Disclaimer: I own nothing and make no money from this work. Anything recognizable to the Final Fantasy VII series and its associated parts belongs to Square Enix and affiliated companies.
Chapter Thirty-Three: Making Friendship Bracelets
Ex-Turk Vincent Valentine was standing over the contorted body of a mercenary. The mishmash of quality armor and cheap clothing and the variety of weapons gave him away as a hired hand. There were plenty around, and many deserters, if the Shinra standard boots the mercenary wore had anything to say.
After investigating the Forgotten City Vincent had made his way to Icicle Inn as planned, only to walk into what seemed to be a nest of Shinra activity.
Two SOLDIERs had been caught by some of AVALANCHE's members outside of town, and if the body at Vincent's feet was any evidence, also experimented on. Considering the number of shots it took to fell this mercenary, and the obvious signs of scientific alteration done to the man, Vincent had a pretty good idea of what it was.
He reached down to touch the marbled skin on one side, too hard to be normal. It was an early sign of mutation. Vincent combed through the clothing to find any kind of identification or information, but there wasn't much. The rest of the body was a map of scars, some from battle, an alarming number from recent surgery, and bruises. Shots to the head had seemed to be what killed him finally, which Vincent noted for future reference. It was obvious what someone had been trying to do with the mercenary.
The want for Super-soldiers never went out of style.
The body was found a couple hundred yards from the entrance of town, where there had been a fight. The local townsfolk said Turks had come, probably to free the two SOLDIERs, but were being sent back in along with some reinforcements to clear out the compound. Vincent had been mildly surprised to hear Turks had been involved in what sounded like a frontal assault. When he'd been trained it was as a stealth soldier, meant for spying and assassination rather than straightforward combat.
Frontal assaults were usually the worst way to go about a battle, in Vincent's opinion. Not only did they result in massive casualties for both sides, but also less ground was gained and too much evidence was destroyed. Whoever had led this mission was poorly trained.
Vincent swept his hair out of his face, the cold metal of his hand uncomfortable and a little unexpected, but he brushed it off and started to track the Turk expedition. They'd made no attempt to hide their trail, and the occasional corpse along it said they'd been fighting the whole way.
The remains of a Turk were visible as Vincent approached a rock wall roughly a mile and a half northeast of Icicle Inn. He liberated some ammunition and a spare gun from the body before moving on. He only intended to investigate the area and know the layout so when reinforcements arrived tomorrow he'd be ready. There was no reason to go inside the cave if SOLDIERs were doing it tomorrow. Shinra's elite would make the charge and clear the way, and then the ex-Turk could slip in unnoticed.
When he'd scouted the area, he returned back to the camp he'd set up a little ways from town, and waited for the cavalry.
At dawn the next day, Vincent waited crouched in the snow behind some of the jagged rocks that dotted the white landscape, watching the platoon prepare to head out. It appeared there was a Turk amongst them, who was giving most of the directions. It seemed he hadn't learned from his predecessor, and a frontal assault was likely in the works, given the gear the cannon fodder were wearing. Despite the snow Vincent could barely feel the cold, which he was both thankful for and perturbed by. Whatever Hojo had done to him—and his metal fist clicked a bit as it clenched—he had deserved it, but it didn't mean the man wouldn't be punished for it and everything else he'd done.
Returning to the present, Vincent counted the squad's numbers, all dressed in thick winter wear except for the captain, who was clearly either a First or Second. He was not as affected by the cold either, and was easily discernable by his spiky dark hair. Two more SOLDIERs joined them from the direction of town, and their appearances made it clear they were the two that had been rescued the day before. It seemed they couldn't have been that injured if they were back for a fight the next day. Admirable, but ultimately stupid.
The helicopter the Shinra troops arrived in took off back to Icicle Inn for refueling as the men continued to prep weapons and run over their strategy. From what he could overhear, it sounded like they planned to land around a rocky outcropping almost two miles north of the cave network, possibly going for a surprise attack. Vincent knew their chances of that were slim.
Already knowing where the cave was, Vincent set off so he could be ready for them when they arrived, his long shoes leaving strange prints in the snow. As long as the soldiers did their job he could be in and out in under an hour.
"Congratulations Tseng," Ringer said, a blonde who had the annoying habit of smiling a little too coyly over her drink at their new leader. They had just received notification from the president about the promotion. Everyone knew it was likely temporary, and Tseng did most of the fieldwork coordination anyway, so the dynamic didn't really change. It went unsaid though that no one was really sure what had happened to Veld. Reno hadn't liked the strict head that much, but he was way better than the Wutain, who would be more unbearable now than ever.
Reno wasn't the only one who snorted into his coffee (spiked with the strongest stuff in Tseng's liquor cabinet). It was everyone's lunch break, and someone had decided to throw together a party to celebrate Tseng's promotion. It was still surreal to Reno to be standing in an office environment like this. The outward face of the Turks demanded this kind of atmosphere, even if most of their work involved covert operations everywhere else.
Reno escaped the impromptu gathering before Tseng could catch sight of him and corner him, slipping into Rude's cubical down the hall where the older Turk sat diligently typing away. The cubicle almost looked empty from the sheer lack of decoration or personalization. Rude wasn't a man for outward expression, so his workspace was expectedly bare.
Rude was perhaps the oddest match for Reno's partner, but they actually got along quite well. Patient, stoic, and soft-spoken, he was Reno's foil, in Tseng's words. To Reno's limited understanding of Wutain philosophy, Rude was the yin to his yang, whatever the hell that meant. There was a reason people slept through the mandatory Wutain culture class. Rude didn't judge, never got annoyed, and seemed to, in rare glimpses, actually enjoy the redhead's humor. The man also proved to be an excellent Turk; never questioning orders, highly efficient when it came to the job, and dangerous in combat.
Dude was hella badass.
"Rude, you're missing the party, yo." Reno waved his hand in the vague direction of the break room where Tseng and most of the people in the office hoping for free food were.
The big man barely glanced at him, but Reno could see the slight movement of his eyes beneath the ever-present sunglasses.
He was getting good at reading him. Maybe. It was all in the angle of the lips (or whatever).
"Do ya' know what happened to Veld?"
Rude was silent for several moments before speaking. "…Temporary leave."
Reno leaned against the side of the cubicle; his rumpled suit in total contrast to Rude's starched one. "Forced temporary leave?" Reno asked half-sarcastically half-serious, and Rude's non-response said that was most likely. It was like reading Cloud some days, except less scary. And wasn't that a strange thought? A SOLDIER cadet was scarier than a trained Turk.
Or whatever the hell Cloud said he was. The sci-fi stuff was way over Reno's head.
The redhead shook his head a little. Maybe he'd overdone the vodka a bit. Normally it wasn't his thing—rum, when he could afford it, had always been his drink of choice—but stealing from Tseng was always satisfying. Pens, paperclips, liquor, pretty much anything he could get his hands on. Why the man kept such strong stuff at work he didn't know though. Reno could only hope one day he'd catch the Wutain drunk in the office. That would be like an early birthday.
"Well, maybe we can get shipped out for a week so I don't have to 'help him move in' or whatever he'll do to rub it in my face."
Rude's telling pause (slightly different from his normal silence), indicated there was something to be said.
Deftly, despite his wide, flat fingers, Rude accessed the server and pulled up the assignment sheet that technically only the head of the Turks could access (but everyone did—this was the Turks after all). Reno leaned closer to the screen to see what Rude was doing.
Rude scrolled down a bit. It seemed to be some kind of patrol job, which sounded boring as hell to Reno. What caught his eye though was who was leading the expedition.
"Wait a second, wait a second, scroll up Rude."
The big man did. On the top under the direction for the mission were the captain, Tseng, and the commander of the mission, one Heidegger.
"Heidegger?" Reno groaned, throwing his head back in exaggerated annoyance.
"Ugh, that's almost as bad as Tseng. What the hell did Veld do? Kill the president's mother?"
Rude didn't say anything as Reno left in a huff. If he and Reno were lucky they'd get a post in the far corner of Junon, away from Tseng and that grating horse-laugh.
Vincent exited the underground laboratory by a side entrance, coming out on the frozen tundra, cape swirling with the gusts of wind. He took in a strong breath to clear out the sharp smell of antiseptic and chemicals. It brought to mind memories of Nibelheim and Lucrecia, and Vincent pushed them back into the box in the back of his mind, shutting the lid tight.
The lab in the cave was rudimentary, obviously a temporary base of operations. Fuhito, the scientist running the lab, had indeed been experimenting on the SOLDIERs, trying to improve his formula for "Ravens", his personal brand of superior soldiers. While the research was rather sadistic and disturbing, as was the trend with scientists, Vincent had concluded it was unrelated to Hojo. Though Fuhito had obviously modeled his work on what Hojo had done with SOLDIER, he had neither the funding nor the materials that Hojo had. Jenova was not involved it seemed.
Vincent's original intention in coming to Icicle Inn was to check out Modeoheim, an old excavation site for mako and where many scientists did experimentation. Hollander had been among their number. It was south of the town, but Vincent would have to circumnavigate around it because the SOLDIER and his troops would be returning there eventually, and it was better if they never knew he'd been around.
The journey took him most of the rest of the day. None of the beasts in this area were particularly dangerous, and many of the smarter ones avoided him once they sensed the demons in him. He wasn't quite sure how to feel about that, so he didn't think about it.
By sunset he came upon the ravine where the now abandoned town of Modeoheim still sat. There was some damage to the town above ground, caused by both materia and physical attacks. Vincent took a cursory look at the destruction, but the amount of snow and decay indicated it was not recent.
The reactor itself wasn't in great condition after years of harsh weather. Vincent was careful in the old metal structure, which eerily resembled the Nibelheim reactor the ex-Turk had navigated before. Both were some of the earliest reactors created, but Modeoheim's lab had been built into the building when it was first made, while Hojo had made his additions to Nibelheim later. The basement below the reactor was where Vincent knew the lab would be.
The place itself was a wreck, and it was clear Shinra had cleaned out most of the documents and information that had been here. The equipment, old and clunky that it was, had been left behind though, and Vincent had a feeling he would be more thorough than any crew sent to clean the place up.
He checked the equipment first, getting a feel for what had been truly abandoned when the reactor dried up, and what had been used more recently. The examination table, syringes, and empty IV bags were all more recently disturbed. The small mako shower in the corner and many of the glass tubes for dousing were coated with layers of dust, evidence they'd remained untouched for years. Whatever had occurred here had not involved any large amounts of mako.
The next thing to look for was documents, which would mean slow going. The ex-Turk was careful to check all shelves for hidden panels, loose books or pages, anything that might have been a hiding place or tucked away for safekeeping. There was no sign anyone had returned here after Hollander left, so anything he found would likely have belonged to the scientist.
Eventually Vincent's meticulousness paid off. In the pencil draw of the desk there were several papers jammed between the drawer and the back of the desk, most likely accidentally stuck there when someone went through the drawer too quickly. Vincent was careful to extract the papers without tearing them, spreading out the creased notes on the desk to look at. Hollander's handwriting was tough to decipher, but as Vincent skimmed it he knew this was what he'd been looking for.
It seemed to be notes concerning concentrated amounts of Jenova cells and theories on how they might interact with a specimen already possessing some dormant Jenova cells. The "perfect specimen" was referenced several times, along with Project G, which Vincent was familiar with from his time with the Turks. It seemed Dr. Hollander was hoping to expand upon his prized work somehow, and Hojo's research was likely part of it.
There was little hard information on the pages; most of it scientifically inclined, involving amounts for saline drips and mako exposure and numerous equations. What it meant to Vincent though was proof that Hollander was interested in pure Jenova cells, something that would only be possible to get through Hojo. The paranoid scientist undoubtedly had some in storage, probably in Midgar since any in Nibelheim were destroyed, and he would never give them to his longtime rival. The only other place for Jenova cells was Sephiroth or Jenova herself.
Cloud had related what he knew of Dr. Hollander, but his knowledge was slim. He was still in Shinra hands at the moment, but his accomplice and creation, the First Class SOLDIER Genesis, was not. If he was working with Hollander then he might have Jenova or be searching for her.
The General was the option Cloud had not mentioned, despite his knowledge concerning Sephiroth's origins. Sephiroth himself though, as Cloud made exceedingly clear, was not fully aware of the circumstances of his birth, and so only peripherally aware of the Jenova cells in him. Vincent considered briefly the chances of Sephiroth either freely giving the cells or being forced to, but discarded it. It was unlikely the General could be forced to do much, and unless the General and Hollander's First Class met on the battlefield, which would force Genesis out of hiding, Jenova was still Hollander's best bet.
The tough part now would be finding the ex-SOLDIER. Shinra had officially declared him dead, but Cloud said he returned in a massive attack on Junon. Where he was in the intervening months was a mystery though.
The best place to start, Vincent considered as he tucked the papers into an inside pocket, was in Banora Village, where Dr. Hollander had done his work on Project G. If Genesis was a product of it, then he was probably familiar with the village. As all of Shinra believed him dead, it was also unlikely he was expecting anyone to come looking for him there.
Vincent checked the rest of the room as carefully as before in case there was anything else, but anything that had been left was long gone.
To get to Banora would require a trip across the world, since the village was in the Mideel area. The port was several days trek from Icicle Inn, in the southwest, and would take him back to Costa del Sol, where he'd have to get another ship to Junon. Vincent briefly considered passing through Midgar to meet with Cloud, but his findings weren't enough to warrant the risk of being recognized in Shinra's city.
Vincent left the room after one quick glimpse over it, eyes able to see as easily in the dark as in the light. The town would be safe enough to camp in for the night, before he started for the port in the morning.
"Reporting, sir," Zack said, and he looked the part of the perfect soldier except for the stubborn lock of hair covering one eye. As was the case after some missions, there was no smile on his face.
"At ease," General Sephiroth said, and Zack immediately slouched, sliding into one of the posture chairs in the debriefing room. He normally tried to crack or joke or at least chat with Sephiroth before getting down to the gritty stuff, but this time the First just didn't feel like it. Burying Essai and Sebastian had been hard. He tried to act cheerful all the way here, but he knew Seph didn't buy it and so didn't bother. The General had been there through the entire Angeal ordeal, and he saw right through Zack's happy smile. It was a blessing no one else did yet.
"The compound was located in a cave north of Icicle Inn. We were ambushed when we arrived, and I was separated from the others. It was AVALANCHE members mostly, with limited training, but they overwhelmed the infantryman. When I found the other men, Essai and Sebastian were gone. Whatever took them was much stronger than the people we'd been fighting." Zack pushed the lock of hair away from his face, remembering briefly the scattered bodies on the ground. Thankfully most of the men had been knocked out or incapacitated, but it had reminded him too much of what he had seen in Wutai.
Zack reiterated the events of getting into the lab itself, and finding Essai and Sebastian transformed into that scientist's devilish creations. They'd become monsters, and Zack and the Turk he'd been with had been forced to kill them. Seeing his friends go down that way was not easy.
"Describe the transformation. Any mutations or physical attributes stick out to you?"
Zack told him what he saw; down to the two SOLDIERs deaths and the graves he made for them.
"Ravens," Sephiroth said, crossing his arms and shifting slightly in his chair. "The Turks have had reports of them before. Their accelerated healing makes all but death blows useless, and they are particularly ruthless."
Zack's expression became unreadable as he stared down Sephiroth. "You said they're called Ravens?"
Sephiroth nodded, eyes narrowing slightly at the look on Zack's face.
"Cloud… a couple months ago Cloud told me about something called the Ravens." Zack's brow furrowed a bit, remembering the awkward conversation. Cloud had looked so…reluctant, ashamed even.
"He did?" Sephiroth's voice was flat as usual, but when Zack made eye contact he knew this disturbed his friend.
"Yeah. I was being deployed to deal with AVALANCHE. I think it was September, or maybe early October." Zack thought back, "Cloud told me to… be careful of the Ravens; that they were dangerous, strong, and a scientist in AVALANCHE had made them. I asked him where he heard of them, and he said Reno had told him." Zack paused, and his shoulders weren't so tense now. "I wouldn't be surprised if Reno has connections to AVALANCHE. They're all over the underground in Midgar."
Zack rubbed a tired hand against the back of his neck, thinking. The General knew Zack well though, and he knew the First didn't want to believe Cloud would be caught up with AVALANCHE somehow. Sephiroth wanted to believe it too, but he was far from convinced.
Reeve shuffled the pile of forms he'd finished signing into a neat pile, putting it in the outbox on his desk. Looking at the inbox still two-thirds full, Reeve could feel both his age and his job weighing on him. No matter how many forms he filled out or requests he made, his job was a passive one at best. At worst nothing more than political.
Feeling lethargic and too tired to be really annoyed at his unhappy occupation, Reeve glanced at the clock behind him: 3:14pm. He still had a little under two hours before he could leave.
Next week he'd be doing an inspection of some of the buildings by the outer walls of Midgar, but this week was all paperwork, and it was wearing the executive down. He felt tired, and the thought of looking over another form or report about rusting bolts and cracking beams made him think longingly of the couch in the lounge on the floor below.
Realizing what this meant, Reeve pushed back his chair, wincing automatically as it scrapped the wall, and stood up, deciding to head to the nice coffee machine a couple floors down and get some caffeine.
He peeked in at the office he passed by, seeing one of the poor people under him slaving over paperwork, dark circles under his eyes. He looked as happy as Reeve felt.
Down at the very end of the hall was the door to the stairs. The executive's shoes echoed nosily as he made his way down the empty stairwell. It was almost impossible to be quiet on the cheap metal. Reno's military boots always clunked painfully as he marched up and down.
Thinking of Reno, Reeve recalled that he'd been sent to Junon several days ago along with most of the Turks; canceling the meeting they'd planned this week. Heidegger was behind it. Reeve wasn't sure what was going on there exactly, it likely had to do with the cannon built there, though why the head of "Public Safety" needed so many Turks was a mystery.
Four flights of stairs later, and Reeve came out in another hallway identical to his except for the maroon carpet and the fancier lounge at the end.
He could already hear the voices of others talking, likely looking for any reason to stop working too. As he entered the room he glanced over the people gathered there, surprised at seeing the General standing by the windows. There were two young women on one of the couches indiscreetly watching the man, while a number of others Reeve didn't recognize talking not far from the coffee machine, though they too sent wary glances at the General's back.
Reeve got his cup of coffee and hesitated, wondering whether to join the pensive General by the window or sip his drink somewhere else.
In the end, the conversation between the employees on the other side of the room caught his attention.
"Can you believe it? The head of the Department of Administrative Research was fired just last week."
"Really?" Another one of them said. They were indistinguishable in their suits. "I heard he was in some kind of scandal. The President was pissed. Bet the head of Weapons Development was involved."
"Oh come on, you think she's involved with everything. You just want to sleep with her."
The conversation devolved from there, but Reeve wasn't listening anymore. He had heard about Verdot's "temporary leave", and everyone was aware something had been going on there. You didn't just kick out a Turk, not when they did the dirty work for Shinra.
Reeve glanced over at the General's profile, but couldn't tell if he'd overheard anything or if the man was even curious. His stolid face made it nearly impossible to read, so the executive took another drink of his coffee and came to a decision.
"I heard about Verdot's leave," he said slowly, approaching the still General, "Do you know if it will be permanent?" Reeve already had a fairly good idea about the circumstances concerning the head of the Turks absence, but he wanted to judge where Sephiroth was on this. Speaking with Aeris had emboldened him, and he knew Sephiroth had little love for the Shinra Corporation.
The General turned slightly to face him, a cup of tea in his hand. His gaze was heavy, and it made Reeve suddenly nervous, like he could see through him. "It seems unlikely to me."
Reeve made a noise of confirmation and took a sip of coffee, using the moment to think clearly. If he told the General what he suspected, what would be the repercussions? The man was the leader of the greater military, and one who commanded a great deal of loyalty. While Reeve was still very preliminarily considering ways of changing the company, it didn't hurt to accumulate allies—or at least people who wouldn't immediately strike you down. Aeris was already being extremely helpful, and Sephiroth could possibly from another angle.
Cupping his coffee in both hands, Reeve glanced at the window. He would have lowered his voice, but he didn't want to seem too much like his was conspiring, especially since he and the General were barely acquaintances.
"I heard a rumor," he started, trying for nonchalant, though his voice was still quieter than he meant to be. He could tell he had the General's full attention, which was intimidating, "that he may have been involved in a security leak. Bigger than the one with Lazard."
Sephiroth's expression didn't change as Reeve fought the instinctive urge to stare and try to read him. He glanced up once, making brief eye contact with those eerily cat-like irises.
"I expect Verdot will return," Sephiroth said neutrally, the low timber of voice carrying slightly to the onlookers. "He was always…diligent in his work." There was the slightest of pauses, barely noticeable, and then he moved off to rinse out his mug, acting perfectly natural.
The other employees in the room seemed to hold their breath before starting up whispered conversations while the women flashed glances at the small kitchen area. Reeve drained the rest of his coffee, feeling more awake than a shot of espresso could do.
He tossed the cup in the trashcan on his way out, pausing in the hallway as he heard his name. "Tuesti." The baritone made it obvious who was speaking.
The General was standing outside the door to the lounge. His gaze was discerning, as though he wanted to see all of Reeve's motives in that one look. Reeve wasn't sure if that was just how he felt under that stare or if the man did it deliberately.
A door down the hall opened, and Reeve nodded politely. "I'm taking the stairs, General. It was good to see you."
He turned and walked down the hall back to the stair entrance and didn't feel calmer until he turned a corner and was out of eyesight of the General. The SOLDIER made him unaccountably nervous sometimes, and he was only glad those public speaking skills saved him from stuttering. Running his hands through his hair, Reeve reflected that it had actually gone quite well. The General may or may not act, but he was informed.
While Reeve Tuesti thought about this, Sephiroth's thoughts lingered on a certain blond cadet—or rather, Third Class SOLDIER now. Tuesti's impromptu intelligence reminded Sephiroth forcibly of Zack's revelation days ago at his debriefing. Cloud had known about the Ravens when only the Turks had fought them, and he now had a friend in the Turks. His weapons knowledge and reticence when it came to his teacher, while not necessarily related to AVALANCHE, were nonetheless suspicious.
The elevator stopped on his floor, and the General exited swiftly, heading back for his office and another pile of paperwork. Zack was recovering from the burial of his two friends, and intelligence was trying to piece together what they had found at the compound in Icicle Inn. That, on top of rumors of AVALANCHE's imminent move and Veld's abrupt leave left Sephiroth with too little time to consider his own problems. The General closed the door to his office but didn't move to sit down, instead taking in the view of Midgar and the desert out the window. If he had the opportunity he might have considered a vacation. Cloud's conundrum was the biggest question in his head, followed closely by questions about his parentage, and he just didn't seem to have answers to either. This was more frustrating with Cloud, who obviously knew what Sephiroth wanted to know and refused to tell.
Closing his eyes, he took a breath and tried to organize his thoughts. As of right now, Cloud was not going anywhere and neither was information concerning his biological parents, and Veld's situation was out of his control. What he could do was ensure the rest of SOLDIER was kept up to date about the Ravens, and to sign off for the instructors for the incoming cadet class.
More settled now, Sephiroth took his seat and started in on the requisition forms for the new cadets. He'd barely made a dent in them when there was a knock on his door. Before he could call out though it swung open to admit Zack.
"Hey Seph, you think you can do me a favor?"
The First looked more like his boisterous self and less melancholy like he'd been for the days following his mission to Icicle Inn. Sephiroth set down his pen as he watched Zack flop down into the chair across from him; secretly a little pleased Zack was feeling better. Sephiroth was at a loss when it came to dealing with other's grief, and it was easier overall if Zack recovered on his own.
"I want to take Cloud out for a weekend field training. They sometimes take groups in the cadet class, but he never went, and I want him to build some experience fighting real monsters. Think you can wrangle me a couple days and a car?"
Sephiroth looked at Zack, thinking for a moment about this. "Where would you take him?"
"Aldanna Mountains. The monsters there aren't too bad, and it's good for survival practice too." Zack shrugged, and Sephiroth sensed something more. After a pause, Zack continued. "Angeal took me there too my first time out. I…I have to tell Cloud about him, and I figured that might be the best place."
Sephiroth nodded, considering something else. Other than the usual paperwork, there were no pressing missions for SOLDIER in the near future. Heidegger had taken most of the Turks to Junon, so it was likely they'd be able to handle anything he was expecting there. As long as the week remained fairly quiet, the General thought he might get a short sort of vacation after all.
"Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday I can put you on survival training leave."
"That's perfect Seph!" Zack exclaimed, smiling widely. Belatedly it occurred to Sephiroth that he should ask Zack if he could go with them, considering he might be imposing on their time.
"Zackary," Sephiroth paused, unsure how to phrase this. He rarely asked for things, and this was a curious position he'd never been in before. "Your trip with Cloud…I should like to ask if I might accompany you."
Zack frowned slightly, and Sephiroth felt the strangest pang of hurt. He wasn't sure what caused it. "I know we're worried about Cloud and all, but I don't want to pressure him too much. If he doesn't want to talk to us, then I don't want to make him unless we really have to."
Sephiroth shook his head slightly. "I do not wish to accompany you because of Strife. There has been a lot of…stress here recently." Thinking about Hojo at all made said stress feel more burdensome than ever. "I have not taken a training trip in some months, and the chance to—"
"Seph, I get it." Zack was smiling now, more gently than usual. "Everyone needs to get out, we've all been feeling it. You're welcome to join us."
Whatever pain Zack's initial rejection caused evaporated. Zack spoke before he could say anything. "I don't know how much training you'll be able to get in, since we'll be sticking to stuff Cloud can deal with. Company always makes trips more fun though."
Sephiroth's lips quirked, and Zack's smiled widened in response. "There are leveled monsters at the higher elevations. I will not disturb your training."
Zack shook his head, but didn't say anything more, still smiling. "Bet Spike'll enjoy this." His smile looked devious before he took his leave.
Feeling refreshed and looking forward to the weekend, Sephiroth notified his secretary of the paperwork he'd need, and settled back to signing forms.
Cloud stood next to the old army truck, wondering exactly how much mako it took to cure motion sickness. Though memories of being sick as a dog on a ship or car were barely there, Cloud knew he'd rather not relive them.
"Throw your stuff in the back Spikey, and no reading to while away the time! I know the best songs, and this trip is going to be awesome!" Zack was more excited than Cloud had ever seen him. He ran around the truck throwing in his bags, camping gear, and their swords, jabbering the whole while. Cloud was amused by Zack's childishness, and maybe it was even a little contagious. Leaving Midgar, fighting real monsters, getting to hang out with Zack for four days, it sounded like something he'd dreamt about long ago.
"Alright!" Zack declared after several more minutes of preparing the truck. "All that's left is the big surprise." He grinned wickedly at Cloud, who immediately felt nervous. Zack's surprises were not always what he anticipated, and though they weren't necessarily bad…
"Seph, you made it!"
Zack's call almost made Cloud flinch, and the blond immediately turned around to confirm that it was indeed General Sephiroth coming towards them with a duffel over one shoulder and Masamune over the other.
The General said a greeting to Zack as Cloud approached. His standing with Sephiroth was hard to understand, and the General joining them on the trip made it that much weirder.
"Cloud," Sephiroth said, nodding slightly.
"Uh, sir," Cloud responded with a salute, and Zack threw his arm around his shoulders before anything more could be said by either of them.
"C'mon Spike, loosen up. Seph's coming for a little of his own training, so we probably won't see him most of the day. Let's all drop the military bearing and go as friends, okay?"
Cloud wasn't sure that was really appropriate, or possible, but Zack's big smile belied how much he wanted for his two closest friends to relax around each other, and Cloud was determined to try. So long as Sephiroth didn't spring anything on him like during the exam, then this could work.
"Okay, put your stuff in the back, Seph, and let's mosey!"
Four hours later, any stiffness between Sephiroth and Cloud had disappeared after hours of being subjected to Zack's singing. The man had dozens of tape decks and CDs, and he knew every word to every song it seemed. While he wasn't a bad singer, Zack's constant cajoling for Sephiroth or Cloud to join in had grated on their last nerve.
For the first hour Cloud had been perfectly miserable. It seemed he didn't have enough mako not to feel the effects of carsickness, and he'd shut his eyes to try to drown out the nausea and Zack's headache-inducing singing. By the second hour the nausea had let up some, possibly because his body was adjusting, and he was able to actually look out the window and start to enjoy the trip—even if Zack realized he was feeling better and immediately asked him to sing along.
Cloud felt a tap on his shoulder, and turned around slowly to look back at the General. He was seated behind Zack at an angle so his long legs could fit more comfortably in the cramped jeep. Despite the sickness, Cloud hadn't forgotten Sephiroth sitting barely a foot behind him. Even at his most casual, the man's presence was like a beacon, and the blond felt all his nerves singing every time he heard movement behind him. It was distracting and exhilarating all at once.
Sephiroth was leaning forward, subtlety pointed at one of the tape decks between Cloud and Zack. Over Zack's rendition of "Chocobo Highway", Cloud shrugged his shoulders as though to say "what?" and when the silver-haired man pointed again, Cloud realized Sephiroth wanted the tape.
Handing the tape back to him, Cloud glanced back out of curiosity. Much to his surprise, he saw the General deftly slide the tape under the seat cushion so it disappeared from sight.
Cloud bit his lip rather than laugh or smile, and started to carefully slip more tapes and CDs back to Sephiroth at his prodding, who proceeded to hide them wherever he could. The blond forgot all about his motion sickness as they did this, enjoying such lightheartedness with Sephiroth of all people.
The General's smile and amused looks reminded Cloud of why he'd gone to such lengths in the past for this man, why he still cared now. Sephiroth looked… handsome. Human. Like the person Cloud had always wished he'd known.
The thought was sobering somewhat, and he glanced back at Sephiroth again on instinct, suddenly feeling his throat constrict a bit. Nervous. Attracted. Feelings he'd been successfully pushing away every time he'd met with the man before because the mission came first—always first. They made eye contact, and Cloud quickly looked away.
The three were heading steadily south in the beat up army jeep, and were now slowly winding into the mountains. Zack had told Cloud he knew the area well, so he and Cloud would get some serious training in against a variety of beasts while Sephiroth took to the higher regions and fought something more at his level. The General hadn't said if he would join them in the evenings, but Zack's talk of campfire and s'mores made it sound as though he'd be personally offended if Sephiroth didn't.
By a little after noon Zack pulled off the main road and drove the jeep into a small clearing, parking it. "Okay, we're halfway there!"
"Halfway?" Cloud groaned, before blushing a bit at Sephiroth's quiet chuckle.
"Yup Spike," Zack said, reaching to ruffle his hair and laughing as Cloud ducked out of reach. "We're hiking from here. There's an awesome camp spot my mentor always took me to. The sunrises are amazing, and a two mile climb from camp lands you a better view of the ocean than money can buy."
All three of them hopped out of the car and began unloading. Zack took care of the buster swords, letting Cloud empty the backseat of candy wrappers courtesy of Zack's sweet tooth. Masamune was so long the hilt had actually been between the two front seats, the tip of the blade in the farthest corner of the vehicle. Sephiroth pulled it out of the car carefully, the intricately designed sheath probably made of something incredibly expensive. He strapped it on his back at an angle, the blade almost as tall as he was. Zack similarly swung Galatine over his back, buckling it tight, then pulled the camping gear over it.
"How will you use the sword with the backpack on?" Cloud asked as he approached Zack from the side, the older SOLDIER handing him his buster sword as he spoke.
"Oh, you're the only one who's fighting Cloud," Zack said laughing, nodding over to Sephiroth who also wouldn't be able to draw his sword without dropping his gear. "You'll be taking care of anything we run into, and Seph and I are back up. I think between the three of us and a little materia we won't run into anything too strong." Zack winked as they finished unloading and locked up the car. The camouflage paintjob and the remoteness of their position meant it would be pretty safe until Monday morning when they drove back.
The trek was lighthearted, despite Cloud having to fake ignorance when it came to dealing with certain creatures. Zack explained the basics of attacking flying creatures, the faster kinds of monsters, and elementals, occasionally borrowing his sword to demonstrate. Sephiroth hung back and watched, but Cloud didn't feel so clinically analyzed as he had before under the General's scrutiny.
The four-hour hike was treacherous at points, and it was clear wherever they were going would be nearly inaccessible to anyone but a SOLDIER. Several of the rocky hillsides and narrow passes would have been quite difficult for a civilian, but with enhancements were fairly simple. At one point Cloud had even had to hand the gear and sword he'd been carrying over to Sephiroth as Zack demonstrated the necessary acrobatics to climb up a sheer rock face when the path winding through it became too narrow.
Despite being tired and dirty from having to fight every creature big and small from the car to the clearing, Cloud was happy. Zack was laughing as he recalled something that had happened at the campsite in a previous year, and Sephiroth had gone off to scout the area after a quick compliment on Cloud's performance.
That night Zack insisting on sharing stories around the fire he'd taught Cloud to build without fire materia. While Zack's were always funny, and Sephiroth often had amusing anecdotes to share, Cloud found himself at a loss. He couldn't share any of his travels from AVALANCHE since those were places he couldn't have been to before, and post-Meteor there was very little to tell that was positive. His own childhood and teenage years were such a blur nothing really stood out.
Zack laughed, patting Cloud on the shoulder when the blond said he couldn't think of anything to share. "C'mon Cloud, surely you can think of something. Didn't you and Reno do anything fun as cadets? Or what about the trip to Midgar from your home, anything interesting happen then?"
Cloud just shook his head, "You already know all the good stories about Reno," he said. Zack said something in response, but Cloud's eyes had flickered over to Sephiroth. The flames illuminated Sephiroth's face, making it look eerily like that moment in the fire when he'd walk away from the burning Nibelheim. That image was cemented in Cloud's memory, and he was momentarily disoriented as double vision overtook him. He hadn't had that since he'd first arrived.
"Hey Cloud, you with me?" Zack's hand waved in front of his face, and Sephiroth's eyes were slightly narrowed.
"Uh, sorry." Cloud murmured.
"Uh huh," Zack said slowly. "Well, why don't you tell us why you wanted to join Shinra? I don't think you ever told me that."
Cloud nodded, looking away from both men. He knew the real reason he'd originally wanted to join Shinra—he was staring at him from across the fire, his green eyes burning him with his gaze. It made him think of being a little boy, seeing the headlines of General Sephiroth's triumphs during the war, his hero worship that followed him all the way through Shinra to… Nibelheim.
Cloud licked his lips, trying to think of another answer that wasn't a lie. "I… I wanted to get out of Nibelheim. It's a small town."
"Yeah, same here. Gongaga was tiny and like, two days drive from anywhere."
"What do most men in Nibelheim do for a living?" Sephiroth asked, looking slightly curious.
"Lumberjacking mostly. Along with some hunting," Cloud said, looking back over at Sephiroth.
"You left because you didn't want to be a lumberjack and the military was the only way?" Zack asked biting into a corndog he'd been cooking over the fire. Zack by far ate the most out of the three of them, since he was still snacking even after dinner.
"That's mostly it," Cloud said evasively, but he already knew he'd have to give Zack something more at his look. "I was… bullied too."
"The hair right? Man, with the way my hair sticks up I used to get teased about it too," Zack said comfortingly, putting his arm around Cloud and offering him a bite of his corndog. Zack was only half-right. Cloud had been bullied a bit when he was young, but it had been far worse after he was blamed for what happened with Tifa and the bridge.
"I have never been teased, but…" Sephiroth said softly, "Most people may have been too afraid to."
Zack sighed softly but didn't say anything, but Cloud tentatively spoke up. "Have people always…?"
Sephiroth shifted slightly, and the creak of his leather pants was audible. It made Cloud swallow slightly, awkwardness briefly forgotten as he remembered just how closefitting those pants were.
"For the most part. I have always… stuck out, I suppose."
Though Cloud couldn't tell him, he knew the feeling. After defeating Sephiroth and the remnants, he'd been so famous it had been hard to escape people who recognized him. He had become isolated in a crowd, people parting for him and whispering about him, and it had been frustrating and sad. At least there he'd had AVALANCHE and the children, but here…
All Sephiroth really had here was Zack and… and maybe him.
"After… Hojo and the experiments, when everyone found out…" Cloud said softly.
Zack's arm hugged him a little tighter, and Sephiroth stared at him with an unreadable look on his face.
"They treated me as… delicate. Like I'd fall apart. Or others like I might be… dangerous." It was hard to say it, but it was true. For a while there AVALANCHE hadn't been sure what to think. He remembered the room on the Highwind, admitting that he remembered he wasn't a SOLDIER, that he'd been a failed experiment; that he wasn't half the man he claimed he was. He remembered their shocked and dismayed expressions, how shaken the trust was there.
The Turks though, especially Reno, had acted in moments like he was unstable, like he'd lose it the way Sephiroth had. That hurt, especially since they'd been right. Sephiroth wouldn't have gotten the Black Materia otherwise.
Zack shook his shoulder a bit, jarring him from the memory. "Hey, what's done is done. Let's find a spot where you can see the moon and stars really clearly. Bet it's been awhile since you've seen those, country boy."
The three found themselves by the edge of a gorge, where the tree line fell back and the sky was open to them. Zack's face was calm as he looked up, thoughts a million miles away.
The blond looked over at Sephiroth on his other side, the General's face contemplative. He looked beautiful in the evening light, and it reminded Cloud all over again why he… why this man.
Cloud looked away from Sephiroth and back to the night sky, recalling infinite nights of camping with AVALANCHE, standing at the cliff where Zack had fallen, the reflection of these same stars in the pool of water where he'd laid Aeris to rest.
Thank you for sending me here and letting me fix this.
Cloud was awake at dawn out of habit and because without a tent the morning light was strong. Sephiroth was already up and rewrapping the hilt of Masamune. He glanced over at Cloud with a slight smile on his lips, which sent a jolt through Cloud that reminded him of why being a teenager was a pain. Flushing without meaning to and infinitely thankful for the sleeping bag to hide the unwitting tent in his pants he'd woken with, he was thankful Zack blocked Sephiroth's gaze by crouching down to offer him breakfast.
"Sausage this morning, and it's straight from the grocer. No Shinra food here." Zack smiled brightly—too brightly for dawn by most people's standards—and messed Cloud's hair up that was no doubt sticking up more than usual.
"I will be heading out," Sephiroth announced, pocketing a couple things but otherwise only taking his sword and a handful of materia. "I will try to be back before dark."
"Alright, see you Seph," Zack called, while moving off to scrounge for socks in one of the backpacks.
Cloud nodded at him, rubbing one eye and missing Sephiroth's amused look. The blond had no idea how cute he looked in the morning.
Half an hour after breakfast, Zack and Cloud packed up the odds and ends of camp and set out for a day of fighting. Zack jabbered on excitedly about some of the interesting monsters they'd likely see, and the varying terrains located nearby.
"I would take you out to the desert Cloud, but there can be some really nasty shit out there. In some of the high dunes, you can run into these sand worms that are as big as a house and can take several SOLDIERs to kill. They'll even swallow you whole and spit you back out, all covered in putrid smelling gunk!"
Zack regaled Cloud with tales of some of the creatures he'd fought, prodding Cloud for descriptions of Mt. Nibel dragons and wolves.
The day would probably be ranked as one of Cloud's best. He and Zack ate lunch overlooking a lake from the top of a hill, chatting about anything and everything that came to mind. Zack enjoyed showing off some of his flashier moves to Cloud and creative tricks for dealing with just about anything that came their way.
The way back up the mountainside to camp later that afternoon was quieter, since the ground could be quite steep and both SOLDIERs had to work harder and still deal with enemies occasionally attacking them.
When they did finally reach the campsite, Zack flopped down in a heap on his sleeping bag, grinning widely at the blond. Cloud sank down more slowly, feeling pleasantly worn out. He felt loose and tired, and he smiled slightly at Zack, who only grinned back more broadly.
"I figured we'd save hunting for a longer trip, and somewhere with better options than these frigid mountains. Beef stew sound good?"
Cloud nodded, glancing up to see the sun edging behind the trees of the clearing. Sephiroth should be back soon. His chest felt a little warmer, and he couldn't help thinking about how different Sephiroth could be. While at Shinra he was mainly the imposing General, but he'd had moments where he'd shown Cloud another side of him. Telling him about Masamune, in fact that entire training session, and… that first incident at the candy machine. When he'd given Cloud the candy bar.
Cloud didn't realize he'd zoned out thinking about those brief half-smiles until Zack threw an onion at him. "Hey Cloud, who ya thinkin' about?" Zack teased, laughing at Cloud's sudden blush.
"No one," Cloud said immediately, taking the knife handed to him to cut up the onion.
"Suuuure," Zack said, winking at him just as Sephiroth entered the clearing, looking almost exactly the same as he had that morning, like he hadn't been tromping through the woods all day.
"Hey Seph, you beat up anything cool?" Zack asked, poking the fire some to build up the flames.
"There were a number of Rapps at the higher altitudes."
"Oh, those suckers pack a mean punch."
At Cloud's confused look, admittedly because he had a feeling he'd fought one before but couldn't quite remember what it was, Sephiroth clarified. "A Rapps is a small type of flying dragon found in this area. They're most known for their destructive Aero attacks they create with their wings."
Cloud nodded, throwing in the rest of the onion he was cutting up as Sephiroth took a seat adjacent to him and set down his blade. The group made small talk as they waited for dinner to cook, Zack boasting about the monsters they'd gotten today, and a variety of water-based beasts he spotted that he wanted Cloud to take on tomorrow.
Dinner was followed by Zack's insistence on having s'mores, so the three SOLDIERs went scavenging for appropriate sticks to spear their marshmallows. Zack set the first one of his on fire, and then accidentally dropped the second one in the fire. Sephiroth told Cloud Zack routinely went through about three marshmallows per s'more he made, much to Cloud's amusement.
Sephiroth's came out perfectly each time, while Cloud's first was undercooked and refused to squish under the graham cracker, ruining the first s'more when it all fell to the round in the struggle, and the second came out blackened and overcooked. The last time the blond had made s'mores was with Yuffie, and he was fairly sure he hadn't gotten to even finish cooking his marshmallow because she'd stolen some of his materia while he'd been focused on it.
While Zack informed Cloud that he was proud his apprentice seemed to have a similar bad luck streak with marshmallow cooking, Sephiroth rolled his eyes and stuck two marshmallows on his stick.
"Hey, no one likes a show off," Zack said, pointedly looking at the even browning on both of Sephiroth's marshmallows. His own was black on one side, but otherwise okay for now. Cloud's third attempt was cooking very slowly on the outside of the fire, since he was hesitant to ruin another.
Sephiroth didn't respond to the accusation, but when he'd sufficiently cooked the two marshmallows on his stick, he took Cloud's plate with chocolate and graham cracker and skillfully slid the first marshmallow off the stick and in between the chocolate and cracker.
"You should be able to eat at least one s'more before you and Zack finish the whole bag," Sephiroth told Cloud as he handed the wide-eyed blond his plate, feeling his stomach do a funny flip at the happy curl of Cloud's lips. He realized his eyes were focused there a bit too long when the fire snapped particularly loudly, drawing Sephiroth's attention back to his cooling marshmallow still speared on his stick. Zack's amused stare from the other side of the fire he completely ignored.
The rest of the night was peaceful for Cloud. After Sephiroth's impromptu gift of a s'more—and it tasted better than any other that night—they talked more, though not about anything serious. Eventually they all settled down to sleep, and if Cloud craned his neck he could see both SOLDIERs while still curled up in his sleeping bag. Zack's arms were splayed wide, as though the cool evening air didn't bother him one bit, his face relaxed in sleep. Sephiroth's face was turned away from Cloud, but the bright silver hair held back in a long ponytail was almost iridescent in the moonlight. Cloud fell asleep hoping tomorrow would be like today.
The next day Cloud rolled awake around the same time as Zack, who's bed head was possibly worse than Cloud's. Sephiroth was again awake before either of them, but he didn't seem to have beaten them by much. Cloud glanced over at the older man, only to catch sight of smooth pectorals and defined abs as the General pulled on his overcoat and fastened it.
Cloud's mouth went dry, and he wasn't quite able to pull his eyes away before Sephiroth's flashed to his, Cloud's eyes caught wide. Zack yawned loudly, and Cloud sharply looked away, heart pounding.
Sephiroth left again for a different part of the mountains, while Cloud and Zack cleared up camp and headed for the lake so Zack could show Cloud the finer points of beating up sea creatures.
"So, you see all those monsters prowling at the water's edge?" Zack pointed down towards the side of the lake where a number of creatures were. "Now, they'll escape into the water after you take out a few, so I brought this." Zack produced from his pocket a green materia and handed it to Cloud. "Tell me what level it is."
Cloud took the materia and rolled it in his palm, looking at the interconnected web of frozen mako that made up the inside. "Bolt2 is the highest."
"Good. So once those monsters start diving back into the water, I want you to hit them with a jolt of electricity. It'll be good for your aim and to work your MP arm a little. I know you're not a big materia user, but it's better not to ignore the skill."
Cloud nodded, and took a breath. He had been almost avoiding materia since he'd discovered his spontaneous ability with it, and the following sessions of trying to learn some control. As useful as the magical boost was in a dire situation, he didn't want anyone to realize how much power he could wield with a materia. SOLDIER had few genuine mages, since those who joined the military generally wanted to fight with a sword or gun, so anyone with his power in magic would be highly valued. It would also be of great interest to a number of people why his magic was so powerful, which was something he wanted to avoid.
The very last thing he wanted to be was an experiment, again.
"Okay Spike, head on down there. I'm right behind you."
The first encounters weren't too difficult, and Cloud was able to take them down easily. One of the larger flying fish though was a pain with its evasive ability, so Zack told him to blast it with the materia.
Cloud raised his sword and activated the Lightening materia in it, calling out a little bit of the energy to hit the fish. The blast was bright, lighting up the whole area, and he managed to KO the monster in one hit.
"Nice Cloud!" Zack yelled, thumping him on the back. "Either that thing was more lightening-weak than we thought, or you hit him real good."
The fights progressed like that until lunchtime rolled around. "How's your MP?" Zack asked as he led Cloud around to a large rock pointed out into the lake. Zack casually cleared away some of the monsters nearby and pulled out the sandwiches Cloud had put together this morning.
"It's okay," Cloud said, accepting the outstretched Ether even though he didn't really need it. He'd only been using Bolt1 for those hits, even if Zack didn't know that.
Zack was quieter after that, munching on his overstuffed sandwich—he'd insisted on having as much as Cloud could fit between the bread—and looking out at the water. It was a little cool to be in the mountains now, but the SOLDIER First didn't really feel it. Cloud had been sure to bring layers; since he knew without enough mako enhancements he'd get colder much faster. The area around Midgar was generally more temperate than the rest of the continents, and these mountains weren't high enough to even have snow on them this time of the year.
"Hey, Cloud," Zack said, and the blond looked up at him from where he was staring down at the water.
"There's… something I should probably tell you."
Zack's serious face immediately made Cloud worried. His first thought was, silly enough, that Zack didn't want to train him anymore. His stomach twisting with anxiousness at what the First could possibly say, and Cloud put down the sandwich to give Zack his full attention.
"My mentor's name was Angeal," Zack said, sounding worn. Cloud's eyes were wide as he realized Zack was telling him the story of what happened to Angeal. The blond knew bits and pieces, but he'd never really heard the whole thing, and hadn't expected to.
"He was honorable and fair, and a real role model for all the new SOLDIERs. This was his sword," Zack said, indicating the buster sword in his hand. Cloud looked down at it, remembering all the travels he'd done with it. He'd known in some way that the sword had been passed down to Zack, but he may have confused the feelings when Zack had handed it to him just before he had passed away.
Zack looked up at Cloud then, and there was some expression on his face Cloud didn't recognize. "I know I said this was supposed to be a relaxing trip. No inquiries, no questions." Zack rubbed a hand over his head, and Cloud knew the man was having trouble with this conversation.
"You don't have to tell me, Zack," Cloud said softly. He wanted to reach out and touch the First, but wasn't sure it that was right.
"No Cloud, I- I know."
The blond froze. He had no idea what Zack was referring to, but if this serious turn of conversation was any indication, it probably wasn't good.
"He was your teacher too, wasn't he? Angeal?" Zack was really looking at Cloud now, searching his face for the answer. Cloud almost stopped breathing, caught between relief that Zack was mistaken and dread because this seriously complicated things.
"Let me get this out, okay? Angeal he…part of the reason he was such a strong SOLDIER was because of something this scientist did to him when he was born. You know Shinra," Zack said weakly, not cracking a smile.
"He was 'deteriorating', he said, and well, he thought himself a monster. And I…I couldn't make him see that he wasn't." Zack shook his head, and Cloud again wasn't sure to reach out to him or wait.
"It was in Modeoheim. Angeal asked me to…to destroy anything that caused suffering. And he said that included him. I couldn't make him see reason, and I think he just wanted it to end."
Zack sounded hurt and vulnerable, a side of the SOLDIER Cloud had never seen before. He'd always been so brave for Cloud, so boisterous no matter what was happened. It was hard to see him this way.
"I killed him," Zack said softly. "It was what he wanted, even though I wish it wasn't. That's when he gave me this," lifting the sword in his hand slightly, "and told me to protect my honor." Zack smiled slightly, full of nostalgia. "He was always going on about honor."
Cloud looked down, not sure what to say. He wasn't sure what was appropriate or what kind of response he expected.
The silence was a short lull, before Zack gently nudged him, his face full of remorse. "I know he was your teacher too, probably for a short time, but I'm sorry."
Some pragmatic, even cold part of Cloud, said to go along with the story, to let Zack and probably Sephiroth too, believe Angeal had been his teacher. It would cover his tracks when it came to training after all. The more sensitive side of Cloud, the one that was winning out more and more, balked at the idea though.
"Zack." Cloud said softly, awkwardly touching his arm. "Angeal wasn't my teacher. I…I never knew him."
Zack's expression didn't change for a second, most likely out of surprise, before looking almost sympathetic. "Cloud, if you feel like you have to lie, I get it. Angeal was wanted by Shinra. We were hunting him down. But he's gone. You don't have to protect him anymore, and his memory isn't tainted. Sephiroth and I both know Angeal was a good man."
"I'm not lying, Zack," Cloud said earnestly. He didn't really know why, but he didn't want his teacher to be known as anyone other than Zack. He'd taken such pride for years that he'd known Zack, that to Zack he had been special. He didn't want that taken away. "Someone else was my teacher. Someone else… My teacher was very special to me. He- He was like Angeal was to you, I'm sure. I didn't get that long with him, but… it wasn't Angeal, Zack. I promise you that."
The First took in Cloud's grave face, and he already knew the blond was being perfectly honest. Zack rubbed his hands down his face and started to laugh. Cloud was surprised at the turn.
"Look at us, Cloud," Zack said shaking his head. "Seph and I were convinced it had to be him, and I spent all morning preparing to deal with yelling or crying. And it was someone else." Zack's laugh didn't sound so humorous anymore, if anything it was almost cynical. "Why so many secrets, Cloud? Can you tell me at least that?"
The blond looked down helplessly at his half-eaten sandwich. He didn't know what to tell Zack. I'm from an alternate future where you're dead, Sephiroth went insane, and everything you knew and loved has pretty much been destroyed? And I'm here to reverse that by destroying the threat before you even know it's one so you can live on in peace?
"Zack… I don't like to keep secrets." Cloud reached over and grabbed Zack's arm before he could think the action through. Something told him to anchor himself to Zack, to not let his best friend let go. "If I told you, everything might change." Zack looked like he wanted to say something, but Cloud cut him off quickly. "This is something I have to deal with myself. If you or Sephiroth get involved… it might turn out bad. Really bad. Worse than before even."
"Before?" Zack interrupted.
"So please," Cloud said, looking straight into Zack's eyes. "Please let me do this myself. Maybe when it's done I can tell you."
"Cloud," Zack said, grabbing Cloud's other arm so they were holding each other steady. He wasn't laughing anymore. "You need to promise me something too. You need to promise that if you need help—with anything—no matter how crazy or illegal it is, if you need help, you ask Seph or me. That's what friends are for, and whatever you're talking about, I don't want it to turn out bad for you either."
Zack's face was so stern that Cloud knew he couldn't walk away without promising him this. He had no intention of taking Zack up on it, but he had to make the promise.
"I know that look," said Zack, still perfectly serious, "You have to know how to ask for help when you need it, Cloud. You can't do everything alone. Think of Seph and I as your back up, your friends. We'd cross the whole world for you if you needed us to."
Cloud stared into Zack's mako bright eyes. He would go to the ends of the Planet for Cloud, just like AVALANCHE had for him.
Just like Cloud had for Sephiroth.
"Okay, Zack," Cloud murmured, his chest tight with emotion for Zack. "I promise if I need help—"
"With anything," Zack interrupted.
"With anything," Cloud repeated dutifully, "I'll ask you or Sephiroth."
"Good," Zack said, letting go of Cloud's arms and standing up. He felt almost cramped he'd been sitting so tense for so long. Cloud followed suit, brushing off his pants and glancing down at his abandoned sandwich. Zack grabbed Cloud before the blond could move and pulled him into a hug.
"Sorry Spike, just can't help myself," he said, pulling back. "Now let's go kill something."
Cloud hid a smile as he tossed the remains of his lunch into the lake and picked his sword up, staring at Zack like it was the first time he'd seen him coming back again. "Let's mosey."
They returned to the campsite that evening to leftover stew and more stories. Sephiroth was in high spirits, since he'd run into a rare bird that had given him a run for his money. Zack didn't mention what happened during lunch, which Cloud was infinitely glad he didn't have to repeat. Zack had said he would tell Sephiroth, but would respect Cloud's wish not to bring it up twice in a day.
They had more s'mores that night, and Sephiroth helped Cloud find the perfect place in the fire to cook his marshmallows while Zack complained bitterly that no one was helping him make perfect s'mores. In the end Sephiroth gave him one of his perfect marshmallows to, in his words, "make the puppy stop whining", which Zack was then obliged to explain where the nickname "Puppy" came from.
Cloud enjoyed hearing about Angeal, and lamented that he'd never known the man from Zack's descriptions. It seemed he'd been a friend of Sephiroth's as well, and both spoke highly of him.
The next morning everyone woke more slowly because they were heading back to Shinra—and showers, as Zack gleefully reminded them. With the chill winter wind and all the layers they were wearing (or rather, Cloud was, because neither Sephiroth nor Zack really needed them) there hadn't really been any need to bathe on such a short trip, but Cloud too was looking forward to a hot shower.
They packed up the gear, broke camp, and started the long hike back down to the jeep. Zack took point since he wanted to hack and slash at some things, and Sephiroth took the rear. Cloud in the middle enjoyed watching Zack in action, and due to his attention elsewhere didn't notice Sephiroth's eyes on him the whole time.
The General had enjoyed the break from work and the satisfying thrill of fighting monsters. Zack's company had been tempered with Cloud there, who even now continued to hold Sephiroth's eye. Sephiroth had been a little embarrassed when he'd been caught watching Cloud twice by Zack, who seemed to find it more amusing than anything else. He had a feeling when Zack had signaled he had something to tell him back at Shinra, he would be teased about Strife too.
In the mornings Cloud's hair stuck up every which way. His resemblance to a chocobo that Zack had always joked about was more obvious. The way his shirt rode up as he wiggled out of the sleeping bag had drawn Sephiroth's eye more than once, and Zack's waggling eyebrows hadn't helped.
The look in Cloud's eyes that morning when he'd caught his gaze had been familiar to Sephiroth, and a pleasant surprise if he were totally honest. He had not really given much thought to any reciprocal attraction, but the young SOLDIER was of legal age, and with mako injections…
As they walked the General caught himself twice with eyes straying to Cloud's overall form. While combat pants and standard Third Class jackets were hardly flattering, Sephiroth had gotten glimpses of the lean muscle underneath. Because of Cloud's focus on the buster sword and his smaller stature, he'd probably become more broad-shouldered and slightly bulkier in built. It was a nice counterpoise to Sephiroth's tall and lithe musculature that relied more on speed than raw strength. The height difference would also make battle more interesting, and perhaps in other areas…
Sephiroth cut the thought off and deliberately tuned his senses to the noise of the forest instead of Cloud's back as he walked.
The rest of the hike wasn't too difficult, though downhill walking was always less fun than uphill and much harder on the knees. When they did make it back to the car, Cloud was glad for the chance to rest, even though he realized as Zack started up the car, that he'd likely have motion sickness again.
Luckily for Cloud, the first hour was mostly spent with Zack complaining about the lack of variety of music, to which Sephiroth played perfectly innocent, and Cloud closed his eyes and tried to quell the vague feelings of nausea. By the time they were out in the flat desert, Cloud was feeling a little better, Zack was trying to find anything to listen to on the radio, and Sephiroth was staring out the window. When Cloud glanced back at him, the General turned, one side of his mouth curving up a bit, which Cloud tentatively returned before turning back quickly.
Zack finally getting a Midgar rock station heralded the last hour of the trip. The First proceeded to drum along with the songs while Sephiroth dozed in the back and Cloud stared out at the vast wilderness, remembering his home he'd built out here.
"We made it!" Zack called as he turned in to Shinra's military parking garage. Cloud's carsickness had returned with all the twists and turns Zack had to make in the city, so he was more than happy to get out of the jeep as quickly as he could. Sephiroth and Zack mainly unpacked while Cloud got his bearings, and then the three trooped towards the main complex. Zack offered to take everything back to the quartermaster, so he broke off from Cloud and Sephiroth to drop the stuff off. The First's apartments and the Seconds and Thirds housing were in the same direction, so Sephiroth and Cloud headed over together.
"You have improved quite a bit this weekend," Sephiroth said.
"Thanks. It was nice to have you with us," Cloud murmured, stumbling over his words slightly.
Sephiroth didn't fully smile, but the ends of his lips quirked up slightly. "I enjoyed it. If things are not too busy, you should have dinner with Zack and I."
Cloud glanced up at his superior officer, surprised by the offer. "Uh, that'd be nice. Sir."
Sephiroth nodded, offering a goodbye as his split off for the First's apartments. Cloud paused in his stride feeling that mixture of nervousness and attraction all over again as he watched him go, eyes unintentionally lingering on the tight leather pants. Sephiroth wanted to have dinner with him and Zack. As friends. Cloud bit his lip to hide the smile, and headed back to his room for a nice, long hot shower.