He didn't know what he'd expected. Maybe he'd thought it'd be better than rumours and the suggested reality that crept in with the few people who passed through Nibelheim a few times a year, if that. That ShinRa hadn't made things as bad as they were made out to be, so far away from Midgar.
Of course, Cloud thought bitterly as he pressed his back against the cold, hard wall behind him, forehead against his knees and hugging his legs to his chest, he'd also been utterly sure he'd at least present as a switch. The older he got, especially as the fights against the other kids half turned into attempted dominance displays when they slowly started to get closer and closer to puberty, he'd went from the self-assured (nearly defensively so) assumption he'd definitely present as dominant and that'd show them, to hope for switch, if only because that would leave more options open.
Of course not.
Of course he couldn't have even that much. The worst thing was, he'd kept hoping through the trip to Midgar. Kept hoping through the months in basic. Kept hoping while resisting some vague urge he couldn't quite define as it silently grew during those months in basic. Kept hoping up until this morning at the early drills when the sergeant barked at them... and he'd gone down to his knees along with the other submissives in the unit. Switches didn't do that - not that they couldn't be made to kneel in front of a dominant, another switch or not, but the point was, the dominance needed to be directed personally at them. Not the general pressure from a drill sergeant barking out a demand for respect before starting drills.
His jaw ached.
Screwing his eyes closed more firmly to stop the wet heat behind them, Cloud reluctantly eased up on the way he was gritting his teeth, stopped trying to grind his teeth quite so hard. He'd just actually give himself a headache if he continued like this, and when lunch was over in another half hour, he'd still have the rest of the day to get through. The idea turned his stomach to lead, and Cloud tightened his arms and hands around his legs enough his knuckles ached.
Well, they already ached since he'd punched the wall a few times, but in addition to that.
His next breath wobbled as he inhaled and swallowed heavily. Well. So much for SOLDIER, then. He wouldn't get into SOLDIER with a collar around his neck, after all. Like this, because ShinRa was stupid about some things, some very, very important things, he'd barely be able to get anywhere in their armed forces either. If he'd just been at least a switch, ShinRa would still have accepted the application and trying out for SOLDIER.
It didn't matter if he was strong enough (he was sure he could be), or if he had the mako tolerance (surely wouldn't be an obstacle either); if he wasn't at least a switch, he wouldn't be allowed to try out for SOLDIER.
He was grinding his teeth again, and the threatening promise of a headache was finally starting to turn into reality. Something not helped when the door to the empty training room opened, someone pausing in the doorway for a few seconds, and then, of course, came inside. The door slid closed with a soft, pneumatic hiss as Cloud tried to unlock his jaw and glared into the shadows of his knees. He didn't even bother to look up as whoever-it-was squatted in front of him, but he could feel the shadow of the hand hovering above him, not quite touching, as well as...
"Hey. You okay, kid?"
As well as the ghostly suggestion of warmly concerned weight in those words, that voice. Before this morning, he wouldn't have been able to tell. Or rather, maybe he had been able to tell for a little while, considering that vague urge he'd been ignoring, the ghostly things he'd almost picked up on, but it hadn't really settled in, yet.
Now, though... now he definitely could, and Cloud wished he could punch this concerned dom straight in his oh-so-concerned face. Mind his own damn business!
"Yeah," he snapped, voice raw with unshed tears and frustrated anger, curling up tighter, then shifted a little as the collar dug into his collarbones. Hoped the guy would just go away. Instead, after a short, weighty silence, while he shifted away from squatting right in front of him, he just sat down on the floor next to him instead. Why couldn't he just leave? Unless he was an officer, and wanted to discipline him for insubordination. He hadn't thought of that, but in that case he could just demand Cloud go to his knees and say that's what he was going to do. He wasn't going to move until then.
"... Just discovered your dynamic, huh."
Maybe he was surprised his belated thought didn't happen, but Cloud didn't let that show. Instead he just grunted softly and turned his head sideways, away from the guy, and didn't otherwise answer.
Like this, the collar was digging in again, but he ignored it this time. It's stiff weight felt very heavy around his throat, and while it'd soften with wear and he'd probably get used to it... He hadn't expected to be wearing one at all, unless it was in private, maybe. Nibelheim didn't exactly care about collars on subs and submissive-leaning switches in public unless it was a formal occasion of some kind. Midgar, though? ShinRa? Definitely did.
"It's okay, you know. You can't let that stop you," the guy beside him said like it didn't matter, like it wasn't actually a really huge obstacle, and Cloud snapped his head around, straightening up enough just so he could glare properly.
"Says the---!" And then he cut himself off, the intended frustration tripping on his tongue as he stared at the uniform the other was wearing. Bitter jealousy bubbled up, and Cloud scowled. Not a trooper of the same rank, not just an officer, either. "You're a dom, and a SOLDIER. What do you know?"
The traitorous, wet burn was back behind his eyes again, and Cloud turned away, blinking hard. He refused to cry about this. Especially with someone else here. Definitely no crying with said someone else being a SOLDIER.
The silence stretched, and Cloud wondered why the SOLDIER wasn't just leaving. Not like he was sitting here sobbing or obviously hurt or something. Surely there were other people he could bother?
"Okay, okay. I'm sorry," the SOLDIER said quietly, sincerity so obvious Cloud reluctantly turned his head enough to peer at him out of the corner of his eyes, watching him hold his hands up in front of him, then press them together, "I shouldn't have said that, especially with things being like they are here."
Rolling his eyes, Cloud still didn't turn away again. The apology was more than he'd expected. Far, far more, considering how he'd been talking to this SOLDIER so far. He was honestly surprised there was no demand for punishment.
"Like ShinRa's the only one responsible," he muttered, staring at the floor, "not as bad the further west you go..."
He almost winced, then. Waited for something denigrating to be said about soft Westerners and their weird ideas. It didn't come. In fact, as Cloud reluctantly cocked his head and looked over, the SOLDIER was watching him quietly, lips pursed.
"You're from the Western Continent too?"
Huh. He hadn't expected that, and hesitantly nodded.
"Nowhere big. Just a tiny backwater---"
"Hey! Me too!" the SOLDIER was grinning now, wide and bright and open, and Cloud felt something flip inside, but he pushed it down, ruthlessly. Go away. He didn't need that any more than he needed the SOLDIER's help. "I'm from Gongaga."
And he could hear it in the way he said it, the accent turning away from the flat tones of Midgar's bland mish-mash to something more singing, vaguely familiar even if it was clearly south of where Cloud came from. It also made him chuckle, even as he bit down on his amusement at the same time. Not fast enough, though.
"Hey now! Got a reason to laugh? Do you even know where Gongaga is? Where you from, anyway?"
"Uh-huh. South," he said, shaking his head, "and Nibelheim. It's up in the mountains."
"And on the western side too, I bet," the SOLDIER said, his voice softly knowing in a way that stripped away Cloud's burgeoning ease and he stiffened up again.
So what if he'd chosen to deal with the East and its stricter customs? So what if he'd hoped that surely, it wasn't as bad as it was made to sound? Surely it was partially down to local elders trying to scare their kids into staying instead of going in search for better prospects? So what if he'd hoped that the evidence that ShinRa was the reason strict customs had gone stricter through its rise to influence was just anti-ShinRa propaganda and not true? So what if he'd put practically everything on that he'd surely present as a switch?
But it was that bad, and now he was stuck with a collar at all times unless in private, even when he wasn't even bonded to a dominant. How was that fair? Not like that was the worst of it, just the most visible part of those tighter restrictions that Cloud was still boggling over, four months after arriving in Midgar. And now it was personal.
"... Why not go home, then? I know you probably had plans, bu---"
"That's not what I want! I wanted---!" Gritting his teeth, Cloud winced, waited for some reaction from having interrupted the SOLDIER, for that belated discipline to happen, but nothing came, and finally he slowly turned his head back to meet that faintly glowing stare, blue eyes surprisingly patient and open, still. No anger or annoyance at all, there.
Swallowing, that look was the only reason he wavered before he finally gave in, because this was probably the best chance he was going to get to find out anything at all, as close to the source as possible, since he no longer even had a chance to do so himself.
"What's it like?"
The SOLDIER watched him silently, opening his mouth and then closing it again, probably figuring out what Cloud had meant without him having to elaborate, which was a relief.
"I think you could find that out yourself," he said, and Cloud snapped upright, a familiar indignant fury bubbling up, but he didn't get any further than opening his mouth, nails digging into his palms, before the SOLDIER continued; "I mean, not that I know anything about passing as a switch, but it's been done, hasn't it? Don't see why someone really determined couldn't pull that off, if they were clever about it, and trained on top of that. Not that I'd encourage that or anything. Or that I know about how someone would do that. But I could always help someone who wanted to get better at fighting. Mentoring is a good skill to have, right?"
There was a slowly growing, hesitant smile on his face, soft and weirdly eager, as if he was looking for approval. Cloud wasn't sure what he thought of that, but he was more distracted by what the SOLDIER was saying. His first reaction was incredulous denial. As if anyone would believe that...
But on the other hand, it wasn't unusual for submissive-leaning switches to not be obvious at first blush. And why shouldn't he be able to do it? Not like submissives couldn't resist even direct commands by a dominant determined to, well... dominate them. You just had to be determined. Still, Cloud frowned quietly at the SOLDIER, biting his bottom lip.
"... What do you get out of that? If you'd feel it wasn't a waste of time to use up a lot of time and effort on something that might not even pay off," Cloud said, frowning still, while the SOLDIER snorted and stood up, planting his hands at his hips.
"I'd get to train someone who'd be determined to do their best! How's that not reward enough? I'm Zack," he said, holding his hand out, that same, weird little smile from earlier on his face. Expectant in a way that made Cloud want to reach out and take his hand just to prove him right, to make sure that expectation wasn't misplaced. That wasn't the reason he finally took the offered hand and let himself be pulled to his feet, though.
"... Cloud. So that's it? You're really just... gonna help me do this?"
"Hey," Zack said, frowning now, despite the earlier bloom of that smile, and looked serious enough Cloud found himself ducking his head a little, then cursed himself silently and straightened up, meeting his gaze again, "why shouldn't I? I like helping people, and you're the one risking the most, here. I'm not gonna ruin that."
Staring up at Zack, Cloud wasn't sure whether he believed him or not, because for most of his life he'd either been failing to do what he should or have people be all too happy to ruin it, so why wouldn't it happen again? But what did he have to lose? (Well, admittedly, quite a lot.) Zack's expression didn't change, and slowly, some tiny knot of tension he hadn't even noticed was still there dissolved, and Cloud smiled a little.
"Yes, sir." Straightening up, he nodded, but then wasn't certain what now. Because it wouldn't be that easy, just because he'd decided to try to do this, and it wasn't like a Second Class SOLDIER and a trooper barely out of basic would have much chance to meet in their daily routines...
"All right, good!" Zack clapped his hands together sharply, then held out one of them. "Let's start with PHS numbers, so I've got a chance to find you later. Scheduling might be tricky, but I'm sure we'll figure something out," Zack said, and Cloud found himself handing his PHS over without even thinking, the easy expectation on Zack's body language pulling him in.
... Which was part of the problem, and Cloud frowned at the floor while Zack entered his details into his phone. He really needed to work on this, dammit, especially now. Well, he had time, even if he'd like things to happen now. He needed to be a lot stronger, first of all...
"Here." Zack handed over both Cloud's PHS and then his own, to let Cloud copy his earlier action before he handed it back, resisting the urge to check through his contacts, just to make sure this wasn't some elaborate joke. The chance that Zack was leading him on to let him hang out to dry and expose him was... still really possible, but Cloud was desperate enough for anything better than what he'd been stuck with, so he was willing to risk it.
"I'll shoot you a mail later and we'll figure something out... for now, you'll probably want to get something to eat, right?"
How Zack had figured out he'd not eaten yet and been wasting his lunch on feeling sorry for himself, Cloud wasn't sure, but he found himself nodding before he thought about it and then ducked his head, hands clasped in front of him - though he looked up at the brush of fingers on his shoulders.
"First lesson, if just in private," Zack said with a wink, and held out his hand. Cloud just blinked at it, dumbfounded for an embarrassingly long moment, before he straightened up and took the hand to shake. It felt oddly weird, and, more than that, forbidden. Not that he didn't shake hands with people, but as a submissive now, he certainly wasn't supposed to do that with a dominant.
"Thanks, Zack," Cloud managed with a quick, embarrassingly pleased little smile, finally put his PHS away, and hurried off, letting his stomach lead him towards the cafeteria and a very quick lunch.
All of that of course meaning he missed Zack watching him leave, arms crossed over his chest and continuing to stare at the door long after it'd closed. An additional few silent moments later Zack groaned as he untangled his arms and scrubbed a hand through his hair.
"Oh man. What have I even gotten myself into..."
This was not what he'd planned for. Not what he'd thought would happen, either, when he'd gone looking for an empty training room to get some practice in and instead found a sub curled up on the floor in one of them. A very, very dejected and, when he'd gotten even half a look at his face, cute one, too. At first he'd thought something terrible had happened, which was why he'd disturbed him at all. Now, though...
Well, it was admittedly terrible after a fashion, just not the sort of terrible he'd assumed... and who knew if Cloud could pull it off? Something told him he could, though, which was why he'd offered to help at all. He'd definitely be interested to see it happen, and help it happen.
If only to see that face light up in a proper smile. Which was admittedly a bad reason to do something that was not exactly allowed, but quite a few people had pointed out he could easily be suckered by a smile from a cute submissive.
It was risky, but he wasn't really the one risking anything at all. If Cloud got found out and decided to bring him into it, he could, technically, say he hadn't brought up the possibility. That he didn't know a thing and it was all Cloud's idea. It'd be his, a dominant SOLDIER Second Class, possibly even First's by then, word against a submissive army trooper's.
That was a no-brainer, and that just made Zack more worried for what Cloud was trying to do.
"Man..." Another groan and he ended up scrubbing his face, then rubbed his hands together. Crazy. He hadn't actually thought the kid would take him up on it, but thinking back on his expression, that look on his face...
Probably not so surprising. Maybe he should've tried calming him down instead, because even as it was it'd been real hard to resist the urge to tug that hair tie out of Cloud's sloppy ponytail and run his fingers through the soft-looking strands and up into the spikes to find out if they were as natural as his own or 'assisted'. Run his hand through his hair until Cloud was relaxed, looked less upset, and maybe even pliantly curled up against him---
But those weren't thoughts that had any place when it came to a submissive he didn't even know, even if he'd volunteered to not just help train him, but try to help him masquerade as a switch at some point in the future, so he pushed all of that down firmly, took a breath, and walked off towards the weapons cabinet.
The dull props on the racks wouldn't do for what he wanted to do, and he needed to get rid of some energy and get his thoughts back in order. If nothing else to not focus on the memory of wide blue eyes surrounded by feathery blond spikes glaring fiercely up at him.