If there was one thing Cloud had learned in his five and a half days so far in Shinra's boot camp, it was that drill sergeants must be chosen on the basis of their capacity for sadism. He'd come to join Shinra's army to get stronger; partly so he could be strong for Tifa, but also partly to get away from the bigger kids in Nibelheim who thought they could talk down to him and push him around.
If he'd wanted to get away from bullying, he was discovering, he'd come to the wrong place.
"Cloud! What the hell was that supposed to be?" the sergeant was barking at him now. The man was standing in front of him, so close his spittle was landing on Cloud's face as he yelled. Cloud knew better by now than to do anything to get rid of it or react in any way.
"Sergeant! That was a lunge and parry, sergeant!" he answered, keeping his eyes carefully fixed on a point front and center, about a foot behind the sergeant's pasty face.
"The hell it was!" the sergeant snapped back. "That was the saddest excuse for a lunge I've seen in my entire career. Then again, you're just about the saddest excuse for a recruit I've ever seen, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised, should I?"
"Yes sergeant!" Cloud had also learned better than to try to argue or - Odin forbid - make excuses. If the sword was too heavy for him, if he was drooping with exhaustion after an afternoon spent doing endurance drills in the hot summer heat, if his arm was aching so much from yesterday's drills he could hardly lift a fork, let alone his sword... well, as the sergeant would be happy to point out, those were all good reasons for Cloud to drop out and give up 'like the pathetic loser he was'.
Dropping out and giving up weren't options Cloud was willing to consider, however. At first it had been because he'd been so determined to make himself stronger. Now, it was at least as much from a desire to prove the sergeant wrong and make him eat his words.
"And you!" The man turned on Cloud's current sparring partner, a tall dark-haired boy probably a couple of years older than him. "You're damn lucky he's so incompetent. You left a hole in your defence so wide I could summon Bahamut through it! Do you want to find yourself eviscerated?"
"No sergeant!" Cloud couldn't actually see the other cadet without moving his eyes, but he could hear the smile in the older boy's voice. So could the drill sergeant, though Cloud was certain Zack wasn't stupid enough to let the amusement actually show on his face.
"Drop and give me twenty, both of you! Then get your pansy asses in gear and start swinging those swords like they're weapons, not conducting batons!"
"Yes sergeant!" Their response came in unison, but Zack's answer was much more cheerful than Cloud's had been, bordering on irreverent. So far as Cloud had been able to determine, there was literally nothing that would cause Zack to lose his good cheer. The sergeant certainly seemed to have made it a personal mission to try, which at least gave Cloud some relief from the man's attentions.
On the other hand, Zack had good reason to be cheerful. Scuttlebutt in the camp said that Zack was already being scouted by officers as a candidate for the SOLDIER program. He was the best in their squad, probably the best in the entire boot camp, and everybody knew he was going to end up as an officer at the very least. Pissy drill sergeants aside, Zack had no cause to be anything less than cheerful.
Some days Cloud hated him for it. Especially when he had to drill with Zack, because it just made him look even more frail and incompetent than he was. As they both dropped to their hands and toes and started doing the required push ups, Cloud could already tell Zack was going to be finished in half the time he was.
"What in Hades' name are the rest of you lily-livered pansies looking at?" he heard the sergeant bellow. "Get back to your drills!" There was a scramble of motion as everyone else renewed their efforts at the sword drill, not wanting to be the next one singled out for abuse.
"I wonder if drill sergeants start out that mean, or if it's a process they go through like the one that makes SOLDIERs?" came an unexpected whisper from beside him. Cloud glanced over, surprised to see Zack grinning at him between push ups.
"It's gotta be special training," he muttered back. "Nobody's that mean naturally."
"Maybe that's what's behind the rumours of monsters appearing in the wilds outside Midgar," Zack said thoughtfully. "It's really just the retired drill sergeants getting frustrated because they don't have anybody to pick on."
That startled Cloud into a snicker. He did his best to muffle it and turn it into a cough, but he was too late. "I'm glad you find your punishment so amusing!" the sergeant said, coming back to stand in front of him. Cloud groaned internally. "Since you're enjoying it so much, maybe you'll find KP duty just as entertaining!"
Great. He was going to starve because he wouldn't have enough strength left in his arms to feed himself, and get no sleep because of being on KP. Cloud had already been assigned Kitchen Patrol once this week; the camp cooks had a seemingly infinite pile of vegetables that needed chopping and peeling, and they were more than happy to put a wayward cadet to work for half the night or more. "Thanks a lot!" he hissed at Zack as the sergeant moved away again and the older boy was climbing to his feet.
"Hey, I..." Whatever Zack had been about to say was cut off as the sergeant bellowed for him again.
"Zack! Get over here and train with Thomas. At this rate Miss Cloud there won't be done until the drill session is over."
"Yes sergeant!" Zack replied smartly, and marched off to the indicated spot. Cloud noticed the other boy's steps didn't drag in the least; if he was tired after the long day of training, he wasn't showing it. Just one more thing to resent the Golden Boy for.
He did finish the push ups before the drill session was over, but he didn't fare much better against his new sparring partner. Either Zack was performing well enough that the sergeant couldn't find anything to fault, or the man had decided it was 'pick on Cloud' open season, because he never moved more than a few feet from Cloud for the rest of the session. And, of course, he was more than happy to point out Cloud's long list of mistakes and failings loudly enough to be sure everyone in the whole bloody camp heard him.
Cloud ground his teeth and refused to even listen, concentrating everything he had into the next swing of the sword. And the next, and the next after that, in an endless repetition that seemed like it would never be over.
Finally the trilling whistle that signalled the changing of the guard came, and that meant their drill session was over. Cloud didn't drop his sword or let the point drag in the dust, he'd learned that lesson on their first day. He slid the sabre gratefully back into the sheath at his waist and formed up with the rest of his squad to be dismissed.
Pacing back and forth in front of their lines, the sergeant eyed them with his hands folded behind his back. "Congratulations," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "You all have made it through six days of training. Clearly our standards have fallen drastically." He shook his head. "Tomorrow is your last day of boot camp. Those of you who make it through tomorrow will have earned the right to call yourselves privates in Shinra Corp's army."
Pausing, he eyed them all slowly. "Don't start celebrating just yet," the sergeant warned. "Tomorrow will be harder than all six days you've been through combined, and then some. Shinra is not interested in funding a corps of whining babies who run back to their mamas at the first sign of hardship, which is about all you lot add up to. We will be putting you through hell, and we will be testing you to your limits and beyond. Not all of you will make it to the end of the day."
Now Cloud was certain the man was staring straight at him, though he didn't dare turn his eyes to check. His jaw clenched, and his hand tightened on the hilt of the sword. The thought of a day worse than everything so far was nearly enough to break him... but not quite. He'd come this far, there was no way in hell he was backing down now.
"Dismissed!" the sergeant finally barked, and the cadets turned in their lines to march smartly off in formation.
Of course, the formation broke up into little straggling groups as soon as they were out of the room. None of the groups included Cloud; he'd never been good at making friends, and he hadn't had the energy to spare to even make the attempt while he was trying to survive boot camp. He picked up his pace despite his exhaustion, not wanting to linger and watch everyone else laughing and having fun.
Showering was a noisy, crowded affair. Cloud didn't think he would ever get used to bathing in front of so many people, but it was just another thing he had to grit his teeth and bear. It wasn't like it was difficult, just embarrassing. He wasn't really all that short, but he was still half the size of some of his squad in terms of sheer mass.
At least being the scrawny runt meant it was easy for him to worm his way through the press of bodies and find an empty space big enough for him at one of the nozzles. He washed himself quickly but thoroughly, wanting to get to the mess as fast as possible. If he got there early enough, he could claim a seat to himself in a corner and not get stuck among a bunch of laughing, chattering men who didn't particularly want him there.
The food the cooks plopped down on his tray looked unappetizing at best, inedible at worst. Cloud was used to it by now, though, and took what was given to him without complaint. Some of the others weren't so resigned; he could hear more than one voice protesting the glop, and the sharp retorts of the cooks.
Settling himself into his preferred quiet corner, he started shovelling the crap into his mouth, trying to ignore the aching protest of his much-abused arm. Normally he hurried through his meals so he wouldn't have to taste the awful stuff any longer than necessary, but tonight he was in no rush. Once he was done he had to report for KP, and every minute spent lingering over his meal was one less he'd have to spend peeling vegetables.
No one had ever disturbed him in his solitude before, so he was more than a little shocked when somebody dropped a tray on the table in front of him and plopped down onto the bench. Somehow he wasn't entirely surprised to see who it was.
"What do you want?" he asked, more curtly than he'd really intended.
Zack gave him a soulful look, like Cloud's abruptness had hurt his feelings. "Look, I didn't mean to get you in trouble. Honest. Sarge finds enough flaws to pick on without us handing them to him on a silver platter. I'm sorry."
It was hard to stay mad in the face of such a sincere apology, especially since Cloud was fairly certain the older boy really hadn't intended it maliciously. "It's fine," he said, prodding at a lump of what he thought might be mashed potatoes, not looking up to meet Zack's eyes. "If it wasn't that, it would have been something else. He likes to make certain I'm aware that I'm the worst in the squad."
"Sure, but you've been the worst in the squad since day one, and you're still here," Zack commented cheerfully. "Half the people who started out with us have packed it in already. And I bet they're not going to be able to chase you off tomorrow either, are they?"
Startled, Cloud made the mistake of lifting his head and was immediately caught in the older boy's gaze. For all that he'd just insulted Cloud, there was an odd sort of earnestness in his eyes. "Look, you made your apology and I accepted it," Cloud said gruffly. "You don't have to stay here and eat with me just to show how sorry you are, or because you're taking pity on me or whatever the hell you're doing."
"Is that what you think?" Zack sounded amused rather than offended as Cloud ducked his head to stare at his tray again. "You don't have many friends back home, do you?"
"That's twice in as many breaths that you've insulted me," Cloud said, getting angry. "Would you just go away and leave me in peace?"
His anger wasn't helped any when Zack merely chuckled and propped his chin on his hands, his elbows on the table. "Ramuh, but you're a prickly little thing, aren't you? Look, I like you okay? I've been watching you since about our third day here, and you've got a lot of spirit."
"That's a polite way of implying that spirit is all I've got," Cloud pointed out between gritted teeth. "I'm sure you enjoy the fact that being around me makes you look that much better, but you don't really need the boost to your ego. You're already the Golden Boy."
"Heh. Is that what they're calling me?" Zack snickered, having apparently missed the point of Cloud's rant entirely. "That should be your nickname, not mine. I've never seen hair that blonde before. You'd better tuck in, or you'll just be hungry when you're still peeling carrots at oh-dark-hundred."
Suiting action to words, Zack started eating with every evidence of enthusiasm. Cloud couldn't help but watch him with a sort of sick fascination. "How can you eat that stuff like it actually tastes good?"
Chuckling, Zack swallowed and grinned at him. "I spent a while in the Midgar slums before I signed up. Trust me, compared to what's available down there this is good. You been down there yet?"
Shaking his head, Cloud went back to eating his own meal. He didn't bother to answer, not wanting to encourage the older boy in conversation. Zack seemed to catch his mood, or maybe the brunette was just that hungry, because he went back to cleaning his plate without another word.
Zack went back for seconds, but returned to his place across from Cloud as if they'd always sat together. Even so he was finished at about the same time Cloud was, inhaling the food like a human vortex. "Do you always eat like that?" Cloud couldn't help blurting out.
"Sure," Zack grinned at him again. "I'm a growing boy after all. Aren't you hungry? You're nothing but skin and bones, and you look like you've got a lot of growing left to do yet."
"I'm always hungry," Cloud admitted, a little ruefully. "This stuff is just awful. I hope they serve the troops better food than they give the cadets, or I'm going to starve to death in my first week."
"Miss your mama's cooking, huh?" Zack's smile became sympathetic. "Me too. My mom was such a great cook, I could stuff myself on her food and never get enough. It's a good thing I left as young as I did, or I'd have eaten my parents out of house and home. But I do miss it. She made the best cherry cobbler this side of... well, anywhere..."
Somehow, Cloud realized as he stood and gathered his tray while Zack chattered on, he'd been drawn into an actual conversation with the other boy even though he hadn't meant to. Zack was like a fire spell; bright and passionate and impossible to ignore, burning you without meaning to but you wanted to get close and warm your hands anyway.
It wasn't until Zack actually followed him through the door to the kitchens after they'd deposited their trays that Cloud realized the older boy seemed perfectly willing to trail him all the way to his punishment duty. "Where are you going?" he interrupted the stream of cheerful words.
"KP duty," Zack said, as if it should have been obvious.
"What? Why?" Cloud was mystified. Surely he'd have remembered if they'd given Zack KP at some point during the day. It wasn't like the sergeant pulled them aside privately to hand out punishments. "You're not the one who got in trouble."
"No, but I'm the one who made you get in trouble," Zack shrugged. "If I hadn't been mouthing off you'd have been fine. So I'm going too. It'll make the work go faster."
"You're crazy, you know that?" Shaking his head, Cloud stared up at him. "It's not like having you there will get me out any sooner. They'll keep me until they feel like letting me go, not until I've done a specific amount of work."
"Yeah, sure, but having company always makes the work go faster. Besides," Zack winked at him. "Us backwater hicks gotta stick together." He started towards the kitchens again while Cloud was still trying to formulate an answer to that. "You're from Nibelheim, right? I recognize the accent."
"How did you...?" Cloud trailed off, mystified. Sure, he had enough of an accent that everyone could tell he was from the western continent. But most people in Midgar didn't seem able to distinguish between the subtleties of foreign accents.
"I'm from Gongaga," Zack confided. "Trust me, when I got here my drawl was as bad as yours. In a year or two yours'll wear off too. So, like I said, hick solidarity. Now get your feet moving, soldier. The sooner you get to the kitchens, the more likely the cooks are to let you off at something approximating a more reasonable hour."
Helplessly Cloud found himself following along behind. He revised his earlier comparison; Zack wasn't like a fire spell, he was like the Typhoon summon they'd seen an officer demonstrate the other day. He just picked you up and swept you along with him, and all you could do was hope you came out the other side in one piece.
The cooks didn't question being presented with two cadets for KP rather than just one, and shortly both Zack and Cloud were ensconced on the most uncomfortable stools Cloud had ever encountered. Cloud was peeling the first of a truly impressive pile of potatoes, and Zack was chopping greens. Somewhat to Cloud's disbelief and irritation, Zack was actually humming softly under his breath as he worked, tapping one foot idly along with the beat.
"Never fails to amaze me how they can take perfectly good ingredients and turn it into the nameless sludge they feed us in the mess," Zack said after a few moments. "If I wasn't looking at these veggies myself, I'd have said there wasn't a single bit of real food in that slop. Maybe this goes to the officers?"
"I challenge your definition of 'perfectly good'," Cloud replied, holding up one particularly sorry specimen of potato for proof. This one was especially bad, shrunken and wizened like it had never had a chance to grow properly, but none of them were likely to win any prizes. "Where do they grow these, in a cave?"
"Farms outside Midgar," Zack replied, his tone more sober than Cloud had yet heard it. The change surprised him, and he looked at the older boy more closely. "Pretty soon they're going to have to give up on the home farms and start shipping it in, I think. Nothing grows properly around here any more. The soil dries out more every year, and they don't know why." He shrugged. "Good news for farming communities elsewhere, not so good news for the people beneath the plate who can barely afford food prices as it is."
Like a dog shaking off water, Zack tossed his head and shed the sombre mood he'd briefly slipped into. Cloud watched the change with fascination. So there was more to Zack than the hyperactive incessantly cheerful Golden Boy after all.
"Speaking of living under the plate," he said, pointing the knife at Cloud with a mock-accusatory look. "How in Hades' name did you convince the recruiters you were old enough to sign on?"
Caught off guard, Cloud sputtered. "Hey! What makes you think I lied about my age?" he asked indignantly. "Maybe I'm just short!" Half of his indignation came from the fact that he had lied, of course. But when he'd gotten to Midgar and found out you had to be sixteen to sign on, he'd just about died.
"Bullshit," Zack said in a conversational tone. "Kid, I am just barely old enough to be here, and there's no way in hell you're my age. You look like I did when I got here at fourteen, at least, I don't think I was any scrawnier than you then. I spent a year and a half after I got here living in sector 5, coming up to the recruiting office every month to try to convince them I was old enough, and they weren't having any. How'd you do it?"
The image of Zack as a kid as small as Cloud was, harassing the poor recruiting officers, was enough to make him laugh. "Come off it, you were never as small as I am," he said, sure of this much. He'd thought Zack was eighteen at least; if he really was just sixteen, he was the best muscled sixteen-year-old Cloud had ever met.
"No seriously, I was," Zack insisted with a grin. "Little shrimp right off the boat, Gongagan accent so thick nobody could understand me, and it was the shock of my life that I was too young to sign on. All my big dreams of winning fame and fortune as a SOLDIER hadn't included having to wait around to be old enough."
Cloud flushed and ducked his head, hoping Zack wouldn't read on his face that he'd gone through exactly the same thought process. He hadn't yet admitted to anyone here that he wanted to be a SOLDIER, because he just knew they would laugh at him. They laughed at him enough for just wanting to be an ordinary trooper, he wasn't going to give them free ammunition.
"Anyway, there I was without a penny to my name, since I'd stowed on board the ship to get to Junon and walked to Midgar," Zack was continuing, waving his knife around for emphasis in a way that would have made Cloud worried except for his certainty that Zack knew exactly where it was at all times. "Half starved, freezing because it was the middle of winter and I'm from a place that's never even seen snow, and being told 'Thanks for your interest, come back when you're older'. I lucked out and managed to find enough work to keep me fed and sheltered down in sector 5, and now that I'm finally sixteen they let me in." He pointed the knife at Cloud again. "So? How'd you do it?"
There was some satisfaction in knowing he'd managed to do something that Golden Boy Zack had failed at. Cloud's lips twitched despite himself as he admitted, "I set up camp at the recruiting office door and refused to budge until they signed my paperwork. They had to go in and out through the back door, nobody could get past me. They threatened to shoot me a couple times, but finally a visiting officer said if I was that determined, they should just let me go kill myself in training."
"You... you camped out..." Zack stared at him with his mouth open, knife drooping in his hand, then burst out laughing. "You stubborn son of a bitch! That's one thing I never tried, for sure. And I thought I was being a pain in the ass coming back every month."
The older boy was actually crying with laughter now, and he dropped the knife on the counter so he could wrap his arms around his stomach and wheeze. Cloud watched, utterly nonplussed. Surely it wasn't that funny.
"Cloud, don't let them ever convince you that you're not good enough to be here," Zack said when he finally started to calm down, wiping his eyes. "You're trying for SOLDIER, am I right?"
Looking away, Cloud swallowed. Zack was still chuckling, but he didn't seem to be laughing at Cloud, or at least not at his dream. "Yeah," he acknowledged gruffly. "I made a promise to myself."
"Then you're going to do it, because fucking hell I've never met anybody with your determination." Cloud couldn't see Zack's expression, but the tone of his voice was almost... admiring? "They're gonna try to shoot you down, but if you stick with it you'll make it eventually." Zack nudged him in the shin with the toe of his boot, and Cloud looked back at him. The older boy was grinning. "We'll do it together, okay? You and me, we'll take SOLDIER by storm."
"Why do you care?" Cloud burst out, unable to contain himself any more. "What difference does it make to you what I want to be? You're going to make it, everybody knows that. They're already talking about how you might even make 1st Class. What do you need me for?"
"To watch my back, of course," Zack said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "Everyone's gotta have someone to watch their back, if they plan to get anywhere. Besides," he flashed his incorrigible grin again, "I want to have a friend, someone I know I can count on. And so far you're the only person I've met in this whole damn camp who seems worth the effort."
Staring at him for a long moment, Cloud tried to find his voice. His brain seemed to have shut down sometime during that little speech, and the words just weren't coming. "You're nuts," he finally managed. "Everyone will be happy to tell you so, too. I'm just going to slow you down."
"If ninety percent of people are telling you that you're doing something wrong, then you probably made the right choice," Zack informed him cheerfully. "I don't really care what people think of me, or my friends. I told you before, I like you. I want to be your friend. If you don't want to, that's fine. But don't tell me the guy who argued the Shinra recruiting office into taking him years too early is gonna let the opinions of a bunch of jealous jerks dictate who his friends are."
Once again Cloud found himself lost for words. Slowly he shook his head. "I still think you're crazy," he said, hoping his voice wasn't wobbling too much. Had he ever had a friend? A real friend, not just someone he wanted to be close to, like Tifa? "But if you're happy being crazy, I'm not going to argue with you."
Clearing his throat, he shrugged and turned back to his potatoes, not wanting to let the rather sappy moment stretch out to the point where it would be embarrassing. More embarrassing, rather. "Now start chopping, or they'll never let us get back to our bunks," he ordered roughly. "We've got a hard day tomorrow."