Disclaimer: Anything you recognize – be it character, location, idea or line – belongs to others; I may be playing with them but I make no profit from this.
A/N: And to think, this was supposed to be a one-shot...! But the guys keep showing up and demanding stage time, so... Luna
"POTTER! What in the name of blazes do you think you're doing!"
The bellowed rage of their teacher has all the cadets turning to their green-eyed fellow, but Harry is far too lost in his own wonder and triumphal joy to even notice.
The moment he touched the little glowing orb of magic he felt a wave of rightness and relief, so strong and so powerful that it would have brought him to his knees if it hadn't galvanized him at the same time.
Magic is singing into his veins again! Strong and sure and perfectly in tune with the marvellous pulsing hum of the tiny sphere nestled in his palm.
Magic, beautiful, warm, lively magic! He has magic once more!
It is somewhat like what he felt the first time he waved his wand about only more, so much more – stronger and deeper and warmer and wilder and he's laughing aloud, unable to stop, because this is just so right.
The little, beautiful materia set snugly in his bracer – and where it touches his skin lightly underneath, it feels so right! - is just a tiny speck, inviting but minimal; but the vast, slow wave of raw magic Harry can sense through it, just there if he but reaches out, is so wide, and huge, and slow, and out there everywhere - and Harry is in heaven because energy leaps at him, joyously, eager to be used, eager to be released from the small containing crystal in his hand and rush through him and be returned to the flow of the world and he knows, he knows it intimately, that it will let him shape it while doing so, that he can do anything with it.
"POTTER!" the trainer's voice, sounding like he's about to have a stroke, finally breaches his haze of dazed excitement and penetrates to his brain.
Peripherally he realizes that he's glowing – no, that a glow is emanating from the little materia in his hand and spreading over his arm like a shining, ethereal coat, somehow the green being perfect even if Harry's never thought of magic having a colour before – and a part of him wonders if he should be scared, if the effect might be harmful, if he shouldn't try and figure things out before plunging in head-first, if he should stop.
But the magic is there, and it's willing, and he's been without for so long, and it's just too strong a temptation, and suddenly the spell erupts from him with a shout of triumph and relief and sheer joy.
"Incendio!" he shouts, because he's getting the feeling of banked fire from the little glowing orb and that's the first charm that comes to his mind.
Flames explode around him out of nowhere, haloing him, their strength and warmth terrifyingly exhilarating. If he could see himself, he would know that for a brief, barely glimpsed moment, he strikes as magnificent a figure as a SOLDIER First in the middle of a battle.
People screech and shout and dive out of the way in terror and disbelieving awe and the flames race forward, the faintest impressions of lions shaping them and Harry is barely in control, drunk on the wondrous feeling of magic dancing at his fingertips again and the sheer might of the churning ocean of magic he senses beyond, eagerly waiting for the energy of his spell to be returned to it; but he isn't so far gone that he doesn't remember to aim the spell at a non-living target – the farthest, the least dangerous, away from anyone who might get hurt, there!
The wall on the other side of the gym explodes in a confusion of fire and smoke and raining debris.
And stunned silence reigns.
"Advanced training?" asks Harry confused.
The Instructor gives him a long-suffering glare: "Yes, Potter, advanced training in materia use."
He snorts at Harry's pleased but surprised expression: "Honestly, Potter! Are you an idiot? Surely you realize your little performance with that unlevelled Fire yesterday has caught the higher-ups' notice!"
Actually, it caught everybody's notice. Hard not to, what with the huge hole in the wall... Harry really hopes the repair costs won't come out of his meagre pay; but that's an irrelevant thought right now.
The Instructor goes on: "You demonstrated a level of power and proficiency in handling materia almost unheard of, especially in someone so young. It's no surprise we want to train you as fast and as hard as we can: no sense in wasting such a resource. Besides, you need to learn control." He shoots Harry a long-suffering glare.
"Oh, hum, yeah, I mean, yessir. I understand, sir," Harry babbles a little. It does make sense. "Hum, sir? What about the rest of my training?"
Because Harry might be talented at magic, but that's about it: in every other class he's average. Oh, he keeps up, but much like when he was at Hogwarts, he doesn't exactly stand out.
Especially when it comes to swordfighting. Apparently the minimum experience he gained with Gryffindor's Sword – which, he discovers within the first five minutes of his first lesson, he went at completely the wrong way – hasn't given him any kind of plus point in the area. He likes it, of course – who doesn't? - but he's got to really work for every scrap of progress.
So the question is important, because if they don't want to 'waste resources', then maybe he'll be asked to drop out of the SOLDIER training program and concentrate on magic alone... which... wouldn't be entirely bad, he supposes – the feeling he gets from casting through materia is amazingly good – but he really, really hopes it won't come to that.
He definitely wants to be in SOLDIER, with Cloud and Zack, and not be shuffled off to whatever unit uses magic primarily. Or exclusively. Is there even a unit like that, he wonders? If there is, he doesn't want to be stuck there and lose his friends!
"You'll still be with the other Cadets at most times," tells him the Instructor, "but you will have a personal mentor for all matters related to materia training. A SOLDIER First, Director Lazard said: aren't you a lucky brat?"
Harry grins brightly. That's good, that's better than good!
He isn't being thrown out of the SOLDIER program, that's what matters the most, and he'll get to use magic – powerful magic!
"Thank you, sir!" he exclaims giddily, making the Instructor roll his eyes disgustedly.
"Dismissed, Potter..." the man sighs and Harry skips out of the office, impatient to tell his friends everything.
"...and I will not stand for it, do you hear me, Angeal?"
The angered voice bellowing in the corridor just outside the training room is interrupted by the door slamming open with a bang and then returns, louder than earlier, as its owner strides inside with the arrogance of someone who thinks he owns the place and everything in it. "I refuse to waste my time over an arrogant brat who believes he's entitled to more attention than the worms he and all other Cadets are!"
It's Commander Genesis Rhapsodos, SOLDIER First and by general rumour a fowl-tempered scary bastard, who stalks forward and sweeps the room with a glare and a scowl Harry instantly deems worthy of Snape.
Behind him trails Zack's mentor, Commander Angeal Hewley, who tries patiently to get his moody best friend to see reason: "Genesis, you know what Lazard said..."
The red-headed SOLDIER First ignores him and snaps at the frozen Cadets: "Who the hell is Potter, then?"
As one, they all swing their heads to stare at him and Harry scowls back. There is no need to be so blatant!
With a repressed sigh, he steps forth and salutes: "Sir!"
The Commander sneers, regarding him from head to toe rather insultingly. Harry straightens and raises his chin, refusing to be cowed.
He already isn't liking this overbearing officer whose contempts towards the Cadets and petty choice of words remind him of a certain not-at-all-missed Potions Professor. Superior officer or not, if he starts belittling Harry with no better reason than personal hang-ups, he won't take it quietly...
"You think you're so good at magic?" says Rhapsodos, smirking. "Let's see!"
Suddenly a spell is hurtling towards Harry and Zack's mentor is crying out in dismayed shock and alarm – but it's too late to stop Rhapsodos and there's no way a non-enhanced Cadet can dodge the bolt of crackling lightning in time...
But if there is one thing Harry knows, intimately, it's magic, and this, in particular, is just ready for him and so in the half-second he has to react he grins, sharply; before Rhapsodos' stunned eyes, he holds out a hand and grasps the spell, twists it, takes it for his own and then changes it to something slightly different – electricity tweaked into whitish ropes that become a flashing ring that circle Harry for a moment, crackling loudly, before snapping like a lasso back at the Commander...
The SOLDIER First steps aside nonchalantly, letting the spell hit the wall at his back with a thunderous whiplash that leaves a scorch mark embedded in the concrete.
The entire room plunges into shocked silence once more.
Slowly, Rhapsodos' lips stretch into a feral smile, pleased and greedy at once: "My friend, your desire, is the bringer of life, the Gift of the Goddess..."
Harry blinks, carefully keeping himself neutral. Is that... a quote?
Suddenly, the Commander barks imperiously: "Come, my apprentice! We have much to do."
A coil of dread forms in Harry's stomach: "Apprentice...?" he asks, turning pleading eyes to Zack's mentor. "Please tell me that's not...!"
The tall, broad-shouldered SOLDIER First looks at him disapprovingly: "No matter how talented you are, it's still an honour that Genesis would accept to tutor you. You shouldn't show yourself ungrateful... If you want to be a hero, you must embrace your dreams... and be grateful to those who help you reach them!"
Harry's cheeks redden and he mumbles some apologies. It might be Zack's influence, it might be his being generally thought of as 'the Heart and Soul of SOLDIER', it might be just his earnest dedication and the care he shows to those under his command; but the dark-haired Commander has firmly established as a model of honour and commitment for both Harry and Cloud. The last thing he wants is to elicit such a disappointed gaze from him.
A bellowed: "Potter! I don't have all day!" floats back from the corridor Rhapsodos has disappeared in.
Harry merely has the time to share a hapless look with a wide-eyed Cloud and snap a hasty salute to Commander Hewley before having to hurry after his new mentor.
Something tells him he's in for interesting times...
"Your reaction time is beyond slow and your technique is too sloppy for words," barks Genesis, staring Harry down.
The frustrated boy bites back a snarl. They've been at it for hours it seems: the crazy Commander throwing fireball upon fireball at him, forcing him to dodge and jump and run and evade and dodge some more. And there is no sign that he might be quitting!
He groans and springs away to avoid the umpteenth volley of heated destruction shots. Worst thing is, this isn't even unusual!
Training under Commander Rhapsodos is, as he feared... very interesting.
It doesn't seem to matter to the SOLDIER First that he's supposed to only teach Harry about materia. The man is determined to 'make his apprentice live up to his potential' and as a consequence, he drills him in everything. Including stuff like literature and religion, much to Harry's exasperation.
He doesn't really mind all the coordination-strengthening-stretching exercises, no matter how much his beaten body complains during and after: he is no stranger to pain and Genesis' ruthless task-driving is building his body at a very pleasing rate.
Even his fellow Cadets are noticing his improvement; the worst bullies are less than happy about it.
He rather likes the frequent impromptu lessons on tactical thinking too, although he's disconcerted by how his unpredictable mentor manages to turn the most innocuous occasions into a thorough discussion of how to set up a military take-over.
"Who would ever lay siege to a grocery shop?" asks Zack in laughing disbelief when he tells him and Cloud; and Harry, his mind on a certain sweet shop a world afar and the secret passage it hides, answers grimly: "You might be surprised."
Most of all, he is very, very grateful for the help Genesis is giving him with swordfighting – even if the man openly scoffs at his incapability and belittles him and insults him the whole time. It's a lot like dealing with Potions class was, with the difference that Harry never much cared for that subject, while blades are definitely interesting.
He isn't isn't the swords-geek Cloud is working himself into: his blond friend seems to have fallen in love with edged weapons and anything to do with them; Harry is definitely fascinated by rapier-style blades however, no matter how difficult he finds it to handle them. They're awesome.
For all that the Crimson Commander is doing for him, however, sometimes Harry just wants to thump his head on the wall and bemoan the fate that threw him in Genesis' clutches.
He's had absurd expectations placed on him before, but at least the wizarding world has never demanded him to believe in the existence of a Goddess. Or think up 'his own ending' to an incomplete poem. Or divine where the next fireball launched by a crazy maniac with no appreciation for the frailty of common Cadets will explode...
Genesis is relentless.
"I'm tired, sir," Harry forces out through clenched teeth.
Genesis sniffs contemptuously: "Of course you're tired. You're moving too much, scrambling around like a frightened chicken. And tired is stupid. And stupid is dead, or as good as."
"Wow, thanks, I feel so much better now!" he mutters.
"You're supposed to use your brain to figure out where my attacks will hit so that you will not be there!" yells his mentor.
"You're too fast!" retorts Harry.
"Aren't you supposed to be this great magic genius?" mocks the leather-clad Commander with a studiously bored gaze. "Surely your instinctive knowledge of materia lets you understand where and how my spells will work with plenty of time to evade!"
Harry narrows his eyes angrily at his infuriating mentor: sometimes he thinks the man is jealous of his natural talent with magic. He's certainly fixated with the 'instinctual' part of it. Or maybe he's just petty enough to enjoy mocking Harry.
A sizzling fireball streaks past and hits the spot on the wall the green-eyed boy had been leaning on a mere second before.
"Perhaps if you gave me a chance to catch my breath I would be able to perform half-way decently!" Harry grumbles.
A hissing flame shoots out towards him and he throws himself to the floor, managing to only be slightly singed. A shout that is more than half snarl tears itself from his throat.
"I thought we'd already gone over how I have very little patience and refuse to take any bullshit," Genesis comments, arching an eyebrow in a dare to backtalk. "Are you sure you want to criticize my training methods?"
Harry wishes to, very much so. He wants more than anything to give the madman a piece of his mind, but he grits his teeth and clambers to his feet, eyes flashing but with no other sign of defiance. Genesis is still his superior – his direct superior actually, seeing as the mentorship has been approved by the Director of SOLDIER. There is no other option than respectful obedience. At least until Genesis pushes him over the edge yet again.
He only wishes the man had earned his respect!
Genesis knows he hasn't, too, and is rather miffed by Harry's flippant attitude towards his supposed 'greatness'.
"I'm rather offended that you feel you can criticize me at all," he says sharply, while idly throwing a few more fireballs at a scrambling Harry. "After all, I'm not only a SOLDIER First Class but also the absolutely best mage on the Planet."
Harry wishes he could scoff at that, but unfortunately, it's all true. The man is beyond arrogant, but not without cause. He is the greatest mage of their times, on top of being a warrior almost on par with General Sephiroth himself, and he... understands materia, better than anyone else, including Harry, because the green-eyed boy goes more with instinct than anything, as always flying by the seat of his pants, and that doesn't do any favours to his control.
The Commander also just doesn't know when to let things be.
"There isn't a single SOLDIER who isn't astounded that I'm so generously condescending to teach you. You should be boggled out of your mind with the honour," Genesis smirks, reproachful that Harry doesn't seem very impressed.
That, too, is true. The three top SOLDIERs are idolized by everyone under them and the Company makes sure to fuel the impression of their being above common mortals.
Harry can't help it, though; it's hard to worship the Firsts as distant gods when Zack has been bouncing in every other day - for weeks - with tales of Genesis setting Angeal's boots on fire over a misquote of LOVELESS or Angeal fretting like a mother chocobo over a little plant that's not doing so good in his garden.
Plus, well. Harry's been on the other side of mindless awe and he knows there's really not much to be found there. It'll take a lot more than rumours and propaganda to impress him.
"Your ungratefulness..." tries Genesis.
Fed up, Harry interrupts the Commander sharply: "You don't like me, I get it, alright? Makes me wonder why you're even wasting your time with me if I'm unworthy of your notice!"
He'll pay for that later – he always ends up scrubbing floors, or worse, sorting through the Science Department trash as punishment, but that isn't any worse than Snape's hated cauldrons or slimy ingredients and Harry tends to judge those chores as a perfectly reasonable price for speaking his mind.
Genesis shrugs, expression unreadable: "I believe you have potential. Whether or not I like you doesn't factor into the equation. Now get back into position!" he barks.
Truthfully, Harry is day after day learning to esteem his unlikely mentor, in spite of the man's impossible character. Liking him, well that's another matter entirely...
Even if there is no denying that Genesis is an intriguing person.
Harry is rather fascinated by how the man can at once be a fearsome warrior, of nearly unparalleled strength and frightening short temper, forever on the brink of blowing up, and an educated, refined scholar who enjoys quietly reading poetry by himself, delicate Wutaian paintings and tasty dumbapples.
Though Harry has no problem admitting that the Banora Whites are delicious. It's one of the (very few) perks of having Genesis as a mentor, that he gets to taste them often.
Other aspects of their relationship are far less good.
Like the fact that they end up butting heads on a number of matters... quite violently. And often.
Genesis' patience is non-existent, his tongue sharp, his haughtiness grating and his moods thoroughly unpredictable. Living with him is a wearying chore.
As for Harry... he has a stubborn streak a mile wide, a thorough dislike for arrogance, skin toughened by years of Snape's vitriol and a temper to match the fiery Commander's.
They clash in frequent, explosive, wide-spread conflicts and people learn to up and run at the first sight of either of their tempers' being about to explode. Especially after Harry starts carrying his own set of materia around.
It's best for everybody's health to leave Angeal and Zack to separate them. And occasionally, General Sephiroth himself, when the whining of the Directors about damaged floors and wasted equipment manages to irritate him enough that he descends on the two with vengeful tongue-lashings.
Not even their superiors' irritation can stop them from going at each other's throats again next time they disagree, however.
Among SOLDIERs, their fights soon become the stuff of legend!
"What is materia, anyway?"
It is several weeks into his mentorship that Harry finds the courage to voice the one question that has been churning into his mind for a while.
Genesis raises an eyebrow at him: "Infinite in mystery is the Gift of the Goddess..."
Harry rolls his eyes good-naturedly. He's well-used by now to his mentor's eccentricities. Especially his passion/obsession.
He won't be distracted though, not this time. He really, really wants to know.
Ever since he first equipped the little innocent-looking bauble into his bracer, that day, he's felt a connection with a vast sea of magic that seems to be swirling contentedly within the Planet. When he has no materia equipped it is muted, and faraway, but it never truly disappears and it is familiar: a pleasant prickle all over his skin that he'd grown used to in Hogwarts and then had missed so much he was almost aching when he'd been thrust into this world.
The moment he'd felt the glowing materia close by, however, his skin had started to prickle pleasantly again. So he had at first thought that materia were like wands. Or maybe like wandcores. But... it's not quite that.
And it frustrates him to no end that Genesis clearly knows, but isn't explaining any of it. He's left trying to figure out the differences between worlds on his own, while his supposed mentor just mocks him!
One thing he's noticed pretty soon is that magic here on Gaia is more structured than the magic he's used to from his Hogwarts times. It doesn't really need shaping through incantations: all one has to do is calling it up and it will always yield the same, sort of pre-determined results. That is probably why everybody can use materia with the barest of training.
Despite this, very few can do what he and Genesis can.
Using materia is one thing. Drawing powerful results is rarer, but still ordinary. Tweaking it to new purposes, however... injecting creativity in the ways the energy is shaped... that, is uncommon to say the least.
It is still not as versatile as wand-based magic. The crystalline structure given to the energy during the formation of materia means that the fundamental conformation of the magic won't be changed. You can't cast flames from an Ice Materia, or a Barrier from a Steal one.
Genesis can, however, evoke a barrage of icy knives rather than the more common ice spears with barely any effort. And so can Harry – his imagination being the only limit if he remains within the borders of the nature of the materia he is using.
On top of that there is the way Genesis can sometimes evoke magical effects without materia. Sephiroth, too, though it's rare. Harry isn't able to, yet, but at times he feels like that ability is just a hairbreadth away. Like a spell he hasn't mastered yet. Besides he can take over and twist spells already unleashed – drawing up and casting his own shouldn't be all that different, right?
He really wishes his supposed mentor would get off his high horse and help him figure this out.
"What is materia, sir?" he asks again, determined to be patient.
Genesis scoffs at him: "Why the sudden interest? Don't you know instinctively already?"
Harry scowls. What is it with the Commander and his fixation on instinct? It's not like it's a bad thing to have!
"I just wonder, is all," he says, trying hard to keep his tone mild and level. "I mean it's like the materia works as a bridge between me and the Planet's magic, or, or something, but I just don't get it..."
"Now he asks," mutters Genesis disgustedly. He starts pacing in clear irritation.
Harry frowns, feeling his own annoyance grow in response, as usual. "Is it so wrong to wish to understand?" he asks petulantly. He swears, at times the Crimson Commander is as galling as Snape.
His mentor stops abruptly and shoots him a long, inscrutable look.
Then, his face a blank mask, he answers in clipped tones: "According to old lore, materia hold the knowledge and wisdom of the Ancients, the race that supposedly acted as the Gaia's caretakers and had the unique ability to commune with the Planet's spiritual energy."
Harry frowns. What the Commander is saying is stirring some recognition in him, like it's a lecture he's already listened to. Yet at the same time, he can't figure out where he's heard of this. Certainly not in any of his current classes – ShinRa doesn't much care for the whys and wherefores and holds any theories about the Planet's 'spirit' in nothing but contempt.
"Supposedly, regular humans lost that ability when we gave up our close relationship with the Planet," goes on Genesis, still unnervingly scrutinizing him. "Whether this is true or not matters little. Fact is, there is something in materia that interacts between ourselves and the Planet, calling up magic and shaping it so that anybody can use it."
Harry nods automatically. That's exactly how it feels. He leans forward a little, listening avidly.
"Mages like us, however, are blessed by the Goddess: we don't truly need that interface. As long as something can put us in touch with the Planet's magic, we can shape it and direct it ourselves, and freely use it. I can do it with Rapier easily enough. Materia are just the easiest... bridge, to use your words."
This is starting to sound awfully familiar. Yet it has nothing in common with anything he might have learned at Hogwarts, nor is this knowledge found in the few books about materia he's skimmed (whenever he couldn't escape Genesis' pinning glare). So where has he heard it...?
Unknowingly, he blurts that last thought out loud: "Where have I heard all this before?"
For a long moment Genesis says nothing, just looks at him with an unreadable expression – almost hesitant, but nothing like it.
Harry feels uncomfortable under the stare and glowers at the man, feeling a rather familiar irritation mounting: "Look, I know you despise the very idea of having to explain stuff to a lowly Cadet like me, but would it really kill you to just help me figure this out?"
"And you still don't get it, again," is Genesis' bitter reply.
Harry stares at him in incomprehension. What is he on about?
A flicker of emotion passes over the SOLDIER First's face, and Harry almost recoils when he unexpectedly recognises it to be hurt.
What...? But...! Wait. His interest has surprised Genesis, when it shouldn't have. Could it be...?
With a sudden bout of shame, Harry realizes why the words of the lecture are familiar: it's because this isn't the first time Genesis gives him this speech. Or tries to.
He remembers quite abruptly that his mentor had attempted to discuss this matter with him the very first day of their... arrangement. And he... hadn't cared.
He'd let the voice of the red-haired SOLDIER First drone on and on, but his attention had been riveted on the man's materia collection instead.
Really, who could blame him? This was magic! He was sure of it – and oh, he'd missed it! He'd missed it badly! He could hardly sit still as the man went on and on about condensed wisdom and power of the Planet. He'd just wanted to hold it in hand! It had been just begging to be released... his own blood singing in unison, as longing and craving as the magic calling had seemed to him!
Genesis had tried to explain, to help him unravel the mystery of materia, and he hadn't cared. He hadn't listened. He'd just wanted the shiny magic orb!
Now he feels awfully childish and immature.
Worse, he can now recognize that Genesis has been offended by Harry's blatant disregard for the teachings he was offering.
All of a sudden, a thousand little things are cast in a whole new perspective.
The dull looks of weariness thrown his way every time Harry grew restless with books and theory, which he has mistaken for boredom with the task of teaching... the obnoxious insistence on Genesis' own successes and nearly unparalleled skills, that Harry has dismissed as arrogance... the lashing out in frustration and anger – usually after a training session Harry hadn't seen the sense in and therefore hadn't given his best to...
He flinches as another interpretation casts his mentor's attitude in a different light.
He can see now how his dismissive opposition and his continuous borderline disrespect must have offended and hurt Genesis, again and again. He must have thought Harry juvenile and slack. The accusations of ungratefulness come to mind too: Genesis is taking time for him from his busy schedule and how is Harry repaying it?
He bits his lip and peers into his mentor's eyes, seeking confirmation or disaffirmation of this unanticipated insight. He is shocked when those azure eyes that always seem so icy betray a well of hurt resentment.
Resentment that Harry deserves.
All this time, he's bemoaned the fact that his mentor was so aggravating, when in fact, it was all his fault!
He is faced with the realization that he really doesn't know the man at all and shame sparks inside him when he figures out how much he has assumed of Genesis Rhapsodos without just cause: untruths fuelled by the man's irritating personality but borne from Harry's past dislike of Snape... just like Snape's dislike of him had stemmed from his dislike of James Potter...
He hunches over a little, feeling awful.
He, of all people, should really have known better!
He bows his head, expression strained. He really, really feels terrible right now.
Never one to back away from his mistakes, however, he raises his head again and steadies himself: "I'm sorry," he says with absolute sincerity.
"Oh?" sneers Genesis, but before he can shoot back something sarcastic Harry continues: "I just realized... all this time... I didn't mean to- I want to learn. I am grateful for your help, I just... I didn't realize what you were doing- what I was doing. I haven't done my part in this and... I'm sorry. I should not have antagonized you at every turn. I... You tried to guide me and I didn't listen. I'm sorry."
He falls silent – he's said more than he'd intended anyway – and waits for his mentor to get over his shock.
Genesis looks floored, then pleased, then harrumphs. "Whatever, brat," he sniffs.
His tone is less arrogant though, as he goes over the myths and truths behind materia usage again and slowly but surely guides him to understand the difference between materia-users and mages.
Which is monumental.
As huge as the distance between muggles and wizards back on Harry's birth world.
Maybe, muses Harry while he listens, maybe Ancients were here what wizards had been back home, maybe it's his being a wizard that makes him more attuned to materia... then again, some of the powers of the Ancients Genesis describes are beyond even Harry's imagination – he knows he isn't an Ancient: his way of using magic is completely different from what myths describe, much more like Genesis' own...
One thing is sure. Mages like him and his mentor can interact with the energy materia brings to their notice. And once they get good at it... sky's the limit.
After that unexpected revelation, things get better between them.
Now that he lets himself see the truth behind Genesis' insufferable attitude, Harry's admiration and respect for his mentor increase steadily; and the Crimson Commander's praise of Harry's skills grows less grudging in turn.
He is still irritating, obnoxious and with no patience whatsoever, but he's more mellow around Harry and the boy is less quick to take exception to his arrogant remarks.
Though he still has no qualms snapping at him when he slips into boisterous condescension again, regardless of the threat of punishment duty. Genesis is a lot more tolerant however and the Science Department, at least, is no longer involved - which is a relief beyond words. Mysterious Wednesday Stew is nothing to what doesn't make it in it!
Something has changed that day, something small and monumental at once, and Harry finds himself unexpectedly happy with how things are turning out.
Of course, they still argue a lot – and just as viciously as ever: none of their disagreements disappear overnight.
Harry's fame as a 'genius of materia', in particular, is a sore point.
"Why does it bother you so much?" he asks one day from the floor where they're sprawled, after they've exhausted themselves in a screaming match that barely avoided escalating into an all-out fight (which would, no doubt, have landed Harry in the infirmary again).
Genesis scowls: "You're not going to realize your potential if you believe you don't have to work for it!"
"Oh, please!" scoffs Harry.
His mentor sits up and glares at him, fury in his eyes: "So you have talent. It means that ninety percent of your peer don't even have a glimmer of hope of achieving what's been handed to you on a silver platter. It does not mean you can rest on your laurels and slack off on the betterment of your skills set! If you start off as the best, you have a duty to become even better."
Harry wisely doesn't roll his eyes. That's Genesis' philosophy in a nutshell. The man will never be fully satisfied with anything short of absolute perfection. How he can be so utterly self-assured nonetheless is a true puzzle to Harry.
"Besides, I don't want you to die. It'd reflect badly on me," the SOLDIER First adds loftily, easing himself back on the floor and contemplating the ceiling pensively.
This time Harry does roll his eyes. "I'm not going to get myself killed," he says pointedly.
"You will, if you let their idiotic, thoughtless praise make you overconfident," Genesis retorts in a grumble.
"Overconfident," says Harry flatly. With the way Genesis methodically shreds his self-esteem to tiny bits on a regular basis?
"Overconfidence is a serious danger for a warrior," his mentor says in a virtuous tone. "It can lead to arrogance, which can in turn lead to anger when that arrogance is not satisfied, and anger blinds you-"
"Oh, you're one to talk!" snorts Harry.
Genesis sneers, suddenly furious again: "It is not overconfidence if it is justified. And in my case, it is! I am skilled enough that-"
"You are," agrees Harry easily, because he believes it. "It's still bloody annoying."
Genesis gapes at him.
Clashing personalities aside, now that they're making an effort to get to know each other they find they have a lot in common, too – besides liking dumbapples, that is.
They both find a particular satisfaction in the art of inflicting electric shocks, much to the maintenance guys' annoyance – the day Harry perfects his own version of the Apocalypse attack, somehow managing to get lighting strikes to shoot up from the ground into his target, six of them resign in a hurry and half the cleaning crew begs to be relocated to the Junon facilities.
They share a taste for red leather – Harry is gratified and happy when he finds (in an unsanctioned, Zack-induced trip to Wall Market in which Cloud is lost in the weapon shop, drooling over a double-edged mythril saber imported from Kalm, and Zack manages to obtain a tiara of all things, though Harry chooses not to ask for details) a pair of red leather gauntlets that remind him of the Gryffindor Quidditch uniform and even happier when Genesis declares him to have 'excellent taste' and signs him a permission to deviate from the standard uniform Cadets are supposed to wear. He's getting himself a leather jacket first chance he gets!
They both, deep down, believe that it is their responsibility – and their privilege – to work for the good of the world and they take pride in being looked up to as protectors (and if Genesis seeks recognition for that and dreams of being acknowledged as 'Hero of the Dawn' while Harry is perfectly happy to remain in the shadows, why, it just means they work all the better together).
And they both enjoy annoying the Turks – on one memorable occasion (when Genesis has rather abruptly decided to take Harry on an actual mission, outside of Midgar no less, and has requisitioned a helicopter for deployment) Harry gets to pester Zack's Turk friend Reno with a million purposely naïve questions, while Genesis just leans back in his seat, ostensibly flipping through his book but in reality relishing his amusement at the red-headed Turk's annoyance. When the green-eyed Cadet manages to stick to his annoyingly naïve persona despite Reno's markedly increasing vexation and even gets through the Turk reaching his breaking point and threatening to shove his EMR down his throat with huge, tear-filled eyes – so perfectly executed that the red-head actually stumbles out an awkward apology – Genesis treats him to a celebratory drink in honour of his excellent acting skills.
Harry ends up deciding after a while that their odd relationship, with all its nerve-wrecking ups and downs, is definitely worth it.
The day he finds himself knocking at his mentor's door for non-training-related advice, he doesn't know who's more surprised – him or Genesis – but he does know that it is proof that something precious has grown between them: a bond of friendship and reliance.
And perhaps, the beginning of true trust.
"Angeal's Puppy's joining us today," announces Genesis one day, in the tone of a long-suffering martyr. "Apparently he needs some help with his non-existent materia skills..."
"Hey! I resent that, Genesis! I can too use materia – so I'm not a whiz like you and green-eyed wonder there, but still!"
Harry grins at his friend widely; Genesis, as usual, utterly ignores whatever Zack is saying and goes on: "...Angeal will give you some pointers for your hand-to-hand forms in exchange. Now, get the targets out, we're exploring the potential of induced hypothermia today..."
Harry is so stunned by the announcement that it takes a barked order to Move! to get him to comply and that earns him an irritated quote about shattered souls having dreams of the morrow – which he is not going to ask clarifications about, because last time he made this mistake, it took over three hours to get his mentor to stop dissecting that damn line about wings of light and dark spreading afar.
He is beyond excited and not because of the chance to freeze then smash some targets, however satisfying that might be.
Angeal Hewley is held as the living example of everything a true hero should be – not the reluctant, someone-has-to-do-it kind like Harry had been forced to be, but the real ones like Zack, he's ready to bet, will be one day.
All SOLDIERs - and Cadets - look up to him with not only admiration but affection too, because he takes care of his men more than any other First. And nobody wants to disappoint him – least of all Zack, who thinks he's simply awesome and rarely shuts up about him; Harry can't wait to meet the man properly.
Besides, Commander Hewley is widely known as one of the most awesome fighters in ShinRa, especially when it comes to fists rather than blades or magic – Harry is honoured by the chance to work with him while still a Cadet.
The lesson is everything he hoped for and more.
Harry is asked to complete a light warm up and then show Angeal some of the more basic moves of hand-to-hand combat that he's learned during Cadet training. He is quickly stopped, his position corrected and some advice given out, before he is asked to do the forms again. And again. And again, until his motions no longer lack in precision and grace. Stubbornly, he repeats each of the movements steadfastly and without complaint.
"You have patience and determination. That is good. Your ability to focus is a valuable one in a warrior's skills set," says Angeal approvingly.
Harry cannot help but glow at the quiet, sincere praise. Zack cheers loudly and is promptly sent to do push-ups to 'keep him occupied'. His complaints are just as loud and Harry barely stifles his laugh.
He is amazed at how much more relaxed the atmosphere is than when he's with Genesis, even now that their relationship is steadily improving. There is none of Genesis' mercurial mood-swings here, nor the sharp dressing downs: Angeal patiently corrects his stance when needed and gives constructive input here and there, as well as liberal praise and support when warranted – a very rare commodity with Harry's mentor, who doesn't stoop to praising him unless he's gone well beyond any reasonable expectations of excellence.
Eventually, Angeal stops him and nods with approval: "Good. You know to capitalize on and use your agility and speed to your greatest advantage. You only need a few hints as to how to do this without leaving yourself open or drawing the fight out so long you'll exhaust yourself... I want you to continue practicing the basics every day, do you hear me? Until the movements flow perfectly. They are the bricks with which to build your own style."
"Of course. Your body type isn't as suited as mine or Zack's to brute strength; you're slight and lean much like Genesis. Hence why you instinctively rely on speed rather than strength you don't have. However, as I'm sure my friend demonstrated for you, brute strength is not necessarily the key to overcoming an opponent."
Harry nods quickly.
"When you're able to perform the basic forms at any different speed I ask without errors or hesitations, I will teach you a series of techniques that use your opponent's momentum against them to create a stronger force in your attack. Once you incorporate them in a rhythm of your own, and learn to read your opponent's movements to stay one step ahead at all times, it'll be just a matter of time and experience before you are truly formidable."
Harry's enormous grin is just a little bit incredulous: "You... you mean you'll continue helping me?"
Angeal smiles, and Harry whoops as loudly as Zack.
Later, his joy dims a little when he realizes how Genesis might take it. He is rather hesitant to tell him that he wants training from someone else, even if their relationship is now on the mend.
Especially because their relationship is now on the mend.
But his mentor, to his surprise, isn't offended in the least.
"Knew you were talented," he gloats, his grin smug as if the merit for Harry's successes was all his, and throws an arm around his shoulders like a proud parent.
Which... is really rather nice, but Harry doesn't have much time to ponder the infinite mystery that is Genesis, because Zack takes the unvoiced blessing at face value and he is practically electric in his enthusiasm.
He starts happily planning out their 'joint training sessions', a concept he takes further than anyone expects, seeing as he keeps self-inviting himself to all of Genesis' materia lessons, especially when they start working on Summons (because Lazard might have forbidden the Crimson Commander from letting a Cadet anywhere near the dangerous entities, but it's not as if Genesis ever bothers with insignificant things like rules).
And because Zack is Zack and Harry is Harry, and both have very definite ideas about friendship, Cloud is dragged along every time – less and less reluctantly, despite his initial crippling shyness around the formidable Firsts.
The two Commanders are at first uneasy at the timid blond's presence, but after contemplating him – and his performances – for a while, Genesis ends up declaring that "The wind sails over the water's surface, quietly, but surely", to which Angeal nods thoughtfully; and that, to the puzzlement of the younger ones, seems to be that.
None of the three friends is going to complain, of course.
Their experience is skyrocketing, their skills being honed beyond what they could imagine possible, and they're together in it.
Life can't get very much better than that!
"I will not tolerate this any longer!"
Sephiroth's deep, gravelly voice freezes the five of them in the middle of a joint training session and they stare at him wide-eyed, the anger in the General's tone unnerving them.
"Sephiroth?" tries Angeal taking a step forward – ever the protector – to redirect the General's glare to himself (and hopefully play peace-keeper).
The odd green eyes narrow at him with barely contained fury: "Do you know what people are starting to believe? Do you?"
"Ehm... no," admits the dark-haired First cautiously, looking completely puzzled.
"First it was you and your annoying puppy..."
Angeal and Zack blink in shock.
"...then Genesis went and found himself a pet wizard..."
Twin yells of indignation burst forth from Harry and his mentor.
"...And lo and behold, the two are friends, and does it stop there? No! Because they've got a blond waif of a third friend forever hanging around with them and do you know what people believe?"
He rounds on Cloud suddenly and the poor boy blanches under his hero's furious gaze: "They believe you're my apprentice, since the three of you are always together – just like the three of us – and everybody thinks that we're training the 'next Black Triad' and incidentally, who in the name of all the Summons came up with that ridiculous moniker?"
Harry bites his lip, hard, to avoid snickering at the outrage in the General's voice. It is not a good idea to attract his attention right this minute.
"And not even someone worthy to be associated with me," rants on Sephiroth, completely ignoring the devastated look on Cloud's face. He might have tone down his fanboy tendencies thanks to Harry's unrelenting insistence, but the man is still his hero, and to hear he has such a low opinion of him... "No, you ask his instructors, they'll tell you he barely made the cut, no particular talent, and months later he's still just average!" He bares his teeth at the desolated blond: "I refuse to let my alleged apprentice be so inadequate!"
Both Zack and Harry instantly take a step forward, bristling at the insult to their best friend and more than ready to defend him, even against the great General, but Sephiroth doesn't even notice them.
His strong, gloved hand falls heavily on Cloud's trembling shoulder and grips it tightly enough to bruise.
"I'm going to make damn well sure you are up to my standards," he growls and yanks on the lithe body, turning sharply around with a swirl of his leather cloak and marching to the other end of the training room, a shocked and unresisting Cloud dragged along by his unyielding grip. "You're going to work your ass off until you can't think straight anymore and then you're going to work some more. Do you understand me, Strife?" he snarls. "I'm going to train you until you can stand at their side by right!"
That night, Harry has to help Cloud get into bed because the poor kid can't move a single muscle without moaning in pain. By the blissful grin on his face, though, you'd think he was in heaven.
The mentorship is formalized the following day.
After that, the SOLDIER exam is a mere formality.
"This is your last chance to get plastered properly!" cries Zack dramatically, dragging his two best friends towards Sector 8, which in his words is 'as good a place as any to start the night off'. "Tomorrow you're going under the science creepies and believe me, mako injections aren't a walk in the park, you're gonna be too sick to have fun..."
Harry smirks while he pretends to protest Zack's rather predictable insistence on celebrating their becoming SOLDIERs. A night out is just the thing and if he was honest with himself, which he isn't, he'd admit that he's gleeful at the idea of strutting around the bars and glorying in his stark new blue uniform – and the envious and admiring looks it's bound to garner.
Cloud's giddy grin tells him the blond feels the same and they both follow their hyperactive friend feeling exhilarated that they are now, at last, his fellow SOLDIERs.
It's sometime after his eighth drink that Harry is struck by a very important thought.
He's at home.
The realization hits him like a punch to the solar plexus.
He's – he feels – at home, here, within SOLDIER, in this city, in this world.
Should he? Should he not? Is it wrong of him? Is it natural?
It's been months since he's last thought of Hogwarts, of Voldemort, of those he's left behind. Of Ron and Hermione.
Now it's Zack and Cloud that fill his thoughts.
It's Wutaian ninjas he worries about and contemplates fighting, no longer Death Eaters.
It's the rising moron Heidegger he complains about, not Fudge (though their incompetence and greed are so alike they might be confused, if not for the fact that Heidegger doesn't cover his prominent lard with striped suits and lime green bowels, and his laugh is more grating on everybody's nerves).
It's Genesis he thinks of longingly when he's in doubt about his life and would trust above all others. Not Sirius.
He goes quiet as he contemplates this unsettling truth.
"What's wrong?" asks Cloud, peering worriedly at him.
Harry really doesn't have a clue how to explain. They don't know of his past and he isn't about to tell them – it would take too long, they'd probably not believe him and besides, he's got too much alcohol in his bloodstream to hope for a coherent narration right now.
But even if they did know, he isn't sure he could put into words the odd, disorienting feeling that is unsettling him all of a sudden. He can't straighten it out in his own head, let alone try and convey it.
"Harry?" calls Zack, starting to get worried as well. "You all right?"
He doesn't know where to even begin replying.
So he does like his mentor would: when in doubt, quote LOVELESS.
"Ripples form on the water surface," he tells gloomily to his friends. "The wandering soul knows no rest!"
Zack frowns at him: "You," he enunciates very clearly, "need another drink. Hey, miss!"
Harry shrugs and downs the bright red stuff Zack throws at him and doesn't try to explain his sudden moodiness again, but inside, he's finding that the familiar verses are a surprisingly accurate description of what he's feeling. The thought cheers him up at once, but doesn't do much to clear up his confusion.
Is what he's feeling wrong? Or is it ok to have grown fond of this new life?
He has no answer, but he knows one very important truth.
It's Gaia he feels a child of now. No longer Earth.
He doesn't really know what to do with this new insight.
But. Hey. Zack's managed to somehow procure them authentic Blue Hawaii cocktails – recipe coming straight from Costa del Sol, like the sexy, tanned barmaid he's somehow charmed into joining their table.
They have cherries on top.
Introspection can wait.