It gripped the world, shrouding Edge City in murky almost-darkness. The sprawling, steaming mass of the city extended for miles. It had grown a great deal in forty years.
Twilight. The man who walked the city's cold streets tonight had lived in it now for so long he remembered other states of being only in a detached, academic sense. He had watched it creep up on his city, his friends, his government. The decline had been gradual; the schism, sudden.
And now this. He looked down at the red ribbon on his arm, the color of blood in the harsh lighting of the city streets. He felt the weight of the sword on his back, more keenly now than ever. It had been getting heavier for years now.
His only consolation was that the twilight was coming to an end. One way or another, night would truly fall now.
Footsteps. Two WRO patrolmen coming toward him, SMGs drawn.
"I need you to put the blade down, put your hands on your head, and lie down on your stomach," the first one said.
Cloud Strife gave the man a wan smile. Wordlessly, he reached up to grasp the First Tsurugi.
Both the MPs stiffened. "Slowly now," the second one warned. "We have the authority to shoot you if you try anything funny."
"Sorry, officers," Cloud said, drawing the sword out of its harness. "I'm afraid this isn't going to be very funny."
A mile away, across the Tuesti Bridge, in the security center of the WRO Tower, the CCTV feeds showed it all – what little there was to see.
One moment, the man was standing there, slowly pulling the enormous sword out of its harness. The MPs gave a cry of alarm and fired.
The next was nothing but a bright flash. Then the feeds, all eight of them, went dead.
"He's marchin' right down fuckin' Main Street," Reno said, arms crossed, his craggy, aged features pinched into a grimace. "He'll cross the bridge and be here in ten minutes. Count on it."
Rude looked up at him from his station, frowning through his silver-grey beard. "We need to hold him off."
Reno sucked air in through his teeth. "I guess we gotta at that." He patted his partner on the shoulder. "Guess there's no escapin' this time, eh, Rude?"
The Turk cracked the barest hint of a smile. "Just like old times."
"How long until the big guy gets here?" Reno asked one of the WRO techs in the security center.
"ETA on the chopper is twenty minutes," the man replied.
Reno sighed. "Think we can hold him for ten minutes, Rude?"
Standing from his seat, Rude twisted his head until his neck gave a series of satisfying pops. "Tall order."
With a laugh, Reno made for the door. "Wouldn't be any fun if it weren't. Come on, let's go die."
Smoke rose in Edge City.
A string of explosions rang out throughout its neighborhoods, its shopping centers, its power plants. Carefully placed, causing a minimum of casualties and a maximum of environmental damage and mayhem. Lights flickered and died.
WRO forces went into a mad scramble to try to contain the fires, to restore power, to find the perpetrators before they could strike again.
Barret leaned back in a deck chair on the roof of his building, watching the chaos. With his flesh hand he pulled a cigar out of his vest, raised it to his mouth with a trembling grip. The thumbnail of his metal hand peeled back to reveal a lighter; he massaged the cigar with its flame as he pulled, enjoying the taste.
He raised the lit cigar to the solitary figure making its way toward the Tuesti Bridge. "Go get 'em, Spikey," he rumbled. "Gotta make the sons of bitches pay."
The door to the roof burst open. WRO soldiers poured through it, surrounding the old man in the deck chair.
"Barret Wallace," the leader said, "under the authority of the World Regenesis Organization, I'm placing you under arrest for murder, conspiracy and destruction of public and private property."
Barret took one last long pull on the cigar as he regarded the men surrounding him.
"You and what fuckin' army?" he asked.
Half a mile away, Cloud had not turned when he had heard the string of explosions, but he did look over his shoulder when he heard a sudden symphony of gunfire erupt on the rooftop of a building.
He knew the sound of that gun by heart.
"Thanks, old man," he murmured. "See you soon."
He kept striding toward the bridge, First Tsurugi in hand. Even in the dimness of twilight, he could see the soldiers assembling to try to stop him. His mako eyes glowed in the darkness.
"There's no point," Cloud whispered to himself. "It'll all be the same soon anyway."
The soldiers opened fire. He didn't break stride.
The bridge flashed with blue light.
Half a world away, in the Palace of Wutai, Yuffie Kisaragi watched the news from her bed.
She was not ill, but she did suffer a plethora of aches and pains from wounds and scars accumulated over a lifetime of adventuring, so when she was at home, she tended to keep to her bed. Now she watched the WRO News Network reporting on terrorist bombings in Edge, and she saw the view from a newscopter as it circled the scene of an attack on Tuesti Bridge.
Yuffie hadn't seen Cloud in fifteen years, not since the implosion of the group. As the camera view zoomed in to get a look at him, she saw that his hair had gone grey, his face had become lined with age, and he'd acquired a nasty-looking scar on his cheek.
But his eyes still burned with green fire, and he still handled the First Tsurugi with impossible speed and power.
The bodies of the WRO troops went flying. The reporter was in hysterics despite his best effort to control himself.
"I wish I could be there with you, Cloud," Yuffie whispered, not caring about the vast distances between them. "I wish I could be making the sons of bitches pay."
Fifteen years ago, he'd told her to let it go. That there was no point in retaliating, that fighting the WRO would just lead to more death and devastation for a weary populace.
She didn't know for sure what had changed his mind about the prospect now. It could be any one of a million things that had gone wrong in the intervening time.
But she had a fairly good idea.
A last Blade Beam exploded the tank the WRO had used to block the bridge's exit. The shell it had fired at Cloud lay smoking at his feet, his sword still ringing softly from stopping it dead.
For a dead man walking, he felt very much alive.
The Tower Plaza lay before him, lit softly by the glow of electric lanterns placed about its edges. In the center of the plaza was a great fountain, and atop the fountain was a statue of Reeve, reaching toward the sky, a hopeful expression on his face.
Cloud ignored it as he stalked toward the entrance of the WRO Tower. He would not waste time or energy defacing the statue.
Two figures barred his way. Cloud felt his mouth twist in a halfhearted approximation of a smile. "Just you two, huh?"
"Yep. We're tonight's entertainment." Reno grinned, bouncing his EMR against his shoulder. "Sorry if you were hopin' for more, Cloud. I know we're an old act, but we're gonna have to do for now."
"I'd rather not fight you guys," Cloud said, leveling the First Tsurugi at the pair of them.
"Scared?" Reno asked. "'Cause I wouldn't blame ya."
Rude suddenly spoke. "No," he said, slipping on his leather gloves. "Not scared. Just a hypocrite."
Cloud glared at him. "I don't care if it's hypocritical. It's the truth. I'd rather not fight you."
There was genuine scorn in Rude's voice. "Like I said. Hypocrite. You want to kill us –" he sprang forward, fists blurring – "you look us in the eye!"
With one hand, Cloud blocked Rude's opening strike with the First Tsurugi. He let his guard drop as the Turk rebounded from his sword, knowing Reno would pounce on the opening; as the redhead leapt at him, Cloud sidestepped past the EMR thrust and buried his free hand, curled into a fist, in Reno's gut. He went flying, crashing headlong into the fountain, spraying chips of stone everywhere.
"Partner!" Rude shouted. He stiffened as the air curled menacingly past his ear, pulling in his arms just barely in time to stop Cloud's attack with the broad side of the First Tsurugi's blade. The blow lifted Rude off his feet, sending him skidding along the ground until he came to a painful halt against one of the benches in the square.
"Sorry," Cloud murmured.
Cloud moved toward the entrance of the Tower, then stopped at the sound of movement behind him.
Reno stood, clutching his side with his free hand. "Don't you fuckin' pity us," he growled despite the immense pain in his chest. "SOLDIER boy. Everythin' you are is a cheat."
"Please don't make me kill you, Reno," Cloud said. "It'd make Rufus really sad."
"I TOLD YOU NOT TO FUCKIN' PITY US!" Reno snarled, charging again.
This time he swung the EMR in a broad arc, its tip crackling. He knew there was no way Cloud would be able to block it with his sword for fear of electrocution, and if he dodged away from it, it would mean he was gaining distance from the Tower entrance.
Reno was more than a little shocked when the man caught his EMR by the tip. Electricity crawled along his muscles, making his already-spiky hair stand on end, but Cloud stood there, immobile, until the rod sparked its last, the metal distorting beneath his grip.
Then he hit Reno over the head, so fast and vicious the Turk never even saw it coming, so hard the impact barely even registered, it was too enormous to comprehend. Reno lay there, twitching, the distant, rational part of him wondering just how badly that had concussed him.
"Sorry, Reno," Cloud said. His voice sounded muffled, distant. "It's really hard to swat an ant without killing it, you know?"
Reno blacked out before he could summon the presence of mind to flip off the son of a bitch.
Rude glanced down at his watch. They'd lasted two minutes. The chopper wouldn't be here for another eight.
"We only did what we had to do," he said, forcing himself up into a sitting position on the bench he'd crashed into, trying to ignore the shooting pains that lanced throughout his body.
Cloud, who had resumed walking toward the Tower entrance, stopped. Turned.
Rude had expected the man to be angry, or scornful. But all he saw was the sadness, deep as an ocean and twice as terrible. He could see Cloud Strife somewhere in that ocean, the incredible pressure pushing and twisting him into strange and broken shapes.
"I know that," Cloud said. "So am I."
"You don't have to do this," Rude said. "Nobody's making you. Nobody's holding a gun to the head of the world but you."
Cloud cocked his head. "Don't try to do that, Rude. You put the gun in my hand. I don't have a choice anymore."
"You've got no right!" Rude growled.
"Neither did you," Cloud said. "Didn't you love her too?"
Rude stiffened. "You bastard," he said, very softly. "That's not fair."
"That's life," Cloud said, turning on his heel and leaving Rude to bleed out on the bench.
"But," he called back over his shoulder, "not for long."