Summary: Time travel. Sounds like fun, right? No. No it's not. Cloud was determined to get back home, the past be damned, but with Aerith haunting his every step it didn't look like that'd be happening any time soon. No pairings.
Remnant of the Vacant
Chapter 4: Dangerous Game
"You need to be more careful!" Aerith scolded loudly. Cloud dutifully ignored her, much to her aggravation.
Stomping her feet angrily, Aerith stood directly in Cloud's path with her hands on her hips. Even as she opened her mouth to continue though, the blond haired man just walked straight through her.
"Cloud!" she snarled. "Stop walking away!"
Gritting his teeth, Cloud finally did so while turning around to glare at her. "Look, Aerith, it's fine," he snapped. "It doesn't matter what I say or do; you said so yourself that I could do whatever here."
"I said that because I thought you would want to fix things!"
"Well I don't! Yeah, the entire world was pretty screwed up, but we finally did achieve peace in the end. Don't you understand? I was finally able to relax! But now instead of doing that, you've pulled me back into the fucking past in order to 'fix things'! There's nothing left to fix!"
Aerith's lips thinned into a tight line. "You don't understand, Cloud," she said softly.
"Then explain it to me! What is this supposed to achieve?"
The ghost-girl just shook her head. "I—…No. If you don't know, then you're just going to have to figure it out for yourself."
Now it was Cloud's turn to frown. "You keep going on about, 'forgiving myself'," he said. "Is that still what this is about?"
Again Aerith just shook her head, refusing to say anymore. Then she closed her eyes and disappeared.
Frustrated, Cloud kicked the nearest wall. "And stop randomly disappearing!"
Abruptly Cloud became aware that he was standing in the middle of a semi-crowded hallway. Everyone around him had stopped to stare as he apparently had a conversation with the air. Still ticked off, Cloud threw them all a menacing glare.
"What are you looking at?" he snapped.
The younger, wide-eyed boys jumped and quickly scuttled away. The older warriors gave him a mixture of amused and wary looks before going on their way as well. Cloud kicked the wall once more for good measure.
"Uh, are you okay?"
Cloud twitched at the familiar voice. "No, Reno," he growled without turning around. "I'm not fucking okay."
"Whoa, no need to get pissy, man. It was just a question."
Realizing that he was practically throwing a temper tantrum, Cloud closed his eyes and breathed in deeply in an attempt to calm himself. "Sorry," he muttered.
"You, uh, have 'episodes' like this a lot?" Reno asked hesitantly.
Cloud did nothing to stop the small chuckle that slipped out between his lips. He finally turned around to face the red headed Turk, a small smirk on his face.
"Episodes?" he repeated. "I have no idea what you're talking about." Then he turned and walked away, leaving a gaping Reno behind.
"…You've been doing well."
Cloud grinned widely at the grudging tone of the SOLDIER instructor. Said man was the same one that he'd accidently thrown into a wall on one of his first days in this world. He'd been jumpy around Cloud ever since then, as though torn between being pissed at him or afraid of him. Probably a mixture of both.
The 2nd Class SOLDIER gritted his teeth in an attempt to stifle his anger. "And so the higher-ups are thinking of promoting you soon. You'll be taking an examination for the SOLDIER program with the next group instead of waiting another eight months."
Cloud nodded slowly, understanding what the instructor was saying. Shinra took in a new batch of cadets into its military program every four months and then trained them for a year before testing them to see whether they'd go into the SOLDIER program or the regulation military. Cloud had been a cadet for almost four months now—though he could hardly believe that it'd been that long—so he should take the exam in another eight months with the rest of his "class".
Apparently, however, the higher-ups had finally decided that keeping him in training for that long was pointless and stupid, especially with war with Wutai looming on the horizon. Since the cadets who'd joined the military program a year ago—three groups before Cloud—were just about to take their exam, he'd be joining them.
The blond shrugged. "Alright," he agreed. "Sounds fine to me."
Suddenly the SOLDIER instructor smiled and Cloud was pretty sure that he wasn't imaging the sadistic edge to it. "Perfect," he all but purred. "The test is tomorrow. Be at Gym #3 by 0800 or don't bother showing up at all."
While the SOLDIER instructor strode off while grinning victoriously, Cloud just shook his head and smiled in amusement. An exam tomorrow? How on Gaia could he not be ready? It seemed that some people still hadn't figured out that he was more than just your average cadet. This also reaffirmed Cloud's belief that he was far from the only person in Shinra who was off his rocker—even if his "insanity" was half an act.
Cloud was up by six easily the next morning and ready for the exam not even an hour later. He'd been having some pretty strange sleeping patterns lately, so getting up early wasn't an issue. Cloud blamed his habits entirely on Aerith, who was in the habit of appearing randomly in the middle of the night. And since Cloud was a very light sleeper—a habit of constantly having his life endanger out in the wild—he would inevitably jerk awake.
Speaking of which, it was actually quite strange to Cloud that he hadn't seen Aerith at all since the morning before. She'd been disappearing a lot recently and for longer and longer periods of time. Cloud considered the situation for a moment longer before shrugging it off; it probably didn't matter.
The exam was being held in Gym #3, which was one of the largest gyms in the Military Headquarters, baring the one open only to SOLDIERs. It was two stories high, and thus had a massive, arched ceiling, and was easily able to hold several hundred people. Even as Cloud approached the gym he began to run into numerous cadets and SOLDIERs, all heading in the same direction. The cadets were, obviously, there to take the test and the SOLDIERs were there because the exam was open for them to watch.
Of course, the term "exam" was actually used very lightly. It was really just a series of spars set up so that the higher-up SOLDIERs could see how they performed in a battle situation. They used those spars and their performance throughout their training to decide who would be the best candidates for SOLDIER. A week later the results would be announced and a few dozen cadets would be picked.
Just being picked didn't automatically qualify a cadet to become a 3rd Class SOLDIER though. They would then have to go through testing to see how tolerant they were to processed mako. Only the candidates who passed that test would go onto to become a SOLDIER. Even those who didn't pass, however, were all but guaranteed a position as an officer in the regulation military, so getting picked was a win-win either way.
Last time, Cloud hadn't made it past the first round, having been knocked out within the first two minutes of his spar. That his opponent had gone on to be one of the few admitted into the SOLDIER program didn't help his pride any.
The blue eyed warrior was harshly broken from his musings when what felt like a freight train barreled into his back. Cloud himself barely swayed into place, but the "projectile" fell to the ground with a loud oomph! Blinking in surprise, Cloud turned around, but he barely had time to catch sight of the person who'd run into him before they'd bounced back to their feet, laughing uneasily.
"Hey man, sorry about that!" they exclaimed. "I wasn't looking were I was going."
"Er, that's fi— Zack?!"
The dark haired young man reeled back, surprised and confused by Cloud's outburst. It didn't help any that the blond was spluttering and gaping while waving his hands around.
"You—I—!" Cloud said as he struggled to get over his shock. Dear Gaia! Finally meeting Zack here of all places!
Poor Zack looked utterly bewildered. "Uh…Sorry, but…Do I know you?"
Grinning from ear to ear—certainly wider than he'd ever smiled before—Cloud clapped his old friend on the shoulder. "Yes. Yes, you do."
Still smiling, Cloud intertwined his fingers behind his head and laughed. "So, are you here to see the exam?"
As though a switch had been flipped inside Zack's head, the dark haired youth suddenly smiled brightly, completely forgetting the strangeness of the situation. "Nope!" he said enthusiastically. "I'm taking it! I'm a cadet."
Startled by the proclamation, Cloud took a moment to really look at Zack and found to his surprise that he was a lot different that he remembered. Zack couldn't have been more than sixteen! And certainly he was a far cry from the confident, broadsword wielding SOLDIER of his memories.
"How about you?" Zack continued, not even noticing Cloud expression. "Are you a cadet or a SOLDIER?"
"Cadet," Cloud answered faintly.
"Oh, so you're taking it to! Great! I don't remember seeing you before though. But since you know me, then I must have just forgotten. Sorry about that! I'm not too good with faces. When did we meet anyway?"
"…Seven years ago."
Zack blinked in surprise. "Really?! You're from Gongaga then?"
"…Huh? But then…?"
"I met you in Midgar," Cloud replied without bothering to elaborate.
Zack looked even more confused. "But I—"
"Oi, kiddies!" a SOLDIER near the door suddenly bellowed. "Stop dawdling and get inside!"
Zack looked sufficiently cowed—an expression Cloud definitely wasn't used to seeing on him—but Cloud just threw a glare at the man. Since the SOLDIER happened to know who he was, he just rolled his eyes and jerked his head, motioning for them to enter the gym.
"So!" Zack said once they were inside, "How do you think you'll do?"
"It won't be an issue," Cloud grunted. The blond had finally managed to pry his eyes away from Zack—having a conversation with a long-dead friend was starting to put him into a state of shock, he thought—and was searching the room for a familiar red trench coat. Since most of the military officers attended this exam and he knew that Puzzleman was an officer, he hoped he'd be able to catch sight of the strange, elusive man and finally find out who he was.
Unfortunately, before Cloud was able to spot Puzzleman or even continue his conversation with Zack, one of the officers stood up at the front of the room and began to speak over a loudspeaker, instructing them on what to do.
"Stand along the back walls," the man was saying. "We'll be hosting three spars at the same time, as you can see from the three sets of mats in the middle of the room. The spars will be assigned according to your last name: A-I to mat one, J-R to mat two, and S-Z to mat three. The spars will take place in five minute intervals. Come up when your name is called. The first spars are: Abnur versus Addison on mat one, Jackson versus Joahaz on mat two, and Rayner versus Rigby on mat three."
Zack turned to Cloud abruptly. "Speaking of which," he said exuberantly. "I never got your name!"
"Cloud Strife," the blond replied with a nod of his head.
Zack deflated slightly. "Ah man, that means that we won't have a chance to spar together. That's too bad; you like you're good in a fight," he moaned while eyeing Cloud's broadsword appreciatively. "That thing almost reminds me of Lieutenant General Angeal's sword!"
Cloud snorted softly. "It's modeled after the Buster Sword."
"Oh? What's that?"
Cloud paused for a moment, struck by Zack's words. Zack didn't know the name of Angeal's sword? That could only mean that he didn't know Angeal yet! Such an idea wasn't too far of a stretch, since Zack was still just a cadet at this point, but Angeal had been such a central point of Zack's life for as long as Cloud had known him—which was saying something since Angeal had been dead—that it was decidedly odd think that they had yet to meet.
The blond shook his head to dislodge his thoughts. "Nothing, Zack. Nothing."
The teen hesitated and Cloud was once again struck with just how young his friend looked. Swallowing deeply, he looked away, unable to hold Zack's gaze. He'd been so looking forward to seeing Zack again ever since he'd gotten here. It was the one reason he had to actually stay in Shinra; after all, he'd been the closest thing to a brother that he'd ever had and Cloud's first true friend. But now that he'd actually met him, there was a cold ball of tension in Cloud's abdomen. This Zack…This was not the Zack that he'd known, not yet.
When Cloud's name was finally called, he left with a nod to Zack and stepped over to the third mat. His opponent was a fifteen year old boy with dark hair whose name he didn't catch. Needless to say, the boy didn't stand a chance and in no time flat Cloud had him on his back with First Tsurugi pointed at his throat.
Zack's fight, when it came around, took a little bit longer, but surprisingly not by much. Though he wasn't at the same level of ability as Cloud remembered, the basis for the powerful fighter that he would become was already there.
"Congratulations," Cloud murmured when Zack came back to stand by him.
The dark haired teen smiled brightly. "Thanks! You too," he replied. "You've got some wicked-ass skills with that sword."
"I must concur," a voice behind them murmured and Cloud twitched violently; he hadn't heard anyone approaching them!
Cloud and Zack turned around at the same time, but had two very different reactions when they found that it was Angeal Hewley who was standing behind them. Cloud's was a mixture of annoyance and curiosity while Zack's was wide-eyed shock and awe. In an instant he'd leapt up to Angeal, grabbed his hand, and begun to shake it,
"Lieutenant General Angeal!" he exclaimed. "It's an honor to meet you, sir! I'm Cadet Zachary Fair."
Angeal blinked a few times, looking as though he wasn't quite sure how to react to Zack's enthusiasm. "A…pleasure to meet you as well, Fair," he said finally. "And good job today as well."
Zack absolutely beamed. Cloud was pretty sure that he couldn't have looked happier had he been told that he'd made SOLDIER right then and there.
Slowly Angeal glanced back at Cloud. "Are you aiming for SOLDIER?" he asked.
"Yes, I am," Cloud replied warily. He wasn't frowning because of the question, but rather because it was Angeal who was asking it. He knew that he'd been drawing attention to himself, but he hadn't realized that it'd been enough for one of the Lieutenant Generals to have heard of him. Had Sephiroth…?
As Cloud stared thoughtfully into the distance, he suddenly became aware of just what he was staring at: Puzzleman was standing on the other side of the gym, talking to a fellow SOLDIER. Cloud's mouth dropped open, unable to believe the coincidence for a moment.
Cloud glanced back at Angeal. Angeal, who was a military officer, just like Puzzleman. Angeal, who, more likely than not, knew who Puzzleman was.
"Excuse me, but would you happen to know who that man is?" Cloud asked formally while gesturing toward Puzzleman. Fortunately, Puzzleman's crimson trench coat was distinct enough to easily stand out in the crowd.
Angeal glanced at him sharply. "Genesis Rhapsodos, you mean?" he murmured.
Cloud frown deepened at the name. Oh he knew who Genesis was alright. He was one of the top three SOLDIERs in Shinra, equal in ability to Sephiroth and Angeal. He was also arguably the one who had started the downward spiral that was Sephiroth's sanity.
"Genesis?" he repeated to himself. "Hmm, I think I like 'Puzzleman' better." A much more innocent name, now that he knew who he was.
Instantly Zack, who'd been surprising quiet up until then, burst out into gales of laughter. "Oh man," he moaned. "Now every time I look at Genesis, I'll see him in a superhero outfit!"
Cloud just stared, uncomprehending. "…Superhero?"
"Yeah, you know, because of the whole 'Puzzleman' thing," Zack said energetically. "It's all like, 'He fights puzzles with...puzzles! All cowards hide from the logical might of PUZZLEMAN!"
As Zack struck pose amidst dead silence from the on watchers, Cloud could practically hear corny comic superhero music playing in the background. He wasn't sure whether he should palm his face or just burst out laughing.
Eventually the humor won over.
Angeal shook his head in exasperation at the cadets' antics. "Be careful that Genesis doesn't hear you saying that," he warned.
"Eh, it's fine," Zack waved it off casually. "I'm sure that he's got a sense of humor…And besides, Cloud started it."
The blond snorted at the statement, but didn't disagree. Personally, he could care less whether Genesis knew about the 'nickname' or not; it was his fault for not identifying himself in the first place.
After another moment of staring thoughtfully at Genesis, Cloud finally turned back to Angeal. "Is there anything you need, sir?" he asked formally.
The smile Angeal replied with was surprisingly sharp. "Not at the moment," he said. "Good luck getting into SOLDIER, Strife, Fair."
"It won't be a problem for either of us."
One of Angeal's eyebrows quirked upward. "Oh? And what about the mako test?"
"That won't be a problem either," Cloud said dismissively. "Although…" A dark expression flashed across his face. "I'm not sure if I'll even let Hojo within a hundred feet of me, so I might just refuse mako treatments."
Angeal had nothing to say to that, but his contemplative expression spoke volumes.
"You were right."
Genesis looked up, surprised. A moment later he covered his confusion with a smirk. "Of course I was. The question is, what was I right about this time?"
Angeal snorted as he closed the office door behind him. "You were right about Cloud Strife," he explained. "He's interesting. And definitely…different."
"Ah, so you finally got around to approaching him?"
"Not all of us have the time to stalk cadets," Angeal shot back.
Genesis twitched. "I'm not stalking him!" he snapped. "Would you quit bringing that up? …What'd he say to you anyway that was 'interesting'? Something about a ghost?"
"Ghost?" Angeal repeated dubiously. "Not quite. He said—among other things—that he didn't want mako enhancement, which is odd because most cadets want the strength. He also displayed a hatred for Professor Hojo."
Genesis frowned curiously at Angeal's words. "That is strange," he muttered. "Is it possible that he's come in contact with Hojo in the past?"
"With Hojo it's always possible," the dark haired SOLDIER replied. "But if he had been in contact with him, then we should have seen some sign of it either through Strife himself, Hojo, or even the Turks. You know Lazard has been keeping a closer eye on Hojo lately."
"True," Genesis murmured. "I suppose we'll have to wait and see for now. Does Strife have a chance at getting into the SOLDIER program, from what you saw?"
Immediately Angeal snorted loudly. "There's no chance that he won't get in. Didn't you see his spar?"
Genesis shook his head regretfully. "I was held up by Sephiroth. I didn't get there 'til more than half way through," he said.
"That's a pity. There's a few interesting ones this year. In particular there was an odd cadet who appeared to be friends with Strife. He acted a bit like a puppy though…"
"Well, they do say that the odd ones tend to group together," Genesis said with a small grin.
Angeal couldn't help but laugh. "Does that mean that Sephiroth will soon join them?" he asked. What he didn't expect was for Genesis' humor to completely drain away.
"…Maybe…" he muttered. "Maybe…"
The SOLDIER 1st shook his head back and forth and then blinked a few times, as though he'd been in a daze. "Er, nothing, I guess."
Unseen, Aerith slowly backed out of the room, a deep frown on her face.
A/N: "Hopefully the next one will be up sooner" (laughs nervously) Yeah…Sorry about that. Stuff has come up. But I did also say that updates might be sporadic. This chapter wasn't really too humorous, but I felt that the meeting between Cloud and Zack was more important.
Speaking of which, credit the superhero joke is this chapter goes entirely to Sahxyel. I laughed so hard at that review that I couldn't help but add it into the story.
Anyway, another reviewer asked if I would reveal my other penname at the end of this story. Honestly, I might. We'll have to see at the end of the story. Until then, I will say that FFVII isn't the main genre I write for.
And finally, I have to give a little story-relevant rant before I go: Every single fucking time I try to write something for fun the plot bunnies mutilate my brain, hijack the story, and give it a much more complex plot line. Just once I'd like to start a story and finish it the way I originally intended to instead of turning it into some deep, epic shit. Gah! So, anyway, this story now has a plot. Not that it didn't before; it's just got a deeper one behind it now. I'll say nothing else other than that though; all will be revealed in good time.
Thanks for your reviews!
--On a different note, I've been considering getting a beta for this story. I've had issues with betas in the past, so I'm a bit hesitant, but I'm willing to try it to help iron out some of the mistakes in the story. Anyone interested?