Yo, minna!  Little notes here.  This is my first fic posted, so be easy on flames.  I will take comments, suggestions, and critiques, though.  This fic is, of course FFVII.  It happens pre-game and centers around Cloud, Zack and Sephiroth.  Consider it AU if you want.  This may go all the way up to the game, actually, so stay tuned.  Oh, yeah!  It's also yaoi in later parts, and may or may not get explicit, so, if ya don't wanna read it, don't!  I rated it a little high, I think, but later it may get bad, so I want to be safe.  Enjoy!   (the title means 'blood, sweat, and tears)

/...../ is character thoughts

Cloud was officially pissed.

            /Too little?  Too little!?/  Cloud raged mentally.  It had not been a good day.  He had gone in for the stage one, two, and three SOLDIER tests, and all they had had to say to him by the end was that he was 'too little'.

            Thus, he was pissed.

            Cloud was capable of positively volcanic rages, which sent all nearby scrambling for cover.  Right now, however, he was beyond volcanic;  now his rage had crystallized into something very much like ice, or cold, hard steel.

            Most people have an instinctive sense of what is dangerous, and, as Cloud padded near noiselessly into the Shinra Military gym he frequented, peoples' danger senses started kicking right in.  Some didn't even realize they were making space for him, sidling away from his cold, silent fury.  Others knew exactly what they were doing as they nervously moved to the other side of the gym.  Those few without any sort of danger sense just followed their friends.  Fortunately, none were stupid enough to hang around.  Cloud might have done something that would have left a permanent black mark on his record.

            The only thing that Cloud actually enjoyed about being in this state was the sense of complete focus that came with it.  He could actually do something constructive with his anger, instead of letting it run off with him, like it did when he got into a burning rage.  Cloud figured that he should now focus that energy into making sure he didn't get turned down next time.  It would be a minimum of five years before he was allowed to retest, and that was only if he got lucky.  If he'd had some influence, one, he wouldn't have been turned down so easily, and two, he could have gone in tomorrow to retest.  Cloud sighed.

            At least five years would give him time for his shortness to resolve as best it would.

            Cloud was only fourteen, and a bit short for his age to boot.  He'd just come from Nibelheim that very year.  Truth be told, he wasn't even supposed to be in the military, anyway, to say nothing of SOLDIER.  He was supposed to be learning the sciences so he could follow in his long dead father's footsteps to become a scientist.  Cloud's excuse to his mother had been that, since everything in Midgar went through Shinra, and the Shinra military offered free schooling and scholarships for college level training, the Shinra military was the place to be, since he was tight on funds.

            Not that that had made his mother any happier.

            Nor did it excuse trying to enter SOLDIER.

            Cloud sighed and walked over to the weight rack and picked up a couple weights.  He didn't care what weight, just so long as they were big and both the same size.  He started lifting them in all the patterns he knew, concentrating on strengthening his arms for the time being.  For some reason, the idiots who ran the Shinra military thought that a huge and well-developed upper-body was what a soldier needed. 

            Cloud knew he would never be hugely muscled.  Just didn't have the genes.  Even more distressingly, to his instructors, anyway, most of his musculature was in his legs.  Cloud was fairly well defined for someone of his age, but he didn't concentrate on definition.  Actual strength and speed were what really mattered.  And Cloud had another critical flaw.

            He was unwilling to give away the advantages he did have.

            The Shinra military was of fairly uniform height, talents, and strength.  Power and uniformity were what counted.  Cloud knew he could never be just like everyone else.  He was short, and probably always would be, was more a balanced to fast type of fighter in hand-to-hand, preferred blades to guns...hell, even his hair refused to be normal.

            He just did not fit with Shinra.  At least not with the regular troops.  In SOLDIER, differences were allowed.  Sure, there was a uniform, but if you got really highly ranked, you didn't have to wear it.  In the Turks, differences were actually encouraged.  They were so small and self-contained, that they needed people of all sorts, who were really good at what they did.  For a while, Cloud had been seriously contemplating abandoning his dream of entering SOLDIER in favor of trying to join the Turks.  Cloud had even met their newest member, Reno, who was barely three years older than he.

            But, in the end, Cloud had been unable to give up his dream.  Not to mention, there was the little matter of that promise to Tifa.  He really didn't like breaking promises, if he could help it.  He had agreed to it mainly to get her to shut up with her whines of "Promise me!", and because she'd bemused him with her desire to be saved at least once in her life.  And, he guiltily admitted to himself, because he wanted her to notice him.

            Cloud loved his hometown, especially when thinking about it from dirty old Midgar.  But his life there had been anything but happy.  His mother and father had come from outside Nibelheim.  His father had only known of the place because of his involvement in what his mother called the Jenova Project.  Since they were 'outsiders', the town's folk had always regarded them with a sort of mistrust.  His mother was scorned when she'd arrived there, heavy with child and no husband with her.  Even when his father had arrived, they were looked down upon by the villagers.  Especially after Cloud's father had died when he was four.  And since Cloud's parents were outsiders, why, Cloud was an outsider, too.  Everything that happened wrong in the town was pinned either on his mother or on him.  Mainly him, since his mother was an adult and capable of defending herself.

            Cloud still remembered the beating Tifa's father had given him for allegedly causing the bridge to break and sending Tifa into that seven day coma.  The man had just wrapped the chain around his hand and beaten Cloud to a pulp, then cursed him for being 'inhuman' and not crying in pain or remorse for Tifa's injury.  Cloud had limped home to nurse his injuries, and sworn not to cry before anyone, just to spite the man.

            Which was why he was furious now instead of bawling his eyes out.  Cloud now knew how disappointment and shattered dreams tasted.

            Bitter.  Truly.

            Now, Cloud decided, would be a good time to distract himself from that train of thought.  Before he really did break his promise to himself.  Especially with so many witnesses.

            /Something mind-numbing./ he thought to himself./That's what I need.  Something even worse than weights, that still requires enough concentration that I can't really think anymore./  He put the weights down and crossed to a clearer space of floor to do the most mind-numbing thing he knew of.

            Jumping rope.

            It was a good exercise for one who wanted to work up or maintain his foot speed and agility, but it was boring as hell.  Cloud was often skipping rope, a side effect of being unwilling to give up the natural advantage in agility and speed his size and body type gave him.  He also practiced running, sprinting, vertical jumps, stationary long jumps, running jumps, anything.  He lifted weights, too, and used more kicking than most when fighting hand-to-hand.  He had to make up his reach disadvantage somehow!

            Cloud's rope jumping got faster and faster as he went, until it was as fast as he could go, and still he pushed himself to do it a little faster, to land a little more lightly.

            As he was about to wrap up for the evening, secretly wishing he could do this all night so he wouldn't have to think, he felt someone intrude into his personal space.  As the rope landed on that pass he let go of one handle and spun the rope around in front of him, until the loose handle came to meet its mate in the other hand, and he turned to face whoever-it-was, brandishing the rope like a whip.

            A pair of eerily glowing silvery blue eyes met his.  The glow and the uniform the man was wearing registered immediately in Cloud's mind.  /A SOLDIER!!!!/  his mind shouted in shock, though none of it made it to his face or voice.

            "Yes?"  Cloud asked politely.  "Can I do something for you....sir?"  It was all he could do to abort his mind's attempt to go into emergency shut-down.  As it was, he wanted to run.  Excuse himself and run from this person who obviously had been good enough to make it in.

            The man smiled at Cloud.  No, not smiled, grinned, a wide lazy grin, like that of one of the Nibel Wolves that lived near Cloud's hometown.  Cloud felt a shock of terror, but the predatory nature behind that smile was not predatory as Cloud kept seeing around him.  Fortunately.  Since this man was a SOLDIER, Cloud doubted he'd be able to fight off the man if he was really interested in him...

            Cloud pulled out of his thoughts just in time to hear the SOLDIER speak.  "Naw.  I just wanted to see what has all the guys around here so agitated.  Some guy ran outta here a few minutes ago lookin' scared half to the Promised Land!"  The man's smile got bigger.  "And now I come in here to find a guy in a normal trooper's uniform, skippin' rope like most of my SOLDIER buddies can't."

            Cloud shrugged, wishing he felt half so nonchalant as the other guy seemed.  "Just had some extra energy to burn," he replied coolly, turning his back on the SOLDIER to put away the rope and hoping the guy would just take the friggin' hint. 

            He seemed to for a time, then asked, "You that fast in a fight?"

            Cloud again shrugged.  "I guess."

            "You any good with a sword?  Or with anything other than a gun?"

            Cloud sighed.  "Yeah, I'm pretty good with a broadsword, I guess.  What's that got to do with anything?"

            The man looked at him and his eyes were serious, despite the joker's grin.  "Actually, I'm lookin' for another sparring partner.  Got one already, but he's more a power guy.  Quick and all, but I want a fast partner, who fights like one.  You should fit the bill, quite nicely!"

            Cloud shook his head.  "Why don't you just get one of your 'SOLDIER buddies'?  They can't all be power fighters."

            The other smirked.  "'Cause."

            Cloud's eyebrow twitched upwards very slightly.  How did this guy know exactly what to say to pique his interest?  Argh!  But he couldn't lose his cool, not now.  "So, what's in this for me?  Sounds perfectly fine for you, but potentially very dangerous for me.  What, am I gonna get Hazardous Duty pay?"

            The man flipped a lock of his long, spiky, black hair over his shoulder.  "Well, ya get into the SOLDIER sector, ya get to practice with SOLDIERs, best training out there if you're tryin' to make it into it, whatever, I guess."

            Cloud smiled bitterly.  "The practice would have been tempting yesterday, but I got five years 'til I can try out again, as of today."

            Cloud could have sworn he saw the man's smile falter.  "Oh, well.  Just help ya make sure ya get in next time."

            Cloud shrugged.  "Well, I guess I'll do it.  I could really go for a good fight about now."

            "Cool," the black-haired man said.  "When d'ya wanna start?"

            Cloud cocked his eyebrow, exaggeratedly high, this time.  "Well, my schedule's not precisely predictable most of the time, so I don't know."

            The other seemed to consider for a moment.  "How 'bout I give you my number and you can call me when you find out anything.  Is that okay?"

            Cloud shrugged.  "Fine.  Who shall I ask for?"

            "Oh, sorry!  I forgot to tell you my name.  I'm Zack.  If you call this number," and Zack handed Cloud a piece of paper he'd been scribbling on, "you'll get either me or my roommate.  Try and be nice to him.  He usually has a stick up his ass, but he's my friend, and if you really are gonna be my sparring partner, you'll be seen' him pretty often."

            Cloud nodded even as he filed away the fact that, whoever these two were, they were important enough, or rich enough, to have their own private phone for their room, instead of the barracks' common phone.

            The man smiled again, only this time it seemed more...something.  Cloud didn't know.  "You have me at a disadvantage, here.  You know my name, but I don't know yours."

            Cloud nodded.  "I'm Cloud.  Cloud Strife."  He stuck out his hand, and Zack took it in a firm handclasp.  Just then, a soldier from Cloud's own company ran up.

            "Hey, Strife!  There you are!  Dude, I been looking all over for you.  I know you were at SOLDIER testing all day, but we got early drills tomorrow!"  The excited private was maybe two years older than Cloud, but he acted much younger than he.  The private scowled suddenly.  "Man, the Captain is intent on nailing your ass to the wall, Strife.  He did this shit on purpose to catch you out, I bet.  What'd you do?"

            Cloud shrugged.  /Turned him down, that's what I did./  "Not sure.  Thanks for the warning, Ray."  The private smiled blindingly that Cloud knew what he liked to be called, his real name was Ricardo, and took off again.  Of course, Cloud knew lots about everyone in his company; information was, after all, power, and after all the grief Cloud had taken from people, he liked to know where he was most likely to get it from so he could defend himself effectively.

            Cloud turned back to Zack.  "See?  Unpredictable.  Gotta go, if I don't want to be cranky all tomorrow.  I'll call you."

            Zack nodded and left.  As did Cloud, after a quick dive through the rain locker.  As he lay in bed, listening to nine other men snoring and waiting for sleep to claim him, he wondered again what a SOLDIER was doing looking for sparring partners in the general population of Shinra troopers.  He didn't buy that story about needing a fast partner at all.  He knew more about the process of making SOLDIERs than that; his father had been involved in that, too, and Cloud had studied his notes.  Even an only moderately fast man could become super fast with Mako enhancement.  So, why....?

            Cloud's thoughts trailed off as he fell into a restless slumber.

*     *     *

            "Damn it!" Zack cursed as he paced around the room he shared with his roommate.  The other man quirked an eyebrow coolly at him.

            "It is your fault, you know.  If you had approached him earlier, maybe you would have caught him before he tried to test."

            Zack whirled angrily.  "Oh, shut up, Seph!  You're only so cool about it because you haven't seen the kid, and don't know what a valuable asset he'd be to us!"

            The pale eyebrow cranked higher.  "Am I not always cool about things?"

            Zack blinked, then grinned sheepishly.  "Yeah.  I guess you're right."  Zack's smile melted back into a scowl, and Sephiroth mentally cursed this 'Cloud Strife' for putting his friend in such a mood.  Sephiroth shook his head.

            "What makes you think he'd make such a great SOLDIER?"

            Zack glared.  "Seph, I've only been telling you about him for the past month-and-a- half!"  Sephiroth merely stared at him wearing his typical non-expression, as if to say 'So?  Tell me again.'  Zack rolled his eyes.  "Okay, but pay attention, this time!"

            Zack paused, marshaling his thoughts.  "Well, first, he's an extraordinary fighter.  Much stronger than you'd think from just looking at him.  And hella fast, too.  I don't think he's ever gonna have the planet's biggest muscles, or that he's ever gonna be the strongest guy in the Shinra, but he's certainly well above average. I watched his platoon at unarmed combat a couple days ago, and he got paired against this guy that seemed to have all the advantages: taller, stronger, longer reach, and not as slow as you'd expect a guy that size to be.  Cloud won on his wits, his agility and speed advantage, and a healthy dose of luck.  Hell, the kid seems to fairly summon luck to him.

            "He's also good at thinking on his feet.  You saw the Shinra war games two months ago."  Sephiroth nodded.  "That sudden reversal?  That was Cloud.  He suggested it to his platoon leader, a Lieutenant Jackson, who went to their company commander to get the OK."

            Sephiroth mulled that over.  In the games, Blue Team had been getting totally trounced by Red Team.  Blue Team had been almost entirely green to semi-green units, whereas Red had had a minimum of new units.  Blue had been cut down to under one-third strength, but a whole platoon suddenly went missing, then popped up in the middle of the enemy camp, and 'assassinated' nearly every officer above a lieutenant, and most of them, too.  Even though all of that platoon had 'died', the sudden annihilation of Red Team's command structure had given the Blues a chance.  They'd still lost, but at costs that no commander in a real battle would ever want to have nightmares of paying.

            Sephiroth frowned.  "Didn't they credit that to Captain Banford?"

Zack nodded.  "Yep.  But who wants to know that their whole team was nearly whiped out by a mere specialist four.  Well, he was a private then.  Not to mention that he was 'KIA' in that action, 'died' with the Lieutenant, leading everyone he could against the whole mess of them.  Banford was the company commander."

Sephiroth nodded.  That made sense.  Still…/He must have balls of steel to run straight into the enemy camp with that few men!/  Sephiroth nodded.  "If that's true, we could definitely use him."

Zack smirked.  "That we could."

Sephiroth quirked his eyebrows.  "You mentioned he was a specialist.  In what area?"

Zack frowned.  "I'm not exactly sure.  They're calling it Mako Sciences, but hell if I know what that means."

"Please don't tell me that means he's a specialist in using materia."

"Told ya already, I don't know.  I'll have to ask.  But, I think you'd like the kid."

Sephiroth frowned.  "What's that got to do with anything?"

"Oh, c'mon, Seph!  You know as well as I do, that when you like your troops and get the right chemistry going, you trust them more to get their jobs done, so you don't have to hover, and they're likely to try harder to get things right for you."

"So why should I like him?"


Sephiroth bit back a sigh, and conscientiously didn't roll his eyes.  /How does he always know exactly what to say to get me curious?/  Then something else caught his attention.



Sephiroth frowned as he mused on these new thoughts.  "If he's as good as you say…how could he possibly have failed the entrance exams?  Stage four is the test Mako exposure, so it couldn't even have been due to a bad reaction to the Mako.  So what could it have been?"

Zack's scowl turned stormy.  "I don't know," he said.  But his face promised to find out.

*     *     *

(a week-and-a-half later)

            Cloud sighed as he stared at the piece of paper in his hand for about the hundredth time that afternoon.  He actually had the whole afternoon and evening off.  Most of the others had headed off to hit the bars and the movies, but Cloud had stayed.  He could probably call Zack, now, and see if they could get in some practice this evening, but now that the opportunity had arisen, he felt decidedly nervous.  He would have to go into the exclusive SOLDIER sector, for the practice, and that felt weird.

            The SOLDIER sector was a separate section of the Shinra's military 'town' on top of the Midgar plate.  It was small, but almost entirely self-contained; SOLDIERs did their own drills, had their own barracks buildings, mess halls, and gyms, even their own after hours clubs.  It was a world of its own.

            It just felt wrong to intrude upon it.

            But Cloud did want to spar with Zack, to see the place he would probably call home if he ever did make it into SOLDIER, to meet Zack's roommate, maybe to make some real friends for the first time in his life.

            Finally, his mind made up, Cloud headed down to the barracks' phone to place the call.  He entered the nine-digit number and listened to the phone ring…and ring…and ring.  Finally, just as he was about to give up, the phone was finally picked up.

            "Hello?" came the irritated voice from the other end.  The beautiful, rich, baritone, obviously not Zack's, irritated voice on the other end.  Cloud had never heard such a beautiful voice in his whole life.  He wondered if the owner of that voice was half as beautiful as he sounded, and also how Zack could possibly live with someone that beautiful without doing something very stupid.  Then he just about kicked himself.  /Because not everyone's as perverted as you are, Strife!/

            Apparently, he took just fractionally too long to answer, because the voice came again.  "Hello?"

            Cloud managed to get his voice in working order, and was proud it didn't shake at all.  "Hello.  I am trying to reach Zack, and this is the number I was given.  Is he there?"

            "Hold on a minute," said the Voice.  Cloud could hear him calling Zack.  "Zack!  It's for you!"  A pause.  "No, it's not a girl.  Sounds like a guy, though a little youngish."

Another pause.  "Okay, he's coming," said the voice, this time to him.  Cloud wanted to tell him to forget Zack and just keep talking, but restrained himself.  Then Zack was on the line.


            "Hello, Zack?"  Cloud asked, fully expecting not to be recognized.  "It's Cloud Strife."

            "Hey, Cloud!  What's up?"

            Cloud was overjoyed that Zack actually remembered him.  "Nothing, really.  I have all afternoon free, though, and I was wondering if we could have a match."

            Cloud could hear the smile on the other's face as he replied.  "That's great!  It just so happens that I've got this afternoon off, too, and….Hey, you got evening or night duty?"

            "No.  I don't have to report in until oh-seven-thirty, tomorrow."

            "That's even better.  Hey, you live in the standard barracks, right?  Tell me which number, and I'll come pick you up.  Since you don't have a pass yet, you can't just come here.  We'll have to take care of that."

            "It's number G7."

            "Okay.  I'll be there in a bit.  Bring ID and whatever weapons you're gonna be using, 'kay?"

            Cloud nodded over the phone.  "You'll probably have to come right up to number seven, because no one's here.  They all went out to party."  Cloud's lip curled in disgust, though he kept his voice even.

            "Got it.  Be there in a few."  The line went dead, and Cloud hung up the phone.  Then he went back to the room he shared with his squad to get out his beloved sword.

*     *     *

            Sephiroth cocked his head.  "That was him?"

            Zack positively beamed.  "Yup.  You bet!"

Sephiroth frowned.  "He sounded kind of young to me."

Zack rolled his eyes.  "Planet's sake, Seph, he's only fourteen!"

Sephiroth practically exploded.  "Fourteen?!?!  And he's already trying to get into SOLDIER!?  What in the heavens is he thinking!?"

"Now, now, Seph.  You were only fourteen when you entered SOLDIER."  Zack admonished as he raked his hair into some semblance of order.  Well, order for Zack, anyway.

"Yeah, but that's different.  I was practically raised to be a SOLDIER."


Sephiroth shook his head, knowing he couldn't win this fight.  "Whatever.  Just go pick him up and get him a pass."

Zack smirked.  "Glad you agree.  How about you swing by the gym around, oh, I don't know, seventeen hundred, seventeen thirty.  Then, you can see him for yourself."

Sephiroth nodded.  "I'll try."


And Zack was gone.

*     *     *