Author's notes: A prequel to Ghosts in Snow, but can be a stand alone fic. Warnings! Angst, one-sided SephxCloud, and masturbation. I hope you enjoy, and please review, give comments and criticism, or just say hi. Thank you.

"I don't want to do this," Sephiroth growled at Zack. Their boots beat a sharp staccato against the metal floor. Everything here in the Midgar training facility was just that: cold, lifeless, gray. Sephiroth itched for another chance to go out in the field, if only just to see some damned grass. The endless days at the training center were grating on his nerves. And this was one of his least favorite tasks, the traditional viewing of the potential recruits upon their arrival. "If I have to look at one more pack of malnourished children in over-sized uniforms," he continued to hiss in his friend's ear, "I am going to—"

"What?" Zack gave a bark of laughter. "You'll scream? Stomp your feet? Quit your job?"

Sephiroth glared at his second-in-command, the only man brave enough (or stupid enough) to speak to him like that. But Zack was right; Sephiroth didn't have a choice.

"I'm not shaking any hands, though," the silver-haired man muttered. "And I'm not unsheathing my sword."

"But Seph," Zack cooed sarcastically, "that's the best marketing tool Shin-Ra's got."

The general didn't bother replying. Once again, Zack was correct. The Shin-Ra Company relied heavily on Sephiroth's image of the perfect SOLDIER, a role model for young men around the world. It was that kind of thing that drew so many bodies into Shin-Ra's employ. Most ended up as grunts—cannon-fodder, as Zack called them—but some managed to reach the elite levels of the SOLDIER squad. Zack was one of those few, and a First Class at that. But Sephiroth, he was beyond even the Firsts. He was outranked only by very few people, militarily speaking. However, the reality of his life left him little room for actual decision making. Sephiroth was Shin-Ra property, trained from birth, and he had to act accordingly.

So, potential recruits. He grimaced at the thought.

"Try not to scowl so much," Zack whispered as they neared the end of the hallway. "You look like you're about to drink the blood of all these innocent little boys."

Sephiroth gave a soft snort. "Much too salty," he said, relishing the answering laugh from Zack. The dark-haired man was one of the only people he exposed to his strange brand of humor. Zack seemed to appreciate it, at least.

There was a short pause where Zack held his hand against the swinging door at the end of the hall. "You ready?" he asked, watching Sephiroth school his face into an emotionless mask.

"Let's get this over with." The general tugged on his leather gloves as if preparing for a fistfight.

Zack rolled his eyes and pushed the door open, revealing a brightly-lit arena. Almost immediately several hundred new recruits rose to their feet, shouting and cheering Sephiroth's name. Mako eyes squinted briefly in the sunlight, and their ears rang with the clatter of hundreds of booted feet on the metal bleachers.

"Go get 'em, Seph," Zack whispered, following the general towards the podium at the stage in the center.

Sephiroth let his gaze sweep over the crowd, nodding in a statesman-like manner in response to the raucous cheers. It was the same every year: too many boys with dreams that would most likely never come true. The only perceptible change was that the potential candidates seemed to get younger with each passing year.

Or perhaps, Sephiroth thought, I'm just getting older.

As he took the podium to begin his opening speech (he didn't need any notes; it was the same one he used every year), he noticed one recruit in the top left row that wasn't hooting with excitement like the others. The young man was pale, blond, slender, and remained completely still, tracking Sephiroth with large blue eyes. He seemed so out of place in all that commotion, and Sephiroth found his mind wandering from the task at hand to gaze at the motionless boy. A subtle jab in the ribs from Zack got him back on track, however, and he addressed the crowd with a deep, rumbling voice.

"Welcome to the training center for Special Operations with Lateral Development In Elite Ranks. Welcome," a pause for dramatic effect, "to SOLDIER."

The crowd roared and surged to their feet once more, and Sephiroth couldn't help but look up to the left to try and spot that quiet blond recruit, but too many bodies obscured his view. He repressed a sigh and continued his speech, not even paying attention to the familiar words.

"No, Zack," Sephiroth groaned over his dinner plate. "I don't feel comfortable doing that."

"Trust me," the dark-haired First Class said with a grin. "You're going to want to meet this kid. He's going places." Zack twirled his sauce-laden pasta around his fork, spattering the tabletop with red specks.

Sephiroth wiped the wooden tabletop with his napkin, giving Zack a cautionary look. Zack ignored him, of course; it was his apartment anyway, and if he wanted to be a slob, no one could stop him. Not even the Great General.

Nearly a month had passed since the beginning of the training term. A good chunk of the recruits had already been weeded out, sent home with broken bones and shattered hopes. Sephiroth wasn't very involved in the training process because of his stature in the company, but most of the First and Second Class SOLDIERs had some hand in teaching the recruits. Zack, for example, was in charge of a small band of grunts in a swordfight tutorial. Hopeless, he'd said, every single one of them. Except for one kid, the subject of their discussion.

The silver-haired man took a bite of his salad. He figured the least Zack could do was feed him a complete meal like this, if he was going to bother him with inane requests.

"You and I both know that no matter how good this boy may be at sword-fighting, he has less than a 2 chance of passing all his exams. And then, a less than 1 chance of making First Class." Sephiroth took a sip from his water glass. "Why should I bother meeting a recruit when the odds of us actually working together are so slim?"

Zack poked his fork in Sephiroth's direction. "Don't be so negative! Yeah, the odds are stacked against him, but somebody's got to make SOLDIER. I mean, I managed to do it, didn't I?" He tossed his long black hair with a cocky turn of his head.

Sephiroth hid his smirk behind the rim of his glass. "You certainly did."

He secretly thanked the gods Zack had made it into the elite ranks of the military; before Zack's appearance, Sephiroth's life was very lonely. His entire schedule had consisted of training, going on missions, and being re-evaluated by Hojo's scientists. He'd never bothered to make time for anything else, not even a nice, quiet dinner at a friend's place.

Not that Zack was quiet, by any means.

"So you'll meet him?" he continued to badger. "Nothing fancy, just say hi, watch him do a few drills, offer a couple pointers, just let him know that he's got one of the big guys rooting for him. Like you said, these kids have it tough."

"No, Zack," Sephiroth repeated, draining his water glass and putting it down on the table with a loud click. "I don't want any of the other trainers to complain about me showing favoritism."

"But I'm your favorite," Zack whined in a childish pitch. Then he shrugged and said, "Besides, you don't have a choice. I invited the kid over for dinner tonight."

"You what?" Sephiroth dropped his fork at the sound of a knock on the door. "Zachary…" he said in a warning tone.

"Don't worry," Zack said, bouncing up from his chair and walking towards the door. "It'll be fine."

Sephiroth dropped his head into his hands, massaging his temples with his fingertips. Zack had tried to involve Sephiroth in a slew of annoying pet projects over the years that they'd known each other; memories of a certain ill-fated attempt at snowboarding came to mind. But if Zack's newest hobby was adopting a hapless recruit, at least the chances of having tree bark imbedded in his skin were reduced.

Or so Sephiroth hoped.

He left that bizarre train of thought and glanced up to see Zack open his door. That same small, quiet blond stood on the other side, giving Zack a lopsided smile. Then his eyes landed on the form of the general sitting at Zack's table, and the smile disappeared.

"I'm sorry," the recruit said, giving a slow, unsure salute. "I wasn't aware you had company, sir."

Zack laughed long and hard, as he was wont to do when faced with an awkward situation. "How many times do I have to tell you?" he said, pulling the blond into the room by the wrist and closing the door behind him. "Outside of class, I'm Zack and you're Cloud; don't call me sir."

Sephiroth stood, looking around for his long coat (Zack never hung it up, always slung it over a piece of furniture), but he was shoved back down into his chair by Zack's strong hand.

"Cloud, this is my friend Seph," he said conversationally, leading the blond to another seat at the dinner table. "Why don't you guys make some chit-chat while I run into the kitchen and get you some food." He called over his shoulder as he walked away, "Sorry we've already started eating. But I promise there's plenty left."

Sephiroth picked up a roll from the plate in the middle of the table, trying to focus on buttering it evenly, but the constant glances he was receiving were very distracting.

"Please don't let my presence disturb you," he said, not quite looking the young man in the eye. "I'm off-duty at the moment."

"Sorry, sir," Cloud mumbled. "I'm trying not to stare. It's just…"

The silver-haired man let his half-buttered roll fall to his plate. He wasn't planning on eating it anyway.

"It's just that I inspire in your heart either," Sephiroth sighed, "horrible fear, blind admiration, or burning hatred, correct?" He raised a fine eyebrow at the boy.

"No sir. Nothing like that," Cloud said, folding his hands in his lap. "I was just amazed that you would be Zack's friend. I mean, he's kind of a weirdo."

"I heard that!" Zack cried from the kitchen.

"It's true!" Cloud shouted back. Then, in a calmer manner, addressed Sephiroth, "Sir, what else can I call a First Class who invites a lowly recruit to his quarters? I haven't been at the training center long, but I know it's highly irregular."

"I see," Sephiroth said, unable to hold back the smirk on his lips. "What you say is true."

The boy looked around the spacious room as if suddenly realizing how luxurious his surroundings were. He was probably sharing a single room with five other recruits, Sephiroth thought with a snort of disgust. But because Zack was a First, he was given one of the better living quarters. It was practically an apartment: bedroom, attached bathroom, kitchen, and a small living/dining room.

"It would be great to live somewhere like this," Cloud said. "I barely have room to cough in the barracks."

Sephiroth nodded in understanding, watching the blond appraise the room. He really was young, his hair sticking up in all directions as if he never bothered to comb it. It was obvious why Zack had taken a liking to him; he possessed that same careless grace that the dark-haired SOLDIER had.

His thoughts were interrupted by said SOLDIER, who placed a heaping plate of food in front of his guest with a grin.

"Work hard and one day, all of this could be yours," Zack said with a grand sweep of his arm. "Leaky pipes included."

"I will," Cloud said with a sure nod. He picked up his fork and started in on the simple meal. "I swear I will."

Sephiroth watched the boy closely as he ate, and said nothing.

The sight of the training grounds was familiar and yet strange to Sephiroth; it had been years since he had any reason to be here. When he was still young and learning to wield the massive Masamune sword, he'd spent a considerable amount of time here under the watchful eyes of the best instructors. But that had been long ago; now there was no one on the planet who could teach him anything more about sword-fighting.

Zack caught his eye as he made his entrance, yelling at his band of grunts, "Okay guys, break into your sparring pairs. And pay no attention to the six foot–plus gorilla on the field."

By then the recruits who hadn't noticed Sephiroth turned to stare, whispers beginning to grow as he took a seat on a stack of crates labeled 'First Aid' in the corner of the dirt field. He saw Cloud standing out in the group of noisy beginners, still as silent as ever. Sephiroth gave him a curt nod and watched as he moved to begin his spar.

Zack plopped down at Sephiroth's feet on the dusty ground. "What do you think?" he asked with a grin.

Keen eyes darted along the sparring ground. "You were right," he murmured. "They're terrible."

Some of the recruits weren't even using the proper grip on their weapon. Most were slow and unsure, swinging their swords with all the subtly of a jackhammer. It was disconcerting; was this honestly the best Shin-Ra had to offer the SOLDIER program?

But Cloud was different. Moving like a sleek animal amongst slow-moving boulders, he dodged and returned his partner's attacks with innate skill. His blond spikes stuck to his sweaty forehead as he fought, punctuating his thrusts with loud grunts. Sephiroth nodded in approval as Cloud managed to knock the weapon from the other recruit's hands.

"He's not so bad, is he?" Zack goaded. His eyes were glowing with pride.

"He lacks strength," Sephiroth said flatly. Across the field, Cloud bent to retrieve the sword and hand it back to his partner. "He compensates with speed."

"Yeah, sure, but he understands the basics. Unlike the rest of these losers," Zack whispered, hooking a thumb in the group's direction. "And when he makes SOLDIER, the mako will help him get stronger."

"If he makes SOLDIER," Sephiroth corrected. His eyes ran over the boy's form, still quite a distance away. "He's also fairly small."

"Small but fierce," Zack laughed. "You should see him in the hand-to-hand class that Simmons oversees. He says the kid's a firecracker. Broke some poor guy's wrist the other day."

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow. "Throwing maneuver done incorrectly?"

Zack shook his head. "The guy insulted Cloud's mom in the locker room."

"Lieutenant," Cloud called from his place in the middle of the field, "it seems I've bent Pierce's sword, sir."

"Third one this week," Zack muttered under his breath. Then, more loudly, shouted back, "Pierce, what have I told you about maintaining force against your opponent? I swear to Shiva, I'm going to…" He rose from the ground and continued cursing as he walked towards the troubled recruit.

Sephiroth made a mental note; Cadet Strife would need to accompany him sometime on a field mission. It would help prepare him for what was ahead.

"I still can't believe I was chosen for this mission," Cloud whispered to Zack as they loaded the truck with supplies. "There are so few field opportunities for recruits. This is going to look great on my record."

"Don't get all excited just yet," Zack warned with a smirk. He hoisted a heavy crate into the truck bed easily. "This is a pretty standard job. Just running some junk to the base in Junon. Shouldn't be anything more than a nice, long road trip."

"But still," Cloud pressed on, "being on the support squad for the general? It's a grunt's dream come true."

Zack leaned against the battered bumper and swept his long dark hair out of his eyes. He frowned, his brow knitting in concern. "I remember how it feels," he said. "But just keep in mind that Seph's not some kind of god or anything. It makes him nervous when the new guys look at him like he's the reason the sun rises and falls."

"But I wouldn't do that." Cloud shrugged, picking up a white sack and flopping it into the truck bed. "When I left home a couple years ago for boot camp, my mom told me that if I ever met Sephiroth, I shouldn't be rude or stare. She always said, 'He's someone son, too.'"

"Your mom sounds like a smart lady," Zack said with a chuckle. He slammed the gate of the truck shut. "But don't mention that particular pearl of wisdom to Seph, okay? It's a…sticky subject."

"Why?" Cloud asked. "Did his parents pass away?"

Zack gave Cloud a long, thoughtful look. Then he leaned in close and whispered, "I don't think he has parents. At all."

"What? No way," Cloud grunted. "Everyone has parents. You don't just pop out of thin air."

Zack shrugged. "He doesn't talk about it. I've learned not to ask." He pointed a finger in the blond's face, cocking his head in a show of authority. "Now promise me you'll be careful about what you say around him. Sephiroth may act all aloof and cold, and, well, he is. But somewhere deep down, he's scared about what people think of him."

Cloud snorted. "Scared? The general? Not a chance."

"Don't think of him as General Sephiroth," Zack said hotly. "He gets enough of that already. Sure, treat him with respect and everything, but try to think of him as a normal guy." He sighed, dragging a gloved hand through his wild hair. "I know it's hard, but he'll appreciate it; trust me."

"Okay," Cloud promised, "I will."

"Where is the driver?" a deep voice rumbled behind them.

"Speak of the devil," Zack chuckled quietly, turning to see the silver-haired man looking over the transport vehicle with a calculating eye.

Cloud gave a salute and said, "My sword training partner, Pierce, was selected to be the driver, sir. He was right here a moment ago, but he…" He glanced at Zack before diving ahead. "He went to smoke a cigarette. He can be pretty lazy."

Sephiroth nodded tightly. "Are you telling me this because you wish me to punish Pierce for his behavior?" he asked.

"No, just letting you know." Cloud waved to his superiors as he turned to walk out of the motor pool yard. "I'll go get him. You and the lieutenant can—"

"It's just us here, Cloud," Zack called after him. "You don't have to be so formal."

"Yes, sir," Cloud laughed, giving him a mock salute before ducking around the fence. "Just you relax, Zack, sir."

"Nice kid, huh?" Zack smiled at Sephiroth, who was gracefully levering himself into the bed of the truck. "I'm glad you requested him for this boring assignment. It'll give me something to do while we escort all this shit. That way, I won't be pestering you to talk the whole time."

"He's young," Sephiroth muttered, arranging his long legs to fit comfortably in the small area.

"So?" Zack swung himself up to sit beside the silver-haired man amid the boxes. "What's your point? I was a lot younger when I first joined up."

"Yes, but…" Sephiroth let his gaze drift over the deserted yard, looking for that tuft of blond hair to return. "He's different. I know you see it."

"Yeah," the dark-haired man agreed with a nod. "He's going to be something else."

Cloud wasn't exactly sure how it happened so fast. One minute Zack was laughing and joking, shouting to be heard above the whipping wind. Sephiroth was consulting a portfolio of documents in his hands, cursing when they went over large potholes. Pierce was not the best driver, it seemed.

And then suddenly, the next minute was a whirl of screeching metal and fiery heat. The truck was thrust over onto its side like a toy, and Cloud opened his eyes to find himself sprawled on the dusty ground. Through the smoke and wavy aura of the fire, a huge behemoth stood above him, snarling and spitting like a cat.

"Shit!" Cloud shouted, struggling to unsheathe his regulation saber. He rose to his feet, staring wide-eyed at the beast. This was definitely above his level of training.

He looked around wildly, making out the hulking shape of yet another behemoth on the other side of the burning remains of the truck. Sephiroth and Zack had their weapons out, attacking the massive monster. Zack's wide Buster sword and Sephiroth's sleek Masamune slashed at the animal with skill and speed.

A groan came from Cloud's other side. "Strife?" Pierce called, dragging himself from the wreckage and holding his bleeding forehead. He seemed unaware of the waiting behemoth licking its chops behind his back.

"Pierce, get—" But Cloud had no time to finish his warning. The behemoth roared and reared up on its powerful hind legs. The other recruit barely had time to look up at his attacker before being crushed under the heavy paw.

"No!" Cloud cried, rushing at the enemy with his sword at the ready. He was too late, however; there was no way Pierce was alive. His body lay broken on the ground in a puddle of blood.

Time seemed to slow as Cloud realized the mistake of coming so close to such a powerful monster. It was preparing to attack again, this time swiping its clawed paw at Cloud's head. He managed to bring his saber up to block it, but one of the curved claws caught him in the shoulder, drawing a bloody gash down his grey uniform shirt.

"Zack!" he screamed, desperately trying to keep his weapon up against the beast's paw.

But instead of Zack, a flash of silver flew in front of him. Sephiroth severed the behemoth's paw from its leg in the blink of an eye, and the beast howled with pain, drawing its stump away. Cloud stood frozen, his sword still in the air, staring at the bloody matted fur on the ground next to Pierce's body.

The two behemoths were still standing. They would attack again, Cloud knew. That species was especially bloodthirsty; they'd learned about them in class. But he couldn't force his body to move, to unstick his feet from the blood-caked dirt.

"Are you injured?" Sephiroth barked. When Cloud didn't answer, he turned and ran an appraising eye over the bleeding cut on the blond's shoulder. "We need to bring them down. Can you go on?"

Cloud didn't respond. His eyes were fastened on his classmate's dead body. Pierce's blood was mixing with the behemoth's.

"Cloud!" Sephiroth roared, grabbing the blond's hair and forcing his head up to meet his green eyes. "Are you still standing, soldier?" he demanded.

"I'm still standing, sir," Cloud whispered.

"Hey! A little help here would be nice!" Zack shouted from his precarious position between the two injured and angry monsters.

Sephiroth rotated his wrist, sending his long sword into a whooshing circle. "Take cover if you're unable to fight, Cloud," he said, moving to the three-footed animal's flank.

But the blond shook himself from his frozen state and followed the general towards the beasts. "Just tell me what to do, sir," he said.

"You and Zack take this one. I'll take the more mobile one."

Cloud nodded, running to the dark-haired man's side.

"Get its back legs!" Zack ordered. "I'm going for the throat."

The blond's saber sank into the behemoth's back tendon, forcing the beast to fall forward. Zack then executed an acrobatic leap and jabbed at the exposed jugular. With a wheezing breath, the behemoth died.

"Good job, kid," the dark-haired SOLDIER said, panting heavily.

"Should we help Sephiroth?" Cloud asked, looking over to where the silver-haired man had clashed with the second enemy. "Oh. Never mind." The other behemoth was impaled on the Masamune, and Sephiroth stood underneath the gigantic animal, heedless of the blood pouring down onto him from the fatal wound. It was a disturbing yet impressive sight.

"That's why he's the general," Zack said, giving Cloud a small smile.

Night had fallen by the time the three of them finished burying what was left of Pierce. Cloud had thought they'd transport the body back to base and have it shipped to his family, but Zack shook his head at that idea.

"Shin-Ra doesn't pay for that kind of thing," he said. "It's policy to bury the fallen where they fall. I've asked them to bend the rules on many occasions, and the answer is always the same: 'We're an electric company, not a delivery service.'"

"That's terrible," Cloud said, marking the grave with a small stone. "I mean, Pierce wasn't the greatest soldier, but he died trying to do his job."

"The more time you spend in the military," Sephiroth said, his black coat billowing around his tall form, "the more you'll see the injustice that Shin-Ra is capable of." He turned from the burial site, wiping the blood from his gloved hands as well as he could. "We'll set up camp for the night. Junon should send a search party tomorrow morning when we don't arrive on time."

"Too bad the PHS and most of those supplies went up in flames," Zack said, scratching his head and walking after the general. "We'll really have to rough it, I guess. You okay with that, Cloud?" He turned to see the boy still standing quietly over the grave. "Cloud?" he repeated.

"I never saw someone die before," Cloud whispered. "Is it always like that? So fast and unreal?"

"Sometimes," Zack said softly, shoving his hands in his pockets. He kicked a stray pebble with his boot. "Other times, it seems to take way too long. It's never easy, though. You going to be okay?"

Large blue eyes blinked up at him. "Yeah," Cloud said. "I'll be fine."

The two followed Sephiroth to the relative shelter of a few trees on the edge of a forest. The tall man was busy preparing a fire, lighting a few bundled sticks with a brief spell.

"It's unusual for behemoths to hunt in pairs," he said as his companions approached. "They're solitary creatures. The ones we killed today were an oddity, but we should take turns at keeping watch to be safe."

"I'll take first watch," Zack offered. "I'm too wound up to get any rest anyway." He hefted his heavy sword onto his shoulder and sat a few yards away with his back against a tree. "You guys just get your beauty sleep, okay?"

Cloud watched the dark-haired man melt into the shadows, away from the campfire's flickering light. He shivered slightly; his uniform shirt was still damp with blood and the air was getting cooler.

"Does this need to be tended to?" Sephiroth asked, placing a long-fingered hand on Cloud's wounded shoulder. The blond tried not to jump with surprise. The general moved so silently.

"The bleeding's almost stopped, and it's not deep," he protested, but Sephiroth ignored him and drew a bottle from his coat pocket.

"Drink," he ordered, uncorking the bottle and handing it to Cloud.

He examined the label doubtfully. "I can't, sir. This is a Hi-potion." Cloud held the bottle out to his superior. "Men of my rank are supposed to only use regular potions. This is too expensive."

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed to thin slits. "I'm ordering you to—"

"But I—"

"Seph, just tell him it's your potion, and you can do what you like with it, and you want him to have it!" Zack shouted from his post in the dark trees. "Great Shiva, it's like I'm babysitting a bunch of…" he mumbled, his voice fading.

The silver-haired man glared in Zack's general direction, muttering, "You heard him. It's yours. Drink."

"I'll drink half," Cloud said with a frown. "That should be plenty."

"Fine. As you wish." Sephiroth spun around and unbuckled the clasps of his long black coat. He threw the armored shoulder plates to the ground, allowing the coat to slide from his shoulders. Sephiroth spread it on the dusty ground by the fire in a sort of makeshift bed. He turned when he heard a choking sound come from Cloud.

"Shit," the boy wheezed. "That is some strong stuff."

"It's an acquired taste," Sephiroth agreed, stretching out on his back with his hands behind his head. "A bit like burned food mixed with paint thinner."

"Right." Cloud corked the bottle and placed it gently on the ground, then sat down close to the fire, rubbing his arms to try and generate some warmth for his shivering body. Under his shredded shirt, the wound closed up.

Sephiroth turned his head to watch from behind slick strands of silver hair. "Cold?"

Cloud didn't even get a chance to answer when that long leather coat settled around his shoulders, still warm from Sephiroth's skin.

"Oh, sir, don't," Cloud said haltingly. He looked over his shoulder where the taller man was kneeling, arranging the garment to drape properly. "I'm fine. You're not even wearing a shirt, so…"

"Mako-infused bodies give off more body heat than normal," Sephiroth answered. "I'm protected from the elements. You are not."

"But you can't sleep on the ground." Cloud gestured to the dusty patch of earth they sat on.

Sephiroth gave a shrug and lay back down in his previous position, his long hair fanning out on the forest floor. "I've had worse accommodations. Now get some rest."

"Yes, sir." Cloud ran a hand down the smooth leather sleeve. "Thank you, sir."

The blond rolled up in the long coat like it was a sleeping bag, his spiky hair sticking up from between the black folds. Sephiroth watched with a smirk, remembering a time when another green recruit had borrowed his trademark coat to bed down in the damp Wutai swamps. Zack had been so young then. Perhaps, if Sephiroth was lucky, this Strife boy would prove to be a valuable ally as well.

After all, Zack had been talking about that girl of his…what was her name? Some wonderful creature from the slums. The way Zack spoke of her made Sephiroth anxious; if Zack was serious about his feelings (and Sephiroth had never known him to lie about matters of the heart), then perhaps he would soon be planning to leave the field. Get married. Start a family. Do all the things a normal young man would want.

Sephiroth sighed, staring into the dying embers of the fire. Who would be his confidant if Zack left him?

A sudden jerk from the heap of black leather caught Sephiroth's eye, and he watched the bundle continue to shiver violently.

"Strife?" he asked softly.

Cloud's blue eyes appeared from the top of the coat. "Sorry, sir. It's just cold without the fire going."

The general assessed the situation; unless he felled a tree and hacked it to pieces, there was no more firewood available. And to gather more wood would require getting up, anyway. Sephiroth grunted, reaching his long arm out to pull the bundle of coat and boy over to him. He pressed Cloud against his side, offering his shoulder as a sort of pillow.

"Here," he said. "I'm warm."

"Yes, you are," Cloud whispered against his neck. "Sir," he added belatedly. His pale lashes brushed against Sephiroth's skin as the boy blinked.

Sephiroth gave a sharp laugh, saying, "I believe we should follow Zack's rule for formalities. When I'm not in uniform and on-duty, please feel free to dispense with the 'sirs.'" His glowing green eyes gazed down at the pale blond beside him.

"Okay," Cloud agreed. Then, "Can I call you Seph? Like Zack does?"

The silver-haired man nodded. "You may. Off-duty."

Cloud seemed to relax against Sephiroth's side with a release of breath. "Right. Good night," he said, not quite ready to use the familiar nickname.

Sephiroth listened to the sleeping boy's heartbeat and watched the stars flicker in the night sky until his eyes, too, became heavy.

The whisper came to Sephiroth's ears before the sun came up. "Aren't you two just the cutest?" Zack laughed quietly.

Sephiroth opened one eye to glare at the man before noticing what he was referring to. At some point in the night, he had somehow hauled Cloud onto his chest, wrapping his arms around the boy protectively. Cloud's breath came in warm puffs against his collarbone. The blond still slept cradled against his body, their legs intertwined, the long black coat covering them both. Sephiroth blinked down at the blond spikes nestled under his chin.

"Let him sleep," Zack whispered. "Come on." He gestured for Sephiroth to get up.

The silver-haired man stealthily slid out from under Cloud's weight, leaving the boy wrapped in the coat on the ground. He got to his feet, giving the him one last concerned look before following Zack to the crest of a nearby hill. Zack turned to watch his approach with a wide smile.

"You never woke me up to take over the watch," Sephiroth accused. "You stayed awake all night?"

Zack shrugged, looking out over the plains. The sun was just beginning to crest over the horizon, reaching its yellow rays up into the sky.

"I thought about waking you up a few times," the dark-haired man said, "but you seemed so cozy, curled up with Cloud like that."

"I don't even remember moving last night," Sephiroth muttered to his second-in-command. "I have no idea how that happened."

"Oh, come on, Seph. It was a cold night, the kid was shaken from that mess with the behemoths…" He brushed a long strand of black hair from his dark eyes. "You feel protective about him. That's normal."

Sephiroth snorted and kept his eyes on the rising sun. "I can't afford to feel protective," he said.

"Whatever, man," Zack said with a shake of his head. "You can act all tough around other people, but I know you. You like this one; I can tell."

Sephiroth squinted into the bright sunlight. "It is a rare event to be able to speak to a cadet without the usual…" He gestured vaguely with his gloved hand.

"The usual puppy eyes? The macho posturing? The vomiting?" Zack gave a loud, long laugh, doubling over to hold his shaking stomach. "That one guy, do you remember? Of all the places in the parade line to toss his cookies, and he did it right on your boots!"

"Yes," Sephiroth growled dryly. "I myself have never had that particular…reaction, but it seemed like a horrible affliction." He snorted. "I suppose that's the sort of feeling I inspire among the rank and file, isn't it?"

There was a short pause before Zack reached up to place his hand on Sephiroth's bare shoulder. "Nah, some people just get nervous around you. It's not your fault. And hey, Cloud's not scared of you."

A fine silver eyebrow rose elegantly. Zack smirked, not bothering to remove his hand.

Sephiroth turned back to gaze over the plains, scanning the horizon with his keen sight. "The search party is here," he muttered, pointing to a faint black shape that was just coming into view. "That was quick. For them."

Zack hefted his Buster sword out of the harness on his back. "Yeah, yeah. But we're the losers they're picking up, so we got to be nice, okay?" He stabbed his weapon into the ground, angling it so the sunlight was reflected onto the approaching vehicle's windshield. The jeep flashed its headlights in answer.

"They'll be here in a few minutes," Sephiroth said, turning to walk back down the hill. "I'll wake up Cloud."

"And don't forget to put your clothes back on, you show-off!" Zack shouted at his retreating form.

"The entire shipment! Lost!" Heidegger paced the floor of the meeting room in agitation, his wide girth making it impossible for him to sit in one of the chairs that lined the long table. "It was a rookie sort of assignment, just a fluff piece for the papers, and the Great General couldn't even get a truckload of supplies to Junon?"

"There was some expensive machinery in that shipment," Scarlet muttered from her place on one end of the table. "And you let it all go up in flames." Beside her, Hojo nodded grimly and tucked his hooked beak of a nose into his concave chest.

Sephiroth sighed quietly and tilted his head in acknowledgment. "A recruit was also killed. I'm sure you noticed that in my report," he replied sarcastically.

"Damn it, General," President Shin-Ra growled, pounding his fist onto the table. "We're a business. We're talking about commodities here."

In the seat next to him, the president's teenaged son, a bored-looking blond boy, stared out the window. The streets below were bustling with crowds of people, all dependent on the energy the Shin-Ra Company provided. That was how Midgar survived.

"Pay attention, Rufus," the president snapped. "You're here to learn, not daydream."

"I heard you," Rufus replied, not taking his eyes from the window. "Business. Commodities. Got it."

The president sighed, returning his gaze to Sephiroth. "Sons. They're hopeless."

"I wouldn't know, sir," Sephiroth said with a grim frown. One of the first scientific trials he remembered occurred during his youth; puberty, specifically. The company had tried to conduct experiments with his sperm to see how viable his progeny would be. A race of super soldiers…that's what they had wanted. Sephiroth had horrible, fractured memories of being forced to touch himself under the watchful eyes of men in lab coats. They called him a sample to be collected, not a boy who was just learning the limits of his body.

It didn't matter in the end. They discovered Sephiroth was sterile—the result of an entire childhood's worth of bio-technical enhancements. At the time, Sephiroth wasn't completely aware of what his sterility meant; he only knew that he'd somehow angered Hojo and the other scientists. Now, however, Sephiroth was relieved that he wouldn't be made to father legions of soldiers for the Shin-Ra army. Just the idea of being treated like a prize racehorse and having intercourse with a stable full of carefully chosen child bearers made him shudder.

Hojo caught the small twitch in Sephiroth's demeanor.

"That reminds me," he spoke up from the other end of the table. Hojo pushed his glasses up his nose with his index finger, his greasy black hair falling into his face in stringy strands. "You missed the last evaluation session at the lab, Sephiroth."

"The training center has been busy," he answered. "I had too much work to attend to."

The scientist's eyes narrowed behind his thick rims. "I seriously suggest you make time, then. These sessions are for your benefit."

"My benefit?" Sephiroth snorted and crossed his arms over his chest. His fingers itched for the hilt of the Masamune, but alas, it was safely stowed in the reception area. There was a strict 'no weapons' policy in the president's offices. "I don't see how I benefit, exactly. You inject me with something; my vision blurs for a few hours. You electro-shock me; I feel a shooting pain in my leg for a day. You put me in the sensory deprivation chamber; I get a headache. How is this benefiting me?"

"You're being unreasonable, Sephiroth," Hojo sneered, pushing his glasses back into place once more. "Science isn't always about quick results. Be patient."

"I should be patient. I should make time for you and these meetings," Sephiroth scoffed, pushing his chair back from the table and rising. "Now, I believe the issue at hand has been dealt with: the rise in unusual monster behavior is troubling, and possibly a result of the mako reactors' processes. It's all in my report. If you'll please excuse me now, I have an army to run."

Heidegger sputtered with anger as Sephiroth brushed past him to reach the door. "We're not done here!" the fat man cried.

Sephiroth leveled a glare at him, and Heidegger cringed away from him. "I am," Sephiroth growled. He swung the door open and stepped into the hall. "Good day, gentlemen, lady," he called over his shoulder.

The door slammed shut behind him, and the people in the meeting room shifted in discomfort.

"He's getting out of hand," the president hissed. "He never used to be so…so…"

"Indignant?" the boy at his side supplied.

"Rufus, stay out of this," Shin-Ra grumbled. "The adults are talking now, son."

"It's this damn era of peace," Heidegger cried. His belly jiggled as he motioned frantically. "No wars, no major battles. Sephiroth's like a tiger pacing its cage. There's nothing to occupy his attention like before, it seems."

"We could always manufacture something," Scarlet mused, tapping her long, lacquered nails against her lips. "Perhaps we could say there's been an uprising in Wutai and have him ferret out a few 'dissenters.' It may be just the thing to get him back to his old self."

"If I may make a suggestion," Hojo interrupted, "we may not have to look so far to reign in our little investment." He laughed into his palm, a high-pitched giggle. "There's been a call made for assistance with a reactor, correct? That sounds like the perfect assignment for the general."

"Are you mad?" the president asked, turning pale. "You know what he'll find there."

"Precisely." Hojo made a sweeping gesture with his hand. "Let him see what he really is. That'll take him down a peg or two."

"He has a point." Heidegger scratched at his bulging stomach. "He won't be so high and mighty once he sees he's not even human."

"He owes us everything," Hojo continued with a gleam in his eye. "Without Shin-Ra, he'd be nothing."

The president nodded, then glared at Rufus, who was drawing circles on the tabletop with his index finger. "Son?"

"I heard you," Rufus muttered. "Take him down a peg or two. Owes us everything." The boy sighed and looked out the window. "I get it."

Sephiroth took the direct route back to his quarters, walking briskly straight through the training grounds. Waves of recruits parted for him with snappy salutes and respectful cries of, "Sir!" Sephiroth ignored them all. He clutched his sword in his hand and concentrated on calming the angry tick in his jaw. He'd wasted all afternoon in that roomful of idiots, and now he was surely behind on the mountain of reports that he needed to look at. It would take all night just to organize it all.

Now that he had his weapon back, the voice in his head became louder, impossible to pretend it didn't exist. It told him to go back to Shin-Ra Tower and spear the president, his idiotic advisors, and most of all, Hojo. That would certainly calm this wave of anger rolling through his chest. But Sephiroth took another deep breath, remembering what Zack had said when he'd confessed to having these internal battles.

"Look, Seph, everyone has a little voice in their head telling them to do bad things. That's just temptation," the First had told him. "You got to remember, though, that everyone also has a conscience to tell you when not to do something. So listen to that voice instead, okay?"

Sephiroth never told Zack that the voice that always held him back, his conscience, sounded remarkably like the dark-haired man's soothing voice. In fact, where was Zack? He would know just what to do about this. As if in answer to his desires, Sephiroth felt Zack's presence close by.

Sephiroth slowed his breakneck pace and gazed at the sight he'd just come across. There was a small alley between two buildings on his left, empty of workers and soldiers because of the late hour. Cloud and Zack were sprawled on the steps of a loading dock. The young blond had a clipboard in his hand and a pen in the other. His fingerless glove was hanging from his teeth, presumably to give his writing hand more freedom. Zack sat behind him on the next stair, allowing Cloud to lean back in the V of his legs. It was such an easy pose for the two of them, Sephiroth thought. He couldn't imagine Zack doing the same for him; it had taken years for Zack to place a hand on his shoulder without Sephiroth cringing. Human contact was just one of those things he wasn't good at.

Of course, last night's sleeping arrangement had been an unusual exception. One that Sephiroth didn't want to analyze just yet.

Cloud tapped the paper in front of him with the pen, murmuring a question to Zack around the leather in his mouth. The black-haired man leaned over his shoulder to point out something on the page, and Cloud nodded vigorously, scribbling down an answer. Zack smiled with pride and leaned back again, his gaze finally wandering up to Sephiroth. His grin immediately faded to a look of concern.

"What the hell happened to you?" the First-Class asked. "You look pissed."

Sephiroth dropped his head with a dry laugh. Only Zack would notice the set of his shoulders and the way his jaw jumped.

"My afternoon meeting with the president and his staff went rather poorly. I'm under scrutiny after our last mission. It seems they think it's my fault two behemoths attacked us," he answered. He gestured to Cloud's clipboard. "Homework?"

The blond boy took the glove out of his mouth to answer. "Studying for the exams, sir," Cloud said. Then, slowly, "Are you off-duty yet, sir?"

Sephiroth glanced at the sun hanging low in the sky. "I'm certain it's past five now. So yes, I'm off-duty."

"Well, then I'm sorry you had a shitty meeting, Seph. They sound like a bunch of assholes," Cloud said, turning his attention back to his papers.

Zack's grin was bright enough to power its own reactor. "Ah, the student becomes the master. The kid's a smart one, huh?"

Drawn in by the spirit of his friend, Sephiroth couldn't help but give a smirk in return. His heart instantly felt lighter around these two; it was miraculous.

His eyes squinted as he caught a glint of metal through Cloud's light hair. He bent over the boy and brushed the lock of hair away from his face. Cloud froze and let the general examine him.

"You have an earring," he said slowly. "When did you get it?"

"This, uh, afternoon," Cloud managed. "Zack did it for me."

Yes, Sephiroth recognized the simple silver stud. It was the twin of the one Zack wore in his ear along with another small silver hoop. It was a bit of a ritual among the recruits to pierce themselves. It was a show of confidence; once a man became a SOLDIER and received mako treatments, his body was unable to be pierced because of the increased healing factor. To get pierced meant the recruit was sure of his ability and wanted to get the piercing done before it was impossible to do so later.

"I see," Sephiroth said, removing his hand to let the unruly spikes fall back into place. He was a little unhinged at how swiftly he'd touched the boy without a second thought. "It looks good on you."

Cloud peered up at his superior, his blue eyes running over Sephiroth's face. "Do you have one?"

"Hm?" Sephiroth realized Cloud couldn't see his ears through the mass of long silver hair. He pulled back his shining tresses with one hand to expose his bare earlobes. "No, I never had the time. My treatments were…earlier than most."

"Oh? When did you start?" Cloud asked, tapping his pen absent-mindedly against his clipboard. Behind him, Zack grabbed Cloud's arm with a shaky laugh.

"What are all these questions for, Spike? Don't you have a test to study for?" he admonished.

Sephiroth sighed, his hair draping back over his shoulders. "Zachary."

Cloud's eyes widened as he realized his faux pas. "I'm sorry, sir," he blurted out. "I shouldn't have pried like that."

"No, please, don't be sorry." Sephiroth waved his hand dismissively. "I'm not some fragile woman. You don't have to walk on eggshells around me."


"The truth is," Sephiroth said, "I don't remember much of the early years of my life. All my memories are of life in the military, training to be a soldier. I don't…understand much of my past."

Cloud ducked his head, his pale skin flushing. "Oh."

"Listen," Zack broke in, standing suddenly. "It sounds like we've all had a hard day. Cloud, take a study break. We're all going back to my quarters." He waggled his dark eyebrows. "How do biscuits and gravy sound? Maybe a couple of beers?"

Cloud frowned seriously. "Alcoholic liquids are not permitted on base."

"He's got a point. Good job memorizing the handbook," Zack laughed. He turned his sparkling eyes to Sephiroth. "Well, General, sir, are you going to throw me in the brig?"

Sephiroth tilted his head in thought. "Maybe after a few beers, I will."

"That's the hard ass I know and love!" Zack shouted, bounding down the stairs. "Come on, guys. Biscuits don't just make themselves."

"You're beautiful." Cloud's voice blew into the shell of his ear like the wind coming off the ocean. "You're perfect. Everything about you is perfect."

Sephiroth shook his head. The silver hair cascading down his back parted, and he felt soft lips on the nape of his neck.

"I'm not perfect," he said in a hoarse whisper. "Not even close."

"Maybe not yet." Cloud bit his ear lobe between sharp white teeth. Sephiroth swallowed a gasp, but couldn't hide the way his body jumped. "But someday soon."

"I…" Sephiroth wanted to face those blue eyes, to see if they were swimming from one too many of Zack's beers, to watch…

To watch them dilate as he pleasured Cloud. Whatever the blond wanted, he would give him.

He turned.

"Cl—" Sephiroth jerked awake, his head snapping up from the pillow it was buried in. His was in his own bed, his own room, alone. A dream?

He glanced around the room just to be sure no one else was there. Sephiroth felt his face flush; he couldn't even remember the last time he'd had a dream like that. It was childish, an adolescent fantasy. And of a young recruit, on top of it!

He groaned, turning over on his back, not quite ready to get out of bed just yet. It was still early, and since the mission had been ruined and his schedule was a mess, he had leave today.

Sephiroth glared down at his erection tenting the sheets. This was ridiculous. Cloud was just a boy, barely sixteen. And yes, he had had a great, relaxing evening with Cloud and Zack last night. The two had done their best to cheer him up. Zack had shoved two grapefruits down his shirt and cackled, "I'm Scarlet, and I'm a stupid bitch. Ho ho ho ho!" Cloud had joined in, stuffing a pillow up his shirt to represent Heidegger. The two boys had been laughing so hard, tears ran down their faces. Sephiroth recalled smothering his chuckles behind his hand.

Sephiroth's ears still rang with Cloud's rough laughter, as if the boy hadn't done it often enough to do it easily. That laugh, those eyes…

Sephiroth climbed gracefully out of bed, intent on taking a shower. After all, he thought, he should take care of his little problem. And it wouldn't really hurt anything if he imagined some fantasy while he did it. It wasn't like it was real, just his private thoughts. Normal men probably did it all the time.

He caught himself then, holding a hand against the bathroom door. Zack certainly didn't. Zack only thought about that girl of his (what was her name?) and maybe a calendar model or two. Zack didn't ever think of Cloud, not like that.

Sephiroth glanced at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He didn't wear clothes to bed when he slept in his quarters, so he stood naked. His cock was hard against his bare stomach, leaking a small bead of fluid from the tip.

Would imaging Cloud's tongue lapping that up, would that be so wrong?

"I'm off-duty. I can do what I want," Sephiroth muttered to himself, wrenching the shower knob to the hottest point and stepping into the spray. He stroked himself lazily at first, letting the heat work into his aching muscles. But soon, lingering memories of his dream came to the forefront.

What would Cloud taste like, his mouth, his skin? What sounds would he make when touched, when whispered to? Sephiroth groaned and let his head fall back against the cool tile, his hand moving faster over his heated flesh. His eyes drifted shut, and he allowed his thoughts to wander even more.

What would Cloud look like? Sephiroth imagined him on his knees, those deep blue eyes gazing up at him, his hands closing around the erection in front of him, a pink tongue darting out to moisten his lips…

Sephiroth let loose a gasp that formed into Cloud's name, a low, rumbling sound like thunder. His free hand reached out to prop himself against the wall. His breaths came in harsh pants.

Cloud would be slow at first. He'd look at Sephiroth from all angles, trying to determine the best way to approach him. Then he'd lean forward with infinite care and swipe his tongue along the head of the cock in his hands. With a little coaxing, he might take the tip between his lips and suck. He might find he enjoyed the taste, and swallow Sephiroth as far down as he could, working the thick length with his mouth and—

One last gasp escaped Sephiroth's throat, and his body jolted from the force of his orgasm. He came in long, white streams, over and over, as if he'd never stop. When the last of the spasms finally left him, Sephiroth slumped against the shower wall, enjoying the feeling of the warm water on his sensitized skin.

Release had never felt so gratifying. Normally, it was an annoying chore, a natural function that had to be taken care of. But that simple fantasy had been…quite stimulating. He smirked to himself. Maybe, since there was no harm in it, he'd indulge in such things more often.

Sephiroth rinsed himself and stepped out of the shower, squeezing the water out of his long hair and tying it back with a strip of leather. He chose a soft pair of black and grey lounge pants to wear; he wasn't planning on going to the office on his day of leave. There was work to be done, but he could do it later. Zack had reminded him of that last night. Today he could concentrate on doing the tasks he'd been meaning to get to: performing some katas, meditating, and polishing the Masamune a bit.

These things were on his mind when he stepped out of his bedroom and came face-to-face with the object of his masturbatory fantasies. Cloud blinked up at him, his uniform shirt rumpled and unbuttoned at the throat. Sephiroth could only manage to say the first thing that came to mind.

"How did you get in here?"

"I got the key card from Zack," Cloud said cautiously, holding up the sliver of plastic as proof. "He was going to help me study, but then he remembered he had a date with his girlfriend. So he thought, that is, if you have the time, maybe you could help?"

Sephiroth glanced down, finally seeing the pile of papers Cloud carried under his arm. Of course. Cloud was here to study, not to listen to him moan in the shower. He probably hadn't heard anything.

"Have you been waiting here long?" he asked.

"No, I just got here, and was about to knock on your door when you came out." Cloud looked around the sparse apartment. "It's not what I expected. I thought they'd give you the largest rooms."

He was right to be surprised. Sephiroth's rooms were small, much smaller than Zack's. Besides the bedroom and bathroom, there was only one snug room that served as Sephiroth's personal space. There wasn't much to see: no furniture, just a high counter running along one wall.

"I'm used to small spaces; I prefer it to the other quarters. I had first choice when the building opened last year," Sephiroth explained. He crossed the small room to open the tiny fridge hidden in the corner under the countertop. "Would you like a drink?" He glanced up from the fridge to see Cloud staring wide-eyed at him. "Is something wrong?"

"Sorry," Cloud said, as if startled out of his thoughts. "I've just never seen you with…your hair, I mean." He gestured to the loose ponytail. "It's usually down."

Sephiroth nodded, pulling the long mass of hair over his shoulder. "Yes, it's part of Shin-Ra's brand image, really. I have to keep it down in public. The coat, the sword, it's all been carefully chosen by a marketing team."

Cloud shifted uncomfortably on his feet. "But doesn't the hair get in your way in the field?"

The general shrugged, reaching into the icebox for a bottle of water. "I've gotten used to it. Would you like some water?"

"That's fine," the blond said, accepting the plastic bottle. He twisted the cap off and gazed about the room for something to change the subject. He gestured with his elbow to a cloth-covered shape in the other corner. "What's that?"

Sephiroth felt out of his element; he never entertained anyone except Zack. And Zack pretty much entertained himself. There were never so many questions with him. But Sephiroth strode over to the hulking shape and pulled the dust cloth from it. Cloud bit back a small gasp.

"A piano?" He ran his fine-boned hand along the sleek black top. "Do you play?"

"I used to." The general pulled out the short stool from under the piano and sat down. "When I was young, I was part of a study to determine the effects of music education on intelligence." He smiled wryly, fingering the white keys with a light, soundless touch. "Dr. Hojo had heard that musicians scored higher on mathematics tests, so he made me learn to play the piano to see if it made a difference."

"And?" Cloud prompted, leaning against the curved side of the instrument, his water bottle dangling from his hands.

"It didn't work. I was already as brilliant at math as I was going to get," Sephiroth said with a short laugh. His hands glided over the keys, playing a few brief bars. "When the study was abandoned, I didn't have the time to play any longer."

Sephiroth shut his eyes, trying to find the correct keys by touch alone. He felt Cloud's eyes on him as he managed a short melody. It was nothing special, just a small, melancholy piece.

"You still remember how, though," Cloud observed. The water bottle and study papers were placed on the top of the instrument, forgotten. Cloud's fingers traced a bronze plaque on the piano's lacquer. He read it aloud: "'To General Sephiroth, on the occasion of his eighteenth year of service to the Shin-Ra Electric Company. From President Shin-Ra.'"

Sephiroth hummed in agreement, his eyes still shut, his shoulders moving gracefully as he played.

"Eighteen years of service? But, sir…" Cloud paused, and the general could imagine the boy biting his lip in hesitation. "Seph," he began again, "wouldn't that make you nearly forty? You don't look that old."

"President Shin-Ra has a strange sense of humor," Sephiroth answered, his eyes drifting open again. The music continued, swelling with a new sense of purpose. Long, tapered fingers raced up and down the keyboard, drawing out the sad, wavering tones. "It was a gift for my eighteenth birthday. That was two years ago."

Cloud's mouth fell open. "You're only twenty?"

The music stopped, and Sephiroth bowed his head over the piano keys, his long bangs slipping from behind his ears to brush the surface of the ivory.

"I'm not sure," he said softly. "I don't know."

"I—" Cloud swallowed, his eyes downcast. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have brought it up."

"My birthday," Sephiroth continued, ignoring Cloud's apology, "was a date assigned by Shin-Ra's scientists. Beyond that time, I can find no files detailing my existence. My memories are unreliable." He slammed the cover down on the piano keys. "I can only make blind guesses."

Cloud carefully slid onto the piano bench next to the taller man. He lifted the wooden cover to expose the keys and began playing with the fingers of one hand. He tapped out a few notes, mimicking the sad melody Sephiroth had been playing. He picked out a small phrase from Sephiroth's song and repeated it a few times. The silver-haired man raised an eyebrow.

"I never learned properly," Cloud said, seeing the question in those green eyes. "When I was little, my next-door neighbor had a piano. She let me fiddle with it, sometimes. I'm not good or anything, not like you."

"Perhaps," Sephiroth said. He brought his hands back to the keys and played alongside Cloud for a few bars. The blond drew his hands back, ready to leave the instrument to the general, but Sephiroth shook his head. "Continue. It sounds fine."

The recruit nodded, making a sort of duet with his superior. It was an improvised song, just something Sephiroth made up as he went. But Cloud followed well enough, and the one or two sour notes didn't bother their ears much.

"Hey, Seph?" Cloud asked over the rising music.

Sephiroth hummed in answer, not taking his eyes from the keys.

"What do you think you'll do when you're done serving in the military?"

The song ground to a halt, and Sephiroth's hands froze between two notes.

"What do you mean?" he asked, turning to face his pale companion.

The boy shrugged, taking his hands off the keys. "I don't know. When you retire, I mean. You don't sound very happy about working for Shin-Ra. They make you wear your hair a certain way, and you have to walk and talk a certain way…I just wondered what you'd like to do when this is all over. You play so well, I thought maybe you'd like to be a musician or something."

Sephiroth stood suddenly, almost knocking the small piano bench over. Cloud managed to stay upright by grabbing the edge of the piano to steady himself. The general was striding across the small room to stare out the picture window on the other wall.

"There will be no retirement for me," he said finally, his hands clasped behind his back. "It'll never be over."

"Well, I don't want to sound like a ghoul, but," Cloud scratched the back of his head sheepishly, "what exactly could possibly kill you? It's not like you're going to die in action, right? So you'll probably live a very long time. I was just wondering…"

Sephiroth gave a bitter laugh. "Did you imagine me sitting by a fire somewhere, my hair even whiter with age, reading the classics and enjoying my twilight years?"

"No, sir." Cloud sighed. "I just thought, if you hated it here so much…"

Sephiroth shook his head. His reflection in the glass was drawn and pinched. "I know nothing else. This place has been my life." He turned, his long tail of hair draping over his shoulder. "If you can call it a life." He gestured out the window to the long stretch of industrial machinery that was Midgar. "I work for a company that has been completely irresponsible. Anyone can see that the rise in monsters these last few years is connected to mako harvesting."

"Yes, but at least Shin-Ra's trying to help," Cloud said. "That's why there's SOLDIER. It might be too late to stop the monsters from thriving, but at least we can stop them from getting any worse. That's why I want to make SOLDIER more than anything."

Sephiroth glared. "You'd be content to spend your life cleaning up after another man's mistakes?"

Cloud's eyes flashed fiercely. "Everyone deserves a second chance to make things right," he bit out. "Sir."

Sephiroth gazed at the small, pale boy, who was actually not very much younger than he was. This beautiful, stubborn boy…could he be right? Did everyone get a second chance?

"Forgive me," he whispered. Then he found his voice and said, louder, "I believe you came here to receive tutoring, and all I've done is distract you. Please," he gestured to Cloud's pile of paperwork on top of the piano. "Let's get started."

He sat back down beside Cloud on the bench, idly flipping through the highlighted and annotated pages. Cloud's note-taking was eerily similar to Zack's, a sort of organized chaos.

"Ah, I see they're still teaching this outdated section on elementals," he muttered. "How quaint."

"Hey Seph?" Cloud said quietly. The general glanced up at the blond. His brows were furrowed between his bright eyes, like he was worried. "I just want to let you know…that what you do? It's important. And I know it's probably frustrating and, well, pretty thankless. But I want to say thanks. For what you do."

"What I do?" Sephiroth turned his attention back to the papers in his hands. "I don't do much, Cloud. Most of the time, I'm a mere figurehead."

"No, not like—" Cloud sighed and ran a hand through his messy hair. "I mean you. Thank you for what you do." He tapped a piano key twice, two loud notes ringing through the air. "Thank you for saving me from that behemoth. Thank you for helping me study. That's all I meant."

Sephiroth watched the boy's pale cheeks color slightly under his scrutiny, and he made a mental note: He would pay Hojo a visit tomorrow. If some minor discomforts made him stronger, well then, he could do that. He had been selfish, had forgotten that there were people like Cloud depending on him.

He would do whatever was necessary.

Shin-Ra's head scientist looked up from his clipboard, the overhead lights reflecting off his eyeglasses, giving him the appearance of an insect.

"The Great General graces the lab with his presence?" he mocked. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"My schedule opened unexpectedly," Sephiroth murmured, glancing around the cramped laboratory as if checking for all possible exits. There were four. "You said I was due for another round of injections?"

"Yes, yes, I have the special cocktail for you sitting in the cooler," Hojo said, rising unsteadily from his swivel chair. "I hope it hasn't turned rancid after all this time. Sit down, I'll be right back."

Sephiroth remained standing, seeing no reason to get comfortable in this horrid, ill-lit place. His eyes wandered over various concoctions bubbling in beakers and foul-smelling chemicals frothing on hot plates.

Everything about the lab was vile. Even the memories.

Sephiroth stopped short when his eyes fell on the clipboard sitting on the table in front of him. Hojo was usually so careful with his information. Why would he leave this lying about?

The silver-haired man frowned and picked it up, noticing it was written in a sort of coded shorthand. It was a simple code, however, and Sephiroth saw the pattern quickly. He skimmed over a few lines haphazardly, but his eyes widened and he reread the first page. Then flipped to the next, and the next.

"Great Shiva," he cursed, unable to say anything else but Zack's favorite exclamation.

It was a record of side effects in certain SOLDIER personnel. The afflictions ranged from infertility to mental imbalance, and it was all because of the mako injections. The report went on to conclude:

"Because of the nature of the mako treatments, it is reasonable to suppose that the average shelf life for the average SOLDIER Third Class is about seven to nine years from the beginning of treatment (less for Seconds and Firsts). After that time, the mind deteriorates to the point of insanity, and the body soon follows the downward spiral. Thus, it is recommended that, in order to save the Company from potential embarrassment and expense, SOLDIER personnel should be sent on certain missions to ensure a natural end before they reach that level of inefficiency."

Sephiroth raised a shaky hand to his mouth, covering his lips with the cool leather. It kept him from making any noise. But his mind was in turmoil. Nine years? He'd been taking treatments for over twenty, his whole life.

Kill them, Sephiroth, that voice in his head hissed. He blocked it out, concentrating on Zack's voice, which said, Keep your cool, Seph.

Then his green eyes snapped up from the paper in horror. Certain missions? Shin-Ra wasn't just poisoning the SOLDIER classes. They were terminating them.

Sephiroth threw the sheaf of papers back on the table and swept out of the room, his thoughts churning.

From the dark shadows in the corners of the lab, Hojo smiled, his glasses gleaming.

It explained so much, Sephiroth thought as he strode as quickly as he could back to his office without breaking into a run. The mortality rate in SOLDIER had always been high, but Sephiroth had thought that was unavoidable; they were always given the most dangerous missions, after all. And he'd never given a thought to what happened to SOLDIERs once they retired; no one really heard from them. They were probably hunted down and killed by the Turks. Those thugs would be perfect for such a job.

"Zack!" he barked as he entered his small office. Zack was sitting behind his desk, his booted feet propped up beside Sephiroth's name plate. The dark-haired man grinned lazily.

"Hey, what's going on?" he asked. He was eating a sandwich. Ham and cheese. Sephiroth's eye twitched.

"When are you next scheduled for mako treatments?" Sephiroth demanded.

Zack furrowed his brow and put his sandwich down on the desk, wiping the crumbs off his hands. "I don't know. Maybe in a couple of months?"

"Do not go to your next appointment." Sephiroth slammed his hands down on his desk, upsetting Zack's easy posture. "That's an order."

"O…kay," Zack said carefully. "That would be disobeying a direct order from Command, but that's just a small detail. Want to tell me what's going on?"

Sephiroth opened his mouth, then shut it with a click. What should he say? You might develop/already have gingivitis/abdominal cramps/heart failure/schizophrenia? You'll be dead before you're twenty-five? And for what? Sephiroth thought.

Because they wanted to make more of me.

Sephiroth had to fix this, had to stop Hojo. Or the entire scientific staff, or perhaps the President himself. He had to find out exactly what caused the reactions, and then try to engineer a cure. But right now, he had no idea where to begin.

"I can't tell you right now," Sephiroth whispered. "Please, just trust me. I promise, I'll try to figure out…something, but until then, do not go to the lab."

"Sure, Seph." Zack smiled widely. "You know I trust you. I'd follow you into any battle."

Sephiroth sighed in relief. "Yes, thank you." Then his head snapped up. "Cloud. Where's Cloud?"

"Right now?" Zack glanced at the clock. "Probably finishing up the physical part of his exam." He shook his head with a laugh. "The kid took the written portion this morning. Passed with flying colors. He'll be so—" Sephiroth rushed out of the room before Zack could finish.

"I can't fail him, sir," the test administrator said for the fifth time. "He passed. See? I've already given him passing marks." The sheet was once again pushed under Sephiroth's nose.

"Yes, I see," Sephiroth growled, pushing the hand and paper out of his face. "But I'm telling you, Cadet Strife cannot be allowed into SOLDIER. I need you to fail him, immediately."

"Look, General Sephiroth, you should be pleased. This kid's good. He aced the sword portion of the exam, and the hand-to-hand wasn't bad…" The man stroked his beard and flipped through the file on his desk. "All in all, it looks like Strife is the perfect SOLDIER candidate. We don't get ones like him every day. And you want him gone?"

Sephiroth's eyes darkened as he towered over the man's desk, filling the tiny office with his commanding presence.

"Do it," he said.

"Y-yes sir," the man answered. "B-but the written exam scores have already been posted, so…"

"So fail him on the physical exam. I don't care," Sephiroth barked. "Just get it done."

"Yes, General. I'll do it right now, sir."

Sephiroth grunted in response, sweeping out into the hallway to find Zack staring at him. His normally blazing eyes were cold. Zack said nothing, his arms crossed over his chest.

"Zachary." The silver-haired man glanced around the bustling hallway of the admissions building. "I can explain, but not now."

"Then let's go somewhere else," Zack said curtly.

Back in his quarters, Sephiroth faced off with an angry Zack. He'd never seen the usually easy-going man so worked up before, as if Cloud was his own child. The dark-haired man exploded in a rage the minute the door closed.

"This kid's lifelong dream is to be a SOLDIER!" he cried. "How can you take that away from him?"

"Zack, please. You said you'd trust me."

"Yeah, with my life!" He pointed a finger at his own chest. "Mine. Not Cloud's. What right do you have to screw the poor kid over like that?"

"It had to be done," Sephiroth growled. "Give me some time, and everything will become clear. I'm doing this for his benefit."

"His benefit?" Zack scoffed. "It'll kill him."

"No, it won't." Sephiroth gave a bitter laugh. "It will keep him alive."

The dark-haired SOLDIER frowned, and Sephiroth could see the gears turning in his head. Zack wasn't a stupid man by any means; he could put the clues together better than anyone.

"What are they doing to us?" he asked quietly. "What are they putting inside us?"

Sephiroth shook his head. "I don't know. But I feel something in me, Zack. Something dark and unnatural, and it eats at me."

"Everyone has darkness inside them, Seph," the dark-haired man assured.

"Not like this," Sephiroth whispered. "It's not just a voice in my head, Zack. It's something black and terrible deep inside, and it may come to the surface at any time." He looked up slowly, his silver hair falling across his face. "I need you to make me a promise. If that ever happens, if you ever look me in the eye and don't recognize me, promise me you'll defeat me before—"

"I'm not going to kill you!" Zack cried.

"Zachary. This is an order." Sephiroth dropped his fists to his sides. "Promise me."

"Shit. Okay, okay," Zack cursed. He bit his knuckles and paced the length of Sephiroth's room. "That bastard Hojo. If we tell all the troops, it'll be anarchy. We wouldn't even have a chance to get organized before they'd sic the Turks on us, have 'em kill everyone in their sleep, starting with the Firsts."

"My thoughts exactly," Sephiroth sighed, leaning back against the long countertop. "We need to keep this under wraps until we can figure out a plan. No SOLDIER can know. And do not talk to Cloud about this," he said sternly, shifting his weight from foot to foot, his eyes on the floor as if in deep thought. "I want to keep him as far away from this as possible."

Zack stopped his pacing to stand in front of Sephiroth, his mouth hanging open with a sudden realization. "Holy Shiva," he whispered, "you're in love with him, aren't you?"

"That's ridiculous," Sephiroth snapped. "I'm trying to discuss a crisis with you, not my romantic interests!"

"I knew it," Zack muttered with a shake of his head. "I knew there was something different about you lately, but I just couldn't put my finger on it. When most people are in love, they pick flowers or write poetry. But you, Seph, you get motivated to overthrow the government."

"We are not overthrowing the government," the general hissed. "Not yet. I need time; I need to find out what's going on."

"Fine, of course." Zack held up his hands in a calming gesture. He raised a black eyebrow. "What are we going to tell Cloud about his exam?"

"Nothing," Sephiroth sighed. "We say nothing."

"Oh, yeah?" Zack pursed his lips in a thoughtful expression. "How do you think that's going to work, exactly?"

"I don't have all the answers, Zachary," the silver-haired man growled. "I'm playing by ear. Cloud's safer as a grunt. When this is all over, he'll thank me."

The door slid open then, and the blond boy stood in the doorway with Zack's key card in his hand. His blue eyes were bloodshot and trembling with unshed tears.

"I…" Cloud choked, and tried to speak again. "I didn't…"

"Oh, Spike." Zack opened his arms and let the boy run to him, clutching the front of his violet shirt and hanging there like he was drowning and Zack was keeping him afloat.

"They said I was too weak," Cloud sobbed into Zack's shirt. "I practiced so hard. I did everything I could think of. I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I wasn't strong enough. I'm sorry."

The First Class rubbed his hands up and down Cloud's shaking back, whispering soothing words. "No, don't be sorry. Don't."

Over the top of Cloud's blond hair, Zack glared at Sephiroth. Those bright green eyes, though, were riveted to the boy in Zack's arms. Never before had Sephiroth's face held such horrible guilt written across his features. Zack sighed and brought his attention back to Cloud.

"Don't cry, Spike. Don't cry."

One week later, and Sephiroth personally appeared in Cloud's barracks. The grunt rooms were even worse than those reserved for cadets: bunk beds stretched for miles, it seemed, in those long, poorly ventilated buildings. It housed hundreds of young troops, most of them failures as SOLDIER candidates, and Cloud was forced to be among them. Sephiroth hated himself for doing this to the boy, but he could see no other way.

"And so, Private Strife," he concluded his small speech, "if it's acceptable to you and your commander, you will accompany me on my next mission."

The next mission was important; he was being sent to a town where there happened to be a large store of information in the Shin-Ra familial mansion. Sephiroth had jumped at the chance; after dealing with the monster problem, he could comb through those records. He assigned Zack to the mission, of course, and now Cloud as well. He needed personnel he could trust if he did find something in the vaults. That, and he wanted to keep the boy close; what if Hojo went through the failed candidates' records while he was away?

Cloud remained seated on his low bunk, his eyes on the floor. He hadn't said a word since Sephiroth had appeared in the empty barracks to request the boy's presence. Cloud hadn't even glanced up with those large blue eyes.

"Sir, please excuse me," he answered quietly. "But there's no reason to continue offering me these missions, sir. There are plenty of other cadets who could use the experience on their records. It would be wasted on me."

Sephiroth cleared his throat. "It's not a waste, I assure you." He glanced about the empty cavern of the barracks and, seeing no one, sat down on the hard bunk next to the blond. "I need support on this particular assignment, and I want you to come."

Cloud looked up through his ragged bangs, glancing at Sephiroth's face. "Why me?"

Sephiroth crossed his arms over his chest. "You know the area. You have valuable knowledge of the town and its citizens. I can't think of anyone else with these skills."

Cloud furrowed his brow. "But the only place I know is…"

Sephiroth nodded. "Come with me, Cloud."

The boy stared intently at his superior. "My hometown? But why…?"

"I promise you, after this mission, everything will be put in order," Sephiroth said. He lifted a hand and gently, with great deliberation, cradled Cloud's pale cheek. The boy blinked his wide eyes and held very still.

"There are forces at work that I don't quite understand yet, Cloud," Sephiroth whispered. "But if you are patient, and stay by my side, I will do everything in my power…" He dropped his glowing gaze. "To keep you safe."

Cloud nodded, raising a shaky hand to join Sephiroth's gloved one. They rested there against Cloud's face, the boy's fingers curling around the leather-covered palm.

"I have this feeling about you," Sephiroth continued quietly. "It's another thing I can't explain, but…"

"I know," Cloud said. His eyes burned with promise. "I know, and don't worry." He smiled a small smile, and Sephiroth's heart leapt. "Let's go to Nibelheim."