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So, yeah. Since my old InsaneJournal accounts were purged, my "preview" of this disappeared from the internet. I've debated over the past week if I wanted to put it up again and obviously I've decided "yes."

This is over 4 years old now and hasn't been worked on since around then. I would love to have this finished. It's... a unique idea, I think, and I do like it. As time's gone by and my interpretation of the characters and series has developed, some of my ideas have changed. I'm a more equal-opportunity 'shipper now and I debate if the initial Sephiroth/Cloud setup that's here would be better with Zack/Cloud? At the same time, I like how Zack and Cloud's friendship goes. I would love to do more with the other characters - there's great potential for the Turks but my predictions for how the story will continue don't lend them a particularly good role. Hrmm...

What the hell is this thing? Well I believe I saw some challenge about "fairytale redux" back in the day and thought I'd try something. This story is based on the general idea of The Little Mermaid, but only its base framework is used and there are no mermaids in sight. (However, my LJ icon is very apt here.)

Why post? I would really like to hear some thoughts. The story that follows is raw, though proofread as I'd been writing. There are crossed out areas and half-developed scenes (mostly at the end), there are some punctuation marks like () and [] to note areas where names might be changed. I hadn't played Crisis Core yet when I wrote this, so maybe there's a way to take some inspiration from that section of new-canon?

Really, I'd love to hear any sort of feedback... and find out who on my flist these days actually toes the water of the fandom. Without further ado, here you go:

"Tell me about him." "Who?" "Who else, genius?"

Hojo was a mean son-of-a-bitch with a brilliant mind. Armed with a twisted mentality and a reasonably powerful position in a company that ruled most of the world, he had a great deal of autonomy. His creations meant power for ShinRa, Inc. and what granted strength meant power, such is the way of the world.

Few visited Hojo's inner labs voluntarily; those that couldn't avoid the inner sanctum braced themselves in the doorway and fought in vain to keep their eyes from taking in the overwhelming machinery and morbid displays of in-progress work.

To date, the greatest of Hojo's successes came from the Jenova Project. To the mad scientist's great consternation, the project was not of his own creation, hadn't even been co-founded by him (he would never be one to share). Even so, there was a certain amount of... twisted affection for his Sephiroth – the ultimate weapon, the epitome of all that the SOLDIER segment of the Jenova Project attempted. No project was ever complete, however, and longitudinal studies required frequent experimentation and monitoring.

From the moment he entered the world as an eerily silent newborn, Sephiroth had been exposed to the stark environment of labs. By the time he'd reached puberty, his curiosity about the on-going experiments had greatly dimmed. He took to closing off from his surroundings upon entering the lab and stoically allowed Hojo to go through his tests.

Sephiroth had risen to the top rank of SOLDIER within a few years, surpassing the skills of active ShinRa field agents during the Wutai War. In the final months, he was promoted to the rank of general and returned to the capital city of Midgar as a war hero. There were a few things that made life bearable, distractions that could divert stress and suppressed anger for a time. The friendship that had formed between Sephiroth and a fellow first-class SOLDIER, Zack Fair, formed during the Wutai War served as a tie to sanity many days.

One of Hojo's personal projects found hope of salvation in the silver-haired general. To this creature, Sephiroth brought new light to the devastatingly impersonal laboratory. The creature, a genetically engineered chocobo hybrid, watched avidly whenever Sephiroth came in, although the man's eyes never strayed its way.

The chocobo couldn't remember when it first understood its surroundings or when it noticed the beautiful man. Hojo's sharp nasal voice bit off numbers at the beginning of each experiment notation; at some point, the creature comprehended what the words meant and knew that years had passed. It had been moved numerous times in the intervening years and the sight of the general was still a relatively new novelty. Shortly before first seeing Sephiroth, it had been introduced to a fellow lab creature in a containment chamber adjacent to its own.

Hojo's experiments eventually yielded a strange breakthrough.

"...Chocobo Generation F7 exhibits extensive knowledge of the Standard Tongue. Prior this recording session I observed over twenty minutes of conversation," he dropped the last word with sarcasm. "Red XIII responds positively to the interaction. The next stage will involve physically meeting. However, further observation must be conducted to determine any possible risks of long-term harm coming to either creature. Both show such potential..."

Long after the scientist had left and the main lights had been turned off, quiet conversation drifted between the two enclosures.

The scarred, red-furred catlike creature lay with his nose pressing against the clear wall separating him from his friend. "What do you dream about?"

The golden chocobo shifted himself into a reasonably comfortable position on the floor before answering. "I hear singing. It's so... beautiful," he said wonderingly. "Not like the morning assistant's songs. I don't think the voices are human, it's something so much more." His wings fluttered momentarily in what would be considered a shrug in human terms. "There's something soft and warm in the sound. When I hear it I feel a little like when I see him."

The cat chuckled softly. "Maybe you can hear beyond these walls." He closed his eyes and tried to remember the world of his past. "I come from beautiful canyons. My village is part of the Planet, our structures are built to work with natural formations. My people try very hard to work with nature and respect its creation."

"You know so much," the chocobo murmured. "Do you... could I see it? Do you think it's possible?"

The cat lifted one eyelid and wearily studied the hopeful expression. He knew logically that their futures were grim with little likelihood of ever leaving the labs with their wills still intact. He imagined a lab creature wouldn't do much better in the outside world than a creature from the wild did in the lab. How much longer could he stay here?

Making a sudden decision, he said, "I am Nanaki."

The chocobo's deep blue eyes, bright from Mako infusions, peered curiously through the glass. "What? Is that your, ah, name?"

Nanaki lifted his head and explained, "My tribe believes there is great power in one's name. Our naming ceremonies are celebrations months after one's birth, when the child first begins to recognize the meaning of words. It is important that a child understands his name as soon as possible, embracing his name and the power that comes with it. My name is my spirit. I would not yield this strength to such a dishonorable and evil man as Hojo." He tilted his head in acknowledgement of his friend. "You, however, are my witness. We are brothers in these trials."

"Are names really so powerful?" the chocobo wondered aloud. After a moment's consideration, he answered himself, "Of course not always, or the name he calls you would mean something more. Nanaki... do you think I had a name, once?"

The immense sadness in that voice made Nanaki's chest ache. He was young for his kind, but he felt so old when faced with this creature that had been captive all his life. Had someone ever called this creature by something other than a label classifying an experiment? Doubtful, and even if someone had, the name would have lacked any real significance.

"You have a name," he assured at length. The chocobo gave a startled laugh.

"How do you know?"

Nanaki pressed a paw against the wall separating them, wishing not for the first time that he could touch his friend, feel warmth again. "We all have names. Yours is in your heart, your soul knows it. Until now you did not have someone to share it with." His smile revealed the tips of his fangs, but the other creature showed no signs of fear, understanding the expression for what it was.

"If I have one, how do I find out what it is?" the chocobo asked suspiciously.

"Think about it and listen. Maybe it's in the songs you hear. I know you'll find it. When you do... I would be honored if you would share it with me."

The chocobo seemed torn between frustrated skepticism and anxious hope. Nanaki silently urged his friend to accept his words and take them to heart. He didn't know if he believed there was a name destined for each creature; the naming ceremony of his tribe involved an intricate history and spiritualism that joined family together in the creation of a name. However, he did believe that his friend could find strength in naming himself. There was something exciting in realizing that he would be the first (and sadly, possibly the only) one to know the other's name. Whatever it turned out to be, Nanaki swore that he would honor it.


They settled into sleep. That night Nanaki dreamed of the starry sky above his home. He ran free over the flat red soil of a plateau. Eventually he leaped across a wide gap and could see Grandfather's house. He sprinted towards the narrow, tall building with joy in his heart. He didn't realize he had entered the special room until images of the night sky completely surrounded him. He watched with awe as a model of the planets orbited around the sun. Around him he saw comets sweep through the sky, stars going super nova, and the spin of fathomless black holes. Entire galaxies lay out there, far beyond his reach. Such beauty lay in the universe...

Ho, ho! My Nanaki has come to visit! A familiar voice broke into his concentration. Heart again leaping happily, Nanaki called a greeting to Grandfather. Ah, my boy... We miss you dearly. I hope you are faring well.

I don't know how I was so foolish, Grandfather, Nanaki admitted sadly. I'm trapped. There's so much metal and glass and negativity blocking the way to the Planet. I can't see anything of the air or earth. I long for the connection... I want to come home.

Have faith, Nanaki, you are so strong. I know you will find your way back to us. Listen carefully. Even when we think we have lost all contact with that which is important to us, we may yet have a connection through other senses.


You'll find it, my boy! Ho, ho... time for me to bid farewell.

Nanaki tried to leap forward. No, please don't leave me!

He woke up hearing the bittersweet song of distant stars.


A few nights later after a particularly grueling day of injections for the chocobo, Nanaki asked about the songs his friend heard in dreams.

With a weak wark – the chocobo's version of a smile since he lacked the muscles to do so physically – he replied, "I don't know where it comes from. But I think it knows my name. I see such amazing things with each new song. But sometimes they're not songs..." Mournfully he continued, "Sometimes it sounds like screaming. I hear the screams, and voices, sometimes even when I'm awake. I heard them today when Hojo..."

Silence reigned for long moments. Nanaki eventually made a soft encouraging noise.

The chocobo closed his eyes in exhaustion. "My name... I heard it in a song last night, coming from a ceiling of black with spots of light. Stars? You said there are stars in the sky where you come from? Maybe that's what I'm imagining. I wonder if it looks the same?"

"Your spirit may know what you have not yet seen," Nanaki offered gently. Grandfather had spoken of old souls, the spirits that returned over generations in new bodies. The strong and the caring souls returned to the physical world in pursuit of doing good, the elders of the village had said. It wouldn't surprise him if his friend held such a spirit. "What did the stars call you?"

Another wark signaling a smile. "They called me Cloud."


Hojo was not ignorant to the attention Chocobo F7 paid to Sephiroth. As his manipulation of the bird's genetic makeup went on, an idea began to form. He muttered to himself as he paced the observation room while watching the progress of heightened aggression in the mutated Snakes(). In a few weeks he had begun preparations.

As he prepped the exam room for a slightly more invasive procedure than normal, Hojo murmured his expectations to the sealed metal box holding a tiny portion of Jenova's body. Only a bit of skin, really, but it was alive, part of an organism that seemed to be able to live into eternity.

"We'll see how well he can function as another creature, my dear. Yes, at last we come to truly groundbreaking material. Let us see if F7 is capable of human functions. Imagine the possibilities! Oh, I know you can achieve amazing things..."

Nanaki watched with trepidation as Cloud slumped to the floor of his cage unconscious after the release of anesthetic gas. Hojo had a strange look in his eyes and a maniacal grin on his thin face. The cat could only hope that someone heard his prayer to keep his friend safe.


Cloud drifted between dreams and waking. His head felt all wrong and his body seemed too heavy. He didn't move, aware of his surroundings by the smells assailing his nose. He knew that at any moment he would feel the sting of needles or the cut of a knife. If he stayed still it hurt a little less, so he waited.

When the silence broke, he heard a voice that was surprisingly not Hojo's and seemed to echo in his head rather than coming from the outside.

"Hello, Little Bird. I know you're awake."

Curious but wary, Cloud refrained from speaking. Who is this?

"I am your Salvation."

Startled that the voice could hear him, Cloud tried, Not what, who are you?

A laugh that sounded like Hojo's scalpel clattering onto a metal tray made him wince. "I am the source that enabled your life, Little Bird. I am the mother of the one you watch each month. I am the one who can make all your dreams come true."

More than a little frightened, Cloud retreated into his mind. The voice pulled him back, its efforts digging into him like claws. "No, Little Bird. I offer you a chance and you will accept. I have transformed you and you will get your chance to exit the walls you've always known. I will show you the world and I know you will never want to leave. I offer you one opportunity to stay in Man's world."

His fear gave way to delighted shock. I am free?

Another chilling laugh shook his bones. "Oh, Little Bird. If you fail, I will get your shell and you shall die, do you understand? But you are... amusing, so I give you this: If my son abandons his post for you, I will grant you the continued life in this form."

What form? He received a dark chuckle in reply.

"Open your eyes, F7, I know you are awake." Hojo's voice finally broke through the haze keeping reality at bay.

The first thing Cloud noticed upon opening his eyes was that his vision didn't focus correctly. Instead of easily catching full sight of the scientist, he only saw the vaguest outline from the corner of his eye. Cloud cocked his head, attempting to fix the man in a one-eyed stare. He couldn't. He felt muscles tracking both eyes in the same direction.

As his mind cleared further, he realized that his strangely heavy body lay in an impossible position. The metal lab table pressed against the back of his head, his back, his butt, and even his legs. Flat... he was somehow lying flat? And his eyes didn't work right... He opened his mouth and even that felt different. He never wanted to speak directly to the scientist, but this was too frightening, and he had to know—

A strange, choked moan came from his throat but he was unable to achieve words. He felt his tongue brush against strange edges in his mouth. The scientist frowned at him, but Cloud became preoccupied with moving his tongue across the curved rows of bone lining the bottom and top of his mouth. He realized as he shifted his face that there seemed to be muscles there he'd never felt before. The seam of his mouth didn't meet right, either – no firm line of his beak; in its place smooth, pliable flesh. Lips?

Hojo muttered something into his tape recorder and turned to an imaging machine. Cloud startled at the feeling of a gel-covered scanner press against his throat. He shivered and heard the scientist curse.

"Subject's vocal cords are poorly formed. The damage may hinder any ability to speak," Hojo snapped irritably. "Jenova's cells seem to have completed the metamorphosis, however. I will conduct further tests to see what else the subject is lacking."

The scanner was removed and Cloud's vision suddenly consisted solely of the scientist's thin face hovering above him. The man's smile chilled the air in the small room. "Let us see what you are capable of, F7."

It took over two hours for Cloud to get a full look at himself. Finally in front of a mirror, he stared for a moment at the reflection of his bright, startled eyes staring back at him. His body was pale, covered head to toe in skin. He looked like a human, complete with fingers and toes, nose and mouth and eyes and hair. His eyes and his hair were the only things that reminded him of his real appearance. His bright golden hair stuck up in angles unusual for humans, looking more like his crown of feathers than anything else. On his chest were two nipples, part of the indication of his status as mammalian now instead of avian. He shifted in place, still feeling unbalanced with the strange distribution of weight. His fingers twitched at his sides and he slowly raised one arm, marveling at the strange feeling. He touched the mirror, then his face, and his belly. He looked down at the completely foreign appendage hanging between his legs. He hadn't seen this on many creatures before, didn't know what it was called, or really what it did. Humans wore clothes, covering their body from view. The other animals he'd seen in the labs had never used it except to excrete waste in the corners of their cages.

Hojo had disappeared some long minutes ago, intent on his own voice as he spoke quickly into his recorder. Cloud didn't know what the scientist had planned next. He glanced at the door, wondering if he could operate the controls to open it. He wanted to see Nanaki and find out if his friend could understand his strange noises, the only thing he could manage with his underdeveloped vocal cords. Lost in his musings, he jumped and stumbled backwards as the door opened and a cautious-looking lab assistant walked in holding a bundle of cloth.

The man looked the blond over with a raised eyebrow and then snorted. "Here. These are clothes," he explained briefly, dumping the clothing on the lab table. "Come over here and get dressed."

Hesitantly Cloud approached, his steps unsteady as he moved. He ignored the lab tech's exasperated sigh and focused on examining the clothing. It took about thirty minutes to get dressed, the tech reluctantly instructing the newly formed man in how to get into the clothes. Cloud wriggled uncomfortably for a while, feeling strange with the weight of something over his skin. The tech also insisted he wear boots, which Cloud was completely incapable of putting on. Eventually the other man gave in and pressed Cloud onto the table and pulled the boots over sock-covered feet.

"Finally. Come on, you've got work to do."


The week passed in a strange blur as Cloud adapted to his new body. Hojo assigned a group of assistants to test Cloud's physical limits and work on exercising basic moves. The blond surprisingly found himself adapting quickly. His muscles had been formed incredibly strong and he recognized the shock on a few faces when he lifted the full set of weights on a machine with only a moment's hesitation. He didn't make much sound, his inability to talk disturbed him.

Eventually on his eighth day in human form, Hojo appeared in the open doorway of the lab room where Cloud had been confined and turned away. Taking that as a sign he could leave, the blond stepped into the hall and trailed after the scientist. He didn't like following the man, but he was anxious to look around new areas. They entered a familiar room, the large inner lab filled with containment chambers and innumerable machines. Cloud felt his heartbeat pick up when he spied Nanaki restlessly pacing the walls of his cage. The flame at the end of the cat's tail flared brightly. He tried calling out, but his throat strangled the name. Hojo turned around and scowled.

"Fool," he snapped. "You won't speak until I design new vocal cords." He snorted and muttered to himself, "If it's even worth speech. No matter, I can always remove them again." Returning to the present, the scientist narrowed his eyes at Cloud. "You will be leaving the labs today, F7. You will be back four times a week. Someone has been assigned to train you outside the lab to see if you serve any purpose. You have yet to prove the value of replicating such an experiment." Hojo waved a hand dismissively. "At outside insistence you will not be staying in the science wing. However, if I hear of any problems, I will not hesitate to bring you back here and keep you in your old... home, understand?" he sneered.

Cloud swallowed and nodded. No way he wanted to be confined here when he would finally, finally see something beyond the harsh lines of the laboratory and exam room surroundings.

"Very well. You will wait here and not interrupt my work. I disapprove of the agent that idiot Heidigger chose; he's certain to be late." He muttered something more as he walked to a set of computers in a secluded section of the lab.

When Cloud was sure the man was fully engrossed in work, he made his way to Nanaki. The cat paused and glared at him suspiciously. Cloud knelt on the floor outside the cage and pressed his palms against the glass, silently pleading that his friend recognize him. It took a few minutes, but a sudden expression of understanding overtook the cat.

"Cloud!" Nanaki whispered the name. "What happened to you?"

The blond opened and closed his mouth, shaking his head sadly. He wished he could tell his friend everything and talk about how overwhelmed he felt.

"You can't speak?" Nanaki asked. At Cloud's affirmative gesture, he bent his head sadly. "I miss our conversations. I do not understand how this happened... why? What is Hojo trying to do?" Cloud shrugged, he wondered that himself. "Are you leaving? Is he sending you somewhere?" Quickly the blond nodded to the first question and no to the second. The cat studied him. "You're getting out," Nanaki said quietly. "You have a chance, Cloud. You can see the world. Maybe you'll find the source of those voices."

The songs he once frequently heard had been muffled since his transformation. Cloud wondered if Nanaki was right, though. Maybe he would dream again and be able to track the singing to its origin. What then? he wondered.

"Someone's coming," Nanaki warned, gaze going over Cloud's shoulder. The blond anxiously exchanged another look with his friend. The cat pressed his nose against the glass near the blonde's hand. Cloud felt his lips move and hoped it looked like a smile. His friend nodded and Cloud stood up to face the new arrival.

A man dressed in a blue suit and unbuttoned, white shirt strolled into lab, looking bored. His hair was as red as Cloud's was yellow. The two exchanged long, curious stares in silence. Eventually the redhead snorted and beckoned Cloud with a sharp hand gesture. With one last look at Nanaki and then a quick, nervous look at Hojo's back, Cloud followed the man into the hall.

A few paces down the corridor, the redhead turned around and stopped Cloud from bumping into him with a hand held out. "Alright, experiment XF-something-something, I ain't calling you by some stupid code all the time. You have a name?" He waited a moment, then cursed. "Shit. You don't fucking talk, do you?" He rolled his eyes. His gaze fell on Cloud's hair and his eyes narrowed in thought. "Hmm. You're gonna be Spike from here out, got it?" Not wanting to upset the man, Cloud nodded his acceptance. The redhead smirked and slapped Cloud's shoulder. "That's the spirit, Spike. Not that it'll do you much good, but the name's Reno. I'm a Turk, you know what that is? No? Of course not." He snorted and turned away, walking again. Cloud hurried to catch up.

"Too many fucking secrets in this department," Reno said, waving a hand to indicate the labs. "Not that ShinRa ain't got plenty of ‘em. Hell, us Turks are experts at it. But Hojo's a goddamn freak. I can't figure out what shithole he crawled out of. Creep gets way too much leeway, you ask me." He smirked at the blond. "Then again, you won't be asking much, huh? Whatever. I get to screw around with you, ‘test you out' the memo says. Fine, we'll see what Hojo's freaky new mutation can do, maybe we can even pull one over on the creep. You like that idea?" Cautiously Cloud inclined his head in agreement. Reno laughed at that and swung an arm around the blond. "Maybe this won't be so bad, Spike."

Cloud found he didn't disagree.

Reno led him into an elevator at the end of the hall and Cloud watched with wide eyes at the huge panel of buttons labeling all the floors. He had no idea how tall the building was, having only moved between the two floors the labs encompassed. The redhead kept up a running dialogue, skipping around from topic to topic. He talked about fairly mundane things or people whose names Cloud didn't recognize. Though Reno's posture was casual, leaning against the elevator wall, Cloud was aware of the attention the other gave him. The blonde's excitement overpowered his wariness, however, and he eagerly awaited arriving at their destination.

Eventually the elevator slowed and its doors opened with a ding. Reno led the way down a hallway much wider than the one on the science floor. They didn't walk far before entering a large room whose locked door was restricted by keycard. As they stepped into the barren space, Reno handed over a chain with an attached card.

"You'll be shown exactly where you can go. There's very restrictive clearance on you, so you can't just go wandering around. Got it? This room's reserved for a select group. Anything you're going to learn about fighting and defense will be learned in here." Reno gave Cloud an obvious head-to-toe glance-over. "We'll be trying a bit of everything to start off, see where you're at. You've got the SOLDIER muscles, though," he muttered mostly to himself. "Bet you'll end up with a sword."

A digital progression of three chords sounded from Reno's pocket. The redhead pulled out his phone and walked to the opposite end of the room as he answered. Cloud didn't try very hard to listen in on the conversation, more interested in examining the contents of thick-plated display cases to one side of the room. He recognized many of the weapons from videos he'd watched in the labs. He imagined the movements, how each was used, through he could put no formal name to the equipment.

Reno's noisy cough interrupted his study. "Yo, Spike, change of plans." Reno jerked a thumb at the door. "Duty calls, which means you get another babysitter. C'mon." The blond obeyed with a nod, only a little reluctant to abandon his scrutinization of the weapons.

When the elevator stopped, Reno let Cloud get off and then stuck a hand between the doors without exiting.

"Delivery for you!" Reno shouted at someone coming down the hall. Cloud studied the approaching soldier. The man wore a large sword strapped to his back, had messy black hair, and bright blue eyes, darker than Cloud's, that glowed with the telltale signs of Mako enhancement.

"Spike, here's your very own SOLDIER boy." Reno smirked as he addressed the third man, who'd made it to the elevator. "Zack, meet the newest thing the resident mad scientist whipped up. Real quiet like. Heh, Hojo probably fucked something up." His gaze darted briefly to Cloud and his amusement disappeared. "Watch yourself," he directed at the SOLDIER.

"Enjoy yourself, Spike. You won't get a moment's rest from me when I get back." With a jaunty wave, Reno stepped back into the elevator and let the doors close.

Cloud tried not to stare at the man standing next to him. Zack exuded a sense of power that was a little intimidating. His strength was obvious in the definition of his muscles and the way he held himself. Although his countenance currently held an expression of reserved stoicism, Cloud could see evidence of something deeper in the man's eyes.

A few silent moments after Reno left, Zack canted his head to the side and glanced over the blond. One corner of his mouth twitched up as he held out his hand. Awkwardly Cloud accepted the handshake; he had to split his attention between the action and Zack's introduction. "Reno's a little nuts, if you hadn't guessed. Not a real bad guy, though.

"Like he said, I'm Zack. Hail from across the sea in a dinky little place called Gongaga. Probably you haven't heard of it." Cloud shook his head. He knew very little even about the places he knew the names of. "Spike... Reno's nickname for you, huh?" Zack grinned, staring at the stubborn tufts of blond hair. "You want me to use that or do you have a real name?"

Cloud frowned, unsure if naming himself made him have a "real" name, and additionally, he wondered if anyone outside the lab had been informed of his inability to talk. Frustrated, Cloud attempted yet again to speak, succeeding in a few grunts of incomprehensible sound. He gestured sharply to his throat and shook his head.

Zack winced in something that looked like sympathy. "Sorry, man. I kind of thought Reno just over-talked you. No wonder you got a nickname. Well, c'mon, let's get something to eat and I'll get you to write some things out for me, alright? ‘Cuz unless you want me to constantly second-guess you, we've gotta work on communicating."

Surprised at the offer, Cloud happily agreed. Zack led Cloud down an arced hallway which, he explained, held the doors leading into the private quarters and a couple offices for certain officials and higher-ranking officers. "I'm staying up here with you temporarily." He nudged Cloud with a grin. "Thanks, man, the suites are a major step up even from the SOLDIERS' rooms a floor down. Much quieter up here, too. Better insulated and temperature regulated," he explained with a chuckle. "You ever lived alone before?"

Cloud shook his head, realizing suddenly how grateful he'd be to have Zack staying with him. He'd not slept alone in the lab for years and had never had the opportunity to appreciate privacy; he found the concept intimidating. Zack invited him to try his card key at the door and then listed the five-digit passcode. They stepped into the front room and Cloud blinked at the change of lighting. The hall had been bright with familiar fluorescent tubes, but inside it was dim, the lights off as far as the blond could tell, but light filtered in between slits on the opposite wall. Curious, Cloud walked over to touch the slats hanging horizontally over sections of the wall. He thought of one of the observation chambers connected to an exam room in the lab and recalled the word window. Windows, Nanaki had said, were a way to see outside, something that separated one physically from one side while allowing the person to see what happened.

The thought of finally seeing beyond the gray walls of the building made his heart race. Cloud struggled with the window coverings, barely aware of Zack's startled laugh and efforts to help. The blond slipped beneath the blinds and pressed his nose to the glass, staring in wide-eyed wonderment at the sights beyond. This is the city, he reminded himself. I'm in only one building. He couldn't believe how far he could see. There were no walls, seemingly no boundaries for the world outside. For the first time in a long while, he felt devastatingly trapped in his limited form.

"Jeez, you haven't seen this kind of view of the city?" Cloud shook his head and turned his gaze higher. Was that... the sky? What looked like hazy puffs of smoke hung high in the air, covering much of an otherwise blue expanse. His eyes watered as he peered at a bright orb hanging in the air high overhead. With a sense of awe, Cloud smiled and closed his eyes as he turned his face towards the sun. Zack chuckled, but there was a hint of wariness in it. "Haven't seen the sun before, either?"

The blond hesitated before answering truthfully. He felt the soldier's abrupt withdrawal into silent contemplation. For now he was determined to ignore it and continue to stare at the view outside his window.

"Hey," Zack said quietly. "Do you want me to call you Spike?"

Cloud took a step away from the window and looked at his companion. He considered the question for a few moments, then shook his head. No, he'd like this man to use his real name. Looking at the sky, he grinned and pointed outside. Zack frowned and looked out.

"Huh? What did you see?"

Shaking his head, Cloud pointed again, then tapped his chest. He repeated the movements twice more before looking at Zack. The soldier pursed his lips in concentration. Eventually he hazarded a guess. "You're telling me your name? Huh. Is it..." he glanced at the sky outside with a puzzled expression. "Cloud?"

The blond nodded enthusiastically. He ducked his head in embarrassment as the soldier focused an incredulous stare on him. Of course his name was strange, and he knew he wasn't anywhere near normal. Reno had seemed unusual enough to not really care about Cloud's abnormalities, but what if this soldier didn't want to deal with all the problems that were sure to come up?

"Cloud." Zack smiled when the blond cautiously returned his gaze. "Unique name for an interesting guy. My name's pretty boring in comparison, huh?" He laughed and turned around. "Do you wanna see the rest of the place? Then I've got some takeout in the ‘fridge we can reheat."


A month later he met Sephiroth in person for the first time. By then Cloud had made great improvements in fighting tactics and general knowledge of the world. Zack had been stunned by Cloud's confused reaction to a romantic adventure movie and ever since kept him entertained with a mountain of books and videos. Cloud felt a little worried about the sidelong glances he caught Zack casting him time and again. He wondered what conclusions the soldier drew.

Zack's teasing was no more than good-natured ribbing, however, and he took Cloud's ignorant moments in stride, quickly offering education. Reno provided his own wealth of information, although with many an eye-roll and exasperated expressions. Cloud met more than those two men and saw more than the handful of lab techs and Hojo every week. He came to know a few of the other Turks, including one with a name stranger than his own – Rude. Zack also introduced him to some fellow SOLDIERS, regular troops, and a variety of other people within the ShinRa building. Much to the soldier's consternation, not to mention Cloud's disappointment, the blond wasn't allowed outside. This was one limitation that Zack couldn't get around, though he swore to Cloud they'd get out of the building sometime in the upcoming weeks. The blond smiled somewhat wistfully, appreciating the attempts his friend was making despite having little hope of truly gaining such freedom.

The day he met Sephiroth, Cloud finished training with the Turk leader, Tseng, later than expected. Both were breathing heavily by the end of the strenuous workout, and Cloud gratefully used the floor's locker room to wash up. Tseng glanced at him and remarked, "I prefer to shower in my own bath. I trust you'll find your rooms by yourself?" The blond paused in the task of pulling up his shirt. Tseng merely arched an eyebrow.

Surprised and delighted at the show of trust, the blond nodded eagerly. The Turk's lips turned up briefly in a smirk before he turned and left.

Cloud grinned and bounded off to the shower to enjoy his independence. As he scrubbed his now familiar skin under the running water, he had the strange desire to whistle or sing, and wished he could. Although he no longer sounded like something dying when he made noises, nothing he uttered could be considered melodic or resembling anything like a word. His inability to speak didn't sadden him as much as it had in the first couple weeks; his frustration and anger concerning the situation had overtaken that feeling.

He eventually stepped out of the shower cubicle and dried off, taking a few moments to stare at his naked body and consider how he looked compared to the semi-naked state of actors he'd seen in films. He had a "sexy bod," Zack claimed, and while the comment flustered Cloud, he supposed he could see something of the celebrity ideal in his form. Shrugging off the funny thoughts, the blond tucked his towel around his waist and went back to his locker.

As he fastened his pants, he heard the room's door open and quiet footsteps rounding the row of lockers. The blond glanced up when the footsteps paused for a fraction of an instant. He sucked in a harsh breath and stared in surprise at the tall, pale-haired man striding to a locker opposite his own. The man seemed to ignore him, focusing his attention on the combination to undo his padlock.

The illusion of inattention was shattered when he said, "What are you gawking at?"

Cloud opened and closed his mouth, desperately wishing he could answer and yet knowing that even if he had his voice he wouldn't be able to. He felt absurdly vulnerable as the other man's eyes narrowed and glared at him. The blond quickly tried gesturing and making plaintive noises, not sure what he was trying to say, but needing to do something.

Sephiroth snorted, the derisive noise cutting Cloud off sharply. The blond felt himself shrink back. "If you're quite done, I'd appreciate privacy," Sephiroth said coldly.

Quickly Cloud turned back to his own locker with a dizzying spin. He struggled into a plain shirt. He decided to grab his socks, shoes, and key and take off, not wanting to risk any harsher comments from the other man. His heart pounded against his ribcage as he dashed out of the room and his bare feet slapped against the hall floor. In the elevator he managed to tug on his shoes, foregoing socks, and regained his breath. Even so, his heart continued to hammer painfully as he made his way back to the apartment.

Zack took one look at him as he came in and jumped forward with a worried expression. "Hey man, what's wrong?"

Cloud quickly fumbled for the PDA Zack had salvaged for him and typed in Sephiroth's name quickly. His friend stared at the screen silently for a while, blinking in what seemed like surprise. Suddenly he chuckled and Cloud's eyebrows knit in confusion.

The soldier grinned and patted his shoulder. "Not the warmest person, is he? Maybe this is some sign, though." He guided Cloud towards the couch. "I've been thinking it might be worth introducing the two of you. I thought you wanted to meet him, given some of your reactions when he comes up." He cocked an eyebrow challengingly, but the blond didn't argue and nodded briefly. Grin back in place, Zack continued, "It's been a while since we've gotten some private time, so why don't I get him over here some evening? I promise to insist he be on his best behavior." He winked at Cloud's shy expression. The blond felt his cheeks heat and ducked his head, hoping that even if his friend caught the blush that he wouldn't comment on it.


Cloud came back from a grueling session with Reno and Rude. The pair worked in near-perfect tandem. Cloud couldn't manage many offensive moves unless they let him – usually this meant the two spreading out and the blond going in for an attack on one. All the while he observed how the two interacted. To move so smoothly together took trust and intimate knowledge of your partner. Cloud wondered whether he would achieve that with someone, whether he'd even get the chance.

Zack said he wouldn't be back until dinnertime, and Cloud had no reason to expect anyone else to be in the apartment. So when a man cleared his throat, Cloud jumped back and let out a strangled yelp. Wide eyes focused on the tall figure backlit by the low sun beyond the window. The blond relaxed minutely when he realized it wasn't someone from the labs. In a moment he recognized who exactly it was and tensed for a much different reason.

Moving away from the window, it was easier to see Sephiroth. The man's jade-colored eyes ran critically over the blond. His expression gave nothing away, gaze shuttered and a small frown on his lips. Cloud breathed shallow and slow, hesitant to move as he felt suddenly like prey; genetic instincts kicking in from their dormant shadows.

After a long silence, Sephiroth's gaze met the blonde's. The general motioned slightly towards the couch and sat down. Heart pounding, Cloud carefully sank down on the far cushion, perching on the edge and pressing his back into the furniture's arm, folding in on himself to take up as little space as possible. He was intimidated, yes, but he thought the fear of the man himself was actually mild. It was the other things he felt that were scary, emotions he had a hard time naming.

"You're Cloud?" Cloud nodded jerkily. Sephiroth appeared to look him over again. "You don't talk." The blond merely shook his head in agreement. "I wonder how much you've really tried?" That inspired a flash of anger and Cloud opened his mouth to protest, closing it quickly when he realized he couldn't say anything. Something sparked in Sephiroth's stare. "Can't even defend yourself? Pathetic."

Cloud clenched his fists and this time didn't stop the angry sounds that escaped. Shut up! I try, you bastard! I can't! None of the noises came close to the words he thought. Sephiroth's eyes narrowed and focused on the blonde's lips until Cloud abruptly shut his mouth and drew back into his corner. He looked away, feeling miserable and sincerely doubting the wisdom of having wanted to meet this man face-to-face.

"Did you ever speak?" The question came in a calm, almost soothing tone.

Surprised, Cloud glanced back at the man and found an expression of plain curiosity on the other's face. He considered the question, wondering how he should answer. He had spoken before, of course, but not since his transformation. He nodded... shook his head... then shrugged, at a loss. Amusement flickered across the General's face, quickly replaced by thoughtful confusion.

"I don't suppose you could explain that?"

Cloud smiled lopsidedly and glanced at the bookshelf where his PDA sat. He stood up to get it but hesitated before picking it up, realizing that he didn't know how to explain. He thought about the labs and Hojo... he shuddered, an ominous chill settling over him.

"Don't tell him, Little Bird," the voice he'd heard at the very beginning warned. "I can destroy you in an instant and you won't ever have the opportunity to challenge our little agreement."

Heeding the threat, Cloud shuffled back to the couch, PDA in hand, and sat. He stared at the electronic device and didn't turn it on. He wouldn't look at Sephiroth.

The frown was clear in the general's voice; "I wonder what you've heard to make you this reticent. Zack talks about how vibrant you are."

PDA now on, Cloud wrote quickly: [That's not it no one knows I can't say] He held it out towards Sephiroth. He had to scoot closer when the man made no move to take it. After another quick glance-over, Sephiroth tipped the PDA in Cloud's hand to a readable angle.

Suspicion crossed the general's face for a brief moment before his expression cleared completely. Cloud watched with a sinking sense of despair as the man closed off; the blond hadn't realized until that moment how much Sephiroth had been allowing him to see. The general relinquished his grip on the PDA and Cloud slowly retreated to his corner of the couch, staring blankly at it.

"Zack is supposed to be back soon with dinner," Sephiroth said. Cloud closed his eyes and refused to make his regret obvious.

TBC in next post.