Note: Happy holiday season! It's that time of the year again, and it's doubly special for me since today is my birthday. So what do I do on my birthday? I figured I might as well share the cheer by presenting you guys with a new fanfiction! This one is going to be in 6 parts and 5 of them are already done. I'll be publishing every two days until (if all goes well) the last part goes up on the very last day of the year. I hope it'll help to cheer up those of you who hate the season, and brighten the days of the others. Happy reading! :)
Part 1 of 6
Cloud was warm and comfortable. There was a gentle white light all around him, teasing the inside of his eyelids. He sighed in pure contentment and felt someone's arms tighten around his waist. Something very soft brushed against his skin. He opened his eyes and stared in wonder.
Somewhere far away, something was ringing.
With the habit born of years of training, Cloud found his hand snapping to his phone before he was even halfway awake. He rolled to his side and put it to his ear.
"Strife," he answered tersely.
Thank God for small favours, his voice reflected nothing of his sleepiness. He had become good at this. He blinked bleary eyes open and squinted at the alarm clock.
The voice that came from his phone was masculine and pleasantly deep. It would have been a nice way to wake up if it hadn't been more familiar than his own and a source of endless frustration.
"Strife. I need Tseng's latest proposal."
Five thirty-six. It was five thirty-six in the morning.
"Weren't you taking a break from acting?" Cloud asked in what was clearly a lapse of judgment on his part.
"I was, now I am not. Get me that proposal and call my manager. I want him here at six."
"… You fired him two days ago."
"And you haven't found a replacement yet… why?"
'—worked until an hour ago to compile a list of suitable managers and I can hardly do anything more until you look at your mailbox, see my email, bitch at how incompetent they clearly all are and finally use your stamp of approval on the one that annoys you the less, asshole,' he wanted to say, but God forbid he had a say in this conversation.
"This just means you'll have to do his job. Six o'clock, Cloud."
"Yes, sir," he automatically answered, but the line had already cut.
Cloud would have felt justified in slamming down the receiver if he hadn't been using his cell phone. He would have thought Sephiroth called this number instead of his landline just for this purpose, but no; he merely loathed the idea of not being able to bring Cloud to heel no matter where he was.
Cloud dragged his exhausted body out of bed with the grim determination of a soldier marching to the front and jumped in his last set of clean, pressed clothes—he'd have to do the laundry soon, unless he wanted Sephiroth to use that cold, contemptuous stare every time he entered a room with a wrinkled shirt.
Sephiroth Crescent, the bane of his existence. Cloud could no longer remember what had happened in his head the day he had accepted the position of personal assistant to the man; or rather, he liked to pretend he didn't remember anymore. It made him feel a bit less of a fool. Actor, business man, even singer and fashion model when it struck his fancy, Sephiroth had a schedule worse than the President's, enough whims to put a pregnant woman to shame, and a demanding and largely overbearing personality. He was a nightmare.
Cloud made a short detour in the bathroom, then went to find his laptop still open on the kitchen table. He closed it, secured it in his briefcase and grabbed his keys. He was out of the door in less than five minutes. A feat that, as every morning, was nullified by having to wait nearly two minutes for the elevator; not that running down fourteen flights of stairs would have been any less time-consuming.
When it finally opened, Cloud found himself face-to-face with his neighbour and childhood friend, Tifa Lockhart. He blinked.
"Oh, Cloud!" she said, surprised and delighted. "Hello!"
Rather than get off, she backed away to let him come in. She obviously intended to ride down with him all the way back to the lobby. With a mental shrug, Cloud got in and pressed the button for the ground floor.
"Hey, Tifa. Long night at the bar?"
"Yeah. You know how it is, paperwork, bills to fill…"
She trailed off and squinted at his face.
"Did you sleep at all?"
"Yes," Cloud answered with a straight face.
Tifa rolled her eyes.
"How much? Three hours? Let's get crazy: four?"
Less than that, but it wasn't really her business.
"This job is killing you, Cloud," she said for the umpteenth time. "Can't you quit? That jerk doesn't deserve you, and he sure as hell isn't worth your health."
"There aren't that many employers on the market for personal assistants," he answered like he did every time, although they both knew it was mostly a lie.
With his credentials and the kind of crazy skills he had had to acquire while working for Sephiroth, of course he'd be able to find another job. Maybe even one better paid, if that was possible.
The thing was, despite how much he bitched and groaned in his head, he didn't want to. There was still something tethering him to Sephiroth. Tifa and his other friends seemed to think it was the remains of his teenage fascination for the man and that it would eventually go away, once he had suffered enough working for him. Cloud let them think so, but it wasn't that simple.
Sephiroth was a nightmare of a boss, but there was something in the way he led his life that hopelessly dragged Cloud in. He never let anything stop him: not money, nor men, nor impossible hours or just plain impossibilities. He got things done when many still floundered their way around; and yes, most of the time it was Cloud that he "got to do things", but it led to a fast-paced, exciting life that he was slowly learning he would hate to give up. Truthfully, the only thing Cloud was yearning for was some recognition of his hard work. But that was probably a relic of the mindless fan he had once been and he generally did his best to ignore it.
Faced with his usual rebuttal, Tifa gave up.
"Alright, have it your way," she sighed. "At least take an evening off one of these days. You could come to the bar and hang out with me. Or we could call Zack and Aerith and get dinner together."
She smiled hopefully at him. Cloud tried not to fidget. Ever since that double date Aerith had dragged them on last month, Tifa's expectations of him had seemed to rise to an unreasonable level. Tifa was his best friend. He had known her since they were kids and they were close, but he just didn't know if he was ready to see her in that way. She didn't seem to have the same kind of reservations.
"I'll think about it," he temporized.
Luckily, she knew when to not press him. She dropped the subject and settled for reminding him to eat healthily once in a while and to drop by her apartment if he ever needed something. He thanked her, got out of the elevator and bade her a good night before making a run for it.
Twelve minutes to six; he'd make it. There was a reason why he had never searched for an apartment that might better reflect his astronomical pay check than his tiny one bedroom flat, and it was best summarized in two words: convenient location. That, and the balcony was nice.
"I want this processed by this afternoon," Sephiroth said. "And reschedule that meeting with the mayor. Or better yet, call it off; I am in no mood for that fool Heidegger."
Sephiroth turned from him long enough to pluck a file from the far side of his slick modern desk and slid it on the metal and glass surface in front of Cloud. The paperwork for the new manager. Of course he had consulted his mailbox, but Cloud knew better than to expect an apology.
"Have this back, too. This will be all, Strife."
"Very well, sir."
Cloud retrieved the file and got up. Sephiroth was already engrossed by his computer screen, his stunning green eyes scanning who knew what in his usual efficient way. At least Cloud never had to worry about his boss being lazy. He very deliberately didn't let his eyes linger on the way the morning light spilled through the office's huge floor to ceiling windows to give a special shine to Sephiroth's long silver hair. Turning, he let himself out.
Only once the door had closed behind him did he let himself sigh and crick his neck, exhausted. A passing secretary gave him a sympathetic smile. Everyone in the SOLDIER Company knew that if Sephiroth had them all working hard, the boss' personal assistant had it harder than anyone else. They only had one job to worry about, after all. Cloud had to manage all of Sephiroth's careers, and then some.
He retreated to the relative privacy of his office, right next door to his boss'. He set his files and laptop on the desk, let himself drop in his armchair and stretched his back. They had been working on Sephiroth's participation to Tseng's latest movie—which until last night Sephiroth had been dead set against—for close to five hours. All he could dream of was a good, long nap. Coffee would have to do, though.
Cloud hated coffee. It tasted foul.
But he started his coffee machine and, while it ran, he checked his cell phone. Since Sephiroth hated being interrupted and it had been in silent mode, he had one missed call. He frowned when he saw the caller ID.
What could Yuffie want? Usually, he was the one who called the reporter whenever a particularly annoying piece of gossip went out on Sephiroth and he needed info on the latest idiot he had to make understand spreading dirt on his boss was a bad, bad idea. His friends thought Cloud was a rather mild-mannered person, but gossips were one of the rare things that annoyed both him and Sephiroth, and since an annoyed Sephiroth doubly annoyed him, he was not a nice man when he had to manage those. Yuffie Kisaragi was a compassionate informer, especially since she sometimes got rewarded with exclusive info when Sephiroth was feeling generous with the press.
He pulled up the voice message she had left.
"Hey, Cloudy," came her bubbly, perpetual teenager voice, although she sounded a bit nervous. "Well, you're not here, hehe… No matter! I just wanted to let you know, uh… I'd have warned you, but I only heard about it this morning. Don't blame me, okay? And if you don't know what I am talking about yet… well, you'll find out!"
After an obviously fake obnoxious laugh, she bade him a good day and hung up. Alarmed, Cloud nearly dived for his laptop and consulted the news feed he hadn't yet had time to review for the day. He immediately found the problem.
He had barely skimmed through the already numerous articles on the subject, his horror growing, when his intercom chimed. He pressed the button, feeling sick to his stomach.
"Cloud, get in here."
"Cloud". Despite having pretty much renounced his family name and being renowned world-wide by his first name alone, Sephiroth was usually coldly polite with everyone; but whenever he was displeased with his personal assistant, suddenly he was "Cloud". And since whenever he was displeased with anything at all, he found a way to be displeased with the way Cloud was handling it, Cloud positively hated hearing his first name in that man's voice.
He barely resisted the urge to slam his head to the desk.
"So," Sephiroth said as soon as Cloud entered his office, barely ten minutes after having left it. "It seems I am now the father of an adorable little boy named Brian."
Cloud entirely blamed his lack of sleep and his growing depression for what he said next.
"I suppose congratulations are in order," he noted, face completely blank.
The pen Sephiroth had been gracefully twirling on his fingers stilled. Sephiroth stared at him, his own expression just as unreadable as Cloud's. Cloud felt the beginnings of panic rising and told himself to man up. Sephiroth wouldn't fire him because of a wisecrack. He'd never find another assistant who'd be masochistic enough to not quit the job after two weeks.
Finally, Sephiroth answered:
"I don't think I would feel quite as offended if the boy's name was something more imaginative than Brian."
… Had his boss just joked back? Maybe he wasn't the only one functioning on too little sleep.
Before Cloud could do more than blink and marvel at this outstanding occurrence, Sephiroth had snapped back to his controlling demeanour.
"I don't care how you do it. Make Scarlet eat her words. I want nothing to do with her squalling offspring."
Maybe you should have begun by not bedding her, then, Cloud waspishly thought. Sephiroth had only dated fashion model Scarlet for a few weeks—if it could even have been called dating—but it had generated an endless sludge of wild rumours and general bad press for Cloud to clean up. This baby she insisted was Sephiroth's was only the latest offense in her path of devastation. Cloud had a lot of grievances against Sephiroth, but Scarlet was one of his biggest ones. And it wasn't his jealousy talking. He was way too frustrated with Sephiroth these days to have fantasies about him.
"The simplest way to deal with it would be to demand a DNA test," he pointed out, trying to keep the weariness from his voice.
The intensity of Sephiroth's reaction surprised him. Deadly focused green eyes swivelled to pin him on the spot. His voice was freezing and brooked no argument.
Cloud gaped. A DNA test would be quick and decisive evidence, exactly what he needed to lead a countercampaign against Scarlet. He didn't always understand his boss' decisions, but surely Sephiroth could see it would be the fastest way to get his name off the tabloids? Unless… unless he knew the test results wouldn't work in his favour.
Cloud felt dread well up in his belly.
"Strife, under absolutely no circumstances should any sample of my DNA end up in any interested party's hands. Is that clear?"
"… Yes, sir."
He couldn't believe it. Sephiroth actually knew, or at the very least strongly suspected, that the kid was his? And he was refusing to take responsibility? Bad press or not, this kind of behaviour…
"Then get to it."
Cloud numbly nodded, turned and crossed the office. He put his hand on the door handle, but stopped there.
He couldn't believe Sephiroth was this kind of man. He was arrogant, self-involved and contemptuous toward nearly everyone he ever met, but to coldly disregard a life he had given, however unwillingly; to spit on a child for fear of having him smear his reputation…
"What is it, Strife?"
Cloud turned back. One elbow propped on the desk before him, Sephiroth was looking at him with a surprising amount of patience, no trace of annoyance yet in his voice or eyes. Cloud made a quick decision; if he had overestimated this man's ethics, he had to know, because he would want nothing to do with him anymore.
"Is the child yours?"
He was proud of how calm his voice sounded. The one thing he had learned the quickest and taken the most to heart in this job was to always seem professional and unaffected.
A small smile bloomed on Sephiroth's lips and Cloud's heart skipped a beat. That smile was a rare occurrence, and it never failed to affect him.
"Considering the dates involved, Cloud, I can assure you he is not."
The relief he felt was so powerful he nearly staggered. Cloud slowly exhaled. Sephiroth slipped back to a cool expression of disinterest and turned to the piles of paperwork on his desk.
"Now, I believe you have work to do."
Cloud straightened and nodded firmly.
He exited, a new fire burning in his eyes. He didn't pretend to understand all the things this man did, but if he could still walk with his head high while serving his interests, then serve his interests he would. Scarlet would learn not to cross him.
He opened his cell phone and scanned the repertory until he found the number he always called when Yuffie couldn't help him anymore. A low voice answered after a few rings.
Later that afternoon, Cloud was filing the paperwork for Tseng, because Sephiroth's expectations certainly didn't stop when Scarlet decided to be a bitch.
He had turned on the television on the wall, tuned, as always, to his favourite news channel. Sephiroth had such a broad range of interests it never hurt to stay informed. His boss still sometimes managed to surprise him by donating a large sum of money to an unknown association or hiring an artist he had never heard of before, but it happened less and less often. Cloud liked to think it meant he was getting better at his job. Was it sad he felt proud of that?
So far, there had been a mention of Scarlet's kid and her outrageous claims, but the main focus was, as always lately, on that creepy Professor Hojo. The guy was apparently a big-shot scientist that had recently gotten fired from the military. No reason had been given, but if Cloud had had to guess, he would have said it had to do with "unethical practices".
Ever since he had first appeared on TV a few months ago, Hojo had been prattling on about some "genetically modified humans" that had been created by the government and had escaped a while back. It seemed like science-fiction, but the incredible thing was that he actually had scientific data and recordings to back up his claims. The scientific community was in complete turmoil since he had started unveiling them, and a few very awkward interventions from dumb military dignitaries had only seemed to confirm Hojo's allegations instead of dispelling them.
Now the government seemed so scared of further blunders it confined itself to timid denials and mostly frothed around the mouth in silence while Hojo's claims gained more and more support. The dear professor wanted everyone to closely watch their neighbours, because they could be mutants. And obviously, mutants were dangerous and had to be locked up under Hojo's careful supervision. Cloud was half-certain Hojo had been the one to create these genetically modified humans in the first place, with or without support from his superiors.
If the "mutants" existed. He still didn't know if he was ready to believe that. Most of the people who didn't have a PhD in biology had been sceptic until, a few weeks ago, the whole shebang had taken unbelievable proportions, all because of a video. An amateur video recorded from a cell phone, at that. But even if the picture was grainy and the framing tentative at best, it clearly showed a winged humanoid figure sailing through a city night sky. It could have been waved away as a fake, if some smartass hadn't deduced the location where the video had been filmed and realized one nearby building had a security camera pointed right in that direction. And lo and behold, the camera footage on that night showed a human with wings too.
Now, half the country was convinced Hojo's words were gold, and the rest spouted religious nonsense about angels and penitence. Or couldn't have cared less, like Cloud.
His desk phone rang and Cloud turned from the umpteenth rerun of the security camera footage to pick up the call.
"Mr Sephiroth's personal assistant."
"Good afternoon Mr Strife, this is the front desk. Mr Rhapsodos and Mr Hewley are here to see Mr Sephiroth."
Cloud's eyebrows rose in appreciation.
"I see. Please send them up."
Finally some good news! Angeal Hewley and Genesis Rhapsodos were Sephiroth's closest friends. They never took appointments to see him, but not only was Sephiroth generally well-disposed to receiving them, he was often in a better mood after their visits. At least, it used to be the case; the last few weeks had been tense, for some reason. But as a bonus, Angeal rarely came without his own personal assistant.
Cloud waited for them before the elevators. Sure enough, when one of the set of doors opened, there were three men in the cabin: actor Angeal Hewley, whose rough charm and muscular build had on the big screen a success that was second only to Sephiroth's own, especially when combined with his approachable and humble personality; fashion designer Genesis Rhapsodos, better known for his flamboyancy and the sharp tongue Sephiroth shared with him but only used in private; and Zack Fair, Angeal's PA and Cloud's very own best friend.
"Sirs," Cloud greeted.
Zack caught his eyes above Angeal's shoulder and smiled, but Genesis was already striding forward like he owned the place.
"Ah, Cloud!" he exclaimed. "We were just talking about you!"
"Is that so?"
Genesis flung an arm around his shoulders. Cloud barely blinked, so used was he to the man's tactile personality; not that it ever failed to put him ill at ease.
"I was lamenting to Angeal how rotten your day must have been so far. You must be about ready to consider quitting working for that unbearable man, no?"
Another one of Genesis' not so subtle attempts to get him to work for him. Cloud let it slid like water on a duck's feathers. Angeal came closer with a smile of apology; for Genesis' behaviour or Sephiroth's, Cloud always had trouble telling.
"How did he take the news?"
Cloud made an effort to be objective. This day had about run him to the ground, but to be fair, it had started hours before he or Sephiroth had even heard about Scarlet's latest attack.
"He has been worse," he found himself saying. "Though actually, he seems a bit distracted."
Genesis and Angeal shared a strange look Cloud was unable to interpret.
"Really," Genesis said, his tone flat.
It called for no answer. Cloud shrugged off his arm in the most polite way he could and half turned away.
"Well, if you'll follow me."
Zack immediately joined his side while Angeal and Genesis fell in behind.
"Hey Spike," he whispered. "Rough day?"
"Like you wouldn't believe," Cloud sighed. "Then again, I always say that."
"Yeah, you do. You need holidays, little guy!"
"Anyway, it's good you guys are here. At least you'll distract him long enough for me to do some actual work without him interrupting every ten minutes to ask for the file on a ten years old legal case or a study of feasibility for a brand new architectural project in Wutai."
He rolled his eyes.
"I swear he's been even more restless than usual, lately."
"Which means?" Zack asked.
"Well, you're the expert on Sephiroth's moods, here. Why is he like that?"
Cloud gave him a weird look. He was the expert? Since when?
"I'm his PA, not his psychologist. He doesn't bare his heart and soul to me, you know. If he was a normal human being, I'd say he's anxious, but it's Sephiroth; he doesn't have time for petty things like anxiousness."
Zack just smiled, looking oddly satisfied. Whatever. Cloud waved him back when they reached Sephiroth's office. He firmly knocked on the door and slipped inside without waiting for an answer.
"Angeal and Genesis are here, sir."
Sephiroth's demanding glare softened somewhat.
"Of course. Let them in."
Cloud opened the door wide and let the three men come in.
"You and I should go out with the girls one of these days," Zack slipped him with a wink while passing by.
Cloud gave him a faint smile and got out, leaving them in privacy.
Angeal and Genesis naturally settled in two of the three big leather chairs facing Sephiroth's desk. Without a thought, Zack took the third one at Angeal's side. Although these three men were far out of his station, whenever they were alone, Zack was not only Angeal's employee; he was a friend. It only made him regret that there was no fifth chair in this office for Cloud.
"He's got you totally figured out, you know," he said as soon as he was seated.
Sephiroth gratified him with a coldly curious glance.
"I agree," Genesis said with a smug smile. "Cloud knows you so well it's a delight to see. I wonder how long it'll take him to figure out the truth on his own."
Sephiroth stared at them, unimpressed.
"My decision stands. We are not getting Strife involved in this."
Genesis ostensibly examined his nails.
"I wonder if he wouldn't like a less secretive boss…"
"And stop trying to whisk my employee away, Genesis."
Genesis simply smiled. Their camaraderie hadn't always been so easy, Zack remembered. Back when all three of these men had started their actor careers, Genesis had viewed Sephiroth as a dangerous rival. Their relationship had gotten more and more strained, and there was no doubt the group of three friends would have imploded if Genesis hadn't finally found his calling in fashion design.
Angeal, always the voice of reason, refocused the conversation on the true reason for their visit.
"Hojo is getting more and more dangerous. Zack found evidence he might be associating with the mayor."
Sephiroth closed his eyes and sighed through his nose.
"I know. I had a meeting with that imbecile scheduled for today. I had to get Strife to cancel all my contacts with the city council until I can figure out what their game is."
"It would be easier if Cloud knew…" Genesis couldn't resist quipping.
"Don't taunt me, Genesis," Sephiroth snarled. "Do I have to remind you all of this mess is your fault in the first place? Hojo's claims would have died out in time if you hadn't found it opportune to take a midnight flight in the middle of the goddamn city."
Genesis' mouth snapped close and his face took on a dark and stubborn set. He didn't answer, though; he and Sephiroth had had enough arguments about his lapse of judgment to last them a lifetime.
"Heidegger is probably reacting purely out of fear," Angeal said, trying to calm the mood. "He is too scientifically challenged to have figured out how much we'd be worth to the right buyers. He just wants "mutants" out of his streets."
"Which only means that whether he gets us alive or dead is no matter to him," Sephiroth darkly pointed out. "And he has enough men to put us at risk."
"They have no idea what to look for, though," Zack optimistically said. "Come on, it's a big city, there is only three of you. For all they know, you could have fled after the video and be anywhere in the world right now."
"That seems more and more tempting," Genesis confessed.
"And yet, Hojo is still focusing on this city," Sephiroth commented. "He is no fool, unlike Heidegger. I think I am being targeted."
There was a dumb silence.
"Why do you think that?" Angeal asked, worried.
"First Heidegger taking a personal interest in joint projects between the city and my company, and now Scarlet practically shooting for a DNA test on her progeny. The timing is too coincidental."
"I told you years ago to get this hair dyed," Genesis commented.
Sephiroth glared at him but didn't answer. Genesis was entitled to feeling smug, when Sephiroth had been so adamant about his mistake from a few weeks back. Sephiroth had known it was a risk to keep his natural hair colour, but it had been both a statement and one of his rare concessions to futility. Besides, it had gotten him a lot of attention in the acting business when he had first started, which had been a welcome boost to his career. Most people thought the silver hue was a dye, but someone like Hojo might have doubts.
"What are you going to do about Scarlet?" Zack asked.
A softer look flashed across Sephiroth's face, so fast most people would have missed it. As it was, Zack nearly did.
"Strife is taking care of it. Shut up, Genesis."
"I wasn't going to say anything."
"Did something happen?" Angeal asked with a teasing smile.
"No," Sephiroth answered with a perfectly straight face.
Which essentially meant "yes but I'll be keeping it to myself, thanks". Zack was getting rather good himself at noticing certain things about Sephiroth; like the fact that he always did that when he was thinking about something surprising that Cloud had done and Sephiroth approved of: nearly smile for half a second, then pretend nothing had happened. It had become something of a game, really. Angeal and Genesis always made it a point to ask when he slipped, even if they already knew his answer.
Zack sighed, disheartened.
"Guess that means Cloud won't be having any free evening for a while. Sephiroth, you slave driver."
"I don't pay him to hang out with you, Zack."
Yes, Sephiroth truly had strange, strange ways to show he cared. Poor Cloud.