Once More, With Feeling... – Chapter 56: Greater Understanding

Summary: A Follow-up with Vincent, and different take on an old subject.

Author: Illusor Meaneld

Rated T: for Descriptive violence and injuries, No Adult Situations, No Cussing.

Disclaimer: I did not create, and do not own the characters from Final Fantasy 7. They are owned by Square-Enix, and I am simply borrowing them for my own (and hopefully your) enjoyment.

The atmosphere in her garden was so very peaceful. Belying the stress and evils just outside the massive wooden doors. The gentle sunlight lit the pale flowers aglow, and the small pond she'd carefully cultivated glimmered like diamond-dust. It had taken a while to get it just right, digging the hole until she reached the planet's gift, then lining the dirt edges with carefully cleaned and selected stones. Now it was crystal clear, shimmering with hidden properties, and the close proximity to such ample hydration helped her little blooms flourish, they filled what had once been exposed soil with abundance, so thick now that she could have lain down and bedded only on the blossoms. Not that she would dream of so crushing them, but they were approaching knee-deep in places with verdant life. Just behind her shoulder, another woman stood, older and wiser. Her green eyes kind and insightful. It was like gazing at an older twin, and Aeris giggled. Her incorporeal counterpart shared her mirth, though no one else could hear. They both turned their gazes up into the church rafters, where a crimson cloaked man sat propped almost negligently against the vertical beams. He seemed so much more at peace now than he had when he'd first arrived. It warmed the Ancient's heart to see it. The ghost of her older self tapped her shoulder gently, gesturing to the doorway with sparkling eyes. Cloud was coming today. She dusted her hands and picked up her skirt a little to make her way to the doors. She settled before them just in time for the small blond to push the heavy doors open. His face lit up when he saw her, blue eyes full of fondness.

"Good Morning, Cloud!" She said brightly,

"Good Morning, Aeris." He murmured respectfully, "It's good to see you." Her older self chuckled at the familiar greeting.

"I have a gift for you." The young woman explained, fetching a small bottle of mostly clear liquid from her pocket, little flakes of white and yellow floated like dust-motes inside, and she held it out to the adorably young time-traveler. "I know your Mako sensitivity tests are coming up this week. Take half of this in the morning, and half afterwards… It'll help."

He smiled, "Thank you! I'd forgotten to ask."

"I know, that's what I'm here for silly," They both shared a laugh, before Aeris turned to let her young friend inside. "Vincent is perching today," She said teasingly, gesturing at the rafters.

Cloud's gaze followed hers, his face relaxed and happy as he spotted his friend. "Good Morning, Vincent." He called a little louder, and the crimson eyes regarded them before the tall figure stood smoothly, dropping with little fanfare or sound to the ground.

"Hello, Cloud." He intoned almost hesitantly. Cloud grinned, and reached into a small satchel he had slung over one shoulder.

"I have some things for you, and I thought we could talk for a while."

Aeris watched him pull a handful of varied Materia, along with a stash of gil and potions. He also pulled out a very detailed map that had neat notations written all over it in the blond's clean handwriting. The Ancient excused herself to continue gardening, giving the two men space to work. Watching both of them fondly as she tended the blooms. After what her older self had told and shown her, it was great to see the blond so engaged and happy. She hummed to herself as she worked, and let the plots and plans weave around her.

It would be decidedly undignified, and perhaps worse, self disrespecting to actually inquire after the information he needed. Bluntness was not something Genesis Rhapsodos often lowered himself to provide. However, he found that he burned with curiosity, and as the feline of proverb, would only return to satisfied dignity with it. Thus he found himself lounging with deliberate nonchalance outside of the SOLDIER Mess hall. He had his favored book in hand and was perusing it with expected captivation. He had always been a man of many talents and multitasking was high on the list of his personal expertise. So while for all intents and purposes he was 'reading Loveless', in actuality he was listening to the casual conversation revolving around this quarter's 'Cadet Games' as the lower tiers had deigned to call them. Despite or perhaps because of his status as Cloud Strife's official sponsor he was not permitted to be involved in the ranking missions of his protégé, ideally to prevent bias. Under any other circumstance he could not have cared less about his exclusion. The many pathetic hopeful applicants had no interest to him. But his burning desire to learn more about the man the Goddess herself had sent through time as her champion had no limits.

His keen ears heard the sound of the far door to the mess room opening, about when he expected the first batch of SOLDIERs to finish both their debrief and hygienic ablutions after their foray into the fields. The men came in boisterously laughing and talking together, food was gathered, and then the Second Classes who had not been escorts began their verbal assault. So predictable, Genesis chided mentally, though without any heat as it was serving his purposes well.

"I heard you guys had diaper duty today." One of the men hooted glibly.

"Diaper duty, in the swamp of all places." Was the rejoinder. A collective groan ran the room.

"Thanks for showering! We all appreciate your thoroughness."

"I was just a perimeter guard, and yeah, it stank, but it was pretty boring." Genesis could practically hear the shrug following this statement. "I missed the action apparently, I heard from Lief that all the fun happened on his end."

'Lief' laughed at this accusation. "Not really, I only saw the peripheral action, gotta talk to Sebastian for the best bits!"

"Where is Sebas?"

"He's still showering."

"Essai saw some of the action too, he was the other base guard."

'Essai' was apparently one of the men who'd come in earlier as the cry for details rose in volume following this proclamation. No doubt Angeal would scold and lecture Genesis for his 'failure' to remember the names of his immediate subordinates, but the Red Lieutenant always made sure to have a proper address when necessary for his missions, otherwise he didn't bother retaining extraneous and unnecessary details. His attention was drawn back to the conversation when the man who must be Essai laughed in good humor.

"I'm going to wait for Sebastian, I don't want to tell this story all over again, suffice it to say the outcome of the games was really surprising. Squad Sekhmet is a bright bunch, a couple of those kids are a shoe-in for SOLDIER… and I completely understand why Lieutenant Rhaposodos is sponsoring their Captain.

"Oh yeah, I remember hearing about that, I've never seen the kid though, he's good?"

"Skilled enough with a sword, but he's a prodigal strategist if I've ever seen one."

"He's a smart-cookie," another SOLDIER confirmed, "Shrimpy though, smallest of his squad by far."

"I guess that follows the pattern then." Someone else chimed in, laughing, "The small ones are the brains? Like teacher like student?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well I mean look at Angeal's little pet project, Zackary Fair? He's already tall and bulky just like the Lieutenant, and now Rhapsodos has picked this little brainy kid…" the room was suddenly drowned in shushing noises.

"Dude, you can't say that!" Another Second Class protested in alarm. "You can't talk about the Lieutenant that way."

"What? I didn't mean to say Genesis was small… just."

"SHHHHHH!", "Shut up!", "Oh Gaia! Be quiet!", came the rapid interruptions.

The original offender now sounded indignant, "Hey man, he's taller than ME, I just meant he's smart, but less bulky than Hewley or the General!"

A groan echoed through the room. "You're gonna die by fireball."

"It's not like he's here!" Came the protest,

"You don't know that! He's always around somewhere!"

"Ya know, he does have those heels on his boots." Another voice added speculatively.

"We're all gonna die." Lief lamented loudly,

Further contemplation was interrupted by the far door opening again. "Sebastian!", "Sebas!" came the excited greetings,

"Quick! Tell us about the Games!" Lief said desperately, "Edgar is trying to get himself murdered!"

Genesis made quick mental notes of the name, and the voice that immediately began to protest the accusation. He tried to decide how offended he should be at the back-handed compliments. One the one hand, they'd decided he was the most intelligent among the First Class SOLDIERs, which was quite flattering, and likely accurate, but to equate that he was equally deprived in stature comparatively... He had to focus not to tighten his grip on the delicate pages and binding of his precious novel. He'd have to think of an appropriate response.

"I don't know if I'm the best storyteller for this." The voice of the SOLDIER who must be Sebastian answered, "I saw the very confusing half of events."

"Tell it together then!" Edgar cajoled loudly, to the laughter of the room, "Just TELL us!"

"Well, in that case, Essai why don't you start, the interesting strategies seemed to come from your side of the swamp, and I'll fill in what I know. Sound good?"

"I think that could work. Well, to start off; Cloud, the captain of the under-squad and Lieutenant Rhapsodos' Protégé, put together a pretty good starting strategy. He set up a three pronged offensive with an ambush style defense. But Cadet Steiner's attack force came charging right up the center, no subtlety at all. Of course he sent Third Class Thorn with the assault group." Essai said with a shake of his head. Those SOLDIERs who where familiar with Thorn groaned loudly. "So he helpfully described his orders aloud as he completed them."

"Of course he did…" was muttered from the back of the gathering.

"And they were pretty bad orders," Sebastian input, "Their orders were to attack anyone they saw with their swords."

"So the Thirds promptly got shot." Essai added with glee, "and the disorganized and confused cadets left were promptly routed by the ambush team,"

"Meanwhile, your guys showed up, the first team right up the center, three cadets, but Steiner had only left one Third behind, and it was easy enough for one of the cadets to grab the flag while the others distracted the defender. The first round was kind of a comedy of errors on Steiner's part,"

"Not that the next round went much better for him." Essai shared a laugh with Sebastian. "Cloud's strategy on round two was about the same, except he left an extra ambusher behind, this seemed to be a theme for him, he bolstered his defense up by one cadet every round."

"Huh, that's pretty interesting," Another SOLDIER added contemplatively, and Genesis had to agree with that assessment, luring the enemy into expecting weak defense, while quietly strengthening it after every attempted assault.

"If he's Rhapsodos' Pet Project he's probably hitting the books for extra credit." Another SOLDIER chortled,

"Ha! 'Hitting the books', Nice one!" A few more laughs went around the room, drowning out the few groans. Apparently Genesis had been too lax at ingraining proper respect among the second class… an error he would need to rectify when opportunity presented, he decided.

"Continue the story!" Someone else yelled into the hubbub, and perhaps Angeal was on to something about knowing his subordinates a little better, then the Lieutenant might be able to recognize some of the more uncouth of his fellows to avoid.

"Ah, yes, so Steiner's group came in a bit more circumspect the second round." Essai continued gamely, "Not enough of course, I don't think he quite figured out what happened in round one."

"He told his Thirds to defend themselves against gunfire that time." Sebastian reminisced in amusement.

"I figured it was something like that." Essai agreed, "So they tried to sneak in, and they got one of the defenders, but Cloud had told his group to change their hiding places, and when they did spring on Steiner and his insurgents, the Thirds, were told nothing about defending against swords this time…"

"Aw man!" Lief groused, "They really fell in all the pit traps, poor sods."

"I dunno, I'd have been super specific on my orders for round two if it were me."

"Ha! Yeah right! You'da probably taken six rounds to figure it out!"

"I thought these games were best three out of five?"

"Exactly! You'd still be figuring it out on the truck back home!" Ribbing and laughter followed.

"Sounds like the first two rounds were a crapshoot for Steiner's team,… they call themselves Verita or something?"

"Vritra, based on some Serpent god myth"

"They do give them those myth books to pick a name these days.

" Edgar said, "Probably to keep the names a bit more original and less, well… juvenile."

"Had one kid try to keep fighting even after being marked though, gotta keep an eye on a few of the miscreants." Essai picked up the story again.

"That happened on my side too," Sebastian returned, "It was that big slugger kid, didn't want to return to base on the third round."

"Logan." Essai nodded, "and one of your kids, Luxray? He kept trying to pick fights round two, had to scruff him myself."

"Luxiere." Sebastian nodded, "I noted him in the file, yeah, he had a couple problems."

"Same with Logan. He has some authority issues, deliberately disobeyed orders, I recommended him as unsuitable for SOLDIER."

"Glad we caught that before he was enhanced!" One of the SOLDIERs said in heartfelt relief. Genesis pieced a few notes together, big slugger cadet in Cloud's squad, he remembered tormenting some Cadets for fun when they'd assaulted Cloud months ago, he had thought he'd properly instilled the fear of command into them then. His eyes narrowed unconsciously and he had to fight his strength again to keep his grip gentle. To further test his control he carefully turned to the next page on his LOVELESS script/novel, which was the 'Definitive Collector's Edition'… and not something he would permit himself to damage. Was he losing his touch? The underlings seemed insufficiently intimidated by the threat of his reprisal, and the gall of a mere cadet … but perhaps this 'Logan' had simply forgotten, or perhaps been unaware that Cloud was now Genesis' 'Student'… He would rectify that as well.

"The next round started with a lot of mixing up." Essai said warming up to his tale, "Cloud left an extra cadet behind, but he also swapped around the cadets on offense verses defense."

"A risky move." Another SOLDIER noted, "The new attackers weren't familiar with their objective."

"True, but they would be fresher wouldn't they? Not having been running around for the last two rounds."

"And it would give his offense team a chance to get their second wind."

"Exactly what Cloud said he intended, now you remember that bruiser, Logan? Well he'd been on offense two rounds, so he was in charge of base defense, … one wave of insurgents and he decided that wasn't glory enough for him, he just took off!"

"No!" came the gasp, "Seriously? He left the base undefended?"

"There were others, assigned to ambush, but his sudden departure caused such confusion they were all tagged out before he even finished leaving." There was a loud groan.

"I can only imagine what would have happened if this hadn't been a training exercise."

"Seriously! Not everyone gets to be some sort of hotshot Hero like the Firsts."

"And even they wouldn't dream of abandoning their comrades like that!"

The murmurs of agreement rose to a susurrus mingling the voices unintelligibly for several moments. Genesis frowned at the sentiment, a small grain of discomposure settling in the back of his mind as he contemplated the odd attestations of trust. Admittedly he had not much regarded the weaker peons as possessing any respect excepting fear for the First Class, so different were their levels of skill and enhancement. Yet there was confidence in their attitudes, and assurance of proper leadership… which definitely indicated they'd never seen Sephiroth in a snit! Genesis resisted the urge to snort in amusement, … while not as enhanced as himself, the Second Classes would be highly likely to notice such an incongruous commotion. Perhaps this ideology was mostly imprinted from Angeal's attitudes. His larger peer was particularly skilled in conveying those sorts of comraderies' amongst the troops and underlings… yet they had used the plural form to refer to their commanding officers, it was something he'd have to consider more fully later. Genesis decided, putting the thought away for now as the conversation slowly steered back to the important subject matter.

"Now round four, is where things really got interesting." Essai was saying, and the audience settled into an expectant hush.

"That Logan fella, obviously couldn't be trusted, and Cloud wisely sent him on, challenged him to capture the enemy flag if he could. Nearly every other cadet was placed on defense at this point, except for Logan and his companion, and Cloud, who took another promising Cadet with him, a kid named Cyril, I looked up his scores on the way back, and he's the top in his squad behind Cloud so far, He was also pretty quick on his feet on the previous three rounds of defense and ambush."

There were some general murmurs of assent and approval. The Cadet Games were a way to introduce SOLDIERs to potential future comrades in addition to a training and assessment exercise. Genesis had always dismissed the idea as foolish, since so few of the prospective Prep. Cadets ever made the cut into SOLDIER, but he considered that he might need to reassess his disdain, he had not realized the Second Classes would be so involved in the process. He'd thought it was merely a time-wasting 'babysitting' mission for them. Apparently they had more influence on the selection of candidates then the Lieutenant had ever known… He expected that Angeal had been aware however, and the opportunity to weed out the undesirables before they became enhanced took on a new significance. He was fairly certain that his honorable friend tried to do just that whenever the prospect arose. He realized he'd been motionless for too long, and deliberately turned another page on his book.

"I didn't hear much of the offense plan," Essai admitted, "Cloud was keeping pretty mum about it with Logan around, told the kid he could have the glory if he could take it, so I imagine he didn't want that big lug mucking up Plan 'A'.

Sebastian snorted and coughed to stifle his laughter, "It really was some plan." He added, but demurred when the cry went up for details, "Let Essai finish his part first! Save the best for last."

"Well the offense teams, Cloud and Cyril, and Logan and one of his friends, took off when the signal went off, and the defense plan was probably the best I'd ever seen during the games! He sent one of the lanky kids to climb this big tree we had behind the base box. And he sat there telling everyone else where the enemy cadets were coming from with hand signals."

"If he was making hand signals, couldn't the enemy see him?"

"Naw, he was signaling down through the skylight, and the base defenders were shouting insults that had code to tell the ambush teams what to do."

"How do you use insults as code words?" Edgar asked in confusion, and Genesis was grateful someone had asked, even if it was an idiot he'd likely have to murder later.

"Well whenever they insulted someone's Mother, the insurgents were coming up the right, so they'd say stuff like 'Your mom was so slow she got run over by a tonberry.' Or 'Your mom is uglier than a Marlboro'. Both infuriating and instructional." The insurgents tried all kinds of different tactics, their captain Steiner was right on point harassing these guys, but they never got a foothold, not when they were outnumbered almost two to one. There was a lot of back and forth, and it got a bit dicey when the opposition managed to one-up the ambushers, that kid Luxio is a neat hand with a sword, even if his head has gotta few loose screws. They almost had 'em then, but with a scout giving directions, the countering rifle fire was just too accurate."

One of the SOLDIERs whistled in appreciation. "That is some pretty complex strategy for a kid."

"Can't wait to see what he comes up with after a bit more time under the Lieutenant's wing, Rhapsodos is sharp as a tack!"

"D'ya think the Lieutenant gave him the idea?" Edgar interjected suspiciously,

"What?" Lief's incredulity was audible.

"Like, coached him?"

"You better shut your mouth before I shut it for you." Another Second Class, this one Genesis thought might be named 'Guryon' an unusual name that had clung tenaciously in his memory.

"What?" Edgar sounded bizarrely bewildered.

"You don't talk about the Lieutenant like that." Guryon snarled,

"How did this idiot get into SOLDIER?" another man muttered in despair.

"That, and it would be impossible, since no one in the ranks knew anything about the plans until we were on route… the Preparation program keeps things like this pretty tight under wraps for just that reason." Sebastian said quellingly.

"You could have just said that." Edgar grumbled.

Cries of "Shut up Edgar!" and, "Continue the story!" were shouted almost simultaneously.

"Alright, where was I? Oh yes, the defense, they must have battled back and forth at Squad Sekhmet's base for a good hour, it really was a tight-lock. The opposing team was, of course, more experienced, but Cloud's strategies were solid. Still, it was a slow grind of the enemy, it seems the other guys decided to try and pin them down, they were taking out our defense slowly, now they'd of course get 'reinforcements' when the kids passed their 'out' time-limits, but Squad Vritra was relentless! Just wave after wave of attackers with concentrated cover fire. Just when it looked like they were going to break through, they were ambushed!"

"What? By who?" The audience sounded rapt into the story, that was now being told with more enthusiasm than skill, but still plenty of that.

"By Cloud and Cyril!" Essai revealed dramatically, "They were back from the enemy base! Not a speck of paint on 'em! and wielding the winning flag! Cyril made a mad dash for safety and the few scattered insurgents tried to stop him, but Cloud was right there guarding his back. And they brought home the victory!"

"They seriously won three to one? Against the more experienced team?" Came the awed gasp.

"Seriously!" Essai returned, the grin audible in his voice. "I've never seen the like, and I'll probably never see it again to be honest… Can't imagine there's two prodigies out there good enough to catch the eye of Genesis Rhapsodos himself!"

"You can say that again." One man said, to the fervent agreement of the rest.

"This is a kid to keep an eye on, he's gonna go far!" More cheers of assent followed this declaration.

When they'd finally quieted down a little, a new cry started up. "What happened at the other base? How did they get the flag!"

"Ah! I guess it's my turn now." Sebastian said with no small amount of glee. "So the offensive strikes hitting Vritra's base weren't nearly as encompassing as what was going on at the other end of the swamp, but we had that kid Logan and his little sidekick running back and forth and shooting in at any angle he could get a bead on. But having finally gotten something of a hang on his command, Steiner had instructed his three thirds to guard the base and take out anything that moved, they were really hitting back hard. He'd had one in each doorway and they just kept it buttoned up tight. With only two assaulters they couldn't get a toe in the door." He paused a moment for the inevitable comments.

"Only two? Where was Cloud?"

But Lief started chuckling. "I saw that part actually." He interjected, and must have received some signal to continue, "Cloud and Cyril, were sneaking as slowly and quietly as they could be along the farthest perimeter! And when I say 'sneak', I mean they were literally crawling in the mud, silent as a mouse."

"Don't you mean as 'mice'?" one SOLDIER interjected,

"Naw man, more than one mouse make a lot of noise, they squabble and squeak everywhere… had an infestation in the attic one time back home. Yeesh!" Another explained quickly.

"Crawling in the mud for an hour." A third man cackled, "Those kids have some serious spunk!"

"Thank Gaia for Mending spells eh?"

"No kidding! That'd been some ripe 'le parfum de pourrir' otherwise."

"The what?"

"Odor of decay." Was translated with a huff. "Rotting trees is what swamp smells like."


"Yeah, so we're all really happy that what some of you call 'Peasant' Materia exists, or we'd be cleaning out the trucks for weeks."

"Alright! We get it! What happened when Cloud got to the base though?"

"So I don't know exactly what he did, I couldn't see it. But my personal speculation is that he used the tree behind Vritra's base, just as he instructed his defenders to do." Sebastian explained carefully. "What I know for sure, is that we had the two attackers, Logan and his friend, and they were running around drawing rifle fire like it was going out of fashion. Since we had three doors, that took up the attention of two at a time at most. Well all of the sudden Thorn, who was by the East side door shouted about hearing a noise and started shooting as well. I figured the Sekhmet boys had split up or something. But then much to my astonishment. This little blond head pokes down from the skylight. He was facing away from me initially, must have had his cohort anchoring him. But he came straight down. Grabbed the flag while all of the thirds were looking outside, and then he turned his head, and this tiny little cadet had the absolute gall to smile and wave at me." The room exploded in laughter, but Sebastian continued through his own chuckles. "Then he just disappeared back up the way he came, without so much as a 'by your leave'. Like some tow-headed fairy sprite from the old tales."

"Oh gaia!" One of the SOLDIERs gasped, "Stop! I can't breath!"

And indeed even Genesis realized his lips had stretched painfully with the force of his grin. He could just picture Cloud's cheeky little grin as he outplayed his opponents with his fluffy yellow hair tugged into a veritable reverse halo by the force of gravity.

"Then another blond, a taller one who I guess must have been Cyril, peeps down just long enough to look me straight in the eye and salute upside down." Sebastian continued, to renewed laughter. "And then poof! They were both gone again without a sound!"

"Oh Bahamut! I can just picture it!" Essai laughed heartily, "No wonder he was asking Cyril how much he could lift!" The group at large, which had only just started recovering, dissolved into gasping wheezes of mirth.

"They just snuck back through the mud, flag in hand, calm as you please." Lief snickered.

"Best part! The other cadets, and the SOLDIER Third's still have no clue how it happened. I'm pretty sure at this point they think Genesis taught him to teleport or something."

"Oh man! It's just like Genesis always says, no one ever looks up!" Another Second Class howled,

"Holy Goddess! I didn't even think about that!"

"Guess the Lieutenant has been teaching the kid some tricks after all."

The Officer in question let the sounds of banter wash over him as he considered. Perhaps he had left a few impressions on the time-traveler, taught that old soul a few new techniques, he enjoyed contemplating as such, and decided he would continue to try and prove there was still much for the Goddess' warrior to learn. He yearned for the day they were equals, when he could truly test his mettle against Minerva's Chosen.

((Author's Note:

I know this chapter reiterates a lot of information you guys just read… but it's actually for GENESIS' benefit… ^_^

This is really more of a character growth chapter on several levels, so I know the action is a bit nonexistent here, but don't worry! Things should start getting exciting soon!

For those of you who will inevitably ask, this was the last chapter I fully completed before FFVII:Remake. I don't plan to make any major changes to plot at this point, but I might wiggle some nods and mentions in as they fit my narrative.

I did notice that the creators of FFVII mentioned they'd always envisioned Gaia to have lighter gravity, while her inhabitants had paradoxically higher muscle mass, this has been a personal head cannon of mine since AC, and throughout this fic! (Which I apparently forgot to explain as the reason behind Cloud's absurd numbers of pushups and other physical tests at the very beginning.) It's quite thrilling to hear I extrapolated that detail correctly from the games and movies. (Or at least envisioned as much from jump-heights, etc…)

-Jianre M. A.K.A … Illusor Meaneld.))