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This is it.

He's not exactly smooth or cool, or under control. Zack doesn't know whether he's coming or going half the time, and you know, that might bother some people but it's never really bothered him. It's not every day that you're fighting for a truly perfect ideal, a brighter future. It's not every day that you're looked upon to do great things, and get to carry them out. Maybe he's a romantic, or a dreamer, but this is what he believes. He believes Shinra is for the better of the people. They're moving the world forward.

He'll make 'em proud, his ma' and his dad. They always told him that he had a one-track mind hidden somewhere under all that chaos, and that much was true. Shinra this, SOLDIER that. It's all he talked about growing up (back in that place, that forever ago place...). It was always: I'm gonna be the greatest, the strongest. I'm gonna be a hero. He's so close to that dream, nearly a part of it, but for now, he's just another cog in the machine.

How quickly things change will always surprise Zack. He's too damn busy looking forward, looking always further rather than seeing what was around him to notice the signs. He never slowed until he met a brick wall. And only at that end, that point of no return, when there's nothing left to do but take a step back, would he stop. No wonder it's always a sucker punch that knocks him on his ass. No matter how many times it happens, it always gets him. You'd think you'd develop an eye for this sort of thing.

Not him.

 

 

First impressions.

Zack should be getting himself into trouble. He honestly should have been kicked out or suspended. There was that fire incident in the barracks to think about, and the loose birds in the cafeteria, and then the laundry room fiasco. Everyone remembers that one. There's a good enough reason for everything though, or at least a good enough excuse, and the reason slash excuse he's still here? Is that he responds too well to their training. Even for their own liking, you know. Certain things he does, and certain character flaws he has have gone overlooked. As long as the incidents were small enough, and involved as few cadets as possible, he was shiny. That should be his credo.

They love his unflagging determination, his unyielding strength, his desire to win. He is their current most promising graduate. Along with a swelled ego, that title has given him certain advantages. One of these advantages is freedom. To roam and rove and ask too many questions of too many unsuspecting Shinra employees. You'd think it would be the other way around, constant surveillance and confinement, but someone upstairs sees things differently. Constant input, perpetual stimulation, is a necessity for a voracious personality like Zack's. Call it his medicine. He was officially diagnosed anyway. Hyperactive and excitable were recurring words in his first evaluations.

Freedom is only what you could do with it though. He kept finding himself with less and less chances to exercise the privilege. His mother would say something about demons and idle hands here. As if to prove this, his instructors have filled his days with as much training and exams and briefings and evaluations, and whatever else, as possible. No free time meant no idle hands, meant no problems for them later. Perfectly played then, Shinra.

He would be causing trouble, outside his SOLDIER barometers, but all the downtime he now stumbles across he just spends in the dormitory, sleeping away the day's aches and pains, hibernating before the next buzz from his cell phone, or the next barked demands. As he is, he has the pleasure of separate lodgings. If you happened to find yourself lower on the totem pole (e.g., militia, pilots, artillery, medical, the list rolls on) you sleep in group rooms. Bunks for miles, shared bathrooms, and no privacy. Albeit they were segregated by class, they still slept toe to toe, balls to elbows. The SOLDIER dorms, that's where he's heading. For a midday nap. Good enough time as any to test Shinra's otherwise unscrupulous eye. He was supposed to be up in Advanced Materia Testing, but fire balls and blizzards can wait. Beauty sleep calls.

There are branches of rooms on either side as he goes along. Sitting areas and vending machine alcoves, and long corridors with doors inside numbered up to as many as they go. He catches something just then. Vibrations. Voices carry in this place. He slows his breathing and halts his pace to listen. Cursing. Yelling. A fight? It's a growing resonance in the halls, a radiation off the walls, an echoing. Zack moves on, helpless either way, because the SOLDIER dorms are further down that way. He doesn't have much hope of finding the source before someone else does and breaks it up, but he gets lucky. Or not. It really depends on how you look at it.

Four boys, three of which stand opposing the one left over, occupy the hall ahead. A large glass window outlines their presence, darkness smudging on inky halos. The boy opposing the larger crew has his back to Zack. Blonde hair erupts from his head, the direction of which looks purely random. Some fringes jet forwards and some back, some straight down, some straight up. Porcupine is Zack's first thought. His second is malformed, as a cry lets loose from the threesome's side, a fist follows tandem, catching the singular boy as much by surprise as Zack, and sending him back. The jab crashes into the boy's chin. He would have fallen if he hadn't found Zack's arms, or Zack's arms hadn't found him. The whole of his weight in his hands and he feels like nothing.

"Whoa", Zack says, just air between his teeth.

He doesn't react so much from his head as from his gut. His first conclusion falls under wonder, this second epiphany is scorching like anger. And he grimaces. His reputation on it's own should be enough, but he can't help but make it worse. His teeth grit, forcing his jaw tighter and tighter, click click click. That sound must be resonating now too. The threesome flinch and take a collective step back. The air tingles with anticipation, possibility.

"You shouldn't bother yourself with him," one of the three warns.

"And why's that?" Zack asks.

He erects the singular boy to his feet, giving him a good pat on the back. The uniform is ironed to perfection and off-the-shelf new. His shoulders are stiff and hunched, his face angled towards the floor. Zack distracts himself from that for now, and looks back to the threesome, but it doesn't pay out. They've already gone.

"Geez."

He smiles, despite the boy's disinterest.

"I guess I need to work on my people skills."

Cue silence. Heavy silence. Zack has a good memory, and an even better eye. He's never seen this one around before. He wouldn't have missed a mop like that. New cadets are old hat sure, but this one. This one.

The silence remains.

Break it for the love of Gaia.

"Um, yo. My name's Zack."

This boy, he has no idea what he's about to do as he looks up. This boy, thin and small and strange, he lifts his chin to reveal his face, and Zack is stunned. Well, because he's stunning, and that's the best he's got. The silence then is a different shade of awkward discomfort, and heavy weight, and Zack can't think of anything else to string together to use as a charming opener, so he stares.

A cut splits his well-shaped lips. Living red adds highlight to the impeccable symmetry of soft angles and smooth edges and white, white skin. Zack can't find the will to pull his eyes away, and he isn't sure of much else in that moment. He's busy being reminded of the ocean, those eyes like horizon. The depth and length are endless. But, the boy is miserable. He can taste it, he can feel it, it's wafting off him like a fever.

"Thanks," the boy utters and turns to make tracks.

"Hey, wait."

His face becomes blank in profile, sterile, as if not to insight a reactive emotion. But, it doesn't work on Zack. He's an entirely different breed than what he must be used to dealing with. This null expression makes Zack persistent, it only seals the deal, as they would say, last nail in the coffin.

"What's your name?"

"Strife."

Well, ain't that the truth.

So, for days after their meeting, Zack's thinking his parents must have been able to see the future, with a name like that.

 

 

Rec Room

"What? You mean that little shit?"

"He looks like a fucking girl."

"I bet he is."

"Hah! Work in a pinch then."

Gales of laughter.

Some things never change. Boys will be boys. You could take from them their freedom, their vices, you could direct their boundless energy, their hungry minds, but... you couldn't take out the animal, the desire, the fire. Not that Shinra truly wanted to. The barracks are a cesspool of libido and testosterone. Things happened there that Shinra does its finest to keep on the down low, the subterranean down low. Still, it works to their advantage. A bunch of under-sexed, strung out, aggravated boys do a lot for pussy.

Although, there's always the alternative.

Zack has a bone to pick. And he's not exactly a small guy either, he can comfortably get involved. He's honed in on the group laughing and grab-assing while he does his curls. A daily thing. A required thing. Couldn't have the aspiring 1st class SOLDIER getting soft, could we? Fifty pounds for twenty minutes, each arm, no exceptions (that last part is optional). It's just a dent in his routine. His isn't as extensive as some of the other SOLDIER 3rd class routines, but that's because he's distracted. That's because he has an agenda, and he's coming this way.

The blonde. Singular blonde boy.

Zack brings the dumbbell up to his shoulder and back down again, keeping an eye on him.

"Hey, sexy!"

Zack perks.

"I'll give you a smoke for a bj."

This cadet is holding a cigarette out to the boy. Coincidentally, it's one of the boys from his earlier encounter. The dumbbell sags in Zack's arm.

"Oh, come on Strife, don't give me that face. What's your real name anyway?"

A momentary pause.

"Cloud."

And there it is.

One of the boys in the group snorts.

"Claude?"

"Okay, Claude."

"It's Cloud."

The cigarette turns in the cadet's fingers. He moves to put it between Cloud's lips but he jerks away, the cut still so fresh.

"Oh! I like the feisty ones."

Cloud's had enough and starts off, one foot leading the other, but it's not so easy. A hand latches onto his forearm and he's stopped cold. He does what anyone would do in that situation though, and tries to pull away. He's shoved down onto a bench behind, and the other cadet, cigarette still in hand, looms above.

"Not so fast," he says.

There's not much warning when Zack latches his own fingers into the cadet's shoulder, a mimicry. Zack's grip is wild and whatever it wants to be, and it wants to be cruel. The boy jumps and shoots a look back. Attention disrupted, Cloud melts away. Meanwhile, Zack's face is unforgiving, cold, alarming contrast to his smiling norm. He stands a full foot taller (and maybe a bit more) than the cadet. It's played off however, as Zack receives a casual, cautious, but always cool, laugh from him.

"He's spoken for then?" he asks.

"You need to chill out," Zack suggests.

"Chill out, huh?"

The hand is shrugged off, Zack's grip gone loose.

"Fuck off, Fair."

Zack snatches the cigarette from him and places it on his own lips, the offending piece now twisting in his teeth. He's not quite ready to level this kid, but he's close. He takes a bite into the filter and waits for retaliation, or words. It comes in the form of retreat. Cigarette boy (formerly), and the rest of the group, disperse and sulk away, moving on to bigger and badder things. Cloud is nowhere to be found afterward. Stepping over his forgotten dumbbell, Zack abandons the curls, abandons his training, and goes on the hunt.

"You can't smo—"

Just a drifting voice.

"I know."

The rest of the day nearly goes on the same as it ever would, but he's not looking for fun, or action, he's skipping out on training for smoke breaks, and looking for him, the boy. But, he doesn't spot him. Not that he doesn't try. He hasn't yet gone so far as asking about him, like he should have, but some things are better not broadcast. Not just yet. Not around here. He's already going against his normality.

Cloud Strife.

He has a name at the very least.

 

 

Status: 3rd Class - Mission #27 - air drop

Thinking right now is all you can do. They call this the calm before the storm. You're supposed to be relaxing, expunging complex thought, breathing even, slow, and getting your heart rate down, but that's not what Zack is doing. He's got his grip tight on the safety bar, the only thing holding him back from falling so many hundreds of feet to an unpleasant consequence. The chopper banks, he banks with it, head rolling, pitching. And he just can't stop thinking.

Red lips, teeth, a smiling mouth. A smooth, wet tongue. Wire-long fingers. He hasn't had day dreams like this since Gongaga. The atmosphere, the feeling of it, it's surreal and tense, thick. There doesn't seem to be enough air in the world to fill his lungs. He's utterly breathless and yet it's whipping into his face, stinging at his eyes. The smell of warm flesh and the feeling of it. It would be soft, but a cushion of muscle would be there working underneath, firm and sinewy. His hands, palms, fingertips, they would do the seeing as his eyes would be closed. Shuddering glimpses, lightning strike pictures. Blue eyes, innocent, trusting. A frame slight but defined. Small but tough. The hair to brush against his cheek would be feathery soft, smelling clean and virginal. A breath would whisper, lips so close tiny hairs perk, receptive. The breath would be a word...

Crackling interference and then the pilot's voice.

"You got two minutes, boys."

And the word would be...

Zack's body aches, his bones ache.

The word would be his name.

Zack.

From a mouth he'll soon make his own.

He jumps early.