Author's Note: I don't know what it is, but every time I come back to this chapter, I cringe. I am just the worst at nightclub scenes. I swear.
"This is delicious," Zack hums. He smiles, tight-lipped, at the bartender who has been watching him with wide eyes for the past ten minutes. "Sorry, I'm like an endless pit. I love food."
Finally, the guy laughs. It's a light, breathless laugh. Almost throaty. He has really dark messy hair and five o'clock shadow and big, bright blue eyes, much like Zack's. The man's smile is friendly and his voice is soft, strange for such a loud club.
"Thanks. I'll let the guys in the back know."
"Cool," Zack says, glancing back at the swaying crowd. Zack has to wonder how they can do that. Zack would never be able to get his hips to move like they do, or be able to go on without accidentally stepping on someone's foot or just get extremely embarrassed by the weird, clunky movements he's sure he'd have. Zack is probably the least graceful thing he has ever come across.
"I'm Tanner," the bartender says, holding out a hand for Zack to shake.
"Zack. Nice to meet you." Zack releases his hand and smiles lightly. "Have you been working here long?"
Tanner shakes his head. "Maybe a year at most." He leans heavily on the bar, staring at Zack with half-lidded eyes. "What about you? Have you been in Midgar long?"
Zack blinks. "Oh, um, I've only been in Midgar for like two weeks. A little less than three. So not too long." His eyes roll back and forth in thought as if trying to make sure he was remembering correctly. He nods, eyes honing in on Tanner. "Yeah, just about three weeks, I think."
Tanner stares at him, the lights of the club bouncing around on his irises and pupils. After a long drawn-out moment, Tanner finally asks, "And uh, how old are you, Zack?"
"Fifteen..." Zack says softly, eyes lower. His eyes flicker up to meet Tanner's eyes before falling to the polished wood of the bar once more.
"Uh huh," Tanner says softly, staring at Zack intently.
"Or... I will be in like a week," he says sheepishly.
Tanner nods, smiling amused. "That's what I figured."
"Are you going to turn me in?" Zack asks, wondering if he will be able to get out of this without getting kicked out of Shinra. He's not going to lose his dream just for one lousy night at a club. If that's the case, he'll leave right now and never come back so long as he can stay in Shinra and work on becoming a SOLDIER. His dream is a lot more important than stuffing his face full of this food. He's not picky, he doesn't much care what the food tastes like, just that it's food. He can eat elsewhere if he's hungry.
Tanner wipes away invisible specks on the counter with his rag, before looking at Zack with an amused smiled. "What's one week? I can imagine a lot of worse things a boy could be doing at your age, and let's just say sneaking into a teen night at a club, a week away from the specified age, isn't in my top one hundred. But for the sake of my job, this conversation didn't happen." Tanner winks and walks a little way down the bar to help an older girl.
Zack smiles. "That's awfully nice of him," he says to himself. Finally filled up, Zack turns to look at the jostling crowd, once again mesmerized by their movements. Zack may be at the top of his class physically, and because of recent test drama, probably the bottom of the class academically, Zack can't for the life of him figure out how people move like that without looking robotic.
Unfortunately, Zack probably got his dancing skills from his dad. His mom who had near unparalleled grace and fluidity could spin around the house, cooking and cleaning all day and make it look effortless. While if his dad even so much as attempted a pirouette, or any sort of spin, there would be lots of broken furniture. And Zack would be grounded. By his dad, for laughing at him, and by his mom, for mimicking it and destroying more of the house. It's happened before, sadly.
Zack will be the first to admit, he might be slightly impulsive.
Instead of making a fool out of himself on the dance floor, yet needing to burn off some energy, Zack bounces his leg up and down. His fingers tap against the bar as he watches the bodies sway, unable to stop the amused smile making its way across his face. Two or three songs pass before someone taps Zack on the shoulder. His mind had drifted watching the crowd. The blur of colors and the shadowed figures, it was like something out of a movie.
"Do you want to dance?" Tanner asks.
"Aren't you working?" Zack asks instead.
Tanner smiles lightly. "I'm taking a quick break. Come on, one dance."
Zack laughs, shaking his head, resisting when Tanner grabs his arms, trying to pull him onto the floor. "Trust me, it's safer if I stay out here. I am a horrible dancer."
Tanner gives Zack a look. A swift yank and Zack is on his feet, looking up into Tanner's eyes. "Trust me, in the time I've worked here, I've seen many horrible dancers come twitching though here, claiming that's dancing. The key is to learn young. Come on, I'll give you a few pointers."
Zack shakes his head, trying to sit back down but Tanner keeps him standing, tugging him toward the crowd. "Come on, Zack. You can't be that bad."
"Prepared to have your mind blown," Zack yells over the pounding music as they get to the dance floor. Thankfully, Zack can't make out any features on the faces of the people around him. The last thing he'd want is for people to remember this day and bring it up at his inauguration ceremony into First. He'll cry if that happens too. Man, the number of different methods of ruining one of the most important days of Zack's life is growing.
Tanner brought him into the thong of people and began to sway, moving his shoulders and hips fluidly, feet remaining on the floor. His arms up and moving alongside him, each move is smooth and purposeful. It looks so effortless. Everyone else makes it look so easy. Zack just feels weird.
"Come on, Zack. Show me what you can do," Tanner says, blue eyes glinting in the flashing lights.
Attempting to mimicking Zack sways and moves his shoulders. The movements feel jerky and strange. Zack has never had to move his body so delicately. While working out it was straight powerful movements, meant to build strength. This isn't something that Zack has ever done. Tanner's grin widens and Zack stops, running a hand through his hair.
"I can't do this," he sighs, feeling silly.
"Come on, Zack."
"No, I don't want to."
Zack wraps his arms around himself, turning away to head back to the bar when another song starts and someone grabs him around the waist, pulling him back toward it. Zack looks over to see Tanner lowering his head onto Zack's shoulder, smiling. He whispers, "Let me show you" and puts a hand firmly on each hip and forced it one way. Then the other.
"Um," Zack mumbles, trying to follow Tanner's lead but finding it hard to concentrate with the man's breath at the back of his neck.
"Let me lead, Zack. Relax."
Zack stares up at the lights, trying to calm down and relax his hips. His head falls back onto Tanner's shoulder, letting out slow, deep breaths. Whispering "relax" over and over again under his breath. Eventually, his body starts to listen and though it's still jerky and weird, under Tanner's strong hands, his hips move a little smoother back and forth. Soon, Zack is swaying to the beat, a lot less graceful then most of the others, but it's still better than what he would have expected coming into this just that few hours before.
One song ended and another began. Zack relaxes almost completely in Tanner's embrace, the flashing lights, and pound of the base casting some sort of spell on him. One that actually allows him to dance. It's weird. Zack never saw anything full-filling about being able to move like this - yeah it's cool but in the long run, what would it do for him? - but being there now, swaying with Tanner, whom he can feel swaying with him. Zack feels a sense of connection with all of the other participants on the dance floor. For each boom of the base, the people connect for just a moment, moving and swaying as if one single being.
A sweat builds on Zack's forehead and down his back between his shoulder blades. Even though he's feeling the heat here more than at the bar, Zack doesn't feel any more obliged to leave.
Zack's eyes flicker down to the people dancing around them. In the darkened out figures, he spots a pillar of light. A girl with long golden blond hair and a dress of pure white. She is positively radiant. Her piercing blue eyes lock onto Zack's and for a moment, they connect. Zack feels peace and calmness and reassurance and love. She moves gracefully and elegantly, watching Zack as she spins and twirls, her eyes always locked on his.
And then she smiles. And then she's gone.
There is a sense of peace while on the dance floor. And something else, that he can't explain. But as quickly as it's there, it slips away. Like a bird on a tree limb, flying away without a care in the world. Free.
Zack's eyes slide close and the music is just a pulsing at the back of his head. And for a short time, he forgot all about the many troubles that plagued him.
"That was wild!" Gabe cheers, whooping and hollering into the night. "Woo-hoo!"
Kunsel slaps the back of his head as the other boy's voice bounce off the buildings, echoing its way down the street. "Shut up, dude! It's past midnight. People are trying to sleep."
"Sorry," Gabe says sheepishly. "Woo-hoo!" He says in an excited whisper.
"Did you eat a lot, Zack?" James asks, looking back at the youngest trailing behind, trying to ignore the antics of his best friend.
Zack looks up into James eyes, wondering if he should tell them about going onto the dance floor. They'll probably laugh and insist he show them how horrible he dances or ask if it was a girl that he went up there with. He didn't want to mention either. For some reason, the thought of not sharing something is invigorating. If they directly ask, he'll tell the truth. But James didn't ask if Zack ever went on the dance floor or who with. He asked about the food.
"Yeah," Zack says, laughing quietly. "It was delicious too."
The group makes their way through the city, even though this part of the city is sleeping, the rest is still alive and flourishing. The Shinra building glowing like a beacon in the darkness at the heart of the city. The entire walk back to the barracks was filled with talk all about the club. Zack only chimed in once and a while, dazed about what he experienced earlier that night.
In his mind's eye, he can see Tanner, sweat glistening off of his forehead in the flashing lights, asking him in his unusually quiet voice. "You'll come again next month, won't you?"
And Zack couldn't stop the adrenaline-induced euphoria that clouded his mind and he silently, with a dazed look on his face, nodded. How this guy had somehow managed to hypnotize him, Zack doesn't know. But he feels like he's floating on a fluffy cloud.
Zack peels off his dirty clothes and slips on pajama pants before falling into bed once they finally make it back to their barracks, eyes falling closed. He's excited and his ears are buzzing, but he's tired and his body is quick to relax and a single fleeting thought came to Zack before sleep stole him away.
He didn't think about the test once this night. And that, in and of itself, was a relief.
"Fifty-three, fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six..."
"You're here early."
Zack pauses in his squats to look over his shoulder to see Angeal. His eyes flicker to the door. That blond First isn't there. And the impressive sword-buster sword, Zack had learned in swordplay class a few days after first meeting Angeal, was on the older man's back. They haven't actually started using the wooden swords against each other, despite Zack and his classmates' complaints and insistence, but merely learning basic steps. Soon, he'll be able to use a real sword. It'll be so cool.
Blinking a few times, Zack focuses back on Angeal, turning to face the older man. "Uh, yes sir?" Then a heartbeat later, he salutes. "Sir!"
"As you were, Cadet." Angeal looks slightly amused, but his face is still mostly unreadable with only the slight widening of his mako enhanced eyes. "It's barely seven. Isn't today the day for cadets to have off?"
Zack nods. "Yeah. I couldn't sleep in." Which isn't a complete lie. He's just pumped for some reason, even if he's mentally fatigued. Maybe he's still floating on that cloud from the night before. Or it could be because he's starting to get used to being up so early in the morning that his body won't let him sleep in. He doesn't know. He just woke up early and had to find some way of dispensing this near-limitless energy that he always has coursing through him.
A long moment of silence. Then, "Do you often forget to salute your superiors?"
Zack laughs sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck. "Yes," he admits. Then flinches at his words. "Why did I say that?"
"Honesty is the best quality, I suppose," Angeal murmurs, his eyes lower for a moment.
Should Zack mention the test? Call Angeal out on his lie? Would that get him kicked out of SOLDIER? Angeal seems cool enough. He hasn't hauled Zack out by the scruff of his neck yet. That's a good sign at least, right? If Angeal was mad that Zack was a little lacking in the respect department, he'd have Zack thrown out already, right? Or at least disciplined him. Maybe he can speak a little freely?
Angeal nods for Zack to continue.
"Can I speak freely?"
"Um," Zack mumbles, looking down at the ugly blue mat beneath his feet, wondering how to go about it. Angeal did say that honesty is the best quality. And as Zack prepares himself to speak, he's not going to think about the "I suppose" that followed that statement. "I failed my test."
Angeal stares at Zack with an unreadable look making Zack shrink when he glances up at those eyes. "I know."
"And you said-wait, what?" Zack blinks rapidly. "How did you know?"
"I had you flagged," Angeal says simply, like that explained everything. Zack stares blankly. In his mind's eye, he can see himself walking down a hall and Angeal walking some distance behind him, pulling out a huge flag, white with the buster sword printed in the center, on a pole and throws it at Zack. The young man flinches at the images of getting himself impaled through the back by the flag as imaginary Angeal continues on his merry way.
"I've been monitoring you since you showed up in Shinra." Angeal said it so simply, Zack had to think about it.
"So... you've been watching me?" A nod. "Why?"
Angeal looks away for a moment, thoughtfully. When he looks back, Zack stares unblinking. "You intrigue me."
Still confused, Zack asks, "What does that mean?"
Now, Angeal smiles. "It means I want to know more about you."
Angeal considers. A second later, he steps up to Zack and turns him to face the mirror across the room. They look so small in it, but Zack can see how significantly shorter and thinner than Angeal he is. Angeal's hand rests heavily on his shoulder. Zack squints at his reflection, then looks at Angeal for a couple of seconds and when the man didn't return his gaze, he turns back to the mirror.
"The first time I saw you, bruises covered your body." Zack opens his mouth, about to tell him - what? That it wasn't as bad as it looked? That he's okay now? He didn't get the chance to answer because Angeal continues as if he didn't notice Zack open his mouth, "I'm not going to ask how you got them." A pause. "But let's just say your smile won me over."
"My smile?" Zack looks up at the man, yet Angeal still didn't look at him. What could be so good about his smile? Admittedly, his ma did always say he had a charming and friendly smile, but she's his mom, she's supposed to say stuff like that. It was weird hearing it from a stranger, though. Maybe his ma was right about his smile, then.
"Yes," a faint upturn of the man's lips. "All I could stare at was your bruises. I thought-" he hesitates as if wondering how much to share. "I wondered what could have happened. Who could have hurt you so. I felt..." He trails, a crease appearing between his eyes. His eyes dart around as if fishing for the word in his brain. His hand drops from Zack's shoulder, brushing his back before falling to his side, neither notice.
Zack hears himself ask, "Pity?"
Finally, Angeal looks down at him, face unreadable. "No. I felt sad. You made me remember a very innocent young man that used to get hurt like that, but whereas he would wear this... look of horror, or maybe the best word is haunted." Angeal looks away. "He would look like a piece of his soul was taken away. For hours, if we were lucky."
"And... if you were unlucky?" Zack asks quietly. Angeal's eyes look miles away, even as they stare at each other through the reflection of the mirror on the other side of the room.
"Days. Maybe months, depending."
There is a long drawn-out silence. Zack having no clue how to respond to that. Never before has he seen someone with a look that could only be described as "haunted". What would have to happen to that person for that to happen? Zack can't even begin to fathom it.
"But then I saw your smile."
"Huh?" Zack looks back up at the older man, not his reflection, him.
Angeal nods, his eyes back at the present, looking down at him. "You looked so beaten with those bruises, but then... you looked up and smiled. You were asked if you were nervous. You laughed, smiled and explained that you were excited."
Zack laughs, remembering when he utterly embarrassed himself that first day. "Well, I was! This is my dream. Of course, I wouldn't be able to stand still when I could be training to get stronger."
"Staying still seems to be a bit of an issue for you." His stoic face has melted into a curious contemplation. With a touch of affection, probably remembering someone with similar traits.
"Yeah and Kunsel says I'm... a luffa."
Angeal stares at him blankly, trying to decipher that butchered word for what it could actually mean. "You mean aloof?"
Zack blinks. "Yeah, what did I say?"
"And what's that?"
"A... no way!" Zack laughs. "That's crazy! What a crazy language we speak!"
Angeal chuckles lightly, a nice smile crossing his face. It's nice, it almost seems like he doesn't do this sort of thing often. Just sit around and talk about simple things. Zack bounces on one foot, then the other. Soon he's actually bouncing on both feet. Planted on the ground, then hovering, then planted. Angeal watches him bounce around for a few moments before quietly asking, "Why did you fail your exam, Zack?"
If Zack could pause mid-air, he would have, but instead, he hit the ground with a loud slap. The two stand in silence, staring at each other. Mako enhanced eyes burn holes through Zack's retinas. He has to look away first. He didn't want this older, wise man to see the shame on his face or in his eyes. He wanted to do well, and he wanted to impress because his dream hangs in the balance, but he failed. He failed his test, he failed his Instructor, and he failed himself. Angeal had seemed sure that he would be fine. But he wasn't.
So, he sort of failed Angeal too.
"Good thing you didn't come see me yesterday. I might have been angry and yelled at you. Though I know you didn't do anything wrong. I'm glad I'm not mad, it doesn't look so good on me, you know? Anger isn't quite my color." Zack laughs lightly, eyes half-lidded. He wanted to brush it off. Push it to the side and forget about it. He was in such a good mood too. He didn't want to blame Angeal for something that was his fault, and once again, he hated himself that he wanted to do it anyway.
He just hopes that his honesty doesn't anger Angeal.
"Why did you fail your exam, Zack?" Angeal asks again, voice neutral, but Zack can feel his heavy gaze on him. Heavier than his hand ever could be. Why didn't he ask about Zack's possible anger? Shouldn't he be mad that Zack almost blamed him for something that was completely out of the older man's control? It's only logical, if you study for something, you'll usually do fine. That just so happened to not be the case with Zack, unfortunately. But that's not Angeal's fault.
Zack kicks the floor with the toe of his boot, feeling bad for being even slightly angry with the man. "I... don't really know. My head just gets all messed up. I mean I knew everything on it, I'm sure, but when the test comes around, I just, blank. Start seeing weird things." He remembers the last test. "Some really weird things. And then boom! Class is over and not a single thing was written in. Although this time I think I spelled my name backward."
Angeal raises a single eyebrow. "If I asked you something about mako, that was on the test, you would know it?"
Zack shrugs. "Probably." He kicks the floor again, deeply disappointed in himself once again.
"What is mako?"
Zack looks up at Angeal calm face. "It the liquidized form of the energy of the planet. The Lifestream."
Angeal nods, shifting slightly on his feet. It almost seemed like a conscious thing. He's very still, Zack notes. "What are the three forms mako can appear in?"
Zack lists them off on his fingers. "Liquid, solid and gas."
"The only other substance that is in all those forms?" A perfect SOLDIER, Zack rationalizes. That would make sense. No, a model SOLDIER. That makes more sense. Angeal is everything that Zack would biasedly associate with SOLDIER.
Zack laughs, snapping back into the present. "Water, and that's biology."
Angeal looks about to comment, then shakes his head. "And how are each of these three forms used?"
"We used the liquidized form of mako as energy to fuel, well, everything. The solid form is used to give humans power, we call them materia. And the gas form is only utilized by the planet. It is the theorized form of the Lifestream itself. Even though it moves like water and is directed like a current, it is still considered a gas, capable of moving through objects - like humans."
Angeal nods, smiling. "Very good, Zack."
Zack beams at the praise, practically bouncing. After a moment's hesitation, Angeal reaches out and affectionately rubs Zack's wild black hair. Zack beams right up at Angeal, shaking with happiness. At least the older man wasn't mad at him.
"Thanks so much, Angeal! I mean, sir." Why does he keep forgetting?
"Angeal is fine."
Zack pauses in thought. "I thought we weren't supposed to call our superiors by their first names."
"That's true unless you have expressed permission," Angeal says thoughtfully. "Zack, can I ask you something?"
"Sure, I'm an open book. This one time, my ma got a diary for me to write in. I called it a diary, she insisted it was a journal, anyway, I wrote in it for about a week and then my ma and told me to write whatever I was thinking about in it so I did. At the end of that week, she asked to read it. I said sure, you know? Why not? And then she had to take her headache medication." Zack laughs. "She said that my thoughts confused her." He shakes his head, remembers the look of strain on her face as she probably tried to find some semblance of order in Zack's usually chaotic mind.
Angeal opens his mouth, pauses, then closes it again. He looks over Zack's head in thought. Finally, he says, "That reminds me of someone." He shakes the thought away and looks back at Zack. "What I was going to ask is if you would be interested in becoming my apprentice?" His eyes lock onto Zack's face, watching it closely for any sign of what he's feeling.
Zack's smile fades a little as he tilts his head to the side. "What does that mean?"
"It means I'll oversee your training. You can still take some classes with the other cadets but only what I think you need. I have complete control over what I think you need to learn."
"Don't I have to wait for the SOLDIER exam? See if I can even make it into SOLDIER?" Zack asks softly, hoping that this isn't too good to be true. He can already feel the excitement bubbling up inside of him.
"That's true," Angeal admits. "But the Mentoring program is about finding cadets and Thirds with potential and training them to become First Class. I think it's important that you remain in most classes with your other fellow cadets, but there are certain things that I would like to see if you have a knack for and go on from there."
"So what will we be doing?" Zack asks hands gripped in front of him, shaking in a mixture of anxiety and excitement. If what Angeal says is true, then he honestly believes that Zack has the potential to make First. That's a little too good to be true. Three weeks into the program and he can tell? Angeal must really have an eye for talent if Zack does say so himself.
"Well, I'm going to be taking you out of certain classes, like your hand-to-hand class and swordplay class. Eventually, I may even take you out of your conditioning class too and teach you as I see fit. How does that sound?"
Bouncing with excitement, Zack nods. "I would love that! Do you really think I could become a SOLDIER First Class?"
Angeal considers, careful with his words. "Anything is possible, Zack."
"Thank you so much, Angeal, I won't let you down, I swear!" Before Zack can stop himself, he throws his arms around the stoic First class' waist and hugs him tightly. Angeal stiffened like stone beneath Zack's overly friendly embrace but was able to manage a light pat on the back before Zack released him. Warily of any more surprise hugs, Angeal straightens up, prepared to bolt if the boy so much as flexes wrong.
"I'm sure you won't. We'll start on Monday. I'll come back and observe you during your conditioning class."
Zack nods briskly. "Okay. This is so exciting! I can't wait!"
Angeal nods, turning and heading to the door. His phone rings in his pocket. He's quick to fish it out and look at the screen, reading it without any sort of shift in his facial expression.
Zack starts up his squats with renewed vigor. "Fourty-uhh, Fifty-ehh. What the fresh hell was I on?"
Angeal chuckles lightly to himself and exits the room, shaking his head slowly. This is probably going to be the start of something very interesting.