Chapter 1: Green Walls
Part 1 - Green walls
He can't breathe, he realizes.
He can't really move at all, actually. His fingers do this feeble little twitch when he tries to raise his hand, his eyes feel like bloated duck eggs scraping against his sandpaper eyelids, and his tongue is huge and trying to suffocate him by stuffing itself down his throat. What a stupid way to die.
His thoughts drift away from him, darting around like the little minnows in the creek that winds around the mountain just outside...
He can't remember.
It's home. He can't remember.
He can't breathe, he realizes.
His mouth falls open with a little croak, and he sucks greedily at the air.
There's a gasp, somewhere on his right side, and then a loud creak. He recognizes the sound of tortured wood. It probably hasn't been waterproofed very well, and the damp has wound its way into the fibres until they rot away, collapsing into tiny pockets of mush. It'll seep and seep until it's all eaten, leaving holes and gaps that can't even be called clean. Filled with useless shit. Kind of like his brain.
He grabs onto his decaying thoughts for a moment, and then he lets them go.
His head hurts like something's trying to pound his eyes out of their sockets from the inside, and he wonders what it'd look like. Some kind of offensive little troll with big saggy balls, probably, hammering away with its fists.
The bed—it's probably a bed; feels like a bed, although he can't remember the last time he had a bed, so maybe he's wrong—sags a bit, like someone's leaning over him. And then everything in his head is screaming because he feels cold, smooth metal under his back, and the air is thick like water gushing into his mouth and nose and ears.
It's not. The bit inside him that's panicking is like a weedy little kid, slamming his fists against the glass of the tank. It's not. It's a bed. It's too soft, and it smells a bit musty. He feels heat against his shoulder, like a touch hovering just beyond contact.
"Cloud? Are you awake?"
His eyes won't open much, but there's a little gap there, and he can sort of see.
There's a low concrete ceiling, shot through with spider web cracks, and there are big dark eyes peering at him.
There's a green glow on everything, like some demented interior decorator had gone and poured radioactive neon paint on every surface of the room. It's not until he can't keep his eyes open any more, and they slide shut, that he remembers. It's still green. It's always green because of his eyes.
Too bad. He used to kind of like green.
He can't really breathe.
He'd seen the ocean before, when he was brought along on that vacation to Costa del Sol. Granted, he was only there because he was supposed to be guarding the president, but old man Shinra spent most of his time on the beach, and he could only stare at that lardy ass for so long, right?
The ocean there was really blue, and he remembered the heat of the sand under his feet. There were seagulls screaming in the sky, and babes in bikinis smiling at him from the water.
This ocean was pretty thoroughly uninviting. The water was so blue it was nearly black, and the waves were choppy and tipped with white. There weren't any seagulls around here. Probably all got eaten by monsters.
A couple of foot soldiers were hauling cargo up a plank extending from the side of one of the ships, and the one holding the lower end of the crate started cussing loudly when they teetered and started the plank shaking.
An old sergeant was ticking off a clipboard at the base of the plank, and when he saw the soldiers stagger, he raised the board and shook it as if he wanted to hurl it at the grunts.
"The fuck are you doing, you little sacks of prissy shit?" he bellowed. "You think Shinra pays you to prance around like little girls? If you drop that crate, I'll take it out of your fuckin' asses!" His neck was bright red from exertion by now, so he looked a bit like a leathery sack coated with bacon when he turned around and caught sight of his observer. "Who the hell are you?"
"Soldier Second Class Cloud Strife," Cloud said, bouncing a bit on the balls of his feet. "I'm, er..." He glanced around at the fleet of ships, masts bristling in the water like a flattened pin-cushion.
"Soldiers are on that ship over there, the Mary-Anne," the sergeant grunted, quiet now that he recognized Cloud's uniform.
"First time being deployed, son?"
"That obvious?" Cloud grinned, rubbing his fingers against the back of his neck.
The sergeant grunted again, and crossed his arms. "You kids are always piss-pants excited, until you get there and some wacko ninja is trying to lop your head off. I've been on and off the field with this company for the last forty years, and I've seen plenty of dumb Soldiers get sent home in little boxes."
Cloud blinked at the old man.
The sergeant sighed. "Look, watch your back out there, right? Wutai's all trees or bare-ass mountains, and them ninjas know how to hide like nobody's business. You wouldn't know they'd surrounded you until they were on top of you."
Cloud dropped his hand to the hilt of his sword, strapped tightly to his back. He gripped it now, and he nodded.
The man eyed him for a moment, mouth twisted in a grimace, and then he said, "Strife, right? They stopped boarding Soldiers about ten minutes ago. You'd better holler up to get them to drop the ladder again."
"Oh, nah. I'm good." Cloud jogged to the edge of the harbour, his sword clinking a little bit as it tapped against his belt. He tensed at the last step, the muscles bunching in his legs, and then he was flying. Cold wind funneled into his ears, nearly blocking the yell at his back. He spread his arms wide at the apex of his jump, and he loosened his knees to absorb the shock of his landing.
There was a surprised shout from the deck of the ship, but then he was already leaning forward and catching himself with a hand as he thumped onto the pebbled metal.
"Fuck, Strife! Warn a guy before you try to give him a heart attack!"
"You sunovabitch, you're not sorry at all!"
Cloud glanced over the railing while Travers was trying to put him into a headlock, he was digging his thumb hard into the pressure point at the base of the guy's hand to stop him, and they were spinning around in circles on the deck like lunatics. The old sergeant had a funny expression on his face, but Cloud waved anyway.
The man looked like he snorted before he turned back to the cargo ship.
Below decks, the ship was outfitted just like the barracks back in Midgar. Narrow bunks lined the even narrower corridors, and a little stretchy mesh strip was sewn onto the bottoms of the pallets for the Soldiers to stow their belongings.
Every bed Cloud could see was occupied, but judging by the dead silence and the way the Thirds were eyeballing him in their peripheral vision, he was the only Second in the area. He checked his pack quickly: extra uniform, standard; battered aluminum kit, standard; porno mag... He was going to strangle Kunsel next time he saw him.
He quickly rolled up the magazine and stuck it into his back pocket, torn between tossing it overboard immediately and stashing it in Angeal's pack and waiting to see the man's expression when he found it.
Unbuckling the harness that held his sword to his back, Cloud leaned it against the wall within easy reach. He didn't bother kicking off his boots, instead letting his feet dangle off the end of his bunk as he lay back and laced his fingers behind his head on the thin pillow. The wire springs over his head sagged a little in the centre and then squeaked when the upper bunk's occupant shifted. Another moment of silence, and then there was a violent squeal before the Third overhead dropped lightly to the ground.
Cloud watched the guy—mid-twenties, built a bit like an ox—while the Third paused for a moment. Then he straightened up and loped down the row of beds without looking at Cloud once. Cloud stifled a snort, and he closed his eyes.
Only a couple of minutes passed before he heard heavy footsteps clank against the panelling of the floor. Cloud kept his eyes closed and listened. Multiple sets of footsteps. Three people. Long, deep whoosh of air. Big guy, big lungs. Tiny whisper of cloth. Disciplined; little wasted movement. Standing right by his head. Probably not a Third.
Cloud looked up into Travers's face.
Travers rolled his eyes. "You know, if you hadn't been so late, you would have gotten a room on the Seconds' deck."
"Maybe I like it better here," Cloud said blandly. "These guys are probably plenty more fun than you assholes."
Evans edged around Travers to lean against the pole supporting the upper bunks. "You could probably stay with Angeal. I heard the officers get a couch in their cabins."
Cloud thought about it for a moment, and then he grimaced. "Pass, thanks. There's a limit even to my affection."
Travers snickered. "He'd talk about honour and pride the whole night, wouldn't he?"
"Nah, he's not that bad."
Travers smacked his palm against Cloud's knee. "Move, Strife, before I sit on you."
Cloud scowled. "Ever hear of asking nicely, douchebag?" He sat up anyway.
"There's not enough room for us all to stand around. What, were you standing behind the door when they were passing out brains?"
Cloud watched as Travers sprawled over the head of his bed, leaning back on one hand and covering a yawn with the other.
Edward Travers had been on his team during his evaluation for Soldier Second. The man had about five years on Cloud, and he'd been a Second then and would probably stay a Second. The evaluation had involved a leadership exercise after Cloud had gone through the physical and psychological tests, and so Cloud had led a small team of career Seconds on a retrieval mission in a minor terrorist base. Travers had challenged his authority immediately, and Cloud figured he was probably scripted to do so, but it had taken a violent shouting match and an impromptu scuffle before Travers had grinned at him, wiping the blood from his mouth, and said that he wouldn't tell about the fight if Cloud didn't. Cloud had protested that Travers threw the first punch anyway, but the asshole just laughed like he'd forgotten that he'd lost.
The next day, Cloud had just tried on his new purples when Travers burst in on him and dragged him down below the Plate to celebrate.
Evans sighed and scratched his head, where black stubble was starting to show from his shaved scalp. "Sorry, Strife."
Cloud had met Curtis Evans on a mission to the Junon area right after he'd made Second, when faulty information nearly got him and Kunsel killed. The MPs with them had already been killed by the feral monsters that roamed the area, and the anti-Shinra group they were looking for had rigged their base to detonate after locking Cloud and Kunsel in. It had taken all the thunder materia Cloud had to fry the locking mechanism, but that had also plunged them into complete darkness, so when they tore out of the building and raced toward cover, the explosion at their backs knocked them off their feet and blew out their eardrums. Evans had been the Second in charge of the rescue team, and he'd hauled Cloud onto his bike before bitching about him bleeding all over the leather the whole way back to Junon.
Cloud flipped Travers off casually, and the last member of the group rumbled a laugh through his chest.
His name was Peter Hoffe, the quietest, shyest seven-foot tall, three-hundred ten pound Soldier Third Cloud had ever met who could put together a M-4 carbine, including standard accessories, in about forty seconds. The other members of his squad called him Tiny, because if there was anything Cloud could say about Soldier humour, it was that it's predictable. He'd taken the Second evaluation the same time as Cloud, but he'd failed sometime before the leadership trial started, and he'd looked so relieved that Cloud didn't say anything.
"Why were you late, anyway?" Hoffe asked.
"Not that it's any of your business," Cloud said to Travers before turning around to grin at Hoffe, "but I was..." He faltered, his mind coming up blank.
The silence stretched out for a moment before Travers scoffed. "If you're trying to think up a good excuse, don't bother."
"No, I'm sure I..." Cloud frowned. There was an image, just out of reach in his mind. He scrabbled for it mentally, pale little claws glittering in the dark, and a stinging pain shot through his temple. "Ugh," he wheezed, digging his fingers into the side of his head.
There wasn't anything to see. Just blackness, and a girl's voice. "Jeez, Cloud, you shouldn't have slept in today."
"Yeah," said another kid's voice, snide and nasal, "we're already in groups, you know. You'll have to work alone. Again."
There was laughter, like the kid had said something uproariously funny.
Something stung in the back of his eye, and there was the sharp scent of snow in his nose.
Hands grabbed his shoulders.
Snow? Cloud tried to think over the din in his head. He hadn't seen snow until he made Soldier and got sent north on assignment. The smell of humid earth and chirps of jungle frogs darted through his memory.
The buzzing in his ears got louder.
The prickle of ice crystals melting against his skin.
"Strife?" Someone was shaking his shoulder.
The murky light of sun through leafy cover, parasitic flowers sitting high above in splashes of colour.
Cloud's eyes snapped open.
Evans peered down at him. "You okay?"
It took him a couple of seconds to remember how to move his muscles, but then he slid up toward the centre of his bed and shoved Travers onto the floor. "Yeah," he said over Travers's hissy fit. He stretched out on the bed, closed his eyes, and smiled. "Just a headache. Let me get some sack time, and I'll be fine."
They hovered for a moment, and Cloud could feel their stares. He waved a hand at them.
"Get lost. I'll be fine."
"Alright," Travers said finally. "We'll see you at mess."
"Yup." He heard the footsteps again, and when he called after them, he wasn't sure what kind of compulsion it was that made him open his mouth. "Hey, Evans?"
The steps paused. "Yeah?"
"I told you about where I came from, right?"
"Yeah. Nibelheim, right?" Evans said, slowly.
"Right." Cloud reached up, tracing a lopsided mountain range in the air. "Nothing there but a mako reactor and permafrost halfway up the mountain."
When it became apparent that Cloud wasn't going to say anything else, Travers snorted. "See you later, country boy."
It wasn't until after they were long gone that Cloud cracked open his eyes. His bunkmate was back, standing just below the ladder. The Third jumped a little when he met Cloud's eyes.
Cloud reached into his pocket. "Magazine?" he offered.
The ship made a stomach-turning rolling motion, accompanied by a long, low creak, and Cloud curled tighter on his bed.
The barracks were built like a box, shutting out all outside light. A couple of lanterns swayed at each end of the corridor, lending definition to the shadows, but Soldiers didn't really need them anyway. Shapes stood out in sharp relief, lined with a gritty green glow. A particularly loud snore sawed at the air, and Cloud shut his eyes again.
He didn't hear anything this time, not that he probably could over the protests of his stomach, so when the fingers flattened knuckles down against his forehead, he flinched and pulled away.
He looked up at the man, half-stooped because he was too tall, standing by his head, and for a moment he saw a lopsided grin and a thin scar carved into a sharp jaw. Cloud's breath caught in his throat.
"I heard from Evans. Are you sick?"
Cloud blinked hard, and his vision settled. The jaw he saw widened and the forehead furrowed with gentle lines. He blinked again. "Angeal?"
"Were you asleep?"
"No," Cloud said, pulling himself up. "Where were you? Sir?"
"Conference call with Lazard." Angeal crossed his arms and suddenly made a face. "And Heidegger."
Cloud laughed, but it turned into a low moan, and he clutched at his stomach.
"Maybe you should get some air," Angeal said.
"Oh. Probably." Cloud shuffled for the half-open door, ignoring the way Angeal sighed and shook his head.
Cloud heard Angeal follow him, but the First didn't say anything when Cloud lurched for the railing and leaned his head over the side. He didn't do much of anything at all, besides carefully positioning himself upwind while he waited until Cloud had run out of stomach contents and was dry-heaving his guts out.
The water was very black at night, as if they were sailing through a pool of ink. It frothed in the wake of the ship, dirty white foam spreading outward in stringy loops like a cut sponge. He'd seen this before, Cloud thought. On the river that swelled to twice its size every spring, when meltwater poured into it from the mountains and carried anyway anything lighter than a Nibel wolf. He remembered blood dripping into his eyes and an arm bent back the wrong way while his mother screamed in his ear and held him close, even if his clothes were soaked and ruining her dress.
"You didn't use to get motion sick, did you?" Angeal asked suddenly.
"Huh?" Cloud said.
Angeal was frowning at him. "And you were late this morning, too. Honestly, Zack, what—"
Cloud spun around quickly enough that his boot slipped on a patch of spray and shot out from under him. He fell backward, head slamming into the railing hard enough it clanged.
"Cloud!" Angeal crouched in front of him, a hand tight on his shoulder.
Cloud hissed at the pain spreading down from his crown like molten syrup. He checked the hand he'd pressed against his scalp, but he saw no blood.
"What were you doing? Trying to crack your skull open?"
He looked up at Angeal, and he forced his gritted teeth apart. "Who's Zack?"
Angeal stared at him like he'd really knocked his marbles loose. "What?"
Cloud winced, pressing his palm back over his head. The ringing noise was subsiding, so that was probably just in his ears. It didn't explain the laughter he was hearing, though. It was a warm, deep sound, and then he tensed when a hand was pressed firmly against his back.
"It'll be okay, Spiky. Just leave it to me."
"What was that?" Cloud squinted at Angeal.
"What was what?" Angeal shook his head when Cloud glanced around, swaying slightly. "Alright, I'm taking you to the infirmary. You've probably got a concussion if you're hearing things."
The voice lingered in his mind like jet steam in the sky, diffusing a bit, but leaving clear trails as it etched its way across. It left faith in its wake, Cloud realized. He smiled.
"I'm really fine, Angeal."
"Right. I'm still taking you to the infirmary."
Cloud let Angeal lead him down below decks, feeling the phantom warmth of a wide hand over his shoulder blades.
"Heard you tried to jump overboard last night."
Cloud ignored Travers's grin. "Did not. I slipped and hit my head on the rail."
The ground felt a bit like it was still moving under his feet, but Cloud planted his boots firmly and tossed his duffel up onto the back of the truck with the others. Half dead scrubland stretched ahead, and the ocean was at his back.
"Was the railing alright?"
"Oh ha, you bastard."
Dust spin in little funnels over the ground, and long dead stalks of tall grasses crunched under the wheels of the trucks. Overhead, a raptor screamed.
The sand of the beach shifted under his boots and clogged up the treads. Cloud scowled down, kicking the heavy wheels of the truck to dislodge some of it. "How long did they say we'd travel by land?"
"Just a couple of days," Travers said. "We had to dock somewhere we couldn't be ambushed, but that means we're pretty far across the country from the front."
"Right. I'll go get—"
There was a short shriek, and then someone else yelled and the sound of machine gun cartridges emptying filled the air.
Cloud spun toward the sound, right into a whip of flying sand. "Argh!" He shielded his face, blinking his eyes rapidly as they teared up at the grit under his eyelids.
"The fuck is that?" Travers was slotting materia into his bracer as he stared down the beach.
It looked like a turtle, if turtles grew to be about the size of a small tank. Cloud wiped his face against his forearm, unlatched his sword from its sheath, and ran.
It had trampled someone, Cloud realized, seeing the splash of black-red on one of its horny-toed feet. Something glistened unpleasantly, wound around the shield-sized foot, but it quickly turned a dirty dust colour as sand stuck fast to its moist surfaces.
The monster made a hoarse croaking noise, and it turned to slam its shell into another soldier. Streaks of blood covered the sharp spines at the edge of its shell.
A fireball whirled past Cloud, detonating against the creature's shell and leaving black soot in its wake.
"Keep distracting it for me!"
Cloud ducked another fireball and rolled under the monster's tail as it spun around. He swung his sword up in a steep arc, but the turtle skittered back surprisingly quickly, and Cloud only managed to slice an oozing gash across its mouth. He slammed a hand into the ground and used the recoil to half-tumble, half-hop away. The monster's foot thudded into the ground where his head had been.
Cloud threw himself forward into a roll and managed to come up running.
A flurry of thunder spells hit the monster's head, leaving patches of burn marks on the grizzled skin. It stamped its feet, turning first one way and then the other, its eyes rolling at the men in independent frenzied dances.
Growling, Cloud threw his weight forward into a stab, but the monster twitched its head to the side, and the tip of Cloud's sword slashed into its eye, ripping it open and dripping sludge onto his blade, before glancing of the side of its face and sending Cloud stumbling.
Cloud scrabbled at the thing's shell with his free hand, catching the edge with his fingertips and launching himself onto the turtle's back.
He heard himself shouting something unintelligible as he swung his sword down with both hands.
He was still breathing harshly when Angeal tapped his knee to get his attention. Cloud glanced down at the headless beach turtle he was sitting on, and he grimaced at the monster gore covering his sword and arms.
He'd scrubbed his skin raw, but the smell of turtle spinal fluid was extra pungent, as bodily fluids went, and the other Seconds were giving him a damn wide berth.
Angeal leaned back in his seat, stretching his legs out in front of him, and nudged aside a haphazardly stacked pile of sacks. The First made an odd face, like he was smothering a grin, when Cloud looked at him.
"You're not going to hurl now, too, are you?"
Apologies for all the talky-talky. There'll be plenty more action next time.
Chapter 2: Stickerbrush Symphony
Disclaimer: All recognizable characters and settings are property of Square Enix. No profit is being made from the writing of this fanfiction, and no copyright infringement is intended.
It's been fifteen years since this game, and I still can't stop thinking about it. It's probably the crazy. It resonates with my crazy.
Yes, the title is a song rec.
Part 2 - Stickerbrush symphony
Cloud jumped off the back of the truck, and mud squelched under his boots. He laced his fingers together and stretched, his shoulders creaking after the period of inactivity.
It had rained the entire trip, the kind of endless drizzle that kept the Soldiers permanently damp and leeched all warmth from their skin. At night it grew just a bit heavier after a couple of cracks of thunder, and the men clustered over a pack of dog-eared cards in the back of the truck while the ground slowly turned to slurry outside.
The second night, Angeal had gotten out his grease and his cloths. He'd been quiet in his focus, leaning over the Buster sword in his lap, and the Soldiers had found pressing engagements in the other trucks until it was just Cloud left. He'd watched Angeal run his fingers down the detailing near the hilt, staring at something Cloud could not see.
Cloud had lain back on the bench and closed his eyes, listening to the uneven sound of rain dropping from the spoke-leafed tree above them and hitting the tarp.
He looked out over the bivouac. Rows and rows of tents lined up at the base of the steep cliff, and here and there, churned earth marked the spots in which recently uprooted trees had once stood. The oilcloth of the tents gleamed orange under the amber light of the setting sun. Laundry lines strung out between the side posts, and Cloud could see a short kid in a specialist's uniform trying and failing to smooth out the wrinkles in a row of hanging wool blankets he hadn't wrung dry enough.
"Which one do you think is Sephiroth's tent?"
Cloud snorted and tossed his duffel into Travers's face. "Don't be retarded."
Travers slung the bag back into Cloud's stomach by one of the straps. "Legitimate concern, here, asswipe."
"In what way? You going to sneak in at night and offer your services?"
"No, but I might offer yours."
"Name and ID, Soldier," someone snapped from behind him.
Cloud turned to see a man not so much thin as elongated, the stripes on his uniform naming him lieutenant-colonel, and the sour expression on his face naming him logistics officer. The officer looked him over before giving a small, bloodless smile, and Cloud's jaw tightened involuntarily.
Cloud kicked a rock as hard as he could, and it spun through the air and chipped off a slab of bark when it bounced off a tree.
A couple of wide-eyed regulars had done the actual digging, but they couldn't budge the pegs holding the constructs to the ground, so Cloud had had to wrench up the stakes before levering the outhouses onto a rough trolley and hauling the things over to the new location. For what were basically saplings lashed together into hollow shit boxes, they were heavy. By the time he was finished setting up the outhouses and pounding the support pegs back into the ground, the light had faded, and there'd been a line.
Half a dozen Thirds were gathered over a covered stove halfway across the camp, and Cloud could hear the howling from where he stood. He made his way over to a different firepit, and Hoffe looked up at him from where he sat alone.
Hoffe's lips thinned like he was holding back a grin, and he gestured to his own cheek. "You've got a little something..."
Cloud reached up automatically to wipe his face, but he paused just in time, his hand stalled midway to his cheek. "Fuck," he moaned. He dropped to the ground and fidgeted. "Got a rag you never want to see again?"
Hoffe tossed a bunched up scrap over. It had grease stains all over it, but at that point, Cloud would have happily slathered engine grease over his blankets and rolled in it.
He watched Hoffe for a moment. A patch of his mousy brown hair was thinning a bit at his crown, but Hoffe had long since proven immune to razzing about his appearance, and when Cloud had realized exactly why, he'd shut his trap and acted remorseful until Hoffe had levelled him with an exasperated punch and told him that they were even. The Third was hunched over his hands, the little knife he pinched between a couple of knuckles dwarfed by his broad fingers. It flashed erratically as it caught the light of the fire.
"What are you carving?" Cloud said.
It was always an experience, seeing Hoffe blush. It started somewhere under his collar and swept up his neck, bright and even as candy coating. He smiled, opening his palm, and showed Cloud an intricate little river trout, carved out of some sort of chalky coloured wood. He'd been etching the scales.
"For my daughter." He laughed a bit, rubbing his right hand against his pant leg. "My wife thinks I should have gone for a craftsman type job, but everything's kind of more expensive in Midgar, you know?"
Cloud couldn't explain the way his throat tightened. He watched Hoffe scrape at the wood again, pausing to blow some dust from the lines. It drifted into the fire, which popped sharply and spat sparks.
"It's nice," Cloud said.
"Strife. Come here."
Cloud trotted over to where Angeal waited with five other Soldiers.
He'd been told to pack for an assignment the previous night, and so his blanket roll, tucked under the sheath of his sword, thumped against his ass as he jogged. Materia glinted in the slots on his sword's haft, a faint, alive glow he could see from the corner of his eye.
Angeal nodded at him briefly. "As I was saying, what I want from you is speed," he said, addressing the group. "Don't engage enemies if possible, and don't take unnecessary risks. Particulars should have been sent to your PHS units last night."
Angeal did that expectant eyebrow raise thing that Cloud had been trying to master for months without looking like an idiot, and Cloud snapped to attention.
"Divisions one through eight are to relocate approximately fifteen miles closer to the Wutai capital," he said. "We're to seek out a pass through the mountains and report back with route details. Soldier speed."
"Good." Angeal glanced over the group for a moment, and then tilted his head to Cloud. "Strife, you've got command."
Something must have shown on his face, because Angeal's mouth twitched.
"Consider it an... informal evaluation," he said quietly, crossing his arms over his chest. "While I consider whether or not to submit that recommendation for promotion." Angeal raised his voice. "Departure in five minutes." He looked at Cloud again, just before he walked away. "No pressure."
A fire team rushed by after Angeal had gone, and Cloud caught their curious looks. He snapped his mouth shut with a click.
He turned to face the Soldiers.
There were a couple of Seconds and three Thirds. Hoffe gave him a quick flit of a smile when their eyes met through the tinted shell of his helmet. One of the Seconds narrowed his eyes.
Cloud knew the guy. His name was Robertsson, and he'd grown up in the Midgar slums. He carried a switchblade in his boot and had a reputation for knowing his way pretty damn well around materia. It was almost as widespread as his reputation for being generally nasty to anyone he decided was weak. Cloud knew he considered himself tough shit, but since the jagged scar down the side of his face that tugged his right eye into a permanent droop was from the time his father had gotten drunk and smashed a bottle over his temple while he was a kid, Cloud figured the guy had kind of earned it.
Robertsson had gotten himself in over his head once, when he'd taken a solo mission cleaning up a large group of slumtrash hopped up on some illegal mixture that turned out to be laced with crude mako, and Cloud had been close enough to interfere while they were trying to play Scalp the Soldier.
Robertsson hadn't said anything once they'd gotten back topside, but he'd given up the VR training room to Cloud a couple of times since.
He didn't recognize the other three. The Thirds were watching him intently, but the last Second had an unreadable expression on his face.
Robertsson nodded to him, the tiniest jerk of his head.
No fucking pressure.
They'd reached the base of the mountain range separating South Wutai from the Central regions three hours after departure.
Stepping over an upraised root, Cloud glanced at the mountains. He wouldn't have called it a range. More like a series of jagged spires and cliff faces from which more rock jutted into more mountain, as if the entire structure was an enormous sedentary life form that reproduced via budding. The few gaps he'd found so far had been of the bottomless chasm variety.
One of the Thirds—Geoffreys, he'd called himself—slapped at his arm, leaving a rusty smear of blood where the belly of the insect that had been feeding through his skin burst. He'd quietly but vehemently expressed his dislike for bugs once they'd hit the thickest parts of the forest, though he'd seemed sheepish when Cloud had looked back at him.
They were eating up ground quickly. Cloud had Robertsson cover the rear while he'd taken point. The other Second had introduced himself as Janes, and Cloud had put him on flank support. There'd been a couple of false alarms when something had moved too suddenly in the trees, and Cloud was debating whether or not he should pull Geoffreys off to the side and tell him to relax. The Third was probably only a year or two older than Cloud, and he was pretty sure the guy had come over on the same boat a week ago.
There was another gap in the trees in front of him. Cloud stopped, raising a spread hand.
He heard it again, a sound like the tapping of a fingernail against a bar, clicking faintly.
Janes drew up beside him. "Wutai?"
Cloud's hand rested on the bulb at the base of his broadsword's hilt. He scanned the muted green. "Not human," he said. "Likely hostile. It's waiting for us."
Hoffe stood on Cloud's other side, the muzzle of his rifle pointing at the brush and the ridges of the silencer gleaming under the hazy glow of linked materia. "Should I check it out?"
"No," Cloud said. "Outside of our mission parameters. Let's try to go—"
Janes's palm thumped into Cloud's chest, shoving him back while he jumped away to the side.
Yellow gunk sprayed against the trees and settled on the ground, too clammy to be powder and too chunky to be slime. The plants turned a mottled brown-green, the colour spreading from the point of contact like a bruise, and Cloud thought he could hear an indistinct sizzling.
More of the muck splattered to the ground behind them, where Robertsson stood in front of the Thirds, forcing them along as he backed away. "Fuckers are trying to herd us," he spat. He flipped his long hand daggers into a defensive stance, and hissing flames coated the blades.
The clicking had swelled into a riot of chattering.
Cloud saw the monsters now, flat segmented carapaces weaving sinuously as their long, thin legs carried them forward. It was their mandibles that were snapping together to make the aggressive clicking noise as they advanced over the poison-stained ground.
Hoffe tried to stand his ground for a moment, before Cloud edged him back away from the bug monsters to collect in a rough shield formation with the other Soldiers. His eyes flickered to his sides. They were thoroughly surrounded.
"What the fuck are the crotch crickets doing?" asked one of the Thirds.
"They're probably flesh-eaters," Cloud said, watching the monster in front of him twist its head this way and that to regard him with glittering compound eyes. His eyes swept the circle of wolf-sized bugs again. "Okay, our priority is to get out of this stand-off." With a soft snick, he loosened his sword from its sheath and slid it slowly upwards. "Janes and I will take out the two at north and northeast, and we will take the opening to cross the treeline and regroup against the mountain base. Robertsson, cover us with Fire and follow."
"Un," Robertsson grunted.
Cloud listened as the other Soldiers muttered assent. He frowned. Four responses.
Cloud shot a look over his shoulder.
Geoffreys's knuckles were white over the glossy black of his machine gun barrel. His eyes were fixed on the monster at his feet. It reared up off its front set of legs, and its antenna flicked back and forth, as if tasting the air.
Cloud could hear his short, cracked breathing, whistling against the edge of his helmet.
The bug snapped its mandibles again.
Geoffreys took in a sharp breath, his shoulder twitched, and he shrieked, right before he opened fire at the monster.
Bullets shredded the delicate mouth parts and front legs of the monster, but they only cracked its carapace before bouncing off and raising dust from the ground.
Cloud couldn't make out the jumble of shouts over the sound of Geoffreys's gun. There was a brief flash of light on metal, and Cloud felt the pressure of the passage of a bullet by his ear as Janes blocked a stray ricochet.
The monster made a keening noise, jaundiced ooze dripping from its broken mouth. Cloud lunged out, dug both hands into Geoffreys's collar, and dragged the Soldier off his feet, backward out of range of a spray of poison. The bug wasn't able to propel the blast very far from its shattered mouth. Rattling their chitin shells, the other monsters surged toward the Soldiers.
"God fucking dammit, Geoffreys!"
The Third continued shooting, peppering the branches above them and dropping chips of wood and fragments of leaf onto them. Cloud seized the housing of the gun, squawked at the sear of heat into his hand, and he tightened his fingers against the strain of springs under the metal. Using his other arm, he slammed his elbow into the weak spot at Geoffreys's wrist, and the gun twisted in his hand before clattering to the ground.
There was the roar of fire, and a series of popping noises as pieces of the bugs, caught in the flames, couldn't contain the pressure of vaporizing insect soup under the shells.
Something shot out at him, and Cloud threw himself into a duck, rolled, and came to a stop on his back under a monster's belly. He swung, a quick shear of his sword, and his boot caught on one of the bug's legs as he scrambled out and away. The clip knocked the monster off balance, and it collapsed into a pile of convulsing legs, its two halves sliding slowly apart as the fluid tension keeping them together peeled away.
Cloud ignored the bisected monster. Another scythe-like leg had swung at his neck as soon as he'd struggled to his feet, and he let himself collapse to the side so that the blow passed over his head, snagging on his hair and ripping out what felt like a couple of clumps.
He adjusted his grip on his sword, and he moved.
Aside from the crunch of chitin giving away under the blade, there was very little resistance when he sliced into the monsters. It was different from the sensation of muscle and tissue adhering to the smooth walls of his weapon as it slid through, parting, but unwilling to yield. There wasn't the slurp and gush of blood, either, just the screech of shell rasping against metal that made the nerves in his spine clang.
He knew he was leaving a mess, bits of bug scattering over the ground and sticking to his skin and clothes, but the monsters operated under a style of relentless, simultaneous assault, and Cloud shut out his mind, letting himself hear the sing of his body. Muscles, cartilage, sensations in tandem, until the rush of air under his sword was as much a part of him as the breath in his lungs.
There wasn't much room to work, surrounded by trees and brawling Soldiers, and the exoskeleton pieces littering the earth were beginning to restrict their movements.
There was only one monster left, a big mother of a beast that looked like it could push over a tree with its head. It hung back, chittering and twisting its body as it looked at them.
Its head turned suddenly, and Cloud saw what caught its attention just as it started its lunge, mandibles and bladed legs spread wide. Geoffreys had levered himself to his feet, and his hands were fumbling for something at his belt as the bug dove toward his blind spot.
Hoffe bellowed something, lifting a bracer on which materia flashed bright.
Cloud had already shifted, his sword angled to bite into the monster's mouth, and its jaws pistoned, chewing ineffectually at the blade jammed into its face. The force of the monster's lunge forced Cloud's braced feet into a skid, and the sharp tip of one of its legs sank into his shoulder.
He heard the clink of magic collect in the air, and he saw the plume of his breath as specks of moisture crystallized in front of his mouth.
Three ice spells sprouted jagged icicles at the same time, and another series pounded into the monster right after, encasing every part of its body in semi-opaque fragments that glittered like hard crystal.
It cracked, one long line down the length of the block, and then the monster shattered into pieces and hit the ground with thuds and the brittle chime of ice blocks smashing into each other.
Cloud had overbalanced at the loss of pressure, and he landed with an ass-jarring thump. He looked up. Geoffreys's hand was shaking like a half-torn leaf from the drain of energy into the spells, and the materia on his wrist still glowed bright and filled the air with the smell of ozone as remaining spits of magic split the molecules they lanced.
There were more tinkles as the frozen monster continued decomposing.
Hoffe rested his hands on his knees, and he sucked in a long, loud breath. "Think there are more of them?" he said.
"Do you really want to find out?" Janes said drily.
Cloud looked around. Robertsson had a sluggishly weeping gash on his arm, and the shredded patch of Hoffe's uniform showed slick red underneath. Cloud rotated his shoulder experimentally, and the raw edges of the hole in his skin ground together unpleasantly.
"We should get ourselves to safer ground," he said, wincing at the gunk on his sword and wiping it on the leg of his pants before sheathing it. "Let's get going."
He watched the Soldiers pick themselves up, and he cut back a sigh.
"Geoffreys, come with me."
Cloud slung the canteens over his shoulder. There'd been a huge river at the bottom of one of the mountains, cut into the rock deep enough that by the time he'd skidded down to water level, it'd been solid black all around him and he'd nearly pitched face first into the icy rush.
He sucked at the cuts on his fingers, and they stung like the papercut from hell. The climb up had been even more fun, especially when the water-logged sediment had crumbled under his hands and he'd dangled for a good minute from his sword where he'd reflexively jabbed it into the rock face.
Cloud hissed between his teeth and checked his shoulder again. Hoffe's neat little stitches were holding up well. There was barely a dribble of blood after his fall and subsequent wrenching stop.
Watery moonlight filtered through the tree cover, too weak to cast shadows in the gloom.
The dark forms of tree trunks melded into a shapeless mass in the distance, but then Cloud scowled, dropped the canteens, and propelled himself into a dash at what he saw.
"Oi!" he shouted.
Robertsson flicked an eye in his direction before turning his slitted stare back to the man he had pinned to rough bark. Cloud saw his lips move, forming words too soft for him to hear, and then, slowly, Robertsson's hands unwound themselves from Geoffreys's uniform collar. The Third staggered back against the tree as Cloud stepped between the Soldiers, and his breath whistled in his bruised throat.
"What the hell was that, Robertsson?"
He saw the Second's jaw shift like he was working a pip out of his teeth. "Just discussing Geoffreys's performance today," Robertsson said after a moment, staring somewhere beyond Cloud's left ear.
"Let me guess. A friendly pep talk?" Cloud said, leaning forward into Robertsson's face until the Soldier's eyes snapped to him.
"He needed it."
"I decide what he needs, in case you've forgotten."
Robertsson's mouth twitched, and his nostrils flared. It was a while before he broke eye contact. "I haven't forgotten," he said, the words sharp and short.
"Glad to hear it," Cloud said. He stepped back, resisting the urge to dig his nails into his scalp and scream at Angeal. "You're on first watch, as I recall."
Cloud waited until his muffled footsteps faded in the dark.
Geoffreys ducked his head when Cloud looked at him as he went back for the canteens.
"Yes. I—sorry, sir."
Cloud snorted, bending over to snatch up the straps. "That's fucking weird, man; I'm not a sir. I told you. Call me Cloud."
"Oh. Right," Geoffreys mumbled.
"Look, don't worry. I'm not going to bitch you out again." He slotted his water canteen into his belt and dumped the rest into Geoffreys's hands. "You can carry those, though. Come on. Let's get back to camp." Cloud waited until Geoffreys had wound the straps around his arm and jogged to catch up. "What were you doing out here, anyway? Robertsson call you out?"
"No, not really. It's not like he didn't have a point. I fucked up."
"Well, sure, but quit thinking about it. Robertsson's got his daggers stuck so far up his ass that they're probably lodged in his throat."
Geoffreys's mouth flattened. "If I was stronger—"
"You've gotta rely on the rest of us more," Cloud interrupted. "We're a team. We've got your back, and you get ours. There's no point just wanting to be strong for yourself." He watched the Third for a moment, and he shrugged. "We're friends, right?"
Geoffreys stopped and looked at him. "Friends?"
Green. An acrid burn in his throat and lungs. All green.
A wide grin, distorted by glass and a flurry of bubbles. His vision twisted, jumping like a yoyo on crack. He saw his hand—green—reach out and press, wide as he could spread his fingers, against curved glass.
Green. Green greengreengreen.
"Are you okay?"
"Fine," he snapped, faster than he intended. "Let's go."
"Wait, I was looking for you before Robertsson jumped me. A report. While I was collecting supplies for the camp, I found a pass through the mountains that looked promising. It's about twenty minutes west along the range."
A grin spread slowly over Cloud's face. "Yeah? Sounds pretty awesome. Right, I'll go check it out. You head back to the others." Cloud slapped a hand against Geoffreys's back, and there was the dull clunk of a gun harness. "All goes well, we could be out of this monster shit-infested forest sooner than later." He checked his position on his PHS before setting out. "Oh yeah," he called over his shoulder, "tell the rest of the men that I've got dibs on your ass, and if they try anything, I know the company's sexual harassment policies by heart."
Geoffreys's sputtering behind him, Cloud pushed past a cluster of twisted branches and closed his eyes to the green.
The growth didn't thin out as he moved, so Cloud didn't see anything until he squeezed out of the last line of trees and the ground dropped in a shallow curve right before his feet.
He looked over the wide valley, filled with stiff grasses that waved with the crinkly rasp of leaves in the wind, overpowering the mating call chirps of invisible things behind him. He waded into the waist high fronds, and the serrated edges of the grass snagged gently at his uniform.
The air sucked at his cheeks, a bit cold and a bit damp, but he raised his face into it anyway.
He grinned, and he started the trek back.
The grey light of pre-dawn smudged out hard edges.
Cloud stamped his way through another thick clump of grasses, raising his feet high enough to crush the thick stems under his boots.
Hoffe glanced at him from where he worked up ahead, and he snorted before stepping into Cloud's path, swinging his machete in a quick arc, and hacking a wide swath to make it easier for Cloud to walk.
"If you were just going to bitch about your sword getting scratched, you should have stayed back sippin' tea with the rest of the ladies."
"Fuck off, Robertsson."
The man gave him a lopsided grin that made the edges of his scar whiten, and he switched his own machete from hand to hand as he worked, cutting an even path.
Robertsson hadn't said anything about the previous altercation when he'd gotten back from his patrol. He'd nodded at Cloud and flung himself down onto his bedroll, and he'd left Geoffreys alone. He'd been positively chatty when Cloud had woken the Soldiers before dawn and told them they would probably head back today after making sure the pass didn't dead end somewhere in the mountains.
There was probably something significant about this in a way that made more sense to Robertsson than it did to Cloud, but he wasn't about to bring it up.
"Pass looks good," Robertsson said, looking up at the lightening sky.
"Yeah, Geoffreys did good."
"He'd better," Robertsson said, loud enough for Geoffreys to hear. "No bugs here."
There were a couple of snickers behind them.
Cloud frowned. "Right. No bugs." He looked around at the silent grasses, and then up at the solid rock faces of the cliffs hemming them in. There was a heavier shadow about halfway up, but Cloud didn't see anything moving in the recess.
Robertsson had been peering around with narrowed eyes, too. The rest of the Soldiers had stopped, and they edged closer, hands on weapons.
"No bugs, no birds," Cloud said.
"Ambush?" Hoffe said.
"There's nothing alive around here. You feel it?" Robertsson said.
The sun rose. It was one of those bright pink dawns, and light streaked over the cliff faces like watered down blood, throwing long, black fingers of shadows across the rock. There was a gust of wind, and the grass rustled.
"Let's move on," Cloud said, after a while. "I'm pretty sure I see the other end of the pass."
His eyes flickered back and forth over the cliffs as they began to walk. Nothing moved.
There was a hiss behind him. "Ow! Shit!"
Cloud swung around. It was one of the Thirds. Jordon, longsword, his mind supplied. Not very good at magic. There was a ragged slash on his elbow, and blood dribbled slowly onto the ground.
"What was that?" Hoffe said.
"I didn't see anything move," Jordon said. He shook his arm, and he switched to a two-handed grip on his weapon.
Cloud unsheathed his sword, wrenching it from his back. He brought it up in time to deflect a whip of several long blades of grass, their razor edges whirling like a saw.
The rustling really was a lot louder than the wind warranted.
Around them, clumps of weed were shifting, dragging their roots from the ground with jerky movements that reminded Cloud of the picture flipbooks Kunsel liked to make from their training manuals, where thumbing through the pages fast enough made some kind of stupid drawing on the edges flicker and animate.
With clacks of heavy stalks slapping against each other, the things danced. The earth churned, sending clods of dirt flying.
One of the grass monsters dived at Cloud, and he swung at it. Sliced straight down its centre, the severed stalks oozed sap and fell limp. He caught another one on the upswing, and it shed long leaves, staggered on its twisted roots, and toppled over.
He spun, sending a couple more of the monsters tumbling with shrill whistling noises, and he raised his free hand. Heat pooled in his palm, and spiralling fireballs spread out to slam into the grassy crowns. The flames caught quickly, incinerating a few more of the monsters before what looked like a mob of weeds converged on the stricken things, blades whirring, shredding them as they smothered the fire.
Cloud slashed apart a tangle of rushing grass monsters, and he threw himself forward into a tight roll when he felt something snag at the back of his uniform. There was a ripping noise, and the tear over his spine felt unpleasantly breezy, but the weed hadn't managed to catch his skin.
"What is wrong with this country, where bugs and fucking grass try to eat us?" Janes's voice yelled from somewhere out of his line of sight.
"Quit moaning and fight!" Robertsson snapped.
The weeds were everywhere. Cloud couldn't see the ground for dense, rattling saw blades, stretching out through the pass. They hopped on their roots, darting forward and back, their stalk crowns spinning in blurs. He jumped over a line of weeds, shearing down through them before twisting to avoid a flying clump of grass aimed at his face. There was a brief gap in the mass of green, and when Cloud blinked, it was filled with more blades.
A bit further off, an explosion sent flames and soot roaring up into the sky, and dirt slid from the cliffs around them. The blackened patch of ground vanished under another rush of weed monsters.
"They're definitely weak to fire." Robertsson's back slapped against Cloud's, and he sliced through a whistling monster with his hand daggers, sending its shredded leaves tumbling. "But the ones that don't get hit directly know how to prevent it from spreading."
Cloud grunted, hacking into a rush of weeds. "They die if their roots or main stalk is taken out," he shouted back.
The other Second made a short noise in the back of his throat, and he cast another blast of fire. The sensation of magic energy rising from the man's skin made the hairs on the back of Cloud's neck crackle.
"There's just too many of them," Hoffe said, his words forced out from between tightly clenched teeth.
Cloud glanced over his shoulder quickly as he slashed up and across another spinning charge. Hoffe was breathing hard, augmenting his gun with fire materia so that the barrel glowed red. There were livid lacerations over his ankles and legs.
Cloud swung around in time to raise his sword up, and the monster hurtling toward him spit itself into his blade before sliding off in two chunks. The weed monsters seemed pretty mindless, rushing headlong with razor stalks spinning, but their numbers were not thinning under the Soldiers' attacks. "We have to retreat!"
"How?" Robertsson said.
There was a raw scream, and a burst of gunfire.
Cloud swatted a flying weed monster and sent it smashing into a cliff as he darted toward the Third, ripping through the monsters that tried to block his way. Bits of grass clung to his sword, where monster sap had made the blade sticky.
Hoffe had gone down, thudding onto his back, and weed monsters swarmed him, battering at his helmet and sawing at his arms where he'd raised them to protect his neck.
Cloud mowed the things down, bits and slices of weed slapping down onto Hoffe's arms and chest. More of them started dashing forward in their odd skipping step, but a barrage of fireballs slapped into the monsters and drove them back long enough for Cloud to haul Hoffe up—he tried to avoid the mangled flesh at Hoffe's forearm, but his grip slipped on the blood and the Third bit back another scream—and yank the man over his shoulder.
He looked around. Geoffreys and Janes had taken position in front of him to hold off a wave of weed monsters, some of them with Hoffe's blood smeared over their blades, and Robertsson was dragging Jordon back behind him while he cast successive blasts of fire.
"Up there!" Cloud pointed.
"What?" Janes said, wiping monster sap from his jaw.
"I saw a cave, earlier!" He didn't wait for a response, took an awkward hopping run at it, and he leaped.
Cloud realized that he'd overshot in midair. Shouting, he twisted hard, bringing Hoffe's limp weight around so that the Third wouldn't take the brunt of the impact, just before they slammed into the rock wall in the dip in the cliff. His shoulder hit the stone, and it screamed at him. His teeth ground together, and his grip slipped as he fumbled for better purchase so that he wouldn't drop Hoffe. Fuck, it was the shoulder with the hole in it. Fuckity fuck.
There were more thumps behind him, and he saw Geoffreys windmill for a moment before tipping forward and clinging to the rock face.
The recess had looked a lot bigger in the hazy light before dawn. There was barely enough room for him to lay Hoffe down on the cool stone. Robertsson was perched on the lip of the cave, scowling down outside, and Cloud leaned over to look.
Weed monsters clustered on the ground, so thick that their crowns looked like a ragged mat. Once or twice, a couple of the things launched themselves up at the cave, but smashed into the cliff face far short of the weather-scraped lip.
The broken stems of the monsters that had failed the leap didn't deter more of the things from trying, and Cloud remembered the huge black flies that kept getting into his mother's house during summer, and the thumps of their bodies slapping into the window, over and over again until they had broken their wings and lay twitching on the sill.
Hoffe moaned quietly behind him.
Cloud watched as Geoffreys cut away the blood-soaked fabric of Hoffe's uniform around his legs. The monsters had ripped into the tops of Hoffe's boots, and the skin looked flayed away, a couple of twisting strips of flesh hanging over the mangled leather. Glistening, half red and half white, crushed bone was visible in patches. Hoffe's right forearm looked worse.
Cloud tapped Geoffreys's shoulder as Janes stuffed the leg wounds tight with cloth and the Third prepared to wrap a tourniquet around Hoffe's shin. Wordlessly, he took the second roll of bandages that Geoffreys offered, and he turned to Hoffe's arm.
He'd almost finished tying off the bandage when Jordon slumped to the floor, back of his head pressed hard against the cave wall behind him. "Fuck, Strife, you'd think you'd check to see if the valley was stuffed through the shitspitter with Razorweeds before trying to pass through it," he rasped, his voice flat and level.
Robertsson turned his head just a bit, and his scarred eye fixed on Cloud. "I've never seen so many of them in one area," he said, "but Strife probably didn't know they existed, did he? This is his first time in Wutai."
Cloud's jaw clenched. The throbbing in his head was starting to localize at his temples, but the Soldiers were watching him, and he kept his hands down at his sides. His eyes narrowed, and he leaned forward, grabbing Jordon's arm. He ignored Jordon's shout, and he turned the man's arm until he could see the elbow. He hissed under his breath. A particularly virulent purple colour was crawling up the Third's arm from the slash he'd received, and Jordon's face contorted. The skin was hot to the touch.
Cloud dug through the day pack strapped to his hip, prying apart the flaps over the padded compartments, and he pulled out a small glittering phial.
"Splash some on your arm and drink the rest," Cloud said.
"What about Hoffe?"
Janes made a quiet noise, and Cloud saw the Second hand over another dose of the antidote to Geoffreys. He nodded his head briefly. His shoulder was sending stabs of pain straight to his spine, and his headache was bloating heavy and stiff. He breathed deeply, closing his eyes. "What information do we have on these Razorweeds?"
There was a pause, and then Jordon said, "Not a lot, actually. We hadn't encountered them often. Their data didn't say they were poisonous."
"And they only become active during daylight," Cloud said.
"Are you suggesting we sit in this rock crack until night?" Jordon said loudly.
"No, Hoffe won't make it that long." There was a particularly sharp sting over his eye, and Cloud winced.
"Well, what's your plan, then?"
Cloud didn't say anything. Hoffe's skin was waxy under his dark tan, and sweat beaded under his nose. Cloud had seen Soldiers go into shock before. He looked at Hoffe's slack face, and his nails dug into his palms.
"Strife," Robertsson said quietly, and Cloud heard the edge to his voice.
"Just let me think!" he snapped.
He swallowed. The full length of his arm blazed. His breath felt like it ripped at his throat, raw and swollen from drowning over and over again. The thumping of his head filled his ears. It pulsed, thudding, receding, returning, until it sounded like the roar of an airship engine with the turbines right by his head and about to churn his brains into sausage mush.
The noise was gone so suddenly, the quiet sounded deafening in his ears.
There was a laugh, and a warmth behind his back.
"These city mudsuckers wouldn't know what to do if a good plan jumped up and bit them in the ass."
Cloud closed his eyes. The white haze was everywhere, a bit misty near the ground, like heavy, low-lying fog. It was bright enough that he could still see a bit of the light through his eyelids, just a hint of red, a network of capillaries lying over his eyes.
"Want me to take care of it?"
Cloud's eyes snapped open, and he looked at Robertsson. "We're getting out of here."
"We'll fight. There is no acceptable alternative."
Robertsson stood up, and the light from the cave mouth behind him illuminated only half of his face.
"You're Soldiers, aren't you?" Cloud unslotted his Firaga with a click, and he handed it to Janes. "Think you can't fry a few weeds?" He nodded to Geoffreys. "Stay here. I need you to take care of the wounded."
The Third gave him a sloppy salute.
"Robertsson and Janes, come with me." Cloud stood at the lip of the cave, and he stared down at the rippling mess below. "Cover me with Fire," he said. "Spread it wide as you can." He raised a hand, and his knuckles popped when he clenched it into a tight fist. "We're going to waste these compost pile rejects."
"You're insane," Janes said, after a moment. "You're fucking nuts."
Cloud tugged his sword from its sheath, and it sang through the air, flashing bright in the morning sunlight as he spun it in his hand, its pivot point rubbing into his palm where the hilt was worn smooth. He turned his head back and met Janes's eyes. He grinned wide, baring his teeth, and he jumped into open air.
His sword slashed down first, and the impact sent clumps of dirt and rock flying like shrapnel. Weed monsters tumbled into the air, falling back among the spinning blades of the Razorweeds jostling for position behind them and knocking them over as they were ripped to pieces.
Fwumps of fireballs splashed into the mass of monsters, dust fountaining up in jets.
Cloud adjusted his grip on his sword, and he attacked again.
Heat ran through him, riding his blood. Sweat stung as it trickled into his eyes, and he tasted its salt at the corner of his mouth.
He didn't notice when the magical bombardment stopped until Janes's sword cut through a monster trying to grind its way into his side, and the Soldier pitched against his shoulder before he caught his balance.
Robertsson dropped to the ground on the other side of him, and he shook his head, his breath ragged, when Cloud glanced at him. "I'm out. Can't cast anymore."
"Get back up there," Cloud said, cleaving down. His sword sent another shockwave into the ground, and dirt shot up, slopping like a splash of water.
"You need our help," Janes snarled. "You're going to die down here."
Robertsson laughed as he swiped his daggers widthwise across a couple of monsters. It sounded like a hoarse bark. "We're all going to die down here."
Cloud's sword weaved, and his knuckles tightened as he widened his stance. A sticky heat was leaking from the ripped stitches in his shoulder, and he shifted his balance to redistribute the pressure. Streaks of red decorated his arms like they were some kind of macabre candycane. The poison hadn't discoloured his skin, not yet, but he could feel the patches of numbness as it spread.
He nearly took Janes down with him when he tipped forward.
"We're not," he hissed. "We're not going to die here." He hacked a weed into a couple of pieces and sent them shooting through the air. He raised his sword over his head. "Get back."
"You can't even stand on your own, Strife!"
Slowly, his fingers curled, and the sword began to whirl over his head.
"What the fuck—"
It picked up speed, humming like built up static in the atmosphere. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw light coat the blade, orange like it had sucked up the sun and was spewing it all back out again.
Chattering, the monsters surged forward toward him.
"Oi!" Janes shouted.
Cloud saw the arm reach out for him, and the fingers scraped over his skin just as he launched himself into the air and slung his sword forward.
The sky split open, and great chunks of rock pounded into the ground, coating it with ashy fire near the whole length of the valley. The thumps rattled the cliffs and battered his eardrums, and heat blazed, baking him from below.
The fire belched black, rushing back and forth as it greedily consumed every speck of available fuel, and just as suddenly, it blinked out.
The ground was still almost uncomfortably warm when Cloud's boots thudded down. His knees rebelled, and he swung his sword up and hastily stabbed the point into the ground. Clinging to the hilt, he stared. Oily soot covered the ground, lifting and flattening again in flakes as heat wafted them upward. The acrid smell of smoke made his eyes water, and he dropped his head onto his arms.
"Good one, Spike."
He jerked, pulling his eyes up. He looked around, a strange hollow feeling settling into his throat. Nothing to see.
Robertsson had lurched down from where he'd been clinging to the cliff face, and he was staring around the scorched terrain with an odd expression on his face.
"Fuck, Strife. Trust you to pull this kind of shit straight out of your ass."
When he hears the voices, they're garbled, like they're filtering through a layer of water.
He hears them, off and on, when he's awake.
He's pretty sure he's awake. It's hard to tell, because he doesn't remember being asleep. He must, though, because there are gaps in his awareness, just solid chunks chopped out with no in-between state to indicate that here is where the boundary between awake and not awake is.
Maybe he just doesn't remember.
His memory is divided into shelves, he thinks. Something is taking out those shelves—inspecting them?—and then slotting them back into place if they pass the test. He doesn't know what happens to the ones that don't pass because he can't find them. Maybe they're gone, snipped out by unseen scissors. Maybe they're hidden, shuffled somewhere out of reach.
He's guessing, really. It's not as if he can prove they were there in the first place.
He must be frowning, because there's a hand on his forehead. It's warm, a bit clammy.
"—are you going to stop—"
"—going to be—"
"—he's dying, Tifa!"
Cloud sat down on the little stool beside the low infirmary cot. The operation had finished up hours ago, but he could still smell the blood and the anesthetics in the air.
He figured he should maybe take Hoffe's hand. They did that in movies a lot, and it always looked like a comforting sort of thing.
Cloud scowled, and he clenched his fist tight. He couldn't take Hoffe's hand.
He'd been stupid and sat on the side where the stump was.
Hoffe shifted a bit, and Cloud sat up straight.
Hoffe's eyes opened a crack, and when he saw Cloud, his lips turned up, just at the sides.
"They're sending me home," he said.
Cloud smiled back, his cheeks stiff.
Ugh, I've remembered why fighting monster mobs is so tedious and repetitive. I swear there will be less of this as the plot progresses.
Chapter 3: Those Wings
Disclaimer: All recognizable characters and settings are property of Square Enix. No profit is being sought from the writing of this fanfiction, and no copyright infringement is intended.
I couldn't avoid canon progression for much longer without it getting ridiculous on me.
First, though, I apologize. I don't have a beta for video game stuff, so you may notice me polishing this up even after it should technically be done. Endless fighting is good and well in game, but not so exciting in text form. There will be room to breathe next time.
Part 3. Those wings
In the right light, at exactly the right angle, materia became translucent.
Normally, it captured the light that struck it inside the sphere, bouncing the photons back and forth, up and down, within the curve of its shell until it looked opaque, lit by an inner glow.
Cloud flicked his wrist, tossing the command materia up again.
At the apex of its flight, it hung, just for a moment, at the precise location, and sunlight lanced it. Light shot through, shattered beams of yellow that sprayed outward, banding the ground beside Cloud's head with its patterns of interference. The pattern shifted as it began its drop, and a ray scathed over Cloud's eyes. He flinched, but he didn't blink, and suddenly the light was gone, just before the materia tumbled into Cloud's hand, solid colour in a solid ball.
He tipped his palm, letting it roll into his fingers, and he snapped it back up into the air.
Cloud blinked, and he lowered his empty hand. He propped himself up onto his elbows and tilted his head back to see a wall of black.
Angeal nested the materia between two fingers, and he raised up his arm. He squinted as he peered up at the bright orb against the bright sky.
"You can see through it if you hold it up right," Angeal said.
"Simpler than throwing it."
Cloud shrugged. He pulled himself to his feet, dragging a hand through his hair to dislodge bits of grass that spun as they tumbled to the ground.
"Soldier Third Class Hoffe left this morning."
Cloud frowned. "Did he ask for me?" He tugged the strap that held his sword's harness to his back, and it tightened with an obliging creak.
Angeal lowered the materia, and he looked at Cloud, rolling the little ball around his fingers. "Cloud, you're turning into a recluse."
"Hey, if I go down there, they'll make me shovel chocobo shit or something. I swear the higher ups in the Regs have it in for me." He turned fully to face Angeal, and he grinned. "What, do I look like a recluse to you?"
"You look like an immature child who's experiencing loss for the first time."
In the silence, Cloud looked away.
When Angeal sighed, Cloud dipped his head, and the side of his mouth tugged. "When did you turn into my shrink?" he said. "Sir," he added.
Angeal snorted. "When I got saddled with a troublesome pupil like you." The First snapped his knuckles against the side of Cloud's head and dropped the materia into Cloud's hand in the same movement. "Come on," he said while Cloud fumbled with the sphere, "I haven't been training you enough lately if you've gotten mouthy on me."
Angeal's sword clashed against his and scraped up a shower of sparks when Cloud turned his wrist to deflect the pressure. As the First's sword dragged down his blade, Cloud ducked down and used the friction to shove himself into a pivot. He dug his heel into the dirt as he twisted, disengaging to swing his sword up and aiming his slash at Angeal's flank, where the Buster sword didn't cover his back.
He barely saw the movement before Angeal blocked him, broadsword angled over his shoulder and forcing through the progression to shove Cloud's strike off and to the side.
Cloud brought his sword up quickly to catch Angeal's down blow, and he felt his boots lift just a bit off the ground at the power behind the strike. He leaped backward, bringing his weapon into a two-handed guard as he recovered his balance.
When Angeal lunged, his blade a diagonal fissure of light, Cloud launched himself up into the air, corkscrewing to face Angeal's back. The First swung around, bringing his sword up.
No foothold in midair. He couldn't dodge. Cloud braced his weapon on the back of his fist, and he juggled it rapidly to block the quick succession of strikes. He threw the last blow upwards, pushing Angeal back a step and giving himself enough propulsion to flip back and away.
Cloud pushed off his back leg as soon as he landed, darting forward and feinting left. He dropped the tip of his sword when Angeal raised his weapon to block, weaved under, and smacked it against the flat of Angeal's blade. He switched hands, aiming for the brief hole in Angeal's guard, and he grinned.
Angeal's fist drove into his stomach a split second before the First bent his arm, brought up his forearm to catch him under the chin, and wacked Cloud flying across the training ground.
Cloud's breath rushed out of his lungs when he landed on his back, and he wheezed, ignoring the coolness of metal at his throat.
He scowled up at Angeal.
"Giving up?" Angeal said.
Cloud swiped out with his leg at the First's knee. It missed, but at the same time, he knocked Angeal's wrist upward with a fist and swung his weapon in a whistling arc, bashing aside Angeal's sword just enough for him to throw himself into a roll.
He came up into a crouch, and felt at his neck with his free hand. No bleeding. Good.
"Give up?" he rasped. He cleared his throat. "Funny."
Angeal laughed, adjusting the Buster sword on his back before raising his broadsword and stepping back into his stance.
Cloud caught a flash of movement in the corner of his vision.
Catlike green eyes, slits constricted against the bright artificial lighting, met his.
Sephiroth turned away, his long coat flapping out for a moment with his passage.
Angeal sighed, pushing his fingers through his hair, his blade dipping to rest against his boot. "It's alright," he said quietly, "he's been there for a while."
"Don't worry about it." Angeal inspected the edge of the broadsword in his hands before slotting it back onto the weapons rack, under the tarp stretched out on heavy poles.
Cloud waited, watching Angeal stretch out his shoulders and roll his neck to the side. "Couldn't the General have wanted to talk to you?" he said.
Angeal paused in his cool down and looked at him.
"No," he said finally. "Probably not."
Cloud shook his head. "Did something happen?" he persisted.
"Does it have something to do with the mass desertion the Director mentioned before we were sent here?"
Angeal hopped the fence around the training area, and he waved a gloved hand over his shoulder. "Nothing that concerns you."
The First stopped, framed by the darkness outside the corralled field, where the lamplight didn't reach. "It's almost over, Cloud," he said softly. "Mission tomorrow night."
The forest engulfed him.
Cloud missed his landing. He'd been doing his morning calisthenics, launching his torso up off the ground and clapping his hands under his chest before catching himself. He thumped to the ground, twisting sharply so that it was his shoulder and not his face that made contact with the dirt. Grit forced its way under his tongue.
Travers snickered. "Jumpy, aren't you?"
Cloud rolled onto his back and glared. "That was deliberate, wasn't it, asstard?"
Travers flapped a lazy hand as he turned and glanced over the bivouac. Cloud rocked himself onto his shoulder blades and used the momentum of the swing to hop to his feet. He scuffed his boots over the ground absently as he walked, and he hung his arms over the rough wood of the fence, standing beside Travers. Personnel had been rushing around since early that morning, some distributing supplies, others running messages or rounding up manpower, shouting themselves red in the face.
Cloud could pick out the insignia on the belts of Soldiers easily. He frowned. "I heard about the desertion."
"Yeah," Travers said. He picked at a nail, flicking bits of gunk out toward the commotion down below. He shrugged a shoulder. "I asked around. There are only ten Second Class operatives on this front. Both of the Firsts are here with us."
Cloud blinked slowly, tracing the path of an officer, jowly chin jiggling as he stomped, with his eyes. "Asked around?"
Travers turned, and he watched Cloud. "What would you do," he said abruptly, "if Angeal left?"
Cloud whipped his head around, and his neck howled at the abuse. "What the fuck are you trying to say?" he snapped.
"The Firsts are heroes because of this war. It's hard to be sure who Soldiers are loyal to, the company or the people in it, until they have to make a choice."
"Are you calling Angeal a traitor?"
Travers stared. Finally, he tsked and jabbed Cloud in the arm with an elbow as he turned back to face the camp. "Forget it. You and your one-track mind wouldn't get what us adults talk about."
"Angeal values honour above everything else!" Cloud said hotly.
Travers didn't turn again, but Cloud saw his mouth twist drily. "Why do you think we're fighting this war, Strife?" he said.
Cloud eyed the Second suspiciously. "Wutai destroyed the reactor that the company was building."
Travers gave a muffled snort, and it turned into a gasping hyena laugh. He bent over and clutched at his belly.
"What?" Cloud demanded.
"Nothing, Strife," Travers said between wheezes. He swiped his thumbs over the corners of his eyes, and he waved his hand. "Forget about it."
Cloud hissed out his breath from between his teeth, and he turned around to lean his back against the fence. He tilted his head up to look at the cloudless sky. His voice flat, he said, "I get why people don't agree with what Shinra's doing. There's a reactor in Nibelheim and a lot more dead fish in the river now. We used to export natural materia, but then almost all of the springs dried up, and now we mainly export people. Everyone works for Shinra, you know." He raised a hand, shielding his eyes from the sun as he squinted. "All the kids leave."
"But we're the ones who decided to be here," Cloud said to the sky.
"Heard you're flying solo, tonight," Travers said, after a few seconds.
Cloud shifted, his shoulder blades scratching at the wood. "You know about it?"
"No shit," Travers said, gesturing at the activity down around the tents. "It's the big one."
"You're on this one, too?"
"Yeah," Travers grinned at him. "The General is taking Evans and me and the rest of us, and we're gonna go around and hit their centre of power hard while you and Angeal blitz the fort. We'll finish Wutai tonight."
There was a bird wheeling slowly, black against the sky, high above. It soared, its wings stretched flat and still. "Watch yourself," Cloud said.
Cloud hacked down across the collar of the last Wutai private, shearing the long firearm he held in guard into two clean halves. The man crumpled.
"Ha!" Cloud swung his sword, spattering the body with fat drops of blood as he flicked it clean before tossing it into a sharp spin and sheathing it.
Angeal grunted behind him. "Quit goofing off and get over here."
Cloud stepped over the bodies and hunkered down beside Angeal, where he was crouching behind a boulder.
"Be a little more discreet, would you?"
Cloud fiddled with the thick leather of his gloves, checked the growth of his new materia, and he grinned. "So what's our attack plan? Should we split up? I could probably take these guys with a hand tied behind my back."
Angeal made an odd noise, a bit like a choked laugh. "Glad to see you've recovered your enthusiasm. You're going to need it. You're going in on your own."
"You're on combat support tonight. I'll head directly to the centre of the fort to set the bombs."
Cloud felt his mouth fall open as he stared at Angeal. Slowly, it turned into a smile, and he nodded tightly. "Right. I can handle it."
"You'd better be able to," Angeal said, peering off into the darkness. "I recommended you for First."
When Cloud's hands fell slack and he didn't respond, Angeal turned his head and scowled.
"What are you acting so surprised for?"
Cloud opened his mouth. He closed it again.
Angeal turned his head away so that Cloud couldn't see his face, but his cheek pulsed like it was held still with great effort. He reached out, pressed a palm against Cloud's head, and shoved him away. "Well, I put in the nomination to Lazard yesterday. Don't make me regret it."
Cloud ducked his head out from under Angeal's hand. He looked up at the First, and then he smiled. "Yes sir!"
Cloud leaned his forearms against the rock, tipping forward to look up and down the trail. There was a tingle in his arm, like something had reached into his skin and twanged the nerves underneath. He winced, and he glanced to his side.
He made a strangled croak.
Bright blue eyes met his, the gentle swirl of mako haze in the iris. The man smiled crookedly, and Cloud glanced down to see where the man's arm, resting against the same stone, vanished where it touched his skin. The shape wavered, like the reflection of the moon in a pool of water that Cloud had stuck his hand into.
"Zack?" he said, just a whisper of sound. His eyes felt scratchy, like ants were crawling over his eyeballs and plucking out his hairs.
"What's that?" Angeal's voice was loud in his ear.
Cloud jerked, and the image was gone. He blinked rapidly.
"Are you alright?" Angeal said as he rested a hand on the curve of Cloud's pauldron.
Cloud's back tensed at the solid touch, and he turned to look at Angeal. "Uh. Yeah. Sorry. Thought I saw something."
"Someone named Zack?"
Cloud frowned, something stinging at the back of his palate. "I don't know anyone called Zack."
Angeal eyed him for a moment, and Cloud raised his hands.
"It's nothing, really."
"Hmm," Angeal said, turning back to the path. "You're not moping anymore, at least."
"I wasn't moping," Cloud said, settling further back on his haunches. "Just... thinking."
"And what did you decide?"
Cloud looked up at the darkened trees. Their leaves were waxy, reflecting silver in the moonlight, and the slow flicker of fireflies lit their undersides. The beetles were invisible when not luminescent, and so their disjointed paths jumped from patch to patch as they glowed and vanished in turn.
"I'm going to protect them," he said. "Every one." A breeze flapped at the leaves over their heads, making them judder loudly, but Cloud didn't bother raising his voice.
"Oh?" Angeal said, his voice mild. "You have no subordinates on this mission."
"Then I'll just have to protect you."
Angeal laughed. He stood up, planted a hand on the boulder, and propelled himself over it to land in the centre of the path. "Let's move." His footsteps crunched rhythmically over the gravel, implacably even.
A trio of ninjas dropped out of the branches overhead and tapped down with soft thumps behind him. They vacillated a moment, spun their weapons around until their lances pointed toward Angeal, and they lunged forward.
Angeal waved a hand briefly over his shoulder as he continued walking.
Cloud ripped his sword from its sheath and launched himself up, ignoring the deep groove he'd scored into the stone in passing.
He plunged onto the first private's back, bearing down with his knees and bringing up his sword. The blade bit into ninja's neck, knocking off his helmet and severing his spine. Spinning around and kicking up a shower of dust with the side of his boot, he thrust his sword through another private's gut when the man recoiled, an arm over his face.
The last ninja, a captain by his armour, stabbed toward his head with his lance, and Cloud twisted his sword, yanking it free as he ducked and pivoted. A quick swing, and the sergeant's weapon snapped. Cloud brought his arm up and around, and the man's head bounced once, clanking, as it hit the ground.
When he caught up to Angeal, the First was standing still in a small clearing, looking up at the pinpricks of stars above Mount Tamblin.
Cloud jogged to a halt. He looked at Angeal's back, and he turned his head up toward the sky.
"Embrace your dreams," Angeal said quietly.
Angeal glanced at him, and he shook his head, making a short dismissive noise. "Just talking to myself."
The First stepped forward, pushing past a tangle of low-hanging branches, and then the squat shape of Fort Tamblin sat quietly in the dark before them. Light spilled from several of the low windows, and aside from the flicker of torchlight, the fort was still. An expectant tension seemed to boil from the flattened ground, and Cloud's knuckles cracked when he tightened his fists.
He'd set up a snare once, outside a hare burrow on Mount Nibel, further up than the kids were allowed to wander. He remembered the strings of blood-rusted pelt hanging from the hare's foot. He'd stood still, staring up into sulfur-yellow eyes until the dragon had flicked its barbed tail and turned away, its awkward gait making it sway wide as it walked.
He closed his eyes, and he relaxed his fingers.
He kept his head low as he darted forward.
Angeal shifted, resting on a knee, and he reached over his shoulder. The Buster sword cut a gap in the sky, outlined in faded blue. He stilled, the grooves ornamenting the blade casting hazy shadows over its plane and reflecting a nebulous meshwork of light over the bridge of his nose. Angeal clasped his fingers against the dull edge before bringing the sword up to rest against his forehead. His fingers curved backward as they tensed, and quickly loosened again.
Cloud watched, waiting, until the First hooked the Buster back onto its hasp with a fluid chk.
"I've never seen you use that sword," he said.
"If I use it, it'll get dirty, worn, and rusted," Angeal said. He shook his head. "That would be a waste."
"Isn't it heavy, to carry it around like that?"
Angeal looked at him, a twist on his lips. "Worry about your mission, not me." He tilted his head up at the fortress. "Keep it stealthy. I'd rather not have the entire regiment stationed here rushing around looking for us until we're ready to blow this place sky high. Take down all enemy troops you encounter."
Cloud glanced at the dull gleam of the Buster sword briefly before nodding sharply. "Sir!"
Cloud sprang up, tucking his arms tight for speed. He kicked out a leg, slamming a boot against a tree trunk and using the recoil to spring up toward the fort's thick walls. Amongst the rustling of leaves shed to the ground, he dropped, bending his knees and catching his hands against the stone floor as he landed lightly.
There was a quick shout, and the tap of running footsteps as Wutai troops approached to inspect the noise. Cloud hopped a short fence at his back and pressed flat into the shadows. Breathing softly through parted lips, he darted off against the wall.
They were in an austere courtyard, the tall gates of the main stronghold overlooking the empty grounds and several covered corridors lining the outer wall. There was a Wutai private nearby, clenching his gun-lance tightly as he stared up at the walls.
Cloud reached out and clamped a hand over the man's mouth as he yanked him backwards and thrust his sword under the man's ribcage up to the hilt. He let the ninja sag off his blade to the ground, and he dragged the body behind an ornate pillar. Cloud moved on.
The next Wutai private gasped just as Cloud swung his sword through the man's neck, and the ninja beside him whirled around directly into Cloud's downward cleave. His blade bit diagonally into the man's collar, severing his spine. Someone saw him, and he raised his sword to block a flurry of bullets before launching himself into a roll and coming up behind the ninja. Dingy light flashed over his blade as he ripped it around, and he jumped again, dragging his legs high to avoid the jab of a long lance. Grabbing the shaft with one hand, he brought his sword down as he landed, and the wood splintered in his grip. Flipping the short stalk still attached to the lance head to shift his grip, he raised his arm and slung it as hard as he could toward the sergeant readying his firearm. It sank into the man's chest until the shaft was nearly swallowed.
The last ninja shot at him from the middle of the courtyard, and Cloud ducked behind a chipped pillar, shrapnel and stone dust fogging the air briefly. Readying his sword, he cleared the low rail of the corridor in a hop and kicked off it to throw himself upward. He came down blade first, driving the point through the ninja's throat and into the ground as the man toppled backwards. He heard the cracks of gunfire, and wrenching his sword free, he rolled, bullets raising plumes of dust where his head had been. Cloud scrambled to his feet as he dashed for cover.
The gates were outlined by moonlight when Cloud peered out from a dark crevice. He saw a couple of helmeted forms crouched over their long guns over the heavy doors. The heads turned, quick little shifts, as they scanned the open space. Keeping his back to the wall, Cloud followed the rough stone. When he saw the narrow staircase winding upwards, he grinned.
Cloud flattened himself at the top of the stairs, slithering forward on his elbows and surveying the guards with narrowed eyes. He unchambered his Pre-empt, slid it into his pouch, and withdrew another smooth sphere. He slotted the materia into his bracer with a soft click, and he raised his hand.
He felt the drain of energy into the orb and cupped his other palm to shield the glow.
There was a series of sharp snapping noises, like the cracking of a thin frozen sheet, and jagged shards of ice magic collected over the snipers before driving downward, piercing through their helmets with short, brittle rasps.
"Out-ninja the fucking ninja," he muttered to himself.
Cloud slapped down a Wutai private's weapon, using the momentum to swing his sword around into a backhanded grip. He leaped forward as he brought his hand up and around, and a line of blood speckled the walls. Ragged lines began to trickle down, bleeding splotches into the flimsy material. He left the ninja where he fell and stepped forward. The floor was lined with some sort of dry woven mat that depressed with crinkly noises under his boots, and he glanced at the translucent paper walls with a frown. They were lit by a warm glow, probably the oil lamps he'd been seeing in some of the corridors.
He heard a clamour and the drum of footsteps in the distance behind him. Reaching out, he pushed at the dark wooden frame to his side.
It didn't move.
He tried another segment, and it slithered smoothly aside. He slipped in through the gap and the door frame whispered as he slid it shut behind him.
Cloud glanced around. Living quarters, he realized. Whoever decorated the place had been heavy handed with the hanging draperies. A low writing table was littered with rolled up papers. He pressed himself flat against a wooden partition, the edges of its slats digging into his back, and he listened as ninja thumped by the room.
He waited a while longer before crossing the room and reaching out for the sliding door.
There was a quiet noise behind him.
Cloud spun around, pulling his sword free from its sheath as he turned.
It was a small woman. She held a hanging lamp in one hand and the other was fisted tightly in the front of her loose robe. She stared at him, her scrutiny drifting from his eyes—the mako glow, he realized—to his broadsword. She inched backward, her mouth opening, but there was no sound.
There was an inquisitive noise from the low door at her back, and Cloud barely saw the man before he'd wrenched the woman behind him and stood, baring his teeth and fumbling for the sword at his waist. He snapped something imperious, the curt sounds of a challenge that Cloud didn't understand, and he pointed the sword at Cloud.
Cloud pressed his mouth tight, and he narrowed his eyes.
His wife said something shrilly, but the man shook his head. He raised his sword and yelled as he charged.
Cloud twisted his wrist and blocked the strike. The ninja's sword rattled against his. He stepped into the clash, holding his broadsword with one hand and pushing off to the side as he raised his other. He grabbed the back of the man's head and shoved downward as he brought up his knee. There was a loud, slippery crunching noise, and the man grunted as he staggered back, blood welling around his fingers and dripping onto his clothes from where he covered his nose.
The Wutai soldier snarled, placing his bloody hand back onto the hilt of his sword and settling into his stance.
He was fast. The man dashed forward, slashing his sword from the side. Cloud brought his weapon up, intending to block, but there was a harsh ripping sound before the long blade caught on the door frame and ground to a crawl against the wood.
Cloud let his knees buckle, and he sagged under the whistle of the ninja's sword. His grip was tight around the hilt of his sword, and he yanked as he fell. His broadsword dragged free and drove forward. The ninja dodged to the side, hopping back and twisting his body. With a vicious bellow, the man pivoted and thrust his sword forward as he rushed Cloud.
Cloud propelled himself awkwardly to his feet, and he reeled a bit as he raised a boot and pounded it against the side of the writing table. It flew, knocking into the ninja's shins with a solid crack. Cloud slapped the flat of his blade against the man's sword with a jarring clang, creating enough of a gap for him to lean in and shove his broadsword through the man's gut.
Cloud stared at the man's face, where dried patches of blood from his nose had crusted along his chin, painting a flaking residue. The ninja's sword dropped to the ground with a clatter.
Cloud stepped back, the ninja's limp weight straining at his grip. He looked up to where the woman stood. Her mouth worked, opening wide soundlessly. She swayed as she took a slow step.
He saw the sleek casing of the gun under her whitened knuckles a moment before she raised it in her arms and screamed and screamed.
Bullets ripped the paper walls to shreds as Cloud flung himself into the fragile material, the wooden frame splintering loudly as he crashed through. He rolled, coming to a halt only when he thumped against the opposite wall. He crawled to his feet and backed away, covering his mouth against the veil of rock dust raised by the barrage driving into the outer wall.
She was still screaming.
Cloud fingered the hard curve of materia in his pouch for a moment, and then he dropped his hand to his side. There were jumbled shouts and thudding steps coming down the corridor. He sheathed his sword and darted off along the hall, the roar of noise still behind him.
"Sorry," he mumbled.
Cloud stopped in front of an open doorway framed by a heavy stone arch. He paused, turned an ear to the side, and he drew his sword, stepping into the blind spot to the side of the door.
A Wutai sergeant dashed through the arch, followed by two privates. They reached a junction in the corridors, and the sergeant raised a hand, peering carefully around the corner. He barked an order. When there was no response, he growled and turned around, just as Cloud stepped into his two-handed swing.
Cloud was wiping the congealing blood from his blade across the ninja's clothes when there was a sharp buzzing. He jerked, and he flipped open his PHS.
"Angeal?" Cloud said.
"I've finished setting the charges." There was a bit of static. "Come to the central area." Angeal paused, and when he spoke again, his voice was clear and dry. "Feel free to cause a riot."
Cloud grimaced. "I wasn't that bad."
"I noticed," Angeal said. "They still don't have a description of you beyond something about a demon. Good work."
"How do you know?"
"We're tapped into their radio system," Angeal said. "Anything to report?" he continued.
Cloud was quiet for a moment. He swallowed. "Nope, not a problem here," he said.
Angeal snorted. "Alright. I'll be waiting."
The line went dead.
Cloud stashed the PHS in his pocket as he stepped out into open air. He looked up at the ornamented doors of a central building, and specks of spray from the fountains tapped against his exposed skin.
When the voice cut through the muted chatter of water, he dropped into a crouch and raised a hand to his sword.
"First, a people weak in the pursuit of knowledge."
Cloud glanced around.
"Second, those protecting the Wutai homeland."
Cloud saw the girl, and he straightened, his arm falling.
"Third, an ugly Shinra Soldier!"
She took the steps in a wild leap, and she ran as if momentum was the only thing keeping her standing. She slapped her hands on her hips as she stopped in front of him, thrusting her chest out. Her knees looked bulbous against her thin legs, and a wide scrape oozed a film of dusty blood on her right shin.
"Prepare for your punishment!" she announced shrilly. "I'm Wutai's strongest warrior! With me here, you shall not advance any further!"
Cloud frowned, staring until she shifted her shoulders like they prickled. "You shouldn't be here, kid."
Her eyes went moon round. "You're the one who doesn't belong!"
"Look, I'm serious. We're about to blow the sh—blow this fort up. You should go home." He pointed at her leg. "Are you hurt? Can you escape alright by yourself?"
She glanced down before biting her lip and pursing her mouth up at him. "They said that someone killed the Dajiang in his room, and then they pushed me in here and told me to hide and I fell."
"The Dajiang is the guy in charge around here?"
She stopped in mid-nod, and her face contorted into a scowl. "I'm not telling you anything, Shinra scum! You're not blowing this fort up because I'm going to defeat you here and stop your progress!" She thumped her fists against Cloud's belt. "Take that!"
Cloud sighed. "Kid—"
The girl raised her fists again, and he caught a flash of metal between her knuckles. He snapped his hand up and closed his fingers tightly around her wrist.
She bit off a sharp cry as something tumbled from her hand. She tore her arm away and gave him a poisonous glare as she whirled and ran. Cloud bent down and picked up the sliver. He groaned, prodding at the dull edge of the toy, and he watched it bend like rubber under his hand.
There were shouts around him as ninja poured into the inner courtyard and pointed their spears at him, spreading out to try to surround him. One of them said something in a thickly accented voice muffled by his helmet, and Cloud drew his sword.
He ducked under a spear blow whipped toward his head, and he rotated into a slash. Splotches of blood splattered against his cheek just under his eye, uncomfortably hot as they started running, and he blinked reflexively. It smeared over the arm he raised to his face, mingling with the ratty coat of dust he wore.
"Start a riot, huh," Cloud said. He raised his sword in both hands, blade parallel to the ground, and he saw the glare of orange light belch from the blade as he charged.
The inside of the central pagoda was hollow and round, the ceiling stretching up out of sight. Red and gold walls shone under lamplight, but Cloud could see the patches of disrepair, the colour worn thin like cloth washed too many times.
"Angeal?" he called. He heard a breath of a muffled echo, and he stared up into the darkness above.
He saw the shift of indistinct shadows a moment before he dove into a roll, and the impact of something massive striking the floor made the walls quake and the ground jolt under his hands. Cloud saw the polished wood of the floor buckle and crack where the tomahawk impacted, mini mountain ranges surrounding a shattered crater. The giant grunted, tugging at the handle of his weapon.
Cloud felt the shift of movement behind him, and he twisted, digging a hand and a knee into the ground to push himself up and away. The huge foot had a woven mat of a sandal strapped to it, flapping off the heel as it clipped his side and sent him hurtling into a wall. There was a sharp slap as his back slammed into the wood, and Cloud thumped to the floor. He wheezed, spit running into his mouth, trying to draw breath into his deflated diaphragm, and he dug his fingers into his thighs as he dragged himself to his feet. He ducked and pushed away from the wall, more tumble than run, and a sweeping backhand passed over his head, sending up a gust of wind that buffeted Cloud's neck.
He kept moving, keeping to the wall and sometimes hopping up to cling to it like a fly sticking to glass before gravity caught on and he slid back down again. He felt around his ribs. Intact. Screaming like a bitch in heat, but intact.
The giants stomped around, their movements graceless and ponderous. They swung their axes at him, hard enough to crumple stone, but they'd managed to get in each other's way as they spun slowly, chasing Cloud, and the one that received a deep score over its bulky bicep keened loud and shrill enough that it felt like the wax was melting out of Cloud's ears.
He skidded to a halt behind them, and he raised his hand as they struggled to turn around without slamming their shoulders into each other or the axe-carved walls. Spitting fireballs hurtled toward the giants, splashing against their backs and filling the air with the greasy stench of seared flesh. They screeched and thrashed, the hard, blackened remains of the skin over the burns snapping apart like charcoal and oozing.
Cloud shot forward, narrowing missing a quick swipe of a bulky arm as he leaned into his sword, biting deep into the backs of the legs of one of the giants. His sword cut into the underside of one knee and sliced into the calf of the other leg. The monster collapsed, its arms rising to catch itself. It was too slow, and its face hit the floor with a hollow thud before its head bounced. The tomahawk that had been in its hand clattered, spinning a bit, as it jumped and skittered across the floor.
Cloud winced, fighting the urge to clap his hands over his ears. The shrieking continued, and he made an awkward hopping backpedal when the other giant swiped at him with its axe. Edging around the fallen giant and darting up to the monster's head, he paused, looking down at the beady eye, shot through with streaks of red, when it trained unblinking on him.
When he stabbed downward, the point of his blade caught briefly on the juts of the giant's spine. His arms vibrated as the sword rasped over bone, and the weapon jerked when the resistance suddenly passed, tearing a wide gash in the skin.
The giant made a short whimpering noise, quickly drowned out by the enraged bellow behind Cloud. He swung around his pinned sword to face the other monster, and he dragged hard at the handle as he looked up at the descending axe. The giant's hand twisted as it dropped, Cloud saw. Either as a defect of its training or because it intended to squash him like a cockroach with the flat of the axeblade.
"Move!" he growled, yanking again at his sword.
It barely jiggled.
Cloud let go of the hilt, springing back a couple of steps before jumping straight up, tugging himself into a flip for height. Just as he dropped, touching for a moment down on the flat of the tomahawk, the giant shifted into a sideways swipe and yanked his feet off balance as the weapon moved.
Shouting, Cloud thudded to the ground in the wake of the monster's swing. He rolled, bringing his knees up and ignoring the sting in his ass, and he made a clumsy dash for the wall. Running up the surface and kicking off before he started to skid, Cloud reached out as he flew, fingers snagging on the giant's collar, and he jolted to a halt.
The giant gagged and choked, and it began to spin around like a dog chasing its tail.
Cloud gritted his teeth tight, and he wound one of the armour straps attached to the giant's shoulder around his hand. The edges of the hard leather dug into his palm when he released the other hand and brought it up, materia blazing violently at his wrist.
Thunder rained down, point blank, upon the giant's head, the crackling and sizzling sounds fusing with the giant's scream to form an ear-splitting soup of noise that made Cloud's bones buzz. His fingers were going numb. He poured his strength into the materia until it was incandescent, its heat permeating his bracer and boring what felt like a hole through his skin.
The giant was still screaming when it collapsed to the floor.
Cloud wrenched his hand free of the straps and hopped a few steps away before he let himself fall to the ground. He lay flat, staring up where the ceiling vanished above and cradling his hand at his chest while blood rushed back into his fingers and made them sting and hum. He tried to bend his knuckles.
He hadn't felt this shitty since the time his cadet corps had gotten their hands on a Thundaga for the first time and the bastard beside him had misfired and sent a bolt earthing through Cloud before blowing the reinforced steel door off its hinges. He pressed his shoulders into the cool planks of the floor, and his head swam like someone had pulled the plug out of the bottom of his brain and it was swizzling down the drain.
The giant made another croaking noise, and then it was silent. The splintered floor creaked under Cloud's back as he gulped at the air.
"Impressive, to have survived the Vajradhara."
Cloud tensed, his eyes flitting back and forth over the shadows along the walls. "You gonna show yourself?" he said, after a moment.
There was a patch of movement, and Cloud focussed on the glitter of gold in the ninja's armour, murky in the weak light above. He'd seen that dragon before.
"Crescent unit, wasn't it?" Cloud said, pulling himself to his feet. "I just wasted a bunch of you guys outside."
"For which you shall pay," the ninja barked. "I am Crescent unit Plenum, commander of the Full Moon, and I will avenge my team!"
"Bullshit," Cloud said loudly. "What did you do, hang around out of sight while you sent your team in to get slaughtered?"
There was a jarring thump, and Cloud's back hit the wall. He'd brought up his hands in time to close the fingers of one hand over a bare portion of the shaft of the ninja's gun-lance, and he braced his other wrist against the flat of the lance blade, shoving upward as Plenum bore down on him.
"Don't you fucking preach to me about honour," the ninja rasped, his voice low and the formal lilt to his speech gone. "I learned my honour in the streets of Midgar and under the thumb of Shinra, and every fucking day one of you honourable assholes tried to shove my head through a wall because of the colour of my skin."
Cloud strained against the lance, trying to slide his feet back to give himself enough leverage. "You're a Soldier," he hissed. "You're a traitor!"
Plenum laughed, sharp and hoarse. "If you're going to point fingers and call names, you'll be here for a while. There are plenty of us 'traitors' in this war."
"What are you—"
"They were pretty surprised, too, the other team of Soldiers."
Cloud narrowed his eyes. "What other team?"
"Soldiers die just as pretty," the ninja said, nearly singing his words.
Cloud shot forward, winding his arm around the shaft of the gun-lance and jerking up his elbow. The wooden shaft crunched, splitting into raggedly fletched pieces, and Cloud slapped the blade aside and surged, his fingers digging into the ninja's throat as he hooked his heel behind one of the man's knees and shoved.
He bared his teeth and pinned the ninja to the floor, staring down at the helmet knocked crooked by the impact.
"What other team?"
Plenum didn't say anything, and a wide grin edged over his face as his head shifted just a bit, as if he was looking over Cloud's shoulder.
Cloud launched himself to the side, rolling and bringing his knee up to push to his feet just as the third giant pounded into the ground. The ninja had turned onto one shoulder before the giant's foot landed on his torso, snapping his ribs like glass and deflating his head like a squashed, overripe grape. The spray hit Cloud's uniform a moment before the giant swung its flail and the iron head the size of a dinner table connected with Cloud's stomach and lifted him off his feet.
His head snapped back and cracked against the pillar behind him when he rebounded off of it, and he sagged to the ground.
Cloud looked up at the giant shuffling toward him, arm raised to crush, and he squinted hard against the black edges to his vision. His legs felt like jelly, quivering and flopping back down as soon as he tried putting any weight on it. The blackness swallowed him.
"Oi, you're not giving up, are you?"
Cloud jumped, and he pried his eyelids open. His arm shook as he raised it, and he grabbed his wrist with his other hand as every materia studding his bracer flashed to life.
The flail had already begun its descent.
There was the sound of air parting over oiled steel.
The flail, jerked off target, thumped to the ground beside Cloud's leg and caused the floor to shudder. Slowly, the giant crumpled.
Cloud watched Angeal straighten, the edge of the Buster sword gleaming like placid water in the lamplight. The First kept level eyes on the fallen giant while he hooked the Buster back onto its harness, and he reached out, tugging Cloud's sword free from where it was lodged in a trunk-sized neck as he passed. He stopped in front of Cloud.
The walls of his airway felt like they were fused together and sliding, grating apart with skin curdling slowness.
He raised his head, hacked like his lungs were stuffed with dust, and he tried again.
"Wasn't it important that you didn't use that sword?" Cloud said.
Angeal looked at him hard for a second, but there was a smile on his lips when he stretched out his hand.
Every step jarred Cloud's ribs. He shuffled to a pause, his eyes squeezed to slivers, and he wrapped an arm around his side, drawing in a deep breath that sent the nerves in his side into a frenzied dance.
"Sit down." Angeal's voice was short.
Cloud shook his head. "Just catching my breath."
"Cloud," Angeal snapped. "Sit down."
There was a heavy hand on his shoulder, and Cloud's legs wobbled. The mountain path was cut flat, and the smooth bark of trees rose up out of raised banks on either side. Cloud leaned against the damp grass, and it quickly soaked through patches of his uniform and prickled his skin.
Angeal's fingers prodded his side, and he twitched.
"Stay still," the First said. He flattened a wide palm. "Feels solid," he said after a while. "Probably just strained."
"Said I was fine," Cloud said.
"Really?" Angeal said, a moment before his fingers tightened.
Cloud nearly bit through his tongue cutting off a yelp.
"You've been seeing and hearing things for weeks, Cloud."
Cloud didn't respond. His hand fisted in the fabric of his uniform.
"Either you talk to me or I submit a request for a psych eval when we get back."
"I'm not crazy," Cloud said loudly.
The fire had died down behind them, and with a brittle crunching sound that echoed through the valley, a piece of the fort's roof collapsed, sending up a flaring geyser of sparks. An agitated beetle of some sort thumped against the side of Cloud's head and buzzed its wings furiously, tangling itself further. Wincing, Cloud reached up, closing his fingers around the tapered edges of the insect's shell, and it panicked in his hand as he pulled it out of his hair. He threw it into the air, watching as it tumbled and dropped like a stone before catching itself on its wings and zipping away into the leaves.
Cloud wiped his palm against his pants, and he shrugged. "I'll figure it out."
Angeal's jaw tightened, shifting under his skin, and he trained flat eyes on Cloud.
There was the roar of an explosion down the path. Blue smoke ballooned out, rising up over the trees.
Cloud shoved off the embankment. Angeal had already vanished around the bend in the path, and he leaned forward a bit, testing his knees. Pulling his sword free as it ground in its scabbard and grimacing at the dirt coating the blade and rasping at the movement, he flicked his wrist a few times, spinning the sword until he was satisfied, and he ran.
The gutted shell of a military truck lay on its side, spitting tongues of flame and stinking of burning rubber. The neatly tailored jacket of the man flanked by MPs was singed black at the edges, curling crisply as he crouched behind the base of the truck. One of the MPs snapped a cartridge into place and rolled to his knees, turning and sighting along the barrel of his gun.
There was a flash of dull red, and a short, shrill sound. The MP slumped.
His killer waved his wide daggers, weaving sinuously as he shifted from foot to foot. The red-tinted helmet turned to Cloud, its movements languid and jerky in turns.
Cloud raised his sword.
Angeal slashed upward, the broadsword in his hands catching the curved edge of the daggers and scraping loudly.
"Get Director Lazard out of here!" Angeal snapped, glancing over his shoulder at Cloud before thrusting forward, disengaging his blade, and bringing it around into a crushing sweep.
"I'm not gonna just leave—"
The First slammed his fist into a throat. "Go, Soldier! I can handle this!"
Cloud snapped his mouth shut, and he sheathed his weapon with a sharp click as he bounded over a pair of legs, one of the knees bent the wrong way, poking out from under the truck. Skidding a bit on the loose leaves underfoot, he grabbed at a thin shoulder. "Director!"
Lazard twisted around. "Soldier Second Class Strife!" He ducked at the sound of a fireball pounding into the truck and sending tall flames licking up at the boiling sky.
Cloud heaved the man to his feet, his back straining as he leaned forward, pressing his hand against the Director's nape to keep their heads down low. "Move, sir! I'll accept all praise later."
Lazard gave a short laugh, more cough than anything. "True, you performed most admirably during your mission to capture Fort Tamblin. Your strategic actions in seeking out the commander of the fort threw the enemy forces into disarray and prevented them from launching a coordinated counterassault."
Cloud's mouth thinned.
The sound of gunfire was still loud behind them, but the smell of smoke no longer stung the back of his throat. He turned his head to the side quickly and spat, sooty phlegm glistening blackly on the ground, but his grip on the Director's arm never faltered.
Lazard's mouth twisted into half a smile, and he cleared his throat before he continued. "In short, you skilfully supported Angeal as a diversionary force and successfully allowed the main combat unit to take the enemy's final seat of power. Congratulations."
The cool air of the forest path raised bumps on Cloud's skin after the heat of the gas fire. "Thank you, sir," he said tightly.
His PHS whirred, vibrating in his pocket, and he snatched at it.
It was mail from Kunsel.
Answer my fucking messages! What's going on over there? Are you alive or not?
He tapped his thumb over the keys, and they chimed softly upon depression.
He watched the little envelope icon swoop across the screen cheerily, and for a brief moment, he considered hurling the thing at a tree. He pressed another button.
The words "No new messages" flashed at him a couple of times before the screen flipped back to his map. The casing creaked as Cloud's fingers tightened.
Cloud stashed the PHS into his pocket. "Sorry, sir."
A couple of scouts stood just off the path, and they threw their hands up in salute.
Cloud watched the fuss for a moment. He scuffed his boots over the pebbled ground, resisting the urge to check his silent PHS again, and he said, "I'll, uh, go back. Help Angeal."
Lazard tipped his head. "Go."
Cloud jogged a few feet before he stopped. He frowned, and he turned to Lazard. "I encountered an enemy ninja who suggested that the main unit experienced difficulties," he said, slowly.
Lazard's face gave nothing away. "The mission was a success," he said quietly.
"But casualties were high."
Cloud felt his shoulders grind together with the effort of staying still. He nodded.
Cloud splayed a hand against a tree, and the thin vertical cracks running through the bark pinched at his palm. He dug the fingers of his other hand into the tightly stretched flesh over his ribs, and it hurt like something was trying to claw its way out of his skin with little pronged nails, but the pressure was a welcome distraction from the nagging ache. He closed his eyes. He'd be damned if he was going to limp around like three-legged dog.
He took a slow breath, and he straightened his back.
He'd only taken a few steps before the growling started.
Cloud twisted, his hand rising to his sword, and he leaped backward as the thing surged toward him and raised its paw to rake down. Heat seared through his arm, and he tugged his elbow in tight, glancing down at the row of tears in his skin, running the length of his forearm. Hissing through his teeth, he shook the dribbles of blood to the ground. The thing's claws extended and contracted, digging narrow gashes into the dirt. Cloud watched it as it pranced, springing from side to side, and its leonine mane bobbed under the lashing of its long, thin tail.
He jumped over the next swipe, his sword arcing a wide circle as he dragged it around and up, flaying open the thick hide covering the monster's foreleg and exposing cords of muscle shot through with netted veins. The monster bellowed, swinging its body around to whip its tail towards Cloud's throat. He kicked out, but the snake-like tail bent on impact, spiralled around his leg, and wrapped itself around his other boot before it yanked his feet out from under him.
With a yell, Cloud toppled. He curled in midair, bearing down with both hands on the backhanded grip he had on the hilt of his sword. He lay still, his jaw still vibrating with the force with which his teeth clacked together when he landed on the beast's barbed vertebrae, and as the monster's back sagged, its lungs collapsing under his weight, he slid off onto the churned earth. His sword stood swaying by his shoulder, wedged between the monster's ribs.
The claw marks on his arm were raised like bars, sealed shut by the fluids oozing from the scratches.
Cloud clenched and released his fist, and a small trickle of blood beaded off his wrist. He stood, reaching out for his sword.
Lion beasts crowded the mountain trail. One leaped, sailing over his head as he dove. Cloud came up running.
The thrum of his pulse thundered in his ears, a counterpoint to the yowling at his heels. He saw the prone forms on trampled grass, and he hurdled them a moment before a blaze of light scorched his eyelids. Heat roared past him, and the offensive scent of burning fur crowded into his nostrils.
He heard the screeches behind him as he thumped to the ground and skidded his knees raw. Charred ashy heaps littered the trail, and the monsters that hadn't been swallowed by the fire whimpered as they scrabbled to escape.
Cloud stared as Ifrit tilted his horned head to the sky and roared, strands of flame clinging to his massive fists and twining turns around his crimson arms. Cracks split the earth with sharp pops as it desiccated in the furnace.
Ifrit fixed Cloud with slitted red eyes.
Ignoring the reek of singed skin peeling, Cloud reached for his broadsword. His lungs screamed for air, but he held his mouth closed against the sear at the back of his throat. Squinting his parched eyes nearly closed, he tensed.
A blast of pressure rolled flames like a wave, and Cloud flung his arms over his eyes.
The Masamune glowed like a ripe forge. It streaked, leaving light trails emblazoned into Cloud's cornea and silent heat muffling his ears. He watched Ifrit jerk, suspended for a moment with his hooves lifting up from the ground.
Noise slammed into Cloud's eardrums and froth-like fire blared through the clearing as the summon's body disintegrated into pure energy.
Cloud's hands burned, pressed hard into the levelled earth, and warmth dripped slowly from his ears. Fragile clinks and pops sounded as charred bark cooled and shrivelled, mostly drowned out by the sound of his violent heaving.
His hand shook when he lifted an arm—fuck it had crusty blood all over it—and swiped it over his mouth, and he looked up.
Sephiroth rested the Masamune against a thigh as he crouched over the bodies fused to the ground by melted armour. The helmets were distorted, their surfaces glistening oily like liquefied plastic, but their shapes were familiar.
Cloud opened his mouth, and a harsh croak came out. He swallowed. "These guys aren't Wutai," he said.
Sephiroth reached out and tugged off a helm. It rocked a bit, its dented surface settling against the ground.
It was Soldier issue, tainted a deep rust colour.
"Genesis," Sephiroth muttered, bent over the slack face.
Cloud craned his neck to see. "The missing First?"
Sephiroth didn't respond, hooking his fingers under the latch of another helmet. An identical face tipped onto a blister-split ear. A scowl creased over his mouth, and Sephiroth tilted his head. "Where's Angeal?" he said.
Cloud dragged himself to his feet, shuffling in a slow circle. He stiffened. A deep rut stood in stark relief against the surface of the boulder squatting in the path, a patch of crinkled grass in its lee. Soot covered it, and it was sticky to the touch. If he canted his sword, he could see the matching abrasion on its blade, fresh scratches painted over top of it since.
"Tch." Sephiroth stood. "He's gone with them."
Cloud spun around, his teeth pressed tight enough to ache. "Angeal would never—"
"Angeal is a traitor." The sharp words cut into his.
Slowly, Cloud pulled the curl of his lip down.
Sephiroth held the Masamune close to his hip as he moved, and Cloud watched the echo of moonlight off the blade. The glare made his vision fuzz.
The leather of his gloves rasped over his knuckles as his hand squeezed against the furrow left in the stone at his back. Cloud screwed his eyes shut and hammered the side of his fist into the rock.
Chapter 4: Hail and Farewell
Disclaimer: All recognizable characters and settings are property of Square Enix. No profit is being sought from the writing of this fanfiction, and no copyright infringement is intended.
I honestly have no idea how I managed to finish this while Theatrhythm Final Fantasy slowly sucks my life away.
In other, more exciting news, though, the wonderful, fantastic Poisonberries has graciously agreed to beta read this thing for me! Raucous cheers ensue! I've never found anyone willing to edit my chaptered stuff before, though, so I'm just causing trouble for her all day long with my lack of foresight.
Much thanks to anyone sticking this story out with me.
Cloud wondered who'd folded the scarf.
He was utter shit at laundry himself. He still remembered the week he spent wearing splotchy pink underwear in Basic because it was that or go without, and it had pissed down for days and days already, so that the training yards were soup. And when the cadets crawled on their bellies under yards and yards of barbed wire, they quickly figured out who could swim.
Things he couldn't see grew in the soup. They'd itched, worming past the fibres of his sweats, and Cloud had spent all five of his glorious minutes under scalding hot water scrubbing his skin red and raw.
Some jackass called Acosta had hung the pink things over the industrial size towel rack the third day. Cloud still had the pale glossy scar just above his hairline from the cut he'd gotten smashing his head into Acosta's teeth.
Cloud smoothed his palms over the starchy fabric covering his thighs. He'd taken his dress uniform to the cleaner above Sector 8 for it. The old man who ran it came from Mideel, and he always shouted when he talked because he was deaf in one ear, grinned his tobacco yellow grin, and panted when he strained to reach up and try to rub his knuckles into Cloud's head. It was better than having wrinkled pants, though.
The scarf, too, was brilliant white and folded so meticulously the edge cast a razor line of a shadow, and Cloud wondered again who it was that Lazard had hired to lay out the bodies. All things considered, they probably had a ton of experience.
Acosta had ended up with the bomb squad in the Regs, Cloud remembered. They'd worked one mission together, back when there were enough Thirds to send them along with all the recon squads as muscle, during which the man had carefully and deliberately ignored Cloud. He'd heard that Acosta had died about a month later. Unmarked landmine.
Cloud ran his eyes over the white fabric again. They stuttered at the patch under the chin where light didn't reach, and they moved on.
Cloud shifted his weight, and the metal rungs of the stool squeaked. He stretched out his legs, flexing his toes against the stiff material of his new boots. They gleamed of black polish under the fluorescent lighting. The heel creaked against the tiles.
He'd managed to burn the heavy rubber soles of his last pair into cinderblock slag, compressed to pencil thinness in places. He'd left an ashy black trail on the ceramic tile from the tarmac to the elevator doors before the bottle blonde receptionist had screeched at him.
There were six caskets. Five from the mission that ended the war, and one was some silly sap Cloud didn't know who'd gone for a piss in the wrong place.
Over his head, the long bulbs hummed their unbroken drone, leaving squeaky little scratches up and down his nerves.
He looked down at his feet. He could barely see a minute little hump in the boots, where his big toe was scratching at the tight leather. He nudged at it again, pressing up at the surface until a dull stab of pain ran its way up his shin.
They looked weird. Too shiny and too new.
He flexed again.
The drone was sinking into his skull. He opened his mouth wide, rolling his lower jaw out and up, feeling the hinges click by his ears. He snapped his teeth together. They buzzed.
Cloud let his eyes fall shut, and he hissed a slow breath. He leaned forward in the stool, balancing his elbows on his knees, and he looked up at Evans's still, blank face.
The Thirds were in the hall two floors down. There was a lot more room there. This room was a sterile box, white light bouncing off of white walls and white tiles, and in it, Cloud sat alone with the six Seconds —six boxes, listening to the rattle of his brain. They lay neatly, three by three, clean hands folded primly over their diaphragms in a way they'd probably never willingly adopt.
Cloud's eyes drifted over the silver braid edging the black lapels of the jacket and ambling over the flat face of the epaulettes. He stifled a snort. Evans hated the ceremonial uniform. Evans bitched endlessly when he had to deck himself out.
Evans thought that anything he couldn't lie on his back in, engine oil running down his arms and pooling in his armpits, under the bed of a machine was thoroughly useless, though.
Cloud leaned back, his spine popping in the quiet hum.
He looked at the scarf again, stark white against Evans's ink-coloured skin. He'd been there, helping the grunts carry the stretcher boards up the pebbled metal plank onto the ship. There'd been a stain under Evans's head, the blood dried black against the wood. It hadn't been big. Evans had probably already finished most of his bleeding out before they got to him.
The shredded edges of the gash stretching from one side of his throat to the other had probably been hell to sew up. The scarf wasn't tied, simply draped over his neck to make him presentable.
Cloud wasn't about to pull it away to check.
The black of his slacks made the stupid thin white gloves sticking out of his pocket look even brighter. Cloud flattened his hands over his knees. The skin was chapped over every one of his knuckles, tiny flaps of dead skin crinkling like accordion folds. He rubbed a thumb over the back of his index finger, and the odd sensation of rippling ridges mixed with the pinpricks of pain from the damaged skin. Fuck, this was probably some kind of record.
He'd washed everything he owned the night he got back. His apartment had a little bathtub, just big enough for him to sit in with his legs crammed up to his chin. He'd keyed himself in, stripped right there, and filled the room with steam. The water had turned red and brown and black as it ran through the heavy fabric. Then some kind of foamy residue had floated to the surface and clung to his boiled hands.
He'd drained the tub four times before the water stopped painting the porcelain red.
He'd stood under the spray after that, watching sludgy scum swirl down the drain and trying to remember how much blood an average human man possessed.
Cloud picked at a hangnail dangling out at the side of his finger, and it started to ooze. He sucked it into his mouth, and the sharp taste of metal spread itself across his tongue. Crimson beaded up over the rip again.
Cloud made a short noise in the back of his throat, and he dug a thumb into his palm, leaning forward and barring his arm over his knee to stop its fidgeting. Evans had always griped about that.
The Seconds occupied one of the mid-level floors in the Shinra tower, sharing two to a cramped suite. Evans's upright cherry wood piano still sat against the wall across from their squat little dining table, though the humidity of the Midgar summer had caused a few notes to go horribly flat in the time they'd been gone. Evans had tried to teach him for a while before giving Cloud up as a lost cause, incapable of relaxing his hands over the keys. He'd lasted longer than the instructor in Nibelheim, anyway.
There were a couple of cardboard boxes big enough to fit a man lying in the centre of their apartment. Cloud thought Evans's parents lived somewhere out near Junon. He'd have to check after he finished packing the stuff. Lazard had called him up to his office yesterday and made small talk while Cloud sipped at weak coffee. Then he'd told him that he'd get the apartment to himself for a while. They didn't need the space.
In Nibelheim, Cloud and the other kids had taken turns driving the rusted old truck that was wide enough to cover the whole mountain path down the road to the only general store for miles. They'd inched along, leaning on the tinny horn to give anyone walking on the road enough time to slide down into the wildflower fields alongside the raised dirt path. Evans had laughed until he pissed his pants, and then he'd put Cloud on a bike and taught him to make her purr under his hands.
Cloud looked up at Evans's face again before leaning over to press his forehead against his tangled fingers.
The door clicked behind him, and it swung open noiselessly. Cloud listened to the tap of boots over tile until they stopped somewhere to his right. He tilted his head up, and he blinked.
The neat row of medals pinned to Cloud's chest clinked when he sat up, and Robertsson's eyes dropped to the glittering bits of metal for a moment. The side of his mouth twisted up, and he nodded at Cloud.
"Want the chair?" Cloud said.
"It's uncomfortable as all shit."
Robertsson snorted softly. "Don't fuck up your ass before the parade today. You've gotta look good for the press."
Cloud clicked his tongue against the top of his mouth. "Noted," he said, scowling at his shiny boots.
"Hn." Robertsson made another almost smile, and he backed up a step to lean one of his shoulders against the wall.
Cloud turned back to the rows of caskets, listening to the hum of the lights. It sounded louder for some reason.
He hadn't seen Robertsson since Wutai. The Second had been with the other unit, one of the ones that came back alive. He'd seen the man briefly, passing by on a stretcher with blood trickling out of his ears and staring through the sky with unfocussed eyes, but Cloud had been given a thick, short Third with a hole through his chest by the medics. He'd pressed hard down on the wad of gauze, watching the fabric soak through and the man's eyes glaze. The gauze had squished under his hands, blood seeping through the gaps between his fingers, congealing into fuzzy clumps that clung to his palms after the medics had sent him off to carry more stretchers.
"You in the parade today, right?"
"No," Robertsson drawled, "I dress up in this zebrafish suit for shits and giggles."
Cloud made sure the Second was looking before he rolled his eyes.
There was a lot of lighting for such a small room. His shadows fanned out at his feet, quickly washing out and fading to invisible white on white. "I don't see why they're not making more of a fuss over the main unit," he said.
Robertsson grunted, folding his arms over his chest. "The General did everything. We got separated before the rest of us got ambushed by a bunch of deserters in Wutai combats mixed in with a Wutai heavy squad." He made a noise halfway between disgruntled and admiration. "Then the General came back and saved our asses." He paused. "The ones who had asses to save, still."
"The General did?" Cloud remembered the distant stare.
"He was out for the entire trip back after. Didn't they put you on duty on the officers' deck?"
"Sounded like a monumental waste of time at that point." He'd stood with his back to the wall beside Sephiroth's silent door for both of his six hours on shift and watched a rip in the carpet unravel under the feet of old men with shuttered eyes as they walked by.
"Lots of talk about traitors these days. The higher ups were probably antsy about protecting their investment. And you're pretty fucking set as the poster boy for company loyalty."
"Thanks," Cloud said drily.
Robertsson was quiet for a while, his eyes fixed on Evans's casket. Then he sighed, and the pinched look on his face smoothed out, along with the deep lines over his patchy eyebrows. "You send the best to guard a hero," he said, low but distinct.
Cloud was still watching Robertsson when the door thumped backward into its rubber stop and bounced.
"What are you doing here?" Kunsel stopped in the doorway, but he was looking at Robertsson.
Robertsson sneered. "Next time you think you can tell me where to be, lemme know beforehand, so I can tell you to shove it up your ass and save you the trouble."
"Next time you think you can pawn off the shit floor on my squad during our training rotation—"
"Oi," Cloud interrupted. "Save the bedroom talk for later."
Kunsel's mouth twisted under his helmet, but he shrugged.
"You're not in ceremony dress," Cloud said, swivelling around on the stool, slouching and gripping the edge.
"Yeah," Kunsel said. "Just got back from a mission in the Mines. Couple of workers were complaining about an ark dragon infestation. I'm staying on base during this one."
Kunsel chuckled shortly. He stepped into the room, slowing to a stop in front of the rows of boxes. He rested a hand on the varnished ridge edging around Evans, and Cloud saw the jump of tendons in his arm when his hand clenched.
"There's flowers in here," he said.
"He'd whine bad about it."
Cloud dropped his neck back, squinting at the bright panels set into the ceiling. "Yeah."
He saw Kunsel turn around in the corner of his vision. "What about Travers?"
"You didn't hear?"
"The brass has been pretty closed mouthed about the whole thing." Kunsel pulled his shoulders in, his eyes flitting over the open caskets. He took a step toward the wreath leaning against the wall and touched the fat buds woven into it. Their heads bobbed under his fingers. "The guys who came back are saying that it was pretty bad, but most of the rumours are about the Fort Tamblin side of things."
Cloud gnawed on a split in his lip. "A good quarter of the bodies were never recovered. Just gone. Either they're prisoners of the military faction that's active outside of Godo's control and better off dead after a week, or..." He shrugged. "Lazard said the guys who were killed on the spot were the lucky ones."
Kunsel stuck his hands in his pockets. He nodded, but he didn't say anything.
"They're putting his name on the monument, though," Cloud said.
"Right. Good." Kunsel shot a quick look at Robertsson's motionless stance, and then he sighed. "Have you been here all this time?"
Cloud ignored the question, tipping his chin towards one of the caskets in the back row. "That's Janes," he said. "We ran a recon mission together and nearly got our dicks chewed off roasting a shit ton of weed things in the mountains in Wutai."
"It sounds pretty fucked up, doesn't it?" He pulled up the side of his mouth, and he scoffed. "Dying on one mission after busting your balls to survive another one."
Kunsel kicked one of the legs of Cloud's stool, and it jolted and screeched a couple of inches over the floor.
The chair had spun a little as it moved, and Cloud had ended up half-facing the wall. He tilted his head over his shoulder without bothering to turn in the seat.
Kunsel scowled down at Cloud. "Lazard sent me to find you since you left your PHS in the training room again. He wants you to lead the drills," he said, sharply.
Cloud looked at the helmet's beak for a moment. He drummed his fingers against his hand. "Drills," he said flatly. "You mean the flashy footwork and gun waving they do during the parade? Keeps the kids and the tits screaming?"
"Yes," Kunsel said.
Kunsel growled in the back of his throat, but he didn't sound surprised. "Cloud, you're the only one who can do it. You've always walked the drills with Angeal, and after what happened in the war, the Thirds practically worship you. I swear they'd rather their plough their asses with their rifle butts than fuck up in front of you."
Cloud narrowed his eyes slowly. His hands slid down to grasp the edge of the stool between his legs, the stretch raising pleats of fabric along the seam. His nails were still tapping against the polished wood of his seat, the clops of noise doing nothing to drown out the empty refrigerator hum of the room. "What?" he said, carefully.
"Think about it." Kunsel jabbed a couple of knuckles in the hollow of his shoulder, and the ornaments dangling off of him jangled. "You razed Fort Tamblin to the ground. Singlehandedly. You didn't set the explosive units, but you went in alone, took out their commander, destroyed their anti-Soldier units, and you came back. Lazard's been dropping hints about promoting you since before he got back. Everyone's talking about it." Kunsel's voice lowered, grinding like gravel. "You'd know this if you bothered paying any attention to the living."
There was a banner hanging on the wall behind Cloud, inscribed with the word "Remembrance" in Shinra colours. The bright red of the text slashed across it, and Cloud had made sure to sit with it at his back. The dowel weighing the bottom edge of the fabric down was digging into his ribs, and he nudged the stool further away from the wall. It scraped over the tile with a noise like a couple of banshees mating. He shook his head, and he said, "That's complete horseshit. I did jack. I was just supposed to distract them while Angeal bombed the fort. It was dumbfuck luck that I ran into the commander."
"You say that like luck's a crime." Kunsel shrugged.
"I killed the man in front of his wife."
Artificial light reflected off of Kunsel's helmet. When he slanted his head, the dome cast muddy shadows under the shield that made the shell black and obscured his face. There was some kind of protective coating over it that gave it an oily sheen, a bloated iridescent bubble. Cloud had asked the Second once why he constantly wore the helmet. Kunsel had laughed, and he'd said something that had left a vaguely satisfied feeling in Cloud's mouth until he'd tried to remember what Kunsel said and came up blank.
Cloud leaned back, and he dropped his head against the wall behind him so he couldn't see Kunsel, something resentful simmering inside of him.
The helmet lifted and turned to him. "I thought you wanted to be a hero."
Pain shot up his arm and into his chest, like someone had grabbed all the nerves and squeezed. Cloud winced, and he brought his other hand up to scrub at his boiling eyeballs. For a second, he envisioned them popping open like water balloons and gushing chunky gook down his cheeks. The image made him snicker.
Air whistled in his nostrils when he pressed his mouth shut, and he pulled up a shoulder. "What kind of a hero can't save anyone?"
Kunsel snarled, and his hands clenched like he was thinking of putting his fist through something. "God-fucking-dammit, Cloud. Would you pull your head out of your ass?"
"Strife." Robertsson's voice was quiet. He tilted his head from where he slouched, scar-twisted eye hard and fixed, and he waited until Cloud glowered at him. "There's no one else," he said.
After a moment, Cloud looked down at where his knuckles were white against the dark grain of the stool. He hissed a breath through gritted teeth.
He felt Kunsel's stare, and then the Second sighed. "Are you going to be alright?" he said.
There was a hollow in his chest, cavernous and echoing with the weak treble of his pulse. His vision juddered, tunnelling like the light was coming from a distance, and Cloud was blindsided by the rage that swelled in his gut. Anger at Kunsel for nagging, anger at his eyes for not cooperating. He squeezed them shut, smothering the dizziness.
Cloud tried to smile, but the muscles in his cheek stiffened and pulled it lopsided. Probably looked like shit. He gave up.
"Ask me again later," he said.
He wakes up alone.
He doesn't remember being alone. The quiet and the damp settle against his skin, hot and cold playing with his nerves. It feels like a blister, his skin. Tight and shiny, stretched out over fluids that slosh around inside him when he moves. It's familiar. He used to try to slam his hands against the tank, when he could still get angry, and the green around him would slosh like that.
He tips onto his side, the mattress sinking reproachfully under him, and he taps around with his feet until they touch the ground. It's wood, varnished. Sticky under his bare feet.
His head doesn't hurt this time. Just sloshes. He touches his neck to see if it's still attached.
There's something moving in the corner of his vision, little jerks and jumps.
The grainy green in his eyes swims around like little darting motes, dancing around the shapes in the room. He tries to follow one that corkscrews around and around, but it slides further and further out of his line of sight as his eyes move, and they start to burn and thump. He blinks.
His feet scrape over the floorboards when he moves, and stinging pinpricks nip at his legs.
There's a mirror. He recognizes it, glass smoothed over yellowed metallic backing. He reaches out with his hand as he approaches it, and his fingertips bend backward when they stop against the glass. He pushes.
The pain registers dully, like there's cotton stuffing him, muffling his touch.
He wonders how well sloshing fluids conduct sensation.
It's a mirror. He recognizes it because the cold room had been lined with them, reflections glaring down at the flat metal table sitting in the centre of the floor.
There's only one mirror. His fingers are sliding, smudging it.
He looks at the face watching him. He frowns, his mouth turning slowly down as the fluff-stuffed signals creep up his spinal cord.
The eyes are familiar, rimmed with blue, dark blue in the decrepit light that seeps into the room. The pupils are wide, tufts of livid green rebounding off the edges of the black like aborted attempts at escape.
His fingers drag down the glass, tracing the lines of the nose that's too thin and the chin that's too sharp. They're wrong.
Greasy yellow hair droops onto the forehead, bobbing when his head moves sharply like on springboards.
The face looks back at him, wrong mouth creaking open in the wrong shape, wrong cheeks hollowing as the voice rasps in the wrong throat.
He squeezes his eyes closed against the face that isn't his, and the thunder of glass shattering claws past the muffled lather coating the inside of his skin.
Glitter speckles the red of his fist, and hot prickles slip down his knuckles, contouring his wrist and sliding down his arm. They tap as they hit the wood under his feet, thudding like mallets against his eardrums and setting them shaking in billowing waves.
Dimly, he hears the thumps of footsteps outside the door.
Screwed up sheets, mottled green from mako sweat, hang off the bed. They crumple under his tread, and then air is rushing past his ears as he falls.
The joints in Cloud's neck twitched at an overly enthusiastic slam of cymbals.
The band was marching right behind the Soldiers, horns blaring loud enough to be heard over the solid wall of sound coming from the people lining the sides of the street. Balloons of various colours rose over their heads, whipping back and forth under the biting wind that drove cold slivers under his nails.
When a cluster spun up and tumbled into the sky, tangled string fluttering from it like streamers, he followed it with his eyes. It dotted the grey clouds with bright specks of colour.
The enormous bass drum thumped, sending tremors buzzing through his shoulders. It beat steadily, running an uncomfortable heat through his chest when it overpowered the sound of his pulse, the rhythms out of sync. He ground his teeth together, snapping his arm up. The ceremonial sabre that Heidegger had handed him managed a weak gleam under the muted sky. He tucked his elbow in tight again, and he heard the echoing clack of two dozen rifles being shouldered simultaneously behind him.
The drum thumped again, and he moved into the next form, vibrations rising up from his soles.
Winter in Midgar sent serrated gales of pressure scathing over his skin. It was almost worse than the bone-deep chill of Nibelheim freeze. It didn't snow in Midgar, not like the dead white banks that amassed alongside the narrow roads back home. It tried, wispy flurries drifting out of the sky, but the heat of several million living people and gushing exhaust pipes quickly turned it to runny sleet that froze overnight and coated everything with a thin sheet of ice. Street lights started snapping after the first couple of falls, and Cloud remembered the permanent scowl on Director Reeves's face.
In Nibelheim, fat clumps of snow twirled in the sky, thick cover and thick clouds stealing away the sound. Isolated pockets of warmth huddled until spring, muffled in silence. His mother sang a lot more during the winter.
Boots stamped against the asphalt in near perfect time, two steps to each accompanying pound of the drum.
Cloud ran his eyes over the faces crowding the street. MPs lined the route at intervals, spines stiff and straight. A little boy with bright red hair sat on the shoulders of his father, and he raised both of his mitten-swathed hands into the air and waved furiously. Cloud met the kid's eyes and added an extra spinning flourish of the sword before clicking along into the next form. He might get chewed out for it later, but for now, the kid's shrieking laughter followed him as the procession moved.
He flexed his wrist again, concentrating on keeping the grimace off his face. The ceremonial sabre had glittery bits all over the hilt. The gilded scabbard was buckled to his belt, the unfamiliar shape slapping against his leg as he marched. The thing was disgustingly light, the flimsy blade nearly bowing at his movements. The Soldier insignia was stamped into the base, and the words "Honour and Valour" were etched along the dull edge. The heavy words didn't lend any added weight to the weapon. It sparkled at him again, and he wondered who had thought that it was representative of Soldier. A big bat with nails in it would have been preferable.
The parade snaked around a turn in an intersection barricaded with virulent yellow stripes, and the tail end swung into Cloud's line of sight for a minute. Over the tuba player's crimson face and brassy bell, Cloud caught a glimpse of the fluted hood of the state car. Decked with wreaths and its top folded down, it looked more like a fat, stagnant carriage, and he saw Heidegger beaming as he balanced in the seat, waving both arms over his head. Strips of medals swayed on his sash, slowly tangling as they tipped on and off his paunch. The Vice President sat across from him, leaning his chin on a palm as he raised his other hand to the spectators.
Cloud had been on the receiving end of Heidegger's grin on several occasions. It had been during performance reviews, with Angeal watching with half a smile while Cloud got the heavy hand on his shoulder and the blank geniality of the truly uninterested.
Heidegger swayed as the car trundled over a sewer grate, and the convoy slipped out of sight.
A warehouse loomed on the side of the road, shadows showing under the fresh coat of grey paint that nearly covered the graffiti. A stray cat sat on the corner of the roof, an enormous ginger tom that flattened its scarred ears against its head as it yawned. Its eyes blinked shut at a blast of freezing air that made the sabre whine in Cloud's hand and a couple of kids in the crowd shriek.
The General's coat streamed like a pennant.
Cloud had heard that the General drove like an asshole and would kick Thirds off of military transport for being irritating, but he'd never seen Sephiroth ride the fancy car during parades. Not that Heidegger and Rufus Shinra would have made for pleasant company. The General always walked at the head, his sheathed sword held at his side, setting the standard pace as people waved and gestured at his back.
The wind ripped at Sephiroth's hair, and the banner bearers a few steps behind him rocked and leaned as the fabric caught and billowed.
The flap of cloth snapped over the thump of the bass, and the wind funnelling into his ears muffled sound into a fuzzy mess of noise. The cat probably yowled before it streaked across the street, an orange blur that darted past rows of boots tipped with dust over careful shine.
Cloud's hand clenched around the too-light weapon, and he looked upwards to the roof of the warehouse, where a man in a ratty shirt that hang to his knees opened his mouth in his rage-twisted face to shout words that could not be heard. He flung his fist into the air, his head jerking wildly around and focussing on the state car. He raised his other hand, and the black of the pistol he clutched sucked at the meager light.
The band pounded along in its heartbeat thud.
There was a busker up the street, perched on the corner of the sidewalk and juggling a ring of brightly coloured balls. His hands shifted, swinging the trajectory of the balls into a double loop, and a girl's shrill laughter crested for a second before sinking back into the roar of noise.
The gunman jolted, a foot twisting as he sagged and fell.
The back of the dark suit straightened, creases falling out of the fabric as the wind snatched at it, and the Turk raised a PHS to his mouth.
The woodwinds launched through a short, trilling run, and Cloud looked forward, where the banner bearers shot confused frowns to their sides as their steps slowed and the banners folded. The procession paused, and the band stuttered briefly, a long dominant chord grinding with beats of dissonance and hanging in the air.
Past the banners, Cloud saw Sephiroth turned in profile, a gleam of steel under his gloved hand, where it clasped the mouth of the Masamune's scabbard. He shifted, and mako green eyes met Cloud's.
A tap of his thumb, and the sword slid sharply into its sheath, a moment before Sephiroth pivoted. The banner bearers snapped into step, their ragged lines quickly smoothing like the echo of a wave. Cloud stepped forward, sabre raised and holding form until the band moved, falling into the resolution.
He marched, the sound of the bass a fluttering pulse in his throat.
Thump. Step. Thump.
The spectators laughed.
The propeller engine roared at his back, and its heat seeped through the metal siding and thin cushion to sink into his skin. His muscles made little jerky, clawing twitches as they fought to relax and protested in his shoulders. Cloud sighed, tipping his head back to lean it against the airship's curved wall, but the vibrations lifted his skull up and bumped it back down against the wall incessantly in dull clacks, and he planted his palms on the bench to lever himself up again.
He poked at the back of his teeth with his tongue, feeling them buzz. The sensation brought to mind tiny bubbles squeezing and popping against the roof of his mouth.
The parade had ended at Shinra's private air base, hemmed in by tall gates studded with iron spikes on all sides.
Heidegger had begun bellowing before the state car had crept to a halt, and MPs scrambled to collect in formation. Then he'd spotted Cloud, and he'd begun stalking toward the Soldiers, his wide face black with thunder. Heidegger'd barely gotten within earshot before the General's voice had barked "Strife! Stand for report!" from behind Cloud, and Heidegger had stopped, scowled, and veered off when Lazard had cut smoothly into his path.
Cloud had stood at ramrod attention while Lazard's mouth made a little twitch, and he'd said, "This is me dressing you down, Soldier. Act contrite."
Cloud looked down at his hands, the joint groaning as he clenched and released his fist. He'd finally handed off the gilt sabre after the ceremony, but as worthless as it was, it'd been better than nothing. His bare back prickled at him, too light and too warm, and he leaned over, pressing his forearms against his knees. He sucked in a breath through slotted teeth, saliva running into the sides of his cheeks as the slow churn of his stomach rolled when the airship hit a patch of turbulence and shuddered.
"Strife? You okay?"
The bench creaked under new weight.
Cloud tipped his head. Jordon smiled thinly back at him, his helmet sitting in his lap and his ashy blond hair limp with sweat.
Cloud grimaced, and he made a sound halfway between a grunt and a moan.
Cloud flapped his fingers. "Quit chicken-shitting. I'm fine. Just don't be surprised if I decide to jump off and take my chances with the ground not killing me before I dent it."
Jordon snickered, and he leaned back, lacing his hands over his helmet and looking up at the bolted ceiling. "The General did a good speech," he said, after a while.
"Yeah?" Cloud said.
The caskets had already been lined up in neat rows, suspended over freshly hollowed earth, when they'd gotten there. There was no room in Midgar, but the company owned more land than Cloud had been able to imagine before leaving home. The airship had taken them west, to the other side of the mountains that hid the Mythril Mines. On land cut flat and seeded with manicured grass, flat blocks dotted the ground, small plaques set into the weathered stone. There weren't a lot of them. More open holes than closed. Cloud had never been to the Soldiers' cemetery before. A grey slab veined with dull pink and black crystal stood at the base of the mountain. The new names were already on it.
Cloud had stood still, cold digging into his fingers and his clothes as the wind gusted and scattered the pine needles that had been dropped to the ground, rolling them with little rattling noises.
There had been speeches, he was vaguely aware. Rufus had used the word "honour" three times in one breath, and Cloud had stopped listening. He'd stared at the white slabs piled on the side, near a gleaming iron fence, and he'd wondered if they'd been made with the plaques embedded in them, and the crew placing them over the graves would be left with a macabre game of matching the mound to the name. They'd probably been piled in a predetermined order, and if someone got mixed up and put into the wrong hole in the ground, he'd end up labelled as someone else until the wind eroded all of the names away and it didn't matter anymore.
He hadn't heard what Sephiroth said, either, but he remembered the quiet, even sound of the man's voice.
"He really meant it. You could tell," Jordon said.
Cloud looked at the Third. "Yeah," he said, nodding.
He'd waited while the caskets were closed, and he'd watched as they were lowered into the ground, clattering and groaning with each turn of the crank. He'd stayed for a while, after Rufus had tossed a handful of dirt onto one of the caskets and been ushered off, flanked by tense Turks.
The box that held Evans's body creaked and settled, clods of dirt starting to cave inward and scatter over the smooth wood.
He'd heard of it before, in books and stuff, but the burial ritual wasn't practiced in Nibelheim, where the ground above a certain altitude was too frozen to dig into without some multi-ton machinery, and the ground that could be dug up was so scarce amongst the bedrock that the few people who could convince food plants to grow in it weren't able to give it up to stick dead bodies into it.
People in Nibelheim were cremated, as far back as anyone could remember. The blind old man who sat in the bench in front of the inn every day had said that there'd been a huge mausoleum where Shinra mansion was, but it had been lost along with most of the town when the top of Mt. Nibel had blown in a spray of hot ash over a century ago. The new urns were kept in an official looking room with walls covered with threadbare velvet in the Mayor's cellar, now.
Some of the kids had dared Cloud to go in at night once, and the Mayor's daughter had scared the shit out of him when she'd heard, and decided to pop up amongst the sombre-looking urns and scold him.
One of the workers, a huge civilian with a beard that covered half his face and a shovel the size of half his torso, had hesitated when he'd reached Evans's grave, and he'd glanced over to Cloud.
"Wanna throw something in, lad? Before I cover it," he'd said, his voice a rumble under the howl of the wind.
Cloud remembered staring up at the man. "Throw what in?"
The man had shrugged. "Something with sent'mental value for your friend here? I dunno. I figured you were waiting to say goodbye."
Cloud had ended up pulling off one of the silver cuff-links on his dress uniform, and the civilian had looked at it strangely.
"That symbolic, or something?"
"No, but I'll remember him by it, anyway."
The old man had shrugged again, and he hadn't said anything else when he stuck the shovel into the mound of dirt at the side of the grave. Cloud had watched, and the gleam of metal vanished quickly under black soil.
The man grunted while he worked, and as shovelfuls of dirt thumped onto hollow wood, he'd cleared his throat. He hadn't looked back at Cloud, but he'd said, a bit awkwardly, "You know, boy, it helps to have a good cry. Even grown men twice your size do it."
Cloud hadn't known what to say to that one. A blast of wind had sent needles and clumps of topsoil clattering over the clean lawn as he watched the old man's dirt-smeared shirt flap while he shovelled.
That had been about when the clouds ripped open and slurry mixed in with hail splattered and hammered at the stones. The civilian had cussed loudly, and he'd bellowed to the other workers to get the graves stamped down before freezing water soaked through the loose soil and rotted the caskets away. Cloud had flinched at the sting of the ice pellets hitting his shoulders, but it was already lightening as the wind died. He'd looked up, squinting his eyes at the pale grey of the sky, and he'd watched the fat, sticky clusters of white snow spiral gently downwards.
A couple hit the back of his hand, and he saw the rippled edges of snowflakes stuck to each other for a second before they collapsed inward and melted into a bulbous droplet and slid off his wrist.
It had been strange, the way he couldn't really feel it against the surface of his skin. He'd stared down at it, a thin strip of numb crossing more numb. The empty splats of dirt hitting wood were becoming fainter, sharper. Peals of a bell tolling. Cloud had stood still, counting the rings as they folded themselves around him.
Someone had thumped him on the back of his head then, and he'd flinched. He'd turned to see a Turk smiling at him, pulling back the half-shut umbrella. "Come on, Soldier boy," she'd said, tilting her chin to where the airship stood waiting, propeller blades beginning a slow spin. "Don't get left behind."
She hadn't waited for an answer.
"Why'd you hang around for so long after the ceremony?"
Cloud blinked, pulling his eyes away from the whips of white whirling past the small porthole over his head. "Huh?"
"You were late coming on board. Almost got left behind," Jordon said, patting the fleshy part of his hand over his helmet absently.
Cloud thought about the old man for a moment, and then he shook his head and hummed in his throat. "Just curious, I guess. I've never seen anyone get buried before. I didn't know you've got special equipment for it."
Jordon raised his eyebrows. "What, never?"
Cloud shrugged. "We cremate people back home."
Cloud leaned back to look out the fogged glass again. He snorted softly. "My mother always thought that was boring. She always said when she died, she wanted to be put onto a huge ass pyre on a raft and burn her fucking way out of there on the river."
"No offense, but that's fucked up."
Cloud snorted again. "She's always been like that." Something glittered in this corner of his eye, and he slanted his head. He frowned. "You've got a sparrow or some shit in your ear."
Jordon scowled at him. "Fuck off, it's an eagle, you douchebag." He paused, glancing around. "I mean, you douchebag, sir."
Cloud rolled his eyes, and the Third seemed to relax. He waved a hand. "Lots of Soldiers get their ears pierced. It's not against regulations if it's too small to get grabbed, and we can't get tattoos, you know. The mako burns the ink right out."
Jordon looked at him for a minute. "I can give you the address of the guy I went to. He does work for Soldiers all the time, and he's pretty damn good at it. You'd probably look good with a stud."
"Oh." Cloud looked at the little bird again. "Thanks."
"No, it's—" Jordon cut off in mid-flap, and he clenched his hand into a fist as he dropped it to his lap. His face twisted, and he looked down at his tense hand. "Evans died saving me."
The airship droned through the snow, and the vibrations rose through the floor and up through Cloud's boots. "Oh," he said again.
Cloud thumbed the nub sitting against his left ear, and it gave a dull twinge of protest. It had taken a bit of time to first find a smith to melt down the other silver cufflink and shape it into a pointed stud, and the man had grumbled about fancy-ass Soldiers even after Cloud had told him to keep all the excess silver on top of payment. It had turned out well, at least.
Cloud dropped his hand, slapping it down onto the rail with a tinny clang. He rotated his shoulders, arching to stretch out his back with a grimace.
Cold knifed into his skin, the wind scraping its claws over his cheeks, and he inhaled deeply because the speed of the moving air created a little gap of low pressure in front of his body where it was a bit harder to breathe. The Shinra building had been designed to sway a little with the wind—less brittle that way, Kunsel had tried to explain—and he thought he could hear it groan under his feet.
Midgar stretched in front of him, in that quiet place when the people who worked the night were just falling asleep in whatever beds they'd found themselves in, and the people who worked the day hadn't gotten their first humanizing cup of coffee yet.
The Soldiers had been on leave for the rest of the day after the parade and funeral. Cloud had tossed for a few hours around in his bed that felt like it sank too much under his spine and smelled like whatever sharp, cheap soap he was buying these days before giving up. His key card didn't give him access to some of the higher floors, but it did let him up onto the roof.
Some security lapse, probably, but after the stale air getting pumped out of the heater set into his wall, he wasn't complaining.
Not that the air was much better outside. Glass and metal, dull in the grey of pre-dawn, stood like shorter, silent sentinels, flanking the Shinra building. He could see the edge of the plate from here, a blocky fence fringing its circumference except for where a few construction rigs sat silently beside the unfinished, gnawed-looking boundary of sector eight.
There was a hoot, mako-tinted steam spewing from the smokestack on top of the monorail that ran between the plate and below on an automated schedule. He could hear the clacking die away as the engine pulled away from the station and started its spiralling descent.
Cloud swung around at the scrape of the door opening behind him, and Robertsson stopped in the open doorway, a hand on the knob and a decently surprised look on his face. Then he sniffed, and he slunk forward to lean his elbows on the rail beside Cloud.
"Couldn't sleep either?" Cloud said.
Robertsson clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth like he was irritated. "Sound's different. I hear trucks go past outside and the whole fucking building seems to shake under me. None of those loud chirpy things, either."
"What, birds? We've got them."
"I don't mean those turds on wings. Pigeons, or whatever. They don't chirp. We didn't get a lot of those under the plate, anyway. Probably knew we'd eat them."
Cloud hung his head further over the guardrail. A couple of MPs passed each other, little black and blue specks on the ground, nodding in recognition as they continued their patrols.
"You saw that assassin on the parade route, yeah?" Cloud said, tracking one of the MPs with his eyes.
The MP slowed as he rounded the corner of the building, a hand darting down to the seat of his pants and yanking as if to unstick a wedgie. Cloud watched until the man was out of his line of sight. "Wonder who he was working for."
Robertsson made an impatient croaking sound in his throat. "Take your pick. Wutai remnant, local nutjob... I heard that there's a big terrorist group that the Turks are keeping hushed up."
Cloud's mouth twitched. "How'd you hear about it, then?"
Robertsson screwed up his face like he'd smelled something foul. "From that buddy of yours that always knows this shit somehow."
"Kunsel's a good friend," Cloud said.
Robertsson didn't say anything for a while, and then he shrugged a shoulder. "I know."
Cloud stared down at the motionless street below. The streetlight was flickering, strobing the ground just at the curb and making Cloud's eyes water. He heard Robertsson's fingers click as they tapped against the rail with no pattern that he could discern.
The Second tched. "Sound's fucking weird," Robertsson said.
Cloud hummed, half a sigh. "It's still home, though, right?"
Ahead, the sun was rising. Wutai had had some brilliantly coloured skies. The Midgar sun burned boiled-egg yellow, the smog on the horizon fuzzing its outline and making the atmosphere look like it'd caught fire. It radiated weakly, its heat like a damp touch on Cloud's skin, and watery shadows stretched out at the bases of the skyscrapers.
Cloud started laughing first. It was just jerks of his shoulders to start, his breath puffing out through his nose and pluming in the cold air, but then he nearly clocked himself on the chin on the rail, so he stood up, holding the bar with both hands and locking his elbows when he leaned over. His diaphragm shook painfully, and he sucked in quick greedy breaths around the irregular chortles that forced past his lips and disrupted his breathing. Robertsson's laughter sounded like hoarse barks beside him, half-muffled by his folded arms.
"Fuck, we're pathetic," Cloud forced out, fresh snorts breaking out through the words.
"Speak for yourself," Robertsson said, but there was a grin on his face as he huffed at the air.
Looking out over the lethargic city, they continued laughing.
Chapter 5: Calling Collect
Disclaimer: All recognizable characters and settings are property of Square Enix. No profit is being sought from the writing of this fanfiction, and no copyright infringement is intended.
A bit late, apologies to anyone who noticed. It's a long story involving Poisonberries's business trip (I'm sure you know her from the awe-inspiring Dissidia 012 epic The Door of Souls), a cherry orchard, and a hundred ninja pirates that you probably don't want to hear.
Progress: I've more or less unlocked everything in Theatrhythm now and am just grinding for trophies at this point.
Progress that isn't bullshit: We're looking at about thirteen or fourteen chapters plus an indulgent interlude coming up after the current story arc.
Lastly, my materia theory is a mixture of Crisis Core, main game, and utter bull.
Beta: Much, much credit to Poisonberries for making this edible.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Part 5. Calling collect
The sky boiled. Blue light cored with white so bright it screwed into Cloud's retinas seethed overhead, and wisps of energy danced by his knees before shooting up to join the mass. A couple splashed over his skin as they passed, their frenzied careen dissolving into a spray of short-lived sparks. It felt like muted zaps of static shock.
Bahamut arched its wide wings, big enough to swallow the horizon, and Cloud stared up into Megaflare.
Fuck. Oh fuck.
Panic tripped its way up his spine, driving spikes into all the soft, hollow bits as it hopped and skipped. The smooth bindings on the hilt of his broadsword creaked under his grip, and Cloud clenched his other fist over his sword arm to stop its sporadic shake.
Banora (1) was deserted around him, the emptiness oozing from the ramshackle houses vibrating with his nerves. Evacuated. Dead. He didn't know. The clearing between the ragged row of homes filled up with clumps of dust as the shaking slowly sheared the buildings apart, beam by deliberate beam.
There was the roar of air being compressed and propelled in ragged spirals, carried along and pushed away in turns by the spin and flow of magic. His eyes skittered over grey, broken terrain, searching for a focal point away from the roil of blue. An unbroken door, a fucking rock that wasn't moving under the pressure. Anything to centre himself, let him dredge up his years of training, and pummel his jackknifing muscles back under control. His imagination slithered its way past the desperate blocks he'd erected in his mind, and a vision of his skin being flayed away burst across the inside of his skull, complete with lurid colours and the scent of scorched flesh. Exposed bone grinned at him, buried in clumps of half-seared hamburger meat.
Quit bitching and focus!
The words assaulted his head, expanding through his skull and attempting to squeeze his brain down his nostrils. Cloud suppressed the jump as surprise drove its way into his senses, but his breath snagged in his throat, doubled back, and pounded on the mucus-soaked flap covering his windpipe from both sides until he seized and gagged. His eyes darted to the side before dragging back up to Bahamut's improbably airborne bulk.
It hadn't sounded—he'd heard that voice before. He was pretty sure that—
His memory was hot wax melting under the scream of fear, and he shook his head, balancing his other palm against the butt of the sword hilt.
You know what to do, Spike! You'll be fine!
The words were accompanied by a stab of incandescent agony through his temple.
It hadn't addressed him since Wutai, that damn voice. He'd thought it had been a hallucination brought on by thinner air and the way every fucking thing had been trying to take his head off over there. It—
Grey-blue eyes imprinted themselves across his mind, tired and old in a way that made them look just a little less like Angeal's, and fury flared radiant-hot in his gut. It soaked into his limbs, heat and tightness and the itch to streak blood over his blade, and he welcomed it like a returning friend. His head snapped up, and he glared at Bahamut.
"She didn't have to die like that!" he shrieked over the thunder of Megaflare's charge.
The great summon ignored him. It arched its back, poised to fire.
Megaflare screamed through the air toward him, and Cloud launched himself straight upward, rejecting the wail of the muscles in his thighs at the abuse. He tucked his sword in tight, his arms clamped to his sides to minimize drag.
The magic baked his face, not exactly heat and not exactly sensation, making the hairs on his neck curl. It howled, growing in perspective as it loomed until it dwarfed Bahamut's black-scaled form, and Cloud wrenched himself to the side. He spiralled tightly, feeling Megaflare scrape like thorns down his limbs, and then he was past it. The sound of the Planet's crust crunching and collapsing rose from under his feet and the winter-grey sky stretched ahead.
Bahamut twisted its serpentine neck, mafic black eyes fixing on Cloud and its incongruously thin arms flexing out to balance it as it tried to turn in the air. Its webbed wings beat hard, flinging out to swat at him, but Cloud had already shot past. A bellow rumbled through its breast, and the draconian body began its pivot, the crackle of lightning adhering and compacting at its wings as it prepared another attack.
With a yell that ripped his voice raw, Cloud spread his legs, pedalling at the wind to direct his arc. At the apex, he raised his sword, gripped it tight with both hands, and he let himself fall into the swing.
The impact sent pain carving up his knees when he hit the ground, and he loosened his joints, tumbling into a roll that spun out of his control and sent him skidding and scraping harshly across the stone. Gouts of black blood thumped to the earth, etching ink blot patterns into the dust, and keening, Bahamut began to fall. It liquefied as it plummeted, runny streaks clinging to the sky like stains of paint on a wall, dissolving segment by segment into nothing.
A speck dropped out of the watery haze of Bahamut's belly while it slowly dissipated into the air. It hit the cobblestone and bounced, ringing out a sharp tone as clear as a bell. The next bounce hit a patch of dirt, and skipping over bloody mud, it spun to a halt in the square, the glimmer of mako wavering in the core of the materia. Slowly, it intensified to a solid glow, pulsing to a slow heartbeat.
His breath rasping in his throat, Cloud dragged his feet under him, nearly overbalancing before he pushed himself upright. He glanced around. His sword had clattered to a stop, half buried in dirt at the base of a wall. His mouth felt like it was coated with every mote of dust the ground was capable of fountaining up, and he spat. Too dry. He sucked at his cheeks, pulling in every drop of spit he could, and he spat again. Looking up, he snarled at Genesis's calm, blank stare.
"Can't even fight your own fights?" he shouted.
The black wing snapped as it flapped once, its imbalanced shape keeping the First afloat. Genesis watched him.
Cloud swung his hand hard, wishing for his sword. "Where's your pride as a Soldier, huh?"
Something flickered over the flatness of Genesis' eyes. He looked down at the spread of a gloved hand. "We are... Monsters," he said.
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
Genesis smiled, a thin, sardonic twist of his lips. "We have neither dreams nor pride. Monsters that have lost both, these unnecessary burdens to our flight."
Blood thrummed in Cloud's ears, the rush making him sway, lightheaded. "Don't give me that cryptic shit, too!"
By the glaze on the First's face, Cloud could tell Genesis had forgotten about him. Stretching a languid wing, he reached out and ran a gentle finger over the long black pinions spreading out from the angled joint near the tip. A ghost of a sigh stretched his face, and Genesis closed his eyes, a shoulder curling in and an arm wrapping around his waist.
"Soldiers aren't monsters!" Cloud tried again.
Genesis didn't seem to hear him. His wing snapping out again, he turned. A flap carried him up, soaring farther than the wing should have been able to carry him.
"Hey! Don't you fucking run, you coward!"
Black feathers rained down, twirling as they fell, as if the sky was moulting.
His face turned up to empty space, Cloud didn't notice the buzz of his PHS until it started its shrill ring.
He fished through his pockets, finally finding it in a flat panel of fabric at about knee level. He fumbled with the flip, accidentally clapping it shut and cutting off the call. It was silent for only about a second before it started vibrating again in his hand. Cloud thumbed it open.
There was a burst of crackling noise, and Cloud winced, pulling the earpiece away from his head.
"—mbing to commence in—pare for—" said Tseng's voice.
"Hold on, what?" Cloud said into the speaker.
The voice came clearly this time, accompanied by the roar of machinery. "Strife! Air raid on Banora is starting. Prepare for extraction!"
Cloud's eyes widened. "Extraction? How?"
There was a loud whistle, modulating in pitch as it approached, and an explosion rocked the earth. Cloud bent his knees, absorbing the shock as he threw out a hand for balance.
"Tseng?" he yelled.
There was no response, but he'd seen the chopper by then, dipping down out of the grey sky and heading straight for him. Another shell blared through the air, turning knives in his ears until he thought he felt them leak. The force of the missile's hit made the ground shudder and roll under his feet. Dust whirled , metallic-edged against his tongue and clogging his eyes with gunk, and Cloud rubbed his arm over his face, feeling the damp grit smear. The din was fucking with his senses, making it difficult to tell up from down. Spinning in a drunken circle, Cloud squinted through dirt-sealed eyes and propelled himself into a run. Sliding on locked knees, Cloud snatched up his sword, slamming his other hand into the wall it had rested against and using the recoil to fuel his sprint toward the twisting rope ladder dangling from the chopper's open door.
He'd barely climbed through the gap before Tseng glanced back at him, twisted his fist on the throttle like he was trying to rip the skin off someone's wrist, and sent the machine shooting through the sky with enough speed to lift Cloud off his feet and dump him into the thinly upholstered bench. His head snapped back and hit something that clanged and set his teeth shaking.
Explosions blasted waves of pressure from behind their tail, the force of the air hitting Cloud's eardrums hard enough that he couldn't differentiate between that and the sounds of the missiles blowing. Smoke and dust compounded thick and opaque mushroomed into the sky, spits of bright fire springing up at their bases. He saw Tseng's mouth move, the Turk's face twisting sharply, but he didn't hear anything as the straining chopper reached decibels he hadn't known existed. Tremors jarred his bones, clacking them together like strung beads, and Cloud crouched low while dips and jerks tried to bounce him up off the floor. The helicopter's tail spun, its broadside tilting against an explosion, and for one disorienting moment, Cloud looked up through the windshield at the marble brown earth. The machine wobbled itself right side up, but from the way blood was flushing his head and making his brain feel like it'd swelled to twice its size, they were still losing altitude. Cloud reached for the other headset, fingers that felt fat and clumsy trying to untangle the speaker prong from where it wound around the band, but then another solid wall of pressure slammed into the helicopter, and he toppled. He felt more than heard the crunch of his shoulder going into a steel beam, and Tseng's bellow vibrated in his head, too muffled to form words.
There was the rush of air past his skin, accompanied by a sudden drop in gravity.
Through the stinging furls of pain waving in his vision, he saw Tseng's hands both go to the collective-pitch and yank furiously. It had to have had some effect, because the helicopter's fuselage shook, tipping one way and then the other.
It continued to fall.
Cloud blinked, feeling his eyelashes scrape the dirt and seeing a fuzzy outline of the crust gathering on them. He tried his legs, taking inventory of his limbs. They seemed fine, an unbroken ache sinking into the marrow but not impeding his movement when he pulled them in toward his torso. Right arm. It creaked like an old windy door. Left arm.
Fuck fuck fuckfuck.
In increments, Cloud levered himself up into a hunch, cradling his left elbow to his chest as soon as he could spare his right hand. He hissed through tight teeth, and he twisted his twanging neck to look around.
The helicopter sat on the flattened dirt, looking relatively intact except for the long scars on its skids. Cloud was more concerned with Tseng, the man's limbs wrung oddly as he sprawled twenty feet away. He must have been flung out first while the chopper was bucking through its landing. Cloud tried to get to his feet, and his shoulder howled its displeasure. More than half a controlled stumble, he managed to skid to a stop near the Turk before his knees wobbled and he landed on his ass.
He squinted through bloated eyes at the slow ooze of blood from a ragged gash slashing across Tseng's hairline, and he moaned. "Oh, you've got to be fucking kidding me..."
Tseng murmured something at the noise. It wasn't coherent by a long shot.
Cloud prodded at his shoulder, digging his fingers into the swelling and biting back snarls at the blistering waves of pain. Not broken. Dislocated. Going to be puffed up to all hell.
He glanced around, seeing a tree that looked like it had been mauled by a giant suction cup that stripped its bark down one side. Staggering to his feet, he walked to it, using his right hand to extend his left and press it against the smoothed wood. He felt around the dislocated shoulder again, poking carefully before he pressed his palm flat against the inside face of the joint. Taking a deep breath and loosening his jaw slowly, Cloud shoved hard with his right hand at the same time as he leaned into the tree.
It was actually a bit impressive, the way his scream echoed like that.
The sound died away into an abrupt sob, and he sagged, sitting down hard. The black edges of his vision swung on him, vertigo trying to upend his stomach, and he turned it into a choked laugh. A memory flickered through his mind. The voice probably thought he was losing it. Gasping for breath through another chuckle, he poked at the inside of his head like sticking his tongue into a cavity.
The voice didn't respond.
Cloud wasn't sure how he felt about imaginary disembodied voices ignoring him. He'd been ignored plenty already, between Genesis, who couldn't hold up his end of a damn conversation, and Angeal, who'd—
Cloud screwed his eyes shut and slammed the door on that train of thought. He squeezed the hand over his shoulder, bleating heat streaking down his arm and distracting him from the acidic fury that simmered in his gut. Gillian Hewley's limp form, delicate thin fingers splayed out on the dirt floor, painted itself across the inside of his eyelids and punched a shock of ice through his chest.
Angeal, who'd left. Again.
Cloud growled and shook his head. Rotating his torso around, he kept his eyes fixed on Tseng to provide a focal point for balance as he half-crab walked, half slid on his ass toward the Turk.
"Oi, Tseng," he croaked. He cleared his throat. "Tseng. Can you hear me?"
The Turk muttered.
Cloud could see the deep blue of the bruise soaking its way across the man's forehead and down the side of his cheek. He was going to have one mother of a headache. "Got a Cure on you?" he asked.
"Cure?" The response was halting.
"Yeah, you know. Shiny, green, not much good for a game of marbles."
Tseng managed to make an irritated noise without opening his eyes. "Bracer," he said, finally.
"Oh good, you're actually lucid."
Tseng groaned deep in his chest.
"Mostly." Cloud checked the wrong wrist first, and then he leaned over the man and tugged up his other tattered sleeve. The expensive suit was beyond salvage. Cloud wondered if the Turks would ever change their uniform to something more practical. Or colourful. He exhaled loudly through his dust-clogged nose when he found the bracer undamaged, studded with twinkling beads like a localized constellation. With soft clicks, the materia came unchambered. Sitting them in his palm, he examined them. The Cure gleamed a pale green, softer and more alive than the darker shade of the Fire and the Thunder. Hesitating for a moment, he mouthed the Cure, keeping it clenched between his lips as he tucked the attack magic and the Long Range into a pocket. He'd return them later, but they might be useful for now. The last thing he needed was Turks breathing down his neck over stolen materia on top of the rest of the shitfest.
Rolling the Cure back into his palm, he frowned down at its glossy shell for a moment. It was quite a bit more difficult to direct spells without first equipping the materia, but he didn't think he could get the Turk's bracer off with one hand.
Breathing deeply, he closed his eyes, concentrating on the smooth weight of the ball in his hand and pulling to mind an image of a flower unfurling. Angeal had taught him that meditation techniques greatly enhanced focus with materia what felt like centuries ago. The materia flared to life.
He pressed the healing spell into Tseng's skin first. There was a glimmer of green, sinking gently into the dark patch of the bruise, and Cloud watched the Turk's eyelids flicker. Not wanting to risk scarring from overdoing the healing when the recipient wasn't able to respond with clarity, he shrugged, and he turned the next spell to his shoulder.
It always felt weird, little pinpricks and prods snagging on the flesh under the surface of his skin and tugging any torn tissue together like miniature tweezers dragging on the severed ends of muscle and connective tissue fibres. Reconnecting the severed strands also cleared up the drainage pathways, letting the edema subside a bit. It couldn't get rid of the swelling entirely, though. That would take care of itself with time, using the stream of natural healing flowing through any living thing's body.
Cloud had generally been good at casting, but Angeal had said that understanding the basis of the spell would increase his efficiency and output by several times, and he'd ground the texts into Cloud's head.
Cloud's teeth grated together.
Angeal. Always fucking Angeal.
A shredded groan dropped heavily from Tseng's mouth, and Cloud clawed together his focus. He tested his arm, scowling when it eased slowly into position, resisting his attempt at movement. Dull throbs pounded out from his shoulder. Better than nothing.
He could already see the twisted husk of Tseng's PHS lying forlornly next to shards of black plastic and a heavily scraped rock. Pulling his own out, he flipped up the screen. It flashed a bunch of grainy lines at him, blinked, and subsided to darkness. Cloud punched at a couple of buttons with his thumb, but it didn't respond, showing only his hazy reflection on the murky display. Cursing long and low under his breath, he slung it off into the distance with a jerk of his elbow. It made a faint crunching sound when it hit the ground.
Cloud looked up at the darkening sky. The barren landscape contained nothing but rocks and brown grassy stubble.
He could try to light a signal fire or something. Shinra would probably come looking for them when they didn't report back within a day or two.
He tilted his head to look over his shoulder when Tseng moaned again.
He eyed the curled edges of the scuffed paint job on the helicopter.
Mumbling an apology, he hooked an arm around Tseng's waist, grabbed one of his arms just under the ball of the joint, and he heaved the Turk up onto his good shoulder. There was a loud retching sound, and something warm splashed down his back. The smell made his stomach surge in response, but he tamped down the urge to follow Tseng's lead.
He laid the Turk flat on the bench in the back of the chopper, arranging him so that his knees hung off the end of the fixture in a way that didn't look too uncomfortable. Climbing over the partition between the pilots' seats, he settled himself at the controls. The ignition key was still in place.
Inhaling slowly through his teeth so that it whistled, he sent a quick prayer to anything that could be listening and merciful, and he gripped the head of the lever at his side, slowly twisting his wrist to open the throttle. The rotor hummed to life over his head, and he let out his breath in a quick whoosh. Adjusting his hold on the collective pitch, he began to pull.
An alarming clanking noise echoed through the fuselage, and Cloud hastily cut the throttle.
The clanks slowed, becoming isolated thunks before rattling to a stop, and Cloud leaned forward to thump his forehead against the dashboard. He did it again for good measure. He sighed, sliding out of the chair and balancing himself on the rim of the door frame.
Emptying his stomach and the subsequent sound of the rotor grinding to life had yanked Tseng from his stupor, it seemed, because as Cloud inched along the door frame, clutching at the smooth, heated canopy with open palms to maximize the friction keeping him up, the Turk's apprehensive voice wound out of the back.
"What are you doing?"
Cloud grunted, swinging his legs to propel himself up onto the roof, a hand snagging at the rotor mast. "Getting us out of here."
"What?" There was a distinctly worried tinge to the Turk's voice now.
"Look, shut up. I know what I'm doing. This is just a standard military chopper."
Tseng didn't say anything else, but Cloud could hear his restless movements.
He pulled at the loose nut holding the upper swash plate flush against the lower, and he groaned. The threads were gone, scraped clean off, and one of the control rods was bent. The rod was easily fixed, but... Cloud shifted his weight, and the materia in his pocket clinked. He paused.
"Hey, pass me up your bracer. And something small and metal," he called.
He heard some shuffling, and eventually a glittering shard appeared in Tseng's extended hand. It looked like it had been chipped off a larger blade.
Cloud clicked the bracer shut around his wrist, slipping the Fire into the first slot. Channelling a bit of energy into it, he directed the heat into the metal pressed against a smooth area of the bronze bracer, keeping it contained inside so that it couldn't be exposed to oxygen and catch the thing on fire. One of the edges fused easily enough into the bronze.
The thick leather of his gloves was starting to smell like burnt cow, and he pulled his fingers off briefly to shake them. Narrowing his eyes, he heated the metal again, one of its ends still melted to the bracer, and he began to pull at a snail's pace.
The silence frayed at the nerves squirming down his neck into his shoulders, the swollen one trying to seize up on him again, and as he worked, he gnawed at a lip.
"So why'd you join Turks?" he said, offhand.
Tseng didn't respond for so long that he thought the man had fallen unconscious again.
Cloud snickered at the tone. "You know, just making conversation. Helps me concentrate. What made you join Turks?"
It was quiet again for a moment. "I utilize my talents to the best of my abilities in the department," Tseng said, stiffly.
"What, that's it? Come on, I know that you're good at what you do. That's not really a reason, though."
"My motives do not concern Soldier."
Cloud sighed, rolling his eyes. He stilled his motions, surprised, when Tseng started speaking again, his voice soft.
"I was originally slated for the Soldier program before being recruited for Turks. There is... someone I wish to protect, and I was convinced that I would best be able to do so as a member of Turks."
Cloud dragged on the growing string of metal again, frowning. "The Vice President?"
There was a quiet sound, like a laugh that didn't quite stir Tseng's vocal cords. "No."
"A girl, then?"
When Tseng spoke next, his words were slow, as if coming from far away. "I owe a debt of gratitude to the Director of Soldier, and to Angeal. It was due to their influence that—"
"Shut the fuck up about Angeal."
The silence echoed in Cloud's ears.
"You saw him just as well as I did," Cloud said, tension strung tight in his voice. "He left. He decided to desert. Nothing else. He decided to—" he cut himself off, listening to his breath whistle in his nose as he pressed his mouth closed.
"Strife, I am aware that you—"
"Actually, I don't think the small talk is helping," Cloud interrupted.
Tseng hummed and subsided.
Cloud shut his eyes and leaned his forehead against the roof of the chopper. He snorted, the conversation replaying itself in his head without his consent. Bastard probably changed the subject like that on purpose.
Cloud examined the stout nut again, satisfied that the thin thread of steel had settled properly against the inside of the ring. He pumped another spike of energy into the materia, and the wire fused to the surface of the nut. Spitting onto his gloved fingers, he ran a couple over the new thread. It sizzled briefly, and when Cloud tested it again, it was cool to the touch.
Cloud screwed it onto the plate, using his enhanced strength to wrench it tight until the metal groaned under his hand and his grip had to either start slipping or dent the surface. Sliding down the side of the canopy on his stomach, he tapped to the ground lightly. He checked the engine next, remembering the grinding noise that preceded the rotor starting. There was dust in the valve, and the spark plug, set with a glittering little chip of thunder materia, was gummed up. Cloud tugged off his gloves with his teeth.
When he looked up again, Tseng was sitting in the co-pilot's seat, watching him with slitted eyes.
Cloud swung himself up into the cabin, easing into the other chair. He ignored the way the Turk's gaze followed him.
"That ought to do it," he said mildly, and he reached for the ignition again. The engine barely sputtered before turning over.
He was pulling on the collective pitch, carefully adjusting for torque, when Tseng leaned closer. "Where did you learn to fix a helicopter, Strife?"
Cloud glanced at the Turk, confusion tugging at his mouth. "What? At Shinra. I get called down to the garage to do this kind of stuff all the time." The cyclic pitch lever shifted smoothly under his hand, and the chopper banked while Cloud eyed the bearing on the compass.
Tseng's eyes were unreadable as they fixed flatly on his face. "No, you don't. To this date, you didn't display any knowledge on how to pilot one, either."
"Huh?" Cloud scowled, and then he shook his head. "Your Turks sources must not be as well-informed as you think. I've always been good at this shit."
Tseng sat back, face still closed. Cloud thought he caught a flicker of disorientation in the man's blank eyes.
He looked over, open sky stretching out ahead of him, and he saw Tseng's frown. The Turk's eyebrows creased, and his lips parted, mouthing something soundlessly. He looked up at Cloud, squinting hard. "Did you succeed in your objective in Banora?" he said slowly, the words dragging out like putty.
Cloud blinked. "Uh, well, considering both Genesis and Angeal are still alive and flapping, I'd guess not. I assume you managed to get some information about how they're making these Genesis clones from the warehouse or Genesis's parents' house or something, doing your Turk thing." His hand clenched around the lever at his side for a moment. "Didn't manage to talk some sense into them either, no matter what the General thought I could possibly do. Angeal never listens to me, anyway."
Cloud stared at Tseng. The man's eyes had nearly glazed over, and the bruise down half his face had gone a particularly bright puce.
"Guess that bump on the head scrambled your brains more than I figured," he said, mostly under his breath.
"Try to get some rest. It's gonna be a bit of a trip, even with the way people tell me I drive." He tried for a grin.
The Turk slumped back, shutting his eyes without acknowledging him. The chopper's blades thumped steadily, and Cloud flexed the shoulder that ached.
"You're not the only one Angeal left behind," Tseng said, his voice suddenly sharp. "You should not let personal feelings interfere with your quality of work."
Cloud gritted his teeth, staring ahead into the empty horizon.
Cloud's eyes felt scratchy, lumpy sandpaper coating the insides of his eyelids and scoring shallow lines over his corneas. He reached up, slapping his palms into his sad sack of a pillow in a futile attempt to puff it up under his head before settling on lacing his fingers at his nape.
The apartment was dark, the heavy blinds drawn over the windows hanging limp. There was a clock hanging in the little galley of a kitchen that Travers had gotten him on a trip down below-plate once, a simple round face on which a cartoon girl with black hair and a short red dress sat. The gimmick was that her breasts jiggled with the tick of the second hand. Travers had found that sort of shit utterly hilarious. He'd grinned every time he saw it, even years later.
It had a distinctive tick, that clock, a grumbling whirr preceding each sharp click of the counter.
He could hear it through the wall from his bed, whurrrtick-ing away, and he considered forcing his stiff muscles to let him get up and yank the batteries out of the thing so that he could finally get some fucking sleep.
Something in the radiator clanked and gurgled, and Cloud sighed, tugging his shoulder blades closer together in a stretch and grinding the back of his head into the pillow.
He was still in his uniform pants, though he'd shucked the belt and vest when he got in, and the movement made something in his back pocket crinkle. Shifting his hips just enough to stick a couple of fingers into the deep pouch, he tugged out a scrap of paper.
Once he'd landed the chopper on base, ground control had thoroughly bitched him out for coming in at reckless speeds and so help him Planet the only reason they hadn't gunned him down was because the kid waving the semaphore sticks had recognized him and came running to stop them. He'd handed Tseng off to the medics under the hostile stares of a couple of other Turks after that, and trudged up to the executive floors to report.
Lazard hadn't looked very surprised at his account of the stolen Shinra technology and Genesis copies swarming the Firsts' hometown, but Cloud had been watching the man closely enough to notice when the thin lines around the Director's eyes tightened at the news of Gillian Hewley's death. When he'd tried to explain about Tseng's injury precipitating his rush to get back to Midgar and that he'd been in complete control of the helicopter at all times, the Director had lowered his head into his hand before waving the other to stop Cloud. The man's angular shoulders had jerked as if he was laughing, but his voice had been steady when he dismissed Cloud with an order to attend a meeting the next morning.
Cloud hadn't said anything about the voice shouting at him in his head.
On his way out, the Director's secretary had flagged him down and asked him to move an unnecessarily large printer-copier combo across the lobby. She'd followed him and palmed his ass when he leaned over to put it down again, but he'd been too tired to do much more than grin at her and excuse himself. She must have slipped the piece of paper into his pocket then.
Squinting, he read it, the crisp lines of the ink edged in the mako glow of his eyes.
Mandy. And a PHS number.
Groaning, Cloud dropped his forearms over his eye sockets, crumpling the slip in his hand. Fuck, he was going to have to requisition a new PHS.
There were several heavy thumps against the door to the hallway, and Cloud froze. Whoever it was pounded again.
Cloud kicked off the sheets, and with a quick roll, he was padding toward the narrow door.
It was a trio of MPs, the one in the back tall enough to tower over Cloud. The man who had his fist raised to knock lowered his arm, and he nodded at Cloud, his helmet opaque over his face.
"Soldier Second Class Strife, sir?"
The MP seemed to grimace at the impatience in his tone. "Apologies for intruding so late—"
"Could we get to the point?"
The MP paused, his mouth thinning. "Please come with us, sir."
Cloud scrubbed a palm over his face, the other hand still on the edge of the door. He debated slamming it shut, but then they'd just start knocking again, and he didn't think he was allowed to hit these guys on those grounds. "Can't it wait until tomorrow?"
"It's urgent, sir."
Scowling, Cloud turned to get dressed, but the MP slapped his hand against the door frame right by Cloud's arm.
"It's really urgent, sir," he said, shrugging a shoulder lightly.
They watched as he stuffed his feet into his boots and grabbed his lanyard.
Something Cloud couldn't explain clawed its way up his spine at the sight of the hunched back, long white coat drooping to the man's knees.
"Well, it's about time," the Professor said, a peevish cant to his speech.
The MPs saluted behind him before clattering off down the hallway. They'd descended far enough through the tower that the chill soaking in through the walls pebbled Cloud's bare skin, the hairs on the back of his neck raising with a slow crawling sensation. He clamped his heels together, straightening his shoulders to stand to attention.
"Are Soldiers so lofty now that they ignore PHS summons?" The Professor's mouth twisted, and he tilted his head back to stare at Cloud down the length of his nose, where his glasses looked precariously perched.
"Unfortunately, Professor Hojo, I am no longer in possession of my PHS due to unforeseen circumstances relating to my previous missi—" Cloud's words cut off with a hiss at the jab of thin fingers into his inflamed shoulder. His knuckles popped loudly when his fist tightened, and he snapped his jaw closed, staring just a bit above and to the left of Hojo's temple.
Hojo hummed, pacing around him and pressing cold fingertips against sore bruises he hadn't known he'd had.
Cloud refused to flinch.
"Not my concern, Soldier. Get yourself another one so that you don't waste my time again."
The scientist grunted, completing his circuit and stopping in front of Cloud. "Well, come on, then."
Cloud's eyes flickered around the lab. There was a reclining chair in the centre of the room under the clustered beams of several theatre lights, padded restraints on the arm bars and leg rest that stood up from the body of the chair with all the stiffness inherent in their steel bar cores.
Spirals and surges of nausea weaved their way around his stomach.
"Come on where, sir?"
There was a sharp sigh. "Your stupidity exceeds my expectations," Hojo said, rolling his eyes behind the thick lenses of his glasses, the curvature magnifying the sallow bags under them.
The Professor stalked toward the chair, and reluctantly, Cloud followed.
He rarely saw Professor Hojo, since the scientist barely ever came up to the Soldier floors. There'd been that time he'd been in the VR training room, and the Professor had come in, told Cloud that he was employing his services in a simulated field test of a strength serum made for Soldiers, and jabbed a syringe of red fluid into his neck while he'd been trying to watch the technicians who'd entered with the Professor fiddle with the simulation dials.
When he'd woken up, flat on the floor, the VR equipment was trashed, pungent smoke curling up from the blank gauges, and his limbs looked like they'd been through a meat grinder. Through the shitstorm of physical misery, he remembered Hojo sighing and walking out, muttering something about berserker side effects. His memory of the rest of that week was a bit hazy, but he recalled Angeal's voice, more unnerved than he'd ever heard, and wide hands patting his face and hauling him down to the infirmary when his lungs collapsed on him.
"Sit," the Professor said, snapping his fingers at the chair.
Cloud perched on the edge of the seat, slowly nudging himself backward into the yielding leather, still scanning the room as if a means of escape would suddenly present itself. "What's this for, Professor?"
"Be quiet. You've already wasted an hour of my time, and I have no desire to squander any more." The Professor flicked a hand, and a couple of technicians were hovering over the chair, snapping the cuffs into place over Cloud's wrist and ankles.
"What the hell— hey, wait!" Cloud yanked at the restraints, but they didn't even wiggle. "The fuck do I need these cuffs for?" His breath was coming faster, shallow pants that did nothing to oxygenate his blood.
Green was oozing down his vision, pooling at the bottom of his field of view like his eyes were filling up with gallons of mako. He opened his mouth again, and a flurry of bubbles raced up the wall of colour, bursting with little popping noises when they slapped against the point of his nose, and what felt like battery acid was pouring down his throat, flooding his trachea and stomach. He gagged, coughing, but that just forced more of the fluid into his lungs.
Cloud clamped his mouth closed on a ragged moan, what felt like every one of his organs screeching desperately for air, and he screwed his eyes shut as well.
The sensation of liquid smothering him vanished, his lungs sucked at chilled oxygen filtering in from the air, and the burn of concentrated mako over his skin wisped to nothing.
Not real. It wasn't real.
His mind chanted, over and over again, and his breath whistled harshly in his throat.
His eyes slammed open at the jab of a needle into the crook of his arm, and he whipped his head around in time to see the plunger finish its depression, and the last of the green glow vanish from the syringe.
Heat seared through his skin, flowing outward from his elbow and flushing its way through his veins, rushing up into his heart. The cardiac muscle slammed through a spasm, clenching into a massive contraction that sent the feverish burn racing out through every artery into every last cell of his body.
Someone was screaming, he realized.
It sounded like him. Shit.
Fire engulfed him.
Burn. It burned.
The smell of singed hair assaulted his nostrils, and he curled up instinctively, hacking until it felt like his lungs were sliding up out of his windpipe. He cracked his eyes open, and the heat of the fire immediately made them yowl like they were blistering and peeling out of their sockets, so he clapped them shut again.
Shit, there were flames everywhere.
Cloud used his arms to shield his face, forcing the sensation of the skin on his forearms slowly desiccating and cracking open into leaking slits and fissures into the back of his mind, where its muffled squeals gnawed at his consciousness. Crouching as low as he could, he heaved himself to his feet, his boots feeling like they were lined with coals. He shuffled for the draft he felt, just on the edge of the skin over his ribs, and he nearly ploughed into the ashy ground when he tripped over a prone form.
He juggled his hands, as the floor was too hot to touch with bare skin for more than a few seconds at a time, and he pushed himself up onto his haunches.
"Oi, are you okay in there?"
It took a few tries to locate the man's head under the twisted coat he had hiked up over his hair. Cloud gave the man's shoulder a shake. "Oi," he said again, before pressing a couple of fingers over the major pulse point at the man's nape.
He needn't have bothered.
He tugged the ripped coat back over the body's head, and he peered around with bleary slits of eyes.
Window. Its shutters were half closed, one of them banging erratically against the window's frame in response to gusts of wind that flapped into the room and flared the flames they fanned. Shielding his head, Cloud made a shambling run at it, and he felt it crunch and drive splinters into his bare skin as he crashed through.
The cooler air outside hit him with the force of a brick between the eyes, and he ended up flat on his back on sandy earth, gasping for air as his vertebrae squealed and creaked.
Cloud rolled onto an elbow, ignoring the way it complained at the grit digging into the joint, and he flipped over onto his hands and knees. They shook a bit, and his vision swam black for a long moment, but they held his weight when he pushed himself up.
Everything was burning. The crackle of flames sounded oddly cheery against the muffled roar of every fucking thing burning to the greasy soot-blackened ground. The dark shapes of bodies lay strewn over the dirt, a couple lying in a tangle under half of a blazing wooden beam. It collapsed further, rolling into the dips of a body and spitting out a shower of sparks.
Cloud didn't approach the corpses, turning eyes smarting with acrid, unctious smoke from combusting body fat toward the centre of the clearing. A water tower loomed, silhouetted black against the fire, driving cold spikes into his brain at the familiar shape.
"What the fuck is this?" he whispered, turning fully to face the tower.
The heat vanished so quickly it felt like a vacuum had opened, and Cloud barely had time to stagger, his boots clanking over the steel-plated floor, before his body jerked. Silently, he tipped his head down to look at the glistening blade embedded in his stomach, squishing through his soft innards, though it didn't seem to have torn through any of the fragile, slick membranes, judging from the lack of stench. A trickle of blood beaded up at the edge of the gash where his skin split, tickling and making his muscles clench reflexively as it started rolling and prickling all the little fine hairs set in his skin.
Sweeps and crests of incandescent sensation, interspersed with shocks of numbness, rippled through him as the nerves sitting under his ripped skin caught up with the stimulus, and an ugly squawking sound forced its way out of his throat.
It was too bright to be pain, too sharp. He brought his hands up, wrapping his stiff fingers around the sword crushed through his body.
Through the fog of numbness spreading over his skin and into his eyes as his insides shut down, piece by piece, he looked up at the tall shadow gripping the hilt of the sword. Nothing. He saw nothing there. It looked like a black cut out, an amorphous singularity siphoning away the light.
A wrench, and the sword ripped free of his body.
Falling to his knees, Cloud clutched at the slippery fluids and rubbery walls of something trying to nudge its way out of the hole. He pressed hard on it, but it was squelching muddily between his spread fingers. Cloud stared at the pebbled metal under his knees, rasps, gulping and bubbling, clawing at his trachea.
"What the fuck is this..." The words came garbled to his ears.
A dream. Some kind of fucked up nightmare.
He remembered being injected with something. Green. Mako. Where had he been?
Blanks stretched in his memory, eating away at his mind, chewing and spitting grey matter and leaving putrid, pus-filled holes.
What the hell had happened to him?
A hand, heavy and wide, clamped on his shoulder, and Cloud whipped around, an elbow and a fist lurching out defensively without thinking.
"Whoa, calm down!"
Cloud blinked, his vision free from the grainy fuzz of dying, and he looked up into exasperated blue eyes. The gloved hand that had been on his collar was raised, tilted to catch his fist and block his other strike at the same time. It was steady, solid as a wall, barely straining to stop his blows.
White feathers brushed the side of his arm.
Snarling, he ripped his hands away, and his feet skidded, his ankle turning violently under him as he yanked himself up. The skin over his stomach was whole and smooth, even if everything inside still felt sliced to ribbons.
"You're not real!" he growled, twisting his face at Angeal's faint smile.
A short laugh.
"You're right. I'm not real. This is a dream."
"I'm not dreaming about you!"
The thing that looked like Angeal shrugged, his wing curling and flexing over his shoulder blade, brilliantly bright against a dead white landscape. "You don't have much of a choice. I'm here to make sure you wake up."
It hurt, being this angry. It ripped at his chest, squeezing and rending the walls of his ribs and crushing his organs to pulp. "I don't need any help from some cuntwad that left!" he shouted, backing up another step. "You left me behind! You didn't even say anything!"
"What would you have wanted me to say?"
Angeal looked at him, something gentle in his tired eyes. He sighed, and the sound tore tattered holes through Cloud worse than the sword in his gut. "Wake up, Cloud. There's something you have to do. You're probably the only one who can."
"I'm not doing anything for you," he said through tight teeth, staring at the blank, shadowless ground under Angeal's boots.
Angeal snorted. There was a rustling noise, and something touched his head, almost too light to feel. The scent of warm leather and mineral oils seeped into his mouth, coating his palate, and he choked on a pure, froth-tipped wave of longing.
His sight blinked out.
There were hands. Cold, thin fingers. They pried open a set of his eyelids, and a pinpoint of light so bright it seared flashed into his retina.
Cloud tried to flinch away, but he couldn't move.
A wall of thick, muffling phlegm was stuffing every inch of his respiratory tract. It was hard to breathe. Hard to think. He forced his lungs to expand, the effort a fanged drain, barbed edges dragging on his mind, and air whistled through nostrils that felt smashed to his skull. Thump. His head spun. Weight crushed down on him until he couldn't feel anything but the compression of his chest and the shudder of his ribs.
"Hmm... Recovery time better than expected."
The voice. It poured into his bones, sent fear seeping through his marrow, ground his cartilage to dust with shame.
"And how are we feeling?"
The voice. The voice was speaking to him. Useless. He was useless. He cracked his mouth open, a gurgle scrabbling up his vocal cords.
"Number..." he tried to say. It came out a reedy whistle. "Please, Professor. Give me a number..."
"Hmm?" Sterile antiseptic smell leaned over him. "What was that, Soldier?"
Too soft, too soft... Couldn't hear. Failure. He was... He parted his lips, licking at them with a dry, swollen tongue that flopped fatly.
Come on, Spike.
His breath caught. Warmth.
Please, Spike. You've come so far.
He listened to the echoes, deep in his head.
Cloud. Hold on. Please. For me.
Cloud drew chilled air into his mouth, down into his dust-cracked lungs. Crunches, wet snaps reverberated when his tightly ground joints popped, like chains falling unlinked. Pain, sharp in his mouth where he dug an incisor into his cheek, and a warm drizzle tapped onto his tongue. He hissed, prying his eyes open a sliver to white light.
"Just peachy, Professor," he croaked.
He couldn't see. Just a sense of movement.
There was a short hum, and a jarring flash as the light was pulled away. "Good enough," the Professor said.
He heard the clatter of footsteps, clops slurred and muffled in thick, raw wool.
Cloud woke to a faded stucco ceiling.
His head felt like a herd of elephants had used it for a game of football, but he wasn't strapped down anymore.
There was a jaw-cracking yawn to his side, and he turned his head to see Kunsel hunch over, propping his arms on his knees.
"About time you woke up."
"The one and only." The Second made a move to help when Cloud inched up onto his elbows, but he waved the man off, pulling himself backward to lean against the grated bars of the bed at his back. "You were out for nearly a day. Missed a meeting with a couple of the directors." Kunsel tilted his head, a pale reflected gleam laying a streak over the curve of his helmet and making Cloud squint. "How much do you remember of what happened?"
Cloud stared up at the ceiling. Light from outside, yellow from the play of light pollution on the low-lying mixture of fog and greenhouse gases, traced a shadow of the window frame onto the ridges of the stucco overhead. It brightened momentarily, beams swinging around upon the passage of a grumbling truck's headlights. His forehead creased as he dug through his memory.
"Just four inches south of abso-fucking-nothing," he said, frustration edging his voice. "I get back from an investigation mission with Turks in Angeal's hometown that the General refused to take, and the next thing I know a bunch of MPs are bashing my door down and Hojo sticks something in my arm before I wake up here."
Kunsel made a face that could have been either a grimace or a smile. "The Professor bumped up your mako levels. You didn't react so badly last time, so Lazard figured you'd be fine this time around, too." He leaned back, shifting around like his ass had gone numb. "At least you're not scheduled for another pump for a little while," he said with a vague wave of his fingers. "And getting your enhancements up will mean you can be even more of a monster with that thing you call a sword."
Kunsel paused, his mouth pursing, and Cloud realized that he must have winced at the word. "Sorry, headache," he said, because it wasn't that much of a lie. He cleared his throat, his tonsils feeling like they were rattling around like marbles. "Meeting?"
Kunsel pulled out a crumpled brown folder that he tossed into Cloud's lap. "It was about a mission to retrieve the Soldiers we lost during the war. They think they've found where those Wutai bastards have been keeping their POWs. Details are in that file."
"You think—" Cloud paused to wet his cracked lips. "You think they're alive?"
Kunsel watched him for a moment, and then he shrugged slightly. "We really don't know. Since you're stuck here, though, they're thinking of giving the mission to someone else."
"Bullshit. I'm fine."
Kunsel sighed. "If you say so. Director Lazard wants to see you when you're up, anyway. Take it up with him." He was digging in a pocket, and when he turned again, he reached over to press something black and angular into Cloud's hand.
Cloud ordered his rigid and unresponsive fingers to loosen. He ran a thumb over the shiny face of a PHS, a newer model than his last. He frowned, looking up. "Have you just been waiting there?"
Kunsel shrugged again. "Same number. It's already hooked up to the network, so all your backed up contacts should be intact. I took the liberty of making some corrections while I was sitting here."
Cloud narrowed his eyes, flipping open the screen. Nothing seemed out of place until he scrolled through his contacts and came across "Kunsel the Man" and Robertsson's name replaced with a penis joke. He snorted.
"Fine. Thank you."
"I'm just awesome like that."
Kunsel leaned back with a sigh, scrubbing at his face and pressing a hand over the dome of his helmet to block out the thin artificial light.
He tilted his arm, turning his head to Cloud under it. "You sure you're going to be okay, Cloud?" he said bluntly. "You look like shit."
Cloud let his head droop on his wooden neck. He eyed the tension lines around Kunsel's mouth, raising his eyebrows until a dry, lopsided grin crossed over the Second's face. He laughed, more exhale than sound, and he smiled back. "So do you."
The mako surged through him, drying his mouth and coating his teeth with fuzzy gunk, and even his hair ached. His body didn't fit right. He kept overshooting his step, and he'd already smashed a mug by accidentally slinging it across the waiting area outside Lazard's office. It'd hit the wall a few feet from where the secretary's desk was, and Mandy had given him a nervous smile when he'd apologized anxiously before refusing to let him help clean up the ceramic splinters.
One of Hojo's assistants had discharged him after poking and prodding him for a few minutes, and she'd told him in a bored tone that he'd adjust fairly quickly before walking off.
He stood to attention in front of Lazard's desk, ignoring Heidegger's aggravated grunt.
The executive groused, turning to Lazard. "You want to send an operative who's going to need to relearn how to walk? We don't have time for this nonsense, Lazard! Valuable resources are in the hands of Wutai rebels! We could stand to—"
"When's the mission, Director?" Cloud interrupted. He knew that speaking over Heidegger like that was just going to piss him off even more beyond belief, but at that point, he could not be bothered to give a fuck.
Lazard leaned forward, eyeing Cloud over his laced fingers. "Two days' time, Strife."
"This is a disaster waiting to happen, man!"
Cloud nodded sharply, meeting the Director's quiet look. "I'll be ready."
(1) This is a note for anyone who has not played Crisis Core and would like to know wtf's going on. The mission in Banora is lifted from canon up to the start of the air raid, but the rest of the chapter is not. I do not believe knowing the plot of Crisis Core is necessary for this story, but knowing what happened will give a few references embedded in the chapter added context. I'm terribly sorry for the confusion. Please skip if you do not wish for spoilers.
Zack gets sent there to investigate the town with Tseng and figure out why Genesis flipped out. Zack finds out that he was deployed only because Sephiroth refused to do the mission, as Genesis and Angeal were his good friends, and he recommends Zack instead, hoping that Zack can convince Angeal to return. They don't really find out anything except that there's some sort of deep dark secret in the town (involves a scientist named Hollander that'll show up soon) and Zack meets Angeal's mother, Gillian, who explains why the Buster sword was so important to Angeal and suggests that something has damaged the pride of their family. While there, they discover that Genesis has apparently killed his own parents, and when Zack rushes back to Angeal's house, it looks like Angeal has just killed his mother. Angeal refuses to talk to Zack, basically, and flies away while Genesis summons Bahamut to fight Zack. That's where I picked up, and the rest of it, including the mission coming up, isn't canon.
Chapter 6: Safety net strings 1
Part 6A. Safety net strings
Yeah. I have no good excuse for you this time, sorry. Life is occasionally shitty.
This chapter quickly became ridiculously long, so I've delayed the actual mission bit yet again.
Thanks as always go to Poisonberries for being super awesome beta. And gamma.
Cloud did not wait well. He dug the fingers of both hands into a thigh, trying to squeeze out the tension in muscles that lurked just at the edge of spasm. He'd already tried fidgeting, but that just shifted the buzz to the rest of his body. Lifting the leg, he kicked out, flexing his foot. The hollow metal bars holding his folding chair in shape groaned.
The airships docked in an enclosed dome at the Junon base, accessible only through an interminable elevator ride. At the far end, where the ceiling folded in on itself like a massive bronze fan, bottomless pits chewed into the floor, sending up an incessant draft.
On the second kick, he clipped one of the legs of Robertsson's chair, and the other Second unfolded his arms at the clunk and turned a bit to glare at Cloud.
"What the fuck, Strife. Go do some squats or something."
Cloud scowled back at the man, but he stood up. "I hate this shit. Waiting. We could have been halfway there by now," he said, jiggling out his legs.
"Yeah, well, too fucking bad. You hopping around dancing the tango isn't going to make it any more likely that the POWs aren't already belly-up in a ditch somewhere."
The Second raised his voice to speak over him. "And if you tell me how tough your buddy Travers is one more time, I'm going to sack him so hard next I see him he's going to be vomiting testicle juice for days."
Cloud stared. His face twisted at the imagery. "What crawled up your ass and died?"
Robertsson sneered at him, crossing his arms again and leaning onto the back legs of his chair, tipping it against the wall so that he could press his shoulders into the surface. The motion pulled at the skin on his upper arm, and Cloud saw the man's eyes tighten. It was the closest the frigid ass got to wincing, as far as he could tell.
Cloud stuffed his hands into his pockets. "Way to hold a grudge," he muttered.
"Just lemme break your arms and we'll call it even," Robertsson said shortly.
Cloud pivoted, resisting the urge to tip Robertsson's chair over. He took a few shuffling steps forward before a couple of Regs carrying a crate hustled by, and he had to sidestep them.
He'd spent a lot of time at the Junon airbase before, with Evans and Hoffe, and sometimes Travers when he’d been dumped by another girl and wanted to pretend that he was going to take a flying leap off one of the dock ladders. The engineers had always been inordinately enthusiastic when they saw him and Evans. It had taken Cloud a while to realize that they hated the clunky cranes they usually used to move the parts.
He pulled out his PHS and thumbed through his contacts until Hoffe's name flashed white against the background of his screen. The message log was dated two months old. He should—
Evans's folded hands scratched themselves across the insides of his eyelids, his clean nails pale against his dark skin.
When Cloud opened his eyes again, there were snow lines racing over the PHS screen, and he hastily loosened his fingers. The leather of his gloves creaked. He slapped the flip shut and shoved it into his pocket.
He'd forgotten how many times it'd been maybe later.
Hissing long and low, Cloud shoved his hands into his hair and scrubbed hard, shaking his head.
The sleek airship sat under the closed dome of the airbase, its sails tightly furled around tall masts. Personnel scuttled around it like a school of fish hovering in the wake of a shark. There was a loud snap, a jumbled yell, and Cloud put on a burst of speed. The huge sandbag that had been hanging as ballast from one side of the ship thwapped into his palms, sending stinging shocks up his arms and deforming with the force of the impact. His back groaned as the bag started wobbling in his hands.
He grunted, dropping it from over his head and stepping back so that when he caught it again, he hugged it to his belly and shifted the weight into his braced legs. He let it fall again, this time slapping thickly to the concrete ground.
The infantryman he'd knocked aside sat on the floor, staring up at him. Cloud tried to put on a friendly smile, but the kid just glanced over at the side of the dome, where Robertsson still sat with a bored slant to his face and an ankle propped up over his other knee in the distance, and he turned back to Cloud with his mouth working soundlessly.
"Not hurt?" Cloud said.
The private blinked for a moment, and then shook his head widely. "Nossir."
Cloud looked up at the faces hanging over the rail edging the deck of the ship. He caught a few of the poorly concealed flinches.
"The hell were you idiots doing?" The sack listed at his feet, slowly tipping further on its side as its sand settled. "Quit fucking around and do your job properly."
There were scattered mumbles. He could have sworn a muddled "goddamn Soldier" emerged somewhere in the noise.
ShinRa Security members wore the dumbest shit he'd ever seen. The red lamps set into their helmets shone down at him like malevolent headlights on a runaway train. The men stared at him, unmoving.
"Well?" Cloud snapped.
Not that he was any better, with the way Soldier eyes turned reflective in low light.
Someone fumbled around for a second and started to let down a rope for the ballast.
Robertsson was picking at a scuff on the side of his boot when Cloud got back to the crooked little row of chairs tucked near the elevators. He looked up when Cloud dropped down into the seat beside him, and a slow smirk crossed his face. "That one was pretty good," he said. "Barely saw you move."
Cloud snorted. "You oughta know."
The Second gave him a dirty look.
Robertsson had offered to spar when he'd come across Cloud doing drills by himself the first night, long after the gym on the sixty-fourth floor had emptied for lights out. The man had won one match, lost three, and then Cloud had misjudged a strike that sent Robertsson's weapons hurtling through the drywall and three inches of concrete, right about when he broke the Second's arm in three places. The magic had healed the man up pretty well, but there was still a stretch of shiny pink skin on the underside of his arm, blanching to a pale white colour whenever Robertsson moved it. Cloud had been restricted to the VR room by a glowering nurse after that. Robertsson only pissed her off more by refusing to wear the sling, and they'd beat a hasty retreat in the end when she'd started threatening them with syringes.
He looked down at a gloved hand, squeezing it into a slow fist. Soldiers tended to hate needles. Cloud was pretty damn eager to find out who the asshole was that decided the support staff should capitalize on this as leverage.
He pushed the memory of spiralling feathers away.
The VR room had a weird hollow sort of smell, just under the astringent fumes of the cleaner they used to mop up the patches of sweat and occasional blood that the Soldiers who got too enthusiastic left behind. It always started out faint, but after a couple of training programs, it would have soaked through Cloud's skin and embedded itself into the walls of his airway until he wanted nothing more than to go chase down a skunk. He figured it was something caused by the lasers they used to generate the projections, and Kunsel thought he was just batshit.
Maybe it was just the smell of being alone.
He remembered when it wasn't quiet. It snuck up on him often, little droplets of hope tickling his skin like some giant sprinkler was watering the restless Soldiers left behind. They rolled before they dried, leaving a damp, chilled streak of fear in their wake. The thoughts rebelled, sticky fingers snatching for purchase, when he tried to shove them back. This was stupid. The same whiny anxieties had been running around his head for days like chocobos galloping around a racetrack, following the same mindless path until their feet left permanent grooves in the track. Robertsson was a dick, but he was right. He couldn't accomplish anything by fussing.
The Soldier floor was filled with dead air these days, so he'd more or less had the VR room to himself for the day and a half he spent beating his muscle memory back into submission. The second evening, the Colonel who'd supervised the training regimen of his cadet corps had dragged him into the Officer's Mess and grilled him for details about Wutai. When Cloud had first seen Colonel Karrida, he'd thought the man was the oldest person he'd ever seen, hardened with age like teak. He'd heard that the Colonel had been overseeing the recruits since Sephiroth went through the program. The man had been kind enough to Cloud when he'd told him to shape up or ship out the time he'd been written up for being a mouthy pain in his drill sergeant's ass.
When he'd gotten back to the VR facility, he'd paused in front of the door, hand hovering over the lock release just as he noticed the figure inside through the tinted glass. He'd nearly walked away before he saw the long pale hair spilling out from the back of the sensory immersion helmet. He'd stopped, watching the General sit alone in the centre of the training floor with his back to the door, leaning back from his crossed legs and looking up at something only he could see. The man's shoulders had shifted jerkily, and he'd tucked an arm under his nape as he lay back.
There'd been a second, just the space of a couple of heartbeats, that it had been Angeal's back he saw, the First unreadable as he stared into the Wutai sky. The taste of damp grass and blood in the air had been so strong that it rasped against his tongue.
Cloud had clamped a hand hard over his mouth and slipped away from the closed door.
Kunsel had let him stay on his stumpy couch for the rest of that night while some sort of dry documentary about microscopic organisms, hovering right over the line between alive and dead, that lived in and purified the Lifestream played inobtrusively on the old tube TV the Second had. They sipped up old, worn out streams, chewed them up, and spat them back out crisp and new. Or something. He hadn't been paying much attention. He'd wondered briefly if they were swimming around his veins now, too.
Replacements, every-fucking-where he looked. ShinRa was big on replacements. Colonel Karrida had talked to him like he was a replacement, too.
Shut up shutup.
The elevator dinged over Cloud's shoulder, and he hopped to his feet when Lazard came through the doors, trailed by his secretary and a specialist kid with the wide-eyed stare of a new intern.
"Good morning, Strife. Robertsson."
"Director," Cloud greeted. He saw Robertsson snap a salute.
Lazard gave him a reserved smile. "At ease, Soldiers."
Cloud tipped back in his stance, and he waited while Lazard scanned the idling airship. There was a burst of laughter from the deck. The sandbag was gone, and Cloud could hear the low creaking of the mast beams straining against the ropes securing the sails. Figures were starting to file down the docking ladder and disperse toward the doors studding the clean grey walls. Cloud glanced at Lazard's back. The man's shoulders were relaxed and square, but he could see the way he was rubbing his thumb over the sides of his knuckles.
The Director was still watching the workers when he said quietly, "I'd like to apologize. I would greatly prefer to send more Second Class operatives with you." He made a short, abortive noise and jerked his wrist. "For that matter, I would prefer to send Sephiroth with you, but given the low probability of success of this mission, the President has placed priority on Midgar security. Director Heidegger has offered use of the Blackwings special strike team, but..."
Robertsson grunted dismissively. "To talk frankly, sir, they'd just get in the way."
Lazard turned then, a short laugh on his mouth. "I'm of the same opinion." He pressed his lips together, and suddenly, he looked tired. "Strife," he said, "as we've discussed, you have direct command over this operation. Communications will be down once you enter enemy territory because of altitude, even if we hadn't detected jammers in the area, so we won't be able to provide distance support." There were jumbled thumps of boots over the concrete floor as Thirds began lining up across from the row of chairs. "All of our attempts at negotiation with the rebels have met with hostility, so we can only surmise that you will encounter the same. As field command, I expect you to judge the risks as you see fit."
The helmets of the Thirds were thickly opaque in the low light, but the glow of mako eyes cut through the shaded material. Cloud surveyed the Soldiers, standing at poster-perfect attention and watching him intently, and Lazard stepped closer to him. Cloud met the Director's eyes.
"Strife," he said softly, "these men."
When the Director didn't continue, Cloud smothered a wince. There were about fifty billion different things he probably couldn't promise. He wished hard for Angeal's poker face. The Thirds were watching him like he was going to pull some miracle out of his ass, and damned if he was going to show doubt now, in front of the people ShinRa deemed expendable enough to send on this mission. Half of them looked like rookies, their armour still smooth and unworn.
Luxiere had already tried to make his not so subtle farewells. At least Kunsel had been within earshot at the time, and he'd been the one who'd laid the other Second flat with a fierce swing.
He'd never seen Kunsel so pissed. It had been kind of impressive, even when it had transferred over to him when he'd started chortling and couldn't stop.
A heavy ringing filled Cloud's ears, and unbidden, phantom blood splashed across the shiny new uniforms of the Thirds, filling the air with its metallic tang and bringing bile up to sting at the back of his palate. Ring ring. Riot in the house. Party in Wutai. He wrenched his eyes away.
"I'll watch out for them," he said. The words echoed in his head, swollen wavelengths banging into one side of his empty skull before another.
Lazard didn't respond for a moment, but then he smiled tightly. "Yes." He paused, frowning as if he had more to say. "Yes, do.”
It never got old, flying.
The new airships Shinra was developing flew on metal-cased turbines linked to the main materia engines and hooked up with bundles of wires as thick as a man's waist to the wall of computers covering the Gravity construct core. The engineers had referred to it fondly as their brain the time Cloud had wandered into the bay while one was in the process of being serviced, parts laid out carefully in a ring and looking like a whale in the midst of exploding. The ships flew fast enough to leave a thunderous bang when they outstripped the speed of sound, but they roared continuously in the sky until it was either wear constant full-cover headphones or go deaf after about five minutes.
Shinra brought them out when they needed to flex some steroid muscle, and Cloud still remembered the time he and Angeal had perched on the cliff overlooking the bright golden haze of light from one of the major villages in Wutai. That high up, the people in the village were little more than specks of black, meeting, joining, and rebounding off each other in continuous chaotic motion. He'd been watching when they scattered, motes under a sharp gust of air, as the warning sounded. He'd plugged his ears to the shriek of the air raid sirens before getting flattened to the ground by the force of the ships streaking past overhead, dark, thin cylinders dropping from its hatches. The smoke from the shelling had been thick enough to block out the sky and cake the surface of Cloud's gums with black slime, but Angeal hadn't moved until the ships had long passed and the sound of the fire smothered the sirens and painted the horizon orange.
Angeal had looked at him like he'd been expecting something from Cloud afterward. Cloud hadn't had anything to say, the afterimage of the milling specks still painted in inverted colours over his retinas. The First had seemed satisfied, whatever he saw, then.
He'd figured it had been some kind of lesson, but he'd always sucked ass at guessing the plot. Maybe Angeal had had something to say.
Maybe it was "haha, loser."
He'd forgotten the sound of Angeal's voice as the weeks ground by, and so his mind helpfully supplied his own. The sound of his gleeful laughter chased him in his head as he ran. Well. Hard to top spiteful shit like that.
Saliva pooled, sour and hot, in his mouth, and Cloud spat over the side of the ship. It whipped away.
The ship humming through the sky under him was one of the older ones, warm wood polished smooth by hands, feet, and slipping winds. Careful varnish gleamed under Cloud's palm. He sat at the prow, on a thick guardrail hung with big signs that edged the open deck. The signs were inscribed with tall red letters: "Do not climb." The rail rumbled up against his thighs, turning his brains into froth, and he wiped sweaty palms against his uniform pants as he stared ahead into the sky.
The propellers sliced the air, but they were small, set at the base of the ship to provide directional nudges, and the ship really flew on the glowing hub in the control room, slowly spinning, suspended by a crest of thin bars. He'd gone in there, once. In addition to the standard Gravity and Barrier, it was set with locked materia that no one could name anymore, the magic within it ancient and carefully maintained. The hub had seemed almost sentient, glittering beads watching him carefully as it twirled, and Cloud had abruptly walked out of the room to the unsettled ache in his chest, somewhere between fear and remorse for treading where he was unwelcome.
His PHS buzzed, its vibrations amplified as it rattled from where it was wedged against the rail, and he dug it out of his back pocket.
It was that damn spam again. Some jackass using the pseudonym "Ninja Princess." Cloud hit the delete key, half hoping that it'd work this time. It didn't, and he growled low in his throat, stuffing the device back into a pouch.
"The fuck did they get my PHS number?"
"What," said an amused voice behind him. "Your fanclub?"
Cloud twisted around. He didn't recognize the Third under the helmet at first, until he snapped a salute and something twinkled in his ear.
Jordon grinned crookedly as he stepped closer.
"My... what?" Cloud said slowly.
"Fanclub. You know, all the high ranking Soldiers have them. I'm sure you've joined Angeal's, right? Or at least the General's. They send out all the dirt, whether it's true or not."
Oh. Cloud felt the tips of his ears start to heat up, and he slouched back onto his seat. "Maybe one or two," he muttered.
"I get mail from all of them," Jordon said, his tone murderously cheerful. "And I joined yours a couple of days back."
Cloud choked on a cough, and he ground a palm into an eye socket. "Don't tell me this kind of shit, you ass."
Jordon snickered. He pressed a hand on the knob of a post, and he vaulted the railing in a quick hop so that he stood on the triangle of wood that tilted up into the jibboom. It dipped gently under his weight before righting itself. The midday sky stretched ahead, shading from pale grey on the horizon to blue overlaying black overhead. Cloud squinted into sunlight reflecting up off the cloud cover below.
"Not airsick this time?" Jordon shouted over his shoulder, the words half lost in the wind.
Cloud furrowed his eyebrows. "I get airsick? Since when?"
Jordon craned his neck around, holding onto the rigging for balance when the ship bobbed. "What? Last time, after the funeral. You were talking about jumping off."
A wave of vertigo hit Cloud, along with an eyeball-squishing pressure in his head that made his temples clang.
Blackness. Something soft and hot squelching under his splayed fingers.
"Ewwwww! Mom! Cloud threw up!"
He clamped his eyes shut, hunching over to dig his grip into the guardrail under him. A memory? What kind of—
He was laughing, wind funnelling into his ears and dizzying heights swooping under his feet.
It felt like two different brains were trying to squeeze into the space within his skull, pushing at shoving at each other until all the lobes started bulging outward, scraping at the bone, tight until it was threatening to burst.
A warm hand on his forehead; a warm laugh. "You'll be okay."
The thundering sound was his pulse, stampeding hooves kicking at his soft-bits as they passed.
The back of his hand, creases in his glove. Stretched out to touch. Spin, spin.
A keening noise forced its way past his tight teeth, and he bowed under the crush of a giant foot stomping down on him, cracking his bones and making soup out of his guts.
"I told you you'd be okay."
It eased and vanished so quickly Cloud nearly overbalanced. A residual pound, something malignant hopping up and down on the back of his neck, was light against pain-deadened nerves. He ignored the voice.
"You alright, sir?"
Sounded like a smug bastard, anyway.
Cloud shook his head and pulled the edges of his mouth up into a quick smile. "Fine, sorry. I don't usually get motion sick, so it was probably just the goddamn loud parade and the funeral that got me last time."
He thought he heard Jordon make a vaguely affirmative noise when he looked down at his shuddering arms, elbows locked tight and knuckles white against the wood. There were indents under his nails.
Fuck. What the fuck was that? His hands were still shaking.
"What are you looking at?"
Cloud flinched, and he glanced up. The Third had turned back to the horizon, segmented by the billowing lines of the jib sails. He blinked, yanking his thoughts straight. "Uh, nothing," Cloud said. When the Third swung around and looked at him for a long moment, he shrugged. "Just sky."
"I can keep watch, sir."
"Quit calling me that, Jordon." Cloud shifted his weight on the beam. The edge was starting to dig into his ass. He flapped a hand. "I'm not keeping watch. Not much to see, this high. Birds don't even come up here without a good reason." Jordon hadn't moved. "Just... waiting."
More waiting. Again with the shitty waiting. If he had wings, too—
Cloud yanked on the thought so hard the jolt ripped his breath away.
Jordon's mouth suddenly pulled tight, parting in harsh grimace. "Strife, fuck, sir, can I ask something?" he said, something like grief at the edges of his voice. "Your honest thoughts?"
Alarmed, Cloud's eyes flickered away from the man to the empty atmosphere, the smooth wood of the ship, before returning warily. "What?" he said, carefully.
"Are they still alive?"
The wind scoured his eardrums so that he had to strain to hear the words. They hit him like a punch to the gut, anyway, and every single fucking doubt he'd been trying to hold at bay came gushing back into his head. He swayed with the force of the howls. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. It didn't work the second try, either, and Jordon didn't move the entire time, staring at him through the curve of his helmet while his fists clenched repeatedly at his sides. Under the dry cotton stuffing Cloud's mouth, fear dipped frozen fingers down his gullet.
They could be waiting, too, at the other end of the flight.
"The preliminary data says the odds aren't good," Cloud said finally. The sound echoed a bit, as if it was coming from a distance. "And even if they are alive, there's a good chance that they're not in any condition to come back."
Wutai wouldn't bury them, not with fancy clanking machines like the ones sitting under the shiny stone that held their names. Skulls grinned up at Cloud, edging the brown precipices he remembered in neat little rows, picked clean by carrion birds.
"But what about—"
Cloud dropped his head, expelling his breath sharply through tense teeth and shutting his eyes. "But fuck if I can't seem to stop hoping."
Evans had helped him and Travers hijack the VR equipment once, and the three Seconds had plugged themselves into a First Class training track. It had turned out to rank pretty fucking high on the list of dumbshit things he'd ever done. He remembered Travers's voice in the end, screaming at him to get up. Travers was worse than a cockroach. The harder he was stomped, the more he scuttled around.
Then again, he'd never known Evans to pick a fight he couldn't win. Or Angeal to murder an unarmed woman.
He'd thought maybe he'd have gotten used to it a bit more, every time he was wrong.
Jordon made a ragged sound, and Cloud looked up to see that he'd pulled off his helmet and was scrubbing a hand over his eyes. His bright hair whipped around his face, sticking to the glisten of a couple of tear tracks that wound over his cheeks.
Cloud gnawed on the inside of his lip, figuring this was something private and he should probably butt the fuck out, but Jordon just stood there, as if he'd forgotten his audience. The man sucked noisily at the air, making a fantastically inelegant honk as he sniffed in his snot. Cloud's eyes dropped away from the Third again, watching the slow weave of one of the sails hanging from the stay over his shoulder. He cleared his throat.
He hadn't been able to cry for years, ever since he figured out that the kids back home would eventually get bored and wander off if he kept his mouth shut. It was better being the creepy weirdo kid. It had turned into him picking the fights and the other kids running before too long, because he could, and his mother had just looked at him with tired eyes after.
Just another defect.
He cleared his throat again. "Who'd you lose?" he said. It sounded awkward as hell.
"My lover," Jordon said, before hesitating. "We were with the General during the last Wutai campaign. I came back. He didn't."
"Oh," Cloud said, and he pressed his mouth shut. He scanned the cloud cover again, heat rising up his neck and overpowered the sunlight baking the back of his head.
Jordon sighed harshly, his hand rubbing hard at his face a final time before he hunched his shoulders up to his ears. "Shit, sorry, sir. I shouldn't be getting personal affairs involved with missions. It's not like I don't... We were in the same squad as Tiny—Hoffe—you know, sir. I know he's not the only one we lost, you know, it's just that—"
"Quit that," Cloud interrupted. "You don't need to apologize."
"Sorry, sir." Jordon mumbled.
"You can quit that shit, too."
The Third snorted, half turning away to thumb the corner of his eye. "It's alright for you to say. I'm the one who'd get ass-ploughed for being disrespectful in front of a superior officer."
Cloud grinned, shrugging. "Not my problem, then, is it?"
Jordon laughed again, a bit muffled as he picked at his gloves. He was still scratching at the fraying seam when he said, "Why'd you take this one?"
Jordon ripped out a loose thread. "The mission. Why'd you take it?"
Cloud stared. Individually, the words were familiar, their neat dictionary entries parading through the blank greyness behind his eyes. Together, nothing. He frowned down at his twisted fingers. "Didn't think about it," he said slowly.
"I heard you volunteered. I mean, you know my reasons, and some of the other guys are too green to know better, but..." Jordon's mouth tightened, and he dug his hands into his pockets. "They don't think we're going to come back."
One of Cloud's heels scuffed against the deck, beating a rapid tap tap thump. He pressed his palms together, and he squeezed hard. "I didn't think about it. Nothing to think about. We don't leave Soldiers behind. We don't."
His voice shook in his ears, sullen and quiet. Fucking bitter.
Cloud closed his eyes and breathed. "This is about the only family I've got, anyway," he said.
In the silence, he looked up to see a lopsided smile cross Jordon's face, and he scowled quickly. "Shit. You tell Robertsson or anyone I said this, and I'll gut you." His face was glowing by then, hot enough to cook a full course meal.
Jordon snickered as he turned back to the sky ahead.
Jordon didn't respond but for a briefly puzzled hum before leaning forward to flatten himself against the bowsprit.
Cloud sat up straight, stretching to peer over the Third's shoulder. "What?" he said sharply.
"I thought you said birds don't fly this high," Jordon bellowed, squinting into the glare of reflected light.
Cloud saw it, then, just a muddy speck that looked like it was more wingspread than bird. He pushed himself to his feet, and he shook out the buzz of blood rushing back out to his extremities. He shrugged, tipping forward to look over the prow. "I said I usually don't see them this high. It's fine. It's just a bird. It'll probably ignore us."
"Looks like it's just hovering."
Cloud dragged his memory for Wutai birds. It came up blank. "I don't know. Shouldn't be," he said, frowning. "It'd be struggling with the air currents. It's probably soaring." He remembered the stumpy-looking falcons that roosted on Mt. Nibel, carving through the sky with lazy tips of their spread wings before stooping with blinding speed.
"It's getting a bit bigger," Jordon said.
"Right." Cloud pulled up a shoulder again, and he turned to climb back over the rail. "It's fine. It should pass us soon."
"Strife!" Jordon said urgently.
"What? What now?"
"It's getting really fucking big!"
The bird screamed, then, the cry not so much a sound as a solid wall of sensation, the pressure driving through Cloud's torso, ripping open his eardrums, and causing every muscle in his body to seize up. Cloud whirled around, and he looked up into a sharply hooked beak surrounded by a wingspread longer than the ship was wide. Dull, mottled brown wings flapped, keeping the bird at level with the ship, and Cloud leaned hard into the blast of air that tried to rip his boots off the ground.
"Is it attacking us?" Jordon yelled.
The bird screamed again, and Cloud saw it rear back.
"Shit! Look out!" He reached out and twisted his fingers into the Third's collar, ignoring the choking noise Jordon made as he yanked the man off his feet and back over the railing.
The bird's beak scythed downward, snapping the bowsprit in a cacophony of crunching, splintering wood. Chains rattled as they came unwound, and rigging made high pitched twangs as the ropes slingshotted off to slap into their attached masts.
"How'd we piss it off this bad?" Jordon croaked, backpedalling clumsily to keep up with Cloud's arm barred across his chest.
"Maybe it hates ships!" Cloud shouted, watching the small, domed head twist from one side to the other to train both its black beady eyes on them. "Hell, maybe it wants to mate with the ship! I don't fucking know!"
"Fuck! It's coming again!"
With a flap of its monstrous wings, the bird had climbed up high into the sky. It tipped forward, beginning to tuck its wings in for a dive. With heart-scoring clarity, Cloud realized that this one would cleave the airship in half. He wrenched his sword off his back, running blind fingers over the materia slots. The beads pressed smoothly into his fingertips. Regen. Osmose. High level crud that had made him grin stupidly for days after the fusion, but utterly fucking useless in the face of a huge apeshit bird. The last materia buzzed under his hand, and his knuckles tightened. Mastered Thundara.
He poured magic into it. It seethed against his damp palm, spitting and sparking long arcs of electricity up his wrist until his hand felt charred. His jaw creaked, his teeth compressing to flint chips, and he shoved more energy into the incandescent shell.
When the magic ripped free, the recoil bit back at his fingers and made his eyes blur. He squinted until he saw nothing but a sliver, and his brains felt like they were oozing out of his ears as he wrestled for control. The waterfall of bolts smashed down onto the bird's back, piercing its hollow bones and tearing through its breast.
It screamed, spiralling into a tumble, and the smell of scorched feathers blanketed the ship.
Jordon gagged beside Cloud, falling to a knee. They stared up as the bird began to crumple in on itself, its torn feathers outlined sharply against the blue.
It shrieked again, and with a thump like oxygen being introduced to a blistering room filled with dust, it spread its broken wings and blazed.
Cloud couldn't move, couldn't breathe. The bird reared, wings of twisting fire spread wide, boiling the sky and searing his eyes. He couldn't hear the crackle of flames, blue edged with yellow-white. The plasma danced, its light casting long black shadows on the deck, and the shape of the firebird etched itself into space before it flashed out, leaving glowing afterimages and a thin trail of ash that whipped away into the jet stream.
Cloud stood still, listening to the clinks of bubbled varnish cooling at his feet. The protrusions cracked under the chill, brittle pops ejecting clear, edged splinters.
Jordon made a strangled sound, and he twisted to face Cloud. "Was that..." His mouth worked on after his voice faded.
Cloud looked at the Third. Nothing but a hoarse grunt came out of his throat.
"I thought they were immortal!"
Cloud turned back to the sky. It was empty. Not even a trace of ash was left. The scent of burnt feathers still clung to his stinging eyes, but even that was fading.
"I think," he said quietly and paused, tracing the horizon. "I think they're just birds."
Cloud squatted down behind the lichen-crusted husk of a fallen tree, the damp teeth of its bark digging into his fingers. He raised a hand over his shoulder, and he heard muted rustles as just over a dozen Soldiers dropped to their haunches at his back.
"Not much of a welcoming committee," Robertsson rasped by his ear. "Think they weren't expecting us?"
The limping airship had dropped out of sight long ago, and night had fallen while Cloud pushed the team fast and hard over land. Stifled pants sounded behind him. They hadn't complained. "Doubtful," Cloud said. "This stinks of a trap." When he wrapped his right hand around his other wrist, he could feel the chaotic pound of his pulse. His chest was tight enough that it hurt to draw breath. He ignored it.
Starlight glittered overhead, chasing silver streams over the edges of flat leaves sitting against dark bark. Nothing moved, the quiet yawning until Cloud thought he could hear the forest breathe. Under the peace spread in front of him, somewhere, blood soaked through the earth. Cloud narrowed his eyes.
He tilted his head, and he eyed the stringy lines of a small Soldier Third's limbs. The guy barely looked old enough to have left his mother's apron strings.
"What's your name?"
The Third struggled visibly to contain a beam. "Timms, sir!"
"Are you fast, Timms?"
"Fastest in my battalion, sir!"
Cloud suppressed a wince, flattening his wooden cheeks. "I need a scout, Timms. Run. Keep quiet. Locate any guards or patrols. Do not engage them under any circumstances, and if they see you and come after you, sing the fuck out and bring them to me. Got it?"
Timms saluted hard, his arm clicking like he'd thrown out his elbow. "If they see me, sir, they'd hear me back in Midgar!"
A streak of white pain.
"Are you sure, Spike? Sounds risky."
Cloud's teeth creaked with the strain of compressing his snarl to a tightening of his eyes. Fuck. Fuck off.
It didn't respond.
"Good. Be careful."
TheThird darted away. The little idiot sounded like a crippled elephant crashing through the brush. Cloud scanned the waiting Soldiers. "The rest of you, loose spider formation," he said, and he pointed at Jordon, a Rocket Town man named Forenz, and a thick Third he didn't know with streaks of premature grey clumping in his hair. "You three form the hub. Others, spread. Robertsson and I will walk the web. You see anything, you signal with your short flares, collapse in, and pull the rest of the line in. We're going to take this forest."
Cloud watched the sharp nods before the Soldiers melted into the dark.
Got any smartass comments on this one? He flung the words at the inside of his head.
He didn't have time for this shit.
When Cloud ducked under a low branch and started picking his way over thick roots, Robertsson followed him. The Second didn't say anything until the trees swallowed the sound of footsteps.
"He's gonna lead them right to us," Robertsson said, a twist to his mouth.
Cloud shot the man a short grin. "I'm counting on it."
Robertsson laughed, a quick bark. He had one of his daggers in his hand, and he shrugged a shoulder and spun the blade sharply when Cloud frowned at him. "Cold, Strife. I'm actually kind of impressed. Sacrifice the one? Didn't think you had the balls."
Cloud growled, clenched his hand around the buckle of his sword's harness, and the urge to put his fist through Robertsson's teeth faded slowly."I'm not sacrificing anyone, you bastard. I've got a bead on him. Short distance transmissions are still good now that we've crossed the scramble zone. Why did you think we're going this way?"
The Second flipped open his PHS, squinted down at the screen for a moment, and his face contorted derisively. "You didn't tell me I was on the babysitting shift," Robertsson grumbled.
"Bitch all you want, but we're not leaving anyone behind," Cloud snapped.
"That what it says on your Chocobo Scout badge?"
The man only smirked when Cloud shot him a nasty look.
He waited until Cloud had pushed past him, upping the pace in response to a vindictive spike, before he muttered to himself, "Kid's turned me into a fucking Chocobo Scout, too."
Cloud pretended not to hear that one.
They walked, the grass crinkling under their boots.
Waiting again. Cloud had overheard some of the officers in the Regs say once that war was nothing but a long series of waiting interspersed with short periods of dying. Then the assholes had laughed.
Something was chirping in the dark. The incessant noise ran its cheesegrater palms over the bundles of nerves in the sides of Cloud's neck, and he fought to keep his fists loose. When Cloud stopped in mid-stride, cocking his head, Robertsson's hands went to his daggers. Cloud heard it again, a patch of silence, dead still against the living trees. Under the pale haze of the night sky, a darker shadow rested. He tucked his hands behind his back, tapping the back of his fingers against his palm before flicking through Soldier hand sign. Robertsson's mako eyes dimmed briefly in acknowledgement, and the Second began to circle around.
There were two Wutai privates perched under a camouflaged lean-to, one scanning the trees, and the other picking at the lid of a jar of something he was trying to open. Robertsson thumped to the ground behind the ninja peering down at the jar and brought one dagger up to the man's neck and the other flat to his back, a glittering necklace poised to shrink. The other ninja shot to his feet, raising his gun lance.
Cloud brought his sword down on the ninja's weapon in a two-handed cleave, and it crunched as it slapped to the ground. He twisted sharply, the jagged remains of the gun lance snagging on his uniform as the man lunged out at him, and he turned his blade wide and flat to the ground as he thrust forward.
The ninja's head hit the earth with a dense thunk, tipping and wobbling a bit until it lay half-propped against a panel of the outpost's wall. The body folded as it fell.
Cloud glanced at Robertsson. The Second was wiping his daggers carefully over the other ninja's clothes. There was wide gash in the front of the ninja's neck, and another across the back, his neatly severed spine smeared with spongy marrow on white. Blood glistened briefly before it sank under the grass.
Cloud's sword hummed when he swung off the rivulets of fluids. The biting smell of urine welled into the air, and Cloud tipped the headless body over onto its front with his boot. No good, the stain was on both sides.
"What are you doing?"
Cloud's foot froze for a second, hovering over the corpse. The dead guy had smudged. "Nothing."
He'd probably paused too long on that one.
Robertsson didn't say anything else, at least.
The jar had smashed on the ground, spilling its contents. A ring of glass had bloomed out as it splintered. He waited while Robertsson loped over to a patch of creepers and scraped something crumbly off his boot. The long daggers slid slickly into their sheaths.
"You'd think this place'd be crawling with Wutai."
They'd met the Soldier on point position soon after. The Third gave a quick salute when he saw them, and Cloud returned a terse nod.
They hadn't encountered any more guards as they headed toward the next point, and Robertsson had started looking more and more aggravated.
Cloud grunted softly. He opened his eyes wide for a moment to take advantage of every stray photon available through the thick branches brushing his shoulders. Out of the corner of his vision, he saw Robertsson doing the same. The man's eyes gleamed, flat reflective discs like a cat's. He shuttered his eyes again. "Disappointed?" Cloud said.
"Fuckin' suspicious is it."
Cloud looked up at the patches of sky. The stars hooted and jeered. "No shit."
Robertsson used a toe to pry a fallen sapling out of his way. Black tumours distended from its gnawed surface. "You ever been here before?" he asked.
Cloud pulled his face into a slow frown. He paused for a moment, and he pivoted on his heel.
For a moment, he heard nothing but the sound of his breath and the crackle of twigs as he pushed his way deeper into the undergrowth. Then Robertsson's quick steps crunched behind him.
"Eh," the other Second hissed. "Strife, you're heading off the web."
Cloud ignored the man. The cloying scent of decay grew stronger, sweet enough to turn his stomach and foul enough to make him gag. He nearly didn't see it until he'd stepped into the half-liquefied mess, hidden under fat, waxy leaves that bobbed on bristled stems. Cloud snatched at a low branch, its knobs digging into his palm as he yanked on it to slow his momentum. One boot trod into something gummy, knocking part of it loose and exposing the glisten of round maggots twining through the rot. The stink wormed its way through his nostrils.
Under his feet, something small and hairy squeaked staccato and shrill as it scuttled away.
Robertsson made a quiet sound in his throat behind him. "Is it Soldier?"
Cloud twisted his shoulder, halfway between a shrug and a shake. Something glittered under the slime, and he crouched, sitting back on his heels to reach for a wizened stick.
It took several tries before he managed to hook the blackened chain. Something had been eating the palm it rested under, neat little bite marks lining the bloodless grey tissue. Putrid flesh parted with reluctant sucking sounds as he dragged the metal out. Bloated, sausage-like fingers rolled and tore, releasing a gush of fluids onto the tangled links. A hiss, and a curl of smoke rose up. Cloud leaned back abruptly.
The tag on the chain was paper-thin, eaten through like torn cheesecloth. Anything etched into the metal was long gone, the edges soaked through with faint mako green.
Cloud pushed back the leaves again. The reluctant moonlight sharpened the shadows and lined the shape of the arm stretched out of the hollow. Thin lines, tooth marks, raced across the exposed bone. Grime-matted hair lay in clumps, a thin rind of scalp still draped over the roots.
His stomach turned violently, and he rocked back on his heels, reaching out blinding to grab at the branches and keep himself from pitching forward.
Get a goddamn grip.
He swallowed hard.
Cloud pressed an arm over his mouth and nose, but it did nothing to drown out the stench. "Motherfucker..." he whispered.
"Looks like the poor sunovabitch just melted," Robertsson said. He reached out to shove away a few more fronds. "What kind of weapon does this shit?"
Cloud surged to his feet, shuffling through a couple of clumsy hops before he caught his balance. "Fuck, I sent Timms out alone. Fucking hell. The kid better be in range." He patted his back pockets before shoving his hands into the ones at his sides. His fingers were numb when he yanked out his PHS. It clattered in his hands, and he snatched at it as it started to slip.
Robertsson let the leaves snap back into place, and he frowned. "The hell you so worked up about?"
Cloud's breath hissed sharply through his teeth. "Worked up? We just found Mister Raspberry Snowcone over here, and you're asking me why I'm worked the fuck up?" He grimaced, and he shook his head. "I'm calling him back. We'll regroup and move as a unit."
The other Soldier reached out and yanked on a handful of thin branches to heave himself to his feet. They whipped, arcing back into place. "And broadcast our position to every Wutai bastard in town?"
"If I have to," Cloud snarled. "It might be hard for you to understand, but there are some things more important than—"
"Check his position," Robertsson interrupted, smacking the back of his hand into Cloud's PHS and sneering while he fumbled with it. "Is he moving?" he said, exaggerated and slow.
Cloud stared down at his screen, and his jaw creaked tight. "Yes," he said, watching the blinking dot, scratching with bad reception.
"There you go."
Cloud scanned the silent map, his thumb scraping over the scroll, harder than necessary. He felt Robertsson's scrutiny, but he didn't look up. The asswipe would be waiting a long time if he was looking for an apology.
He could feel the nails of his other hand digging into his palm. He took a whistling breath. Fine. It was fine. The body was at least a week old. Shit shit shit, calm down. He pressed his eyes shut.
"You'll be fine."
Shut the fuck up!
Robertsson clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, and he sighed gustily. When he spoke, his voice was heavy, his Midgar accent thick and cumbersome. "Shiva's frozen tits, Strife, you're goin' to have to make some spectacularly shitty decisions sometime. What's important one time isn't good enough for another time. Your Chocobo Scout badge ain't gonna be much good, then."
Cloud's hand stilled, and slowly, his fingers loosened around the brushed metal frame in his palm. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back. His vertebrae creaked. The air felt damp in his mouth, but his throat still scratched, desert dry. "No, I haven't been," he said shortly.
"Eh?" Robertsson stared at him.
"You asked if I'd been here before," Cloud said, flapping the fingers of one hand. Focus. It was better than trying to push Robertsson's head through a tree. "The answer's no. The closest I came was when Angeal and I worked backup for Intelligence when they set up a station on the other side of the valley. We didn't come down here." His mouth twisted drily. "Wouldn't have helped if I did. I can't tell one goddamn tree from another."
When the other Soldier's eyes narrowed, flickers of confusion colouring the mako, cold dripped its way down Cloud's spine. Familiarity gnawed at his gut.
Cloud's pulse roared in his ears. He jerked his head to the side and back again. "What do you mean 'who?'" The brittle words clicked, frozen to his tongue.
"Fuck, Strife, you're not making sense."
Robertsson looked at him, his scowl half exasperated and half impatient, and when something snapped somewhere inside of Cloud and filled him with hot, raspy irritation, he figured he was entitled. He spun, fully facing the Second. "What the ball-blazing fuck is going on here? This is the second time someone's asked me who Angeal was. What is this bullshit? Do we start erasing Soldiers from the records when they go AWOL or some shit like that? You telling me you don't remember?"
He couldn't shout. Not here. Shut up.
Ringing filled his ears, bright sharp specks buzzing in the edges of his vision. An invisible hand punched through his ribcage, pried apart the bones, and clenched hard around the bulging walls of his heart. Cloud wheezed, digging his fingers into his chest. His back thumped against bark, its rough nails clawing up his skin when he sagged.
There was a blur, static and motion through the sliver of his sight. A rough voice. "The hell's wrong with you?"
Cloud tried to choke back the laugh. It bubbled, boiling over through his nose in a series of short, honking sniggers. He gasped for breath. "With me? You think something's wrong with me?" He clamped a hand over his mouth for a moment. It shook harder than the laughter warranted. "Half of ShinRa thinks we're gonna die out here. Angeal, fucking Angeal's a traitor, and the Ghost of Soldier Past is getting its rocks off on haunting me or something. It talks to me. Gives bullshit peppy cocksucker advice! And now you people tell me I see things I don't really see and I know things I don't really know and I should fucking hope I'm unhinged because I'm fucked six ways to Sunday if this is normal!"
His panting echoed in the spaces between the trees.
Cloud shut his eyes, letting his head fall back with a thick clunk. He chuckled breathlessly. "Never done. Asshole in my head hasn't piped up, yet.”
He could see Robertsson's eyes twitch back and forth in his peripheral vision. The man shuffled, looking truly uncomfortable for the first time since Cloud had gotten within sniping distance. The novelty caused a fresh burst of giggles to seize up his vocal cords, and he muffled it with the back of his hand. The taste of sweat stung his tongue as he bit down. In front of him, Robertsson tched and stuffed his hands into his pockets.
"No one feels right about Angeal, you know," the Second muttered, looking away.
Robertsson shrugged a tense shoulder. "All Soldiers got their problems." He met Cloud's eyes for just a second before shifting his gaze away again. Shrugging once more, he gestured at his scar. The shiny tissue poured down the side of his face, and Cloud took the opportunity to really study it. The wan light made the thick ridges seem even more pronounced, cavernous black shadows edging the gleam. It didn't move much when Robertsson's mouth twitched up for a moment. "Try not to think too much about it," the Second said.
Saliva pooled in Cloud's mouth, filming the inside of his cheeks and frothing around his teeth. It made a gurgling noise when he swallowed. "It's fucking weird having you trying to be encouraging."
Robertsson nearly smiled again. "Don't get used to it."
"Absolute shit advice, though."
"Fuck off, Strife."
He was still snickering when there was a whistle, and a sucking pop sounded a moment before Cloud saw light glimmer through the dense tangle of branches over his head. He pushed himself away from the tree at his back, and he made an awkward little crab hop when he put his foot down in the hollow at its roots and felt something squish.
Anticipation poured through his limbs. There were squawks, the crash of footsteps, and a bellow that warbled. Cloud spun, tilting his face up to the sky. Another flare of red flushed out the stars, streaking pale ash in its wake. It was farther than Cloud had anticipated.
He grunted, weaving around tangled trunks and ducking into a sprint. His boots thudded, jarring all the way up his bones. "Robertsson, move your ass!"
"How many fucking legs do you think I have?" Robertsson shouted from somewhere behind him.
"I'm going ahead, then!" Cloud hurdled a low-lying branch. Robertsson's answering yell was lost in the howl of moving air and the pump of blood through his veins. Shapes shot by, nothing but murky blurs in half-hearted light. A sting snapped briefly at the underside of his jaw, and a prickle of heat touched him in passing a split second before it whipped away.
He nearly missed Timms.
Cloud turned his head in time to see the Third whirl toward him when he galloped past, catching a hand on a jutting branch and using it to swing himself over a patch of brambles. The wide mako eyes were flickering beacons in the shadows.
"Sir!" The sound was faint under the hissing of flares.
Cloud windmilled, ploughing his heels into the ground and kicking up a skid trail of grit that speckled his skin like hail.
"Hey, sir!" Timms shouted again. The Soldier's face fell slack when he saw Cloud bearing down on him. He raised his arms defensively, taking a step back, but Cloud had already reached out and caught two good fistfuls of the Third's mud-smeared uniform. Timms croaked loudly when Cloud lifted him up off his feet, and his hands clamped down reflexively on gloved wrists. His boots thumped unsteadily into the ground as he tried to hop along with the pace.
Cloud charged through the dense growth, ignoring the clawed fingers of the trees snatching at his skin and clothes. When he crashed through the tree line and tripped into the clearing, Jordon spun around, swinging his sword up a hair before he shouted in alarm and pulled back. He reeled, arms flinging out and legs tangling when Cloud shoved Timms off and into the other Thirds.
Cloud had already ripped his broadsword free of its scabbard halfway through his pivot. He tipped the point down, a raspy scrape echoing down the blade as it snagged under a ninja's gun lance and slapped upward. Muddled yells jostled for position in his ears, indecipherable. Cloud stepped into the opening, bringing his sword up in a wide sweep.
Blood sprayed, slapping thickly against his face and arms. The heat stung.
Gunfire rattled, and Cloud snapped his sword up. He braced the flat of the blade against the back of his fist, feeling his arms judder with every hollow ping of a bullet's ricochet. The last one glanced off the metal and sawed its way into the ground just as Cloud used the recoil to spin into a crouch. Flipping his sword into a back-handed grip as he whirled past, he swung.
Clanking, the ninja's helmet bounced.
There were shouts at his back, and the crinkle of gathered magic prodded at his ears, accompanied by the tin can smell of ice condensing out of the air.
Cloud saw Timms hunched over his blazing bracer, the materia light etching his crooked nose into sharp relief. Shards bloomed, driving into a ninja's arm and sheathing his weapon in ice. As the man doubled over and screamed, another Third stepped up behind him, dragging him down by his collar and raising a fist. With a damp crunch, the ninja's skull caved.
Timms backpedalled abruptly, catching a descending gun lance in the crook where the blade of his sword met the hilt. Twisting to the side, the Third closed his fist around the shaft of the rebel's weapon a moment before he disengaged, ducked, and drove his sword through the man's belly.
Wutai ringed them, grim faces set under caked on grime.
It was then that fire roared through their ranks, and Cloud saw the confusion drag across their faces as they started to turn, abortive spins taking them one direction after another. He saw the realization distort their mouths when the circle of Soldiers pinched closed around them, the net trawled in by the hiss and pop of flares.
Robertsson snarled, scar livid in the light of the flames.
One of the ninja brandished his weapon with a scream, a muffled torrent of words that spurred a wave of roars and rattles of lances. The Wutai language always sounded like it bristled with short, sharp thorns of syllables. Cloud danced back out of range, adjusting his grip on his sword before taking his stance again.
He bared his teeth in a grin, and he charged.
Cloud wiped the back of his knuckles across his mouth, grimacing when they left a streak of clotting blood up his cheek. Isolated patches of fire still lapped at the damp grass and slow embers still breathed under the charred shells of blackened Wutai armour. Behind him, he could hear Timms heaving from where the Third crouched under a tree, short sobs mingling with the retching.
Cloud lifted his boots high to step over a man's torso. It humped oddly, a disjointed slit glistening moistly, almost neatly bisected. He remembered that one. Caught the man on the upswing.
Some of the Thirds were starting to drag the bodies into a clump. Flat, glistening grass trails radiated through the clearing, like a giant hand had gone paint-happy with a giant brush. Bark bristled under his palm as he pressed a hand to a tree for balance. He leaned into it for a moment, scraping his shallow breaths smooth, and he pushed away to stand.
Timms's shoulders jerked like they were tugged on too-tight marionette strings when he pressed a hand onto the Third's pauldron. The guy scrubbed a forearm over his nose and eyes, and he turned his head to squint up at Cloud.
Cloud considered telling him that it got easier with time, when the shock of the first job, first kill faded, and that the smell would barely register. The words piled into a chunky bolus in his throat, throttling his vocal cords. He suppressed a wince. Angeal had made it seem so easy.
"Good job," Cloud said quietly, instead.
Timms tried to smile. Cloud hesitated, and he patted the clumsy tips of his fingers over the Third's shoulder again.
It felt stupid the second time, too.
There was a spray of blood across the Third's forehead. He wasn't sure if he should point it out.
He glanced over the sloppy ring of Soldiers, waiting as murmured conversations broke off, and glowing eyes snapped around to fix on him.
It had been too easy. Wutai had known they were coming. There should have been a hell of a lot more troops. There wasn't a scratch on any of them. He'd recognized the tight stretch on the faces of the Wutai who'd screamed at him. He knew the tone, if not the words. The ninja hadn't expected to live.
Fuck fucking fuck.
It was all going wrong. His head swirled like foam was being funnelled in through his ears and forcing its way into the cracks in his brain.
They had no fucking clue what to expect, but hell, he couldn't say that either, could he?
He hooked his fingers into his pockets so that they couldn't see them clench.
Shut off. Do it right.
Residual magic painted a pale haze in the air and stung at Cloud's throat.
"Good," he said again. His voice was level. "We shouldn't have any Wutai at our backs now, but we have to hit the base hard and do it fast."
There were scattered nods. Jordon swept the trees with his eyes before he frowned. "Where's the base, sir?"
Robertsson grunted, looking up from where he was picking over the materia he'd found in the ninja commander's gear. "It's underground, Soldier," he snapped. A support materia glimmered in his hand, the blue washed out by the dim flow of moonlight. Robertsson rolled the orb between his fingers. His lips curled in an abrupt sneer before he tossed the materia onto the ground and stood, wiping a darker smear over his uniform pants.
Cloud shifted, adjusting the weight of his sword on his back. His muscles were locking up, stiff joints threatening to cramp. Timms was standing near the back, staring vacantly into the dark. Cloud cleared his throat, and the Third's eyes snapped to focus. His back straightened when he noticed Cloud's attention, and he saluted slowly before tugging his helmet back over his limp hair.
Cloud nodded, surveying the men again. "Get yourselves cleaned up as much as you can. We blitz in five minutes."
Chapter 7: Safety net strings 2
Being stuck in his own head wasn't pleasant at the best of times. The delirium of mako poisoning didn't help. Through memories of a war he wasn't sure he actually lived through, Cloud learned to... deal. Pre-game, semi-AU off Crisis Core events. 6B - "Shit, Strife. Way to hold it together."
Part 6B. Safety net strings
The disclaimer: All recognizable characters and settings are property of Square Enix. No profit is being sought from the writing of this fanfiction, and no copyright infringement is intended.
The rant: Effing hell, I'm sorry. A month and a half really wasn't supposed to go by between updates. I must have rewritten the majority of this thing at least three times in an effort to get it to behave. For a while, I honestly wanted to kill off everyone and just get it over with. I mean, isn't that the point of generating all these OCs? So that I could have characters to kill off without repercussion?
Guh. Well, it's over with. Here's hoping the next chapter isn't nearly as painful.
Did not manage to get all the way through this goddamn mission again, but oh well. My first outline had this fic at five or six chapters, so I've pretty much given up on it following the plan.
The beta: Huge thanks go to Poisonberries for sticking it out with me through whatever you'd call the literary equivalents of murderous rampages.
The hallway forked, the damp cracking the walls at their bases. The scent of rot blanketed the air.
Cloud flared his eyes, peering down one branch and then the other. The gritty green of mako was barely enough to see by. It illuminated the dark shapes of bulbs set just below the ceiling, each one cracked or burnt out. It was hard to tell. There was a tortured groan, and dust trailed from a thin fissure in the ceiling. Whatever pumping system the Wutai radicals had used to keep out the groundwater had failed, and the foundations were slowly giving. The place would probably collapse within another month.
Down the right fork, a last bulb strobed obstinately, its faint buzzing barely audible under stifled rasps of breath from the cluster of Soldiers.
The base reeked of neglect. It stung at his nose and flooded his mouth with chalk dust until Cloud figured that he didn't need to see the sagging overhead to know the shithole was thoroughly abandoned. The last time it had been this bad, he'd wandered into the Manor years after ShinRa had left and kicked up plumes of dust that made him wheeze before getting chased back out the broken window by a couple of Ghirofelgos. They'd been hunched over something oozing yellow globules of fat and bright blood onto the moldy carpet. His hands didn't stop shaking for an hour afterwards.
This place couldn't have been dead for that long. Wasn't possible. It was probably just the way the lingering stench of fear soaked through the air and settled heavily over his pores.
Cloud shifted, tugging on the harness of his sword. Something in his pocket crackled loudly, and he palmed it. It crinkled again when he pulled it out and folded it into a tight, hasty square.
It was a ration wrapper. Berry flavour.
Jordon had tossed it at him when he'd sat down to inspect his sword while the Thirds were getting prepped. There'd been a few more nicks and chips on the edge of the blade, and a dark patch where the oil had worn away and a stain had taken root.
"We should try to eat something," Jordon had said when Cloud had opened his fist and looked dubiously at the dense brick.
"New improved flavour!" the foil wrapper proclaimed in bright purple lettering.
Cloud had snickered before he ripped it open. "Cheers." It tasted like sawdust.
He'd tried to use one of the ration bars as tinder once, when everything else in his kit was soaked through by rain. For something so dry, it had been surprisingly resistant to burning, and had simply smouldered for a moment before blackening to a husk and giving off the foul smell of scorched rubber. Travers had been there to laugh himself to hiccups while Cloud gagged and wiped at his streaming eyes.
The air in Wutai was too thin and damp to start a burn properly, without considerable effort.
The next thing he'd known, Jordon was half hunched over in front of him and staring.
Cloud had blinked for a second, and then he'd swallowed, half-chewed bits of bar slowly gouging grooves down his esophagus. "Yum," he'd croaked when he could talk without choking. His smile had felt off, but it had seemed like enough to convince Jordon, at least.
The folded wrapper was quiet in his pocket, but his mouth still felt like he'd tried to snort rock dust.
He shut his eyes. Shit, way to hold it together, Strife.
The voice in his head laughed.
Cloud smothered the growl scratching at his throat. If disembodied exhibit A piped up one more fucking time, he was pretty damn sure he was going to have a bag lady moment. And then they'd strip away his command and shove him into a padded cell decorated with eye-watering white cushions and his name in big letters over the door, so it had better shut up or just piss off.
He listened. Nothing.
His shoulders cracked when he straightened them forcibly.
Cloud turned his back to the empty corridors and scanned the waiting Soldiers. The silence was oppressive against his neck.
Orders. They were waiting for orders.
It didn't make sense, the way Lazard—hell, and Angeal—thought he'd make a good leader. He wasn't good at anything besides talking big and fighting. Before he was sent to the front, before this whole fiasco, Lazard had asked him once what his dream was. Like a cocky little dipshit, he'd spouted something about being a hero. But what the hell was a hero supposed to do in the face of gaping halls that weren't supposed to be deserted, plans falling to pieces around his ears, and waiting, just fucking waiting for the other shoe to drop?
A traitorous little bitch thought wondered what Angeal would do.
If Lazard asked again, if he had the chance to rethink that answer, getting out of this alive and with all bits intact would have been great, thanks. Sounded like a good dream to him. Maybe he'd retire. Go snowboarding on the Northern Continent. Race chocobos at the Gold Saucer. Get as far away from ShinRa as he damn well could.
But then he'd never see Angeal again.
Angeal wouldn't have gotten them into this mess in the first place.
Cloud gnawed on the inside of his lip and narrowed his eyes. He took stock. One recalcitrant asshole, several Thirds that were starting to look worried despite his best efforts, whatever those were, a kid vacillating somewhere between catatonia and nervous vibrations, and one vocal ghost who talked like he'd done it all before.
He prodded at the inside of his head.
Nothing. It felt hollow, a pit of an alleyway strewn with garbage. Of course. That would have been too easy.
"Forenz, Jordon, and," he paused, raising his eyebrows at the last Third, a guy who looked early thirties, average build, bit of overbite.
"McPhee, sir," the Third said.
"McPhee." Cloud nodded. "You're with Robertsson."
Robertsson grunted, straightening up when Cloud turned to him.
"I want you to take the left hallway."
One of Robertsson's eyes creased. The scarred one didn't move much. "You've already split us up to set a sentry core," he said tightly. "You're leaving yourself with no backup."
Cloud didn't respond, staring until Robertsson's mouth twitched and the man looked away.
That was either Robertsson-speak for "sorry I questioned your orders," or "you're a fucking idiot, but I can't say that due to decorum."
Pale green misted the walls. "I've got Timms," Cloud said quietly. "I want this done quickly. As it is, we don't have the slightest idea about how big this base is, or where the POWs are kept. No one's coming to give us the grand tour, and we need the basic scope of the place to start. The PHS system is down, so the main group will form our core. Find anything, you send a runner with info back to them, and we'll both check back periodically."
Robertsson hummed, eyed the Thirds clustered around him, and jerked his head before turning to the black hall.
"Robertsson," Cloud called. Like it or not, it had been comforting, knowing that the other Second had been watching his back. And that he could do the same. "I have no intention of dying here," he said. His voice grated, just a bit harsh with the things he couldn't say.
The Second didn't turn around, didn't respond for a moment. Then he started walking, waving a loose hand over his shoulder. "I'm flattered by the concern," he drawled.
Cloud couldn't help the short laugh. Just for a second, the weight clamped to his shoulder blades lightened.
He tapped his gloved fingers on Timms' shoulder as he passed, tilting his head to smile at the Third.
The first room down the hall to the right looked like a soldiers' mess. The long tables and benches, arranged in neat rows, were universally recognizable, as were the covered counters and windows edging one of the walls. It didn't take much of a stretch of imagination to see dour-faced old men behind the counters, puffy hairnets on their heads and a ladle full of mystery meat number one in their hands. Or whatever the Wutai military ate. Maybe they got a choice of Chihuahua meatloaf or snake liver pâté. At ShinRa, the guys would bitch and grumble, but they'd eat it anyway.
Here, the silence was absolute.
"It's kind of eerie," Timms said hoarsely, "how dead it is here."
Cloud hummed in agreement.
Out in the hall, the bulb was still making sporadic zaps. He found himself tensing in anticipation of the next pulse. Cloud clenched his teeth together before flexing his jaw out and around until it crackled. Stupid. Trying to pick out patterns in randomized bullshit. The meager light of the bulb made the black even denser, ink thick.
He exhaled sharply.
The benches were arranged in perfect alignment, in a way soldiers would never leave them after use. He toed one, and it rasped across the concrete floor.
The floor was spotless. The tables, too, as if someone had gone through the room and given it a thorough sanitizing just before abandoning it. It didn't make sense.
Unless they did it because they had something to hide.
Cloud started shoving tables aside. They scraped as they slid with the sound of distant thunder.
Cloud twisted around. Timms was still standing in the door. The light framing him from outside cast a long blurry shadow at his feet. A gloved hand was clasped over his other wrist, slowly twisting.
When the Third didn't move, Cloud straightened. "Problem, Timms?"
Timms' hands tightened. "I—" His helmet was a black dome over his face. He shook his head suddenly, and he stepped into the room. "What am I looking for?"
Cloud watched as the other Soldier peered around. After a moment, he shrugged. "Anything out of place," he said. "Something they might have missed when cleaning this place up. But don't fucking touch it, you understand?"
"Right." A bench banged on the floor when it tipped over.
The Third kicked aside another table. Cloud's fingers made muffled clicks against his belt before he hooked his thumbs into his pockets and dragged. The motion tamped down the urge to hunch his shoulders as he stared at Timms. He didn't know what to make of that one. Kunsel was a lot better at this shit than he was. Figuring people out.
"You okay, Timms?"
The noise stopped, and this time, the bulb outside sounded louder.
Timms laughed briefly, and it was a bit shaky. "Yeah. Sir. Just... Rich-ass company like ShinRa can't be bothered to kit us with flashlights or something."
Cloud snorted, swinging his leg high to step over a skewed bench. "Nah, too boring. Professor Hojo would probably try installing sonar in our ears first."
Timms laughed again.
Then, when Cloud put his boot down, something warm squished under his foot. It squirmed hard and squealed loud enough to drown out his shout as it shot forward, ripping out from under him and toppling him. The jarring tore up his spine when he landed and made his teeth crunch and his vision swim. Twisting violently, Cloud rolled himself onto all fours, nearly pitching forward to crack his head on the floor when a hand slipped.
"The fuck is that?" he wheezed.
It was still screaming, shrill screeches echoing. There was a crashing thump, and then clatters sounded. Cloud looked up to see Timms drag himself back to his feet. Bracing his hands on its surface, the Third crouched by a long table, helmet whipping around one direction before the next. Then, he surged up, yelling. The table tipped, smashing to its side. The screams silenced abruptly.
Cloud stood, shuffling forward to peer over the table. The smell hit him like a brick between the eyes, making his throat sear, and he rocked back abruptly. Coughing into the arm he pressed into his mouth, Cloud clamped a hand around Timms' arm and pulled the Third back a few steps. Timms was gagging, hunched over his stomach.
"Nice," Cloud rasped, when he could talk.
Timms made a short noise in his throat.
It looked like a dog, whatever it was he'd stepped on. Cloud edged around the table until he could see both sides. It was thoroughly dead now, but it couldn't have been that pleasant a sight when it had been alive. Its head lay against the table face, twisted at an angle only possible with a severed backbone. A thin strip of flesh, matted fur flattened to the floor, held it loosely in place. Its limp body lay on the other side of the table edge, distended belly ripped open by the impact. Something glistened as it slithered out onto the floor. Loose guts, probably. It was hard to tell, the way the tissues had liquefied.
Its legs twitched once, convulsing and slipping in the slime coating the floor.
Cloud flinched, biting into his tongue against the sound that tried to force its way through his teeth.
It didn't move again.
He waited, watching the black shape. Under the harsh whistles of his breath, the bulb in the hall buzzed its incessant code. There was more of the slime around the dog's muzzle.
He frowned. "What was it eating?" His voice sounded muffled through the scratchy cotton stuffing his ears and mouth. He pivoted, scanning the mess of overturned and crushed furniture.
Cloud saw it at about the same time as Timms did. A mangled piece of metal—a crushed tin cup or something—and what looked like fossilized scraps of food, all bathed in a layer of slime that gave off the faint radioactive glow of mako.
Cloud stepped over a fallen bench end toward it as Timms skirted around and crouched down over the patch.
"What do you think this—"
Shit. Shit shit!
The Third reached out a hand.
When Cloud clamped his fingers over the back of the Third's uniform and yanked, Timms' helmet tumbled off into the smear. Cloud spun him around, keeping his grip so that the fabric twisted tightly in his hand and bunched noose-like around the Third's neck.
Timms made a choking sound. Cloud ignored it in favour of ripping off the Third's glove and flinging it to the ground.
He shoved hard before he let go, and Timms staggered.
"I said not to touch anything!" Cloud hissed, leaning into Timms' purpled face.
In the corner of his eye, he saw a curl of smoke coil over the surface of the glove. The leather sagged inward. An acrid smell pierced his palate with bright little needles, and his tongue felt heavy, coated with grease. The helmet was still rocking, squelches and tiny clicks accompanying its motion. A diseased gleam coated the surface, where it had touched the slime. The helmet's face had gone green. The colour spread, soaking through the metal.
Mako had surged to Timms' eyes in response, and the discs practically shone neon. His face was mottled red, and irregular ridges lined his neck where his collar had dug in. Cloud felt his teeth grind, and his boot squeaked loudly when he turned his back. The gut deep desire to re-break the Third's crooked nose burned in his belly and made his ears roar as it ripped at his control.
The helmet had gone black in patches. As Cloud watched, some of the metal crackled and caved inward, crumbling like ash. Flakes, little clicking chips bounced on the floor and shattered. The rest of the armour had deformed, flattening, rock sugar dissolving into a stovetop pan.
He couldn't look at Timms. Control. Fuck, he couldn't look at Timms.
It was the same stuff as he'd seen in the forest, melting off of the corpse hidden in the trees. Whatever it was, it was definitely involved in the stillness of the Wutai base. They'd tried to cover it up, but it looked like a fight had taken place in the mess. An attack, maybe, from who or whatever was spewing the slime.
With his luck, it was some kind of giant flesh-eating monster that digested its food outside of its body.
He could hear it again, the broken humming of the bulb outside. The sound had gained an additional note of malevolence now. A threat pointed at its intruders.
"I'm sorry, sir," Timms mumbled from behind him.
Making a strangled sound halfway between a bitter laugh and a growl, Cloud pressed a hand over his eye sockets and scrubbed.
The corridor didn't end. It stretched longer with every step Cloud took, slowly sinking downward. The slope was imperceptible, and he wouldn't have noticed it had the dank pressure not increased against his shoulders as the air grew heavier with moisture. Or if the hall didn't extend to unreasonable lengths.
Maybe there'd been a screw-up in communications while it was being built, and the tunnellers had taken their enthusiasm to the extreme. Maybe it wasn't actually that long, and he was simply experiencing time dilation as he travelled because the world and its laws of physics were conspiring to fuck him over and prevent him from reaching the other end.
Cloud paused. Ahead, identical blank doors broke the blank walls to either side, stretching into the darkness. He tried one. It swung open soundlessly to reveal a stall-like room. A low bed, a small table. A prison cell passing off as living quarters.
Tapping his tongue against the inside of his teeth, Cloud backed out and surveyed the silent hall.
A shuffling noise caught his attention.
Timms tugged on his sword's belt again, yanking it farther along his shoulder. The Third had been quiet since the slime had eaten his helmet. He slouched permanently, as if unused to the lack of weight.
"Take that side, Timms. Check the rooms."
Timms' eyes widened as he stared down the hall, but he nodded. "Got it."
Cloud turned forward.
Maybe he should have left the Third with the core group. Or better yet, sent him with Robertsson and sat back to watch and practice his best sadistic laugh.
He couldn't have been that stupid when he was a rookie.
The flash of sunlight refracting through materia blinded him for a fraction of a second, and Cloud squeezed his eyes shut. The wave of vertigo rolled down through his stomach into his knees, leaving an ashy taste in his mouth and the memory of a gloved hand before his eyes, reaching out to pull him up.
He shook his head roughly, and he pushed into the next room. The beds were made neatly, as if the Wutai had been waiting for an inspection. Cloud snorted, letting the door fall shut. Not much different from ShinRa, then. Nothing else could coerce Travers to clean.
Across the hall, Timms stepped out of another door. He stopped, catching sight of Cloud. "Nothing in that one, sir."
Cloud nodded, reaching for the next polished doorknob. It pressed into his palm, chilly and smooth.
On his first mission, he'd been a cocky little asswipe, about ten years younger than any of the other guys. Thought he was god's gift to Soldier. He'd ended up jeopardizing the entire mission and nearly getting the team killed by Zoloms. Cloud's knees still ached at the memory of the punishment for that one.
The hollow feeling gnawing on the inside of his ribs intensified. It sucked balls, growing up on a mission.
Cloud stifled a sigh, and it whistled in his nose. Lifting his head as he edged into the quarters, he glanced around. The door creaked under his grip. Same small bed, same cheap particle board table. Only this time, the table wasn't bare. Stepping further into the room, Cloud edged around the furniture and stared down at the little cluster arranged carefully on the surface.
There was a tarnished photo frame, gilded edges worn smooth where fingers would go when it was picked up.
This deep, even light seemed weighted down, and it was hard to make out the picture in the frame. It looked like a girl, just a kid, smiling through a wide gap in her teeth. A little stack of round papers sat in front of the frame, square holes cut into their centres, brilliant white compared to the grey of the rest of the room. Weighing them down was a fist-sized jar of sand, like the incense holders the merchants peddled down below the plate back in Midgar as foreign junky knick-knacks before the war got really bad and they either vanished or plastered their walls with ShinRa propaganda.
There wasn't any incense, just a thick layer of black scum over the sand. Cloud stuffed a glove into his back pocket before he reached out. A couple of papers drifted to the floor when he picked up the incense holder, and they stuck, plastering themselves to the concrete. He ignored them, fingers curling around the pot in his hand. The mouth of the jar was faintly warm to the touch.
He'd already reached for the photo frame before his hand stopped. Dropping his arm, he pressed his palm into the side of his uniform pants, and he rubbed hard. The thick material scratched over his skin.
The incense pot chimed softly when he set it down, back in front of the little memorial.
A flicker of pain in his other hand caught his attention, and he looked down. A row of indents still creased the worn leather of his glove, even after he'd forced his fist loose. He couldn't see the picture anymore, not at this angle.
Stepping back, Cloud let out a long, low breath.
Timms was waiting by the door when he stepped outside. The Third had a sheaf of papers in his hand, loosely bound with some sort of mottled twine.
"What did you find?" Cloud said, jerking his chin at the notebook.
Timms handed it over, and Cloud felt his eyebrows crawl up his hairline as he stared down at the crammed pages.
"A log or something, sir." Timms shrugged. "I can't tell if it's important."
Cloud's mouth twisted up. "No shit." He turned the papers the other way around to see if they looked any better. Still gibberish. It must have been the right way up initially, since the heading looked like the date. He waved the sheets at the Third. "Can you read Wutai?"
Timms grimaced. "Uh. No."
Timms seemed to wince as he looked away, his mouth tightening like he was chewing on the inside of his lip. "Sorry, sir."
In the silence, the damp air pressed into Cloud's skin, clinging and squeezing. In the walls, there was a long moan, just at the edge of hearing, as dirt settled above their heads, weighing down on the tunnel.
Cloud slapped the notes back into the Third's chest, and Timms pulled his hands up to catch them reflexively. Pages spilled loosely over his spread fingers.
"Might be useful, though. Go ahead if you want to take them. Someone has to be able to read this shit who doesn't want to turn us into a collective pasta strainer."
Timms' mouth twitched.
Cloud scuffed his boots over the ground as he headed for the next door on his side. "Come on. There're a fuck ton more doors to check."
"Sir," Timms called from behind him.
Cloud shoved his hands into his pockets as he leaned back to look around. "What?"
"I..." The Third waved a hand vaguely, the one that didn't have a glove. He seemed to notice, because he looked at the scraped knuckles, scowled, and balled his hand into a fist. "Sorry, sir."
Cloud waited, but there wasn't anything else. He made an impatient noise. "Quit that. We all screw up sometimes. Just get better."
Mako eyes fixed on him.
"I know you can do better," Cloud said quietly. Then he pulled a quick grin. "Just move your ass, 'cause if I have to go through all these rooms myself, I'll have to come up with something even worse for you to do, and you don't want me to get creative."
Timms smiled crookedly, hunched into something like half a shrug and half a cringe, and he stuffed the notebook into a pouch.
"Hey sir," the Third said again, just as Cloud opened the next door. "Did you find anything?"
Cloud paused without turning around. A phantom pain snapped at his palm, the knuckles trying to clench again. When he exhaled, his breath sounded loud to his ears. He pressed his mouth shut for a moment.
He let the door swing shut behind him.
Cloud pressed himself further into the shadows. The little recess was barely a dent in the wall, and the Wutai walking slowly up the hallway would see him if they just turned their heads at the right time. Better than nothing, though.
Timms was flattened to the wall a bit further up. One of his hands was gripping the door frame he stood against, his fingers outlined dimly. They tightened sporadically.
There were two ninja. A skeleton patrol. They were murmuring quietly, slurring their sharp syllables together.
A quiet thought wondered if one of them owned the photo frame. Cloud screwed his eyes shut tightly as he smothered it.
Cloud stood still as the patrol passed, certain that they could hear the brittle chips of fear rattling in his lungs. He ground them down, dragging in his diaphragm and syncing his breath to that of the ninja. Eddies of air brushed chilled fingers over his skin, and he moved with them.
They paused, just past him, and he froze.
One man, dressed in a sergeant's colours, turned to face the other. He was saying something. Cloud saw the shift of his jaw, though his mouth was shrouded in shadows. It didn't matter. He couldn't hear anything over the roar of his pulse in his ears anyway. The ringing burrowed into his eardrums until they felt like they would leak. His sword's guard dug into his ribs, and he felt the gentle tickle of sweat beading at the side of his nose as the protests of his ribcage grew and the tension in his joints screamed.
He caught a flash of a smile on the sergeant's face as the man turned again to start walking, gesturing at the private at his back to follow.
The smile scored itself in inverted colours over Cloud's retinas, and he squinted hard as he darted forward, clamping a hand over the Wutai private's mouth and nose. His fingers squeezed, almost tight enough to break skin, as he raised his sword up under the man's chin and dragged.
The blood felt blisteringly hot against his forearm when it sprayed. The private sagged against him, muscles still slack from surprise. He hadn't had enough time to tense. Good. Cloud pressed his lips into a tight line. It would have made his throat harder to cut.
Splatters of fluid hit the near wall with damp thumps, and the sergeant whipped around just as Cloud was letting the body fall. The ninja's voice rasped, briefly, breathily, before he bared his teeth, lunging forward into a thrust of his gun lance. A threat or a name? The question lodged somewhere in Cloud's head even as he backpedalled furiously. The private's weight was impeding his arms, and fuck the man was fast.
Timms charged into the ninja headfirst and they hit the wall with a crash that shook dust from the ceiling and left a dent when they rebounded and crumpled to the floor. The Third rolled, lashing out with a boot. It connected with the ninja's chin with a crunch, and the man flopped onto his back, his breath expelling loudly.
Timms made a half-leap, half-furious crawl, and then he was hunched over the ninja, sword in a backhanded grip to drive downward.
Cloud wasn't entirely surprised when the Third hesitated.
He shoved the Wutai private to the floor as he tried to launch himself into a sprint. His breath seized in his chest when the private's legs tangled over his ankles, and he toppled hard. Buzzing shocks jack-hammered their way up his arms from where his elbows hit the concrete. Through the black spots pounding at his vision, he saw the sergeant kick Timms' sword away. The man vaulted to his feet in time to smash his face into Timms' vicious combo of punches that started by sending the sergeant's helmet flying and ended with driving the air out of his stomach. As the ninja slumped, Timms hopped backward, hunching down on unsteady legs and fumbling for the sword at his feet.
Cloud heaved himself up onto his haunches just as the Wutai sergeant staggered to his feet behind Timms, raising his lance.
"Duck!" Cloud bellowed, slinging his sword arm forward.
The Third didn't look up. He threw himself flat just as the lance began to descend, and Cloud let go of the worn hilt. Metal sang as it flew, screeching on impact.
Cloud let his head drop, taking in sharp gulps of air. His arms wobbled, and he hit the ground with a grunt, twisting to land on a shoulder. Throbs shoved to the back of his mind took the opportunity to surge forward and wail for attention, and he tilted an elbow up. The heat spreading through the livid bruise hummed, molten syrup smooth, and he let out a long breath. He rolled onto his back, draping his forearm over his eyes, and the coolness of damp-chilled skin permeated his aching sockets.
Timms was scuffling around somewhere out of sight.
Cloud made an impressed sound, and it wobbled in his throat. "Where'd you learn hand to hand like that?" he said.
There was a short, heartfelt groan. "Sergeant Cage. She told us we were going to be maggots forever if we couldn't at least defend ourselves without a weapon. And then she beat the shit out of us every MWF of Basic."
There was a scraping sound, and Cloud shifted his arm just enough to see Timms yank Cloud's sword free from where it was pinning the Wutai sergeant. The ninja dropped, slapping wetly into the puddle of black under his feet. The hole where the thrown blade had driven into the wall crumbled a bit at the edges and dropped gravel onto the body.
"She kind of reminded me of my mom," Timms muttered.
Cloud snickered, dropping his head back down.
Metal rasped, chafing on something. Timms was trying to clean the sword, Cloud realized.
He snorted. "Never mind that." He reached out.
Timms blinked for a second before he pressed the broadsword's hilt into Cloud's glove.
Cloud stared at the gently fraying leather wrapping the hilt and the dusty blood rolling across the metal. The beads were slowing, drying and congealing in the air. He tried to stifle the laugh this time, but it forced free in a rumbling honk. Cloud dropped a hand over his face, his shoulders scratching over the concrete as they shook. The tip of his sword dipped and chimed against the floor.
"You okay, sir?"
The snickers were grating in his throat, making his trachea grind. He switched his sword to his other hand, and he raised his right arm again.
"Thanks, Timms, appreciated," Cloud said, pausing to drag in a breath past another chortle, "but give me a hand up, this time."
There was blood seeping into his uniform pants, soaking up from the floor and quickly turning clammy against his leg, but he let his head thump down onto the ground and kept laughing anyway. It wasn't like there was anyone else around to hear.
This part of the base was newer. The scent of fresh concrete still lingered a bit, and the walls stretched blank and smooth, like they'd been laminated with something too thick.
Ahead, the corridor curved, a faint blue glow painted across the bend.
Cloud's eyes narrowed. He slowed, jerking his fingers behind his back.
There hadn't been any rooms for a while now. Something ahead they hadn't wanted the grunts to see. Bubbles of anticipation were popping in his mouth, stinging his tongue and making his hands tingle.
He heard the rustle as Timms tensed behind him.
He crept forward. It was glass. Panes of glass lined the wall on his left, the blue light diffusing easily through the windows. The floor dropped away on the inside, a ring of steps leading down to a circular room. A bank of consoles lined a wall, each wide screen lit up bright. Cloud squeezed his eyes to slivers, squinting in at the flickering screens. The glare fuzzed the images to incomprehensibility.
Cloud had just pressed a hand over smooth glass when there was a tortured groan at his back, and he whirled.
Another creak of movement, a quick gurgle of splashing liquid.
There was another door, across the hallway, its blank white shape outlined against the wall. There was another low moan. Timms threw himself back as Cloud charged past him. The door didn't budge when Cloud tried the handle. Unlike the living quarters, this door opened outward, and it was built heavy. It barely moved, only rattling and making the windows across the hall shiver, when Cloud slammed a shoulder into it. A growl rumbled through his chest and he stepped back. He took a couple of running hops, and when he jumped, he bore down with both boots, putting his full weight into the kick. Thick wood crunched, and splinters scythed by, clattering as they hit the wall in an explosive spray. The crash of the remnants of the door hitting the floor amplified the din and made it echo, and inside the room, something squealed at the noise.
Cloud ducked down to the ground outside the gap, reaching over his shoulder for his broadsword. Movement flickered in the periphery of his vision, and he met Timms' eyes across the broken door. The Third nodded, his sword up in a defensive crouch.
"I'll check it out," the Third mouthed.
Cloud's eyes slitted for a moment, and he tightened his jaw before he jerked his head sharply.
He watched Timms take a deep breath through his open mouth, and then the Third whirled into the gap, sword up and ready.
Silence stuffed itself down Cloud's nose and throat, trying to suffocate him as he waited. It stretched out like taffy.
"Just a bunch of tanks, sir," came Timms' quiet call.
Cloud surged to his feet, catching a hand on the door jamb to help him pivot and swing through the splinter-edged gap.
Brushed-metal cylinders stood in neat rows, flakes of rust starting to eat away at their bottom edges. Thick pipes sprouted from each tank, rising to meet a main vein bolted to the tall ceiling. And in each tank, a porthole cut into the metal at about eye level, the gleam of mako within blazing even brighter in the dark. Cloud squinted, resisting the urge to slap an arm over his eyes.
"What's in them, Timms?" he said hoarsely.
The Third turned away from one of the windows, eyes wide and neon-bright with reflected glare. "Monsters, sir," he rasped.
It was probably something in Timms' voice that made Cloud's legs try to seize like they'd been encased in ice as he approached. Mako didn't have a scent, not in the traditional sense. It hovered on the line between organic and inorganic, between matter and energy, each dense stream whole and indivisible. Individual streams moved together, acting like a fluid, but spread thin enough, it took on the form of short strands of spider silk. It didn't vaporize, didn't sublimate. There were no receptors for it in the human nose. The texts marched in neat rows in Cloud's head, condescending and obnoxious. Wholly unconvincing.
The memory of mako burn tasted acrid and sour in Cloud's throat, and his breath rattled. He walked slowly, peering into each tank as he passed. None of the monsters looked alike. Grotesque curled horns sprouted from the face of one, and long dagger-like claws extended from the hands of another, gently tapping against the sides of its tank as it bobbed inside. Leathery gills flapped on another's neck.
An incongruously small mouth opened in the face of a monster covered in glittering scales, head the size of a battle shield. Triple rows of white teeth sat in the mouth, clean and straight. Almost human.
Suddenly, a long, thin tongue slapped out against the glass, flapping as it slammed into the porthole again and again, and Cloud jumped back hastily, stumbling over a raised pipe running along the walls. The monster's mouth was opened wide, but no noise came from its black lips. There were only rapid clicks and taps as the tongue struck the glass, and eventually, that died out. The tongue stilled, a length of its tip the size of a spread hand pressed against the window, scraping heavily over it as if tasting the opening.
"I think they're all alive," Cloud said, his voice tight under the pressure constricting his lungs.
Bursts of bubbles spiralled inside the tanks, the gush of fluid sucking evenly like measured breaths. Vaguely humanoid arms drifted in the liquids.
"Why are they making monsters?"
Cloud turned to look at Timms. The Third had his sword at his side, its tip dipping up and down as his hand clenched. Behind him, something was rapping on thick glass with pronged spikes that bristled from its torso. There was no pattern to the sound, just a slow, ringing clack at uneven intervals that made bumps crawl and inch up Cloud's neck.
"I don't know," he said. "Why wouldn't they make monsters?"
Timms' face was greener than the mako backwash light warranted.
Cloud saw it just as he was turning his head to edge down another aisle. A swirl of brown hair. His breath choked in his chest, and he darted past another couple of tanks. He caught himself just before he thumped into metal, his palms slapping onto the smooth surface as he stared into the hole.
The man floated, dipping gently. His eyes were open, unseeing and unblinking, stained a virulent green.
"You alive in there, Geoffreys?" Cloud bellowed. If the Soldier could hear him, he didn't show it.
Cloud pawed at the sides of the tank, searching for any edge to the unbroken metal. A latch ripped at his forearm, leaving a burning swathe of scraped skin. He closed his hand over it and yanked.
Green liquid roared out of the gap, battering against Cloud's boots and making him stagger. He curled his fingers, digging his gloves into the edge of the lid to hold himself up. The force of his grip was making his knuckles crackle, disjointed pops vibrating up his arms. He felt them dimly. They probably hurt. He couldn't tell, not past the helium lightness pumping its way through his lungs. His pulse thrummed in his ears, and he stepped back, wrenching the lid off its hinges and releasing the final slosh of fluids.
Some of the green splattered over his skin this time, searing down to the bone, and air whooshed out of his lungs as he stumbled. It clamped down on him, the atmosphere, thickening and slamming a fist into his mouth and crushing his windpipe.
Blackness clawed into his vision, and when he screwed his eyes shut, nothing but green filled his head. He saw his hands, blunt nails scrabbling at the curve of glass. Rage poured through his veins, his mind blank of anything but the boiling, snarling desire to rip out the eyes peering in at him through the window.
Maul the fucker's face off! Do it do it do it DO IT KILL HIM—
The cold curve of metal pressed into his spine, and Cloud slammed his head back into the tank behind him. His lungs howled for breath, and he let his mouth fall open, sucking damply. He thumped his head backward again, the sharp crack of the blow sending blazing heat through his scalp and chasing away the pressure squishing his eyeballs to pulp.
Fuck fuckity fuck he didn't have time for this again. Stop it stop it!
In front of him, Geoffreys slumped to the floor on the inside of his tank, and Timms' boots screeched as he rounded a corner and skidded to a halt.
Cloud heaved himself up off the tank behind him, taking a wobbly couple of steps forward. He dropped into the crouch harder than he intended, catching himself on the edges of the ripped tank as he pitched in toward it.
Reaching out, his hand stopped, hovering just over Geoffreys's skin. A gust of air whistled angrily in his nose, and he felt his shoulders threaten to spasm. Another breath, and he closed his fingers over Geoffreys's wrist. A moment later, he let his eyes droop closed and his head fall on his wooden neck, a smile creaking its way over his face. The Third's skin was clammy, but it was warm underneath, where the man's pulse bumped steadily against Cloud's fingertips.
Cloud looked up at Timms, grinning widely. "Come on, help me pull him out."
He settled Geoffreys's weight against his shoulder, hooking one of the Third's arms over his neck and holding it in place. His bare skin was a bit slippery in Cloud's grip, but it was quickly drying.
Cloud glanced around the rows of tanks. "Not much for him to wear around here, huh?" he said.
Cloud smiled at the Third. "Ah well, he can worry about his modesty later." The Soldier's feet dragged on the floor as Cloud heaved Geoffreys out into the corridor outside. He glanced down the empty hall. Through the wide windows, the screens still glowed. "Timms," he said sharply.
The Third loped forward and peered at him.
"Run. Go back to the main group. Tell them what we found, and then come back here. If you see Robertsson along the way, bring him with you."
Timms' eyes darted around the corridor. "Here, sir?"
Cloud jerked his head at the row of windows. "We'll be in there. Might be something worth checking out on the computers."
"Get the lead out, Soldier!" Cloud barked, his lips twisting up.
The Third grinned back before he pivoted into a sprint.
Cloud dropped Geoffreys onto a wide bench, wincing as the man's head slapped into the metal and a booming clang resounded. He swung Geoffreys's legs up, propping them on the bench in a way that didn't look entirely comfortable, but at least he wasn't about to roll off.
Cloud snorted to himself. No wonder his mother never let him keep a pet.
Satisfied, he turned to the wall of screens. The keyboards looked universal enough. ShinRa tech. Terrorist's choice. The company probably wouldn't like that slogan. Old man Shinra never really struck him as the easily amused type. Cloud leaned over the keys, peering at the screens. Coded, of course, but it looked like it was written in Midgar Standard. Cloud tapped a button, and a cursor started blinking.
Well shit. Paranoid bastards.
He tried a random string based on his birthday because hell, what did he have to lose. The cursor flashed red at him. Hah.
Watching the slow blink, Cloud leaned over, pressing his hands into the control panel and bending until a ghost of chilled metal brushed over his forehead. He closed his eyes and breathed.
Something giddy was humming in his gut, pumping helium into his head until his eyes bloated and his tongue felt fat and clumsy in his mouth.
He'd found Geoffreys.
Every single drop of hope he'd been suppressing, shovelling down to the back of his mind, was surging him, making his head buzz, choking his breath in his chest.
It was making him stupid.
"Come on," he said, a whisper, as he thumped his head down onto the metal lightly, "focus."
He couldn't afford stupid.
He pried himself up, tugging off his gloves with his teeth, and the smooth keys clacked under his fingertips as he started typing in earnest. The sound rattled in his head, sending his thoughts scattering like a pack of fat flies. At ShinRa, the passkeys rotated through a multi-day system, where each key had a limited pool of possible patterns. Once Angeal had started to let Cloud set up his own training programs in the VR facility, he'd needed to get into the system, and there'd been fuck-all chance that he would remember the weekly string of numbers some tech fired off at him to represent the current sequence of passkeys. Eventually, he'd simply memorized all of the ranges. There was no reason why the passkeys would follow the ShinRa—Green light.
Cloud's hands froze over the keys as he stared up at the screens. The next in a series of nested prompts blinked at him.
"Well, fuck me blind," he croaked.
The keyboard clattered as he typed, his neck clanging as he glanced up with every attempt.
He should have known. There were some alterations, but this entire base stank of stolen ShinRa technology.
It would have taken some damn high level clearance to disappear this stuff halfway across the planet, though.
Cloud squinted up at the screen. If it followed the pattern, the next passkey would be the last. Behind it, answers.
Something brushed across his nape, wisp-soft, and Cloud whipped around, his hip cracking against the desks and sending shockwaves up and down his side. Every muscle in his body seized up, his tendons feeling like they were going to rip themselves off of his bones, and he stared up at the man perched on top of the screens. Mako eyes drifted half shut as they sized him, and feathers fluttered gently through dead air.
Even in the dim light, the red coat gleamed.
"The wanderer travels." The voice was soft. "Searching. Always searching."
Cloud shuffled back, raising a hand to his sword. The other man didn't move but for a slow blink.
"Genesis," he hissed.
The First tilted his head. "Angeal's pup," he said, his mouth curving upward.
"My name's Cloud," he snapped. A pause, and he scowled. "This was all you, wasn't it? They couldn't have gotten a hold of all this stuff if you hadn't been feeding it to them. What were you trying to do?"
There was a slow smile. "Infinite in mystery is the gift of the goddess
We seek it thus, and take to the sky
Ripples form on the water's surface
The wandering soul knows no rest."
"A gift?" Cloud said, his voice sharp and high. "You call this a gift? They kidnapped Soldiers!" He flung out a hand toward Geoffreys's still form. Genesis' eyes flickered to the side, and Cloud's hands twitched. A reaction. He twisted his mouth, and he pressed it. "What, are you gonna say you weren't involved in that? Look at him!" It was weird, how dry his mouth was when spit was flecking his lips as the words poured out, unstoppable. "Now, I've got him, and I'm going to figure out what the hell is wrong with him, so you can either give me a straight answer or fuck off!"
"A gift; a curse," Genesis said quietly. "The goddess is both merciful and cruel, and none at the same time."
Cloud snarled, dragging his hands through his hair. "I don't know what you mean!"
Genesis watched him in the silence. Then, he closed his eyes and sighed. "They sought the means to create Soldiers. I sought..." He paused, reaching out to finger a long pinfeather. He shook his head slightly. "It doesn't matter. They all decay eventually."
Cloud's eyes widened until they burned. "You gave them the technology to make Soldiers?" he said, softly.
Gloved fingers squeaked as they waved. "Incomplete," Genesis said. "They could not accomplish the tasks they agreed to, and when I withdrew, they attempted to continue the experiments, taking Soldiers as raw material." A twist of a smile. "Failures, of course. They create nothing but monsters."
The screens hummed their monotone drone as Cloud's fists fell slack, and he stared.
"Those monsters used to be human." His breaths were coming short and shallow, doing nothing to ease the throbbing lightness squeezing behind his eyes. The horns. The gills. Bile stung his throat, flooding his mouth with sour spit. "You let them use Soldiers!" Cloud ripped his sword free, his voice rising into a shriek.
Genesis looked at him, ignoring the blade pointed at him. "They meant to draw rescuers in and shut them in with the monsters." The First drummed his fingers over his knee before glancing toward the door. "They'll wake soon, the monsters."
"Thanks for the warning," Cloud said, twisting his mouth into a sneer. "And what about you? What about Angeal?"
"My friend, do you fly away now?
To a world that abhors—"
"Shut up!" Cloud screeched. "Don't give me that shit!" He crouched down into his stance, raising his sword in both hands. "If I drag you back with me now," he said, his voice a hiss, "will Angeal follow?"
A thin smile edged its way across Genesis' face. "Do you really have time to be worrying about me," he said, "when you position yourself with monsters at your back?"
Shit. Shit. Cloud whipped around, making it halfway through the turn before the impact slammed into him. A croak caught in his throat, and he looked into Geoffreys's vacant eyes.
It started slow, just a trickle of heat prickling at his gut. He dropped his gaze down to the glitter of metal protruding from his side. It was mostly clean, he noted distantly. Searing thumps began to claw up his stomach as his nerves gradually caught up, and the world filtered back into his senses. The scent of metal. The slow touch of Geoffreys's breath on his neck. The burn of blood.
Geoffreys lurched back, ripping the dagger free. Swaying slightly, he stood still, blind eyes looking somewhere through Cloud and out the other side. His bare skin showed patches of red, like it had been chafed by something. Haltingly, Geoffreys raised a hand and scratched down across his shoulder and over his chest. His nails left weeping red blisters.
Cloud staggered, pressing his palm reflexively over the hole. His mouth opened, a quiet gurgle escaping. There was a scream bubbling in his throat. He could feel it surging, seizing his vocal cords. Too tight. Probably why it couldn't get out.
The pain tore through him then, and his knees gave, crumpling him with a hoarse wheeze. Strings of black wavered in his vision. He twisted his neck up. Geoffreys was still standing, unmoving, unseeing. The dagger dangled loosely in his hand. Slowly, a trickle of blood collected into a swollen drop, clinging to the tip. It dropped to the floor with a soft, spongy plop. Cloud's sight blurred like a disturbed puddle.
"Geoffreys." He was—he couldn't— The thundering was inside his skull. "Geoffreys, you in there somewhere?" His voice was a little weedy rasp.
Fuzz. Movement. Gleam of blue light off a blade.
A shout buzzed through his throat and slid into a howl as he wrenched himself into a roll. The dagger's point scraped over the floor, whistling shrilly.
His clothes were heavy. Soaked. Sticky blood. It was weird when it was his. Hotter, like it was still attached to him, still part of his veins.
His tumble crashed to a halt against the base of a bench, the jolt jarring every bone in his body. Cloud's head snapped back, a sharp keen forcing itself out from between his gritted teeth. Blinking hard, he looked up into a blur. Glittering edge of dagger, smeared with black-red. Macabre caricature of a grin. Descent.
Something was screaming, yowling in his head. Noise. Too much noise; he couldn't hear.
Warmth of leather in his hand.
A roar rent free of Cloud's throat as he ripped his arm up, sword arcing until it pointed toward the ceiling. It sang, sinking jerkily into Geoffreys's chest as he bore down on Cloud. Bone crunched, hollow and splintery. When Geoffreys convulsed, the force nearly dragged Cloud's sword from his hands. His fingers clamped stubbornly around the hilt. His knuckles squelched slickly.
In a lethargic glide, Geoffreys was sliding further up—down, along—the blade. Something pearly was beading off his bare skin. It stretched, stringing out long and thin, and then it dropped and splashed over Cloud's throat. He jerked at the searing sensation, hearing the sizzle of his flesh as the slime ate into it. His mouth opened, soundless and wide.
Cloud tipped onto his side, letting his sword fall. Black—pitchy, true black, not like the diluted grey that filtered through his closed eyelids—oozed over his sight as his vision failed. He heard Geoffreys's body thump to the ground, bean bag slack. Shallow pants scraped his throat, where the frantic flutter of his pulse jumped against his skin. It was slowing.
Maybe it was his perception that was slowing.
A touch on his elbow burned his hypersensitive skin and made his limbs quake.
Pump. Ooze. He was leaking. Heat painting the floor. He wanted to laugh, but he couldn't. Couldn't. He'd have to be breathing for that.
Fuck fuck fuck dying he wasn't gonna couldn't fucking not gonna die here up up UP—
"My friend, your desire
Is the bringer of life, the gift of the goddess"
The murmured words reverberated in his skull a second before magic pierced him, turning every cell in his body inside out. Blinding agony raced laps up his arms and legs as the torn organs, torn tissues knitted together as quickly as they'd been severed. His mouth opened in a sucking sob as his lungs inflated with freezing, crystal-sharp breath.
"Perhaps a gift, likely a curse." Genesis' voice hummed by his ear. "You might regret receiving it later."
When Cloud's eyes snapped open, he was alone with Geoffreys's body.
He couldn't have been out for long, not at the rate the body was decaying.
Slime was shedding from the corpse, like his skin was sloughing off and liquefying. The sticky sweet scent of rot dug its way into Cloud's nose and mouth, and he lurched away, lifting himself up onto his hands and knees before he retched. Acid seared the back of his throat as his stomach's contents splattered the floor under his hands. There wasn't much in it, and soon, nothing but a thin string of spit extended from his esophagus to the ground. It stretched and stretched, unwilling to break. Cloud gagged, gasping for air. His stomach spasmed again, hard enough to drive spikes of pain into his chest, and he croaked loudly. Holding himself still, he hacked, his dry lungs crackling. Short breaths whistled in his throat. His eyes burned as he lifted himself up onto his heels and wiped at his swollen lips.
Lifting his uniform vest, he squinted down at the shiny new scar stretching over his belly. It tingled with warning at his touch.
Geoffreys's slack face was turned toward him, the skin bulging as it lost elasticity, unable to support its own weight. From the corners of the sagging eyes, gunk was starting to run. Cloud remembered the man in the forest. The rot that permeated his entire body.
Gritting his teeth until they ached, Cloud lowered his head.
It—the thing looked less human with each passing moment. The slime was pink, blood clumped in black specks. It'd probably go grey later.
"Geoffreys," he mumbled.
Good Soldier. They always said that, good Soldier. Like it made up for being dead Soldier. Cloud opened his mouth. He should say something.
Watching Geoffreys' face disappear, Cloud clawed at his memory. Of before, when Geoffreys jumped at bugs chirping and acted like he hadn't been born with a sense of humour.
"I..." He knew, if he was honest, that he hadn't given Geoffreys a thought for weeks, not since the first time he saw the man's name on the list of the missing. He screwed his eyes shut, and he swallowed. His mouth tasted foul. His knuckles popped with thick crunches, and he squeezed his shoulders together before he reached for his sword. The materia set into its hilt glimmered. He stopped, his mouth working as his eyes flitted to the body and away again. "Sorry."
The floor was uncomfortably warm when he reached out and used the bench to lever himself up onto rubbery legs. He took a couple of steps, catching himself on the open door's frame when his knees shook. Glancing back at the smear of black, greasy soot on the tile, Cloud gnawed hard at his cheek.
The monsters were made from people. Soldiers. Meant to kill Soldiers.
Nothing but Soldiers around here.
Stumbling for a second when his foot tried to turn under him, Cloud pushed himself off the door frame, and he started to run.
It didn't help at all, saying sorry.