Standard disclaimers apply.

Warning: AU, AT, unrepentantly fluffy and surreal.

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A NAME, A FRIEND, AND EVERYTHING ELSE
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From the peak of Mount Nibel, ten-year-old Sephiroth stared at the vast sea that laid westwards.

Beyond that great watery deep was the archipelago of Wutai.

Where he would be stationed for the next few years of his life.

Shinra Company had their sights set on the island nation for the next Mako Reactor, and initial talks were underway. SOLDIERs were being despatched to the island to ensure the safety of the executives who were already there to discuss the details with the ruler of the land - at least, that was the official reason given.

Sephiroth scoffed, and shook his head. Assuming the higher-ups sincerely had the interests of their employees in mind, sending SOLDIERs out so early in the talks was still a double-edged sword. Yes, it would afford the executives the protection they so desired, but at the same time, it would fan the flames of distrust the natives had towards what they probably perceived as lumbering intruders. There were more elegant ways of ensuring the executives' safety, and Sephiroth knew the higher-ups were aware of that. He did not want to know whether President Shinra had any ulterior motives for approving the mobilisation of the troops. Because he was almost sure he did. And anyway, it made his head hurt.

He disliked politics and diplomacy. There was a reason why he became a SOLDIER.

Overhead, dark storm clouds began to gather. It looked like it would rain very soon, so Sephiroth quickly descended from the peak. The convoy he was with had set up camp at the base of Mount Nibel, but he judged that he would not be able to make it there before the downpour. He remembered spotting a cave on his way to the peak, and it seemed suitable enough for shelter until the rain passed over. Deftly, he leapt from rocky outcrop to rocky outcrop, until he found the cave he had been looking for.

Stepping into the bedarkened cavity, he leaned against the wall and glanced out, towards the sky. Lightning flashed, and the low rumblings of thunder echoed throughout the mountainous region. The wind blew in intervals, and it was cold and uninviting. Not that it mattered, since Sephiroth's enhanced abilities numbed him to such things. He continued to stare out blankly, wondering how long it would take for the rain to pass over, and whether he should simply brave the rain to get to the convoy anyway.

But he hated it when his uniform got wet. They took forever to dry, and it was uncomfortable to walk around in wet clothes.

He was jolted out of his thoughts by noises from deep within the cave. He spun around and put a hand over his weapon. It was unlikely that there were monsters or even wild beasts in this cave, for he could not sense any malevolent aura. Slowly, quietly, he edged further into the cave, narrowing his eyes. Creatures who lacked malevolent auras were not always safe to approach. Life in SOLDIER had taught him great many things about survival in the wild.

A slight flame suddenly burst out from the darkness, and that surprised Sephiroth. As he watched on, the flame fell, until it touched a stack of dry branches. The branches slowly caught fire, one after another, until it was big enough to crackle merrily. The flame filled the inside of the cave with a warm and soft glow. Sephiroth blinked at the change, confused as to how he should react.

Sitting in front of the fire was a hunched figure with long hair that was tinged orange by the light of the flame. The figure appeared to be oblivious to Sephiroth's presence - that is, until it spoke up.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" The voice was pleasant and motherly. "Come and join us!"

"Us?" Sephiroth could not help but wonder out loud. Realising how inappropriate that must have sounded, however, he stiffened and remained rooted to the spot.

The lady laughed softly, and picked something up from the ground beside her. "Yes, us. I'm Mrs. Strife, and this is my new baby boy," she announced, even as she brandished the little bundle in her arms proudly. The baby yawned, uncaringly. It promptly went back to sleep, and its mother tucked it in gently.

The young SOLDIER continued to stare. Suspicion ran through his head like he had been trained to, but innocent curiosity won out in the end. He was only ten, after all. He moved slightly closer, until he could get a good, clear view of the mother and child. "What are you doing up at such a dangerous place all by yourself, Mrs. Strife?" Sephiroth enquired politely, genuinely interested.

"I'm working, my boy," Mrs. Strife replied, her voice now more subdued, likely out of consideration for her sleeping child. She nodded towards a heap of something beside her that was wrapped up with a large piece of threadbare cloth. Sephiroth took a few more steps closer, and peered over the flames of the fire to see what it could be. It looked like a bundle of rocks. A bundle of glowing rocks.

"Are you harvesting raw Mako crystals?" The SOLDIER asked dubiously. He had heard of the trade, but never really thought it existed. After all, Mako Reactors could refine Lifestream directly from the core of the Planet. He voiced that thought out loud, asking, "What use are the crystals when there are Mako Reactors doing the job already?"

Mrs. Strife peered up at the boy from beneath her long lashes, her eyes twinkling with the maturity and wisdom of experience. "There is a use for everything, and everyone," she explained mildly, "even if they may not realise it themselves."

Again, Sephiroth stiffened. Those words struck a deep chord with him. Deeper than he liked. This caused the older woman to laugh under her breath. "Please, don't stand on ceremony," she gestured at the baffled boy and pat an empty spot on the ground somewhere beside her. "This is just a passing mountain shower. It'll go away soon enough. Until it does, however, perhaps we could both use this time to make a new friend in light of the situation?" She paused and waited for a reply, but received none. Donning a slightly exasperated expression, she continued, "You could start by telling me your name!"

After a few more moments of hesitation, Sephiroth decided that this woman was as harmless as they could get. He moved nearer to the fire, sitting down within the vicinity of its heat, but still putting space between him and the lady. "I shall take up your kind offer, then," he said, bowing slightly. "And my name is Sephiroth."

Mrs. Strife nodded in acknowledgement. Noting Sephiroth's discomfort, she decided to return her attention to her baby, who was starting to stir. She cooed at the infant, rocking it in her arms and trying to put it back to sleep. Sephiroth observed the entire scene from where he sat, a dull pang of sadness and yearning welling up from within. As quickly as it emerged, however, he suppressed the feeling. He turned his head away from the duo. A SOLDIER needed no such emotions.

"Having a name means you have parents who cared enough to give you one," Mrs. Strife spoke up suddenly, in that quiet manner of hers, her lips curled upwards in a smile that was almost wistful. "You should consider yourself a very blessed child."

The young SOLDIER tilted his head to a side at those words. "That just means that every child in this world is blessed, doesn't it? Unless... you don't have a name...?" He frowned when he hit upon that possibility. He had never been a very social creature, and this was the first time he was talking with an older woman who was not a scientist or a diplomat. He was at a loss as to how he ought to deal with the situation.

While he was busy sorting his thoughts, Mrs. Strife actually laughed out loud, waking her child. Sephiroth watched with slight fascination as the baby opened its large, watery eyes and started to fidget, until its mother went about pacifying it again. "I certainly do have a name," she was saying, even as she rocked her baby back to sleep, "but my poor, beloved child..." her voice cracked slightly at the last word, and she paused for a bit to regain her composure. "...he doesn't have one." She plainly stated.

"Why not?" Sephiroth asked instantly, surprised and amazed. "Don't you care for him?" He asked, remembering what she had just told him.

The lady just smiled. "Where are you from, my boy?" She asked.

Caught off guard by the seemingly unrelated question, Sephiroth had to take a moment to collect his thoughts. "I don't know," he finally admitted. Memories of his childhood were sketchy, and most involved a metal table of sorts and tubes of various configurations. "But I think... maybe Midgar?"

"Ah, a city boy," Mrs. Strife tsked. "Well, I'm from Nibelheim," she informed, her voice tinged with regret. "And in Nibelheim, only men get to name children." She glanced at her sleeping child. "He doesn't have a father... there's not even a man in the house... so he doesn't get to have a name..." She muttered robotically. As if she was merely repeating something someone else had told her.

It all sounded very ridiculous to Sephiroth, though.

Young though he was, the boy was discerning and perceptive - perhaps so much that it belied his age. He sat up with a frown. "Shinra has no such laws on registering the name of a child by a parent or even a guardian." He said, sounding offended. "No town or village is allowed to override this basic right."

Mrs. Strife smiled sadly. "Shinra isn't here now, is it?"

Sephiroth shifted slightly to face the woman sitting on the other side of the fire, and was about to say something when he was interrupted by a loud wail that issued forth from the bundle within the woman's bosom. Properly stunned - for it was the first time he had ever heard a baby cry, Sephiroth swallowed his words and stared openly at the strange creature making all that noise.

"There, there..." Mrs. Strife put a hand on her son's tiny chest and tried to placate the baby. "It's all right... there are no bad people here... just mommy and Sephiroth, see?" She pat the baby's chest and smiled warmly at it. The baby calmed down slightly.

Sephiroth found himself irresistably drawn to the baby, as it was all very novel to him. Before he even realised it, he had shifted to the lady's side and was peering at the baby in her arms, scrutinising it carefully. Even in the orange glow of the fire, he could tell that the little thing was very pale. It was hard to determine whether it was a sickly shade or just its natural colour. Judging from the baby's wide and alert eyes, however, he presumed it was the latter.

"He has beautiful eyes," Sephiroth remarked, a smile tugging on the edges of his lips when he observed the baby giggling and smiling at him. "He doesn't seem to be afraid of strangers."

Mrs. Strife smiled at Sephiroth. "Children are inquisitive. It is their natural right," she said, and leaned slightly closer to the young boy.

"It is your natural right, too."

The young SOLDIER kept his eyes on the giggling baby, even though he wanted very much to look up. Then he realised that he was afraid. He was afraid to look into the eyes of this mother, whose words brimmed with a special brand of wisdom that was neither demeaning nor pretentious. And it scared him.

"Would you like to hold him?" Sephiroth found his vision being blocked by the close-up of a giggling baby, and he blinked in surprise.

"No, I..." The SOLDIER tried to decline in the most polite way he could. "I've never... I don't think I should..." He sighed. "...I'm a man of war, Mrs. Strife," he said, with a tone of resignation. He was a killer. A machine built to destroy. And he expected it to be understood; that his hands were not meant for cuddling newborn babes.

He severely underestimated the mental strength of a mother determined to show off her pride and joy.

"Oh, and I suppose that somehow makes you too important for my baby?" The lady huffed, and all but pushed the little bundle into the bewildered Sephiroth's arms. Sephiroth caught hold of the baby purely on reflex. He glanced at the baby, then at its mother. "That wasn't so hard now, was it?" She asked with a pleasant smile.

Sephiroth stared at the beaming mother for a while. She was right. It was hardly difficult. Lowering his head, he beheld the little baby impassively. The baby flailed clumsily, before managing to grab hold of a few strands of Sephiroth's silver hair. It gave out what sounded like a squeak of joy and tugged. Sephiroth just kept looking.

"It's the little things that we always forget," Mrs. Strife said, while bending over to pick up the bundle of Mako crystals beside her. "But it's also the little things that remind us that we are still human," she straightened herself and stood up, the crystals in her hands. Sephiroth looked up from the baby, and stood as well. "The rain has passed, Sephiroth," Mrs. Strife tilted her head towards the entrance of the cave. "I'm glad to have made your acquaintance. Now, if you'll just help me fasten those straps of cloth to my back, I can take that little rascal off your hands right away, before he ends up pulling out your hair or something!" She laughed out loud, putting a hand over her mouth.

The unique warmth of the baby, coupled with the distant chirps of the mountain birds that could be heard from along with the groaning wind that was blowing through the cave, gave Sephiroth strange comfort. "It's all right," he said, before he even realised it, "I'll help you carry him until the foot of the mountain."

The lady smiled, and after putting out the fire together, they began to descend the mountain slowly.

It was unusual.

So unusual that it almost felt normal.

The baby dozed off when it saw the rays of the sun, but when at the foot of the mountain, covered by the shadows of the massive mound, it opened its bleary eyes again. It squealed and giggled, making Sephiroth look down at it. Without the darkness of the cave or the glow of a dancing flame, the young SOLDIER saw for the first time the colour of untainted iridescent blue. Captivated, he could not help but whisper, "It looks like the colour of the sky..."

Mrs. Strife smiled a little wider. She put the crystals on the ground and stretched her hands out. "Here, I won't bother you with babysitting any longer," she said, and removed the baby from Sephiroth's grasp with ease. She expertly tied the few strips of loose cloth around her shoulders and back, securing the baby close to her chest but leaving her hands free to carry the crystals. The loss of the bundle of warmth made Sephiroth feel rather unhappy, but he made sure that his expressions reflected no such sentiment.

"Thank you for the nice chat," Sephiroth said plainly, but with sincerity.

"You are most welcomed," Mrs. Strife replied, already bending down to pick up the crystals. "If you ever have a chance to drop by Nibelheim, do drop by for a visit! I'm sure my baby boy would be happy to see you again, too," she paused, looking down at her baby with the same sad look she had when in the cave. The look of mortification, and regret. That as a parent, she was not even able to give her precious son a name, a title, and recognition.

Indeed, what kind of a parent was that?

Silently, Sephiroth took something out from his pocket and presented it to the lady. "Take it," he said, his face still as passive as ever. "It's my ID card. Take it to your mayor, and give your son a name," he explained, ignoring the look of wide-eyed surprise on the lady's face. "The rules only say a man is needed, doesn't it?" He stretched his hand out further.

Mrs. Strife blinked. "I can't..." She shook her head. "I'm really happy and appreciate your thoughts, but it's not right for me to take your ID card just like that," she said, while pushing Sephiroth's hand away gently. "You need your identity more than we do."

The young SOLDIER looked at the card in his hand. "I'm sorry," he said, after a short silence, surprising the lady again. "I've never had any friends before. I don't know what can or cannot be done when a friend is in trouble." He lowered his hand. "I'm sorry," he repeated.

Mrs. Strife put a hand over her mouth, her eyes becoming even sadder, although Sephiroth did not know for what reason. She walked forward and stooped slightly, so that she was of eye level with the young boy. She took Sephiroth's hands into her own, and said, "No, Sephiroth. No, what you did was very good and very appropriate. It was my fault for turning down such a kind offer by a good friend. The older we get, the less honest we become with ourselves, and I'm so glad you reminded me of that again," she smiled, and took the card out from Sephiroth's hand. "Are you really willing to do this for us?" She asked, while holding the card up before Sephiroth.

"Yes," Sephiroth replied immediately. "I can always get another one from the HQ," he added.

"Thank you so much," Mrs. Strife leant forward and gave the boy an awkward hug, as there was a squealing baby in between. Releasing Sephiroth from her hold, she stepped back and smiled at him. "Your mother must be very proud of you," she said.

"I hope so," Sephiroth remarked.

They parted ways there, each with warmth in their hearts.

The next day, the SOLDIERs broke camp in the morning. According to the squad leader, they would be moving out towards the vicinity of Rocket Town in the afternoon, so they had a few hours of free time. There was a niggling feeling of unease at the back of Sephiroth's mind, so he decided to take a walk towards Nibelheim.

It was not difficult, since all he had to do was to follow the smoke from the chimneys. When he got closer, he heard a loud voices and saw three figures standing near the edge of the village. The place was otherwise deserted. He frowned when he recognised one of the figures to be the lady he had met yesterday, She was apparently being scolded for something, for her head was lowered and shoulders hunched.

Even from a way off, Sephiroth could hear the cold, stinging words of one of the other person who was with the lady. "...told you so many times that bastards are not allowed in the village! Are you trying to disgrace the community? You should be grateful that we even allow you to stay here, and yet here you are, trying to take advantage of our kindness by asking us to recognise your illegitimate baby? Where did you steal this card from, anyway? And a Shinra employees' card, at that! Why, I ought to just report your thievery to Shinra and get you exiled from this place once and for all! You've been nothing but trouble..."

When he was near enough, Sephiroth stomped a foot heavily on the ground to indicate his presence. Although he was young, he gave off quite a presence, mostly due to his other-worldly looks, and he knew that. He glared very subtly at the man who had been shooting his mouth off, and immediately the man clammed up.

"I gave her that card," Sephiroth said coolly. "Would you like to slander me for anything as well?"

The two men shrank back a couple of steps. As the SOLDIER convoy was moving out in the afternoon, Sephiroth was already in full armour, and that added to his aura of menace. He glanced once at Mrs. Strife, who was still surprised to see him here, then turned to face the two trembling men fully.

"So you still remember that Shinra exists?" His voice was quiet but authoritative. They shrank back even further. "Do you perhaps also remember that Shinra graciously allows a mother to name her child as well, and that overriding that basic right is tantamount to treason?" The men remained silent and trembling. It appeared they would remain that way for quite a while longer. He was about to push further, when Mrs. Strife soft voice stopped him.

"Enough, Sephiroth," she said, quite firmly. Her countenance was serious - the face of a determined mother ready to defend her child if it was the last thing she did. At this point of time, Sephiroth realised that the baby was in her arms, and it was staring at the entire scene with the most wide and curious blue eyes. He returned his glance to the lady, who graced him with a tired smile, but only for a split second.

Stepping forward, Mrs. Strife continued with a straight face, saying, "Mayor Lockhart, and Deputy Mayor, I would like to assure you that disgracing the community is the furthest thing from my mind. I cannot give you any more information about the boy's father, except that he is no longer with us. I understand you have a reputation to keep before the people, and that is why I fully intend to respect your position on the tradition of the village. At the same time, I insist that you keep to your end of the deal as well." She took a deep breath. "The tradition requires a man to name the boy, and I have done the necessary arrangements to that end. But if you still refuse to recognise my efforts and my right, then I'm afraid I will have to ask for it from Shinra instead."

Mentioning Shinra seemed to do the trick, for the mayor's body twitched rather dramatically. His deputy continued to keep his eyes on the ground. The mayor's face twisted into a rather hideous looking scowl, but there was surrender written all over it as well. Sephiroth exchanged a brief look with Mrs. Strife. Then he spoke up.

"Well?" He raised an eyebrow and casually put a hand on the hilt of his sword. "Can the boy have his name now, Mayor Lockhart?"

Lockhart looked up when he was being addressed. His eyes flickered briefly to Sephiroth's weapon, and again he took an unconscious step back. He bit his lower lip for a white, before finally yielding, albeit rather unwillingly. "...the tradition says... that a man has to name it..." He whispered under his breath, defeated.

That was not good enough for Sephiroth. In fact, it made him more cross than ever. He strode forward, ignoring the muffled 'eep' that Lockhart gave out. He had meant to press until they accepted the mother's right, but halfway through his stride, he was blocked by a heavy bundle of familiar warmth. He caught hold onto the bundle automatically, knowing what it was immediately.

Glancing upwards, he saw the smiling face of Mrs. Strife. She shook her head lightly. "He's the mayor," she said. "We have to respect his authority. Now go on," her kindly smile was now a full-fledged beam, "give the boy a name. I do believe you've earned that right!" If voices could wink, Sephiroth was sure that the lady's voice just did.

The baby giggled and found a bundle of Sephiroth's long hair again, tugging at it like it did yesterday. The young boy looked at the baby, its cerulean eyes and pearly skin painting a serene picture of a single cloud on a clear blue sky.

"...Cloud," Sephiroth said, and smiled wanly when the baby squealed as if in approval. "If you like, please call him Cloud."

Mrs. Strife was still beaming when Sephiroth eventually looked up for her reply.

"I would like that very much," she said.

The next time Sephiroth saw the Nibel mountains again would be five years later.

The situation in Wutai had gotten from bad to worse in the five years he was stationed there. Talks had all but grounded to a halt. Sephiroth's squad had to deal with greedy bandits, never-before-seen monsters, unknown terrain and hostile natives on top of it all. Ignoring the outcry of the local population, Shinra continued to despatch SOLDIERs and troopers to the island, rapidly causing seeds of resentment to grow into outright protesting.

Things were quickly spiralling out of control and Godo, the ruler of Wutai himself, had laid down an ultimatum. Shinra was to call back all the people it had stationed there, both military men and executives. If they did so by the deadline, Wutai would consider reopening the reactor talks. Shinra then 'cordially' decided to withdraw just the SOLDIERs, citing it as an act of goodwill. It was at this point of time that Sephiroth was recalled to Midgar as well.

But he knew it was only a matter of time before he was sent back again. This time, to a full-blown war.

The squad passed by Nibel on their way back, and decided to encamp there for one night. The mountains were as dry and uninviting as Sephiroth last remembered it to be, but it was only to be expected. Nibel was the location of the first ever Mako Reactor that Shinra had built. The land had long been sucked dry of every single drop of its lifeblood.

He found the cave where he had met the jovial lady five years ago without much difficulty. He peered inside and was slightly disappointed to find it empty.

What were the chances, anyway?

He could simply walk into Nibelheim and ask for her house, but that would cause a stir. In the five years he had been in Wutai, he rose through the ranks rapidly. He had arrived at Wutai a SOLDIER like all his other comrades, but left it a commanding officer - now leading a squad of his own. His strength and intelligence were second to none - especially at his tender age of fifteen. His minor acts of so-called valour and chivalry (a monster here, a bandit there) were already being immortalised and circulated among the masses by the Company. There was no war, and the world had no need for a hero, but Shinra was desperate for anything that could improve its image among the people.

As such, Sephiroth was quite sure at least one or two people in Nibelheim would know him by face and kick up a fuss. Five years ago, he had learnt the hard way that the village had an intense dislike for outsiders. If he were to saunter in now with no apparent reason whatsoever, he may cause more trouble for the mother and son than they were able to handle. And that was the last thing he wanted to happen.

So instead, he turned his thoughts and sight towards the sky. Many things and nothing went through his mind. He just kept staring.

Until the quiet sound of footsteps alerted him to the presence of another.

"Are you here to cross the bridge too, mister?" A voice asked.

Turning, Sephiroth found himself staring at the small form of a child no older than five. The unruly blond hair, the pale white skin, and the wide blue eyes roused up memories from five years ago. He spoke before he even realised it. "Cloud..."

The boy's eyes lit up with joy and confusion at the same time. "How did you know my name?" Little Cloud asked, tilting his head to a side. "Are you an Ancient?"

Sephiroth smiled wryly. "Wild guess," he offered, sidestepping all of the boy's queries. He walked towards the boy and knelt down on one knee to address him at eye level. "What is this bridge you were talking about?" He inquired, and immediately Cloud's eyes brightened.

"It's the bridge of friends," the innocence in the boy's voice was charming. He pointed somewhere behind Sephiroth and continued, "All the adults say I can make lots of new friends if I can cross the bridge of friends!"

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed, and he turned to look in the direction Cloud was pointing. He could vaguely see the outline of a long, suspending bridge in the distance, swaying dangerously in the wind. "I think they're lying through their teeth, If you ask me," he said blandly, slight disgust evident in his tone.

"Why do they need teeth to lie down?" Cloud asked.

Returning his glance to the little boy before him, the SOLDIER observed that the boy was sincerely ignorant. "Lying is when someone tells you something that is not true. As for the teeth, it's just a saying." He rose to full height after that sentence. "Go home, Cloud. Don't make your mother worried."

Cloud pouted. "I'm going to cross the bridge," he said, determined. Without waiting for the big, tall stranger to reply, he strode forward as confidently as his little legs could take him.

Sephiroth stretched out and held the boy at bay by putting a hand on his head. He was mildly surprised to find the unruly spikes soft, but now was not the time for all that. "Cloud-" He started, but was interrupted by the boy.

"I just want some friends; I don't care if they're lying," Cloud said, while trying to remove the big hand from his small head. Failing which, he simply turned his head slightly so he could look up at the bigger boy. "You understand too, don't you?"

Sephiroth tilted his head to one side questioningly. Cloud looked at him squarely in the eyes.

"Because you look like you want some friends too."

Nothing much was said after that. Sephiroth allowed the boy to continue on his quest, but only if he let the SOLDIER accompany him. This, Cloud agreed to with no hesitation whatsoever, unless a big, bright smile counted as hesitation. Although Sephiroth held the boy's hand in order to keep him safe, it was almost as if he was being led by the boy instead, as they dashed across the swaying bridge in what must have been record time.

Once at the other side, Cloud punched both hands into the air triumphantly. "Yes!" He said.

Sephiroth examined the surroundings, finding nothing of particular interest except the large cave entrance that was a few steps away. "You've crossed the bridge now," he turned around to address the younger boy. "Time to go back..." he trailed off when he noticed that Cloud had already gone up ahead to the entrance of the cave, peering cautiously inside. He sighed.

"There's something inside!" Cloud exclaimed suddenly. "I think it's a dragon!"

This surprised Sephiroth, who had not sensed any living thing nearby. He quickly walked forward, putting a hand on Cloud's shoulder and shooting a stern look intended to keep the boy at bay. But Cloud was not his subordinate, neither was he a military man. The boy gleefully tagged along behind Sephiroth as he ventured into the cave.

Not a few seconds later, they reached a part of the cave that had a tall ceiling and was lit with the soft glow of natural Mako crystals. Lying at the foot of the biggest crystal that jutted out from the earth, was a dragon that was fast asleep.

Although trained to take out monsters with no questions asked, Sephiroth hesitated for a split second. The dragon did not appear to be dangerous. Yet. He was not sure if he should attack it or simply leave the nest. He had no need to worry, however, for Cloud made the decision for him.

"A dragon!" The boy squealed excitedly and was already on his way to the monster. The dragon slept on, but who knew for how much longer. Sephiroth was aghast, for the dragon was much closer to Cloud and he would not be able to reach it on time. He instinctively put up a Barrier around the younger boy, dashing forward at the same time.

All the commotion made the dragon stir. It opened a sleepy eye. The eye focused for a spilt second on the young boy running towards it, and the older boy behind. But that was about all it did, for it closed its eye and went right back to sleep.

Cloud was already in front of it, standing beside its head. He squealed again. "A real dragon! Wow!" He stretched a hand out to touch it, but was repelled by an invisible wall of energy, which sent him tumbling backwards. "Ouch!" He complained.

As Sephiroth came closer to the dragon, he noticed that the air around it felt different. He stopped and lowered his sword. The Masamune was an extraordinarily sword bequeathed to him by a renegade Wutai blacksmith who had a bone to pick with Godo, but that was another story for another time. Right now, he was using his thinking faculties for other purposes. Like whether the sword would actually break when touching the energy barrier that seemed to surround the sleeping dragon. Walking forward, he slowly stretched his sword out until the tip of the sword reached the barrier.

Bright sparks erupted from the metal tip. The sword was deflected with such great force that it almost flew out of Sephiroth's hand.

Sephiroth composed himself and noticed that Cloud had already gotten onto his two feet. The SOLDIER continued to be wary of the dragon, as they were at a disadvantage in its presence. If he could not find a way to break the barrier, it would be difficult to fight the dragon off if it should attack.

He felt tiny hands through his gloves, and looked down to see a serious looking Cloud staring up at him. "Don't disturb the dragon! I think it only wants to sleep!" Cloud whispered fiercely.

"...I'm not trying to disturb it," Sephiroth answered. He was trying to kill it, actually.

Cloud's attention was already back on the dragon, although he did not let go of Sephiroth's hand. "It looks so lonely. Maybe it doesn't have friends too?"

Sephiroth wanted to be amazed at how unbelievably simple the boy was, but he was too busy trying to retreat to a safer distance. The dragon was yawning, stretching, and showing signs of fully awakening. This was not a good time to be worried about whether the creature had friends or not.

Once he judged that they had put enough distance between themselves and the dragon, he stopped edging backwards. By this time, the dragon was awake and standing up, staring at the two intruders. As its glassy eyes scanned the duo, Sephiroth felt like someone or something was passing a wisp of cold air through his heart and his mind - his very person. The feeling passed away as quickly as it came, but it still left him highly disorientated. So much so that he did not notice Cloud letting go of his hand and walking forward again, until Cloud was back in the immediate vicinity of the dragon.

"My name is Cloud," the boy cheerfully introduced himself, and Sephiroth resisted the urge to slap his forehead. "Do you need a friend? I can be your friend!"

The dragon inclined its head to a side.

"Please?" Cloud continued, holding his hands together pleadingly.

In answer, the dragon opened its mouth. Sephiroth tensed immediately, and was by Cloud's side in the next instant. However, his worst fears were allayed, when the dragon did nothing but unfurl a long tongue. A shiny yellow thing dropped out from the tongue, and it rolled across the cave floor until it arrived at Cloud and Sephiroth's feet.

The dragon retrieved its tongue and roared once. It then flapped its wings and took off into the air. The strong winds that resulted as it hovered in mid-air for a while forced Cloud and Sephiroth to recoil and cover their faces, although Sephiroth kept an eye trained on the dragon in case anything should happen. Nothing else happened, however, for the dragon gave one last flap of its wing and glided its way out of the cave.

The two humans stared at it until it was but a dark speck against the clear sky.

Cloud was the first to come to. He scrambled over to the yellow orb and picked it up. Sephiroth made sure the dragon was clear out of sight before turning around and following the younger boy. What he saw in Cloud's hands was a yellow materia.

"It's so pretty," Cloud whispered in awe. "What do you think it is?" He glanced up and looked at Sephiroth questioningly.

"It's a command materia," Sephiroth said. "It helps you to cast special spells."

The younger boy's face twisted with incomprehension. He then held the orb out to Sephiroth. "I don't need it," he declared. "You can have it since you know so much about it."

Sephiroth smiled wryly. "Why don't you keep it?" He suggested. "Show it to the adults and tell them it's proof that you crossed the bridge." He put a hand on Cloud's hair and ruffled it fondly.

"Oh!" Cloud's eyes lit up at that notion. "You're right!" He quickly stuffed the materia down the pocket in his pants. "I can't wait to make new friends!" He beamed brightly.

"I'll walk you back to the village," Sephiroth said, slightly regretful that he was not able to examine the materia to see what it was. Yellow materia was rare. Still, the materia rightly belonged to Cloud - for the dragon had obviously wanted the younger boy to have it. He would have plenty of chances to get access to more yellow materia in his line of occupation in time to come.

He kept his word and followed the young boy back, but only until a distance away from the gates, where he said a polite goodbye to the excited boy.

The next day, as Sephiroth's squadron broke camp and was getting ready to cross over to Corel, there was a bit of a stir. When Sephiroth asked his men what was going on, he was informed that a young boy had somehow found his way to the camp and was asking to see the nice man with the hair that looked like moondrops.

Sephiroth wondered not for the first time what on earth was going on in that little boy's head, but he shelved that and instead asked his subordinate to direct him to the cause of the ruckus.

He found a pouty little Cloud surrounded by a group of military men who were all trying to pat his head and give him their best rations.

"Leave the poor boy alone," Sephiroth ordered. His men started to see their commanding officer, and quickly snapped to attention, moving away to form a disciplined line. Sephiroth strode forward until he was in front of Cloud. The boy's pout changed into a huge smile the moment he saw the SOLDIER.

"Hello!" Cloud said. "I came to give you this," he said, while brandishing in one hand the yellow materia the dragon had dropped the day before. "And this!" In the other hand, was a basket of what looked like freshly baked pastries.

There were many questions going through Sephiroth's mind, but he decided to settle for the one that bothered him the most.

"How did you find this place?" He bent down on one knee to address the shorter boy.

"Mama said I just had to hold the yellow thing and think reeeally hard about you," Cloud tightened his hold on the materia and frowned in a parody of what he had just spoken. "Then she said to give you the basket when I find you, too," he held both items out.

"Why?" The SOLDIER was slightly confused. He had already made it clear that the materia should stay with Cloud.

"Mama said it'll be a waste for us to keep the yellow marble since we have no use for it," Cloud answered. "And Mama hates wasting things! I don't know about the basket, though..."

Sephiroth thought for a moment, then took the materia in his hand. It was a Scan materia. No wonder Cloud could use it to locate his whereabouts. It was amazing that the little boy had been able to use it just like that, though.

Cloud dumped the basket on the floor in front of Sephiroth, when it seemed like the SOLDIER would not be accepting it. "Take it!" He insisted. "I don't wanna carry it back again! It's so heavy!" He whined.

A few chuckles from the sidelines alerted Sephiroth to the fact that they had an audience. He cleared his throat and took the basket while standing up. "Tell your mother I said thank you," he put his hand on the boy's head and ruffled his hair again. It was actually kind of therapeutical.

Cloud nodded, but his face was slightly gloomy. "Nobody believed me when I said I crossed the bridge," he sighed. "I didn't manage to make any friends after all."

Sephiroth kept patting the boy on the head. "I wouldn't be so sure about that," he mumbled.

Long after Cloud waved the encampment goodbye, a fidgeting trooper came up and asked the question everyone in the camp was dying to ask. "Sir...?" He gulped when Sephiroth turned and nailed him with a glance, but persevered. "...who was that boy just now...?"

Turning around, Sephiroth could see that the entire platoon was waiting with abated breath for his answer. He smirked, something like mischief awakening within him.

"My son," he replied in a casual tone, as if he had been talking about the weather. Without waiting to see their reaction, he walked away.

Ten years later, the war was over, but Shinra continued to recruit rank and file from all over the world to solidify their presence and position. It was after one of the recruitment drives that Angeal walked into Sephiroth's office to discuss with him the latest batch of military hopefuls.

"Applications from Rocket Town and Nibelheim are in," Angeal was saying. Sephiroth had been staring at the computer monitor in front of him, but he glanced over at Angeal when he started speaking. "I was going to ask Genesis to look through it together, but he's frolicked off somewhere again," the man sighed in a long-suffering manner.

"Is it in the system?" Sephiroth asked, and Angeal nodded.

"I have hard copies too," he waved the folder in his hands, but Sephiroth was already furiously typing on the keyboard. Angeal was slightly surprised. Sephiroth hated staring at the computer for records, and always insisted on having hard copies.

"Has the Science Department gotten their hands on these records yet?" Sephiroth asked, almost as if he had never heard Angeal's voice at all.

Angeal frowned slightly, amused and bemused all at the same time. "The Science Department only gets access to the records of those who have been approved by Heidegger to enter the SOLDIER program. You know that."

"So I do," Sephiroth murmured under his breath. He hit a final key and leant back on his chair, blowing some hair out of his face. "Let me see the hard copies," he held a hand out towards Angeal, who walked around the desk and handed the folder over wordlessly, although still intrigued.

Now that Angeal was standing behind Sephiroth's desk, he had a clear view of the monitor. As Sephiroth flipped through the folder with intent, Angeal stared at the screen. "'Cloud', huh?" He said, reading out loud the name of the applicant whose digital file Sephiroth was apparently perusing. "Who in the right frame of mind would name their son 'Cloud'?"

The folder fell off Sephiroth's hands and clattered noisily on the floor, but Angeal took no notice of that, glancing instead on another name in the applicant's file. "'Zax Strife' is the father?" He laughed out loud. "I have to tell the puppy about this."

"Ask the receptionist to print out another copy for you," Sephiroth was saying while bending down to pick up the fallen folder. "I'm going to stuff this in the underground archive," he stood up. After he turned the computer off, he strode purposefully out of the room.

"What's wrong with him today?" Angeal wondered out loud. He glanced at the now empty computer screen. Come to think about it, the screen just now looked like an editing screen. Had Sephiroth been tampering with the records? As soon as that thought surfaced, Angeal shook his head to get it out. "Nah..." he turned away. What need did Sephiroth have for editing the records of applicants, anyway? Pushing that to the far recess of his mind, he left the room as well.

Although Sephiroth was originally going to burn the folder he had received from Angeal, he instead decided to keep to his word and dumped it in a random section of Shinra Building's underground archive. He labeled it with something that no one in this greed infested Company would be interested in. 'Structural Improvements in Buildings'. That was boring enough. Carefully making sure it would remain out of sight by hiding it behind a throng of other equally boring documents, he exited the dark and dusty archive.

The darkness of the archive lasted eight years.

When AVALANCHE found the untouched underground archive that had survived Meteor's onslaught, they started to comb it for information that might be helpful in the restoration of the world. Shinra may have been many things, but technology-idiots they was not. They had the best engineers and scientists working for them. There had to be some knowledge they could salvage.

Cloud was seated on a chair, rummaging through a box of what looked like annual audit records when Vincent approached him silently from behind. He was holding a folder labeled 'Structural Improvements in Buildings' in his hands.

"Cloud," the sombre man spoke out.

"Yeah?" Cloud replied, trying to make sense of the records but unable to comprehend the massive amount of zeroes.

"Did you know that Sephiroth was your father?"

The loud crash that followed was the sound of Cloud falling off his chair.

x--x--x--x--x--x--x--x
10.jun.2008

i came up with this whole pile of nonsense just so i could write that last line. oh yes i did.

according to the 10th anniversary ultimania, the wutai war broke out 15 years before the original game, when cloud was 6. according to the crisis core ultimania, sephiroth is around 10 years older than cloud. that means when the wutai war broke out sephiroth would be around 16. i've tried to keep to this timeline, but yes, yes, i know better than you that this fic is implausible beyond belief... XD

i had fun writing it, and i hope you had fun reading it! XD

ps: please check my profile for an explanation of the formatting errors in my fics published prior to march 2008!