Title: Guide

Author: Anyssia

Character/Pairing: Cloud, Zack, Sephiroth, Vincent. Eventually, Cloud/Zack/Seph

Fandom/Spoilers: Final Fantasy VII, Meteor Crisis.

Genre: adventure, what-if, slash

Disclaimer: not mine or they certainly would never get out of my bed!

Status: ch1/?, 3790 words, 03/11/2009, beta'ed by Jameva and Lil_neko from LJ

Other: This fic is in fact a translation from a fic I originally began in my mother tongue, French. But as the FF7 French fandom is kind of dead, I decided to translate it and asked for help. Jameva and Lil_neko kindly accepted, and we worked on this one chapter for a week back and forth. So I hope you will enjoy their hard work, 'coz it was needed XD

Summary: Nibelheim's reactor is due for a check-up and sixteen years old Cloud is hired to take the coming soldiers up the mountain.

Chapter 1 – Buster Sword

Cloud sheathed his sword, uneasy. No matter how many times he patrolled around the reactor, the number of monsters still increased exponentially. And they had grown far too tough for Nibelheim monsters, without forgetting the fact that some of them had never even been seen around here before. If it went on that way, he was going to need some backup for this job. He had already had way too many close calls.

With a troubled sigh, the young man decided to head back to the village. It was getting late and he couldn't risk getting attacked on the trail with such low visibility. He didn't have a death-wish.

A glint on the ground caught his eye as he began walking and he quickly checked the area for any danger before kneeling in a vulnerable position. A sliver of metal.

Disillusioned, Cloud drew his sword halfway. Just as he had thought: the edge of his cheap blade, already in a sorry state, had just earned itself a new notch during his last battle.

He was soon going to have to buy a new weapon. A quick estimation of his savings confirmed that he still wasn't going to be able to afford anything worthwhile.

"Strife! Wait!"

Startled, Cloud found himself up and on his feet, ten paces back. His sword was fully drawn before his brain had a chance to recognize the voice as being that of a technician from the reactor.

The man frowned but didn't comment on his reaction. After all, this sixteen years old brat was the only fighter in this remote village that could protect the reactor with any relative amount of efficiency. The mountain was treacherous and the monsters even worse in this godforsaken, merciless place.

"We just got a message from ShinRa. They're sending a few soldiers for a check-up of the reactor. They'll arrive tonight and they'll need a guide. Book a couple of rooms at the inn for them and tomorrow you'll bring them here."

It was Cloud's turn to frown. ShinRa could send as many of its soldiers out in the middle of nowhere as they wanted, that was their problem, but he certainly wasn't going to babysit a few grunts for free.

He was perfectly aware that most of the scientists and technicians working at the reactor wouldn't have accepted this job if he hadn't been there to keep the local wildlife at a minimum. In these conditions, haggling over his reward was generally more profitable for him than for the angry workers.

The young man went back to the reactor, determined. With luck, he would earn enough money with this job to buy himself a stronger sword.

;;;

Cloud waited calmly at the weapons shop's counter; he had made good time in his descent and had managed to come in before closing time. He let his thoughts distract him, thinking back on the scientists' puzzling behavior. They had seemed nervous and intimidated when he had gone back to discuss and collect his bonus for this extra job.

The arrival of those soldiers troubled him as well, even though he maintained his usual tight hold over his emotions. He had given up on his dreams of SOLDIER and General Sephiroth and Midgar years ago now, ever since his mother's health had taken a turn for the worst when he was thirteen. He had buried deep all of his plans and hopes of escape and...

Anyway, working in the army wasn't his thing. Cloud had tried quite a few weapons ever since he had begun patrolling the area around the reactor to provide for his mother's needs and his own. His skills as a gunman had then proved to be more than nonexistent.

Cloud might be pretty good with a sword, but he would never have been enlisted in ShinRa's elite, the SOLDIER program, if he couldn't even prove himself in the regular army. Considering his talent for shooting at everything except his target, Cloud wasn't even sure he would have passed the entrance test for the cadet program.

The rhythmic, muffled thumps of shoe and cane announced the arrival of the old weapons blacksmith and pulled the young man from his musings. He silently chided himself for letting his unrealistic hopes distract him again. He had almost forgotten where he was. He couldn't lower his guard, even in this shop. While it wasn't a dangerous place, neither was it safe.

The whole village had never been safe for Cloud.

Pushing his gloomy thoughts away, he politely greeted the shopkeeper.

Old Sven, like most of the town's people, didn't even return his greeting and just frowned at him. Cloud met his blunt hostility with a carefully neutral expression. If he got him worked up, the old coot would certainly refuse to sell him anything. And Cloud obviously wouldn't receive any support from the other locals.

Determined to conclude this unpleasant business as quickly as possible, Cloud drew the basic sword that he had finally snapped in two clean pieces. He had nearly had a heart attack when it had broken against that last monster on his way back from the reactor. This time, purchasing a new weapon wouldn't be a luxury.

With the money he had pocketed earlier for his new job as guide, along with the loose change he would gain from selling the metal of his broken sword, he would finally be able to afford something sturdier and more efficient against Nibelheim's new monsters.

"I'll trade this broken blade for a hundred Gils and I'd like to buy the Buster sword at a thousand Gil. Please."

It wasn't the first time that he came to change his weapon, but being polite to this old geezer still rubbed him the wrong way, especially since he was perfectly aware that this damn scrooge accepted other travelers' broken weapons for five hundred Gil.

Despite his growing need to curse the blacksmith, Cloud held onto his neutral expression. He was lucky that the shopkeeper even agreed to buy back something the town's bastard had used.

"Two thousand."

His jaw dropping open, Cloud was struck speechless for a few seconds. His eyes strayed to the exposed blade, its price clearly visible, and went back to the shopkeeper.

"It's displayed at one thousand."

His heart hammered painfully against his chest and if he clenched his jaw much harder, he was going to crack a tooth.

"And I'm saying two thousand. If you're not happy, you can leave!"

Knowing he couldn't afford to make an enemy of the only weapons seller in the village, Cloud breathed deeply and quickly buried the seething anger that threatened to overcome him.

He very calmly put the requested amount of money on the counter and strapped his new sword on his back. At least the old bastard hadn't gone so far as to sell him the sword without its harness. He left the shop without another word and delicately closed the door.

If he hadn't controlled his movements, he probably would have broken the handle just by turning it.

;;;

With his head held low, Cloud hurriedly crossed the village square. He couldn't go back to his mother when he was this high-strung and the soldiers wouldn't arrive before nightfall, in at least another three hours. Besides, the sound of the supply truck, which was the only motorized vehicle that travelled these mountains, wouldn't go unnoticed.

The young man went left around the ShinRa mansion and smoothly climbed up the back gutter. The first floor's windows had all been boarded up for years now, but the last residents hadn't bothered to do the same thing upstairs.

For several years now, this abandoned building had become his new house. Cloud felt more at ease in these musty-smelling rooms, where monsters lived alongside termites, than with his own mother who spent most of her time sitting in her armchair in front of her window.

Ever since her illness had first begun showing symptoms, she had steadily lost her hold over reality with every day that passed and was now waiting for the man that had unconcernedly abandoned them years ago to come back to her.

Seeing his mother's health diminish a little more every day and bear the barely hidden hostility of the town's people had been too much for Cloud. One day he had taken shelter in the mansion to escape the bullies chasing after him and had had the pleasant surprise to discover that those cowards were too scared of the mansion's reputation of being haunted to follow him in.

Since then, he spent most of his free time and sometimes even his nights in the old house.

The various monsters living in the rooms were a good way to ease his anger and hone his fighting skills. He had even found his first sword here, an old rusted rapier from a display in the main room on which a substantial layer of dust had accumulated.

And when he was too tired to fight or when he was bored, the papers and books left here and there came in handy. Cloud didn't always understand everything – apparently, the mansion had been used as a laboratory before his birth – but he learned much more from these dusty tomes than he did at school where he was busy avoiding the treacherous attacks of his schoolmates instead of listening to the lessons of the old hag that masqueraded as a teacher.

Cloud carefully returned the rickety window to its original position, not wanting to damage the house any further than it already was by leaving it open to the elements, and quickly crossed the upper hall before entering one of the bedrooms. He meticulously cleaned every room of its dust and spider webs on a regular basis, so as not to betray his comings and goings. And this way, when he found himself knocked down during a fight, he was less at risk of being overcome by an ill-timed coughing fit.

The entrance to the secret passage that he had discovered in this room had also been oiled and well cared for. He used it often enough to appreciate being able to smoothly open the wall's section rather than needing to shove it open with a good few shoulder hits. He still remembered the bruises he had collected during his first visit, along with the twisted ankle he had gotten when one of the last worm-eaten steps had broken under his weight.

Cloud moved forward on the path, battered by time and deep-burying roots and with only the old Mako bulbs to light his way, and hesitated a moment to consider waking up Vincent. In the end he kept on going. The man might appreciate silence and have a gift for putting him at ease without needing to speak, but he shouldn't have to bear his bad mood tonight.

;;;

His new sword carefully lain on the desk, Cloud collapsed in the armchair. He tilted it back in a familiar move and kicked off his shoes before stretching out his legs. He was tense; he shouldn't let the people's behavior affect him after so many years. His feet settled near his weapon on the table, he breathed deeply and began the difficult task of relaxing.

One by one, starting with his feet and working his way up, he relaxed every muscle, letting go of the tension with a tired sigh.

The young man pushed away the bitter memory of his visit at the weapon shop with the force of habit. It was just another disappointment amongst many others. He had learned quickly enough that he couldn't change the villagers' attitude towards him.

However, he had better calm down before greeting the soldiers or else the meeting could go very wrong. He had no intention of being forced to reimburse money he had already spent because two or three irritable grunts had taken badly to his own foul mood.

After a few minutes, Cloud got up and briefly surveyed the shelves crumbling under the weight of many books and diverse scientific texts before choosing one. He had read dozens of reports since he had discovered this place, and each was more appalling than the next.

Both rooms, floors included, had been strewn with papers when he had arrived. The fourteen years old boy that he was at the time had been disillusioned enough despite his youth to accept those horror stories as the truth without doubting them or being frightened.

He had spent hours sorting through all the pages before reading them. The reports alternated between printed texts and papers covered with a spidery scrawl that he had established to be Hojo's, the scientist responsible for the whole project. A real torturer, if one would ask his opinion.

Already victim of Sephiroth's fame at the time, the young boy had passed through every stage of horror, pity and comprehension when he had discovered the experimentations detailed by the mad scientist on his childhood idol.

At sixteen, Cloud had finally managed to rid himself of his girlish reactions. Still, he would have preferred fighting against twenty Nibel wolves rather than admit that his childish fascination had changed into a passion as potent as it was unspeakable. It was mortifying enough to know that a mountain-bred, outcast nobody like him dared harbor such feelings for the General.

A few years ago, before martial arts master Zangan had taken her under his wing, Cloud had thought himself in love with the Mayor's daughter, Tifa. But she had eventually left Nibelheim with her teacher and without her around, the fire of his passion had guttered out. Cloud had soon discovered that this short-lived infatuation had been nothing compared to the treacherous emotions that now awoke him with indecent dreams featuring a silver-haired man. Cloud didn't count anymore how many times he had cursed his hormones and crushed his lust by fighting monsters in the mountains or the mansion.

Anyway, reading those horror stories relaxed him, surprisingly so. Compared to what Sephiroth had had to endure, his own pathetic life was pretty easy. A few minutes spent with those reports always put things back in perspective and soothed his wrath against the villagers. More often than not, it was actually redirected against Hojo.

Vincent's steady support had been a great help as well.

Cloud had soon discovered Vincent's existence while exploring the underground. Actually, he had nearly jumped out of his skin when a golden claw had caught the coffin's lid and snapped it back shut.

After that, he had steered clear of that room for a long time.

However, a few weeks later, his curiosity – and boyish stupidity –had again taken him to the crypt. After some nagging, he had managed to learn that the corpse wasn't actually one – even if he should have died years ago – that he was named Vincent Valentine and that if he wasn't left in peace, Cloud was going to be thrown to the two-headed monster that haunted the crypt.

Thanks to that information, Cloud had quickly realized that the Turk used for the experimentations in the V project was really this Valentine, which more or less explained why he was still alive. More curious than ever, Cloud had gone back to the ex-Turk with a few questions based on vague details he had gleaned from the reports. Vincent had answered with a resigned sigh.

The memory of his enthusiastic request – "Can I see your limits, please? The Galian Beast seems really interesting!" – still made him blush shamefully every time he thought about it.

Once the first moment of surprise had passed – as much his as Vincent's; he still couldn't believe he had just blurted his thoughts that way – the man had simply ended the discussion by disappearing back in his coffin.

A few days later, Cloud had been surprised to see the ex-Turk settle in an armchair at his side and start leafing through a report silently. The man had never stayed long and had never talked more than was absolutely necessary, but Cloud had found himself tentatively thinking of him as his only friend.

With time and some urging, Vincent had finally caved and had confessed that he had been curious about this fearless kid that had dared disturb him more than once but had still known to leave him alone most of the time.

;;;

The sputtering roar of an engine and the metallic grinding of loose parts announced the arrival of the supply truck, shaking him out of his memories. In these mountains, the smallest sound echoed loudly and travelled far. Cloud could still perceive it faintly despite being deep in the mansion's basement.

Cloud meticulously put away the old account that he had been too absorbed in his thoughts to read and headed for the village entrance at a brisk pace.

He left his new sword in the mansion since he still had to get it ready for battle. It would be twice as effective against the though mountain monsters once he properly oiled and sharpened it, and besides, he couldn't risk getting on the soldiers' bad side by displaying his weapon. It would be out of place in a simple introduction meeting and with his luck, or rather his lack thereof, they would think he was provoking them or just simply being arrogant. It didn't help that the Buster Sword was neither inconspicuous nor particularly refined. It would take him a few days and a lot of training before being able to wield its massive shape with ease.

At least the bottom-of-the-line blades that he had possessed until now, with their terrible balance and hardly honed length, had still been of some use. He had barely felt the heavy weight of the Buster Sword when he had lifted it the first time, even if some of that strength could probably be attributed to the fury simmering in him at the time.

;;;

Cloud was at his post in the square's centre when the supply truck slowly drove in. The monsters had carved new marks in its sides since the last time he had seen it. The growing monster activity clearly wasn't only concentrated at the reactor.

The young man patiently waited for it to stop before approaching. The last thing he needed was to have the soldiers think that they could treat him like any other starry-eyed kid lucky enough to meet ShinRa soldiers.

He calmly greeted the first soldier in a regular blue uniform; just a trooper from the regular army, then. Why had the scientists been so nervous about a few grunts from Midgar? The second man that stepped out of the truck proudly wore the SOLDIER uniform and grinned at him by way of greeting.

Surprised, Cloud didn't have the time to return the gesture that he noticed the corner of a black leather garment snapping in the wind.

The man that next jumped out of the truck, graceful even in such simple a move, rendered him speechless. Sephiroth – the one and only, as real as the huge katana hanging from his waist – greeted him with a simple nod, his face blank.

Stunned, Cloud found himself gaping like a moron in front of a man he had only ever seen in exactly two pictures. One was from a recruitment poster for the army and the other showed him in hospital clothes when he must have been something like ten years-old. Cloud had found it wedged in one of Hojo's medical reports.

In both of them, Sephiroth already had had this blank face that Cloud assumed was his only protection against the mad scientist's ambitions.

However, this version in the flesh possessed something more. It wasn't something he could have described or shown. It was simply a feeling of peace. Relaxed was too strong a word, but for someone with the General's reputation, the fact that he wasn't standing at attention was clearly a clue.

A movement from the SOLDIER at Sephiroth's side sharply brought Cloud's attention back to the matter at hand. He watched attentively as the wild-haired man smoothly moved closer to the General and leaned towards him to whisper something with an amused smile.

Sephiroth answered with a single raised eyebrow. Cloud suddenly understood that the person responsible for the serene attitude now radiating from the one dubbed the Demon of Wutai was this charismatic SOLDIER.

Cloud quickly swallowed a genuine thank you directed at this unknown SOLDIER. He had gotten close enough to the stoic General to let him experience something aside from the scientists' cold interest and the crowds' fascination.

Cloud gathered himself and made sure that his expression was still neutral before walking toward the General.

"I'm sorry I stared, sir; I didn't know that you'd come in person."

Sephiroth simply nodded while the SOLDIER at his side gaped at Cloud in surprise. People probably behaved like kids when confronted with the famous General. But with all the reports he had read, Cloud almost felt like he knew him.

And anyway, he was far too proud and stubborn to squirm in front of the General, not with half of the village spying on them from the windows surrounding the square.

"I'm Cloud Strife. I'll be your guide to the reactor tomorrow morning. For now, I'll let the innkeeper know you're here so you can go rest."

Cloud met the eyes of all three soldiers – no need to scorn the regular soldier by ignoring him – and then calmly headed for the village's inn.

He could feel the curious eyes of the SOLDIER on his neck but he refused to let it unsettle him. He was used to having his every move scrutinized.

;;;

Nibelheim wasn't that big and the inn was nothing more than a two-story house with a few more rooms than usual. They quickly distributed the bedrooms and Cloud showed them where they could eat a somewhat decent meal before scheduling their departure from the inn at nine o'clock in the morning.

With a last glance to the General, he left and went back to his mother, hoping she would recognize him this time. For a while now, she had begun to think her little Cloud was still ten years old, making any interaction with her difficult.

And Cloud was perfectly aware that, despite his unconcerned behavior, his mind was running in circles and he wasn't going to sleep for quite some time this night.

To Be Continued