All At Once

Notes: Finally got this done! Cloud's just such a sweetheart in Crisis Core; I had to write about him. Thanks to Daisy for some plot help! Oh, and keep in mind that the "main"/present action takes place sometime after Angeal's death.

The first night in the MP barracks, Cloud Strife had no idea that in ten years time he would've saved the world a few times over. No, he had been more concerned with just surviving the night.

Now that he was actually here, in Midgar, working for Shinra, he didn't know what to do with himself. He was wide-eyed, terrified, and excited; and he was picked on. For most of the teasing, he couldn't tell if it was meant to be taken as a real insult or not. So he just tried to shrug it off.

There was one older MP, however, who simply wouldn't leave Cloud alone from the time he'd walked into the barracks, his uniform stiff with the scent of new fabric. This MP seemed to have it out for Cloud – following him around and making jabs at his name, his height (or lack thereof), his blond hair and big blue eyes. Finally, the guy started railing on Cloud's mother, of all things. Cloud, fed up with the abuse and afraid now that things here would be no different than things in Nibelheim, went to deck the guy (the MP was about to find out that Cloud was small, but he could hit hard) when a couple of other MPs showed up.

They told the guy off for harassing new recruits, and told Cloud that the idiot wasn't worth it.

They were both a good ten to fifteen years older than Cloud. The older of the two was a tall, sturdily-built man with dark brown hair cut closely to his head. He had an easygoing way about him; his name was Nathan Bunker. His companion was tall and lanky, with dark hair that he grew in a carefully-maintained pair of sideburns, perhaps to round out his thin face. He had a reputation among the MPs as being somewhat of a class clown; his name was Ezra Appleby.

Ezra and Nathan had bunks near Cloud's, and so they were the ones who showed him the ropes, so to speak. They told him when the best time to shower was, which shower had the best water pressure, which days the cafeteria actually served something edible, which captains to befriend, which to avoid, and which to avoid pissing off at any cost.

He hung onto their every word and followed them like a little blond shadow those first few weeks. They were patient with him, though they gently encouraged him to meet other cadets that were his age.

"Why are you hanging around with a couple of old farts like us?" Ezra would say.

The truth was, Cloud was somewhat jealous of the tight friendship between the two of them. Their fathers had both been in SOLDIER, so, like Cloud, they'd wanted to enlist from a young age. It had been a few years since they'd come to Midgar and joined Shinra, and they still weren't in SOLDIER. They didn't really mind, though – they were proud of the work they did to protect Midgar.

Cloud had been an MP for almost a month when he met Zack. Nathan and Ezra were both tickled to learn he'd found common ground with a First Class based on their backwater backgrounds.

"He was a great guy, but it was just one mission," Cloud said, once they'd stopped teasing him. "Even if I see him again, he's a First-"

"Argh!" Ezra rolled his eyes. "There you go again, Spike, acting like Firsts are a god among mortals or something. They are just human, you know."

"What Ezra means is," Nathan began hastily, "we don't know him personally, but Zack Fair's got a real good reputation. MP, Third, Second, First, whatever; he's friends with everybody. You oughta try and get in touch with him again."

Cloud was hesitant about it at first, but it turned out they were right. Zack was a busy guy, but he was more than willing to make the effort to hang out with Cloud once in a while. Their paths crossed more often than Cloud thought they would, which helped.

"You've been here a month, and you've got yourself three friends," Nathan beamed.

Cloud graced him with a rare grin in response. Though he'd never admit it aloud, they were the first real friends he'd ever had, and he was extremely grateful for their presence. They offered friendship and support when Cloud had expected none, and something to look forward to when they were all done with their duties for the day. The most unselfish thing they did for Cloud came after he'd been with Shinra for a little over three months.

Four times a year, Shinra recruited new members for SOLDIER. There were two steps to this process – a performance review by Director Lazard and his board, and a practical examination in the virtual training room. The only requirement to be considered for SOLDIER was to have been an active member of the MP for at least three months.

Cloud was, of course, one of the first to sign up. Ezra and Nathan hadn't been planning to take the test this time – sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't bother – but Cloud was constantly bringing it up so much – worrying that he'd do poorly, that eventually they signed up to humor him.

"But really, Spike, it's not a big deal," Ezra assured him. "Don't be so nervous about it!"

And it didn't seem like a 'big deal', when Cloud took the test. He felt like he had done pretty well. But when the list of new Third Class SOLDIERs was posted a few days later, Cloud was not on it. Both Ezra and Nathan were.

"Damn!" Ezra had exclaimed upon seeing the list. "You must be lucky or somethin', Spike!"

Nathan, ever sensitive to what others were feeling, jumped in. "There are plenty of guys who don't make it in on their first try," he told Cloud. "It doesn't mean you're not good or anything like that."

And Cloud knew he was right, and he tried to be happy for the two of them, but the truth was he was disappointed and jealous. Not to mention he was angry at himself for feeling that way. What had he expected, anyway? Who was he kidding? People like Zack probably had more natural talent in their pinky finger than Cloud had in his whole body. Of course he didn't make it in on his first try.

Ezra, though he was a jokester and had a tendency to speak without thinking, was not entirely insensitive. "If you're our good luck charm," he smiled at Cloud, "then we oughta buy you dinner!"

Cloud had just smiled quietly and agreed to go out with them. It was a celebration of their entrance into SOLDIER, sure, but they weren't calling it that. They just acted as though it were any other night out. Cloud saw what they were doing and appreciated it immensely. So he pushed away his own dark thoughts and tried his best to enjoy his friends' company.

...Even when they started teasing him about not being old enough to drink.

He was sad, though, to see them move out and into a Third Class barrack the next day. "...We'll be rooming together again soon, though, right?" Cloud mused aloud.

"Duh, Spike!" Ezra grinned over his shoulder.

"That's the spirit!" Nathan cheered.

And it wasn't as though they couldn't see each other in the meantime. Cloud was at the Third Class barracks often, till right up until curfew. He cut it close getting back to his own barracks in time on a few occasions.

Ezra and Nathan had their first real mission a week later. It was just a simple, routine mission to clear out some stubborn traces of Wutai's forces in the wasteland area outside Midgar. They were only supposed to be gone for three days. But the third day came and went, and there was no word from anyone on that mission.

Cloud had patrol duty in sector one of the upper plate on the evening of the fourth day. That was why he ran into Zack that morning.

"Something wrong?" Zack had asked after they exchanged greetings. "You look kinda... tense."

Cloud scuffed his foot along the sidewalk. "Isn't it...bad when missions take longer than they're supposed to?"

"Well..." Zack folded his arms behind his head. "Not necessarily. Sometimes missions get held up because of something good. Those lengths of time they give out are usually pretty rough estimates, anyway."

He paused. Cloud made no response. "Oh!" Zack said finally. "It's your buddies in Third Class, right?"

It never ceased to amaze Cloud how Zack always seemed to remember the littlest things about what was going on in his friends' lives. No wonder he was so popular.

"...I'm a little worried," Cloud confessed.

"Say no more!" Zack said. "I've been there. When's your shift up?"

"In a little while," Cloud answered.

"Tell you what," Zack began. "How about we go down to the Third barracks and see what's up." He'd even use his clout as a First class if he had to.

Cloud's face lit up. "R-really? I don't mind?"

"'Course not!" Zack grinned back.

By the time Zack and Cloud reached the building where Ezra and Nathan now lived, it was almost curfew. The stern-faced captain of the barracks was standing by the door, checking off SOLDIERs as they came in.

"What do you want?" he demanded upon seeing Cloud. "I'm in a hurry."

"Sir. I was wondering..." Cloud licked his lips. "Can you tell me if Ezra Appleby and Nathan Bunker are back yet? They were supposed to..." He trailed off at the deep frown on the man's face.

"You didn't hear? They're dead."

Somewhere behind Cloud, Zack inhaled sharply.

Cloud swallowed. "I-I'm sorry?" He glanced past the man's shoulder, trying to get a look inside the barracks; he half-expected to see Ezra and Nathan coming towards him, grinning at their bizarre joke. But they didn't come, and the captain's expression didn't change.

"Look, kid, I'm sorry, but both of them were killed in action yesterday morning."

Cloud stood stock-still, unable to move. He felt as if all of his insides had suddenly dropped out.

Zack swallowed. "Cloud, hey..." Gently, he reached out and put a hand on the boy's shoulder. Cloud jerked as if he'd been electrocuted. He didn't say anything, merely took off running.

"Cloud, wait-!" He broke into a run after Cloud, but he'd already managed to get away from Zack. There was a twisty, out-of-sight path that Ezra and Nathan had told him about that served as an excellent shortcut between the Third barracks and Cloud's own. Zack had no idea about that path.

He did manage to find out what happened on that mission, though. They were ambushed – the captain fell apart in the attack and his men fell with him. None of the seventeen men who went on that mission came back completely unscathed. Besides Ezra and Nathan, five others were killed, and the remaining ten all sustained injuries of varying severity.

Much to Zack's annoyance, he was suddenly inundated with work for the next few days, when all he wanted to do was get a chance to talk to the poor kid. As it turned out, he didn't get that chance until six days after Cloud learned Ezra and Nathan were dead.

It was early in the evening when Zack arrived back at the Shinra building after a mission. The receptionist on the left looked up as he approached.

"Zack Fair," she greeted, already tapping at her keyboard. She had the schedule of every employee of Shinra Company there in her computer. "You are-"

"-Free for the rest of the night," Zack interrupted. Firsts could unofficially refuse orders, couldn't they? And who would really stop him, with Director Lazard MIA?

The receptionist tucked a stray hair behind her ear. "Er, I see."

"Listen, I have a favor to ask. There's this MP I'm looking for. I need you to tell me where he is now."

She frowned. "Sir, I'm really not authorized to-"

Zack leaned in. "Look, I don't really care whether you're 'authorized' to or not. He's a friend of mine, and he might need some help. This is just a one-time thing, I promise."

She eyed him doubtfully a moment, before sighing in resignation. "Alright, Mr. Fair. What's his name?"

Cloud was on patrol duty that evening, in the Sector 5 slums. According to the receptionist, he'd be off duty in twenty minutes. Zack was off like a shot, determined to catch the young MP.

Zack made it to Sector 5 in less than fifteen minutes – a new record for him. Actually finding Cloud could be the hard part. Luckily, there were plenty of MPs around for Zack to ask, and one of them told him Cloud was stationed near the slum markets.

"You can't miss him. He's not wearing his helmet," the MP said, referring to Cloud's trademark blond spikes. "Says he forgot it. Dunno how you forget something like that, though..."

Zack thanked the guy and moved on, once again feeling guilty for not getting touch with Cloud sooner.

Cloud was where the MP had said he would be. Immediately Zack could tell he was in a bad way; he didn't even notice Zack until he was right in front of him. Moreover, Zack could make out dark circles under Cloud's eyes.

"Hey," Zack said softly. He mentally kicked himself: 'Way to make it obvious what you're doing.' Because Cloud looked extremely reluctant to talk to Zack; he seemed unwilling to even meet his eyes.

"You almost off-duty?" Zack asked.

Cloud gave a half-shrug. "Yeah...I just finished."

"D'you have a minute?"

At this, Cloud looked away again. "...I'm pretty tired."

"Just a minute," Zack insisted, carefully.

Cloud looked up at him; hurt, confusion, and maybe a little hope present in his expression. "...Okay."

They started to walk, slowly. "First, I gotta apologize," Zack began.

Cloud glanced up at him, visibly surprised. "For what?"

"For...for kind of leaving you hanging. I couldn't get a chance to talk to you-"

"Talk to me about what?" Cloud interrupted, though it was clear from his tone he knew exactly 'what' Zack meant.

Zack frowned. "About what happened last week, of course," he said, as gently as he could. This really was going to be tougher than he thought.

Cloud stiffened. "I don't want to talk about it." He quickened his pace, trying to put some distance between himself and Zack.

"Cloud...hey, buddy, I just-"

Cloud turned a corner and started hurrying down an alley. But Zack wouldn't allow himself to be shaken off this time. He hurried after Cloud.

"Zack, just leave me alone!"

And he would've, under any other circumstances, but Zack was worried about the poor kid. He was hurting and trying not to. Zack had seen it before; he'd even done it himself. He had almost caught up to Cloud... "Cloud, I know-" he began.

Cloud stopped dead and whirled on Zack. "Know!?" he cried. He turned away again. "How could you know!? How could anybody-!?" He stumbled forward, coming to rest with his arm against the wall and his forehead on his arm. Zack thought maybe he was going to be sick, but instead Cloud was crying; bitter sobs that wracked his whole frame.

Cautiously Zack came forward and gently touched Cloud's shoulder. He jerked away at this.

"They weren't going to take the test," Cloud sobbed. "They only took it because of me. So I wouldn't be alone..." He hung his head.

"It''s because of me!" he burst out. "It's my fault they're gone! I should've been the one to die on that mission, n-not them! It's should've been me!" He broke down again.

Zack was silent. When you felt like that, all of the most well intentioned reassurances and whispered consolations meant nothing. He knew from experience. So he didn't say anything; he just wrapped an arm tightly around Cloud's shoulders and let him cry. Cloud stiffened at first, but soon he relaxed and found himself leaning heavily into Zack's one-armed embrace.

Zack wasn't sure how long they stood there, but after a while Cloud's sobs had slowed to the occasional hiccup. He rather suddenly lifted his head, seeming to realize he'd been resting it on Zack's shoulder. "S-sorry," he mumbled.

Zack smiled a bit. "C'mon, you don't have anything to apologize for."

Cloud was wiping his eyes. "I don't want to go back yet," he said, his words muffled.

"Yeah, I know..." And it was then that Zack was struck with a moment of utter brilliance. "...I know a place where we can crash for a few hours. It's not far from here."

Zack put a hand on Cloud's shoulder and steered him out of the alley. Cloud kept his head down as they walked through the streets; he hated being seen this vulnerable, even if he didn't actually know any of the people around them.

They hadn't been walking for long when Cloud realized he was seeing fewer and fewer pairs of legs. He looked up, and noticed it was darker, and less crowded with people and shacks in this area. In fact, there weren't any buildings to speak of in the area at all – save for one.

Zack made a beeline for it, and Cloud supposed it must be their destination. "It's a church," he observed as they approached the front steps.

"That's right," Zack answered, opening the door with a mighty creak and motioning for Cloud to enter. He went in, cautiously.

"Won't we get in trouble for being here?" Cloud asked.

"Nah," Zack answered, closing the door behind him. "It's been abandoned for years."

Cloud was silent as he walked into the church, awestruck. He'd never seen anything quite like it. "I thought you said this place was abandoned," he said quietly, a few moments later.

"It is," Zack said. He was standing towards the rear of the church, just watching Cloud. "Why do you ask?"

"...The flowers," Cloud answered, nodding towards the small patch of blooms.

Zack smiled a bit, coming forward to stand near Cloud. "Oh, those. There's a local girl who takes care of them. But she's real sweet; she wouldn't mind if we were here."

Cloud looked up through the hole in the roof of the church, even more amazed to see clear through to the sky. The stars he could see were few and dim; it wasn't like the night sky he'd grown up with at all.

Zack followed his gaze. "It's hard to get used to, isn't it?" he remarked after a moment. "Not being able to see the stars."

"Thank you," Cloud said softly, after another moment's pause. "For everything."

Zack smiled a bit. "No problem, Cloud."

"I...I didn't want to talk to anyone about it," Cloud began. "I was so angry...with them, but mostly with myself. When they got into SOLDIER, and I didn't, I... I tried to be happy for them, b-but I was so jealous, I..." He trailed off, his voice breaking. Cloud ran a shaky hand over his face.

"Take it easy," Zack cautioned quietly, putting a hand on Cloud's shoulder and guiding him over to one of the pews. Cloud sat, leaning forward with his arms resting on his knees. Zack sat with him.

"Why did they have to die?" Cloud whispered. "Ezra and Nathan were the first real friends I ever had. They were good to everybody, they didn't deserve it."

Zack shook his head. "I don't know," he admitted. Cloud looked over at him, somewhat surprised that there was something Zack didn't have the answer to. "I wish I knew," Zack continued. "But it happens. Sometimes, bad things happen to good people, and it just... there's just nothing we can do about it. Except move on," he amended.

"Move on...?"

"Yeah. Ezra and Nathan helped you out because they believed in you, Cloud. They still do. So that's why you can't give up, no matter what. You owe them that, right?"

Cloud nodded, blinking away tears. He looked at Zack. "...You lost somebody too."


"...I'm sorry I yelled at you before."

Zack smiled a bit. "Quit apologizing. You had every right to be yelling."

"It's's hard," Cloud mumbled.

"I know," Zack answered, smiling sadly. "It is. It really is."

They sat in a peaceful silence for a while, Zack just as glad for Cloud's company as Cloud was for Zack's. After a time, Zack looked over and saw Cloud with his head down and his hands folded.

The sight served to remind Zack of a wound that had just barely begun to heal, reopened by the night's events.

So Zack closed his eyes and said his own silent prayer for another soldier who had fallen long before his time.

End notes: The scene in Crisis Core with Zack talking to the new recruits after Angeal's death was the first scene in the game that made me full-on sob. Just seeing how much Zack had changed and matured in those few months was really bittersweet and, I thought, really well-done. So I wanted to explore that a bit.

Thanks so much for reading!