Chapter One: A SOLDIER's Pastime
I met him a while ago. Further back then he probably thought. It was Tuesday, and I had the first mission I'd ever been assigned to do without the supervision of my mentor, Angeal. I was so excited to prove myself as a member of SOLDIER that I barely slept the previous night. In fact, I hadn't slept at all until finally collapsing after some squats somewhere around five thirty in the morning. I only slept for about two hours, but unfortunately I was supposed to be ready to head out with the squad at seven thirty, and instead I was on my stomach, arm hanging off the bed and drooling on the bunches of comforter I turned into a makeshift pillow. Of course, as soon as I opened an eye wide enough to see my clock, I was racing down the halls of the Shinra Building like a madman. I didn't even stop to silence my alarm clock which had apparently been going since six. I got a little email about that later in the day from a friend of mine I was bunking with at the time.
I was a little more than half-way to the squad when I nearly ran down my mentor in the halls. I was as quick to inform him of my rush as he was to inform me that I had forgotten my sword. This day was not off to a good start. So I ran back the other direction, maybe even faster, if that was possible. It wasn't long until I ran into another person in the halls, and there was no 'nearly' about this. I full out threw this person to the floor, not quite falling myself, and side-stepped him to get closer to my destination. This was when I met him. He was an infantryman, quite obviously, with his dorky knee pads and shoulder guards. He wasn't in a helmet, probably because our collision made it role about six feet down the hall, and in my rush, that's probably the only thing that made me double take and turn back to him.
"Hey, sorry about that, man. Let me help you out. I'm Zack Fair, SOLDIER second class." Is what I would have normally said. I liked to throw that title around; SOLDIER second class. I was always a lot more excited being a second class trying to make first than I had ever been after actually making first. But that was complicated. Anyway, that would have been my response normally, but instead it came out something like, "Oh, sorry! In a hurry!" And then I was off again. At least physically I was off again. My mind stuck to that scene for a minute, starting on 'Wow, that was rude of me', and moving on to 'For a second, I thought that guy was a girl'. You don't see too many blond haired guys in SOLDIER, well... except for commander Lazard. The thought of the commander only furthered my awareness of how late I was.
When I finally got to the squad, I was a little over a half-hour late. Luckily, being the only second class there with no firsts, I had nobody to yell at me. Interestingly enough, the yelling was being directed at an infantryman who had arrived late, but approximately fifteen minutes before I got there. It was the same guy I ran into in the hall. He, or rather I, had apparently cracked his helmet during the impact. It made me wonder if Shinra was even trying to protect their troops with those things. Obviously, no grunt is going to blame a second class for a mistake, so he just stood there obediently being reprimanded and taking deductions to his pay. So as not to contradict the words said in front of the infantry, I waited until the officer was done issuing punishments before pulling him aside to explain my part in the problem. Honestly, I doubt it helped.
I wanted to apologize to the infantryman for bumping into him earlier, but by that time, everyone was already shuffling into the armored cars we were taking to the mission. I wasn't even in the same car as him for the ride, and when we got there, I was asked to take point, and he stayed behind to join the second group because of some kind of stomach trouble. I didn't end up seeing him again that day. It wasn't until about a year later that I talked to him again, and I didn't even realize it was him. I made first class after SOLDIER faced a mass desertion started by one of the old first classes; Genesis. I never really knew if they promoted me because of my skill or because they needed people. Angeal wasn't around to make me feel any better about it either because he deserted too, although I hadn't accepted that fact at the time. Despite this, I couldn't help but to appreciate my first real mission as a SOLDIER first class, even if it did take me to the freezing mountains of Modeoheim. It was a stealth mission more than anything else. Far smaller than the one I had the previous year. It was just me, two infantrymen, and one of the special operations Turks named Tseng. Our ride crashed down on the mountain a ways out from our target, so we needed to walk for a while. This was fine by me, as I had kept myself in top shape and was a country boy by nature, but the others were having a hard time. At least two of them were.
To my surprise, the man matching me step for step was not Tseng, but one of the infantrymen who were accompanying us. When I asked him how he managed to keep up, he told me that he was a country boy too, from a place called Nibelheim. I just wanted to rub it in Tseng's face that he was being beaten by two country boys, so I asked the man what his name was. That's when he removed his helmet, and his blond hair fell into place.
"Cloud." He said, giving me a smile that contradicted the cold. I probably gave him my name too, which was kinda dumb I guess, since no grunt would've been on a mission with a first class without even knowing their name. I enjoyed those few minutes though. Laughing about backwater country towns and making fun of Tseng for falling behind. It was pretty nice. Little did I know that my first mission would become a full out confrontation with Angeal and Genesis himself.
After that day, Shinra became obviously paranoid about their SOLDIERs, especially the firsts. For months, I was mostly on an unofficial vacation, occasionally handed some joke of a mission so that the company could pretend that they still trusted me. It was not that I did anything wrong, but after the mass desertion, they didn't want to take any chances. I sometimes wondered if Sephiroth, the only other first class at the time, was going through the same thing. Needless to say, I never saw Cloud during that time. I barely even saw the Shinra building itself.
My vacation was cut not quite short enough, when I was suddenly under an unexpected attack at the resort town of Costa Del Sol. After fending of the attackers, I was informed by Tseng that copies of Genesis had been appearing all over the place. So all of a sudden, Shinra was in need of me again. Priority was focused on the town of Junon, as that was where we were keeping Hollander, a scientist we arrested for assisting Genesis in Modeoheim. Unfortunately, by the time I got there, the place had been overrun, and Hollander got away. I did see Cloud that day, but he was rather busy being sick from the helicopter ride in, so we couldn't talk much. Instead, I asked him to dinner, but when we tried to make that happen, we ended up with half a dozen unexpected tag-alongs who were too excited about being treated to dinner by a first to understand that it was supposed to be just the two of us. Cloud didn't talk much, as the other men were making more than enough noise as it was.
It was frustrating after time. Kind of like when you're trying to tell a story to someone, and they tell you they'll be right back, but then they get distracted and you never get to finish. Cloud was the only infantryman I actually knew, and even after a year I hadn't found the opportunity to apologize for knocking him over. It was almost like a mission to me at that point. However, missions once again became scarce after that day at Junon. Commander Lazard went missing at the same time as Hollander got away. Shinra had labeled him killed in action, but more then a few of us in SOLDIER had our suspicions that he too had deserted.
Genesis copies disappeared for the most part. Nobody knew whether to be relieved or anxious about that, but any investigations into the matter were led by the Turks, not SOLDIER. Shinra was becoming more and more reliant on the Turks, and more and more suspicious of us. It seemed that they wanted us to have absolutely nothing to do with the missions involving the deserters. A lot of focus seemed to be turned to the Mako energy reactors as well, but the company wouldn't let anyone know why. They didn't even let me know, even when I was assigned to provide additional protection to the reactor in Coral. Guard duty was never my thing, but at this point I was just itching to get out and do something. It hit me as I was preparing to leave with my squad; my first mission when I bumped into Cloud was at a reactor. I had been assigned to clean up some troops from Wutai that had attempted to take over the place. Modeoheim was a reactor mission as well. Other then the guards they stationed, Shinra didn't have that many infantrymen who were used to working at reactors. That was what made me detour from my van to thumb through the squad roster, and sure enough, there it was.
Strife, Cloud – Infantryman.