Part Two: The Dispute

Reno tapped his finger impatiently on the counter, one crossed leg doing a stuttering dance of its own as he waited for Tseng to review the object he had tossed at him.

"This is ShinRa Science Lab's experimental MP amplifier." The senior Turk said quietly as he turned the device over in his hands. "By the look of the materia, am I to assume that this has already been tested outside of controlled circumstances?" He asked dryly.

"Something like that." Reno replied flippantly. "So, what's it do besides jack up the user's MP or something?" He asked, more keenly aware of how Tseng's eyes were carefully gauging him from beneath lowered lids.

"It uses cells of condensed mako as a battery to feed the materia extra energy in order to power up spells to levels that would normally be beyond the user. However, in all clinical trials, the results were not quite what was expected."

"I'm listenin'." Reno said, silently demanding that Tseng hurry with the explanation. There should be limits on how thorough a man could be with that.

"The excess energy makes the magic arc, warping the spell. The flow of mako is different than energy released by a person. The conflicting feeds unbalance the spell, so the resulting cast is skewed based on how much control the user has over the magic. The more skilled the control over the flow, the steadier and truer the spell."

The redhead didn't like the sound of that at all. At least it explained how Cloud ended up with that fucked up shape. A true Mini would have at least kept him proportionate.

"How long does it last?" He asked, scratching the back of his neck.

Tseng fixed Reno with a mild look. "Nearly all of the studies dealt with element based magic materia. The amplifier was designed with offensive spells in mind. This is a level one Transform materia, and an amplifier with depleted mako cells. There's no telling how long the effect will last." He looked at the materia that could only cast Mini. It had obviously been a tool used for bullying, and he recalled how the previous cast spells had appeared with experienced casters. Bullies were not known for their talent in fine materia control.

Tiredly, Tseng pinched the bridge of his nose. "Do I want to hear who the unfortunate victim was?"

Patiently, Sephiroth tucked Cloud into a miniature bed made from the General's own bedclothes. The blonde was a vibrant red as he was carefully placed inside the nest of firm pillows and clean sheets.

"Genewaw, sir. Dis is unnessesawy." The cadet protested weakly as he limply allowed the General's roaming hands settle his shortened limbs into a comfortable position. His own efforts to stand and walk away had resulted in a humiliating stumble and a half-crawl back to the bed after he had toppled off of it. Worse yet, a startled "oof" had escaped his lips as he fell face-first onto Sephiroth's carpet, eliciting an indulgent smirk from the General.

"Cadet Strife," the man all but purred, "you must trust me, your superior officer in this matter." He said with an inordinate amount of satisfaction.

Cloud bit back the retort that his condition hardly warranted getting tucked into the General's bed. Plus, he was being treated like some kind of spoiled pet. He was a cadet, dammit! He had worked his ass off to get there, braved the sickening boat trip to Midgar, and put up with the most asinine instructors the Planet had to offer. Honestly, those imbeciles that ShinRa hired to train the recruits would not be able to survive outside of ShinRa's protective bosom. If they were given bucket and placed next to a river, they didn't have the combined brainpower to keep themselves from dehydrating to death.

It was an impossibly frustrating situation made more so by the fact that he was being babied by the idyllic SOLDIER himself, who seemed to not notice how very uncomfortable he was making Cloud. There was also no excuse for the utterly bizarre treatment unless...

Cloud shot a glance at the gloved hands that were being so gentle with his frail body. Really, he was treating him like--Cloud broke off the thought immediately. The repercussions of such thoughts were too disturbing, and the blonde wanted nothing more than to bash them out of his memories, along with this entire incident.

Loud, sudden banging thankfully derailed his train of thoughts.

A small frown tugged at the General's lips, drawing the corners down slightly at the interruption.

"Hey, Seph! I know you're in there! Give Spiky back now!!" Zack yelled from outside Sephiroth's quarters.

With something that was part grunt and part sigh, Sephiroth stood and glared at the door as if the sheer irritation radiating from his eyes would melt through the reinforced steel and set the unruly SOLDIER First on fire. Alas, his grossly exaggerated supernatural powers did not extend to eye lasers, and he had to actually walk to the door to answer it like any other human being.

He pulled open the door in one smooth motion.

"No, I will not hand Strife to you. No, you may not come in. No, this is not up for discussion. Good night, Zackary." Sephiroth spoke calmly, but all in one breath. Without allowing his subordinate a chance to reply, he shut the door on Zack's foot.

The General sighed again. Zackary's body always did move faster than his brain. Quick instincts made him a good SOLDIER, but also an annoying person to fight against. He stared at the booted foot that blocked his seamlessly closing door.

"Wait a sec, Seph. That's not fair!" Zack protested, trying to worm his way through the open crack. He had already forced an arm through, and was pushing back with the other.

Strength against strength, Fair had no chance of winning, but Sephiroth was reluctant to crush his friend's foot just to prove his point. Zack had taken his hesitation as an invitation, and managed to shove the door open enough to squeeze into his apartment. The SOLDIER stumbled, straightened, and spun to face his superior who glared at him, irritated.

"Dude, you can't just yank our chains like that!" He complained with a wild gesture of his hands. "Pulling rank? That's not like you at all. C'mon, Mr. I'm-a-proper-SOLDIER-and-that's-all-I'll-ever-be, give me a break. What's really got your knickers in a knot?" He asked in a huff.

Stupid and silly he sometimes was, but it cannot be said that Zackary Fair was not a good friend. He was unfortunately observant, even if it didn't always seem so.

"Nothing. All is well." Sephiroth intoned quietly. "Though I am quite tired. The last mission was taxing. A bit of rest would be nice." He confided softly.

"Sure." Zack replied brightly. "And I'll be out of your hair as soon as I get Spiky."

"No." The General said flatly.

The SOLDIER stared at him. "Why not? I could take better care of him!" Zack argued.

"This isn't a competition, Zackary." Sephiroth said with a degree of warning in his voice.

"But you've never showed an interest like this in him before. What changed, other than his size?" The spiky haired man sputtered.

Sephiroth rubbed at his temple with one hand and silently counted to ten, willing his developing migraine away. "This is an unusual situation. I cannot allow a cadet to wander around, unsupervised in his condition. I also cannot allow an overly eager SOLDIER to exploit said condition, even if he has his best interests at heart, presumably." He said reasonably.

"I'll do right by him!" Zack chirped. "He's just so cute, I want to snuggle him. Surely one teensy snuggle won't hurt him."

"Possibly." The General said dryly. "It's late. You should go now." The dismissal was clear but Zack wasn't ready to budge.

The SOLDIER pointing an almost accusing finger at his superior. "Now, wait. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were taking advantage of this unusual stipulation."

"Situation." Sephiroth corrected.

"Whatever. My point is, what's the big deal? Cloud's a good friend, and I don't want you getting any perverted ideas about him."

A vein throbbed somewhere close to Sephiroth's skull.

"That would be your department." The taller man returned. "I do not harbor any aberrant contemplations toward your friend, unlike yourself."

Zack's eyes widened. "You're using big words. You ARE hiding something!" He exclaimed with a note of 'ah-ha!' in his tone.

"Simply because my vocabulary oft exceeds the minimum syllabic requirements meant for conversation among higher thought-processes does not signify that there is something that I desire to conceal."

"Oh my god, it's worse than I thought." Zack stared at his friend like he was an alien. Sephiroth only retreated behind his well-learnt and diverse literary vocabulary when there was something that was annoying him (which certainly couldn't be his best friend and ever loyal lieutenant at that moment), or when he was trying to get away with something. The more complex his lexicon, more extreme it was. His instincts told him that it was most definitely the latter, with perhaps just a smattering of the former.

A light dawned somewhere in his head. "You know," he said coyly, "if you had a thing for Cloud, you could have just told him."

Sephiroth flushed. "You are delusional. I am most certainly not in possession of any pheromonal attractions directed toward under-aged cadets currently afflicted with unknown status ailments."

"See? I told you it was coming from here." A silky voice drawled from the doorway as the ajar door swung open slowly. A red gloved hand had pushed it open gently. On the other side, Genesis smirked while Angeal gave an exasperated sigh.

"Sorry." The dark haired Commander said, while he glared at his red-haired companion a look of mild aggravation. "Genesis wouldn't leave well alone until he found out what the source of the argument was."

"I am not entirely accountable." Genesis said with a smirk. "After all, our quarters are located on the floor directly below the great General's. We couldn't help but overhear." He tilted his head in an innocent gesture that was utterly lost on them.

"It's nothing." Sephiroth said stiffly. His green eyes were flashing toward Zack, who plainly read the this is all your fault that blazed within them. The last thing he wanted was to deal with Genesis, especially this late at night. "You may return to your quarters undisturbed for the rest of the night." He was all but physically pushing Zack out the door.

The SOLDIER First opened his mouth to protest when his eyes landed on something behind Sephiroth and he froze.

At the same moment, Sephiroth saw Genesis and Angeal blink, slowly. He cursed inwardly and reluctantly turned around, hoping he wouldn't see what he knew would be there.

Standing by the wall of his bedroom, looking as if he was in the middle of the least stealthy sneak-away ever known to the military, stood the miniaturized Cloud Strife, rooted to the spot and staring at them with the widest eyes.

Zack moved first.

"Cloud!" He yelped exuberantly, and made something of a mad dash toward the petrified blonde.

The cadet squeaked as he was suddenly swept up into his friend's arms.

Angeal shot Sephiroth a questioning look while the General covered his eyes with his fingers.

"Well, I suppose after that last incident with the cat, you found yourself a loophole around ShinRa's no pets policy." Genesis surmised from where he was poorly hiding a grin behind a red gloved hand. "You always did have a certain fancy for cute things." White teeth sparkled from a wide grin as Genesis gave up on stifling his humor.

"Zack!" Cloud cried out almost desperately, a tiny hand fisted in the cloth of the SOLDIER's sweater. "Get me outta he'a." He whispered.

This was too much. It was bad enough that the General knew, but ShinRa's top two Commanders as well? Cloud would never live this down. This short, demented form was the worst possible condition for him. So small and helpless, he would never make it into SOLDIER at this rate. He could just see his rejection letter now: SOLDIER Status Denied on the grounds of subject's abnormal predisposition to getting into fucked up situations.

Right then, he just wanted to crawl into a place where no one would find him, and hide there until the spell wore off.

His saucer-sized eyes were still fixed on the trio that stood in the General's living room, who represented the highest tier of ShinRa's SOLDIER Program.

"That policy should never have been instated. The error laid with Dark Nation. How was I supposed to know that the blasted dog followed Rufus around on quarter's inspection night?" Sephiroth grumbled, seemingly to himself. Rufus had made a ridiculous fuss over a few scratches. They were nothing that a potion couldn't handle, and it wasn't like he couldn't afford to buy a new jacket. "Anastasia was harmless."

"You named your cat Anastasia?" Genesis gawked at the General as if he had committed some great blasphemous sin.

"I thought she was named Contessa." Angeal said with a small frown.

"Contessa was a Chartreux cat. Anastasia was an Egyptian Mau." Sephiroth informed them.

"Which was the ugly black one?" Genesis asked, his nose wrinkling slightly. "The clinging, squeaking one."

"That was Contessa, and she was a very sweet cat." Sephiroth said, defending his former pet.

"What about Genevieve?" Angeal asked, still looking slightly confused as he tried to remember his friend's multitude of cats, all of which he had doted upon with an alarming amount of affection.

"She was a Russian Blue, and a most fine example of their breed." The General replied with a sniff. He couldn't believe they could not recall his gorgeous pets. They had all been such lovely cats, especially his Ocicat, Esmeralda.

I'm on par with a pet, Cloud thought dismally to himself.

Zack's eyes nearly bugged out, hearing his superior officers bicker about cats. He would have to ask them later about Sephiroth's cat fetish. His first priority was to get Cloud out of there and into something a bit more fitting. Sephiroth had draped one of his white shirts over Cloud, but it was doing a poor job of keeping the boy well covered. More like, it hung off of him about as well fitting as a set of curtains. He was nearly out the door and into the hallway when a black gloved hand snaked out and snagged him by the back of his shirt.

"Where, exactly, were you planning on taking him, Zackary?" Sephiroth asked coolly, arching a silver brow.

"Um…bed?" He replied, his eyebrows raised in what he hoped was an innocent expression on his face. He hadn't gotten far, but all he had to do was break away from the General's absurdly strong grip, make it past the two First Class Commanders, escape through the door, and try to outrun his three faster superiors down two floors to hide out in the quarters which everyone knew were his. It didn't sound impossible, and even if it was, Zack would have been up for trying it anyways.

Two things stopped him. A pair of tiny fists, and a set of large watery eyes staring up at him. "No. I don' wanna sleep wif you." Cloud protested. "You'a loud in bed and weally heafy when you'a on top."

Zack stilled, risking a sideways glance to his superior officers who were regarding him with varying degrees of curiosity mingled with horror.

"You know, spiky? You really have a way with words." He said quietly. Cloud was complaining about the SOLDIER's poor sleeping habits, like snoring and accidentally rolling over on top of him that time they shared a bunk. But the other Firsts wouldn't have known about that.

To the others he looked up with a smile. "Hey guys, I know it sounded real bad, but it's not like what it seems." He said in his defense.

"Really? 'cuz for a sec there I thought you were into banging under-aged blondes, you perverted pedophile." Reno's snarky comment came from around the corner.

"Weno!" Cloud's face lit up. Then he noted that the Turk had brought Tseng with him, and could have kissed the redhead. The loud-mouthed Turk had brought along someone of authority! Someone who was calm, responsible, and adhered to protocol. Perfect!

He began to wriggle in Zack's grasp, almost too eager to make the too-far leap to Reno.

"Woah! Chill, Cloud. If I didn't know better, I'd say you liked him more than me." The SOLDIER said in a slightly hurt tone.

The blonde stilled. Slowly he turned to face his friend and set his small hands on the taller man's cheeks. "Zack, you know I wuv you, but sometimes dere are things dat you can't help me wif." He wrinkled his nose slightly. "Dis is one of those things." Then he leaned forward from his perch in the cradle of his friend's arms and gave the man a tiny peck on the tip of his nose.

Zack brushed brilliantly at the rare display of affection from the blonde, hardly noticing when Cloud gave a little wiggle and a hop and was promptly caught by Reno, who's own green eyes were opened a bit wider. Hurriedly, Cloud had whispered 'go go go!' with a near fervent urgency. While those of enhanced hearing had made it out easily, they were still coming to grips with the most endearing presentation.

Sephiroth's hold on Zack's shirt had loosened in surprise. That had been…adorable.

"Book it, sir." Reno muttered, his feet already doing a shuffle of their own to get out of there.

Tseng raised a curious brow and moved to follow, his black Wutain eyes asking several unvoiced questions, but they were mostly sparkling with amusement. So that was the result of the experimental device combined with a level one Transform materia.

Their way was promptly blocked by Sephiroth.

Knowing better than trying to dodge around him, Reno skidded to a halt.

"If you would return him, that cadet is to remain in my care." Sephiroth said stiffly.

Reno wracked his brains for a smart reply that wouldn't get him skewered by the sword that the General could summon to him with his freaking mind!

"The cadet has been afflicted with an augmented status effect cast by an experimental device. The device is currently being handled by the Turks. Cadet Strife would fare better in the hands of the Department of Administrative Research in his current condition." Tseng interjected coolly.

Reno shot his senior a winning grin. Go Tseng!

"As a cadet in SOLDIER program, his custody and well-being falls under the command of his superior officer." Sephiroth replied.

A slight smirk tilted the Turk's lips. "Observing the current condition of the cadet in the SOLDIER program, you must not have been doing a very good job." Tseng said softly.

Reno's brows shot to his hairline. Did Tseng just egg on the General? His hold on Cloud tightened, getting the feeling that things were gonna turn a bit rough.

From behind came a faint laugh. "Oh my, the Turks bare their fangs?" Genesis baited. "This has become so very interesting. Come, little redhead, why don't you hand over the chick."

Angeal stared at his friend as if he had lost his mind. "Chick?" He echoed.

"You certainly see the resemblance do you not? He's like a chocobo chick." Genesis made a small beaklike motion with his hand and Commander Hewley blanched. Yes, the resemblance was there but… he glanced back at the cadet.

Cloud was glaring at Genesis, his small face pulled in a frustrated expression with puffy cheeks. Apparently, the cadet didn't seem too fond of the comparison. Absently, he ran a hand through his hair.

"It would be most wise if you handed him over." Sephiroth said evenly, though his hand was held out impatiently.

"Oh hell no. You're just gonna pull that rank bullshit again." Reno growled. He hugged Cloud tighter to him, and the blonde made a startled 'eep.' His green eyes were darting around, seeking a path of escape.

"Rank is his right." Genesis said, backing up Sephiroth. "But if you would rather comply would me instead, that would be your right. The chick, if you will." A red gloved hand was extended toward him.

These SOLDIERs were insane, Reno realized. Unwittingly, he had backed away from the General only to be trapped from behind by the scarlet Commander. He cursed inwardly. Things were heating up, and he was definitely not in a spot he would ever want to be in again. The muscles in his arms tensed, and he glanced down at Cloud, knowing that Tseng was a few meters away, on the other side of Genesis.

Cloud's eyes widened and he shot him a warning glare. If you throw me, so help me, I'll tell everyone about that time you lost your pants to a four year old with a melonballer.

Helplessly, Reno wanted to reply that the short reach of the little girl tended to wave that melonballer in a very sensitive place for him, but now was not the time. "Sorry, blondie," he said instead, and tossed the minified cadet toward the senior Turk.

If Tseng was surprised, he hid it well, smoothly seizing Cloud from the air. A red gloved hand appeared to snatch the blonde away, but the Turk evaded it. A second red gloved hand came at him, and he slid away, then a third and a fourth, briefly causing the Turk to wonder how many hands Commander Rhapsodos possessed.

He bypassed all of them, spinning once to duck beneath fingers that seemed to be aiming for his eyes. Several meters away he saw the General turning his attention on him as well as Reno making some wild scramble toward him. Suddenly mako bright eyes were right in front of him. He stopped short and his arms were empty.

Zack filched Cloud with a cheer and was ready to bolt down to his room. There was a startled cry from Reno and an angry hiss from the General and Commander Rhapsodos.

Enough of this. Seeing his chance, Angeal calmly reached out and plucked Cloud from Zack. The SOLDIER First stared flabbergasted at his mentor, who merely shook his head. After all the time spent teaching Zack, of course he would know of the puppy's openings. "It's late. You're all being foolish. I'll take custody of him for tonight. The rest of you cool your heads."

With that, Angeal tucked Cloud firmly into his arms and marched away, ignoring the cries of displeasure from his peers, as well as the particularly loud commotion made by Genesis and the pup.

"Dank you." Cloud said tiredly from within Angeal's secure hold.

Angeal nodded his acknowledgement to the cadet, but saw that the blonde had already fallen asleep. He smiled to himself and silently admitted that the kid was rather cute.

This should be done by now, but for some reason, it's not. Almost done though, I think.