Warnings: Boys who like other boys. Extended canon deviation. Non-explicit sexual situations. The works.
Summary: This is what it means to make it into SOLDIER 1st Class. This is how much you give up. This is how much you gain.
Disclaimers: I had a dream where I had these three boys with me. It was a grand and glorious dream. It was also ten years too late to claim rights over them. You know the feeling.
Prologue: Dead Man's Oath
Notes: As stated before, I have not played Crisis Core. Basing all knowledge on what was given in the original game to DoC, I based my story on dates and facts given. There wasn't any information on Zack's childhood ever so I made up my own. ^_^
Flip, fumble, fall, back into what was
“Are you lost?”
Zack turned at that, slinging his duffel over one shoulder as he did so. Finally, he thought. Guide had taken over an hour to show up. Sure wasn’t looking for a big tip, not if Zack had anything to say about it.
That is… if you tipped Shinra-paid guides. He might’ve found the idea of a tip offensive—you never knew with these city folk.
But the moment he turned, Zack knew immediately that the thin wisp of a girl couldn’t be the guide Shinra had sent out. Had to send out, since he’d been told that under no circumstances was he to try getting to the Shinra building on his own. Locals weren’t all that friendly, or something like that. Well, he’d taken a good look around himself when he’d first walked through the gates and taken in the sight of the bottom of the Plate looking like a dumping ground for the sick and dying. Zack supposed he couldn’t really blame the locals for being angry…
Weird though, that he was the only one. You’d think with all that talk about Wutai, there’d be more guys like him falling head over heels lining up to try and make it into SOLDIER.
“Nah… thanks doll, but I don’t think you’re the one who’s gonna take me to Shinra?”
She blinked. The girl was all eyes… huge and green in her thin face, beneath a mop of long brown hair scraped off her face into a single tail that hung down her back. Her turquoise dress was tight around the shoulders and her skirt looked shorter on her than it was supposed to, making her long, thin legs look even longer and thinner than they probably were. Quickly giving a furtive look around her, she stepped closer, waving a hand at his face and made a shushing noise at him.
He didn’t like that very much—no fourteen-year-old wanted to be shushed, especially if they were someday going to be in Shinra and SOLDIER and fighting the bad guys over in Wutai like all the heroes he’d ever heard about. And especially not by some girl who was probably even younger than he was.
But she was tugging on his arm, and starting to walk, trying to pull him after her. “The guide’s been and gone a little more than an hour ago… it’ll be another hour before anyone else comes down looking for you. Come on, I’ll show you something.”
Zack had heard the obligatory and somewhat half-hearted lesson of “don’t listen to strangers!” from his parents before, like any kid. But he was from Gongaga, and there wasn’t a whole lot of town around Gongaga to find strangers lurking around. Well… there was the reactor, and the soldiers that came by once in awhile to check up on it, but everyone went to go see them looking for news so that it didn’t really require taking the lesson to heart. Now monsters, monsters there were plenty of warnings and rules about. Marconi had even been given the condensed version in book form. The thing had been about as big as a dictionary and almost twice as thick.
Not like Zack ever really listened to the rules. He’d bagged his first Beach Plug—yeah, that still sounded wrong to him too—when he was twelve, and probably would’ve lost a finger in that particular venture if Ellie hadn’t snitched a Restore materia from her father earlier that day to use on him. And as for strangers… well, the guys that visited the old reactor once in a while all had great stories to tell and hell if Zack wasn’t one to go and listen to ‘em all. And now that he was here, he was going right for the top. There’d be plenty of awesome stories for him to tell once he visited home, no question about that.
“I’ll show you my secret place,” she told him, smiling brightly and ignoring the considering look on his face, “and you’re not allowed to tell anyone else about it! Not allowed to go running to mean old Mister Shinra up on the Plate!”
And that was a draw no fourteen-year-old boy could resist. Going against the rules and finding out cool secrets that the big boss man didn’t know about? Hell yeah he was so there.
He was only a little disappointed at first when he found out her ‘secret place’ was a ratty old broken-down church. Who liked going to church, anyway? Zack had always been of the opinion that it was boring sitting around on a hard wooden bench and not being allowed to even kick your legs up onto the pew in front of you and lean back while the old man at the front kept on talking. It was never about anything interesting either. Zack had long decided that if he ever became a priest, he’d talk about interesting things like how he kicked ass in Wutai. Well, if he’d be able to do it without getting his ass kicked by his old man.
Not that he wanted to be a priest. His mom always said priests had to be serious and weren’t allowed to laugh or have fun or talk to girls because then the gods would get mad and turn you into a pillar of salt. Heh. Well he weren’t stupid, he knew there was more to that, the whole thing about vows and no sex and so on, but his mom always did like babying him, and blushed redder than a tomato whenever she overheard anything remotely obscene. Zack had figured it was harmless to humor her and had left it like that.
The inside of the church was cool though.
A lot of stuff was broken, like the floor and parts of the ceiling, and the pews were dull and looked older than they probably were, as if someone had taken the time to scrape all the polish off, got lazy about halfway, went out for lunch, and left it like that forever. But the holes in the ceiling weren’t all that bad… somehow sunlight managed to filter down through the Plate and through those holes, the largest sunbeams centered directly into a patch of broken flooring. And Zack didn’t need to be in SOLDIER yet to be able to be able to smell the scent of the tawny and gold flowers that grew through it.
It was also all quiet inside. Well, almost all quiet. There were obviously the muffled sounds from the outside, and all the people yelling out there, with all their crazy cars and machines and noise everywhere. It might’ve been a lot for any other country boy to handle, but he was Zack and Zack was never afraid of little stuff like that. After all, city folk didn’t have quite the kinds of monsters that roamed around Gongaga, especially near the Reactor, so there was obviously no question as to how much more he could handle. Well, in his personal estimation anyway. He’d worry about what other people thought when he started moving up the ranks. A little city hustle and bustle wasn’t going to bother him!
But there was also music. Soft music, like stuff he couldn’t hear with his ears but more like it was in his head even though that didn’t really make a lot of sense. It didn’t sound like instruments, not like the kind of stuff he heard back home, that the funny old man next door played and refused to let him touch. But it wasn’t just voices either. And it wasn’t as if there were words in there. Or maybe there were, but it certainly wasn’t stuff he could understand. It was like the music and the voices both were the instruments and weren’t at the same time… which was weird and probably wasn’t possible and besides, why was there music playing, anyway? Who would play music so soft it was like a whisper in the back of your head, especially if there was nobody here to hear it?
“Can you hear it too?”
The girl was smiling, as if it was such a special secret. And it was funny when she did that because she looked like she could glow, and her eyes went all warm and Zack thought she looked almost… pretty. And not silly and boring like a lot of the other girls back home.
“Yeah. What is it? It’s so quiet…”
She watched him silently for a moment as if digesting this bit of information. “It’s really loud to me,” she told him, “It’s like a big concert in my head all the time when I’m in here. They’re quieter outside, but they’re still always there.”
Zack couldn’t decide whether or not this sounded like much fun. It might be like having friends around, and friends were real nice company to have… but he wasn’t quite sure he’d want them in his head all the time. That might mean they’d know what he was thinking and he didn’t like the idea of other people he couldn’t see knowing everything about him.
“Are they… nice?” he ventured.
She shrugged with a little smile, “Usually. They tell me things sometimes. But… you know. All talking together and singing and just there… so most of the time it’s hard to make sense of it all. It’s quieter outside the church though, just a little hum in the back of my head.”
As if she’d suddenly remembered, she poked him in the chest, “Don’t be talking so loudly about having anything to do with Shinra down here, you know.” She told him, shaking her finger at him like his mother did when she was working herself up to a good scolding. “The war’s gotten people pretty focused on the bad guys outside instead of the ones sitting on top of them, but it’s still not a good idea. People don’t forget bad things easily, and you could meet someone real bad people down here who hate Shinra. They’re not very hard to find.”
That was probably why they needed a guide up the Plate, even though he’d been forewarned that the lower Sectors were a maze of rough crowds and shady establishments too.
But Zack was fourteen and so Zack was invincible. It sounded exciting. “Nah, they wouldn’t be able to hurt me, I can run pretty damned fast!” And he could too. Second fastest kid in the town, although Zack thought that was pretty unfair since the fastest kid in the town had kicked him in the shin during the last legs of that race and had thereafter professed to be busy whenever Zack demanded a rematch.
“Bet I can beat you!” the girl replied grinning, “I’ve gotten really good at running away from the bad guys.”
“I don’t race girls!”
…Well he didn’t. Girls never did want to race, except that one girl Ellie who could beat up any boy in town, but she was just like one of the guys and so Zack didn’t think Ellie counted. And besides, this strange city girl didn’t look a thing like Ellie.
She hit him with a stick and tsk tsk tsked him for that. Zack had no idea where the stick had come from, so he didn’t dare complain and settled for simply staring slack-jawed. Maybe she was like Ellie after all, and Zack didn’t really want to get beat up on his first day at Midgar. The whole injuring his pride thing and all…
“Scaredy cat,” she told him cheerfully afterwards, plopping down next to him in the patch of sunlight near the flowers and stretching out her hands to touch the silky petals while she spoke. “You’re going to have to be nicer than that you know, or else you’re never going to get a girlfriend!”
At fourteen that could be about the most horrible thing that could happen to a boy. Zack played it cool though, and was immensely proud of himself for how well-played that was. “So you’re gonna teach me?”
Keep it smooth.
“I’m going to have to,” she replied, with that sunny smile again, “you’re not going to come visit me if I don’t!”
They talked like that, two kids in a church with hardly anything in common though that didn’t seem to matter ‘cause they kept on talking until Zack realized he didn’t even know her name.
She hesitated when he asked her. But only for a moment.
“Aeris,” she said, “Aeris Gainsborough.” She then sat up straighter, waving a hand at him. “But shhhh, you’re not allowed to tell anybody,” she told him sternly, “Otherwise I’m going to have to run away and then you’ll never see me again!”
He didn’t like the sound of that. “Not anybody?” he asked, frowning. He liked this funny girl with the green eyes, why wasn’t he allowed to tell anyone about his new friend from the slums? It was exciting after all; this city girl was worlds away from the girls he’d known all his life back home.
She laughed at the look on his face; a little half-pout that wouldn’t let her be entirely sure was because of true disappointment, or just to help him nudge her into reconsidering. Zack wasn’t quite sure himself, so it was better to keep things vague, right? Either way, it certainly seemed to work, because she batted at him and started to laugh, “Okay, okay… then you can only tell the people most important to you. No bad guys!”
“How will I know which are the bad guys?” It seemed like a reasonable question to ask. If he were going to play this game, it would be a good thing to know the rules. Zack was a fair guy, he wasn’t about to break one he hadn’t known about and it was always a good idea to play by the rules. Even if you had to bend them a little sometimes.
“When they come to catch me,” she replied. “So you’ve got to be careful!”
Zack figured he could work with that. Especially when he got into SOLDIER and could kick anyone’s ass who tried to hurt his friend.
She bounced to her feet, “The guide’s going to be coming soon… we’d better get you back before he leaves again.”
She took him as far as the corner, stopping as soon as she caught sight of the rusty-red uniform the leader was wearing at the head of the blue-clad troops accompanying him. There were a bunch of other boys Zack’s age, milling around in a tight little group as the folks around them shot ugly looks at the soldiers. No, this wouldn’t be a good place to be by yourself while in uniform. Zack made a mental note of that.
She tugged on his arm, “Come and visit me sometime if you can get away,” she told him quietly. “Come by the church again?”
“I’ll sure try,” he told her gallantly, shouldering his duffel and acting like it wasn’t really all that heavy at all. “I’m Zack by the way.”
She smiled at him. “Zack. I’ll remember that.” She looked him straight in the face, and pinned him with those eyes of hers that suddenly gone all wide and dreamy, like she could see in him, through him, and past him, all at once. “I won’t ever be able to forget you, you know, even if everyone else does. You’ve got the nicest eyes… violet over gray. Pretty.”
He frowned. Actually they were just gray. And purple didn’t sound like a very tough color for a guy to have. “No they’re not!”
She was already waving and walking away, though she did look over her shoulder to flash him an odd little half-smile.
“They will be.”
Life in the Shinra barracks was hard. It was like all their training couldn’t go by fast enough, everything arranged into a forced double-time. Truth be told, it was. The war against Wutai was still raging hard on the other side of the sea, and they weren’t looking to budge against any of Shinra’s outrageous demands to conquer, control and consume everything of value that the people had to their name. The citizens of Midgar were getting tired of it, tired of the excuses, tired of the useless PR and tired of seeing the dead and dying coming back in bits and pieces and usually not at all. The grunts were sent in, barely out of their haphazard training to be shipped overseas to die under the finest of Wutain blades.
Shinra sent in their finest weapon; the Masamune sheathed in leather and steel and gleaming silver hair. Sephiroth’s name was far from unknown to the populace. Madman’s son. Beautiful. Brilliant. Powerful. Ruthless. People were sure that he’d bring about the end. They weren’t half-wrong.
Yeah, Zack had heard the stories. But Sephiroth was way off in some distant corner of Wutai, making a name for himself… making a General of himself. And meanwhile Zack was slogging his way through the ranks, finishing his training, keeping his eyes steady towards SOLDIER.
And he made it.
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t worked hard for it—he had. Being in Shinra burned something out of you, mostly your illusions of what you were fighting for and left you only with whatever determination you had left. Maybe it was learning the secrets the glory-talkers back home never talked about. Maybe it was the way the Shinra executives looked down at you and sneered at you for getting yourself into this; under their feet, and at their beck and call. Maybe being in Shinra just taught you how to hate. But gods had he wanted to make it there to the top anyway. There was still glory there. Glory that he could bring home and show the folks back there it was possible for some crazy little kid from out in the sticks to come home a hero and a legend, as someone who followed his dreams and succeeded. Glory being at the bottom of the damned ladder certainly wouldn’t give him. So yeah, he’d worked for it. Making Third Class was nothing to scoff at, especially when you’d just been a cadet the year before.
Problem was, by that time Shinra was getting desperate and snapped up near everyone fit enough to survive their half-assed training. There were a lot of promotions during those last few years of the war, older Third Class SOLDIERs, more experienced ones, the ones who lived and were able to come back, looked down on his group, and told them if it hadn’t been for the war…
Zack hated those whispers, those bitter, knowing grins that hid too much pain that the wearers didn’t want to show. Because Zack was going to prove them wrong.
Still, it wasn’t like the things they said weren’t mostly true. A lot of them wouldn’t have made SOLDIER in peacetime. Sometimes when things were at their worse and he’d been shunted to extra guard duty as punishment for yet another one of his harebrained schemes, he thought about whether or not he might have made it if Shinra weren’t desperate and the SOLDIERs weren’t dying. But it was wartime, and there were a lot of newly-classed Thirds being shipped off from Junon. Which meant a lot of mako cells being injected right, left and center. Hojo was in his element.
Not that the mad scientist was altogether too happy about that, if the Shinra grapevine were anything to go by. His experiments were meant to be on only the best, the finest specimens the Planet had to offer. He didn’t take well to the relaxing of those standards, but President Shinra’s desperation proved to be more than a match for his complaints.
So, only a year after he’d arrived in Midgar and entered the ranks of Shinra’s newest cadets, Zack was promoted to SOLDIER, three days after his fifteenth birthday. He was saluted. Someone slipped him a bottle of King Cactuar with a mumbled, “If you’re old enough to die for this damned company, you’re old enough to try and forget about it.” People smiled. People applauded. People oohed and ahhed at how he looked in his new SOLDIER charcoals. And then they all got back to working at throwing themselves in the jaws of Death, Zack included.
Because of course, true to form, Shinra didn’t give him much time to celebrate either occasion. He was valuable property now. SOLDIER. Enhanced. And his eyes gleamed with the new mako light, a filmy violet that washed over the gray of his eyes and made them shimmer with an unnatural gleam. People shied away from him now, and he knew it wasn’t only the new uniform.
Another four days after that—four mind-breaking days of mako injections and accelerated healing and then the training. Mind-numbing, soul-crushing and backbreaking training that betokened ‘the last legs’ of Shinra’s war-training. Field experience would finish them off, Shinra had decided, or the boys could die trying for all Shinra really cared. It didn’t take long before he was on a cargo ship with about a hundred others, ferried off to Wutai like the crates of supplies strapped down in the hold. He was also scared fucking shitless.
Not that he’d ever admit that to anyone. He had a reputation to uphold and all, and besides… the other kids were counting on him to be all strong and brave and… a SOLDIER. Yeah, this was the adventure he’d always dreamed of, but romanticism’s a bit hard to hang onto when you’re surrounded by the suffocating stench of too many bodies packed into too small a ship. Enhanced senses had more than their fair share of drawbacks, after all.
And for the first time in a long time, he felt young. Like he really was fifteen and not the mid-twenties he tried to pretend he was since it was easier to feel braver if you felt older. Like he was just a little kid dressed up with a stick-rifle in one hand and his mother’s old soup pot perched proudly on his head as a helmet playing soldier for a day, marching around in the dirt just outside the front doorstep and protecting the team’s stash of chocolate and candy bars.
Stakes were higher in this game. But then, so was the glory. And Zack wanted that glory the way most fifteen-year-old boys wished it for but never had the chance to get. Well, he was getting a chance and he was damn well taking it!
He just wished he’d also gotten the chance to send his mom a letter about going off to Wutai. For all they knew, he was partying himself silly back in Midgar over his recent promotion, not sitting in a cargo hold where the smell of some kid’s vomit clung to his nostrils and made the contents of his stomach roil treacherously inside of him in response.
At least he’d got to say goodbye to Aeris before he left.
It was like she’d known.
His only warning had been the afternoon before when the orders were given, and the news had broken out. Everyone had been in a flurry of activity, packing, getting ready, signing off the necessary equipment; gear, materia, weaponry and in a few cases, mounts. That was the thing about being in SOLDIER. Everything needed to be documented. Shinra liked keeping track of their expensive toys even if they didn’t mind them getting thrown away for the right purpose.
So it’d taken until the evening before he could wrangle a way out of the building for a little while in an attempt to make a mad dash down below the Plate. Not as if he’d really thought it all the way through, truth be told. Didn’t really know if he could catch a train down, see her, and then come back up without missing curfew, on a night where making curfew was mandatory if you didn’t want the hounds set on your heels. Shinra didn’t hold for deserters, especially not when they’d just injected valuable resources straight into your veins.
She’d been waiting for him at the train station, her strange little half-smile on her face, her eyes unfocused and almost dreamy like that moment the first day when she’d named the color the mako would turn in his eyes.
He’d nearly looked past her at first glance, nearly ran past her to catch the train down to the bottom of the Plate. Her hair was loose and flowed in a mass of curls down her back over the dark gown she’d traded in the turquoise for. She didn’t look like Aeris without her ponytail and her bright cheerful colors.
But that’d been the point. He hadn’t known how much of a risk she’d been running venturing to the top of the Plate on her own, more than just the usual kind that being a girl in a place like the slums offered. Not then, anyway.
“You’re going away tomorrow,” she’d said matter-of-factly the moment he’d dug his heels into a stop in front of her.
“…Yeah.” It never ceased to amaze him how she could know stuff like that. He knew why of course… she’d told him, she’d told him the first day he’d met her and hadn’t lied for all that he knew. But who were these voices of hers and how could they be everywhere? Seeping into the sealed-off rooms at Shinra Headquarters and eavesdropping on the decisions of his superiors and looking deep into the genetic material that made up one boy fresh from the country in order to see the changes the mako would put into effect on his outer appearance. He couldn’t understand that and Aeris couldn’t explain it to him either.
She’d flung herself at him then, thrown her hands around his neck—he’d grown a bit too tall for her to put her arms around his neck anymore unless she went on tip-toe—and laid her head against his chest for a long moment. “Be safe,” she’d whispered, and he could only thank his newly-enhanced hearing to be able to hear her amidst the ruckus of the departing train-boarders. “Come back.”
Zack fell a little more in love with her right then and there and probably would have said something monumentally stupid in trying to explain this to her if he’d been given half the chance.
Naturally, it fell to it that he wasn’t.
With a soft exclamation, she’d pulled away and disappeared into the crowds, ducking around people so fast it was like she’d had a Haste materia on her, despite the fact that he knew she didn’t use materia, didn’t really need to as a civilian, and pretty much all the city’s supplies of it had been commandeered to supply the war anyway. Wutains had a knack for stealing whatever seemed to catch their eye, and materia was something that would catch anyone’s eye, especially if they were the stuff the people were most knowledgeable about in the first place. And if the stories of Wutai that floated back—in whispers and fragments, slipping beneath Shinra’s seemingly all-powerful Public Relations head—were anything to go by, there were a lot of dead men, and a lot of Wutain carrion birds.
A few minutes later, he’d seen several suits running pell-mell in the direction she’d gone; the distinctive ones that only the Turks wore. It would be a few more years before he began to understand the deep-laid cat and mouse game she and the Turks played with each other, and the complex rules that governed them, mostly implemented later when Tseng took the head of that particular operation.
He was forcefully snapped out of his thoughts of Aeris rather rudely by the sight—and sound and smell—of another officer losing his lunch, whether from nerves or seasickness. Zack was inclined to suspect the former rather than the latter, as it was a large ship and so the swaying should have been barely perceptible to the normal soldiers he was shipping out with. But then, one could never tell.
The man in charge stomped up to the railing of the upper balcony overlooking them. “All right, ladies!” he barked, scarlet cloak set swirling with his dramatic hand motions. “We’ll be docking in approximately two hours… we’ve gained control of all the ports on the west side so you won’t be dodging enemy shuriken the minute you step off the boat. Give yer thanks to Shinra, we’re not putting you out in the field until tomorrow at 0500. Get off, get set up, pick out your flavor of nighttime company, take a nap, I don’t give a damn. I’m expectin’ y’all to do better than the last batch, and I won’t hear nothin’ of deserters, you got me?”
Zack tuned him out then. Gods, it wasn’t as if they were kids…
It was later when they disembarked and the troops fanned out as if they knew where they were going that he realized he probably should’ve paid attention, if only to find out where the hell he was supposed to be going.
Well he’d certainly paid for it.
His ears were ringing by the time he was sent stumbling through a tent-flap and nearly stepping on a spill of silver hair in the process. That tended to be less than important when the next thing he found was that the owner of said hair was both awake and coiled to spring, and also had a naked sword ready in one hand.
It would forever be a point of shame that the only word he could think of to say to those eyes glowing in the near-dark was a short “Gluck!”
Very suave. Very manly. Just the thing to say to the single most beautiful man Zack had ever laid eyes on, really.
He saw the eyes flicker to his badge and his uniform and the man’s hand relax minutely on the hilt of his sword which was one hell of a relief. “May I help you?” the man finally asked quietly.
“Er… I was told… that… this was my tent? Sir?”
Because he recognized that hair. And those eyes. And even that sword, gleaming in the half-light and that just barely managed to lie lengthwise in the confines of the tent. Gods if he got out of this with anything less than a good dressing down, he’d… he’d… he wasn’t entirely sure what he was going to do, but he was going to kill the stuffed scarlet idiot who’d even considered ordering him into a superior officer’s tent.
Man was probably huffy over the fact that Zack hadn’t thought him important enough to listen to orders the first time around and was forcing him into this position of complete and utter embarrassment just to make a point, and quite possibly to kill any chance Zack might have in getting a First Class promotion. Maybe he’d somehow find himself demoted back to toilet scrubber—not that he was sure whether or not there were toilets around here. There certainly wouldn’t be when they split off into troops and were led out towards the front. Maybe it’d be his job to dig the latrine trenches from now on. All of them. By himself.
Either way, it was clearly a great first day on—or at least near—the front. Damn it.
The silence that answered him could have meant anything. The General could have been contemplating the weather through the open tent-flap that Zack was still holding in one hand (which was unlikely), contemplating the method of Zack’s death (also unlikely, if only for the fact that his sword was already plenty handy and a pretty good bet), listening to the faint snickers and guffaws that came from a relatively safe distance away (more likely), or just digesting Zack’s words.
Zack very, very, very much hoped that it was the latter rather than any of the former, and hurried to say, “Must have been a mistake, sir. Never meant to disturb you, sir.” He would have ducked back out and run away as fast as his newly-enhanced muscles could have take him—faster than normal civilians sure, but if the General had any inclination to take off after him, he was pretty sure he’d be finding out firsthand whether or not there was a Heaven or a Valhalla or just the Lifestream pretty damned soon—if those eyes hadn’t pinned him right where he crouched and that voice hadn’t uttered a simple “Come in.”
There was still no inflection in that low silky purr of a voice, nothing to indicate whether the General wanted to explain to him the minute details of exactly how he’d go about executing Zack’s imminent execution or the directions in which he could follow to find his own—hopefully unoccupied—tent. Or patch of ground. He could deal with that too. It certainly sounded a lot better than being eviscerated in his sleep by a man who slept with a naked sword and had the power to shrug it off as an accident on Zack’s part without being questioned, that was for sure.
Zack closed the tent flap behind him somewhat uneasily, taking care as not to tread anywhere near the General’s shining hair. Once had to be enough.
Without another word, the other man shifted over, deftly moving his sword to his other side, closer to the tent wall. “Your things can go there,” he said finally, “Sleep now, you’ll need to be up again before long, I suspect. You’ll need your rest.”
“I’m not a kid,” Zack blurted out, before forcefully keeping himself from cringing and slapping a hand over his own big mouth. Because that was obviously what he should do instead of fall to his knees in relief for not having been skewered through the chest by that flagpole of a sword. Yes. Go ahead. Yell at your superior officer. That was the way to do it. “Er… sir,” he added lamely, barely catching himself before he ducked his head in embarrassment, forcibly holding his neck stiff and his head high.
Those eyes registered mild surprise, but the voice still didn’t change when it told him to “Sit down.”
That was an order Zack could follow quite easily without asking questions. He sat.
“How old are you?”
Again the voice was frank, matter-of-fact, and as if he actually meant it, that he really wanted an answer. The idea of Shinra’s newly-minted and top-ranking officer wanting to find out something as insignificant as some nameless Third Class SOLDIER’s age was almost laughable. “Fifteen. Sir.” He said it like a challenge.
Yeah he was young. He was young but he’d done it and gotten this far hadn’t he? So Zack squared his jaw and faced those glittering eyes that looked like they belonged to a cat or possibly even a snake, waiting for the smirk, waiting for the roll of eyes and waiting for the look of cold contempt. He wouldn’t have been surprised; he’d seen plenty of Shinra’s upper brass show their true colors when they came to inspect the new troops. He didn’t expect this man to be any different.
…He didn’t expect that.
Well, it wasn’t so much the words, as the way the General had said them. As if what Zack said had puzzled him. Surely he knew that Shinra stretched the age of enlistment ‘in times of crisis’ and that there was no one to say no, you can’t do that, it’s not right because then the President kicked up a little hissy fit for anyone daring to defy him, and usually that ended with the Turks knocking on the door of whatever unfortunate soul dared oppose Shinra. But the General just kept studying him as if he didn’t know any of that, those eyes never wavering and hardly blinking at all. That drove him to keep on going. “…Is it a surprise to you, sir?” he ventured.
The General was silent for another moment. And Zack had the distinct impression that the man had a very good reason for it. Commanding officers don’t confess their faults to anyone, as a rule, and certainly never to a junior officer like Zack. Especially not when tomorrow he’d be following this man’s lead, perhaps even at the front lines of their offensive. He couldn’t doubt him. And besides, the General didn’t know who he was, couldn’t trust him not to walk out later that night or the next night or the night after that to spill any and all secrets this man had to impart.
So because he wanted to keep talking to this man, wanted to listen to that low, even voice that was like silk over an undertone of velvet, he turned to a safer topic quickly, in case the General might reconsider his staying after all.
“I’ve always wanted to know… how good would I have to be to be able to score
my own chocobo, sir? Or is there an age limit for that too?”
It took a hard march to get past those mountains, especially since half the bridges that were already there weren’t safe to cross and the ones their side had erected were constantly being destroyed before completion, if the debriefing by Major Rattler was anything to go by. It’d be good to have a bird doing half the work for him, and it wasn’t like he’d be unable to return the favor by protecting her when the enemy tried to take her down.
The General stared at him, and Zack was quite sure the slight widening of his eyes was out of incredulity and not mockery. “Why would you want to bed your mount in the first place?”
And the man was serious.
The startled laughter that provoked might have been what startled the man, caused those mako-green eyes to widen just the littlest bit again before he hastened to explain. Clearly General Sephiroth had been around the army for far too long if that was the only definition of the term he’d ever heard.
But this, he came to the conclusion later that night, was going to be the start of a beautiful relationship, hotshot Shinra General Sephiroth was or not, and half-mad chocobo-molesting Third Class SOLDIER he was or not.
Weirder things were bound to happen. Especially if he survived tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that…
It wasn’t easy. It was bloody hard to convince General Sephiroth that it was okay to have friends, especially when you probably looked like a child in his eyes—if the man could truthfully tell the difference between a child and an adult beyond the intellectual, he didn’t seem to understand age the way other men did—encrusted in blood and dirt after a long day’s fight or not. Harder still to do it while they were off fighting a war Zack was sure they didn’t have to, fighting a war in order to satisfy one massive electric conglomerate’s greed.
And Sephiroth was always wary, watching him with those eyes as if waiting for him to slip up, waiting for something to happen and expose him for a fake. Not suspicious, exactly, but reluctant to trust him. Which was understandable if you thought about it on a superficial and superfluous level. Why should this hotshot lapdog of Shinra’s care two shakes of a dog’s tail about some kid out to prove himself? Making friends with superior officers, especially when you were in the lower ranks of SOLDIER was generally looked upon as laughable, or just a step up on climbing the promotions ladder. What struck Zack was that he suspected that wasn’t why, that the General had no true understanding of why fraternizing with those beneath him was usually looked down upon and probably wouldn’t even care if anyone ever got up the balls to tell him.
No, what he suspected was that Sephiroth had never trusted anyone in his life, had never been told that real friends were forever, and that sometimes love, the good kind of love that everyone wanted to believe in, didn’t always turn belly up and die whenever the going got rough.
But he was hearing them now, and the thing was that Sephiroth was listening, really listening to what Zack had to say. And Zack held onto the hope that that was a good thing, that it meant the General was slowly coming around.
He’d nearly fucked things up for ever and ever though early on in the game, and who knows what could’ve happened that day if things hadn’t turned out the way they did? It’d been the day a few weeks after he’d made Second Class—which was about eight months after he’d shipped out to Wutai, Shinra had gotten panicky again when their progress wasn’t going as expected—when the senses had settled and he’d been sent back out to fight with eyes that glowed just a little more brighter… when he’d gotten his chest scored open with a blade smeared with more poison than his body could break down immediately, leaving him dazedly swaying for a few precious moments. Bad, bad thing to let happen to you when you’re on the front lines—Zack still cursed his stupidity as to let that happen, even long after the day’s fighting had been over, and the wound closed, because he might have done worse than just plain dying.
Getting killed in battle was one thing, letting down your friends when they counted on you was by far one of the worst things you could ever do. That he believed above all else, though Aeris had burst into bitter laughter the first time he’d told her, something she could never really explain.
That day the General himself had had to ride in to save his ass—not that it was really glorious or anything, Zack was already past dreaming up stuff like that, and wasn’t really the damsel in distress type—but General Sephiroth had been there, and had been quick to save Zack from getting his head separated from his shoulders in that moment of supreme idiocy with a swipe of the Masamune and the green of his eyes burning in sparks and snaps, as if lit with dragonfire.
And gods, the way the man had glared at him, the way he’d turned those burning, furious eyes on him, Zack had known immediately that the General had been worried about him, and was angry about being worried about him. Zack hadn’t known he’d been important enough to the General to be worried about, and might have felt somewhat victorious about that if he wasn’t so damned scared he’d just fucked things up. Playing with fire like the General probably didn’t offer you many second chances.
That night, when they’d set up camp, the General had been colder, sterner, more aloof than Zack had ever seen him.
And more lonely.
Maybe it was because he knew better by then, knew that wary look in the General’s eyes as he watched the troops milling about, talking the day’s fighting out, talking of all the good things there were to go home to. The wistful look in the General’s eyes, like the stuff they were talking about made no sense to him; as if they were beyond comprehension. And that kind of made you hurt for him, because who’d never been to Golden Saucer before ever—the funky, clunky tourist trap that it was, or spent days haggling with the merchants down at Wall Market or went off to Cosmo Canyon for the really good kind of bootleg that’d fuck you over for three days straight? Just what kind of life could the General lead that was made up solely of the bad experiences in life and none of the good?
Zack had fully intended on finding out, on making sure that the rest of Sephiroth’s life wouldn’t follow the same pattern. He liked to think he’d followed through with that promise to himself and to Sephiroth too, though neither of them had ever voiced it aloud.
But that didn’t change the fact that General Sephiroth had tried to push him away that day. After the cursory query as to whether or not he was all right, if the wounds he’d taken had been Cured satisfactorily, he’d turned to leave, silent and solemn and so damned controlled.
Zack hadn’t stood for that, grabbing him by the arm and refusing to let go, even when he saw the ice in his commanding officer’s glowing cat eyes. It had taken a good lot of prodding, a good many demands, and a heck of a lot of rules that he ignored about dignity and decorum and respect owed a superior officer to get the General to crack. And then the General had… well, he hadn’t quite yelled, but with that much controlled rage packed into a single voice that was almost shaking and hitting notes like an unstrung harp, it’d felt even worse and hit even harder.
“You could’ve died. You could’ve… left.”
You could’ve left me…
It had hit him then. The me Sephiroth couldn’t force himself to say, couldn’t force himself to admit. Here Zack had been trying to help the man open up, make him think past the blood and the steel and the war around them, and he’d gone and done something so monumentally stupid… he might’ve gotten himself killed, and showed the man that this was what happens when you let yourself start to care.
And Zack swore to himself he’d never slip up like that again. He’d succeed damn it, and he’d show the man that he’d survive anything Sephiroth’s world could throw at him, could take it and keep on standing at his side like friends were supposed to.
Sephiroth’s plans to keep him away, at arm’s length weren’t going to work because now he was damned well stuck with him, and Zack wasn’t going anywhere, wasn’t going to be dropped like an old hat and pushed aside just like that, General Sephiroth, sir!
He’d had to let go of the man’s lapels then, feeling mildly ridiculous, a fifteen-going-on-sixteen Second Class SOLDIER looking as if to intimidate what could probably be the most dangerous force to ever walk the Planet, who stood as tall and stiff as if he’d been carved of marble and steel against Zack’s half thought out tirade.
The General had stared at him when he said that; the anger had receded and Zack could see the startled puzzlement again, in the very depths of his eyes.
And the way he watched Zack panting with the effort of yelling at him, of waving his arms like a right fool and trying to make Sephiroth understand… there was that wistfulness again, like he was listening and trying to believe, trying to understand when Zack ranted and raved about friends and trust no matter what happens.
“I would never be able to forgive myself if I let it happen,” Sephiroth informed him tonelessly, warily, and quietly, as if it cost him more to say than anything else he’d ever let pass his lips and he wanted no one, no one else to hear, especially not the First Class SOLDIERs still in camp and probably craning an ear at their… ah… conversation. It couldn’t really be a screaming match if only Zack did all the yelling, but he wouldn’t go so far as to assume he’d been lecturing the General either. “If I let you die and could have prevented it, could have been there…”
“You’re never going to have to,” Zack had replied, his voice as dead serious as any he’d ever used because that had not been the time for jokes and laughing reassurances, “’cause we’re going back to Midgar after this damned war’s over. I’m going to work my ass off for a spot in First Class, and then I’m going to follow wherever you lead, General Sephiroth, sir, for as long as you’re going to need me around.”
He hadn’t quite been able to catalogue the look the General had given him; something between shocked bewilderment and… maybe, just maybe it could’ve been the early stages of hope.
Zack would take what small victories he could get and beamed internally at the warm feeling that realization brought.
“Then… if… when you make First Class,” the man had said, looking away and back towards the flickering red of the campfires not too far away, especially from their vantage point on the small rise, “you won’t have to call me… you wouldn’t need to address me so… formally…”
It had looked like it’d taken real effort not to end that with an upward lilt, to make it a question as the man glanced back at him, waiting for a response, testing him.
“You’ll be my boss,” Zack had responded instantly, “And a damn sight better one than Major Rattler or the President could ever hope to be. And I’m going to have to call you that, Seph,” —he’d hoped the slight hesitation before his shameless liberty-taking of daring to nickname the General would go unnoticed— “because anything else I’d probably come up with won’t just be informal, it’d be downright improper and I know you wouldn’t want to be saddled with the name Kitten for the rest of your natural life, huh?”
Sephiroth hadn’t been able to answer that with anything other than an incredulous look. He probably hadn’t even been able to understand why Zack had burst out laughing at the sight of it.
Zack had a long way to go. Yeah, he knew that. Be he was also damned sure he was going to succeed with this man. Somehow. No matter what it took.
…He always did like chasing dreams…
It hadn’t taken long at all to find out that letters were hard to send.
There was the obvious bit about the fact that Shinra didn’t care a whit about the men and boys they shipped off to Wutai so long as they heard good reports that they were winning, and ships sent out for the express purpose of returning with letters for family, friends and loved ones were reserved only for fever-fantasies and dying hopes. More than training in Shinra itself, fighting in the mountains surrounding Wutai stripped you of petty illusions like that. The occasional shipment of new troops presented chances to send something back home, and there were many in Zack’s squad who mobbed the docks or got someone else to mob the docks when the boats came in, just to send something home.
Zack doubted much of what they wrote made it past the censors. Shinra didn’t want the people to know how life in the field was like. Didn’t make a good impression, and they wanted the campaign to seem as illustrious as possible, merely to keep uprisings at a minimum, especially with all their special SOLDIER toys shipped out across the sea.
But that wasn’t the problem.
There was also the problem of what he couldn’t say. Without talking about his experiences, what he wrote down on that paper wasn’t him. Although… truthfully, it wasn’t as if he particularly wanted to write up most of his experiences for their viewing pleasure. He figured his father was angry enough about his being gone without being informed about a war that didn’t seem to be in any way over, even after fighting so long in it. And he also figured his mother was worried enough as it was without writing back about the little girl who’d clutched at his leg and hadn’t let go while her father—he assumed the man was her father, it wasn’t as if he’d ever be able to go ask now—hacked at him with his sword, which had dangerously awkward to block when he couldn’t move without hurting the girl.
And he hadn’t been able to keep from hurting the girl, not when he saw the desperation on both their faces, not when he could see the kamikaze fearlessness in hers that he might have called insanity if not for the fact that later, he almost respected her for it. He’d kicked out with the leg she was holding at first, still trying for gentleness even as he blocked an overhead sweep from her father, trying to shake her off. But there was no gentleness in his own desperate grab for life not long after, when he’d finally succeeded in kicking her off, and sent her flying when more Wutains burst out of the trees, from almost directly overhead.
She’d lain terribly still when it was over, her little feet trapped beneath the body of her father, the spreading stain of his blood seeping into her clothes as she stared sightlessly up at the clouds through the frame of leafy green. He hadn’t been able to forget that, wanted to know what sort of desperation or patriotism or hell, maybe even love, that would drive a little girl like that into this kind of war… wanted to know why any man among them would use a child like an attack dog or pit bull for the express purpose of latching on and never letting go.
Actually, when it came down to it, he wasn’t sure he really wanted to understand.
Only a few more years, and she could’ve been as old as he was.
And hell if he didn’t need reminders as to exactly how old—or young—he was. You stopped wanting glory when you started fighting, when the blood flaked off your skin and caked in your hair with a mixture of dirt and sweat and other things he dared not name. That didn’t happen so often now, not after he’d been promoted to Second Class. After he’d gotten faster, stronger, even more disillusioned than he thought he was capable of being. Faster than most of the people he fought, and his sword kept them at a distance, though not the impersonal level of a rifle.
He hated his gun, spent as much time as possible avoiding it. It didn’t fit in his hand like his sword did, didn’t sing when he swung it. Kept the death so damned far away, it became impersonal, methodical, and he never wanted to become something that didn’t care about the death he caused. Make him shut his heart up so tight and small and deep inside his chest he’d never be able to find it again. So maybe teaching Sephiroth about something besides the war was also about reminding himself about the exact same thing too.
Besides, there was no use swinging a gun around like that anyway. He might have shot a toe off or something.
Maybe he could use that as an excuse the next time Heidigger came out to the fort to ‘check up’ on things. Man didn’t really to haul all that gut around, did he?
His sixteenth birthday came and went like all the rest of the grim, dreary, life-threatening days that made up the time in Wutai. Not that it was boring there. Far from it. Who could be bored when several sacks of scorpions had been tossed over the frontal walls by Wutain ninja the week his squad had been off the front and sent to the back lines to ‘recuperate’? Or when they’d gotten lost in that spot of jungle and several of their party had caught something in that damp, soggy air? Who could be bored when you saw your men dying?
So he hadn’t really remembered his birthday was coming up, and it was the farthest thing on his mind when the day came because that was the day—when he counted back—that he’d been protecting another one of their damned bridges, only halfway to the goddamned city itself. If there was one thing Wutai was good at, it was making them fight for every single goddamned inch. They didn’t back off. Hell no. They didn’t even surrender when there was nowhere else to run.
None of the tiny little villages they came through would let them pass, would give in. Zack had watched a little old lady with a stewpot come at him, waving it over her head screaming like a banshee before she’d been shot down by one of their snipers. He’d seen a mother holding a newborn running away from them, throwing it over the cliff with a shrill cry, and screaming at them, screaming at them with tears in her wild eyes as she threw herself after her child and down to the rocks below.
Stuff like that you couldn’t forget; it was the stuff nightmares were made of and it pretty much blocked out anything that might seem better in your life like knowing you were another year older. So yeah, he hadn’t remembered.
And the letters sent to him came afterwards, nearly a week too late to remind him. There’d been others who’d remembered for him. And there were two letters. One from his parents; his mother demanding whether or not he was getting enough to eat, were the lodgings comfortable, how bad the fighting was, and he wasn’t hurt, was he? His father wanted to know if he regained his senses yet and was at all ready to come home and forget about a war he didn’t have to fight.
Zack had never had the heart to tell them that when Shinra took you, they only let you back out if you were worthless or dead. And no one wanted to be either.
The other letter was from Aeris, along with a fat little package neatly wrapped in plain brown paper and tied securely with a piece of twine. Aeris, to whom he’d only written a single, stilted letter inquiring as to her health, how her flowers were, her mother, the church, the fat little puppy that followed her around Wall Market when she went there to go shopping… anything and everything he could come up with that could fill up a page and yet run circles around what he really wanted to ask and what he really wanted to say.
But what was the point? The censors…
Not that he didn’t suspect that she could probably figure it out anyway.
I want you here. I want you to be here with me so that I know you’re there, that you’ll help wake me from this nightmare when doesn’t seem like it’ll ever end.
Stupid, useless, monumentally embarrassing, and never ever leaving the confines of his own head. Besides, even if he could somehow edit it to sound marginally less embarrassing, it still somehow seemed a greater promise to make here, only a mile or so away from the site where the day’s battle had taken place, the stench of dead and dying thick in the air around the camp. Didn’t seem right, making promises he couldn’t be sure of keeping, not even if he was sure she’d understand. He had brave words for Seph, but not always for himself.
The first thing that hit his nose when he shook the letter out of the envelope and unfolded it was the scent of flowers; sweet and faint and gone within moments, a passing memory of long hours in the church with the faint sounds of music and companionable laughter.
He might have expected that, because it was Aeris after all, and the church really was the best place for her to have written from.
And the first thing that hit his eyes when he shook the letter out of the envelope and unfolded it was a little drawing of a frowning stick figure with its little stick hands on its little stick hips—or what Zack assumed were hips, he didn’t often draw or see many stick figures, but they were probably not part of really bendy legs—that took up its own little corner of the page. You’re trying to hide things from me again! admonished the little speech bubble that emanated from the side of the stick figure’s head.
And that was a little weird, because he knew Aeris could draw better than that, and knew that she usually did.
My dear silly little Zack,
Zack frowned. He was many things but he wasn’t little and he wasn’t silly!
Yes Zack. Little. Silly.
Please refer to the speech bubble above. Now, is that a nice thing to do to your bestest girl friend in the entire world? I might have to pull out the old soggy kitten look. You can’t not-remember the soggy kitten look. I taught you its secrets so well you never could pass through Wall Market without being handed at least six free cookies while wearing it. Don’t deny it; your dashing good looks had nothing to do with it.
I don’t need to ask how you’re doing, do I? Sound—relatively speaking, of course, you must have earned your fair share of cuts and scrapes and bruises and nasty little squishy things in your boots—in body, and decidedly rumpled in mind, spirit and soul, right? But no, knowing you, you’d either lie to me—I know you, Zack! Just to make me feel better, just to try and make me not worry—or you’ll ham up the unimportant bits just for the sake of an extra cookie and a good back massage and to change the subject.
It was… weird, to be read so easily like that. And it wasn’t because Aeris was outfitted with all the sparkly magical powers that you only really heard about in stories from crazy old men who had too much to drink. But it was still… nice… to be able to have someone understand, and have someone understand so well. It was… relieving, in its own way. Like he didn’t have to worry that he might have screwed up by being unable to write properly and having her still knowing what he’d tried to say.
They’re not going to let you come back in between the fighting, are they? I don’t think
—and there, the censors had blocked out the next few words, but Zack knew they had to be ‘mean old President Shinra’—
would let you have a holiday, right? Or maybe there’s someone else you have to stay to stick by, and that’s good too.
I miss you Zack. I’m going to tell you that, even though you can’t admit as much back to me on paper—you’d better say it to my face next time we meet, you hear?—and I’m going to keep missing you however long it takes. You’ve been gone a year now, you know. And it’s going to take a while longer before it’s over. But I’m going to be here when you get back.
Run, run as fast as they can, they’ll never catch me, because I’m… faster than they are!
Your favorite flower girl
He eyed the last line with a raised eyebrow. One day Aeris was going to tell him what the Turks wanted with her, why she had to run and keep running from them. Why she couldn’t even sign a letter with her own name when she’d once given it so freely to him, some random nobody she’d seen on the streets.
Or at least, so he liked to think. That she’d give up the secret, anyway. He didn’t have to be a genius to know that being friends with him, knowing him, having anything to do with him, was a huge risk in and of itself. He had a feeling no other girl in such a position would’ve liked him enough or been crazy enough to take the risk, or a bigger one by telling him more.
He also had the feeling that was half the fun for Aeris. The girl was insane in the very best of ways, and thinking that maybe he was also worth the risk too just made that nice feeling in his chest get a little warmer, made him think more of the nice things about Midgar and less about the stench of dead and dying in the air.
He missed her. Just reading her words just weren’t good enough. Neither was opening the little package and pulling out the scarf she’d sent; Merino wool—hey, he was a country boy, you learned stuff out there in the sticks—dyed a dark, rich blue. Not too bright—wouldn’t do for running around in the forest playing soldier, after all—but it was far from drab, and was neatly knitted without a single dropped stitch. He couldn’t be entirely too sure how much the thing had cost her to make, but even with all her perfected bargaining skills that he’d seen often enough firsthand, he knew how much the stuff sold in normal times. And it wasn’t as if Aeris lived in the better sections of town, either.
Besides, knowing Shinra, they’d just go about jacking up prices everywhere they could—support our army, our boys out there dying for you, fighting for your wellbeing!—and those prices would most undoubtedly have filtered down below the Plate to the Slums. Everyone wanted a profit… that was just the way the city went.
Right. It was decided. The moment he got back to Midgar, he was buying her something shiny and asking her out on a date. Maybe even let her meet Sephiroth, see if he could do anything about the Turks that were following her around. The General would be even more famous by then, even more powerful. Zack hated trading on their friendship for anything, but if he could help Aeris, keep her safe, then… perhaps by then Sephiroth would understand. Perhaps by then…
…Heh. Oh the days when everything had been so simple…
Long chapter is long. ^_^; The next won't be quite so long, but I wanted all corners battened down and now seemed as good a place as any.
To continue on to the next chapter, go here.