There was a bounce in Cloud's step when he went to check on his subordinates the next morning, a cheerfulness that none of them had ever seen. He was relaxed and happy, despite the fact that their mission started today, despite the fact that Nibelheim was a death-sentence. None of that mattered to Cloud right now; what mattered was last night.
Last night he'd been reunited with his lover. Last night he'd been touched and held and made love to as if he was something precious and addictive. Last night he'd known the brand hadn't flared to life, he'd known that Sephiroth was not using anything in his power outside of his own formidable charms.
Last night Sephiroth had said he loved him.
And Cloud was euphoric.
"SOLDIER First Class Fair will be heading up the mission this morning," Cloud said, handing out the breakfast he'd brought down from the Inn to the men left with the truck. "I have no idea when we'll be back, but if there is any problem at all, use the comm. to call me or him. Under no circumstances will you go directly to the General, understand?"
"Yes, Sergeant," was the dull reply, and Cloud was in too good of a mood to correct military courtesy.
He headed back to the Inn as he put his helmet on, still thinking about last night. He'd gotten up in the wee hours of the morning to return to the room he shared with his other Corporal, knowing that his absence all night would've been the subject of speculation. Sephiroth had been deeply asleep, uncharacteristically so. Usually, he woke if Cloud so much as twitched in his sleep, but last night – or early this morning, rather – he'd slept through Cloud sliding out of bed and dressing. It made Cloud wonder if he was quite alright, but he was still floating on an air of content relief. All of this time, all of the hurt, all of the ways they had damaged each other, and now it was all behind them for good…
"Hey, Cloud! How's your guy at the truck?"
"Good, eating breakfast with the driver," Cloud said, halting next to Zack before the Inn. "When do we leave?"
"As soon as the General makes it down," Zack said, reaching back to reseat the Buster Sword on his back. After a long silence, Zack asked, "Hey, Cloud, uh…this is awkward…but do you think the General is a little…off lately?"
Cloud frowned, recalling the strangeness that had seemed to plague Sephiroth since their arrival.
"I guess," he said, feeling some of his happiness flee in the face of potential trouble. "Why? Has he said something?"
"No, he's just…not himself," Zack said, and added with a wide, easy grin, "But that's okay, this place doesn't seem to bring out the best in people."
He looked pointedly at a group across the common that was staring at them without any regard for manners.
"Don't mind them," Cloud said, blushing a little to see his people act so uncivilized. "They rarely see strangers, let alone famous SOLDIERs."
Zack flushed with pride and pleasure and said, "Yeah, I guess. So, are you ready for today? The guide is supposed to meet us at that creepy old mansion over at the end of town."
"The old ShinRa mansion?" Cloud clarified, as if there was another mansion in this little hick town. "Odd meeting site. Will you guys go in there?"
"If he says to," Zack said, dismissing it all into Sephiroth's capable hands. "It's been abandoned for years anyway; I doubt we'd find anything."
The other Corporal turned up, looking haggard and rumpled from sleep. Without giving Cloud time to berate him for not brushing his hair, he quickly put his helmet on and muttered, "Mornin', Sir. Sergeant Strife."
Neither of them returned the greeting – Zack wasn't paying any attention and Cloud was in too good of a mood to be irritated.
Sephiroth came out of the low Inn door, ducking to clear it, a vision of cool competence in black leather and silky silver hair. They all snapped to attention and he idly waved his hand to put them at ease. When his gaze slid over Cloud he hesitated, his brows drawing down in curiosity at the renewed happiness he saw there.
Without a word to them, he strode off towards the decrepit old mansion with Zack tagging at his side and the two ShinRa grunts at his heels.
Such a strange dream.
He hadn't recalled it until he'd seen Cloud this morning, but he'd dreamed of him last night. He'd dreamed quite vividly of the young man in his bed, in his arms, locked together in passion over the course of a sleepless night. He felt as if he hadn't slept at all, even though he must've to have had such colorful dreams.
"I don't think we need a guide," Zack offered, striding merrily along on his right. Of course Zack was on his right, he'd never be foolish enough to stand at Sephiroth's left side and potentially be in the way if Sephiroth needed to draw Masamune.
"The way to the reactor is very difficult and indirect," Sephiroth murmured, his thoughts still on Cloud and how happy he looked this morning. Perhaps he'd had good dreams, too… "Should we attempt to drive straight on we would lose time. A guide will ensure that we are able to spend the fullest amount of time investigating the issue."
"So…what do you think is going on?" Zack asked, taking the rebuffal of his comment with his usual careless ease.
"I haven't the faintest idea, Isaac," Sephiroth mildly replied. "I arrived with you, if you recall."
That got him Zack's sheepish grin, and he smiled tightly in return as they approached the mansion.
'I wonder if he knows…'
He heard it clear as a bell, that idle thought, and turned his head to look at Zack, who was squinting at something in the tree-line. Almost immediately on the heels of that, 'I hope he doesn't find out that I was with Cloud last night…'
"Isaac," he said, his voice sharp and a low, ugly anger building in his belly. "Did you find any entertainment last night?"
"Uh, sure?" Zack said, bewildered. "I played cards with Corporal Grumpy back there and turned in early. Why?"
He's lying. He was with Cloud and he doesn't want me to find out. He was with Cloud! No wonder Cloud looks so happy this morning; he's run straight into Zack's comforting arms! I wasn't wrong yesterday when I heard that errant thought…
He felt himself pale with the force of his anger and Zack's uneasy look only made it worse.
"Sephiroth?" the other man questioned, alarmed. "Are you okay?"
"Quite well, thank you," he snapped. "However, I am less than pleased to find out that the source of Cloud's sudden relief seems to be you, Isaac."
Zack stopped in his tracks, taken aback. Within a heartbeat he'd regained his equilibrium and bounced up next to Sephiroth, who had quickened his pace.
"Sir, what was that about?" he asked, crisply formal and worried. "You seem to think I've done something wrong where Cloud is concerned – "
"If you wish to carry on a tryst with a lower-ranking grunt and risk your rank over it, Isaac, that is entirely your business, but do so without anyone finding out," Sephiroth told him, irritated that he was still getting only that false look of hopeless confusion. "Do not, however, expect me to vouch for your good conduct under such circumstances when you involve Sergeant Strife in your personal issues."
Zack gazed at him a long, silent moment before his breath came out in an explosive whisper, "What? Sir! What are you talking about – "
"Don't think me a fool," Sephiroth hissed, unwilling to explain. How could he? Allow Zack to know that he could hear other people's thoughts and potentially allow ShinRa to find out through the grapevine? No. No, he had other worries now, now that his relationship with Cloud was well and truly over. This petty piece of drama that Isaac was working for his benefit only hardened his resolve and gave him something else to focus on besides the turmoil in his soul. ShinRa Company was in dire straights when a top-ranking SOLDIER would feel inclined to bold-faced lie to his superior. It only underlined the moiling thoughts he'd had last night before falling into his restless sleep – that the world would do far better with a new ruler. And now that he knew for certain that there could never be secrets from him, he knew that no other man would suffice in that capacity.
"Thank you," he coldly said, stopping dead still to say it right into Zack's shocked face. "I do believe you have saved me unnecessary effort where Cloud is concerned. Take my advice to heart, Isaac, and do not allow your tryst to become public knowledge."
He strode off and left Zack sputtering indignantly on the trail with Cloud and the other ShinRa grunt standing warily at a distance.
Cloud wasn't sure what had happened and he wasn't at liberty to be informal with Zack in front of the other ShinRa grunt, but his curiosity was burning him up. Zack was well and truly distressed and Sephiroth seemed angry, and that was all he knew.
They came into the mansion's courtyard where a familiar young lady was waiting, all of them so apprehensive and on edge that they hardly noticed her there.
It was Zack who broke the tense silence, saying with a shadow of his usual volume, "Tifa? You're the guide?"
She nodded, feeling important, looking lovely in her cowgirl outfit. Several of the villagers had gathered, curious about the goings on. Tifa bounded up between Sephiroth and Zack, striking a pose that a cameraman quickly snapped, much to Sephiroth's obvious consternation.
"I am the best guide in the village," Tifa said, all business once the camera was gone. She smiled at Zack, the same confident, unstoppable force that Cloud remembered from his younger years.
"But it's dangerous, what we're doing!" Zack flared, his temper on edge from whatever had gone on between him and his superior. "Haven't you been paying attention to what's been happening here? People are dying – "
"She'll be fine," Sephiroth said, his low voice hushing Zack quite effectively. With a calculated, almost angry look, he added, "If you take care of her."
Oddly enough, Zack blushed, momentarily side-tracked. It was enough of a hesitation that Tifa led the way, overriding any protest on his part.
Uneasy, Cloud followed, wishing he could have a second to talk to Zack. He wanted to talk to Sephiroth, too, to get confirmation that he'd meant everything he'd said last night…but right now wasn't the time. Professional life came before private life, and that was something he'd always known where Sephiroth was concerned.
It took the better part of three hours to make their winding, meandering way up to the looming reactor. Tifa was a cheerful guide and well versed in the back trails that she led them on. Zack was less impressed by her competence than he was worried for her safety, and Sephiroth seemed to have forgotten she was there, despite her constant attempts to engage either of them in conversation.
They arrived at the reactor and Cloud felt something in his gut tighten. A look at the Corporal next to him proved that he wasn't the only one with misgivings. This was the place where people would die, where they'd vanish. This was the part of their mission that might comprise the last moments of their lives.
"But I want to go inside!"
Tifa's sharp complaint drew Cloud out of his morbid thoughts, and he strode quickly towards her when he saw Zack poised to be irritated by her protests. Sephiroth, however, stepped smoothly between them and said with an air of condescension only he could manage, "This area is restricted to the public; you will not be going inside."
Tifa's pretty face hardened into stubborn lines, but Sephiroth made a sharp gesture at Cloud and snapped, "Take care of her."
"Yes, Sir," Cloud said, taking hold of Tifa's muscled bicep and pulling her back away from the reactor. She was aggravated by it, but wisely didn't make a fuss as both SOLDIERs vanished into the massive reactor itself.
"You could have let me go," she hissed, rounding on him.
"I follow the General's orders, not yours," Cloud said, very tempted to remove his helmet and actually talk with her. But the old shame stopped him, and the old desire that he be seen as somebody by the people of Nibelheim, not just a lowly Sergeant in the Military Police.
"Still, I – "
"What was that?" the Corporal questioned, drawing closer, alarmed.
Cloud and Tifa both froze, alert for danger.
"I swear, I heard – "
"Hush!" Cloud ordered. "Stay here with Tifa. I'll check the area."
The Corporal was only too happy to comply, and Tifa stayed close to him even while maintaining a fighting stance. They were both prepared for trouble, and Cloud resolutely headed into the surrounding cover to see if there were any animals about. He hoped against hope that it was wolves, startled from their usual area by unexpected human intrusion.
He froze, rifle gripped in nerveless fingers, his breath coming in short, quick bursts.
Genesis was dead. Even though he knew better, it was the one thought he could cling to right now. He was dead; he wasn't here at the end of the earth haunting Cloud in the woods near a defunct reactor; that simply didn't make any sense.
But no one else on earth ever called him that.
A soft chuckle, then, and Genesis emerged from the shadows, haggard and ashy with his sickness, whatever it was that he had.
"Oh, look how the bud of youth has flowered, little eromenos," the man sighed, cocking his head to one side to gaze at Cloud, who hadn't the sense to call a warning back. What would he say? Be alert, there's a dead ex-SOLDIER? None of them could hope to stand against Genesis, even in his current state of illness.
One slender hand was restlessly rolling an apple, the purplish-red skin gleaming in the light. Cloud tried not to let the movement snare him, and forced himself to look up at Genesis's face instead.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Likewise," Genesis countered, smirking. "I've come for healing, Cloud. By what right do you come?"
Cloud would not answer, but Genesis smiled and said, "Ah. Love, is it? How very dogged you are, eromenos, to still chase that which is unattainable. But you serve him as long as it suits him and no more."
"Why did you show yourself to me?" Cloud asked, his stalwart need to protect Sephiroth pushing his fear to the background.
"I wanted to tell you that I've left a gift," he said, smiling. "For your friends."
Cloud's eyes widened and he glanced back the direction he'd come, scared for Tifa and his soldier.
"It amuses me to see fear, Cloud," Genesis told him, still smiling. "I enjoy your helplessness. Oh, and one more thing – should Isaac follow us, you and your small party shall serve as a distraction."
Cloud ached with the need to run back to them, to protect Tifa, to keep Genesis out and away from Sephiroth.
"I wish to have Sephiroth all to myself for a bit," Genesis said, drifting closer. "And that I can't do if you're standing in my way, dearest boy. So, I am afraid I must ensure that you cannot meddle in affairs that do not concern you."
Cloud looked back in time to see the hilt of Genesis's blade come at him – and helmet or no helmet, there was no withstanding the force of the blow. He felt the pain flare across him and the darkness rise on the heels of it, and was swallowed up into nothing as Genesis whispered, "Sleep, eromenos, and wake to the nightmare that is life…"