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Murphy's Laws of Combat

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The medic glared at the young three-cee before him. It happened to every single feckin' one of them - they got the first few mako shots, and mistook themselves for gods. Reaching for the tweezers, he told the boy, "Hold still," and started probing for the bullet. "You know, you're supposed to dodge these," he said to his reluctant patient, "not catch the fuckers."

"Gotcha, sarge," the boy said weakly. "Ow!"

"Got it," he said, pulling out the slug. "Now, gimme a moment to stitch this." He looked down at the cut, which had already stopped bleeding, and appeared to be healing over. "Or maybe not."

The kid was watching with surprise. "Wow. Never seen that happen before."

The medic gave the kid an appraising look. Dark hair spiking up in all directions, and a probably irrepressible grin. "It's a good sign," he told the boy. "Means you're definitely gonna make two-cee, probably first class."

"Cool!" The kid was grinning like a maniac.

The sergeant cuffed him around the ears. "You gotta survive first, hotshot. Good thing I got that bullet outa you. You'd healed over it, you woulda wound up with an abcess, probably lost the arm. Dodge the fucking bullet next time, Fair. You may not have a medic in range."

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There are some things which any sane commanding officer should not have to deal with. One of them, Sephiroth was fast coming to realise, was Second Lieutenant Zack Fair, and his rather unorthodox approach to combat. The boy would try anything at all, and very few of his rather... novel solutions were found in any military manual. It made reading his reports something of a nightmare.

In many ways, however, reading the reports was more satisfactory than interviewing the Lieutenant. The young man had some kind of ability to explain even the most unlikely schemes in a manner which made them sound perfectly logical, and completely obvious. He had been the subject of any number of charges of insubordination for just such a reason - mainly from officers who should never have been put in charge of SOLDIERs in the first place.

Now, if he could just puzzle out the significance of the chocobo in this current rigmarole...

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It had seemed logical enough. He would go out in front of the troops to draw the enemy fire. His speed was sufficient to dodge most of the bullets, and he would be able to parry those he could not dodge. The enemy would be interested in taking down the new General from ShinRa, and would concentrate their fire on him, rather than on his forces.

Sephiroth could not understand why so many of the officers were glaring at him in the mess following his first engagement with the enemy.

It took three days before he was able to understand. Three days of the silent treatment from every single officer, and wariness from all of the ShinRa toadies who had been sent out to try "diplomacy". He had, in the end, learned why he was persona non grata by overhearing some of the troopers.

"Bloody hotshot," one of them had grumbled. "He can dodge bullets. We can't. But that dun't matter, do it?"

"Yeah, well, 'e's ShinRa, in't 'e?" another replied. "They dun't care 'bout the likes of us. They just wants the materia an' the mako. Troopers lives dun't matter none."

"Too bloody right," the first one grumbled back. "Still, dun't see why I should have to be killed 'cos some hotshot kid wants to make his name."

"'Ush up. Sergeant's comin'," a third voice whispered. The men fell silent, unaware of the slim figure who had heard their words twenty feet away, and was now reviewing the order of battle for the following day.

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"Good thing you're so short, Strife," Verjaz joked after another round of war games. "Otherwise you'd be the number one target, 'stead of number two."

Cloud looked across at the other guy. Verjaz was a tall guy, built solid like most of the troopers. He had dark hair, just like most of the troopers. Cloud was the only small blond in amongst a platoon of tall, mostly dark, solidly built men. He was the youngest, the slimmest, and the most distinctive of the lot. He had bruises on his bruises as a result of being all of these things.

"Why am I number two?" he asked, curious.

"You're a smaller target than Sarge," Verjaz laughed, ducking away from the kid as Strife tried to thump him one.

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The problem with hiding behind an armoured car, Reno realises, is while the car itself is bulletproof, the space below it isn't. This means there are precisely two safe places to crouch - one behind each wheel. The wheels of an armoured car aren't very wide, either. He's lucky he's fairly slim, because some of those bullets have come pretty close to his precious skin, and while he's a fast healer, he isn't keen on spending the next two weeks waiting for stitches to come out. Particularly when it means two weeks of office duty, where he can't smoke, can't hit anything, has to watch his language, and winds up just about ready to kill someone by the end of day one.

Another bullet pings off the bonnet.

Fuck this, Reno decides. He spots the nearest cover and sprints for it. Now he's out of their line of fire, and if they want to get him, they have to move. And they do. Right next to that same armoured car they'd just been shooting at.

Reno grins, and pushes the detonator switch.

One thing to say about armoured cars, he thinks, lighting a much-needed cigarette from the burning wreck. When they go up, they go up but good.

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The whistle of the shell was near-deafening, particularly to one with enhanced hearing. Sephiroth looked up, noticed the projectile heading toward the command post, and took two paces to the left.

The shell landed a hair's-breadth from where he had been standing.

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Zack was moving too fast when the bullet hit him. He gasped. Gasped, and let his guard drop just a little. Just a little, just enough. Another bullet. Then a third.

"Dodge the fucking bullet next time, Fair." He could just about hear the grumpy voice of the sergeant who'd extracted the first slug from him, back when he was still a three-cee. He'd taken the words to heart, and learned to duck and parry with the best of them. From the best of them - Sephiroth had got through the Wutai war without so much as a bullet crease - all the scars the General had sported came from monsters or hand-to-hand weapons.

He'd thought the extra speed boost from the mako tanks would come in useful. Instead, it had made him clumsy. He'd moved too far, too fast.

He'd dodged the one with his name on, he thought, as he tried to move on, tried to get away from the men who were going to kill him. Pity the others were all addressed to "Recipient".

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Rude dodged the e-mag rod that swung past him just in time. He'd learned, after the first dozen or so times he'd been hit by the silly thing, that Reno didn't have his sense for where the other participants in a fight would be at a particular time. Instead, Reno tended to count on his speed to be able to evade the opponents, rather than anticipating where the punches would fall and not being there.

Of course, this worked both ways. If Reno wasn't able to predict anyone else, neither was anyone else able to predict Reno. Hence Rude's first dozen encounters with the e-mag.

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The hollow where the squad was hiding wasn't particularly large. It was deep, however, and it had the advantage of being within view of their pickup point as well as keeping them out of the line of fire. It hid them from enemy eyes, and meant they had a better chance of being picked up alive.

Or at least, they'd have a better chance of being picked up alive if the blasted thing wasn't also hiding them from the chopper which was supposed to be doing pickup on them.

"Shit, that's the third time he's gone over without stopping," Murphy bitched.

"He can't see us," the sergeant said, keeping a keen eye on the enemy troopers who were starting to search the bushes. "Doesn't know we're here."

"I can fix that," piped up an enthusiastic voice. Before anyone could do anything, or ask how this was going to be done, a flare went flying out of the hollow, landing with pinpoint precision on the rendezvous point. Almost immediately, bullets started flying again.

"Fair, you fuckwit," the sergeant cursed, "you just gave away our position!"

"Whoops," said Zack, intercepting bullets with his sword. "Hey, at least you can see 'em to shoot 'em now."

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The problem with being in SOLDIER, Zack realised, was you were expected to get very much up close and personal with the monsters you were fighting. This was fine when you were up against something small, like a Touch-Me frog; or something relatively weak, like a Hellhouse. In those cases, speed and reach combined with the weight of the sword to make a SOLDIER relatively invincible.

This thirty-foot-long Midgar Zolom, on the other hand, might be a bit trickier...

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Cloud was learning to hate war games, for all sorts of reasons. For a start, the most usual pattern involved them mixing up the squads for the duration of the exercise. This meant no sooner had he learned to deal with the quirks of one lot of troopers than he was forced to learn a whole new set. It also meant he wound up having to teach each group he wasn't completely incompetent, despite being smaller, slighter, and younger than the majority of people in the platoon.

The next reason involved the training grounds. These were heavy Midgar mud, clay all the way down to Hel, and Cloud would swear they watered the blasted things before each exercise. He figured he gained a whole heap of muscle weight just from trying to walk back to the barracks with about ten pounds of the stuff clinging to each boot, to say nothing of the weight of it on his uniform and in his hair. He always stood out like a sore thumb there, too - a bright blond speck against dark mud.

His third reason for hating war games was the inevitable bellow of the sergeants: "Strife, get your fuckin' head down!". This was usually followed by the stinging impact of one of the so-called "dummy" rounds the sergeants used to train the recruits in the noble art of staying low under fire.

Thankfully, this particular exercise was taking place on the Grasslands. He could live with the cries of "Strife, where the fuck are you?" if it meant less bruises at the end of the day.

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"You still haven't learned," the medic grumped, as he probed for the bullet in the kid's shoulder. "Dodge 'em, Fair, don't catch 'em." There was a gasp and a grunt from the younger man. "Thought I told you this before."

"Yeah, sarge," Fair responded, sounding just a little strained.

"So what happened this time?" the sergeant asked, as he withdrew the distorted slug. At least Fair knew where the wretched thing went in, since the skin had closed up over it before he'd got to the medic point. Looked as though the kid's muscles had flattened the bullet out, which was a bit unusual, even for a SOLDIER. Kid was definitely gonna make First Class, if he lived long enough.

"Zigged when I should've zagged," the SOLDIER said, with a weak version of his usual grin. "If I'd've stood still, he would've missed me."

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The shot ricocheted off the edge of the canyon, millimetres from the spot where Cloud's head had been. He grinned fiercely. Deepground troopers, trying to cut off the road through to Edge. They weren't expecting someone who, while he hadn't exactly been in SOLDIER, had certainly been the next best thing. Five years in a mako tank counts for a lot, especially when at least some of the memories you pick up are those of people who have been sword masters.

The strength boost didn't hurt either, he thought, as he threw a couple of rocks. They impacted with the force of bullets. Two less Deepground troopers guarding the road.

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It was a trick that worked. The troops would make a lot of noise, blocking various flight paths, and encircling the enemy. He would move stealthily into position. Then the circle would close, and the prey would be herded toward him. Once they were cut off, the troops would block any avenue of escape, and the slaughter would be quick and efficient.

It appeared to work just as well on monsters as it had on Wutaian civilians, Sephiroth decided.

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Zack felt almost disappointed when the monster showed up. A single Cactuar wasn't much, and the bounty on it wouldn't even get him a drink in town. Still, beggars couldn't be choosers, and it was the first monster he'd seen all day.

It wound up being a tougher fight than he'd expected. Not the Cactuar - the three Bagnadranas who were attracted by the noise were the bit which damn near had him worn out. Of course, the bounty on the four of them would enable him to get quite a few drinks in back in town, and he'd be able to stretch the story out and get some sympathy from the barmaids. Maybe quite a lot of sympathy...

Zack grinned. All in all, it was turning out to be quite a good day.