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Called Forth

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Zack liked monster hunting missions. They were much simpler than being sent out on the battlefield; although he loved the challenge of fighting another human being, the fact that it was war and not some simple sparring match meant that one of them would die, and afterwards, he couldn't help but feel guilty about the thrill he found in combat, because he didn't think anyone should ever feel happy about killing another person. Even the fact that they were trying to kill him didn't really change the feeling he had that he shouldn't enjoy it quite so much.

Killing monsters was much more straightforward.

Add in the fact that he'd been sent out with Angeal, and Zack thought this mission was pretty near perfect. Angeal looked like he was enjoying himself, too. Zack wondered if all SOLDIERs enjoyed getting out of Midgar as much as he did. It was possible, because he felt really antsy if he had to stay too long in the Tower between missions. He wasn't sure, but he thought that Angeal went on more missions now that he had Zack as a student than before. It made sense, as there probably weren't many problems that required a SOLDIER of Angeal's calibre to deal with them, but Zack was just a Second, and still in training. If that was the case, then Zack felt like maybe he was giving something back in return for all the time and attention Angeal gave him.

Monster missions also meant the most interesting loot, too. There was a bounty on monster parts as some of them were useful for all kinds of things, many of which Zack didn't want to think about too hard because that was just gross. But some of the smarter monsters also hoarded things, items that Zack assumed they either found, or took from their prey. It was a bit like a treasure hunt.

And Nibel wolves were definitely smart. Zack killed another one, and wondered what this pack was doing so far from their home range. They weren't even on the right continent, let alone amongst the right mountains. Smart or not, he didn't see wolves buying tickets for the ferry trip over.

The last one, and Angeal fell back, allowing Zack to deal with it himself. With a loud whoop, Zack delivered a killing blow. The wolf fell, and something red and shiny rolled free. Zack's eyes followed it with the bright curiosity of a magpie.

"Materia? What does a wolf need with materia?"

"Who knows," Angeal said, frowning as Zack bent to pick the globe up.

"Eew, wolf slobber." He wiped it off, and gave it a closer look. "Red are summons, right?"

"Yes. They're more dangerous than most, because it's very hard to tell exactly what you're going to get until you activate the materia. That's why we keep very careful records on them once they're found." Angeal paused. "Zack. You're not going to try it to see what it does." The words were both caution and order.

"Aww, come on, Angeal," Zack pleaded. "We're in the middle of nowhere. Nobody else around to get hurt if it goes wrong."

"Except us."

"We're SOLDIERs; we can take it."

Angeal gave him an amused look. "I'm not going to write in my report that we were fine until you summoned something that accidentally dumped half a mountain on us."

"When we get back to camp, then? That's low enough we don't have to worry about setting off an avalanche or something. And the grass isn't very dry at the moment," Zack pointed out, forestalling another possible objection. One of his teachers in Materia theory had had harsh words to say about an idiot SOLDIER who used a fire-type summons in the middle of dry grasslands and nearly roasted his own men in the process. Zack got the impression that one way or another, that particular SOLDIER wasn't on the rolls any longer.

"Not in the camp," Angeal agreed after a long moment. "And if you summon it, it's best that it has a target. We'll find something low-level not too far away, and you can try it out." Under his breath, he muttered, "I had better not regret this."

"You won't!" Zack asserted. What were the chances that a wolf was carrying around a high-level summon materia in his mouth? But some of the smaller summons were fun, like ChocoMog. He slipped the red globe into his pocket, already gleefully anticipating the experiment to come. They'd find a low-level monster, he'd summon whatever it was and kick some monster ass, and they'd find out just what the materia actually did.

And Zack would be the first to know.

Monster hunting missions really were the best.

* * *

"A mandragora?" Zack's voice was slightly incredulous.

"If that's a naturally formed materia, chances are that it's completely un-levelled and won't manage even one successful summoning. This way, if it does fail, you still have time to recover and kill it," Angeal said patiently.

Zack pouted. Yes, Angeal had said 'low-level monster', but this was so low-level, it was almost embarrassing. "Wait – what about you?"

"I shall be standing well back, because we don't know what that thing summons yet, remember? You should be reasonably safe as the summoner, but that doesn't mean your surroundings will be."

"Oh, right." Angeal's cautions were beginning to make Zack a little nervous about trying the new materia out, but he gave himself a brisk shake, and eyed up the small, ambulatory plant that was still a good distance from them both. Mandragoras weren't particularly fast, and as long as he could avoid being hit by a status attack, he'd be fine, no matter what happened. If he succeeded in summoning whatever-it-was, he'd have a great story to tell the other guys back in Midgar: a brand new summon and even if it wasn't very spectacular, he'd still be first. If he failed – well, he'd just kill the stupid plant and not mention it to anybody.

Zack nodded firmly, and stepped out from behind the cover. "Right. Here it goes."

The mandragora turned when he was till just a few metres away, waving green and purple foliage at him in warning. Zack judged it close enough to target, and concentrated on the red globe he'd slotted into his bracer. Thinking of what Angeal had said about it being so newly formed that it might not work at all, he tried to push as much of his mental energy into it as he could.

Nothing at first, then a sudden, dizzying rush as it drew on his MP. Zack's eyes widened; it was drawing a lot, and showed no signs of stopping. Whatever the materia summoned wasn't low-level at all. He felt himself almost pushed aside in the way a higher level summons did, and hoped Angeal would tell him what happened when he returned as the scrubby brush and rock of the foothills disappeared into empty white space.

The drain continued for what seemed like an eternity, then there was a pause. For a long moment, Zack wondered what was going on. Just when he thought maybe something had gone wrong, he felt a series of sharp impacts, the vibration of which seemed to travel up his arms as if he'd struck someone with his sword. But these blows were rapid, so fast that Zack didn't think he could pull them off; he tried to count them, and lost it somewhere around twelve. There were a lot of them. When reality faded back in, he was looking at what might have been a mandragora once but was now so badly sliced up that it looked more like the shredded weeds the ShinRa canteen passed off as coleslaw.

"Overkill," a voice murmured in his ear, and it wasn't Angeal.

"What?" Zack asked, startled, but there was nothing more. He looked at the mess in the middle of the path, and now he could see that there were slice marks around it, too. Straight, perfect marks that cut deep into rock. "Whoa."

"Zack?" Angeal called. He heard the older man scrambling over brush and rock, and turned. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," Zack replied, and was surprised to realise it was true. Although it had seemed as if the summons had been determined to draw every last bit of energy he had left, he didn't feel all that much more tired than he had before he started. "Did you see it? What was it?"

He was almost disappointed that it was such a high-level summons, because they did push the summoner aside, sending them briefly – elsewhere. A lesser one, and he'd have stayed where he was, able to see the results for himself.

"It looked like -" Angeal broke off, frowned.

"What? It looked like what?" Zack prompted, bouncing in place.

"It looked like a man. A man with a sword."

"That's it?" He was disappointed, Zack decided.

"Most summons don't look even remotely human, Zack. It's very unusual." But there still seemed to be something more bothering Angeal about it.

He'd just have to get Angeal to summon it for him. Zack started marshalling his arguments. He'd persuade Angeal tonight, while they were camping, and tomorrow, he'd see for himself just what it looked like. He allowed Angeal to guide him back to the camp, and it was only because his own hearing was enhanced, that he heard his mentor murmur to himself, "He had SOLDIER eyes."

* * *

It took a lot of pleading, and pointing out that they should have as many facts as possible to report to the scientists of the Materia Room when they returned, to convince Angeal that he should try the summons materia himself. The latter argument got him an amused look for his trouble: the Materia Research Department would likely have something to say about their trying out a new materia without proper examinations being done first, and authorisations granted. They liked it when SOLDIERs found new materia for them, but seemed more reluctant to let them play with it again afterwards unless it was for their own purposes. But Angeal agreed.

And now the two of them were watching a levrikon while Angeal slotted the small red globe into his bracer.

"We know it works," Zack said. "We could try for something bigger."

"I'm going to see if I can use a lower-powered attack. And it might not work as well for me," Angeal added. "From what you said about not feeling very tired afterwards, you seem to be quite compatible with it."

"Really?" He hadn't known it was possible to be compatible with summons. Elemental materia, sure, but summons were... weird. They could be anything from low-level monsters to gods.

Zack stifled an irreverent thought on which of the two would be worse, and focused on Angeal as he moved towards the levrikon. It would be easier if they knew what kind of attack radius the summon had, and likely they were getting far closer than was truly necessary, but if the summoned being couldn't find its intended target – well, there were stories about that, too. Not the kind you heard in Materia Theory, but the sort that you really hoped were just rumours and camp-fire tales.

Angeal stopped, the arm with the equipped bracer held loosely at his side, and Zack could see a vague reddish glow gathering at his wrist. That glow expanded in increasingly bright wreaths of white and red, and then there was somebody else standing there.

Zack blinked. Angeal had said the summons looked human, but he'd still expected something more... alien than this. A stocky figure with messy blond hair that fell in soft spikes, much shorter than Angeal, was pulling a – okay, so that was kind of spectacular, Zack thought as he took in the sword. The blade was made of a pale metal that didn't match anything he'd seen before, and with his enhanced vision, he could make out grooves that seemed to divide the blade into sections, emanating from an odd mechanism built into the cross-guard. He wondered what it did, and leaned forward a little more.

The blond warrior settled into a low stance, weight spread wide to counter that of his over-sized weapon, and paused. He angled his head almost as if listening to something, then leapt straight upward in a jump that would have done any SOLDIER proud. He seemed to hover in mid-air, sword raised as if in salute – and when he angled the blade down towards his target, fiery rocks rained down.

"And he said yesterday was overkill?" Zack muttered as the figure dropped to earth, landing in a low crouch before a wide circle of ground that was now pitted and charred. A misshapen lump of roasted flesh remained in the middle, all that was left of the levrikon Angeal had targeted.

The swordsman turned, and his lips formed a single word, curving in something that might have been a smile.

"Zack."

* * *

They were a good half-hour's walk away from the site of their second test before Angeal said anything. "I think we should hand the materia over to the Materia Room as soon as we get back. And I don't think we should mention trying it at all."

"What!?" Zack stared at his mentor in astonishment. That was... not lying, precisely, but he'd never thought he'd ever hear Angeal advocate anything that close to deliberate dishonesty.

"It's a powerful summon, and it appears to be quite intelligent. And you seem to have a high compatibility with it. I was focusing on a less powerful attack, and I'm not sure whether what resulted was or not; but it was clearly magic-based, and when you summoned him, he used a physical attack. I still don't think we've seen the limits of what he can do, and I really don't think we should try."

He, Zack noted, as if it were another person – and it quite possibly was. He'd been taught that summoned beings could be gods or monsters, but what about something in between? "But if it can do more -"

"Zack, it knew your name. And while it may look human, it's not. It can't be. If we report anything about this, they'll want you to take part in further testing. And I don't trust something that powerful that can think for itself." Angeal stopped, and looked at him gravely. "If I thought it any safer, I'd try throwing it away and hoping it didn't ever show up again. But magic can be – capricious."

Unlike Commander Rhapsodos, who was supposed to be his best friend, or even General Sephiroth himself, Angeal had always been quite sparing with materia use, preferring to trust in his own abilities. Zack was tempted to challenge his assertion on those grounds – except there were stories about what happened when Sephiroth and Genesis had unleashed powerful spells on the battlefield, and they involved the kind of total devastation that would make anybody think twice, let alone someone of Angeal's moral calibre. While Zack wanted to be a great SOLDIER, he didn't want to even contemplate killing on that kind of scale.

Angeal was trying to protect him. Zack wouldn't fault him for that. But in the end, his mind focused on the other thing Angeal had said: that the summoned being couldn't be human. And that was something Zack wasn't so sure of.

How had he known Zack's name? "It's probably just because I summoned him the first time," Zack said without much conviction, before letting the subject drop.

Angeal had noted that the being's eyes held the same kind of glow that a SOLDIER's eyes did: the glow of mako exposure. There were many ways that could have happened. But Zack had managed to get a good look at the blond warrior's clothes. They were a little strange, but didn't appear to be very foreign or out-of-date. He'd noted the combat harness, a prosaic touch of practicality that seemed out of place for a being from another dimension, or wherever summons were supposed to come from. And there was the wolf symbol on the shoulder guard, which might be useful for figuring out who or what the stranger was supposed to be. But just like Angeal had been shaken by SOLDIER eyes, Zack had been startled by something else that was a little too familiar.

Beneath the harness, half-hidden by the loose sleeve that draped from his shoulder armour, the blond swordsman wore the charcoal vest of a SOLDIER First Class.

* * *

The summon materia was handed in at the Materia Room and, as Angeal had suggested, neither of them said anything about their 'testing' of it, or the results. Zack's training continued as normal. He would have thought Angeal had forgotten the incident entirely except for the fact that he was making sure Zack trained with other summon materia, ones that were known quantities.

Zack didn't mind this at all; he still got a kick out of using ChocoMog, which was too undignified for some SOLDIERs, or even the Cactuar summon with the silly dance. He caught Angeal smiling when he mimicked that performance with startling accuracy. And the bigger ones – well, Ifrit was pretty kick-ass, and Shiva always sent a cold thrill through him that he thought had absolutely nothing to do with the ice she wielded.

But they didn't make him forget the strange summon materia. If anything, he thought about it more, because none of them were anything like it. The lower-level ones were very simple: ChocoMog had a feeling of animal intelligence combined with playfulness, while the Cactuar summon was more wary, aiming as much to distract as to damage its opponent. Ifrit was powerful and otherworldly, while Shiva, for all that she resembled a human, felt anything but. And so Zack continued to wonder about a swordsman in SOLDIER charcoals with bright blue eyes, who had actually spoken to him twice and unleashed sword attacks that reverberated along Zack's arms as if he dealt the blows himself.

Compatible, Angeal had said, as if that explained everything.

Wanting answers, Zack visited the Materia Room, and struck up idle conversations with the scientists there. It was a dangerous tactic, although not in a physical sense. Some of them could talk for hours once they got started. He learned more than he ever wanted to know about some types of materia.

Nobody else had managed to summon anything from the materia they'd handed in, he discovered, but it had been given a fairly low priority and only a few tests had been carried out. He asked how they went about testing, and was informed that they used the same ranges that SOLDIERs did for materia practice. For those that might have a larger area effect, they went to the training grounds just outside of Midgar. Zack was quite honestly surprised by that, as Angeal always found real enemies for him to practice summoning on. There were plenty of low-level monsters in the sewers or on the edge of the plains, after all. He wondered if a summon would be offended at being used on mere training dummies. Could summons even feel offence?

Of course, there was only one summon that might tell him something like that. There was only one summon who'd ever talked to him.

He asked, casually, what would happen if you summoned something without a target. He mentioned, with a forced laugh, one of the stories he'd heard, played it up a little. The scientist he spoke to looked amused.

"I suppose it's possible they could attack something else, but unlikely. They don't really act of their own will; it's the summoner who decides the target. They come, attack what you tell them to, then leave." She gave him a condescending look. "You shouldn't believe everything you hear, especially if they're the kind of stories that only come out after a few drinks."

"What if you didn't tell them to do anything?"

"Well..." She looked thoughtful. "I suppose they'd stay until you ran out of MP to support them. Just like any other spell stops working if you don't have enough energy."

* * *

Angeal was on assignment, a month-long mission in Wutai, and Zack was supposed to train and take minor solo missions. He wasn't disobeying either directive in doing so, but it still took two weeks for him to work up the courage to go to the Materia Room and request the materia he wanted.

"That one?" the lab tech on duty asked. "I think it's a dud."

"Maybe it just needs to level up a bit more," Zack pointed out, slipping it into his bracer. "I'll go kill some monsters, and maybe it will get strong enough to actually do something."

The tech laughed. "Maybe. It might take a lot of monsters, though."

Zack headed for the edge of the city, and found an isolated spot. He looked at the bracer on his wrist, and the shine of the the red globe held within it. "I don't know why you're giving everybody such a hard time, because I know you're not un-levelled." Zack had successfully summoned from it, and so had Angeal. Of course, Zack had been there when Angeal summoned. Looked at that way, it was enough to make him nervous all over again.

But he wanted to know, and he was pretty sure this wouldn't kill him.

Zack focused on the materia, felt the drain as it latched on to his MP and began to draw on it, and then the world slipped away into white.

The draining sensation didn't seem to last as long this time. It stopped, and Zack waited. Nothing happened.

He wondered if maybe the summoned swordsman was standing there, outside Midgar, wondering what to do next. "Uh, hello?"

Still nothing, but he imagined that he felt the weight of somebody's attention on him. "I know this is kind of a strange thing to do, but I just wanted to ask a few questions."

He heard a sigh. "People don't usually look me up for my conversational skills," a sardonic voice answered. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once.

"Well, you are pretty good at killing things," Zack admitted.

"Yes." The flat word didn't sound very encouraging, but now Zack had pinpointed the voice as coming from directly in front of him.

Maybe a change of subject was in order. "That time that Angeal summoned you, you called me by name. Do you... know me, or something?" Could he have read it out of Zack's mind when he summoned him? That was kind of freaky, because Zack wasn't sure he wanted to be summoning things that could read his mind. What if he thought the wrong thing and made them mad?

"I did, but not yet."

Zack frowned. "That doesn't make any sense," he objected.

No response.

He stared into the empty white space. If this was where summons lived when they weren't being summoned, it was pretty boring. No wonder they were so happy to answer when people summoned them. Zack thought he could almost make out the faint outline of someone standing before him, even if the swordsman should be in his world at the moment. "You're wearing a SOLDIER vest, and you have mako eyes. Were you a SOLDIER?"

A long pause. "Something like that," the voice said cautiously.

"But how did you end up as a summon?"

"I... can't say."

"Oh." Zack felt some consternation over that response. If the swordsman-summon had been a SOLDIER, that would explain how he knew Zack – except Zack thought he would have remembered someone like him, if only because his sword was kind of awesome. And if SOLDIERs could end up becoming summons, well, that might explain why Angeal was so disturbed by it. Had Angeal known him? No, he hadn't acted as if the swordsman was someone that he recognised. SOLDIER wasn't that big; Zack knew most of his comrades by sight if not by name.

"Uh. Why hasn't anyone else managed to summon you?" he asked as he tried to think of how else to find out what he needed to know.

"I don't like scientists."

Zack made a face. He didn't really like scientists either, but every SOLDIER had to deal with them, as they came part and parcel with the mako treatments. And the Materia Room contingent weren't bad as far as ShinRa scientists went. Hojo and the people who worked directly for him were scary.

Wait, could they have created the summon materia somehow? But if so, how did a wolf get hold of it? Too many things didn't make sense.

"You should be careful."

Zack started at the unexpected words, and stared intently at the vague shape before him. "Careful? Of what?"

"ShinRa has... a lot of secrets. And they're going to come out eventually."

"Did ShinRa make you into a summons?"

"No."

The longer he stared, the more solid that shape became, until he could start to make out faint, transparent features, too. The blond swordsman was watching Zack with a sombre expression on his face.

"You need to look out for those close to you. Even the strongest will break if they doubt their own humanity."

There was something there that Zack couldn't put a name to - regret? Guilt? - but he had the feeling the swordsman was speaking from experience. Those he was close to... but the only one the swordsman had met was Angeal.

"Angeal won't break," Zack said firmly.

The summon said nothing.

"He won't! He's the strongest person I know."

"I'm sorry."

"You should be, because you're wrong!" Zack retorted, and then felt bad when the swordsman flinched and looked away.

"SOLDIERs – even the best ones – are still human, Zack. It's important to remember that."

Zack couldn't help feeling there was more to what he was saying than just the obvious. There was something almost... anxious about the summon, as if he were waiting for something bad to happen. And although his words sounded like the kind of vague advice older people often gave younger ones, it felt more like a warning. A serious one. "What do you mean?"

"There's so much I can't tell you. I'm sorry," the summon repeated, and Zack wondered what it was he was really apologising for, because the face that looked back at his held too much emotion. "But maybe things can be different this time."

The swordsman looked around, and his eyes fell on something Zack couldn't see. He drew his sword, fading from Zack's view, and seconds later, Zack felt a faint vibration travel up his arms. Once again, he found himself standing on the plains outside Midgar.

A few feet away from where he stood was a pile of rock shards. It had been a boulder before Zack had summoned the swordsman; now it appeared to have been shattered by a single downward blow.

The swordsman had attacked it, and in doing so managed to send himself back to wherever it was summons came from.

Angeal hadn't been happy at the idea of a summon that could think for itself, Zack recalled. Frustrated, he could see why.

He looked down at the bracer on his wrist. The red orb gleamed dully within its slot. He considered trying to summon the swordsman again, but despite the fact that he was certain he had enough MP for it, he didn't think he would have any more success. The swordsman had implied he could resist a summons if he wanted to, and should Zack manage to call him, there was nothing to stop him from attacking the landscape to dismiss himself again.

Zack sighed. It hadn't just been idle curiosity that had caused him to defy Angeal on this. Ever since he'd seen Angeal summon the swordsman, he'd felt... uneasy. Worried. Nothing he could put a name to, but one of the things Angeal always told him was that it was important to pay attention to his instincts, because sometimes it was the mind noticing something before the brain had a chance to catch up. He knew Angeal had meant 'in combat', but Zack figured it applied to other situations as well.

It might have just been that Angeal himself was so disturbed by the summons. He was reasonably sure that his mentor hadn't noticed the vest, but Angeal had been troubled by the fact that the summons had SOLDIER eyes, so Zack hadn't shared his observation. SOLDIERs were human, the summon had said, as if it were important.

But everybody knew that. Didn't they? Mako treatments might make them stronger and faster, but it didn't change what they were. It just gave them some advantages on the battlefield.

That the summon had spoken in what sounded like cryptic warnings didn't reassure him at all. Zack wished he could talk to someone about it, try to work through what it was he couldn't put into words. But Angeal wouldn't be back for another two weeks, and then he'd have to explain that he'd used the materia again.

"Angeal..."

Giving a frustrated growl, Zack decided to head back. Standing on the Sector 5 Station platform a short while later, something caught his eye, and he turned his head to see a young boy with a battered duffel bag stepping out onto the platform. He looked around, eyes wide.

Zack froze. The boy he was staring at looked about twelve, at most. But there was no mistaking the soft blond spikes, and the eyes, while lacking any tell-tale glow, were still a vivid shade of blue. Even the shape of his face was the same, although with the slight softening of baby fat.

It was like looking at a younger version of the swordsman that his materia had summoned.

"Maybe things will be different this time."

"Do you know me?"

"I did, but not yet."

"Not yet," Zack muttered. He tried to imagine this kid with a huge sword: it would probably topple him right over. But this was Midgar, and many boys came to Midgar with the same ambition that had brought Zack here.

He fixed a friendly smile to his face, and strolled up to him.

"Hey. Are you new to Midgar?"

The kid jumped. "Huh? Oh, um... No?" He spoke with an accent that clearly stated otherwise, and Zack laughed, remembering how long it had taken him to shed the countrified drawl that marked him as coming from Gongaga.

"Relax, I'm not a pickpocket or anything. I just thought you looked a little lost."

"Right." The kid flushed.

"I'm Zack. Zack Fair."

"My name's Cloud." He hesitated slightly. "Cloud Strife."

It was almost as if he expected Zack to recognise it or something, and when Zack just stuck out a hand, he looked relieved... and happy.

Small towns, Zack thought. This kid – Cloud – was probably used to living in a town where everybody knew exactly who he was, and likely everything he'd done, good or bad, since birth. "Pleasure to meet you. You're going up top?"

"Yes, but... Midgar's so big. I'm not quite sure where to go when I get there."

"I'm guessing it's pretty different from where you came from, huh?" Another flush, and the kid looked away. He was rather sensitive, Zack noted with a mental wince, and he'd have to be careful, as Cloud seemed ready to take anything as derision. "I come from a pretty small town myself. I bet you've never heard of it. Where are you from?"

Cloud gave him a wary look. "Nibelheim."

Zack instantly thought of wolves. "I'm from Gongaga."

"Gongaga?"

"Weird name for a town, isn't it?" Zack grinned. He was used to jokes about his home town. "But it's in the middle of nowhere, and there aren't really many people at all. The only thing of interest around there is -"

"A reactor." Cloud nodded, smiling. It was a little in the shy side, but Zack thought it was the kind of smile that showed the genuine nature of the person beneath it. "Nibelheim's the same."

"I'll give you a hand to find what you're looking for. Us backwater boys need to stick together, after all." Besides, he remembered how overwhelming his first few weeks in Midgar had been, and Cloud didn't seem to have the unshakeable confidence that had seen him through. Zack thought he could use a friend, even if he hadn't had an ulterior motive. It was hard to see, looking at Cloud as he was now, how he could possibly become the kind of warrior contained within the orb Zack wore at his wrist. Maybe he was wrong. "So where are you going?"

"The ShinRa Recruitment Centre." Cloud's next words somehow weren't really a surprise. "I came to Midgar because I'm going to join SOLDIER."

"You're in luck, then," Zack said with a grin, even as he felt his heart sink. He swore he could feel the materia at his wrist pulse slightly. "I know exactly where to go."

Things would be different, he promised himself, whatever that meant. He'd protect those he cared about, and make sure that nobody had any reason to feel the kind of regret he'd seen in the swordsman's eyes. He wouldn't let anybody break. Zack had always dreamed of being a hero. Now he was going to do it.

But he couldn't help thinking that it would be much easier if somebody told him how.