This fic is undergoing a really badly needed fix up. First thing to change is 2009 spop's author's notes. Frankly, I'm furious you guys didn't tell me I'd look back on this shit and cringe.

So, this story is POV based. The first chapter is that of Cloud's, simply because I tweaked the blond a little to suit my own entertainment needs.

This story remains dedicated to Stoic-Genius, who I think was the most eager for this, and likely has forgotten it exists by now.

Warnings: This is a boy x boy x boy story. Yaoi, shounen-ai, unashamed and gratuitous slash, whatever way you wish to take it. There is a fair bit coarse language, because there is in just about everyone of my stories. Probably a little violence too, as it seems a recurring theme. Same with the angst. Also major OOC. I'm always open to suggestions, however, please ignore 2009 me.

Association- Chapter One

'Grunt' Strife's point of View.

Cloud's just a cadet, a grunt, a nobody. So why is it that the dashing Zack Fair has taken an interest in him? As well as this, the young blonde is confused as to how far this interest extends. Could it be all in Cloud's hormonal teenage imagination, or is there something more? And imagine Cloud's surprise when he finds out just who Zack Fair is and who he associates with...

"Alright class, pop quiz. Let's see how many of you assholes think that they're able to make it to SOLDIER!" Captain Maygar bellowed.

I figure that he's probably just the bitter type. He was one of those guys that spent a lot of time out on the battlefield and kicked a lot of ass. Then, because he'd gotten a little carried away and ignored an order from the General himself, Shinra decided he was now more suited to schooling the grunts that filed through.

That was me. Cloud Strife, 'Grunt Of The Year'. Or so that's what everyone was saying. You'd think I'd be proud. You'd also think it would be because being anything 'of the year' would be a positive comment. Not so. SOLDIER entrances went for three months, and at the moment, I was going through my second try. If you were grunt of the year, they expected you to be there for four full tries. Not exactly the most reassuring title.

"Strife! You wanna grab a pencil or something and pull some paper out, or are you happy to sit there staring out the window?" Maygar barks, and I damn near shit my pants. I really don't think he was all that impressed at having me here once again, but I couldn't care less.

I looked down at the pop quiz he thrust in my direction and smiled slightly. Every test was different, and yet they always seemed manageable enough. A lot of the other grunts figured that I was so good at these useless things because I'd done them before. Not a bad assumption, all things considered, but they were wrong. The written shit was my forte. The other stuff? Well... not so much.

I scrawled out the answers and stuck my hand up with probably a little too much enthusiasm. Maygar rolled his eyes slightly, expecting no less from me. First to finish again.

"I don't give a shit what you do Strife, but you better get the hell out of here before I snap that arm," he growled, and I gladly complied, placing my test on his desk. I slipped out the class room door and turned to find myself separated by about two inches from a bright blue pair of eyes.

"Heya!" The figure smiled widely, and I just about choked on my own lungs.

"Hello," I said as steadily as I could manage, idly peering around him and not so subtly trying to worm my way past.

"Nice hair," he snorted, and I smiled as he flicked his own. It was pretty much identical to mine, and that on its own was a feat. No one else had to live with the continuous nicknames for it, surely?

"Thanks. Yours is, uh, pretty cool too..." I smiled, and he stood back slightly, stretching his arms out before resting them behind his head.

"So, did you get kicked out from your test or something?" He asked curiously, and I shook my head, taking a brief moment to admire the long and lean body before me. Maybe he was a student. He didn't have any identifiable uniform on, and there wasn't any real reason that anyone else would degrade themselves by coming here, so student made sense... In any case, he was undeniably attractive. Those eyes and the smile were just the start.

"No," I offered, toying with a loose thread on my shirt, "I just finished."

His eyes widened slightly as he raised his brows, and I was half caught between a beam of pride and getting ready for a defensive stance. Impressed or judgemental? Sometimes it was a little too hard to tell.

"Finished? In ten minutes?" He asked, and I nodded a little awkwardly.

"I guess they're just kind of... easy?" I shrugged as casually as I could muster, "What are you doing here anyway, if you don't mind?"

"Checking out you guys for some talent," the figure smiled, and he must have caught the lost expression plastered across my face cause he frowned briefly before slapping himself in the forehead.

"Oh shit, how rude. I'm Zack!" He grinned, sticking out his hand. Gaia, it was warm. His skin was also crazy soft, but you know, I wasn't about to tell him that.

"Cloud," I offered as he near tore my arm off with his enthusiasm, "What are you looking for in particular?"

"As I said, talent."

"Are you a scout or something?" I asked, and he gave a deliciously coy smile.

"You could say that. I'll be right back," He grinned, before slipping inside. It at least gave me time to compose myself before he returned. He might not have been a student after all. I'm sure I would have noticed him earlier if he was.

I fidgeted at the door for a few more moments, wondering why, exactly, I was waiting around for this stranger, and was just about to dime turn and leave when he all but burst through the door in a flurry of limbs, waving a paper in front of my face. .

"This is yours?" He asked, as I took what ended up being my test from his outstretched hand.

"Yep," I smiled, a little bit of that stubborn country boy pride pushing its way through, and he beamed.

"I think I found my talent, kid. That's some amazing brain you've got there. Unless," He stopped suddenly, eyeing me suspiciously, "You didn't cheat did you?"

"Have you ever had that guy as a teacher? You couldn't cheat if you tried," I groused, because yeah, that was a little presumptuous of him. Not to mention I really had tried cheating once and was torn a new one as a result. In any case, Zack mused on it for a minute, before seemingly reaching his own conclusion.

"You're right. Let's go."

He grabbed my wrist lightly and dragged me to the main Shinra building then, randomly flinging bits of information at me as we went. He was rapid fire, and truthfully, a little hard to follow. His energy was contagious though, and I was pretty sure I was near bounding along with him as we went. He then stopped outside a room I knew, but dared not have stepped into. Two weeks ago, a guy called Jerome from my class got busted sneaking in there and was discharged from the course instantly.

"Do you know what this room is?" Zack asked as he dug around in his pockets, and I nodded.

"Personal records."

"Sure is. Come, come!" He urged, dropping my wrist and opening the door with a keycard he had finally fished from his pocket. He slipped it back in before gesturing me inside.

It certainly wasn't what I expected. I was expecting wall to wall filing cabinets and maybe a few bookcases. You know, the typical kind of stuff they show at the cinemas to bump up the importance of a room. All it was, however, was three desks with computers at them and a severely neglected fern in the corner. Zack sat at one of the computers and cracked his knuckles before beginning to tap away at the keyboard.

"What's your surname, Cloud?"


"Alrighty," the eccentric figure beamed, "Oh, awesome pic there."

I inwardly groaned. My ID picture had been as my mother put it, 'adorable'. Certainly not SOLDIER standards. The fear of death had just been instilled in me by a passing SOLDIER, and I had the classic 'deer stuck in headlights' look. Big blue eyes and nervous excitement made up about eighty percent of my expression, while a barely restrained grin made up the rest.

"Urgh, thanks," I smiled weakly, and he paused, his eyes focusing on the screen. Well, this was it. The part where he saw the numerous failures that I'd managed to procure so far. If you were keen on that thing, I was pretty much a high achiever at failure alone. Once again, not the best kind of title.

"Here for the second time?" Zack asked curiously, and I felt a wave of familiar nausea wash over me.


"You know, a lot of people leave when they don't make first cut," Zack mused, and I shrugged slightly. I couldn't help but feel a little defensive in my response. I tried my best defensive stance and was pretty convinced I'd managed to look more like a flustered pigeon than anything else, but I stood my ground.

"I guess I'm not a lot of people. No offence, but are you even authorised to access my files?" I raised an eyebrow, shoulders back, and that coy smile of his returned. He could melt me, I was sure of it. He then stood up and walked over, pulling the ID card out of his pocket and showing me the details.

Zachary Fair, SOLDIER First Cl- Oh... my... FUCK.

"S-sir!" I stammered, saluting, before he clipped me over the head.

"I knew you were the shy type," Zack winked, "That's why I didn't tell you my rank till you'd warmed up a little. Relax Spikey, I don't bite."

"You're a first class!" I gaped, and Zack pouted slightly.

"You say that like it's a good thing!" He sighed, before grinning as he sat back down, "It's ok, I suppose. We get better seats at assemblies, so that's one thing."

Maybe he'd spoken to the General. Maybe he knew what the General was like in private. Oh God, the General in private. Would he be different from all those interviews on the TV? Was he as gorgeous in real life as he was in pictures, on TV, on the radio? Gaia, that voice would be the death of me...

"Ohh..." Zack grinned after my prolonged silence, probably entirely unaware of just how deep down the rabbit hole my mind was sinking, "You're a little starstruck by the thought of it all, hey?"

"No sir, just surprised," I lied, and he seemed to buy it.

I never did quite know if lying was a good skill or not to have. It certainly helped at times, but was it something to be proud of? I remembered shooting pebbles from my slingshot at Mrs. Jenkins's cat back at Nibelheim. I managed to pin it on Joey from down the road with a few well placed tears and a guilt trip at her accusations. After all, why would sweet little Cloud ever hurt the pretty kitty? In the meantime, neighbourhood rat bag Joey was grounded for two weeks for that little mishap. That would teach the ass for taking my lunch money all those times.

"It says that the only real weakness you have is your strength. Even with that in consideration, your combat results are really good!" Zack smiled, drawing me back to present day scrutiny, seemingly impressed as I shrugged.

"You need strength for SOLDIER though, sir."

"Hey, Shinra's a bastard that way. Asshole thinks that everything's in here," Zack said, flexing his arm muscles, "But he doesn't focus on these..."

The Lieutenant then patted his chest before tapping his forehead with his finger.

"You seem to at least have this," he smiled, repeating the forehead tap, "So screw whatever that blond haired bastard wants to think about brutality..."

"Sir, do you really think that the president is a -"

"Wanker? Yes. Gaia, when you get to SOLDIER, everyone does" Zack winked, "And hey, we're friends now, ok? Zack's ok. Sir just makes me feel like a geriatric."

He then printed up a copy of my file and held on to it.

"I'm gonna show this to someone, ok?" He smiled, "And if you don't mind, I'd like to chat with you sometime tomorrow."

"My day's full tomorrow, sorry s-Zack..." I frowned.

It was slightly out of disappointment at not being able to spend time with my new found man crush/friend of sorts, and partly at the fact that I had so many things to do tomorrow I'd probably not have the time to eat, let alone talk with the Lieutenant. Zack then pulled the card out of his pocket once more and waved it before my nose.

"This can get you anything," He smirked, "You don't find me, I'll find you."

Gaia, could he really do that?

"O-kay..." I eyed him off with more than a little doubt, and he reached out a hand to ruffle my hair.

"See you tomorrow Spikey!" He grinned, and before I could comment on the hypocrisy of the statement, he'd disappeared down the hall.

Did the guy ever stop?

I made my way back to my quarters in a kind of stunned awe. I should have been paying a little more attention, I guess, because when I'd turned from placing my bag on my bed, Elliot's wide-eyed smile met me and I just about had a seizure.

"Fuck, Elliot!" I cried, and he snorted, shrugging slightly, as he stepped passed me to sit on the couch.

"I said hi when you came in. You must have had your head up your ass," my room-mate smirked.

I guess Elliot was what you'd call your average Joe in appearance. He was bigger than me in height and muscle tone, but most people were. He had long black curls mopping his head, and a pair of bright green eyes hidden beneath rectangular glasses frames. On second thought, I guess he had a... cute... charm about him. He was definitely the type of guy you'd be proud to take home to your ma; Smart, funny, insanely polite and a real gentleman of old. A real mother's treat. If you were openly gay, that is.

"Weird day," I shrugged, as he fell back onto our couch. His eyes offered a silent invitation for me to sit down and explain it further.

Until today, Elliot was really my only friend.

Don't get me wrong, it wasn't like the others hated me or anything, we just didn't talk much. Elliot, on the other hand, was friends with just about everyone. He wasn't flamboyantly gay unless you knew him really well, so he even got along with all the homophobes. As for the gays? There really must be something about Elliot that I'm missing, because they were drawn to him like moths to the flame. I guess his personality was just likeable.

I sat on the couch beside him and let out a long sigh.

"Whoa, that was a big one," He teased, "Let me get comfortable."

He shuffled so that he was just about encased with pillows and waved his hand to encourage me forward.

"I met a first class today..." I said flatly. Many of the pillows surrounding Elliot dropped to the floor as he sat bolt upright, gaping slightly.

"Really?! That's so awesome! Those guys are like needles in haystacks lately. There's like six of them including the General!" Elliot cried, before scowling enviously, "You lucky shit, tell me everything!"

So I did. Well, almost everything. I held on to some choice details. Mainly Zack's name. The thing was, Elliot knew everything and everyone in SOLDIER. What if Zack turned out to be some nobody after all? I'd be ridiculed by him for weeks. Elliot was doing his fourth trial for SOLDIER now. Every other trial he'd had before hand, the poor bastard had been hit by some kind of illness just as exams hit. I guess I was a little grateful, as selfish as I was, because I got to stay with a familiar face. Elliot was never dubbed 'Grunt Of The Year'. I guess it was because he, unlike me, had everyone thinking that he would make it through.

"So, Cloud," he smiled widely as I finished my story, "I want a name."

"You already have my name," I replied evasively, and he stared me down until I caved, "Alright, alright. Zack."

"Zack Fair?" Elliot said slowly, and I nodded with a little uncertainty. His eyes bulged out so much that it would have been comical if I wasn't terrified it was for a bad thing.

"Are you ok?" I asked softly, and he shook his head.

"How the hell do you get away with being such a lucky ASS?!" Elliot whined, throwing a cushion to hit me square in the eyes. I offered a questioning gaze, and he shook his head.

"You don't even know who he is, do you?"

"No?" I shrugged.

"Zack Fair, Lieutenant First Class SOLDIER, apart from being every little ingredient that wet dreams are made from..." Elliot paused, sucking in a deep breath to seemingly calm himself, "Is second only to Sephiroth."

I damn near fell off the sofa as Elliot shivered a little, his eyes glowing slightly with the trace mako he held. Zack was Sephiroth's right hand man... How could I have never heard of him before? I damn near worshipped the General. He's the only reason I joined Shinra to begin with.

"Introduce us. You must. It's surely part of a bro code somewhere," Elliot grinned slyly, "I know that you won't venture near boyzone, so you really shouldn't be hogging all the goods."

I must have been really good at lying. So far, Elliot still believed me to be straight. Accepting of gays, but straight. I'd even managed to feed him some bullshit about Tifa and pass her off as a crush I'd been moping over. I was happy with him thinking I was straight anyway. He'd made it pretty clear that if I was ever to 'visit boyzone' as he called it, he'd pretty much jump me.

"He's going to come get me tomorrow. Sometime during classes I think," I said distantly, and Elliot groaned.

"Fuck you, Cloud. You're lucky I haven't killed you by now from the envy!" he lamented, and I smiled slightly to myself. Please, Gaia, let him keep thinking I'm straight.

I didn't sleep all that well last night, for two main reasons. One was that Elliot neglected to tell me he would have company, and so I hadn't had any plans to stay elsewhere, therefore I was stuck listening to them-... Gaia, I don't even want to think about it...

Secondly, I was really pumped up about today. It was pretty rare to find yourself talking to a First Class to begin with, but twice in two days? It was an honour. I wanted so badly to get an extra glimpse into what life for a First Class was really like.

Zack threw me off, I guess.

Every story we heard of First Class SOLDIERs were that they were strict, they were disciplined, they had a zero 'fun factor' and they were generally awe inspiring because of it. Zack seemed completely the opposite, but retaining that awe inspiring factor. He was charming, he was funny, he was friendly, and good Gaia was he gorgeous...

No, bad Cloud. I was far too shy for all that approaching stuff anyway, delicate little sunflower that I was.

I struggled desperately to focus on the materia fusion class they honestly expected us to somehow live through, but it was a boring topic, not to mention something that I was already excelling at. I was debating whether to try and slip out un-noticed or to just sit and feign interest when the choice was made for me. Maybe Elliot was right. I might just be the luckiest guy around.

Zack entered the room with an entirely deadpan face, and stood before us all. There was a wave of murmured chatter amongst the grunts, as our teacher looked up from her book with an almost loving smile on her face.

"Lieutenant Fair," She smiled slightly wider, "How may I help you?"

"Good morning Miss Armetia. I hope you're well. I was just looking for a grunt, actually," Zack said flatly, and my stomach dropped slightly as he set blank eyes on mine. Maybe he'd been high or something yesterday? He certainly wasn't as cheerful as I'd expected, and he was fitting right into the standard SOLDIER First Class expectations.

"Strife," He said firmly, and I nodded, before he gestured for me to follow him. He apologised for interrupting, and as I made my way to the front of the room, my classmates looking on in disbelief. As soon as I'd stepped outside, I waited with baited breath for Zack to close the door behind us. What had I done? As he turned around however, that melting grin had returned, and he ruffled my hair.

"Heya Blondie. How's things going?" he asked animatedly, as we started walking.

"Um, okay I guess? I kind of thought I was in trouble."

"Oh that?" Zack laughed lightly, waving a hand dismissively, "No, General Stuffy-pants thinks that I act too friendly around you grunts. I tried to point out that it was probably that exact reason that he scares the common civilian, but I guess he doesn't mind."

"I would have thought the stories about the First Class SOLDIERs actual actions would have been the ones that intimidated people?" I suggested, far more relaxed than I had been about a minute ago. Zack smirked slyly at this statement, turning to meet my gaze.

"Oh? What stories would they be?" He asked. Surely he'd heard them before?

"Sephiroth and one unknown SOLDIER ended the Wutai war. Just the two of them in a combined effort," I breathed, practically starry eyed, "That's... well, it's amazing."

I didn't want to come across as a starstruck fanboy in front of the Lieutenant, but he didn't seem to be in the mood for teasing. He was apparently quite sulky, actually.

"Unknown? Unknown? Gaia, life can be cruel," he whined, and I somehow managed to piece together Elliot's awe with Zack and the previous statement together.

"Was that you Sir?" I asked, and he grinned.

"Firstly, it's Zack. Don't make me beat it into you," He teased, "Secondly, yep. But, I guess there's only room for one hero in SOLDIER."

"My friend Elliot referred to you and the General as the finest heroes SOLDIERs ever produced," I jumped in as quickly as I could muster, "So I guess there's definitely room for at least two."

He gave a little victory fist pump, grin spreading across his face, as he placed his hands behind his head once more and kept walking.

"It's got a nice ring to it, hey? Lieutenant Zack Fair, First Class SOLDIER hero..." He sighed, apparently lost in thought. I thought then was as good a time as any to ask him where exactly we were going.

"This place is a hell hole. What do you say to some travel in style?" Zack grinned, and the damn near dangerous glint in his eyes made me consider just going home and pretending that he'd never asked that.

"Uh, sure, why not?" I found myself saying, as he tossed me a bottle of water.

"Drink some of that first. It'll be awesome!" he grinned, and never one to turn down a request from a superior, I did just that.

I was going to die. I was going to, I was sure of it. I love motorbikes. I really, really do. But it's my general belief that they're built for pleasure, not to instil the fear of death into anyone who was a passenger on them. I could swear Zack was laughing as I clung onto him as if my life depended on it. No, scrap that, my life did depend on it. We were going well over the speed limit, and the traffic was slowly starting to build back up as we begun exiting the main city. I swear he really did not care about where we were going or how fast we were get- GAIA! Oh shit, we missed a truck by about an inch.

And, well... actually, either we were slowing down, or my adrenaline had just gone haywire. The wind was nice against my skin, although making me a little cold, and it was Zack that I was clinging to. Those two thoughts relaxed me a little, and on second thoughts, this is kind of fun. Were we slowing down? No. I took a peep over Zack's shoulder to read 210km/h on his speedometer. Shiva on a half pipe, we were flying. Zack was obviously good at this, as he slipped between any oncoming traffic with little difficulty or brake power, and I envied the fact that my father had never been so careful when I'd been a young child. He took some kind of immense pleasure out of dirt bike riding across the plains, and often took me with him much to my mother's horror.

They say that your memories start when you're three. Well, one of my first ones I can recall is sitting on the back of that dirt bike as my mother screamed out to my father.


My mother often did that. She would make a large fuss about something, venting her spleen until it was fit to burst and would then resign. As hard as she tried, she had very little dominance over anything. I thought of her back home, and wondered for a moment if she ever thought about me.

She never called, using the excuse that she didn't really know how to work the cell phone I'd given her. Knowing her, it was most likely a reason and not an excuse at all. She wrote often however, much to Elliot's delight. He had dubbed me a 'mama's boy' within the first week of me being a grunt, and my own mother was not helping the cause. He started calling me it less often however, when my mother found out that I'd made a friend and insisted on sending some of her special butterscotch choc chip cookies specifically for "Elly". I think if the two ever met, they'd get along just fine.

I grinned in my helmet, as Zack swayed across several lanes just for the sake of it, and still somehow managed not to kill us in the process. Life was incredible right now, and for once I didn't give a shit about any of the bad things that had knocked me down in the past. Zack began to slow then, and I realised that we were approaching the pass into the lower slums.

He pulled up just on the outskirts of a somewhat danky looking neighbourhood and grinned as he pulled off his helmet.

"Welcome to sector five!" Zack grinned, as I smiled a little shakily. Now that we'd stopped, Gaia, I thought I was going to be sick. Zack seemed to have noticed this and handed me the bottle from before.

"You mustn't have drank enough," Zack winked, as I forced some of the water down my throat. Then, instant relief.

"This water's really good," I mused.

"It should be. I laced it with a tranquilizer and a hyper, a nice little balance," Zack grinned, as I spit out the water I'd had in my mouth in a somewhat spectacular fashion.

"You drugged me?" I cried, and he laughed.

"Oh don't be like that. It's not like, for nefarious purposes or anything. It just stopped you from hurling up your stomach contents when I was trying to ride," Zack grinned deviously, and I tried my best not to offer a string of cuss words at the revelation.

On second thoughts, I didn't want to. Seems like that hyper's kicking in.

Zack dragged me around the streets of sector five, grinning widely the entire time and chatting about anything and everything. We stopped at a church, which I found a little odd, but Zack shrugged upon finding it empty.

"Eh, I was hoping to get some flowers, but I guess she's not in," Zack shrugged again, before I was yanked by the wrist towards a big pile of... well... junk. It was all over the place. Being a country boy myself, I'd never really wanted to go to the slums before, and so had missed out on the joy of the various smells and sights that were fragrant and vibrant enough to make you want to void your stomach continuously. Zack at least seemed to know where he was going, as he let my wrist go upon approaching a gate.

"This is sector six, kid. Wall Street Market. Anything you want to do, you basically can, regardless of legal issues," Zack grinned cheekily, "As long as you have the charm to pull it off."

"I imagine you're right at home here then, aren't you?" I drawled, and he laughed.

"Come on now, they have a nice little place to eat up here," He grinned, before taking off at a jog. I barely had time to register the weird reggae music playing from various areas, and the shady characters crowding around stuffed animals and what appeared to be- is that a brothel? Ah Gaia, I'm gonna die here. What the hell was I just thinking about anyway?

"Hey there," A rather young and attractive girl winked suggestively as she sauntered her way over to me.

"Uh, hey?" I offered anxiously, because Gaia no, please don't tell me I'm being fucking propositioned by a lady of the night.

"You look lost honey. You after anything in particular?" She smiled flirtatiously and pulled a string of gum from between her lips and good Gaia Zack, where the hell did you go?

"Hey Spikey!" He called out from somewhere amongst the throng of people, as if on cue, "Move your ass!"

I gave the girl a polite smile and shook my head slightly.

"I uh, yeah. I have to go. Thanks anyway," I nodded politely, backing away as subtly as I could manage.

"No problem baby. You come down to the honeybee if you ever feel the need to come looking for me, ok?" She smile lasciviously and I managed a waif of a smile of my own.

"Sure," I replied, forcing my way through the crowd as swiftly as I could and steadfastly refusing to look back, before my wrist was snatched by a familiar grip.

"You got a pretty eager girlfriend there, hey?" Zack teased, as I whined slightly, "You gotta watch yourself around here. When you're as pleasing to the eyes as you are, kid, you'll grab a lot of attention."

Well that's real reassu- Wait, what? Did he just?

Zack grinned at me, before yanking me once again and pulling me into some cram-packed restaurant and sitting me down at the counter. He fell down in the seat next to me and waved a hand at the chef.

"Hey Ricardo!" He grinned, as the chef himself smiled widely.

"Lieutenant! I don't think I have enough to feed you today!" He laughed, as Zack rolled his eyes. It must be an ongoing joke or something? I don't even know.

"I'll grab a special, you loveable bastard," Zack laughed, before turning to me, "What about you, Blondie?"


"Two specials Ricardo!"

Said chef nodded, laughing all the while as he turned to cook. Zack then grabbed a bottle of cola from the bar fridge beside him and handed it to me, before taking another out and downing it.

He stretched a little then, that smile never leaving his face.

"So, those results eh?" He smiled softly, "You seriously have talent, you know?"

Oh yeah. We were here for a reason. Was almost settling into my desperate belief that this was a date.

"Thanks. I guess it means a bit more coming from a First Class," I shrugged a little as I sipped from the bottle in my hand. The condensation on it was pooling slightly, and I couldn't help but wonder if it was the room temperature or it deciding to mimic my rapidly increasing body temperature. Asshole. Stop it Cloud, Gaia, you barely even know this guy and you get little flusters whenever he smiles or compliments you.

"No problems. I showed your results to that friend of mine. They were pretty impressed, kiddo," Zack smiled encouragingly, and I couldn't help but feel a little of that eagerness building up.

"Really? What did they say?" I asked, perhaps a little too much of my excitement showing through.

"Well, 'He certainly shows potential.'" Zack grinned, and I must have visibly deflated a little as he snorted.

"Hey, really, with this friend, that is a big deal. That's actually another thing I wanted to ask," Zack made to speak, before Ricardo placed two dishes in front of us. Zack gave a thanks and tossed 140 gil on the counter top.

I damn near passed out.

That was expensive for slum food. Well, not that I really knew how expensive slum food was, but I could get a three course meal at the cafeteria for 15 gil. Sure, the food was borderline toxic, but it was good enough. I hadn't died yet so they must have been doing something right. Besides, mum had pointedly rang up Shinra headquarters before she'd even let me leave home to see what they'd be feeding me. She still somehow manages to wonder why I left Boringheim to begin with.

"Try it!" Zack nudged me slightly, as I picked up the fork, Ricardo looking on with perhaps the cheesiest grin I've ever seen. I looked at the plate's contents and tried my best not to cringe. I could see eggs and... pickles? All was saved though when I spotted the chicken and ham.

I brought it to my mouth and chewed on it, finding out that perhaps slum food was the best creation on the entire planet.

"'Sreally good!" I grinned, and Ricardo clapped once, his cheesy grin increasing. Zack nodded, before demolishing the food off of his plate and waiting for me to finish. When I'd managed to choke down the eggs and pickles to keep Ricardo happy, Zack casually toyed with his fork.

"I'll cut to the point, Strife. I want to train you," Zack shrugged lightly, and the surprise nearly saw the re-emergence of those pickles.

"You what?" I spluttered, my fork dropping to the table with an obnoxious clatter.

"You're pretty cool kid. Usually I don't do this kind of stuff because I think that a grunt ought to be a grunt on their own, but," Zack hesitated with a small shrug, a flicker of a smile at the corner of his lips, "What do you say?"

I say 'eat it Elliot, I am indeed the luckiest bastard on the planet.'

"Uh, sure. I mean, if it won't be too much of a hassle or anything?"

"I wouldn't have offered otherwise!" He smiled widely, before patting me on the back, "How about we go cruising?"

"Don't I have to, you know, go back to classes or something?" I asked, and he raised an eyebrow, once again drawing his card from his pocket.

"This is the proverbial golden ticket kid. If I wanna spend some time with you, there isn't a thing in the world that's going to be stopping me," He smiled reassuringly, and I felt my cheeks burning slightly. It must have been me, but I took that as him actually wanting to spend time with me. I mean Shiva, even Elliot was reluctant to spend too much time 'chilling' as he put it.

"I told you Cloud, I think you're pretty cool. I want to see if I'm right or I'll have to withdraw my offer," Zack teased, before standing up and dragging me with him.

I'd never been to the beach before. I guess that living so close to the mountains had let me have a mildly disadvantaged childhood in that sense. Heck, I didn't even know there was a beach near Midgar. Well, near being within an hour or so, at the least. Getting to this hellhole had been mainly by truck, and I had distinctly remembered each excruciating hour spent hurling my stomach contents out the back of our moving vehicle. The tightass attendant who had been sent with my batch of grunts had been too much of a complete and utter asshole that he'd preferred to hear me whine the entire time than throw me a freaking tranq.

"It'll build your character boy. Grin and bear it..."

Anyway, basically, I'd never realised what was such a big deal about a big patch of water. The time I'd been on water had been spent hidden under tarpaulin in an attempt to smuggle myself between fishing docks at the lake without a fee. Nibelheim didn't have all that much to offer a young kid in terms of money, so we did what we could. This though... This must be what the big deal was all about.

The wind was whipping around my face and licking icy temperatures across any bare skin that it managed to find, but it was refreshing. Maybe it was because I'd been born and raised in a town that was so clean you could damn near smell when anyone was up to no good. It had been so different to the mako fuelled cloud that was Midgar's skies. Either that or I was more dosed up on tranqs than Zack was willing to let on.

"Awesome view, huh?" Zack called over his shoulder as I simply nodded, too afraid to speak for fear of bug ass. Really though, it was pretty damn awesome. It was just a massive expanse of blue that glittered and glimmered in the sunlight that had managed to pry through the clouds. There were a few stray gulls here and there that managed to set it off nicely, and there was a gentle sideline of a sandy shore that the waves licked at occasionally. A little cliché to what I'd heard about or seen in movies, but it really didn't compare to the real thing.

We rode on for about another two hours, until Zack must have felt me shivering as I clutched on desperately to his sweater in the hopes of retaining some warmth. He pulled over at the familiar site of the Shinra building shortly after and grinned as he pulled off his helmet.

"You cold, Spikey?" He teased, as I glowered as best as I could under the circumstances. He reached out and ruffled my hair, before looping his arm through mine and marching me into the main building. The secretary at the desk smiled widely, and the smile Zack gave her in return made me feel a little bitter that I was yet to be on the receiving end of something like that.

"Lieutenant! How can I help you?" The secretary beamed, and Zack leant over the counter a little.

"Hey sweetheart. My little blonde friend here is just about freezing his ass off. Do you maybe have a coat or something he can borrow until I get him home?" Zack asked charmingly, and she blushed slightly. Wow. If I'd had half the skill he'd had back in my younger years, I may never have gone gay at all.

"Of course. He seems to be the same size, so he could borrow one of mine..." She smiled a little alluringly, but Zack didn't seem to notice as he graciously took the coat off of her and flung it in my direction.

"Take good care of it Blondie, I'll be bringing it back to... Suzanne later on..." He grinned, and she blushed further. In that brief pause though, I could have sworn that he just checked her name plaque. It didn't matter though, as I pulled it over and thanked her, before he headed back outside.

It was getting colder, that was a given, but he didn't seem to mind all that much.

"It's the mako," He grinned, seemingly reading my mind, "It keeps the body at a regular temperature."

"How did you...?"

"You were looking at me with a little bit of a green eyed monster there. I figured it was because you're shaking in your boots so to speak," He teased, and I pointedly rolled my eyes. He poked me in the rib playfully, and I laughed in spite of myself.

"Did I pass?" I asked with a coy smile across my lips, and he raised an eyebrow.

"Am I still a cool kid?" I scowled, and he snorted.

"Oh shit, yeah," Zack smiled easily, "You're just about the coolest Grunt Of The Year I've ever hung around with."

"Well, gee, thanks," I sighed dejectedly, my cheeks all but burning with the embarrassment, and he ruffled my hair once again. He then made a clucking sound of sorts and shook his head.

"We all hear what they say you know, but they're full of shit. You're the least likely to be Grunt Of The Year out of the lot of them," Zack reassured, as he offered a soft smile with his words.

Good Gaia, my skin was actually beginning to burn. Had to be. I was like some kind of smitten school girl, and it made me want to choke on my own lungs.

"Hey Cloud, you wanna hang out next weekend?" Zack suggested, "I have to spend some time with Sephiroony in the morning on Saturday, but I have the afternoon free?"

"Sure," I shrugged nonchalantly, even though I mentally screamed and punched my fist in the air.

"Alrighty then!" Zack grinned, clapping me on my back as I realised that we'd reached my quarters, "See you around."

"See ya.," I grinned, even as he turned his back and began walking away. Shiva. What the hell was I going to do with myself?


"Not like I meant for it to happen."

"Oh but you love the fact that it did, don't you?"

"Well, yeah, a little."

If the half hearted glare directed at me after that statement was any indication, I don't think Elliot was entirely too pissed off that I'd spent about nine hours with Zack today.

"I guess I should be proud. Or at least happy that he'll be around here a bit, hey?" Elliot sighed in apparent defeat, "You're like a hottie magnet, and yet you've somehow managed to stay single."

"Tough luck, I guess," I shrugged, hoping he'd leave it at that. No such luck.

"Hey Cloud, I have a question for you."


"You got that letter from Tifa a little while ago right, but you still haven't replied. Why not?" Elliot asked with something akin to curiosity.

Oh. Yeah, that probably would have been a good idea, come to think of it...

"Well..." I struggled for a decent lie in this instance, because somehow the truth just didn't seem like it would make the cut.

Why hadn't I replied? Well, because she ignored me for so long that by the time we actually had a proper conversation, I'd already picked what team I'd batted for and she sure as hell wasn't a player on the field. I spent too many years of my life staring through windows at the beauty that was Tifa, and for what? Perhaps it was mere appreciation. After all, isn't just about every gay meant to know from birth that they were different? I couldn't whole-heartedly say that that was the case, but... stereotype right? That's what the entire culture seemed to be about.

"You're just a little chicken shit aren't you?" Elliot teased, much to my secret delight.

"Yeah, I guess that's it. Any handy tips for me, Romeo?" I teased back, and he leered.

"Not unless Tifa is some kind of codename for a bulky Costa del Sol resident in tight Speedos and cheap spray on tan," Elliot smirked, and I made it a point to roll my eyes again. He reached out an affectionate hand and ruffled my hair, much like Zack had seemingly taken a liking to doing, and I swatted his hand away.

"Don't mess with the hair," I laughed, and he shrugged slightly. He stretched casually then, much like Zack had done in the diner, but Elliot didn't have those well defined arm muscles that rippled with the movement.

"I don't think it's possible to make it any worse," Elliot snorted, and I sighed. Come to think of it, how did Zack's hair manage to stay so... frizz free? Secondly, I wonder how many squats the Lieutenant would have had to have done to get- Fucking Gaia be damned, I'm obsessing.

"Ouch," I replied dryly, even as I stood up and headed for the bathroom. I needed a shower, and for Gaia's sake, something to stop me thinking of Zack.

"You going for a wash up, kid?" Elliot asked, and I pointedly glared. He brushed it offer however and merely waited for an answer. I nodded, and he seemed placated enough.

"Don't use up all the water. I'm going out tonight and I need to shave downstairs just in case."

"Well Shiva, Elliot, feel free to use a little discretion," I screwed up my face in distaste and his grin only grew wider.

"Bite me, chocobozo," Elliot retorted, and I managed to lob a stapler at him before barricading myself in the bathroom. I'd pay for that one.

A/N: Oh man, I feel a little bit better about this chapter now. If you're just starting to re-read this, or even reading this for the first time: If the author's notes at the top are full of emotes and 'woot's, I have not yet updated that chapter. For both of our sakes, please just wait a little bit longer.