MAKING THE CUT
"If only I were SOLDIER." ~ Cloud Strife
The small cadet threw himself behind a dumpster, panting heavily as he made to reload his gun with trembling fingers. A loud, disgusting snarl echoed down the alleyway, and the gun nearly slipped out of his hands. He sucked in a few deep breaths to calm himself before finishing with his weapon and scrambling back to his feet. Heading in the opposite direction of the noise, the cadet darted into the shadows.
"Where the hell is he going?" Genesis Rhapsodos demanded, glaring at the screen in front of him. "The monster is the other way."
Beside him, Angeal Hewley sighed. "At the rate he's been going, he's probably better off running."
"That makes the fourteenth time he's tripped," Sephiroth commented. He pointed at the monitor just as the boy's left foot caught on an exposed drain pipe.
Every once and a while, the three Firsts snuck into the observation room to watch the cadets fumble through one of their field tests. They'd laugh over stupid mistakes the boys made, commend the occasional show of bravery, and try to guess which ones would become future SOLDIERs. But this... This bumbling idiot took the cake. Not only had he successfully managed to get separated from his team, but he seemed to have no clue where he was going and was being hunted down by a simulation monster he was obviously no match for.
Genesis shook his head in disbelief, pressing his fingers to his temple. No matter how intently he stared, the cadet wasn't receiving any of his psychic urges to turn around and get ready to defend himself from the oncoming monster. "I would point out that he has a perfectly good radio strapped to his sorry ass," he muttered, "but that would be discrediting his intelligence."
The remark elicited a rather unattractive snort from Angeal, who covered his mouth in an attempt to stifle more laughter.
"If he spent more time running and less time tripping," Sephiroth added, "he might not be in this situation."
Ignoring Sephiroth's odd fixation on the boy's clumsiness, Genesis narrowed his eyes as he watched the cadet skitter through the narrow pathways in the Slums, throwing frightened glances over his shoulder every so often. The guard hound, having picked up his scent trail, honed in on him like a heat-seeking missile. It leapt down from a rooftop and landed in front of the cadet, blocking his path.
"Move, you idiot!" Genesis yelled as the monster lunged, taking the boy down. Unfortunately, the cadet couldn't hear him through a computer screen.
Angeal sighed one of his heavy, ashamed sighs. "He should have turned and shot a long time ago."
The cadet struggled against the iron grip the monster had him in. The guard hound fastened its teeth on the green scarf, wrenching its head back and forth to rip it off. When the fabric began to tear, the boy suddenly brought the gun up and slammed the barrel into the side of the monster's head, surprising both the guard hound and the three Firsts watching.
"Well then," Sephiroth said. The cadet, having forced the monster to release him, scrambled back to his feet and brandished his rifle with all the ferocity of a moogle wielding a garden hose.
Genesis glowered at the cadet. "It was about damn time." He stood up from his chair, moving to pace behind the other two. "I don't know if I can watch any more."
"His aim is off," Angeal announced before the sound of the shot even came through the speakers. "He'd do better with a club."
"A club would require a large amount of brute strength to wield," Sephiroth pointed out "and he obviously lacks that."
"A sword, then."
Sephiroth frowned, but Genesis interrupted whatever it was he planned on saying. "Something small and something sharp," he said, bracing his hands on the back of Angeal's chair as he peered at the screen over his shoulder. "A katana, for example. Perhaps even two of them."
While Sephiroth muttered something about incompetence, Angeal nodded encouragingly. "His accuracy would need work, though."
"A lot of work," Genesis agreed. "As well as his reaction time and coordination. He had at least a three second window to dodge before that thing tackled him. I'm surprised at his display with the gun, though. Most cadets wouldn't have thought to use it as a melee weapon. You can't teach that kind of instinct."
Crossing his arms, Angeal glanced up at him. "So, what are you saying?"
"I'm saying that what raw talent he has is going to be ripped to shreds by his cadet training. He doesn't fit into their cookie-cutter 'tall, buff, and stupid' requirements, so it's inevitable that he'll get pushed aside and fail. That's just how the system is set up."
Genesis gave Angeal a questioning glance, wondering where he was going with this. "Unless he received a different style of training. But ShinRa isn't going to adjust its training program for one cadet."
"No, but one of us could do it."
Sephiroth's head shot up and he released the chunk of hair he'd been winding around his finger. "You're not suggesting taking that boy as an apprentice? He can't even walk!"
"Hmph." Angeal folded his arms and leered at Sephiroth. "If you're so adamant that he walk correctly, why don't you teach him?"
"The grace I posses is natural and cannot be taught." Feeling vindicated, Sephiroth turned his nose up in a haughty fashion.
Hands tightening on the back of the chair, Genesis bit the inside of his cheek as the wheels in his brain began to turn. It was one thing to take a promising Third on as an apprentice, like Angeal had; it would be completely different to take on a mere cadet who may or may not even pan out in the end. A gamble like that would be the ultimate training challenge. "He can walk and he will walk." The triumphant declaration tumbled out before Genesis could change his mind. "I'll make sure of it."
Both of his friends stared at him for a long moment before they burst out laughing.
"You?" Sephiroth scoffed. "You'd lose your temper and skewer the poor child before the week is over."
Genesis pinned him with an indignant glare. "I would not!"
Angeal, always wanting to avoid a fight, twisted in his chair to rest a hand on Genesis' arm. "I wasn't serious about training him, Genesis."
"Well I am," Genesis snapped, wrenching himself away. "Neither of you believe I can do it, and I fully intend to prove you wrong."
An arrogant smirk plastered itself on Sephiroth's face as he folded his arms across his chest. "You're right. I don't believe you can."
"You don't think I'm good enough?"
"It's not a question of whether or not you're good enough; it's whether or not you'll run out of patience."
"I'll use duct tape to hold it together if I have to," Genesis ground out, fighting the urge to shut Sephiroth up with his fists.
"I would be willing to bet on this."
"Sephiroth—" Angeal started, but Genesis cut him off.
"Fine. Let's bet on it."
Sephiroth looked surprised—Angeal was horrified—but quickly recovered. "In four weeks, the cadets have a performance test they need to pass. If the boy doesn't make the cut, Angeal and I will take an extended leave to Costa del Sol while you remain here with our paperwork and missions."
Angeal shot him a very pointed 'don't get me involved with this,' look, but was ignored.
Genesis raised an eyebrow. "And if he does?"
"The vacation is all yours."
That didn't strike him as being as fair as Sephiroth made it out to be. "I'll take the vacation," he yielded, "but you're both coming, too. And you must accompany me to theaters, dinners, and rides through the country on chocobos."
The malicious grin quickly slipped from Sephiroth's face, replaced with a slightly ill expression. "What makes you think you deserve all that?"
"Because, with the both of you gone, I'll end up with three times as much work. Between the two of you, you'd only end up doing half of my work. Thus, there should be something to make up for that."
Glowing green eyes met electric blue, staring each other down. Finally, Sephiroth relented. "Have it your way."
"Oh, I will. Dreams of the morrow hath the shattered soul, pride is lost, wings stripped away, the end is nigh."
Predictably, Sephiroth rolled his eyes and looked away.
Genesis turned to Angeal. "Come with me down to the instructor's office. I want to find out my new student's name."
Cloud Strife shuffled against the flow of traffic in the crowded hallway. Cadets bustled about, heading to and fro between classes and training. He listlessly allowed himself to be knocked into and shoved, making his way slowly but surely to his combat class. Ever since failing his test yesterday, he'd been completely miserable. It would only be a matter of time before he was thrown out of the ejected from the program. They'd probably be better off without him anyway. He'd never been able to keep up with the rest of his class and, as a result, always got left behind. Turning tail and running from that monster was the final nail in his coffin. He'd been too afraid to even shoot at it.
He slipped through the training room doors, hoping to remain unnoticed, but his hopes were dashed, however, when Instructor Davis made a beeline for him the moment he stepped into the room. The large man thrust a folded piece of paper at him. "Here, kid. Somebody wants to see you."
Cloud's heart sank. Some higher-up, probably, who wanted to tell him to pack his bags and hike back to Nibelheim. Not wanting to prolong the sense of imminent doom churning in his gut, he took the paper and he retreated back out into the corridor. The note was short, written in a neat script.
Floor 49, training room B. Get in the elevator, press '49,' get out, third door on the right.
Cloud furrowed his brow in confusion. Floor 49 was the SOLDIER floor, wasn't it? Why on Gaia was he being sent to a training room up there of all places? Swallowing, Cloud stopped in front of the elevator. Pushing aside mental images of himself being mercilessly slaughtered by a mob of SOLDIERs, he decided not to puzzle over it.
Once out on the SOLDIER floor, Cloud felt incredibly self conscious. Were cadets even allowed on the SOLDIER floor? Heartbeat racing, he shuffled as quickly as he could to the third door on the right. When the door slid open, Cloud barely had time to register the small round, object whizzing straight at him. A shriek escaped his lips and he raised his arms to protect his face without thinking. Whatever it was bounced off his wrist and rolled harmlessly across the floor.
A slow, measured clapping sounded from the other side of the room.
"Well done," a low, lightly accented voice said. "You have successfully managed to set yourself on fire."
Panicked, Cloud searched his clothes for evidence of flames. Finding none, he glanced up to see a tall, red-haired man standing across the room, one hand casually rested against his hip. A white bucket full of small, yellow balls sat near his feet. The man reached down and pulled one out.
"When I threw the tennis ball at you, what did you do?" he asked.
Cloud didn't get a chance to respond. "You cowered and blocked your face," the man answered for him. "But say this is a Fire spell. What are you doing to do?"
"Um, duck?" Tennis balls? Fire spells? What?
"You'd better pray to the Goddess you do." With a growl, he lobbed another tennis ball. Squeaking, Cloud barely managed to dodge the projectile in time before it crashed into the wall behind him. This fellow had one heck of an arm.
Another one flew at him, aiming straight for his head. Not half a second after avoiding it, yet another came. Not knowing what else to do, Cloud made a break for it along the perimeter of the room. Fuzzy yellow balls banged into the metal wall like bullets in his wake. He slammed on the brakes when one zipped in front of him, effectively cutting him off. Turning, he barely managed to duck in time as a tennis ball came at his face.
Cloud wanted to scream. When ShinRa sent word of his death to his mother, he'd half-hoped that he would at least die honorably trying to save a small child from a monster or something. 'Pummeled to death by tennis balls' wasn't what he wanted on his epitaph. As much as he hated to admit it, though, it was something that could only happen to him.
As the barrage of "Fire spells" continued, Cloud began to tire and some of the balls knocked into his shoulders and arms. It hurt; there would be bruises in the morning. The redhead also eventually ran out of ammunition and started collecting ones he'd already thrown to reuse.
Cloud gritted his teeth. How long was this going to go on? In a fit of rage, and probably momentary insanity, he bent down, picked up a nearby tennis ball and lobbed it at the redhead with all his might.
Activity in the room screeched to a halt when the man's hand lashed out to snatch the ball out of the air. Cloud's harsh pants were the only sound that could be heard as the two stared at each other. Nothing had changed in the redhead's expression, but Cloud could just feel the waves of cold, barely-controlled fury rolling off him. Finally, the man lowered his arm.
"Your reaction time is much too slow and your technique is beyond sloppy," he barked. "You're moving way more than necessary to avoid attacks and it's made you tired, and that has made you careless. Furthermore, cadets cannot use materia, ergo you would be dead right now."
From what Cloud could tell, the redhead was in SOLDIER. He wore a SOLDIER belt, but didn't quite have the correct uniform. Instead of the standard, loose-fitting cargo pants and army boots, he had on a pair of leather pants and boots that came up past his knees. The sleeveless black top showed off sinewy muscles that flexed and rippled with every subtle movement. A single earring dangled from his right ear, knocking against his jaw.
"What do you want from me?" Cloud asked, tired of feeling helpless.
"I want you to come closer."
He grudgingly did as he was told, skirting the yellow balls that littered the floor.
The redhead's bright blue eyes narrowed. "Catch this with your right hand," he instructed, gently tossing the ball to him.
The ball sailed through the air and Cloud caught it deftly.
"Pass it to your left hand."
He moved the ball to his other hand.
"Throw it back to me."
Cloud awkwardly tossed it back. The motion felt foreign using his non-dominant arm.
"Now, do it again."
So he did.
Back and forth they tossed the ball, each time Cloud catching it with his right and throwing with his left. Just as the mundane activity's tediousness was starting to get to him, the redhead broke the silence.
"Reverse and catch it with your left hand, throw with your right."
Cloud reached out his left hand to catch the ball and missed by a good six inches.
His next order came swiftly. "Go pick it up."
Glancing down, Cloud went for the first tennis ball he saw.
Cloud jumped, having grown used to the silence and soft lull of the redhead's voice, and glanced up in confusion.
"Pick up the one you dropped. Don't be lazy."
At least seven balls were in his immediate vicinity. It could have been any one of them. He chose one at random, bending over. "Is this it?"
The redhead shrugged. "I don't know."
Well. That wasn't helpful at all.
Sighing in exasperation, Cloud took it anyway and returned to his position, preparing to throw it.
"Ah-ah, your right hand throws it."
Catching with his left hand was not as easy as he thought it would be. It took him nearly a dozen tires just to catch it once without dropping it. He paid close attention to where it rolled when he missed, not interested in getting snapped at again. The redhead remained silent through his mistakes, though, critical eyes tracking his every move.
And so they went on. Eventually, the SOLDIER instructed him to pass the ball behind his back from right to left, then left to right. Then they returned to the original exercise and started the whole thing over again. What felt like hours later, the redhead finally caught the ball and folded his arms.
"Your coordination is painfully lousy," he told Cloud, as if this was new information. "After failing your test yesterday, they're only giving you one more chance. The next exam is in four weeks. During that time, you will report here every morning in place of your usual combat class unless I specify otherwise."
Cloud blinked owlishly and his insides shriveled up a little. He was going to have to play high-intensity dodge ball for the next four weeks?
"Now, I want you to gather up all the tennis balls, put them in the bucket, and leave them outside the door." And with that, the man spun on his heel and marched towards the exit.
What? That was it? "You're leaving?" Cloud asked.
"Yes. And you may leave as soon as you've done as I asked."
"But wait! I don't—what am I to call you, sir?"
The redhead didn't so much as glance over his shoulder. "Save the pleasantries for another time, Strife."
Alone and more confused than ever, Cloud set to work cleaning up the mess in the training room, praying no one would come in and ask him what he was doing because he really didn't have an answer.
A/N: If you've read even this far, you have all of my gratitude. If you're feeling adventurous, then I invite you to continue reading. If not, well, thanks for at least giving it a try :)