Cloud Strife, age fourteen, stared at the person standing in front of him. It wasn't because the guy had offered him a chocobo to ride to Midgar on, though that was pretty cool. It was that looking at this guy was like looking at himself in the mirror, only this guy was a year or two older.
“Uh... thanks,” Cloud said, shaking off his shock just enough to respond. “But, uh...”
The guy smiled. “Why do we look alike? Or were you going to say that you don't even know my name and should be wary of gifts from strangers?” he asked.
Cloud blinked. “Buh, both I guess,” he admitted.
“That's cool,” the guy answered. “I'm Zack, Zacheus Strife.”
Cloud jolted and blinked several times at the name. “Strife?” he asked weakly. “I'm Cloud Strife.”
Zack offered a crooked smile. “Looks like my bastard father left another woman high and dry somewhere else. Don't worry about it kiddo,” he said, messing Cloud's spiky hair up with a gloved hand. “I'd kinda guessed, which is why I was offering. Besides, I'm going to Midgar myself.”
“You are?” Cloud asked, curious now that the mystery of why this stranger looked so much like him had been solved.
Zack nodded. “Gonna join the Soldier Programme,” he answered. “You too, huh?” he noted, seeing how Cloud's expression was even more shocked and gaping than a moment before.
Cloud nodded slowly.
“Well, get your gear together, saddle up, and let's mosey,” Zack instructed with a grin.
The elder of the two Strifes watched the younger as he slept, curled up between the camp fire and the chocobo the boy had been riding all day. His name wasn't really Zacheus, but he knew that he'd always jump at the name Zack, and if there was one thing that would give away a false name it was forgetting to answer to it. Of course, he'd also always jump at the name Sephiroth, but giving himself that name was just not a smart idea. Just like claiming to be Zackary was a bad idea, because there was already Zackary Fair, and he'd already had identity issues with confusing himself for the brunette. Zacheus was a safe sort of in-between.
Two years ago, or some fifteen years yet to come, he'd been moping about in Aerith's church, trying to clean up the place again, when Zack had come to him.
“Normally, I wouldn't say this, but just once Spike, screw the Planet,” Zack had said. “Look, I talked with Aerith, and she disagrees with me, but I reckon I know you better, yeah?”
He'd nodded. Zack had known him better. Knew what he'd been through, was there when it happened. Heck, he'd thought he was Zack for some time, so of course he knew him better!
“So I found a way to send you back to before it all went to shit,” Zack had informed him with a grin. “You won't be going back to your own younger body though, after all, we went through hell with Dr Creepy, you deserve to keep the benefits. You will be younger, they don't accept people into the Soldier Programme over the age of seventeen, but I'll be tweakin' it so you're younger than that, but still a bit older than the other you that's still gonna be there, okay? You can look out for him!”
He'd smiled at his first ever friend then, his first smile in a long, long time, and Zack had gone into explanations, half-baked plans, requests for pranks he wanted pulled – even though he would, himself, be alive at the time he was sending him to.
The next day, he'd woken up in the body of a thirteen year old, and a bit outside of Costa Del Sol. If there was one place where it was possible to make money fast, it was the Golden Saucer. Especially if you knew how to race. And he knew how to race. He'd cleaned up at the chocobo races every day for a solid six months before he was satisfied with the size of his savings. Then he'd gone out and caught himself a chocobo to go travelling on. Fighting monsters as he went, hunting treasure, living off the land, working his body relentlessly, and moving towards Nibelheim in time to 'bump into' Cloud when he was leaving for Midgar.
As a bonus, he could help the kid get his body ready for the rigours of army life. Oh he'd managed the first time around, but by the skin of his teeth and with bullies on all sides. He wasn't going to be at the bottom of the pack and picked on this time around.
Zack Strife rolled out of his sleeping bag, unable to sleep even if it was late, and set himself to doing push-ups until his arms shook and his eyelids felt like they were made of lead. At last, sleep welcomed him as he rolled over onto his sleeping bag and let his eyes slam themselves shut.
The Strife 'brothers' – yeah, Cloud kinda liked the idea, and Zack wasn't against it either, the kid was kinda why he'd come back in time in the first place, well, apart from the original Zack wanting him to see if he could... well, never mind that for now – rocked up to the Soldier Programme Recruitment Drive just in time to see the burly guy running the first booth settle into his chair. It was about dawn.
“Think he's expecting anyone this early?” Cloud asked with a small smile.
Zack grinned. “I think buses of recruits start to arrive in a couple of hours,” he answered. “But better for us, yeah?”
Cloud nodded in agreement, and happily let his 'big brother' do all the talking and question-asking before they were handed forms to fill in and given directions to the next person they'd have to see about filing them. After that, it was off to claim beds in the dormitory before a sergeant would summon all new recruits to orientation.
The dormitory building where they'd be staying had two sets of bedrooms separated by a kitchen and dining space, with a communal bathroom and laundry space to each side. Each end room held twelve bunk beds, there were two rooms of six bunk beds opposite the communal bathroom, and one small room that just had two beds bunked in it. One end of the building was occupied by recruits who'd been there for six months already, though not full, due to drop-outs and people who'd been flunked out. The other end was completely empty, but would be filled by the end of the day.
Having gotten there early, Zack and Cloud claimed the small room for themselves, and started unloading their stuff into the single, skinny cupboard that was opposite the east-facing window with the ugly and thread-bare curtain. Cloud took the top bunk happily when Zack let him pick which bed he wanted, and the bottom bunk suited Zack just fine. He'd be able to roll out of it and get on with his workouts when the insomnia hit, without having to disturb the kid.
Speaking of, it sounded like someone was disturbing the kid right now.
Zack had laid himself out on his bunk and forced a quick forty winks. Insomnia was one thing, sleeping when you could was something any soldier learned to do eventually. Cloud had said something about checking out the shared bathroom when Zack closed his eyes, and apparently at least the first bus load of new recruits had arrived in that time.
“Pipsqueak like you doesn't deserve to have a whole room to yourself!” an adolescent voice growled, well, as well as it could growl.
“I- I don't,” Cloud answered.
“That's right, so get out!” the voice demanded.
“No,” Zack cut in, out of bed now and standing behind Cloud, a hand on the shorter blonde's shoulder before he pushed Cloud behind him into the room. “What he means is, he doesn't have it to himself. Now scat, brat. It's first come, first served, and I highly recommend you remove yourself from my presence if you don't want to be fishing your balls out of your throat.”
“You think you can really do anything to me?” the brown-haired, muddy-eyed boy sneered. Man the kid was ugly. Broken nose that was probably a result of too many fights, and a mono-brow lining the bottom edge of a heavy-set forehead. And his eyes were just a bit too far apart.
“You have until I reach the count of three to move on,” Zack said calmly, folding his arms over his chest.
The brutish teen sneered.
“One,” Zack counted. “Two,” he added when the kid just crossed his arms over his own chest and tried to look intimidating. “Three.”
The kid smirked, then went cross-eyed, cross-legged, and bit his thin bottom lip in pain.
Zack had pulled back his leg and let swing. He was normally a sword man, but Yuffie and Tifa both had nagged him into taking hand-to-hand more seriously over the years, forcing him to learn a few different styles. He was also very conscious of the standard male weakness and had a kick to rival the chocobo people were forever comparing him to because of his hair.
Zack then grabbed the kid by his collar and threw him through the open door of one of the other rooms, uncaring of how the brat landed or if he would be reported for this. Zack knew from experience that the instructors rarely cared about in-fighting among the cadets, and even less about the phenomena among new recruits. It was just another way of weeding out the ones that weren't worth the money it would take to train them.
After that, Zack shut their room door and supervised Cloud as the kid performed the exercise regime Zack had got him started on pretty much the same day they'd met. It was possibly a more evil work out than the sergeants would put them through, but it would work , and more than that, it would actually work fast , because it was intense . Zack went through the entire thing at least once a day, and generally repeated bits of it when he couldn't sleep. There had been a marked improvement in Cloud's physique already. Kid just needed the confidence to back himself up now, and a growth-spurt, but nothing would hurry that , unfortunately.
Still, earlier had been an improvement over how Cloud would have responded even a week ago. He hadn't immediately scurried to pack up his own stuff for one thing, and had semi-stood up for himself for another. Well, Cloud would have plenty of time to practice anyway. He was going to be the shortest recruit this cycle after all, if Zack remembered right. Admittedly, this wasn't a guaranteed thing, with his memories of his time before Zack got him out of Hojo's lab were fuzzy at best, but he felt fairly confident about this particular hardship for his 'little brother'.
There wasn't a lot of room between the beds and the wall for the indoors work out, only enough room for one of them at a time to be doing it, which was annoying. Still, Cloud finished his sets in plenty of time for Zack to do his – with the added weight of Cloud sitting on his shoulders when he did his push-ups.
The other bus loads of recruits arrived, got their bunks, and caused the Strife brothers no further trouble. Apparently it was intimidating to see a fellow new recruit already doing down-hill push-ups with an only slightly younger person sitting cross-legged on his shoulders. And not looking like it was much of a strain at all either.
The drill sergeant's whistle was blown, and it screamed down the hallway before a voice started screaming orders at them to finish stowing their gear and be present in the mess area for food and initial briefing.
“In no more than ten seconds ladies!” the man yelled at them all before turning and standing by the door at the end of the hall that would take them out to the common area that was shared with the seasoned cadets.
Zack and Cloud were the first ones out, having been waiting for that call for a while.
“Welcome to ShinRa ladies,” the sergeant growled at them while the cadets, some older, some younger, but all with six months more experience than the recruits of how ShinRa worked. “This building you will be living in is called The Garden. The reason for this flowery name, apart from it being chosen by our President's late wife, is because here we will begin the weeding. Those of you who don't have what it takes to become a cadet will be removed from the programme. Those of you who do not have what the higher ups are looking for in a Soldier candidate will be pruned back and reassigned to the regular army. These will be harsh conditions. You will either whither or flourish. That is up to you. If you have a complaint to make about one of your fellow recruits, feel free to write it on a bit of paper and drop it in this box,” the man said, slapping a hand down on a large wooden box. “It gets checked at the end of every week, and punishments, if any are felt to be necessary by your commanding officers, will be dealt out then.”
Zack was aware of both Cloud giving him a worried glance, and the boy who's testicles he'd rearranged (and who had already earned the sergeant's ire for the way he stumbled out of the dorm well after the time-limit he'd given) searching his person for a scrap of paper and a pen.
The rousing speech went on for a while, mostly informing them about signing up for scrubbing duty – bathrooms and kitchen both, though they would not be cooking until they made cadet and proved they were capable of making food that was actually edible – and that they would be subject to random inspections, to make sure they were capable of keeping a tidy living space. After that, class schedules were handed out. Mornings would be large amounts of physical activity before breaking for lunch, then they'd have slightly more academic classes in the afternoon until dinner.
Of course, by academic, they meant gun care and handling, strategy classes, learning hand signs in the event they were in a hostile situation where verbal orders weren't an option, studying battle formations... and there would be a check in with the scientists to see if they were actually mako-compatible enough to actually be able to take to the Soldier Process. If they weren't, then when (if) they made cadet status, they would get more training in guns and some in using batons for subduing civilians. If they were, then there would be swordsmanship and materia courses added to their training.
If anything irregular occurred in their training, a notice would be posted on the cork board in the mess.
Then used plates were handed in to the cadets who were on kitchen duty that day, and the sergeant took them for a tour of the facility. Well, the parts they needed to know about any way.
The ugly kid did put a complaint about Zack in the box, and the small committee in charge of recruits at the moment (it changed every month, and was always supplied exclusively from the regular army. There was a different committee in charge of the cadets that included Soldiers, but also changed every month) asked him what he'd meant by kicking a fellow recruit in the balls on the first day .
“I was thinking he was someone who was too stupid to be permitted to reproduce,” Zack answered frankly. “My little brother and I had been settled in our bunks for an hour before he showed up saying my brother didn't deserve such privacy, based solely on his height, and when I explained how bunks were assigned he still insisted that we should vacate for his convenience. I gave him warning, and even counted three before performing the testicle-ectomy.”
The committee nodded in understanding. They'd all been recruits once themselves after all. They knew how bunks were 'assigned'. It was explained when they got their papers that sold their souls to ShinRa until ShinRa decided they weren't worth hanging onto. They also compared how both of the Strife brothers had been doing in comparison to the complaining recruit, and decided that, really, even just one of the Strife brothers held more potential value to the company than five of the other kid. They'd be dismissing Ugly from the programme.
No, Zack hadn't ever bothered to learn his name. Neither had Cloud. Then again, they'd both been somewhat preoccupied with their training. It was only mildly hellish, though it was blatantly clear that some of their fellow recruits were not doing well. The long-distance runs with full pack, the marching drills, the obstacle courses, the sit ups, the push-ups, the hanging crunches, the homework, the gun work... it just went on and on and left them with the stamina of an over-cooked noodle at the end of the day. At which point there was kitchen or bathroom scrubbing and/or their own personal exercises to be done, and Zack got in more than Cloud because, even with as ragged as the sergeants ran them, Zack still had trouble sleeping straight away.
Still, they certainly impressed the regular army guys who were in charge of them, and regular army were severely disillusioned, so that was a hard thing to do.
The first day of the second week – when the truly pathetic had already been sent packing – was the mako tests. It was just a check that would go on their permanent ShinRa record, either 'yes' or 'no' beside the criteria 'mako compatible'. Anything more detailed than that wouldn't be looked into until they actually made the cut for Soldier Third Class. If they made the cut for Soldier Third Class.
It wasn't any surprise to Zack that both he and Cloud got a tick in the 'yes' box for that. After all, they both already had some mako in their blood. Zack from the experiments under Hojo and Cloud from... well, the kid had been soaked when a mako geyser erupted in front of him when they were on their way to Midgar together. It had gotten Zack as well, and had gotten into eyes, nose and mouth for both of them, as well as some being absorbed through the skin before they found somewhere to wash off. Not much, admittedly, but it was mako already in their systems all the same.
Six months in, Cloud and Zack were both still there, ready to be bumped up from lowly recruits to lowly cadets. Now, at last, they would get some training in swords and materia, though Zack already knew more about these two subjects than they were to be taught at this point. This time, as well, Cloud wasn't struggling as much as when Zack had done this the first time, by himself.
The recruits who had survived to be promoted to cadet weren't moved out of their rooms into the rooms at the other end of The Garden, just the cadets were moved out of their rooms into either the regular army barracks or into Soldier quarters. The new recruits would take up residence in that end. It was why there was just as much room at both ends of the complex. It saved untidy shuffling and squabbling over getting the best beds.
There was plenty enough of that as it was every time a recruit was weeded out – or cadet, surviving the first six months was no guarantee that you'd survive a whole year after all.
Another thing that was new was interacting with Soldiers. That hadn't happened before. Recruits were handled by regular army only. Cadets, those who were mako compatible and therefore potential Soldiers themselves anyway, got swordsmanship and materia lessons from Soldiers. It was a chance to really impress, if they could. After all, if they didn't impress, then they'd be stuck in the regular army at best, shunted off onto a bus and sent home again at worst.
Well, no, alright, being picked up by Hojo or Hollander (as he was still around as well) to be 'test subjects' would be the ultimate worst-case scenario for most of the kids who were here, but that only happened to those who didn't have any family listed in their records. It wouldn't be good for the company to say they'd sent a recruit or cadet home, and for that kid to not get there after all. They really had enough PR issues without adding in the Doctors Creepy.
Their second month as cadets caused Cloud and Zacheus Strife to cross paths with Zackary Fair, and Zack Strife was not at all surprised when Zack Fair – still only a Second Class and being mentored by Commander Hewley – decided that Cloud could stand to have two older brother figures called Zack. He was even less surprised the first time Fair called Cloud a chocobo.
“Told you,” Zack informed his little brother as he watched Fair hold Cloud in a friendly headlock and administer a noogie. “You need to get at least a trim, Cloud.”
“It stands up no matter what,” Cloud groused as he tried – and failed – to get loose.
“I know,” Zack answered, offering no help at all. “But if it's shorter, like mine, then it's not as obviously chocobo-like. Now, could you please release my little brother? We're supposed to start sword drills in ten minutes.”
“Huh?” Fair asked, looking up from his captive chocobo to the other Strife brother. “Oh, yeah. You two work hard okay? Us country boys gotta stick together!”
It was actually kind of impressive how Fair got information out of people. Zack (Strife) was pretty sure only Kunsel, who'd been on the committee-in-charge their first month as cadets, was better at getting information out of a person. Well, the only person who wasn't a Turk anyway, but that was a whole other thing.
The following month – meaning the next rotation of higher-ranked persons supervising the lowly cadets – Zack could only suppose that Fair had talked about 'his cute chocobo' at length... or Commander Rhapsodos had pissed off someone of even higher ranking than him. The red-haired Commander was somewhat famous for frightening cadets out of several years of their lives, and hating being assigned to instruct them, so Zack's first inclination was to believe the latter.
In any event, Zack was pretty sure that Genesis Rhapsodos had not been put in charge of the cadets for any of the time that he'd been through this process the first time, so that was different. He was also suddenly struck by the fact, memory – not necessarily his own – that things had really started going to shit with Genesis, and really, saving as many people as he could from the Science Creepers should probably start with the first of their victims who fell. Okay, that might be Vincent, or actually a whole lot of other people, but Genesis was the first one who made a lot of noise on the way down.
He was snapped out of his thoughts by a question from Cloud while the kid was sitting on his shoulders – Zack was doing his work-out in their room again, and Cloud was supposed to be studying while he provided a weight on his big brother's back.
“Do you think... Commander Rhapsodos might notice me?” Cloud asked quietly.
“He noticed when Jameson's stance was bad earlier today,” Zack answered, not breaking the rhythm of his push-ups.
“That's not what I meant!” Cloud protested a bit louder. “I mean... Like Second Class Fair was saying that Commander Hewley was his mentor, right? Do you think Commander Rhapsodos does that sort of thing too?”
Zack chuckled, no easy thing when doing push-ups and with another person sitting on your shoulders. “I think he'd have to be very impressed to take someone as a personal student,” Zack answered. “And I don't think he impresses easily.”
“You're right,” a voice said from the door. The same voice that had snapped at Jameson about his stance earlier in the day. “I don't impress easily.”
Zack and Cloud were both upright, at attention, and saluting their superior as fast as they could. Genesis raised an eyebrow at them, surprised and amused at the fact that they hadn't tripped over each other at all to get that way.
“At ease, cadets,” Genesis said with a smirk. Once the Strife bothers were standing at ease, Genesis let himself into their very tidy, very bare little room. “The Puppy, that's Second Class Fair to you two, talked about the 'chocobo brothers' rather enthusiastically all last month,” and he smirked again to see Cloud wince slightly at the nickname, while Zack's face just became a little stonier.
“What are you thinking, Cadet Zacheus Strife, to have such an expression?” Genesis asked.
“Permission to speak freely, Commander?” Zack asked, and continued when Genesis nodded. “I was wondering how to go about bleaching his hair in revenge.”
Genesis grinned, and turned away from Zack to look at Cloud. “I am hard to impress,” he stated. “I am not looking for a student. I have little patience for teaching dunderheads. You have what remains of this month to prove that you would work under my instruction, if I deigned to take you, and until the time you either become a Soldier or wash out to prove that you're worth my precious time to teach. Am I clear, Cadet?” Genesis purred, just a little dangerously.
“Yes Sir,” Cloud answered firmly, looking into the man's eyes because there was nowhere else he could look, given how close Genesis had approached him as he spoke.
“Hmm,” Genesis hummed and moved back to looking at the older blonde. “And how do you feel about the possibility of being over-looked for your younger brother in this way?” he asked. “And do speak freely, Cadet. I don't want to hear polite pandering.”
“I think it's wonderful, Sir,” Zack answered.
Genesis raised an enquiring brow, but Zack said nothing more, and Genesis left them both to return to their previous activities. Only this time, Cloud was the one on the floor doing push-ups while Zack picked up the book and, with his feet propped up on Cloud's back, got to studying.
For one day of their fifth month, the cadets who had tested positive for mako compatibility had a simulated mission in the open training grounds under the supervision of Commander Angeal Hewley. Apparently, this was normal. As was General Sephiroth acting as a supervisor to practical classes for the potential future Soldiers in the sixth – that is to say, in the last month.
This was a bit of crucial weeding, apparently.
Those who forgot what they were doing because the General was there, watching them, would be dismissed from the programme. No questions asked. They were all only given one warning – the very first day the General was there – and then that was it. They maintained their focus or they were booted out. Actually, it had been much the same when Commander Rhapsodos had been there. Anyone who stuttered, stammered, or forgot themselves in his presence was out. Thankfully, he wasn't a regular instructor for cadets, or they would have a much lower intake on a regular basis. Actually, maybe that wasn't a good thing... And Commander Hewley had been just as harsh. These cadets were free to apply to the regular army, but they would not be permitted into the Soldier Programme. Not this cycle anyway. They were of course welcome to try again from the beginning, as recruits, though practically no one did. It required a certain amount of spine that not even hot-headed teen-aged boys, who got kicked out for freezing up in front of their heroes, had.
“Two practice swords, Cadet?” Sephiroth asked, appearing suddenly behind Zack.
“Yes Sir,” he answered. He didn't jump in surprise – he had heard the man coming – and he thanked Zack (his Zack, the dead one) for making sure he kept his enhancements when he was sent back. He didn't falter in his stance. His voice didn't quaver. His eyes didn't even twitch to try and catch sight of the General who stood behind him. He just kept working through his drill.
“You are aware, Cadet, that it is after curfew,” Sephiroth pointed out.
“Couldn't sleep, Sir,” Zack answered. “I went through my full work-out in my room already. It didn't help, and I didn't wish to disturb my dorm-mate by turning on a light to study my texts, Sir.”
“How thoughtful and industrious of you, Cadet,” Sephiroth observed as he circled around to stand in front of Zack. “Do you do this often?”
“No Sir,” Zack answered, still running through his sword drills, though careful now to not hit his superior officer. “My insomnia is generally cured by an extra run-through of my work-out in my dorm room, Sir. It is only on this date that it doesn't do much to help, Sir,” he explained.
Sephiroth raised a fine, silvery eyebrow. “What happened on this date?” he asked, almost delicately.
“I was born, Sir,” Zack answered. It was true too. It wasn't Cloud's birthday. No, Cloud's birthday was some weeks previous. This was the date that he'd crawled out from behind sheltering rocks to kneel beside the man who'd gotten him out of Hojo's lab, sat with him as he died, and accepted the burden of his dreams. A burden that he didn't have to carry any more, as he'd been sent back in time. On this exact day as well, it just so happened. This was the day he had become who he was: the day he was born.
Sephiroth didn't need to know all that though.
He seemed to understand though. Or at least accept it. After all, he only said “Ah,” before he stepped back and simply watched Zack go through his forms.
Zack finished the cycle of forms and began again, faster this time.
“These are not the standard forms that you are being taught here,” Sephiroth stated a few minutes of silence later.
“No, Sir,” Zack agreed shortly.
“Where did you learn them?” Sephiroth asked.
“Prior to discovering my bastard father had given me a brother by another woman he had also married and disappeared on, I travelled, Sir. Some of the forms I picked up from masters wherever I stopped, others I made up while defending myself from any monsters I crossed, Sir,” Zack answered. It wasn't a total lie after all. He had travelled before getting Cloud and coming to Midgar, and he had learned his swordsmanship from a variety of masters, and honed it on monsters. As much as Hojo's experiments and the various crazy people he'd crossed counted as masters and monsters anyway.
The lies you were least likely to be caught in, after all, were the ones that were really just a version of the truth.
“I was under the impression that most people thought of birthdays as happy occasions,” Sephiroth said, breaking the silence a few minutes later.
“Most people, Sir,” Zack agreed.
“You do not?”
“I'd agree for anybody else's birthday, Sir.”
“Ah,” the General said, and that seemed to be that. “I do suggest you get to bed before morning, Cadet. I look forward to seeing you in the Programme.”
“Yes Sir, thank you Sir,” Zack answered, and finished the last pattern of set forms with a slash, then saluted the General and turned to head back to the dorms. He was finally feeling tired at last after all, and he did like to sleep when he could. It was just getting to be able to sleep that was the tricky bit.
Commanders Hewley and Rhapsodos flanked General Sephiroth as they stood on the slightly raised platform where Lazard was giving a dull speech about the value the cadets would have in ShinRa as regular army and as new Soldiers. It was very prettily worded, a captivating speech, but anyone who actually cared to look would see that Lazard didn't actually believe what he was saying. Not all of it anyway. Lazard was one of the more jaded members of the ShinRa executive, probably because he was the president's “secret” bastard son. Not that it was all that secret among those currently standing on that stage, and the Turks knew of course.
Each of the three of them had been given a list. Genesis had the list of those who had been deemed unworthy of even the regular army. He had the dubious honour of kicking them out. Angeal had the list of the cadets who would be in the regular army, and would be escorting them to their new commanding officer and the regular army barracks. Sephiroth held the much, much shorter list of those who had made it into the Soldier Programme.
The names of both the Strife brothers were on Sephiroth's list.
Every cadet in the room had their belongings – meagre as they were – already packed up and strapped to their backs, ready to line up and follow the directions of whichever of the three great men called their names. Their dorm rooms were being inspected and sterilised by custodial staff while they were here, getting ready for the next batch of recruits that would be installed there the day after next. It was a short process really. Cadets were 'promoted' on one day – moved into the army, the Soldier Programme, or kicked out – then the recruits were informed of having made it to cadet level the next day, and the day after that a new batch of recruits came in and took up the recently vacated rooms.
“Welcome, new Soldier Third Classes,” Sephiroth said when he – and those who had their names on his list – were the only ones left in the hall. Genesis had taken his batch out first, then Angeal, so this lot had been sweating for longer than anyone else to discover their fate. Wide eyes answered his words.
“Of the fifty of you who began as recruits twelve months ago, only the three of you have impressed your instructors enough to be promoted into the Soldier Programme. Almost a record low for a cycle, though there was an instance where only one cadet was promoted into Soldier ranks. The three of you have achieved some of the best results ever seen. Keep it up, and you'll do well. As Soldiers, you will have a private bedroom, though all other facilities are communal still. Follow me,” he ordered, and moved out.
It was slightly intimidating, being given a tour of the Third Class facilities and being shown to their assigned rooms by General Sephiroth, but they all three survived the experience.
“Report for drills and further instruction from your superior at zero-six-hundred tomorrow in the gym. You will have to report to the medical bay at noon, sharp, for your first mako treatments.” Such was Sephiroth's last instruction before he left them.
They'd been Third Class Soldiers for a little over a week – training was going well, mako treatments were done nowhere near Hojo or Hollander – when it happened. Someone propositioned Cloud, and even had the nerve to insinuate that trading sexual favours was probably how he'd gotten in to the Soldier Programme.
Cloud's cute, round, youthful, cream-coloured cheeks flushed an infuriated red. Zack's bright blue eyes went cold and flinty as he lay a hand on the shoulder of his 'little brother' and pushed the kid behind him.
“Do you appreciate, Soldier Third Class Faxen, that as a mako enhanced Soldier, ShinRa owns you, and you will not leave this company alive?” Zack asked. His tone could almost be called pleasant, except that it was so cold a couple of their fellow Soldiers wondered who was playing with Ice materia in the hallways.
Faxen, the Soldier who'd propositioned Cloud and made that terrible insinuation, nodded. It was a little hesitantly though, as though he hadn't actually given it much thought.
“Good,” Zack said with a smile. Abruptly, the smile dropped and the blonde growled. “Then you will understand why they don't expel me from the Programme for beating the shit out of you for saying something like that to my little brother.”
Zack managed to get five hits in before Faxen even properly realised he was under attack, and another three before he figured out he should be fighting back. The fight ended, not when a superior officer came along, but when the smell wafted up and Zack stepped back from the other Third.
“You really beat the shit out of him!”
“The piss too, judging by the stain!”
“I didn't think that was actually possible!”
“I thought it was just a saying!”
“How'd you do that?”
Zack ignored them all, only turning on his heel and marching down the hall, Cloud following behind him slightly confused, until they reached the gym.
“Why did you do that?” Cloud asked once the door shut behind him.
“Because you beating the tar out of your fellow Soldier over an insult would damage your chances at being picked for mentorship. I know you could have done what I did, but while I'm around you're not going to have to. Alright?”
Cloud nodded. “Alright,” he agreed, a very slight smile on his face before he wiped it off and headed over to one of the weight machines.
They were both still there two hours later, sparring on the mats, when a familiar voice called them to attention.
“Third Class Strife!” the voice snapped.
Both brothers halted their spar immediately and snapped to attention. “Sir!”
“What's this I hear about fights in the hallways?” Commander Rhapsodos purred dangerously.
“Third Class Faxen propositioned my little brother Sir,” Zack said. “Big brother rule number two states that it is my solemn duty to protect the virtue of all younger siblings, even from wanted suitors and even when they are perfectly capable of warding them off by themselves, Sir.”
Genesis chuckled. “And could Third Class Cloud Strife have literally beaten the shit out of Third Class Faxen?” he asked.
“Yes Sir!” both brothers answered promptly.
“I taught him which points to hit before we even reached Midgar, Sir,” Zack supplied. Then he smirked. “Brat is also better than me at fighting in small spaces, like hallways, because of his slightly smaller build, Sir.”
Genesis smiled. “How delightfully intriguing,” he said. “Third Class Cloud Strife,” he summoned, turning to the younger blonde, drawing his rapier. “Spar with me.”
Cloud stepped back into his stance on the fighting mat, bringing his weapon into position once again, while Zack got out of the way. It lasted ten minutes, though clearly the Commander was not going all out and actually more interested – just this once – in testing his opponent rather than winning. All the same, it ended when Cloud missed a leg-swipe due to the sweat that was stinging his eyes, causing him to land on his back and find the tip of Genesis' rapier tickling the skin just below his chin.
Genesis smiled. Not smirked. Actually smiled. “Very good, Soldier Third,” he complimented. “I do hereby count myself impressed. Angeal seems to enjoy being a mentor, and is forever after Sephiroth and me to find a student for ourselves as well. Want the position?” he asked, putting his rapier back in its sheath and holding out a hand to Cloud.
Cloud's eyes went wide and he nodded, putting his hand in Genesis'. “Yes Sir,” he answered. “I would be honoured.”
Genesis nodded in satisfaction and hauled the kid upright. “Follow me to my office. There is paperwork -” he sneered, “- that has to be done for this to be official.”
Zack gave his little brother a thumbs up as he followed the red-haired Commander out of the gym, a proud smile on his face at the sight of Cloud's goofy grin. It was a good day. He'd beat the shit out of a sleeze-bag, he'd sent a two boxes of poisoned chocolates to the Science Department (one for each of the Doctors Creepy, and each their favourite chocolates so there was a guarantee they wouldn't be sharing), and Cloud had a high-ranking mentor who would force him out of his shell once and for all.
Yes, it was a very good day for Zacheus Strife.
Hojo must have put in the request for scientific specimens to be retrieved from Nibelheim before he'd died, and the new head of the Science Department – an ambitious but moral woman who was nothing like either of the creepers she was taking over from – agreed that if Hojo had left something somewhere else, she wanted to know what it was. Apparently she had declared to the President that until she had decoded all of the notes left to her by the scientists who had been in charge before her, the Science Department would not be developing anything new. They were a bit busy figuring out and cleaning up after the messes that they'd been left behind.
So, Sephiroth was being sent to Nibelheim, and was being permitted to take one lower-ranked Soldier with him, as well as a couple of regular army to help with transporting anything they found. Not particularly used to dealing with lower ranked Soldiers on an individual basis, Sephiroth's first thought was to ask his friends if he could take one of their students.
“Sorry Sephiroth,” Angeal said. “But I'm getting Fair ready for testing. See if he's ready to be a First yet.”
“He's my cute little chocobo-headed student,” Genesis answered firmly. “Get your own if you need someone to drag off on missions for dead creeps from Labs.”
The suggestion, Sephiroth decided, had merit. Maybe not the student bit, though Genesis adding his voice to Angeal's suggestion that he should take a student was new and added more weight to the idea, but...
“Third Class Strife?” Sephiroth called as he watched the older of the two brothers, once again alone and working through patterns of sword movements like it was a dance. This time however, it was not after hours.
“Sir!” Zack answered, though, as with the last time Sephiroth came upon him like this, he didn't break from what he was doing.
“You will be joining me for a mission to Nibelheim. We leave at oh-six-hundred in three days time. Be ready to depart from hangar four at that time,” Sephiroth instructed.
“Yes Sir!” Zack answered, the dozens of thoughts that suddenly sprung to life in his head not showing in his eyes or causing his motions to falter.
Sephiroth nodded, satisfied, and left.
“Soldier Third Class Strife,” Sephiroth snapped as he, the grunts, and the Third Class moved away from the parked truck that had carried them the last leg of the journey to Nibelheim. “Where are you going?”
“I'm going to check the rout to the ShinRa Mansion, and to the reactor, Sir. Make sure my memory of the place is accurate enough that we don't need a local guide, Sir,” Zack answered. “And if it's alright with you Sir, I'd rather set up camp in the mouldy, decrepit, monster-infested mansion than take a room at the Inn, Sir. I'm fairly sure I could find something in the mansion that will provide better conversation than anybody in town, Sir.”
Sephiroth snorted softly in amusement. “Permission granted Soldier,” he said. “But be out front of the Inn first thing tomorrow morning to lead the way up. That's an order.”
“Sir, yes Sir!” Zack answered with a salute.
Zack turned and headed straight through the town of Nibelheim up the dirt track that would lead to the ShinRa Mansion and the reactor. He had to clear a couple of rock slides, and he threw a large rock out into the middle of the bridge, causing it to finally and completely collapse all the way out so that no one would ever even think of trying to cross using it.
Now, when he reached the mansion, decrepit looking as it was, Zack pulled out a rope, his longest, and a small hook that would hold the rope in place wherever it caught. He knew there was more stuff in the bowels of the mansion than could be imagined – Vincent had a hell of a time cleaning out Deep Ground he remembered, and with the exception of Tifa who was busy watching the kids, they'd all pitched in to help where they could – so he'd be starting with the easy stuff that was in the more readily accessible parts of the mansion. He'd start at the top and work his way down.
Before he got into the mansion though, he took out his phone and recorded a new voice-mail message.
“This is Soldier Third Class Zacheus Strife's phone, I can't take your call right now as I'm fighting a monster in the ShinRa Mansion. Unless I'm losing very badly I will have noticed my phone ringing, and will get back to you as soon as I've dealt with it.”
That done, Zack hauled himself up the rope into the third floor of the building and started his hunt. Methodically, he worked his way through each room and floor of the building, making note of what he'd killed on a log in his phone, then doing a sweep for any documents before moving on. It should be noted that he began clearing out the monsters in the mansion at approximately three in the afternoon. The party had arrived in Nibelheim about two, which gave him an hour to make sure the track was safe on his way up. By the time he'd cleared out all the monsters in the upper floors and reached the room where he knew Vincent was entombed, it was eight in the evening. He'd already taken a break to down some field rations.
Zack pushed the lid off the coffin and looked down at the sleeping undead man inside. The image of a sane Sephiroth fresh in his mind superimposed itself over Vincent's face and Zack smirked. It was all the more obvious where Sephiroth got his good looks from. Not from Lucrecia, not from Hojo's tinkering with Jenova's cells, and definitely not from Hojo himself. Zack prodded Vincent awake.
“What do you want?” Vincent growled.
“Help clearing the monsters out of the building, please,” Zack answered firmly, “and finding any notes left behind by the scientists. Sephiroth is expecting me back in Nibelheim in the morning, and I'm not going to be there in time if I've got to do the whole job myself.”
Of course, it was possible that even with help he'd still not be finished by morning.
Vincent looked at Zack, silently, and Zack waited silently for an answer, not breaking eye contact at all until the man sighed, sat up, and hauled himself out of the coffin, an agreement on his lips.
The sun was up and Sephiroth stood out front of the inn with the two grunts, scowling at his phone. He'd told Strife to be here first thing in the morning, and had called the Third Class on his failure to appear. That was not a comforting message to receive from his subordinate. Still, at least there was reception at all out here. He had two options at this point. He could either find a local guide to take him up to the mansion where Strife was, or he could wait for Strife to get back.
Neither was particularly appealing.
“What do we do now Sir?” asked one of the grunts.
Sephiroth opened his mouth to snap out an order – finding a guide and getting a move on was preferable to standing around being stared at by these people – when his phone rang.
“Hello?” he answered.
“Sorry I'm late Sir,” Strife's voice answered. “This place still has more floors below ground that I haven't cleared out yet, and I was going all night, with help, Sir. I hadn't realised it was even morning yet Sir. I'm on my way Sir.”
“Very well,” Sephiroth answered, his anger slightly dulled and his curiosity piqued by Strife saying he still hadn't cleared out all the monsters and had help. “We'll wait at the inn, and order some breakfast for you.”
“Yes Sir. Thank you Sir,” Strife answered. “ETA ten -” there was a roar, and the sound of gunfire. “Fifteen minutes, Sir.”
“Dismissed,” Sephiroth said, then hung up and turned to the grunts. “Order a large breakfast,” he ordered. “We've got a fifteen minute wait on Third Class Strife. Dismissed.”
“Strife?!” a number of voices around him yelped in shock.
Sephiroth raised a fine, silvery eyebrow at them all in disdain. “Yes,” he drawled at them as the grunts went back inside to carry out their orders, mundane as they were.
“Cloud Strife made it into Soldier?” a boy asked, brown hair, thick build, a slightly stupid look about him. “Little kid, blonde hair like a chocobo, big blue eyes?”
“He did,” Sephiroth confirmed, and recalled that the younger Strife brother had listed Nibelheim as his home down in his forms.
“Must be easy to make the grade then,” another male voice scoffed somewhere in the crowd.
“Or he only made it by the skin of his teeth,” a third guy quipped mockingly.
“He was one of only three that managed to do so in his cycle, out of fifty applicants,” Sephiroth countered with a slight growl. He didn't like the idea that people thought getting into Soldier was easy. It wasn't. “His scores were also exceptional.”
“Please sir!” a female voice called out from the back of the crowd that had gathered around him.
The muttering mass of people went quiet, and parted slowly, very slowly, as a woman approached him. She stood straight, but her stature was small, and her frame was thin and frail-looking, giving her and air of age though she looked no more than forty-five.
“Ma'am?” Sephiroth prompted when she stood in front of him.
He had to look down. She had to look up.
“I'm Cloud's mother,” she said. “How's my boy doing? I worry that he hides things from me.”
The teenaged boys around her, and even one of the girls, looked a little bit guilty at that, and Sephiroth guessed that the 'things' the woman was used to her son hiding from her was injuries from bullying, or similar.
“He impressed one of the commanders enough to be taken as an apprentice,” Sephiroth answered her. “Commander Rhapsodos is infamously difficult to impress, but Strife has done so to such a degree that Commander Rhapsodos is loathed to be parted from the young man.”
A male snort came from off to the left, and Sephiroth's hearing caught the speculation that Cloud had whored himself into his position. Sephiroth narrowed his eyes and stalked up to the man who made that crass comment.
“You are very lucky that it was me who heard you say that, and not Second Class Fair, Commander Rhapsodos or Third Class Strife. They're all inclined to violence at the suggestion of Strife's virtue being compromised. People who proposition Third Class Cloud Strife for sex generally find themselves with soiled underwear very quickly, and often repeatedly as there are a number of people who don't take kindly to the suggestion. Third Class Strife being just one of them.”
“And since leaving Nibelheim, helpless little Cloud has learned where to hit a man so that he will shit himself,” a new voice said in a dangerous, but controlled, tone.
“Cloud!” Mrs Strife called, excitement to see her boy dampened slightly by the reprimand over his swearing.
“Sorry,” Zack answered, moving through the crowd to Mrs Strife and wrapping her up in a hug.
“You really made it into Soldier,” a girl said, her wine-coloured eyes wide. It was the same girl who'd looked a bit guilty with all of the boys earlier. “You grew, Cloud.”
Zack shrugged silently and let go of Mrs Strife. “I'd love to stay and catch up, but I haven't slept all night, haven't had anything substantial to eat yet, and I am here on a mission,” he told her.
“Yes,” she agreed, wiping at the tears that were threatening to fall over her cheeks and into the proud smile on her face. “Yes of course, you've got work to do. Oh, my boy, all grown up!” Then she gave him a kiss on his cheek and stepped away, hustling him off to his commanding officer.
Sephiroth raised an eyebrow in question as he marched Zack away from the crowd to the inn, where breakfast was waiting for him.
“They don't know about me,” Zack answered quietly. “Cloud's dad and mine, he was a prick, Sir. We met each other on the way to Midgar. I mean, I've been to Nibelheim before, and I know the area, but I didn't exactly socialise with any of the locals, Sir.”
Sephiroth nodded, accepting the answer without further questioning, and gesturing for the blonde to take a seat at the table, where breakfast was waiting – and the grunts were having seconds.
“Report while you eat Soldier,” Sephiroth ordered quietly.
“Sir,” Zack answered. “Entered ShinRa Mansion through a third-floor window, Sir. Performed sweeps of each room for monsters or scientific documents as I moved through the levels downwards, Sir. Reached the first basement and intelligent company at approximately twenty-hundred hours, Sir. Proceeded to recruit Vincent Valentine, undead Turk killed by Dr Hojo and revived by same through definitely unethical experiments, to assist in further monster extermination and document gathering in deeper levels, Sir. Kept going all night and have still not reached the bottom floor, Sir. I left ex-Turk Valentine cleaning his gun in the parlour while he awaits our return, Sir.”
Sephiroth nodded. “Anything else?” he asked. “Observations, opinions, thoughts? Did the monsters you killed drop anything interesting?”
“Valentine looks like he could be related to you, Sir. Same face, he's got black hair, red eyes, and a metal claw on one hand, but other than that you're almost identical. Whatever Hojo did preserved the guy really well,” Zack answered, much less formally, since Sephiroth was asking for personal thoughts. “Also acquired an impressive collection of materia from monsters killed, and went through a brief moral dilemma regarding killing people who were down there. However, that resolved fairly quickly when they attempted to kill me shortly after I introduced myself and explained why I was down there in the first place.”
Sephiroth's brows were both raised in mild surprise. He even made a little surprised noise in the back of his throat.
“I think if we're going to be taking 'samples' and 'specimens' back to Midgar, Sir, we'll be taking them back in body-bags,” Zack finished, and finished up his breakfast while the general processed that.
“So, they reacted badly to being told they were to be collected and taken to Midgar?” Sephiroth asked as Zack led the way up the track towards the mansion.
“No Sir,” Zack answered. “I never said that, Sir. I told them that all of Dr Hojo's experiments and programmes were being shut down, shipped out, and re-evaluated by the new head of the Science Department, Sir. Now, I could understand them making a bid for freedom,” he said, “but that wasn't what they were doing, Sir. They all got this crazy look in their eye and all of them said something along the lines of refusing to be shut down, and then they began attacking, Sir. Of course, I didn't bother with the monsters, Sir. No point trying to communicate with a malboro after all, Sir.”
Sephiroth nodded, and the rest of the walk was made in silence.
Confronted with Vincent Valentine himself, Sephiroth felt he had to agree with Strife's assessment that they were likely related. That would require investigation at a more convenient time. For now though, the ex-Turk guided the party down a hallway to an elevator shaft – the elevator itself was not worth trusting considering how long it had been since it was last used – and gave a quick lesson on the best way to perform a controlled descent in one of those things. That was, to literally bounce off the walls until you reached an opening, which would be an elevator door that Vincent himself had opened after clearing the floor of monsters.
“Be careful of the cables,” were Valentine's last instructions before he took the lead and jumped in first.
“I want to be that graceful when I'm jumping down elevator shafts at sixty,” Zack mock-grumbled before following, Sephiroth hot on his heels.
“Sixty?!” the grunts yelped, before they followed as well.
“Approximately sixty,” Vincent's voice answered flatly, though the echo of the shaft gave his deep voice an even more eerie quality than his seriousness. “I was killed almost thirty years ago, and was a bit over thirty at the time. I have been asleep, locked away from the world, since then.”
“Yeah, and in a coffin to boot,” Zack quipped. “This is our floor,” he called cheerfully. “We get off here and take the stairs down to the next floor to fight the monsters. And possibly the science experiments. See how your luck holds out.”
The grunts gulped nervously and began to sweat as they pushed themselves towards the forced-open door.
“That's a lot of stairs,” one of the grunts said once they'd entered the stairwell beside the elevator.
“And you've either got to climb them or scale the elevator shaft to get back up again,” Zack offered with false cheer. “Plus all of those ones of course,” he added, pointing to the stairs that went up for almost as long as they went down.
“You were busy last night,” Sephiroth observed, somewhat impressed by the young blonde.
“Yes Sir,” Zack answered. “And I feel for the poor people Dr Hojo kept here as samples and specimens and experiments, really I do, but so far I count two who came away from his care in a state that I would call 'relatively sane'. They're both in this stairwell with me,” he finished.
Mentally, he added: I'm two thirds, you're two thirds and Vincent is two thirds. Between us that makes two whole people. Not the most comforting thought perhaps, but it was there all the same. It also made a good duck-out for him, as he'd been in Hojo's care in another life-time, and knew he hadn't come away from that all-sane. If he had, the original Zack probably wouldn't have been able to talk him into coming back here. Then again, the original Zack might also not be dead, which would also make a difference.
It turned out that there was only one more door at the bottom of that long, long, long stairwell, and beyond that door was a single large room that had a viewing platform up another set of stairs at the other end of it. Except for dust, it was also completely empty.
“All that for nothing,” one of the grunts groaned as he sank to the floor along the wall.
“Not for nothing,” Sephiroth countered. “It was important to know what, if anything, was down here. There may well be documents in the viewing room.”
“This is where Hojo tested his specimens, against each other as well as programmes,” Vincent added, his eyes narrowed with remembered hate and anger. “I came here to train a few times, while I was working security for this place, before I started being brought here to be tested. I was the first human, or ex-human, to ever be brought into this place. It was always animals and monsters before me.”
Zack volunteered to look for any documents or notes while the grunts caught their breath and Sephiroth and Vincent... caught up, bonded as father and son, or whatever.
They didn't continue up to the reactor that day, rather returning to Nibelheim to wait for the first cargo helicopter to arrive and collect all the 'samples' and 'specimens' from the Mansion. Zack settled himself in one of the two rooms that had been rented by the General and decided to start planning his sword out. Again. Oh he was perfectly capable with the standard-issue broadswords that ShinRa provided, but he wanted his sword in his hands again. For that matter he wanted his motorbike underneath him again as well, but he could really only afford to build one of them at a time, and as much as he loved Fenrir, there was a reason his sword was called First Tsurugi.
A black-gloved hand elegantly snatched a sketch from the table Zack had been working at, effectively distracting the blonde from his task.
“Impressive,” Sephiroth stated.
“Thank you Sir,” Zack answered, a little dumbly.
“I will have you know, Strife, that I am even harder to impress than Commander Rhapsodos, and you have impressed me. On multiple occasions and in many different ways. Your dedication to your physical training, your intelligence, your loyalty to your brother... Your reactions to me,” Sephiroth said. He paused then, a slight frown on his face. “I am aware that my social skills are, to put not too fine a point on it, somewhat lacking...”
“Sephiroth,” the man cut across. “Strife. I want you to call me by my name. I also would like to spend more time in your company. You don't treat me like everyone else does, and I appreciate that.”
Zack smiled, just a little. “I hope you don't mind if I default to 'sir' now and then. It is less of a mouthful than your full name after all.”
A corner of his mouth twitched upwards in answer to Zack's smile. “I don't mind,” the silver-haired man answered.
He'd actually figured it out his first go-around. Sephiroth was a sane man who had suffered through insane things, added into that was reading the disturbing – and incorrect – notes that had been deliberately left by Hojo and then finding Jenova. Now, yes, Jenova was still sort of alive, and yes she was still semi-sentient, but she was in no way sane and the only reason she'd had any effect on Sephiroth the first time around was because he had been pushed off the edge of sanity recently himself. This time, the man was firmly grounded in both sanity and truth (thank you Vincent!), so when Jenova greeted him as her son and started whispering things in his ear, so to speak, Sephiroth did not smile serenely and hold out his arms to welcome her.
He scowled, drew his sword, and cleaved her alien, mako-encased body in twain. As well as the tube she was being held in.
“Very neat, Sir,” Strife commented from behind him. “Shall I have the grunts fetch mops to clean up the spilled mako, Sir?”
“Leave it to drain,” Sephiroth answered with a shake of his head and a gesture to where the mako was in fact slowly draining through the holes in the metal walk-way. “They can bag it later.”
The other specimens in tanks throughout the reactor were being killed by the grunts through the windows in their tanks – mercy killings, bullets between the eyes and a quick death for things that probably couldn't even breathe without a machine to help them. Essentially everything was going back to Midgar in a body bag.
Zack smiled to himself. Now there was just the issue of convincing Rufus that mako wasn't really a sustainable power-source if he wanted to keep ShinRa running when he eventually took over from his father.