Cloud Strife, a cadet in ShinRa's SOLDIER program, had just received his first ever newsletter from one of the 'clubs' that he'd joined shortly after enlisting. As he opened the message on his phone, he wondered what sort of news it would hold. He hoped it would be something like, oh, maybe the sort of training regimen his heroes used, or maybe something about their exploits during the war with Wutai, or even just what they'd done on their most recent mission, what monsters they'd faced.
"The Silver Elite is proud to announce that we have finally discovered General Sephiroth's preferred shampoo!"
What. The. Hell?
Cloud stared at the message. This was not what he expected of a fanclub for the General. This was something that he expected of stalkers. Cloud sat up in his bed and started fiddling. He set up his phone to re-direct all messages from the Silver Elite number to a folder, and to not notify him whenever they sent him something. He'd sort through messages until he found something he actually wanted to know about his maybe-someday commanding officer when he had time.
The next day, Cloud was repeating the process for Red Leather, then Keepers of Honour, and the Puppy Patrol.
It was ridiculous. These weren't people who were fans of the men's exploits, who admired their hard work and incredible skill. They were stalkers who wanted to get into these men's pants. Okay, Cloud wasn't going to deny that the three generals and that First who hung out with them were all very handsome, and he wasn't going to deny that every now and then one or other of them would figure in a wet dream of his. That didn't justify crazy fanaticism that invaded the privacy of these great men though!
Cloud failed the SOLDIER entrance exam. Only by the very narrowest margin, and the examiner said that if Cloud wanted, he'd put the boy's name on the short-list to be given more attention in readiness for the next time the exams came round.
"No thank you Sir," Cloud said, shaking his head. "I actually failed on purpose."
"I got a job as a secretary," the boy said with a crooked smile.
"A secretary? Strife, you'd be a fantastic asset to ShinRa in the SOLDIER program, why would you give that up to be a paper-pusher?"
Cloud shrugged carelessly and was dismissed. He didn't care about ShinRa. He'd wanted to become a SOLDIER so that he could meet and hopefully be useful to his heroes. The chances of meeting them, even if he had made it, were very slim. His new job, however...
"So your job is to make sure that they get their paperwork to fill in, and to then send it back to the right people to get implemented. You've got to make sure they know when they've got an appointment, a meeting, a mission, and that they get to it on time either looking presentable or properly equipped. You make sure they've got their coffee and that they remember to eat lunch and go home at a reasonable time at the end of the day. Make sure they've got their time in the VR room booked and at a time when nobody is going to bother them. Uh... Yeah, that's everything I think. Any questions Mr Strife?"
Cloud smiled. "Just one," he said.
"How do they feel about their..." Cloud pulled a face, "fanclubs? Do they want me to do my best to keep them uninformed, or do they not care?"
The woman – the retiring secretary who's job Cloud was taking over – sighed exhaustedly. "You can't really do anything about those crazy groups," she admitted. "Ignore them. I understand that General Rhapsodos is actually a subscriber to both Red Leather and the Silver Elite. I've heard him teasing General Sephiroth about what things they've found out about and are getting excited over."
Cloud frowned, but nodded his understanding. "Alright then."
"Oh yeah! Almost forgot. You have the power to hold anybody at the door and not let them through, even the President, until the Generals confirm that you may send them through, and no one carries papers through that door except for you," the woman said, grinning wickedly. "That's quite fun actually."
Cloud laughed with her in appreciation of the power and the joke.
"Well, let's get you settled in. I'll help you with any problems you run into and show you the ropes of how to do all that stuff I just told you about, and then the desk is yours."
Cloud was the secretary to the three Generals. His office had a door that led to the rest of the ShinRa building, a door to a private bathroom, and a door that led to the hallway where the Generals had their offices.
Zack Fair – the focus of the Puppy Patrol – showed up about half-way through Cloud's orientation.
"You're leaving Nancy?" Zack asked, shocked.
The woman who had been showing Cloud his new job laughed. "Yes Zack," she answered. "I'm retiring. I'm going to enjoy my silver years and my great-grandchildren while I still have the ability to bend my joints."
Zack smiled, laughed, and then turned his glowing violet gaze onto Cloud. "Zack Fair," he said by way of introduction, holding out his hand to the blond.
"Cloud Strife," Cloud answered with a smile of his own, accepting the hand.
"I should warn you Cloud," Nancy said with a restrained grin. "You have the official power to hold Zack at this door until the Generals say you can let him in, but, ah..." she trailed off, wondering how to put it.
"But Zack Fair, First Class SOLDIER, is the apprentice of Angeal Hewley," Cloud supplied. "No reason to keep him from his mentor. If he decides to visit either of the other Generals once he's past the door, well, I can't help that," Cloud said with a shrug. "I only ask that you actually tell me you're going in so that I have the chance to tell you if they're in a meeting or not there or something. I don't think they'd appreciate me letting you in if that's the case."
Zack's smile stretched into a grin, and he switched his gaze to Nancy. "I like this one," he said, then looked back at Cloud. "I'll be a good boy, I promise."
"Puppy," announced a voice from the door – the one that led to where the General's offices were.
"Angeal!" Zack cheered, releasing Cloud's hand at last and swinging around to his mentor.
Cloud checked the time-table that he had on the computer. Angeal Hewley had an appointment with Zack Fair and a VR room.
"Angeal, I was just meeting your new secretary," Zack announced happily. "I like him."
Angeal smiled a little at his student before turning to look at Cloud, studying him, before he looked to Nancy. "How's he doing?"
Nancy smiled wryly. "Don't you worry about a thing General Hewley," she said confidently. "This one's a fast learner and very keen to do his very best for you three."
Angeal blinked. It was a message on the quiet. Nancy hadn't said "his best for ShinRa," and that was telling. Angeal smiled more genuinely at the blond. "Then I hope we can get along," he said, nodding at the boy before turning back to Zack. "Come on Puppy, we've got the VR room for the next hour."
"See ya Cloud!" Zack called, waving quickly before dashing after his mentor out the door that would take them to the rest of ShinRa.
"How are you holding up?" Nancy asked Cloud once the door was closed behind them.
Cloud smiled. "Zack seems like the sort to bribe with chocolate to let him in while the Generals are gone so that he can set up a surprise for them," he said. "General Hewley was... impressive. He's really got a presence."
Nancy chuckled. "You'll learn to adjust," she promised. "And yes, Zack will do that, so the first time make comment about your favourites and any allergies. He'll remember and make sure you get them," she added. "Now then..." the instruction continued.
Cloud was reading through the papers that had just been delivered to his desk. It was something that Scarlet wanted at least Sephiroth to sign, and hopefully all three of the Generals – according to the memo that had been stuck on it. Cloud went through it with sticky-notes, making note of the ambiguous statements, the traps, the outright unethical, and where to sign to either allow it to go ahead or to refuse it. Anything important about the document. Ten minutes after he had begun, he had finished with the fifty-page mess, and slapped a large sticky-note on the front with a summary of what it was asking for.
Cloud moved on.
Heidegger's requests were ploughed through, summarised and sticky-noted. As were Palmer's, Teusti's, Lazard's old paperwork which was still backed up from that little stint when he'd gone missing and for some reason had not yet reclaimed to sign himself, and the mission requests, equipment requests, and Genesis' dry-cleaning bill, were all sorted through.
The Generals were down in the VR room at the moment, and when Cloud checked the clock and their time-table, he realised that he had enough time to put the papers on their desks and fetch them a lunch from the Wutaian takeaway down the street before they got back. They would be back too, they wouldn't go down to the cafeteria after their VR session. If the takeaway wasn't too crowded, he'd probably be back at exactly the right time to have it set on their desks, hot, and then sit down at his own desk to start eating his just as they came back through the door.
Nancy had left a list of each of the General's favourite foods for him, as well as what Zack liked since it was good to "keep the puppy fed", so Cloud was able to call the takeaway while he deposited the papers and place the order with them. Then he locked the door, left a sign hanging saying that he was gone collecting lunch, headed down to the garage, and got onto his motorbike.
Being secretary to the Generals was a very well paying job, and he had bought the motorbike when he got his first pay-packet. He'd always wanted one, and now he did. It was his baby and he worked on it in the evenings when he got 'home' to his apartment below the plate. Right now though, his baby was helping him get this food run in before his bosses got back to their offices.
When Genesis opened the door to what he referred to as "the buffer zone", their secretary's office, his nose instantly told him that the boy was eating Wutaian takeaway, and his stomach responded by saying that he was hungry after sparring with the two men who were right behind him. He almost laughed when he heard their stomachs echo his own, but he was far more interested in the little white box the boy was eating out of with a pair of chopsticks.
Cloud put a hand over the top of his lunch and watched the way all three of the Generals were fixated on his lunch.
"Come on Strife," Genesis wheedled with a smirk. "Share with your bosses."
"Why should I?" Cloud answered.
Genesis opened his mouth to begin an indignant rant.
"Yours is sitting on your desks, in your offices. You didn't think I'd get lunch for myself and not you, did you?" Cloud continued, not letting Genesis start.
The three Generals bolted through the door towards their offices, and Cloud judiciously held in the laughter.
"What about me?" Zack asked from the door. He'd been behind Angeal and Cloud hadn't seen him at first. "I don't have an office, does that mean I get yours?"
Cloud shook his head and pulled up the extra takeaway he'd gotten for if Zack showed up with his bosses. If the puppy hadn't been with them, he'd have taken it home to heat up for dinner.
"You're the best Cloud!" Zack cheered, digging into his noodles.
"I agree," Genesis said, coming back out with his takeaway box in one hand, chopsticks sitting on top, and the small stack of papers that Cloud had left on his desk in his other hand. "You did this while we were in the VR room?" he asked, holding up the papers.
Cloud shrugged and nodded. "That's what I do," he said easily.
Genesis smiled as he set the papers down in the 'out' tray on Cloud's desk. "I could kiss you," he stated.
Cloud blushed, which Zack and Genesis laughed at.
"Really Strife," Genesis insisted when he'd calmed down. "That you've gone through these for me, left summaries, sticky-notes pointing to the problems in what they're proposing... It's wonderful. You've literally reduced the amount of time I now need to spend on my paperwork by hours."
"Hmm," Cloud responded, frowning and turning to his computer. "But you've got the rest of the afternoon allotted to getting through your paperwork. Sorry Sir," he said, smiling up at Genesis. "I didn't realise I was making such an impact on your time-table. Should I see if there is a squad of cadets for you to terrorize," Cloud shook his head abruptly, "er, impress for the rest of the afternoon? Or should I see if there's a Loveless presentation this afternoon? Or something else?"
Genesis and Zack both laughed at Cloud happily as Angeal came in with his own pile of papers and his takeaway box.
"What's funny?" he asked, setting his papers on top of Genesis' and picking up his chopsticks to shove more of his noodles straight into his mouth.
"You missed it Angeal," Zack said, gasping for breath. "It's wouldn't be as funny telling it back."
Angeal shrugged and turned to Cloud. "Thank you Strife," he said, a genuine smile on his face. "The paperwork has never gone so quickly."
"The evil paperwork," Genesis put in, gathering some of his own noodles on his chopsticks.
Angea's mouth tightened even as he chewed, but he nodded. He swallowed and looked back to Cloud. "I'm going to spend the rest of my suddenly free afternoon in my office with the lights off. Don't let anybody in who wants to see me," Angeal instructed, then cut his eyes across to Zack. "I don't want you bouncing your way in there either," he added to his student.
Genesis swallowed his own mouthful of noodles and grinned. "You can bounce into my office if you like Zack," he offered. "I'm sure we can come up with a fun way to spend the afternoon."
Zack smiled, then sighed wistfully. "I'd love to Gen," he said. "But I've got a squad of Seconds to supervise after lunch."
Genesis shrugged. "Your loss. I'll go find a bar and someone to dance with instead then."
"General Sephiroth?" Cloud answered, turning to the door.
The man stalked forward, set his paperwork down – a larger pile than Genesis or Angeal had set down – planted his hands on Cloud's desk, leant forward, and kissed him firmly.
Genesis and Zack cheered, whooped and hollared until Sephiroth released Cloud's lips.
"Sir?" Cloud squeaked when his mouth was free to speak again.
"You made the evil paperwork easy and had a box of buttered duck and spicy vegetable noodles still hot on my desk with a cup of – also hot – jasmine tea," Sephiroth explained, standing straight again and with his usual stoic expression in place on his face.
"Hey, Gen said he could kiss you for making the paperwork so much easier for him," Zack pointed out, gesturing with his chopsticks. "And Seph's got three times as much stuff that's waiting for his signature than Gen does."
"Some warning still would have been nice!" Cloud said, blushing hotly from his collar to the tips of his ears.
The three Generals and their attached Puppy all laughed at him. Genesis and Zack uproariously, Angeal openly and easily, and Sephiroth just quietly chuckling.
Cloud had a moment to himself as he sat at his desk. It was almost time to shuffle the Generals off, out of their offices and towards their apartments. Since he'd made their paperwork load so much easier to get through sending them home at the end of the day wasn't as much of an issue as Nancy had described it as, but since they'd taken to practising some hobby in their offices to pretend they were still spending hours on their paperwork, Cloud did have to remind them of the time so that they weren't so lost in whatever they were doing or reading that they stayed after-hours accidentally.
In this moment of quiet when no one was likely to come through his office, Cloud decided to review the newsletters from the stalker-clubs.
Silver Elite: begging its members if any of them knew if Sephiroth preferred his coffee with or without milk. He had been spotted in hallway seven talking with a SOLDIER Second Class about a mission to Junon.
Red Leather: making an appeal to send him a gift basket in exchange for his underwear preference. He'd get to keep the gift basket if he didn't send back his preference of course, but they needed to raise the money for the gift basket and figure out what to put in it.
Keepers of Honour: They had narrowed down the options of where he was most likely to do his dry-cleaning to two places on the upper plate. People were encouraged to stake out a place when they had time to see if he came by.
Puppy Patrol: Recently discovered that he doesn't like anchovies on his pizza. Still working towards finding out all of the toppings for his ideal pizza.
Cloud snorted as he looked at the set of messages.
Sephiroth didn't like coffee, at all, and when forced into a situation where it was the only beverage available would find a bathroom and drink from the tap before going back out. He loathed coffee. The man was a tea drinker. Green or white tea, loose leaf and of good quality.
Genesis didn't wear underwear. He knew. He'd been by the man's apartment to collect dirty and return clean laundry. Not one set of anything that would qualify as undergarments in the whole lot except for his long-johns which were kept exclusively for when he was sent north. That man hated the cold, but refused to visibly rug up.
Angeal never did his own dry-cleaning. Cloud performed that duty for the man, as with the other two Generals. He went to a different dry-cleaner every time, and never had two General's worth of clothing at the same cleaner. Items that weren't dry-cleaned he washed in his own apartment. If there was one place that Cloud went to the most often though, it would be the dry-cleaner who handled things for the HoneyBees. They always took the greatest care with everything they did and made sure that there weren't even any chemical smells lingering on the clothing when Cloud went to pick it up.
Zack's favourite pizza was a dessert pizza. It was topped with custard, bananas and maple syrup. He'd come up with the combination himself. The man was a lunatic. He'd tried peanut-butter and chicken pizza, he'd tried eggnogg pizza, he normally went with pepperoni, bacon, capsicum, mushrooms and cheese, but that was because he liked to share his pizzas, and no one shared with him if he had his own personal preferences for toppings.
"What's funny Cloud?" Zack asked.
"Yah!" Cloud yelped, falling down in his seat after having jumped in surprise. "Zack! Dammit, you're too good at sneaking. I'm only fifteen, I'm not old enough for a heart-attack yet!"
Zack chuckled. "Sorry Cloud," he said, genuinely apologetic, but not very contrite. "So, what's funny?"
Cloud raised an eyebrow and turned his phone around, showing Zack that his stalkers were trying to figure out his favourite pizza.
Zack blinked in surprise. "I have a following?" he asked quietly, in shock. "You're a member of it?"
Cloud snorted. "I'm a subscriber, not a member," Cloud corrected. "These people are crazy stalkers. I'm on the mailing list because I want to keep an eye on what they're up to. I'm subscribed to all of them."
"All of them?" Zack asked, curious.
Cloud nodded. "Yours is the Puppy Patrol, the Keepers of Honour follows General Hewley, the Red Leather follows General Rhapsodos, and of course the -"
"-Silver Elite follows Seph," Zack finished. "Yeah, that one's pretty damn famous. So you get all the newsletters?"
Cloud nodded. "It's a safety precaution. Could you imagine what these people would do if they found out about me?"
Zack blanched. "No! You must be protected at all costs! You make the evil paperwork monster disappear! You pick up the laundry and make sure there's always a yummy lunch all hot and wonderful at just the right time! You ensure that the times when they have to walk from their office to the VR room are when there's nearly no one else in the halls! You keep Scarlet out! You keep Hojo out!"
"Zack, what are you doing?" Sephiroth demanded, standing in the door with Genesis and Angeal. They'd heard the commotion Zack was causing from their offices.
Zack, at that moment, hand his arms wrapped tightly around Cloud, was in fact holding the younger boy up, about a foot off the ground, and seemed to be somewhat hysterical.
"We have to protect Cloud!" Zack yelled.
Cloud sighed where he was hanging.
"From what?" Angeal asked in amusement.
"Your stalker-clubs," Cloud answered. "Let go of me Puppy, or I'll make sure your next lunch is a slums sausage-inna-bun."
"Eep!" Zack squeaked and gently lowered Cloud back to the ground.
"Thank you," Cloud said, straightening his shirt. "Done for the day Sirs?"
They all nodded.
"Stalker-clubs?" Genesis asked, amused.
"Silver Elite, Red Leather, Keepers of Honour and Puppy Patrol," Cloud answered. "I keep an eye on all of them in case they turn up something that ..."
Sephiroth nodded in understanding. "Appreciated," he said.
"I don't know about those last two," Genesis said, a little confused. "Keepers of Honour and Puppy Patrol?"
"General Hewley and First Class Fair, respectively," Cloud supplied. "Clearly they found out about your nickname for First Class Fair."
Angeal's eyes bugged, his mouth working silently in shock.
"Angeal!" Genesis said, rounding on his friend. "You had a fanclub and didn't tell me?"
"Didn't know," he answered numbly.
"They're currently trying to figure out where you do your dry-cleaning. They're staking out -" Cloud checked the newsletter again, "the Keng dry-cleaners on Abelard Street and Ming-Mong in Dedalus Way."
Angeal pulled a face. "Do you ever take my dry-cleaning to either of those places?" he asked.
"I have in the past year, but not the past month. Won't be for a good three because they've been staked out. Never fear General," Cloud said, smiling. "You won't lose your clothing to fanatics raiding the dry-cleaners."
A rueful smile danced over the man's lips. "Thank you Strife."
Cloud chuckled. "It's my job Sir."
Genesis sidled up to Cloud and slipped a hand over the teenager's shoulder. "So, what do you think I should do about the Red Leather enquiring after my undergarments?"
"They want to know your preference," Cloud answered. "They aren't actually asking what you wear normally. You could say that you like seeing your partner in a particular type if you wanted to. That's an underwear preference."
Zack and Sephiroth snorted and Angeal grinned as a wicked smirk grew slowly and steadily over Genesis' face.
"Oooh, I like that idea!" he said. "I can just imagine all those Red Leather members, getting a notice saying that I like seeing my partners in thongs and cock-rings, and them showing up to training with them on, hoping to get my attention!" The man was practically crowing.
"You're evil Gen," Angeal said fondly. "You would lie to your devoted following?"
Genesis smiled at his best friend. "Maybe," he said. "What answer I give them will depend on the gift basket."
"But you're all missing the point!" Zack said, shaking himself out of the good humour brought on by the way the conversation had developed. "We have to protect Cloud!"
"Why?" Genesis asked, still with his arm around Cloud, he looked down at the boy. "You don't need protection, do you?"
Cloud shook his head. "I just need to maintain my anonymity," he answered. "If these groups find out about me I could be in trouble, but otherwise I'll be fine."
Zack whimpered at the way Cloud brushed away the potential danger he was in. "Cloud, Nancy was old enough to be Angeal's gran, therefore she was safe from these sorts of people. You are cute and sexy and pretty and fit and wonderful and young."
The exact situation that Cloud was in, could be in, began to register with the Generals.
"Oh," Genesis said, his own face draining of colour. "And Seph's already kissed him once."
"Add 'excellent kisser' to that list by the way Zack," Sephiroth said absently. "Even when blind-sided."
Cloud blushed as all eyes moved from Sephiroth around to him, wide-eyed and very fixed.
"Something you want to tell us Strife?" Genesis asked.
At that moment the small alarm clock on his desk buzzed. "Standard office hours are now over," Cloud declared, privately relieved.
"Strife," Genesis said firmly, not releasing the boy. "Cloud."
"Anything for the happiness of my Generals," Cloud said quietly. "That's my sole motivation. May I clean up my desk and close down for the night Sirs?"
"Yes Strife," Angeal said. "Thank you for all that you've done for us."
Cloud nodded. "It's my pleasure Sir."
The three Generals and First Class Fair were having a meeting in Sephiroth's apartment. After the revelation of exactly how much Mr Cloud Strife, secretary, was doing for them – all those things that they didn't regularly give notice to, as well as the truly big things that had changed their lives forever – they felt the need to reconvene and seriously discuss what they knew about the teen.
"He was in the cadet program before he took the job as your secretary," Zack supplied after they'd made a list of all the things he did for them as part of his job – and all the things he did that he didn't need to do that he did anyway to make their lives better. "His blond spikes looked familiar when we met, and it bugged me, so I looked into it."
"Did you look at his record?" Sephiroth asked, curious.
Zack nodded. "Used a sword, pretty good with it too according to his reports. He could fire a gun if he had to, but if there were two people next to each other, and he aimed for one, he was more likely to hit the other one or the empty air out the other side. Not fantastic with materia either, but could work with them. Didn't get far enough to get tested for mako tolerance. Failed the written exam by about the narrowest margin possible. Immediately started the secretary job after leaving the cadet program. I mean immediately. Told his CO that he wouldn't be trying again because he had gotten a job as a secretary."
"And since then he has been unshakably devoted to us," Sephiroth stated. "I found a little box of my favourite chocolates and a bottle of sword polish on my desk the other day. There was a note that said 'Happy Birthday'. There was a birth certificate as well. My birth certificate. Father: Vincent Valentine. Mother: Lucrecia Cresent. Doctor: Hojo. Strife actually found my birth certificate so that he could give me a birthday present on my birthday."
The others stared at Sephiroth in shock. None of them had any idea of when Sephiroth's birthday was. They'd always just celebrated his being older in the middle of when their birthdays were.
"He gave me a box of Banora White dumbapples, some rich dark chocolate and a fondue set," Genesis supplied, a wistful smile dancing across his face. "They were delicious."
"The most comprehensive sword-care kit I've ever seen," Angeal said with a smile. "Got me a fair sized lump of rocky-road fudge too."
Zack sighed in yearning. "My birthday isn't for another month," he complained, then straightened up. "Hey, what about Cloud's birthday? We could do something for the kid as a thanks."
"Do you know when that is?" Angeal asked.
"No," Zack admitted, sagging again, before straightening again and grinning. "Bet his records are in ShinRa somewhere though, after all, he found Seph's!"
"Yes," Genesis allowed, "but where would we find them? The extent of our paperwork understanding is signing requests and assigning missions. We don't find paperwork, and Cloud's the person who we ask to find such things for us. We could requisition his cadet file, but his birth date won't be in there."
Zack pouted, defeated.
"Wouldn't know what to give him anyway," Angeal pointed out.
The group sat in silence for a while, and each was lost to their own thought until Sephiroth came up with an idea.
"Then let's get to know him."
"Normally, Sephiroth, people do that before the first kiss," Genesis pointed out, reminding his friend about that day now roughly eight months ago.
When the date swung around, Zack got his favourite pizza for his birthday, as well as a leather-care kit and a box of assorted chocolates. Cloud couldn't leave it on the First's desk though, so he had to wait until the SOLDIER came to the General's offices to give them to him.
Zack whooped a cheer happily, and gave Cloud a slightly smothering hug.
Hojo walked, or rather he stalked through the halls of ShinRa, heading for the office of his prize experiment. He slammed the door of the secretary's office open, then banged it shut again behind him, and he ignored the small person behind the desk, heading straight for the door that would admit him to the hallway where his specimen had a room for signing papers.
The door didn't open. The knob not turning in his hand. The mechanism locked.
"Open this door!" he growled at the boy behind the desk.
"All of the Generals are busy at this time," the secretary answered absently, still reading through papers with a pen in one hand and sticky-notes being regularly placed and written upon. "I also know for a fact that they don't have any appointments with non military personnel this afternoon. Which General are you here to see, who may I tell them is here to see them, and on what matter? I'll see to it that they get back to you when they have time."
"I am Professor Hojo!" he screeched, incensed that anybody would not know him. "I'm here for Sephiroth."
"Hm," Cloud hummed in answer. The hand holding his pen drifted over to the mouse of his computer and clicked a couple of things, then clicked a few keys on his keyboard. He flicked his eyes at the screen briefly before returning to the papers before him. "Oh yes," he said absently. "General Sephiroth has left something with me for if ever you come up here."
The hand holding the pen moved to a drawer of the desk, dived, and came up again a moment later with an envelope, which he handed over to Hojo and then returned his full attention to what he was doing.
Hojo opened the envelope to read what was contained within, and turned red, then purple as his eyes walked down the page.
"I demand that you allow me through to speak with Sephiroth this instant," Hojo hissed, the page crumpling in his fist.
"I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request," the blond secretary answered, turning the page of the document that he was reading. A sticky-note was soon placed and written upon. "You are two weeks early and in entirely the wrong part of the ShinRa complex for your only appointment with General Sephiroth this month."
"How dare you -?" Hojo growled.
"All of the Generals are very busy men, and as a long-time employee of the ShinRa corporation, Professor Hojo, you really should have learned by now that you must make an appointment to see them at least a week in advance." The boy had turned another page while he had been speaking, his voice always calm, even, soft and disinterested, almost distracted, as he was paying such close attention to what he was reading.
The document Hojo had just been handed was a restraining order against him. Sephiroth, it seemed, had petitioned to have no contact with Hojo outside of pre-arranged appointments in the lab, which had to have a cut off time, and with at least one other person present at all times, a lab technician was enough, but there had to be a third person in the room with him and Hojo.
The truth was that Sephiroth hadn't done that. Cloud had. It was an early Christmas present to himself, getting one-up on the creepy man. He'd petitioned on Sephiroth's behalf, presenting evidence to a small, private court that Hojo did not treat the famous figure as even human, but more as a lab rat to be experimented upon. Cloud had several copies of the writ he'd just handed to the scientist. He intended to have one framed and put on the wall of his office – so that Hojo would never forget it if he ever showed up here again – and give another one to Sephiroth for Christmas, also framed.
Hojo scowled at the blond. "You tell that ungrateful child that I need him to fetch me something from Nibelheim," he ordered, then stormed out of the room, the restraining order still clutched in his hand.
Cloud grinned as the door slammed shut, but then frowned. In Nibelheim? There wasn't anything in Nibelhiem belonging to ShinRa except for a reactor an a fire-hazard of a mansion that was the local spook house.
Sephiroth, Genesis and Angeal stuck their heads through the door.
"Was that the dulcet tone of Hojo we just heard?" Sephiroth asked.
Cloud looked up from his papers. "Yes Sir," he answered. "He wants you to personally fetch something from Nibelheim. Didn't say what, and I can't think that it would be anything he hadn't had put there recently. There's nothing in Nibelheim after all."
"How do you know that?" Genesis asked, smiling fondly.
"I grew up there," Cloud answered with a shrug. "Nibelheim's got an inn, a dried up fountain in the square, a reactor and the spook-house and fire-hazard that is the old ShinRa mansion."
The three Generals nodded in understanding.
"How did you get him to leave Strife?" Angeal asked curiously. "Hojo's the type to wait until Sephiroth comes out if he has half a mind to."
Cloud pouted. "Can't tell you," he answered. "I'm saving it for a Christmas present. That's only a couple of days away, can you wait until then?"
The Generals chuckled and nodded.
"These ones are processed and ready for you Sirs," Cloud added, gesturing to the three piles of documents he had on the far right of his desk, each one in a tray with a name on it.
ShinRa never closed for holidays, it just... let out early and threw extravagant parties in the evenings.
Cloud, with his keycard on its elastic spool at his hip, wheeled three large boxes on a little trolley through the halls that were already festooned with garish decorations – and had been for the past two weeks – towards his office and the offices of his superiors.
It was early. So early in fact that the lights were still running on the 'night' setting. It was Christmas morning. Four am on Christmas morning, and Cloud had to decorate his office for the occasion. He'd forbidden any of the other ShinRa staff from bringing their garish trinkets into his office or leaving them anywhere near where they might irritate the Generals. Cloud had Nancy's notes on the matter – they didn't at all care for the company's horrible, tacky, cliché displays of festivity, and always did their very best to escape the Company Christmas Party that Cloud had forwarded the invitation to earlier in the week.
Now, in the early hours of Christmas morning, his normal uniform/suit no where to be seen as he was wearing his own regular clothes, Cloud played Santa. He set up a tree in one corner of the room, put the star on top and hung decorations that he had made himself from the boughs.
He'd used photos provided by the stalker-clubs – he was certain that taking pictures was really what they did best, but then they were stalkers – and laminated them, then thread a ribbon through the tops. He'd done some digging and come up with pictures of the Generals and Zack when they were younger, pictures of their family members and pictures of places that were special to them back in their home towns. Some candy-canes, candied dumbapples and chocolates also hung from the branches of the realistic but plastic tree that he had set up as well.
Then the presents went underneath, each one carefully wrapped and with tag hanging from the ribbon. One for each General and one for Zack. His own gift to himself – a framed copy of Hojo's restraining order – went straight into a drawer in his desk, so that he could hang it up after Sephiroth had unwrapped his present.
Cloud rocked back on his heels and looked at his handiwork. That didn't look too tacky and crass, did it? There was no tinsel, no ridiculous baubles of no meaning, and the pictures that Cloud had turned into tree decorations were only the most tasteful.
He nodded to himself, stood, and went to the last box. The tree, decorations and gifts had been in the first two. Now it was just a matter of hanging the wreaths on the doors – he'd used pins to hold red-, white- and green-wrapped lollies to styrofoam rings. There were caramels, turkish delights, and mints. All popular with his Generals and Zack.
The very last thing he had was a small box with a sprig of plant-life inside. The label on the box said, in Cloud's own neat handwriting: "Warning; Contains Mistletoe." This little box was set on a small table he'd purloined from another office.
"Just have to return the trolley and make the eggnogg now!" Cloud whispered to himself, pleased as he looked around the office. With a nod of his head, Cloud grabbed the trolley, his keycard, and went back home. He'd make the eggnogg, catch another hour's sleep, then come back in to work with the rest of the crowd of office workers employed by ShinRa who hadn't requested months in advance to have today off.
Dressed in his uniform suit, with just a little bit of holly hanging from his breast pocket in deference to the season, Cloud walked through the halls towards his office for the second time that day, a large container of eggnogg swinging gently in his hand. It was for Zack really, more than the Generals, though Cloud was sure they'd enjoy it too.
Cloud had learned that Gongaga, Zack's hometown, was stupidly hot all year around, and they really couldn't have eggnogg for that reason. Zack's first Christmas in Midgar had been the start of a new love for the older male: eggnogg. He restricted himself to Christmas season only, but he loved eggnogg. For Cloud, who had grown up in Nibelheim where is was cold in the summer and in winter you were lucky if it was only freezing, eggnogg was something he'd been drinking all his life. The 'virgin' version until he was eight, and then with increasing amounts of alcohol added to it from then on. He had used the full Nibelheim eggnogg recipe for this Christmas. The version that involved ten different types of alcohol in various quantities, as well as of course eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg.
When Cloud was a cadet still, he had once tried the Midgar eggnogg, the kind bought by the carton in the stores. He'd pulled a face and informed his dorm mates that it was disgusting. They'd laughed and said he just couldn't handle the alcohol content. They all loved it. Cloud shook his head at the memory. Comparing Midgar store eggnogg with the Nibelheim recipe was like comparing the mince that got fed to dogs with a perfect, hundred-gil steak – and that was just the stuff he'd had when he was too young for the alcoholic version. The full and complete version was more like comparing fresh chocobo droppings covered in sick to the most perfect gem in the whole world.
Cloud set the eggnogg, a dipper, and some cups on the small table he'd left the mistletoe on, glanced at the box, and moved it to under the tree instead. He'd just sat down at his desk when the Generals and the Puppy arrived.
"Good morning," Cloud greeted them, smiling.
"Merry Christmas you mean!" Zack answered with a grin. "You finally decorated the place!"
Cloud laughed. "Yes," he said. "I did."
"You even put fake gifts under the tree?" Angeal asked, raising an eyebrow.
Cloud gasped and put a hand over his heart. "Fake gifts?" he asked. "Fake gifts? Never General Hewley! Those gifts are as real as the sweets hanging on the tree!"
That did it. The elites didn't like to admit it – never did yet where anybody could hear them – but they all had a sweet tooth, and suddenly the tree was being given a closer inspection.
"Hey, those are pictures of us! And that's my folks!" Zack yelped, staring at the pictures.
"Mine and Gen's too," Angeal said, ghosting his fingers over the pictures.
"These two people," Sephiroth said, pulling two pictures off the tree and walking over to Cloud.
"Vincent Valentine and Lucrecia Cresent. Those are their old ID photos from when they were still on the payroll. Only pictures I could find," Cloud answered with a gentle nod.
The sound of a crunch came from the direction of the tree, causing Cloud and Sephiroth to turn and look. Genesis had bitten into one of the candied dumbapples, and was now groaning in delight.
"Cloud, where did you get these?" Genesis demanded through a haze of happiness once he'd swallowed.
"My kitchen," Cloud answered. "I'm glad they turned out well enough to meet with your approval Sir. I had to improvise a little, since normally I'd make candied plums or cherries, but I couldn't get those this Christmas, and I know you like the Banora Whites."
Cloud had a captive audience.
"You made these?" Genesis asked.
Cloud nodded. "Made the candied apples, made the wreathes that I hung on the doors, made the tree decorations, made the eggnogg."
That was the magic word to have Zack across the room in a flash to the little table Cloud had gestured at lazily, completely forgetting that he had a present under the tree. He ladled himself a cupful and had a sip.
"Dear sweet mother of Gaia," he breathed in reverence.
"It's just eggnogg Zack," Angeal said, shaking his head at his student. "You drink it by the carton every year."
"I'll never do it again," Zack swore. "Not after having tasted this. This is heaven in a cup."
"Top secret Nibelheim recipe for eggnogg," Cloud said with a smile. "We may let you drink it, but we'll never tell you how to make it. That is for children of Nibelheim only. I had to learn from the cooking teacher at school, since my mother wasn't Nibelheim born. She always got her eggnogg from the neighbours."
"I thought you said Nibelheim didn't have anything?" Zack accused.
"It doesn't," Cloud said with an easy shrug.
"Then what do you call this?" Zack demanded, holding up his cup.
"A drink that got perfected some hundred-odd years ago and hasn't been tampered with since?" Cloud answered with another shrug. "Proper eggnogg?"
The Generals were curious by now to see what all the fuss was about the drink, and Sephiroth did the honours of ladling out the eggnogg.
"I agree with Zack," Genesis said the instant he'd swallowed.
Angeal stared at his cup. "That really is proper eggnogg, as Strife put it."
Sephiroth nodded. "I hope you will be treating us to this every Christmas Cloud," he said, purring as he cradled the cup in his hands.
Cloud nodded. "Sure. Now Sirs, I need to know if you want the VR room between now and New Year. The cadets, Thirds and Seconds are all having live snow training in that time-frame, so you only have the First Classes to compete with for it, and if I get on it now I could get you a couple of hours every day if you wanted."
"At least one session for all of us together, and at least one private session each in that time if you can get it please Strife," Genesis said instantly. "And an extra one for Ange to supervise his puppy."
Cloud nodded sharply and sat down behind his computer, instantly tapping away diligently. "I've laid out your line-up for today on your desks already Sirs," he added. "You've got an hour before you're needed anywhere though, if you'd rather open your gifts."
"Nah," Zack said over the top of his superiors. "We can open them all together after the official working day is over."
Cloud silently accepted this, nodding distractedly as he pulled on a communication headset that he had plugged into the landline, so he could call people and have his hands free to type at the same time.
"Zack, what are you thinking?" Genesis hissed. "I want into that pretty package with my name on it."
"I want to shove my presents to you all under that tree as well," Zack answered. "And I noticed that there weren't any presents under there for Cloud."
"Of course there weren't," Angeal said. "They're gifts from him. He won't have bought one for himself."
"Exactly," Zack said. "And didn't we agree ages ago that we wanted to do something nice for him? How about Christmas? He's obviously gone to a lot of effort since last night when this office looked like it does the rest of the year to suddenly have that tree, and those candy-wreaths, and the candied apples, and the orgasmic eggnogg. Cloud said you had an hour before any appointments, right? Well, go check those time-tables he's left out for you, and see if you can get your prezzies from wherever you've stashed them to here, or get some last minute Christmas shopping done if you have to."
"It's a good plan," Sephiroth said.
Angeal and Genesis nodded.
"Just don't drink all the eggnogg while we're gone Zackary," Sephiroth added sternly. "You have things you need to do today as well."
Zack grinned and walked out of the room, his cup of eggnogg in hand still. "I know. I'll see you later then!" he called, waving over his shoulder as he headed out the door.
Cloud smiled quietly as every time one of his Generals came back to the office from one of the appointments elsewhere in the ShinRa complex, they stopped by the Christmas tree he'd set up, sometimes just admiring the photos he'd found for the decorations, but just as often slipping a new, perfectly wrapped up parcel underneath with his own gifts to them. Zack didn't come and go, not once, but Cloud knew that he was being kept busy with his own lot of work today, and guessed that the puppy was gathering as much stuff as he could to throw a Christmas party in Cloud's office once the official working day of Christmas was over.
Right on time, Zack pushed through the door, a box under each arm and a big grin on his face.
"Hey Cloud!" Zack greeted happily. "Get them will ya? The working day is over and it's Christmas!"
Cloud chuckled, shaking his head at his friend, but obliged anyway, getting out of his chair and going through the door to the General's offices. The candy wreathes didn't look like they'd taken too much damage yet, which Cloud could only attribute to their being out of their offices a fair bit that day.
He went and knocked on each door and repeated the same message: "There's a Puppy in my office demanding you come out and celebrate, and I've left him unsupervised around my eggnogg."
Cloud followed Sephiroth, who's door was the last in the hallway, back to the little party that Zack had determined to get going in his office, and was only a little bit surprised to find that Genesis was wearing a red Santa hat and Zack was trying to force another hat the same on his mentor's head.
The second thing Cloud noticed was the camera sitting on his desk. He sighed, picked it up, and took a picture of Zack forcing the hat, and Angeal struggling to get if off. The flash distracted both of them, and Zack recovered first and therefore fast enough to shove the hat on Angeal's head properly before sitting back on a fold-out chair. Cloud wondered where the man had found that.
"I'll put that one on the tree next year," Cloud promised with a smile.
"Hat for Cloud!" Zack declared, tossing another Santa hat at the youngest of their little company, then grinned. "And one for Seph," he said, holding it out to the man.
Sephiroth accepted it silently and graciously, then gently pulled it onto his own head. He wasn't going to give the puppy a reason to attack him the way he'd attacked Angeal.
Cloud delicately held his hat by its point, brought it up over his head, then dropped it. It went around his spikes perfectly and actually stayed fairly upright thanks to the power of his hair sticking straight up.
"How'd you do that?" Genesis demanded, a confused, bemused expression on his face as he looked from Cloud's face to his hat.
"Practice. Nibelhiem is cold," Cloud reminded. "This kind of hat is actually quite warm. We wear them all through winter back home."
Genesis huffed. "I never want to go to Nibelheim if it's as cold as you're suggesting it is. As far as I'm concerned, the best of Nibelheim is in this office right now. You, and the eggnogg."
"Here here!" Zack cheered, raising his cup in agreement. "To Cloud!"
"To Christmas!" Cloud countered, grabbing a cup and clinking it against Zack's.
"To candy apples!" Genesis added, bumping his against both of theirs.
Angeal laughed at his friend, picked up a cup for himself and added: "To cheer!"
Sephiroth was silent a moment, considering what he could contribute to the toast, taking up a cup and staring at it as he thought a moment. "To chains," he said solemnly. "May those of friendship grow ever stronger, and those of bondage break quickly."
"Here here!" Zack said again, smiling.
They all bumped their cups of Nibelheim eggnogg against each other and drank.
"And now, to presents!" Zack declared, reaching down to grab a package from under the tree. "Who claims this one?" he asked, holding it up.
"That one is for Angeal," Genesis said, setting his cup down next to his ankle and picking a candy apple off the tree. "You'd better like it," the red-head added, half-ordering his friend, a smirk on his face.
Zack passed the present over to his mentor and Angeal ripped through the paper, getting a grin from Genesis for the slight childishness of the usually very mature, very grown-up man who had been his friend all his life.
Beneath the paper was a bottle of cider – cider made from dumbapples, dumbapples that had been grown on the farm owned by Genesis' parents.
"I love it Gen," Angeal said, smiling genuinely at his friend. "Thank you. I've always wanted to try some of your family's produce, but..."
"I know Ange," Genesis said, cutting his friend off and smiling back at him. "You pick something out from beneath the tree."
Angeal picked up the present that Sephiroth had put there for Genesis: a new coat.
"The red was beginning to fade from the one you're wearing," Sephiroth said in good humour. The new coat was very red in comparison to the one Genesis was wearing already.
Genesis just laughed and switched into his new coat – his coat was the exact same shade of red it had always been, the new one was just a brighter, deeper colour. "It matches my Santa hat!" he declared, then slipped his hand under the tree for another present.
"Ooh, that's the one I got for Cloud!" Zack chirped, his violet eyes glowing brightly.
"Me?" Cloud asked, surprised, setting the camera aside and accepting the gift from Genesis. Cautiously, he tore into the paper. He looked up at the First Class. "Puppy," he said lowly. "I hope there is an explanation to go with this," Cloud said as he withdrew a toy chocobo from the paper.
The three Generals all laughed at the sight of the fluffy little thing. It was a gold chocobo too, so it almost matched Cloud's hair.
"You have nothing on your desk to say that it's yours Cloud! Nothing but a few pens and pads of sticky-notes! The chocobo adds personality. Besides, it's cute and matches your hair," Zack said, smiling as winsomely as he could.
Cloud sighed and reached over to sit the soft, six-inch-high chocobo on top of his computer, then turned back to Zack. "Happy now Puppy?" he asked.
Zack nodded, then - "Hey! Don't call me 'Puppy'! You're younger than I am!"
"But Cloud does not act like it," countered Sephiroth. "Pick out another one Cloud."
Cloud looked at the pile of gifts and picked up another one from Zack. This time, it was for Angeal.
"A paddle and whip?" Angeal asked, raising an eyebrow at Zack in question.
"Disciplinary tools," Zack said, shrugging easily. "You've said I'm a pain in the behind, so I figure you should have some way to inflict some pain upon mine, right?"
Angeal snorted, set the gifts aside and withdrew another parcel from the pile.
"That's for Zack," Cloud said, "but I'm not sure he deserves it any more."
"Of course I do Cloud!" Zack objected, grabbing it out of the air when Angeal tossed it to him.
It was a materia. A mastered materia. Zack whistled. "You're right Cloud, maybe I don't deserve it anymore," he said, staring at the orb. "But damn if I'm not going to make up for it by being absolutely perfect and on my very best behaviour for a good long time to make up for it!"
Cloud laughed. "Don't make promises you can't keep Zack," he said fondly. "Just use it well, yeah? Took me ages levelling that up."
Heads snapped around to stare at Cloud again.
"You levelled... when?" Genesis asked, gobsmacked.
"Just about every evening after I went home," Cloud answered easily, really not at all bothered by the matter. "It's a Cure, and I live in the slums. It's cheap and it's not too bad, but a lot of people get hurt and can't afford to get treated. There's a church not far from my apartment, and a lot of the injured and sick go there, either to die or to beg for a miracle. I do what I can with the materia training I got when I was in the cadet program. Don't worry about leaving me without either, it spawned another one a couple of days ago that I've started using now."
Zack nodded numbly, staring at the warm green orb before setting it reverently aside and grabbing up the next present to be opened.
"For Sephiroth," Angeal said, smiling.
It was a whetstone, a very fine whetstone.
"Yours was starting to look more like the sword was sharpening it than the other way around," Angeal said with a shrug.
"Thank you," Sephiroth said with a smile.
Zack then received new gloves from Angeal, Genesis got a painting of a scene from Loveless from Angeal, Sephiroth got a box of hair ties from Zack, and Zack got a collar from Genesis, with a lead, and a tag that said "Puppy".
"That one's for Cloud," Genesis said.
Zack handed it over to the blond, who looked thoroughly befuddled at getting another Christmas present.
It was a materia bracelet. Pure silver.
"Thank you Sir," Cloud said, with a smile, genuinely grateful. "The bracer I've been using is iron and rusting. This will make casting much easier."
Genesis shifted in his seat. "I looked in your old cadet file, it said that you weren't fantastic with materia, but I know how bad the bracelets are that they give the cadets. I thought if you had a good one it might help, and having some materia on hand is always a good idea," the Red General explained.
"I agree Sir," Cloud said. "Thank you. It's wonderful."
Genesis smiled. "You're welcome Cloud. Now go pick out another present!"
"That's my last present!" Zack called out. "It's for Genesis!"
"Oh dear," Genesis said, accepting the package. "We've seen the sorts of presents that Zack gives. Do I even want to open this?" he demanded of the younger man.
"Of course you do!" Zack answered happily. "Because if you don't then your curiosity will just eat away at you forever."
Genesis snorted, but ripped the paper open anyway. A pair of boots were what he found there. Red, stiletto boots. In his size.
"I'm not putting these on," Genesis said firmly, setting them down with the rest of his little stash before reaching to pull out another present from under the tree. It was Sephiroth's gift for Angeal.
"How to use the sword and not lose it to wear, tear and rust," Angeal read off the cover of the book, smiling crookedly at his friend. "You're sick of me carrying the Buster Sword and never using it, aren't you?"
Sephiroth nodded shortly.
Angeal picked up Cloud's gift to Genesis.
"Oh my," the red-head breathed, in awe of what he was seeing. A hard-bound leather book with "Project G, by Hollander, compiled by Strife" embossed on the cover. Genesis knew he was the man's experiment, just like Sephiroth was Hojo's, but Hollander was dead. His notes had all gone missing shortly after the man had died, and Genesis had been getting worried about what would happen to him without the scientist to keep up with whatever he was doing. Maybe, with this, Genesis would be able to figure it out for himself.
"I got in contact with a bunch of independent scientists as well," Cloud said when the silence had started to stretch into the area of uncomfortable. "They have no idea what I was talking to them about, but they provided some theories and ideas on what might come next and all that sort of thing. That's in the appendix at the back, along with all of their contact details if you want to speak to them."
Genesis nodded silently, his mako-coloured gaze still fixed on the cover of the book. It must have taken Cloud months to find all of this. When he looked up at the blond, he was crying. "Thank you," he said, his voice shaky.
Cloud smiled. "Anything for my Generals," he answered.
"I don't get it," Zack said, frowning. "What's so great about that book?"
"It's got all the details of all the experiments, treatments and theories that Hollander made regarding me and Angeal," Genesis said. "Since he's not around any more, it's mostly up to us now to make sure we don't die because we didn't know we needed another treatment that was supposed to happen in a couple of years."
"Oh," Zack said, shocked and uncomfortable with the idea of something bad happening to his mentor and his friend because they didn't go to a scientist on time.
"Exactly," Genesis said solemnly. He closed his eyes a moment, took a deep breath, the plastered a smile on his face and turned back to the tree to get another present.
"For Zack," Sephiroth said, seeing the package.
Zack ripped off the paper. "Aw! Seph!" he whined, pouting.
It was a muzzle.
"It will go with the collar, leash and tag that Genesis gave you," Sephiroth said with a smirk. "Loud Puppy."
Zack stuck his tongue out at Sephiroth and grabbed up the next present.
"Seph's," Genesis said, smiling, one hand still stroking the book on his lap as he alternated drinking eggnogg and eating the candied apples with the other.
It was wide, flat cupboard with a dartboard inside and pictures of Hojo, the President, Heidegger, Palmer and Scarlet printed onto the surface of it, a certain amount of points under each name, and a full set of darts hanging neatly from the doors of the little cupboard.
Sephiroth grinned. "I'm hanging this up in my office," he said, obviously very pleased with the gift. "Thank you Genesis."
Genesis grinned back. "I'll probably challenge you to a game or two. You're welcome."
The next gift was for Angeal, from Cloud. It was a Wutaian silk wall hanging, the word 'honour' written down the side and an image of Angeal's Buster Sword carefully painted on.
"Did you make this too Cloud?" Angeal asked.
Cloud blushed and shook his head. "I'm no artist," he said. "One of my neighbours is though, so I bought the silk and gave them a picture of the sword. They did it for me."
Angeal nodded. "It's wonderful. Thank you Cloud."
"It's good to know that you can't do everything too," Zack quipped as Angeal picked out the next gift. There were only a couple left under the tree now.
"This is for you," Angeal said, handing over his own gift to the blond.
Beneath the paper was a toolbox, full of tools – the kind used by mechanics rather than builders.
"I noticed you had a motorcycle," Angeal said. "You struck me as the kind to do the maintenance yourself too, so," he said, shrugging his shoulders and smiling.
Cloud smiled back. "I do take care of it myself, yeah," he answered. "Thank you Sir." Cloud closed the lid of the toolbox and picked up a present from under the tree, then held it out to Sephiroth. "For you Sir," he said.
Sephiroth's breath caught in his throat at what met his eyes when he pulled the paper away, and he stood abruptly, taking the two strides that would put him directly in front of Cloud.
"Sir?" Cloud asked, his neck straining to look up at the General from where he was sitting.
"What's up Seph?" Genesis and Zack asked, slightly out of beat with each other, both of them looking up at Sephiroth as well.
Angeal tilted his head to try and read what was on the framed paper that Sephiroth was holding.
"Thank you," Sephiroth said, breathing the words out with fervour, then bent down and claimed Cloud's lips in a fiery kiss. "Thank you," he said again when the kiss ended.
"That's the second time you've kissed our secretary," Genesis said, smirking. "Most people date at least once before they get to the kissing bit, especially the kisses you two seem to get into. Angeal and I did."
"Me and Aerith too," Zack agreed.
Cloud's blush deepened. "You're all lucky your stalker-clubs don't know about those relationships," he muttered, only just audibly.
"And they would find out about me dating anybody," Sephiroth said with a frown. Looking from Genesis to Angeal he continued, "You two were in a relationship already when you arrived at ShinRa, and -" he looked over at Zack, "you found your flower girl while on a mission in the slums where the fan clubs do not go. You are all safe. I and Cloud would not be." Sephiroth turned back to Cloud. "Even if he agreed to a relationship with me," he said, the question implied beneath the statement in his tone.
Cloud smiled shyly through the blush that still had him looking like a cherry, and nodded.
Sephiroth smiled back.
"Hey, what was the present that merited kissing anyway?" Genesis demanded.
"Cloud got me a restraining order against Hojo," Sephiroth said, turning properly and holding up the framed document for his friends to see.
"That merits a good snog," Zack agreed, grinning.
"Don't be crass Puppy," Angeal scolded, but smiled at his friend. "Congratulations."
"I've got another copy of that document that I'm going to hang up in this office too, so that Hojo is reminded every time he tries to just storm through," Cloud added.
Sephiroth smiled at Cloud and reached under the tree for the last gift: his to Cloud.
"Oh my..." Cloud whispered in awe. It was a sword. A Buster Sword.
"You were training towards using one of these when you were a cadet, weren't you Cloud? I thought you might like to have your own. I'm sure we can schedule some training time so you'll be able to use it properly," Sephiroth said, smiling.
"Thank you," Cloud answered, beginning to tear up.
"And if you can use a weapon, then we'll be able to take you with us on missions as our private attaché, rather than some grunt who only knows how to use a gun badly, or a cadet who is too nervous of our reputations to be of any use," Genesis added with a teasing smile.
"Hey, there's another box under the tree!" Zack said, distracting everybody from the sword that Sephiroth had given Cloud. Zack grabbed it up and read the tag. "Hah! Cloud really did think of everything! He even got -" Zack opened the box with a flourish, "- Mistletoe!"
Genesis snatched the sprig from Zack's hands and held it above himself and Angeal with one hand, kissing his best friend and lover thoroughly.
"They normally save that sort of behaviour for when they're at their apartment," Sephiroth said with a smirk.
"Maybe the eggnogg is getting to them?" Zack suggested. "I didn't know we could still get drunk past the mako."
"It is hard," Sephiroth said. "Not impossible, and we have all been drinking it fairly steadily without any food but sweets."
"Most of which also have a certain amount of alcohol in them as well," Cloud added with a small smile.
Zack grinned. "The candy apples helped Genesis get drunk faster?" he asked.
Cloud just shrugged innocently and turned to check his clock. "You've got an hour before the company party is due to begin."
Sephiroth groaned. "We still can't get out of those things," he grumbled.
"I can," Zack said happily. "I'm having Christmas Dinner with Aerith."
"And I was only invited to the other company party, which I could decline," Cloud added, apologetically.
Cloud pulled a face in disgust at the mission request that he was processing. Hojo had finally gotten around to doing it the right way, and was applying – via Lazard even, now that the man had come back, so it was an order more than a request – for General Sephiroth to be sent out to Nibelhiem to retrieve scientific materials from the reactor and mansion. The General was, naturally, was allowed to choose who would get to go with him on this 'mission', but all that Cloud could do was slot the mission into a time when the man didn't have lots of important meetings that had nothing to do with him but he still couldn't miss.
"Cloud?" Zack called, opening the door and letting himself in.
"Hey Zack," Cloud answered, giving the First a smile. "How are you?"
Zack grinned. "I'm brilliant. I just found out when your birthday is!" he announced, setting a small gift down on the blond's desk.
Cloud groaned, but smiled. "Thank you Zack," he said. "If it's another chocobo though, I'll frog-march you to an empty sparring room and see how I'm going with the Buster I got for Christmas."
Zack laughed. "Without mako, I'm surprised you can even lift it! You'd never beat me."
Cloud smirked, shook his head, and ripped off the paper. It was a jewellery box, with earrings inside. Silver earrings that looked like the heads of Nibel wolves with a ring through their mouths.
"Thank you Zack," Cloud said, a genuine smile on his face. "I'll get my ears pierced after work today, and you'll get to see how they look tomorrow."
Zack beamed, glad that the gift was well-received. "Actually, they're from those three as well," he said, gesturing to the door that led to the Generals' offices. "But I was the one given the task of finding out when your birthday was and delivering them."
Cloud chuckled. "Alright then, I'll remember to thank them too when I take them their lunches."
"Don't bother with mine," Angeal said, emerging from his office. "Happy birthday Cloud," he said with a smile. "I'll be getting lunch with Zack on the way back from our mission today."
Cloud nodded. Monster killing missions didn't take long for the elites, but since the Wutai war had ended, it was a good way to make sure that skills stayed sharp. The two left Cloud alone to get through the rest of the papers of the day, and half an hour later, the blond was done with his task. At least for now. Papers in hand, Cloud went to deliver them for signatures, or in the case of the mission orders for Sephiroth, to take notes on what the man wanted to requisition for the use of the mission.
"I see mission orders," Genesis noted when Cloud set his pile down on the red-head's desk.
"For General Sephiroth. Hojo via Lazard," Cloud answered. "Nibelheim."
Genesis nodded. "He'll want to take you, you know," he said. "You know the place and none of us like to be without you. See if you can assign me, Angeal and Zack something at the same time? That way we can all be out of the office and not have to worry about being without you too much."
"Do you want me to mention to Sephiroth that you want to come with to Nibelheim? Or would you rather just an extended monster hunt somewhere warmer?"
Genesis smiled. "Think you can get us to Costa Del Sol?" he asked.
Cloud laughed. "I'm sure I can Sir," he answered. "I'll even check and see if I can make it a holiday pretending to be a mission. How's that sound?"
Genesis sighed. "Wonderful. Me, Ange, the beach..."
Cloud chuckled. "The Puppy," he added, shaking his head. "I'll see if we can't take Zack to Nibelheim. I'll find the right reasons and excuses. Leave it to me Sir. Oh, and thank you for the earrings."
"You're an absolute gem Cloud," Genesis said, smiling broadly, returning to his fantasy land for a moment before picking up his pen and getting to the papers that Cloud and sat on his desk.
In Sephiroth's office, Cloud smirked that most of the darts were planted in Hojo's face, but there were a few scattered over other pictures on the dartboard.
"You've got mission orders Sir," Cloud said as he lay the paper pile on Sephiroth's desk. The orders were on top of the pile, and Cloud took out paper and pen to take notes of what Sephiroth wanted for the mission.
"A truck, don't want to hurry for Hojo and he wants things brought back, so we'll need more space than a chopper. A truck needs a driver, if you have no objections Cloud I'd like that to be you. You'll be able to double as a guide while we're there. How long does it take to get to Nibelheim?"
"Took me a week to get here from Nibelheim," Cloud answered. "But I was on foot or catching rides the whole way. It will be faster in a ShinRa truck, so four, maybe three days if we drive late and rise early," Cloud answered.
"Standard provisions for an eight day round trip then, assuming we can lodge at the inn there?"
Cloud nodded. "Anything else Sir?"
Sephiroth considered. "If I'm on an extended mission like this one, then Genesis will want out of the office too. He'd particularly like to take Angeal with him. We'll take Zack with us. He can help with any monsters we come across along the way, since you're still working on using the sword I gave you without over-exerting yourself. I want you loaded up with materia for this Cloud. You're driver, medic and skirmish back-up for this."
Cloud nodded his understanding. "I'll get the requisition forms and have them filled in for your signature before lunch."
Sephiroth smiled. "Thank you Cloud."
Cloud smiled as he filled in the forms for tents, food, transport, sleeping bags, materia, field medical kit, everything that two separate groups would need for a two-week-long mission. He wasn't sure how long they would have to actually be in Nibelheim, but he figured that if they didn't need that much time then they'd be able to relax on the journey back. Besides, Genesis and Angeal were getting their holiday-mission to Costa Del Sol at the same time. They deserved a full two weeks off, even if the real mission didn't take that long.
Cloud had managed to fabricate a reason for the mission to the resort town fairly easily actually. The reactor there was due for an inspection and there was rumour of there being monsters in the area. Neither of those would take long to deal with, and after the General's walked in, and out, of the reactor building, they would have the rest of the time assigned to their mission to kick back. That it was a four-and-a-half-day journey to get there meant that they'd really only have about four days to enjoy the beach, but that was better than nothing.
For Sephiroth, Zack and himself, thankfully, they were going to Nibelheim in the height of summer, so while it would be a bit fresh and nippy, the mako-enhanced SOLDIERs would probably not need more than a long-sleeved knitted shirt with their uniforms, to keep out the chill. Cloud decided to just buy those shirts himself rather than requisition them. It was easier, and if he got the shirts back then he'd wear them himself – when he grew into them. If he didn't get them back, then it was only a couple of shirts and he would be glad that they were appreciated by people he cared about.
Cloud lowered himself into the bath he'd prepared. Tomorrow he would be heading home to Nibelheim with General Sephiroth and First Class Fair. It had been a week of getting everything ready, making sure that people who sent paper work to the Generals knew that they would be gone for two weeks – and to send back up to Nibelheim if they were longer than that, because they really, really shouldn't. He wasn't worried about the fake mission to Costa Del Sol. It was a cakewalk. Nibelheim on the other hand had been requested by Hojo. That already stank of trouble.
Right now though, his bike was tuned, his sword was sharpened, his bag was packed and his bathwater was glowing.
Yeah, glowing. He had mixed some mako into his bathwater. Only about five milligrams. Not even a full shot's worth for a Third Class, and seriously watered down by how much water was in that tub, but he'd taken to mixing mako with his bathwater since he'd been a kid. He'd scooped up a little from the floor of the reactor one day, sneaking around as kids often did, and he'd made his bathwater glow. Since, he'd found that it relaxed his muscles, made him feel good. Over the years and years of continued exposure to such small amounts of mako, his body had become stronger. It was why he was able to lift his Buster Sword at all without having gotten those treatments. Wielding it had taken a lot of practice – he found himself in training rooms every weekend when the paper work was done, working to get better, and he had a few weights around his flat which he strapped to his wrists and ankles the moment he got home at the end of the day.
Cloud smiled as he thought about driving Sephiroth and Zack to his dinky little home town. He'd said he wouldn't come back until he was a SOLDIER when he left, but then his priorities had changed, and now he would be going back as the personal attaché of General Sephiroth. He may not have been popular when he left, the only blond in town and smaller than everybody to boot, but he was going back a somebody.
Cloud ducked his head under the water, feeling good about himself as the grime soaked away and the mako soaked in.
The drive to Nibelheim ended up taking three-and-a-half days, they didn't drive late or get up early, but there weren't any monster delays that Cloud had allowed for.
"Welcome to Nibelheim," Cloud declared as he put the truck in park just outside the only inn the backwater place had. "Home of proper eggnogg and wolf-resistant country bumpkins."
Zack laughed. "Wolf-resistant?" he questioned with a grin. "As in Nibel wolves? You get them a lot here?"
"They come into town in the winters, looking for children who can only scream and maybe go for the eyes," Cloud explained. "Everybody learns at least one weapon well enough to get them off. Most people choose a double-barrel shot gun. People like me who can't aim learn the sword, the really brave learn hand-to-hand well enough to hold them off until someone with a gun comes along."
Sephiroth hopped out of the truck behind Zack at that moment. "Will you be staying at the inn with us or will you go see your family?" he asked.
Cloud shook his head. "Ma's dead," he answered. "I sold the house and nearly everything in it so that I could survive all the way to Midgar when I left here."
With that, he led them into the inn and to the rooms that he'd booked back in Midgar.
"The orders were to get records from the mansion and a specimen from one of the tanks at the reactor," Sephiroth stated once they were shut away in their rooms. The innkeeper had been gob-smacked and then nosey upon seeing Cloud Strife with the two ShinRa elites. "Will you need an escort in the mansion Cloud? You have described it as a fire-trap before."
Cloud nodded as he sat down on one of the chairs in Sephiroth's room. "Probably a nest of monsters too," he allowed. "If you want to clear the mansion of monsters tomorrow, and then I'll show you the safest path up to the reactor before going back to handle sorting through all the reports."
Sephiroth and Zack nodded. Cloud then left them then to order dinner and answer to the gossips who had congregated. He didn't expect Tifa Lockheart to plaster herself to his side, demanding to know all about what had happened since he left, but then not giving him a chance to answer her.
For himself, Cloud could see quite clearly what had happened with her since he'd left: she'd gotten that breast augmentation she'd always wanted and her hair had gotten longer. The mayor's daughter looked like those women in Midgar who were always termed 'gold diggers'. The boys who had once bullied him looked like they were now learning the trades of their fathers and were now all a little bit apologetic for the way they'd treated him – they wanted to meet the famous General, and he was the one they now had to buddy it up to if they wanted that to happen.
Cloud waded through them all silently until he reached the bar counter.
"The General will have the spiced soup, First Class Fair will have egg turnover with cheese and tomato, and I'll have a wolf steak. We'll also want garlic bread, a jug of water, and First Class Fair has an obsession with eggnogg," Cloud stated calmly. "I need a receipt."
The innkeeper nodded silently and rang it up before heading out to the kitchens.
Cloud turned to Tifa, who was still smooshing her large breasts against his arm. "I made the cut for SOLDIER," he said – it was stretching the truth just a little bit. He'd failed the test deliberately, he would have made the cut if he hadn't. "Now I'm the secretary and personal assistant to the Three Generals, Sephiroth, Genesis Rhapsodos, and Angeal Hewley. We are here to inspect the reactor and the ShinRa mansion." After that, Cloud said nothing else but "thank you" to the innkeeper when he returned with Cloud's food order on a large tray. Cloud took it easily and headed back up to their rooms.
"Why does yours look more manly than our meals Cloud?" Zack asked, pouting. "Why didn't we get steak?"
Cloud smirked. "The only animal up here big enough to turn into steaks is Nibel wolf. You want a wolf steak?"
Zack went a little green. "Okay," he allowed, "you're right. This and the eggnogg will fortify me just fine."
There was a monster in just about every room in the mansion, and Sephiroth insisted on clearing them all out before leaving Cloud there alone to find and sort through Hojo's reports. This meant that a very thorough search was made of the whole building, secret passageways and hidden doors between the rooms were found, rotten floorboards were identified, eventually a wind materia was used to clear all the dust out, and they found the coffin room.
"I don't like the idea of finding bodies in those," Zack said, eyeing the boxes distrustfully.
"I don't like the idea of there being a monster hiding in one of those that will come out when Cloud is the only one here," Sephiroth countered.
Cloud found a crowbar and pried open the first coffin. "Empty," he declared.
Zack relaxed. "Okay, I feel better about searching them now," he said, and went to wrench open a second coffin with his gloved hands. "Mako enhancements, gotta love 'em," he snickered once he confirmed that his coffin was also empty.
Five coffins later, they found one that was occupied.
"Who are you and what do you want?" the red-and-black clothed, coffin-residing man demanded, his red eyes cracked open the very smallest amount.
"Cloud Strife. We're just inspecting the mansion for monsters," Cloud, the one who had opened the coffin, answered. "Who are you?"
"Vincent Valentine. My status as monster could well be argued, but -"
"Wait, Vincent Valentine?" Cloud interrupted, his eyes going wide. "Turk, involved with Lucrecia Cresent at one time?"
"Yes," the man answered warily.
Cloud turned from the coffin. "Sephiroth! I found your dad!" he called out, an excited grin plastered across his face.
"What?" Sephiroth and Vincent practically yelped at the same time.
Zack dropped the lid to the coffin he had just proved empty and was standing with Cloud and Sephiroth next to Vincent's coffin in seconds.
"Vincent Valentine is the name on Sephiroth's birth certificate under the section stating 'name of father'," Cloud explained, the beginnings of a stunned smile replacing the grin. "I thought your face looked familiar, but your old ID photo from the ShinRa archives had you with much shorter hair, and your skin wasn't quite as pale either."
"A lifetime out of the sun will drain any tan, and I haven't exactly been going out to get regular haircuts," Vincent answered the blond, then his ruby eyes shifted to look at Sephiroth.
"Makes sense," Zack said simply, shrugging. "Right now we're still clearin' out this place though, so how about we finish the job we're here to do, Cloud can take us up to the reactor, and then when we come back we'll all go back down to the inn and discuss things over food and eggnogg."
Sephiroth snorted. "You were sounding mature until you mentioned eggnogg," he said.
"You love the Nibelheim eggnogg just as much as I do, so don't say that having more isn't a good idea!" Zack countered fiercely.
Cloud picked up his crowbar again and moved to the next coffin. Sephiroth, Zack and Vincent opened others.
Before long Sephiroth and Zack were at the reactor, looking through Hojo's specimens for the one that he wanted brought to Midgar. Vincent went back to the mansion with Cloud and helped to find all the reports and sort them.
That was a job that promised to take a while.
Then again, so was the paperwork that the Generals had to do every day – until Cloud came along.
Cloud looked up at the sound of the door squeaking open. Normally, in his own office back in Midgar, he wouldn't have let someone showing up distract him from his reading, but this was Nibelheim. It could have been Tifa coming to press her chest against him some more – since he was now desirable as someone who was well paid by ShinRa and worked closely with the famous Generals. Thankfully, it wasn't the girl with dark hair and wine-coloured eyes, but Sephiroth and Zack.
"How was the reactor?" Cloud asked.
"Hojo had a lot of specimens up there," Zack answered, shuddering in disgust.
"What about down here?" Sephiroth asked.
Cloud gestured to the cardboard boxes full of neatly stacked papers. "I'm reading through them as fast as I can, making sure the pages are sequential, checking for spelling errors or places where Hojo seems to contradict himself – which he does a lot. I have every intention of sending the man a box of chocolates with soft arsenic flavoured centres when we get back to Midgar. Mr Valentine has been a wonderful help, finding reports and papers that were tucked between pages of books or neatly stacked in hidey holes like Hojo didn't want anybody to find them. I'm inclined to believe that the reports he hid are the ones that are more accurate, but I don't know that for sure. I'd like to get someone who is an expert on old books up here, so that we can verify which of these books are actually genuine, since Hojo references them a bunch of times."
"This one is fake," Vincent interrupted flatly, opening one of the books.
"How do you know?" Sephiroth asked, curious.
"It says that it was printed by the Junon university, but the date given is seventy years before there was a university at Junon, and one hundred years before the Junon university had a printing press," Vincent said with a shrug. "I was a student there once, and I liked history. I've combed the mansion Cloud," Vincent said, turning then to the blond as he abruptly changed the topic. "These are the last of the papers I could find," he added, holding up an inch-thick sheaf before setting them down on one of the piles of papers.
"Thank you Mr Valentine," Cloud said with a grateful smile. "I probably would have taken at least a week to find all those cubby holes the reports were hiding in."
"You're welcome Cloud."
"So, these boxes are done?" Zack asked, looking at the two boxes beside the desk where Cloud had set up.
Cloud nodded. "Those reports pertain to projects J and V," Cloud answered. "Professor Gast was contributing notes to Project J until he left, and then Dr Cresent was contributing notes to Project V. No offence meant Mr Valentine."
Vincent nodded. "None taken," he said. "Hojo was always de-humanising his subjects by giving them a letter or number rather than using their names. You meant no harm by it."
"Any sign of a Project S then?" Zack asked delicately. "Since we know how fond Hojo is of having Sephiroth hooked up to things in his lab."
Cloud nodded solemnly. "Injections to foetuses, mako treatments to children, numerous unpleasant therapies, cloning for the more risky ideas so that the original wouldn't be tainted by any potentially negative effects," the blond answered, getting up from the desk and pulling out another box that had been hidden at his side. "This is what I've gotten through so far of Project S," he said.
The boxes that had been labelled Project J and Project V were both standard file boxes, full but not bulging, and sealed, as though everything that could be found on those subjects had been. This box was the same size as the other two, also full, but not sealed yet. Cloud then picked up another box that was open and had just a couple of folders in it.
"I'm still going," he admitted. "Sorting them by date as well as subject slowed things down a little bit, and..." Cloud shifted uncomfortably.
"Just say it Cloud," Sephiroth insisted.
"Project S1, S2, S3, S4, S5..." Cloud said quietly. "It goes up to S12 before he stops."
"Twelve... clones?" Sephiroth said.
"Eleven clones," Cloud corrected. "Eleven clones and the original."
"The specimens in the tanks," Zack said, numbly. "They're the clones, aren't they?"
"Probably," Cloud allowed softly. "General Sephiroth? Will you be alright?"
"You said something about arsenic-laced chocolates for Hojo?" he answered.
Cloud smiled just a little and nodded.
"Then yes, Cloud, I will be fine. I'm not right now, but I will be," Sephiroth answered.
"Back to town for dinner now?" Zack suggested. "Nibelheim eggnogg will help."
Cloud, Sephiroth, and even Vincent laughed at that, and the red-eyed man hadn't had Nibelheim eggnogg for nearly thirty years.
"We can take the three sealed boxes and load them into the truck as well," Cloud said, sealing then picking up the one labelled Project S. "There is probably going to be another couple of boxes tomorrow, as well as that specimen Hojo wants collected. Better to not have to carry them all down at once."
Sephiroth nodded and moved to pick up one of the other two boxes.
"Seph," Zack interrupted, laying a hand on the shoulder of his superior. "Generals don't carry boxes when there are other people around who can do that for them."
Sephriroth sighed, but relented, gesturing for Zack to take the box instead. Vincent had already picked up the Project V box, so Zack got Project J.
"You're the best at getting any monsters out of the way if we meet them on the track from here back to town anyway Sir," Cloud added with a smile.
Sephiroth smiled back. "Thank you Cloud," he said.
"Two spicy soups, an egg turn over with tomato and cheese, a wolf steak, bowl of garlic bread, and pitcher each of water and eggnogg," Cloud ordered as Sephiroth and Zack led Vincent up the stairs to their rooms in the inn.
"Will you be wanting another room for ..."
"Mr Valentine will be taking my room," Cloud answered shortly. "The General wants me to keep working tonight, so I won't be needing the bed."
The innkeeper nodded, rung up the receipt for the food, and went to the kitchen.
What Cloud had told the innkeeper was only half a lie. They had discussed sleeping arrangements as they walked down the mountainside. Cloud had offered his bed to Vincent, fully intending to sleep on the couch, as the only person in their company small enough to fit comfortably. He wouldn't be working through the night. All the papers were up at the mansion, and none of them wanted Cloud up there, in the middle of the night, alone with Hojo's reports. Sephiroth had half-offered-half-ordered Cloud to share his bed.
"This mission is likely the only opportunity we will have to begin any sort of relationship without my, as you put it, stalker-club instantly becoming a problem," Sephiroth pointed out. They'd shared a tent on the journey up, but not yet the same bed.
Cloud had smiled at that, and as he took the tray of food up to the rooms, he was still smiling.
When Cloud handed around the food, Vincent stared at the steak for a moment, as if asking why Cloud was the only one with the manly meal.
"Oh, right, wolf steak," he muttered to himself, clearly remembering the last time he'd actually eaten in Nibelheim. "Soup is much safer."
Sephiroth and Zack chuckled, having been through that the previous night.
Cloud's phone chose that moment to go off. His alarm to check his messages that had piled up over the week. Pulling it out, Cloud was visibly irked by what he found there.
"Newsletters from the stalker-clubs," he said, holding out the phone to Zack, who'd been the one to ask. "What conditioner does Sephiroth use; does Genesis sleep in the nude; does Angeal like to ride chocobos; do you, Zack Fair, prefer blonds, brunettes, or red-heads?"
"You get a newsletter from... 'stalker-clubs'?" Vincent asked, confused.
"They're groups obsessed with the Generals and Zack," Cloud explained. "The best way to combat them is by knowing what they want to know and making sure they can't find out."
Vincent nodded in understanding.
The food was eaten, conversation shared, the eggnogg drunk, Cloud retrieved his bag, and Vincent and Zack in their rooms for the night. Cloud and Sephiroth changed into their pyjamas facing away from each other and crawled into bed where they snuggled together under the covers. Sephiroth asked quiet questions until the yaws started to interrupt the answers.
The next day, Cloud was escorted to the mansion before Sephiroth, Zack and Vincent would go on to collect the specimen Hojo wanted from the reactor.
"Being near the thing gives me a headache," Sephiroth complained. "Like it's yelling straight into my head."
"Hojo didn't specify that the specimen had to be alive," Cloud offered, "if killing it will make you feel better."
Sephiroth smiled a cruel, but grateful smile. "Wonderful Cloud. Thank you," he said, then kissed the blond before he and the other two men left.
Cloud, for his part, was just glad that Sephiroth wasn't reading these reports himself. They'd very nearly sent him into a murderous rage, he didn't like the idea of Sephiroth losing his temper. Yes, the arsenic-laced chocolates were a good plan. In case Hojo was paranoid to have someone else taste them first though, Cloud had several back-ups and contingency plans.
The Silver Elite were quick to spot Vincent and Cloud both when they returned from Nibelhiem, and then the hunt was on for their identities and why they had been with the General. Zack was a known friend to the man after all, Cloud and Vincent were unknown quantities. The newsletter with the best informed theories came out a week after the Generals were all back in their offices and Vincent had been reinstated as a Turk. The day after Hojo's funeral. No one had gone.
"They know," Cloud announced when the Generals arrived together the next morning.
"Who and what?" Genesis asked.
"The stalker-clubs," Cloud said. "About Vincent... and my status as your secretary and personal assistant."
The colour drained from their faces abruptly and there was silence in Cloud's office.
"I think," Sephiroth said cautiously after a few minutes, "that the time has come to retire from ShinRa."
"And go where?" Genesis demanded, rounding on Sephiroth furiously. "Do what? I want to be a famous warrior, thank you very much. I can't do that any other way!"
"Sir, you already are a famous warrior," Cloud pointed out, smiling weakly. "The three of you are tied for first in the top ten list of greatest warriors in history."
Genesis grumbled, crossing his arms and pouting.
"If we retired," Angeal said, slipping his arms around Genesis' waist, "then we could spend whole days in bed," he suggested, nibbling on his best friend and lover's ear. "We found out how nice that was in Costa Del Sol, didn't we?"
"Yes," Genesis said, sighing. "Yes, we did. But we can't live off doing nothing."
"There are always monsters to kill," Angeal continued, persuasively. "You could set up a theatre if you wanted."
"We could set up an entire town if we wanted, with our savings," Sephiroth pointed out dryly.
"That would draw the stalker-clubs to take up permanent residence around us," Angeal countered.
"I didn't mean to cause this much of a fuss," Cloud said, shaking his head. "I'm sure I can handle it, the out-of-barracks jobs are just going to have to be done more covertly."
"I'm still sick of them," Sephiroth said, then gave Cloud a kiss before going into his office.
"They don't know about that do they?" Genesis asked, smiling at the blond as he let Angeal shuffle him after Sephiroth.
"No Sir," Cloud answered. "They don't know about any of your relationships. I make absolutely sure of it."
"Thank you Cloud."
Cloud had forced himself not to smile at the funeral of President ShinRa. He'd been killed by his legitimate son Rufus, though there would be no investigation into the matter. The young man had been assisted in this particular endeavour by some Turks. Now, at Rufus' speech to all the employees outlining the changes he intended to make to the company, Cloud couldn't keep the grin off of his face.
Rufus was aware of various eco-terrorists who wanted to shut ShinRa down for using mako to generate electricity, claiming that mako was the life-blood of the planet, and by using mako so thoughtlessly the company was killing the planet. Cloud wasn't sure about that, but Rufus wasn't risking it. He was converting the company to generate electricity in different ways. Wind power, solar power, hydro-electronics, and the science departments would be dedicating themselves to finding ways to power everything that they used now without having to use mako.
There would be no more cadet intakes either, and the regular army was being disbanded. ShinRa was becoming a proper business, rather than a dictatorship. SOLDIERs and Turks would be free to retire or stay as they pleased, but they would be acting as anti-monster units and security respectively. There would be no more mako injections except for those who actually needed them – like Genesis and Angeal, who were still actively working to stabilise their biochemistry after Hollander's tinkering. According to the scientists they were working with, they only needed mako once a month for another year, and then they should be fine.
ShinRa would also be actively rooting out all the old laboratories of Hojo, Gast and Hollander, clearing out the messes they'd left behind, and putting the foot down on the stalker-clubs. Apparently, Rufus had one as well, and didn't like them.
Cloud cheered loudly when the speech was over.