The Price of Silence

By: Phoenix Dayze

Disclaimer: I do not own Final Fantasy VII or its characters (which I have abused terribly). This is simply a way of expressing myself.

Something wasn't quite right. That was the thought that kept echoing in Sephiroth's head as he watched the young cadets run through their morning drills. Something was off from yesterday. He narrowed his green-slitted eyes and scanned the ever-decreasing group of men, searching, using his instincts to try and decipher what it was that was setting his mind on edge. Finally, his eyes focused on a lean blond boy, the youngest of the SOLDIER trainees by far. Cloud was hard-working and dedicated, but Sephiroth doubted his mind would hold up to the strain SOLDIER would place on it. The young man would never be amongst his men, not the way he wanted. And for that Sephiroth was sorry. He knew the boy wanted this, and he hated to crush his dreams, but he just wasn't going to make the cut. Despite how much Sephiroth liked the kid, or how much he could use men with the amount of spirit that Cloud had, he couldn't, in good conscience, put his life on the line, when the odds were not in their favor. He hadn't yet had the heart to tell him. And truth be told, deep inside, he was loath to see him go. There was something about the young man that made Sephiroth inherently curious, fiercely protective, and, on occasion, furiously jealous.

Those were emotions he usually buried. They served him no good, and would cause people to view him as weak, not the best label for a General. He buried them now, watching the young man intently, gauging his performance. Cloud's steps were no longer sure as they had been in days past, but hesitant, his moves faulty and off the rhythm. Instead of determination, his body language radiated defeat and a deep, untamable fear. Something was definitely wrong.

As the men were dismissed to the showers, Sephiroth simply watched as Cloud gathered up his gear. The casual toss of his hair from his eyes. The strength in the muscles of his back as he shouldered his weapons. The quick tensing of his body that dissipated almost as soon as it had appeared, a small smile playing over the drawn lips as familiar footsteps neared. Sephiroth's mouth tightened into a grim line as Zack ran up and slung his arm around the cadet's shoulders, his face twisted in a typical Zack grin. The dark-haired SOLDIER whispered something in Cloud's ear, and Sephiroth fists clenched at his sides as the blond nodded slowly and the two men headed off towards the barracks. Sephiroth watched them until they disappeared from view, then, letting out a deep breath, he headed to his room.

Sephiroth locked his door as he entered his suite, coding against any and all entry. Sometimes it was good to be the General. The last thing he wanted was to be disturbed right now. He needed to cool off. He needed to think. He needed… He tilted his head against the door, eyes closed. He inhaled a few deep breaths. He needed far too much. More than he could ever have, and he knew it. Fate, it seems, had deemed it worthy to send him yet another unfair twist of destiny. Some days he could ignore it entirely, though those were growing fewer and farther between. Most days he was at least in control. But some days, like today, when he saw the beautiful, enigmatic Zack allowing his hands to stray across pale, untried flesh… despite the innocence of such a gesture, Sephiroth found 'control' to be the furthest thing from his capabilities.

Jealousy was not something Sephiroth was accustomed to. Were he to acknowledge the myriad of emotions swimming deep in his subconscious, he would be forced to admit that he wanted to be the one whose hands slid down the moon-kissed skin. He wanted to be the one who inhaled the sunny scent of his hair. He wanted to be the one who got to hear the little-heard voice whispering secret thoughts. But that was not his right. Those things belonged to the best friend, and later, the lover. Sephiroth hated Zack for that. Zack had everything that he wanted, everything that Sephiroth could never have.

Abandoning the solidity of the door, he traversed across his quarters and into the washroom. He turned on the jets, the streams of water raining down into the stone inset in the floor. He absently removed his clothes, laying them to the side and stepping down into the spray. Maybe the shower would cleanse not only the morning's soil, but his wayward thoughts as well.

He braced his arms against the stone wall, remarkably cool despite the heat of the water, his head bowed, letting the pelting drops pound against his lower back. Images rolled through his mind like the beads of water on his flesh. A blond cadet. Blue eyes filled with hope and strength of will. A rare, soul-changing smile. A lean, muscled body that was far too prime for its age. A boy too young for carnal pleasures. Sephiroth jumped as he felt one long-fingered hand wrap around his aching flesh; he hadn't been aware of moving it from the wall where it had been so comfortably braced. A small gasp escaped his lips as his body gave way to baser human instincts, seeking with ungod-like desperation, the sweet release of self-fulfillment. His hand moved over his body, a porcelain statue come to life, little-seen sweat prickling along his skin to vanish in the covering mist of the spray. Barely detectable tremors were the only physical sign of his decadence, aside from the hot seed that spilled into his hand, and the silent whisper of a name that fell unbidden from his lips. "Cloud…"

As he headed toward the barracks, Sephiroth let his mind replay the morning's exercises, searching once again for any tells that might give him insight into what was going on with Cloud. But nothing jumped out at him. Maybe his concern was unwarranted. Perhaps Cloud was only tired. Training, he knew, was damn hard work. But even so, his spirit wouldn't let him rest until he'd briefed the young man.

The dull-stoned building loomed ahead of him. All the cadets and lower class SOLDIER were housed here, 1st class being located in a separate building along with himself, making it easier to protect himself, should the need arise. Just as he reached the small, bricked courtyard, Cloud emerged from a group of bushes around the side of the building, his hands hastily fastening one of the miscellaneous buckles at his waist. Sephiroth tried desperately not to think of the reasons for Cloud to have unbuckled his clothes as he fixed his face with a placid expression. Making sure his voice did not belie his uncertainty, he called, "Cadet Strife!"

Cloud's head snapped up, paranoia and confusion marring his usually smooth and serene complexion. His eyes were wild and his hands trembled as they dropped to his sides. His gaze finally coming to rest on Sephiroth, he stood at attention. He licked his lips nervously. "At your service, General."

Sephiroth stepped nearer to him, letting his stance relax a bit, hoping to put the boy at ease. "Relax, Private." He said. He stared down into the large blue eyes, which, only yesterday were bright, sparkling with inner light. But Cloud's eyes were dim now, haunted pools of churning ghosts. "I only wanted to speak to you about your performance earlier."

"Forgive me, General." Cloud stammered. "I know my form was off, but I assure you that I will better tomorrow. Please," he hesitated for a long moment. "Don't send me away."

"I don't intend to do anything of the sort." Sephiroth stated. "Aside from today, you've been doing very well."

Relief flooded Cloud's face. "Thank you, Sir."

Sephiroth crossed his arms over his chest. "Don't thank me." He put out. "Today is more than enough to give me cause for concern." He peered at the younger man searchingly. "Something is amiss with you. Is there something you'd like to tell me?"

Cloud's mouth opened and shut in a brief moment of what Sephiroth could only assume was contemplation. His voice was hoarse, nearly inaudible. "No, General."

He briefly considered issuing an order, but decided to respect the boy's privacy. For now. He nodded curtly. "Very well." He reached a hand out to adjust the collar of the young man's uniform. Cloud flinched. A warning bell rang in Sephiroth's head, though he wasn't quite sure what for. As a rule, his men didn't shy away from physical contact, and he'd certainly never seen Cloud do so. Though it occurred to him that he'd never touched the man before, and his discomfort could have, all things considered, been on account of him. He'd been known to intimidate the trainees in the past, the young SOLDIERS telling new cadets horror stories of what he was like, but it had never seemed that Cloud had put much stock in them. The idea that the young man could be afraid of him cut him deeper than he would have thought.

He pulled his hand away, letting the boy alone. He stood silent for a moment, watching the young man breathe, his chest heaving up and down. Sephiroth started to go, leaving the boy to his thoughts, but then, he turned back, peering at him. "Answer me one question."

Cloud looked up at him expectantly. "General?"

"Are you afraid of me?"

Cloud's eyebrows drew together, mild shock in his eyes. "No, General." He brushed a few wayward strands of hair from his face. "I've no reason to fear you, have I?"

Sephiroth ignored the question, letting what felt like truth curl around the icy doubt that had been forming on his heart. "Very good, Private. As you were." He turned without another word, heading back towards his own quarters.


Sephiroth stopped, looking back over his shoulder.

"Good SOLDIERS overcome all odds, don't they?"

New questions arose in Sephiroth's mind, but he pushed them aside. "Yes, Private, they do."

Cloud nodded, a short, hard nod of acceptance.

Sephiroth wasn't sure why, but he felt as though he'd just signed the young man's death warrant. He watched as Cloud disappeared into the barracks, a feeling of dread settling over him.

The next few days transpired much the same as the last. Cloud still faltered over his steps and he remained distant, a fact that worried Sephiroth more than he cared to admit. He made it a point to watch the young man carefully, but other than his change in mood; nothing seemed out of the ordinary. He was beginning to think that maybe it was only stress that was affecting Cloud's performance, that maybe he was letting his feelings muddle his perceptions. Whatever it was that was bothering him, Cloud seemed determined to suffer in silence.

The next day Cloud missed practice altogether. After dismissing the other men, Sephiroth promptly headed toward the barracks. Skipping practice was a punishable offense, though in truth that wasn't why he went. Worry fogged his mind. He wasn't at all sure what he expected to find, but Zack exiting the building as he entered it, certainly wasn't it. Zack passed him with the calm, cocky assurance he always carried, nodding his respect. "General."

Putting Zack's presence aside to think of later, he stepped up to the desk. "Cadet Strife?"

"Room 39."

"Thank you." He stopped outside the door and took a deep breath before knocking. The door opened to reveal Cloud, bare-chested but for a sleeve he'd gingerly managed to pull over one arm. Confusion flickered in the blue eyes. But Sephiroth could only stare. Deep, purpling bruises marred the creamy skin, some of them bigger than Sephiroth's hand. A cold rage slithered through him. Someone had beaten this boy; that was obvious. The question was why wouldn't Cloud have said anything? "Cadet Strife," It was all Sephiroth could do to keep his voice steady, to not give away the anger and fear he felt, "those bruises did not come from practice. I suggest you start talking."

Cloud continued to struggle into his shirt, pulling it across his chest to hide the marks. "It's nothing, General." He said lowly. "I'll be alright."

Sephiroth's voice was laced with ice. "Tell me where you got them. That's an order, Private."

"I…" Cloud licked his lips. "I can't, Sir."

A long, defiant silence ensued. Then, with tightly reigned control, Sephiroth wrapped his hand around the back of the boy's neck and pulled him out the door. "Come with me."

After Cloud stepped through into his quarters, Sephiroth locked the door and turned to face the younger man, who was still clutching his shirt together protectively. "Strip."

When Cloud just stood there, a look of abject uncertainty on his face, Sephiroth rounded behind him, took hold of the collar, and pulled downward. And instantly had to bite back a gasp. Blood trickled down Cloud's back from a series of cuts, surrounded by more bruises in varying shades of darkness. He could feel Cloud's muscles tense as it was bared to his eyes.

Sephiroth wanted to kill something. He wanted to permanently maim whoever had done this. He wanted to strangle Cloud for letting it happen. Fully removing the shirt, he clenched it tightly for a moment before tossing it to the side. Reaching down, he took Cloud by the hand and led him to the bedroom. Without a word he set the boy down on his bed and went in search of some medicines that he kept on hand for emergencies.

Undisguised fear gleamed in Cloud's eyes, his lower lip trapped between his teeth. He peered up at Sephiroth as he approached. He looked as though he wanted to bolt, but didn't dare.

As he knelt behind him on the bed, Sephiroth allowed his voice to become low and non-threatening. "You don't have to fear me, Cloud." He said quietly, making it a point to use the young man's name. "I won't harm you, I promise. I'm going to take care of these cuts and bruises, and leave you in peace." Bracing Cloud's shoulder with one hand, he ignored the expected recoil and slowly began washing away the blood with a warm, wet cloth. Then, dipping into a jar of salve, he carefully ministered to each cut, and bandaged them against infection.

Unscrewing the cap to another jar, Sephiroth delved into his special lotion, which was enhanced with a small amount of materia. He gently spread the cooling substance over the bruises that mottled Cloud's back. Sephiroth cursed mentally as his body started responding. His hands moving over Cloud's bare skin, despite the circumstances, was still highly arousing. But even if Cloud weren't only fifteen, this wouldn't be the time. He quickly tapered back his desire as he climbed off the bed. He extended the jar towards Cloud. "Can you get your front?" He was offering Cloud back some of his dignity, a chance to regain some of the control.

Cloud's blue eyes spoke of many things, but mostly that he was tired of being afraid. That he desperately wanted to be able to trust Sephiroth. Wanted to be able to relax into his care. Carefully, he lay back on the bed, baring his chest fully to Sephiroth's hands. "You do it." He whispered.

With a heavy swallow, Sephiroth straddled the boy's knees. He knew that Cloud was only allowing this to combat the fear that had so recently been instilled in him. That the young man was choosing to trust him. Gathering any lingering sexual heat, Sephiroth displaced it as far away as he could manage. He refused to let Cloud down. He wouldn't give the boy any reason to shy away from his touch. As gently and as quickly as he could, Sephiroth anointed each of the darkening bruises with the healing lotion. Then, he removed himself from the vicinity of the boy's body, for his sake as much as Cloud's.

Pulling back the covers, Sephiroth gestured for Cloud to climb beneath them. "I'm excusing you from any and all obligations until you're healed." He stated. He winced in sympathy as a soft whimper escaped Cloud's lips as he moved to lay back. He pulled the covers up over Cloud's chest. "You'll stay here until I deem you fit to return to your regular routine." He hoped that Cloud understood his reasoning behind that. He needed to know that he would be safe, and the only place he could be assured of that, was right here. When the man didn't argue, Sephiroth let out a silent breath of relief. He peered down at him. He seemed so small, so despondent. "Have you eaten?"

Cloud shook his head, his eyes closing of their own accord.

Hesitating only briefly, Sephiroth brushed the hair back from Cloud's forehead. "Rest now." He whispered. "I'll bring you something."

He closed the bedroom door behind him, leaning on it, suddenly in need of its support. A whirlpool of conflicting emotions assailed him, weakening him. His burning anger was fueled by a simmering arousal. His unidentified fears were tinged with untold desires. Worry and heat. Concern and need. Protectiveness. Want. They all swirled in a hurricane of mingled sensations, and Sephiroth could only stand there, head resting against the wood, and be buffeted by the storm. This was going to be a long few days.

The small hands were warmer than they should have been, at least they seemed that way as they slid over Sephiroth's skin, which was cold inside and without, unused to kindness or pleasure. He tilted his head back, his silver hair fanning out around him as he allowed the young cadet liberties that none before had taken. The yet un-tasted mouth was hot against his chest, and Sephiroth drew his fingers down the pale, youthful back that bled beneath his touch. With a needy moan, he rolled them over, cradling the younger man's body beneath his own. He stared down into blue eyes that flashed with strength and defiance, and Cloud's voice echoed in his ears. "Good SOLDIERS overcome all odds—and I'll overcome you too." Sephiroth's eyes widened in fear and disgust as a dark, enflamed hand print was seared across Cloud's face and blood spurted from the boy's mouth. The blue eyes roiled with anger and bitter hate. "I'm not afraid of you!"

Sephiroth hit the floor with a jarring thump as the couch dropped out from under his body. He scrambled upright, his chest heaving. The room around him was silent and empty. Dropping his head into his hands, he let out a shaky cry. A dream—just a dream. Slowly, he pulled himself back up onto the sofa. He brushed the damp hair back from his face and took several deep breaths. It had been a long time since he'd had a nightmare bad enough to make him sweat.

A scream cut through the air, causing Sephiroth to jump up off the couch and hurry back into the bedroom. Cloud was thrashing about on the bed, eyes tightly shut, broken cries tearing from his throat. "No! Please! Please, stop!"

Sephiroth ran to the side of the bed and seized the boy's shoulders, which only caused him to struggle harder. Cloud's fists made contact with his chest and arms as they flailed, but Sephiroth ignored them, letting the blows fall. He shook the man gently. "Who is it, Cloud?" He asked forcefully. "Cloud, who's hurting you? You can tell me."

Cloud's eyes flew open, wide and frightened, hot tears leaking from the corners. "No!" He rasped. "No!" He pushed against Sephiroth's chest. "Please, I can't!"

Unsure what to do, what Cloud needed from him, Sephiroth wavered between moving away and holding him tighter. "Alright, Cloud." He reassured him, slackening his hold. "Alright." He whispered unintelligible words of comfort, stroking the boy's arms with light fingers as Cloud slowly settled back into a drowsy stupor. As he finally drifted back into sleep, the tension drained from Cloud's face, leaving him appearing innocent and vulnerable. Sephiroth watched him for a long while, staring at him. He was such a beautiful, incredible young man. His heart ached with a heavy feeling that he barely recognized as sadness. How could anyone take advantage of him? Sephiroth was a General. He led men into battle and was more familiar with death and destruction than anything else. But how anybody could willingly do harm to someone like Cloud… especially someone who was supposed to be a friend… someone Cloud trusted… Sephiroth released a hard sigh. It hurt him to know that one of his men had done this. Only SOLDIER and SOLDIER trainees would have had the opportunity, of that he was sure. He looked again at Cloud's tear-streaked face. But why?

Cloud slept most of the next day and night without incident, and Sephiroth felt pretty good about leaving him the next morning when he went to run through the morning drills; he'd asked Zack to do them the day before, feeling it more important that he watch over the man in his care. But when he returned to his quarters later that day, it was all he could do not to put a hole through the wall. His apartment was in a shambles. He clenched his fists, the nails biting painfully into his palms. It looked as though someone had come in and purposely torn the place to shreds. But how anybody had gotten in… They couldn't have, unless Cloud… Cloud

Wading his way through the carnage that was his home, Sephiroth made his way to the bedroom door. He involuntarily held his breath, not sure what he would find on the other side, but hoping against hope that the rest of the apartment wasn't just a preview. He pushed through the door and his heart was seized with an aching pain. Cloud was pressed as close to the headboard as he could manage. He'd pulled his knees up before him and his arms were locked tightly around them. The blond head rested in the hollow between his knees and his chest, blue eyes wide and vacant as he rocked slowly back and forth, humming lightly to himself.

Anger boiled in Sephiroth's blood. At the world. At himself. How could he have let this happen? He had promised Cloud that he would protect him, and he'd involuntarily allowed someone to hurt him again. Right here in his own home. He'd promised the boy that he would be safe… and he'd failed him. He'd let someone walk in and… Realization came to Sephiroth like a series of snapshots. The state of the bed. The blood on the sheets. The fact that Cloud was completely naked. The way that Cloud had folded in on himself, clinging with the too honest reflexes of the seriously scarred. The hollow blue of his eyes.

Sephiroth closed his eyes, inhaling several deep breaths as a wave of nausea threatened to overwhelm him. How had this happened? He groped desperately for some inner control. There would be plenty of time for guilt and confusion later. Right now, he needed to see if anything could be done for Cloud. He approached the bed slowly, not wanting to frighten the boy. He extended his hands in treaty, made his voice as soft and trustworthy as he could. "Cloud? It's alright now, Cloud. I'm here." He knew no such thing, or what he was going to be able to do, but he said it anyway. Somehow he had to offer the young man some comfort, return the bereft security. He positioned himself on the edge of the bed. "Cloud, I'm going to touch you, okay?" He let his hand drift lightly over the boy's head, brushing the damp hair back from his eyes. He traced the tear lines down the pale, drawn face. "Don't cry, Cloud." He whispered. "No one can hurt you now. Not while I'm here."

The soul-damaged gaze rose to meet his, and Sephiroth's heart nearly broke with how lost the boy looked, the deep, irreparable pain that was burning away the vibrant spirit. He sighed. "Don't lose hope, dear boy. I don't know how, but somehow I'll find a way to fix this." He vowed. "I'll make it stop, I promise."

With a strangled, broken cry, Cloud threw himself into Sephiroth's arms, curling into a tight ball in his lap, his arms locked around Sephiroth's right arm, face buried in his chest.

Sephiroth tensed, unsure how to handle this unexpected outburst. He hadn't exactly been prepared to have an extremely unclothed Cloud pressed against his body. But when he heard the boy's heart-wrenching tears being poured out against him, he let his needs fade back and he wrapped the boy tight in his embrace, stroking the abused back with tenderness he didn't know he possessed. He wasn't sure how long they sat there, Cloud clinging to him as though his survival depended on it, their bodies gently rocking to the rhythm of their hearts, but Sephiroth knew now that he would do anything to protect this boy, who, for whatever reason, trusted him. He only wished that Cloud trusted him enough to tell him who it was that had done these cruel, unspeakable things…

The young body wriggled beneath him, bringing Sephiroth to a fully hard level of arousal. His hands closed around slim wrists, blond hair tickling his forearms as he settled himself between pale thighs, rubbing himself against the body that had been so harshly, unwillingly taken earlier that day. Longing for it to belong to him now that it was night. He nuzzled into the boy's neck. "You don't have to fear me, Cloud." He heard himself say into the curved shell of his ear. "I won't hurt you this time, I promise." Empty blue eyes filled with thick memories of pain and fear as Sephiroth pushed himself into tight, ravaged heat…

Sephiroth screamed. He bolted upright into a sitting position, his hands fisted in the bedclothes. He panted heavily as he let his eyes drift over the room, dream images still swimming in his consciousness. His gaze stopped as it fell on Cloud, who was lying next to him, prone beneath the covers, watching him with silent concentration. The boy's voice was soft and far too calm. "I've discovered that the past often manifests itself while you sleep. Your day's activities may become your nightmares."

Sephiroth scrambled from the bed as though trying to escape death itself. He leaned heavily on a nearby wall. "Forgive me!" He cried. He wasn't sure for what transgression he was apologizing, but he felt instinctively that he had sinned. A single tear burned against his cheek. "Please," he begged, praying to Cloud, the fates, the world… "Forgive me…"

Sephiroth awoke the next morning to Cloud's outstretched hand. The young man had dressed himself in some of Sephiroth's clothes, rolling up the hems so he wouldn't trip. Taking the hand with ginger hesitance, Sephiroth allowed himself to be helped up from where he was still crunched by the wall. His muscles protested loudly as he stretched them and he let it be known. A small smile ghosted over Cloud's face at his unusual outburst. He scowled menacingly at the boy, but that only made it worse.

Cloud shook his head sadly. "Poor General."

Sephiroth looked him over carefully. "Am I to assume this means you're feeling better?"

Cloud's eyes darkened and the brief smile left his face. "I should really be going." A stern hand seized the boy's shoulder and he was forced to meet Sephiroth's eyes.

"Stay here." It wasn't a command or a question, it simply was. "I don't want you going back out there." He didn't expand on that. He didn't need to. Somehow he had to make things right and he couldn't do that if Cloud was… gone. Strange emotions raced through him as Cloud's eyes seemed to recede in on themselves and blond head shook an achingly real decline. "Cloud…"

"Sephiroth," the word sounded foreign, yet comforting as it formed on Cloud's tongue. "I can't stay. Somehow I have to figure out how to go on with my life."

Confusion muddled Sephiroth's thoughts. "You make it sound as if you won't be bothered anymore."

A joyless smile graced Cloud's mouth with an understanding it was never meant to know. "I think he got what he was after."

Cloud's words cut through him, their meaning clear. Control. Pleasure. Gratification. A hurt so strong that Sephiroth nearly lost his footing crashed down on him. Cloud had lost his innocence, had it ripped away from him by cruel hands that had been masked by friendship. He'd been fiercely beaten, and violated in the most soul-crushing of ways, his body becoming nothing more than a possession to be used on a whim. And he was going to walk away. He was going to put it behind him and move on, and whoever had done this would live, knowing that they could get away with crimes that Sephiroth would have them killed for. "Cloud," he whispered, more broken than he'd ever been. "Why won't you let me help you?"

"You have." Cloud said softly. "But you can't help me anymore." He reached out and traced a tender hand down Sephiroth's face. "You've done all you can, and it's time for me to go."

A terrible emptiness replaced the spot where Cloud's fingers had rested. He wanted to cry. Wanted to gather the boy into his arms. Wanted to confess the love that grew stronger by the day. But Cloud wanted to go. He was too young. He deserved better. And as the door closed behind him, Sephiroth sank back to the floor and let his misery consume him. Cloud had never been further away.

Days passed, and it seemed to Sephiroth that it had all been a dream. Life returned to the semi-normal state he'd always lived in. Cloud's body healed and his strength and surety returned, though his eyes, if you truly looked, still whispered of the darkness that had tainted his soul. And Sephiroth knew that the bright, determined flare that had originally drawn him to Cloud in the first place would never again light the indelible blue. He was more silent and withdrawn than before, and only Zack seemed to be able to coax a smile from the tired face. Sephiroth spent a lot of time swallowing his jealousy. As much as he wanted to be the one that Cloud relied on, the truth was, he was grateful that someone was able to bring the young man any semblance of joy at all. And as much as he hated to admit it, he owed Zack more than he could ever repay for the selfless service he lavished on Cloud.

He watched the morning drills from his usual place on the sidelines. He tried, without much success, to not focus solely on Cloud. The young cadet was sparring with Zack, a first class SOLDIER and his second in command. He seemed to be holding his own, which meant that the boy's form was improving, although a trained eye could see where Zack was holding back or pulling his blows. The swords clashed and clanged in a series of complicated moves and Sephiroth could see the strain on Cloud's face as he pushed himself, meeting all of Zack's blows. But he was steadily wearing down, his speed tapering off, his movements half a beat off the rhythm.

Sephiroth saw it coming, but no amount of speed or foresight could have stopped it. Zack's blade arched through the air and came down full force, the blunt side connecting with Cloud's back. The young man toppled to the ground and was still. Sephiroth hurried over and knelt next to the man, pushing aside a concerned Zack, who was hovering over Cloud's unconscious form. Drawing on the materia he kept on his person, Sephiroth laid a hand against Cloud's chest and closed his eyes. He quickly cast Cure, a barrier against broken bones. Then, without a word, he scooped Cloud up in his arms and strode off the field.

Sephiroth paced restlessly, anger burning in his veins. What had Zack been thinking? Why hadn't he pulled the blow? It was almost as though he'd purposely injured Cloud… Sephiroth froze in his tracks, a disturbingly possible explanation taking root in his mind. Zack was Cloud's best friend. They were always together. He would have been in the best position… would have had the most opportunities… They were best friends. Cloud would never do anything to incriminate Zack… and who would have believed him anyway?

Denial prodded at his irrational thought-stream. It couldn't be! Zack would never hurt Cloud! Or anyone else! He knew Zack, and he was a good man. Or so he always thought. Disjointed memories slowly began to form a bigger picture. Walking into the barracks. Zack exiting as he entered, calm and self-assured. "General." Cloud's body tensing as Zack ran up to him on the practice field. Cloud's fierce desire to protect the identity of his assailant. Hatred boiled within Sephiroth's mind. If Zack had done this… no force on earth would be able to save him. He would go to Cloud, ask him again—ask him if it was Zack. He would read the answer in his eyes. And then go from there. God help anyone who got in his way.

Sephiroth pushed through Cloud's door and froze. Cloud was sprawled across the floor; what was left of his clothes were torn and pushed to the side. Blood seeped from a wound on his forehead, and his skin had a deathly pallor. And Zack… Zack was leaning over the boy's body, his hands tracing over the pale flesh.

Rage was all that Sephiroth knew as he stared at Zack, trying to wrap his head around the fact that this man, his friend, had done this. So much hatred coated his words that he nearly choked on them. "Zack, what are you doing?"

Zack's eyes turned on him, and they were full of pain and bitter betrayal. "What have you done?" He rushed at Sephiroth, hurt and anger fueling his movements as he pinned the older man to the wall. His voice was raw and laded with sorrow, and tears streamed from his eyes. "What have you done?" He cried.

Sephiroth shoved the man away, watching as he tumbled to the ground, where he remained, sobbing. Confusion edged in along side his churning ire. Zack's words thundered in his head. What have you done? What have you done? What have you done? Sephiroth looked down at himself. He was naked. Furious claw marks striped his chest, and his arms were littered with finger-shaped bruises. What had he done? Slowly his fragmented memory filled in. Cloud stripping in the bushes at his command. Leaving Cloud's room before morning drills, knowing that the man would be mysteriously absent that day. Returning to his quarters midday… Cloud's screams and unheeded tears as he sated himself in the body he'd been longing for. Questioning Cloud about Zack and the rough, heated, violent passion that had followed…

Sephiroth's hands shook as he slowly slid to the floor. He felt dizzy and sick, and the room rippled around him like water in a glass. He had done this. He had done everything. All this time he had thought that he had been silently coping with the secret desires he harbored, when in truth, the Jenova cells inside him had been taking control and releasing his stress in a way that had been unknown even to him. Only Cloud had known, and he had chosen to protect Sephiroth from himself—shield him from his own inner darkness. And now…

Drawing on all of his strength, Sephiroth forced himself to crawl over to where Cloud's body was stretched out, still and silent. He raised a fearful hand to the boy's neck; searching for any sign of life that might still beat within the abused form, praying that his selfish ignorance hadn't cost Cloud a price too high to pay.

Zack crawled up next to him, his hand joining Sephiroth's on Cloud's terrifyingly pale neck. "Is he alright?" He choked out. He lovingly brushed the blood-streaked hair from Cloud's eyes. "Please, Cloud…" Clasping one small hand in his, Zack raised it to his lips, kissing it gently, tears falling to christen the motionless palm in his grip. "Don't leave me."

Shock momentarily overwhelmed Sephiroth's fear as he digested this new information. Zack loved Cloud too. Why he hadn't seen it, he wasn't sure. But he should have known. They were best friends. They were always together. Zack was the only one who could make Cloud smile. Although it occurred to Sephiroth as his fingers found no pulse, that Cloud wouldn't smile anymore. That somehow, he had taken Cloud away forever—from both of them.

He sat back, reality finally forcing its way past his fragile denial. There was a monster inside of him, and he had given it control. And Cloud had suffered. Everything he'd believed about himself was a lie. He wasn't human—and could no longer live in such an inaccurate pretense. He would never have a real life. He wasn't suited for anything but war. He was bred for death. Love had never been a part of his destiny. Sephiroth's mind roiled with the cruel, invasive truths. I can never be loved. The price of this knowledge was far too high. He stared at Cloud's lifeless body, a deep, soul-rending, heart-breaking pain welling up from the core of his being. A lifetime of unshed tears finally broke through the dam of pretension, and rained down into his open hands. And all the while Zack clung to Cloud's hand—crying, crying… And Sephiroth knew, deep inside, that the cries would never cease.

The End.