Full Summary: AU. Shinra's great Soldiers are believed to be nothing more than monsters in human skin, ruthless weapons meant only for the battlefield. Their Handlers are the real glory holders, the controllers of these seemingly uncontrollable weapons. New Handler Zack Fair believes the stories he grew up hearing about Shinra's destructive weapons, and so he traveled to Midgar to find the glory of a hero as one of their Handlers. Zack is given a Soldier by the name of Cloud, a particularly vicious monster despite his youth and angelic appearance. Cloud killed his last Handler and if Zack isn't careful, Cloud will kill him too.

Yet when Zack meets Angeal, a fellow Handler who has the honor of controlling the famous Soldier Sephiroth, Zack slowly begins to peel away the secrets and prejudices surrounding the Soldiers. As time goes by, Zack makes a startlingly terrifying realization; Cloud is human after all. Somewhere beneath his vicious and feral behavior is a broken and tortured young man who has been driven mad by constant and unending abuse. The same, Zack realizes, is true of Sephiroth, whose stoic mask and calm ruthlessness hides an inquisitive mind and quirky sense of humor. As Zack begins to recognize the humanity of the Soldiers, he comes to another startling conclusions – he will do whatever he must to keep the Soldiers safe; even if it means tearing down Shinra brick by brick.

Author's Note: This fanfic came about as the result of several very odd conversations, most of them at 2 am, and eventually morphed into what it is now after a dive through the FF7 TVTropes page. Genesis, in Crisis Core, refers to the Soldiers as monsters. I wondered, what if everyone else saw them that way as well? The end result was this, a fanfic that I'm expecting to be around 20 chapters and between 60,000 and 90,000 words long.

Warnings: Let's get this out of the way, shall we? There will be warnings every chapter. HOWEVER, there are blanket warnings for violence and language, casual references to acts we would consider inhumane, and other elements of dehumanization/objectification (including exploration of their psychological effects).

Disclaimer: I don't own, please don't sue. I own a copy of the game, a copy of Crisis Core, two copies of Advent Children, an Aerith cosplay and a half completed Lolita!Cloud cosplay. Yeah, I'm just another fangirl with an idea in her head...

Thank you so much to Namel for being an amazing beta reader!

Chapter One: The Soldier

"I'm sure you remember from your studies that Mako is nothing more than energy drawn from the core of the planet. The same energy that powers the lights in the tower has the ability to corrupt, to diffuse, and to reconstruct the very core of a person's body and psyche, making monsters where once there were men."

The oily haired scientist was speaking, rambling more like it, as Soldier Handler Zack Fair followed quietly behind him, his boots ringing out against the metal grating on the floor. Zack was only half interested in the scientist's words as he explained what Zack had already heard hundreds of times over in training. The Soldiers were not human. Mako turned ordinary beasts into extraordinary and ruthless monsters, and humans were nothing more than intelligent beasts. So it stood to reason that a human exposed to Mako would become a monster, and a powerful one at that. Yet Soldiers lacked the control and rationale of humans, such was their power as weapons, and so Soldier Handlers like Zack were needed to control them.

They were in the annals of the Shinra Science Department, specifically in the Soldier Containment Cells, and the metal corridor was lined with bars. Some of the cells were silent and dark, while others held the beasts themselves, snarling and growling things, many pacing back and forth and stopping only long enough to fix Mako bright eyes on scientist and the Handler as they walked by. They truly were like all the stories and video feeds had claimed – beautiful for the raw power that rippled beneath their skin, the power of the planet itself that surged through them. Many Soldiers were the same age as Zack, he recalled, in their late teens and early twenties. The experiments that created them were often performed on young children, so that by the time they reached adulthood, they were deadly killing machines ready to be trained for use on the battlefield.

The scientist came to a stop abruptly in front of one of the cells, and Zack forced his attention away from the other Soldiers so he could focus on the man in front of him and not accidentally bowl into him. The scientist shot him an annoyed glance over his shoulder before gesturing to one of the cells. "Sephiroth." He explained, and Zack felt a tingle at the base of his spine, the excitement at getting to see the first and greatest of the Soldiers in person.

The beast in the cell, unlike the others, was not left free to roam as he pleased, but rather was bound kneeling in the middle of the cell, his arms chained behind his back to his ankles by short Mako-infused steel, the only material strong enough to subdue a Soldier's strength. His immaculate silver hair fell in a cascade around his heart-shaped face, clinging to pale skin turned sticky with sweat. His Mako bright eyes were hidden behind a heavy leather blindfold that blocked out all light in the cell. He was beautiful, as he lifted his face at the sound of the two of them, muscles rippling and straining beneath his bindings and Zack found himself swallowing convulsively at the Soldier who wore nothing else yet seemed completely unconcerned with modesty. He'd never thought of himself as gay, but Zack supposed that raw power and beauty had an allure completely separate from true attraction.

"His Handler has spoiled him." The scientist explained, lip curled up in disgust at the sight that so fascinated Zack. "Handler Angeal Hewley is by and far the most successful of the Handlers, and there is no question that Sephiroth obeys him both on and off the battlefield, but when Hewley is called away on separate business, we are forced to resort to chaining his Soldier like a wild youngling. At least the others can be trusted not to truly destroy lab equipment or their cells – we can't even expect that much of this one."

Zack nodded in understanding, still fascinated even as the scientist turned and began to walk away. Zack lingered as long as he could without falling too far behind. The scientist took no notice, except to say. "I trust you will have more sense when training your Soldier, Handler Fair. Soldiers should be obedient first and foremost to their Handlers, but they should also be capable of recognizing the authority of the labs and us, their makers." Zack bit his lip to keep from making a snide remark about the lab tech's inflated sense of ego. He'd only been a Handler for three days now and he didn't want to go around making enemies before he'd so much as been given his first Soldier.

Thankfully, the next time they stopped it was in front of the cell that contained Zack's Soldier. He'd been given the file the day before and had familiarized himself with the contents regarding his Soldier, but nothing could have prepared him for seeing the creature in person. The Soldier was just as beautiful as Sephiroth, though smaller and more delicate in build, all long limbs with whipcord muscles. His hair was blond, an atrocious mess that looked like it'd been sloppily cropped around his ears until it stood up in gravity defying spikes, and his eyes, beneath messy bangs, were a brilliant blue-green, glowing brightly in the dim light of the lab. His only clothing was a pair of plain black slacks slung low over slender hips. The strangest part of the Soldier's appearance, however, was the odd metal cage that wrapped around the beast's jaw and fastened behind his head, keeping his mouth pressed closed and completely immobile.

Seeing Zack's confusion the scientist explained, "I thought you had been made aware of 562's special case, Handler. This beast killed his last Handler—tore his throat out on the training room floor when the man wasn't paying attention. Don't fall for their angelic looks. These are dangerous weapons and untrained they will turn on you as soon as you'd take your eye off of them. This one especially."

Zack had been debriefed on his Soldier's history. It'd been contained in the file with his dossier. Fifteen years old, responding to the name Cloud, and boasting the impressive Mako profile of a First Class Soldier. Many Soldiers fell into Third Class ranks, a gauge of strength and adaptability to the Mako. Only a few were as responsive to Mako therapy as this beast had been, and with proper training he might, one day, be as strong Sephiroth himself. Zack beamed to know that he'd been selected for this creature specifically, even if it was a more dangerous assignment than the rest of his class had been given. This knowledge was made ever more real in Zack's mind by the presence of the muzzle – reminding him that for all his glory, the monster before him was far more dangerous than any he might face out on the battlefield.

"I was informed." Zack told the scientist, mildly annoyed with the accusation. "I was given orders not to remove the muzzle, but how will he eat?" For just a moment, Zack pitied the poor creature, but he'd brought it on himself by misbehaving. A little bit of hunger would hardly kill him.

"He can go for two weeks between feeding. We'll give you daily vitamin shots to go alongside his normal sedatives and that will help him keep up his strength. Every two weeks, return him to the lab and we'll put him under sedation and insert a feeding tube. Don't worry Handler, we've been doing this since he killed his last Handler – there have been no noticeable decreases in his performance while on this feeding schedule." The scientist explained. Zack nodded absently.

The Soldier in the cell (Cloud, Zack reminded himself) inched his way toward the bars, moving in a low crouch on the balls of his feet, his hands flat against the floor for support he didn't need. Carefully, Zack held out his hand, prepared to pull back in case his untrained Soldier tried anything, but the beast merely tilted his head back, closed his eyes, and inhaled deeply through the nose, as if memorizing Zack's scent. Zack chuckled and reached out to ruffle blond locks but, with the startling speed of his enhancements, the Soldier leapt back and out of Zack's reach, growling deep in his throat like an angered cat.

"All right." Zack told the Soldier, holding his hands up in a show of surrender. "All right, I won't touch you."

In his cell, the Soldier began to pace, ignoring Zack.

The trip back to Zack's new apartment was startlingly uneventful. The scientist had retrieved a sedative for the Soldier that wouldn't knock him out but would zap his strength enough to him to be pliant in Zack's arms as he chained the boy's wrists with Mako steel cuffs and guided him out of the labs. Zack was also given a bag containing three weeks worth of medication for his Soldier and a handful of tranquilizer darts. If a Soldier got out of control, the darts would knock them out instantly. In training, Zack had learned how to deploy one, and also how to hide them within easy access where his Soldier wouldn't find them. The darts were powerful enough to knock a Soldier out, but that meant they were also powerful enough to accidentally kill a human. More than one Handler had been killed when their Soldier had injected a dart into them.

Zack's apartment was clean, but only by virtue of it being barely lived in. He'd been assigned new quarters after graduation and acceptance into the Handler program. His new apartment better fit his status as a Handler and had been designed for the purpose of housing a Soldier and a Handler. It consisted of a spacious living room/kitchen and two bedrooms. One of the bedrooms was small, designed for guests who might come to visit Zack, or as an office. Zack was still contemplating what he wanted to do with that room. The other room was almost as large as the living room, if only because a decently sized part of it had been partitioned off using the same Mako infused steel as the labs. The space within had been designed with a Soldier in mind – all reinforced steel with a low bunk built into the wall along the back. It was small enough that Zack could reach into it from the doorway, but large enough to be comfortable for its occupant. Zack's bed along the far wall was more than large enough for two people, a fact which had confused Zack at first before he'd just accepted it as a comfort and a luxury. It was far better than the bunks in the barracks had been, and Zack was thrilled to be able to stretch out. Off from the master bedroom was a bathroom large enough for two people to share comfortably, complete with a large bathtub. Zack had seen it on his first night and been surprised, before he remembered his training. An untrained Soldier couldn't even be trusted to bathe on his own. The tub was there to make it easier for Zack to follow orders.

Once inside the apartment, Zack undid the Soldier's cuffs and, keeping an eye on him, put the medication away in a locked cabinet in the kitchen. The Soldier brushed away from Zack the moment he was free, crouching along the far wall where he could see Zack clearly in the kitchen. Zack leaned against the counter, watching him right back, poised to grab the darts from the pocket sewn into his the inside of his uniform jacket if need be, but the boy just sat back on his heels, alert but unmoving. Zack yawned.

"So, what'd your last Handler do to piss you off so bad?" He asked the Soldier rhetorically, more to fill the silence. It wasn't like the boy could answer him. "Cloud, huh? What kind of a name is that? Did you piss off a scientist when it came time for naming? Hmm… Rain cloud, storm cloud, fluffy cloud." Zack laughed at the last one. Fluffy was the antithesis of the list of words Zack would use to describe a boy capable of breaking his neck with his bare hands.

Cloud didn't seem to find Zack's comment nearly as amusing as Zack did. He rose up from his crouch, standing on the balls of his feet and Zack watched, wary, as Cloud tiptoed around the living room and into the master bedroom. Zack followed at a distance, noting that even the Soldier's walk was odd, an animalistic lope that reminded Zack, distinctly, of a wolf hunting its prey. Still, Zack didn't see any harm in letting the boy explore. They'd both be living here for the next few years, or at least until Zack's next promotion.

Cloud ignored the Handler as he crept through the room, running his fingers over the surface of the wall, brushing against the top of the dresser, and finally tracing the length of the bars, memorizing the surfaces. Zack watched him curiously, not knowing what the Soldier was doing but seeing no harm in it. The beast hadn't shown any signs of aggression since Zack had removed the cuffs. He finished exploring the bedroom and moved onto the bathroom.

Earlier in the day, Zack had set a pile of clean and folded towels on the edge of the counter, in case his Soldier had needed to be bathed that afternoon. Now Cloud made his way through the room, running his hands over Zack's toothbrush and toothpaste, his shaving gel, and the small locked case that contained his razors. Along the way, he bumped against the towels, sending them cascading to the floor in a messy heap.

From the way Cloud jumped back, tucking himself in a small alcove between the bathtub and the cabinets, one might have presumed they were monsters waiting to attack the Soldier. As it was, the startled reaction over something so harmless as a pile of fluffy fabric amused Zack, who laughed. "It won't hurt you." Zack told the beast, gesturing to the pile on the floor. The Soldier just watched him, mouth drawn into a thin, tight line. Zack sighed and bent down to retrieve the fallen objects.

His back was only turned on the Soldier for a moment, but the next thing Zack knew he was being slammed against the floor, landing painfully on his side as a slight but powerful weight buried itself into him. Small hands, weakened by sedative, curled around his throat and squeezed. Zack fought for air, one hand going instinctively to the hidden pocket in his uniform. He twisted to look up at the Soldier's face, and momentarily found himself frozen by what he saw there.

The boy's Mako-bright eyes were completely blank, empty of any discerning emotion. There was no rage there, no anger, just cold hard ruthlessness. They truly weren't human, Zack mused distantly as he finally found his darts. He jammed one into Cloud's leg and waited until the boy's eyes fluttered and his hands let go of Zack's neck. Zack pushed him off and onto the tile floor of the bathroom, gasping and coughing as precious oxygen flooded starved lungs. When he'd caught his breath, Zack turned his attention on Cloud.

Unconscious, the teenage beast's face lost most of its tension, and those glowing strange eyes of his were hidden behind lids framed with pale, full lashes. Under the muzzle, pale pink lips were parted ever so slightly. Serene, like a sleeping angel waiting to awaken. Inhumane in his own beauty. Yet Zack could feel the bruises around his neck, the black marks that reminded him that appearances were deceiving. As he started down at the monster, Zack reminded himself of what it was that made the Soldiers so deadly.

He'd made a mistake, and Cloud had nearly killed him. Next time, Zack mused, he wouldn't be caught off guard. Right now his deadly angel's greatest enemy was Zack himself.

Zack awoke the next morning to the sound of his alarm clock. It was still early in the day, and much earlier than Zack needed to wake at, but old habits were near impossible to kill. A glance over at the cage along the far wall told Zack that his Soldier was still knocked out. Last night, Zack had dragged him over to the cage before leaving him collapsed on the floor. He'd considered placing a blanket in there for the boy, but decided against it. Soldiers were capable of keeping their internal body temperature up without the use of aids; a blanket would be unnecessary.

Groggy, Zack rolled out of bed and stumbled into the bathroom, turning the faucet on cold and splashing water on his face to help him wake up. He glanced in the mirror briefly, noting the rats' nest that was his sleep-tousled black hair and the visible purple and blue bruises from Cloud's hands with the distant apathy of the sleepy. He looked like shit, but he couldn't bring himself to care as he brushed his teeth and half-heartedly attempted to straighten his hair out.

Back in the bedroom, Zack heard the rustle of fabric as his Soldier began to stir. He locked up his razors and went back to his room. Sure enough, the blond haired boy was crouched low in his cage, his fists wrapped around the bars as he watched Zack with silent, cold eyes. The tension was back in his face, making him look older again, and less innocent. More monstrous. Good, Zack mused, it would be easier to keep his guard up this way. He ignored the boy for now and got dressed in a clean Handler uniform, carefully loaded it with fresh darts, and then left for the kitchen to grab the boy's morning sedative and vitamin shots. While in the kitchen, Zack noticed the cuffs, still deposited on the counter after last night. On a whim, he grabbed them. Might as well make sure the monster didn't cause any trouble before they made it down to the practice yards for morning training.

"You gonna behave?" Zack asked rhetorically as he dropped the cuffs on his bed and held out the keys and the shots for Cloud to see. Obediently, the Soldier let go of the bars and backed up further into the cage, away from Zack. Zack took this as a good sign and, armed with his darts, unlocked the cell doors. Cautiously, Zack moved closer to the beast, surprised when he simply moved away from him, eyeing the needles warily. Zack sighed and reached out, grabbing the (thankfully) still weakened Soldier by his arm. "Hold still!" He ordered, as Cloud struggled and tried to pull away. The boy was no match for Zack, who'd not only been trained for combat, but was also larger and momentarily stronger than his unruly Soldier. He managed to wrestle the boy to the floor even as he continued to struggle. Only when Zack was sitting on top of him injecting the first of his shots into his arm did Cloud stop struggling.

It was strange, actually, and Zack was somewhat confused by the action. One moment Cloud had been attempting to buck him off, and in the next he'd gone completely limp, turning his head away from Zack and staring instead at the wall. Zack didn't comment, even as he mentally filed away the strange action to be discussed and observed later on, when he wasn't in the precarious position of giving a stubborn and disobedient Soldier his morning shots. He didn't linger on top of the smaller boy, climbing off and watching as Cloud rolled away, his back to the Handler as he lay, silent and sedated on the floor. The shots wouldn't knock him out, not like the darts would, but they'd keep his Soldier strength subdued for training. Soldiers were always kept sedated when not out on missions.

Zack took advantage of Cloud's momentary lapse into oblivion to grab the bindings off his bed, snapping them around the boy's wrists before he had a chance to react. The key went on his ring with all the others, tucked into a pocket beside the darts. He set Cloud back on his heels and left, intending to finish getting dressed. Instead he found himself staring at his Soldier, who was studying the floor in front of him, completely unmoving.

"You should be excited." He told the Soldier, digging around under his bed for his boots. "You get to fight today."

No reaction. Zack got up and double-checkedto make sure all of his gear was on him before grabbing the Soldier up off the floor and steering him out of the room. Cloud went without protest and Zack sighed. "I guess monsters like you only like the slaughter and the bloodshed, then."

Zack stepped off the lift, his hand on Cloud's shoulder to steer the Soldier into the moderately busy lobby of the Soldier Training floor. It was early, but already several Handlers were lounging on the couches, chatting with each other while their Soldiers, in various stages of full discipline, either waited silently against the wall or knelt in bindings at their Handler's feet. Zack glanced around the room briefly before spotting his best friend from training, Kunsel, seated on the far side of the room, his Soldier kneeling at his feet while Kunsel fed him pieces of a cookie from his hand. They both glanced up at Zack and Cloud as they walked over to them.

"Morning, Zack," Kunsel greeted. "I see you got your Soldier finally." He smiled at the dark haired Handler teasingly.

Zack rolled his eyes and pushed Cloud down to his knees before flopping onto the couch beside Kunsel. "I guess they wanted to be sure I knew what I was getting into before they gave me Cloud here." He gestured to the beast, who'd been compliant ever since his shots that morning, much to Zack's delight.

Kunsel's eyes widened as he took in Cloud, noting the mess of blond hair and mako-steel muzzle that encased his jaw. "Isn't that the Soldier that killed Handler Keir six months ago?" At Zack's silent nod, he let out a low whistle. Everyone had heard of the incident. Zack and Kunsel had just been selected for Handler training a few months prior and the news had served as a stark reminder of just what, exactly, they'd be getting into. Two other Handlers-in-training had taken the news as an omen, and dropped the program but Zack and Kunsel were determined. Or foolish. Zack still wasn't sure which.

"They must have a lot of faith in you to give you that Soldier." Kunsel said, glancing down at his own Soldier. To Zack, it looked like the beast was maybe a year or so younger than Cloud, with hair that was a dirtier shade of blond cropped short around his ears. Wide mako eyes starred at Zack, unblinking as Cloud's own and just as unnerving. No wonder Soldiers gave people the creeps.

"It's either that or I pissed off the instructors enough that they decided this was the best way to get rid of me." Zack joked, but with the knowledge of what had transpired last night still lingering in his very sore neck, the joke fell flat between them.

Kunsel shook his head. "You were the best in training, so I'm sure it's faith they have in you, not irritations. Even if you are so damned annoying at times." He teased and Zack laughed, swatting at him playfully. Kunsel's expression turned serious as he asked, "Remember what Instructor Connell said about reinforcement learning?"

Zack glanced down at Cloud, thinking. "I'm not sure a shock collar would do anything more than make him more aggressive." He admitted. "Didn't Instructor Connell say that operative conditioning was more effective and less likely to make them mentally unstable?"

Kunsel nodded, and reminded of that passed another chunk of the cookie he was breaking apart in his hands to the Soldier, who ate demurely. "So it does, but remember Zack, it relies on rewards for good behavior. How are you going to reward that?" He gestured to the muzzle. Zack frowned. Young Soldiers often responded to food as rewards while older ones responded to things like being given more freedom or games to play. Cloud couldn't be given the first one, and certainly couldn't be trusted with the latteroptions.

"I'll think of something." He said, standing up. "But for now I should get into one of the gyms. Need to start somewhere, right?"

Kunsel nodded and waved at them. "Good luck, Zack."

Zack smiled cheerfully, "Thanks." He said, "I'll need it."

As it turned out, Zack did need luck. Or a shock stick. Or something else that would help him probe his lethargic Soldier into actually moving. He'd spent most of the morning and the first part of the afternoon facing down Cloud who, sedated and weakened, had been armed with a dull training knife and given orders by Zack to attack him. However, Cloud had not attacked, instead staring at Zack with unblinking bright eyes, the dagger clasped loosely by his side. Zack had tried to provoke him, but Cloud didn't even flinch and Zack was forced to fall back to avoid injuring his Soldier.

Finally, Zack withdrew, and met the boy's eyes, staring at him incredulously. "Why won't you fight?" He asked. He was getting tired of these rhetorical questions. "I thought you'd be excited for a chance to stretch out and let loose."

"Beat him until he does." An unknown voice answered Zack. The Handler spun to see an older man, his Handler sword slung in a sheath at his waist, dark eyes completely serious. "All of them have instincts of self preservation that drive them on the battle field. Sometimes they just need a little persuasion to bring it out in training, too."

Zack scowled, glancing back over at Cloud who was standing perfectly still, ignoring the two Handlers. He could… Nobody would say a word if Zack beat his Soldier until he fought back. Others had done the same, with favorable results. But he remembered Cloud's appearance last night, when the Soldier had been unconscious, his childish face peaceful and open. Zack could no more kick a puppy.

He berated himself for that thought. Soldiers were weapons, to be used at the discretion of the Handler who acted under orders from the Shinra Corporation. If a gun failed to fire, it was discarded; if a Soldier failed to fight…

He forced himself to smile at the Handler. "I'll keep that in mind, thanks."

The Handler waved him off. "It's your Soldier." He said, "Though I don't envy you for getting him. Of all the Soldiers in Shinra, that one's probably the worst." He walked off before Zack got the chance to ask him what he meant by that statement.

He's probably referring to what happened to his last Handler. Zack thought, sinking back down into a front guard position. "C'mon Cloud." He called. "Just one spar and then we'll go get food and call it quits for the day." Zack's stomach was growling. He'd skipped breakfast and he'd been so absorbed with Cloud all day that he'd missed lunch as well. Dinner would be starting soon in the Shinra cafeteria, but even if he didn't get that there were always the local food places around the tower where he could order out.

It didn't work. Cloud just stood there staring, uninterested in anything at all and Zack was hungry. Maybe the tranquilizer last night was still affecting him. Ah, well, Zack decided. They could try again tomorrow. "All right, put the dagger away." He ordered, setting his own weapon down. "Let's go get something to eat and call it a day."

Zack turned away when, just as he'd been waiting for all day, Cloud attacked. The young Soldier launched himself from his relaxed position into a battle ready stance, sprinting across the floor with a speed impressive even for a Soldier, barreling into Zack and knocking him to the ground, the dagger in his hand blunt enough to bruise as Cloud knocked it against his shoulder, dragging the blade down and across his chest, scratching more than cutting. Zack grunted, and bucked, throwing the vicious little monster off of him as he reached for his darts, but Cloud knocked into him again, small hands pinning Zack's wrists as he growled low in his throat. Zack twisted but Cloud had his weight pressed into him. Zack had thought him skinny, but he was actually quite heavy. Cloud had him completely pinned and with rising dread, Zack realized he was trapped.