Cloud’s body was tight with stress and drenched in sweat. Every muscle was sore. He was covered in scrapes and bruises, and he was so incredibly happy. For the first time since joining the infantry, he felt hopeful. He had always been small for his age, but, with Zack’s help, he was learning to make up for his size.
His new friend had been helping him train whenever he had even a moment of spare time, and Cloud was deeply grateful. It had only been a few months, but the results of his hard work were obvious to all of his instructors. They still couldn’t take him seriously because he was so small, but he was going to be allowed to participate in the next SOLDIER exam.
Cloud lifted his sword to block his friend’s next attack. He was surprised by the strength that Zack threw into the blow. Zack had been getting looser and looser with his SOLDIER strength. Cloud’s body slid back just a little bit, but he didn’t lose his balance. His knees never buckled. Zack beamed at him, clearly impressed.
Zack took a step back and put his sword back in its harness. Cloud was panting now. He set the training sword on the ground and finally sat down on the ground. He was so damn exhausted.
“You’re lookin’ great, Spike. You’ll be staring down First class in no time!” Zack was always easygoing and optimistic. He was TOO easygoing and optimistic, but Cloud loved the man for it. Zack made him feel different – happier. He’d never had a close friend before, and Zack had a way of making his world just a bit brighter.
Cloud stared up at his friend for a moment, then lifted his hand and beckoned Zack closer. Zack cocked an eyebrow, clearly confused, but approached anyway. Cloud kept beckoning until Zack was leaning over him. Then, in one swift motion, he took hold of Zack’s shirt and jerked him downward.
Zack landed ungracefully beside him. The man grunted, then rolled over and playfully tried to pin Cloud to the rubber mats that covered the practice room floor. Cloud grinned and rolled them over again, and soon they were playfully wrestling. They rolled apart after a moment and lay side by side, staring up at the fluorescent lights.
“Do you really think I’ll get into SOLDIER?” Cloud asked suddenly. Cloud never wasted time talking about frivolous crap. He spent most of his time sitting quietly while Zack talked on and on about some mission or game. So, when Cloud spoke, Zack answered (mostly) thoughtfully.
“You’re doing at least as well as I was when I took the exam. If Angeal ever gets back from Wutai, I’m going to ask him to take a look at you. He’s a million times better at this kind of thing than I am.” Zack shifted and brought his hands to rest behind his head.
Cloud turned to look at his friend, lovely eyes focused on the way Zack’s chest rose and fell. “I’m glad you’re my friend, even if you are an alpha bastard.” Cloud was grinning. There was nothing bastardly about Zack at all. The man was every bit the puppy everyone said he was.
“You’ll be rutting with the rest of us in no time, Spikey.” Zack was grinning again. “Alpha” was a term often used to describe those in SOLDIER. Mako injections made a man animalistic in unpredictable ways. Shinra attempted to keep the state of their mako-altered soldiers mostly under wraps, but everyone who worked for the company knew it was true.
Cloud wasn’t sure what it meant to be “in rut,” but he’d heard those in SOLDIER mention it often enough. Zack had been moody a few months back. He’d had apologized, but Cloud remembered how strange he had felt watching Zack tense and glare. Zack had explained that he was close to his rut. After that, Zack had disappeared into Angeal’s apartment for a few days, and came out a much happier man.
“Hey… Is it anything like going into ‘heat.’ You know, like… Is it really that animalistic?” Cloud questioned.
Zack looked at him, clearly a bit concerned. “We try not to talk about it too much… I don’t think anyone who hasn’t experienced it would understand.”
“I think it’s a little hot. I don’t think I’d mind it much. You get full leave while you’re ‘rutting’ right? It sounds like you spend a few days masturbating,” Cloud mused quietly. It wasn’t like him to muse aloud, and Zack seemed to relax when it became clear that Cloud was genuinely interested.
The young SOLDIER glanced at Cloud and grinned. “Masturbating is not enough. There aren’t really soldiers who want to take it while they’re rutting either. They want to give it. Hard. It’s…. Really strange. You get really possessive and really… Growly? I mean in the animal way. Genisis came to visit while I was with Ang. I might have bitten his head off if he’d been anyone else.”
“So… You two are having sex then?” Cloud had always wondered. It was implied, but it was hard to imagine the two powerful men fighting for control in the bedroom.
“Yeah. Cloud… That might be something you need to think about. Being a SOLDIER really changes you. If you’re afraid of sex-“
“I’m not.” Cloud cut Zack off before he could finish.
“I wouldn’t blame you if you were, Cloud. I mean, I had trouble with it at first. I’m from the country too. I don’t know about Nibelheim, but Gongaza isn’t a very open place. I would have had a really rough time if I hadn’t trusted Angeal so much.”
“Maybe… I don’t think I’d want to have sex with someone I didn’t know.” Cloud paused, glancing over at Zack. “Are you and Angeal a couple?”
Zack’s brow furrowed. “No. He’s closer to Genisis than he is to me, I think… Why?” Cloud could see his friend swallowing. Zack was nervous.
“I understand if you don’t want to.” Cloud was watching his friend closely. He thought what he had started implying had been clear, but Zack’s expression was somewhere between terrified and hopeful and definitely confused.
“What are you saying, Cloudy?”
“Would you have sex with me? If I asked.” Cloud watched his friend curiously. He allowed himself a ghost of a smile. He could handle rejection. Zack’s expressions were worth some embarrassment.
“If you were in rut… If you wanted to. I-I would definitely do that for you, Spike. Don’t think I haven’t thought about if before.” Zack was blushing. Cloud had never seen his friend blush. Suddenly, he felt much more confident and dangerously bold.
The blond rolled over and moved to straddle Zack’s hips. “What if I wanted you now?” Cloud could see Zack swallow again. The man’s eyes grew wide. Zack’s hands shook as he moved to set them on Cloud’s hips.
“Cloud. I didn’t even know you liked men,” Zack whispered in clear disbelief. Cloud smirked and very deliberately rocked his hips down on Zack’s.
“I wont know if I don’t try. I’ve never had a friend like this, Zack. I’ve never had anyone I wanted to try with.” Cloud watched his friend intensely. “I want to try with you.”
Zack’s thumbs slid under the hem of Cloud’s Shinra-issued infantry shirt. Each thumb rubbed small circles in Cloud’s skin. Zack’s touch was warm, and Cloud found himself relaxing.
“I can’t now, Cloud. My rut is really close. I’m afraid it’ll start if I get you out of these clothes. I wont be gentle if I’m rutting, Cloud. I-If you’re a virgin, I don’t want to hurt you.” Zack’s words were soft and heavy with regret.
Slowly, Zack sat up, and pulled his friend tight against his chest before Cloud could think about moving away. “If you still want me… I’ll take you as soon as I get back from my next mission. I promise.” Zack was grinning at him again. “I leave tomorrow, but I’ll be back before you take your SOLDIER exam.”
Cloud rested his forehead against his friend’s and gazed deeply into Zack’s mako-bright eyes. “Don’t get hurt. I want you at your best.” Cloud was grinning. It was the most expressive that Zack had ever seen him, and, suddenly, he was excited to start his mission so that he could hurry back.
Zack was not back before Cloud’s SOLDIER exam. Unexpectedly, Zack had been called to Wutai to join Angeal on his mission. Cloud had been somber since his friend at left. Cloud had always been quiet. He didn’t connect with other people the way Zack did, and he had no real friends among the infantry.
Cloud missed Zack terribly.
It was a miracle that they had met and become as close as they had. Somehow, Cloud’s quiet disposition had never bothered Zack. The man seemed to know what Cloud was thinking, and Cloud adored him for it.
Cloud had never been properly socialized. Spending time with other people was exhausting. He was drained by the effort of interacting with them. Being with Zack was as easy as breathing. His company wasn’t taxing. In fact, it was deeply relaxing. Cloud never felt more at ease than when he was curled up next to Zack.
The SOLDIER exam had been grueling and extraordinary. If had taken several days, and it had included material that Cloud never would have expected if Zack hadn’t been coaching him. He was testing on his strength, determination, and will to survive. He’d been given obstacles, field tests, written exams, but Cloud had survived it all.
Cloud had no idea how he had done in his examinations, but they had taken his blood and given him an extensive physical. Shinra might have done that with every candidate, but Cloud hoped it was because they needed to test how his body might react to the mako.
It was a Tuesday evening when Cloud was called away from his regular infantry patrols to meet with a Shinra doctor. Cloud shook with anticipation. Getting called into a medical center was probably a good sign, but he could very well be receiving failing results. He didn’t want to be too optimistic.
Anxiety curled in his lower stomach as he sat down in the doctor’s office and waited for the man leafing through the report in front of him to tell him whatever it was he needed to know.
“Cadet Strife. You had a very strong performance in your examinations. Your examiners had some reservations, but it seems as though some of the higher-ups have taken an interest in your case.” Cloud focused on the professional with quiet intensity. He hadn’t heard an answer, and that only increased his anxiety.
“You see… We’ve had some very unusual results with your blood work. It says here that you come from Nibelheim. Did you live near the reactor?”
“The entire town lives near the reactor,” Cloud answered simply. His expression never wavered. He waited patiently for the man to get to the fucking point. Cloud’s hands rested on his knees, gripping the caps more tightly than he should have.
“Well… There is nothing here that explains the results we’re getting. Professor Hojo has taken a personal interest. You see, physically, you certainly qualify for SOLDIER, and we’re prepared to let you in if you’ll agree to testing outside of the usual SOLDIER contract.” The doctor paused, as though he expected Cloud to ask a question.
Cloud sat quietly instead, so the doctor continued his explanation. “We’re concerned with your sample’s reaction to mako. You’ll be subject to extensive testing during your first few weeks of treatment. You may be asked to remain under observation at any point in the future. You’ll be compensated for your time on the same pay schedule as any SOLDIER on regular duty.”
“How long might I be held under observation?” Cloud questioned, his eyes narrowing. The man said “observation,” but that sounded like “confinement” to Cloud.
“For as long as we require.”
“I will not be held for longer than a seven day period.” Cloud’s gaze was intense and unwavering. He didn’t like this idea. He hated spending as much time as he did in the bright hallways already. He’d go nuts in confinement.
“We do not have to accept you into the SOLDIER program, Cadet. I think we should be clear. This is Shinra. You accept our terms, or you can return to the infantry until you contract is up.”
Cloud stared for a moment more, then swallowed hard. He didn’t have a home to go back to. Not really. He had nowhere else to go. This was the only goal he’d ever thought to work toward. His only friend was here, and he was sure his future was here too.
“I accept.” The answer was short, but it sealed Cloud’s fate in a new and terrifying way. The doctor took Cloud to the legal office, where he went through the paperwork with a designated desk jockey. Cloud looked through and signed forms for hours before they released him.
His mako injections would start in only two short weeks. Cloud was terrified. He was excited, but he was definitely terrified. He’d done it, but he wouldn’t deny that the doctor’s talk of “unusual” reactions worried him. Still, Cloud couldn’t wait to share the news with Zack.