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Off the Line

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Zack was still half asleep as he stumbled out of the elevator and towards the cafeteria counter. He had been so wiped the night before after a string of missions that he hadn't even managed to get the VRDC on before falling asleep, and he was paying the price now. Four hours of sleep without the helpful aid of VRDC and its forced instant REM sleep….

Right now, he hated his life. His dreams had been weird as hell and it didn't feel like he had gotten any rest at all. And also, he had a mission in an hour. Yay.

Thankfully, sweet Jane was behind said counter and already had his triple espresso and huge slice of cheesecake ready; the first steaming hot, the other dripping with sweet sauce. She laughed, handing them over without a word while Zack waved his card at her haphazardly.

"Go sit down and eat before you take someone's eye out, you zombie," she laughed and Zack groaned thanks in answer before making his way to the nearest table to sit and recharge. Mornings, he thought blearily, could go hang. And die. And be burned in a fire. Or something. And to think he had once been a morning person. The wonders of Mako.

It took him four sips and three bites before he realised that he had just invaded someone else's table. An infantryman was sitting across from him, helmet on and mouth slightly open with some official looking papers spread across the table. Zack's espresso was sitting on one of the papers. It had already made a couple coffee rings.

"Oh. Shit. Hi," Zack said, staring at the rings. "Um. Fuck. Sorry."

"It's… okay," the infantryman said slowly.

"Ruined?" Zack asked, pointing at the paper.

"It's… just some instructions, they're not valuable," the infantryman said, again slowly. "Are you, um… okay? Sir?"

"Sir? Where?" Zack asked and then paused. "Oh. Right. Gimme… gimme a mo'."

He downed his espresso and then slapped himself across the face a couple of times before turning pleading eyes towards the counter. Jane, the mind reader she was, was already bringing him another cup. She was something like fifty and had wrinkles on her wrinkles, and reminded him a little of that one crazy woman back in Gongaga. Jane was also his absolute favourite person forever.

"You are angel among women, you are," Zack said, a little more verbal now. "A flower among weeds. A queen –"

"Yes, yes. Watching you regain your humanity is the brightest point of my mornings, I swear," she said and ruffled his hair. "Eat your cheesecake, honey."

"Yes ma'am," Zack said and sipped the second triple espresso. "Sorry man," he said to the vaguely terrified looking infantryman. "SOLDIER metabolism. It takes a proper kick to get it into gear."

"Uh-huh," the infantryman said slowly, still looking at him oddly. "Wouldn't food be better for that?"

"In the long run, yeah," Zack said and yawned. "But caffeine is faster." He looked at the paper he had pretty much ruined and winced. "Sorry about that," he said, taking the page and looking at it. It looked like instructions or maybe a piece of a contract – it was full of paragraphs of tiny text. It was also pretty much ruined. "Maybe, ah. You can get a replacement."

"It's not important," the infantryman said with a sigh and held his hand out. "Like I said, just some instructions. I can still read it."

"Buy you a cup of coffee in apology?" Zack asked. Though technically he wouldn't be buying anything – SOLDIERs got their food for free everywhere in ShinRa HQ, but still.

"You don't need to, sir. And I already had a cup," the infantryman said awkwardly

"Come on, man. You gotta let me repay you, otherwise I'll feel bad about it the whole day!"

The trooper sighed. "I could use something to eat, I guess," he admitted.

"Plate of pancakes, coming right up," Zack grinned and after one more sip of his espresso, hopped up order some. Jane of course had some practically ready and a moment later Zack sauntered back with a plate full of syrup covered goodies.

"Thanks," the infantryman said awkwardly, shifting the papers out of the way while Zack placed the plate down.

"You are very welcome," Zack grinned and sat down to attend to his cheesecake with spirit and gusto. As he did, the infantryman idly picked at the pancakes, his attention more on the papers. "So," Zack said after a moment. "This all looks very official and papery. Shouldn't everything be by email these days?"

"Mmm," the infantryman agreed, his nose practically on one of the papers. "Contracts are still all paperwork, I guess."

"Uu, a contract," Zack said and eyed the guy. Private, if he knew his colour codes. Kinda smallish in stature. Didn't look too toned either – or at all. Actually he looked sorta skinny and, well… petite. "You being promoted?" Zack asked, rather doubting it. "Didn't think they needed paper contracts for that?"

The infantryman paused and turned to him, the line of his lips thin and said nothing.

Zack lifted his hands. "Sorry, sorry, none of my business," he said. "Ignore me. It's too early for social interactions."

"Mmm," the infantryman said and put the paper down, looking at him. "If someone offered you another job, would you quit being a SOLDIER, sir?" he asked.

"Nope, never," Zack answered and nodded at the papers. "So, it's a job contract?"

"Yeah, I got… an offer. I guess," the infantryman sighed, stacking the papers up. "The pay's better, the hours are better… but I'd have to quit the infantry, obviously."

Zack considered that. If he was in the infantry, he probably would quit for a job with better hours and pay. Infantry sort of sucked as a job – though then again, he had never been in the infantry so he didn't know what it was like for the actual members. Lots of people outside SOLDIER would rather die than have Mako pumped into their veins, so… who knows.

He probably shouldn't encourage the guy to leave the infantry anyway. He was in the military and it was sort of in the military's best interest to keep its members. Unless, of course, the other job would be in ShinRa and having the guy there rather than in the infantry would be better for the company as whole.

"I dunno, man. What sort of job is it?" he asked, scratching at his cheek. "If being trooper is like your dream, then screw that noise, you keep to the infantry. But if it isn't…" as far as he knew, lots of infantry members rather wished they weren't. It wasn’t exactly glamorous. Nothing like being a SOLDIER. Or even a Turk.

"No, it isn't," the infantryman sighed, and poked at the pancakes. "And the other job would be a techie position, or something like that."

"Oh. Hm. Well, if you got the smarts for it," Zack said, shrugging. He definitely didn't – nor did he have the patience. Sitting behind a desk and all that. How boring. But some people liked that sort of stuff. "And if you like the techie stuff."

The trooper said nothing, just bit into his pancakes, considering it. "I guess I would be a little less likely to die in line of duty," he mumbled and swallowed. "The pay would be better, but on other hand I would have to find a place to stay, probably. So I would have more expenses…."

"Yeah, that sucks. Though on the other, er, other hand, no bunk mates," Zack said, pointing a spoon at him. "And also privacy. Can't have much privacy in the military."

"Yeeah there's that too," the infantryman said, folding his arms. "I could get an actual bed."

"And TV and a couch and a table and stuff. Private shower," Zack said, getting into the spirit of it. "Maybe even a tub."

"Oh, a bathtub," the infantryman agreed. "Wouldn't have to wear a uniform."

"Yeah but third – or fourth – hand, you'd have to do your own laundry," Zack said apologetically.

"I could eat whatever I wanted," the trooper counteracted. "No more mess hall sludge."

"Yeah. But you'd have to make it - and clean up afterwards."

The infantryman snorted. "After basic and doing unimaginable things with a toothbrush, I can't say I'd mind a bit of dishwashing."

Zack grinned and held out his hand. "Zack Fair," he said. "SOLDIER Second Class. Nice to meet you."

The infantryman smiled and then shook his head, taking his helmet off. Beneath it he was surprisingly pretty, with spiky blond hair and insanely bright blue eyes. "Cloud Strife, Private Second Class in the 49th Regiment of ShinRa Infantry," the trooper said, shaking the offered hand. "You too."

"So, you gonna take the other job?" Zack asked. Cloud. What a weird name – but hell, he had seen weirder. And it definitely fit the sky blue eyes and the sunny hair. The hell was the guy even doing in the army, with his looks?

"Maybe," Cloud answered, glancing at the papers and sighing. "Actually… I joined ShinRa because I wanted to be a SOLDIER, but… it didn't quite work out that way."

"Oh," Zack said and gave him a sympathetic look. Lots of guys washed out of SOLDIER and into the infantry – it was practically an everyday occurrence. It never ceased to be sort of sad, though. "Sorry, man. That's tough."

"Not really. I wasn't really prepared for the test," the infantryman answered. "Can't say I was really prepared for the infantry either," he added wryly.

Zack shrugged, not sure what to say. Some people just weren't cut out for the life. He probably shouldn't say that, though – it wouldn't exactly be comforting. "I guess you need to decide which you would enjoy more, then. Being a trooper or being a techie," he said and that was maybe a little bit traitorous, coming from a military man, but still.

Cloud thought about it and smiled sort of crookedly. "Being a techie would probably be more interesting," he said.

Zack only barely managed to keep himself from making a face at that. Being behind a desk, more interesting than the military? Seesh, some people had no priorities. Still, Cloud seemed like a decent guy so, if brainy pursuits of… braininess were his thing, then who was Zack to judge. "I guess that's your answer then," he said and finished his cheesecake.

"I guess it is," Cloud said and frowned. "I’ve got to find a place to stay. And at Midgar's rent fees… oh god."

Zack grinned. "I guess you do," he said. "I think ShinRa has dormitories or something for employees which aren't so expensive. Or maybe you could do the share thing and get a roommate. Or something. I'm sure you'll figure it out."

"Comforting," Cloud sighed, taking his pancake plate in hand and going about finishing them. "Do SOLDIERs live in shared quarters too?" he asked.

"Yeah. Thirds share one room between four people, and for Seconds it's two per room, so it's not so bad," Zack said. "Firsts get their own private rooms, of course. Which makes sense; I can't really imagine Sephiroth sharing his sleeping space with anyone."

The infantryman's lips quirked at that and Zack remembered what he had just said. "Well," he said, thinking about it and then shaking his head. "No, actually I can't imagine that either," he said and shook his head.

Cloud let out a quiet chuckle and finished his pancakes. "Thanks for the breakfast," he said.

"You're welcome," Zack said and got up to his feet, gathering his cups and the plate. "Gotta head back up to the SOLDIER floor and get about doing some work stuff, I guess," he said and then glanced at the soon to be former infantryman. "Hey, will you be working in ShinRa HQ for the new job?"

"Yeah," Cloud agreed. "Dunno about my hours or anything yet, but… yeah, I'll probably be at ShinRa HQ most of the time."

"Sweet. Maybe we'll run into each other sometime," Zack grinned. "And you can tell me how the new job goes and stuff."

"Sure," Cloud said, smiling. "It'd be nice to know one more person in the building, yeah."

"See you then, Cloudy," Zack grinned and turned on his heel to take his dishes away. From the corner of his eye he could see Cloud looking after him, before the infantryman took out a phone, tapping the keyboard a couple of times before bringing it to his ear.

"Tuesti," Zack could hear, even across the cafeteria thanks to all the lovely SOLDIER enhancements. Zack paused at that, slowly putting the cups away, stalling to listen. Tuesti… as in Department Head for Urban Development, Reeve Tuesti?

"It's Strife," Cloud said. "I'll take the job."

"That was fast," the man on the other end answered, and the satisfaction in his voice was almost palpable. "You're still in ShinRa HQ?"

"…Yes," the infantryman sighed and Zack could see him leaning his head back, running a hand over his face. He looked rather like he was regretting his life choices right there and then. "I'm in the cafeteria."

"Excellent. Then we can get started right away. Head back to floor 34 and the secretary there will give you the key card to my office. Then come up here."

"Already?"

"There's quite a bit for us to talk about, lots of things to cover," Tuesti said, sounding amused. "And I want you to start working right away. Don't you?"

"… Fine, I'll be there in a moment," Cloud said and hung up. After a moment of staring at the phone in dismay, he stood up, gathering the papers and his helmet from the table. "I better be paid damn well for this," the former infantryman grumbled to himself while walking towards the elevators.

Zack stared after him, a little unsure now. The hell sort of job had he just convinced Cloud to accept?