Once More, With Feeling... – Chapter 2: Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Summary: Boot-Camp, the second time around, was simply exhausting!

Author: Illusor Meaneld

Rated T: for Descriptive violence and injuries, No Adult Situations, No Cussing.

Disclaimer: I did not create, and do not own the characters from Final Fantasy 7, They are owned by Square-Enix, and I am simply borrowing them for my own (and hopefully your) enjoyment.

Cloud had to pause and gape for a moment at the sight of Midgar, It had gone from being a gigantic ruin, slowly being over-run by vegetation, to the bustling metropolis Cloud only saw in old videos. He honestly hadn't remembered the pressing crowds or the permeating smells, it was all so new and foreign that he felt adrenaline bubbling up in excitement, he relished in the strangeness as he walked, studying the map on the flyers he held. Thankfully his younger self had kept all of the advertisements, forms and any other paperwork pertaining to the day, blessed preparedness to Cloud, since his memory of this event was just not crisp enough after 90+ years. Once he was certain he knew where he was, and which way he was going, Cloud broke into a jog, when his face suddenly connected with the pavement, he had a long moment of shock. A quick glance around assured him he hadn't been tripped, no pickpockets or cracks in the sidewalk he'd been too distracted to notice. No he had simply fallen on his face… for no reason he could discern. The people around him were starting to send glances his way, so Cloud hastily picked himself up, brushed the dirt and small rocks from his clothing and tried again. This time he was paying more attention, and so noticed when his feet rebelliously refused to do as he asked and the ground greeted him enthusiastically once more. Hopping quickly to his feet proved equally disastrous as he staggered into a nearby pile of trashcans for his efforts. By now people were staring, what was he DOING? With a deep breath to calm his mind, and intense focus, Cloud rose carefully, picked up the duffel bag he'd accidentally dropped, and started off again at a walk.

He paid strict attention to his every movement as he made his way down the street. It was an agonizing pace considering he was short on time to make the exams, but face planting ate far more time than walking. After a couple of blocks he figured out what the problem was, what should have been a "comfortable" stride, was stretching his legs far enough to make the muscles ache, and he tottered with lack of balance at each step. What in the world? Why couldn't he walk right? He tried correcting his steps but only succeeded in swaying alarmingly, his arms jerking up in an instinctive attempt to compensate, which only seemed to make things worse. Silently mouthing a few choice curses, Cloud took a mental step back. Why would his balance be all off? Surely he was used to walking… … in a body that was 5'7". Gads he was slow today, at the bare five-foot whatever he reached right now, his legs were shorter, the subconscious motions he'd honed over the last century were all screwed up. With a heavy sigh he tried a different method, a "marching jog" is what Yuffie had nicknamed it, short swift steps that were designed for endurance more than speed, but it was faster than walking. The pacing was still awkward, he tripped over his own feet more than once on his way, but somehow he managed to make it to the Shinra building before the doors were closed to new recruits.

Cloud was panting heavily, rubbing his sore legs while looking over the other excited youths crowded nervously in the room. He wasn't surprised that he didn't remember a single face, but Cloud had long since developed a soft spot for kids, and he smothered a smile at all their bright and eager eyes, it made him want to hand out candy or something. He had to choke down a chuckle when he remembered they were probably all about his age right now anyways. The blonde forced himself to walk around the room, stretching his abused young muscles despite their protests. While he paced he pulled out his paperwork, this time studying his application forms, memorizing dates and information his older brain had pushed into some mildewed corner somewhere. He was amused to note that the date for today was the same as it had been in his own world. Chuckling, he continued to study, however, it was only after he was going over the page for a third time that he caught it, and almost blurted aloud his younger self's mistake, It says I'm fourteen, … but I shouldn't fourteen for two more weeks! He double-checked the birth date and the current date twice more to affirm his suspicion. I lied about my age! What a little rat I was! He gawped, and then slowly snickered at the over-sensitive kid he must have been, small for his age, hailing from a middle-of-nowhere town, delicate looks and no strength, heavens but it reminded him of prickly little Denzel when the boy had reached teenage-hood. He was still reminiscing over the boy Tifa had adopted when they started calling names. It was done in alphabetical order, and most of the young recruits tried in vain to hide the evidence of their fear and nerves. Cloud was watching on with faint amusement right until he overheard one young lad ask another about test questions. Test questions? The ex-warrior snapped quickly into full wakefulness, what kind of test questions? For several moments he worried about blundering through said questions… When had they discovered which medicines? Did they know about enhanced Summoning yet? He wracked his brain to try and place events in order, and so he was sufficiently nerve-wracked when the young Officer at the door called,

"Cloud Strife?"

Standing a little too quickly, Cloud stumbled towards the door, "Sir."

"This way."

He followed as quickly as he dared, but his guide still ended up waiting for him when they reached their destination. Cloud proceeded to the indicated desk, where a paper and pencil already awaited him. Nervously he scanned the questions, there were several history questions and medical questions he noticed much to his dismay. But after a few deep breaths he forced himself to concentrate.

Moments later Cloud was almost laughing at his own nervousness, the questions practically pointed to their own answers, if you read them right it wasn't hard to figure out what they were looking for, the wording of the problems gave them away, and the essays were similarly written. He had an issue once when he almost wrote about a particular storm in Junon that hadn't happened yet. But with a sigh and a smile he realized his mind was well up to the task. When he handed his paper in to the guardian at the door, he was confident he had passed. As he tripped his way out the door he decided something needed to be done about his BODY being up to the task.

After the "possible recruits" had been weeded into "Cadets-In-Training" all the newest Shinra personnel were escorted to their room and shown their individual bunks and storage. It WAS just a single room, with two rows of bunk-beds evenly spaced along the lengths of both walls, at the foot of each bunk was two small storage boxes. They would all share this room, sleep listening to each other, and train with each other through the "boot camp" of Shinra. That first day they were shown around the compound, escorted by a couple of Troopers, and very pointedly told where they could and could not go. They were issued two sets of uniforms each, with the instructions to keep their own laundry clean. It was explained that in addition to physical fitness tests and training, all recruits would be tested further on their more mundane knowledge skills, and any who proved lacking would have to take additional classes to make up the slack. Finally, by the days end they were escorted to their bunker, and ordered to sleep. Cloud carefully stowed his gear in the chest he had been assigned, and crawled into his bunk. He reviewed the day with a strange sense of fascination. It was like an all-new adventure! He had run out of places he'd wanted to explore after nearly a century, but this was absolutely thrilling. Carefully quelling the sudden giddy urge to giggle, the blonde carefully pondered the events of the afternoon, the information he'd been given said he BARELY passed the height and weight requirements to get in. There didn't seem to be an age limit, but his young self had lied anyways. Some rumor of unofficial age-limits perhaps? Oh well, it would be just as easy to say he was fourteen as thirteen, which meant not easy at all since he still thought of himself as a solid century old…

The Shinra "boot-camp" lasted exactly four weeks. It was half evaluations, and half grueling torture. As he expected, Cloud managed to ace the written tests with flying colors, a quick glance through the library computers had refreshed him on his "history" and with his veteran mind he simply breezed through the general education qualifiers. His check through the computer databases also told him with horrifying accuracy what kinds of physical evaluations he'd have to pass to get into the units he wanted. Shinra had a number of different factions, each of which had to be specifically trained, based on one's performance during Boot-Camp, a recruit was placed into a corresponding unit. There was standard Military, (or "cannon-fodder" as the Turks called them,) the SOLDIER-Preparation Classes, Pilot-training, and Special Operations. (which the Turks heavily recruited from.) Obviously Cloud wanted SOLDIER Prep. He seemed to remember the last time that he'd been put through a year of Standard Military before making it into SOLDIER prep. And now, as he read over the requirements for the S.P. class he blanched, for one thing every S.P. Cadet had to be capable of 1,000 push ups, a 10 mile cross-country march in full gear, and a 5,000 meter endurance swim. Cloud dropped to the floor and was dismayed to find his arms shaking and burning after a mere 6 push-ups. This was definitely going to be a nightmare.

Cloud adjusted more quickly than the others to early rising, but after drowning during the first swim test, and collapsing (several times) during the run. He had a hard time suppressing the despair. From what he had researched, even if he failed to pass the test to get into S.P. he could reapply in six months, but that tempting idea was quickly discarded. No, he needed to get into the program now, in order to implement his plans to torment a certain ugly, balding scientist… metaphorically tightening his belt the blonde put his all into training his body. He did push ups until the very last moments, he scarfed his food at meal-times so he could get back to the grounds more quickly, he briefly considered doing more push-ups in bed, but decided sleep was equally important.

During the first week, Cloud's face became intimately acquainted with all of the rocks in the hills around the training grounds. By the third week, he had given them all names. As the fourth week began, the young Cadet agonized; he just wasn't progressing fast enough! Having to relearn everything had pushed him back even further behind the other recruits, and he had already been trailing them when he started. The final tests would be at the end of the week, and as it was Cloud could barely manage 400 push-ups with determination. His body was a constant ache, and his reactions always seemed sluggish. As the remaining days passed by he firmly squashed the rearing depression. He NEEDED to get into the SOLDIER Prep. It was absolutely essential!