UPDATE 7/1/13: Apologies for the confusion. Stupid site messed up some of the web coding. I always preview the chapter to look for errors/web coding issues/etc. Unfortunately, I spotted them right as I was about to head off for work. (sigh) I really wanted to surprise my readers with an early-day update. Unfortunately, when I spotted the errors I had no choice but to delete the chapter and fix the issues when I returned home. Sorry for the delay, guys. D: Just know that any time you recieve a notification on an update it's a sure bet it's gonna be a new chapter that day. :)

Author's Note: Oh boy, this certainly took long to post. Please don't kill me! I'm fragile and bruise easily! oAo Gaaaaah, this chapter nearly killed me. So many things going on. I considered splitting it into two chapters, but I really want to get to the birthday chapters soon. :( Sorry if it's too long. I'm practically shoving all the other stuff in these chapters so I can focus on the Honeybee scenes and not have to touch base with the OTHER things also going on. Meanwhile, this chapter is all about Cloud's grand adventures with Sugar and Spice. It was nice writing about the underworld. It's got a bit of Moulin Rouge intermingled with the Fifth Element and Blade Runner. This chapter literally felt like Cloud going down a rabbit hole. That's kinda the reason why this chapter took so long. I literally had to give life to Candy Land while, at the same time, focus on Cloud's inner voyage between masculine and feminine identity. The poor boy... A firm warning by the way! There is drug use and 'wtf' moments here, particularly with Sugar. It's impossible for me to not offend everyone and so I'm just going to take my chances by uploading this and hope I don't piss off too many people off. :( Anyway, as I was writing the scenes of Candy Land and Cloud going shopping with his 'parents', I listened to 'Pretty Woman' and 'Funkytown'. XD As for Cloud's new smexy look, I looked up to Andrej Pejic for inspiration. That dude looks hawt. OAO

I'll be posting up my other replies for the reviews I wasn't able to squeeze in. But first, I wanted to give a shout out to the 'Simple Poet'. Oh my god, I never had anyone write me a poem based off my work before. And the way you incorporated the scenes/dialogue from the story was freakin' amazing and clever. O_O Thank you so much!

In this chapter, Cloud explores a brand new world, complete with Mary-Jane shoes and glittery hairspray! Meanwhile, Dr. McClain realizes Cloud looks better in a dress than most the ladies in Midgar. O_O


CHAPTER 29: Pretty Woman

The main shower room of the barracks was thick and warm with steam. A sharp, tangy fragrance settled in the air. At the last opened stall, Cloud stood completely naked with his head bowed down. The tips of his platinum-blond, spiky hair dripped in all directions. Both of his damped palms rested against the tiled, white wall in front of him just as the showerhead above him continuously sprayed his back with hot water. Cloud quietly withdrew a steamy breath. Staring at the drainage hole between his feet, streams of water swirled and collected there with a loud sucking sound. Cloud closed his eyes. He wanted to enjoy this rejuvenating moment. He needed it. Almost every inch of his body protested. Both his arms and legs were sore from the wall climb half an hour ago. Likewise, his elbows and knees stung from the scrapes and bruises he'd accumulated from his falls. To his disappointment, it was yet another disastrous climb today with the same results as before. No surprise there.

While Cloud had managed to ascend the wall higher and faster, he still lacked the physical energy required to get over it. The big midterm exam was only a day away. The nerves setting in, Cloud grew anxious now. Since last week, he'd spent every free minute of his days practicing on the wall. Nothing worked. If he was lucky, Maniac Macs would assign him to another section on exam day. That was probably what the higher ranked Corporal had in mind when he instructed Cloud to also work on the other sections of the obstacle courses. The Chocobo race was a good alternative. Cloud was a natural when it came to the big birds. His mom taught him how to ride at age six. None of the birds gave him fuss. Additionally, Cloud was a good shooter at the sniping section. While he wasn't fast, he had a steady aim and knew when to pick his shots.

Cloud withdrew another hot breath. Having him assigned to another section during the race sounded like a good idea. It was a simple solution and would relieve his team of a huge burden on their shoulders. Still. Cloud also found it was a cheap way out of his obligations. Avoiding the wall would not make him a contender for SOLDIER. If anything, it demonstrated his weakness and unwillingness to confront his fear. He… needed to climb the wall and conquer it.

Tomorrow would be his last practice run. A part of Cloud regretted accepting Reno's invitation to the opera tonight. He needed to work out his shortcomings. It would be impossible for him to focus on the wall tomorrow since there was the side mission at the Slums as well as his birthday celebration at the Honeybee Inn. Not to mention, he planned to work on his midterm proposal paper for his Ancient Civilizations and Cultures class at the computer lab. For a moment, Cloud considered cancelling the opera outing tonight. He quickly remembered Sephiroth would be there though.

Cloud still wasn't sure what to make of his General. Days ago they kissed at the Briefing Room. Then he caught him with Genesis at town square. Some part of Cloud still felt spurned by it. Although he knew he had no right to be jealous of Sephiroth's actions, the bitterness was there. Nonetheless, the silver-haired swordsman had embraced him yesterday evening at the pool. There was a very intense moment between them, even when Cloud made a complete fool of himself and nearly drowned. The cadet hoped it wasn't wishful thinking or misinterpretation on his part that accounted for Sephiroth's warm words and actions yesterday. It was still hard to believe the great and powerful man of Shinra's army would give him the time of day; certainly not to a struggling cadet like him. Was it all an illusion? Did the General simply feel sorry for him?

Raising his face, Cloud stood straighter and opened his eyes again. The water softly rained down on his chest while his clear blue eyes became fixated on the ceiling high above his head. Cloud found himself in unchartered territory. Tomorrow he was slated to lose his virginity. Admittedly, he looked forward to it. There weren't many women on the base. On a few occasions, he'd sneak a quick glance at Private Steer Brear's feminine body during their showers. He wasn't attracted to her per se, but the sight of her lovely buttocks, perking breasts, and patch of groin hair left him breathless. He wanted to run his fingers across the surface of her body and feel her insides. That same hunger was previously reserved for Tifa. Cloud caught her naked by his window several times. The bare sight of a woman excited him. He must've masturbated a million times over it. Never in a million years, however, did Cloud think he'd react the same lustful way toward a man.

He'd… fallen for the General. Hard. Within the two weeks they met, his thoughts remained on him. Cloud still couldn't explain it and had attempted to ignore the awkward sensations that crept up on him. The vivid dreams of Sephiroth and him together, though, sent his young, naïve body tingling in places he hadn't imagined before. His head felt lighter whenever Sephiroth was in close proximity of him and it was difficult to breathe. His unexpected attraction to the General literally turned the world Cloud had been accustomed to upside-down. Initially, he was repulsed by his crude desires and was disappointed in himself for not sharing them exclusively to women. Attraction toward the same sex, after all, was still frowned upon in his highly conservative hometown. A man fucked a woman, bred children, grew old, rotted away, and returned to the Lifestream. That was that. He wasn't supposed to come to Midgar and find pleasure in the company of a man.

As much as Cloud wanted to deny his feelings, he also couldn't help but reject the rigid, pre-destined norms either. He didn't want to think of himself as a man who solely existed to spit out cum and bring more people into this planet. He was more than that. Wasn't he? Cloud lowered his face again. The water ran down from his forehead to his chin. Perhaps there was more to his attraction to Sephiroth than he initially thought. Maybe it was his rebellious way of throwing the people in Nibelheim the middle finger. They had shunned him so many times since he was a boy for reasons he could not understand. The indifference grew stronger when Cloud failed to protect Tifa. He was given the blame for her coma state. They called him a devil. Cloud was tired of trying to fit in, including here in Midgar. While his squadron had finally embraced him, the entire camp remained indifferent to him. They were still out to get him due to the Black Book business. In fact, someone had broken into his locker early this morning and stole his Fenrir pendant.

Cloud's attempt at trying to fit in only made his life more miserable. It felt as if he was living a lie by pretending to be someone he was not. Surprisingly enough, Cloud discovered that same frustrated, bitterness in the eyes of General Sephiroth.

The silver-haired SOLDIER was brilliant, refined, handsome, elegant, and classy. Every man wanted to be him. Every woman wanted to fuck him. Sephiroth represented perfection. Cloud was admittedly taken by his brilliance. There was no denial about it. Sephiroth was beautiful. Granny's assessment that many men on base would switch teams for him was right-on. Cloud wanted to touch his face, his chest, his lips, his… whole body. However, there was a level hidden beneath Sephiroth's public persona the cadet detected. He had the look of a man reaching out. Cloud recognized it in his own self. As much as he hated this world sometimes, he still wanted to be a part of it. It was this shared link that captivated him the most. Both of the General and him were misfits of this planet, drowning in their own miseries and fake public personas. Cloud knew, then, his attraction for the General was more than mere lust: it was an emotional connection.

Cloud was in the middle of washing off the mud and grime from his body when Turbo Toraz suddenly poked his head out from the next shower stall. The bold man flashed him a small white card in his hand.

"Look what I got, yo," the other man exclaimed.

Cloud didn't immediately respond. Scrubbing under his armpits with a bar of soap, he studied the item in his hand for a few seconds. It was a simple white card with the words: White Card Attendee. Turbo Toraz's face beamed with excitement. Cloud had no idea what got him so riled up.

"Is that a free movie pass or something?" he finally spoke, unsure.

Turbo Toraz made a face. He wadded toward Cloud and smacked the back of his damped head. "Yo, you are seriously clueless on many things here, Cloud."

"Sue me." Cloud flipped him the middle finger and started washing the bottom of his penis. Later, he said, "White Card Attendee, huh? What's the deal on that?"

Turbo Toraz grinned. "Yo, it's access to the Bathhouse. I managed to borrow this from a Second-Class guy. I covered for him while he went to Sector 6 for some serious poontang. I intend to use it during midterm break."

Humming to himself, Turbo Toraz danced and made thrusting motions with his hips. Considering he was naked and hung like a horse, Cloud found the entire event appalling. He heard the soft flapping of skin and feared Turbo Toraz's large, fat member would accidentally slap him.

"Don't quit your day job," Cloud sniped and took a step away from him. He turned around so that the water rinsed off the soap that coated his body.

"What, you're not impressed, yo?" Turbo Toraz stopped humping. He pointed at the card with eyes wide open. "Do you have any idea how many people would kill to have this card in their possession?"

Cloud arched one brow upward. "I honestly don't see what the big deal is. What, the Bathhouse offers free fragrant soaps there?"

"Yo, you're killing me, Cloud. You're fucking killing me. First you don't know about Honeybee Inn and now this. For shame."

Right around the time Cloud rolled his eyes, Midget and Maniac Macs emerged from the other side to investigate the ruckus. Both men had arrived wearing towels around their waists, apparently finished with their showers.

"What the hell is going on here?" griped Midget and held his squeaky sponge with one hand. He paused when he noticed the card in Turbo Toraz's possessions. "Fucker, why didn't you tell me you had one of those? Where did you get that?"

"I got friends in high places, yo," the other man simply said.

Maniac Macs smirked. "You got another card on you by chance, Private?"

The other man grinned. "Yo, as luck would have it, I got five. The guy I'm borrowing this also has buddies with extra cards they won't be using for a while. They're all in tour at Wutai. It only cost me ten Gil to borrow 'em, yo."

"Hell yeah!" hollered Midget.

"Gimme twenty Gil and I'll rent you one, yo."

Both the Corporal and small-sized man frowned.

"The fuck, asshole?" Midget griped loudly. "Why not just give us them?"

"Because I'm a fucking entrepreneur and nothing in this world is free, yo."

Maniac Macs growled and tossed his sponge at him.

Turbo Toraz ducked his head and snorted. "C'mon, now, twenty Gil to borrow a card for the entire week of midterm break? That's a swell deal if you ask me, yo. You won't find a better one than that."

Midget sighed. "Fine, ya bastard, I'll transfer the Gil after we return to base later in the afternoon."

"Sweet!" Turbo Toraz nodded his head in approval. Then he turned to the Corporal. "Yo, are you in too, fearless squad leader?"

The Corporal shrugged his shoulders and nodded. "Yeah, I'm game."

"You're coming along, Cloud, right?" Midget asked and winked at him.

Before the blonde could reply, Turbo Toraz interrupted and cocked a thumb at his direction. "Yo, get this, Clueless-Country-Boy-Cloud doesn't know about the Bathhouse!"

All three cadets stared at the blonde as if he were an alien from another world. They shook their heads in a disapproving manner. Cloud grunted softly to himself. He absolutely hated how he was the last man in the planet to know things around here. Was he really that clueless? Gaia, he really hoped Clueless-Country-Boy-Cloud didn't stick with him. Of course, his lack of knowledge about every happening in this place was large and wide.

"Okay, fine," Cloud admitted in defeat. He slapped a button on the wall in front of him and effectively turned off the showerhead. Then he faced all of them. "Enlighten me: what's so great about the Bathhouse?"

"It's only the most the notorious place in the sublevel-six floor of Shinra's Headquarters," answered Midget, his eyes wild. "The Bathhouse is funded by Commander Rhapsodos and is basically a place for a giant fuckfest."

Cloud blinked. "A giant what?"

"A fuuuuuckfest," the tiny cadet repeated, "Officially, it's a place for everyone to unwind and bathe together. But in reality, it's where anyone who is anyone can join in a giant-ass orgy."

Cloud's mouth gaped opened. He… had no idea that type of stuff went on at the base. It surprised him even more how no one made a fuss over it. Shinra Inc. was in the middle of trying to generate a squeaky-clean image to the general public, amidst the controversy of the Wutai War and use of mako. Cloud could already picture his mother smiling in an 'I-told-you-so' manner. She warned him the city was filled with vices and corruption. Shinra Inc. definitely sheltered a lot of secrets here, everything from the underground Committee to now orgies. The fact Commander Rhapsodos, himself, was the host of such scandalous activity was even more shocking to the cadet. It revealed to him just how right the President from the Committee was about the First-Class Elite.

"It's a top-members exclusive dig, yo," added Turbo Toraz later. "You can only get invited to the Bathhouse."

"Invited?" Cloud inquired curiously and stepped out of his shower stall. He grabbed the towel hanging nearby and dried himself with it.

"There are two types of invitations," explained Maniac Macs. "The white cards are for low-leveled attendees. Regular attendees in good standing, like Third and Second class members, can use them to invite persons of interest."

"Yo, white card attendees are excluded from certain sections of the Bathhouse, I hear," informed Turbo Toraz and made a face. "White card holders can only fuck people with white cards."

"That blows…" Midget responded and crossed his arms.

"And what about the other type of card?" Cloud asked while he dried his hair.

"Yo, black card members?" Turbo Toraz sounded excited. "Black cards are extremely rare. You'd have to receive the card directly from someone high-ranked, like Commander Rhapsodos."

"What's the difference between black and white, though?"

"Black card holders have access to all the sections of the Bathhouse, yo. They can engage in sex with whoever they want, no matter the class status, but they tend to stick with their high-ranked group."

Midget blushed. "I'm pretty positive Scarlett attends the Bathhouse as a black card attendee. Oh man… I'd love to screw her if I ever got my hands on a black card!"

"But… if this is all true," started Cloud, "Won't you guys get in trouble if they find out you're not the original card holder?"

"Yo, but that's the beauty." Turbo Toraz grinned. "It's a masquerade orgy. It's all about anonymity! Anyone who wants to participate in the orgy is required to wear a mask. So long as you got a card on you, it won't matter who you are."

"And speaking about masks…" Midget started shortly, "We should purchase one during our outing today." He turned to Cloud. "You're coming with us, right?"

Tying the towel around his waist, Cloud shook his head. "Sorry. I'm supposed to meet a few folks after this."

Midget pouted. "Aw, that sucks. I was gonna help cover the costs for your disguise since you were the only one given fifteen Gil on your card. Funny how yours was the only one short on the mula. Must've been a mistake."

Cloud sighed. "Yeah, it's barely enough to cover a skirt. I'll be fine though."

Mention of today's shopping agenda left Cloud bitter. Good god, he really wasn't looking forward to it. The Second-Class SOLDIER that visited them this morning wanted them all to be in disguise at the Interrogation Room. Cloud couldn't understand why the decision was made. They couldn't simply meet at the Slums instead? Cloud didn't want to potentially get caught in drag by SOLDIER members at headquarters.

"So you want to rent a White Card, yo?" asked Turbo Toraz. "Twenty Gil. With midterm break around the corner, it'll be a helluva way to enjoy our time off."

Cloud paused.

"You might as well come along with us to the Bathhouse," suggested Maniac Macs. "You'll get the opportunity to practice on a few more women after you pop your cherry tomorrow night. Hah, you'll become a pro in the sack in no time! All the ladies will want you, kid."

Cloud remained quiet for a moment. The conservative man in him was too shy to admit how enticing this offer was. It sounded so… outrageous. He wasn't sure if he had the balls to go through with it. On the other hand, this gave Cloud the opportunity to fulfill one of the missions assigned to him by the Committee. While he still waited to receive the assignments from the other unfortunate guy caught up in the Black Book business, Cloud focused on his own agendas for the time being. Take explicit photos of one of the Commanders in a scandalous situation and submit them to his respective fan club for public scrutiny.If Commander Rhapsodos was the host of such a controversial orgy, then this was a good opportunity for him to take advantage of the situation.

"All right," Cloud finally replied and brusquely nodded his head. "I'm in."

The group of cadets hollered and filled the shower room with celebration. Cloud's face flushed a bit. He was already overwhelmed by tomorrow's outing. And now this? There was a hint of a smile on his face while Turbo Toraz patted him on the shoulder.

"Wise decision, yo."

"Of course, this depends on me actually passing the midterms on Monday, right?" Cloud chuckled. "If I haven't been cut, I'll pay for my card then."

"You'll pass," Corporal Macs said confidently. "Make no mistake about that."

Cloud smiled. "Thanks, Macs."

The group started to disband. Cloud knew everyone was headed for downtown to go shopping. They intended to spend the rest of their day in the city afterward. It sounded like a fun time. Cloud wished he could join them. However, Granny left him a text message earlier today. He was instructed to wait outside the main northern gate of the barracks. Cloud still had no idea who or what to expect. Granny only warned him not to freak out. That, in itself, set off the alarm bells. Freak out? Freak out over what exactly?

"Hey, Cloud, I nearly forgot," Corporal Macs suddenly said up ahead. "There's a large package waiting for you. Some guy dressed in a black suit with red hair dropped it off. It's already in your locker."

"Package?"

The other man nodded. Then he left.

Once Cloud obtained all of his shower items, he headed for his locker. Opening it, he confirmed the Corporal's report. Carefully undoing the tape of the elongated package, Cloud slowly pulled back the tissue paper and unveiled its contents. His eyes widened. Sure enough, it was a custom-made, dark-gray suit for the opera event tonight. Cloud gave off an impressive-sounding whistle. Damn, those Turks really had good taste in fashion. Out of the corner of his eye, there was a note: Nothing sexier than a man in a sharp suit. See you tonight, hot stuff. - Reno


Outside of the main northern gate, Cloud waited under the shading of a nearby shuttle stop. While the air felt dreadfully humid, the overall atmosphere was lively. It was the weekend, after all. Many of the cadets had left the base to pursue their grand adventures. His own team departed in a company transporter moments ago. They were on their way to downtown now. Cloud took a seat on the bench and waited for his own ride to appear. He wasn't sure exactly who to look out for. According to Granny, a woman and man already knew him. He certainly hoped they could recognize him, especially in his current garb. A mere cadet, Cloud wore his standard-issued uniform reserved for leave and liberty use. It was a gray buttoned short-sleeved shirt complete with a black tie and ironed-pressed trousers. His lowly Private rank was revealed by his one-striped black epaulets.

Checking the time on his wristwatch, Cloud discovered it was five minutes passed ten. His pick-up party was running late. He partly wished it was Granny who came to see him right now. At least he'd see her later in the afternoon. She promised to treat him to lunch for his birthday. Cloud was looking forward to it. They hadn't seen each other much this week. When they did, it was to work on his anger management issues. They had a lot to talk about. So much had happened in the past few days that Cloud desperately needed her advice. There was the kiss between him and Sephiroth at the Briefing Room and that naughty business with Raven at the Training Room. There were his missions with the Committee he needed to fulfill. It was as if the whole world collapsed on him.

The cadet took a moment to watch the scenery around him to ease his mind. It wasn't often he left the barracks to visit the city. At least three times he'd taken the shuttle to sightsee. Even though Midgar was one massive metropolis that harbored all the great minds and talents of the world, as a city it didn't look all that impressive. Each of the districts looked the same to Cloud's utter disappointment. There were the familiar cold steel and metal beams of rusty structures. There was the lack of natural landscape. And there was the constant, distinct smell of moss from the mako fumes that emitted high in the air. From where he sat, Cloud could observe a mako reactor. Intimidating in size, he didn't understand why the sight of it disturbed him. Claudius called it one of humankind's remarkable achievements. For Cloud, though, it was basically a giant-sized vacuum that sucked out raw energy for the city.

"Well, if it isn't Cloud Strife," a male's voice suddenly interrupted his thoughts.

Caught off guard, the cadet instantly shifted his attention away from the reactor to his unexpected visitor. He saw a familiar man stand next to him now. Cloud halfway snickered at the sight of the guy. Well. Speak of the Devil…

Like him, Claudius Tyler was dressed sharply in his weekend uniform. Every fold had a well-defined crease and his shoes were glossed to a mirror shine. His red hair was recently shaved for a cleaner, conservative look. For the most part, Claudius appeared the same as the last time they saw each other. However, Cloud noted the tired, uneasy look in the man's eyes, the lack of focus in them. He also stood slightly to the side and held his face low. Something was amiss. Still, Cloud did his best to make their encounter a good one. He greeted the fellow Nibelheim native with a smile.

"Well, if it isn't Claudius Tyler," Cloud echoed, "What are you doing here?"

The other man grinned back and sat beside him on the bench. In his hand was a small, tightly wrapped present. "Macs told me where I'd find you."

"Is that so, huh?"

"Yeah. I know you'll be busy celebrating your birthday tomorrow, so I wanted to give you this today while I still had the chance." Claudius presented the gift to him. "Happy early birthday, Cloud."

Slowly accepting it, Cloud was at a loss for words. They hadn't seen each other since Sephiroth's ruling at the Briefing Room. From what Cloud recalled, Claudius had been demoted due to the restroom incident. Sitting next to him now, the young blonde frowned when he noticed Claudius' epaulets. They were one-striped like his. The former Corporal and squadron leader was now a lowly Private like him. A pang of guilt struck Cloud. He lowered his face and gripped the present tighter to his chest until he heard the wrapping paper crinkle.

"Something wrong?" Claudius asked quietly.

"No… It's just…" Cloud sighed and stared at his feet. "Well, yeah. I guess I'm still upset you got demoted after coming clean that day. It's… my fault this happened."

Claudius' face turned hard. He shook his head and instantly replied, "Don't feel bad, Cloud. We went over this already. You did nothing wrong. The General made the right call. I would've done the same thing if I were in his shoes."

Surprised to hear that, Cloud's eyes drew up and were fixed on Claudius again. "So you're… fine with it?"

The redheaded cadet snorted. "Am I fine with it? No. Not really. I understand why the General made his decision and respect it. I still feel like shit though. Not only didn't I do the right thing and now must live with that for the rest of my life… but I also fucked up my chances of getting into SOLDIER."

Puzzled, Cloud slowly asked, "What do you mean?"

"General Sephiroth automatically disqualifies any cadet with a record of misdemeanors or misconduct within the company. No exceptions." Claudius sighed and stared at his empty hands. "So you see… I can't apply for SOLDIER, even if I pass all the exams and prerequisites. My best shot is to work my way up from the infantryman level and apply then."

Cloud looked away from him, admittedly depressed by this news.

"Hey, you're going to apply for SOLDIER after midterm break, right? That's the time they'll start accepting applications." Claudius gazed at Cloud intensely and waited for an answer. When Cloud didn't reply, Claudius urged, "You've got to, man. Someone has to represent our backwater, shitty village."

That last remark prompted a small smile on Cloud's face.

"Don't blame yourself for what happened," Claudius encouraged soon afterward. "And don't feel bad for shooting for SOLDIER either. This is your dream, not just mine. You're entitled to push for it."

Feeling relieved by Claudius' words, Cloud took a deep breath. "Yeah, I'm going to apply. Win or lose, I'm going to pursue my dream."

"Good. That's what I want to hear, Cloud."

"I just gotta make sure I pass my midterm exam first," Cloud mentioned in a very low voice.

"You will." Claudius placed a hand in his shoulder. "I know you will, Cloud. Even if you don't beat any records, at least show those boys what you're made of."

Cloud softly snickered. "Yeah, you're right…"

"That's the spirit." Claudius jabbed him once on the shoulder. Then he stood to leave. "Well, I gotta get going. I'm meeting my father for late breakfast right now."

"Oh?" Cloud was surprised to hear about Claudius' father. Ever since they arrived together in Midgar, the redheaded man hardly spoke about him. "Must be nice to have him around, huh?"

Claudius' face stiffened a bit. The expression on his face darkened. Still, the reaction came and went. He relaxed again and changed the subject. "By the way, how'd the meeting go?"

Blinking once, Cloud knew exactly what he was talking about. With wavering eyes, he answered, "I received my missions."

Claudius smiled. "So you're going through with it, huh? You're going to succeed where others have failed?"

"Yeah." Cloud nodded and felt a bit resolved. "I gotta clear my name."

Claudius' brows pulled together. "Don't let those assholes bring you down then, Cloud. This camp has a funny way of killing a man's spirit."

"They won't kill mine." Cloud's grasped the present in his hands tighter. His blue eyes grew fiercer when he quietly added, "I won't let them."

"Good. I'll see you around." Claudius turned away. He paused long enough to look over his shoulder. "I hope you enjoy your present, Cloud."

Cloud watched him leave. It was good to see Claudius again. He hadn't realized how much he missed him until now. Things between them certainly changed. At least something positive had come out of the restroom incident. Looking down at the present in his hands, Cloud carefully undid the packing and opened the box. He pulled back the cloth that concealed the gift. Unveiled now, Cloud stared at the gift and blinked several times. His hand carefully pulled out a delicate, dried flower wrapped in a cloth.

The Nibelheim Primrose. It was a flower species grown exclusively at the highest elevations of Mount Nibel during winter season. Because mako was in abundance up there, the resilient flowers obtained the ability to sparkle and glow, like stars. Hence, many Nibelheim natives affectionately called the flowers, Starfall. Seeing a Starfall in person was extremely rare. Not many people were brave enough to climb Nibel to obtain the exotic flowers.

Holding one in his hand now, Cloud felt lucky and was instantly reminded of home. He turned his head to the direction the other cadet had walked off to. Claudius' lean shape was still in view. Cloud was tempted to run after him, perhaps even invite him to tomorrow's gathering at Honeybee Inn. Maybe they could even…

Cloud stood from his seat and took several steps forward. A very young child intersected with him, though. The kid blocked his path and glared up at him with rust-brown eyes. Smacking loudly on his gum while listening to rap music from his giant-sized headphones, the child didn't move aside. Cloud wasn't sure what to make of him. Half of the kid's bright pink hair was shaved off. Shirtless with only metal-studded suspenders on, he wore pink-rimmed sunglasses, pink cut-up jeans, pink shoes, and carried a pink umbrella that was easily two times his short, petite size. Beads of rainbow-patterned necklaces decorated his entire bare chest. The kid looked at least twelve-years-old. Cloud quickly wondered where his parents were or if he was lost. Then the boy pointed the tip of his umbrella directly at Cloud's face.

"Eh, you're Baby, am-I-right?" the child suddenly asked point-blank. He lowered his earphones to his neck and stared at Cloud with one hip jutted outward. As he waited for a response, the boy twirled the umbrella above his head in one full circle.

Cloud tilted his head in confusion. "Baby? Uh, no. My name's Cloud."

"But you're Baby," the street kid said in a matter-of-fact tone.

"No… I'm not Baby. I'm Cloud."

"You're Baby and that's that," declared the boy suddenly with a pout.

Initially, Cloud was ready to correct him again. He had no idea who this kid was or why he thought his name was Baby. However, he did remember Granny's words from yesterday: If they call you 'Baby' just roll with it. Cloud bit on his lower lip. Did this kid know who he was? Was he sent here for him?

Curious where this would go, Cloud gave a reluctant shoulder shrug. At last, he conceded and replied, "Fine. Whatever, kid."

"Then follow me, Baby," the kid boldly ordered.

The tiny pipsqueak took a step back and held the umbrella as high as he could to shelter Cloud under it. Cloud cocked a brow at him and briefly glanced up at the sky. It was cloudy, but the morning sun was out and it didn't look like it'd rain today.

"Follow you?" Cloud asked and watched the boy tip-toe and struggle with the umbrella. "Where are we going?"

"I'll tell you when we get there, Baby. Now be a good baby and follow me."

Again, Cloud was baffled. He still had no idea who the hell this kid was or if he was the one he was supposed to meet. Before he would express another word, though, the boy was already crossing the street in front of them. With a quiet sigh, Cloud had no choice but to follow him.

They walked northward for a few blocks, further away from the gated fortress of the barracks and more into civilian territory. Mid-morning, Midgar was alive with people. Cloud and the boy dodged those they came across on the sidewalk and continued forward. A few observers looked at the odd pair funny. Cloud ignored them and doubled his pace. For a little bugger, the kid sure was damn fast. Even more, the boy was able to anticipate the moves of others on the sideway and completely avoid them while Cloud bumped into a few of them. At last, the cadet caught up with the boy at a walk sign. As they waited there, Cloud grabbed the umbrella in the boy's hand since he kept struggling to hold it high.

"Who are you, kid?" Cloud asked curiously.

"Psych," answered the boy back.

"Psych?"

"Yep. It's short for Psychic. That's what they call me anyway." Later, he added, "I'm a Pink-Tart and am currently in charge of escorting you, Miss Sugar, Mister Spice safely to your destination, Baby."

Pink-Tart? Sugar? Spice? Destination? A series of questions crossed Cloud's mind. Granny mentioned a woman and man coming to help him. He could only assume it was Sugar and Spice. But what the hell was a Pink-Tart? Cloud was unable to give voice to any of his questions when he saw Psych abruptly cross the road. Despite the influx of cars coming in and out the street, the kid calmly jaywalked to the other side. Cloud gasped. Not only was the boy committing a serious misdemeanor here in Midgar, but he was close to getting himself killed.

"Hold on, kid!" Cloud yelled and ran after him. He narrowly missed a car himself. It honked loudly at him. Grunting to himself, Cloud apologized to the driver with a hand gesture before he dashed to the other side of the road where the kid already waited for him. "Damn it, you little brat, are you trying to get yourself killed?"

Psych chuckled, as if he asked the most ridiculous question in the world. Afterward, the boy pulled out a cigar and a match from his pants' pocket. He struck the match across his chin and lit up the cigar. An inhale later, the boy said, "You don't mind if I suck on this, right? It calms my nerves."

"What the…?" Cloud's eyes widened at the offending object in the child's hand. He quickly snatched the cigar away from Psych's hand. "Of course I mind, kid. You haven't even received your braces and you're already smoking? Cigars are bad for you, especially at your age."

"Baby, you're funny." Psych snorted.

The kid grabbed another cigar hidden inside his shoe and lit this one up as well. Once again, Cloud snatched it from the child and tossed it aside with a disapproving look in his eyes. This time, he grabbed the box of matches stashed inside the boy's pocket and threw it in the middle of traffic. Cloud shook his head. Whoever this boy's parents were, they had done a lousy job at keeping their kid straight. Cloud squatted next to Psych so that he could be on his level.

"Where are your parents, kid?" Cloud demanded.

"It's Psych, not kid," the boy griped. "And as for my folks? They blew up with the rest of that godforsaken reactor years ago."

Cloud blinked. Mention of a reactor's explosion brought him to an infamous incident several years ago. He heard about it from the newspaper. Back then, the first round of mako reactors were unstable. Many workers were confirmed with high levels of mako poisoning and died. Even so, it was business as usual for Shinra Inc. It took the explosion of one of their reactors to finally address the problem. The unstable structure blew up south of Midgar and took the lives of workers and adjacent neighborhoods alike. Since then, the old reactors were replaced by the innovative designs of the new Director of City Planning Development in charge, Mr. Reeve Tuesti.

"Both of your parents died in that explosion?" Cloud softly remarked to the boy in front of him.

"Yep."

Cloud's face slowly relaxed. He whispered, "I'm sorry…"

Psych stared at Cloud as if he'd grown a second head. The child laughed and flushed with color. "You really are silly, Baby. Heh, I like you."

Psych playfully punched Cloud on the shoulder. The cadet looked up at him with a frown, unable to know what to make of the kid's reaction. Either Psych was lying about his parent's death or he had a very good way of hiding his emotions. Before Cloud could speak again, though, Psych suddenly huddled under the umbrella. The cadet blinked with a questionable look on his face. A few seconds later, though, he heard thunder from above. Glancing up, the clouds had darkened and now shredded many tears. While everyone in the sidewalk fled for cover, the two of them stayed put at the corner of the sidewalk until the brief showers finally settled later. Psych nodded in content and took the umbrella from Cloud's hand.

"Cool. It won't be raining any time soon. Let's vamoose, yea?"

Psych closed the umbrella and tossed it at a nearby trashcan. He wasted no more time and scurried toward their destination. Cloud was at a loss for words. He had no idea if what just happened was mere coincidence or if the boy really was psychic. Or perhaps he had a knack at reading the weather so well. Regardless, Cloud abandoned the questions and trailed after the little guy. Together they made a turn down two blocks and headed straight into a dark alleyway. Cloud noticed a suspicious-looking man near a dumpster; a drug dealer likely. The tall, big guy looked ready to tag them for Gil. Psych wasted no time on him, though. He pulled out a Taser from his underwear. Without a second thought, the small boy zapped the man. The tall guy dropped like a rock. Psych giggled insanely and continued forward to the end of the alleyway.

As Cloud passed by the now-unconscious dealer on the ground, he shook his head and sighed. He'd given up trying to figure out this rowdy kid. Instead, the cadet followed Psych without question until they reached a street beyond the alleyway. There was a long rainbow-colored limousinewith sparkling rims parked at the side of the road. Cloud raised his brows when he noticed mini-machine guns mounted on it. Loud music blared from the peculiar vehicle. The beat of a cheerful melody thumped and practically vibrated through the neighborhood. Cloud gave Psych a quizzical look and wondered why they'd stopped. The doors of the limousine suddenly sprung opened, however. And the tallest woman Cloud had ever laid eyes on got out.

With such a short mini-skirt, pink-furred jacket, and corset, it was hard not to look at the woman's long and toned legs and huge, protruding breasts. Cloud blinked at the mass of pink, curled hair that practically defied gravity more than his own spiky hair did. The woman's fake lashes fluttered at him while her sparkling silver lips stretched into an easy smile. From where he stood, Cloud could smell the scent of strawberry and vanilla.

"The love of my life!" the woman practically squealed. She ran to him on her six-inch-high go-go boots. "Baby! My sweet, precious, hopelessly beautiful Baby!"

Cloud nearly yelled. He barely caught his breathe when the tall woman instantly crushed him in her tight embrace. For a woman, she was fucking strong. Cloud felt the life of him get sucked by her. When the woman finally pulled back, Cloud didn't get the chance to mutter a word. The outrageous-looking female leaned down and planted a wet kiss on his lips. She squeezed his ass with a strong hand in the process. Even with the extreme height difference, she got a good chunk of him.

"Yummy-yummy-to-my-tummy…" the strange woman approved wholeheartedly and purred. At last, she let go of him.

Cloud had to take a moment to collect himself. He couldn't believe he was being felt up by a giant woman with huge knockers. Taking a step back, he spat, "Mother of Gaia, who the hell are you, lady?"

"I'm your mommy!" she answered back and clapped both hands excitedly.

Cloud stood quiet. He blinked once. "…Excuse me?"

Next to Cloud, Psych took out a collection of keys attached to his belt. He used them to pop open the limousine's trunk and pull out a pair of three-inch platform shoes. Putting them on now, the child turned to the woman. "We gotta check out, Miss Sugar. I managed to get Baby here without raisin' the damn alarm bells from those jarheads down at the barracks. But if we don't split, President Fat-Ass and the Suits will discover we're playing in their playpen again."

Cloud wearily watched Psych open the driver's door of the vehicle. He was positive this kid was too young to drive. He couldn't even reach the petal! Even so, Psych had on the platform shoes and took the helm. This day… couldn't get any stranger.

"Oh, now, don't be rude, Baby," the bizarre woman named Sugar said. "Give mommy another bear hug."

No, scratch that. The day did get stranger. Immediately, Cloud took another step back and opened his mouth to protest. "Um, listen, lady…"

The woman caught him in her arms before he had the chance to finish his sentence. She pinched his buttocks again and said, "I'm so happy this day has finally come, Baby. It was only two days ago that Granny told me about you, but it feels like foreeeeeever. Doesn't it? Oh, my sweet, delightful, and superb Baby. You are beautiful. I will love you for all eternity. Yes, I will! I will take good care of you and hold you tight to my bosom like a proper mommy would." She grasped the small cadet harder and forced his face deep into her pair of knockers. Lost in her blissful world, the voluptuous female ignored the suffocating sounds Cloud made and happily added, "Oh yes, my Baby, the day and night belong to us! We shall take it by storm! Heaven and Hell has nothing on us. But we needn't waste time now. Quick, get into my magical, steel pony and let us depart toward a destination of epic proportions. We need to get you ready for the prom!"

Trying to breath, Cloud was unable to respond to the woman's long-winded speech. And here he thought Psych was crazy! This woman was from another universe altogether! Cloud still had no idea who she was or what the hell she was talking about. Prom? What prom? As Cloud tried to gasp for air between her breasts, a sudden thought dawned on him. Oh god. This woman… She was the one Granny mentioned to him yesterday. Don't. Freak. Out.

"Granny said you needed to go shopping," the flamboyant lady explained, as if reading his mind. She pushed him back and Cloud loudly gulped for air. Sugar giggled and instantly said, "Baby, I'm going to make you so fucking gorgeous… every man in this planet will want to molest and gang-bang you."

It took Cloud a few moments to learn how to breathe again. So this was what Granny meant by not freaking out… His face had grown pale at the woman's words. A quick head-to-toe glance at her overly dramatic attire and he shook his head. "Y-you know… I changed my mind. I'm going to catch up with my group and, uh… Y-yeah. Thanks for the invite and all, b-but…"

"Hush now, Baby, don't you cry. Momma is gonna get you in her bitchin' ride." She grabbed Cloud's hand and quickly dragged him to the limousine. "It is time we make our way to the mystic land of misfits. Don't want to make daddy wait, do we?"

"Daddy?"

Once Sugar opened the door for him, Cloud coughed and winced. The entire interior of the limousine was covered in a thick haze that spilled out onto the street. Seeing only brilliantly colored pink lights dance inside the limousine, it was difficult to make out anything inside the vehicle at first. A quick whiff of the smoke, and Cloud instantly recognized the potent odor. Already, his eyes were glassy from it. He noticed a long glass pipe at the center of the space ahead; the source of the smoke. Meanwhile, the jolly music continued to blare loudly from the speakers. Cloud could barely hear himself think and had a sudden urge to run for his life. However, the tall woman stood behind and blocked his path. A wink later and she shoved him inside with a hearty slap on his ass.

Cloud fell forward, face-first. He landed between the legs of someone on a seat. As the smoke cleared a bit, Cloud saw a lean-figured, slim-shaped man seated in front of him. With a pair of spiked goggles planted on his forehead, his black-and-red dreads dangled over his shoulders like snakes. His make-up mimicked one of an elegant geisha woman, complete with ghostly white facial powder. Meanwhile, he was dressed in a crimson bondage suit with belts that tightly wrapped his slender and petite form. Both his pierced nipples and belly were exposed. In the man's hand was a black whipping stick. He gently tapped Cloud's left shoulder with it.

With a smirk on his cherry-black lips, the Wutai man widened his legs more and softly purred, "Oh, by all means, Baby, suck me off. I'd fucking love to see that pretty pouty mouth of yours go to work."

The music was loud but Cloud could still hear him. Taken aback by the man's aggressive words, Cloud quickly scurried backward across the ground of the car. His blue eyes went wild and he pressed his back against the bottom of the seats opposite of the man. The cadet blinked several times. His head began to spin. With each inhale, he breathed in more of the intoxicating smoke. Slightly dizzy from it, Cloud felt like a guinea pig trapped inside a cage. Who the hell were these people?

"Daddy, behave yourself," the pink-haired woman scolded as she entered the limousine with one long leg first. Once seated properly, she closed the door behind her and scooted next to Cloud's position. Even while he remained sprawled on the ground, Sugar's hand reached down and lightly ran her fingers across his spiky blond hair. "So soft and fluffy… It's very horrorshow, Baby."

"Get off me, lady," Cloud barked back instinctively. He slapped her hand away. "And my name's not Baby."

"Mmm, feisty, isn't he?" the man in bondage gear commented from across and lowered the car's music with the controls next to him. "I like that. I want to play with Baby after we're done shopping."

One finger stroked the entire length of his whipping stick. Cloud had an idea what he meant and made a face at him. He got up from the ground and planted himself on the seat. The cadet made sure to sit as far away from the bizarre woman next to him. However, the overly theatrical, flashy lady simply scooted closer. Her adoring smile never wavered. Despite his previous protest, she reached out and touched his hair again, obviously fascinated with it.

"No, Daddy," retorted the woman on Cloud's behalf. "No touching Baby's happy-happy parts. It is a big no-no. Be nice."

"I don't do nice," the Wutai man sneered back.

She playfully stuck her tongue at him. Then she turned her attentions back to Cloud and stroked his hair some more. "Don't worry about Daddy, sweetie. I won't let him indulge himself with your delectable wiener. You're my precious Baby, after all."

Speechless, Cloud wanted to push the woman off of him again. However, his reaction time was slow on account of the haze that surrounded him. That familiar high he always gained from the times he smoked settled over him like a thick, warm blanket. The woman's own touches relaxed him even more. Cloud admittedly enjoyed the way her hand massaged his scalp. When she crossed her long, impressive legs he couldn't help but stare at them. He'd never been this close to a woman before.

Sugar caught the direction of his gaze and smiled sweetly. She took one of his hands and placed it on her thigh so that he could get a proper feel of it. Then she rested her head on his shoulder and sighed softly. The sweet tang of her perfume reached Cloud's nostrils. He took a dry swallow.

The limousine started to lurch forward and move. Cloud saw the Wutai man occupy himself with the bong he spotted before. The guy lit the grass stuffed inside the bong's small bowl with a black lighter. A collection of bubbles appeared below the glass pipe and continuously popped. They emitted a thick cloud of vapor that trailed upward. His mouth at the end of the pipe, the man inhaled sharply and consumed all of the fumes. The Wutai man glanced up at Cloud with his glassy, biohazard eyes before his lips finally withdrew from the mouthpiece and he exhaled. Streams of smoke escaped his opened mouth and nostrils. Cloud surmised he smoked some powerful nuggets because the man instantly slumped back in his seat afterward. He looked ready to devour something. Or someone.

Cloud's demeanor changed from frantic to neutral as time passed. The smoke he inhaled in the closed compact space and the thigh he still touched made it difficult for him to focus. Calmer, though, the cadet forced his mouth to work and asked, "So you two are…?"

"I'm Sugar, Baby," the female formally introduced herself. She pointed a long, highly polished finger to the man dressed in bondage. "And he's Spice."

The Wutai man offered a two-fingered head salute. Spice looked away afterward and grabbed a camcorder next to him on the seat. He fidgeted with the controls.

"Sugar and Spice…" Cloud repeated in a low voice.

"We're from the Slums," Sugar added with a wink. "That's our kingdom."

Slightly intrigued by her words, Cloud stared at the two for a long time. He coughed from the smoke and tried to keep his eyes fully alert. Afterward, he glanced at the door's dark-tinted window next to him and observed the dark alleyways they traveled in. Curiously, he asked, "So where are we going?"

"To Candy Land," Sugar answered.

"Huh?" Cloud was unfamiliar with the place. Then again, he was relatively new to Midgar and had never visited the Slums since he arrived. He could only guess Candy Land was in one of the districts below the Plate. With that in mind, he said, "I thought we were going shopping."

"Indeed, we are, Baby! There are plenty of shops where we're going, plenty of brilliant portals that can lead us to convey the exterior aspects of our most cherished human identities, desires, and curiosities. Oh, you shall definitely love Candy Land, Baby. It's real horrorshow."

Again, Cloud paused and stared at her. As weird as this woman's words sounded, they also held fascination to him. He'd never heard anyone speak this way before. Sugar had a way of taking everyday matters and transforming them into something more… dramatic and important.

"Is the place expensive?" Cloud had to ask. Bitterly, he confessed, "I… don't have much Gil."

"Fuck your Gil," Spice instantly spat and lifted up the camcorder. He pointed the camera directly at Cloud and Sugar. "We told Granny we'd take good care of you. You get whatever the fuck you want, Baby."

"That's right," declared Sugar with a firm nod and waved to the camera. "Baby gets whatever he wants. Nobody puts Baby in a corner."

Cloud looked at her with his mouth partly opened. "Why do you keep calling me Baby? My name's not Baby. It's Cloud. Cloud Strife."

Sugar scoffed out loud and looked away from the camera. She grabbed Cloud's face with both hands and tenderly squeezed his cheeks. "Oh you silly-willy-little-pretty! I call you Baby because you are my baby. Spice and I adopted you. Therefore, we are your Mommy and Daddy."

"No, you're not."

Sugar pouted and lightly tapped Cloud's wrist. "Don't talk back to Mommy like that, Baby. There'll be no ice cream after this."

Cloud sighed. "But…"

"I mean it, Baby. Behave. I'll get Daddy to spank you if you keep this up."

Glancing back at Daddy, Cloud found a devious smirk on Spice's lips while he continued to record them. Cloud sat still and decided it was best to change the subject.

"So you two know Granny?" he asked and swallowed his suddenly dry throat.

A warm smile formed on Sugar's face. "Granny? Oh, yes, we know her. Granny is our love, our world. She helped me find my way through the darkness and gave me a new life, Baby. I was a nobody before I met her. I was a discarded plaything; no different than the next man waiting to die."

"Next man?" Cloud asked; confused.

From across, Spice quietly snickered to himself and narrowed the lens to focus on Cloud's face. Frowning now, Cloud realized something was amiss and turned to Sugar for a more detailed explanation. Sugar's dark skin blossomed with color on her cheeks. She licked her lips and appeared hesitant. Then without a word, she drew one hand to the hem of her mini-skirt and lifted it up. The young cadet's eyes widened at the sight of exposed and hairless genitals. His breath caught in his throat and he choked in his spit. Cloud instantly withdrew the hand from Sugar's thigh and fidgeted away. His reaction caused Spice to chortle loudly and nearly drop his camcorder.

"I'm s-sorry," Cloud apologized, realizing his own actions and feeling like a complete jerk now. "I… I didn't mean to offend you. It's just… I…"

"You didn't, Baby." Sugar's voice sounded soft and sincere. There was even an edge of seriousness in it. Sugar lowered her skirt and sat close to Cloud again. Taking his hand into hers, she lightly squeezed it and explained, "I haven't completed my entire transformation, as you can see. But I confess, I'm caught between going full out… or simply keeping it. I want to have the best of both worlds, Baby."

Cloud chewed on his lower lip and lowered his gaze. Quietly, he said, "It'd be a lot easier if you did pick one over the other."

"I suppose so," she replied with a long sigh. "The world doesn't appreciate happy-happy deviants that resist the established order of things. Gay or straight… Woman or man… It doesn't matter. In the end, each group eventually makes up their own playground rules and chases off anyone who doesn't follow them. Even the freaks will run off an oddball freak if she stands too far apart."

Slowly looking up at her again, Cloud understood what she was saying. He, himself, was an anomaly within his ranks.

"Humans prefer conformity," resumed the tall, dark woman, "It's predictable and, therefore, safe. As for myself, I'm not welcomed in many of these groups. I refuse to pick a team. I want to play with eeeeeeveryone, Baby. I want to stand above all predefined expectations and create my own darling destiny. Besides, Spice certainly doesn't mind. Do you, sweetheart?"

Directly opposite of them, Spice licked his lips suggestively at her. He temporarily put the camera down afterward and took out a bag of grass from Sugar's purse next to him. Spice readied his bong for another hit.

"You look adorable when you blush, by the way," Sugar revealed to Cloud and nuzzled her head on his shoulder.

Cloud wasn't sure whether it was the smoke making him lightheaded or her words, but he found himself relax a bit anyway. He allowed Sugar to caress his hand with hers while she looked at him adoringly. Admittedly, while he was shocked to see Sugar expose herself like that, it was also… the most erotic sight he'd ever seen.

"I was condemned by society for wanting to be who I really am," Sugar continued later and looked at her lover. "Actually, Spice and I both were. But Granny took us in. From her, we acquired a purpose. We learned not to be afraid anymore and to recreate our own identities. Spice and I eventually ventured off to do our own thing. The rest is history, as they say."

"What happened to us will someday be the same for you too, Baby," Spice informed out-of-the-blue while he poured water into the long pipe of the bong. "You're a misfit, aren't you? You stand outside the natural order of things."

Cloud stayed silent but locked eyes on Spice.

"You're a freak like the rest of us," Spice remarked with a smile, "You wouldn't be under Granny's extra care if she didn't feel you needed some guidance. Am I right?"

Astounded by how perceptive this man was, Cloud continued to sit quietly in his seat. They'd only met a few minutes ago, but Spice already knew he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. Granny was Cloud's lifeline right now and the only reason why he remained in the program. It was her who gave him the strength to see General Sephiroth in the first place.

"You got that same flustered, fucked-up look I once had," noted the Wutai man quietly. He tilted his head and carefully eyed Cloud from his seat. "I'm right. Aren't I?"

Sugar delicately brushed Cloud's hair again with her free hand. "Don't worry. We're a family now, Baby. We're all bound together by Granny. Isn't that exciting?"

Surprisingly, her words moved Cloud and the tension in his body gradually released as he settled in with his new environment and companions. Their hands still intertwined, he gently squeezed Sugar's back. It was nice to know he wasn't the only freak in the planet. He'd spent his life trying to fit in and accommodate everyone's needs. These two people, however, openly embraced him from the moment they met. They appreciated his existence and didn't expect anything from him. To them, being a freak was normal.

"Yep, we're all Granny's bastard children," Spice asserted as matter-of-fact. "We're all unwanted and damned by society. But that's okay. To hell with all of them. It's nice to stand above the cluster fuck of mediocrity."

The cadet broadcasted a small smile of his own at the corner of his lips. "Being different and being damned for it… It's a concept I'm getting used to."

Across, Spice laughed at Cloud's response. He packed several grams of fresh cannabis on the bong's bowl. Then he offered both the device and lighter in his hand to Cloud. "Here's to the little monster living in each of us, Baby. The fucker tosses conformity out the window, along with the rest of the trash."

Cloud slowly accepted the elongated glass device and surveyed it. He had never seen one of these before but could assume it functioned similarly to his pipe. Light here. Inhale there. Try not to drool like a crazed idiot and pass out. Licking his lips, Cloud hadn't taken a hit in a while. He wanted to stay clean for midterms. Still, this was the weekend and he'd been itching for a smoke. The size of the pipe, alone, promised a bigger hit than he'd ever consumed thus far.

When Spice cocked a brow at him and smirked, Cloud finally accepted the friendly offering. Having observed Spice only moments ago, he lit up the grass and waited for the liquid to vaporize. The water bubbled fast and the smoke trailed up the thick pipe. His mouth already at the tip, Cloud sucked up the thick amount of fumes. His blue eyes widened in surprise at the middle of his inhale. Only halfway into his hit, the powerful cannabis gave him a sharp jolt. He suddenly pulled back and had a massive coughing fit. Sprawled across the fur seat of the limousine, tears streaked Cloud's face. He couldn't stop crying or drooling.

"Oh shit…" Cloud barely muttered and continued hacking.

Both Sugar and Spice laughed.

Unable to control himself, Cloud choked some more. The flamboyant woman next to him gently rubbed his back until he was able to breathe again. Cloud was thoroughly surprised by the strong drug. It was only half a hit, but it felt like he just smoked up an entire bag of grass with that one inhale. Lost in a daze, Cloud lay across the seat and rested his head across Sugar's lap. Her pleasant vanilla perfume reached his nostrils and inspired a warm sensation across his body. Relaxed by it, Cloud looked up at the woman, only to find her smiling down on him. Sugar removed a handkerchief shoved deep between her breasts and used it to wipe his mouth.

"Welcome to our motley family, Baby," she affectionately whispered to him.

Cloud observed both Sugar and Spice more closely. They were quite the pair. Sugar's face was certainly charming and lively to look at. Any time the woman smiled, which appeared all the time he noticed, her entire face lit up. Sugar was beautiful. In contrast, Spice possessed an edgy personality. Cloud got the sense this man didn't give a shit about many people who crossed his path. He also wasn't afraid to speak his mind. Cloud admired his blunt and dangerous nature. Together, Sugar and Spice was the oddest, wildest couple he'd ever met. However, beneath their outrageous and extreme personalities there was a genuine and heartfelt connection they shared for each other. They complimented well together.

It reminded Cloud of Sephiroth and him. They, too, were worlds apart. Sephiroth was the highest ranked, most esteem man in the army who maintained his composure even in the direst of situations. He, on the other hand, was a lowly hothead who barely made the cut and let his emotions run wild. They were complete opposites of each other. Looking at Sugar and Spice, though, Cloud started to think it was possible for two extremes to meet. Through chaos there was harmony. It made him feel… hopeful.

Briefly closing his eyes, Cloud softly sighed while Sugar gently ran her fingers across his forehead. It reminded him of the times he was struck with a fever and Mom nursed him. She used to hum a melody to him and put him to sleep. Struck hard with nostalgia, Cloud realized just how much he missed her. He missed the smell of his Mom's cooking and the sight of her fighting with her stubborn strands of spiked blond hair. Cloud missed dancing with her too. Mom wasn't like the other women in the village. She had a tough wit about her and didn't gossip or flaunt like a reckless idiot. Her actions were precise and reserved. Mom's eyes, alone, harbored many secrets that went beyond his lifetime. Cloud swallowed hard. Their days together felt like an eternity back then. Now, Cloud felt they were brief.

"Mom…" he whispered, his eyes still closed.

Warm lips pressed on his forehead. "It's all right, Baby. I'm here."

For a moment, he mistook Sugar's voice for Mom's. Cloud stubbornly fought the stinging in his eyes. He refused to cry. Big boys didn't cry. They especially didn't cry for their mothers. Strong men like Sephiroth would never shed a tear. Shifting to his side, though, Cloud clutched closer to Sugar. He wasn't sure if it was the drugs or raw feeling of homesickness that abruptly took hold of him, but he didn't care. In this moment, Sugar was the embodiment of Mom and that was all that matter.

The ride through downtown Midgar was eventually filled with disco music, smoking, soap bubbles, and Sugar cooing Cloud. Up ahead, Psych pushed the petal to the metal and floored down the alleyways of Midgar to escape detection. Still overcome by the single hit he took, the incapacitated young cadet didn't talk much. It was as if he were caught in a dream. His eyes grew heavy as he watched the city's steel-cold buildings flash by the limousine's dark-tinted windows fast. He stayed awake, though, and continued to rest on Sugar's lap. It was a comfortable spot. He observed the array of colors from the disco ball above spin and change. Meanwhile, Sugar blew bubbles into the limousine from a canister and Spice occupied himself with his camera again. He recorded both Sugar and Cloud together.

Cloud's cheeks flushed with heat when the tall, dark woman gazed down at him again; her enormous breasts in the way. Both nipples were perked. The sight of them was incredible. Cloud's member stirred alive from its dormancy; the sensation amplified by the drug in his system. Sugar must've noticed this because she snorted loudly and bent down to gently kiss him on the lips. Cloud breathed into her and slipped his tongue inside her mouth. His hand wandered up to gently cup one breast. It felt soft. Warm. Their kiss deepened and tongues danced together. When Sugar finally withdrew her lips from him, she giggled and pinched his cheeks.

"Mm, Baby, you are going to break a lot of hearts. You know that, right? You're sweet honey to the bees, I swear. Kissing you is like kissing sin itself."

Cloud tasted peppermint and vanilla in his mouth now. He softly laughed.

With his camera, Spice narrowed the lens on the two of them. He grinned. "Damn, that was fucking hot."

It would be roughly twenty minutes later that the scenery outside the limousine drastically changed. Gone were the modern buildings and people dressed in conservative Midgar fashion trends. There was no sun or clouds either. It was pitch-black now. The sounds of their limousine echoed loudly. Cloud wondered if they were in a tunnel. With a sigh, he forced himself to sit up and peer out the window. Again, he saw only black within black. Before he could question where they were, the limousine came to a halt. Cloud heard the kid at the driver's helm open the door and step outside. The cadet looked back at Sugar and Spice for an explanation.

"We're home, Baby," Sugar told Cloud excitedly and bounced up and down on her seat, "We're home! Happy-happy times, indeedy!"

Psych returned seconds later and the limousine started to move again. Curious, Cloud rolled down a window to get a closer look. Sticking his head outside, they were in a sewer tunnel of some sort. A large metal entrance was opened a few feet ahead.

As they passed through it, Cloud blinked many times. He saw an environment consumed by neon and florescent lights. Multi-colored kites and balloons floated and scattered everywhere. Vendors of all ethnic backgrounds offered unique wares and cuisines from their homelands. Unusually dressed people walked in various directions. Their clothes shined or turned into various shades of hues. Cloud noticed an oversized bald man at the corner of a street. His facial make-up glowed in the dark. Laughing loudly, he spit fire high into the air for a group of children who instantly clapped their hands together. As the limousine made a turn, Cloud observed a group of modern-day bebop performers onstage. They engaged in a friendly scrimmage with each other in front of a crowd of music enthusiasts. The frantic beats of the drums and proud sounds of the saxophone and trumpets had Cloud's heart racing. Their music brought him back to the days with his Mom. The atmosphere here… It was a sharp contrast from the one he saw moments ago in downtown. The location practically pulsed with life. Cloud had never seen anything like this before. Among these people though, he felt out of place, especially in his cadet uniform.

The limousine continued deeper into the belly of the underground metropolis. Several bystanders took note and started to swarm the recognizable vehicle. They screamed in joy. As Psych attempted to maneuver around them, Cloud was ready to duck his head back into the vehicle and raise the window. A young woman with a huge pink Mohawk grabbed his face, however, and planted a big sloppy kiss on him.

"Welcome to Candy Land, Baby!" the attractive punk woman greeted to him breathlessly. She licked his cheek with a pierced tongue and let him go.

A bit shocked by the action, Cloud instantly sat back in his seat and turned to Sugar and Spice with a look of bewilderment on his face. He heard people shouting for Baby and wondered if that had anything to with him. Sugar confirmed it with a giggle.

"Candy Land has been waiting for its bundle of joy to arrive," she confessed.

Outside, the crowd hollered and whistled loudly. Slightly embarrassed by it, Cloud chewed on his lip. He didn't know how to react to the news. It wasn't often people wanted to see him. He was a mere cadet; a complete nobody. There was nothing special about him. Hearing people chant his newly appointed name was something of a surreal experience for Cloud. Raised as an extremely private person, he preferred to stay out of the spotlight and conduct his business without raising attention to himself. Across, Cloud saw Spice record the large crowd gather with his camera. Along with Sugar, he was enjoying the spectacle. Sugar turned to check on Cloud, though. She noticed his overwhelmed expression.

"Oh, Baby, I'm so sorry," Sugar apologized next to him. "Do the people bother you? We'll get rid of them if you want."

Cloud was speechless.

Sugar knocked on the glass divider directly behind them. The limousine came to a halt. Several doors from the back of the limousine suddenly popped opened. By his window, Cloud frowned in surprise when he saw several men in sparkling pink suits step out. Holy crap, he hadn't realized these boys had been riding with them all this time. Looking at them now, it was certainly hard to miss them. Donning star-shaped sunglasses, the group of suited men went to work and pushed the people back from the limo. Next to Cloud, Sugar winked at him. Afterward, she clicked on a button on the door's armrest. The rooftop's large window automatically slid aside and opened.

Sugar popped her head out of the limo's roof and stood. She addressed her people: "Ladies and gents! Freaks and geeks! Mortals and gods! Straights and queers! It is time to lend me your ears!"

The immediate crowd outside the limousine cheered and hollered at the sight of Sugar. From outside his window, Cloud could observe some of the children climb on the shoulders of the adults to view this event firsthand. Candy Land had practically stopped altogether. The people now directed their undivided attention to their beloved Queen. Blocks away, even the musicians onstage put down their instruments to listen.

"It is yet another glorious day here in Candy Land," resumed Sugar to her people and gazed at all of their faces. "We should all feel grateful for it. The hard rains have fallen on each of us at some point in our lives. Busted up, we all wanted to clock out. But time keeps ticking. And look at us now. We've figured out the trick in keeping the darkness away, haven't we, my babies?"

The people around her responded with loud whistles.

"We've shaken the ground with our thunderous voices and lit up the darkness with broad spectrums of wild colors. We've gotten rid of Death's silent melody with music and laughter. Here, underground, Candy Land is a lot closer to the Planet than Midgar could ever be." Sugar raised her hands in the air and proudly observed her kingdom. "We illuminate this entire city and shine for anyone still lost in the darkness. With opened arms, Candy Land shows them the light: our light!"

Taken by her words, the crowd abruptly roared. The windows of the limousine practically shook from their noise. While Spice recorded the event from his spot, Cloud sat completely still and watched the people continue to explode. Tiny bumps formed across his arms. Hearing Sugar's speech was like hearing the voice of God.

"Today is a special day, my lovelies," Sugar informed over the crowd. She giggled and added, "As many of you already heard, I am a new mommy! Today, Candy Land receives its very own pride and joy. He is one of us; an enchanting creature too restless and stunning for the likes of that rusty-tainted, completely-monotonous world above."

"Baby! Baby! Baby!" the crowd chanted together next. Excited, they all wanted to meet the new member of the family.

"I introduce to do, my beautiful beasts: Baby!"

Cloud's eyes grew wide when Sugar suddenly glanced down at him from the rooftop opening she occupied. With a hand, she beckoned for him to join her in addressing the inhabitants of Candy Land. Cloud felt the entire weight of the universe on him. He did not move nor did he want to. The cadet's stomach tightened from the nerves. This was simply too much for him. Cloud was positive he wanted to vomit. It took Spice to get him to finally move. Snatching him up by the wrist, the Wutai man lured Cloud toward Sugar. The tall woman wasted no time. Before Cloud could squirm away from her, she bent down and wrapped both of her strong arms around his waist. She pulled him up with her. Like a baby, Cloud kicked and yelled in protest. He instantly stopped, however, when he was confronted by a mass of people who screamed and clapped.

"Baby, meet Candy Land!" Sugar introduced and spread a hand across the crowd.

The volume of the crowd grew to deafening levels. Cloud stood silent. He watched the countless number of residents surround him. They danced. They screamed. They twirled their neon baton lights. They frantically waved their hands to him. Cloud's stomached twisted and turned at the sight of it all. The constant movement in every direction made him nauseous. Even when he closed his eyes, he could not stop the sour taste rise in his throat. Before Sugar could get him to talk, Cloud ducked right back into the limousine. He immediately vomited inside a bucket filled with ice and beer cans.

"Well, that's one helluva way to make your debut, Baby," Spice muttered from his seat and chuckled. He continued to roll the camera and record Cloud hurl up the rest of his breakfast.

"Ugh…" Cloud could barely mutter back.

Laughing to herself, Sugar continued to speak to her people. "So sorry about that, my little fiends! Baby is not feeling so hot right now. The world spins and dances too fast even for him." The crowd chortled and clapped. "But fear not, you will see him walk among us in due time. In the meantime, Baby needs new clothes. As a personal request from me, I'd like if everyone can respect our space today, okay? I love you all!"

Sugar blew kisses everywhere to the large crowd. The commotion of screams and clapping never wavered.

Feeling slightly better now, Cloud leaned against the backseat and let his stomach settle. Spice smirked at him. He rolled down his window to hand the tub of vomit, ice, and beer to a pink suit nearby. Afterward, he offered Cloud a bottle of mouthwash and disposable cup from a storage space.

"I've had my share of hangovers so this always comes handy," Spice said. "You owe me for the beer, though, Baby."

Cloud rolled his eyes and rinsed his mouth. Later, he spat into the cup and passed it off to the same man in the pink suit outside. With a deep breath, Cloud observed a new batch of people emerge from the crowd. Dressed in pink shirts, they were armed with clubs and bats. They formed a perimeter around their limousine to block the crowd. These rowdy folks obviously served as the infantrymen to Candy Land. Cloud overheard Psych bark many orders at his fellow Pink-Tart members through a radio in the driver's seat. In little time, the gang dispersed the gathering. For a twelve-year-old little bugger, Psych made an incredible Captain.

Roughly fifteen minutes later, the kid was able to move the limousine along. They finally parked at an opened area. All occupants were able to exit without anyone blocking their path. Sugar snapped a finger once and, instantly, the five men dressed in glittery pink suits returned to them and created a human barricade around the trio.

The large group was currently stationed in front of a series of clothing boutiques. It was the shopping district of Candy Land. Standing outside now, Cloud took a moment to observe the scenery. While it took his eyes a moment to readjust to the lack of natural lighting, he was dazed by the specks of brilliant colors everywhere. The lights danced, flickered, spun, and changed. Meanwhile, the strikingly dressed citizens of Candy Land were just as exciting to watch. They were nothing like the people back at home or in the city. The residents catered to innocent and naughty themes and created their own little world here. It truly was the kingdom of Sugar and Spice.

Cloud softly snorted to himself at a sudden, egotistic thought. If Sugar and Spice were the King and Queen of this place, then that made him…?

"Are you ready, Baby?" Psych called out to him. The kid stood next to the couple.

With a small smile on his face, Cloud nodded back.

Strutting down the streets of Candy Land, they soon hit up every clothing store in sight. The men in pink kept the rapid fans at bay while they explored many options. Cloud stood close to Psych who served as a tour guide of sorts. Sipping on a soda pop and riding on a beat-up skateboard, the kid colorfully explained how the city was founded and what Candy Land stood for: drugs, sex, and rock n' roll. Cloud was admittedly taken by it all. He was mesmerized by the neon lights and eclectic music in each direction he faced. The atmosphere felt energetic, alive, and even scandalous. From Gothic-inspired, high-fluff attire to the eastern-styled glamour garb, the cadet was exposed to all sorts of fashions from the underground culture. They were Avant-garde, or as Sugar preferred, horrorshow.

In each store they visited, the managers recognized their group and greeted them with opened arms. All patrons were ushered out of the store to ensure their party received complete privacy and undivided attention from the staff. For Cloud, the associates and owners alike catered to his needs and personal preferences. He was treated like a local celebrity. Initially, the amount of attention was almost overbearing for the young, shy man from Nibelheim. He had to take a few controlled breathes. The people of Candy Land fed him sweet treats, offered smokes, and shared the most mind-boggling conversations he'd ever heard before. By his third joint and vanilla-bourbon milkshake, Cloud was relaxed enough to spit out a few words and indulge in Sugar and Spice's choice of outfits. Psych, meanwhile, rode around in his skateboard in the stores and disturbed all of the spinning clothes' racks. The kid offered his opinion whenever Cloud requested for it.

For the cadet, choosing a disguise for tomorrow was much more difficult than he originally thought. Not only did he have to get over the fact he was wearing women's clothes, but there were the pains associated with trying the clothes on. As Cloud squeezed into several tight-fitting clothes and high-heeled shoes, he wanted to die. When he was asked to put on spandex, he felt as if he was being fitted into a life-sized condom. Gaia. Cloud tried on every brand of item, every stiletto heel, and every wig conceivable. My god, he had truly gone to the dark side…

"How do I look?" Cloud asked Psych when he came out of a dressing room with his sixth outfit. It was a jet-black, leather dress.

The child stopped his skateboard in front of Cloud and giggled. "Like a sex doll."

Cloud immediately frowned.

So far, Sugar and Spice managed to pull together a few outfits for him. They served as secondary options. All the same, Cloud suspected some of them were more for Sugar and Spice's amusement than for his operation tomorrow. Sadly, neither of them could agree on one outfit that was truly horrorshow. Checking his watch, Cloud realized it was getting closer to noon. They needed to find something quick before his luncheon with Granny. It was only when the trio arrived at the last store near a dance club that Sugar discovered what the problem was.

"The issue is simple," Sugar expressed in dramatic fashion as they stood outside a boutique called Naughty and Nice. "We're trying to fit Baby into our personal styles. He needs a softer touch. I mean, look at his face… his wonderful slender-shaped body. We've the perfect mold to work with. Baby is one step away from looking like a woman already. We just need to accent his beautiful features."

Absently swinging the shopping bags in his hands, Cloud made a face at the last part of her comment. He took a quick inhale of the joint in his free hand. Then he passed it over to Spice and spat, "I don't look like a girl. I'm just an underdeveloped boy who happens to take after his mom."

"You still look like a girl, Baby," Psych pointed out and twirled around in his skateboard while sipping on his tenth bottle of soda pop.

"Shut up, you little booger," Cloud teased back.

"You shut up, princess."

"Fart-face."

"Chocobo-ass."

"Poopy-pants."

"Cry-baby."

"Face it: you're man-candy, Baby," Spice interrupted the two bickering boys and had his camera on Cloud's face again. "Own up to it. If they gave a definition for world's greatest Twink, your mug shot would be there."

Offended, Cloud shot him the middle finger. He instantly flinched when Spice unexpectedly reached one hand out and grabbed the digit. The Wutai man hungrily swallowed it with his mouth. Cloud winced and pulled his hand away. Psych laughed.

Wiping the slime off his finger with his pants, Cloud quickly remarked to Spice, "You're fucking disgusting. You know that?"

"You've no idea, Baby," the novice cameraman said and wiggled his tongue at him very provocatively.

"Stop teasing Baby like that," Sugar scolded her lover. "You'll get a spanking from me if you don't behave, Spice."

"Is that a promise?"

After passing the shopping bags to one of the bodyguards, the three of them entered the Naughty and Nice boutique. It was headed by Madam Mariposa and her assistant-lover, Cherry. The boutique served the needs of both sinful beasts and innocent angels. He'd never been inside an S&M store. Somehow, he imagined it to look very dark and crude. Cloud's face slightly flushed at some of the items. There were leather one-piece cat-suits and gas masks he saw lined against some walls. Not far from it was a section dedicated to adult films and accessories, from whips to chains.

Despite its risqué content, the boutique still held a very high-class, artsy look to it. The various styles of fashion it featured, from conservative to outrageous, were impressive as well. Brightly lit, the racks and tables were well arranged with visual hierarchy and color coordination in mind. The gloss-metal mannequins that modeled the hot-ticket outfits of the season took on the forms of enchanting demons and angels. All blouses were neatly folded on color-coded shelves. Likewise, the hangars on the metal racks had been evenly spaced. Every Rococo-styled mirror, from small to large, was spotless. The simple-patterned carpet was free of any cotton hairs and discarded price tags. When Madam Mariposa finally emerged from behind a curtain of sparkling gems, Cloud was surprised.

He expected someone frightening in black leather with a whip. However, the dominatrix woman turned out to be more reserved and elegant. Her long jet-black hair was slicked back into a tight ponytail. The madam's tall and slim body was outfitted with a chic-black turtleneck and matching pencil skirt that highlighted her elongated curves. Her long legs were covered in black tights. The pop of red on her lipstick, scarf, and high heels made her absolutely stunning. She looked to be in her early thirties, but my god, this woman was beautiful. Cloud had trouble staring at her for too long. Under her gaze, he felt violated and exposed. Madam Mariposa's assistant, meanwhile, was a petite-size woman with short, cherry-curly hair and eye shadow that conveyed the entire spectrum of the rainbow. Cherry stood behind her with a notepad in hand. The short-height female wore a crimson two-pieced suit. A spiked collar was fitted around her neck. It was attached to the leash Madam Mariposa held in one hand.

"Welcome to Naughty and Nice," the sharply dressed owner introduced, "This is a place where you will find sin and salvation. My name is Madam Mariposa. I will be happy to service you today, Sugar and Spice."

"Actually, we're here for our baby," clarified Sugar. She took Cloud by the arm. "Baby needs a nice dress suit."

Cloud grunted when he was practically shoved forward by Sugar. Luckily, he kept his balance and managed to keep on his feet without tripping. He stared up at the intimidating owner of Naughty and Nice and grew quiet.

"Dress suit, huh?" Spice cocked a brow next to Sugar and lowered his camcorder.

Sugar nodded. "Think about it, Spice. We've been fitting our baby into dresses. We've tried to accent areas that aren't there. It's like trying to fit a square cog into a round hole. But a dress suit? If we play our cards right, it'll hide our baby's masculine details but also address his feminine side." Sugar looked to the style expert in front of her. "I was thinking of something that is soft and accents his complexion and face."

At first, Madam Mariposa looked at Cloud up and down, as if he were an insect. She had that same scrutinizing look General Sephiroth gave him when they first met. Behind Madam Mariposa, Cherry scribbled many notes in her pad. The smaller woman did not say a word. However, she tapped the arm of her master a few moments later. The dominatrix female bent he head down so that Cherry could whisper directly into her ear. For the life of him, Cloud couldn't hear a word. The madam, herself, was silent and merely listened without expressing any of her own sentiments. This went on for a while and Cloud quickly wondered if it meant bad news. Perhaps the two women found him to be a hopeless case beyond saving? Just as he was about to open his mouth to speak, Madam Mariposa stood tall again and confronted the cadet.

"Follow me, Baby," she ordered him and briskly did an about-face.

The young man paused. He had no idea if this was good or bad news. Cloud looked to Cherry for answers. However, she did not give him any hints. Rather, the assistant kept her face stuck to her notepad and continued to scribble on it. It took a gentle push from Sugar to get his attention again.

"Go on, Baby," she urged him with a wink. "You don't want to keep Madam Mariposa waiting, do you? Be a good baby and go with her. She'll take care of you. Spice and I will follow right behind."

With an exhale, Cloud was uncertain where this would go. He followed Sugar's advice anyway and trailed after the Madam. Both Sugar and Spice kept to themselves while Psych played pirates with the mannequins at the lingerie section. Cloud focused his attentions on Madam Mariposa. The boutique owner walked to the other side of the store and stood in front of a rack with dress pants.

"I'm going to choose something that'll go nicely with your platinum-blond hair, Baby," the style expert mentioned as she went through the rack. She pulled out an off-white pair of pants. "You are petite shape; a size six, it seems. I'm fitting you into our wide-leg, Midgar-Chic trouser pants. It's got a stretchable waistband. They also flare at the bottom so that'll elongate and soften your figure. We sell Mary-Jane platform shoes in this color so don't worry if the pants run a bit long."

"Whatever…" Cloud muttered back; not sure how to feel about this.

Madam Mariposa handed the pants to her assistant who immediately placed them on the fold of her arm. The group made their next stop at an oval-shaped porcelain table with folded tanks and short-sleeved silk blouses. While Spice recorded the entire event on his camcorder, Sugar walked closer to Cloud.

"Oooh, my baby is going to look so preeeeetty," she said excitedly.

Cloud resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Instead, he returned his attentions to Madam Mariposa to check out what else she got for him.

"You will wear one of our cream-colored silk tanks next," the dominatrix expressed, "They match the color of your trousers. The collar area scoops very low, but it'll be fine for you. You have a beautiful smooth complexion, Baby. I'd like to accent that. Plus, showing some skin will offer a very alluring, feminine appeal."

It was a good thing Cloud had a hairless chest then. The low-cut, sleeveless blouse would definitely show it. Still, it had a loose drapery appearance so at least he didn't have to worry about it hugging his skin. It looked soft and comfortable too. Admittedly, so did the pants. This… didn't look bad. In fact, it was way better than those stupid, uncomfortably tight dresses he had tried on earlier.

"I'll be back," Spice suddenly said when something caught his eye at the store.

Sugar cocked a brow at him. Then she shrugged. "Okay, sweets. But don't harass the associates and make too much mischief out there. Oh, and tell Psych to stop stabbing the mannequins with the hangar like that. Very crude. Be sure to come back to see Baby try on his outfit. Okay, love-of-my-life?"

Handing her his camera, Spice chortled and brushed aside his long red dreads. "Making mischief is what I do best, Sugar."

"Spice…" Sugar insisted again with a pout. "Play nice."

Spice wiggled his tongue at her. Then he glanced at Cloud. "I'll be back, Baby."

Cloud didn't know why, but the large grin on Spice's face disturbed him. He had no idea what caught the man's eyes, except that it probably meant bad news. They'd only met for a day and, already, Cloud was onto him. Unfortunately, the Wutai man abandoned the group and ventured off before Cloud had the chance to ask him any questions. Meanwhile, Madam Mariposa addressed the cadet again.

"On our third agenda…" started the clothes style expert again and strolled across the store again until they reached the jacket section. Madam Mariposa pulled out a matching colored blazer and handed it to Cherry. "You can't have a dress suit without a nice tailored jacket. Luckily for you, your shoulders should be able to fit into our jackets with no problem. This one will do."

Cloud reached a hand out and touched the material of the jacket Cherry held for him. It felt smooth and soft.

"What do you think, Baby?" inquired Sugar next to him. "Like it?"

Upon close inspection of the outfit Madam Mariposa chose for him, it wasn't terrible looking at all. It wasn't a dress. It didn't look absurd or tacky. It wasn't tight-fitting. The outfit looked… good.

Sounding a bit optimistic, Cloud finally responded, "Yeah, I guess." To Madam Mariposa, he added, "All right, so… I guess that's it?"

In front of him, Cherry tapped on her lover's arm again. As before, Madam Mariposa bent her head down and listened to her assistant. The dominatrix nodded to Cherry only once. Then she returned her focus on Cloud again.

"Not quite. We're missing one more key item." At this, the lady wandered to the scarf section of the store. She pulled out a shimmery cobalt-colored one and held it to Cloud's face. "There. This is the color. This accents your beautiful eyes nicely. It's that pop of color you need to make this outfit work. Once you try on your suit I'll put this on you, along with a few simple accessories. Now follow me to the dressing room."

With Sugar by his side, Cloud did as he was instructed and followed Madam Mariposa and Cherry. They walked to the far back section of the boutique that was divided by a tall curtain of stringed sparkling gems. The lights were dimmed low in this area. Two rows of dressing rooms faced each other. On the left side, the doors were painted black. Relief sculptures of devil-horned faces hung on the doors. The opposing right side, in contrast, was painted white. The relief sculptures there depicted angelic faces. On the ceiling, meanwhile, was a seductive oil painting of heaven's angels intertwined with hell's demons. Cloud was curious which side of the dressing room area he'd be placed in. He appeared amused when Cherry picked a white door and placed all of his items there.

"Aw, my Baby is an angel," Sugar commented happily. Soon, she snickered and added, "…an angel with the naughty mind of a devil. Yeah?"

Cloud felt too embarrassed to admit how very right she was. He was a hot-blooded young man, after all. Like so many who endured raging hormones at this stage of their life, either his mind was on sex or on angst-related issues. It couldn't be helped.

"Inform us if the sizes are accurate or need to be changed," Madam Mariposa told Cloud before she headed off with Cherry to gather a few more items for him.

Sugar took a seat on a velvet couch that was positioned between the dressing rooms and faced three tall mirrors. A statue of a demon and angel danced around her in opposing ends of the couch. Cloud smiled at the sight of them with Sugar. He was about to turn away and enter his dressing room… until Spice finally returned with Psych in tow. The little brat held a hand over his mouth, as if to suppress a laugh. Something was up.

"Here you go, Baby," the man dressed in bondage said. His face decorated as a geisha's, the twisted grin on his face looked even more disturbing. "This should fit very nicely."

Spice pushed several clothing items into his hand. Cloud blinked as he slowly raised them at eye-level. One was a white, boyshort-style underwear. Low-cut, it was obviously made for women but could also be used by men with a certain… fetish. The other clothing item was a waist-fitting, white-matching corset with attachable straps at the bottom for the pair of white thigh-high nylon stockings Spice also included. Cloud instantly shook his head.

"You gotta be fucking kidding me."

"Hey, we're not buying you an entire outfit without everything," Spice retorted.

"Now put those on, Baby," added Psych cheerfully.

"This is ridiculous," Cloud retorted, "Why do I have to buy underwear at all if it's only the outfit they need to see? No. I'm not putting this on. Not interested."

"Well, my lovey-dovey…" started Sugar and eyed the items in his hands thoughtfully, "The corset could help. We can tighten it and give you a curvier, even more feminine look. That would improve on your disguise. That's what you wanted, right?"

Cloud felt stumped. He did not want to wear this horrendous thing. It looked so… naughty. This was the type of underwear he used to fantasize Tifa wearing. He jacked off to those wet-dreams all the time. Never in a million years did he imagine himself wearing one. It felt just wrong. On the other hand, Sugar was right. The whole purpose of a corset was to build a figure. As slender-shaped as he was, the corset could further expand his disguise. Cloud's shoulders sagged.

"I'm not wearing the underwear or panty hose," he finally muttered in defeat. "I'll settle for the corset. That's it."

"You don't have to wear the other things, Baby," Sugar replied before Spice had the chance to bark at him. "However… the trousers you're wearing is off-white, sweetie. Any self-respecting woman knows white shows everything. That's why most women wear white stockings, to smooth out any bumps that show up and to accentuate our curves. It's also worth mentioning that if you're wearing boxers with those white trousers, that'll show, including your Mr. Happy-Happy. You're better off with those boyshort panties. The spandex material is designed to tuck in fat and, um… anything that sticks out. You'll be able to conceal Mr. Happy-Happy from Mr. Pervie."

Quiet, Cloud felt the entire store grow smaller. Everything she said made sense. The items, however raunchy they looked, only helped to increase the success of his disguise. But still…

"Besides, it could be worse," continued Sugar and gazed at her lover with a glint in her eyes, "Spice could've given you a thong instead."

At this, Cloud's eyes widened. Suddenly, his head felt lighter and he wanted to vomit again. When he saw Spice take a step away to venture back into the shop again, Cloud instantly snapped to it and grabbed him by the arm.

"The underwear is fine. I'll wear it, damn it. If you so much as bring a thong to me, Spice, I swear, I will wrap it around your neck and kill you with it. I've been properly trained on strangulation."

"Funny, I've also been trained on strangulation," Spice said and easily removed Cloud's hand from his arm. He glanced back at Sugar. "Right, honey?"

Sugar giggled and blushed.

Cloud glared at the two of them. Then his eyes fell on the items in his hands again. He sighed. "How the hell am I supposed to fit into these things?"

"Figure it out, Baby," replied Psych, "Sugar does it all the time."

Cloud growled at the tiny brat who giggled nonstop. He wanted to shove his head down a toilet. Instead, Cloud entered his room and slammed the door shut behind him.

Inside the dressing room now, there was only a cushion seat. The lack of a mirror made Cloud suspect he had to step outside and use the tri-set mirrors in order to look at himself. Muttering a curse word, Cloud started to strip. He tossed his uniform on the bench and grabbed the underwear Spice had given him. It was ridiculously small. However, Sugar had been right. The material stretched and, when he managed to slip it on, the fabric tightly tucked in Mr. Happy-Happy. Cloud was actually relieved by this. It was one of his concerns with the outfit chosen for him. Cloud slid his legs inside the panty hoses next. Granted, he was practically a hairless guy. The tiny fair hairs along his legs, though, still felt annoyed by the newfound elastic material. As horrified as he was by the thought, the young cadet considered shaving his legs. It was a small sacrifice to make, especially when he compared it to the woes of putting a corset on. His hands around the waist-band item, he had no idea what he was doing. It felt both snug and loose at the same time. Turning around like a dog trying to catch his tail, Cloud wasn't sure if it was facing the right way.

Cloud's voice was small when he stuttered, "Um… Sugar?"

"Yes, Baby?" immediately came her voice on the other side of the door. He heard her feet approach his door. "What is it, precious?"

"I, uh…" Cloud tried to tie the knot in his hands tighter. Somehow, he accidentally got his pinky stuck instead. "I need help…"

The door opened slightly and the tall voluptuous woman peeked inside. Sugar blinked several times when she saw Cloud's arm bent in an awkward position with his finger stuck in the lace of a corset that was worn upside-down and backward. Sugar quickly covered her mouth to stop the chuckle that nearly escaped into the air. She slipped into the room before Spice and Psych had a chance to take a peep inside.

"Oh, my poor Baby…" Sugar expressed with a small laugh and locked the door behind her. "Let me help you…"

Red-faced, Cloud simply stood and waited for the woman to assist. He grumbled a few curse words while she untied the lace and undid the metal clasps. Cloud exhaled a sigh of relief when he was temporarily free of the corset. The damn bloody thing was annoying. Flexing his slightly swollen pinky, he developed a deeper appreciation for any woman brave enough to wear one.

"All righty, darling," began Sugar, "Let's do this. Be a jolly-good baby and lift up your pretty arms for me. It's time I bestow upon you the ultimate powers of a corset. You've not experienced the splendors of being a woman until you've put yourself in excruciating pain all for the sake of high-brow fashion."

With one brow raised, Cloud did as he was instructed and lifted his arms. Sugar properly wrapped it around his waist and attached the metal clasps first. Then she started to readjust the back string. No sooner did Sugar modify the corset's fitting that Cloud had difficulty breathing and felt his whole waist constrict. He instantly started to complain.

"Oh fucking God, I can't believe you women actually wear this thing! It should be outlawed, damn it."

"It's the price we pay for beauty… and for hot, wild, naughty sex," came Sugar's colorful response. She stood behind him and continued to tighten the string.

"How the hell am I…" Pausing, Cloud sharply inhaled when the lower bones of his ribbed-cage felt crushed. Sugar kept tightening the lace until she eventually stopped and tied it together in a bow. Cloud barely exhaled and completed his sentence with a, "…supposed to put this on tomorrow?"

With the corset finally secured and properly modified, Cloud had difficulty learning to breathe again. He was used to carelessly taking deep breaths, but with the offending object now around his waist he had to settle for smaller, more concise ones. There was no way he'd be able to put this on him by himself tomorrow.

"Silly rabbit, you'll need help with this," Sugar confirmed and gently massaged his shoulders to force him to relax again. "Mommy will stop by tomorrow to help. I shall meet you in some undisclosed location and get you all dolled up. Okay, Baby? Now spin around and let me gaze upon my work-in-progress so far."

Sighing, Cloud turned and faced her. So far, he had on the underwear, corset, and panties. He felt both covered and exposed at the same time. Shifting his weight to one leg, the cadet crossed his arms and waited for Sugar's verdict. He noticed a flush of color glow on her cheeks. The dark woman smiled but said nothing. She simply bent down and attached the straps that hung from his corset to his white stockings. Cloud didn't realize what those straps were intended for until now. Sugar clipped the strap's clasps to the hem of his thigh-high stockings. They no longer slipped downward. Everything was now tightly secure and in its rightful place. Even so, Cloud glanced up at his newly appointed Mom and noticed the amused expression on her face. It never left her. Was something wrong? He frowned.

"What?" Cloud quietly demanded. "Why are you looking at me that way?"

The colors on Sugar's cheeks deepened while she locked eyes on him. For the first time since they met, she appeared uncertain. With a low husky voice, she finally answered back, "Well, Baby, if you must know… you look extremely tasteful in white lingerie. You even got the sign of approval from Mr. Happy-Happy."

At first, Cloud was confused. Then he glanced down. Sure enough, he saw Sugar's erection poke out. She was lucky she had a small penis, lest he'd actually see it hang below her mini-skirt.

At some point, Madam Mariposa arrived and asked for his shoe size. Cloud's shoulders slumped a bit. He had no intentions of wearing heels. The damn things hurt when he'd tried them earlier on at the other clothing stores. Even so, the madam left to fetch the foot size Cloud reluctantly revealed. Meanwhile, Sugar continued to assist him. She pulled up his bottom-flared and chic-looking trousers and slipped his ivory silk top on. Cloud was amazed by how all the items fit comfortably. The fabric felt like butter against his skin. More optimistic of his outfit now, Cloud put on his jacket last. It was a bit snug on the shoulders but he didn't complain. He had enough room to move his arms freely about. Once a pair of white shoes slid under his door, Cloud cocked a brow and picked them up. He noticed they didn't have a steel-pointed heel like the others nor did they have narrow toe tips. The heels on these shoes were thicker and looked more… stable. The toe area was wider as well. Cloud carefully put the white platform shoes on. He was thoroughly relieved at how comfy they felt. Sturdy yet pleasing to the eye, he didn't have any trouble walking in them.

"Well?" Cloud asked and looked up at Sugar, "How do I look?"

"You look gorgeous, Baby," she instantly replied back with a content smile. She fondly ran her fingers through his spiked hair. "There's only one more important thing we'll need to complete your look."

Cloud tilted his head, confused.

"We need to do your hair and face, Baby," Sugar explained.

Cloud frowned. "I don't think I'll have time to hit the salon today. I have a luncheon with Granny this afternoon. This is only a dress rehearsal anyway so I don't need to worry about it."

"I suppose not, Baby. But I think it'd be best if you got comfortable with the whole look today. There's more to being a woman than style and make-up. You gotta own the part and flaunt it like you mean it."

"But Granny…" Cloud stopped himself. He didn't want to embarrass himself in front of her by showing up in drag.

Sugar giggled and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Oh, Granny will understand, Baby. She'll be delighted to see you transformed. She didn't mind it at all when I arrived in her office one day dressed as a woman when I had previously entered there as a man for five years straight. The lady is a tough cookie and seeing you look this beautiful will make her day."

Chewing on his lower lip, Cloud slowly bobbed his head. He later murmured, "I don't want to look like I got my hair done when I return to the barracks tonight, though. It can't be permanent. Understand?"

At this, Sugar stepped forward and unzipped the purse hung over her shoulder. "No worries, we got the next best thing here."

Sugar pulled out a cosmetic kit with a wink. Then she took a seat on the bench. Patting on the empty space next to her, she waited for Cloud to join her there. With a sigh, Cloud propped himself on the bench. Sugar soon called out to Spice. She instructed him to get a cup of water. Once she heard her lover leave, Sugar dabbed a brush on one color from the palette in her hands.

"Baby," she started, "Close your eyes and don't open them until I tell you. Trust me okay? Pretty-pretty please? With a cherry on top, hm?"

Cloud snorted once but did as he was told. Sugar went silent after that. She got to work on his face and first coated the lids of his eyes with a cool and smooth texture. It was a fixative of sorts. After smoothing out the edges, Sugar applied a light gray, glittery eye shadow with her brush and layered up all the proper colors and tones. Every once in a while she instructed him to move his face a certain way. This went on for a few minutes. As Sugar blended the colors together, Cloud scrunched his face. His eyes felt itchy. His initial reaction was to blink and rub them. This was his very first time having make-up on and, already, he dreaded the experience. When Cloud felt something thin and wet run the edge of his eye lids, it was difficult to keep still any longer.

"Don't move your face so much, Baby," Sugar commanded half-seriously and half-jokingly. "Do you want me to smear this all over?"

"You're not making me into a clown, are you?" Cloud asked and kept his eyes closed. He grimaced slightly when his lids felt the tip of the brush again. "Ugh, what is that you're putting on me?"

"Liquid eyeliner," Sugar revealed, "Now stop acting like a baby, Baby, and open your eyes for me."

"Yes, mommy," Cloud snapped back.

His eyes opened now, Cloud noticed Sugar hold a very thin and black bottle in her hand. According to the label, it was liquid eyeliner. So that was the item that currently gave him a nightmare. He blinked several times whenever she tried to apply it at the edge of his lower eyelid. A look of annoyance from Sugar prompted him to stop that. Even as his eyes grew teary from the agitation of the eyeliner's brush, Cloud kept them opened. A sigh of relief came when she finally completed the outline of his lids. The worst part was finally over.

"See? That wasn't so bad, was it, Baby?" Sugar winked at him and whipped out the mascara. She coated his lashes with it.

Cloud shrugged his shoulders and answered back, "Not really. It's only as bad as the time my ankle bone popped out after I fell from a fifteen-foot tree and couldn't walk for three weeks. Yeah. It wasn't bad at all."

Sugar playfully slapped his arm with her purse. "Bad baby. You're acting like a complete smart-ass. There can only be one smart-ass in the family and that's Spice."

Cloud grinned, eager to fight the man for that spot.

At around this time, Spice returned. He knocked on the door with the cup of water Sugar requested. Cloud sniggered when he heard Spice bicker back and forth with Sugar. Despite his nonstop insistence to check on Cloud's progress so far, Sugar shooed Spice lover away like a mosquito and locked the door again.

"Men…" Sugar said and rolled his eyes. "So impatient…"

Setting the water down on the ground for now, she returned to the young man on the bench to complete his facial look. With a lip liner in her hand now, Sugar defined the natural shape of his lips first before filling it all in. She then took up a thin brush and dabbed it with a dark cherry lipstick. Having obtained the desired color needed, she painted the intense color over Cloud's lips. Cloud mashed his lips together upon instruction and silently watched the artist work her magic. Admittedly, the cadet admired how effortless Sugar conducted herself. Her personality was a bit on the extreme side of things, but there was definitely passion and determination beneath all the glitz and glamour. It made him wonder how much of her former life still remained in her.

"How did you know this was the path you had to take?" Cloud suddenly asked, his voice serious.

"My path, Baby?" Sugar repeated and applied a coating of gloss on his lips. She paused for a moment as she contemplated more on the question. "Mmm, I don't know really. Maybe when I finally stopped fighting what I really was, that was when things became clearer and truer for me."

Silent, Cloud studied her face. Sugar's hazel eyes met his blue set. They reflected a collage of emotions, from confusion to content. Cloud's brows furrowed a bit. "So you accepted who you are and that was that?"

Sugar scoffed. She shook his head. "Mmm, I'm afraid it's still a work in progress for me, Baby. Life is much more dynamic than what we want it to be. Answers don't come as quick as the answers to a simple equation. You know? I used to work as a top-ranked computer programmer for Shinra. My mind was consumed by numbers and results. I applied that same concept on my life. And failed… miserably."

Cloud felt a bit ashamed of himself. He originally pegged Sugar as one of those overly flamboyant stereotypical queers, one who was too lost in a hyper reality to really care about anything else. But… he was wrong. Sugar's clothes and personality… it was all a persona. Like armor, she used it to protect herself from a world that was too harsh, too judgmental, and too brutal to accept the likes of her. Her ongoing struggles reflected that of his own.

"I'm still trying to find myself…" Cloud confided in her and lowered his gaze. "I… don't know what I am, really."

"Oh?" Sugar slowly smiled. She grazed his cheeks with a rosy-colored blush tone. As she emphasized his strong cheekbone structure, she asserted, "No one really knows who they are, Baby, even when we think we do. We're all lost pioneers trying to sort through the madness to find our path. Critters lurk everywhere, though, and threaten to deter us. Those are the times when we are tested. Travelers with a strong will can defeat the little buggers head-on and eventually discover their newfound land. Those who lack the determination will remain lost in their voyage." Tilting her head sideways, Sugar looked at him and asked, "Which type of explorer are you, Baby?"

Hesitating, Cloud's jaw danced a bit. "I… don't know actually. Like I said, I'm still exploring the land and getting my bearings."

"Any critters in your way yet?"

Cloud thought a moment. The image of Sephiroth's face appeared. He snorted to himself. "I don't know. I guess? There is this… guy."

"Ah-haaaaah…" remarked the woman next to him in an all-knowing way. She grinned and put the blush away. As she grabbed the cup of water, she said, "So let me guess… this is a guy you're goo-goo-ga-ga over, Baby?"

Swallowing hard, it was the first time Cloud actually spoke out loud about his fascination with the General. It felt… embarrassing. Too nervous to confirm Sugar's assessment, he settled for a simple nod instead.

"It was the same for me the first time I discovered a liking toward guys," Sugar expressed. She dipped her hand in the cup of water and started to damp Cloud's hair with wet fingers. "I thought there was something wrong with me so I went out to every bar and tried to get laid with as many women as I could. I wanted to convince myself it was all in my head."

"And did it work?"

"Nope. Not really. I found myself still thinking about the guy one cube away from my own at the office. He really was pretty. Nice eyes and bone structure and all. Mmm, good ass too." Sugar sighed and dipped her hand in water again.

Cloud stared at the woman in front of him. "What happened?"

Sugar's face stiffened a bit. "My boss found out about us. He fired me on the spot. Because President Shinra is very conservative on matters like this, he threatened to put me in jail if I didn't move out of the apartment, which was funded by the corporation as a perk. So I left and moved to the Slums."

"And the guy you liked?"

"He got to stay. He convinced the boss I had sexually harassed him and coerced him into sex. I think he's been promoted to second leading programmer in the tech department and has a family now." Sugar shrugged her shoulders. "Lucky him, I guess."

Cloud bit his lip. On the one hand, it worked out okay for Sugar. She was now queen of the underworld and had Spice by her side. But the entire situation was still unfair. It worried him since that type of scrutiny still went on today. President Shinra wouldn't hesitate to send a rookie back home if he discovered he shared intense feelings toward the General.

"So this guy you're hot for…" continued Sugar, "What's he like?"

Her wet hands gently combed his hair again and again. Eventually, Sugar guided Cloud's head downward to reach the other sections she missed. He blushed when his eyes came into direct contact with her cleavage. Sugar obviously didn't care. Focused on his hairstyle, she finished wetting it and grabbed a bottle of rosy fragrant, sparkly hairspray from her purse. Sugar spritzed it all over and teased his blond locks to create volume. Cloud wasn't sure what the woman had in mind since his hair was naturally spiky. There wasn't much to do with it. Still, he felt the woman really working it. Her hands danced everywhere and quickly pulled his spiked tips in various directions. Sugar finally lifted his face up so that she could style his front sections.

"He's higher ranked than me," Cloud exposed after a while. "I still like girls… But this man… God, he's flipped my entire world upside-down. We met only two weeks ago but I can no longer think straight. I… I can't stop thinking about him."

"Yep. Seems you got bit by the love bug, Baby. Big time." Sugar laughed. "And is he horrorshow?"

"Very horrorshow." Cloud felt his cheeks grow warm with color. "You've no idea how horrorshow he is, Sugar. He is so… perfect. And I'm not saying that because I think he's perfect. It's just a simple matter of fact. The whole world is in love with him."

"Sounds like a very yummy treat." Sugar paused as she continued to work his hair and spray it. "…But does he like you too, Baby?"

Here, Cloud hesitated. "I think so…"

"You think so?" Sugar stopped touching his hair and looked at him. She waited for a clearer answer.

"Each time we're in the same room we can't get our eyes off each other," Cloud explained, "I know this sounds stupid, Sugar, but it's like there's an intense energy between us. We got a connection. Only…"

"Only what?"

Cloud sighed and looked away. "Only, he's already involved with someone else. Someone ten times better than me. Stronger. Handsomer. More his age and rank. He, too, is perfect. I… I don't think I can compete against someone like him. And it doesn't help that I saw them together a few nights ago. They got a thing still going on. I guess when it comes down to it… I'm nothing."

"Oh my, Baby…" Sugar's eyes shimmered as she looked at Cloud. Her eyes moved everywhere and took in his features. She smiled. "You may not think of yourself as beautiful and up to par with that other guy, but…"

"But what?"

Sugar put her items away in her purse. She stood and held her hand out to him. "Come, Baby. It's time you see yourself in the mirrors outside."

Cloud blinked. He hadn't realized Sugar was finished with his make-up and hair until now. "We're… done?"

"Yep, Baby."

His entire disguise was ready. Granted, it was only a dress rehearsal, but he'd finally get to see the outcome of today's outing. Too curious over it, Cloud accepted Sugar's hand and got off the bench. She opened the door for him and he exited his dressing room.

Spice, Psych, Madam Mariposa, and Cherry already stood outside waiting for him. Cloud was unsure what to make of their reaction. It was mostly a silent one. Spice held his camcorder up and recorded him from where he stood. He said nothing, nor did he make any smart-ass gestures that would indicate his current thoughts. It was the same for Psych, who was hardly quiet for more than a few seconds. The child merely looked up at him with his large brown eyes. Meanwhile, Cherry whispered many words into her master's ear. The young assistant kept her eyes on him and did not blink. Madam Mariposa continued to observe him carefully. Cloud froze in place. He breathed again when the madam finally took a step forward. In her hands were several long-chained, multi-colored necklaces and a blue scarf.

"Let's put these on before you see yourself," she calmly informed.

The woman placed the dangling jewelry over Cloud's head. Then she wrapped the blue scarf several times around his neck like a choker before finishing it off with a rabbit-ear tie. The madam took a step back to survey her work. Once she was satisfied, she stepped away so that Cloud could head to the mirrors at last.

Again, Cloud wasn't sure what to think of their silence. Even while the steady beat of the store's music played, it still felt dead quiet. Cloud glanced at Sugar who maintained the same smile on her face. He sighed. Gradually, Cloud approached the three-way mirror against the far wall. The sound of his shoes was muffled by the carpet with each slow step he took. Thankfully, he walked in them just fine. He approached closer and closer until he stopped and stared at the reflection he saw on the mirror. Cloud instantly gaped at the person he saw. It… wasn't him.

In silence, Cloud stared at the blue-eyed woman with wild, shaggy golden hair. He uttered a quiet sound from his throat. The cadet had trouble making a connection between the image in the mirror and himself. They shared the same eyes, same height, same complexion, same everything. And yet… everything had been alternated. The woman he saw on the mirror was stylish, chic, and possessed an aggressive flare. Her platinum-blonde bangs swayed to the right and nearly covered an eye while the rest of her hair was tussled and given a full-volume fringe style. Cloud blinked several times. He couldn't help but notice the woman's eyes. There were various shades of gray that created a smooth and sultry look, emphasized more by the curtains of long and thick lashes. When Cloud's lips parted, his eyes locked onto the dark cherry-red color there. My god. It was such a prominent and dominating color. The lipstick served as a stark contrast to the fair skin complexion, hair, and dress suit.

"Well, Baby?" Sugar began and slowly approached Cloud from behind. She stood within a foot of him. "What do you think?"

Cloud took another step closer toward the mirror without a word. The ivory dress suit looked good. In fact, it had a feminine, yet empowering look. The two-piece suit complimented well with his platinum blond hair and eyes, likewise the blue scarf. It successfully elongated his neck and hid his subtle Adam's apple. Meanwhile, the long pants visually made his legs run longer while the shoes offered him an extra inch for height. The jacket turned out to be a clever idea as well. Its sharp shoulder pads created a stylized look while the slight flare at the bottom insinuated hip curves that weren't really there. Less was definitely more, Cloud realized. In fact, the only skin that was exposed was his smooth chest. Initially, he worried that area would give him away as a man. But to anyone who looked at him, it was likely he'd be mistaken for some petite-shaped woman. Admittedly, it helped he had a slender shape to pull off the look.

Sugar gently placed her hands on his shoulders and leaned over to his ear. She smiled. "Are you done ogling yourself, Baby? Did mommy do right or what?"

There was no immediate answer. The longer Cloud stared at the splitting female image of himself, the more anxious he became by it. This person reflected back to him was a complete stranger. He honestly couldn't tell there was a man behind the clothes and make-up. That's what disturbed him the most. He was… a man. He'd been accused of being otherwise by the men at the barracks and fought long and hard to prove them wrong. This disguise, as incredible as it was, only reinforced those spiteful remarks.

"That make-up is really marvelous," Madam Mariposa commended and continued to stare at Cloud. "You look beautiful, Baby. I would not know you for a man. As flat-chested as you are, there are many artsy, high-class supermodels that sport that similar fashion and are idolized by men everywhere."

Cloud's face flushed with color. Staring at his shoes, he remained silent.

"Baby…" Psych whispered softly and accidentally dropped the skateboard on his hand. "You look beautiful."

"Baby does look sexy," Sugar remarked after him. "Like a pretty butterfly."

Madam Mariposa nodded. "Indeed, he does. With your permission, I'd like to photograph him. I know an editor of a glamour magazine who would absolutely adore Cloud. He's been searching for male models that really push the envelope and redefine human sexuality. Finding ambiguous-looking men like Cloud is extremely rare. They hit both the male and female audience."

Spice sniggered and continued filming Cloud. "I think we totally accomplished our goal here, Sugar. Cloud is severely fuckable. He's going to make a lotta straight guys cry, though."

"My baby!"

"A magnificent-looking being…"

"Beautiful…"

"A natural fuck-magnet…"

Cloud suddenly growled, frustrated. Hearing all their words… all of their praise… As much as he had wanted to create an excellent disguise for tomorrow's event, this was simply too much. He did not expect it at all. Shaking his head, Cloud quickly demanded, "Can we just go now?"

The small group paused from their current conversation and turned to him at the booming sound of his voice.

"I don't need to burst anyone's bubble here," Cloud continued, "but this is only a one-time thing. I'm doing this for a mission, so don't get any fucking ideas. Okay?"

Spice lowered his camera while Psych blinked several times.

Sugar felt tension build up on Cloud's unsteady shoulders. She moved around to face the young man. Her hands continued to hold onto him. Quietly, Sugar asked, "Baby? Are you okay? What's wrong?"

"I'm not a freak!" Cloud suddenly erupted and pushed away from her. He retreated to a corner and had his back face everyone. His voice trembled when he added, "I… I just want to be normal. I don't belong here… I'm not supposed to look this way!"

There was silence in the boutique. Cherry held her notebook close to her chest with slightly furrowed brows. Then she obediently followed Madam Mariposa out of the area. The two women walked to the other side of the store to give Cloud some privacy. When Sugar silently nodded to Spice, he and Psych went next. With a sigh, the rowdy Wutai man stuck a joint between his teeth and lit it up with a mini blow-torch stashed in his camera's bag. He disappeared with the kid behind the beaded curtain. Only Sugar remained. She sat on the couch and made no move to invade Cloud's space.

For a while, there was an air of uneasiness in the atmosphere. Nothing moved. No one said a word. For Cloud, he felt a bit shitty for spoiling everyone's jovial moods with his sudden outburst. He didn't mean to go out on them like that. They never meant to do him wrong. He knew Sugar, Spice, and everyone else were trying to help. They were proud of what they achieved together today. It was just…

"I'm… sorry," Cloud whispered to Sugar and slightly turned his face to look back at her, "I didn't mean to be an asshole just now."

Sitting on the couch, Sugar shrugged. "That's okay, Cloud. I know you're not comfortable with this. I'll drop you off so you can see Granny now."

With his head low, Cloud joined Sugar at the seats. Up until now, Sugar hadn't used his real name. Feeling even shittier by this realization, Cloud closed his eyes and said, "I… really appreciate what you've done for me. I'm sorry for freaking out like that. I guess I just… got scared."

"I know. I know you're scared, Cloud." The serious tone of Sugar's voice conveyed how well she understood his situation. "Sexual identity was never a happy-happy topic for me either. But good ole' Granny told me it's just one piece of our identity. You know? Like underwear. It doesn't define everything about us. Even if you know your sexual orientation, it won't make much of a difference. You will always be you. In the end, you gotta be comfortable in your own stilettos."

Cloud briefly smiled at the small joke Sugar used. Then he slumped in his seat and brought his knees up to his chin. "It's tough being a country boy. I'm nearly clueless about everything here, including myself. Of course, it doesn't help the guys at the barracks always make fun of me. To them, I might as well be a woman."

"They all ridicule you because of that?"

Cloud nodded.

Sugar softly chortled and removed high-gloss lipstick from her purse. As she painted over her lips with it, she remarked evenly, "That means they're intimidated by you, sweetie."

"Huh?" Cloud appeared confused. "But… I'm not intimidating at all."

"Yes, you are. You remember the talk about critters and how people are afraid to face their worst fears, right? You're a critter to them."

"Me? A critter?"

"If they weren't threatened by you, they'd leave you alone. Any critter that isn't worth the time of day will get ignored. But those who are will strike a nerve. You're a threat to them. Look at yourself, Cloud…" Sugar suddenly put an arm around his shoulder. She urged him to look at himself at the mirrors in front of them again. "Even without the make-up and get-up, you're a pretty butterfly. You're fucking gorgeous. Horrorshow. Out of this damn world. Being in your presence is the same as being in the presence of a celestial being. Don't you get it, Cloud? They want you. They hate themselves for wanting you."

All three images of Cloud from the tri-mirrors reflected back to him; a pretty doll face consumed by self-loathe. Cloud swallowed hard. Truthfully, he didn't want to think of himself as an object of desire. It further pulled him toward the world of female. Cloud felt as if he were an awkward chameleon creature that could not decide what color it wanted to be. He wished to get rid of whatever bizarre thoughts were hidden within himself. However, Granny once warned him that, at some point in every man's life, the man had to confront the feminine presence within himself in order to achieve masculinity. Stories of the hero chopping off the head of a dragon represented the struggle between two opposing powerful forces within the self. That's what Granny claimed, at least. Cloud still didn't know what the fuck she meant by it. It was still a mystery to him. But he got the sense Granny wanted him to confront all parts of himself, even the ones that made him feel uncomfortable. The fact he'd taken a liking to another man solidified this. As Cloud stared at his female version, he couldn't help but wonder if the General would approve and want him like this. Some part of Cloud hoped he did. While he didn't want to be an object of desire for men, he wanted Sephiroth.

"Making a man question his own identity and lock him into a state of madness…" Sugar expressed with a confident smile on her face, "it's quite an influence, yeah? Many wars begin over a woman. A guy will completely lose his mind and send men to their deaths simply because of an enthralling gaze or warm touch. That's power. And now you have that manipulative ability at your fingertips. I can't tell you how much I get a rise whenever I walk down the streets and guys go ape-shit."

Laughing softly, Cloud had never thought of it that way. He finally understood what Sugar meant by him being a threat. He upset the natural order of things by being a man who appealed to both genders, including his own. Of course, Cloud also realized this power wasn't his alone. Sephiroth harbored it too with his terrifying beautiful looks. No man or woman could resist the General's charm. Not even him. Cloud had tried hard not to think of him so much. Yet, there'd been many sleepless nights over Sephiroth, many wet-dreams and handjobs. As far as Cloud was concerned, Sephiroth held that powerful, enrapturing gaze over him.

"Thank you, Sugar…" Cloud told her. Later, he smiled and added, "Or should I call you mommy?"

"Sugar will do." The woman blushed a bit when she later confessed, "But… mommy would be better."

Not wanting to make a further ass of himself, Cloud conceded. "Fine, mommy."

That instantly brought a grin on Sugar's face. She jolted up and towered over Cloud. In a lively voice, she asserted, "Well, all right, Baby! Let's get going. We still got an hour to meet up with Granny. I'd like to spend the time we have together to go over a few lessons."

Cloud cocked a brow and slowly stood. "A few lessons?"

"Well, in order to pull off the whole pretty woman look, you gotta walk like you mean it." Sugar started to strut down the carpet and sway her hips. "It's all about attitude. Go on, now. You try."

Cloud tried to mimic her actions but nearly tripped on his feet when he repeated the cross-one-leg-over-the-other march. With an annoyed sigh, he simply settled for his usual walk. Sugar frowned and shook her head.

"Attitude, remember?" said Sugar, "And don't look down. Have her head up high. Maybe the Cloud you remember walked that way, but not Baby."

Confused, Cloud repeated, "Baby…"

"Yes, Baby," Sugar answered without missing a beat. "That will be your alternate identity whenever you're in her clothes. Got that, Baby? You must give life to this character."

Cloud grew hesitant.

Sugar chuckled. "Let's head out. We'll be able to practice better."

Following the tall woman, Cloud passed through the beaded curtain and reentered the other half of the store. He found Spice at the cash registers with the two women. Spice stood and waited while the items were rung up. The Wutai man looked up when Cloud approached and took a sharp inhale of his joint. Blowing steam from his mouth, Spice brushed strands of his dreadlocks away from his face and leaned his back against the counter with arms crossed.

"Everything all right?" Spice addressed both Cloud and Sugar. "Or is Baby still acting like a royal pain in the ass and I gotta spank him?"

"No spanking," Sugar snapped and wagged her finger at him. "And we're fine, Spice. We just needed to have a man-girl-to-man-girl talk. Right, Baby?"

Cloud laughed at how accurate she sounded. To Spice, he turned around so that he could get a good look of the outfit they chose for him. Feeling better now, he wanted to know if it was something Spice agreed to. "Well, pops… How do I look?"

Spice stared at him for a moment. Then a slow smile crept on his face. Without hesitation, he replied, "Horrorshow."

Cloud sniggered in reaction. Both Sugar and Spice waited for Cherry to finish ringing up the items. Meanwhile, Cloud frowned as he glanced around and noticed one member from their party missing. "Where'd Psych go?"

Swiping his card through a reader, Spice shrugged his shoulders. "Hell if I know. I think he's jacking off at the adult film section."

"Some responsible parent you are, dad," Cloud reprimanded him.

Spice made a crude gesture with his hand and Sugar giggled in reaction. Apparently the two sucked at reinforcing disciplinary actions to Psych. With a sigh, Cloud marched off to retrieve the kid himself. It wasn't any of business. Still. It felt wrong to have a little boy go off on his own in a place like this. Cloud's eyes drifted left to right. Sure enough, he found the little pipsqueak at the adult movie section of the boutique.

Psych was in the middle of staring at the movie covers with his drooling mouth when Cloud arrived. He towered over Psych and dragged him away by his ear. "It's time to go. You're too young for that anyway, you little pervert."

Caught off guard, Psych growled and squirmed. "Leggo! That hurts!"

"Life hurts. Get over it." Cloud finally released Psyche but pushed the kid forward to keep him moving along the aisle.

Massaging his red ear, Psych glared back at Cloud and stuck his tongue. Afterward, he pointed at a movie cover they passed by and bluntly asked, "That looks painful, doesn't it, Baby?"

Cloud instantly flushed with color when he saw the provocative image of two naked and intertwined men Psych referred to. "It's none of your business. Now, c'mon, maybe we can get some ice cream after this."

"I only ask because that's what you'll be doing tomorrow." Psych giggled.

Cloud lightly pulled on the boy's hair from behind. "Mind your words, squirt. As long as you're around me, you're going to behave like a kid."

Psych shrugged. "Hey, I'm just telling ya like it is, Baby. The guy you want also wants you just as bad. He's already a lot closer to you than you think. The two of you are gonna be inseparable after tomorrow."

Cloud's brows furrowed as the boy marched off on his own and joined the others. The tone in Psych's voice sounded half amused and half serious. His words did intrigue Cloud. However, he dismissed it as trivial nonsense and returned to the counter.

"Thanks for the wonderful job," he overhead Sugar express. She gave the two women a real generous tip.

"It was our pleasure," Madam Mariposa replied. To Cloud, she said, "Feel free to drop by our store any time, Baby. Bring a friend."

Cloud nodded his gratitude to her. After thanking Madam Mariposa and her assistant, the group headed for the exit. The pink suits already stood on standby outside. Cloud paused when Cherry approached him from his side unexpectedly. The quiet woman tore out a sheet from her notepad and gave it to him.

"This is for you," she spoke directly to him, her voice soft and gentle.

Cloud stared at Cherry for a moment. This was the first time he heard her speak. Her voice sounded so fragile and sweet, it was no wonder why her master reserved it for herself. Still, Madam Mariposa stood by and allowed her cherished lover to exchange a few words to him. Cloud glanced down at the sheet Cherry handed to him. He blinked. It was a highly-detailed portrait of his face, complete with a gestural sketch of him in the suit he now wore. With notes scribbled all over the illustrations, he realized Cherry already knew the outfit she'd envision him in the moment he arrived at their store.

"How… how did you know?" Cloud asked her, a bit shocked.

"I peeked into your soul," Cherry informed. "You have a beautiful heart. I knew I had to put you in this. Never forget how beautiful you are, Cloud… It's the inside that matters most. Clothes simply accentuate what we have deep within ourselves."

With that, Cherry did an about-face and returned to her master. Cloud carefully folded the sketch and put it inside his blazer's pocket. He gave the two women one more lasting look. Cloud felt warm and calm inside. Feeling content, he nodded to Madam Mariposa and Cherry. Then he rejoined Sugar and Spice outside the store.

"So I guess we're headed topside, now," Spice said the moment Cloud appeared and caught up with them. "At least we'll get to see ole' gram crackers when we drop Baby at the restaurant."

They stood outside Naughty and Nice. A vintage-sounding, bebop melody played loudly from a nearby club. Cloud noticed many Candy Land residents stare at him. He paused, unsure if he looked too freakish in his new outfit. Sugar tapped his shoulder. Catching his attention, she seemed to sense the nerves build from him again.

"Let's strut, Baby," Sugar suggested with a wink.

Both Sugar and Spice walked down the street to get him to move. Psych moved further ahead with his skateboard. The bodyguards spread out and allowed them the freedom to move wherever they needed to go. Cloud only took a few uncertain steps until he stopped and became aware of the people around him again. Spice snickered.

"Maybe this will help…" Spice suggested and passed Cloud his black whipping stick from before. Afterward, he mentioned, "Baby, huh? She sounds like a very dominating woman to me."

"Yeah, she's very in control," added Sugar.

"Baby is a bitch," resumed Spice, "She can make men piss or cum in their pants with just a simple glance or word."

Cloud stared at the two as they described this new persona for him. He glanced at the whipping stick in his hand. Granted, he felt uncomfortable assuming this role as a dominating woman. Then again, Cloud felt uncomfortable; not Baby. Baby had the power to step into Headquarters and tell everyone to fuck off. Cloud, on the other hand… Well, he could just shove it up his ass if he didn't like it, right?

"Baby's word is the law," Spice added with a sneer.

"Walk for us, Baby," urged Sugar.

With whip in hand, Baby slapped it on his palm. It hurt like hell. But he liked it. Feeling a bit more confident, Baby took his first steps and strutted down a path with one leg crossed over the other; his head held high. Baby didn't trip.

"Mm, that was sexy," approved Spice next to her.

"Now gaze upon any man in your path," suggested Sugar next excitedly, "Give him the look… Here. Observe."

Sugar walked forward and winked at a pair of metal-heads she crossed paths with. The rough-looking men instantly stared back at her and flushed with color. They stuck their tongues out crudely and hollered words of praise for their Queen.

"Now you try."

Baby licked his lips and walked forward. Baby's intense, piercing-blue eyes stayed on the path in front of him. He eventually discovered his would-be victim a few feet away; a tall, bulky man with enough muscles to break a man in half. Like a devouring succubus, Baby glanced up at him with an innocent, doll-like face. The muscle man was in the middle of carrying a pack of beer to his buddies on the other side of the street. Then his eyes made contact with Baby's. The tall, big man was locked into a heated gaze for a mere second… up until he accidentally bumped straight into a metal pole. The beer fell over. His buddies came over to assist but could only stare with mouths halfway opened at Baby. The sharply dressed figure grinned and kept walking without missing a beat.

"Oh, my…" Sugar said when she caught up with Baby further ahead on the street. "I think I've created a hot-blooded, gorgeous monster."

"Absolutely seductive, Baby," Spice praised next. His hand reached down to squeeze Baby on the ass. It was instantly wacked by the whipping stick. When Spice saw the cold, teasing glare from Baby's face, he beamed, "Most sexy indeed!"

"Mmm, I like this," Baby practically purred, his voice dropping to a very low and sensual tone.

After visiting a few notable sites from Candy Land, from Spice's raunchy art museum to the vintage train that served as their place of residence, they eventually made their way back to the limousine. For his lunch meeting with Granny, Baby switched into a black and lacey, knee-high, Wutai-styled dress that buttoned all the way up to his neck and covered the arms. It was accented by a large black hat that slanted to the side and practically exploded with feathers, ribbons, and black roses. One of Sugar's personal choices, the hat covered half of Baby's porcelain face in dramatic fashion.

With the radio blared to the highest volume, Psych drove them to their final destination topside. Sugar, Spice, and Cloud smoked from the bong and laughed. The cadet was having fun. He didn't think assuming a new identity would be this exciting. Throughout his time in Candy Land, he had smirked at all of the wide-eyed reactions he received from men and women alike. There was heat in their eyes the likes he'd never seen before. And it was all for him. As the limousine entered the main downtown area of Midgar, Cloud looked out the window and observed all the industrial buildings they drove by. He felt changed. Quietly, he sighed and thought about the man with jade eyes and silvery-moonlit hair. Cloud wanted Sephiroth to look at him the same way the people of Candy Land adored him. Transfixed. Absorbed. Hopelessly in love.

Next to Cloud, Sugar flopped against him. The charismatic woman was stoned out of her mind and hummed to him several incoherent melodies with eyes closed. Cloud didn't mind. He ran his fingers delicately through her thick, pink hair and placed his other hand on her lap. He leaned over to kiss her chin. Whereas Cloud was previously on guard when he first met them, he appreciated his current company. A bit stoned himself, he expressed his gratitude by boldly moving his lips to Sugar's mouth. They kissed, tongues slowly moving in and out of each other's mouths. The hand on Sugar's lap slipped beneath her skirt. No longer at odds with how he felt about it, Cloud's long fingers fondled the hairless balls and small cock he found there.

"Ooh baby…" Sugar murmured back to him again and again. "Baby…"

Cloud chuckled at how easy she'd succumb to his caresses. Man or woman, his touches provoked a strong reaction. His hand gripped Sugar's length and tightened when he thought about the General again. Cloud wondered if Sephiroth would ever succumb to him like this too.

From across, Spice recorded the two with his camcorder. He pointed it at the hand that stroked his lover's erection. Quietly, he suggested, "We got thirty minutes before we get you to Granny, Baby. How about you make a horrorshow film for me? It's for my latest art project."

Cloud recalled their trip to Spice's art museum and had an idea what sort of art project he had in mind. Mention of it also brought Cloud's attention to the show the Wutai man was slated to put together soon. The cadet scoffed at the idea of being included in his bawdy exhibition.

Cloud yanked on Sugar's member harder and replied with an easy smile, "Sorry, Spice, but… not interested."

"Aw, you fucking wuss," Spice spat from behind the camcorder, "It's not going to be a big deal. I'll make sure to obscure your face on the final edits."

Rolling his eyes, Cloud knew Spice was the persistent type and wouldn't let this go. Cloud was also too high to really fight him on it. He made an annoyed grunt and settled with a, "All right, I guess. But just so you know, I don't plan on doing anything more than this. I'm saving myself for tomorrow."

"Oh?"

"Yep. Tomorrow I pop my cherry."

"Baby is a virgin…?" realized Sugar next to him and opened her eyes at last. She grew quiet for a moment. Her inner thighs trembled when Cloud's fingers worked her length faster. With a shaky voice, she added, "A virgin with the magical, pretty hands… Oooohhh…"

"But not for long," interjected Cloud proudly and spit into his hand to lubricate Sugar's member a bit. He felt her body signal a climax and increased his hand's tempo. "I'm going to lose it tomorrow. It's my seventeenth birthday."

Sugar looked surprised. She shivered more violently until her seed finally erupted into Cloud's hand. Panting now, Sugar's body was spent. She slowly propped herself against the seat and fell into a blissful state. Eventually, though, she murmured, "Shame on you, Baby… You didn't tell us your birthday was tomorrow."

Cloud shrugged his shoulders. He looked at the mess in his hand. Then he accepted a towel Spice offered to him to wipe it off. "No big deal, Sugar. You took good care of me today and got me clothes. That's more than enough."

Sugar's eyes closed again. She shook her head. "Mm, nope… I need to make you a cake and set up the party invitations. I won't settle for less."

"You're a stubborn woman," Cloud declared with a chuckle.

From across them, Spice kept his camera on Cloud. He focused the lens on the cadet's face and leaned closer in his seat. "So this is your last day as a virgin. Say something to the camera to remember this special day, Baby."

Cloud cocked a brow at him. He playfully tossed the cum-infested towel at the camera and saw Spice ducked out of the way. "Like what?"

"I dunno. Something. Today is the last day you'll be this boy ever again. You've been with him for sixteen years. Are you happy or sad you won't see him anymore?"

Growing quiet, Cloud's blue eyes strayed to the ground. He hadn't thought of it that way before. Sixteen years. Sixteen years of memories, places, and emotions. His first steps. His first climb. His first fall. His first laugh. His first tears. His first love. His first heartbreak. Gaia… Where did the fucking time go? Cloud wondered. He'd been this boy for sixteen years. It didn't occur to him that he'd never see him again. People changed. Dreams changed. Cloud had slowly forgotten about the boy he'd been for sixteen years. As he anxiously sped his way toward adulthood, every day that boy had become a stranger to him. It was almost… depressing.

Aware of the camera that recorded an array of emotions on Cloud's face, he finally addressed the question. Still under the influence of the grass he'd smoke, he muttered, "There's not much to say to the boy I was for sixteen years straight. He was my best friend. The only friend I had. Maybe on days when I'm blue and need a good pal, I'll see him again. Somehow, he'll always be with me, even if I lose my head along the way. But for now, I guess the best thing I can say is… thank you."

Cloud lowered his face and looked away. He didn't want to talk anymore. Old flesh wounds had been reopened. Spice clearly saw the emotional turmoil brewing inside him. With Sugar already sleeping after her climax, he moved forward and sat next to Cloud on the ground of the car cross-legged.

"My old man used to tell me a lot of philosophical crap when I was young," Spice expressed and resumed recording Cloud's private moment. "Peace comes to those who allow the winds of change to blow, not to those who mean to obstruct it from its natural course. Understand?"

Cloud slowly nodded.

"This is a time for celebration," resumed Spice. "Fuck the past, I say. You gotta push forward and grab the future by the balls and squeeze hard. Get me?"

"Yeah…"

A sly smile edged the corner of Spice's lips. "Cloud… I know you'll probably kill me for this request, but the way you look right now…" He placed one hand on Cloud's leg. "I want you to jack off in front of the camera."

The cadet instantly looked up at him and blinked. He had no idea how this conversation had shifted from point A to point B so suddenly. Then again, it was Spice. From the moment they met, the Wutai man came off as one crazy son-of-a-bitch with off-the-world comments and demands. Cloud didn't realize how much until now.

With a frown, the cadet uttered, "You're right: I will kill you for that request."

"Oh, come on…" started the other man with a laugh, "This is for my art project."

"Look, I don't want to fuck up my pretty hair and make-up," Cloud joked back, "So forget about it."

"It's not often I beg, Baby. I don't do that shit. But this is important. Please."

"What the hell for?"

"Because this is exactly what I need to include in the show. This is the concept I've been waiting for. It will boggle, inspire, and mind-fuck people."

Unconvinced, Cloud retorted, "You'll have to do better than that."

Spice's expression changed. A slow serious look emerged on his face. Lowering his camera so that they made eye contact, Spice at last revealed, "Because… I want to record the body of a virgin before it's been tainted by the world."

Cloud stared at him with a frown.

"You'll never be as precious as this moment, Baby," Spice told him bitterly, "You're beautiful and young. And you're at the whims of finding the happy points of your body. But that'll change in time. The world… it has a way of corrupting things. The types of people who attend my shows think I'm highlighting all the perks of sex. In reality, it's all fucking tragic. We live in a world where President Shinra executes anyone who is out of order and the planet is being sucked dry to feed the pockets of greedy assholes. Gone are the days of innocence. The only thing people like you and I got to live for are the basic human pleasures, but even that can be taken away." He slowly reached one hand to cup Cloud's cheek. "I want to capture this rare moment, Cloud. I want to record a glimpse of the careless days we all once shared. I want to capture… the tragic death of a virgin."

Within the haze of the bong's smoke, Cloud thought Spice looked beautiful. The novice art director sounded passionate. He wasn't bullshitting. This wasn't some lame excuse to get him naked. Spice genuinely had a mission to fulfill. This was it. Cheeks warmed with color once Cloud realized he was essential to Spice's exhibition.

"You'll… edit my face out, right?" Cloud reaffirmed quietly.

"Of course. Not that it makes a difference, though. You look so damn different that no one would notice you. But yeah, Baby, I'll alter it. It'll look horrorshow."

Cloud stayed still. He didn't move until Spice leaned forward to kiss him. Unlike Sugar, Spice's kiss was aggressive. The Wutai man latched onto Cloud's lower lip with his teeth and sucked on it several times. As Spice placed a hand on Cloud's growing member, the cadet thought about Sephiroth. In his mind, it was the General kissing him right now. It was Sephiroth moving his hands over him roughly, smoothly, and possessively. Cloud gently pushed Spice back, a trail of saliva breaking from their previously attached lips. The cadet pressed his back against the seat. With one hand, he undid the bottom buttons of his dress.


Sitting outside on a patio of a café in downtown Midgar, Dr. McClain observed all the waiters and fellow diners. It was lunchtime. The restaurant busted with movement and noise. According to her watch, Cloud was expected to arrive at any minute now. Dr. McClain was in the middle of sipping her white wine when she glanced up and observed a young, attractive woman break through the crowd and stop in front of her table. Several male waiters and diners alike paused and also took note of the pretty woman. The light from the bright afternoon sky shined down on the young woman's large fashionable hat. It cast long shadows across her face. With the hat slanted to one side, only her dominant cherry red lips were visible. Dr. McClain found her knee-long outfit to be provocative. The black Wutai-inspired dress with long sleeves looked chic on her slim figure. Given the high tensions between Midgar and Wutai over the war, though, Dr. McClain wondered if she was making a political statement with it. Was she one of those local models that challenged the norms? The elder psychologist briefly smiled at her and continued to drink up her white wine. She frowned when the beautiful lady took the empty seat right across her.

"Afternoon, Granny…"

Dr. McClain steadily set her glass down and did a second-take of the woman. She recognized the voice. She recalled the low, soft, and husky pitch of it. Young. Vibrant. Determined. The voice belonged to Cloud. However, he was not here. There was only the pretty woman in front of her. With furrowed brows, Dr. McClain quietly observed the striking female image for a moment longer. The young lady tilted her face. She appeared amused by her lack of reaction. From the new face angle, Dr. McClain was able to notice her piercing blue eyes. Those eyes…

The doctor's PHS suddenly rang in her bag. Jerking back slightly in her seat, Dr. McClain felt her heart skip a beat. Her attention still on the woman, she blindly grabbed the cellular device from her purse and flipped the PHS opened. She took the call.

"Graaaaaanny!" Sugar's voice emerged from the other line. "Hello, the love-of-my-life-and-cherry-in-my-pie! Just calling to tell you we dropped off Baby. Sorry we couldn't join you like we intended to. Shinra's got suits everywhere in the city due to his snotty-nosed-brat in town. I'd hate for our lunch to be interrupted by the sound of gun bullets and an all-out war between the forces of good and fashionably evil."

Sugar continued to ramble on in her talk. However, Dr. McClain was only able to focus on the fact that Baby had been dropped off. Cloud. The psychologist mentally connected the dots and leaned forward in her chair. Dr. McClain gaped at the pretty woman with blue eyes again.

"I think you'll be pleased by Baby's makeover, by the way," continued Sugar on the other line. "Quite the dish, I must say. She's horrorshow now. Heads will roll tomorrow! The universe, itself, will split a part. Gaia will never be the same. Behold, the brilliance of Baby. Oh Granny, Baby is practically to die for! Fallen angels have never wept so much since her awakening. Even Spice is hopelessly in love with Baby. Thank you so much for letting us keep him!"

Sugar giggled at the other line when Dr. McClain remained irresponsive. Again, the doctor was unable to make her mouth work. It was difficult to believe the attractive lady with the hat was really…

"Well, time to leave," concluded the heiress of the Slums over the phone. "Spice and I got places to conquer. We learned about Baby's birthday so we're going to host a horrorshow belated party for him. Gotta assemble the army and create the invites. We'll play catch-up with you, Granny, after you've returned from your trip, yes? Until then, toodle-oo, love! Lots of love, hugs, kisses, and wild butt-sex for you!"

Within a few seconds, the Queen of the underworld disconnected. It was just Dr. McClain and her now. The old woman slowly shut her phone and stashed it inside her bag. Dr. McClain hadn't blinked the entire time the new arrival took her place across the small, round table. Their waiter arrived and placed a glass of water for the sharply dressed woman. After the server left, Dr. McClain finally addressed her.

"Well, Cloud… I must say," she started and cleared her throat, "You certainly look different today."

"Yeah, I bet I do, Granny." It was definitely Cloud's voice. Soft. Low. With a hint of cockiness in it. The young man in drag emitted a soft snort shortly afterward. "Sorry I came to our luncheon looking like this. Sugar thought it'd be a good idea if I practiced the look before tomorrow's operation. You know?" He paused and looked at her. "So? What do you think?"

Dr. McClain sat straight in her seat and placed both hands on her lap. As Cloud took several sips of his water, the elder psychologist studied his face and thought Sugar made a good call. It was important Cloud get comfortable in a woman's shoes if he wanted to pull off a good disguise. Half the battle of being a woman rested on attitude alone. Of course, Dr. McClain didn't imagine just how well the cadet pulled off the look until now. Had Sugar not revealed it was Baby beneath all that make-up and dress, she would've assumed this person was one-hundred percent woman.

"What do I think?" Dr. McClain finally repeated after him; wide-eyed, "Oh, Cloud, I hope you aren't offended by what I'm going to say, but you look absolutely gorgeous. I didn't recognize it was you until Sugar told me just now. I'm really astounded by your transformation, son." She noticed Cloud slightly fidget in his chair. Raising one brow, she soon inquired, "But how do you feel about it?"

Carefully tracing the rim of his glass with a finger, Cloud briefly turned his focus onto a pack of vehicles that sped by on the street adjacent to them. His lips were pursed. For Dr. McClain, his lack of an immediate reply indicated how odd he felt about himself. No surprise there. Cloud's young, teenaged mind was likely consumed by the usual questions over identity and self-doubts. The covert operation he'd been assigned on had consequently opened up a huge can of worms. It forced Cloud to confront his personal fears and sense of sexuality head-on. Still, Dr. McClain was surprised to see how well the cadet coped with it all. He behaved differently than the last time they spoke about sexual identity.

"I'm all right," Cloud at last said and returned his gaze back on her. He did not waver and his voice possessed an even, steady tone. "It took me a while to get used to it. But hey, it's just make-up and a dress. Right?"

Both of Dr. McClain's brows rose. She was admittedly surprised but how confident Cloud sounded right now. Even more, he had taken to the dress without a second thought and pulled off the suave look successfully. It was why half the people at the café noticed his presence. No one dared to think it was a man underneath the glitz. The diners and servers alike watched Cloud's every move and wondered if he was a celebrity or model. Sugar definitely rubbed off on him. The glamour queen remade Cloud into a breathtaking creature that looked unworldly against the backdrop of a drab and industrial-heavy city and people. Dr. McClain smiled. Cloud was coming along nicely.

"So I guess this is the part where I ask what happened to my shy and very insecure Cloud?" Dr. McClain joked.

"Oh, he's still around," Cloud replied promptly. "But he decided to take the day off and angst somewhere else."

The waiter returned again to place their orders. While Cloud glanced over his menu, Dr. McClain evaluated his face some more. She felt curious over his current mental state. The cadet had changed so much since the last time they spoke together. A lot must've happened to get him to this point; a lot of abrupt circumstances and complex predicaments. Dr. McClain recalled Cloud's difficult time with the instructor, Raven, and wondered if it was one contributing factor. Likewise, there was the stressful mid-term exam this Monday to consider. Today was a golden opportunity to get in touch with the young man and reach the root of all of these changes. In fact, Dr. McClain's main concern right now lingered on whether these changes in Cloud happened a little too fast. His transformation felt so… sudden.

"Chicken castellina with caesar salad," Cloud ordered. His voice possessed a different pitch now. It passed off as a deep, seductive tone to the waiter he addressed. From the way Cloud spoke to his eased mannerism, it was as if he embodied another person entirely.

A bit baffled, Dr. McClain watched Cloud's interactions in silence. Her inquisitiveness grew tenfold. No doubt, Sugar had given Cloud a few lessons on feminine empowerment. Female-Cloud was a rather dominating character. Even as she snapped the menu back into the waiter's hands, her gaze did not falter. Watching the server flinch and blush in reaction to this new Cloud was both fascinating and disturbing to Dr. McClain. After all, Cloud's overly creative mind was also responsible for the invention of a violent, uncontrollable man that sent two men to the hospital. This persona harnessed a dormant strength that attracted the eyes of Dr. Hollander himself. Dr. McClain, herself, bore witness to it. Even now, she could recall the strings of light that emanated from Cloud as well as the lucid vision of death.

With her trip to Nibelheim scheduled for this week, Dr. McClain was determined to smooth out any wrinkles before her departure. She wanted Cloud to be okay. The boy harbored a gift within himself that even he was unaware of. It existed in his subconscious world. Unfortunately, Cloud's unusual talent had made him a target for Dr. Hollander. The scientist wanted to exploit it for his own mako-related research. Dr. McClain felt guilty for making a deal with the Devil. Alas, she had no other alternatives. Dr. Hollander was her ticket to Cloud's hometown; the place where everything started. At least Sugar and Spice would look after her boy while she traveled to Nibelheim for answers.

According to a message from Spice earlier this morning, the dynamic duo was close to hacking into Dr. Hollander's network. It was a network not associated with Shinra, which meant the devious scientist was conducting research off the radar. It likely pertained to Cloud. Whatever funny business that man was doing behind closed doors, Dr. McClain was determined to find out. In the meantime, she hoped the trip to Nibelheim could shed some answers with regards to Cloud's strength. She had a sneaky suspicion his mother knew more than she led on.

Once the waiter left to fetch their lunch plates, Dr. McClain was ready to get to work. She paused, though, when she noticed a piece of paper in Cloud's hand now. It had been given to him by the server. Cloud quietly growled after reading its contents. He crushed it into a tiny ball and tossed it to the ground.

"What was that?" Dr. McClain asked.

Cloud shook his head. With elbows on the table, he rested his chin on both hands and returned to the old Cloud she knew. "It's nothing, Granny. I don't think we should tip the waiter after this, though. This one wants me to bear his children. Fuck that."

Dr. McClain nearly had a laughing fit. "Well, you're quite the sight today, Cloud. You can't blame him. Does it make you uncomfortable, by the way?"

Cloud shrugged his shoulders. He took one ice cube from his glass of water and sucked on it. Later, he mumbled, "I think I have a deeper respect for women now. I never realized how annoying it is to have guys gawk at you as if you're prime steak."

The old woman smirked. "That's the power of a woman's gaze."

Blinking several times, Cloud stared at her. "You know, Sugar said something like that to me not long ago. Ladies really could control the world if they wanted to."

"Oh, we really could, my dear." Dr. McClain snickered. "Our bodies, alone, harness the power to bring life into this world. For nine months, we are intimately connected to the cosmos and divine. That type of power can intimidate any man. It's no surprise, then, that some men like Shinra have attempted to tip the scale of power in favor of man through social positions and class rulings. Shinra's fear of impotence is as obvious as the size of the rockets he builds. Through war and politics, a man like Shinra can keep Woman in her place and assume the false image of authority."

"So do you think the world would be better off if women ruled it?" Cloud wanted to know.

"Heavens no, Cloud," Dr. McClain nearly exclaimed with a snort. "Power corrupts, no matter the sex. Giving control over to women would only change the game, not the rules. And besides, we women can be a vicious breed too. Whereas a man will fight with his fists, we resort to psychological warfare. Through our love, we can salvage or corrupt a man's soul. Never underestimate the power of a mother, Cloud. Never. The sanest man can become undone by the will of the Mother, for she serves as the Divinity in the eyes of a child."

Cloud grew quiet for a moment. He continued sucking on his ice cube until it became thin enough to crack with his teeth. After taking in her words, he eventually asked, "Who do you think should rule the Planet then, Granny?"

"Everyone… and no one," Dr. McClain answered back vaguely. When she noticed the confusing expression on Cloud's face, she explained, "Nature cannot be controlled. Nature will do as it dictates, with or without our consent. That's just the way the universe works. To assume we have power over the Planet would be to assume we are our own self-made Gods. In the end, though, our species was born to adapt and coexist; not overpower. It's about balance, Cloud. Woman may breathe life into this Planet, but men are the seed-bearers. We all play a significant role. It's up to us to respect the laws of nature and govern ourselves accordingly."

Dr. McClain pushed back against her seat and observed a mako reactor in the distance. Even in the daylight, she could see the green glow of energy leak upward and sparkle brilliantly in the air. Cloud noticed it too.

"It's beautiful… and sad," he muttered quietly to himself.

Dr. McClain looked at him.

"That's the Planet's essence, isn't it?" Cloud resumed. "In one of my seminars, I learned about mako. It's essentially the Planet's bloodline."

"Yes. Yes, it is."

Cloud lowered his gaze. "So I guess we aren't doing a very good job in respecting the laws of nature and governing ourselves accordingly, huh? Do you… think the protestors are right? Do you think we're bleeding the Planet dry?"

"Nature will do as it dictates in due time," Dr. McClain warned again and continued to observe the mako reactor miles away, "with or without our consent."

Cloud's eyes wandered up the industrial landscape that surrounded them at the restaurant. Then he watched the sky with his pierce-blue eyes. Softly, Cloud mentioned, "It's so funny, Granny. The Plate is a lot closer to the sky. And yet, I've never felt so claustrophobic anywhere else. I… miss the smell of freshly watered grass and sight of budding flowers in the morning. I miss the sound of rushing water from a stream nearby. There's none of that here."

Dr. McClain turned away from the mako reactor and watched him again. She saw the country boy emerge from behind all the make-up and perfume. She smiled. "You miss Nibelheim. Don't you, Cloud?"

At first, the young cadet locked eyes on her in silence. He remained in his seat and didn't move. Then he bobbed his head a few times. "Yeah, Granny. I didn't think I would, but I do. I was surrounded by mountains and fresh air all the time. Here, it feels so stuffy and generic. It's hard to breathe, let alone, relax."

"And your mom? Do you miss her too?"

"Yeah. I still got the package she sent me last time for my birthday."

"Oh yes, I remember that. Did you ever figure out the meaning behind that object she gave you? The one that came from your father?"

Cloud shrugged his shoulders. "No. I may take it up to Professor Elysium, though. Maybe he can figure out what the symbols mean since he's into that kinda stuff."

"Sounds like a plan to me." Dr. McClain took a drink and asked. "Will you visit your mom during break, by the way?"

"Provided that I pass the exams and stay in the program?" Cloud paused and gave it some serious thought. "No."

"No? Why not?"

Cloud slowly licked his lips. "I guess it's because I'm still hoping to fulfill my dream. I want to visit her when I'm in a Third-Class SOLDIER uniform. That way, everyone in town will know I made it."

"But your mother must miss you a lot, Cloud. You've not written to her yet since the year began. Right?"

"I know. And I feel bad about that. Then again, I don't want to write to her until after mid-terms, when I know I'm still in the program."

Dr. McClain wasn't sure if it was a good idea for him to wait too long. From her own experience, life had a funny way of ruining plans with unexpected results. She understood Cloud wanted to return to Nibelheim with his head held high. He wanted to prove all the naysayers wrong. All the same, Dr. McClain wished Cloud didn't position everyone's opinions of him so damn high. SOLDIER or not, Cloud was still an incredibly gifted and strong-willed man. It was his determination that carried him forward, despite his small form. Dr. McClain hoped he appreciated that aspect of himself. Win or lose, Cloud had heart. It was all that mattered in this age of conformity and rigid norms.

"Fair enough, son," Dr. McClain told him, "So long as you write to your mother, I won't press on this issue anymore. In the meantime… how is everything else coming along, Cloud?"

"Hm?"

"Your progress in the program," she further clarified. "It's been a while since we touched base on a lot of things. Is that instructor still giving you a hard time? Raven. That was his name, right?"

At the mention of the name, Cloud's jaw briefly moved and he sat straighter. His legs pulled together. "It's… coming along okay."

Dr. McClain instantly knew the boy was hiding something from her. Cloud didn't make eye contact and he put some distance between them by sitting further against his seat. The old woman chuckled to herself. She wasn't about to let him off the hook that easily. Dr. McClain simply scooted her seat close to him. Afterward, one hand reached out to gently touch his fingers.

"Are you going to tell me what happened, Cloud? Or will I have to resort to my unusual methods of information extraction by giving you my world-renowned noogie?"

"There's nothing going on…" Cloud insisted. While he sounded annoyed, the tone in his voice didn't sound too convincing either.

Dr. McClain detected a lot of resistance from him. Obviously, the topic of Raven was a sensitive one. Something seriously had gone down between them. Now Cloud was reluctant to talk about it. It was around this time, though, their waiter arrived with the lunch plates. Cloud settled with a dish of chicken castellina and caesar salad while Dr. McClain dined on shrimp and asparagus risotto. She decided it was best they feast on their plates first before returning to the heavy stuff.

For the most part, their conversations were both insightful and entertaining. Cloud discussed his current woes of finding a suitable topic for his Ancient Civilizations and Cultures exam paper. He also informed her about the breathing exercises he used whenever he was ready to explode. Dr. McClain was disappointed to learn the cadets at the barracks still harassed him. They stole his metal Fenrir pendant this morning. Thankfully, Cloud maintained his cool and there remained no other incidents from him. While he still didn't explain why the cadets attacked him at the cafeteria days ago, Cloud reassured her he was on his way of resolving his issues. Dr. McClain was curious about what he meant by that but kept it to herself. She was relieved, though, by Cloud's determination to stay on the right course. It meant he was making good headway.

Ever since Sephiroth ordered Cloud into anger management classes, Dr. McClain was now obligated to keep the General informed on Cloud's progress via emails. The General demanded day-by-day reports. Dr. McClain found that to be excessive. There were certain days she couldn't see Cloud. She was also positive Sephiroth was too busy to be personally involved in the development of a lowly cadet. It was very… peculiar.

At around this time the waiter gathered their empty plates and took their requests for dessert. The male server offered a glass of white wine to Cloud and kept giving him flirtatious looks. The cadet ignored him. Dr. McClain waited until the server finally left before giving the soon-to-be birthday boy his present. It wasn't much, especially since it was all very last minute. Still. Hopefully, Cloud would appreciate the gift. It pretty much summed up their times together and what she hoped for him to remember during his long, difficult days ahead. Cloud was becoming a man tomorrow. With a small smile on her face, Dr. McClain took out a single sheet of paper from her bag.

"Happy Birthday, Cloud," she told him and passed it over to him.

Curious of the paper's contents, Cloud accepted it. His eyes slowly scanned over the words written in Dr. McClain's handwriting. Within seconds, Cloud frowned and glanced up at her. There was a look of surprise on his face. "Is this… what I think it is?"

The elder psychologist nodded. "Yes, Cloud. It's the entire version of the poem we keep referring to during our meditations. Invictus."

Cloud stared at the sheet in his hands again.

"It's something to remember as you enter this stage called adulthood," she said.

"Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be, For my unconquerable soul," Cloud began to recite, "In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeoning of chance, My head is bloody, but unbowed."

"Beyond this place of wrath and tears, Looms but the Horror of the shade," Dr. McClain quoted next from the top of her head. "And yet the menace of the years, Finds and shall find me unafraid."

"It matters not how strait the gate," Cloud and Dr. McClain repeated together, "How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul…"

Cloud settled against his seat with a huge smile on his face once the last words left his mouth. He looked elated. "Thank you, Granny. I really appreciate this."

Across him, Dr. McClain was pleased he liked his birthday present. Granted, it wasn't some item that could be worn, tasted, smelled, or touched. Nor did the gift carry any monetary value. Nonetheless, the present carried more importance and weight than any priceless treasure in the world. Cloud knew this as well. A sentimental man, the poem meant everything to him.

"I thought it was time you learn the entire poem," Mr. McClain spoke again, "The author of it was struck with tuberculosis and had undergone various trials of his own, notably the amputation of his leg. Yet, he did not let it relinquish his spirit. The author persevered and told his story."

Attentive to her words, Cloud listened to her in silence.

"In time, you will reveal to the world your story," the old woman continued, "You will confront the beasts in your life head on and, at times, be consumed by wrath and tears. But never forget you, too, have an unconquerable soul. You are destined for great things, Cloud Strife. Remember that. And believe in it."

Taking a swallow, Cloud slumped in his seat. He sighed. "I really hope that's true, Granny. I just… well. Nothing is certain with me anymore these days."

"What do you mean?"

"I feel stronger that I've ever been before. But I also feel more lost than ever."

There was vulnerability in Cloud's voice now, one she hadn't heard since the day they met. Dr. McClain reached her hand out and intertwined her fingers with his.

"That's all right," Dr. McClain comforted him, "You're going to be seventeen tomorrow, Cloud. Your body is going through a lot of changes, emotionally and physically. There must be a lot of questions and doubts you still have. Again, that's normal. Did you honestly think young adulthood was going to be easy? A piece of cake?"

Cloud slowly shook his head and kept his head down. "No…"

"I've never known one person who claimed it was easy," admitted Dr. McClain. "Even in my own youth, I had many doubts and questions about my identity. The fact is: people who've never faced themselves during this delicate stage in their life eventually undergo an identity crisis down the road. They lose themselves and resort to peculiar thoughts and actions to quiet the voice of chaos. Considering that, you're doing extremely well, Cloud. You've begun to notice certain aspects about yourself. Now it's time to confront those uncomfortable questions head-on so you can overcome them."

Cloud stared back at her again. He covered his face with his free hand. His voice was muffled when he said, "I feel so wrong about myself lately, though."

"What do you mean?"

"You were right about me."

"Right?" Dr. McClain leaned closer. "About what?"

Cloud slowly dropped his hand from his face and looked at her. "I am very fond of the General. I like him. A lot."

Dr. McClain paused. She could visibly see the strain on Cloud's face right now. She halfway snorted out loud. "And? What's wrong with that?"

Cloud said nothing.

"He's an extremely handsome guy," continued Dr. McClain and hoped to get Cloud to relax again, "You shouldn't feel wrong about taking a physical liking to General Sephiroth. The whole world practically wants to bang the guy." Playfully, she added, "If I weren't so damn old, hell, I'd make a play for him too."

The small joke released some of the tension on Cloud's face. Even so, he remained on guard and mumbled, "Yeah, but… there's more."

"Oh? What?"

Cloud seemed to want to add something else about the General. For whatever reason, however, he kept it to himself. "Never mind, Granny. It's nothing."

"Cloud," the old woman persisted with a sigh.

"It's really nothing, Granny. Besides, about Raven…"

"Yes, the instructor…" Dr. McClain shifted her focus on the man that had been giving Cloud a hard time. "What about him?"

"I…"

"Yes, Cloud? Go on."

Cloud chewed on his lip.

"I'm not here to judge, son," she assured him, "Talk to me. You trust me, right?"

"Yeah, I do…"

"Then?"

"I… I…"

Silent, Dr. McClain patiently waited for him to talk.

"I… actually jacked off to Raven," Cloud finally mumbled.

His voice was very low, nearly faint. Had it not been for her mako senses, she would not have heart him correctly. Still, Dr. McClain made out his words and shrugged her shoulders. Smiling, she figured Cloud's reluctance to talk about his instructor was something of a sexual nature. Erotic feelings toward superior officers were nothing new, especially for young men who lacked self-esteem.

"There's nothing wrong about thinking and jacking off to Raven," Dr. McClain tried to convince Cloud. "Again, it's normal teenage business."

Cloud paused. When he tilted his head away from her, though, the large hat successfully concealed his entire face from her. He looked confused. Quietly, he murmured, "I didn't just jack off to Raven, Granny. I jacked off… in front of Raven."

With mouth partly opened, it was Dr. McClain's turn to be confused. At first, she thought she misinterpreted Cloud's words and simply waited for him to clarify them again. When the cadet did not say anything else, however, she realized this situation went way beyond her expectations. Not to mention, it violated the rules established in the company. Dr. McClain slowly withdrew her hand from Cloud's and sat still.

As if sensing her initial shock, Cloud quickly shook his head and growled to himself. "Never mind, Granny. Forget I said anything. I-I don't want to talk about this anymore. I'm fucking up this wonderful luncheon you set up for me. I'm sorry."

Frowning now, Dr. McClain managed to find her voice again. "No, Cloud. No really, it's okay. You aren't ruining this get-together at all. I admit… I'm a bit surprised. However, I'm here because I want to talk things over with you. I'll be leaving for a trip very soon so it's important I know you'll be all right before I go."

At this, Cloud shot her a look again. "You're leaving?"

"It's only for a while," she assured him, "Starting Monday."

Cloud sucked on his lower lip. Quietly, he asked, "Where are you headed off to?"

Dr. McClain hesitated before answering his question. Once she learned the town Jenova resided in was the very one Cloud originated from, it shocked her. To think he was living in the same spot as an alien… Incredible. Of course, given the confidential nature of the specimen, she was sure Cloud and the rest of the townspeople knew nothing about it. The Mako Reactor was heavily secured by Shinra's guards. As for telling Cloud her true intentions behind the departure, Dr. McClain wasn't sure he needed to know that either. Not only was the matter between her and Dr. Hollander, but there must've been a reason why Ms. Strife kept the details of Cloud's upbringing to herself. Was it for her son's personal safety?

"I'll be going to some desolate town in the country to talk to a few people there," she answered back vaguely, "It's nothing major."

"Be careful," Cloud advised her, "The weather has been really horrible lately. I heard one of our supply convoys crashed on the way back to base late last night."

"I will." Carefully, the old woman asked, "Just out of curiosity, but you're from the country, right?"

"Yep. Nibelheim, remember?"

"Ah. Yes, I recall." She tried to sound oblivious. Afterward, she inquired, "Your town… what's it like, Cloud?"

"Like any other village out in the middle of nowhere." He stopped a moment. His eyes were distant as he recalled his home's details. "My hometown is pretty plain and stupid, but it has a few quirks. There's a water tower in front of my house. It's got an incredible view of the stars above. I used to climb it at night and pretend I was King of the Heavens."

Smiling to herself, Dr. McClain took a drink of her wine and continued to probe him for more details. "Sounds quite the place. And what about your home?"

"My home?"

"Yes. Can you describe it to me?"

"It's situated close to a rocky mountain; only one-story high. It's the smallest one in the village. I often spent my free time climbing a big oak tree next to it. I'd mark how far I went with a knife. I never got too far though. I scraped my knees and fell on my ass all the time. It pissed my mom." He softly chortled to himself. Afterward, he stared at her. "How long will you be gone?"

"A few days." Trying not to raise any suspicion on herself, Dr. McClain stopped discussing the specifics of Cloud's home. She knew enough to know it was across a water tower with an oak tree nearby. From there, she could ask around. Surely, there was a guide or helpful person to point her at the right direction.

"I'll miss you, Cloud," Dr. McClain told him.

The young man in the attractive dress and hat stared back at her. Cloud didn't repeat the words. Dr. McClain knew it had to do with his sense of pride. However, the disappointment of her sudden departure was written in his face. He didn't want her to go. Dr. McClain inwardly sighed and wished the same thing.

"I instructed Sugar and Spice to look after you while I'm away," Dr. McClain told him, "If you need anything, don't hesitate to ask for their help. I mean that."

"Thanks." He bobbed his head. A small smile emerged at the corner of Cloud's lips. "They're, uh, quite the helpful pair. I had fun with them today."

"I'm glad you did."

"Thanks for introducing them to me. Candy Land was… really something."

"You've the entire underworld rooting for you, Cloud." Dr. McClain chuckled. Afterward, she said with a slight frown, "But lay off the smokes, okay? They do some heavy stuff down there. I don't want you getting caught up in that."

"So I've noticed…" There was color on Cloud's cheeks.

Sitting forward now, Dr. McClain put her undivided attention on him again. "Listen, son, I know you don't want to talk about this, but… I'd like to go back to what you discussed with me before."

"About?"

"About what happened between you and Raven."

Cloud's face turned abruptly pale. He took a big gulp of his wine and shook his head. "No, Granny. I… I'm sorry. I really don't think it's a good idea."

Fraternization between a cadet and instructor was strictly prohibited. It was no surprise Cloud wanted to keep this matter to himself. He risked being expelled from the program. After the restroom incident, the last thing Cloud needed was another bad rap on his sheet. And yet, Dr. McClain needed for him to talk. She needed to know if this Raven fellow crossed the line and took advantage of her very fragile patient.

"Please remember that anything discussed with me stays with me," the old woman reminded him, "whether it's in an office setting or at a restaurant. Whatever happened between you and this instructor will remain between us. Got that?"

There was a moment of hesitation from Cloud. "You… won't report this to anyone, Granny?"

"You have my word, Cloud. No matter how I personally feel about it, I won't expose anything without your consent. I take client confidentially very seriously."

By then, the waiter arrived with their dessert. The two sat in silence. Cloud kept his face down. After the waiter left, the young cadet slowly cut into his slice of apple a la mode with a spoon. The burden over what happened between Raven and him was reflected in his eyes. While he wanted to keep the matter private, Dr. McClain sensed Cloud also wanted to get it out of his system.

"Please, Cloud…" she gently urged and hoped it was enough to get him to talk.

Cloud grasped his spoon tighter. For a moment, Dr. McClain thought he would refuse her again. However, as seconds passed by the words eventually came out.

"We were… going over a few tips on how to effectively handle a swordafter class," Cloud revealed. His cheeks flushed when he later elaborated, "Raven took me to the side while the others showered. We were completely alone in the Training Room. One thing led to another and I ended up… Well. Yeah. You know…"

There was a pause from Dr. McClain. "Did he force you into it?"

Drinking from his glass of white wine again, Cloud later stared at the tiny bubbles that popped inside the liquid. Distantly, he said, "I honestly can't say. It was an order… And yet I had also wanted it to happen…"

The young cadet set his glass down and stopped himself. From her seat, Dr. McClain pursed her lips. Hearing patients expose risqué sexual behavior at the barracks was nothing new. Every day at least two patients came into her office with some mind-boggling situations. Not a saint herself, Dr. McClain never judged them nor did she plan to start today. In learning about this event, though, she confirmed her suspicions about Raven. This man was heavily invested in Cloud. The cadet's account of what happened at the Training Room didn't sound like an in-the-moment sexual encounter either. Whoever this Raven character was, he desired Cloud and intentionally made his presence known to him many times.

Who was this mysterious man in black?

"So was this the first time you felt relaxed enough to masturbate in front of someone, Cloud?" Dr. McClain had to ask. While the circumstances were a bit worrying, she did take comfort in the fact that Cloud was getting in touch with his sexual self. The quiet and shy country boy was popping out of his shell at last.

"Yeah." Cloud nodded.

"How did it make you feel?"

"Good, obviously. Maybe a little too damn good. We were in front of the Training Room's mirrors so everything felt… amplified." Cloud paused and made a face. "You probably think I'm sicko now, don't you, Granny?"

Dr. McClain laughed. "On the contrary, I'm relieved."

"Relieved?" Cloud frowned. "How so?"

"You embraced your sexual self, Cloud. You recognized your own personal beauty and desires. Pleasuring oneself and actually enjoying it is a sign of a good healthy self-image. Sometimes a little narcissism can go a long way."

"But I was so caught up in my moment that I made a fool of myself," Cloud griped back, "I think Raven was disappointed by my lack of… discipline."

Dr. McClain had an idea what he meant by that. She smiled. "Cloud, there's no need to be concerned. You're young and inexperienced. Don't beat yourself up over this. Guys your age can beat off for a few seconds before having to reload their pistols for the next shot. Now as crude as that sounds, it indicates there's nothing wrong with you. Trust me, son, it's going to take you a while to discipline your body."

Cloud's voice was low when he added, "But he's right, you know. I do need more self-control. Raven knows about my past. I think, in his own weird way, he was trying to help me get my emotions in check that day."

Dr. McClain paused. She couldn't ignore Cloud's personal assessment of the situation. He was probably right. Raven was an instructor and perhaps he had an unorthodox way of training his cadets. Still. Dr. McClain didn't know who this Raven guy was. From what she gathered of him so far, he sounded like a complicated individual. He must've had strong feelings for the boy to risk his rank though. It didn't take a genius to figure out why. Cloud was like a giant light bulb; his radiance showered the area and attracted anyone lost in the dark. Even in his quiet and uncertain moments, Cloud was lovely. No doubt, Raven recognized his ethereal beauty and wanted it for himself.

Raven's actions admittedly bothered Dr. McClain. With Cloud's violent record and the restroom controversy tagged on his person, the instructor was practically guaranteed the boy's silence if he ever objected to their coupling. It essentially gave Raven a license to do whatever he wanted. Not only had he taken advantage of a boy barely coming to terms with himself, but he crossed a sacred line between mentor and pupil.

"He may have good intentions, Cloud," Dr. McClain at last replied, "But be careful. Successful dictators excel in controlling the masses because of the power they wield. Even more, they possess the ability to charm, woo, and convince." In a firm voice, she warned, "Never trust self-appointed saviors, Cloud. They often hide behind the façade of morals and truth."

Absently poking at his slice of pie, Cloud contemplated over her words.

"You have to be honest with what makes you happy and comfortable," she later asserted, "If you attempt to live up to someone else's expectations you'll end up miserable. Besides, this is your time to explore and test out possibilities."

Cloud continued to stare at his dessert without a word. He had yet to take a bite of it. The ice cream, meanwhile, started to melt.

"What?" Dr. McClain asked, curious of what was on his mind now.

"It's nothing," Cloud murmured back. He later looked at her. "I just… Well, I was pretty sure you'd be ashamed of me. Of what I did."

"Why would I be ashamed of you, Cloud? You're like a son to me and no mother can really be ashamed of her son."

Cloud blinked. His visibly tensed shoulders relaxed. Appearing calmer now, the cadet gradually confessed, "I don't know, Granny. I can't get my mind around it. I keep wondering if I like men or if I'm just going through the hormones and taking whatever is available. The hell if I know."

"No matter how hard you fight against the tide, it'll still wash you away. Consider that when you struggle with a physical or emotional response. It's best to let the waters run their natural course. In time, they'll take you where you need to go."

"But I did let the tide take me," Cloud said softly. "And now I find myself completely lost. I… I liked what Raven did to me that day. He… awakened something inside me, something I can't describe. It's the same for the General."

Nodding her head, Dr. McClain perfectly understood his words. "Both figures represent the masculine side you've wanted for yourself, Cloud."

"Huh? What do you mean by that?"

"Power, superiority, and confidence," she elaborated for him, "You desire Raven, for example, because he possesses these qualities. The fact he wears a mask allows you to make Raven into whatever fantasy you desire. Do you understand now?"

"Not really…"

"You've been raised by a single mother out in the middle of a very isolated place. Your perception of Man is limited." Dr. McClain took a deep breath and later added, "Did you know, Cloud, that even when we are babies we automatically seek out those we can visually relate to and mimic?"

Cloud stayed quiet.

"You never knew who your father was nor had a substitute male model," the old woman later noted to him, "Thus, you never got the chance to evaluate Man firsthand and implement the masculine perspective within yourself. It's an alien concept to you. That's why you feel at odds with yourself right now. That's why you're intrigued by Raven and Sephiroth. They offer all that you longed for."

Contemplating over her words, Cloud still said nothing and watched the ice cream melt on his plate.

"And now you're here," continued Dr. McClain, "You've been thrust into a strange city in the constant company of men. It's a lot to handle for a country boy whose entire existence has revolved around his mother, around feminine habits and feminine preferences."

Cloud's eyes drifted down to the dress he wore. His fingers touched the hem of it. With a low scoff, the cadet shook his head and finally said, "Tomorrow I'll get my chance to be with a woman. That should settle a lot of things for me, I think, including my questions."

Recalling his trip to Honeybee Inn tomorrow, Dr. McClain wasn't surprised Cloud had every intention to lose his virginity to a woman. Tilting her head to the side, she asked: "Is that what you really want, Cloud?"

"Yeah. Why wouldn't I, Granny? If you're trying to suggest I can't be with a woman, then you're wrong."

"I'm not suggesting anything to you, Cloud. Hell, I'm not even thinking about all that sexual orientation nonsense. However, losing one's virginity can be a big deal for some people. First-time sex with anyone is its own risky business. As wonderful as it can be, it can get very complicated very quickly. I just want to make sure you're really ready for it, Cloud, and that you do it for the right reasons."

"I know. And I really appreciate your advice, Granny. But I think…" Cloud paused and met her eyes. "…I think I need to figure some things out on my own and see where my choices lead me, even if it's to a dead-end. You know?"

Dr. McClain kept quiet and continued to listen to him.

"I may screw up along the way and get myself into a bigger ditch," Cloud resumed and chuckled, "And God knows, I'm the worse kind of decision-maker. I somehow fuck up everything. That's okay, though. It matters not how strait the gatehow charged with punishments the scroll… I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul…"

Sitting across him, the old woman's lips slowly curved into a proud smile. It wasn't often people surprised her. Dr. McClain knew she saw a defiant, beautiful spirit in Cloud when they first met. It was worth preserving and protecting. If anyone could become the captain of his soul and change the world, it was this young man. So long as Cloud knew what he wanted, he'd be all right. Even if the entire event tomorrow didn't live up to his expectations or turned out to be a major disaster, it was his decision. Cloud wanted to be accountable for his life's decisions. That was the first step toward maturity. While every ounce of Dr. McClain wanted to guide him away from the pitfalls and disasters, she needed to let him walk his path. For the son to succeed the mother, the Boy needed to awaken the Man.

"Whatever you decide on, Cloud, follow your instinct and heart," Dr. McClain advised him. "I'm very proud of you, son. And know that I'll be there with you in spirit."

Cloud nodded back.

"Respect your body too," she stressed. "Okay?"

"Yeah," he quietly replied back, "I understand, Granny."

"Good." Looking at the boy now, Dr. McClain knew this would be the last time she'd see Cloud like this ever again. It made her sad to think about it. Still, change was inevitable. Young boys grew into men. Cloud was no different. Accepting this, Dr. McClain forced a smile on her thin lips and expressed, "I hope you have a good time tomorrow, Cloud."

"Thanks." Cloud grew silent for a moment. Then he softly expressed, "I, uh, hope you have a good time in your trip, Granny."

"I'll try." Dr. McClain winked at him. She knew what he meant. He'd miss her too. Satisfied by that realization, her face turned serious. "One thing, though…"

"Yeah?"

"Actually, it's more like a request."

Cloud waited for her to continue.

Dr. McClain paused. For the life of her, her thoughts remained on Raven. It was evident that the shadowy figure was a dominant presence in Cloud's life. To her, though, he was a splinter in her mind. Dr. McClain didn't know why. Perhaps it was the maternal side of her that was bothered by him. Raven overstepped his boundaries as an officer by getting intimately involved with a highly impressionable, young man like Cloud. But there was something else too. Raven sounded suspicious and… familiar. His profile matched the profile of another person. Unfortunately, her memory was foggy so she couldn't make a connection at this moment. There were also too many open-ended variables. Dr. McClain was left with only an uneasy feeling at the pit of her stomach.

"Keep yourself clear of Raven until my return," she told Cloud at last.

The cadet glanced at her sideways. "Is something wrong?"

"It's probably nothing," Dr. McClain answered back with a smile. "However, I'll sleep better if I know you're not with him."

Cloud sucked on his lip for a moment. "Actually, that's kinda hard, Granny. He's a part of the operation tomorrow. He's overlooking it, in fact."

Dr. McClain frowned.

"Granny?" Cloud started, "Are you okay?"

Cloud must've noted her displeased look because now he kept still and waited for her response. The old woman, meanwhile, sighed and crossed her arms. Raven… This man had made plans of his own, apparently. A part of Dr. McClain wanted to dismiss his involvement in the operation as mere circumstantial. After all, it was mandatory for a superior officer to overlook a mission, no matter how small and under the radar it was. All the same, Dr. McClain wouldn't put it past Raven to get himself involved out of personal motives too. It was the ideal time to have Cloud. In the Slums, there were no rules or ethics to follow. Anything went in the underworld.

"Be a good champ and keep your distance, okay?" Dr. McClain pressed again.

Cloud locked eyes with her for a moment. Then he muttered back, "Sure…"