"...and this spell is called the Four Point Charm, it will make your wand behave like a compass and always point to the north, and this one will let you mark the turns you take as if it was chalk, but on any surface, that'll be good in a maze, I imagine, and this one is called Escape Exit and should get you out of any binds..."
Hermione's voice is high and anxious as she struggles with her bag and books and a list of spells on a parchment and keeping up with Harry as he walks down a familiar corridor.
"Hermione, slow down!" exclaims Harry with a fond smile.
His best friend almost drops the parchment with the list she is scanning: "Harry, this is serious! You really need to learn as much as you can and quickly! I only hope we can do enough, this is what I've found out so far but I think you should also learn some Fist Aid, and..."
"Hermione, please calm down. It's alright..."
"It's not alright! It hasn't been alright all year! And now this, this... You could be seriously hurt, Harry! What if..."
"The Third Task is still three months away," he points out soothingly. "Don't worry so much. With your help, I'll learn all those spells in no time at all!"
"Bow to death, Harry..."
The cruel voice of Voldemort rings mockingly around the graveyard among the laughters of his Death Eaters.
Harry doesn't answer.
Cedric lies dead, beyond help, and the pitiless red eyes are telling him clearly that he will soon share that fate. Soon... as soon as Voldemort tires of this little game of cat and mouse...
"And now - we duel."
What a joke.
The curse strikes him before Harry can do anything to defend himself, before he can even move, and pain, intense, all-consuming pain explodes in him, every inch of his body tortured atrociously, the screams torn from his throat mixing with yet more laughter from his tormentors.
He is going to die.
He is going to die like Cedric, like his parents, like countless others, and there is nothing he can do about it, nothing at all... There is no hope. No help to be had. He can only send a mental apology to his friends, because he will not, after all, be alright like he promised them – and as he screams his throat raw under Voldemort's cruel wand, their faces bloom clear before his mind's eyes, and Hermione is saying something...
...and this should get you out of any binds...
With bleak desperation, Harry casts the Exit Escape.
"You there! You look like just the thing!"
Harry blinks at the burly man who is grinning unsettlingly at him. He wears a navy blue suit complete with white shirt and tie that somehow looks like a uniform and walks – stalks around, really – like only military do. He is also staring straight at Harry and waving some sort of flyer at him with a madly dedicated look in his black eyes.
"Ever thought about enrolling in the Shinra SOLDIER Program?" the man booms, getting closer.
Can't say that he has, no. Can't say that he's thought of his future at all. He's been in this world for almost a week now and he's still completely disoriented and confused.
It's probably only his 'training' with the Dursleys at being invisible and pretending he doesn't exist that has allowed him to navigate this terrifying world of drugs and violence and prostitution and monsters and poverty and filth and nothing but electrical lights without being raped, mugged and murdered. Or worse.
But the man is not only physically imposing, he is also quite clearly passionate and hot-blooded. Harry has the feeling that he'd better start thinking about joining this army he speaks about and soon...
Oddly enough, the idea isn't unappealing. He's reaching the end of his resources and he knows it.
No matter how used he is to starving, he still has to eat at one point or another and begging scraps from that bloke at the shady bar like he's done a couple times isn't going to cut it for long. And he may be good at escaping bullies, and even face them (or at least, take his beatings with philosophy) but guys with guns and knives and lecherous greedy smirks are a bit much.
The man is shouting enthusiastically and Harry tries to tune in, to make sense of his blabbering about exciting career and exotic locations all over the world and benefits and bonuses.
He's been fighting hard for survival in this filthy world of artificial darkness from the moment that odd spell has thrown him from Voldemort's graveyard to these Midgar slums and he hasn't had a chance to breathe and think.
Think about this very odd world with magic in bubbles and strange, tingling electrical energy everywhere, about the misery and injustice and raw, flaunted poverty of this world Below and how it makes all his instincts cry with the need to fix it, about the home and family he's left behind and how he'll ever make it back to Hogwarts when his wand is useless here and oh, Merlin, about the horrible, horrible loss that not being able to use his magic freely anymore is...
"You'll earn competitive pay, be able continue your education, learn new skills, see the world and experience adventures you have only heard about!" the man is still raving.
Harry has to admit it, though. What he's saying sounds nice.
It's not like he's got many prospects. Or things to do.
At least room and board is free for Cadets.
"I'm Cloud Strife," admits the scowling blond almost reluctantly, but he shakes Harry's proffered hand politely enough.
Harry smiles brightly at him.
He doesn't even know why he's decided to approach the kid, except that they're the scrawniest, skinniest, and unfortunately shortest of the bunch and that, maybe, can be something to stick together for?
He hates to admit it, but he feels a little bit intimidated by the whole military setting and by the bulk and grunting attitude of most of his fellow Cadets. The only good point is that nobody's staring at him or at his scar here. Not really all that much as far as good things go, considering, but he'll take every scrap at this point.
He remembers how good it felt to share his fear of the Sorting with Ron – with a friend – and even if no-one will ever be like Ron and Hermione, he still thinks that it would be nice to have somebody here too, and the kid looks like a loner and he, too, could use a friend, that's pretty obvious.
Harry desperately draws on his admittedly limited repertory in making friends. Well, there aren't any trolls to be seen, so...
"Want a candy bar?" he offers.
The blond – Cloud – is clearly surprised, but then smiles shyly back.
"Are – they – gasp – trying – huff – to kill us?" pants Harry on the brink of exhaustion, desperately wishing he could ignore the blasted Sergeant who is bellowing for them to do yet more laps.
When they said training is tough, they weren't bloody joking. They should have just called it with its real name – gruelling torture.
Theory lessons make him feel as if his brain is being squeezed and wrung until remembering his name is beyond his poor brain cells' leftover power. The physical stuff is worse.
First time the Sergeant told him every Cadet has to be capable of 1000 push ups, 1000 squats, a 10 mile cross-country march in full gear, and a 5,000 meter endurance swim and he was going to make sure them sissies were up to the fucking standards, Harry had blanched. It was still better than Parker, mind – poor sod had actually cried after 60 push-ups...
Worst of all, and Harry could really curse up a storm at this (especially since life in the barracks is slowly but surely filling his mouth with the kind of expletives Mrs Weasley would have scourgified his tongue for, even if he still censors himself a lot more than anybody else) are the times in-between. Like meals at what supposedly passes for a cafeteria (good thing the Dursleys trained him to eat shit-all without too many questions) and nights in the damn barracks.
Because that's when the bullies get their kicks and unfortunately, Cloud and he are definitely the runts of the litter here. Which means, naturally, they're primary targets.
Though both have, as it turns out pretty quickly, a lot of childhood experience with being bullied, Harry discovers that he is somewhat better equipped to deal with it than his blond friend. He thinks it's probably the years in Hogwarts (the years among friends, not to mention the whole thrice-cursed being-a-hero business) that have helped him develop the self-confidence and attitude needed to return the bruises and black eyes he's given. Well, some of them at least.
Cloud just tends to roll over and let the fuckers abuse him... kid's got some twisted notions that keeping his mouth shut and his head down and just enduring makes him tough. Harry wants to shake him, hard, and yell until it enters that blond head that taking it is not the way to go – at all. That he can, and should, react.
Their superiors, of course, aren't going to do anything about it. If a bloke isn't tough enough to take it (or strong enough to make it stop), then he's got no place in the army, much less an elite corps like SOLDIER.
So it's up to them to fight back.
"Don't just freeze up like that. They're bigger, sure, but we are faster!" Harry tells Cloud exasperatedly. Over and over.
"So what, you want me to run?" glowers Cloud bitterly. "I'm not a coward, Harry!"
"It's not about bravery," spits Harry. He should know, shouldn't he? He was – is still, in his heart of hearts – a Gryffindor. House of the Brave, which absolutely does not mean idiots (no matter what Slytherin propaganda claims).
And suddenly, what he really wants to tell Cloud comes to him, and it's so much about his own past, about his hopes for a possible future, about what has led him here and what's the only way to justify his choice and maybe, just maybe, about what he'll bring back from this one day – if he ever goes back that is – that he almost can't voice it, too overcome by choking emotions.
"Sometimes you have to stand up and fight just to put a stop to it all," he says quietly to his blond friend, for once looking and being deadly serious. "When no-one else will step up to the task... when someone else will suffer if you don't... when it's the right thing to do."
He takes a deep breath.
"But sometimes, it just isn't worth it. Sometimes, you run – not out of cowardice, but so that you'll be around to train and learn and in the end – hopefully – become someone who doesn't have to run anymore."
"And General Sephiroth is so amazing! He is the greatest war hero of our times! He is by far the strongest, most skilled warrior on the Planet. He is so great!"
Cloud's voice can get almost feverish when he gets going in his raptures over their fearsome leader. Hero-worship doesn't quite cover it, in Harry's opinion. Sometimes he thinks even 'idolising' falls short as a description of this obsession. His friend worries him.
"I learned that his sword has a name – Masamune, awesome, huh?" Cloud prattles on and on and on. "It's a katana and it's seven feet long! It's amazing that he can wield it! But he's so skilled and graceful and it makes it look like it's nothing to fight with such a blade, you know?"
Harry knows, yes. Cloud has a full-scale poster of the General in his most typical battle stance, sword held over his left shoulder with the overly long blade curving downward, against a background of stormy skies. ShinRa PR at its graphic best. Harry finds it unnerving to get dressed and make his bunk under that glare.
"...I mean, all SOLDIERs have superhuman strength and speed and everything and I can't wait for when we will be like that as well, that is if we pass the entrance exam, but Sephiroth is just so much better than anyone else! I heard he can cut through solid metal with no effort at all and even swing the sword faster than any eye can see!"
There is no doubt that Harry is a good influence for Cloud.
The kid would be fast overwhelmed by the constant bullying without his support and while he's stubborn enough to keep trying, his training would be compromised, probably to the point of hopelessness.
Plus, Harry seems to be the only one who bothers trying and building the blond's confidence. He isn't doing a bad job of it, either, even if he says so himself: Cloud's performances are steadily improving in all fields and the blond no longer walks around like he has to prove something but believes deep down he never will. Or, not much.
Nor does he complain about his own short size any longer. Harry's used to being a 'midget' (especially considering how tall Ron has always been for his age! And let's not mention Dudley's size...) and as irritating as it is at times, he knows at least that it is nothing to be ashamed of; he has found ways to use that to his advantage – ways that Cloud is slowly but surely learning from him.
Yes, Harry's good for Cloud – and his generous, always-ready-to-save-people nature sees this as good enough reason to stick with the blond even at his most annoying.
"Once he even sort of looked at me, you know? I mean, not me me, but, I was on punishment duty with Carion and Irving and we were cleaning the 43th floor corridor and he was passing by and kind of looked in my direction and I could see his terrific green eyes and would you believe he actually has cat-like pupils? That's not just gossip!"
There is also no doubt that Cloud is good for Harry.
The blond helps him integrate. He comes from a small village at the edges of Midgar's civilization himself and doesn't find it that strange that Harry can be so clueless and taken aback by things most consider matters of course. Like monsters scavenging in the poorer neighbourhoods of cities and giant yellow chickens raced like horses and pretty much anything to do with Mako.
Harry's used to not knowing much of the world he lives in – it was the same among wizards – but he's also used to be able to rely on Ron's understanding or Hermione's book-smarts (or both). Cloud is neither of his best friends, but he fits the same role naturally. Harry knows everything would be much harder if he were to do it alone.
On top of that, it's doing Harry a world of good, the way Cloud trusts him and looks up to him. Having someone to look after and care for, he's flourishing – and feeling less and less misplaced in this world.
They help each other out in class, hang out together in their scant free time, share dreams and sodas that they tell the other cadets are whiskeys and contraband magazines the sergeants pretend not to see during bunks inspections.
It is a wonderful friendship, overall.
"How do you think he can keep his hair so long and shiny? It must be something he uses to wash it... I need to know what brand of shampoo he uses, the Silver Elite membership is very exclusive! You can only join the fanclub after taking a quiz to prove your knowledge of Sephiroth and if I don't even know these little things..."
But there are limits.
"...so they say that's probably where he lives and I've found this camera and-"
"Wh-what? But, Harry..."
"I've had enough!" roars Harry, and something tells him this minor explosion is long overdue.
Cloud stares at him in shock, there in the middle of the corridor where Harry has finally blown up, even if perhaps that isn't the best place, really. But there are times when Harry wants to strangle the blond and this is one of them.
"So you admire the man, big deal. That gives you the right to know what colour his underwear is... why?"
Cloud blushes furiously: "I don't- it's not- Harry! How can you say..."
But Harry is on a roll. "Fanclub! You want to join a freaking fanclub! A fanclub who speculates on what kind of shampoo the bloke uses! I can't believe you. I can't believe you! And put that bloody camera down!"
"But, but Harry! Conner said that Fuho said that the cafeteria lady said that the General might be passing through this corridor and I might be able to get a picture if I'm lucky and maybe he'll even sign it and..."
"Put. That. Down, Colin- erm... I mean, Cloud! Now!"
It's not the first time his blond friend reminds him of the annoying, if harmless, little stalker of his Hogwarts days, but the camera really is the last drop.
Cloud's blue, blue eyes are filled with hurt and confusion in front of Harry's growing fury but the dark-haired boy doesn't care. The dreadful photographic equipment is unceremoniously wrenched from the blond's fingers and it takes all of Harry's control not to smash it. It's expensive stuff, after all, he likely wouldn't be able to replace it.
"You obsess over the articles the Company publishes about him. You lurk in corners in the hopes of ambushing him. Now you want to haunt him in his very home? That's just sick, Cloud. Sick! And bloody unfair. Doesn't he deserve a bit of a break now and then?"
"But, but... Harry! He's a hero!"
"So. What?" spits Harry through clenched teeth.
Cloud's mouth works soundlessly before he finds his voice again: "He's awesome! He is so strong, and, and, other-worldly, and even when he's in the middle of fighting, he doesn't grunt or pant, he's always calm and controlled and he can defeat anything at all! His strength is unreal! He's a hero, Harry!"
"A hero!" mocks Harry. "Fuck you, Cloud. Ever thought that maybe, just maybe, the bloke gets tired of posing on a damn pedestal for a bunch of salivating fans all the bloody time?"
Cloud's expression is a study in horrified incomprehension. "Harry, what are you...?"
"Trust me on this, being the perfect hero is anything but fun. It's... it's frustrating, and it's depressing, and it's exhausting! And you can't get the frigging away from it and... and he probably has very little in common with the image the blasted Company builds for him because that's propaganda, Cloud, and it's nothing to do with truth, it's, it's just the media pumping a damn story for all it's worth and then idiotic fans like you go and think it's gospel!"
"I'm not idiotic!"
"Oh, yes, you are! You're here right now quivering with excitement because someone told someone else that the object of your obsession might, might mind you, pass this way sometime today! That's beyond ridiculous, Cloud! Next thing I know, you'll be petitioning for the General to win the Most Charming Smile Award..."
"He doesn't smile, Harry. And that's not it at all! I mean, he is attractive of course, but I'm not some silly girl who's got a crush on him! I admire him because he's such a great SOLDIER and..."
"If you admire him so, can't you respect his right to have a bit of privacy and bloody peace?"
Both teens fall silent for long moments, glaring at each other.
Then a a deep, smooth voice makes them jump and they twirl to find themselves face to face (or rather face to chest) with none other than the Silver General himself, tall and regal and bloody terrifying so up close.
Cat-slit green pupils, staring unblinkingly at them, narrow slightly: "You are blocking the corridor, Cadets," the General says pointedly, pushing his long black cloak back impatiently.
They scramble to salute and get out of his way, Harry frantically wondering how much he might have overheard and Cloud reduced to a quivering mass of stunned excitement.
General Sephiroth eyes Harry thoughtfully, his neutral expression unreadable. "Your names, Cadets?"
Cloud's eyes grow bigger than saucers and he practically stops breathing after he stutters out his name. At his side, Harry gulps, half-panicky thoughts racing through his mind – oh, Merlin, the General overheard, is he mad? Offended? How is he going to react, are they going to be in trouble? - but then he firms his chin and boldly looks the man in the eyes (respectfully, of course. This is the military after all and you don't disrespect superior officers and this is the General, you don't get much superior than that).
"Cadet Harry Potter, sir," he says confidently. He might be intimidated (hard not to be, so close to such lethal, controlled power) but he won't let the General embarrass him: he means every word he's shouted at Cloud and if the man is offended by this... well, if the bloke really does like his privacy invaded and his ego stroked by mindless fuckers, he's no better than Lockhart, and Harry doesn't need the good opinion of someone like that.
But Sephiroth merely inclines his head in a fraction of a nod and Harry thinks – no, he's almost sure – that he's spying a hint of respect in those wintery eyes.
Then the majestic presence sweeps away down the corridor and the two friends collapse on the nearest wall as adrenaline washes out of them.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Spiky! You never know what's in the Mysterious Wednesday Stew, 'coz, you know, Kunsel says the Science Department gives the failed experiments to the cooks every Tuesday evening and that's why we get Mysterious Wednesday Stew, and I'm not sure I don't believe him, 'coz, yeah, it's crazy absurd, but Kunsel always knows everything and besides, there was this time Genesis and Angeal came to eat here on a Wednesday for some reason or other and Genesis was suspicious of his food and thought it was moving and Angeal told him to stop being a drama queen but then the food did move, and Genesis kind of has the best reflexes ever and he stabbed it with a knife, like, instantly, and it gurgled – I swear it did – and then moaned as it wilted and I think it died, which means it was alive, and since it'd been cooked, you know, that really makes you wonder what it was, only I don't want to think too much of it because I'd already taken a bite, but anyway, I haven't dared eat the Mysterious Wednesday Stew since then and I don't think you should either!"
Cloud and Harry, completely bewildered, stare at the dark-haired, muscular SOLDIER that has just plopped himself at their table without so much as a by-your-leave.
Then the violet-eyed bloke's words register and they propel themselves away from the greenish-looking dish with identical eews. Cloud's back smacks the wall but he's too horrified to even notice, eyes trained on the shapeless mound of... something. Harry, who is sitting on the other side of the table, very nearly falls out of the chair in his haste to get away and only the SOLDIER casually catching him prevents his ass from becoming a big bruise.
"Hey, you're Harry Potter, aren't you?" the SOLDIER asks excitedly, dragging him up and closer effortlessly. His deep eyes, glowing with mako, are staring intently into Harry's own, hovering on the edge of getting so close Harry's vision would blur, and his grin is huge and infectious. "Man, did I want to meet you!"
For a moment, Harry feels completely thrown. That's the kind of reaction he might have expected back in the wizarding world. Not here – never here! It's unsettling. He's not famous here, is he?
But the tall SOLDIER goes on blabbing: "I totally went to ask my old drill sarge for the cadets' timetables 'coz I really, really wanted to meet you, you know? 'Coz Angeal says that the General talked to him about you and man, do you have an idea how weird that is? Sephiroth never talks about anyone, especially Cadets! You must be, like, awesome if you've caught his eye, right? Angeal thinks so as well and he is curious about you and of course I am too, who wouldn't be? So I thought I would try and meet you and here I am!"
He beams brightly and Harry gapes at him, too busy trying to wrap his mind around what he's hearing to answer.
Cloud's squeaking voice pipes up, distracting the SOLDIER: "The- the General talked... about Harry?..."
"Yeah!" exclaims the exuberant bloke enthusiastically. "Unbelievable, huh? Oh, hey, who are you, Spiky?"
"C-cadet Cloud Strife, s-sir," stutters the blond, a little overwhelmed.
"That's an awesome name Spiky! Aw, and look, aren't you adorable?" coos the dark-haired SOLDIER, jumping over the table and throwing an arm around the shorter blond's shoulders amicably.
"S-sir?" Cloud's eyes go wide with terrified embarrassment and if Harry could spare a bit of attention for him, he'd laugh at his predicament.
"None of that!" shouts the excitable SOLDIER. "I'm not a 'sir' – makes me feel old and I'm really not! – the name is Zack! Zack Fair, SOLDIER Second Class!"
He looks at Cloud, guilelessly expectant, and the bewildered boy darts a glance at Harry before muttering hesitantly: "Z-zack?"
The SOLDIER beams at him with genuine happiness and starts bouncing on the balls of his feet: "So, what do you two think about swinging by the rest area on the 64th floor? There's vending machines there where we can find something decent to eat and we can get to know each other better!"
The two friends gape at Zack again and somehow, their objections about Cadets not being allowed above the 59th floor get lost somewhere in the brilliancy of his grin...
"So have you heard?" Zack's excited voice springs on Cloud and Harry unexpectedly, but by now, they're almost used to it.
The SOLDIER has been spending quite a lot of time with them as of late – despite his increasingly difficult missions, his special training with Commander Angeal Hewley himself and the impressive number of his other friends, not to mention the two Cadets' own training picking up pace.
Zack drags them out to town on their rare nights off ("This one place is great, I promise, much more classy than the last one, even Reno swears by this..."); pops upon them during study hours ("You'll grow moss in your privates if you don't take regular breaks from books, it's a well-known fact!"); shows up to tell all the funny happenings of ShinRa HQ ("I bear gifts! Actual coffee, straight from Urban Development, and, oh, this reminds me, you'll never believe what that weird guy from Accounting did last night..."), or rant about missions involving giant birds trying to peck him to death ("And Angeal just pointed at me and laughed!"); gives them pointers for surviving their instructors ("Tough luck getting him, I positively hated him and he so had it in for me, for no reason at all, too, but really, if you ever feel the urge to or ramble about spam emails around him, listen to me, just don't...") and horrid classmates ("Well, think of it! Nobody believes in the existence of the Touch Mes anyway, even if they're totally real, and totally scary, so if you manage to capture one and get it to turn that fucker into a toad no-one's going to pin it on you!").
He listens to them and laughs with them and tells them strange stories of his childhood; he encourages them and passes on to them the speeches his own mentor offers him and makes grand plans for when they'll all be heroes together and even teaches them how to play poker.
Their friendship is unpredictable to say the least, but Zack is awesome to have around and the two younger boys have quickly come to value him immensely. They're a bit blown that he seems to like hanging out with them as much as they like him, but they're also giddy about it.
So they just smile at his impromptu appearance and eagerly turn to his strong, confident form, now sprawled haphazardly over more of the couch in the common rest area than a body with only so many joints should be able to reach.
"Have we heard what, Zack?" asks Harry curiously.
"You're starting materia training tomorrow!"
Their jaws drop and as Zack goes on babbling excitedly about his own experiences with materia (which somehow manage to include an hilarious accident in which he spent four hours painstakingly walking squashed to the floor after a mishap with a Mastered Gravity, as well as at least two instances of a badly singed Reno) Cloud and Harry share an excited grin.
Materia training! What every Cadet has been yearningly waiting since day one!
When, later that day, their Instructor confirms it, their excitement can hardly be contained.