OooOooOoOooO

Chapter 7

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"Cloud- if I might have a word." The General called after Cloud as the meeting broke up.

Cloud jumped a little at the sudden comment; he had been half way out the door with a mind to find another delicious removal mission for lunch. He should have been expecting it, though. After the discussion, he needed to know more details on these recruits and what to do with them. That was probably what Sephiroth wanted to talk about... but Sephiroth had an ungodly ability to ask pleasantries in a way that basically just led to bitterness and insane laughter.

Cloud turned around and shrugged. "Sure. About the recruits?"

"Yes. If you would follow me to my office." Sephiroth nodded his head in the direction of the executive elevator.

"Oh, alright. Can't you just e-mail me the files?" Cloud scratched the back of his head.

Sephiroth gave him a sharp look. "You need to select which ones you will accept." He started to walk and Cloud followed him, acquiescing to the silent demand to follow. Cloud wasn't dumb enough to ask the same question again... but it would be nicer to just read them on a computer. Although... he wasn't entirely sure he could find the office they had given them. He had been having too much fun on missions. Actually... they had given him some card or something to log in and a password... he couldn't really remember where he'd put the card or what the password was...

He patted himself surreptitiously and, to his surprise, found his card slipped into his front jumper pocket. Interesting... ShinRa support staff were better than Wutai ninjas.

Well, Cloud had not agreed to not to stop asking questions. He decided to try to get some more info. Since the questions were related, Cloud might be able to avoid any violence coming from the silver-haired man. "How many are there?" Cloud asked, a bit concerned at the thought of a horde of young, violent men under his command.

"There are twelve candidates." Sephiroth replied easily enough.

"Alright." Cloud started to muse- how many could he handle? He wasn't really used to working in groups larger than three, or two groups of three for a total of six. He'd never really been much of a social person or even much of a leader.

The elevator ride was a bit of an awkward silence. Cloud felt like maybe he should say something, but he found it uncomfortable for the most part to be around the General. Even in lives when they had been friends of sorts... well... they always ended up trying to kill each other. And that was about as chatty as Sephiroth seemed to get. Cloud wasn't sure what to say when Zack or someone else gregarious wasn't around as a buffer.

Sephiroth gestured Cloud into his office and the man went behind his desk to grab a stack of files. He placed them down on the small conference table in his office and gestured for Cloud to take a seat. After a brief battle between wanting to be close enough that maybe he could 'accidentally' lean on the other man, his survival instincts, and his introverted/PTSD desire to stay well away from the General; Cloud ended up sitting next to Sephiroth. To see the files better, of course.

"I have weeded out the obviously unsuitable, but they will be your team." Sephiroth said, his long fingers splaying over the files and spreading them so that the names on the tabs were visible. "So you must determine who you think you would be able to work with and train."

"Tall order." Cloud muttered. At Sephiroth's quirked eyebrow, Cloud shrugged. "I'm just determining their fate, is all."

"They will have another chance if you pass them over."

"In the regular army." Cloud scowled. He knew from personal experience just what kind of a chance that really was.

"Or in another capacity for ShinRa." The General agreed easily. "We are not a charity, Cloud. We are a business."

Cloud's lip twitched at that bald statement. "Yeah, I know." It still was odd to be doing all this, though. How the heck did he get here, again? "So... how many am I to take?"

"The company has said five, but if you need more I will see if I can... persuade them."

"Ok. Well, I'll look at the files, then." He almost reached for the folders while Sephiroth's hand was still on them, but at the last second decided he liked it attached to his body rather too well to do so. He squirmed a bit until Sephiroth stood and walked back to his desk. Cloud followed him with his eyes and unconsciously shifted slightly so the man would be in his peripheral vision as he picked up the first candidate from the stack.

"Let me know when you are complete. Familiarize yourself with all the files and reject the obvious in the next two hours- we are to meet them if you are agreeable at eleven hundred."

Well. Cloud huffed a small noise somewhere between amusement and annoyance. The man did know how to order people around. But he got to it anyway- no reason to not.

The first file Cloud immediately rejected- Hadrian had the look of a bully and the first page of notes confirmed that assessment. No apparent creativity or sense of humor, either, which was going to be necessary for what Cloud was going to have them do. Sorting through the rest of the files there were many different background. They varied in home towns from Nasir of Gongaga, where Zack was from and like Nibelheim in the middle of nowhere, to the just over half from Midgar itself. They also varied in knowledge of rockets, not that Cloud was going to hold it too much against them if all they knew was the basics that ShinRa taught on engineering geared towards mech operation. It's not like he knew much more, that was for sure. One, though, Romeo- he seemed to have something of an interest in the subject, so Cloud hoped that he would work out. Nothing in the file seemed to suggest he wouldn't.

Other than Hadrian, there was one other boy that he rejected as well- Jorge had such abysmally bad materia marks that Cloud didn't think that he would be able to train him. It wasn't just skill level- everyone could gain levels- it was his attitude as noted in the file- he actually said that he had no interest in ever using materia unless absolutely necessary. Not only would that not work for Cloud's schemes, but it was generally a poor attitude. If nothing else, everyone on a team should be able to cast Cure.

"Ready?"

Cloud started slightly, even though he had seen the other man move. He needed to calm down- it was Hel cursed paperwork, not a boss battle.

"I'm done." Cloud replied, standing up. He followed as Sephiroth lead the way down to the elevator going to the barracks. Just before the barracks floor they got off- these were the rooms where cadets had classes. Sephiroth went into one quite close to the elevator that had been cleared of all furniture except a long table on the wall opposite the door with chairs facing the entry and a chair in the middle of the room facing that set up. Cloud recognized this set up well and with some trepidation.

Sephiroth sat at the middle of the three chairs and Cloud sat down next to him, putting the files in front of him.

A hard looking man can in shortly thereafter, wearing regular army fatigues, but Cloud recognized him as someone who screened cadets from previous lives. He was trailed by a junior man, but not one of the candidates. The older man sat on Sephiroth's other side with a polite nod, then gestured to the younger, who went out to presumably get the first candidate.

The first was Kobe Sedgwick, a beefy boy with a calm, square face and large dark eyes. He saluted and sat when told to do so. The other two men then looked to Cloud.

"So, Kobe." Cloud cleared his throat. "How do you like materia?"

Kobe's eyes flicked to the General, his teacher and then back to Cloud before he licked his lips to answer. "Sir, I am not very good at them, but I have no particular feelings against using them- I think that they are very useful as a renewable resource as opposed to potions, sir."

Cloud nodded. A good answer. "And how would you say you like to operate in a team?"

Kobe blinked. "Sir?"

"You like to be the leader?"

Kobe's eyes flicked again and now he seemed to be nervous. "Sir... I... I do like teamwork, but I can work on my own, too, I don't need to have someone else there. Sir."

Cloud hmmed thoughtfully and looked again at the file. Looks like this particular young man had been noted as lacking enthusiasm for working alone. Which actually was good for Cloud. "Ok. One last question."

"Yes, sir."

"What experience do you have with cooking from fresh ingredients?"

Those dark eyes did a long, slow blink at Cloud. "Uh... none, sir- I grew up in Midgar."

Cloud nodded. "Ok, thanks."

The man at the door escorted Kobe out and brought in the next candidate; Jarod Bamford, a wiry young man with black hair and a guarded sort of posture. Then Gianni Kinne, an olive-skinned shorter boy. Both seemed fine. Matthew Croucher was no good- he took one look at Cloud's lack of glow in his eyes and dismissed him as a leader. Romeo Berens was next.

"So, Romeo. It says here you like rockets?"

Romeo's face lit up, his expression making him look like a lovechild of Rude and Reno- the boy was dark with hair so short the tight curls made him look almost bald, but the smirk indicated glee, mayhem, and a love of explosions. "Oh, yes, sir! Anything mechanical is just great. I am hoping that I can work with some of the mecha droids coming out of ShinRa! Sir."

"Then why not join the regular army or the Turks?" Cloud asked, genuinely wondering.

"Because SOLDIER is the best! I can pick a specialty where I work with the robots. And only in SOLDIER can I be fast enough to fight alongside them. Otherwise you have to be inside them or on the sidelines, sir." Romeo pumped a fist in the air and now Cloud wondered if maybe the boy was related to Barrett. "And rockets are the best, sir!"

"I see." Cloud smiled. "Thank you Romeo."

"Sure thing, sir!" Romeo grinned as he left.

"That one I definitely want." Cloud smiled. "Enthusiasm for the topic and quite the inventive mind."

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow but had no comment to add.

Nasir Lauricella and Aiden Thurm seemed decent candidates, both Midgar above-plate born and thus better educated on math and science. Steven Banton couldn't stop talking about swords and killing things, so Cloud quickly crossed him off the list. The next was 'Trace' Slobin.

Trace was very thin, tall and wiry, with cropped short red-brown hair over fierce blue eyes. Trace was also pretty obviously a woman. Cloud snuck a look at the other three men in the room but none of them seemed to be batting an eye. And the file said 'male'. But Cloud knew. He had been around too many fighting women- it was something in the stance, the attitude... he wasn't sure. But he was absolutely certain the person in front of him was a woman. Ballsy of her to try to enter SOLDIER, as they did not accept women. Cloud wasn't sure where she thought that would get her.

"So. Any interest in rockets?" Cloud opened up, putting a slight emphasis on 'rocket' that would piss off any feminist listening for it. And, yup- there was the tightening around the eyes.

"Not really, sir." The voice was maybe a smidge high for a teenage boy's. But...

Eh. To Hel with it. Vacation! "Alrighty. Thank you."

"The last two boys have dropped out, sir." The escort said. "We told them this was a hand-picked alternative path by the General but they declined."

"Thank you." Cloud nodded.

Sephiroth raised an eyebrow at Cloud.

"You obviously aren't taking the last one, then." The sergeant stated.

"Oh, no. I like him." Cloud patted himself on the back at not slipping up on pronouns.

"You did?" The man blinked.

"Definitely." Seeing a possible-woman-in-disguise made Cloud realize that he hadn't even seen much less talked to a woman in... well, months, aside from at the restaurants and the occasional secretary or cleaning staff. ShinRa must be extremely sexist, which he couldn't believe he'd just noticed. Which was why he was sort of wondering if he had been hallucinating about Trace. "I like him, Kobe, Jarod, Romea, Gianni, Nasir and Aiden."

"That's seven." The sergeant frowned. "I guess two teams of four..."

"Inform them." Sephiroth said, standing up.

The relief on the man's face was clear. "They're not to be kicked out?" He asked for confirmation.

"Well, in a manner of speaking..." Cloud hedged. "I am an... alternate track. But they will get strong with me. I guarantee it."

"As you know, there are no openings for Thirds." Sephiroth quirked an eyebrow. "I suggest that they take this opportunity."

"Yes, sir, of course, sir." The sergeant saluted. "What about the rest of the class?"

Sephiroth shrugged. "The usual options."

"Yes, sir." The sergeant looked less thrilled but left the room to go inform the recruits along with his second.

Which left Cloud alone with Sephiroth.

Cloud fidgeted a bit in the sudden silence before turning on his heal and making a go for the door.

"Cloud." Sephiroth's voice was not loud, but Cloud stopped dead nonetheless. "Do you have an urgent matter to attend to?"

Well, not really.

"I see." Sephiroth replied, whether to Cloud's facial expression or because he had said it out loud he wasn't sure. "Then why are you avoiding me?"

Cloud rubbed his eyes tiredly. "I'm on vacation." He reminded the General.

"I fail to see the relevance." Sephiroth frowned. "You find plenty of time for Genesis."

Cloud thought in bemusement that only in his bizarre life would Sephiroth be jealous of him spending time with someone as raunchy, annoying and... well, like Genesis. The very uncomfortableness of this conversation and the fact that Cloud was both afraid for his life and unreasonably turned on at the same time every time he was in the same room as Sephiroth made it perfectly understandable that he avoided the man. Though Cloud's repeating life undoubtedly revolves around the silver haired general, only the fact that the red-headed First was refreshingly sane and somewhat shockingly alive meant that, well, "He's different."

"What do you find so interesting about him?" Sephiroth asked coldly.

Cloud shrugged. He almost could tell what Sephiroth was really saying, but he didn't quite have enough practice at interpreting the odd statements. Considering their history and the magnitude of experience he did have, though, it was possible that there was no possible way to interpret the man. "He's your friend, isn't he? You tell me." Cloud groused.

Sephiroth just looked away sharply.

Cloud frowned slightly, thinking of Genesis' seemingly pathological attachment to him especially since Angeal had been so focused on Zach and trying to repair that relationship. In hindsight, it was a bit odd that Genesis would be spending so much time with someone he barely knew, rather than someone Cloud had thought was a friend of his.

"He just likes me because I quote Loveless at him." Cloud smiled faintly, deciding to ignore what he couldn't fathom .

Sephiroth twisted back to look at the blond with affront in every line of his body. Cloud instinctively attempted to locate Masumune. But the General chose to cut with words... for now anyway. "You find that play to be more interesting than..." His mouth snapped shut abruptly.

Cloud's eyes widened as he mentally completed the sentence. He easily could imagine 'than me' finishing off the question, down to the intonation. Cloud was literally stumped. Surely Sephiroth was tired of being the center of attention? But something about the way he had shifted his posture after almost slipping the full statement... almost as if he was unsure.

Suddenly Cloud blinked as something in his mind shifted sideways with an almost physical thunk.. Even when Sephiroth was talking about being a god there was always an almost implied inferiority complex behind the words- some sort of fear, like he needed to absorb an entire world to prove he existed. Like he had needed someone to chase him and to know why- a need to discuss the whole thing. It had always been one of the more confusing parts about trying to stop Sephiroth from destroying the world, or so Cloud had always thought. But maybe... maybe Sephiroth was... no...

At the continued silence Sephiroth crossed his arms over his chest protectively, turned his face slightly to the side and looked at Cloud warily out of the corner of his eye.

But the root of the matter was- how could anyone possibly compare to Sephiroth? No one else could kill the Planet with that amount of flair (if at all). Certainly no one else had the temerity to ignore death like it was not even an inconvenience... Cloud realized that even as insane as the time looping had made him and the splintering of reality that seemed to follow had done little to break the odd orbit the two of them seemed to share. Sephiroth was basically the one constant in Cloud's existence.

When Cloud continued to stare at Sephiroth a silver eyebrow started to twitch in some bizarre form of anger. It wasn't pure annoyance-I-am-going-to-skewer-you, though it did definitely have elements of homicidal impulse.

Cloud finally shook himself and answered the question. Sort of. "How could you possibly be less interesting than..." He made an aborted, fluttery gesture. "You think..." Cloud just shook his head helplessly. Unlike previous times when Sephiroth had left Cloud tongue-tied when Cloud had been young: worried and did not want to embarrass himself in front of his idol, or set off the end of the world or get shish-ke-babbed; this time his inability to form coherent words was due to sheer disbelief.

Sephiroth turned somewhat to look at Cloud, though his eyebrows furrowed slightly in confusion.

"Hel. Saying you aren't interesting is like saying Midgar isn't polluted. Not only is it obviously untrue, it's the reverse of the truth."

Sephiroth was silent. He didn't look entirely sure what to make of the declaration.

Cloud shook his head and tried again to exit the room. Saying that he did not want to deal with this conversation was an understatement.

Sephiroth gripped his arm to keep him still and Cloud felt a flash of adrenaline and a shiver of pleasure at the touch. He looked up into the cat-slit eyes trying to gauge motivation. But Sephiroth just looked a little lost and only nominally mad, so Cloud relaxed into the pull and let himself be drawn back closer.

"How is Genesis different?" Sephiroth asked, his hand tightening on Cloud's arm in some unknown emotion.

"Uh..." Cloud held up his hands in placation as his eyes involuntarily twitched to Sephiroth's sword arm. Currently clenched into a fist, but not armed.

"What are you looking at?" The General demanded.

"Just checking for a weapon. You look ready to impale me." Cloud replied.

"Answer my first question." Sephiroth growled.

"Well... he's..." Cloud shrugged helplessly. "He's just fun." And then winced at the reaction that caused. He meant that there wasn't any baggage- but how to express it?

"I see." Sephiroth said flatly. "Of course that is an obvious conclusion." He turned to go, and this time it was Cloud grabbing him, though his lie flashed before his eyes, such as it were, as he did so.

"Wait..." Cloud frowned. "That's not what I meant..."

It occurred to Cloud that without Angeal around, with Zack never befriending the General, really, since he was off hunting down deserters and the two Firsts hadn't been gone all that long... and how Sephiroth seemed to be no longer on speaking terms with Genesis... the man had no one to talk to. Except in meetings with bureaucrats, being annoyed by fans and giving orders.

"You want to be... friends?" Cloud asked hesitantly.

Sephiroth's posture tightened up again.

Cloud considered. He already knew he wouldn't kill the General, he refused to kill anyone. He also refused to care about the fate of the Planet this iteration of his life. So why was he avoiding the man? Was that not, really, a kind of caring about the situation?

"I said nothing of the sort." Sephiroth said shortly.

Though he kind of had, in the stilted I-ask-about-your-hometown-then-laugh-in-mad-despai r-as-I-don't-have-one kind of way.

Decided, Cloud squared his shoulders. "Why don't you come with Genesis and me? We were going to go kill something for lunch."

Sephiroth looked pained at the very thought and at the same time completely disappointed, among other less discernible thoughts.

Sheesh, Cloud hadn't thought that Sephiroth disliked Genesis that much... But... disappointed? "You want to hang out?" that phrase seemed wrong when talking about the General, "just the two of us?" Cloud asked dubiously.

"It is obviously a horrifying idea to you." Sephiroth snapped, his arms snapping back into a crossed position against his chest as he seemed to loom even taller.

Cloud had to acknowledge that truth, but when his unconscious nod caused a flash of what looked like legitimate pain to skitter across the man's features, the damnable hero in Cloud made words spring from his lips before he could really censor them properly. "We could do something together." Ok, so that hadn't come out so bad.

"What..." Sephiroth trailed off, looking uncertain again.

Cloud tried to finish the question. Maybe 'what do you like to do with people? I am totally isolated and have no idea what people do for fun' or 'what do you mean, that it isn't horrifying or that you would actually want to' or 'what weapon would you like to defend yourself with.'

"Probably not the last one." Sephiroth said, his lip twitching slightly.

Cloud stared at him blankly. "What?! I said that out loud? Hel take me to my deserved fate!" He cursed.

The lips twitched again, this time almost resembling a smile, though it soured quickly. "You missed 'what are we supposed to say now?' I suppose the normal pleasantries." He said emotionlessly.

"Hel no." Cloud denied emphatically. He knew how well that would go. "Neither of us want to talk about that..." He waved vaguely. Not to mention that Cloud knew Sephiroth's history much better than the man in front of him did (or ever really learned, usually) and, ironically, better than he knew his own history. Between confusing himself with Zack and appearing in this world as an adult, Hel if he knew anything about his life.

Sephiroth looked surprised and relieved, but also confused.

"Uh... we could talk about..." Cloud reached for a topic. He looked at the silver-haired man sheepishly. "I have no idea, really."

Sephiroth's crossed arms lowered slightly, so that he was only holding on lightly to his elbows rather than hugging himself tightly.

"Which is why I've been avoiding you." Cloud sighed.

"I don't believe that is the entire truth." Sephiroth noted. Rather astutely, damn his intelligence.

Cloud shrugged. Not going to deny it any more than he was going to explain it. But what could they do? Anything physical was out of the question... Cloud blushed slightly. "Because we are too coordinated to have fun bowling." He protested hotly. Out loud again, oops. He really needed to kick that Lifestream habit.

Sephiroth eyed Cloud in a mix of wariness and interest at the outburst. He looked more relaxed, his stance opening up. "If you think so. I have never been 'bowling'."

"Me neither." Cloud confessed. Seeing movies? Too much like a date. Dinner, ditto. Sparring? They had done that before and Sephiroth had offered that as almost a bribe to keep Cloud from running away. If they were going to do this 'friend' thing, it needed to be something else. "I don't know. What do you like to do?"

"I thought we weren't trading pleasantries." Sephiroth snapped back.

"You don't have any hobbies?" Cloud asked incredulously.

A...nd the crossed arms are back.

"Well, one of my favorite things to do is riding chocobos. Or breeding them... or finding them in the wild... or watching them dance..." He drifted off happily.

"One would think, with your hair, the comments would have made you resent them." Sephiroth said dryly.

Cloud snapped out of his daydream and looked at Sephiroth incredulously. The other tensed. After a moment it fully sank in what Sephiroth actually had said and Cloud beamed. "Did you just tease me about my hair?" He asked in delight. "Excuse me if I don't spend hours primping my hair until it is perfect." He shot back.

Sephiroth eyed Cloud then relaxed marginally. It seemed that someone- probably Genesis- had introduced him to teasing. "Appearances must be kept when one is not a wanderer employed by ShinRa as a bribe."

"Oh, please. Like you don't have whatever you want so that they can keep you under control." Cloud scoffed.

Sephiroth face went to ice again.

"I'm sorry." Cloud apologized. "That came out wrong."

"No, you are perfectly correct. Have a good lunch with Genesis." Sephiroth said, then swept off.

"Reverse S.H.I.T." Cloud cursed to himself. Sephiroth Happy Is Terrible might be true, but pissing the guy off was worse. After struggling internally for a half second, he trotted after the other man. "Look, sorry, ok? I'm not..." He shook his head. Sephiroth still was walking away briskly, not looking at him. "Open invitation- whenever you have an idea to do something, just let me know. When... whenever you want, ok? Even if I'm in my room or something, just knock." Still nothing.

Cloud gave up and slowed to a halt, looking at the back of Sephiroth's back. Well... there was nothing that he could do about it, he supposed. He didn't think that there was really anything that the two of them could say to each other that could be... non-painful. Too much history, even if Sephiroth wasn't aware of it. Cloud sighed.

Talk about a mood kill. Now he didn't want to butcher something and bring it to a restaurant, he just wanted to brood.

OoOOOoOOOo

A/N: This chapter partially inspired by work and how many gods-be-damned interviews we were doing. So... there's that. And some Sephiroth being confused. The cadet thing was basically a sudden thought but it looks like it is developing into Plot somehow. I hope not to have too many Ocs here, especially as only one of them is a female. There are so few female characters- which took me until now to actually notice O.o