situation aside, he was also worried about Zack. If only there was a solution to both problems… well. He could think of one, but he wouldn't suggest it; he didn't want to insinuate anything negative about Zack's performance.

When the lunch hour rolled around, Sephiroth put down his pen and stretched. He'd decided they might as well take their time for lunch, since they had an extra two hours to work past five as part of their punishment for destroying Jenova (and it forced Zack to take a breather). Rising, he went to collect his aide.

Zack had his feet up on the desk and was leafing through some papers in his hand, looking very pleased with himself. He passed them to Sephiroth. "I have a proposal for you."

Sephiroth accepted them, skimming them first before reading them carefully. "This should work out quite nicely."

Zack gave him a shrewd look. "You thought up the same thing, didn't you."

"Yes," Sephiroth admitted, "but I didn't want to offend you by suggesting it."

Zack sighed, running his fingers through his hair. "If it were anyone but Cloud… well. I knowhe'll do a good job."

Sephiroth nodded. He trusted Cloud as much as he did Zack — more, with some things. Cloud's mindset was closer to his own, sometimes, which made him easier to understand.

"Also…" Zack fidgeted. "I was thinking about that... other thing you brought up the other day."

Sephiroth just looked at him, his face carefully expressionless. Finding a place for Cloud as far as work went had been only one of the two things that had been on his mind most often lately. The truth was he still found himself attracted to Cloud, and from the way Zack looked at him sometimes he knew he wasn't the only one. It had been a long time since Zack had first suggested they bring Cloud into their relationship, at least on a temporary basis, and he had changed his mind about it during the time Cloud had been in Hojo's hands… but Sephiroth wasn't sure it wouldn't be worth pursuing. He could recall, vividly, the kiss they'd shared that one night; Jenova's influence aside, it had certainly been... quite appealing.

Even now, Sephiroth could feel the power that tied the three of them together, alike in a way that no one else could ever be, and with the destruction of Jenova, couldnever be. That, in his opinion, was only another reason to strengthen their bond with Cloud. He well remembered the days before he'd grown close to Zack, and worried about Cloud being in the same boat.

Being one of a kind was a wearying experience.

Not that Sephiroth didn't understand that this would be a difficult proposition. The power dynamic alone would shift dramatically within their relationship; it was very possible it could all fall apart. However, the prospect of failure had never stopped Sephiroth from pursuing a goal; on the contrary, many of his greatest successes in Wutai had come from the simple fact that he would push himself to the brink against all odds. He had weighed the risks and potential rewards, and was willing to take this chance.

Besides, the change could be quite a positive one, like the significant deepening of Sephiroth's relationship with Zack over the years, from superior-subordinate to friendship to something more physical. And it had been Cloud who'd helped them grow even closer, between his subconscious proddings and all his journals had taught Sephiroth about himself and Zack from another's point of view. Using those observations, Sephiroth had slowly, with a lot of hesitation, worked to become a better partner for Zack.

To be perfectly honest, he hadn't noticed just how much things had changed until Jenova's interfering had restricted the time they spent together. Zack's absence — and Cloud's as well, to a lesser degree — had felt like a physical ache. Even when they were at work they had tried to minimize contact, for fear that outside influence might be amplified through it. It had made Sephiroth acutely aware of many things, but especially how empty his life had been before Zack. He wouldn't wish that on anyone.

"...Honestly," Zack finally said, "I can't believe you were the one who reminded meabout this. Seems like it should be the other way around."

Sephiroth smiled. "Perhaps it's your bad influence on me."

Zack smiled a little, and ran a hand through his hair. "Anyway, I was thinking… maybe we should give it a try after all. I mean, it's not like the world'll come to an end if it doesn't work out, yeah? We'll work through it and we can stay friends if it falls apart. It should at least be fun, right?" He grinned. "Though if it all goes to hell, I'm tell Cloud it was your idea."

Cloud hurried into Havoc's Haven, silently cursing the trains. He had been out hunting monsters when he had gotten Zack's offer for dinner. Between rush hour delays and the quick shower he'd stopped to take — he hadn't wanted to show up stinking of blood and sweat and grime from traipsing around the slums — he was late.

Zack just grinned when he spotted him, waving from his seat in a booth near the entrance. "Over here!"

Nodding at a waiter, Cloud slid into the seat next to him. "Were you waiting long?"

"No. Zack thought you might be a bit late when you said you were out hunting." Sephiroth handed him a menu.

Cloud laid it down at the end of the table without even bothering to open it. "I know what I'm getting."

Zack groaned. "Cloud, they have things here besides stew, you know."

"I like their stew! I'll try something new next time," Cloud countered. It had been years since he'd had that comforting dish the way he remembered it. "Would you believe they tried a variation with dragon meat when I was home last?" He made a face. "Not the best decision."

"The meat courtesy of you, I'm guessing?" Zack asked, and when Cloud nodded he sighed. "Figures. You go home to rest, and you end up killing dragons." He shook his head in mock disapproval, and after the waiter had taken their order smiled. "Still, you know… Running into you was one of my best ideas."

"If by 'running into' you mean 'collapsing on'…" Cloud trailed off, thinking about their first meeting. He hardly had perfect memory, but he knew Zack pretty well by now, and he wasn't the type to get that hammered; on the rare occasions he did it, he was safely home. Which meant... "You weren't drunk, were you."

"Didn't pick that up when you were in my head, huh?" Zack looked smug. "Yeah, figured your guard would be down more if I did that. I wanted to see what you were made of. Besides, you know what it takes to get a SOLDIER wasted." Cloud made a face; he did indeed. "Your superior still has some tricks up his sleeve, Cloudy."

Cloud glared. "...whatdid you just call me?"

"Retribution for calling me Zachary all the time. Cloudy. Sephy." Sephiroth stiffened next to him. Zack's grin was sharp. "I think it's a beautiful thing."

"Those aren't our birth names, unlike yours," Sephiroth pointed out flatly.

"Pff." Zack waved his hand. "If you don't like it, why doncha you do something about it? We have off on Saturday. We can meet up Friday after hours for some sparring — since you two decided to leave me out last time — then do pizza and a movie. Maybe you and me can team up against Seph over the tactical board, Cloud, and he can annihilate us there so he feels better about losing to our dynamic duo at the gym. Like old times, minus the alien bitch hijacking our brains."

"I wouldn't keep talking like that, Zack, or you might end up on the couch tonight," Cloud joked. "I'm pretty sure Seph could 'annihilate' us on bothfields, anyway." He tried not to think too hard about the last time they had done pizza and a movie. It had been a pleasant evening, beyond the Jenova stuff — and even her influence hadn't completely ruined the experience. Biting his lip, he tried to quash his memories of the feel of Sephiroth's kiss and Zack's hands.

"Not if what I've heard about your session with him's any indication," Zack countered, "and even if he did, I'm still a better loser than he is."

Sephiroth snorted.

"In any case, I can pretty much guarantee things'll end better than they did last time." Zack smiled a little. "It's not like we'd kick you out again — if you're really tired after everything, you can definitely crash for the night. I'm pretty sure we can make sure that your bosses won't run a surprise inspection, not that we pull that crap with SOLDIERs anyway."

Cloud froze. He couldn't possiblybe insinuating… Even though he had admitted to himself that he was attracted to both of them — facing down uncomfortable truths about himself was one of the more painless pastimes he'd engaged in while imprisoned by Hojo — Cloud hadn't thought anything would ever come of it. He distinctly remembered Zack and Sephiroth having a conversation that a mutual relationship was no longer something they were interested in… unless they had gotten over that whole in-their-heads thing? Cloud swallowed, catching a look in Zack's eyes that seemed… promising. His cheeks went a little pink in spite of himself, and he looked away, clearing his throat as he said, "You realize that isn't going to help the rumors at all. Just last week I was told we should establish some sort of elite 'Zero Class.'"

"With leather uniforms?" Zack grinned. "Haha, yeah, I heard that one too. Love it! —Well, not for me, maybe, but you'd definitely look good in leather." He leaned back in his chair, balancing on of the two legs.

"As far as rumors go, people will talk regardless of the amount of falsehood — or truth — in their statements." Sephiroth gave a deliberate shrug. "One shouldn't allow idle chatter to deter oneself from fully exploring available options."

Cloud snapped his mouth shut before his jaw dropped. Even Sephirothwas open to the possibility? The Soulfire must have killed him after all; this was just unreal. He looked down at the table, unable to meet Zack's knowing glance. Thankfully their waiter reappeared with a bottle of wine, allowing him a moment to gather himself. "What's the occasion, anyway?" He really hoped it wasn't that conversation they'd just had. Wining and dining one's way into bed with someone didn't seem like something either of them would do.

"We're here to celebrate your new job!" Zack gestured wildly as Sephiroth poured the wine, his chair slamming down on all four legs again as he leaned forward.

Cloud frowned. "Wait, what?"

"I've decided to resign my position as Seph's aide. I really need to work full time on the partnership program."

"The specialists have been watching him very closely lately," Sephiroth interjected.

Zack gave him a sour look. "No thanks to you. Anyway, there's only one person suitable to replace someone as awesome as me… so congratulations, Cloud! You're officially the new aide to General Sephiroth, SOLDIER extraordinaire. Carry out your duties with extreme cheer and insufferable optimism!" Sephiroth rolled his eyes.

Finally finding his voice after sitting there stunned for a moment, Cloud protested, "But I don't have the seniority for it."

"Pah, seniority is for regs. There's nobody else who could keep up with Seph and not drive him crazy; you're the only one I trust for the job." Zack jovially slapped Cloud's arm. "So stop acting like you don't want it. It's done. You start tomorrow. You did over half the work for it during the exams, anyway."

"Yes, sir!" Cloud mockingly saluted, but really, he felt honored belong belief. Zack took his obligation to Sephiroth very seriously, and it showed a lot of trust to hand his position over to Cloud. It reminded him how close they really were.

Zack gave an evil grin. "And now you can have the joy of all that paperwork! I'm taking the office right next door, so I'll get to hear all of your cries of torture. I will, of course, happily come to your rescue — if you make it worth my while."

Sephiroth "hmm"ed thoughtfully. "Aide, remind me to double the amount of paperwork required for the partnership program."

"Hey!" Zack scowled.

"Yes, sir," Cloud responded gravely. "Permission to smash insufferable Lieutenant Generals into the wall tomorrow during Omnislash practice?"


Zack pouted. "Maybe I shouldn't leave you two alone. This might be a very bad idea."

"Too late. You already gave it up!" Cloud grinned. "Just think: us right next door to you scheming while you labor under all that extra paperwork. It's a nightmare."

"True. Maybe I better get an aide myself." Zack looked thoughtful. "Any ideas?"

They threw names around for a bit until a waiter appeared with their meal. Sephiroth topped off their glasses and raised his in a toast. "To partnership."

"To the best of friends." Zack raised his own.

Cloud mimicked the motion, his mind full of possibilities. A warm smile crossed his face as he touched his glass to those of his friends. "To the limitless future."

20 January 2012. THE END.

Authors' Note : We hope you've enjoyed the story! Thank you to those of you who gave feedback, who stayed with us, who were helpful and clamored for more — you had more of an effect than we think you know. :)