He’d expected Zack to at least be uncomfortable with what he told him, and he wasn’t disappointed. Whatever his relationship with Angeal had been, it hadn’t been on quite the terms as Cloud’s with the General.
Cloud finished with his devastating rejection from both SOLDIER and Sephiroth, and from there he just fell quiet, waiting for the man to get upset enough to tell him to leave.
Zack, however, just gave him a warm smile and ruffled his wild hair before saying, “I’m so sorry, spiky. Wow…just…lemme think for a minute, okay?”
Cloud said nothing, but he flushed. He’d known deep in his gut that two men sleeping together wasn’t as accepted as a man and a woman doing so, but it hadn’t felt wrong. He ducked his head and said as much to Zack in a soft murmur.
“No, you’re right, Cloud, it’s not wrong,” Zack responded. “What’s wrong about it is the General using you like he has, and your age, little guy. You’re a minor, Cloud. He knew better than to involve you in something so outside your realm of experience…Believe me, kiddo, guys together happens just like guys and girls together, there’s nothing for you to be ashamed of on that count, if that’s your thing. I’m just sorry he had to be so cruel about everything. I’ve known him for a few years now, and I like to say that we’re friends, but I had no idea there was this side to him…”
Cloud squirmed, uncomfortable. He didn’t like to think that he drew out a dark side to Sephiroth, that he was the catalyst that made the man act with cruel impulse.
“Still,” Zack mused, absently letting his hand drift from Cloud’s head to his shoulder. “It seems to me that he’s a little involved.”
Cloud gave him a bewildered look, now utterly lost.
“I mean, he never eats at the same table twice, you know?” Zack said, and his face clued Cloud into what he meant. “That he’s spread you out for a feast is kinda abnormal for him…I think maybe he’s trying to care for you, Cloud, he just doesn’t know how.”
“That’s not possible,” Cloud whispered, shrinking in on himself.
“Look, I’m gonna check into this, Strife,” Zack assured him. “I think there’s more going on here than he’s telling you, and I think there’s a good chance that you’ve gotten to him—”
“I’m just a thing, Zack!” the boy cried, angrily reminding him, forgetting his manners with the force of his hurt. “I’m nothing more to him than a body, remember? A thing with no feelings! A puppy underfoot!”
Zack grinned at him a little and softly said, “Yeah, we’ll I’ve been a puppy for years, and Angeal used to complain about me always being underfoot, but you gotta look past that kind of thing, Cloud. He was distracted, wasn’t he? There’s been a lot of bad things happening with SOLDIER lately and it all comes down on the General. I bet he’ll come find you sooner rather than later, kid. The question is, do you want to be found?”
“I don’t know,” Cloud said, miserable. “He treats me like something he’s scraped off the bottom of his shoe and then turns around and devours me like I’m some kind of dessert—it hurts me, Zack! It just hurts me…”
Zack hugged him with one arm and gently said, “Yeah…Love does that, Cloud.”
The boy blushed, choked on a sob, and fell to tears against Zack’s side, ashamed and miserable and in desperate need of kindness.
After three days of regular training and thoughtful introspection, Cloud was given orders to go to Junon to assist the SOLDIER mission there. He along with two other MPs were bustled onto a helicopter and flown out post-haste—apparently it had something to do with Genesis clones and that fat Doctor Hollandar escaping. Cloud only half-listened to the explanations, his mind was wholly occupied by the frightened thought that Sephiroth might be one of the SOLDIERs sent to deal with it. He was in no way prepared to see the man again, and hadn’t a single clue as to how he would respond if Sephiroth approached him, which only led him onto bitter thoughts that he never would approach him…not while others were there to see…
They left early and arrived in mid-afternoon to utter chaos. Not only were there clones abounding, but there were robotic defense machines running amok as well and civilians milling in disorganized panic.
Cloud hopped out with the others and quickly realized that three MPs were a sorry answer to this situation, but he did his best to help contain the mess, wondering where the SOLDIER operatives were and what on earth could be done about it.
There was a general herding instinct towards a bay that would seal, and Cloud fanned out with the others to find other civilians and lead them to safety. As he was passing an alleyway, he checked for a moment, positive that he’d heard a sound. When it wasn’t repeated, he started to leave, but was snagged back by a rough hand, another of which clamped over his mouth.
It was Genesis again, with that mad, cruel, somehow pitiless-kind light in his feverish blue eyes.
“Eromenos,” he whispered, and dragged Cloud further into the alley, away from the fading light.
Cloud struggled, stronger than he had been so long ago, managing to get in a few well-placed kicks—he was too close to use his rifle, but he wished he could.
“Did he like my gift, Cloud?” Genesis asked, and he looked worn, used up, falling apart. “Tell me, child—what did Sephiroth think of it?”
That hand came off of his mouth to allow him to answer.
Cloud glared up at him and breathed, “What do you care?”
Genesis’s face transformed with sudden rage, a flash of ugly fury that came and went as quickly as lightning strikes.
“Of course, I care,” he purred, bringing his face close to Cloud’s so that his cat-like blue eyes filled the whole of the youth’s vision. “You think I would give him such a gift on a whim, little one? Where is it, Cloud?”
“The gift?” Cloud asked, confused. “I don’t know, Sir—he never opened it in my presence—”
“Not the gift, idiot child! The mark!” Genesis hissed, and seemed strangely excited. Enough so that Cloud started to get nervous. Genesis had said that he’d envied Sephiroth’s disregard for the sex of his lovers, implying that he kept to women, but the gleam in his eyes was wholly sexual, albeit unwholesome. Cloud had a feeling that it wasn’t his gender that was exciting Genesis, but his fear, his anxiety, and the fact that Sephiroth deigned to touch him.
“Mark?” he squeaked, trying to pull away, but the solid wall at his back prevented it. For a sickening moment he thought the man might kiss him, but Genesis merely gazed at him, his breath coming in quick, excited bursts. “What do you mean?”
Genesis’s expression changed to one of devious amusement and he whispered, “Have you felt strange lately, Cloud? Perhaps an unexplained pain somewhere on that pretty white body of yours?”
Cloud’s wide, shocked eyes were all the answer he needed. The man started to chuckle and purred, “Tell me where…show me.”
Cloud automatically reached for the small of his back and gasped when Genesis spun him around, yanking his shirt up and pulling hard on his belted pants to see the base of his spine.
“Ah, there it is,” he breathed, and lovingly touched the warm skin of Cloud’s back. “Such a beautiful thing, isn’t it? He thinks of you, you come to him. He dreams of you, you wake in your soiled bed. He calls to you, you kneel at his feet. I made this possible for him, child! I gave him this power over you, this mark that binds you to him…you’re nothing but his puppet, my pretty little eromenos, and that is how you will stay…”
“No!” Cloud wailed, suddenly comprehending what had been done to him, understanding now Sephiroth’s odd questions about his “injury” and his own strange response to the man’s mood. He didn’t belong to himself, he belonged to Sephiroth, and that burned him down to the dregs of his soul.
“Say thank you,” Genesis breathed, and leaned against him to kiss Cloud’s soft cheek. “Without me, you would never know what it’s like to serve a true god…”
“Why?” Cloud sobbed, horrified. “Why would you do something like this? What did I ever do to you to deserve this?”
“You did nothing, my lovely little love,” Genesis crooned, letting go of him but stroking his wild hair. “You are so insignificant that even your misdeeds leave no sign on your betters. It wasn’t what you did, Cloud, it was who loves you. For him I would enslave the goddess herself, my friend, my foe, my beloved enemy—you are a token of my esteem, Cloud Strife, and if it interferes somehow with your petty little life…well, I care not at all…”
“So you let him brand me like some kind of…animal?” Cloud cried, twisting around to face him, a scowl on his pretty face.
Genesis smirked and cupped his cheek, saying with such sincere tenderness that it shredded Cloud’s heart, “My dear, you are an animal…”
Cloud tore away from him then, running all the way back to that bay, not even aware when the place was sealed. He leaned miserably against the wall, his stomach heaving until he started throwing up.
“Dude, you okay?”
He gave the other MPs a half-hearted wave and weakly told them, “Motion sickness from the ‘copter…I’m f—”
He interrupted himself with another violent bout of puking. When it passed he just leaned against the wall, shaking and sweating.
“Hey, do you—Cloud! Holy crap, spiky, you look awful!”
“S…sorry, Sir,” Cloud managed, too ill to even think of properly greeting his new friend. “Motion sick…”
“Huh,” Zack said, acknowledging it without quite believing him. “Well, you stay here where it’s safe, kid, okay? I’ll be back. And maybe tonight I’ll take you guys out for dinner or something, yeah?”
The other MPs seemed to like this idea. Cloud just moaned and hitched with dry heaves.
He couldn’t believe what he’d been told. He understood it fundamentally as the truth, but he didn’t want to believe it. He’d been so cautiously hopeful this whole time that he’d been making progress with Sephiroth, that they’d come to mean something to one another outside of a warm, willing body…That the man had used Genesis’s “gift” on him made Cloud ill with disgust. He’d branded him just like the possession he’d always claimed Cloud was. And the thing that angered Cloud the most about it was that he’d allowed himself to be used. Sephiroth had uttered no word, made no gesture, given no sign that anything at all had changed between them since that night he’d told Cloud that he didn’t have feelings, that he was nothing but a body…Cloud had been the one imagining things, interpreting the picture how he’d wanted. Sephiroth had given him no illusions, Cloud had whipped them up for himself, and the idea of such a bone-deep self-deception scared him. What manner of easily-led, weak-willed person was he that he could fool himself so utterly?
The issue was resolved without Cloud even being aware of it. Once again he was parceled into the helicopter, still green around the edges and clutching his stomach. He spent the ride back to Midgar curled into a ball of wrecked nerves, his hand returning time and again to the base of his spine, where some mark that only Genesis and Sephiroth could see lay awake on his skin. Branded. Owned. Used.