A/N: Big thanks to Mystic! If you have ever read her Clack story Crystal Clear (it's freakin' epic) then you will recognise the beginning of this story. Don't panic. My lovely friend knows that I've written the beginning (and only the beginning) very similarly to hers. I'm so grateful to her for getting me back into writing fanfiction (although, admittedly, I've never posted anything before. Be gentle with me?) So er...enjoy!

[Week I]

Wednesday Evening

It wasn't hard to know who your superiors were here and it certainly wasn't hard to know who was in the trophy-cabinet at ShinRa. Cloud had been training for SOLDIER long enough to know the names of men he should respect the most, and he wanted nothing more than to avoid these ShinRa Icons at all costs.

The name that struck both fear and wonder in his heart so far was General Sephiroth. A man he had seen once, from a distance, and stared at enraptured. But his induction seminar was two months behind him now and none of the elite had, thankfully, crossed his path.

Being a nobody had its perks and, for the most part, Cloud liked it that way.

Even if...Cloud was still the runt that others found amusing at his expense. Why had he thought it would be different? Well, because he didn't have a past in ShinRa. It was supposed to be a new beginning where he had harmed no one and could prove that he was something. He didn't know what, but he wanted to be worth something that others would look upon with a glimpse of approval. That's what he wanted. Cloud wanted to go back to Nibelheim...as a SOLDIER.

The sound of the door opening made him jump a little, snapping his head in its direction.

"Bwaha! I have found you!" cried his roommate, Soshi. "Aren't you going to eat?"

Grumbling something about having nabbed food on his return to the room, Cloud relaxed back into the bed, returning his gaze to the ceiling.

"Still hurting from the run?" Soshi asked with a rueful grin, hopping onto the bed opposite Cloud's.

"All twenty miles of it," was his even reply, flashing Soshi a smile.

Cloud was grateful to have Soshi. He was the only person Cloud truly thought of as a friend and, even though Soshi was taller and probably stronger, he regarded Cloud as just 'another one of the guys'. He didn't understand why Cloud got so much hassle. His deducted solution was; if Cloud talked to people more often, then they would probably see him as more of an equal. Soshi didn't understand that Cloud preferred his own company.

"You know what you need?" said Soshi.

"Enlighten me," he responded flatly.

"A hot shower, it'll help sooth your muscles," Soshi explained before reaching beneath his bed to retrieve black boot polish, his messy brown hair falling into his eyes.

Shifting like a limbless cat, trying to avoid pain shooting through his legs, Cloud grunted and closed his eyes. A shower sounded good but the thought of moving seemed fatal. He heard his roommate remark upon some new deep gouges cut into his boots, but paid no attention as sleep ensnared his heavy mind.

Thursday morning:

With reluctance, Cloud slowly blinked his eyes open. How long had he been asleep? The room was still dark...and suspiciously quiet. "Soshi?" Cloud mumbled. Pushing up as best he could and leaning on his left forearm, Cloud swung his head close to the bedside table and squinted at the glowing red digits of his clock until the haze became readable.

"SHIT!" he bellowed, eyes springing open and body lurching out of bed. Shiva he felt weak. It was 6AM. and Cloud was supposed to be in his basic-training class at six! His asshole of a training instructor was going to make him pay for such tardiness.

Changing as fast as he could physically manage he charged out the room, cursing Soshi with a vengeance for not waking him up. His muscles were burning from the day before, but Cloud did not break his sprint. What would his instructor do? He could already foresee his sergeant yelling, degrading him with some comment and then setting him a large amount of press-ups. The number 'one-hundred' loomed in his mind's-eye. Will I ever get a break? he thought desperately, before smacking into someone and flying back to the ground.

"Hey, no running in the halls, kid!" spoke a good-humoured voice.

Groaning and touching his forehead, Cloud forced himself to look up. His jaw fell slack.

"What's your hurry?" asked the man he'd crashed into, his hand extended down to Cloud. Long black hair fell into his eyes; everything about him unmistakable.

"I – I was...am, late for class," Cloud admitted, accepting the offered hand. His face burned with embarrassment.

"That's no reason to hurt yourself - or others," the SOLDIER chuckled, his gaze never leaving Cloud's face. "I'm Zack," he said with a decisive nod, perhaps thinking it would ease Cloud's tension. No luck. Cloud couldn't unclench his fists or shift his feet apart - he felt stuck, pinned to attention.

"Yeah, I know." A blush started to attack his cheeks. A better response might have been, 'I'm Cadet Strife, sir', but a whirlwind of curses was flooding Cloud's head. All he could think of was how he had just charged into a First Class SOLDIER, the soldier who trained directly under Commander Angeal Hewley.

"Oh, well good." Zack's grin widened. "And you are?"

A bucket of icy water seemed to have been poured over Cloud's body. Was Zack going to report him?

"Nameless?" Zack teased, tilting his head when he got no response.

Cloud hurriedly shook his head. "I - no. Sorry. I'm Strife, sir, Cadet Strife."

Zack laughed, but there was something that sounded fond about it. "Ah-dear. No first name? So we're semi-nameless."

"I -" Cloud snapped his head up and almost wished he hadn't tried to meet Zack's eyes, but it felt rude to look away again. Trying hard to stand at attention and return the confident stare, he replied, "Cloud, sir. My name is Cloud."

"Cloud," Zack nodded. "It's nice to meet you, even if you did almost run me down!"

"Sorry, sir." Relieved to look away from Zack's obscenely blue eyes, Cloud stared at the man's chest instead, studying the black woollen pattern of his tank-top with determined concentration. The back of his eyes began to burn and he tightened his lips together – wishing the floor would swallow him alive.

"Very apologetic, aren't you?" Zack mused.

Cloud tried to smile but half grimaced instead – attempted to look up at his superior and then changed his mind. Cloud could see his name sinking deeper into the 'black-list'. He'd barely even started the training programme and already he felt like he wouldn't make it halfway through with all the scorn he got and mistakes he made. And Zack freakin' Fair? Cloud held his breath and widened his eyes.

"Hmm..." Leaning back to look at Cloud better, Zack crossed his arms.

"Yes sir?" Perhaps, as a Cadet, Cloud could get away with grovelling. What could he offer? To polish Zack's boots every day? To give up his free weekend afternoon's and - and what? Finish Zack's paperwork while he went off to a bar? Cloud could do that. He had decent writing skills.

"Who's your instructor this morning?"

"Sergeant Takihiro." He began to feel heavier. Zack was taking a mental note of him should Cloud ever screw up again.

"Come with me, Strife."

"I – yessir."

As soon as Zack turned his back, Cloud cringed. It took a lot of strength to straighten up but he still couldn't stop frowning. How did he go about asking for favours, or pardons? He sighed. The on-coming press-ups Cloud could handle. The humiliation he could mostly handle, too. The look on one particular student's face, however, he couldn't bear to think about. There always had to be one peer who just loved to watch others burn.

As they headed down the turquoise-themed corridors, Zack turned to look at Cloud. He was surprised to see Zack grinning. With a sweep of his hand, Zack urged for Cloud to walk beside him.

"So, how are you finding your classes, Cloud?"

"All right I suppose," he mumbled softly.

"Not a favourite class?"

"Mmm...maybe materia studies."

"Oh, I loved that one too! The combinations you can make are just real neat, especially elemental materia – but you probably haven't started that yet. You're probably still on healing techniques and the importance of their condition, right?"

"Yeah," was all Cloud could say. They had actually started on shields. He side-glanced warily at Zack.

"My favourite was physical practise though. Getting to grips with combat, the fun stuff, you know? How to wield a cool looking sword around and not get your ass kicked at the same time! Do you like combat training?"

A dark frown took over Cloud's face again. "Not so much." He stared at the floor like he was hoping the clinical colour would turn into acid. He thought of the student in combat training who loved to aggravate Cloud, almost like it was a national sport.

"Hmmm..." Zack mused once more. Cloud chose to act like he hadn't heard this time.

The glass doors that labelled the end on this zone hissed open for the two of them, and Cloud followed the First Class SOLDIER in the direction of his combat class. Why was Zack personally delivering him to class? To make sure he got the right punishment? To tell Takihiro he wanted Cloud under a stricter thumb? To make sure Cloud went to the class at all?

They came to an optional turn in the corridor: carry straight on, or turn right.

"Stay here a moment," said Zack, and he jogged down the right corridor, knocked briefly on a door (hardly waiting for a reply) and disappeared inside the academic-classroom. A few minutes later he strode out with a piece paper in hand. "Here," he grinned, holding out the sheet for Cloud.

Cloud looked at it dubiously. What kind of a report card was this? He raised his hand to take it. "Umm...what is it, sir?"

"Just a greeting from First Class Zack. But I'd head straight to class now, you're late enough as it is."

Cloud glanced at the handwriting scrawled across the paper, baffled, not actually reading it, and then returned his confused eyes to Zack. His superior's smile softened. "Try smile, kid. I know it's tough here, but I reckon smiling suits you."

Cloud's hands intensified their grip on the piece of paper.

With a brief tap on Cloud's upper arm, Zack finished, "See you around, Strife," and saluted with two fingers as he turned and strode back the way they had come. Cloud watched him go, a slight smile twitching at the corners of his mouth.

Before Zack was out of sight, Cloud began skimming through what he'd written.

'Hello Sergeant Takihiro! Listen, just want to apologise for Cloud being late. I nabbed the kid on my way to see Hojo. I had way too many boxes to carry and seeing as we ran into each other - files soaring everywhere – I asked him to help me out. He seemed pretty adamant he shouldn't be late for class, so I promised I'd write him a note. Sorry he's late for your class. My fault completely. Zack Fair /signature/'

Cloud heard the doors open and close before he had the chance to catch a final glimpse of him. He wanted to run after and say 'thanks', but ran the other way instead; ready to give Takihiro a smug little grin. Everyone knew what Takihiro was like...