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CHAPTER 6
The First Meeting.


Sephiroth stood on the outskirts of Midgar, staring out at the ocean. The war was coming to an end, the Wutai had all but surrendered and were now camped up inside their own city limits. He had delegated the tasks to his subordinates to return here. It wasn’t exactly against orders, but he needed to be in Midgar right now, those boys needed supervision, he was sure they would make it to the SOLDIER program, any of the main high three ranks to be sure. Leaving them in the care of Shinra wasn’t a good idea, he didn’t think that they would end up in any necessary condition if they kept hold of them.

He’d heard him approach not too long ago but a pair of boots announced the arrival of a friend.

He turned to Angeal and smiled. “Good to see you.”

Angeal nodded and smiled himself. “Back from the war again…what’s that, fourth time in a month?”

“I am interested.” Sephiroth muttered. “In this years SOLDIER candidates…particularly two certain ones.”

“Two?” Angeal asked. “Who…”

“The young pair…Cossat and Strife.”

A confused look came on his friends face. “Well, the Cossat boy I understand, he has the greatest potential since…well, you to be honest.” He said. “But the Strife boy…he’s not material for the program.”

Sephiroth had been hearing this for a while now and he didn’t understand it at all, apart from him being a little bit short, he’d proven himself adequately in the tests. And there was something about him, something different than the rest of the mainstream SOLDIER’s of today.

He, Angeal and Genesis had been quoted for years as the pinnacle of what it was to be a SOLDIER and the fact that others were appearing now that had similar abilities growing within them, well…why stop them from training them.

Unless they suspected?

Sephiroth shook his head, the only one who could possibly know was Hojo and he wouldn’t sell anyone for anything other than his own plans and Sephiroth knew that whatever he had planned, it was years off.

“It’s strange you say that…a young man to go so far with so many larger and stronger than he is.” Sephiroth said. “I remember a young man in the academy quite a few years ago who was limited in power…and he made it to SOLDIER 1st.”

Angeal smiled ruefully. “Very well…you made your point. But why are you interested in them.”

“Why are you?”

Angeal shook his head and raised his arms in submission. “If you don’t want to say, my friend…then I’ll leave it alone.”

Sephiroth sighed. “I don’t know why. I just feel that they are important in some way. The pair of them remind me of us in some way, especially the Strife boy…I can’t place it but he really reminds me of…something.”

Angeal placed a hand on Sephiroths shoulder. “Wait, my friend…let the program be complete. Let fate set their course.”

Sephiroth nodded. “I will still watch them, whatever they do…”
                                                      **
Cloud watched as Zack performed some of the techniques that his trainer had been teaching him. Cloud himself was finding the techniques of the SOLDIER 1st harder than anything he’d been taught in the program so far, his sword and clothing had been given higher weights-supposedly to add to ability-being here at Junon was more boring than back at the barracks, but the orders had been that only the two of them were to see the advanced training of SOLDIER’s. If being placed in the barracks of the typical MP wasn’t bad enough, they had been segregated to remaining on the upper level.

Not that Cloud had wanted to go down below, the lower area of Junon seemed to be a lot like the Slums of Midgar, no vegetation growing, no natural light.

“STRIFE!”

Cloud snapped around to his instructor and hefted his blade. In the weeks of being in the SOLDIER program, he’d grown somewhat, possibly quite a bit, he couldn’t tell how much. He was closer to Zack’s height now, but Zack himself was growing, two months into the program and-with the constant exercise and ability-and Cloud had barely recognised himself in the mirror, he wasn’t the chiselled god of a soldier, but he was well on his way.

Cloud pulled the sword high above his head.

“That’s right-now-balance on your right foot and push off…as soon as you're in the air, bring down the blade and end your move in a roll before jumping up and using the blade to bring yourself back up.” The man said-he wore the uniform and had a look about him of strength, but he didn’t have the power like Sephiroth did.

Cloud performed the movements and landed them perfectly, though it took some of him to do it. As soon as he landed, he turned to the soldier and hefted his blade on his shoulder.

“Right, backflip five times and end with a sword swipe to your left.”

Cloud hid a heave as he started to jump back, he hadn’t been told to use the blade as any aid so he didn’t, at the fifth spin he pulled his blade up and sliced in mid-air before landing.

“Good Strife…very good.” The man said. “Keep it up and when you get Makoed, boy will you be strong.”

Cloud nodded and continued throughout the day to perform the moves. By the end of the day, both he and Zack were sweating and exhausted.

They headed back to the barracks to wash off and relax for the night, but there was the fact that Zack had something planned made it sound like he’d be up ‘till gone midnight.

“You okay man?”

Cloud lifted his arm and turned it over and over, his shoulder was bothering him. But he turned to Zack and nodded “Little stiff, but when am I not?”

Zack nodded. “You ready for tonight?”

“What the hell do you have planned, anyway…you’ve been on about it for a week.” Cloud asked as he pulled a blue tee over his head.

“Ah, but really…isn’t waiting this long and then telling you going to spoil the surprise?” He asked.

Cloud rolled his eyes before nodding. “Alright then, whenever your ready.”

They headed out to the nightlife of Junon, unlike Midgar's neon skyline, the look of Junon at night seemed more like that of what Cloud had always thought of, the streets lit by-windows of the high skyscrapers and the street lights, cars were passing at a steady and careful pace, there seemed to be both bars and clubs in the part of town that Zack had brought them. The first bar they entered seemed to be some sort of basic ‘sports bar’, the three beers he’d had there were-if not the best drink he’d had-refreshingly different. Entering the second bar, Cloud had three more and they were a different, more like the beer that he’d ‘found’ at the back of the bar in Nibelheim. By the fourth bar, Clouds thoughts started to become incoherent, but he was enjoying himself and he really didn’t mind the way that the girls were dancing with him. As they moved from bar to bar, Cloud seemed to realise that some women were with them and he had his arm around ones waist.
                                                     **
Cloud lifted his head off of the pillow and gave a pronounced groan before and turning his head to see a strange alarm clock on a very different dresser at the side of his bed. His head felt like someone had washed five full barracks worth of sweaty clothes in ten seconds in it, then set it in a vice for ten hours...or at least that’s what he thought it would feel like. A sudden shuffle next to him raised a young woman, her short blonde hair poking out from under the sheets, she looked like Cloud felt, but smiled at him.

”Morning stud, boy...that was the best I’ve had in a long while.”

Memories started to trickle back to him, her name was Ketheraine and Cloud had bought her quite a few drinks and had commented on how cute he thought she was, the more time he spent with her, the better he had felt, until she had suggested on heading back to her place.

“Five o’clock?” Cloud muttered before his eyes widened. “Oh Shit, I’ve gotta go!”

“So soon?” Ketheraine asked. “I was hoping for an encore?”

“Can’t, got training to start in half an hour.” Cloud said. It took him ten minutes to dress and when he got out of the apartment, he practically shot down the roads and streets until he came up on the MP barracks and unlocked the door to his room.

A door opened next to him and Zack poked his head out. “Oh, your back…where the hell did you and that blonde get off too, you were out dancing one minute and gone the…what the hell is that on your neck?”

Cloud touched his neck and felt the teeth marks there and another memory came back to him, he’d told her to bite him…why the hell would he do that? Cloud shook his head and entered, he didn’t have time to wash, quickly taking a razor he shaved the stubble-what he called stubble-off quickly and then changed, he had a glass of mouthwash in his hand when Zack entered, a young brunette walking away down the street.

“So…where the hell did you get to?”

Cloud rinsed his mouth three times with the wash and turned to Zack. “We went back to her place.”

A broad grin had split on Zack’s face when he said this and the chuckle was a dark one. “So…never thought you were that into her. But you did have a skinfull, never been on a bender before, have you?”

“Nibelheim didn’t exactly like me.” Cloud said, as he pulled down the sword. “If I’d have started drinking, I’d have probably been kicked out, my mom too.”

“Well, for a first time, I’m glad I saw the you with your hair down.” Zack said. “Just, take it easy on the beer next week.”

Cloud turned and looked at Zack. “You really think I’m doing that again…my head is killing me.”

“Ah well, there’s where the taking it easy comes in.” Zack said. “And if you hook up again, bring her back here…it’s always a good idea to bring the girl back to your place.”

“Where the hell is this girl back at Midgar?” Cloud asked. “You are jumping about like a red snapper in heat, Zack…its not really fair to her.”

“We’re not that serious and I can hardly ever get to see her…well not now anyway.” Zack muttered. “Besides…what about this Tifa of yours…surely you should wait until you get to show her yourself in a SOLDIER’s uniform?”

Cloud muttered something before sticking his hands in his pockets.

The day’s work of training was worse than he’d ever had, by the end of the day Cloud had been put through the ringer, his body was pushed far beyond his limits that he could barely walk home. Zack had to help him into his room and was grinning when he saw Cloud crawl into bed.

“Honestly…keep it up and they’ll kick you out.”

Cloud didn’t reply but gave him what he thought with a hand gesture.
                                                           **
The end of the second week at Junon signalled their leave and return to Midgar, Zack had another night planned and had conned Cloud into following, he’d sworn that they wouldn’t do much time in bars or clubs.

But the first place they went to wasn’t a club, Cloud looked up at the large metal tower before them. Cloud didn’t have any idea before he stopped, took a step back and really looked at the tower. With a frightened gasp, he took another step back.

“You are insane.” Cloud said. “I really mean it, you’re insane.”

“How the hell am I insane?” Zack asked.

“That’s a frickin’ Mako Reactor!!” Cloud said. “And you want to sneak in to see the things there…tell me the part in that sentence that’s not insane?”

Zack shrugged. “Its something I’ve always wanted to see, haven’t you?”

“They’ll catch us, they’ll kick us out of the program and we’ll quietly disappear in Turk hands.”

“Oh stop being a naysayer.” Zack said, pushing him forwards. “We’ll be fine.”

He led them into the Reactor, cautiously moving along the small, rather cramped walkways. Everything seemed to be half stopped, as if the Shinra were moving the whole Reactor. They came to an intersection and Zack stopped.

“Well, where next?” Cloud asked, his voice low-almost whispering.

Zack started chewing on his cheek, looking from one hallway to the next and never moving. Suddenly Cloud got a terrifying thought, the look of Zack’s face was telling the story all too well.

“You do know where to go, right?”

“Um…well…I kinda thought it would be labelled.” Zack shrugged.

“What…so you were thinking there’d be a sign saying ‘Reactor Core-This Way’. Honestly, where the hell did you get the idea?”

“Well, this girl I was chatting to the other day said something about-.”

A clanking of footsteps signalled the arrival of others, Cloud turned and saw a group of people in dark, slightly patch worthy clothes. Their leader wore a bandanna on his head and he gave a satisfied smile when he saw who they were.

“Well, well, well…if it isn’t the Shinra’s golden boys.” The man said. “I wonder what you are doing in here?”

Zack stepped forwards, a grin on his face. “Looks like we’re all a little lost, say we go our way, you go yours and we call it even.”

Cloud was scrutinising the mans face when it suddenly came to him.

“You’re Avalanche!”

Shock slid right off all the men’s faces as Cloud stepped up besides Zack.

“Looks like this one has us pegged, shame too...we were going to let you live. You were going to be the fall guys for this job.” The leader said. “But it looks like you have to die now…”

Zack’s eyes blazed brightly and he stepped forwards. “You…I heard on the news what happened in Corel three weeks ago…that was you, wasn’t it!”

The leader smiled and nodded. “Yes…the idiots should have ignored the Shinra and their lies that the Reactor would be good, I heard a guy has gotten the blame for that, a guy called Wallace. Heh, if you think we can’t get you to take the blame for this, then you’re wrong.”

“Who says you’ll get out of here alive?” Zack asked. “Soldier trained and almost ready for Mako…we could-.” Guns trained on them all a second later and Zack stopped.

“You see, we are prepared for every eventuality.” The leader said. “Now move.”

Zack took a step back but Cloud held his ground.

The butt of a gun hit Cloud squarely in the face and he stumbled back. His nose had been broken open again. Cloud shook his head and stood straight again.

“I don’t think your friend has any brains tall one…”

“You think I care what you say!” Cloud yelled. “You’re going to kill us anyway, why not now?”

“Good point.” The man said.

As he raised his handgun to fire, instinct took over and Cloud moved his head and upper body to the side, grabbed the mans gun and his leg shot out-there was a snapping sound before Cloud threw him over his shoulder, he twisted the gun out of his grip and was ready to turn the gun on the man when he felt Zack grip his shirt collar and start pulling him out of the room. They ran as fast as they could before rushing out of an exit.

Cloud spun around, the gun still in his hand, he stared darkly at Zack. “What the frickin’ hell was that!”

“They all had guns r-tard!” Zack snapped. “They’d have killed you the instant that you fired!”

“SO…their leader would be dead, one less enemy of the Shinra!” Cloud snapped, he threw the gun away. “Dammit man…they know who we are. They know were going for SOLDIER, they’ll be after us like…like…Jesus, I don’t know but they’ll kill us.”

Zack shrugged. “I don’t think so.”

“And why’s that, they have the guns, we don’t have issued weapons in anything other than training.” Cloud said. “And if you think-.”

His head snapped to the side as a pebble had been threw towards his head.

Cloud turned and saw Zack smiling. “See…SOLDIER’s training…we might not know it but there’s something ingrained in our heads…we’ll get better and no one’ll beat us.”

Cloud had to admit it was a good point, he didn’t know whether this was a good or bad thing, right now he didn’t believe that he’d be able to survive an encounter with the armed members of Avalanche without a weapon of his own.
                                                        **
As soon as Cloud was back in Midgar, he seemed to relax more, Zack had been worried about the guy. He was always a little uptight but this had been pushing things.

As soon as they had been placed back into the main populace and given their tasks-five times the amount of work that the other cadet’s had-everything got back to normal. Cloud had made friends while Zack had been away and met them with grins and handshakes, it didn’t take long for Zack to tell them of Clouds little adventure on the streets of Junon with a blonde girl.

That night Zack headed out on-what he told the others-the town, ready for a great time back in the metropolis. But after digging out the right amount for the trip, he hopped on the train and headed down to the Sector Five Slums.

He hadn’t been here in long time and he had promised that he’d get out to see her as soon as he was back. The train ride didn’t take that long and when he stepped off on the lower plate, he smiled at the conductor who took a second glance at him.

The streets-as they always had been-were made up of the scrap from the upper plates. Old housing that had been demolished and sent down here was used as shanties and lean too’s and the original housing of the city-before Shinra build Midgar above it, all in all it didn’t look like a nice place to live. He pitied the people and sometimes thought why the slums were even populated at all.
Turning a corner and passing into a small collection of houses, Zack saw some of the people he’d met when he first bought a house here, they gawked at him and when he realised why, he was wearing a Shinra issue military training top and pants, he cursed before waving.

The best house in the area was the one that was segregated away from the others and when he pushed the gate open he stopped, as he was stepping into the pathway, Zack’s mouth opened and he shook his head. The last time he’d been here she had only just started on the garden, now it was at least half complete. The wild yellow flowers here were growing large and beautiful. He knew why this area was fertile where the rest of the Slums was full of grime and death, or at least he had a pretty good idea.
Behind the house-as it had always been-was what looked like a huge waterfall-though this was actually a powerful up-thrust of Mako from behind the wall where the huge pipe of Sector Five’s Reactor was placed-the fall of Mako on this side was in no way dangerous, or at least as far as Shinra were willing to admit.

He walked up the path and knocked on the door, a second later a middle-aged woman appeared, her face passive before nodding.

“Well it has been a while, I’ll call her…”

Elmyra closed the door and a muffled yell of her name was heard. A minute later a breathless young woman, a long plait of chestnut brown hair appeared in front of him. He found himself beaming like an idiot at her, no girl had ever affected him like this but the young Aeris Gainsborough always seemed to…and when he did visit her, the escapades on the plate and in Junon made him feel very small. He would never tell her, never want to hurt her like that, but one day he would have to choose, wouldn’t he.

“Well, you’ve been gone a while, training a lot?” Aeris asked as she took his arm.

“Ah, you know.” Zack replied, as they started walking. “It’s not all that much. Not for me anyway.”

Aeris giggled. “You know, they say pride’s a sin.”

Zack coughed out when she said this, he couldn’t brag anywhere anymore, here with Aeris, the Barracks with Cloud…where else?

“So, how’s that friend of yours doing?”

“Cloud…?” Zack said. “Oh, he’s doing good…been a bit depressed since the first exam but he’s going on okay.”

“When am I gonna meet him, anyway?”

“Hay, I’ve tried and tried.” Zack replied. “He’s just too nervous about coming down here…say’s he doesn’t want to break too many rules.”

“So, you can’t get him to be a bad boy like you?” Aeris jibed, “I think I’d like to meet him, then.”

Zack rolled his eyes before pulling her closer. They had agreed on seeing the church again, Aeris had said she had been working on something there. They continued on in silence for a while before Zack stopped, he saw a couple of elderly people being mugged and ran forwards-Aeris told him not to-but he moved and pivoted before catching one in the neck and then the other, his feet sending them flying.

He snatched up the purse of the old woman and gave it to her. “Sorry about them…no respect anymore, is there?”

She took the purse quickly and hurried off with her husband without a backwards glance.

“I told you not to…those are the Corneo’s men, when they wake up they’ll go to the Don’s and tell him who attacked them…you’ll be in danger here.”

Zack looked down at the men. “Then it’s good I didn’t give them that chance…filthy, rotten bastards!”

Aeris gripped his arm and pulled him on. “Sometimes I think that the training is sapping the goodness out of you.”

Zack shook off the dark anger that had filled him, while living in both Costa Del Sol and Gongaga he’d never seen muggings or even thought about thieves before coming to Midgar…sure there had been some highway robbers but those were to be expected…he’d never seen anyone act like that in a city or town before. But the fact that Aeris, who had lived her all her life down here thought of things so differently and have such a gentle and good heart, that’s what-more than anything else-was attractive to him about her.

He turned to her and grinned in his usual maner and continued forwards again.

“Don’t worry…I’m not a demon yet.” Zack said. “Besides…the only real difference I’ve had is higher training.”

“Zack, you had a dark look on your face.” Aeris said. “You…you were scary. What happened if you aren’t being brainwashed?”

“The last night in Junon…I took Cloud in a Mako Reactor…you know, see what’s inside an’all.”

Aeris sighed and rolled her eyes, apparently no one other than he really got what it was to ‘see’ the inside of a Mako Reactor before the actual infusion process.

“And?” She sounded exasperated.

“We ran into Avalanche.” Zack replied. “Brutal bastards, they were willing to destroy the whole reactor…kill all the people in it, just to get a point across.”

“What did you do?”

“It wasn’t me…Cloud gripped the leaders arm, snapped his leg and was ready to kill him…I told you about the stuff back at his hometown, he’s working it out but if he doesn’t get a complete grip on his anger, he’ll do something terrible eventually…but I pulled him outta there before anything happened, rushed him to the barracks and told him not to say anything.”

“Avalanche…I have heard of them…was stopped a week ago by a member looking for me.”

Zack turned and looked at her, she picked at her white dress before looking up. “They didn’t know who I was…I just said I didn’t know her and walked on. Thank goodness I had my pink dress on that day.”

“Why the hell would Avalanche want something to do with you?”

“I am the last Ancient.” Aeris replied. “And you know why the Shinra want me…”

“The Promised Land.” Zack muttered. “I’ve asked questions…Angeal and Sephiroth seem to think that the Promised Land does exist…but that it’d be bad if anyone found it.”

“Whether it exists or not.” Aeris said. “I don’t want to help either the Shinra or Avalanche, they are killing too many people.”

“I know.”

They stopped at the entrance to the church and Zack was ushered in.

He stopped and looked at the scene. When he’d been here last, the place had been a little bit of a tip, the area around the front had been cleared completely. And in the centre, there was a small broken area, the pine flooring having been ripped open and set in the centre was a small set of wild yellow flowers. He’d figured out why the flowers were growing in her garden, but here…it wasn’t possible for anything to grow in the Slums of Midgar.

“Aeris…how the hell did you do all this?”

Aeris smiled bashfully and kicked her feet before replying. “A lot of hard work and determination. I felt them wanting to grow here.”

She rushed over to the small patch of flowers there and knelt down before them. “They wanted to grow, had waited a long time for me to find them, when I broke open the flooring, they started sprouting up very quickly, within a week I’d had to increase the hole…I love it here.”

Zack knelt down before her. “Still thinking of becoming a Flower Girl?”

Aeris nodded. “I want to fill the world with this kind of life…not like the outside…I don’t want to leave things like they are here in Midgar.”

Zack smiled and put an arm around her. “And that’s why I love you.”

Aeris giggled and pushed him away. “We are fifteen, you silly idiot…how the hell do we know whether we love each other or are just acting on hormones.”

Zack turned to her and took her head in his hands. “I know one thing, even if this what I feel whenever I look at you is hormones or not…I’m the luckiest guy in the world to have you as a girlfriend.”

He sat there for a moment before she moved in, they stayed there for a while before Aeris moved back. “You’re back at Midgar for a while, right?”

“I’m back for good now.” Zack said. “At least until after orientation, I’ll be gone for a while for SOLDIER training, but that might be simply here. They seem to have taken a special interest in me.”

Aeris nodded. “You’ll be able to write this time, won’t you?”

“As many letters as I can.” Zack replied before he stroked her cheek. “I really am lucky…”

They resumed their kissing, neither wanting nor needing to be disturbed for a long while.
And Chapter 6 is up and ready...again, not much happening other than building work for the future. Cloud begins to adopt a Zack-Like personality(even if it's only small) here, which is the beginning for his mental breakdown after Nibelheim.

And as everything has been mainly from Cloud's perspective in this story up to now, I wanted to add a small part of Zack to it(as neither Tifa or Zack have had a leading role up to now)
But things are beginning to come to ahead for the SOLDIER cadet's, the final Test is next.
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