The Little Guy
. , . , .
“WAKE UP YOU SNOT-NOSED SHITS!”
Cloud sprung upright in bed, bashing his head on a bunk bed that hadn’t been there when he’d gone to sleep. Groaning in pain, he fell back onto the stiff bed. This didn’t bother him, as he had grown accustomed to sleeping on the ground over the years, but the combination of a loud booming voice and chattering boys around him raised a few alarms.
Peeling his eyes open, he stared in incomprehension at the sight of a room he could only vaguely remember from half-forgotten dreams of a life before.
“Cadet Strife! Lazy little-“ A large man walked up to where he lay, bewildered on his bunk and threw a letter at his face. It hit his chest and would have bounced onto the floor if not for Cloud’s reflexes. “Your SOLDIER exam results, sleeping beauty,” the man barked. “If you didn’t pass, you’re to pack up your shit and come with me. If you did, a SOLDIER will be by later to pick you up.”
Cloud looked down at the letter in his hand and frowned. SOLDIER exam? Had he fallen through a crack in his cabin floor outside Edge into some dream-world? Confused as all hell, he ripped the corner of the letter and stuck his pinkie in the hole to rip it open the rest of the way. Pulling out the letter enclosed within, his frown deepened further.
Cadet Cloud Strife,
We at Shinra regret to inform you that your SOLDIER exam test results were below the acceptance margin. Enclosed within this letter you will find a pamphlet with details concerning your future career options with Shinra. As this is only your first attempt at the SOLDIER exam, you may test again in six months if you join the regular army and continue your service there. If you decide to leave the company altogether…
Cloud’s eyes glazed over as he stared off into space. Shinra. He was in Shinra? All the evidence pointed to this being the truth. How in Gaia had he gotten here, though? Not to mention over a decade back in time to… before. A time he could barely remember after all that had happened to him during those green-hued flashes of memory.
Swinging his feet over the side of the bunk bed, he glanced around at the mixture of sad, angry, and excited faces of the other cadets. Many a dream had been crushed in this room, but Cloud couldn’t even remember his own. SOLDIER. His memories had never completely straightened out, but he did know that he’d wanted to get into SOLDIER when… before. Had thought he was a SOLDIER when he was functioning off Zack’s mismatched memories.
Now though… he had no idea what to do. Try to join SOLDIER? Become a military dog of Shinra? Leave and go back to Nibelheim, a town he didn’t even remember besides the flickering remnants of scornful laughter, judging eyes, and a feeling of displacement?
Absently, he dug out the small pamphlet enclosed in the jagged edges of the envelope. Scanning its contents quickly, he frowned at the ‘options’ available to him. Really, there wasn’t much for a cadet in the company. Either he could go into the regular army and try for the SOLDIER exam again, he could become a member of the custodial staff, or leave Shinra all together. Hm. Talk about ‘options’.
Well, to be honest he didn’t want to be anywhere near Hojo’s jurisdiction ever again. The very memory of green tanks and blades cutting into his flesh was enough to make him shiver in revulsion and a panic-tinged flash of fear. However, if he left Shinra altogether, he had no other jobs lined up to bring him an income, or a place to live. Hell, he didn’t even know if he had a bank account with enough money to get him home.
Absently, he pinched himself to check that this was indeed real. It stung.
. , . , .
“Hello there!” a pretty women with glossy lipstick and a perfectly arranged hair style greeted him with a bright smile.
Considering her entire line consisted of disappointed cadets, he didn’t know why she could be so cheerful. “Hello,” he murmured, pulling out his letter and pamphlet to flash them at the secretary. “You can probably guess why I’m here.”
She nodded. “So, what would you like to do?”
“Well, I had a few questions first.”
“Of course! I’ll do my best to answer them.”
She really was far too perky, all considered. Cloud shifted his duffel bag on his shoulder. An entire life he didn’t remember was packed into that sack. “The custodial positions offered to cadets who failed the SOLDIER exams… are they contract based?”
She blinked. “Contract… Oh! Do you mean if you have to sign on for a minimum amount of three years or something like that?”
“Yes.” Three years?
“All custodial staff go through a month-long training and probationary period before the company decides whether they want to hire you. After that month, you sign on for a year at minimum so the company is guaranteed your employment during that time. Of course, if you fail to meet the standards set by the company, they reserve the right to let you go.”
Ah, to be a dog of Shinra. A year out of his life was hardly the end of the world, though, and if he managed to save enough money, he might be able to go back to deliveries again. Sure, he’d have to watch out for monsters, but with a materia or two, he should be fine. It also wasn’t like he couldn’t get his young, adolescent body back in shape for the job.
“I see. I also had a question about accommodations. Do custodial staff have the option of requesting Shinra living arrangements, like some other members of the staff?” As much as he hated Shinra, if he was going to trap himself working here for at least a year, he might as well get some perks out of it. The last thing he wanted to do was be forced to find accommodations in the slums. Living in Midgar wasn’t cheap, after all.
She nodded with a smile, turning her attention to the computer and printing something off. “There are some forms you need to fill out, both for the job and the shared apartment. After you finish, you’ll have to take them to this floor and office. Ask for Becky. She’ll be able to help you from here.” After filling out a sticky note, she stuck it on the printed out forms and handed them over with the same bright smile she’d greeted him with. “Any other questions?”
Cloud tried to offer a small smile in return, but failed miserably. “No, thank you.” Taking the forms instead with a nod of his head, he wandered out of the line and read the sticky note, ignoring the familiar greeting that rang out behind him to the next cadet in line.
5th floor, Office 5C
If only his future was as clear and to the point as her crisp writing.
. , . , .
His duffel landed on the floor with a loud thump as he shuffled farther into the room, checking for strategic exits and objects that, in a pinch, could serve as suitable weapons.
A head peaked out from what Cloud assumed was the kitchen area. “Hey! Who are you?”
Cloud raised an eyebrow. “Your new roommate, apparently.”
“Oh.” The guy relaxed and Cloud noted with a spark of amusement that the adolescent had been holding a knife cautiously behind his back. “So you’re the fourth, eh. Man, we were hoping they’d never assign someone to the last room.” The guy scowled. “You got any skills?”
Cloud frowned slightly. “Skills?”
“You know, cleaning, cooking, organizing shit?”
You knew you had entered a sad existence indeed when ‘materia, hand to hand, or blowing shit up’ weren’t on the ‘skills’ list. “I can cook. Nothing gourmet, and some of it might confuse your city taste buds, but it’s all edible.” His culinary skills had become a mesh of faint Nibelheim tastes, Gongaga flair, and Tifa standardization. Apparently Midgar kids didn’t like Nibelheim food, and neither did Seventh Heaven’s customer base.
The scowl faded a bit into a look of slight disgruntlement. “Alright then. You and Frederick’ll be on a rotating shift, making dinner. Breakfast and lunch are serve-yourself. Dinner’s usually ready around six or seven. Me and Len rotate dishes at the end of the day, we all rotate on bathroom duties, and everyone keeps the damned living space clear. You follow?”
Cloud quirked an eyebrow. “Aye aye, captain.” The resemblance in attitude to one Cid Highwind was actually a little amusing. Just with less cussing.
Captain got a mixed look on his face, like he couldn’t decide whether he liked Cloud’s deference or disliked his ‘attitude’. “Name’s Jeff. You?”
No last names, then. “Cloud.”
A snort. “Seriously?”
The blond shrugged and picked up his bag. “So, which room’s mine?”
“End of the hall on the left.”
Ignoring his roommate after that, he headed down the hall to the indicated room, wondering if he had any furniture or sheets. Upon opening the door, he was pleased to see he didn’t have to go buy anything. He might have actually just slept on the floor in order to avoid the trouble. Unfortunately, aforementioned floor was covered with boxes of shit that wasn’t his.
He could see why they didn’t want another roommate, considering his room had been turned into storage space.
“Yeah, sorry ‘bout the mess. I’ll get the guys to move their shit when they get home tonight.”
Cloud turned around with a calmly raised eyebrow, hiding his annoyance at himself for barely catching the adolescent’s presence. His senses were certainly not what they used to be. Perhaps once he got back into shape he’d take a small vacation and drop himself out in the middle of nowhere and try to get his ass back to Midgar in once piece. It’d be good training. By the time he could quit this janitor job he’d be soft.
Pushing back his frustration, he took a deep, calming breath and picked his way through the boxes to his bed. Tossing his duffel down beside it, he flopped onto his back and closed his eyes.
Jeff shifted by the door. “Dinner’ll be done in an hour or two. You’re cookin’ tomorrow.” He left without another word, not bothering to close the door behind him.
Cloud let out a sigh and opened his eyes to stare up at the white ceiling. He wasn’t looking forward to training tomorrow.
. , . , .
“So, you was a cadet, eh? My son was thinkin’ of joinin’ once he grown up. You got any advice fer him?”
Cloud stared at the rather friendly old man with a blank expression. He was asking the failure who didn’t even remember how he’d failed for advice? “Work hard. Nothing’s ever as easy as it seems.” Maybe something vague would throw his nose off the scent.
The old guy laughed and took a keycard out of his pocket. Swiping it, he opened the door to reveal a room filled to the brim with cleaning supplies with a small table and chair in the corner. “You can eat lunch here if you want, or go somewheres else. We all got our own floors or areas we look after. Fer the next week you’ll be followin’ me around my route until you get the hang of things. After that, you be on yer own. I’m supposed ta come check up on you once in a while ta make sure you be workin’. If there be no problems for a month, you get yer first year contract. Questions?”
Cloud shook his head. It wasn’t exactly rocket science, after all, and he’d had a harder job dealing with all the paperwork of his business. Considering how little time he spent at Seventh Heaven, he’d had a lot of stuff to keep organized and stay ahead of.
“Good! No, first things first. Your cart is yer best friend. You forget anythin’, you have ta come all the way back to the closet. If you make sure things be well stocked, you waste less time.”
And so continued the mind-melting lecture on the art of office grooming. Cloud paid attention as best he could, but to be honest a lot of what Frank talked about was common sense. Don’t walk over the floor you just cleaned, mop backwards. Don’t forget your wet floor signs or you get in trouble when someone slips and breaks an arm. Don’t clean the floors until the end of the day when less people are walking about. Normal shifts end at three or four, so start mopping at five and you should be out by six. If someone stops you in the hall and demands that you fix the lightbulb flickering in their office, don’t argue, just do it. If someone demands that you get them a coffee, play the dumb card and stare at them until they come to their senses. If that someone happens to be a Turk or the General himself, in the name self-preservation, just do it. You also may be asked to fix a printer, coffee maker, or even a phone. These you must find someone properly trained to fix. Some of the custodians have the training, but most don’t, etc.
It was going to be a long week.
. , . , .
Cloud scrubbed at a particularly stubborn grease stain and wished he had some battery acid. That’d probably lift off enough of the floor to take care of the grease. Scowling, he leaned back on his knees with a grunt and tossed the rag onto the otherwise shiny floor. It was almost six, he was sore from his morning run and workout, and this bloody floor would not cooperate.
If he had a Fire materia…
Well, to be fair he’d probably burn the whole building down. Mostly not on purpose.
Sighing, he snatched up the rag and threw it onto his cart. The grease stain could wait until tomorrow for any more of his attention. He was starving.
Dropping his cart off at his designated closet, he sighed. Thankfully he didn’t have to cook tonight. And there was the issue of finding a good place to practice his sword technique with this new, flabby, human body. He still misjudged his strength at times and almost fell over picking things up that should have been as light as a feather. Not that he missed it enough to actually change his mind about Hojo…
Unlocking the door to the small apartment on the far side of the Shinra complex, Cloud was unprepared for the body that literally tackled him out of the doorway and sent them sprawling into the hallway.
“Spike~! You jerk! Why didn’t you tell me you decided not to go into the regular army? I’ve been looking for your spiky head for two weeks now! Do you realize how many chocolate bars I had to bribe Seph with to get him to hack into the system and find you?”
Cloud, brain spinning in his skull, stared up at the familiar pair of amethyst eyes and spiky black hair.
He couldn’t believe he’d forgotten. With everything else he’d been trying to accustom himself to, and the absence of any clear memories, he’d completely forgotten about Zack. Were they even friends right now? When had they become friends?
The SOLDIER pulled back and regarded Cloud with a funny expression. “You alright there, Spike? I didn’t hit you that hard, did I?”
Cloud stared for another long, drawn out couple of seconds before snapping out of his daze. “Uh, I’m alright.”
The concerned look was replaced by a happy grin that quickly morphed into a colossal scowl. Or rather, what would have been a scowl if not for the fact that on Zack’s face it looked like a colossal pout. “Why did you leave me, Cloud? Hell, you didn’t even leave a note!”
Cloud’s warped sense of humour inappropriately kicked in then. “Why Zack, I didn’t know you felt that way about our relationship. The next time I break up with you, I’ll be sure to leave a note.”
The SOLDIER gaped.
“Hey! If you guys are gonna be gay out in the hallway, at least have the courtesy to shut the door so I don’t have to listen to it!”
Cloud rolled his eyes and fingered Jeff, who stood in the doorway with an apron covered in spaghetti sauce on his front. “You’re the one wearing the pink, flower-covered apron, ass!”
“It was a present from my mom, pussy!”
“Your mom? You said that was a present from your girlfriend! Man, I knew you were as gay as you say you’re not.”
“W-what? Fuck you! I so do have a girlfriend!”
“Oh really? She hasn’t admitted to you yet that she’s only with you for your money?”
The other guys in the room let out a round of low ‘oooh’s at the low blow.
“That was below the belt, you dick!”
“Yes, I have a dick. I didn’t know you were so fascinated by this fact, Jeff! Unless you’ve been hiding the fact that you’re jealous we all have one and you don’t!”
“You little shit!”
The other guys started howling with laughter at that one. Cloud grinned. He’d totally won that round.
Turning his attention back to Zack, his grin faded a bit at the mix of expressions on the SOLDIER’s face. “I see you’ve made some new friends, Cloud.”
The blond frowned as Zack stood up and brushed himself off, a rather closed expression on his face. Was he really- no. That was impossible. No way Zack was… jealous?
Although, technically Cloud had forgotten he existed for a whole two weeks. Time to nip this in the bud. “Yeah, well, they all failed the SOLDIER exams, too. Didn’t want to tell you I’d just given up on the whole thing.”
Sympathy entered the chaotic emotions in Zack’s eyes. “Hey, if you decided SOLDIER’s not the road for you, that’s one thing, but did you have to up and ditch me?”
Cloud looked down to hide the grief in his eyes rather than the guilt Zack probably suspected him of. Now that the joking was over, the raw wound that had been Zack’s death was aching all the more. “I didn’t…” mean to let you die, Zack. It’s all my fault. “I didn’t think you’d still want to be friends with me.”
His head was grabbed in a surprisingly strong grip until a fist could plant a proper noogie on his head. “You idiot!”
Cloud bore the pain with a teary smile. When Zack finally released him, he quickly wiped his eyes and grinned up at the taller man. “I missed you Zack.” More than you know.
Amethyst eyes sparkled. “Missed you too, Spike. How about you and I go get some real food to eat and catch up, hm? I dunno what your roommate was intending to cook in there, but I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to be alive.”
“I heard that!” Jeff shouted from the kitchen.
Cloud grinned wider than he had in the past decade. “You got it. Just let me get changed out of these clothes, okay?”
“Sure. Don’t take too long, alright? If I have to drag you away from that mirror you aren’t getting dessert!”
Cloud rolled his eyes as Jeff shouted ‘gay’ from the kitchen. “Shut up you dick-wannabe!” he shot back, racing off to his bedroom, already stripping off his shirt.
Changing quickly into a pair of rather tight and worn jeans that he had almost outgrown, he glanced at himself in the mirror and frowned. To his eye, his body was short, weak, and scrawny as all hell. To the average person, he had a bit of definition and lithe shape. Grumbling under his breath and wishing he had his sword, his First Tsurugi, he slipped on a random, clean-smelling T-shirt and raced back out the door.
Jeff glared at him as he passed the kitchen, but Cloud just ignored it. The guy was obviously sulking because he’d lost the insult match. Len and Frederick were watching TV.
“Why was Jeff allowed near the kitchen, anyway?” Cloud couldn’t help but ask curiously as he slipped into a pair of more comfortable shoes he’d left by the door.
Len grunted while Frederick smirked. “Lost a bet.”
Cloud raised an eyebrow and grabbed his jacket off the rack. “Well, good luck with the food poisoning. I’m off.”
They both grunted and returned their attention to the TV as Cloud shut the door behind him. Zack was still waiting patiently on the other side, his face brightening slightly when he saw Cloud. “Ready to go?”
The blond nodded.
. , . , .
“S-so I told him,” Zack managed to get to between wheezing laughter, “I told him that if he didn’t stop stealing my paperclips, I was going to raid his chocolate stash,” he guffawed some more, “and you should have seen the look on his face, Cloud. Well I mean, as much expression as he gets. I swear he was about a hair away from drawing the Masamune on me.”
Cloud’s eyes, which had been rather bewildered throughout the setup of the tail, widened in disbelief. “You threatened the livelihood of his stash?” From what he’d picked up throughout the rather otherworldly conversation, Sephiroth was neurotic, obsessive, and hoarded chocolate like it was his salvation on Gaia’s green earth.
Zack seemed to think the whole situation was hilarious, and was laughing so hard by this point that the other customers still in the restaurant so late at night were beginning to look as though they wondered if he needed medical help. Perhaps of the mental institution sort. Watching Zack wheeze into his mostly-eaten dessert, Cloud sipped his tea with an amused smile. “So what did he do? Threaten you with more paperwork?”
Zack’s laughter abruptly died and was replaced by a pout. “Aw, how’d you guess?”
Cloud snorted. “You’re obviously not frightened by the idea of him gutting you with his six-foot long sword, so what else could he possibly have to threaten you with?”
The black-haired SOLDIER sulked. “When’d you get so Seph-smart?”
Cloud snorted. “I’ve always been this smart. You’ve just gotten dumber.”
Cloud hid his grin behind the rim of his tea cup, going for the ‘serene, unaffected’ look. By the way Zack’s eyes twinkled back at him, he’d probably given himself away.
“You’re lucky you don’t have to suffer his wrath,” Zack said with a half grin before faltering as guilt flitted through his eyes.
Before the SOLDIER could go off about Cloud failing his exam, the blond started complaining about the wrath of one of his co-workers, a conceited little bitch with acrylic nails who always had something to bitch about, whether it was the hair styles of the secretaries she held in contempt or the way Cloud’s hair stuck up in every which way. Everyone else on staff of course knew that she was a total cow and just jealous and had originally applied to be a secretary herself. Apparently, after a week of failure, she had been demoted to paper runner. Then coffee runner. And eventually, janitorial work.
Cloud didn’t know how someone could have failed so badly at running papers or coffee as to be demoted, but she’d pulled it off.
By the end of ‘the broken nail incident’, he had Zack in stitches all over again, having completely forgotten Cloud’s reassignment in light of Cidney O’really. Yes, really.
“So, why did you decide not to go into the regular army, Cloud?”
Or maybe not. The blond took a sip of tea to give him some time to think. “Well… it was sort of a spur of the moment decision really.” It hadn’t taken long to decide really, when faced with his options. “I mean, I failed the exam. Sure, I could take it in six months, but what if I failed again? Did I really want to spend the rest of my life fighting and going to war for Shinra?” He shrugged and picked at the remains of his dessert. The last thing he wanted to do was fight for Shinra, not to mention the whole Hojo thing. “So I started thinking of other options. I mean, with this job I can make some money until I decide what I want to do with my future. I don’t want to go back to Nibelheim, there’s nothing there really. I wouldn’t mind traveling, actually…” He trailed off, thinking of his delivery business. “Maybe I could make a job out of it. Traveling, that is. Start up a delivery service or something.”
Cerulean eyes met amethyst over the table, and Cloud blinked at the inscrutable look on his long-lost friend’s face. “What?” he asked defensively, stabbing his cake. “You think it’s a stupid idea, or what?”
The look on Zack’s face tightened and became pinched, then, to the blond’s surprise, his eyes began to sparkle. No wait, was he… tearing up?
Zack wailed. That was the only way to describe it. “MY SPIKE’S ALL GROWN U~UP!”
Before Cloud could so much as twitch in horror, the SOLDIER had used his enhanced speed to come around the table and catch the blond’s head under his arm to give him another noogie. This time it was much less appreciated. Growling at Zack to let him go, he finally had to reach around and pinch the puppy on the ass, making him yelp and let go.
“Were you trying to suffocate me? I’m not sure what kind of kinks you’re into, but my interests go in another direction.”
Zack stared at him for another long, floundering moment before letting out a bark of laughter. “My chocobo’s got some bite!”
“Your chocobo?” Cloud muttered moodily to himself, not really upset, but just a little embarrassed. He wasn’t used to dealing with such openly affectionate people. Yuffie he could just ignore or step out of the way and watch the show as she fell over, and Tifa was far too reserved to do anything more than give him The Look or a flirty smile.
Thankfully, the over exuberant SOLDIER sat down again and finished off the rest of his dessert with a flourish. “You need to get a PHS now that you have money, Spike. If you vanish off the face of the Planet again, I’ll hunt you down and get a chocobo tracker planted in your ass.”
Cloud snorted. He was pretty sure the Turks didn’t give away advanced tracking chips like candy. “Fine. If you stop rubbing your fist into my head. It hurts and messes up my hair, jerk.”
Zack, typically, ignored the insult and beamed in happiness. “And we need to hang out more often too! What’s your schedule?”
“Thursday to Monday, 10 to 6.” He’d been lucky to get that. Apparently the night staff had to deal with some pretty crazy shit, like the escaping of test subjects and such. To be honest, Cloud wasn’t surprised in the least. He didn’t know half of what Hojo had going on in the basement of the Shinra building.
“Aw, I was hoping you’d have the weekends off too.”
Cloud raised an eyebrow. “I’ll be sure to send in a request, five years from now when I’m actually able to choose my own schedule.”
Zack stared. “If you’re still here in five years, Spike, I’ll kick you out myself! Even a pizza joint must be better than working here.”
Cloud shrugged. It was steady income, he could take a couple sick days, housing didn’t lower his paycheque an exorbitant amount… besides the occasional grease stain that wouldn’t go away… “It’s not that bad, Zack.”
The SOLDIER didn’t quite look like he believed him.
. , . , .
The probationary month went by without a hitch. Since Frank hadn’t observed any problems on Cloud’s part, he was allowed to sign on for a year contract. At the end of the year, they’d review his file and decide whether or not he was worth ‘long term investment’.
Personally, Cloud couldn’t care less. If he didn’t have enough money saved up by then to at least find a better job, he’d be a sad former-saviour of the Planet indeed.
Zack continued to hound him until he finally got a PHS, claiming that being unable to contact his chocobo gave him too much undue stress throughout the day. Ever since he caved and got it, Cloud had been receiving random texts throughout the day. Some of them were benign, some were even pointless, and a few of them… alarming.
Like the day Zack had put glue on Sephiroth’s leather chair, claiming that since Sephiroth spent so much time in the office, he obviously liked his chair just a little too much. Not that it had anything to do with the fact that Zack had been hounding the General to get him the same chair for months and Sephiroth still hadn’t caved.
Then there was the time Zack had just sent:
Ate one chocolate bar too many
When Cloud had run into him later on that night, the ‘tail’ of his hair had been cut off and a few spikes looked shorter than usual.
Whenever the blond questioned Zack’s lack of self-preservation, the SOLDIER First Class just gave him the usual innocent, oblivious look. Cloud didn’t believe it for a second. More than likely, these were Zack’s attempts to make Sephiroth ‘lighten up’.
Not exactly the best approach with a neurotic, obsessive Nibel dragon who hoarded chocolate.
Cloud stopped scrubbing at The Grease Stain and frowned. With weeks of work, he’d only managed to make the stain fade from a dark gray blob to a slightly lighter gray blob. He was beginning to wonder if one of Hojo’s experimental slime monsters had puked on the floor here or something. Or maybe some idiot had waxed over the grease stain instead of trying to wash it off. Maybe it had grown a sentience of its own and buried into the very fibres of the-
“You there. Do you know how to fix a coffee machine?”
Cloud froze. Slowly looked up from The Grease Stain to meet the irritated green eyes of one General Sephiroth. A flicker of panic flared beneath his breast bone before he quelled it with every ounce of self control he’d gained over the years.
“I’m not authorized by Shinra to fix their coffee machines,” he finally answered when he remembered the original question.
“That’s not what I asked. Do you know how to fix a coffee machine?”
Cloud let out a small sigh and dropped his rag in the bucket, pulling off his gloves and putting them on the side of the cart. Shuffling the whole shindig over to the side of the hallway, he grabbed his toolbox and walked towards his past enemy as though he had never killed him three times. “Maybe. I dare say I’m mechanically inclined, but I lean more towards engines than coffee machines.” When Sephiroth just continued to stare at him in irritation, he raised an eyebrow. “I’ll attempt it, but I don’t promise I’ll succeed. So, where is it?”
Instead of saying anything, the General spun on his heel and began to stride down the hall. Letting out a small sigh, he followed after the long set of legs at a jog, just managing to make it into to the elevator before the doors closed in his face.
Keeping Sephiroth in his sights more out of habit than necessity, Cloud occasionally glanced at the man’s face to reassure himself that there were no signs of insanity before returning his attention to the numbers changing above the doors. They were going up. More than thirty floors.
“On how many floors did you look for a janitor before you found me?” he asked curiously, turning his attention to the lack of expression on Sephiroth’s face.
For a long moment, the General said nothing, until finally he met Cloud’s eyes and narrowed his own. “Too many.”
Cloud couldn’t keep the corner of his lips from quirking slightly in amusement at the General’s predicament. The most powerful man on the Planet, the Hero of the Wutai War… defeated by a coffee machine. Too bad Zack wasn’t there to share in the moment. Maybe he’d tell him about it tomorrow when they had their Friday movie night. “Well, I’ll see if I can fix it for you.”
Sephiroth said nothing, merely turning his gaze towards the still-closed doors. Cloud wasn’t surprised. When the elevator ‘dinged’ to indicate their arrival, Cloud blinked at the sight of a rather large reception area with the secretary’s desk, two couches and multiple chairs easily fitting in the room. Not to mention two photocopiers, a kitchen area, and… a coffee machine that was emitting large amounts of smoke.
Cloud stared before cursing a slew of language that would have made Cid proud as he ran over to the coffee maker and unplugged the contraption before it could explode. It let out a few desolate hiccoughs of death before quieting. He was severely tempted to ask Sephiroth what the hell the man had been thinking, leaving a broken coffee machine smoking in his office as he looked for a janitor.
Instead, he turned his ire on the secretary. After all, she’d been sitting there the entire time chewing on gum and staring at her computer screen. “Has the bleach in your hair fried your only remaining brain cell?” he asked the woman, ignoring Sephiroth who stood off to the side with a blank visage and closed posture. She looked up from her papers with a bewildered expression on her face. “It was smoking, you daft woman! Were you waiting for it to set the whole room on fire or for it to explode and send flying bits of shrapnel into that perfectly manicured hair of yours? I daresay it might have knocked some sense into your brain, in spite of the property damage.”
She stared at him in disbelief, mouth opening and closing as she tried to come up with something to say. “No, don’t say anything,” Cloud interrupted before she could begin to speak. “Your incompetence speaks for itself. Go back to your secretarial porn, or whatever it is that has you so entranced you couldn’t unplug a Planet-damned coffee machine.”
Finally, he turned his attention to Sephiroth. “This is probably going to take a while, if you don’t have to replace the machine entirely. Perhaps your secretary could at least get you some coffee for all your trouble.” The last bit he aimed at the blonde. She glared at him and didn’t move from her seat.
She glared one last time at Cloud before standing up and clacking off in her ridiculously high heels. Cloud watched her go with a scornfully raised eyebrow before wandering back over to the coffee machine to assess the damage. Putting his tool box down on the ground, he pulled out the remains of the filter holder and grimaced at the charcoal that used to be coffee grinds. Dumping it in the garbage, he rinsed out the metal funnel-with-a-handle (because honestly who names those things anyway we only care about the coffee) and left it in the sink. Rinsing out the charcoaled coffee grounds that had escaped into the coffee pot, he left it in the sink as well. Now, while tempted to ask Sephiroth if the General had just tried pressing buttons over and over again, he decided that, in the name of self-preservation, the man couldn’t possibly be that stupid.
But the secretary certainly could be.
Cloud spent the next three hours taking the coffee machine apart to see what was wrong with it before finally discovering that a fuse had blown beyond repair. Commandeering some of the secretary’s paperclips, after holding her OCD-organized pencil jar hostage, he cut them up and melted them down into the right shape on the stove top before jerry-rigging it into the coffee machine and praying to Gaia it worked. Putting the whole thing back together again, he started making a cup of coffee. When it worked normally and stopped when it was supposed to, he grinned broadly and served himself a cup. Loading in the sugar and ignoring the cream, he took a mouthful and had to quickly spit it back into the sink.
“Aw, disgusting! What do they make this out of, fried rat intestines?”
“I believe it may be worse than that,” a smooth voice said behind him. Cloud froze for a moment before whipping his head to the side to see Sephiroth calmly serving himself a cup of coffee. Curiously, he watched as the General filled the remaining third of the cup with cream and dumped in three teaspoons of sugar.
Cloud poured out his cup and rinsed it, unwilling to take another sip of the swill Sephiroth called coffee. Watching the man throw back the battery acid like a veteran, he couldn’t help but admire the Damascus steel lining of his stomach.
“For services rendered.”
Cloud blinked and looked down at what Sephiroth had put on the counter. He raised an eyebrow at the money. “I’m not a whore, sir. Just doing my job.” The secretary nearly had a heart attack behind them. Sephiroth’s expression remained inscrutable. “If it gives you any more trouble, you might want to just buy a new one. If the fuse keeps blowing, it’s probably from either overuse or age. An industrial coffee machine would probably last longer, since they’re built for that kind of stress.” Picking up his toolbox, he waved his hand and wandered off towards the door, shooting the secretary a caustic look as he went. Her returning glare was just as ferocious.
As the door closed behind him, he let out a small, relieved breath of air. There. That wasn’t so bad. You didn’t even have to kill the man.
A small snicker escaped safely into the silence of the elevator.
Sephiroth… defeated by a coffee machine. If only AVALANCHE were here to see it.