Once More, With Feeling... – Chapter 43: Tactical Misdirection.

Summary: The SOLDIER Firsts find other things to occupy their time.

Author: Illusor Meaneld

Rated T: for Descriptive violence and injuries, No Adult Situations, No Cussing.

Disclaimer: I did not create, and do not own the characters from Final Fantasy 7, They are owned by Square-Enix, and I am simply borrowing them for my own (and hopefully your) enjoyment.

The next day, Cloud was taken quite by surprise when instead of settling in for more paperwork from the Turk offices, he was immediately re-routed by Cori to a new temporary assignment in the Department of Urban Development. Mystified, he made his way through the halls to the elevators. Reeve's department was higher in the building, so Cloud had several moments to ponder. Aside from delivering paperwork, he'd never been sent to the other departments for long periods of time, he mostly stuck around the Research and Development Department and the Cadet levels. He'd caught a few glances of his once, (and hopefully future,) friend and he had to remind himself that Reeve was more loyal to Shinra now than when Cloud originally met him in his own time-line. He certainly wasn't the clever leader of the W.R.O. yet.

As he arrived at his destination, Cloud straightened, still dressed smartly in his blue Turk suit, he knew he looked at least mostly dignified despite his young age. Knocking briskly he stepped back and clasped his hands loosely before him.

It only took a moment before Reeve himself answered, "Good afternoon!" the older man smiled warmly. "Tseng sent you?" Cloud was still a little startled by the rich dark hair, and smooth skin, devoid of age-lines and worry, younger-looking than he'd ever seen him, he had to mentally shake himself a little to continue the conversation.

"Yes Sir, … SOLDIER Prep. Cadet Cloud Strife, Turk Intern… at your service sir."

"Can I call you Cloud?"

"Of course, sir." The blond returned amiably, … he had to admit, his technical title was a bit of a mouthful. Still, it was better than 'Self-Proclaimed SOLDIER First Class.

"Good, good… come in won't you?" Reeve opened the door wider and gestured behind him.

Cloud obligingly entered, pausing briefly to re-examine the interior, a comfortable wood paneled room, it had a nice wide wooden desk, and a few comfortable looking chairs, a couple of discrete cabinets and a moderate sized window, but little else. It was always smaller than Cloud thought it would be… or perhaps SHOULD be. He still had trouble understanding how Shinra could so neglect Reeve Tuesti's genius. Reeve gently closed the door behind them.

"So," Reeve clapped his hands, shuffling a little in what Cloud recognized as nervous excitement, but what most people misinterpreted as impatience. "Tseng spoke very highly of your creativity and problem solving ability. Did he mention what I needed you for?"

"No Sir."

Reeve sighed, his smile turning wry, "Typical Turks, everything's on a need-to-know basis. Within Shinra's more practical departments, information sharing and collaboration are more important than keeping secrets."

Cloud couldn't resist a grin, "That's right; you're more of an engineer, aren't you?"

Reeve looked pleased, "Actually I did study engineering, an astute deduction, Cloud. Tseng was right, I think you will work well with this."

Deduction, … right… Cloud's smile felt a little more forced, and he scratched idly at the back of his head.

"Now going right to the issue at hand, we have a morale problem." Reeve was continuing, seeming more relaxed the more they spoke.

"A morale problem, sir? But we're on cease-fire, there's been no fighting." Cloud tried to run through what he remembered of this period in his own time-line, … but he couldn't come up with anything… although, did Sephiroth mention something about this? Cloud couldn't quite recall, but it nagged at the back of his mind even as he listened carefully to Reeve's description.

"While that might be true, until we come to a peace agreement, The military remains on full alert, which can be stressful for our men of action who find themselves with nothing to do. They can't very well be sent on missions, when they might be needed at a moments notice. This is a particular problem for our most skilled, who can be difficult to find challenges for at the best of times."

Cloud tilted his head slightly, holding his tongue against the 'we know how THAT feels', instead, he neutrally admitted, "that sounds like a very interesting project." trying to retain his most professional demeanor, "What ideas do you have so far?" Reeve smiled, handing Cloud a small manila folder.

"Here are my observations so far, but to summarize, I've noted that Lieutenant Rhapsodos seems to particularly like the play 'Loveless', obsessed with it really. So anything we do for him should probably include it if we want to keep his attention."

Cloud frowned, folding his arms and tapping his foot. "That makes sense, … but I'm not very familiar with Loveless."

Reeve nodded, "I'm not surprised, it's a bit old for most kids your age I think, you should probably pick up a copy, I believe they have a few in the library right now."

"Of course," Cloud agreed, "I'll give it a study first chance I get."

"I had a few ideas I'd like to try for Lieutenant Hewley, I'd like you to take a look and see what you think might be most likely to work. It's General Sephiroth that has me a bit stumped though. He likes testing his skill, particularly anything related to combat, but we don't seem to have anything that can challenge him anymore. He's just too good. Even teaming him against multiple opponents, or the training programs, nothing is difficult enough."

Cloud glanced at the files in his hand, flipping through to the information on the training programs mentioned. After a quick glance he felt a grin slowly pull across his face, Oh, … this will be fun! He shifted his weight easily to his left leg, feeling his shoulders roll back into a straighter posture, the file remained loosely in one hand, "Don't worry about Sephiroth, I know just the thing for him."

The following week, found Sephiroth moving through the halls, his destination the communal SOLDIER lunch room. Angeal could be found there regularly, as he often claimed dining with the rest of their men was 'good for morale'…which was really code for 'honorable behaviour.' But then so was about half of everything else the Lieutenant did. Normally Sephiroth would pay little to no attention to the other inhabitants of the hallway, but this time his instincts rang like a bell at the back of his mind. A group of SOLDIER Thirds had been gathered in a small alcove, something they did quite frequently, but this time they all silenced abruptly as the General came near, glancing warily at him when they believed he wasn't looking. As Sephiroth drew nearer still, they suddenly started complaining about missing their favorite home-cooked meals. The Silver-haired SOLDIER felt his eyes narrowing at the falsely-loud tones of their voices, and as he drew abreast of them, the nervous patter of their heartbeats. One quick glance and he mentally noted their faces, tagging them to their names in his head, he would have to ask Angeal to investigate, the dark-haired man was much better at conversing with the subordinates.

Finding himself mildly annoyed, Sephiroth continued on his way, the incident had perked his awareness, enough that he was actually able to make out some conversation specifically just moments before he stepped into the lunch room.

"Can't let Sephiroth find out, … he'll ruin it!"

"…I'm going to do it this afternoon!"

"You sure man? That stuff ain't easy, what makes you think you'll do any better?"

"I think Jacobson will…"

And again as Sephiroth pressed against the door, there was a sudden hush. This time though, it was noticeably only on one side of the room, where a huddled bunch of Third Class men went wide-eyed and nervous at his arrival. A few of them started stilted, fake conversations, but a few others stood up from their tables and tried to leave through the side-door unobtrusively.

Was this some kind of conspiracy? The General had distinctly heard someone mention his name! … His nostrils flared, he rarely focused on his heightened smell, usually reserving his less human attributes for the field, but he was thoroughly aggravated now. The smell of meat and chemicals reached his nose first, followed by the individual scents of his SOLDIERs, men he SHOULD be able to trust, … another careful inhale and he picked out the smells of nervousness and adrenaline, he sniffed a few more times but never picked out the smell of fear, nor anger… nothing that would indicate his men hated or resented him. Trying to settle his metaphorical feathers, he walked stiffly over to Angeal's usual table, ready to hear a scolding from one of his oldest friends. One of the only people who would recognize his actions for what they were.

As he sat down at the table however, he realized his Lieutenant had missed the entire subtle incident. The dark-haired man had a fork halfway in his mouth, with grains of rice littering the table and his scruffy beard. That in itself was highly unusual for the typically neat-eating First Class, but his large hands were dwarfing a tiny metal box, his fingers moving around it with surprising dexterity for their size. After a few moments of watching Angeal fiddle, occasionally pausing to grab his fork in one hand and scoop up another bite of food, depositing it in his mouth without taking his gaze from the small contraption, Sephiroth couldn't take the confusion, he cleared his throat pointedly, and much to his surprise only received a hum of inquiry in return.

"Angeal?" The General called, his concern starting to leak into his voice, "Are you alright?"

"hmm?" Angeal repeated, before nodding, "Oh yeah, … I'm fine."

Sephiroth waited, but after several minutes it became apparent no further explanation was forthcoming. "What are you doing?" he prompted, gesturing to the tiny metal toy from which Angeal had yet to glance away from.

"hmm?" Angeal started again, as though distracted enough he had to take several moments to make sense of the questions directed to him. "Oh… this is a puzzle."

"A Puzzle?" the General repeated immediately, before he lost the small portion of attention he'd garnered from his Lieutenant.

"Yeah, … I have to get the ball out from the box."

Sephiroth paused at that explanation, a closer examination revealed the small box was actually a small cage, and indeed there was an equally tiny metal marble inside, just too large to fit between the thin metal bars.

"Couldn't you just…?" the Silver-haired First began with a frown, making a demonstrative fist with one hand.

"WITHOUT breaking it!" Angeal yelped a little hastily, moving his strange box closer to his chest as if worried Sephiroth would try to crush it for him. "That's the challenge, it's a mind-puzzle, ... breaking is cheating."

Sephiroth heard the unspoken 'and cheating wouldn't be honorable.' Sephiroth sighed, he would have probably just broken it after five minutes or so himself. He watched Angeal play with it and eat distractedly (and messily) for a few more moments before he remembered his earlier irritation.



Sephiroth resigned himself to unusual short answers for the foreseeable future. "Do you know what's up with the Thirds?"

"Thirds?" Angeal queeried back, his brows furrowing briefly in thought. "Oh! … yeah,… they have some kind of er… contest thing? Something or other they're doing that they don't want to compete against you for. … Understandably they think if you do it they won't have a chance themselves."

"Some kind of contest? … do you know what kind?" Sephiroth perked, interested.

Angeal shook his head slowly, eyes never leaving his puzzle, "They've been careful not to specify exactly while I was in hearing range… somehow they think I'd just tell you about it if you asked." This time his face slowly twitched into a familiar mischievous grin, "No idea where they got THAT idea…"

Sephiroth snorted softly, "no idea." He agreed wryly, provoking an answering snort from his Lieutenant. After a beat Sephiroth continued, "I wonder if Genesis knows anything about this."

"Haven't seen him," Angeal returned, already absorbed by his puzzle once again, after a few seconds of silence though he paused, "Actually, … now that you mention it, … I haven't seen him all week!"

"Not at all?" Sephiroth returned in confusion, "He can't have been sent on a mission, … and I could have sworn I'd seen him in the halls before this."

"I've seen him a few times, but he's always heading off somewhere with a purpose… always with his head in that book."

"When does he NOT have that book?"

"No, I mean weirdly more than usual!" Angeal insisted, Sephiroth frowned,

"He can look at it MORE than usual? Is that possible?"

The Lieutenant's blue eyes met Sephiroth's for the first time that day, "No I mean, REALLY! Usually he'll pull out his book if he's bored, but he'll pay attention to his regular duties and stuff. I haven't made eye-contact with him all week!"

Which was almost the case with you, Sephiroth mused to himself, "We haven't really seen him, so perhaps it just seems that way?" despite his flippantly dismissive repartee, Sephiroth made a determined mental note to track down his wayward First Class.

"Maybe," Angeal conceded, his eyes drifting down to his little puzzle once more, "Something just feels off about it."

And that right there concerned Sephiroth more than his Lieutenant's arguments. Angeal had impeccable instincts for these kinds of things. All the more worrying that he'd not even noticed Sephiroth's earlier blip in socially acceptable behaviours. The General stood slowly. He was no longer particularly hungry, nor could he recall what he'd originally wanted to discuss with Angeal. The SOLDIER First in question gave a soft grunt of goodbye, waving distractedly, completely absorbed in the metal box once more. Sephiroth left with a puzzled shake of his head, his determination to solve this new problem solidifying steadily in the wake of his friend's distraction.

It was Monday, so Zack once again was standing in front of his class of cadets, overseeing their swordsmanship training. There was definitely a more subdued atmosphere in the room since the Trial. Even those who were usually rowdy amongst the teenagers were meekly following instructions lately… it was honestly a bit depressing. Despite his personal unhappiness at Cloud's injuries, Zack couldn't say he took any pleasure in seeing the rest of the cadets so dispirited.

Trying to shake off the gloom, the SOLDIER straightened his shoulders and grinned at the teenagers before him. "Today we are going to start one of the more complex techniques!" Zack began brightly, taking his position at the front of the class where demonstrations were traditionally done. The cadets lined up quickly as they'd been trained. "later we're going to pair up to practice but first let's work through the movements. This is a defensive technique; we'll start with the attacker, who in this practice is going to perform an overhead strike." Zack briefly demonstrated, shifting forward with his main leg and swinging his wooden sword in a smooth downward slice. He then paused and looked out to his students who obediently mimicked the familiar move with a short shouted 'ha'. Nodding the SOLDIER 2nd continued. "the defender is going to block first." He raised both arms, twisting his sword horizontal to the ground and bracing the blade over his head. He waited until all of the cadets had matched his pose, "then you're going to follow up with an elbow to the face for distraction." A quick twist of his body and a quick slide of his feet brought his right elbow to face level with the imaginary attacker.

Zack grinned broadly at the teens before him. "Now is the complicated part, First strike down from the right, taking out the left arm." Zack's blade swept diagonally through the air with a whistle, until it was pointed at the ground at his left side, he lifted it to hover in the air on that side, "Second, repeat with the other side, striking down from the left to take out his right arm." Another diagonal sweep, and his sword hovered on his right, "Finally, a strong horizontal strike to throw your enemy to the ground!" the SOLDIER swept his sword before him from right to left. Watching as the cadets followed his movements. Nodding to himself Zack raised the sword before his face in a salute, before dropping the point towards the ground. "Now I want you to start practicing, and I'm going to walk around and correct you."

The students immediately began practicing the series of attacks while Zack moved around between them, correcting a stance here, adjusting for proper follow-through there, but overall he noticed the cadets seemed to be picking up the new technique faster than some of his previous lessons, … maybe some good had come from the experience after all! They definitely seemed to have better focus in the subdued atmosphere. Overall feeling pleased with his teaching, Zack let them continue practicing the motions for about ten minutes before he moved back to the front of the class, clapping his hands for attention. "Very good! Now I want you all to pair up, the person on the right will be the defender to start, slow motions at first guys, I'll let you know when you can speed up." He waited for everyone to assume position before clapping his hands loudly, "Begin! Attacker strike, Defend, elbow, left-diagonal, right-diagonal, and FINISH." Zack grinned at his students, "Keep going, I'm going to walk around some more." He told them. They'd been doing this for long enough that he was fairly confident they wouldn't hurt each other even with a more complex technique. Walking amongst them though, he still kept a close eye out for stray practice swords. A wooden stick to the face wasn't fun even if you were SOLDIER.

The students were doing well and Zack was just about to move on to the next section, when he heard the door open. Pausing, Zack frowned, he thought he'd accounted for all the cadets during roll-call, had he missed someone? Zack looked up curiously, but to his momentary relief it was Lieutenant Rhapsodos, who strode in determinedly, his head buried in a book. After a moment though, Zack recalled with some concern that Genesis had always said he hated cadets. Deciding it might be best to distract the SOLDIER 1st, the Raven-haired 2nd class stepped forward,

"Hey Gen! What's up?" he called as he approached, but the Auburn-haired 1st ignored him, muttering 'the power within..' over and over to himself as he walked. The book in his hand, 'Loveless' Zack could make out now, was strangely new-looking, and the pages were covered in sticky notes, the myriad of colorful paper bits practically bulging from between every crease, each note was heavily laden with the SOLDIER 1st's flowing hand-writing. Zack called out again as he drew aside his superior, but the Lieutenant still seemed completely oblivious to the room.

Zack began to wonder if waving his hand in front of Genesis' distracted face was a good idea, on the one hand, he was becoming concerned that Gen might run into something or someone, … on the other hand, it always seemed like Genesis might be likely to stab Zack for something like that. With a frown the black-haired SOLDIER followed until his quarry paused at a small metal electrical panel inset in the wall. The younger man watched in shock as the Lieutenant glanced once at the panel, and then proceeded to rip the door off with one bare hand. The hinges of the metal door squealed in protest and the lock died almost instantly with a single ear-splitting screech.

"GENESIS!" Zack yelped, jumping forward to restrain the seemingly awol SOLDIER, only to reconsider mid-step and lurch away. The previous thought of stabbing resurfacing abruptly in his mind. His conflicted motions led to a strange, almost drunken-looking stagger as he flailed uselessly behind the Lieutenant. Genesis seemed undisturbed as he carefully closed his book, slipped it into a pocket on his coat before digging through the wires in the box, after a moment he finally produced a small scrap of paper with a triumphant 'Ha!' Zack watched in bafflement as the auburn haired SOLDIER unfolded the tiny slip, studying its contents with rapt fascination.

"Act four, Scene one, Line one-hundred and forty three as pertains to the restroom…" Genesis read aloud, he sat silent for a few seconds, his brow furrowed in thought before he retrieved his book, and flipped through to one of the later sections. Then he pulled a small stack of brightly colored sticky notes from a pocket inside his jacket, carefully removing a note single-handedly before placing it on the page, arranging it to hold down the small scrap of paper he'd removed from the electrical box.

As Zack watched, Genesis turned and strode from the room, this time muttering "As pertains to the restroom…" under his breath, he never once looked up at the other people in the room. Not even the entire squad of cadets, whose practice swords hung limply at their sides as they gazed in open-mouthed astonishment after the departing SOLDIER 1st.

… wait. Zack whirled on his students, "Hey!" he cried, "You guys are supposed to be practicing!" The last protest came out as a near whine of disappointment. The cadets jumped, startled, some of them looked guilty, but a few frowned,

"But, … Sir… that was Lieutenant Genesis Rhapsodos!" One young boy chimed. The others nodded, several pausing to gaze in awe at the door the SOLDIER 1st had departed through.

"You guys shouldn't let yourselves be distracted!" Zack scolded lightly, "A SOLDIER is always focused!"

"But, Sir!" Another cadet piped up, "you were distracted!" Once again the students nodded together. Zack huffed, pulling himself as straight and tall and Angeal-like as he could.

"I'm allowed to be distracted. I'm the teacher!"

"But you just said SOLDIERs shouldn't get distracted!"

"Exactly! That's what Angeal always says! So let's get back to practice, Alright? Begin! Attacker strike, Defend, elbow, left-diagonal, right-diagonal, and FINISH." Despite several of the cadets still appearing confused, they all obediently began the practice set again. Zack watched on in pleasure, always glad when his students seemed to learn well under his tutelage. He'd have to remember to teach this move to Cloud when he got better. He pushed the strange incident with Genesis out of his mind for now. … that guy was always weird. He'd just have to make sure Angeal knew the broken panel door wasn't his fault!

((Author's Note: Another update! Late as they seem to come lately, got a new job (again) and found I can write in fits and spurts sometimes during it. … it's not a lot at once… but hey! Fits and Spurts!

Anyways, as I seem to need to iterate, I'm not just messing around for the heck of it in these chapters, it's all VERY pertinent! Never-the-less I see no reason why we can't have fun while I work through the plot. Hopefully more to come in a more TIMELY manner next time. ;) … Enjoy!

-Jianre M. A.K.A … Illusor Meaneld.))