Yes! New chapter is UP!
Instead of returning to the wing, Cloud used his free time to slink down to the Stables to find Chuck. He found his favorite SOLDIER paging through a newspaper in one of the ground-floor rec rooms, ignoring the game of pool going on behind him.
"He's over there, kid," one of the other SOLDIERs said when Cloud peeked in. He pointed over at the back of a couch, where a head of blonde hair was framed by the pages of a newspaper. Cloud thanked the man and trotted over to the couch.
"Got bored with the cushy life you lead?" Chuck teased, not looking up when Cloud sat down.
"I didn't want to go back yet."
"Where were you?"
"Delivering files to an officer in the regular army."
"And he beat you up for it?"
"Your nose is swollen, your jaw is bruised, and you have this look that says you got into a fight and won it."
"Oh." Cloud blushed. He'd cleaned the blood off his face and assumed that the rest wasn't too obvious. "Not with the officer, no."
"Someone who works in the planning department."
"Had to be an idiot if he picked a fight with a harem member."
"I heard you the first time. You fought with Kadaj? And you won?"
Cloud nodded. Chuck gaped at him.
"Cloud, no one has ever beaten him. His brothers don't even fight him- they just do what they can to subdue him."
"Really. You did something not even SOLDIERs First Class have been able to do."
Cloud blinked at Chuck.
"Cloud, trust me, I've gone up against the little shit a couple of times. No one's been able to do much more than piss him off. What did you do?"
"Not much, really. I just hit him when he got too close."
"He was being stupid. And I didn't want to fight."
"He jumped on me and slammed my face into the tile."
Chuck stood up, folding his newspaper.
"We're going to the gym."
"I want to see what you can do. C'mon."
An hour later, Cloud crouched on the mat to address Chuck, who was sprawled at his feet.
"Are you done putting me through my paces yet? You look awfully worn out."
"Yeah, I'm done," Chuck panted. "Shit, Cloud, you're one hell of a little fighter."
"Being small gives you an advantage. Other guys have to reach or bend to hit you, and you've got the belly and groin within easy reach. And you're fast, which just isn't fair."
Cloud blushed and twisted his hands together, not sure how to deflect the praise. He settled for offering Chuck his hand.
"I think I'd rather just lie here."
"There's a lesson in here in about ten minutes. Reno does hand to hand. You want to be lying there when they get here?"
Chuck grabbed his hand and scrambled to his feet.
"I've gone a few rounds with him before. Never again. Y' hungry? Mess ought to be open."
Cloud nodded. Chuck grinned.
The SOLDIER mess hall was a squat, uninteresting gray building just like most of the others surrounding the ShinRa building. Inside, however, it was hot, loud, and full of people.
Chuck got Cloud behind him and muscled his way up to the counter, collected two trays, and led Cloud to the unoccupied end of a long table. He slapped the trays down and dropped into a seat.
"So. You've conquered the terror of the regular army and beaten a SOLDIER First Class into the mat, and all before lunch. What do you plan on doing with your afternoon? Taking over the company?"
Cloud blushed and poked the pasta on his tray.
"I was going to go and read in the library in our wing, actually. Nothing special."
"You spend a lot of time in there, I hear."
"I like to learn."
"Most folks do. But not all of us spend all our free time with our nose buried in a book. What gives?"
"I wasn't taught anything I wouldn't need to know as a slave during my training," Cloud said simply. "A lot of the things everyone else knows because they grew up being told mean nothing to me, because I never heard them. I'm trying to catch up."
Chuck smiled around his spork.
"There are other ways to learn, ya know."
"Like having someone tell you things."
"Are you offering?"
"Yep. I'll teach you about SOLDIER. You spend enough time with us to be able to use the info. You game?"
Cloud grinned and nodded.
Instead of reading that afternoon, Cloud perched on the end of one of the couches in the Stable rec rooms, listening to Chuck explain ranking systems, class systems, how the Mako shots worked, how training worked, and why SOLDIER was so damn expensive to run. When Chuck was finished with that, he started in on everything he knew about Zack. He knew a lot, and Cloud begged to hear every bit of it.
Shortly before sundown, another SOLDIER entered the room, heading for Cloud and Chuck. Cloud turned to look at him and stared.
SOLDIERS were mostly big men. Even those who weren't had a big presence. This man had both- Cloud guessed his height at six foot six, which was menacing enough, but the moment he came in, you could feel it. He didn't need the bulging muscles or the sleek black hair or the dark eyes to intimidate.
And he was wearing a heavy metal collar.
Chuck scrambled off the couch and saluted.
"Schedule's been shuffled. You've got watch in ten minutes."
The unknown SOLDIER looked at Cloud, then smiled faintly. He didn't look half as intimidating when he smiled, but considering how frightening he was when he was being serious, it wasn't a terrific change.
"You're the harem boy that's gone and turned the whole place on its head, aren't you?" he asked. Chuck snorted somewhere near the door.
Cloud nodded, utterly unable to speak. The big man dropped onto the couch, neatly avoiding kicking Cloud in the knees, and offered a huge, callused hand to him.
"Angeal Hewley. I trained with Zack."
Cloud attempted to shake the offered hand, but found it was easier to let Angeal just engulf his hand and shake it himself.
"It's n-nice to meet you."
"Likewise. Always good to hear my puppy is trying to teach others."
"Puppy. Hadn't you noticed that he acts like one sometimes? With all the bouncing around and the kicking in his sleep and apparent inability to be depressed?"
"I've never really been around puppies," Cloud murmured. "So I wouldn't know."
"Ah. Take my word for it, then." Angeal stretched. "What brings you down here? Bent on causing more havoc?"
"No I was just….um….I had to…" It was very hard to concentrate on what he was supposed to be saying when he was staring at the collar Angeal was wearing. After Cloud made a few more stammered attempts at actually saying anything useful, Angeal gave him a funny look, then followed his line of sight, touching the collar with two fingers.
"You act like you've never seen a collar before," he commented.
"I've…I have, but I've never seen one on a soldier."
"You were born and raised specifically for what you're doing now, aren't you? In a kennel that specialized in your skills?"
"Then you wouldn't have run into others. Plenty of people want slaves for reasons that have nothing to do with sex. That's where slaves like me come in. We're bred and raised for hard work. The army recruiters check a few local kennels and auction houses every few months, to see if anyone catches their eye. They bought me and put me directly into the SOLDIER program. I'm not that special."
"I'd just never seen…"
"I was just lucky. The regular army is riddled with slaves bought off the local kennels. I'd say as many as one in five are slaves owned by the company."
Cloud stared at Angeal. He'd had little to no contact with the regular army, so he hadn't noticed, but…wow.
"I thought the army was completely voluntary."
"It is, unless you get sentenced to service. But during the last really big war, the pool of volunteers started to dry up- the war was over a controversial topic and many people weren't willing to fight for it. Rather than instate a draft that would just cause more of a public outcry, army recruiters started combing the general service kennels and auction houses looking for men to be bought into service. After the war, the practice remained. It's been toned down- plenty of volunteers these days- but it still nets a force that can't leave when their contract is up."
Cloud nodded. It made sense, really. There were slaves in just about every other profession out there, so why not the military?
"So tell me…has Sephiroth mellowed out yet?"
Angeal arched a dark brow at him.
"Sephiroth. Has he mellowed out?"
"I don't really know what he was like before, so I don't really know."
"I meant after his little freak out after the last party. Tried to kill you, didn't he?"
"Oh. That. Um…I guess?"
"Well….he's still crazy, but….it's a different kind of crazy?"
"Not murderer crazy, I take it."
Cloud shook his head. No, Sephiroth was many kinds of crazy around him, but not murderous psychopath anymore.
"Not right now, anyway."
"You're lucky, you know. I've been there when he's torn bigger men than you into messy little pieces. It's very hard to stop him."
"I didn't really stop him." Cloud smiled ruefully. "I just distracted him."
"Whatever you did, it worked. Congrats on that."
"Thank you. Um…do you know what time it is?"
"There's a clock on the wall right behind you, you know. It's…mmm, 6:35. Got somewhere to be?"
Cloud got up quickly.
"I was supposed to be at dinner half an hour ago. It was very nice to meet you!"
He turned and ran for the door. Behind him, Angeal laughed.
"Take care, kid! Give my regards to Zack and Sephiroth!"