Takes place about four years before "Inclusive". Rated M because the whole series is, not so much for content, I'm afraid. SquareEnix owns these characters, but they like playing with me more.

Zack: "Like hell."

Me: "Quiet, you."

IMPRESSIONS

Sephiroth scowled at the inbox on his desk. Normally he liked to see this tray empty, because it meant no more annoying forms to sign. (Why ShinRa would not simply let him do what he did best - kill things - and leave the paperwork to others, Sephiroth did not know). But today something important was supposed to be on his desk, the final report on a recent mission to the slums of Midgar. Said mission had started out as a patrol following reports of suspicious activity, and quickly turned into a firefight with SOLDIERs and Turks on one side, a new gang of arms dealers on the other. Further action could not effectively be taken against this annoyance until all the information gathered was submitted and reviewed.

Besides, Tseng had gotten his full report in yesterday afternoon, and if there was one thing Sephiroth would not stand, it was the irresponsible, untrustworthy Turks showing better organizational skills than his SOLDIERs.

His facial expression remaining passive, Sephiroth left his office and contemplated the two directions the hallway offered him. Angeal Hewley, his second-in-command, had led the slum mission personally, and it was utterly unlike Angeal to be late with paperwork. What could be keeping him? The answer came immediately.

Commander Hewley, second only to Sephiroth in the awe and respect accorded him, had recently done something that surprised all who knew him - he had taken a young 3rd Class under his wing (no pun intended). Angeal, more social than Sephiroth but nonetheless a loner, had mentioned his new apprentice a few times, but had not offered any reason for this uncharacteristic and extreme gesture. Of course, the past several months had been busy for Sephiroth, with the flares of resistance going on in Wutai; he had not yet gotten to meet the 3rd Class, and knew only his name and what the file and other SOLDIERs said.

Zack Fair. Sephiroth's memory was as sharp as a scythe, and the name was sufficient to release a flood of absorbed and overheard information. A native of Gongaga, an only child. Exemplary scores as a SOLDIER cadet in all areas, a 3rd Class at newly sixteen, which was highly unusual. What's more, Fair was reported to be far ahead of his class, and Commander Heinz was already putting his name forward for promotion. They would delay a little - no need to ostracize Fair by rushing him ahead of his peers - but Fair must truly be something to have so many voices praising him. Oddly, few of these voices showed bitterness or jealousy. How could Fair be exceptional and well-liked at the same time? Sephiroth, as a teenager, would have greatly appreciated an answer to that question.

The general made an educated guess as to Angeal's location and headed in the direction of the VR Training Room. Was that the reason for this unexpected mentorship, that Angeal merely wished to encourage and reward what would no doubt one day be an excellent 1st Class?

Still, it seems unlike Angeal to give so much time and attention to anyone. Fair must be more similar to him in character and temperament than I have heard. Angeal would not willingly put up with any other kind.

szszszsz

"Angeeeal! You said you wouldn't do it again!"

Commander Hewley smiled grimly. That playful, whiny tone of voice should have irritated him, a lot of things about Zack should have. He was everything Angeal found annoying in young people and had never been himself - loud, impetuous, overly energetic, unfocused. It made no sense that he should already be so fond of the boy, but he was. It wasn't even knowing that Zack would be a great SOLDIER; it was more the feeling of pride Angeal had for him, as he supposed one would in a younger brother. He had grown up with two friends close enough to be honorary siblings, but Sephiroth - who outshone everyone, who was so puzzled by affection - was no one's little brother.

"I have also told you to be prepared for anything. If you go into a combat situation with expectations, you unconsciously make decisions before you have the needed information." Zack was mouthing the words along with him in a mocking, exaggerated manner. Angeal glared at him until he stopped. "Your enemy will always try to do things you are not likely to anticipate. If you give more effort to maintaining your concentration, you will not be thrown so easily."

Zack pouted. "It's sadistic to have a Sephiroth program in here at all. I wonder how many cadets have run into it and wet their pants."

"Too many, which is why the VR room is available only to 3rd Classes and up," Angeal said dryly. "Why does the Sephiroth program bother you so much?"

"Uh, 'cause it's unbeatable?"

"Sephiroth is, perhaps, not the program. I honestly don't understand. Aside from occasional problems caused by your wandering attention span, you meet the challenges I set you with little difficulty. You will be an exceptional SOLDIER."

Zack smiled hopefully and proudly. It was the sort of expression nobody could help returning, even someone as stoic as Angeal.

"But if you have some specific issue pertaining to the general that is causing you to falter in your training, it must be addressed and corrected," Angeal said, speaking in a gentle tone he had not often needed before. "The higher you climb through the ranks of SOLDIER, the more contact you will have with the general. If it is pure intimidation, that will go away on its own. If not..."

Angeal paused. Had he said something insensitive? Fair, normally so cheery and bouncy, was looking glumly at his feet and letting the point of his sword drag on the floor. He had never seen Zack look so dejected, not even when he caught the boy about to take on a Marlboro alone and dragged him away by the ear in the presence of other SOLDIERs.

"Zack, if you talk to me about this, perhaps I can help."

"You can't," Zack said quietly. "It's dumb."

"Are you concerned I might laugh?"

"Ha. If I thought I could get you to laugh, it would be worth telling you."

"Then why can you not tell me?" the commander asked, genuinely perplexed.

"I dunno. It's embarassing."

"It will stay between us."

Zack shook his head. Angeal was beginning to get frustrated. Most of the time it was helpful that Zack was not easily intimidated, it made their student-teacher relationship more comfortable for both of them. But now Angeal was annoyed that his silent glare, so useful in frightening other people, prompted nothing from Zack but a roll of the eyes.

"Very well. Come on, training is over for today."

"What? Why? I was just starting to get serious! I was kicking butt, until - "

"Until you had the tip of Masamune three inches from your nose."

"Ha," Zack scoffed, "that would freak anyone out. Well, maybe not you. Anyone with nerves and facial expressions, though."

"It was the fourth time today. You knew it was a hologram. You should have been prepared."

"You said you weren't gonna call it up anymore!"

"I would be remiss in my duty to you if I did not force you to confront this problem you have with Sephiroth,"Angeal said sternly.

"It's not a problem!" Zack nearly exploded. "I just...I can't talk about it."

"That you cannot talk about it would seem to confirm that there is indeed a problem." Angeal sighed, hating having to press the issue and knowing no other way to resolve it. "I can't have you distracted like this. I'm barring you from active duty until I get to the bottom of this."

"You can't do that!"

"I can and am. Don't take that tone with a superior officer, Lieutenant."

"I apologize. Commander."

Damn it, Angeal thought, I'm only making this worse. He had a better grasp of emotions and social interaction than Sephiroth did, but that wasn't saying much, and his few friendships and military background had left him ill-equipped to deal with the sulking of a teenager.

Think logically, he told himself. Zack does not sulk, and he is not normally secretive. The problem has to do with Sephiroth. Younger officers' problems with Sephiroth usually stem from one of two feelings - intimidation or attraction. But Zack doesn't get intimidated. Oh...could it be...

"Zack," Angeal began again, approaching the boy, using a kind tone, "do you truly believe I will think less of you for feeling something that at least half of all SOLDIERs do?"

Zack was scowling...had he guessed wrongly? No, the faint blush would seem to support his guess.

"I'm not like them," Zack mumbled. "You should hear the things they say about the general."

"I do, and so does he. Very little of it is meant to be disrespectful. It's best to ignore such things."

"I can't."

Angeal blinked, surprised that Zack seemed so earnest, so close to genuine anger. Sephiroth himself had learned to mostly disregard the awestruck stares he received and the lustful comments his admirers exchanged. Angeal frequently felt the desire to strangle those who dared speak so about his closest friend, but held it back, knowing it would change nothing, only put said friend in an even more uncomfortable position. For the same reason, he held his tongue when ShinRa encouraged the worship Sephiroth disliked and didn't understand, putting his face on posters and parading him around like a trophy.

Angeal had known Sephiroth since childhood, they had virtually been brought up together. It only made sense that he would be protective. Why would Zack, one of the general's fans, feel the same way, if it was merely a crush or a physical attraction? Even officers who claimed to be in love with Sephiroth didn't show this kind of concern for him, did not consider him human enough to need defense.

Fair was not claiming anything. He was looking at his mentor with an uncharacteristically miserable expression, as though silently begging him to let it go. Angeal felt sorry for the boy. Zack was the sort of person who put his whole heart into everything he felt, and he could not possibly have set it on a more unobtainable target.

Angeal set his hand on Zack's shoulder, ignoring the lieutenant's flinch. "Your feelings only do you credit, whatever comes of them. Why could you not tell me about this?"

"Because you'd think I'm like all the others, only interested in..." Zack sighed, messing up his spiky black hair. "'Cause you'd think I'm a kid with a silly crush. And you know that patronizing nickname you get such a kick out of? I figured you'd make some joke about puppy love. You do occasionally forget to repress your sense of humor, you know."

The hand on his shoulder squeezed, trying to be comforting. Zack winced, and the grip immediately loosened. Angeal was used to training with 1st Classes; he sometimes forgot his own strength was that much greater than Zack's.

"What can I do to help you with this?"

Zack looked surprised by the question. "Nothing, Angeal. I know it's hopeless. I've just got to deal with it. But...thank you."

"Do you want to try the exercise again?"

"Can I trust you not to ambush me again?"

The answer behind Angeal's smile was not clear enough to decipher. But it was kind and sympathetic, and for Zack, that meant more than any promise.

szszszsz

This particular VR scenario was a standard one, frequently used by SOLDIERs of all classes, as it could be set to any of several levels of difficulty. It simulated a section of Midgar's warehouse district, and was populated by armed holographic adversaries - usually enemy soldiers or anti-ShinRa insurgents - who could not kill but were nonetheless completely realistic to fight. The object was to neutralize every target before any of them could raise an alarm. Variables were often added to this basic mission - a time limit, laser sensors, civilians to avoid harming, an object to be retrieved.

Zack liked the civilian scenario best; it appealed to his heroic nature. But Angeal now had him working on avoiding the lasers because this required sharper focus and steadiness of nerves, and Zack's difficulties were lack of concentration and an apparent inability to calm down. This program forced a SOLDIER to utilize all of his most critical skills - stealth, tactics, navigation, split-second decision making, the senses enhanced by mako to an inhuman level. And fighting, of course.

Though noisy by nature, Zack was sneaky and quick. He was able to suppress his traditional battle-cry as he neutralized the holographic enemies one by one, grinning as he did so with the glee that action and victory always brought him. It dimmed just for a moment as a man with a large gun barreled around a corner ahead and immediately caught sight of the SOLDIER.

"Halt! Put your hands up or I shoot!"

"Yeah, like you can hit me!"

Bullets rained horizontally across the space between them in a haphazard spray. This guy -or image, technically - was no sniper, but he knew the speed SOLDIERs are capable of and merely fired at random points in Zack's immediate vicinity, hoping he'd get lucky with at least one shot. Zack blocked them again and again with his sword, though the blade wasn't wide, and there were a few calls close enough to make him envy Angeal and the enormous Buster Sword.

As soon as his opponent ran out of ammo and reached for another clip, Zack leaped into the air, turned an elaborate flip and descended on him from above, delivering the death blow. Somewhat robotically, the man fell to his knees, slumped, and disappeared.

"Yeah, and tell 'em Zack Fair sent - "

The low, whining pulse of an alarm interrupted his triumphant boast. Zack looked down. There on the simulated cement was a thin line of red light, and he had stepped across it.

"Oh, fuck."

Zack had only triggered this alarm and the melée that followed it twice before, and both times suffered the indignity of requiring a hasty intervention on Angeal's part. Thus far, Zack had been exposed to very little combat that was not one-on-one, and his skills - however exceptional for his age and rank - were not enough to fend off more than three 3rd Class-level opponents at once. As the sound of boots approached from all around, Zack tried to think quickly.

There are usually fifteen, I already got ten, that means there's...damn it.

Zack held his sword up and himself in a ready stance, and turned in a slow, purposeful circle to survey the surrounding area. Five identical figures in light black armor came into view at a brisk run, nearly at the same time. Moving with a single, mechanical mind, they fanned out and began to close in.

Fucked, I'm fucked...no, c'mon, you're a SOLDIER! You can do this, show Angeal you can do this! They're organized, they've formed a circle, what do you do?

"Break it," Zack answered himself in a murmur.

He vaulted himself out of the center, landing gracefully behind one of the enemy and stepping back to draw him away from the others. It worked - he lunged and Zack parried, continuing to move away from the group and baiting his opponent to follow. He was fast, but Zack was faster, plunging his weapon into the guy's computer-generated chest.

Unfortunately, the others seemed to have learned from their fallen comrade's mistake and advanced together, reforming the circle and refusing to respond to Zack's efforts to untie them. In seconds they would begin an onslaught he couldn't withstand...dejectedly, Zack squinted and waited for Angeal to appear, toss him to safety and let the Buster Sword fly.

Just in time, a hand did seize Zack and shove him out of harm's way, but it didn't feel like Angeal's; it was smaller, stronger, less gentle. The 3rd Class shut his eyes involuntarily as he felt the impact of the wall he crashed into and, upon opening them, wondered if he'd hit his head much harder than he'd thought. There was indeed someone, a blurry figure at this speed, felling the enemies with a few rapid strokes, but it was not Angeal. Only when the battle was over and the unknown samaritan was still did Zack recognize him, and his thoughts wavered between awe and confusion, threatening to freeze completely.

Sephiroth, the famous general, the legend he'd heard Angeal speak of fondly but never yet met himself. He was standing there calmly, showing not the slightest sign of exertion, unmoving except for his long silver hair as it settled perfectly back into place. Masamune, the sword everyone knew, was in his left hand, which he held at his side.

No, no, damn it Angeal, I can't fight him. Why are you...wait, why isn't he...

Oddly, the Sephiroth hologram was not charging at him, only standing there staring with a curious and perplexed expression. Zack had never seen it behave this way. He had heard rumors that the Sephiroth program occasionally performed rescues, but he had never observed this himself. Every time he met the hologram before, it had attacked and disarmed him within seconds, "killing" Zack and causing the simulation to turn off. Bad enough Angeal had called it up again...why was it acting so strangely?

A possible answer (annoying and just the sort of thing his mentor would do) came to the lieutenant 3rd Class, but he waited and watched for a few seconds longer, anticipating attack. The image of the general sheathed its famous blade and continued to stare with an analytical and oddly childlike wonder. Could it be malfunctioning, Zack thought. Yes, but not on its own.

"Angeal," he called, looking up and around to address the unseen control room from which the commander observed him, "you re-programmed it, didn't you? Way to twist the knife. Why are you doing this?"

The hologram blinked mutely. Angeal sure was straining the credibility of this state-of-the-art VR technology. Surely the real Sephiroth never let anyone see him look so uncertain, so hesitant.

"What, you think I need to confront my feelings so I can move past them? You suck, Angeal, and if you don't turn it off or at least make it normal again, I'm telling the world you used to sleep with a stuffed Moogle."

The hologram continued to blink in confusion, and Zack had to cling to his anger and repress the urge to grin. He'd always known Sephiroth was hot, he'd never imagined the general could look so...adorable.

"Fine, okay? Fine! Clearly you enjoy humiliating me and you're not gonna let this go." Zack, standing about ten feet from the general now, looked him defiantly in the eyes. "I love you. I am completely, totally, head-over-heels, giggly like a schoolgirl, can't think about anything else, can't fight you or even form a coherent thought in your presence, hopelessly, uselessly in love with you. And Angeal thinks I'm distracted by this feeling and that's why he's making me babble like an idiot at a hologram, and he's probably right, but that doesn't change the fact that he's a sadistic bastard who needs to get laid and stop calling me 'Puppy' in front of the other SOLDIERs. Now that I've made a complete fool of myself, would you please just stab me in the heart and end this? Because I think that might actually feel better than this."

The hologram did not move. It had stopped blinking altogether.

szszszsz

Sephiroth had not though to check the control room first in his search for Angeal. It was reasonable enough to assume he might be lurking somewhere within the simulation itself, as this was clearly the laser scenario and he had mentioned his student having a bit of trouble with this one. Sephiroth, when he wished to, was able to visually discern the difference between virtual and real, and a quick scan of the enormous room had been sufficient to show him that Angeal was not here. The only real thing was a young man near the center, being surrounded by more opponents than he could probably handle.

Fair was Angeal's student, but he was a SOLDIER, and every SOLDIER was Sephiroth's responsiblity, one he took with characteristic seriousness. Masamune was drawn and cutting through the air and holograms faster than even a split-second decision could be made. When they were gone, Sephiroth stood and waited, curious about what the 3rd Class's reaction would be. Normally a first meeting with a young SOLDIER involved staring and stammering and often an uncomfortable silence, but he wondered if it might be different with Fair.

It was - the boy seemed amazed at first, but quickly shifted into what seemed to be annoyance, and he began talking to Angeal in a way no one else, to Sephiroth's knowledge, had ever dared to. This seemed a peculiar way to behave in the presence of SOLDIER's general, but it was Sephiroth's own reaction that really puzzled him.

Lieutenant Fair's file flashed in his mind, a series of neatly organized stats and test scores that attested to a fine SOLDIER in the making. But these were immediately pushed aside by the recalled memories of everything he had heard his 1st Classes say about Fair, to him or to each other. Angeal spoke with pride of Zack's skills; it strangely reminded Sephiroth of the way President Shinra talked about Rufus. Even when Angeal complained about Fair's attitude or lapses in concentration, he smiled, which didn't make sense, and when Sephiroth told him so, Angeal had shrugged and said, "When you meet him, you'll understand. Either that or ask me to quietly kill him."

Sephiroth didn't feel close to understanding anything at the moment, but he had to admit to himself that there was something humorous and pleasant about the way the boy waved his arms energetically and spoke so freely when most other men would have been intimidated into silence.

These thougts went through Sephiroth's brain in seconds, and one remained and repeated itself, like a flaw in a battle plan that glared at him from a map and would not stop until he resolved it. This was a fragment of conversation he had overheard between Commander Dawson and Lieutenant Welman a few weeks earlier. Dawson had asked the lieutenant if he had met the 3rd Class Angeal was training, and Welman had answered, "Yeah, pretty thing, but I'm surprised the commander is putting up with all that noise and energy."

Sephiroth had just decided that yes, Fair was extremely attractive, especially his eyes, so pale a blue-green that the light of mako made them almost colorless, when the boy began addressing him directly. What he said, and the heedless, desperate, utterly honest way he said it made Sephiroth feel completely shocked, an unusually strong emotion for one of his even temperament. Love? Love was friendly affection like the kind Angeal expressed, or the fierce devotion of subordinates to their general. Fair did not seem to be expressing either of these, but rather a sort that Sephiroth did not know how to react to. It had always been something that belonged to other people, normal people, and he had known as long as he had known anything that he was not normal.

The boy had stopped talking and was watching him with a sad, defeated expression, holding his sword in wait for an attack. Sephiroth understood - Fair thought he was looking at the Sephiroth hologram that sometimes appeared in these simulations. He had a feeling that it would be best, at least spare Fair some embarassment, if he left now, as quickly as possible, and let the boy go on thinking he had been talking to a CG image. But Sephiroth didn't want to break eye contact and leave, and that too was puzzling. If this feeling in the pit of his stomach was discomfort, why did he want to move closer instead of further away?

Sephiroth's head was beginning to ache, faintly, and it had nothing to do with the Lieutenant's babbling monologue. With Masamune sheathed and his arms hanging uselessly at his sides, he stood unmoving, until heavy, hurried footsteps behind him caught both his and Fair's attention, and they both looked. Angeal was approaching and - yet another thing that made no immediate sense - he seemed distraught. Sephiroth had not seen Angeal upset since the death of their friend Genesis a few years earlier.

"Seph, I'm sorry, this was my fault. I was trying to alter the difficulty level mid-program, and - " Angeal paused and looked at Zack, painfully and apologetically. "I didn't get here fast enough."

"You...mean..." Zack choked out, glancing rapidly back and forth between them as the healthy color drained from his face.

Angeal checked the bizarre urge to hug the boy, which came uncomfortably often, and turned back to his old friend, wondering if he might be angry. Sephiroth was frowning, but not with anger. He looked hurt, sad, confused - feelings that even his closest friend did not often see in him. The confusion made sense, as Sephiroth was always puzzled when people cared about him, but the hurt? The sadness? It couldn't be because Zack looked so shattered, could it? The general was devoted to his men and protected them, ruthlessly if need be, but he was never good at empathizing with them.

"Sir, Fair was following my orders, and he had no idea it was really you."

Sephiroth tore his gaze from Zack at last and fixed it on Angeal, this time with a confusion that they both understood. Angeal didn't call him "Sir", he never had, he was the only one permitted to address him with anything resembling a nickname.

"Fair has done nothing wrong, Angeal, nor have you."

"Thank you, Seph," the commander said quietly.

Sephiroth smiled faintly - one thing at least, he thought, is back to normal. "I saw him fight. If he continues working hard, I believe he will, as you say, be an excellent 1st Class. I will let you both return to training."

Trying very hard not to look at Fair, Sephiroth nodded to both of them and calmly walked to the exit. The strange feeling in his stomach was working its way upward, past the heart. He was supposed to report all physical and neurological symptoms to Hojo, no matter how small or brief, and he was normally dutiful in this. But the doctor was the last person Sephiroth wanted to see or think of right now.

He wanted to get out of this room and see if the uneasy feeling would subside. He wanted to forget the terrible expression on Fair's attractive face. Beyond that...he didn't know.

szszszsz

Angeal let out a quiet and ragged breath as the automatic door shut behind Sephiroth. They would have to talk later - his friend's reaction had struck Angeal as one that would require probing - but right now his responsibility was Zack, who was pale and open-mouthed and blinking too much.

He gently took the sword from Zack's grip and sheathed it himself, then clasped his hand on a slumped shoulder and tried to make the boy look at him. He shook him a little, and the pale eyes flickered up at last, brighter and wetter than usual. Angeal had never seen Zack cry and had the impression that he rarely did it. During one of their first sessions together, when he was supervising Zack's attempt to beat the 3rd Class record on the obstacle course, Zack had gotten too eager to pay proper attention and fractured his ankle. Even then, the only yelling he had done had been at Angeal - insistences that he could finish and demands to be put down at once.

"Zack, it's all right. You will not be penalized for this. The general appreciates bluntness, you know, and you have only spoken aloud the sort of thing that's been whispered for years."

"I am not them," Zack said softly, sounding choked.

"I'm sorry."

Though he knew by now that his mentor was not a touchy-feely guy, Zack was miserable enough to lean his head against Angeal's chest, and Angeal was worried enough to hold him there. Zack said nothing and didn't move until he felt a hand patting his hair, and began to wiggle away. Playfully, Angeal held on.

"Hey, I am not your puppy!"

"You're someone's, and there's been no response to the Found posters I put up, so for now you're mine by default," Angeal said with a gruff laugh.

"You're forgetting to repress again," Zack grumbled. "Can you teach me how?"

"That's not who you are," Angeal said, putting an arm around his shoulders and walking him to the exit. "You don't want to be like me. You'd only get annoyed at yourself, then."

"But then I wouldn't feel like this."

"There is a great difference between not showing your feelings and not having them at all. One leaves you lonely, the other inhuman."

"Are you lonely?"

"Not so much, anymore."

Zack smiled sadly. "Do you think he is?"

"Perhaps," Angeal said carefully. "Come on, Puppy, that's enough for today."

"When you talk to the general, will you tell him I'm sorry?"

"If you would like me to, but I don't think he wants an apology."

"Just in case."

"I will. And if you promise not to dramatically drown yourself in the showers, I will promise not to spring the Sephiroth hologram on you anymore."

"Okay," Zack said, sounding a bit more like his usual, cheerful self. "I don't really mind it, I just don't want to fight it."

"As realistic as the program is, I am afraid there isn't much else you could do with it."

"Are you implying...Angeeeal!"

The commander smiled, ducking Zack's swing and ruffling his hair. Zack brought out a side of him he had not known existed. If things had only been a little different, maybe he could have done the same for Sephiroth.

And of course, he does. :) The End...till the next installment!