Unbetaed; surprise to no one. Yaoi; bit more on the explicit side but nothing you wouldn't see on TV. More military stuff; get used to it.
Preemptive warning on canonical change this time: Kunsel and Luxiere are getting a personality modification concerning their last interactions with Zack. Luxiere is even less important and Kunsel is just changing altogether. I'm sorry in advance if you're fond of either character. More will be explored later.
The questions at the end of this chapter are real questions from an actual psychological test (the MMPI). Take note of how Cloud would actually score on a test like this.
The ceremony was mercifully short after Sephiroth's 'speech', and Cloud didn't have to keep his cool much longer before they were rounded up and sent back to the barracks. The staring contest had continued the entire length of Director Lazard's presentation and through the two short addresses from the Lt. Generals. Sephiroth had seemed to be enjoying the exchange if the smirk he had plastered on his face was any indication. Cloud wasn't overly shocked; Sephiroth had always loved unnerving or upsetting him when they had been more familiar enemies. He probably was just interested in trying to get Cloud to back down.
Cloud hadn't waivered in the slightest.
Holding Sephiroth's cat eye gaze was something many people found unexpectedly challenging. The man had one of the most intense stares on the planet and it made you feel like you were nothing more than prey for the predator. Not entirely untrue, but, prior to Nibelheim, generally unwarranted. Zack's memories showed that they had been close friends for months before Zack had been able to endure a one of his 'famous' glares. Cloud was going to show no such weakness; Sephiroth would just have to be disappointed.
On the way back to their new home, Zack had taken to blurting out all sorts of amazed statements about the ceremony. It was clear that he was as star struck as all the other cadets when it came to the three legendary Generals. Although Cloud understood, he couldn't help but be a little annoyed at the attention Sephiroth was receiving from Zack.
"The General just represents power, doesn't he? I mean, he is SOLDIER," Zack babbled.
Cloud finally couldn't take it anymore; scowling, he snapped, "The man is a monster. Read into what he's done to the Wutai people. If you want a real hero, look at Ang—Hewley. He does his job without forgetting to be a decent fucking person in his off time. The other two are just war machines. Good for sensationalism, but they aren't human."
Zack paused in his excited chatter to give Cloud a surprised look. Instantly, he felt bad for bringing Zack down. It wasn't the boy's fault that he was young and Cloud had a chip on his shoulder.
"I guess I've never thought about it like that…," Zack said softly. "I suppose the Wutai people really would hate the General for the things he's done. He's killed their people; friends and family. Some of it probably wasn't even ordered. I just want to be strong like him, but I see your point. Lt. General Hewley does seem like the best role model, doesn't he?"
Cloud frowned apologetically at his friend. "I'm sorry, Zack. I didn't mean to snap at you. I just… don't like Sephiroth very much." Zack apparently forgave him as he sprang forward to give Cloud a nuzzling hug.
"It's alright. You've got a good point. But you may just be the only guy here who wouldn't to blow the General just to get a few pointers." Cloud grimaced at the thought and Zack laughed at him. He fixed his eyes on his cuddling friend and stared for a moment or two before Zack rolled his eyes. "Well, I wouldn't obviously. If I'm going to blow anyone, it'd—," Zack cut off quickly as he realized what he was saying. His cheeks turned violently red and he ducked his head to hide from Cloud.
"Oh, come on. Finish what you were saying, Zack. Don't leave me hanging," Cloud said smugly while smirking. Zack punched his arm and muttered something unintelligible. "You're going to have to speak up. I can't hear you." Cloud began to tickle Zack just slightly, but the reaction was anything but slight. Zack howled with laughter and mock indignation while throwing himself away from Cloud.
"That's not fair!"
"I thought you were Fair. Sorry I must have been mistaken. Could you tell me where he is? I won't be able to get to sleep without him," Cloud joked with a bright smile. Zack stuck his tongue out and tried to keep his distance as Cloud pursued him in search of another hug.
"Now you're all sweet, huh? Well, save it. I'm not going to repeat myself," he said in a playfully firm voice.
"I've got my methods, Zack," Cloud threatened seductively. The mood changed as Zack gave a quick shiver at his tone. He stopped pulling away as Cloud yanked him back into his arms. They pressed up close and Cloud pulled them off into a side hallway; away from the rest of the walking cadets.
Cloud was going to say something as he turned to look at Zack, but an insistent and warm mouth latched onto his first. He pressed Zack backwards against the wall behind them and delved into the kiss. Zack's arms came around his neck and Cloud put a leg between Zack's slightly parted ones; mostly without thinking. A groan and the feeling of Zack's arousal against his thigh were like gasoline on a raging fire for Cloud, who couldn't help but press forward even further. Their tongues tangled deliciously and Cloud was pleased to note that Zack was fighting to dominate the kiss as much as he was himself. That was a good sign.
Cloud's arms came around Zack's waist and one of his hands played with the belt loops on his dress uniform's pants. Zack really did look incredible in the dark navy color.
Eventually, they separated for breath and Cloud fixed his mouth on Zack's neck to keep things going just a bit longer. Zack's near pained gasp and the desperate twitch of his hips was enough to tell Cloud that he enjoyed it just fine. Cloud quickly undid the top button of Zack's jacket and pushed the fabric away from his throat with his nose. The dark haired boy threw his head back lustfully as Cloud began to suck and bite at his collarbone.
"Fuck," Zack breathed in a harsh pant. "Please, don't stop."
Cloud wouldn't dream of it. He kept at it until the skin was even more purple than Zack's eyes. Zack just kept rubbing needily against Cloud. Finished with his mark, a primal desire that Cloud just hadn't been able to fight, he finally pulled away to give Zack one last thorough kiss. The sweet desire that Zack was just radiating almost threatened to reignite Cloud's passions beyond control, but he managed to break the kiss and step back regretfully.
Zack gasped urgently for air as though he'd never catch his breath again. His eyes were hazy and lusty as he stared at Cloud from under his bangs.
"I didn't want you to stop," he panted.
"I know, but it's for the best. We're in a hallway, Zack. We've got training at 0600, and you're probably not ready for this yet," he purred lovingly as he pulled Zack away from the wall and into his arms again. The moment was over and Zack just snuggled into the hug and let his head rest on Cloud's shoulder.
"You're right; I'm not. But… Gaia, Cloud. If you knew the things I wanted from you sometimes… It's like I just have these visions, of us being together. I don't know what to make of them, but they just leave me feeling so needy. The first time we met… I didn't want to freak you out…," Zack trailed off quietly.
Cloud looked down at him in confusion and asked, "Freak me out? How?"
"I just like… saw us. Older and laying in this field of yellow flowers. I haven't seen it again, but it was really weird. It's how I knew I needed to stick by you from then on. Now I just see us… y'know, being 'together', every now and then. Like a dream only more detailed."
So it seemed that he inherited some of his older self's memories when the piece of Zack switched between them. Not anything to worry about, but it probably confused Zack more than a little. Cloud smiled gently and ran a hand through Zack's hair.
"Don't worry about it, Zack. You can set the pace. Just know your own limits, because I'm not always going to be able to pull back when you're being so tempting," he whispered tenderly while petting Zack.
"I'll be more careful, but I wouldn't hold it against you, Cloud. If I push for things too fast for myself, then I've got no one else to blame. I feel like I'm playing with you now. I don't want to lead you on with stuff like what just happened, but then go all frigid again."
"You're young, Zack. You've got all the right in the world to be working through what you want right now before you try to get it. I said before I could be patient, and I will be."
"Mm, alright. But I do know one thing for sure now. I want this. Us. Completely certain; 110%," Zack told him with a fond smile that Cloud mimicked.
"Okay, but you're asking for it. I'm going to have to tell people you're my boyfriend when they ask now."
"Good. That means I can say the same and keep all this competition away from you. I'm not gonna lose out to some hot guy from Midgar," he stated confidently. Cloud just snorted.
"I wouldn't worry about that. You're the only guy I'm interested in, Zack," Cloud assured him while they moved to rejoin the other cadets.
They made it back to their barracks eventually, though they were the last to arrive. The other boys were talking in a large group and they turned to look at them when they walked through the door. One of them waved them over, and Zack bounded forward to join in on the little introduction affair. Cloud walked over at a slower pace but tried to put on a somewhat friendly face anyway. Luckily for them, he was in a good mood so it wasn't impossible.
"Hey, guys. We were just introducing ourselves since we're going to be together for the whole cadet program. I'm Dawson Glasman, from Midgar. I grew up in Sector 3."
"I'm Zack Fair! From Gongaga." A few people, including Zack himself, laughed. "Yeah it's pretty unknown. When I make SOLDIER it's going to be the news of the year for the village."
They all looked at Cloud then and he shrugged slightly. "Cloud Strife; Nibelheim."
"The mountains, right?" One boy asked and Cloud nodded. "I've got an uncle who worked on the reactor up there. Brevyn Goldizen, by the way. I'm from Midgar too, but Sector 7."
The rest of the group began to introduce themselves after that.
"Jorge Bernassola. I'm from Kalm."
"Trenton Corsini, but you can all me Trent. Midgar slums in the Sector 1 area."
"Charlie Schnur, nice to meet ya! Slums, Sector 8."
"Connor Mcclain. I'm all the way from Junon. Nice to be out of that hellhole," the boy said with a nervous laugh.
The rest of the boys went through their own introductions quickly, but two names caught Cloud's attention. One of them in the worst way possible.
"Hi! I'm Luxiere Auclair. I'm from Bone Village on the Northern Continent." A few people ooh'd and ahh'd at the strange hometown, but Cloud was struck with déjà vu. He knew this person.
He looked at the boy closely and realized that he was someone Zack had known, but the memories were fuzzy. He couldn't remember anything worth noting about the boy so he ignored it. He was probably just an old friend.
The last boy to introduce himself was a kid off to the side with a knitted hat on that hung down into his eyes; obscuring his face. He'd had that stupid thing on all day, but Cloud hadn't paid enough attention to see him without it when they were in dress uniform. By the time Cloud and Zack had made it back, he'd already changed back to casual dress.
"I'm from Mideel. My name is Kunsel Fox."
Cloud felt his blood freeze in his veins.
"You know I wouldn't do that to you. We're friends, right?"
He had been smiling.
A small pinging noise echoed through Cloud's mind and through the green haze he could see Zack look down at something. Horror bloomed on his face.
"No…. No, no, no, NO! You can't do this to me! Not now! DAMMIT Kunsel, WHY?" Zack yelled violently at no one. Cloud shook in confusion as Zack threw whatever he was holding out of the back of the truck. He wanted to ask what was wrong so badly, but his throat still wouldn't work.
A shot rang out not long after that and Cloud blacked out again.
The shock slowly receded to let forth a torrent of anger even stronger than he'd felt at seeing Sephiroth. They had been friends and this man betrayed Zack when they were so damn close to freedom. It was his fault that Zack was killed!
The desire to end him right here and now was strong but Cloud knew, even under all the anger, that he couldn't do that. He needed Shinra right now, so all he could do was wait and make him pay later. This traitor's punishment would only be that much worse for the waiting he'd have to do.
Zack, oblivious, introduced welcomed the other boy happily. Cloud was going to have to ask Reno for a few tips on torture.
About an hour later, Cloud pulled Zack away from the socializing to bring him to bed. 0600 would come quickly, and it was better to be energized for the day ahead than to be exhausted and let a sergeant see it.
Finally in control of his emotions for the evening, he decided to join Zack in the bed nearest to the wall because it left them with no neighbors on any side. Tonight, he chose to strip to his boxers before sliding into bed. Zack stared at him with wide eyes are he pulled his shirt over his head.
"Uh…," Zack started dumbly.
"I prefer to sleep naked, but I'll keep these on for your sake. It's going to be too hot here to sleep clothed. You can keep yours on if you'd like though," Cloud purred at his adorably inexperienced boyfriend. This younger Zack was wonderful in so many ways considering Cloud had grown up to enjoy leading in a relationship later in life. When they'd been together in the labs, Cloud had still had the body of a sixteen year old and limited motor function, so Zack had been dominant in all ways. It was necessity, but Cloud had always assumed that it was the only way Zack would have ever been interested in him anyway. Now he seemed quite interested in the turnabout.
Cloud wasn't going to complain at all. He wouldn't mind even if Zack wanted to flip things around later, so long as he got to keep him for himself. But it'd be a lie to say that he didn't enjoy the prospect of having his cake and eating it too.
Cloud crawled in next to Zack, who still had a blank look on his face. The second he opened his arms, though, Zack lunged into them. The younger boy shimmied out of his own shirt and gave a suppressed, but no less delighted, hiss when their skin touched. Still, he kept his pants on, which was probably for the best.
With a smirk, Cloud yanked the covers over their head and pulled Zack in for a few kisses. It was all Zack could do to keep his needy noises quiet from the other boys in the room. Not like it seemed like anyone cared anyway, so Cloud paid them no mind.
When the morning came, the cadets need not worry about oversleeping as the reveille went off at 0500 on the dot. Zack jerked out of sleep violently and ended up almost putting his elbow into Cloud's gut, but the blond caught it at the last moment. Cracking open blue eyes, he arched an eyebrow at Zack who grinned sheepishly at him.
"Sorry, Cloud. Nerves, y'know?"
Cloud smiled faintly and gave Zack a kiss good morning before rising from bed. They only had an hour to make it to the field and he wanted to be there on time. Dressing was easy since they didn't have to pick out an outfit beyond their standard uniform. Zack had mentioned a shower, but Cloud explained they'd only be getting dirty again during training, so the shower was best left for later.
The buzzer attached to the door went off as a few infantrymen entered the barracks.
"We've got your boots here. Line up to receive your pair, and please have your size at the ready."
Everyone was given a pair of new combat boots and Cloud set to lacing his immediately. Zack followed suit but had a little trouble doing his own laces; Cloud got the feeling people spent a lot of time barefoot in Gongaga. When he was done with his own, Cloud grabbed Zack's pair and finished lacing them while the younger boy just grinned at him.
Their shoes in suitable condition, they started their walk out to the field. Zack had a bounce in his step not unlike his older self had adopted nearly fulltime. That wasn't to say he didn't look nervous, because he most certainly did, but he also had an air of eagerness. Cloud, on the other hand, looked calm and unmoved by the beginning of his training. He already knew everything they'd want to teach him six ways from Sunday.
The air outside was hot and humid, a product of the mako smog. A Drill Sergeant was already waiting out on the field for all the cadets, but Cloud and Zack were some of the first to arrive. They received an appreciative glance from the stern looking man and he approached them.
"Strife, Cloud, sir," Cloud said respectfully with a salute. Zack was quick enough to follow his lead.
"Fair, Zack, sir."
"Well alright then, Cadet Strife, Cadet Fair. I'm impressed. Showing up ahead of time and following commands correctly is a good sign. Keep that up and you'll go far," he said while clapping them both on the shoulder. He left moments later to do similar with other early arrivals.
Cloud decided to break into a quick warm up routine to get himself ready for the day ahead. The week wouldn't include very much 'training' per se, but it'd be stressful none the less. They'd be put through a basic workout in the mornings and then sent off to go through the rest of their entrance requirements. Next week would start the actual work. The first phase would focus on building their strength before the second phase touched on early weapon training and combat skills. The last phase would be entirely based on advanced weapon training and infiltration.
Of course, that was just the first two months. After they passed basic training, they could expect the last four months to be spent mastering their chosen weapon and performing test missions in VR training. The motto of the cadet program had always been 'Build and apply'. The later months were where the SOLDIERs emerged from the rest of the group as those who put in more time got better results. The path taken through training at that point was mostly self-directed as there were many weapons available to specialize in; even though most still chose a variety of sword. The SOLDIER exam would be testing them as individuals on their weapon mastery and combat capability.
Cloud had failed the exam spectacularly when he was younger. It was conducted in VR training and he'd managed to fail the mission in almost record time. He'd chosen to enroll in the infantry to avoid returning to Nibelheim, but he knew that he'd never take the SOLDIER exam again. When he met Zack, he tried to convince Cloud to retake the exam on the next pass after they trained a little together, but he never got a chance when the mission happened.
A whistle blowing sharply cut through his thoughts and he looked up to see the Drill Sergeant in front of everyone. The rest of the cadets had arrived while he was lost in thought and the field was filled with nearly 400 cadets. The man activated a band around his neck to amplify his voice before speaking.
"Attention!" he barked and Cloud's body moved into position without thought. He corrected the rest of the confused group on their postures immediately as very few reacted as Cloud had. When they were all at attention properly, he continued. "I'll be your Drill Sergeant for the next two months. My name is Sgt. Wall. No it is not a joke, and anyone who makes one will be running laps till the sun sets. Now give me twenty push-ups."
Once again, Cloud moved immediately and began the set. It wasn't that he was accustomed to taking orders so much as he was accustomed to giving them himself, so it was easier to adapt. Being insubordinate wouldn't get him anywhere in Shinra. However he'd come to a realization the night before. Instead of backing down and trying to fly beneath the eyes of Hojo, he'd take the opposite track. He'd go above and beyond until he was forced out of the scientist's reach all the while pushing him closer to Sephiroth. Getting to the aloof psychopath would be much easier as a SOLDIER 1st than as a 3rd.
Sgt. Wall kept the exercises short and simple but it still left many winded. Unlike Cloud, the majority of the boys here had no prior experience with military exercises, so they could handle significantly less. Their stamina would improve quickly, just as his had, but it would take time. Some fared better than others though; like Zack, whose endless energy made the short workout trivial.
They were given a half-mile jog to finish up with before returning to Sgt. Wall for further orders.
"I hope you aren't too tired yet, boys. This was just a taste of what's to come. Next week it won't be sets of twenty, but sets of thirty. Then sets of forty. Then sets of fifty. It's not going to get any easier than this, so if you've got doubts: I'd think them over long and hard tonight. Now, we're not doing any more today. You'll report back to where your med checks happened and get your haircuts and psych evals. Midday, you'll be back at the auditorium to listen to a lecture on Shinra values. Don't make those faces; you'll be having these little talks for the rest of the week. Savor it while you can, because next week you're all mine. Training is over for the day."
Cloud snapped a salute, and Zack, used to copying him by now, did so too. A handful of others did the same around them, but the rest had turned and started walking away.
"Stop!" Sgt. Wall shouted to those walking away. Everyone paused and turned back around. "Take a look around, kids. If you didn't put up a salute before walking off you can all do another half mile. Those of you who did: dismissed." There was a stunned silence that turned into angry grumbles as more than 85% of the cadets returned to the track to do another jog. Cloud smirked at them and started to leave.
"You really know this military stuff, huh? I'd have been one of those people left behind if I didn't have you beside me! Where'd you learn all this, Cloud?" Zack asked with an amazed tone.
Cloud shrugged and replied, "I had a few people from my hometown give me a few pointers before I left."
"Well, I owe them some big thanks too then," Zack laughed.
They were the first cadets to arrive for haircuts and so they got pulled in immediately. Cloud had his longer hair chopped off and was left with the same style he'd worn for years as an adult. Satisfied, he thanked his barber and moved to wait for Zack. The younger boy was arguing with his barber about cutting his hair at all.
"It's fine how it is, I tell you!" he asserted.
"I'm just going to trim it," the barber growled.
In the end, they settled on a very short trim. Zack still didn't look happy and he pouted when he saw how amused Cloud looked.
"Don't laugh; I know it looks horrible."
"Zack, you can barely tell you had it cut at all. You didn't let him take anything off."
"Still too much," he grumbled before looking again at Cloud in shock. "They cut like all of yours off! Oh… you look good like that. Keep that style."
"I probably will," Cloud said with a mysterious smile.
After that, they were split up for psych evaluations and led to private rooms. The one Cloud was led to had a desk and two chairs, and in one of them was a friendly looking woman. She, unfortunately, had a fucking lab coat on, but at least there shouldn't be any needles involved here.
"Hello there! I'm Dr. Scilla. Please have a seat." Cloud sat down and she continued, "I'm going to start you off with a few simple questions. We'll begin with your name."
"Nice to meet you, Cloud. Now, date of birth?"
"August 11th… 19..81," he said awkwardly as he tried to figure out his new birth year. She didn't seem to notice.
"Sixteen, then?" To which Cloud nodded. "Any previous psychological issues?"
"Medications you've been prescribed?"
"Could you tell me why you've decided to join Shinra?"
She smiled enigmatically and said, "You're fond of short answers, Mr. Strife." He didn't bother responding. "I'm going to give you a simple questionnaire for you to fill out. Please answer truthfully," she said as she slid a piece of paper and a pen across the desk.
He picked up the pen and began filling things out. He schooled his expression into a bored and neutral mask. He'd be graded on his appearance during this eval as well as his answers, and his facial expression could betray a lot of things.
Some of the questions were easy to answer: Do you prefer animals or flowers, for example. Flowers, obviously. Aeris' lilies flashed through his mind and suddenly simple questions weren't so simple anymore. His heart gave a quick clench at the thought of her and where she could possibly be right now. With effort, he was able to finally pull his thoughts back on track to continue the questionnaire.
'I have a good appetite'; he marked true, but it wasn't always like that.
'Evil spirits possess me at times'; false on paper, true in reality. He really had to suppress the urge to smirk at the thought of answering these truthfully.
'Much of the time my head seems to hurt all over'; Sephiroth's control over him made this very much true when he had been in AVALANCHE.
'Parts of my body often have feeling like burning, tingling, crawling, or like "going to sleep"'; did flashbacks to being submerged in mako count?
'I have had very peculiar and strange experiences'; oh he'd just been a terrorist, saved the world, died a few times and been sent back. But nothing major.
'I see things or animals or people around me that others do not see'; only the great Silver General every time he looked in the mirror. Or his dead friend and fiancée.
'I am sure I get a raw deal from life'; Cloud actually couldn't stop the smirk at this one.
He finished the rest of the questions quickly and realized near the end that almost all of it was lies. That probably wasn't a good sign, but he still handed the paper back to her confidently. Changing answers would do him no favors.
The doctor put the paper into what sounded like a paper scanner below her desk and retrieved a printed page a moment later. She read over what he assumed to be his score and frowned ominously.
"You've scored abnormally high on L and K."
"The lie and correction scale. It means you've most likely fabricated all of this and are trying to hide something. Would you like to come clean?"
"Everything I've marked is true," Cloud responded in a deadpan voice.
"I'm afraid that I'll have to refuse to believe that. It's—"
"Everything I've marked is true." He fixed his eyes directly on hers and dared her to question it further. Her mouth hung open stupidly as he forced her hand. Unnerved, she finally coughed and sat back in her chair. The tension in the room could be cut with a knife at this point.
"Yes… Of course. I apologize. You've passed. Have a nice day."
Cloud pushed his chair back, gave her one last stare, and left. Zack was waiting outside the building for him and Cloud felt his mood improve instantly. His boyfriend sprinted into his arms and Cloud relaxed. They'd have to summon Meteor itself to pull him away from where he belonged, and that was right here.
Edit for: PLOT HOLES. Arg. Cloud's birth year dialed back from 1983 (which it would be if Zack wasn't 2 years older than canon) to 1981.