Prologue: A Summit in Kalm
"He's a lot smaller than I thought he would be."
The thought laid heavily on his mind, as did everything that concerned the Cloud Strife. He sipped steadily from a glass of good wine, hooded eyes honed in on the wiry, slouched figure of the man who faced the impossible and won. He imagined over and over what it was going to be like to finally see the guy in the flesh. He expected something big; something spectacular. That Cloud Strife—the Cloud Strife—would swoop right in and knock everyone clean off their feet with a charisma that killed and a power that inspired. Instead, the Cloud Strife, Saviour of the Planet, Leader of Heroes, Catalyst to ShinRa's Downfall, slunk in, all quiet and slow, like a kid who was caught doing some unspeakable and was bracing himself for the scolding. And like a kid finally being released to the outdoors, he immediately sought out his friends and stuck by them the whole evening. World leaders and representatives from every nation across the whole of Gaia were summoned there in Kalm in light of the Planet's success in surviving Meteor. They were looking forward to good food, great drinks, and to personally congratulating the man who lead the fight against total destruction followed, naturally, by a photo-op. This would never happen, however, for everyone who was outside of the hero's immediate circle of friends hardly got anything more than a cursory, 'Hello.'
It was a terrible disappointment.
The whole of Gaia had been watching with bated breath as the biggest and meanest corporation ever to exist got torn down and made a fool out of by a bunch of ragtag terrorists with chips on their shoulders. They twiddled their thumbs and bit at their nails through all the drama, all the speculation, and all the PR stunts that ShinRa had to spew out every now and then to assure their investors that the only reason why the Cloud Strife was still alive was because ShinRa was allowing him to live. It made no sense but they ate it up like candy.
Ah, and then the big showstopper came! President ShinRa was blown to all hell in what many would come to call an act of poetic justice and divine intervention and the Planet looked like it was going straight to shit. Leaders from across the nations had all trembled with self-righteous fury, cursing the recent memory of ShinRa, for although they themselves might have been caught up in some sketchy, often questionable dealings, clearly none of them were ever so bad or careless as to get a murderous rock hurtling at them all at a thousand miles a minute. And to think! The bastard wasn't even alive to face the impact with the rest of them.
Those last few hours before Meteor was projected to hit were some of the darkest in these people's lives. There was a lot of sobbing, a lot of soiling, and a lot of shoving. They were faced with mortality years before they were ready to do so. And it was a total mortality; there would be no legacy to leave behind or any proof that they once lived—and successfully, too. It was madness! It was horror! But then the dust settled and they were suddenly thrust into a continued existence.
They would not die after all! They would live! Live! The desperate moments from hours before were quickly swept from memory with glee, and they all congratulated themselves on not being the Bad Guy. None of them would ever be able to recall the bitterness they'd once felt in having no part of the mako energy monopoly. All would insist that they turned up their nose at the rumours of Jenova and her powers. All would assure that they knew ShinRa was bad business from the start. Secretly, they'd swear, they were waiting for someone like the Cloud Strife to come along and grant them all salvation from parasites like ShinRa. Honest. That was until it became apparent that the prick was too good to take a gaia damned photo with anyone.
"It would not matter. No, it would not matter at all." thought he as he observed the Cloud Strife take a drink from an offered glass of water, his own wine burning pleasantly in the pit of his stomach.
He already got exactly what he wanted from the man after all.
Chapter One: The Largest Grave
He did not think that he would ever come back here. Even in the half daze of his mind, all jumbled up with the quirks and the memories of another, Cloud knew that in the very core of him, he had no desire to return to Midgar once he left it. So what was he doing? Why had he agreed to this? For reasons that he struggled to name, coming here felt a lot like going backwards. He was given some choices in the weeks following Meteorfall: stay in Kalm and start life anew as himself; take up Barret's offer to travel with him to Corel in order to find himself in a place that felt a little closer the home he knew as a child; or help clean up the mess that Meteor left behind by rummaging the Midgar ruins for survivors, risking everything from infection to monster attacks. Foolishly, he opted for option three.
It wasn't for the glory or the heroics as many assumed. Although Cloud did honestly want to help the survivors that were left behind—that was always the reason he always gave when people asked—if he could be honest with himself and really dig into his psyche, he would find that the real reason why he opted for Midgar was because he was scared. He tried to imagine a life where the sword was put away and the pace was slowed down, but it all seemed so far away, even with all the quiet and mediocrity that surrounded him in Kalm. He had an itching for something. Some action. He didn't know. He didn't want to call it bloodlust, yet he really, really had this urge to just cut into something and watch the lights go out.
His fingers twitched on the grip of Zack's blade held close to his chest. He wasn't ready to think of the Buster Sword as his own quite yet. He did not feel as though he had earned the right to. In many ways, the blade felt like something being borrowed. Stolen, even. But he clutched onto it still, selfishly, because it was the only tangible thing he had left of Zack. He had enough trouble with his memories of him as it was; he couldn't let go of his sword, too. What more, whenever that blade was in his hands and in motion, that was when he felt closest to Zack. As though the man were right there urging him on as he followed through blow after blow after blow. Maybe that's what that itching was all about after all...
He was jolted from a sharp bump on the road.
"Sorry!" He heard the chauffeur—he already forgot his name—call out.
"That sword didn't nick ya, did it?"
Cloud glanced up at Barret, who was sitting across from him on the back of a big, old pickup truck that they were renting and that had been paid for by Reeve. It would have been a hell of a lot more convenient to have flown in by chopper, but that would've sent the wrong message to the survivors. A great, black chopper hovering over the ruined city like some predatory bird? It was too much like something ShinRa would have done.
"Nah," Cloud assured him, "I'm fine."
Barret gave him a look like he did not quite believe him. Maybe the question had nothing to do with actually being nicked by swords.
They were just cresting over a hill and starting the descent when Midgar finally came into view. From a distance, it looked like a black and grey sand castle that had been totally wrecked by too many feet and too many volley balls. It was only the mid-afternoon, but the sky was dark with rain clouds that loomed over the city but would not pour. The minutes were passing by as they sped away from the hill and through the dead earth that surrounded the dead city when Cloud was suddenly hit with a stench that left him choking. His eyebrows pinched together as he coughed once before pulling up the collar of his vest and snuggling his nose into it.
Barret could not smell a thing, but he has been with Cloud long enough to know all about his heightened sense of smell. One of the many "perks" of mako poisoning. He grimaced.
"That bad, huh?" Cloud only nodded and Barret swore loudly, anticipating a full assault on his nostrils any minute now, "Slums always did smell like dead animal soaked in piss and booze." he laughed once, cynical, "You'd think the whole pizza collapsin’ and all woulda aired that all out..."
Cloud shook his head. It was worse than piss and booze; it was the funk of rot and death. He pictured bodies being pinned under rubble too big to move, or the very hungry laying out to die. There were probably fights and murders that no one bothered cleaning up after. Maybe folks who chose to end their lives then rather than starve later. Up to this point, he had been spoiled by the open country and the warmed scents of oak and grass. Midgar was a giant grave surrounded by barren land with nothing to break up the dread save, perhaps, the solitary church that he hoped was still standing miraculously in Sector Five.
Cloud lifted his nose from his collar, breathing in slowly, fighting the reflex to gag. He'd have to get used to this; he was staying there for at least two weeks after all. Barret moved towards the cabin where Marlene and Tifa were riding front seat with whatshisface and banged twice on the glass that separated them. Tifa whipped her head around, eyes wide with mild surprise. Marlene strained against the seat to turn as well, but the seat belt was too tight, like a rubber band bound around a tennis ball.
"Roll ya windows!" he shouted, bringing his thumb and index finger on his left hand together and moving them in a tight circle, "Cloud says it stinks...bad!" Suddenly, Barret gave out a strained gurgle and gagged, "You weren't joking, Spikey! Ack! It's in my mouth!" He spat and hacked out another cough, swinging his head to and fro as though he were fighting off a nightmare, "Gai'damn!"
Despite himself, Cloud felt his lips pulling at the sides of his mouth and so he pursed them to keep from chuckling. Trust Barret to overreact. Cloud was thankful for the distraction.
"Don't envy you at all! Gai'damn!" Barret exclaimed with tears in his eyes.
"Stop talking." Cloud berated lightly as he plugged his nose, "You're just breathing it in."
"Not too late to change y'alls minds, ya know." Barret went on, plugging his nose as well, "Plenty of housing in Corel."
Cloud smiled at him, "Maybe one of these days. After we take care of this."
Barret shrugged and shook his head, then cackled loudly upon seeing Marlene and Tifa reacting to the smell despite their best efforts to buffer it. Tifa turned to glare at Barret, looking much like a kicked puppy.
The truck came to a stop about a half mile out from the city ruins and the weight of the task hit Cloud with finality. He grabbed the bags that were on either side of him and hopped over the bed railing onto the parched earth. He heard the front door pop open and trickling out of it was Marlene's small voice as she babbled on tearfully about how much she was going to miss everyone. Tifa's voice was as soft as faerie dust as she consoled her.
Barret leapt onto the ground next to Cloud as the door was closed shut. They approached Tifa as she was heaving a large backpack onto her back and lifting two small bags.
"Those ain't too heavy?" Barret teased her.
She narrowed her eyes, "What do I look like, Barret?"
"Okay, miss lady! I hear ya!" He leaned back with his hands up high, "I was just tellin' Spikes that there's always room in Corel when ya done with this."
"We're gonna set up a bar there, too? Like old times?" she smiled,
"Ha! Might be able to pull some strings, ya know. Getcha a lil' place of ya own. Y'all know how much people like me."
"Hopefully we can do it without the whole 'domestic terrorist thing.'"
He gave a hearty laugh, "Who knows! Might havta kick someone's ass in Corel, too!"
The mood shifted into something bittersweet as Barret spread his enormous arms out wide and told Tifa, "Well. I guess this is goodbye."
"For now." she assured, dropping her bags and wrapping her arms around as much of him as she could manage. He swooped her up like a rag doll and spun her twice, holding on tightly. She gave a great, "Oof!" and gripped tighter, giggling breathlessly.
"Ya stay safe, girl." he said into her hair when he set her back down, "You let me know the moment ya need me, alright? Alright?"
Tifa nodded against his chest, mumbling something about missing him and appreciating him as she gave his sides a squeeze.
"Alright, alright! Gonna get me all choked up now and Barret don't lose his cool like that!"
Cloud felt as though he were intruding on something and so turned away to give them their moment, looking out into the stretch of desert before him. He heard a shift of clothes, a step behind him, then felt Barret's large hand clamp down on his shoulder which pulled, spinning him around to face the man.
"Don't think you ain't gettin' a hug, too, Spikes!"
Before he could protest, Cloud was suddenly caught up in a squeeze that cut off all his circulation as well as his grip on Zack's sword.
"Okay, Barret! Alright!"
Barret released him and smacked his shoulder, hard, as he barked out a laugh. Cloud scowled; that had to have all been done out of spite. Barret smiled wide at Cloud before sobering quickly, telling them in all sincerity, "Remember… if y'all ever need me."
Cloud began to massage his shoulder, "We know." He promised him. And they did.
Barret took one last fond look at the both of them before sighing and turning back towards the truck where he climbed into the front seat. Cloud picked up the Buster Sword and murmured an apology to it before clasping it onto his back. He moved to stand next to Tifa, who was staring at the truck with her head tucked slightly to the side, as was her habit, he's observed in the past, when thoughts were running through her head.
He opened up his mouth to speak but was not sure what he wanted to say. Something told him that Tifa did not think that she was coming back to Midgar either, and as silly as he might have felt for feeling so, there was this guilt that ate at him for asking her if she would tag along with him in the first place. There had been a moment's hesitation before she agreed to follow him to Midgar, but that made all the difference to him. She went about preparing for this trip with the same quiet air that she did everything else, but where her silence had once seemed calm and unassuming, it now read as irritated and suspicious. As though she were hiding something from him. Cloud couldn't begin to think where he could start to crack the code, but he thought he wanted to try anyway.
"You alright?" he inquired softly.
Like a switch she was alert once more, turning towards him and plastering on her familiar, guarded smile. Has she always looked this strained?
"Gonna have to get used to the smell, but I'll live." she lifted her two bags back onto her shoulders before asking him gently, "You alright?"
He nodded once, "I'm alright."
"As I'll ever be."
With that, they started towards their destination. From this close, the fallen buildings looked like toy blocks, tossed about, forgotten and abused, laying haphazard at odd angles. There were still pillars that stood, keeping segments of the streets and buildings of the Upper Plate high in the sky and mostly intact, but pointless with no means of reaching them. The network of trains that used to run in loops along the city looked like a twisted bed spring, collapsed in here and there, a mockery of its former form. Then there, at the centre of it all, gleaming white and defiant amongst all the wreckage, was what remained of the ShinRa Corporation headquarters. Cloud wondered briefly what Zack would have made of the whole sight. Would he have been intimidated? Overwhelmed with the task before him? Afraid of the ghosts that lurked in the ruined city?
"No.," thought Cloud, "Not likely. Not Zack."
He began to picture Zack in his place, standing tall and proud, gauging the ruins as just another challenge to conquer. He shook his head. Those were dangerous thoughts. He was not Zack. He was not Zack.
They were just outside the gate that lead into Sector One; one step away from returning to the place where his life changed forever. He took a deep breath to steady his pounding heart and marched forward,