It was a dark day, eerily overcast, and Reeve knew the sun was straining to shed its light on the world somewhere behind the clouds. These were not ordinary clouds, of course, but a debris field spawned by the intermingling of Holy and Meteor above Midgar, the city Reeve had blue-penciled into being ages ago. Now his hands tensed on the wheel of the truck. It was hard to believe, but if he concentrated, he could still remember the green of grass and other natural growth as they laid the cornerstone of the Shin-Ra Tower. He remembered the flowerbeds and the trees he'd taken care to place throughout the city, before the blooms dropped, never to return, and the trunks gnarled like old, angry hands. Midgar's decrepitude had come on slow, slow enough that it could be downplayed or ignored—it's winter, Reeve; seasonal, anyway; for god's sakes, what are you on about? It's the slums—and Reeve remembered the long, lonely meetings in which he cast about for solutions, though not the precise point the other executives who sat elbow to elbow around the table stopped caring.
Reeve had never stopped.
And now? Now he was sitting here with a wet handkerchief slapped over his mouth and nose to keep from inhaling the burning dust and the ashes—god, the ashes over everything, all the bright and hard edges of a once-bustling metropolis paling under this planetary funeral shroud.
And it was a good hankerchief, damn it, though now ruined, one of many with his initials tastefully embroidered in cloth-of-gold on the corner. Shin-Ra had made him a rich man, and he was going to have to learn how to live with that. By this point, at least, ambivalence was something of a forte.
He was waiting for them outside Midgar—five miles out, to be precise. The lifestream had long withdrawn its spindly green fingers from this place, and now it was back to looking as barren as ever, with the addition of this darkness, this darkness Nanaki was not sure would ever lift. Last Reeve heard before Cait Sith quit working, Nanaki had mentioned going back home to Cosmo Canyon, where the sound of the Planet's shrieks ought to be deafening, to start fiddling with his grandfather's celestial observatory and see what they were looking at.
Math. Astronomy. Architecture. Raw firepower. All of them were trying to figure out how to help as they watched the disaster unfold, most from the relative safety of the Highwind. For once—because it was Midgar, his home—Reeve was toughing it out in the trenches, breathing through a handkerchief and half the time still choking. They were drawing on their particular areas of expertise, such as they were. Filling out their ragtag ranks were a former barkeep—she was beautiful and sad and sweet, and of course Reeve thought of her first—a robotic spy operated by an architect on Shin-Ra's payroll (thank you, thank you, Reeve took a bow); a petty thief of noble birth; a rogue Turk with a sense of humor hidden behind his collar—who'd've figured?—a foul-mouthed former coalminer with a gun where an open hand used to be; a once-grounded pilot who'd got lucky enough to realize his dream of spaceflight while the rest of them were reeling from their various disasters; and a talking dog that was smarter than Cid, which never ceased to rankle him.
And who could forget the walking science project who'd had that hot little materia in his hand that had made it all possible, the poor bastard?
They were terrorists, most of them, and somehow they had been enough to take down Sephiroth.
Reeve hoped they would be enough to save the world.
For his part, his suit was singed up the back and ripping at the seams, and he was lucky to be alive. The good thing about Meteor's menacing and hovering was that it had given him plenty of warning, and he had worked tirelessly over the last week to evacuate the slums. (He hated that they were called the slums, hadn't written slums on the blueprints, for crying out loud, but that was how it happened in a city, and low-income living areas was just corporate claptrap anyway.) Sephiroth had made a point of aiming Meteor down Shin-Ra's nose, which just went to show that no matter how deep into delusions of godhood the man had plunged, he'd still been the same petty sociopath after everything.
Reeve remembered passing him in the corridors on the top floors of the Shin-Ra Tower and feeling the chill that unfurled like a king's long cape in his wake. And he remembered Sephiroth on hand at the christening of the mako cannon in Junon, how he stood with all of Shin-Ra's bigwigs and yet apart from them, with a profound disinterest in everything. Sephiroth cut an impressive figure, and President Shin-Ra liked parading him through the streets and plastering his face everywhere because it menaced some and inspired loyalty in others.
This was back when every summer was getting hotter than the last and on every press release, Shin-Ra claimed it was lighting the way to the future, a slogan Reeve had come up with one day in the boardroom that evidently meant something different to him than it had to President Shin-Ra. Reeve had started having qualms around this time.
Lighting the way to the future meant crushing Wutai beneath Sephiroth's bootheel, as it turned out, and people were concluding—outside Sephiroth's earshot, of course; never to his face—that perhaps Sephiroth had done one too many tours of duty over there. Reeve remembered thinking, Here's a green initiative for you, President Shin-Ra. Let's pipe that bastard's blood through places like a regular coolant and cut down on costs and pollution at the same time.
Those who lived on the Plate were people of means and had long since vanished, which had made Reeve's job evacuating Midgar a little easier. Of course not everybody had got out; some folks were stubborn and had learned to be suspicious of suits and the blue uniform of Shin-Ra's grunts to the last. And who could blame them? Now Kalm was packed to bursting with bedraggled refugees, the sort of people all the well-to-do retirees who'd taken up residence there did not appreciate, and that was going to be a problem sooner or later, but Reeve couldn't think too much about that now.
But, god, he wished his head would slow down. He thought he could still hear the wail of sirens echoing in his mind, and the red lights flashed behind every blink, an afterimage burnt into the backs of his eyelids, maybe forever.
He liked to think he'd done it all for the little people, and in Tifa Lockhart he saw the same unflagging dedication. She was the type to splint the leg of a wounded wolf, regardless of its fangs. But, oh, she was no saint. Those who crossed her and her family would garner no mercy at her hands. Dozens of enemies had fallen dead at her feet, and she had merely stepped over them. In short: what a woman.
The truck idled, and after a while he took a call from Cid that they were delaying their approach because of poor visibility or, as Cid put it, "murky as toilet water, downright shitty." Reeve didn't quite catch their ETA on account of the bad connection, but he knew enough to cut the engine.
He considered turning back to the smoldering city after a while.
An architect, once starry-eyed, he had drawn up the plans for the city with great love and exactitude. You could build in anticipation of terrorism and natural disasters, reinforcing girders here and there, but what had happened in the skies over Midgar was nothing he nor even a scientist like Hojo, so versed in this mess that his latex gloves dripped blood, could have predicted, and Reeve was going to have to console himself with that.
The first punch landed when they met in person outside the ruins of Midgar, and Barret was full of rage and despair at what had become of the city he hated to call home but had defended with everything he had.
Tifa could sympathize. Reeve took that punch like he deserved it, nodded once, and pressed a kerchief to his broken nose to stanch the blood.
Marlene was a resilient kid. That was how Reeve tried letting Barret off the hook when Barret got it in him to offer his grudging thanks in Kalm. "And besides," Reeve said, a touch nasally on account of his broken nose, "Elmyra's the one who's been making her supper for the last two months." What he didn't say was that he'd done Barret a favor by kidnapping his stepdaughter and keeping her out of the Turks' hands, but he didn't have to.
Barret knew that well enough. "Apologies for your face, anyway."
Two months. It surprised Tifa to hear so little time had passed since that night at the Gold Saucer when the Keystone changed hands. As far as she was concerned, life needed to hurry up and slow down, because right now she was too exhausted to keep up with it if it didn't. She undressed in the bathroom and prodded bruises, feeling them before she saw them. She was covered, of course, in soot.
Sifting through the ashes of a city for survivors would do that to you. Her hair was dark with the stuff—who knew what was really in it—and had lost all its luster. Even in the bathroom, before she started running cold water for her shower, she could hear coughing in the den between the gruff but relieved peals of Barret's laughter.
When Marlene had made a dash for her daddy and got lifted up and twirled around laughing, it was the greatest thing Tifa had seen in days, maybe months. It made all the agony and uncertainty seem worth it. She was still nursing aches and pains from the fight against Sephiroth, and she wondered if when she lay down, silver would puncture the black of her sleep even then. She'd gotten used to the idea of Sephiroth's death once before and hoped this time putting him into the dirt would actually amount to something.
Of course nobody had seen a body. The situation had been too weird. They'd lost sight of Cloud for a while when the rocks beneath them broke up as if quake had been cast, and they held their breath and waited and waited for what felt like an eternity, for what started to feel like longer than they could afford. But the wait paid off. Cloud scrambled to meet them, saved Tifa from slipping, and joined the others on the airship, whereupon he said, "He's gone. He's dead. I can't feel him any more. We're done here."
And Cid had spun the wheel and said, "So let's get the hell out of here."
Tifa had asked Cloud about it later.
"I think he was trying to take me down with him, or maybe just take me over entirely. It could've ended pretty badly."
As to how it ended for everybody else, well, it depended on where you looked.
Midgar was a mess, and she wouldn't have minded that if not for the people who'd lived there. Now she was in Kalm with Barret, taking a break from the cleanup and rescue effort to fetch Marlene from the place Reeve had stowed the little girl for safekeeping, which turned out to be a two-storey apartment with sturdy furnishings, three bedrooms, and clean floors and countertops, the last of which had everything to do with Elmyra. And there was wisdom in that, Tifa thought. When the world was falling apart around you, dwelling was just a waste of time, and you did what you could to keep up your corner of it.
Tifa watched the soot sluice down her legs and circle around the drain, and she wondered how much of the stuff had been people.
Night fell, and Elmyra broke out the oil lamps. Power was down, unsurprisingly, and nobody was quite sure when they'd get it back or how. It wasn't long before the rest of them began trickling in, looking about as dog-tired as Tifa felt. She waited for Cloud until she couldn't any more, and then she slept.
She slept for days, the way she'd done after her mother died and when Cloud had seemed dead, too, and she woke up feeling guilty about it. But she was relieved to remember none of her dreams.
Cloud came back that day, dusted black as a chimneysweep and tight-eyed, tight-lipped to the point of implosion. Nobody was really talking about it, and Tifa was trying hard not to think about it. She hoped it would pass.
But he went running to her first thing, still filthy and his eyes full of apologies he left unspoken because neither of them wanted to be up all night. "Are you all right?"
"I should be asking you," she said. "You've been in Midgar the whole time?"
"Well, I just heard."
And so he'd dropped everything for her.
"My PHS is on the fritz and I suppose everybody else's," he said. "You must be hungry. So am I. Let's do something about it."
"You'd better hit the shower first. I'll see what I can rustle up," she said.
Marlene had colored a lot during her daddy's absence, and Elmyra hadn't been such a stickler for keeping an orderly house to refuse the girl space in which to display her work. In her bedroom it was everywhere, and of course it had taken over the refrigerator, where Tifa now sniffed jars of condiments and packets of lunchmeat in search of anything edible. There was a childish optimism in Marlene's crude drawings of little houses and green landscapes that made Tifa at once sad and hopeful. What was the world going to look like by the time Marlene was all grown up? Tifa's world had been cold and had its occasions of exceptional cruelty, but it had also been beautiful, too, with its snowcapped mountains and ancient forests, and she hated to think Marlene's world would have none of those things.
Now Tifa was slicing bread that was going to go bad in another day. Goods and foodstuff had flown off the shelves in Kalm well ahead of Meteor, and she could expect that it was the same elsewhere: the hoarding and the shouting in the streets and the talk of now, this new life without the old conveniences, which had become their crutches. It occurred to her she did not even know how to knead bread. No, she thought, going cool with resolve. We did the best we could by Marlene and everybody else, and there are other things, too. Here in the kitchen, for instance, she was surrounded by friends. She thought of quiet nights by the campfire, in the company of these people she'd come to think of as family. Now they were making jokes, albeit lame ones, rehashing the fight with Sephiroth and relishing in every blow or bullet landed, and soon talk drifted, as it always did, to what was next.
Friends. Life was not worth living without them, and Marlene would always have them.
Cloud came out after he'd cleaned up and leaned against the open doorway between the kitchen and the den. One day Marlene's going to fall in love. She's going to know this feeling like I do. Nothing matters more than that. Tifa had made Cloud a sandwich; she knew what to put on it and how to slice it, and knowing these things about him were reassuring for both of them. "How is everybody?" he wanted to know. One bite of the sandwich, and he was done with it.
She put her hands on her hips. "That's as good as it's going to get around here," she said.
"I'll tell you later," he said. "Well?"
"We're holding it down," Barret said.
"Where's Yuffie? Vincent? I haven't seen them."
Cid snorted. "I dragged her silly ass back here, and she bounced. I hope you weren't expecting more from Valentine, either. His ass has got some important moping to do somewhere or other."
"No," Cloud said, "I understand if not everybody's interested in cleaning up after me." Tifa tried to ignore what he'd said just then. He was looking down at his hand, flexing the fingers of his glove.
"What's the matter?" Cid asked. "Did there use to be some materia there? I don't have to tell you I put the Highwind on lockdown before that brat even so much as mentioned cutting out on us, 'cause I saw it in her eyes."
Cloud looked back up and shook his head. "I've got bad news."
Everybody stopped what they were doing and stared. Tifa was at the sink washing dishes, trying to keep house in the midst of all these slobs or else Elmyra was going to get bent out of shape, and now her hands clenched under the dishwater.
"Rufus is still kicking," Cloud told them.
"What? How the hell's that even possible?" Cid asked.
"I don't know, but he's lucky I pulled him out of there," Cloud said.
"Now for fuck's sake, Cloud, what did you go and do that for?" Cid had a gift for sounding like a disappointed father, albeit an ornery one.
"Oh? What was I supposed to do? What would you have done?" Cloud jerked forward, putting his fist down so hard on the table that Cid's plate jumped and his cutlery rattled. "Go on, I want to hear it."
Cid was unfazed. "Left him to rot without a second thought. What the hell do I care about Rufus Shin-Ra?"
Tifa shot Cid a look that could shrink a man. "Cut him some slack," she said.
Marlene came running and waving around a sheet of paper she'd colored on, Elmyra on her heels. "Look, Daddy, look!"
"We don't run in this house," Elmyra was saying. "How many times—"
Now Cloud was keyed up for a handful of reasons. He lowered his voice and said to Cid, "Look, it was stupid of me. You're probably right about that. But I can't live with any more blood on my hands after this."
"Yeah, well, when you put it that way, it ain't so hard to understand." Cid lit a cigarette and blew out smoke. "Still."
Cloud said, "Can I have one of those?" and Cid said, "Why not? What the hell," and then Tifa watched, sort of scandalized and also embarrassed for him, while Cloud took a drag—his hands were shaking—and then started coughing.
"Come on, now," Cid said. "You can carry it off better than that."
But Cloud didn't bother. He stubbed out the cigarette. "It worked," he said. "I had an awful taste in my mouth." He spat in the sink and wiped his mouth across the back of his glove. "Now it's different at least. You should've seen what came out earlier when I blew my nose."
"If I didn't come down with black lung before, I sure as hell got it now," Barret agreed, jogging Marlene on his knee. "Yeah, baby girl, that's something beautiful. You wanna tell me what it is?"
The paper had a lot of orange and a lot of red scratched across a backdrop of black, rather solidly colored in for a child working with crayons. "That's Midgar," she said.
Tifa's heart sank. She glanced left and caught the look on Cloud's face, like Nibelheim was burning down all over again.
"That mutt called," Cid said, and Tifa wanted to kiss him. Cid had never been one for uncomfortable silences.
Cloud looked back at him, properly distracted. "So?"
"He said woof. Now finish your damned sandwich. I can think of a few folks out there who'd be happy to take it off your hands."
Cloud sighed. "It's going to be like this forever, isn't it?" Tifa relaxed when he started to laugh a little. He took up his sandwich and then his PHS and started pacing, talking between mouthfuls. "Oh, yeah? That's something," he said to Nanaki. "I guess it could be worse."
"I've got an idea about where to put these people," Reeve said, "but it's going to be a lot of work."
"Better than wallowing," Tifa said.
They were all gathered in the den, save Yuffie and Vincent. And Aeris, Tifa thought. Her absence could be felt even now. But Aeris is everywhere now, isn't she? She'll always be with us.
"So let's hear it," Cloud said.
Reeve unrolled a scroll across the coffee table, and Cloud took it up and started pacing. "A blueprint," he said.
"Yeah?" Barret asked. "So why don't you lay it down on the table so the rest of us can see?"
Cloud ignored him.
"Out there." Reeve pointed through the wall. "Picture it: houses after houses. You're thinking, where are we going to get the manpower? I'm telling you, let's put these refugees to work and give them someplace to live."
"For how long?" Cloud shook his head and handed off the blueprint. Barret snatched it with a scowl. "According to Nanaki, we're looking at about a year before this dust blows over if we're lucky. Food's going to be an issue. Maybe a full-on famine. Everything going on now is going to have an effect down the line."
"But the sun's got to come out at some point," Tifa said.
"Yeah." Cloud was hedging for their sake. So long as he was the leader, he could concern himself with other people's morale and boost his own in the process, even if it was by putting on an act. "We'll have to see how the simulation shakes out to know for sure."
"I've done some surveying around here in the past," Reeve said. "I'm willing to bet the greater Kalm area has enough foodstuff to sustain these people for at least a little while."
"Sure," Cloud said, "there's plenty of tracts of farmland near the chocobo ranch and farther north, if you can make it past the marshland. But what if the supply line breaks down? Kalm's going to tap out soon, and Fort Condor's looking out for itself." Cloud caught Cid's eye. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm guessing air freight's pretty much out of the question anywhere mountainous so long as the smog's still an issue. So we're going to be weighing down a whole lot chocobos we don't have, and the Zolom out there isn't the best at staying dead."
Trouble, trouble, and more trouble, it sounded like. Tifa's eyelids were growing heavy just listening to them hash out the logistics.
"Hell with that," Cid said. "I'll make the runs. I can handle the conditions. There's too many people out there depending on us. The only trouble is, I'm low on fuel."
"You can retrofit the Highwind to run on gas later, can't you?"
"Sure," Cid said, flicking his cigarette and looking annoyed, like he knew where this conversation was going. "That damned Shera's got to be good for something, at least."
"In the meantime?" Cloud smiled. "Good thing Rufus Shin-Ra's still around."
Barret snorted. "All good and well, 'cept last I checked, Rufus Shin-Ra don't give a flying fuck about anybody."
Cloud turned to Reeve. "Well? We'll do what we can out there. Do you think you can hang it for us?"
Reeve took out his phone. "I wager he's going to be a little sore at me for taking the helm so quickly. But that was a good turn you did him back there, Cloud. A real good turn. A little gratitude might go a long way."
Tifa got a pleasant surprise an hour later when she opened the door, expecting Reeve, and found Vincent instead. "He's gone," Vincent told them. Of course he meant Sephiroth.
Cloud didn't seem too upset that Vincent was having to vouch for him, though the implication was clear. In fact he seemed relieved and just plain happy to see a friend. "Thanks," he said. "I'm glad it's not just me. Everything feels different now."
"But where did you go?" Tifa asked.
"And more importantly, how in the hell did you get there?" Cid said.
"Chaos," Vincent said coolly. "The Northern Crater is empty."
Cid threw up his hands. "Next thing you know, that damned brat's going to show up and fork over the Black Materia for safekeeping. You assholes gotta quit with this. In case you haven't noticed, I got a thing for looking down my nose at people."
Barret came lumbering downstairs, walking backward and hauling a roped-up stack of crates behind him. He was about as strong as a man could get without a drop of mako in him, which for Barret was a point of pride. He refused Cloud's help and caught sight of Vincent, his eyes narrowing. "Well, well, look who it is. I got just the job for you; I heard you bragging up there. Now why don't you change your weird ass up and fly this to Corel for me?"
Vincent huffed. "Chaos has no interest in hauling boxes." Tifa had got the impression that Chaos did what it wanted when it wanted, and poor Vincent was just along for the ride.
"Goddamn it," Barret said, looking between Vincent and Cloud.
"Just load it on the Highwind, for crying out loud," Cid said.
Cloud took up one side of the burden while Barret grunted, the both of them sidling through the front door. It was clattering like pots and pans. "What is this stuff, anyway?" Cloud asked.
"I don't know why that bastard Reeve had to go and take all my stuff outta house, but I got no room to complain, I guess."
"Huh. Sounds suspiciously like a favor to me," Cloud said.
"I'm going back home to Corel when this is all over, starting me up a business. Not that it's any of your business. In fact, I'm gonna thank you to stay the hell out of my business after what you gone and put me through. Yeah, I been meaning to get that off my chest for a while. Not a damned bit of good's ever come of your white ass."
"I've seen what comes out of it. You don't have to tell me."
"It's like nothing changes," Tifa said.
"Those two got a special somethin'. You just settle in and enjoy the entertainment," Cid told her.
Cloud sat with Tifa on the stoop of the apartment. Kalm's townsquare was packed full of people, some of them washing themselves in the fountain water much to the locals' disgust. You could see them in the upstairs windows yanking back curtains and making faces.
"I'm worried about this," Tifa admitted. It had been a while since Reeve left to meet with Kalm's mayor in that nice tall building with the windows like mirrors, posing the solution to the refugee problem and hoping to make some headway before the unrest on the streets got even worse.
"It's a mess," Cloud said. "I'm having a hard time thinking my way around it. What gets me about it is that we can't do it all, and I guess I just wish we could."
"Do you think Reeve's plan is going to work?"
"It's better than nothing, isn't it?" Cloud nodded toward the sky. "You said it yourself, Tifa. The sun's got to come up sometime."
The meeting adjourned. Reeve found Tifa sitting outside with Cloud, scooted as close to him as she could get away with. "How'd it go?" she asked, and Reeve wanted to ask her the same thing. She and Cloud were a regular couple—right up until lights out, at least, when Tifa sighed and Cloud slinked off to a separate bedroom—and Reeve had to wonder why.
It was obvious Cloud cared for Tifa, but Reeve had been watching long enough from the sidelines to know Cloud's life wasn't so simple. He was just coming out of a tailspin that had started at the Temple of the Ancients, and nobody was going to forget the things he'd done and been made to do any time soon. For Tifa's part, it was easier to understand; she was a friend to Cloud, first and foremost, and was perhaps mindful of pushing too hard, too fast. If they could find happiness together, Reeve could hardly begrudge them.
But if Cloud thought his happiness came second in a broken world, he might drag her down into darkness with him.
Surely Tifa deserved better than that.
"Well," Reeve said, putting himself back on track, "we've got a week to hit the ground running before Kalm starts giving these folks the heave-ho."
Reeve was a gentleman after everything, moving in circles where poverty was an abstract, if ever a topic of conversation. Dinner parties, ballroom dances, working lunches—he had hobnobbed alongside the people countryboys like Cloud Strife saw on the news and conjured up when they looked in the mirror, saying, "That's who I'm going to grow up to be. That guy." Reeve was a gentleman, all right, with handkerchiefs he'd given to ladies who would turn their shapely noses up at men wearing anything less than a tailored suit, but he was a gentleman for none of these reasons.
Gentlemen observed certain rules.
It's your move, Cloud. Your move.
Cloud rose, his eyes taking in the crush of people and tightening. "Just a week? That's a pretty tall order."
"Relax," Reeve said. "I'm good at this stuff. You any good with a hammer?"
"I have no idea," Cloud said. "For all I know, I was building bridges in Wutai five years ago instead of blowing them up in SOLDIER. I guess we'll see."
The reconstruction of Wutai had fallen to Reeve, a grueling process that had spanned a decade and amounted to very little on account of intransigent natives. Not that Reeve could blame them. As he glanced around Kalm, hands stuffed in his pockets and turning over tidbits at the bottom of them, he knew the task that had fallen to him today was going to take a hell of a lot longer, maybe the rest of his life.
He felt okay about that. Good, even.
He could hear Marlene laughing inside.
Tifa stood up and straightened her skirt. "You know I'm game," she said, cracking her knuckles. "So where do we start?"
"Right now," Reeve said. Or whenever you'll have me. I hope you know you've got options, he thought.