A/N:
Whew. I'm alive, I swear! And there's an update! I am soooooooo sorry this took so long! In apology, here is a really really really long chapter! Also, about the length, I need you guys' opinion. Is this too long to have in a single chapter? It's about as long as Reverberation, which is a oneshot, so I'm kinda uncertain what to do with it. It is all one scene, so I feel like it should be in this format, but please tell me if it's terrible to scroll down the whole thing...
I really hope you all like this chapter, I love writing these guys. :D
~Alma


Breaking the Ice

Cloud carefully read the next question on the white page that glared up at him from his desk. Each question was spelled out in very small, standardized text, leaving large empty spaces divided by endless black lines.

Ok, ok, one question at a time. Remember the lectures. You can do this…

Question 28: In what year was the Shinra Electric Power Company founded, and what was its primary merchandise at this time?

Cloud blinked, pleasantly surprised. The teacher had droned on about Shinra's roots as a weapons company for about three hours last week. Cloud hesitated briefly, trying to match the proper date with the fact. It was always the numbers that killed him. Had that happened in 1930 or 1937? After he was certain he wasn't confusing the founding of the company with the discovery of mako energy, he wrote down his answer, careful to make the year legible so that there wouldn't be any doubt that he knew the answer.

That one wasn't so bad. Cloud allowed himself a tiny sigh of relief as he moved on to the next question.

Question 29: In what year was the first materia crystallized?

Cloud continued on through the remainder of the test, tentatively pleased that the majority of the questions weren't as hard as he had expected. He'd always been relatively good at rote memorization and recall questions. He hadn't expected himself to remember all of the dates like this, not after how boring some of those lectures could get. He was slightly hung up on the question of how many towns there were in the Midgar; unsure whether to answer seven, one, or none and say it was a city. However, overall, he felt surprisingly good about the whole thing when he closed the packet and finally was allowed to leave the room of suffering cadets.

A cursory glance at the clock dragged something else to the forefront of his mind, and all thoughts of the test he had just taken ceased to exist.

It was 3:45.

In fifteen minutes, he had to meet General Sephiroth.

Not for the first time since that morning, Cloud almost felt a little sick, like he did in a vehicle moving way too fast. He shouldn't be worried like this, he'd told Zack he wouldn't but, still, this was... How was he supposed to be anything in the eyes of the general? How could Sephiroth look at him and see him at all? He didn't have the right to waste his time. He was just a little nobody from nowhere, who had lied about his age to get into the SOLDIER program and probably wouldn't even make the cut…!

His hands worried his bag nervously as he walked through the halls. He had to go there now. Sephiroth had specifically said for him not to be late. He couldn't be late. He wouldn't. If there had been a behemoth in the way he would have walked trembling past it, maybe not even notice. But though his feet fumbled their way forward, dodging through the halls of men much bigger and stronger than he was, there was nothing he wanted more than to disappear.

Their meeting was scheduled in one of the small practice rooms, down three floors from the regular academy. Once the elevator doors closed him off from the eyes of everyone else in the hallways, Cloud raked a hand through his blonde spikes, eyes closed in anguish. What was he doing? He was a waste of the general's time! What was he supposed to say when he knew that already? 'Hello, my name is Cloud Strife, and I am pleased to meet you'? No! Unacceptable! He was so far beneath Sephiroth's notice!

Something shifted in his stomach, and Cloud bit his lip against a slight stirring of nausea in his throat. No, not now… Usually he could at least stand a elevator for a few minutes without completely losing the power to maintain composure.

Not today.

As the elevator flew downwards, Cloud leaned against the wall, eyes closed, weakly fighting the dully pulsating headache that had somehow appeared behind his temples. His heartbeat pounded a steady rhythm in his ears. He silently counted each beat, trying to calm his nerves, trying to make the nausea go away.

No good. Gods, he couldn't even go down an elevator without clutching the wall for support! How was he ever going to make SOLDIER?

Usually, he would write off the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach as a result only of the elevator's humming descent. But that was too easy.

It didn't uncurl when the ground under his feet was steady. Not a violent feeling of illness, but just a dizzy, stomach turning ache, a compliment to the pain that pulsated behind his eyes. Cloud took a deep breath, trying to keep a level head as he walked through the halls, looking for the correct door number.

There.

Taking a deep breath that failed miserably to calm the queasy feeling in his stomach, Cloud clenched a shaking hand into fists. He had to go. He had to.

What was he going to...?

It didn't matter. He was useless, hopeless, and a waste of Sephiroth's time, but he couldn't and wouldn't be late. That was something he could do, even if it was the only thing.

Though the action made something clench trembling inside his gut, Cloud forced himself to step forward, push open the door, and walk into the practice room.


Antsy. The word Angeal used to describe Genesis was antsy.

That word wasn't really in Sephiroth's vocabulary. Like so many others, it was something he had acquired secondhand, slang, not the usual, clinical terms he himself was taught. The closest thing he came to it was perhaps agitated.

But the word was frustratingly apt for this situation. Sephiroth would never admit it to himself, of course. He wasn't permitted to be agitated, to feel the insatiable need to pace about with the self-control of some green recruit. He was the general. He was in complete control of himself at all times. How else could the men trust him to make decisions? But the thoughts that cycled through him would not allow stillness.

For probably the fifth time in as many minutes, Sephiroth turned on his heel and walked the length of the room. He would never admit to himself he was pacing, else he would have to stop, and he couldn't. Not now. Try as he might, he couldn't think with clarity without releasing all this energy. It would almost be comical if it weren't so frightening, the esteemed SOLDIER general reduced to mindless pacing because he didn't know what to say to a child. A very unique, very confusing child, but a child nonetheless. He was filled with the restless, inexplicable need to move, to act, anything but stand still. His left hand was unconsciously running over Masamune's hilt over and over again.

What were they thinking, sending him a cadet? Him, of all people? Couldn't they understand the hundreds of negative consequences that could result from that action? He had thought through so many in the last minutes that it was only his hardwired discipline preventing professional panic. This wasn't some army recruit, or even an infantryman, not someone versed in his world, the world of warfare and fighting and soldier life. This was an outsider, who he had to teach to survive in his world. He couldn't even talk to most people about anything except fighting. How was he supposed to teach someone who didn't even speak his language, the only language he knew?

It was like saying, "Here, catch," and tossing him a kitten. Something that small could be crushed in his hands just trying to catch it before it hit the ground. His hands were used to handling a sword, not something that small and alive. He didn't want to harm something so fragile. What if he didn't catch the little thing correctly? What if he injured it by accident, did more harm than good? It was a frighteningly real possibility.

It was true he had the capacity for gentleness, to handle something carefully, but it was a second language. Angeal had taught him, shocked by the fact that Sephiroth hadn't known. But it was difficult, and oftentimes he was still uncertain how to interact on such a level. He was born to the harsh, detached life of a SOLDIER, that was where he belonged, and he couldn't leave. He stayed content behind his necessary mask, and kept everyone at arms length. That was the proper order of things. That was the only possible order of things.

And now this cadet...? What was he expected to do? He knew nothing of teaching. Angeal was the teacher, not him. He was just...a soldier. A hand for the company, a means to a specific end, deployed for a purpose by his superiors, and quickly and effectively completing his mission. That's what his entire background had prepared him for. The others had outside experience, ties to this alien concept of interpersonal relationships. He had nothing. Not even a single memory beyond Angeal and Genesis, and that was nothing to base teaching on.

It no longer matters, the pragmatic part of his mind spat, regarding his fear with disgust. It's already done. The choice is no longer yours. You are the one acting childish.

The thought finally halted his wandering steps. Sephiroth took a deep breath, forcing his hand to release Masamune's hilt. It was the truth. He couldn't back out now, not when Cloud Strife depended on him. He couldn't let the boy down.

He'd have to try. He would try.

Looking at the path he had just walked so many times, Sephiroth fought the sudden urge to laugh. I really am acting like a child. Genesis would laugh if he saw me.

The thought almost made him smirk. If Genesis could survive five minutes with his cadet before losing his temper, Sephiroth could certainly beat that time in controlling his personal uncertainty.

Alright, Angeal, alright. You win. Of course, he would never tell him that. There would be no need.

The sound of the door stopped his thoughts short. It wasn't open yet, but he heard fingers brush against the metal.

Sephiroth swallowed, relegating his conflict to a back corner of his mind. And now he couldn't show fear, not in front of the cadet. Shiva's wrath, he wasn't afraid! Enough. He was a soldier. Challenges came, and he faced them. He knocked them down and defeated them.

Though common sense stated he should not actually do that with this problem.

The door slowly opened and Sephiroth turned to face it. A glance at the clock registered with momentary interest. Strife was exactly on time.

For the second time that day, Sephiroth took in the boy who hesitated uncertainly in the doorway. Strikingly blonde hair even wilder than he remembered and cautious, alert blue eyes. Strife saw Sephiroth regarding him and tried to snap to attention, but his stance was too tight with anxiety to do it well.

Though Strife met his eyes, it was clear he wanted to run. It seemed that since morning the truth had computed, and the cadet had realized who was standing before him now.

The recurrence of the morning's situation exasperated Sephiroth slightly. It wasn't that it was unexpected, it was simply unacceptable. This would not do. The last thing they needed was to stand here all day unable to speak. As the superior officer, it was his responsibility to begin...

Several different possibilities presented themselves, but the words that came out were spoken a little too softly for his liking. Still, it was always better for a warrior to be too quiet than too loud, right? "Well, come in, Strife."

Thankfully, it served its purpose. Strife nodded and carefully walked into the room. Sephiroth stayed where he was. For a moment, he was absurdly certain that if he moved he'd frighten the boy away. It was a throwback to his own childhood and he immediately knew it was ridiculous, but why couldn't he logically reject the instinct?

Cloud stood in the silence. He had been invited in, he knew, but he had no idea what was expected of him now. The quietness of Sephiroth's tone threw him off almost as much as seeing him again did. The renewed understanding that he was trying to present himself to General Sephiroth, the most important man in SOLDIER, made his head swim, his gut coil.

Just give you both a chance. That's what Zack had said. And he had promised...

But how was he supposed to do that? He didn't even deserve whatever chance he already had, how could he-!

And already he was being rude by just standing there dumbly. Come on, say something. Say something! Gods, if only he wasn't such a coward! Cloud took a deep breath, trying desperately to keep his voice even. "Good afternoon, sir..."

Sephiroth moved his head slightly; it may have been a nod, but Cloud couldn't quite tell, so he stayed where he was, waiting for direction. He didn't want to do something wrong in the first five minutes.

Sephiroth hesitated, until it occurred to him that the boy probably hadn't even seen his response to the greeting. Angeal had explained to him that he was very difficult to talk to, more because of his silence than anything else. Though Sephiroth didn't mind this arrangement, as often as not the barrier was inadvertent. It was instinct for him to conserve movement and only react slightly to what was said to him.

He reminded himself crossly that not everyone understood his warrior instincts, and especially not a boy like this. It was as if they were from completely different planes of existence.

"You are on time," he said carefully, dipping his head slightly more than usual in an attempt to convey approval. The sound of his own voice made him feel like a fool. What was he doing? Small talk was not his strength. Shiva, speech was not his strength! He had no training for this, no drills, nothing to tell him action or timing. But the boy had every right to know how much his punctuality was appreciated, how much it was necessary for Sephiroth that he arrive on time. Strife had fulfilled that expectation admirably, and so deserved due praise, as all soldiers did. Sephiroth just didn't know how to tell him. No simple nod would suffice here, not when they were one on one like this. Curses, why did this sort of thing seem so easy when he saw Angeal do it?

Cloud didn't move from his salute, as he hadn't been told to. "Yes, sir..." he answered quietly, unsure what else to say. He had made sure to be on time; who in their right mind wouldn't?

Sephiroth realized that the boy was holding his salute until told to move. "At ease, cadet," he said, inwardly chastising himself for not noticing sooner. That was both sloppy and inconsiderate. As the cadet marginally relaxed, Sephiroth restrained the urge to cock his head uncertainly. This was going to be difficult. Strife seemed under the impression that if he didn't follow every regulation perfectly he would be punished. What did they teach cadets in the academy?

The question brought a startling realization. Sephiroth did not know. He had never attended the military academy as an ordinary soldier.

So he had even less in common with this cadet. Lovely.

Still, Strife relaxed marginally as he dropped out of his tense salute, though the slight trembling didn't leave his hands. Sephiroth took that as a minor victory. At least the boy wouldn't tire himself out as quickly like that.

He didn't know what else to do. Though he had sworn he wouldn't let himself on their first day, Sephiroth slipped into the much more comfortable role of a briefing officer. Explain the mission. Maintain the morale of your troops. Prepare them for the field. Look them in the eye and tell them what they need to know. That he could do, so long as he ignored the fact that he was only addressing one man. "My task is to train you to be a SOLDIER. Your first lesson begins now."

Cloud looked up at Sephiroth's tone. Despite everything, the immovable resolve in the general's eyes obliterated any chance for self doubt at those words. He didn't dare look away or protest.

"Your name?" Sephiroth asked quietly, as the words of his sword-master years ago surfaced in his mind.

Will you be a SOLDIER, boy?

Yes.

Then tell me your name.

Sephiroth.

I will teach you, Sephiroth. I will make you a SOLDIER.

Strife blinked, surprised at the request. But when Sephiroth waited, the same steel in his eyes, Strife swallowed, taking a deep breath. Sephiroth waited, not daring to move. If the boy answered, if he really answered the challenge, not just the question, Sephiroth would give his oath to see this through to the end. Show him a SOLDIER in that tiny frame and he would be convinced, his own doubts be cursed. If Strife possessed the potential, he deserved this chance, and so Sephiroth would make it happen.

If the boy could do it. If the boy was brave enough to even try.

One long second, two, blue eyes staring wide-eyed at him, and then Strife swallowed once, and spoke. "Cloud Strife."

Sephiroth felt a thrill of approval as blue eyes met his, full of longing and fear, but looking into his eyes nonetheless. Strife did not look away. Yes. He could see the warrior looking at him in those eyes. Immature, unpolished, but certainly there. Strife was small and frightened, but when a challenge was placed before him, he did not back down.

Sephiroth did not know how to speak to others, how to teach anyone, how to understand the boy, but here was something he understood, had seen and experienced. He thought he saw some of a young Genesis' defiant courage in the cadet in front of him.

For the Goddess' sake, wasn't this boy standing in front of him, even despite all that trembling? What coward could do that? Of course, he knew the moment he moved or spoke Strife would realize he was overstepping of his lowly rank and retreat immediately. The boy's respect did him credit.

But it didn't matter. Because now he knew.

Sephiroth nodded firmly. "I will teach you to be a SOLDIER, Cloud Strife."

Cloud took a deep breath, staring up as Sephiroth met his eyes. For a long second, something in him couldn't help but believe. Odin, could he really…? There was nothing in the world Sephiroth couldn't do, after all, and when those eyes were on him he couldn't disagree...he couldn't even think of disagreeing. He couldn't even remember he could disagree.

After that moment, though, Sephiroth blinked and glanced aside. The moment he did, Strife seemed to realize he had been staring and quickly looked down at the floor, trying to get his bearings, hands trembling as much as before. "Come on, let's begin," Sephiroth murmured as he turned towards the equipment room. The words were mere instinct, covering the confusion that was whirling in his mind.

Why had he said that? That, of all things. He hadn't thought of his sword-master in years. The only real teacher he'd ever had, the only one who entered a room with him as a child instead of tossing him to some simulation and coaching him over the PA system. Once he was gone, Sephiroth had purposely avoided the memory, because he couldn't bear that he'd never see the man again, and that he'd never learn anything he cared about more.

He'd thought so until he met Angeal, anyway.

So why had that memory surfaced now, with this cadet standing in front of him looking at him with uncertain and startlingly brave eyes? This situation was completely different. He was not going to become the most important part of this cadet's daily life for the next four years, practicing with him six hours a day. This cadet was not locked in a room with him because everyone else was too afraid to approach him. Strife was neither aggressive nor mistrustful, and knew already what was expected of him. This cadet had a reason to be here, and dreams of what he would learn, not simply empty dreams of empty rooms.

So why had he said what his master had once said to him? Why had he repeated near verbatim the promise made to himself as an angry child?

This was different. The nature of this relationship was different, too; he wouldn't shape Strife as profoundly as his master had shaped him. It was impossible for this boy to learn as much from him, Sephiroth, as that man had taught him. Beyond that, remembering how much he had depended on his master, Sephiroth was unsure if he could deal with the same dependency. He didn't feel qualified to teach Strife, even, let alone act as the emotional and spiritual guide that his sword master had been.

So then, all that being the case, why had something made him use that same promise?

Something about those eyes?

Seeing that Strife still held a satchel, Sephiroth distracted himself from such thoughts to address more pertinent issues. That was the second time today he had been blatantly inconsiderate, leaving the poor boy standing there with his baggage. What sort of a thing was that to do on day one? "You can put your things down," he said, nodding towards the wall by the door. A vague memory of a classroom surfaced, from when he had taught in a seminar, and he surmised Strife had brought the supplies in case of academic activities. "I won't make you take notes today."

In actuality, now that he thought about it, he'd have to figure out when exactly one did make a student take notes.

The cadet jumped, then nodded, murmuring a quick "yes, sir" before darting to put his things down. Sephiroth watched Strife discretely, trying to judge if he said anything wrong thus far. The boy seemed flustered by the long stare, and very grateful for a reason to move away, but that was not particularly unusual. Most lower ranks were hard pressed to be in the same room as him in squads, let alone one to one. Given the circumstances, Strife was actually doing better than expected.

Angeal said it was the aura of severity. Sephiroth had no idea what he was talking about. He was hardwired to perform his duties quickly and efficiently. There was no place for useless pleasantries. Did efficiency frighten people? What were they doing with the company, then?

Despite his obvious relief at the chance to turn away from Sephiroth for a bit, the cadet returned promptly and stood at attention. Strife didn't look up until he had to, but when he had to, he did so quickly and expectantly, albeit still uncertainly.

Sephiroth pulled out his pass key and offered it to the equipment room entrance. "This will be one of three places we meet," he explained as the door slid open. "All the equipment you will use is kept in this room." Glancing at his cadet in an attempt to judge his reaction, Sephiroth let the tone of his voice soften slightly as he asked the next question. "Have you been taught anything about weapon mechanics and maintenance?"

He was unsure what strange instinct made him speak softly, but he was grateful for it. Even as it was, Strife flushed and looked down as he shook his head. "No, sir."

Sephiroth blinked. Strife sounded like he was shirking his duties, like some sentry caught sleeping. Why? None of the fault was his. How could any student be expected to control the actions of his instructors? Strife was certainly smart enough to know he had no control over the situation at all. So why was he...? It didn't make sense.

Whatever the reason, Sephiroth decided he disliked it. "Well, then that must come first. This way."

Strife perked up and obediently followed Sephiroth into the equipment locker. Sephiroth let out a silent breath of relief as he led the way among the weapons racks. There had been the conspicuous absence of 'yes, sir' there. That was progress. It meant Strife was excited enough to forget some of his nervousness

Maybe he wasn't doing horrendously, then, strange as the idea was.

Uncertain how to react to his new blonde shadow, Sephiroth moved carefully among the different weapons racks, falling back on what he knew best. He indicated each different type of sword, gun, and other combat item, all the while watching Strife from the corner of his eye. The cadet took in everything with a curious expression, looking long and hard at the sword racks especially. Sephiroth saw Strife's fingers move slightly as he looked at the blades, almost as if he wanted to touch them, but of course the cadet refrained.

Sephiroth filed the detail away with interest. Was the boy more inclined to figure things out with his hands than his eyes?

He would have to test that when he got the chance. A warrior could never fully appreciate any situation until he had held felt it: either held it in his hands, pushed his own body through the motions, or pitted his strength against it. Instinctive reactions and understandings could only really be honed by experience, much as classroom learning was employed for other reasons. That was the reason he had been put through so many endless training sessions as a boy. Most cadets had to be taught that truth, Angeal had said once. They expected to study some text and suddenly be true SOLDIERs. But a select few knew already, almost by instinct, and couldn't wait to hold something in their hands.

Fair had been like that, so much so, in fact, that he'd had trouble learning any other way until Angeal began working with him. That energy and curiosity were what had drawn Angeal to him in the first place.

And so Strife, perhaps...? Though, to Sephiroth's relief, he did not seem to resemble Fair too much in that regard, judging by his ability to stand still.

The cadet paused, looking at something off to the side and Sephiroth glanced over to see what else had caught his attention. Strife was looking at a case of shining globes with both interest and respect.

And so he at least has some idea about materia, as well. Interesting. Good tastes.

Sephiroth tried to make noise when he moved, but Strife still jumped when he walked around him and took a green orb from the box. The familiar tingling of mako traced along his fingers. "Materia. You won't be authorized to use it for a while." Turning back, he held it up for the cadet to see. Blue eyes followed the subtle designs on the materia's surface as Strife leaned forward, clearly interested. Sephiroth shifted it slightly in his hand so it was easier to see. "Have you learned how this is made?"

"Yes, sir," Cloud answered after a moment's hesitation. "Crystallization of mako." Gods he was glad for that question on the test; if it hadn't been fresh in his mind, he probably would've been trembling too hard to remember.

Sephiroth nodded. Then, making Strife jump, he extended his hand, offering the materia.

Strife stood frozen, staring at it for several seconds, before looking up at Sephiroth, confusion written all over his face. After a moment of hesitation, Sephiroth tried to explain. "You will not use it in combat, but it's never too early to learn. This, I believe, would be your first contact with mako in any form."

A question, but one he didn't need to ask. So he simply offered the materia, watching the cadet curiously.

Blinking, now looking deeply interested, Cloud reached out and carefully accepted the materia from Sephiroth. When the green globe touched his fingers he felt a strange tingling in his skin, making him jump so violently that for one horrible second he almost dropped it. But, thank the Gods, he managed to get both his hands around the orb and stare down at it instead of at Sephiroth.

The embarrassment that he had nearly dropped it distracted him from the strange tingling enough to stare at the orb in his hands. Instead of being cold and metallic like he had expected, it…was warm. Now that the tingling didn't startle him, it was almost pleasant, a sort of thrumming against his fingers, much softer than the pins-and-needles feeling he was used to. He wasn't quite sure, but he kind of liked the sensation. Even in the light of the room he could see a little bit of green light on his fingers from the materia. The soft glow was soothing, almost like the light of the fireflies from summertime back home.

"That is Curaga materia." Sephiroth's voice started him out of his thoughts, and Cloud jumped and looked up at him, nodding automatically before the statement processed. Curaga…that's the healing one... He'd devoured a whole pamphlet on materia his first day here, since it was one of the most interesting things he'd heard about. SOLDIER aside, of course.

Sephiroth watched as Strife analyzed the materia in his hands. A first reaction to mako was always interesting. He had worried about startling Strife with that first touch, the feeling of mako tingling in one's veins, but he hadn't known what warning to give. Mako was such a strange substance, and he'd been exposed to it so many times... He had to admit he would probably scare the boy more than help, and so he'd remained silent. Though it still felt like neglecting his duties. Thankfully, Strife seemed able to take a slight shock, and had held onto the materia while acclimating himself to close contact with mako.

Sephiroth was pleased and thankful to see that. Adapting to startling events was a very important skill for a SOLDIER to possess.

He was also glad he had picked out a Curaga, instead of one of the other ones. Curgaga's aura was at least soothing after the initial surprise. Thundaga probably would have given poor Strife the static shock of his life, judging by how nasty the orbs had been to Sephiroth before he learned to guard against their aura.

Watching Strife turn the materia and look at it, Sephiroth was glad to notice the respect that the boy gave the materia, even upon knowing its name. That was good. Curaga may not be an attack, but it was still incredibly important. A multitude of memories tried to resurface and he methodically pushed them away. No need to burden the cadet yet with the myriads of scenarios where Curaga could be, had been the difference between life and death. But he still felt that, as a teacher, he should indicate that importance somehow...

Shiva, there was too much to think about.

When Strife glanced hesitantly up at him, Sephiroth nodded slightly. "Remember that sensation. There will come a day when that materia is of vital importance to you."

Cloud blinked, glancing down at the warm green orb in his hand. Then the full implications of the statement hit him, and he swallowed, nodding solemnly. "Yes, sir," he said softly, fingers tightening slightly on the materia. Yes. That's what Mr. Lockheart had said when old Adda had died. If they'd had materia, maybe they could've saved her. Maybe…

The tingling sensation seemed to grow stronger as he held onto the Curaga materia tighter. Cloud bit his lip, trying to look up at Sephiroth. He had to look him the eye. He had to be braver, be stronger. Because…

That's why I want to do this, Ma…so next time I can do somethingnot just be useless. Because…

Sephiroth paused, looking at the cadet. Strife's eyes...he'd never seen them this serious. Not even when he had first promised to be on time, when he had seemed beyond even thinking of the alternative. Not even when Sephiroth had promised to teach him. The cadet...

Strife understood, at least somewhat, what he had said. Actually understood it. This cadet had not only heard what Sephiroth had said, but responded to it not with anxiety and dismissal, but with composed solemnity. What was…?

Sephiroth struggled to hide his surprise. He hadn't...he hadn't expected Strife to accept the statement so seriously. Hadn't Genesis said that dealing with his manner was…extremely difficult, especially about such things as this? When he talked about what he knew, the death, the war, the fighting, people always shied away, even if he just barely mentioned it. Something about the way he spoke about it made it impossible for most to cope. Even Angeal had been unable to, for a while, without staring at him.

And yet the boy had caught at least some of it. He hadn't seen Sephiroth's memories, of course, but he understood their meaning. And, beyond that, he had taken a potentially disconcerting topic, of greater severity than Sephiroth had intended to bring up at all, and accepted it calmly. Accepted it seriously. Accepted it with the solemnity of a warrior.

And at definitely younger than 18, probably only 15 years old?

Intriguing, and disconcerting. What had kind of a boy was this? What could possibly have given Strife this understanding?

Much as he wanted ask…something, he was thwarted by the fact that he did not know what to say, what he even wanted the answer to. How could…?

He could only form one coherent question. How many times already had Cloud Strife surprised him? He had never expected…

Instincts screamed he was staring, and he had to move on to get his bearings, to get time to process all these new questions. He was floundering, too confused by that seriousness, he had to keep going. Someday he would discover where it came from. But not be today. He'd have to wait until he had a full data set to analyze, and then he could begin to wrestle with his questions. "After you put that away, wait at the table by the door. I will return momentarily," he said, nodding a little to demonstrate permission to move about before swiftly turning away.

As Strife hurriedly gave another "yes, sir" and turned to carry out his orders, Sephiroth walked back through the equipment areas, picking out several items he had scouted out earlier. He had, after all, said he would teach the boy about the weapons. He would not allow himself to disappoint Strife on their first day. The planned action, also, allowed him to school his thoughts into their proper order. He had promised Strife. He had promised. So he would have to save his questions.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Strife very carefully return the materia to its proper place, watching it reverently. He easily avoided touching the other orbs because of his small hands. Without realizing it, Sephiroth breathed out slightly with relief. Well done. Strife had not been unnecessarily shocked by a charged thunder materia. He chastised himself for not saying something about the possibility. It was just second nature to assume those around him understood the hazards of poking a Thundaga or a Firaga. Even 3rds knew something that basic. He'd have to remember to warn the cadet next time they handled materia.

Also, he had been distracted, but that was no excuse.

The focused part of him wondered if it might be a good idea to write up a mission report for himself later to remember all the things he should do better next time. Was that strange? He'd have to ask Angeal.

Strife was already standing expectantly by the processing table in the front when Sephiroth emerged from the weapons racks, carrying his chosen arsenal with him. Blue eyes watched him very closely as he deposited several items on the edge of the table, each accompanied by a flash of metal and a very solid clunk. Sephiroth could acutely feel the cadet's focus following his hands, and he could nearly taste the mixture of intense interest and wariness in the air. The weapons seemed to have distracted the cadet from whatever had made his eyes so serious before.

The wariness puzzled him still, however. He could not remember ever meeting someone quite as wary as Strife was at such a young age. It was remarkable, and confusing. What made someone like that? He had no experience with such a thing.

He could also see that standing across from him, with no buffer of distracting materia or heavy memories between them, had brought Strife's nervousness back full force. Though the cadet tried to hide it, his hands were trembling again from sheer stress.

Sephiroth hesitated for a moment, trying to understand. Was it the proximity to the weapons making him nervous again…? After all, by the materia, Strife had been barely nervous at all, instead curious enough to actually look around. Or was it proximity to him? Was he the reason? He wasn't sure. Both were entirely viable reasons for cadets like Strife.

He disliked either option. Better try to change both, then.

Somehow.

Weapons were easy. They were mere tools, harmless on their own. Teach Strife to use them, understand them, and any nervousness would be erased by familiarity.

The other one he wasn't so sure how to combat. This wasn't some simple obstacle for him to take down with his hands, nothing like that at all. He knew very well how to intimidate others, but when he wasn't trying, he really had no practice...acting approachable.

How did Angeal pull it off?

Casting around uncertainly for something to try, Sephiroth settled on a memory. Angeal, calming a civilian during an extraction mission in Wutai. Panic was understandable under the circumstances, but problematic. So Angeal had sat down next to the man almost immediately upon arrival, talking to him until they left. It had worked wonders.

Sephiroth had been confused. Angeal had not said anything particularly gentle; they had been in the middle of a war zone, after all. There wasn't that much to say without flat out lying. He had not made any particularly reassuring gestures that Sephiroth had noticed beyond simply staying nearby. And yet the man had calmed significantly. Sephiroth admitted openly he never could have done it.

Which, of course, Angeal would have none of. "Of course you could," he had retorted with smile. "Just sit down with them. Go down to their level, so they don't have to look up. Works every time, you'll see."

Sephiroth found it hard to believe that a change of position could affect people so immensely, but he was willing to try. Angeal did know vastly more about this than he could ever hope to learn. And now he really wanted Strife to be…

What?

To not be afraid. That was it. He didn't want to be the source of the cadet's apprehension. He wanted Strife to know that he wouldn't…that he wasn't like that. That there was nothing to worry about. That he intended to do his best here, to teach him everything he could, and to be fair. Especially be fair.

So he was willing to try this.

Rather than wonder at the layer of formality he was dropping, or let his inner debate talk him out of lowering his guard even slightly to a stranger, Sephiroth nodded towards the table as he chose a chair and deposited Masamune sheathed on the back. "Sit down, Strife."

As Strife stared at him, Sephiroth seated himself smoothly, carefully watching the boy only from the corner of his eye, so as not to disconcert him further. It felt surprisingly good to sit down. Informality was unacceptable when addressing classes of cadets, units of infantry, or the other SOLDIER operatives beneath his rank. So dictated the rigid military discipline that defined his relationships with others. He seldom had the desire to venture beyond that framework.

Had he allowed his actions to fully process, he probably would have been panicked at stepping out of that rigid boundary, but he didn't allow the information to penetrate that far. Instead he found himself waiting uncertainty to see how Strife would react. He had never done this before, so if he was going to try, it had better be now, when the cadet needed reassurance.

For a brief silence, Strife openly stared at him, and Sephiroth restrained a smile at the look on the cadet's face. If he hadn't known better, he would have guessed he had sprouted some kind of extra appendage. Really, it was sort of depressing that it was so world shattering to see him sit down.

He still had no idea if the move had worked, or not. It took restraint to be patient, and not listen to his misgivings.

Trying to spare the poor cadet further shock for the time being, Sephiroth inclined his head slightly, carefully keeping his eyes averted from the boy. At the movement, as he had hoped, Strife realized he was ostensibly disobeying a direct order from General Sephiroth, and slipped into a seat as fast as he could, nearly tripping himself in the process. Sephiroth pretended not to notice as the boy visibly reddened at his clumsiness.

He wanted to tell Strife that it was perfectly understandable and acceptable, and he really didn't have to worry. That he would not judge him for something like that. But he couldn't figure out how to phrase it, and so dismissed the attempt. It made him feel inadequate just trying.

Gods this was too hard. He settled to hope that someday, if he worked hard enough, the cadet would be able to stand his presence without nearly tripping and hurting himself.

Unlikely.

Strife was looking at him with those half-frightened, brightly expectant eyes again. Sephiroth set his thoughts to the task at hand, and forced himself to speak.

"The basis of understanding combat is understanding your weapon, and that of your opponent." He tilted his head to indicate the weapons on the table, before remembering to clarify his gesture. "These are the most important weapons you will be exposed to at Shinra."

He reached out to select the first he wished to show the boy, an infantryman's rifle, when something made him pause. Strife's eyes had followed his hand immediately, as tended to happen when cadets were distracted from his face. When they found the proffered weapon, however, part of that expectation suddenly dulled from blue eyes, as if something had saddened the cadet.

Sephiroth froze, watching the expression with something that was shamefully close to panic. What had he done? He hadn't said anything wrong, had he...? Quickly, he ran back over his last statement, but found nothing. Fighting, but if that was a problem, he hardly believed the boy would even have come to Midgar...

He didn't know what was wrong, or what he had done. And, worst of all, he didn't know how to ask. Generals of the army simply did not ask "what is wrong?" to cadets. He'd never get an answer! No one had ever told him how...

His tongue was dry, but he forced himself to speak, to say something. "Strife...you seem ill, are you alright?" As soon as it was out of his mouth, he regretted it. It wasn't an entirely blatant lie, the boy was nearly as pale as Sephiroth himself was, and that certainly was not natural for someone who had grown up outside, but it still wasn't honest, and Sephiroth hated lies.

Strife jumped at the sudden question, his eyes snapping back to Sephiroth, and the expression there was almost one of fear, as if he hadn't realized his change in expression had been seen. Nodding mutely, the cadet immediately looked down at the table, paling even further.

Sephiroth bit down on his lip to keep himself from wincing. Well, that had failed spectacularly. He had only managed to embarrass the cadet. Wonderful. But something was obviously wrong, and he was even more convinced it had something to do with his own behavior. If he could just find out what it was, he could avoid it in the future, but how could he…?

Strife's eyes were very avidly studying the nonexistent grain on the plastic table as the cadet bit his lip, waiting for something to happen.

Sephiroth cocked his head, pondering what to do. He had to…he didn't know how to do this! "Strife?"

His own tone sounded startlingly soft, and he waited frozen, counting breaths as the seconds passed. Goddess, let the boy answer.

Taking a deep breath, the cadet clenched a fist under the table and looked up. His blue eyes were so easy to read it was frightening, filled with shame and apprehension, and still disappointment that Sephiroth didn't understand. "Yes, sir?"

Sephiroth analyzed those eyes for a moment more, trying to find what was wrong. He had to understand where that had come from!

It was only belatedly that he processed the way Strife was biting his lower lip, and the discomfort written plainly on the cadet's face. Sephiroth abruptly blinked, scolding himself vehemently. Idiot, how could you possibly forget the power of your eyes like that! Without even noticing, he had been scrutinizing the boy, keeping him from looking away. He had sworn not to do that, he knew better! There were only about four people alive who were immune to his eyes, and this boy was certainly not one of them. And yet he had…

But he had to know. He had to know why. He couldn't…

He couldn't stand to see Strife act like this for something he did, and not try to change it.

I'm…sorry. Strife, I'm sorry. Tell me what I did…

It would never come out of his mouth, though. It never could.

Looking away slightly, to spare Strife any further scrutiny, Sephiroth sighed softly. "My…apologies, I…have failed to lay some ground rules."

Cloud jumped, startled so much that he completely forgot he had been avoiding the general's eyes. Sephiroth had apologized? Sephiroth had apologized to him! To him, Cloud Strife? What?

The general did not apologize! And especially not to the likes of him!

"First among these rules, and one you must always remember, is this," Sephiroth said softly, glancing back at the cadet carefully, not straight on, but with his head slightly tilted, to diminish, as much as he could, the power of his gaze. This was, as far as he knew, one of the more effective ways, since it changed the angle and was less directly focused.

Or something like that. Genesis had told him. Strife seemed to be hearing him, at least. That was good.

"I am here to teach you," he said solemnly, watching Strife carefully. "To do that to the best of my ability, I have to know…what you don't know. So, if you ever have a question, if you ever are curious about something, you may ask me anything, and I will listen."

The statement was slightly frightening. He wasn't used to blank slates like this. But, somehow, saying that felt right. How many times as a child had he wished someone was there just for him to ask why? He had been permitted precious few questions, and fewer answers. What better to do than to give Strife what he knew he had wanted. If he didn't understand anything else, at least he had personal experience with this idea...

He needed to give Strife something, some understanding that he could tell him what he needed. Tell him what was wrong. And this was the only way he knew to…

And, nerve wracking as it was, the effect on blue eyes was gratifying. As the surprise faded, so did the disappointment, replaced by wary...something? Like the anticipation from before, slightly warmer, slightly softer, and equal parts nervousness and shy...something else. Was that possibly gratitude? If so, why was it there? He had only given what he thought he himself would want. What was there to be thankful in that?

Strife took a breath, and Sephiroth stopped wondering, waiting tensely. Would he actually address that problem, whatever it was?

In order to better speak, the cadet looked away from Sephiroth, towards the gun on which Sephiroth still rested a hand. Sephiroth didn't mind, instead watching curiously. "Those aren't all...SOLDIER weapons, are they sir?" Strife asked softly, his voice straying towards a mutter, but stubbornly held above it, even though a few times it wavered.

Sephiroth blinked, seeing the way blue eyes settled on the infantry rifle in particular. The tone of voice was there, disappointment again, buried behind the innocent question. Was that what had...? The rifle, not him?

He hadn't felt this relieved in a long time. It wasn't something he had done. Strife wasn't disappointed or hurt by something he'd said.

But…why the rifle?

There weren't a great many possible problems with a rifle, were there? There was combat, which he had already considered a potential problem earlier, and dismissed. But this second occurrence could indicate a viable problem, and one he would have to deal with as soon as possible. A SOLDIER cadet had to be prepared for combat, even before they entered the program. But that he could deal with...

Perhaps it was guns? Over his career, Sephiroth had learned that nearly every warrior had aversions, acquired or natural, to certain weapons. Even he himself had a few, though carefully controlled. Usually it was from some childhood memory linked with the object, or a more immediate psychological scar from some wartime event. Strife was far to young for the latter, but certainly smart enough to have an aversion to projectile weapons. But, no, something like that would hopefully have been written in his file, and Sephiroth had not seen it in three readings of all those papers.

So then, what?

Something made him almost dismiss the gun aversion, simply by the fact that the boy was sitting in front of him, and hadn't reacted until he had reached for the weapon, not before. Still, he wouldn't dismiss it until it was disproved conclusively.

The same instinct, though, drove him to glance over the rifle again. And the cursory glance came to rest on the infantry insignia, not nearly as familiar to him as the comfortable SOLDIER symbol which rested heavily on his sword harness.

Wait, could that be it? Such a trivial thing, but perhaps? Could it be that the boy was distressed by the fact that this was an infantry rifle Sephiroth wanted to show him?

Considering the possibility, Sephiroth tried to compare it to what little he knew about the cadet. Sadly, he really didn't have much to go on. Only that he had already seen that Strife reflected very intensely on what occurred around him, considering his responses carefully before acting, even in trivial matters. Such behavior often indicated a very observant, methodical personality, and could also indicate a high level of self consciousness and uncertainty. Such careful consideration could come from the fear of being wrong. And the boy did seem very afraid of making a mistake and being judged for it.

This was all hypothetical, and Sephiroth intensely disliked making assumptions without evidence. Normally he would have backed off the moment he ran out of concrete examples. But this conclusion made sense. This, at least in his experience, was the developmental coping strategy of a child who felt he could never misstep. He himself had been like that, a long time ago, always afraid to act incase he was punished for it.

But it was stupid to think that this cadet's mind could follow the same pathways as his. Sephiroth knew better than to think that he could understand the thoughts of others, when they came from such drastically different backgrounds. What did he know about Strife's home, about the family he came from, about the childhood he'd lived? Nothing. To make wild assumptions was foolish.

Strife was still looking at him, head ducked down with that mixture of wariness and anxiety that was gradually becoming familiar. And that, regardless of everything else, was unacceptable. Sephiroth decided that finding the actual problem right now was not top priority.

Wiping that unhappy look from the cadet's face was.

Holding his breath, Sephiroth leveled his eyes at the cadet. He didn't want to startle him, but he needed to make it clear that, whatever the reason for Strife's discomfort, it was unfounded. If he could. This was not alright. And he would not let himself tell the truth without looking him in the eye. No, what little he understood was very clear. Look them in the eye if you want to tell the truth, or else they won't believe you.

"No, they are not." The truthful answer made Strife's eyes darken slightly, reinforcing the notion that the undesired emotion was tied up with the rifle, but not giving any hint why.

Cloud stared into Sephiroth's eyes, unable to look away even as something inside him seemed to start shaking again. The words were expected; he knew the answer before asking, but he barely heard it. Sephiroth had looked at him squarely, and that had been more than enough to stop all coherent thought. Gods, why couldn't he even look him in the eye, act like he was paying proper respect when addressed! Shame would have made him curl into a tiny ball if he'd been able to move.

But he had to look at Sephiroth. He had promised that he'd try, and he couldn't stand himself if he chickened out now. What would Sephiroth think of that? What would his mom think of that? What was he if he couldn't do that!

Zack had said it would be alright, and he'd promised Zack... And Zack really did know what he was doing, right? He was a 2nd class already. What would Zack do?

Zack had said once that your commanding officers liked it when you looked at them if they looked at you. Something about seeing them and showing you were able to respect and hear them as they wanted to be heard. That you really listened to what they said.

Zack would look Sephiroth in the eye. Much as the thought terrified him, Cloud knew it was true. And so, pretending to be Zack, Cloud did exactly that, not letting himself look away.

And Sephiroth's expression, now that he had the courage to look at it, was almost...encouraging? It didn't make any sense, why would it seem that way, but it was almost… There was no disdain there, at least none he could see. Rumors of Sephiroth's emotionless expression abounded, but now, when Cloud looked, they weren't really true. There was determination in the general's eyes, firm and immovable, but it wasn't directed at him, and the expression wasn't hard or cold. In fact, the general's eyes were surprisingly serene and calm. He almost felt reassured when the general looked at him like that. Almost like this was all ok…

But, still, the rifle was...

Sephiroth took a soft breath, and lifted his head slightly, the determination in his eyes solidifying into something warm and strong. Cloud stared, for some reason holding his breath. Just then, he knew he would listen to anything the general told him. Anything Sephiroth said would happen, just as he wanted it. Cloud had no doubt, not when those eyes were on him like this.

Sephiroth nodded slightly, never taking his eyes off Cloud's. "However, while I am your mentor, you will learn to use as many weapons as I can arrange."

Strife's hands stopped fidgeting, and he looked up with slightly widened eyes at the words. Sephiroth waited uncertainly for the cadet's reaction. He had said such things before, in reassurance to groups of soldiers under his command. As long as you are my men. He meant them every time, as he meant this. But this felt different. This was to a single cadet. And this time it wasn't "you are beneath my command, you are my soldier." He was the cadet's mentor. Strife had the right to expect something from him, not the other way around. The boy was depending on him.

This time it was "I am your mentor."

That was why he hadn't given into the urge to break eye contact yet, strong though it was. He had to see that the boy understood what that meant. At least in some way.

In the back of his mind, something was twisted uncertainly. Heck, he didn't even quite know what that meant. Only what he felt like he needed to do. But that fact, along with all other extraneous information, was filed away to be acknowledge later. Right now he waited for Strife.

Something fluttering and warm curled in Cloud's stomach as he stared up at the general sitting across from him. He could feel himself staring, but he couldn't stop, looking back at those green eyes that had somehow stopped crushing him.

As long as I am your mentor. I am your mentor. He had said it! Sephiroth had said it! And it had even almost been with...conviction, determination! Cloud latched onto those words, feeling giddy, dizzy butterflies run wild in his stomach.

Sephiroth was his mentor. General Sephiroth was his mentor, and he wasn't...he didn't see him as useless, he didn't...

Somehow, impossibly, through some trick of Odin, Sephiroth didn't sound unhappy about it. Heck, the general almost sounded...pleased! How could that be possible?

Even though something in him was still shaking, Cloud felt a small, uncertain smile cross his face. Swallowing shakily, he nodded, trying to find his tongue for long seconds. Somehow, even though just a look had overwhelmed him a second ago, he couldn't bring himself to break gaze with Sephiroth, as if seeing his mentor looking at him, actually looking, finally affirmed everything he had been afraid to hope for. He hadn't been this happy since leaving home...

The infantry rifle hadn't been because he was worthless. Sephiroth was going to teach him. And…and…and so it was all ok, then… He could..

Swallowing unsteadily, Cloud forced the thought to process. General Sephiroth...is my mentor. It felt...good. It felt strong, reassuringly stable, like the calm eyes that he found himself staring into. Feeling something dance in his gut, he tried it again. General Sephiroth is my mentor.

He wanted to grin like a little kid. General Sephiroth was going to teach him to be a SOLDIER! The fluttering warmth in his stomach shot through his entire body, making his hands quiver with energy instead of fear as before. Cloud nodded again, letting his smile widen mutely. Finally, he managed to find his voice. "O-ok."

The relief and excitement were so overpowering that he couldn't even feel horrified that his voice squeaked.

Sephiroth nearly openly stared when Strife's eyes brightened. Shiva, the boy seemed two years younger when he was happy, barely 15! The transformation was incredible.

And then Strife smiled.

It was a tiny smile, as smiles went, and it was lopsided, uncertain, and tentative. Most of it wasn't even really in his expression, but rather in the bright openness that came into his eyes, replacing some of the stress that had been there before. But, still, it was recognizably a smile.

Sephiroth's emotions at that point were a wild tangle, the most recognizable part of which was blank shock. He had made Strife smile!

How was that even remotely possible? Hadn't he already established that proximity to him made the cadet uncomfortable? Hadn't he already clearly unsettled the boy at least four times in the last half hour? And still he had managed to make him smile?

His automatic reaction, stupid, but unavoidable, was denial. No, it couldn't...there must be some mistake. There must be some other reason…

But, disbelief or not it was plainly in front of him. And the disappointment was gone from the cadet's eyes. Sephiroth fixed Strife's expression in his mind, so that he would remember that he could actually cause that smile, though he wasn't quite sure how. The cadet was...happy?

He had made Strife...happy?

But he was Sephiroth... He shouldn't be able to do that. He was blunt, severe, imposing, and...and, Shiva help him, socially inept to the point of complete uselessness! It had taken him a full two years to feel comfortable in personal conversation with Angeal, even longer to avoid offending Genesis without thinking. He knew that. The only reason most of his men could interact with him was they didn't know what he was like without rigid military framework to determine his actions. This was the first time he reached beyond the military script with a lower officer, speaking without knowing what to do. How could he possibly...?

But Strife was smiling that small, crooked smile up at him, eyes bright and expectant. And Sephiroth found that he liked it. He liked it a great deal.

He didn't even try to restrain the reciprocal smile he felt in his eyes, couldn't have if he'd wanted to. Sephiroth stared at the cadet smiling at him, baffled by the way all his endless uncertainties disappeared at seeing his student happy and excited. Gods, Angeal, I don't understand...is this what you meant? When you said Fair was worth every trouble he causes you? That smile, why did it calm him so easily? Why did it make all his questions, still present and persistent, entirely unimportant?

He wanted to sate the eager desire in Strife's eyes, the youthful excitement he was sure he had never felt. It was there, reflected in those incredibly blue eyes. Strife wanted to learn, wanted it fiercely. Sephiroth wanted to give him that.

Almost dazedly, Sephiroth cautiously tested the uncertain thought. Maybe, that being the case...he really could be a good choice for the boy?

Not if he sat here staring, and didn't actually impart any knowledge, his logical side retorted crossly, annoyed as always by Sephiroth's emotions distracting him from the mission. Namely, he had a promise to uphold to the cadet who was waiting expectantly.

Trying to hide his confusion, Sephiroth turned his gaze towards the rifle as he moved it across the table, trying to get his bearings. What had he been planning to say?

Oh, come on. Basic briefing. You can do that, can't you?

Yes, Genesis, I can.

Strangely enough, his friend's old challenge did allow him to set himself; it at least was something he understood completely. Shaking himself out of his reverie, pushing the confused emotions aside to analyze later, Sephiroth focused on the matter at hand. "This is an assault rifle. Three to five bullets per shot, good accuracy. Standard issue for the Shinra Infantry."

Strife leaned forward, eagerly taking in the components Sephiroth pointed out. Sephiroth was pleased to see that, now that the unidentified problem had been resolved, the cadet was keenly interested in what he was told, following Sephiroth's hands closely with his eyes as Sephiroth pantomimed the proper disassembly and assembly of the weapon. The respect in the cadet's eyes at the swiftness of the action was slightly amusing.

He idly wondered how long it would take for Strife to match him. Two months? Three? The thought made a smile try to cross his face, which he carefully restrained.

When he offered it for Strife to touch, the boy hesitated, but after Sephiroth explained how the safety worked, and assured him it was indeed active, Strife gingerly set his fingers against the barrel. After it didn't jump out at him, he carefully traced the grooves in the gun, the places where the parts disengaged, and the mouth of the barrel where the bullet exited. Sephiroth watched, interested, as Strife tentatively acquainted himself with the weapon. Strife seemed hesitant to touch the gun with more than just his fingertips.

Which was understandable. Sephiroth didn't blame him. Even he had been frightened the first time, if dim memory served. Strife's caution was a virtue in a SOLDIER's world.

As Sephiroth moved from rifle to pistol to shuriken and onwards, Strife accepted each new weapon with the same careful attention, listening raptly to Sephiroth's explanations. The shock stick seemed to fascinate Strife, and he spent the most time fiddling with it, though he shied away momentarily when Sephiroth explained its function. The shuriken Strife hadn't even known how to pick up, so Sephiroth made sure to lift it during his demonstration, so that the boy wouldn't have to ask.

He still didn't expect that Strife felt comfortable enough to ask him all of his questions. Sephiroth knew for a fact that he wouldn't after a half-hour with a stranger.

Strife listened carefully to everything Sephiroth told him, meeting every new piece of information with the same expectant expression, but it was no surprise that he really perked up when Sephiroth finally took out the SOLDIER sword. Sephiroth knew that his own bias was evident; the sword's introduction was clearly longer than that of the other weapons. Still, that was perfectly legitimate, he rationalized. This was, after all, the weapon that was going to become Strife's best friend in his chosen path of life.

"The SOLDIER sword is double-bladed," he explained, running a hand along the familiar ridge down the center of the metal. It was cold to the touch, smooth. He was slightly alienated from the standard issue blade, having Masamune, but that did not mean there wasn't a certain sense of security to the original sword he had been given. Much like the sense of security from the heavy SOLDIER insignia on his belt.

Strife was watching his hand closely, and Sephiroth sensed that the boy was itching to touch the sword for himself. It was selfish of him to make the cadet wait, when he had known this blade for years. Releasing the familiar hilt, Sephiroth set the sword on the table in front of Strife, nodding slightly to give permission. "Don't touch the sides."

Strife's eyes brightened with awe and excitement as he looked at the weapon placed before him. His hesitation lasted only a moment before he reached out a hand and, gently, reverently, touched the blade.

Sephiroth watched, intrigued, as Strife first met the sword. He saw the way the cadet's blue eyes followed the blade's entire length, the considering way Strife first touched the cloth wrapping the blade's hilt. Instinctively, Sephiroth's palm itched for the solid feel of Masamune's hilt, and General wondered at himself silently. Was just watching really enough to make him need the weight of a blade?

He'd never been able to just...watch someone else experience the things that were integral to his own being. And, more than that, this was Strife's first time with a blade. The sensation that was new to him was practically hard wired into Sephiroth's hands. It was truly strange.

He couldn't remember the first time he had touched the hilt of a sword. Could it have been with the same reverence and fascination as Strife tested the feel of the hilt against his hand now?

Strife cocked his head, tentatively wrapping his fingers around the hilt. Then, as if realizing what he had tried to do, he froze and glanced up at Sephiroth, eyes slightly worried again.

Sephiroth blinked, before realizing it was a request for permission. Letting his eyes soften, he nodded slightly, cocking his head. Go ahead.

Smiling, Strife barely hesitated before closing his hand around the hilt of the sword. His grip was in the wrong place, a bit too low, and angled wrong, but it was strong nonetheless. Uncertainly, he tried to lift the blade, overbalanced slightly at the weight, and had the stabilize it with his other hand. Though the clumsy handling made Strife swallow uncertainly, the captivated expression on his face didn't fade.

Sephiroth watched carefully, automatically noting ten things he resolved to improve in the boy's grip. But he didn't mention any of them. Strife was far too distracted staring at the sword in his hand, and Sephiroth did not want to startle him. This was a sacred moment, as his sword master had said. Let the boy have this first time holding a sword in his hands.

He thought he could see it there, as Strife shifted a little. That little bit of surprise and adjustment at the extra weight at the end of his arms, the sudden extension of his reach, the sensation of the tip of the blade so far out in space. Instinctively, he felt Masamune's movement in his empty fingers, the altered balance of his left hand that made it feel as though he were a bird suddenly spreading a wing to its full extent, feeling his true reach.

He had no idea if Strife could feel that, that sudden change and newfound freedom. Odds were the cadet could not, having only just met the sword. It was only through years of close contact that Sephiroth had begun to feel Masamune as an extension of himself, another limb, an integral part of his own entity.

Part of him hesitated uncertainly as he wondered how in the world he could ever teach that to the boy.

But the look on Strife's face, as he awkwardly held the SOLDIER sword in two hands, almost made Sephiroth hope. Maybe…Strife could feel something.

It also made up his mind on an idea he had been toying with for several minutes now. Something made him wonder just what would happen. It seemed like something that a mentor should do, and Masamune simply would not leave his thoughts.

"Strife, put that down," he instructed quietly, keeping his voice soft. The last thing he wanted to do was startle the cadet when thus far had gone so much better than he had expected.

Thankfully, Strife only seemed mildly startled by the words, pulled out of his reflection on the sword held awkwardly in his hands. Once reminded, however, he lowered it down quickly, as if only just now realizing it was heavy. The loud clack of its impact made him jump, but Strife recovered admirably and glanced at Sephiroth with wide, alert eyes, head cocked slightly to one side in a question.

Sephiroth carefully slid the SOLDIER sword out of the way, meeting Strife's eyes. "I have one more thing to show you."

Strife glanced at the empty space where the pile of weapons had been, then back at Sephiroth, a slightly puzzled expression on his face.

Sephiroth stood, turning to where his sword waited patiently slung on the back of his chair. The steady weight in his hand was a near physical relief after watching Strife's introduction to a sword. Shiva, it was like the sword had been keening for him. Allowing himself a slight, brief smile, Sephiroth pivoted and drew his blade, for seconds allowing all the stress and uncertainty to release in the smooth motion of Masamune. No matter what else rocked his world, no matter how confused he became, here was something he understood.

The motion only lasted seconds, but nevertheless, when he refocused on his purpose, he was calm, centered. If Strife was to meet him, as was the purpose of this first appointment, what better to show the boy than his sword? If he could say nothing else, at the very least Sephiroth could let Strife see that part of himself, couldn't he? Carefully turning the blade, easily controlling its movements, Sephiroth turned to face Strife, holding Masamune's blade horizontally before him.

The blade reflected in Strife's wide eyes as he stared, seeming transfixed by the sword. Sephiroth could see the cadet's eyes move along the steel, tracing the slight wave in shine where the forging had cast the sweep of the blade.

Perhaps, someday, he would teach the cadet why that wave was present, how the katana was forged into a near unbreakable weapon, how Masamune's hilt was inlaid, what the symbols meant, the letters carved inside the guard, the meaning of the cloth wrapping the hilt. There was so much of his soul in this blade it was impossible to explain. He was far from ready to bare his soul like that, the thought nearly made him flinch. Not even Genesis knew all of it yet. But there was no hurry. Here and now, this was enough. Masamune was him, a part of him. He would not explain, only offer the cadet the chance, as the boy deserved. Strife could look at him if he wished, through the sword.

Sephiroth wanted him to see it.

It was not lightly that Sephiroth unsheathed his blade, not for anyone. He hoped Strife would understand that. Angeal had, and Genesis, once upon a time.

Strangely, some instinct made him think Strife...could understand, perhaps.

Very carefully, very gently, Sephiroth lowered Masamune to the table. "As you know, the standard issue blade is only one option for higher members of SOLDIER," he said, lightly brushing the hilt and tang with his fingers, ensuring nothing was loose or out of place. Then, forcing himself to draw back his hand, he looked up at Strife. "This is my sword."

It was a silly thing, but he suddenly felt nervous. Would Strife see it…would he be able to look at Masamune as Sephiroth did? It was terrible to show his sword to someone who did not appreciate it, almost like a blow to a belief. He hoped fervently that Strife would see…or at least feel…

This sword was him in the eyes of hundreds…and yet so many of them couldn't even see it for what it was. Was he just setting himself up, letting this cadet…?

For a full second, Strife stared at the blade, giving no indication that he'd heard Sephiroth at all. Only after Sephiroth cocked his head a little did Strife finally meet his eyes, with the same wide eyed awe on his face.

Cloud nodded, still unable to found his tongue. I know... There couldn't be anyone within miles of Midgar who didn't know, who couldn't recognize Masamune on sight. Cloud had known the name of this sword since he was seven years old. But he couldn't say it, couldn't say anything. The words caught in his throat, frozen by the fact that Sephiroth was letting him near his sword! This wasn't just any standard issue sword, this was Masamune, nearly as famous as the general himself. How often did Sephiroth let anyone see it this close?

The same awe made him hesitate to touch it, staring at Sephiroth's sword. It wasn't that he thought he'd break it, certainly Masamune was much stronger than anything he could possibly do. But how could he touch Sephrioth's sword? It was...

He was barely worthy to be here in the first place...he had no business touching Masamune. Masamune was Sephiroth's! It was his sword!

C'mon, Cloud. That's no way to think. You promised me, right?

He swallowed. But, Zack, you don't understand, this is...

Movement froze his thoughts, and snapped his eyes back to Sephiroth's. The general was still watching him carefully, and Cloud had to keep himself from flinching instinctively when those eyes met his. But, when he looked, it was still ok. Sephiroth's expression was nearly the usual calm, but seemed a little off center, his head tilted just slightly to the side. The glow of his eyes was still steady, soft and very green, calm, not startling.

He almost looked... Cloud automatically dismissed it as wrong, how could he expect to understand the general, but still, Sephiroth almost looked confused.

But he couldn't possibly confuse Sephiroth...

The general blinked once, and the tilt was gone, almost as if it had never been there. Sephiroth reached out towards Masamune, Cloud's eyes automatically following his hand.

"Masamune is a katana." Sephiroth's voice was the same even tone, reassuring Cloud a little. At least that strange expression didn't mean he was angry, then, right? Though he didn't really know what the general looked like when he was angry…

Green eyes stopped his thoughts again, and Cloud nodded hurriedly to show he'd understood. Though he didn't really know what that meant...

"A katana only has one sharp edge," Sephiroth explained, pointing towards the side of the sword closest to him. "The other is blunt, used to brace the blade in battle." This time he indicated the other side, the side closest to Cloud.

Cloud looked over the blade with renewed interest. Now that he looked, he could see the sharp slope towards Sephiroth's side of the blade, along the uneven wave pattern in the metal. The side closest to him was straight and brightly polished, and he could see a flat edge, a thin rectangle that ran the entire length of the blade.

So the blunt end was alright to touch, then? Not that he would ever think of touching Sephrioth's weapon! The others were standard issue, or at least in this training room for public use. He at least felt like he had some right to be handling them, even if he had absolutely no experience. But this was different. This was Masamune, Sephiroth's personal weapon!

Still, it was sitting there on the table, beckoning him with bright metal and black guard. He knew that no one at home would believe him if he told them he had been this close to it, that Sephiroth had set it in front of him for him to see. For him, and no one else.

That already was more than he deserved, and he didn't want to overstep his bounds. He already was unbearably grateful, and unable to believe this was happening.

He had to say something, though. Swallowing with difficulty, he tried

to speak a few times, still staring at to blade. He knew that it was rude and cowardly, but if he looked at Sephiroth, he knew he would lose the ability to form a coherent sentence.

For once, he couldn't think of what to say. And so, for once, the words came out without thought. "It's...beautiful."

The words made him want to cringe. Of all the things to say, he had to say beautiful! Not imposing or fearsome or anything like that. This was Sephiroth's sword, for gods' sakes! It wasn't supposed to be beautiful. If he saw it that way, it was just because he was strange. Everyone at home knew that well enough, and now Sephiroth would, too, and-!

But, when he finally scraped together to courage to look up at his mentor, Sephiroth's expression wasn't angered or offended. In fact, the expression in his eyes had softened somehow, the glow warmer than before.

With that same warmth in his eyes, the general touched the dull edge of the blade, running a finger along it. His eyes followed the line of the blade slowly, almost fondly. As he looked up at Cloud, his head cocked slightly to the side again, the change barely noticeable. "It doesn't bite."

Cloud froze, eyes wide. This time, he stared at Sephiroth, not the sword.

Sephiroth's eyes glinted, far to strongly for Cloud to have imagined it, and he inclined his head slightly, meeting Cloud's astonished gaze.

Cloud still stared. It couldn't...he couldn't be... It didn't make sense, no cadet could handle Masamune, could touch it. It was Sephiroth's. It was General Sephiroth's!

But Sephiroth drew his hand back and stood still. Waiting. Go ahead. Waiting for him.

Cloud stared at him. Sephiroth was letting him...

That same giddy feeling was back, making his fingers shake. Sephiroth was letting him touch Masamune. Sephiroth was letting him touch his sword, the sword that he carried with him at all times, the sword that in much of the world was synonymous with his name.

And he was letting Cloud touch it!

How could this be happening! He didn't deserve anything like this! Why…?

Was it possible to be this happy and not burst?

His hands were shaking. Ducking his head to hide the grin that threatened to take over his face, Cloud looked at the sword. It was bright and polished, a stark line of steel flashing in the bright lights of the equipment locker. The blade was harsh and sleek, like ice.

It was beautiful. It really was. He hadn't lied about that.

It beckoned him, like it wanted to be touched. Gods, he wanted to touch it. He wanted to see if it was cold like ice, like it looked, or if it was somehow different. He wanted to…

I…I can. Sephiroth said…I can.

It was ok. He could touch Masamune. He could. It was ok to answer when it called to him. Sephiroth was letting him.

Trying very hard to stop his hand from shaking, he reached out towards it. Six inches away, four inches, two, one. For a split second he hesitated, nearly making contact with the surface.

A quick glance at Sephiroth showed his mentor's head was still cocked to the side, and green eyes were following him closely. Sephiroth still, however, hadn't moved. He was waiting.

Swallowing, Cloud finally reached forward, and touched the sword.

The metal was bitingly cold, like the ice cliffs back home. Though he had internalized the information, it still came as a shock that the edge beneath his fingers did not cut even slightly, a very firm, blunt surface, barely as wide as a pencil, and longer than he was tall. Curiously, Cloud explored the steel with his fingers, fascinated by the ridge where the warping of the steel's shine traced the center of the blade. His touch sent tiny vibrations along the length of the blade, and he could feel the entire length shift slightly, feel the end moving up and down. The connectedness of such a long object was shocking.

When he tapped it, the vibrations sang a low, quiet note, deep and reverberating.

Between quick glances up at Sephiroth, to make sure that he wasn't doing anything wrong with the general's prize blade, Cloud shifted his attention to the hilt where it rested on the table. He looked carefully at where it connected to the blade, at the guard, and at the hilt itself, the cloth wrapped in a criss-cross pattern. Tentatively, he set his fingers against the top, near the guard. The hilt nestled into the groove between his fingers and thumb. It was strange, seeing as his hand looked hopelessly small on the weapon.

Masamune. The thought of the name made his fingers shake even more. He was holding Masamune's hilt. Masamune!

Masamune was…

He still could only think of one word.

Masamune was beautiful.

This time, when he glanced at Sephiroth, Cloud saw that that mysterious tilt of his head was gone. Some of the warm expression in his eyes had changed, the glow dimmed a little.

The look didn't seem angry, but, then again, Cloud had never seen Sephiroth angry to tell. Still, he didn't want to risk anything. Pulling his hand back, Cloud straightened up after one last look at Masamune. The general probably wanted his sword back, either way.

Sephiroth hesitated as Strife pulled back quickly from Masamune's hilt, hoping he hadn't frightened the boy. Investigation of the sword's hilt was fine, he actually welcomed it. It meant the boy was interested in more than just sharp objects, and maybe could someday appreciate the actual intricacies of the sword itself. He'd been beyond relieved to see the way Strife had treated his blade with the reverence and awe it deserved. Strife had seen…it. That thing that Sephiroth could never name. Strife had seen it, somehow, some part of it. He had seen it in the boy's eyes.

Strife had called his blade beautiful. Strife thought Masamune was beautiful. The mixture of pride and fierce joy at that surprised him in its intensity. He must have been afraid, he realized. Afraid he'd been given a cadet who would never understand this part of him.

But that was not the case.

When Strife had begun to test the hilt against his hand, however, Sephiroth had been worried the cadet would try to lift Masamune. His handling of the SOLDIER sword had been poor and clumsy; with Masamune, which was much more unwieldy, Strife could have seriously hurt himself.

He hadn't quite known how to say that without startling the boy, however. And, before he had the chance, Strife had happened to glance at him, evidently seen something change on his face, and retreated.

Scolding himself, Sephiroth resolved to give the boy another chance to see the blade after he had set some basic guidelines. It would still be a while yet before he allowed Strife to actually lift Masamune, and even then, not without significant safety procedures.

Still, Strife didn't look too worried, which was good. The cadet sat straight, but he wasn't shaking. He actually looked...

Sephiroth wasn't sure how, but Strife's eyes were bright and content, only a little worried. As if this had been a good lesson. As if, somehow, he had calmed down from the high stress earlier. As if, perhaps, he had learned or seen something worthwhile.

Was that really true…?

Glancing at the clock, Sephiroth was surprised to find half of him actually displeased that their appointed time was ending. There were other things he wanted to show Strife. There were things he wanted to see Strife try too, to judge his ability, to see if he could, perhaps, actually teach him a skill, rather than show him the results of one.

A terribly frightening thought.

Which explained why the other part of him was relieved at the prospect of sending Strife away. Sephiroth decided that, for today, he would release the boy two minutes early, to ensure he reached his next class on time. Strife's behavior, after all, was now partially his responsibility, and that included promptness and preparedness.

He ignored the fact that that it was also because he could use the reprieve, as well.

Turning towards the cadet, Sephiroth tilted his head until he saw Strife look at the clock. "That is what we have time for today," he stated, then paused, uncertain. He felt like he should say something more. Was there anything else to say?"

Strife blinked, seeming caught by surprise by the statement. Sephiroth watched, unsure, as a look of disappointment flashed through blue eyes. Could it really be that Strife was...disappointed to leave?

That didn't make any sense. Hadn't he just startled the boy again mere seconds ago? Didn't he frighten the cadet? Strife could put up with his presence, yes, and that was admirable, but actually benefit from it...? Actually enjoy it…?

How was that possible…?

Still mulling over the myriads of things he didn't know, Sephiroth forced himself to attend to the business at hand. Carefully, he picked Masamune up off of the table. Strife's widened eyes only caught up to him a second later. Scolding himself, Sephiroth slowed his movements, carefully maneuvering the sword into its sheath, and rebuckling the harness over his shoulders. Not everyone knew that he had perfect control of the blade at all times. Strife probably had been afraid he'd be hit.

He'd never allow that to happen, but that could be established later.

Looking up to find the boy still watching him, Sephiroth inclined his head towards the door. "Let's go."

Strife nodded. "Yes, sir." He turned to go, then clumsily reversed direction to push his chair in, stumbling a little in his haste. Without any apparent thought, he pushed in Sephiroth's too.

While Strife tidied the chairs, Sephiroth put away the various weapons, feeling a smile in his eyes. And Strife thought he had to worry about angering him? How silly. He seemed to be both considerate and intelligent, and, better yet, he seemed to be spared the various habits that drove Sephiroth insane. Of all the cadets he could have been assigned, Strife was perhaps the best fit, and yet the cadet didn't even seem aware.

Now if only he were such an ideal teacher. But that was impossible.

By the time he finished, Strife was already outside; he could hear the standard issue boots against the practice room floor. Strife was surprisingly quiet in the loud boots.

Locking the door with his keycard, Sephiroth turned to see Strife gathering up his bag. A quick analysis revealed that, to his relief, Strife's fingers weren't shaking, though the way the boy turned quickly when he looked at him seemed to indicate that Strife acutely felt his eyes.

Blue eyes darted to his uncertainly, and Sephiroth was for the first time in his life caught staring. He himself had been stared at hundreds of times, but he'd never had to deal with the reverse...

The silence, which usually he welcomed, immediately began to feel tense and awkward. And so he needed to say something into it.

What was he supposed to say...? What did he have to say...?

Logistics, facts. That was always a safe bet. Blinking once, to break the hypnotic affect his eyes sometimes developed, Sephiroth inclined his head slightly. "Our next meeting will be scheduled within a week. I will ensure you receive the particulars as soon as I can. Please be on time."

That felt adequate from a purely technical point of view. Information, then setting the expectations again, just in case Strife had forgotten. This was one of the strategies used to set up briefings. But this wasn't a briefing. And he owed Strife more than that, especially after the cadet had put up with him for so long today.

After all, hadn't Strife done admirably in meeting that expectation once already? Even beyond that, hadn't he managed to speak to Sephiroth, one on one, and even relax enough to touch Masmune? Sephiroth had never expected any cadet to be do that so quickly. Strife had done far better than expected today, and he deserved to be commended for it, not reminded of further expectations. That would just stress him more, and the boy had already proven quite easily distressed. Sephiroth didn't want him to feel like he was scolding him when he had just done so many things so wonderfully.

So, tilting his head uncertainly, Sephiroth made sure to look at Strife steadily, so that he would see the approval in his eyes, if he could. What was it Angeal said about praising people? Just tell the truth.

Alright. "You did well today, Strife."

Strife blinked, seeming surprised. And then a smile flickered across his face. That same shy, uncertain smile.

And, just as before, Sephiroth felt his mood lighten to see it.

Cloud felt a warm tingle spread across his cheeks as the rebellious smile refused to hide. He couldn't help it. Everything told him to reject the words, but then Sephiroth's calm eyes made it impossible for him to ignore.

He had done...alright today? Beyond that, he had done well! That was impossible! He couldn't have…he couldn't have possibly…

But...Sephiroth's eyes were glowing a little, warmly, and the general's head was slightly tilted and he just looked...

He meant it. Sephiroth meant what he said. He had to; the general never lied!

Sephiroth thought that...he had done well. He had done...ok? This was...

Was this really…what he had been so worried about? That wasn't so hard... Actually, that was almost...nice. It had been fascinating, interesting, and he had learned so much his head was spinning. And that was just half an hour. This was until he…

Until he made SOLDIER…

But he wouldn't because he was worthless, and weak, and-!

But he would. Because Sephiroth had said he would.

He'd done ok today…

Feeling his smile widen, Cloud took a deep breath, trying to find his voice. Words danced around in his chest, refusing to obey him, but he felt like he should say something. After all, Sephiroth had been beyond kind to him today. Odin, he had held Masamune! How could he ever even have asked for that much in a mentor! It couldn't be easy for Sephiroth to deal with a cadet like him, not when... And yet, even when Cloud had been terrified and lost his voice Sephiroth had been patient, and even gentle, and let him touch his sword, and...

He'd never thought the general would be like this. Swallowing, Cloud smiled up at Sephiroth. He'd never thought he'd be saying this to the general, either, not like this. He never thought… After his third try, he finally managed to force his tongue to behave, and the words finally broke free. "Thank you, sir..."

Thank you...for making it ok.

It felt good to thank him. Cloud's smile must have been far too wide, it was hurting his cheeks, and he could feel himself start shaking again, but he almost didn't care. He was just so happy…!

I think...I think I can do this...maybe. I think…

Sephiroth watched him carefully, but that same glint was back in his eyes that made it easy to meet his gaze. That the look wasn't anything about Cloud's shortfalls. That look wasn't disappointed. And that was far more than he had ever expected in the first place.

Thank you.

For long seconds Cloud smiled at Sephiroth, something inside him shaking with elated uncertainty as the general didn't break the gaze. How could this be happening? It shouldn't be possible. It had to be something he was imagining. He'd wake up and it'd be...

Something softened in Sephiroth's eyes, his expression shifting slightly, and Cloud thought the general tilted his head a little more, that same confused expression he had dismissed earlier as impossible.

The movement jarred him back to the fact that he was staring. Abruptly, the realization magnifying the panicky shaking in his gut, Cloud broke the gaze, swallowing with difficulty as he tried to find the power to move. He was staring! He didn't want to do that! What if he annoyed Sephiroth, leaving on bad note at the end their first session! The general would never put up with him after that! He had to leave, now, or else he'd do something and mess it all up...!

Instinct made him smile politely, try to say something else, a goodbye, something, anything. His mom had taught him better than to just run off without a word, she'd have his head if he didn't say something… "H-have a good day, sir." His voice must have cracked three times as he turned to go, nearly dropping all his things in his effort to leave the room quickly.

As he skittered down the hall, that same elated shivering making his heart pound, Cloud clutched his things to his chest, trying to calm down. That...had gone so much better than he had expected! Had he just fallen asleep, dreamed all that, dreamed that it was alright?

No, he couldn't have. He could still remember the feeling of Masmane's hilt against his hand, the cold of the blade. He would never have the presumption to dream that Sephrioth had let him touch the sword. It must have happened. It must have!

He needed to talk to Zack, he decided as he took deep breath. He had promised. And Zack...Zack had been right! Zack was right!

For long seconds after Strife disappeared, Sephiroth blinked after the cadet, startled by the boy's sudden departure. He hadn't...he hadn't scared him, had he? He hadn't…that would be terrible!

After a second of panic, he forced his emotions to quiet, and carefully analyzed those last few seconds of Strife's behavior, trying to discern some reason for the abrupt retreat. Strife had been smiling, hadn't he? He had been...happy, right?

Right?

Yes. That instant where Strife turned from the door to say his goodbye, he had been smiling, even if the look on his face was also uncertain. That same very uncertain smile.

The sigh of relief at that realization surprised Sephiroth; he hadn't realized he was holding his breath. But the feeling was inescapable, almost as if something inside him were shaking.

So...Strife had been alright, then. So...he had done ok?

He still couldn't quite believe it. Strife had...been alright. Strife had listened to him, Strife had enjoyed the lesson. He had taught the boy something.

Strife had touched Masamune. Felt the blade, at least in part. Not just the metal and violence, but the blade itself. The look in the boy's eyes at that moment, the reverence with which he had handled the blade, that had been...incredible! Sephiroth had never thought the cadet would show such respect for his blade. Caution, yes, but not such... It took years to develop an appreciation of a sword's soul like that, didn't it...? It was so rare to find someone who would look at a sword like that…Genesis had picked it up from him, and Angeal had been special to start with. And, suddenly, Strife was…

And Strife had asked him a question. Asked him. Spoken to him. With a little encouragement, of course, but still, that was more than any cadet had ever managed. Usually it took at least till third class for the rookies to even find their voices.

The smile that fought to cross his face was difficult to restrain, though he managed. Maybe, then, he could do this...? He was not prepared to commit fully, but it was...

Angeal...how did you know? It was a silly question, he knew. Even if he asked, he was quite certain he'd never understand the answer. But he just couldn't help it.

Shaking his head, Sephiroth straightened up, trying to gather his thoughts. So...he was done...for today. That was...strange.

He felt a little foolish after worrying so much this morning.

Well, not entirely. Some of that worry, clearly, had been warranted, judging by the many things he had done wrong.

Multiple incidents leapt to the forefront of his mind, unbidden; the many times he had scolded himself, with several new instances he only noticed now in hindsight. He honestly felt the need to go write a personal mission statement on this. That way, at least, he would be certain to record everything. That was what he did when training for combat, after all. Why not this, too? Write out each point on which he needed improvement, and analyze possible strategies.

Just thinking about it made him sigh. Gods, there were so many places he had been sloppy today! It was a miracle Strife had managed.

Blinking, Sephiroth restrained the uncharacteristic desire to roll his eyes. Really, one would think he was some rookie after watching that performance. He had even forgotten to lay down the rest of his ground rules. He had been so distracted by the fact that Strife had actually asked his question that he had completely forgotten the rest of them.

Taking a deep breath, Sephiroth closed his hand on Masamune's hilt, using the blade to calm himself. Well, I will simply have to do that next time.

That thought pleased him just about as much as it terrified him, which was somewhat unnerving. Really, it was amazing that one teenager could be quite so confusing.

Trying to sort out his emotions was not something he had time for, though. A glance at the clock told him that he had about fifteen minutes before he was due to go to an intelligence briefing on Wutain troop movements and new tech developments.

With a small sigh, Sephiroth carefully released the hilt of his sword, composing himself and stowing away his surprise and conflicting emotions for later analysis.

He would have to dedicate an hour to that tonight. This level of preoccupation would not diffuse over the course of the day, much as part of him wished it would. No, it would remain, unnerving and unresolved, until further meditation.

Still, all things considered, he could say Strife was...much different than he had anticipated. Any questions he had answered from this morning had been replaced and reinforced. He would have to revise his understanding of the cadet. It seemed that the longer he spent around the boy, the more confused he became.

He was just on his way out when a small object caught his eye on the floor where Strife had retrieved his supplies, metallic sheen and strange edges contrasting sharply with the smooth floor.

Confused-he had been sure the room had been clean when he came in-Sephiroth carefully picked up the oddly shaped object, turning it over curiously.

It was an earring. A wolf glowered at him proudly from the small face, regardeding him with narrow, sightless silver eyes over the metal ring held in its teeth.

Blinking, Sephiroth regarded it thoughtfully. The earring, logically, had to be Strife's. It had certainly not been here when Sephiroth had arrived, and only the two of them had been in the room since. Earrings were not uncommon among Shinra employees; Genesis always wore one, so it was not particularly out of the ordinary for a SOLDIER or even a cadet to wear one.

But earrings didn't just fall off unnoticed. Sephiroth had only ever seen Genesis lose his earring once, and that was during a brutally intense sparring session. Strife had not been moving nearly that fast today; they had barely moved at all. And the metal against his fingers was cool, almost cold.

The earring had not been worn.

So why would Strife carry an earring that he did not wear? It didn't make sense. It wasn't as if the cadet couldn't leave it in his room, there were plenty of secure places hidden in the dormitories. What, then, would be the reason to carry it?

The moving second hand on the clock intruded on his thought process, annoying but ever-present. He did not have time for this question or any of them if he had wanted to get back to his office and write a few quick notes before leaving for the briefing.

With a quiet sigh, Sephiroth carefully pocketed Strife's earring, making certain that it was tucked away where he wouldn't lose it. What ever his reason for carrying it, Strife would be wanting it back. As he left the room, Sephiroth visualized his schedule, trying to figure out when he could go and drop the earring off for Strife. After all, it was hardly considerate to make the boy wait until their next lesson. If Strife acted similarly in his other classes as he did here, he would realize shortly that he was missing the earring and be very distressed trying to find it.

And that was unacceptable.

Sephiroth didn't even notice that he did not even feel a moment of anxiety about stopping in to see the cadet sooner than anticipated. Instead, even as it quickly faded from conscious thought, the tiny extra weight of the earring in his pocket settled pleasantly into a feeling of purpose. It belonged to Strife, it clearly must be returned to him as soon as possible. Clear and refreshingly simple.

And maybe he'd cause that little smile again.

All in all, Sephiroth was hard pressed to remember ever being in such a good mood upon entering an intel briefing.