Thank you to Stars, Guest, and CNome for (anonymously) reviewing! To Stars: Your wish is my command! :D To Guest: Blame it on LJ training me to warn for EVERYTHING in original darkfics. I guarantee nothing about my consistency, or lack thereof, but I will try not to make a mess of things. Believe me, there's a LOT more to the story than even the long summary implies. It's a screwed up mess Zack's found himself in the middle of. To CNome: Me neither! I so badly wanted to read this fanfiction, and that's what actually motivated me to write it. As far as I know, I'm the only one who is playing with this idea right now. Not sure if this is what you meant by "contrast" but here's Angeal and Sephiroth for you. Yes, they are COMPLETELY different from Zack and Cloud. :D
A Thousand Amazing Thanks (and the Best Sister in the Universe Award) goes to Tainted Kattitina for agreeing to beta this chapter.
Chapter Two: The Handler
Cloud was going to kill him. That thought was enough to send Zack into a panicked frenzy, struggling to no avail. He closed his eyes so he didn't have to look at the lifeless bright eyes of his inhuman Soldier.
There was a grunt, a growl, and suddenly Zack's wrists were released. He sat up in time to see his Soldier thrown across the room, a blur of silver chasing after him. Quickly, the other Handlers and Soldiers cleared the floor to give the two Soldiers room to fight. Zack felt hands grab him by his upper arms, dragging him out of harm's way and against the wall as Sephiroth sent Cloud crashing back towards them. He watched as the Soldier righted himself into a low crouch and growled deep in the back of his throat, launching himself at the older, silver haired monster. Sephiroth, however, was ready for him, looking perfectly serene standing in the middle of the room, green cat-like eyes focused completely on the blond. To Zack's surprise, the two were fairly evenly matched, as far as strength went, but Cloud was slower, younger, and had less training, and Sephiroth was toying with him.
"Sephiroth, disable!" The man who'd grabbed Zack shouted, and Zack glanced up at him. Dark hair and eyes, a square face with a strong jaw and a permanent serious scowl on his face. Zack would have recognized Handler Angeal Hewley anywhere.
Zack turned his attention back to the battle in time to see Sephiroth feint, catching Cloud by one arm and then the other, effectively trapping the wild Soldier against his body in a hold Cloud couldn't escape from. Handler Hewley stood, pulling a dart from his pocket, which he stabbed into Cloud's exposed neck. The Soldier struggled until the effects of the tranquilizer forced him into unconsciousness. Only when he'd stopped moving did Sephiroth very carefully lower the Soldier the ground, showing far more concern than he had during their battle seconds earlier. Zack stumbled to his feet and ran over to them, grateful to see that Cloud looked uninjured.
"He'll be fine, Handler." Hewley said, as if he'd read Zack's thoughts. The older man knelt down next to him and started going through the motions of checking Cloud's vitals, placing one hand in front of his nose to check for breathing, since Cloud's muzzle kept him from using his mouth. Hewley clucked his tongue against his teeth and said, "Nothing out of the ordinary, though you might want to keep your guard up next time."
Zack nodded miserably. He'd been caught off guard in front of everyone in the Soldier program, including Shinra's most famous Handler-Soldier pair. The humiliation of that alone was enough to make him want to curl up in his bed and not emerge until the Promised Day. Still, Zack put on his best megawatt smile and said, "Thanks for saving me, sir. I thought I was dead for sure."
Hewley just stared at him for a moment before his face changed in just the barest trace of a smile. "You're too young to go getting yourself killed." He said, as if that explained everything. "Still, I don't envy you the task of training Cloud. It's been a while since the last time anyone tried to recover a completely feral Soldier."
Zack cocked his head to the side, unsure of what to make of the comment. What did Hewley mean by completely feral? Cloud was insane, Zack was starting realize that, but what did Angeal mean when he called the beast feral? Was it different from the way the other Soldiers were feral; beasts in need of training? The questions rushed through his head as Zack contemplated the best one to ask, unable to pick just one of them. Instead, he said, "Sir, what do you know about my Soldier?"
"Not sir, Angeal." The Handler replied, holding out his hand for Zack to shake. "You're Soldier Handler Zack Fair, right? I've heard a lot of good things about you."
"Uh, thanks. I think." Zack ducked his head, distantly pleased and mortified both to have been recognized by someone so far above him in rank.
"Relax, Zack, it's a compliment to your temperament and dedication during training." Angeal replied. "But to answer your last question I'm afraid you'll have to be more specific. I know quite a bit about all the Soldiers. This one, for example," he gestured to Cloud, "was born in Nibelheim and taken into the Soldier program ten years ago at the age of five. His Mako Reactivity is the third highest in all of Soldier, and when he's fully trained he is expected to be as strong as Sephiroth. You can understand, then, why Shinra might be reluctant to put down one of their greatest successes."
Zack nodded. Ten years of research and experimentation was a lot to throw away, even in the Soldier program. And if Cloud really did have the potential to match Sephiroth – who was widely regarded by Shinra as being absolutely peerless – then Zack could see their reluctance. In the twenty year history of the Soldier program, no other Soldier had ever come anywhere close to reaching Sephiroth's skill and power on the battlefield.
Still, it wasn't what Zack wanted to know. "What do you mean by feral?" He asked, watching Cloud breathe deep through his nose in the dreamless state of unconsciousness.
Angeal just smiled, a grim sort of expression that betrayed absolutely no happiness in it, and studied the younger Handler with dark eyes.
Sephiroth moved his hands just then. He'd been standing patiently nearby, within eyesight of Angeal, but with his arms crossed over his chest in a waiting position. Now his hands moved rapidly for a couple of seconds before Angeal nodded to him. To Zack, Angeal said, "It's noisy down here. Why don't we take Cloud back to your room and talk there?"
Zack nodded in agreement, still a bit awestruck. Sephiroth knelt down and picked Cloud up, carrying him far more easily than Zack ever could have (even for a tiny teenager, Cloud was heavy). The trip to Zack's apartment was fairly short, if only because Zack and Angeal spent most of it making small talk about Soldiers, Shinra, and favorite Midgar haunts. Once back at his place, Sephiroth carried Cloud over to his cage and put him on the low alcove before he turned to Angeal and moved his hands again. Angeal looked at Zack, "Do you have a blanket we can put over him?" He asked.
Zack frowned. They didn't need blankets; Soldiers didn't get cold. He debated refusing, but this was Angeal, Handler Hewley, who was a Shinra legend! He nodded. "In the closet."
Sephiroth showed remarkable care as he draped the blanket over Cloud, making sure the boy was resting comfortably so that no part of his body lost circulation or cramped from his position, before he finally left the cage. Even then, he gestured to Cloud, looking at his Handler. Zack didn't need to be able to read Sephiroth's unspoken language to know what his request was. He nodded to him and the Soldier knelt down gracefully, his attention focused on the sleeping Soldier.
Zack and Angeal left Sephiroth to his silent vigilance and went into the living room, where they arranged themselves comfortably on the couch as Zack grabbed two glasses of water for them. Zack was parched from training, but Angeal drank slowly, patiently waiting for Zack to speak first.
"Does Sephiroth speak?" Zack asked finally, after getting up once to refill his glass. "I know Soldiers don't generally speak much, but I didn't think they were mute… are they?"
Angeal chuckled, shaking his head. "I've never heard Sephiroth so much as cry out, and I've known him since he was eight." He admitted. "If he can, then he just prefers to sign, though I wouldn't be surprised if he just never learned how – Soldier upbringing isn't conducive to learning communication skills."
Zack nodded, but he was still struggling with the mental image of a young Sephiroth and a young Angeal. If the Soldier program was around twenty years old, then Sephiroth could only be a few years older. "How long have you been his Handler?"
Angeal exhaled, rolling his eyes up as he counted years. "If I'm twenty-four then… probably around nine or ten years now."
"Wow. You were a Handler as a teenager?"
Angeal shrugged off Zack's amazement nonchalantly. "I've always known how to deal with Sephiroth." He said seriously, "The other scientists would get him all riled up and I'd calm him down again. When the idea of Handlers was proposed it… made sense… for me to train him. After all, we'd already developed our own sign language by then."
"Does the sign language work at all? I mean, in handling him. Not just for communication." Zack asked eagerly. Angeal controlled Sephiroth as easily as he breathed, and Sephiroth was so calm and well behaved. Zack was jealous, in a way. He wanted Cloud to be that docile. At least then maybe Zack could take a shower in peace without worrying about being murdered in the attempt.
The older Handler stared at him, flat and unreadable for a long moment before he said, "You'd be amazed at how many problems can be avoided simply by having an effective means to communicate." He explained. "Cloud knows some of Sephiroth's signs – I think Sephiroth's taught him most of them. I will teach you some if you think you'll use them. Who knows, maybe you can ask Cloud why he tried to kill you."
Zack chuckled softly, but the joke was hardly funny. With two murder attempts in as many days, Zack would be lucky to live out the week at this rate. However, he'd gladly take whatever help the older Handler was willing to offer. It seemed kind of like a silly idea, teaching his Soldier to communicate, but it seemed to work for Angeal. Besides, what did he have to lose? It couldn't hurt anything.
He agreed to try and Angeal nodded, as if he'd never doubted that Zack would refuse. A sort of silence settled between them as they sipped their water, and Zack occasionally glanced back at the door to his bedroom. "Something the matter?" Angeal finally asked after the fourth time Zack not-to-discretely glanced over his shoulder.
"Nothing." Zack said, before admitting. "I kind of thought Soldiers were like wolves, but Sephiroth seems sociable."
"Wolves are possessive creatures, Zack." Angeal explained calmly. "They're not sociable."
As if on cue, the door to Zack's room opened then and Sephiroth stepped out, gliding across the room gracefully, long silver hair flowing behind him as he took a seat on the floor next to Angeal, staring at Zack with bright eyes narrowed in an eerily perfect face. Was it Mako, Zack wondered not for the first time, that made Soldiers so inhumanely beautiful? Angeal put his hand on his Soldier's head, the action more subconscious than deliberate, but the Soldier allowed it, calmly keeping his eyes trained on Zack. Angeal sighed. "Some wolves think with their stomachs." He commented. Sephiroth ignored him but Zack blinked as Angeal rose, the Soldier following him.
"Would you like to join us for dinner, Zack?" Angeal asked.
Zack shook his head. "No, got food here I can eat. I'd rather not leave my Soldier alone in my apartment if I can help it." He explained. Cloud wouldn't wake up, but if by some fluke he did… well, Zack didn't want to risk it.
Angeal nodded in understanding. "Tomorrow morning at o-eight-hundred then. Soldier training floor in one of the private rooms." At Zack's confirming nod, he added, "Eat breakfast, too. Response times are often slowed due to a lack of proper nutrition, and with the Soldiers that's the difference between life and, well, what happened today."
Zack nodded, wondering if Angeal had somehow figured out that he'd skipped eating all day today. He scoffed at the thought immediately afterwards – nobody was that perceptive. Still, he took the warning at face value and ate just as soon as he saw the older Handler and Soldier out of his apartment.
The next morning, Cloud sat at the kitchen table staring at Zack as the Handler cooked breakfast. If ever looks could kill, Zack decided as the smell of scrambled eggs and burning bacon wafted through the apartment, then surely Cloud's would have murdered him thrice over this morning alone. The Soldier managed to look perfectly displeased, wet and disoriented in his bindings from the impromptu bath Zack had given him that morning, mostly to wash off the stale sweat that still clung to his skin from his brief but intense fight with Sephiroth yesterday. The bath hadn't been easy, since Cloud had fought him the moment he'd put the beast in the already filled tub, but Zack had washed enough dogs in his youth that wrestling one more – even if he did look human – was not that much more of a challenge.
So now Cloud sat at the table, glaring holes in the back of Zack's head, as those sloppy blond spikes of his dripped water down his bare chest. Zack had dressed him in a pair of Soldier uniform pants, but he didn't dare risk removing the Soldier's cuffs just yet. No, he'd wait until he was safely in the gym, where Sephiroth could pull the boy off of him if he decided to get revenge for the bath.
The clock above the stove read 7:30, though Zack felt it had to be running slow. He bounced back and forth on his feet, waiting for the toaster to ding, and feeling more excited than he'd been since he'd gotten into the Handler program. Angeal Hewley had offered to mentor him! He couldn't believe his luck! Not only had he been trusted to train a very powerful Soldier, but now he was going to be receiving training help from Shinra's most famous Handler! Angeal was legendary!
The toaster dinged and Zack grabbed a plate. Toast with butter and jam was joined with eggs and bacon, Zack's usual cup of coffee beside it. He set the food down on the table and took a seat. Cloud was staring at the food and it didn't take a genius to figure out that he wanted some. Zack chuckled and patted the Soldier's head in mock affection. "Cheer up, Spikey. Maybe if you start behaving, they'll let you eat real food again, instead of just shoving a tube down your throat."
The Soldier growled low in his throat, a negative if ever Zack heard one, but Zack merely went back to eating his food, unperturbed. Cloud glared at him, brilliant blue eyes narrowed as he continued growling. Zack did his best to ignore him. It was a bit like trying to eat meat in a tiger's den, Zack imagined, with the tiger growling at you from three feet away, threatening death if they can get close enough. It was almost enough to make him lose his appetite.
Almost, but not quite, though Zack did wolf down the meal with the speed he'd learned from living in the military barracks since he was a young teenager. Men in the mess tended to be fast eaters out of necessity. He set all the dishes in the sink and washed the knives before locking them back up in the mako steel safe in the cabinet.
"Ready to go?" He asked his Soldier when he was done putting away dishes and getting his gear. Cloud growled at him.
The training floor was busy at this hour of the morning, in between Handlers finishing up morning training and receiving their daily missions. Kunsel and his Soldier were in one of the training rooms working on hand to hand combat, watched over by an older Handler and Soldier pair in case something went wrong. It likely wouldn't, Zack noted somewhat bitterly as he paused behind the one way mirror that looked into the room. Kunsel's Soldier knew how to behave.
Angeal and Sephiroth were already in one of the larger training rooms. Angeal leaned against the wall watching as his Soldier stretched out in the middle, dressed only in the same dark pants as Cloud, a harness for his sword belted across his chest but lacking the immensely long blade that had become the silver haired Soldier's calling card. He ignored the younger pair as they entered the room, but Angeal glanced over at them, his expression softening just slightly. Zack waved cheerfully at him and with his free hand on the small of Cloud's back, guided the still-sulking Soldier over to Handler.
"Difficult morning?" Angeal asked, gesturing to Cloud's bound hands.
"Always a difficult morning." Zack replied, already reaching for the keys to Cloud's cuffs. The Soldier jerked away from him, and Zack let him go, one eyebrow raised as he regarded the petulant young Soldier. "All right Spikey, if you don't want me to take off the cuffs…" He trailed off meaningfully, holding up the key to show the Soldier. Cloud growled at him.
With a sigh, Angeal pushed himself off the wall and moved to stand directly in front of Cloud, blocking him from Zack's view. Zack moved so he could see what the Handler did as the man signed a long string of gestures to the beast. At the end of them they both waited, Angeal staring at Cloud as the beast glared back. Then Cloud growled again.
Angeal clapped his hands together loudly in Cloud's face, the sound echoing in the small room, making Zack jump instinctively. Even Sephiroth glanced over at them, an expression almost like a frown on that beautiful face before he went back to what he was doing wordlessly. Angeal repeated the gestures and paused while Cloud glared at him. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Cloud sank to his knees.
To Zack, it felt like a miracle had happened right before his eyes. The beast waited there, kneeling with his head bowed to Angeal in the perfect picture of well trained subservience. Zack hadn't even known it was possible for the little brat to ever look like that. "What the hell did you tell him?" Zack asked in awe as Angeal stepped off to the side.
Angeal smiled. "You'll see. You can take the cuff off him, but then step back immediately. You won't want to stand in his way." The older Handler leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms again. Zack eyed him suspiciously, but didn't linger too long. Cloud was fidgeting slightly, moving restlessly against his restraints, anticipation sparking about him, strong enough that Zack could feel it as he knelt behind the Soldier and unlocked the cuffs.
The moment the bands fell free the young soldier launched himself forward, the force sending Zack stumbling back against the wall. He caught himself, helplessly watching as Cloud immediately sprang towards Sephiroth, who had his back to the young Soldier. Sephiroth, however, didn't even rise, still seated on the floor to stretch. Instead, the silver-haired Soldier raised one hand up and leaned back, catching Cloud's arm and pulling the beast over his body, before kicking him right in the stomach. The result sent Cloud flying up and ahead of Sephiroth, landing with a grunt on his back. Sephiroth used the resulting momentum to roll back onto his feet, standing and glaring at the slightly winded young Soldier who was pushing himself back to his feet, preparing to launch again.
"Angeal." Zack called urgently, watching the two Soldiers as they circled each other on the training room floor. "Shouldn't Sephiroth be taking Cloud down right about now?"
Angeal glanced over at the young Handler, an unfathomable hint of a smile playing out in his expression. Amusement, carefully contained in his feature but not in his voice. "And ruin their playing?" Angeal asked mildly. "It will do them both some good to spar for a while. Sephiroth has been in the labs for the last week and Cloud is too aggressive to listen to instructions right now." Zack ducked out of the way of fight when Sephiroth sent Cloud crashing to the floor barely three feet away from him and moved to stand by Angeal. At least the older man didn't look like he was in the way of direct harm. "Don't worry, Sephiroth won't hurt your Soldier."
A crack rang out in the room just then, as if to illustrate the fact that Zack knew Angeal was lying to him. Cloud crashed against the floor again, catching himself on one hand, as the other was bent at an odd angle, broken. "Right." Zack drawled, feeling oddly concerned about his Soldier. He knew Soldiers could take a lot of damage and still fight, but Cloud's wrist had to be broken now, judging by the angle it was at. Funny, he was supposed to be the Soldier's Handler, but the damn thing had tried to kill him twice already and Zack still felt concern for it. Logically, Zack thought perhaps he should be enjoying the fight, the beautiful sight of two blood thirsty monsters in their most primal form – intoxicating and beautiful. Yet somehow all Zack could do was worry from the side about Cloud's broken bones.
"How's your neck?" Angeal asked casually, never taking his eyes off the sparring Soldiers. Sephiroth was winning, but Cloud seemed to be doing a fairly good job of holding his own, even if Zack could spot the weaknesses in the untrained Soldier's fighting stance. The thing had absolutely no discipline.
Instinctively, Zack's hand went to his throat, touching the bruising carefully. "It doesn't hurt." He admitted. No, it was just a visually humiliating reminder of his own inability to control his own Soldier.
Angeal pushed himself off the wall and cupped Zack's face between his hands. "Let me see." He ordered, studying the bruises for a moment before he shook his head. "Congratulations, Handler, you have your first training marks."
"Is that supposed to be a compliment?" Zack asked, shrugging out of the older Handler's grip. "Or is it some sort of rite of passage, to be nearly murdered by your own Soldier."
"You wouldn't be respected if you hadn't." Angeal answered, leaning back against the wall. The spar looked like it was starting to wind down. Sephiroth looked perfectly undisturbed, waiting in an open an easy stance, not a strand of silver hair out of place, but Cloud was breathing heavily through his nose, jaw bones flexing at the unforgiving steel of the muzzle, fighting against it as he instinctively sought more air. Zack and Angeal both noticed Cloud's difficulty breathing, but Angeal did nothing more than keep steady dark eyes trained on the Soldier. Zack waited, wondering. Was the primitive, animalistic instinct to fight so deeply ingrained in the Soldiers that his would even go so far as to drive himself to unconsciousness?
They waited, anxious and alert, as the two Soldiers regarded each other, waiting.
Some unspoken cue passed beneath Zack's notice and all of a sudden Angeal's hand shifted to a pocket on his uniform vest, reaching for a dart as Sephiroth lunged at Cloud, pinning the young Soldier to the floor in a hold that Cloud struggled against, but couldn't break free from. Angeal crouched down before the pair, staring straight into Cloud's brilliant eyes.
"Stop fighting." Angeal ordered, and to Zack's surprise the Soldier obeyed, going limp beneath Sephiroth as he turned his gaze up at the ceiling. Sephiroth eased off the Soldier slightly, but kept him pinned beneath his hands.
How did he do that? Zack wondered, mildly jealous. He made it look so easy – look in control and issue the order. Sure, in training he'd learned that authority was the first part of control with Soldiers. You, the Handler, were in control of the situation. You had the authority, not them. But Zack seriously doubted a firm voice alone was what Cloud had responded to.
Angeal stood up and gestured for Zack to come closer. Without a word, he went through a string of motions with his hands, slow and deliberate so that Zack could follow them. There were only a few and when he finished, Angeal said, "Repeat them back to me."
It took Zack a few tries before Angeal smiled at him and nodded in approval. "Great!" Zack cheered, "Now what am I saying?"
"Heel." Angeal said, making the first motion. He went through the others in order. "Guard, attack, wait, ready, and kneel."
Zack cocked his head to the side at the last one. The rest made sense – they were standard call orders – but the last one was a bit surprising. He repeated it, a downward push of the hand like forcing someone to their knees. It made sense, but he still wasn't sure why Angeal had taught it to him.
Angeal turned his attention back to Sephiroth, issuing a long string of commands to the Soldier, one of which Zack recognized as the kneel command. Sephiroth eased himself off of Cloud, who barely even blinked at the shift, and signed back to Angeal, settling himself on the floor, cross legged and waiting, frowning slightly. When he was done, he placed one hand casually across Cloud's throat, just below the muzzle, pinning the Soldier. Angeal nodded, and Sephiroth shifted, grabbing Cloud's arm and pulling the Soldier up until he was sitting on the floor beside him.
Cloud sat beside Sephiroth staring at the two Handlers, calmer and more relaxed than Zack had ever seen him. His breathing was evening out again, his chest no longer heaving as he fought to keep his blood full of oxygen. Angeal nodded in approval, signing a long string of words to Cloud. The young Soldier watched him, before replying in slow, deliberate gestures. The "conversation" went on for several minutes as Zack watched, trying to guess at the gestures and what they meant, especially the ones that were repeated several times.
When they were done, Angeal gestured for Zack. "From the sparring earlier, what do you think Cloud needs the most work on?" He asked.
Zack paused. "His discipline." He said immediately. Angeal was testing him, checking to see if he'd been paying attention during Cloud and Sephiroth's spar. "His stance is sloppy and defense poor – it leaves him open for attack."
Angeal nodded. "But if he's low to the ground then he's a smaller target for attack."
"Yes, but his center of gravity is too low. He can't attack like that, nor shift to an attacking position without throwing himself off balance. Soldiers might be fast, but that means little without balance." Zack replied, reciting what he'd learned from Handler training. Handlers were trained warriors in their own right, on par with Turks in combat, with the added bonus that most Handlers were also trained in Materia use. They had to be able to hold their own in battle, even while commanding their Soldiers. Furthermore, they were trained to teach, and Zack did know how to observe, even when he didn't look like it.
Angeal nodded, and motioned towards Cloud with a meaningful look. Sephiroth rose to his feet gracefully, retreating to the far side of the room. Angeal stepped back and Zack, taking the unspoken cue from Angeal, made the motion for Cloud to ready. To his surprise, the Soldier obeyed, rising to his feet and waiting in the easy, casual stance that Zack had come to associate with people trained to fight – a stance that could easily be shifted into a guard if need be.
"Good." Angeal said. "One last sign." He told Zack, and with that he raised his left hand and curled his fingers so that the index was almost but not quite touching the thumb, as if he was holding an invisible coin up for Zack to see. He held that sign over his heart, sweeping across to his right arm over his chest.
Zack mimicked the motion and when Angeal smiled he said, "Great! Now what did I say?"
"Take a guess." Angeal commanded, but at Zack's bewildered expression, he caved. "Near to the heart." He explained, and made the motion again. "It's a name sign. Cloud's name sign."
Zack repeated it. It felt strange, somehow, signing a name instead of speaking it, especially given the meaning Angeal had given him. How the hell did a beast as wild and vicious as Cloud end up with a name like that?
AN: How did he indeed? *Side eyes Angeal*
Just wanted to let you guys know that next month, August, is Camp NaNoWriMo. It's a writing challenge, for those of you who don't know, where you try to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I'm planning to try and write 50,000 words, including the vast majority of Sleeping Angels, that month. Unfortunately, it means you will not be getting any updates until September. No guarantees, but you may get chapter three in the first week of August, since I am just about finished writing that one. However, Kattitina is doing NaNo as well and Namel has real life stuff in her way, so there may not be a Beta available until September...
Look on the bright side: the story will be at least halfway complete by September. That's my goal and I'm sticking to it.