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CHAPTER 7
Last Test/Lost Chance.


Cloud finally stopped his exercising; he had completed his final tests on examinations and had passed them. Now there was only one thing left and…if he made it, he’d be a SOLDIER.

Giddiness had entered him at first, but the growing feeling of fear had welled up in Cloud, he’d soon either be out on the streets or a member of SOLDIER. Did he have what it took to get back home if he didn’t make it?

No, he wouldn’t go home. He couldn’t, that letter from Tifa…the letter from his mother, he wouldn’t ever be able to face them.

But…there was still a chance, a one in at least sixty chance that he’d make it.

Giving a nervous laugh Cloud looked around the large auditorium where the remaining 112 SOLDIER candidates were being kept. The barracks had been filled with the next group of hopefuls. Cloud didn’t envy them.

The first ten weeks of basic SOLDIER training had been brutal, he’d seen and saw the types of punishment handed out, had one done on himself after mouthing off at an MP. And now it was coming to an end, either way…well Cloud would be happier without the pain.

Zack turned and smiled at Cloud, waving-a small pink ribbon on his arm. He’d said that was from the girlfriend he had down in the Slums, who he was now officially dating. The fact that Zack had only been to see her had said something, he’d still poked at Cloud to have him come along, but he didn’t care much for other people, he was friends with a few here…he’d made friends and was finally getting to know what it was like to be happy with people his own age.

Jerrikson was lifting a set of barbells to Clouds left and gave him a little grin. They ‘were’ going to make it.

He lay back in his bunk, ignoring some jibes from some of the others, he had worked out only an hour a day, tomorrow would bring forth the final test and no matter how much training they did, it wouldn’t improve their chances and those who did would probably weaken their chances. After an hour of hearing huffing and puffing, Cloud sat up and silently walked out of the auditorium and headed into the main compound of SOLDIER.

With his final weeks of training, he’d been issued a different set of clothing, a deep blue of the Shinra Armed Forces, which he took to be a badge saying that Shinra might want to keep him even if he failed, a failed SOLDIER is still a soldier in his own right.

He passed a few of the new cadets, they were all looking at him with slightly awed mouths until one opened his mouth. “That guy made it to the end of SOLDIER…jeez, it must be easy.”

Cloud lifted his hand and flipped the boy off, chuckles and jeering towards the boy echoed around the training camp.

When Cloud parked himself on the nearest hill, he looked out at the clear blue sky. Breathing in an out slowly, the slight fear he had inside him seemed to drain out. Nerves…he had felt nervous before but nothing like this-Tifa, she was the reason he was here-he’d always said that it was to get away from Nibelheim, to make a name for himself…but if he was going to be honest…all this was because of her. He wanted her and only her to be proud of him.

A blush crossed his cheeks-only just-as he envisioned himself in a SOLDIER uniform, striding back into Nibelheim on the way to some mission, grinning at Jack Lockheart before giving one of Zack’s smiles to Tifa.

He shook his head, it was a nice idea but not a practical one.

As the night drew on, Clouds mind drifted over being a SOLDIER, finally proving to all those people who had said he was nothing they were wrong. A set of footfalls brought Clouds mind back to the world, he turned to see Zack standing over him, a plain grin on his face.

“Looks like you're enjoying yourself.” He sat next to Cloud and looked up, “Final day, eh.”

“Final day.” Cloud replied. “And I’m shit scared.”

“Like everyone else, I’ve seen two actually fighting off tears in there…they got ripped on, but everyone’s terrified.” Zack replied. “I’m a little worried myself…but just a bit.”

Cloud turned and raised an eyebrow at him, Zack grinned at him and shrugged. “So I’m terrified too, even with all this advanced training I’ve had, I could still make a couple of mistakes and boom, I’m out.”

“Like they’ll let you.” Cloud replied. “A SOLDIER watching your every move, advanced training, a lot of attention on just you, they’ll be thinking you’re the next Sephiroth.”

“Well, if I’m going to be him, I’m not having his hair…honestly, put that silver hair in a braid and you’d not be able to tell him from my girlfriend.”

“God, I’d better watch out then.”

Cloud froze on the spot he and he looked up, stood behind the both of them staring out at the Midgar scenery was the General himself. He had a passive look on his face and he seemed calm, but Zack had just said that he-.

Cloud attempted to get up, but a hand touched his head, keeping him there.

Zack seemed to be just as worried, but looking up at Sephiroth told him that there wasn’t anything really wrong and he grinned.

“I never heard from you,” Sephiroth stated, tapping a finger on Clouds head. “Why is that?”

“Sir…I, well I just…”

Sephiroth smiled slightly and lifted his hand. “After all this is over, I will wish to see you again, both of you. But as Angeal is interested in you Mr. Cossat, I figure I’ll be seeing you whether you pass or not.”

He turned around. “You had better get some sleep, boys…and Strife…I do mean to see you again. This time I will send for you.”

And then he was gone.
                                                      **
“Gentlemen, today is the day that you will prove yourselves.” Colonel Roberts stated, marching in front of the amassed group of cadets. Their final issued clothing, the Shinra uniform they wore was a full grey tee and pants. The only people allowed in the compound were the Shinra Executives now, no news cameras no press…just the higher ups, after all this was the final testing for those who would end up as SOLDIER.

“As you know by now, the SOLDIER program is not a program for the weak…those of you who either failed to make the grade or those who decided they wouldn’t be able to keep up have been removed. But, as we know from experience…there are always the lucky ones who actually make it this far. That is why this final test was created.”

He turned to look out at the field before them. “This is the final test, cadets and will encompass every test you have previously had to take. The first will an obstacle course, after that you will prove yourself on a track run, then you will show the skills you’ve gained in both hand-to-hand and in swordsmanship against both a fellow cadet and an instructor. The markings for a pass in this test will be eighty or above…I don’t think I need to say that anything below, after full tabulation will be removed.”

He turned back to the assembled cadets. “This is the final chance you have for proving yourself. The executives of the company are here and are watching this with interest…do not allow yourself to make a fool of this procedure.”

As always, they were lined up single file and at attention. The names were called out by their last, which meant that-as usual-Cloud had to watch the others perform on the obstacle course.  Everyone remaining had improved from the first time they were tested on this and when Cloud finished, only slightly winded from his exertion, he felt elation at seeing his time had been halved twice.

Of course, the group track run was more difficult, though he had grown, he was still decidedly smaller than most of the boys here and the juttering and buffering around had left him in the middle of the running pack, but he wasn’t too fussed, he was still at the head of them. Cloud hadn’t started to tire as of yet, but the first two of his difficult tests were coming up.

“Strife…you are to face…Dennark.” Roberts stated.

Learning a simple form of Shinra style fighting hadn’t been too hard, though he had primarily he’d learned to use guns and swords, had spent some time alone working the movements taught by the tutors. Dennark…Jason Dennark had been one of the few people who had never liked Cloud, he’d always said that he’d hurt Cloud given the chance.

They squared off on the training mat, Dennark not bothering to proceed with the formalities of a handshake, Cloud bobbed his head though never taking his eyes off the man.

“Begin!”

The boy shot out and scored a hit on Clouds rib knocking him back, a kick hit him in the head before he had chance to respond and Cloud went to the floor. Spitting up blood he was nearly hit a third time before he rolled aside, jumping back to a vertical base and starting forwards a cold anger entering his mind, Cloud started to counterattack. He’d watched Tifa and Zangan at times as they trained and he started performing the moves and had quickly scored a series of fast, quick blows that sent Dennark reeling. He dropped to one knee and then jumped up, catching him on his chin before they both landed, Dennark was struggling to his feet, bleary-eyed.

“Enough…step aside Strife…Dennark, you will face Sergeant Zin and Strife, you will be facing me.”

The fight had been quick, the damage done by Cloud had obviously sent Dennark’s bell ringing and Zin quickly stopped him and removed him from the fight. Cloud took a deep breath and stepped back on the mat, Roberts was obviously going to be a lot more difficult than a cadet had been.  In all this time training and proving himself, Roberts had never really seemed to mellow with Cloud and by the look he gave as he stepped back on the mat and eyed Cloud up and down, he figured that noting had changed.

This was going to be hard and very painful. “Lets see if you are worthy of SOLDIER, Strife.”

“Begin!” Sergeant Zin barked.

Cloud stated moving backwards and cautiously circling as Roberts moved forwards. A grin was plain on his face and his confidence assured, he eventually shot forwards and Cloud lifted his hand, blocking the first but allowing a second in to check him in the gut. Roberts lifted Cloud off his feet and threw him in the air, Cloud only had a second to react and he twisted in the air, not landing properly and sprawling across the training field. He got up a second later and stared daggers at Roberts.

A growl echoed from his throat and Cloud shot forwards, he arched an elbow at the man and slid downwards, hitting him squarely in the chest under the instructors block. He attempted to heave the man on his shoulder but the elbow that hit him squarely in the head sent him to the floor and nearly knocked him out. The next thing he knew was that he was on his feet, facing the instructor again, he could hardly focus on the man and when the final blow was struck, Cloud fell into darkness.

The next thing he knew was what felt like a gallon of icy water hit his face and slammed him to the ground. He looked up to see Zack staring at him, a slightly swollen black eye growing, he smiled at Cloud. “Welcome back…they carried you off, what the hell were you doing Cloud…you nearly lose it again?”

Cloud sat up and looked around, the competition was still going on and the last of the hand-to-hand competitors were just finishing. He remembered getting very angry at Colonel Roberts and whiting out after a moment, had had really lost control again?

Shaking off the feeling, Cloud got to his feet and stood ready.

When he was called up for his sword testing. He lifted off the sword he’d become most used to and readied himself.

“Strife.” Roberts said. “You’ll face off against Deneski…I don’t want severity in this fight…disarm your opponent and make him surrender.”

Cloud nodded, hoping that the speech had been given for all students and not just his fight.

He faced Deneski-a boy almost three years his senior and very well built-lifted his sword and grinned, Cloud swung his sword outwards and charged, jumping in the air and slashing at his head-predictably the sword came up and stopped his blow, only to have Cloud give a quick kick, sending it flying from his hands and placing the blade an inch from the boys neck.

Deneski stepped back, breathing fast and he fell to one knee, submitting.

When Colonel Roberts again faced Cloud, this time a sword in hand…Cloud felt a tight control form over his emotions.

“Attack me Strife.” Roberts said. “And I want all your ability this time.”

Cloud nodded and stepped forwards, raising his sword. He jumped into a roll and slid right under the block that Roberts had started to bring, Cloud then placed the blade point into the colonels back.

The resounding clang that nearly sent Cloud stumbling backwards, only reacting by instinct to parry the blows. Cloud eventually rolled backwards and knocked Roberts sword out of the way and shot at his mid-section, unprotected, Roberts just managed to jump out of the way of the attack, he landed and spiked his sword in the earth and looked at Cloud.

“Very…impressive. Intuitive use of the blade…a lot better than the fists, more control and focus…” He said “Very well Strife…you’re dismissed.”
                                                        **
It was late in the day, everyone had finally been able to finish the final test and were now anxiously waiting the test results. Everyone was tired and probably more than ready to sleep, for those who passed here were given a week of their personal training and then it was time for the Mako.

Cloud and Zack were sat, facing each other on the side of their bunks, neither was speaking and both looked like they had something stuck in their throats.

“You…you got any ideas of what to do if…?” Zack asked.

“No…you?”

“No…well, there’s always a Mercenary, work for the Turks as a Monster Hunter.” Zack offered. “But I doubt I’d ever want to be anything other than a SOLDIER.”

Me either. Cloud thought, wearily.

It was gone midnight before the Colonel appeared.

“We learned that it’s almost impossible to get you to sleep after this, that’s why we got you your results this quickly.” He said. “I’ll call out your names and you can come pick up your papers.”

Cloud marched up with Zack as their names were called and was given a small olive coloured envelope with his name on it.

He didn’t open it before reaching his bunk and when he opened the paper inside, his mouth opened as he read.

            Cloud Strife, Western Continent Initiate, town of Nibelheim.

We have tabulated your efforts over the last ten weeks and found your skills to be above average. Thus we will initiate you into the division of The Shin-Ra’s SOLDIER program grade 3. We congratulate you on your achievement


And the next thing he saw was Zack shoving a piece of paper under his nose and grinning while grabbing Clouds.

Zack had been put in the SOLDIER 2nds. And then he felt the hug from his friend and the whooping yells coming from within the auditorium.
                                                            **
The week had gone by faster than Cloud had thought possible, with only twenty-five of the one-hundred plus who had been there before, only a few had agreed to Materia Training. It had been physically exhausting at first, but as he got used to the level of Materia, it became easier and easier and he found he had an overall good working ability with Materia…he wasn’t a Sephiroth at all-well yet-but he was good enough for his skill level.

And now he was stood with all the other graduates of the SOLDIER program and other physically demanding programs in the Shinra. They were all lining up for the final ‘gift’ of a SOLDIER training.

A Mako Reactor.

He’d heard horror stories about the experience from SOLDIER graduates and wasn’t particularly thrilled with the idea. But it was a part of the SOLDIER initiation process, right?

Zack was stood like an iron bar next to him, his eyes fixed forwards and staring hard at the entrance, Angeal had told him things about the Mako process that had froze his blood and for the first real time, he looked terrified.

They were letting the boys in six at a time, the working inners of the Reactor were a little too much over his head really. The many coloured lights and beeping equipment within the reactor seemed too big to contemplate, how could they all have a function?

And then, before he knew it…Cloud was stepping forwards with Zack at his side, the fear pushing them forwards as much as their desire to become SOLDIER’s. They passed over huge gaping holes in the reactor where pipes almost as big as Nibelheim’s Town Square were drilled into the earth and were now pulling up Mako Energy. And then they were there, the open pods awaiting the next people for them.

They were shaped similar to hollowed out eggs, they had no seating inside though they looked well padded-as if they were designed to stop injuries to the people inside-a single viewing window had been placed in the eggs to show the people outside what was physically going on inside.

“SOLDIER graduates…step forwards!” A dark cold voice called. “Turk graduates, follow Professor Stent through the east door.”

A man in a white lab coat shuffled forwards, he looked in his middle years with a receding hairline of dark black hair, a single bang drooped down his face, almost covering one eye, he wore circular eyeglasses that were held on the end of a long and crooked nose. His skin seemed to show a lack of sunlight, almost a grey or pasty colour, his eyes were dark, almost soulless pits of blackness, but they carried a look of cruel intelligence and arrogance that Cloud had never seen before.

“Alright…let us get this over with.” The man said, lifting a clipboard, “You have been issued numbers between 1 and 6, strip off all clothing and enter the correct pod, we will then begin the Mako feed for five minutes. Once out I want you to collect your things and move as quickly as you can. We have a lot of people to infuse today.”

Cloud stripped down-he’d washed with the other cadets and wasn’t embarrassed about being seen naked-but to enter the pod like that…
But he did as he was told and entered without hesitation, adrenaline pumping through his system pushing the fear away.

As soon as he was inside and facing the door, there was a clicking twang and the door moved shut. Inside, all sound had been cut off so that Cloud could only hear his own breathing, standing naked in the pod that was starting to get more and more claustrophobic with each passing second.

And then, with another mechanical grating noise, a hole in the top of the pod opened and a torrent of blue-green liquid poured down upon him. The feeling was instantaneous, like fire on his skin and the cascade raining down on him began to dissolve into his body, allowing more and more on his body, soon the pain was too much and Cloud started to yell, trying to move out of the way of the shower, eventually he stopped screaming but his thrashing continued, getting worse with every second, even after the shower stopped the thrashing continued though he eventually did sag against the back of the pod, his body continued to twitch slightly, then the door opened and he fell to his knees, starting to crawl out, his knees hit the cold steel of the Reactor floor and he fell on his face, darkness taking him.
                                                           **
Hojo was bored-every year he had this to do, twice nearly now, the War had been more than just tiring on the military, he’d been forced to supervise all these simple proceedings-Mako infusion had been a genius idea of his, back in the day, but he now had more important project and watching the same thing twice a year was getting tedious-he would watch special cases, those who were of interest in him, but these rabble were nothing but useless trifles-war corpses.

He let out a disgruntled snort and looked at the clock, five minutes had passed and he nodded, the stream of Mako from the reactor stopped and he pushed the button to open the pods-they would all fall out, all of them. None were worthy of his greatness, none. He was the greatest scientist in the world, he had built the perfect weapon and one day he would show the world that. But these…they were barely able to take the Mako Shower.

As predicted, the resounding thunk of knees hitting the metal floor in unison told him that they were out. He lifted his head to look at them-the residual glow of Mako on them usually gave him a little giggle, he had added something to the Mako stream in recent years, thanks to the woman who now guided his steps…that usually took something out of them, but it was to be predicted-they were inferior after all.

Rolling his eyes, he turned to one of the aides to have them removed when the sight of one boy twitching rather viciously, now that was different. Hojo placed the clipboard down and called for a gurney. Soon the boy was out of the reactor and being rushed to his private labs. Somehow, this boy was having an adverse reaction to the Mako…but why?

He’d only seen one person have a reaction like that…could he have found another Ancient…here in SOLDIER?

Once inside the lab, Hojo got the boy strapped to his private table and began to examine him, the boy was muttering things now, something about a girl…foolishness, love was a weakness and women were alive for the simple reason to pass on the heritage of genetic material to the next generation.

After an hour, Hojo had-unfortunately-learned that the boy was no Ancient. He’d started a treatment to counteract the poisoning of the Mako in his system, he looked at the boys medical file.

He had just passed over his birth data when he realized something he had missed. The boy had a 3.2 percent higher average of Mako already inside him. He carefully stowed away the full medical file of the boy, then stood to appraise him. How the hell could a boy who wasn’t an Ancient gain such a level of Mako without his assistance during the pregnancy?

Many years later, as he looked on the man for the final time, he would realize exactly how this boy…this Cloud Strife of Nibelheim had gained a power like the man called Sephiroth.

But in the present…a small giggling cackle started to echo around the lab, Hojo had plans for this boy…he knew his strength now and was willing to use him, the Shinra and everything…even his own child to gain his ends. He began to write up a report for the Presidents eye’s, wording it to make it sure that only one person would catch the fall for this.

The great Goddess would gain what she wanted…very soon the plans would begin, she was patient and had taught him to be as well. She was his light and he was willing to do anything for her. His goddess.
                                                               **
Groaning, Cloud rolled over in his bunk, his head was killing him. What had happened?

He sat up, a dull ache filling his head, he saw Zack lying on his bunk, apparently asleep, it was clearly night time and he had no idea how he had got back to the barracks, the last thing he remembered was falling to his knees after the Mako Infusion. He could feel the increased strength flowing in his body already, could see the slight glow from his eyes in the darkness. The power of Mako…he was a SOLDIER…he’d made it, Tifa…the giddiness once again entered his body…but it didn’t last and apparently he had only a small amount of energy left and getting that worked up sapped him of all he had left. He lay back down and closed his eyes, within moments he was asleep.

He was awoke the next day around mid morning, a person was slapping his face hard and seemed frantic. Cloud opened his eyes and saw Jerickson staring at him with utter fear in his eyes.

“Cloud…Cloud you’ve gotta hide me…”

Cloud sat up, looked around to see most of the auditorium still asleep. He got to his feet and took Jerikson out of the building, out to a secluded area, shadowed most of the day by the other buildings around it. Cloud turned to him and asked again, what was going on?

“I was brought to the Turks hq yesterday…they took me out of my bed, silent as you like…they say I’m a member of Avalanche. An enemy of the state…they wanted to execute me.”

“How did you get away?”

Jerikson turned around, looked suspiciously at the edges of the building. “I…I broke one guys leg. Threw the other guy over a table and barrelled my way out of the place.” He said. “Cloud you’ve gotta get me out of the city.”

“Are you a member of Avalanche?”

Jerikson turned to Cloud and looked at him. “How can you say that…we’re friends, aren’t we?”

Cloud nodded after a moment and agreed, they started out of the barracks, moving as quietly and quickly as possible, they had made it out and to the station when a voice called out.

“Strife…step away from that man.”

Cloud turned and saw Colonel Roberts stood alone, holding a sword aloft. “He is an anti-Shinra activist…he must be killed.”

Cloud stepped in front of Jerikson and raised his arms “He is leaving this city because he isn’t a member of Avalanche and doesn’t deserve to die for that. Go recheck the damn data.”

“He is…all evidence points to him being a member of the terrorist group.” Roberts said. “Cloud...move aside…you will be a good SOLDIER one day. Don’t ruin your career on him.”

“I’m not doing any such thing.” Cloud said. “I’m defending a friend.”

“I’ll give you one last-.”

A gun barrel touched Clouds head and a strong hand gripped Cloud around the windpipe. Jeriksons voice called from behind Cloud. “You…you’ll let me go…I’ll let Hojo’s new boy go.”

“Jerikson…you…you’re not-.”

“I’m a member of Avalanche, alright. You Shinra bastards think you can-.”

Clouds arm slammed back into Jeriksons chest, then he pulled him over his shoulder and gripped his neck. The resounding snap was all he needed to tell him that the man was dead. He threw the body aside and looked up at Roberts.

“Sir…I apologise…I should have-.”

“You deliberately disobeyed orders Strife…how the hell can we trust you now?” Roberts asked. “Yes, you have passed the exams, shown you are capable of being in SOLDIER, but a SOLDIER has to have a proper control over his emotions…things as simple as friendship can never be allowed to intervene with the mission. That has been the major failing for you, never having proper control over yourself in the right situations.”

“Sir…what are you saying?”

“We have only had one person before now do what you have done…he was a member of SOLDIER and a good one until the first year of the war.” Roberts said. “He cost us ten thousand warriors by letting an enemy go…who was his friend. We made a decision then that no one would be allowed to do that again, go back to the auditorium, pack your things together and get out of here.”

He turned and started walking away briskly, Cloud slowly followed, his world in ruins. This one thing, the SOLDIER program, had shattered his mind, he had made it, they had allowed him in and had just fired him in the same moment. How was that fair?

He slowly walked into the Auditorium to pack his things away and leave before anyone could find out.
And Chapter 7 is done. Cloud's screwed things up for himself and his career as a SOLDIER was stopped because he had a caring heart. Again, mostly this is building for how emotionless Cloud is towards everyone in the first parts of FFVII, but I also wanted to show a single-mindedness for those in the position of leadership and defence, how they mostly prefer to use the sword instead of diplomacy.

Ah well, Children of the West Cloud Strife is nearly done.
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