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They Seek Deliverance

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.o.

.~o.O.o~.

Prologue: A Summit in Kalm

.~o.O.o~.

.o.


 

         "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.

 


.o.

.~o.O.o~.

Chapter One: The Largest Grave

.~o.O.o~.

.o.


 

         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."

         "You ready?"

         "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,

         "Let's mosey."

Chapter Text


.o.

.~o.O.o~.

Chapter Two: Sweat City

.~o.O.o~.

.o.


 

         A popular name that a lot of Midgarians called Junon was, "Sweat City." The heat was so thick, you could feel it slow-roasting your lungs when you breathed it in and picking the wrong week to go to the beaches could seriously wreck your entire vacation. Junonians, on the other hand, would affectionately refer to their home as the "Land of Endless Summer," which was pretty close to the truth, actually. Even in the midst of October, it was a fan-blasting, ice-rubbing, lemonade-in-the-shade kind of day and the weatherman on channel seven said to expect another week of it. It made no difference to one man in particular who stayed cooped up in his office totally preoccupied with the files laid out before him.

         President Fito Silva was the most powerful man in all of Junon, but you wouldn't have guessed that by the looks of him then. He was hunched over the portfolios of the Turks or, as they used to call them at the state dinners, ShinRa's Hounds—what was left of them anyway. His face was pinched and pink while he read through them again and again with the all the intensity of a grad student studying for an exam that they know will make or break them. He just cracked open the case on 'Reno' when the memories of the summit came back to him; back to the memories of the Cloud Strife. He thinks it's the eyes on this Reno character that were taking him back, the colour of them resembling that of mako, just like the eyes of the Cloud Strife. The Cloud Strife. The Cloud Strife!

         A loud knock on his office door spooked him out of his thoughts and he was present once more. He could hear the melody of wind instruments that wafted out of his radio and the hum of the air conditioning. He heard the muted buzz of people traffic below his window and his own heavy breathing.

         "Mister President, sir?" It was the deep brass of Barros, his personal guard.

         He swallowed once, "What is it?"

         "Turks are here to see you."

         He packed all the papers away as quickly and neatly as he could, "Ah, ah, good! Send them in, please."

         There was a click and Barros, with his towering, broad frame, came into view. Trailing behind him were the dogs themselves: there was the decidedly shorter and lankier redhead who's face had all the curves and points of those elves from the Iciclean fantasy books that Silva used to love losing himself in in his youth. He could even pretend that the duel tattoos running like single claw marks down his cheeks was war paint. His sharp beauty contrasted with his attire, which looked as though he has just finished fighting through a hoard of overgrown kids hurting for popsicle money. Then there was the bald one with the sunglasses whose appearance was almost comically neat, like a polished gun. The guy belonged on a cover of a spy film. And… that was it. Silva frowned.

         "It's just the two of you?" He asked, cutting off his guard before he got a chance to speak.

         "Uh. I asked, sir, but Mr. Reno here insists that they're the only Turks left."

         "Laney and Tseng are retired, yo." Reno said casually from behind Barros, "And don't call me mister, mister. That shit makes me feel old. Just Reno, yo."

         Silva pressed his lips tightly together as a wave of acute ire weaved through him. His temper has always been a weakness of his, but he hadn't accomplished all that he has by giving in to it. He focused and gave his guests a stiff smile,

         "Very well. You may go, Barros."

         Barros bowed lowly before letting himself out. Reno snorted once before turning his bright, turquoise eyes on Silva.

         "Eyes so bright," thought Silva, "they look alive with mako." He swallowed once more as his mouth began to salivate with excitement...

         "We supposed to bow, too, yo?"

         Silva faked a laugh before clasping his hands together under his salt and pepper beard, "Oh, no. Barros is a little over-formal. In any case, what's the story with the other two? The ones you just mentioned? Elena and...Sting?"

         Reno let out a big whoop as he bent over and slapped his knees, "Sting!? You mean Tseng?"

         "Ah, yes. Pardo-"

         "Sting!" He smacked his partner's shoulder playfully, "That's his name for now on, yo! We gotta call him up just to say that." He brought his pinky and thumb to his mouth and ear, "'Hey, Sting!' Ah man. Ah man, I gotta edit his contact info now." He laughed and hit his partner again then wheezed out as an afterthought, "Holy shit, Rude! I'm gonna change his contact pic to a 'Killer Bee.'"

         Silva felt a slight hope as Reno fished out his phone, "You mean you can get in contact with him?"

         Reno didn't look up, "He's retired, yo."

         "Yes, but can he maybe be persuaded out of retirement?"

         At that moment, both Reno and Rude looked at each other before crossing their arms,

         "He's retired, yo. Take it or leave it."

         Silva swallowed, "And the woman?"

         "Fuck this. You're wasting our time."

         Silva put his hands up placidly, "Beg your pardon. Don't take it personally; I just need as many Turks on board as possible."

         Reno rolled his eyes as he put away his phone and pulled out a cigarette. Silva's left eye twitched. "How about you just tell us what you need and I'll let you know if Rude and I can handle it. Probability of that being very high, yo."

         "Don't smoke in here, please."

         "Shiva's tits, man! I don't even know how long I'm gonna be here if you keep fucking around. I was on fucking vacation before you called for our asses. Out here to the fucking hottest gai'damned place on the whole gai'damned continent. Might as well light up, yo. Something tells me that we won't be here for much longer."

         "Do you talk this way to all of your potential employers?"

         Reno smirked dangerously. He, in fact, has always spoken this way to potential employers. So was the ways of the Slums; you didn't get anywhere important by being a brownnosin' shiteatin' ass kisser. Besides, he always did have a weakness for provoking hardasses; hell, it was probably the one thing that he missed most about working with Tseng. And Rufus, Gaia preserve him. He shrugged, "It's worked so far, yo. You're the one who called me in here, aren't you?"

         Silva took a deep breath and opened a drawer, "Alright." he pulled out stapled sheets of paper with a mission statement on the front and a list of goals written under it, "Well, I need two things from you. Firstly, I need the exact location of all the old mako plants that ShinRa was tapping out of. Then, I need every single journal ShinRa kept on the JENOVA Project."

         That took the smirk clean off Reno's face, "Jenova? As in 'bitch-who-almost-got-us-blasted-us-off-the-face-of-the-planet' Jenova? That Jenova?"

         "I know, but it's not what you're thinking. I'm only interested in the SOLDIER program, which, to my understanding, is a sub project under JENOVA?"

         "So why get the papers on the whole thing?" Rude surprised Silva by speaking up for the first time. He was starting to think he was mute, "Why not just get the journals pertaining specifically to SOLDIER? Jenova's cells don't even exist anymore."

         "I like to be thorough."

         "How do you even know that SOLDIER is linked to JENOVA, yo?"

         Silva let out a long exhale. These beasts were exhausting, "The late president's father and I were close business partners prior to his passing. He would let out the occasional company secret."

         Reno didn't believe him, "Pretty sure they outlawed mining mako, yo. You know, after all that bullshit with Meteor and the WEAPONs..."

         "I'm not offering you a job to counsel me on law." He said, eyes hardening, "I need your cooperation, but this is bigger than you are. Being former employees of the ShinRa Administration, I assume you'd know the whereabouts to former laboratories and mines as well as inventory."

         "Why don't you dig in your memory for another one of those 'company secrets' Old Man ShinRa apparently liked to slip out?"

         "Because!" Silva raised his voice, "I'm going to pay you lots and lots of gil to tell me instead!"

         Reno took a long drag of his smoke and peered at Silva, "Is that right?"

         "Yes." Silva flipped through the contract on his desk before waving one in the air like a bone for Reno to fetch. Reno begrudgingly stepped forward and grabbed it. One look at the figures and the cigarette nearly fell out of his mouth.

         "You'll see the sum total near the bottom."

         Rude glanced over Reno's shoulder. His eyebrows shot to the roof.

         "Two point five million gil… each." Reno looked up at him, "You were ready to throw away ten million gil for a couple of useless journals and plants that you can't use?"

         "Are you going to take the money or no?"

         Reno and Rude looked at each other significantly and Silva was genuinely intrigued. There was this thing about those two; an almost tangible closeness that has you wondering if they were brothers with two vastly different looking dads or maybe the recipients of two parts of one guy's brain. He doesn't think he's felt that with anyone.

         Finally, Reno addressed him again with that stupid smirk back on his face, "I'm assuming payment is after?"

         Silva swallowed thickly, "Five hundred thousand each now, the rest after the job is done...if I'm satisfied with the results you produce. You have my word."

         Reno rubbed a hand over his chin as he kept Silva in suspense. The two point five million was a tiny bit less than what he and Rude would make in a year, average, under ShinRa. He was almost certain that Rude had some secret stash of gil of his own hidden somewhere; that was just in his character. Himself? Well, he swore that he was gonna start a savings fund eventually. ShinRa was supposed to have stuck around long enough for that to happen. Damn. Silva had him caught in his web. His pride made him want to turn it down...but that would be too stupid. The gil was just too damn good. He looked to Rude once more for counsel who gave him a little twitch of his lips. He made his decision then and there,

         "Fine. Fine, you've got yourself a deal. Rude and I will be back in, what, a week or so?"

         Rude adjusted his glasses, "No more than two."

         Silva breathed a small sigh of relief, "Good. Excellent. Good!" Silva pressed a button under his desk and the hulking frame of Barros appeared through the door once more.

         "Mister President, sir?"

         "Barros, be so good as to retrieve a million gil in cash for these gentlemen here."

         "With pleasure, sir."

         As Barros disappeared, Silva produced two pens as well as a second contract for Rude.

         "And if you gentlemen would sign your contracts."

         The two Turks hesitated before stepping forward and flipping through the pages. While Reno attacked every black line with vigour, Rude was a bit more meticulous in skimming the contract.

         "Surprised you're even bothering with a contract, yo, considering how sketchy the shit you're paying us to do is."

         Silva smiled, "I like having these things on file."

         "Makes the blackmailing easier?"

         Silva spoke softly, "Just sign, Hound."

         Reno's bright eyes flicked up to peer into Silva's and Silva was struck silent by the realisation that in spite of his sloppy appearance, in spite of his pretty boy looks, and in spite of his infuriatingly blasé attitude, this man standing before him was a trained assassin. A fucking killer. Even if Barros were still there, he was certain that the giant would be helpless to stop Reno from plunging that pen into the side of his neck before either of them realised it happened. Reno must have been able to read the sudden fear in his eyes, for a smile began to stretch slowly across his face without a trace of warmth or good humour. It was in that moment that the door to his office opened again and the heavy sounds of Barros's footsteps filled the air.

         "The million, sir."

         Reno held Silva's gaze for a second longer before he whipped towards Barros, took the suitcase, and slammed it on Silva's desk before unlatching it. He took a moment to count and check the notes, muttering to himself as Rude finished signing his papers. The case was closed shut with a sharp click.

         "Looks good, yo." Reno cocked his head, "See you in a week then."

         "Good. Good, excellent." Silva stood up and reached over to shake each man's hand. Reno looked like he was ready to laugh again but he took it anyway, squeezing the palm just hard enough to officially earn him a pretty sweet spot on Silva's personal shitlist.

         "See you soon, yo." Reno waved a hand, made a show of bowing mockingly low to Barros, then followed Rude out the door. Silva shook out his bruised hand and twiddled his fingers. Despite the meeting being considerably less pleasant than he anticipated, a whisper of a smile played on his lips as the pale complexion of the Cloud Strife came forth in his mind once more. He was feeling giddy all over again.

         "Yes." thought he, "The sooner the better and the closer I am to completion."

 


.o.

.~o.O.o~.

.o.


 

           About a week later, give or take a day or two, on the other side of Gaia, the Nibelheim village was being enveloped in the encroaching twilight. Many of the townsfolk sat out on their porches, huddled in their blankets and their scarves, drinking hot tea or cocoa, and waiting for the stars. In the little house built closest to the gate, a wizened old man sat by his lonesome as he carved grooves into a soft piece of wood. Suddenly, there was a muted sort of pat coming from the shadows left of him and he glanced up. The sound was short and barely there and he started to think that maybe he imagined the whole thing but then there was a shimmer of light—a dull reflection of the retiring sun—and, squinting, he could make out the figure of something red...and big. He sat up a little straighter,

         "Who's there?" his voice whistled through his gapped teeth. He got no answer, "Who's there I said! No point hiding. Come out!"

         But the thing wasn't hiding at all. Just creeping ever closer. Slowly, slowly, till he saw a glimpse of a ghostly white face atop of all that red. Call it intuition, maybe a blessing from the Planet, but something told the old man to get the hell out of the open. Gently, he laid his carving knife and wood down beside him, got up from his chair, and backed gradually to the entrance, like he knew he might startle the creature. Man? Thing? The door knob was finally pressing against his lower back and he fumbled his way back inside.

         Vincent took a deep breath and fingered the handle of his small saddle bag as he felt the great beast Chaos stirring deep within him. It was a constant pressure on Vincent's mind like a headache he'd never be relieved of. In moments like this, when there were so many of the living around him and he had not given into the bloodlust in so long, Chaos got especially aggressive. His head was pounding as Chaos fed off the uncertainty and the fears of the townsfolk, who were all beginning to sense its sinister presence and thus were all carefully making their way back to the sanctuary of their houses. The curious peeked through the curtains as the cloaked stranger hovered through the town like a phantom. The jumpy went to grab for their guns. Vincent could only hope that no one would make an attempt on his life tonight. He counted on things being calm—quiet—for Chaos did not thrive in tranquillity.

         The moon was just beginning to rise when Vincent reached the gate of the ShinRa Manor a little distance away from the main village and, thankfully, without event. The pressure in his head let off ever so slightly. He felt as though he were crossing into another world as he walked through the entrance: the yard was thick and overgrown; weeds were sprouting through the cobblestone pathway; there was a stone fountain out front fashioned in the style of an angel that had lost all its beauty. The base was being overrun with yellow moss and the old water created stains that ran every which way, and when he got closer, Vincent could see two streaks in particular that ran from the angel's eyes, giving it the permanent appearance of weeping. It was strangely rather fitting.

         He does not remember a time when walking towards the manor has ever felt this empty. He could recall the days when the property was so meticulously managed that it looked like something out of a dream. And the villagers were not allowed to be anywhere near it.

         "ShinRa probably drew genuine pleasure of having something so lavish situated near a village so destitute." Vincent mused, "...Insufferable prick."

         Hellmasker grew excited by this nasty thought and Vincent had to take a steady breath. He directed his thoughts to one person in particular in the hopes of calming himself, to the very woman who inspired this journey in the first place: his dearest, his sweetest, his loveliest Lucrecia.

         Lucrecia! Has time made the memory sweeter than it really was? Oh, no. Surely not. Surely he was not imagining what he knew to be the richness of her velvet voice, nor the depth of her clever eyes, nor the taste of her witty tongue. Those memories came to him like wisps of smoke, barely there but pervading all the same. He breathed it all in as his heart slowed down.

         Ah, he was almost certain that he was mistaken!

         It was a question that was weighing on his mind for a while now; a traitorous secret with the potential to undo him entirely. Lucrecia had sensed his dread when he last paid a visit to her in the caves and, in turn, he had felt her panic. It only served to make him all the more anxious and all the more determined to know what happened; he had never been a fan of half-hearted theories that excuses one from making an honest attempt to seek the whole truth. Her violent response to his plans—a sort of energy that knocked him off his balance—further solidified his resolve for some closure. He has to know the extent Lucrecia played in the crimes Hojo committed against him. He has to see for himself whether he was right to have worshipped her all these years.

         "Perhaps," he thought, "Perhaps Lucrecia does not want me to come here because she was afraid that it would hurt me to remember those...those inhumane things Hojo did to me. She does not want me to be hurt. She cares for me…"

         He opened the door and a loud creeeaaak resonated through the vast, dark foyer. It was pitch black save the silver blue moonlight that was bleeding through the high windows before him, revealing layers of dust on hardwood floors and long strands of cobwebs connected across the railing. Vincent shut the door behind him and allowed his eyes to adapt quickly to the dark. Memory carried him up the two flights of stairs, down the hallway to the right, and through the first room—her room. Despite himself, recollections of his nights spent here came surging to the forefront of his mind when he glanced towards the bed. How many times did they go behind Hojo's back? How many times did she beckon him to this very room? How many times did he make love to her? Reigning in that old desire that haunted him still, he strode to the bookshelf, finally activating the hidden door to the laboratory by pulling out the fifth book on the third shelf (not the fourth book on the fifth shelf, nor the third book on the fourth shelf as he initially thought…)

         The faux wall began to slide open with a long and ghoulish groan. Vincent caught a whiff of the rancid and mouldy stench of the basement, and with that came memories that he struggled to bury, like an old scab being picked at. His resolve began to waver significantly—his fingers trembled and it would seem as though he could not draw in enough air. Now that he was so close to finding the truth about Lucrecia—and in her old room no less—he was suddenly choked with nerves. Perhaps he could wait. Wait for what? He did not anticipate being this afraid; he huffed, frustrated with himself. He was acting like a fool! What was he so afraid of? Ah, but he knew the answer before he could finish the thought.

         "Betrayal!"

         Chaos began to laugh alongside the others.

         "Pain...hurt...someone must pay for our suffering." the great demon purred.

         "Yes! Yes!" Hellmasker joined in eagerly, his presence a scratchy and pitchy contrast to Chaos's low and booming growl, "Peel the flesh! Bask in blood! Take a life! Murder! Murder! MURDER!"

         Vincent clasped his pounding head as he struggled to get a hold of himself. Thoughts of Lucrecia would no longer help.

         "Think of the others," he urged himself, "Think of the others!"

         Then suddenly, like warm spring rain, he was flooded with memories, but he held onto one in particular. It was amongst his favourites. Barret was laughing—Vincent missed the joke, or thought it unfunny; he could not remember—but Barret was laughing his great, bellowing laugh that filled a room from corner to corner; the sort of laugh that was often more satisfying to hear than the joke itself. The sort of laugh that was frighteningly contagious. And caught the others were by it: Cid started coughing; Yuffie was doubled over; Nanaki was grinning; Aeris was crying, Tifa was blushing, and Cloud had his head thrown back laughing to the sky.

         Like magic, Vincent felt warmth blooming in his chest like a log fire being spurred to life, chasing away the last of his demons. With his confidence restored, he descended down the stairs, holding onto that memory like a lifetime as his senses were overwhelmed by the smell of still water. He swept down the dark cavern with a single-minded determination, cutting down the Black Bats that swooped down on him in hopes of a feast. He has to move quickly after that; for every life he took, Chaos grew more and more eager, and who knew if he'd stay in the basement or go back for the villagers in that state?

         The lab was hidden away far in the underground, and it was several long minutes before the familiar wooden door with the steel frame and dual iron bars running across it's width came into view. He pushed through the door slowly. Immediately, he was able to make out the shape of the large, wood desk in the centre of the laboratory, the bookshelves on the southern half of the room and...the giant glass cylinders large enough for human bodies; the freezers that were even bigger than the cylinders; the rows of silver operating tables with trays of rusted tools by their sides; the huge machines attached to tubes and pipes like grotesque metallic spiders...

         "Think of Barret. Think of Barret and his ridiculous, wonderful laugh. Think of Barret."

         He passed by the equipment without a backwards glance and went straight to the small library. He stood in front of the second row of bookcases where the journals began and took out a candle and match from his satchel and lit the wick. Though he could just make out shapes well enough with his heightened vision, it was not so excellent as to easily decipher any words, even up close. He leaned into the flame and browsed through the titles until his eyes were drawn to a thick spine simply marked "J I." There was a series of them all the way up to "J VII." Jenova. It has to be. He picked up the heavy book and opened to the first page.

          Right. Just as he suspected.

          Vincent hesitated but proceeded to gather all seven volumes into his satchel, thinking that they may contain some information that could prove useful to Cloud. Ifrit knows Cloud would never willingly seek this kind of information out himself. No… perhaps not never. But certainly no time soon. Vincent suspected that Cloud was worst about these things than even he was…

         He began to skim through the rest of the journals, quickly becoming frustrated by an apparent lack of coherent order.

         "Even in death, the bastard mocks me." Vincent thought bitterly.

         He was finally seeing a pattern of numerous journals that related to all sorts of natural monsters that could be found throughout Gaia—nothing that would be of use to him...or so he thought. His eyes came across a journal that was similarly marked to the Jenova journals: "D I."

         Vincent's breath caught in his throat.

         He had been looking for a "V," but realised what the "D" could stand for; it used to be his company nickname after all. He slid the journal out of its place. He felt as though his pounding heart was leaping to his head as he flipped open the first page with fingers that trembled ever so slightly. He was stunned into stillness as he glanced over the first page.

 


 

 

Project: DEVIL

 

Specimens(s): Adult Human Male (Valentine; 27yrs);

Iciclean Golem(Armored); Midgarian Behemoth; Wutainese Gigas; Mideel Hippogriff; Corelan Joker; Nibel Black Dragon; Nibel Black Bats

 

Volume I

 

 

Research Accredited To:

Dr. Hojo, Shou and Dr. Crescent, Lucrecia

 


  

         ...So she was involved.

         "TRAITOR! TRAITOR!" cried Hellmasker gleefully. Vincent tried to stomp out the thought, reasoning that she must have been coerced into signing, just as she had been coerced into volunteering her unborn child up for experimentation. Yet...it was so unlike Hojo to share credit where it was not due…

         "Someone must pay for our suffering..."

         Vincent swallowed thickly before snatching the rest of the books; there was three volumes total. He walked out of the library and back to the desk, placing the chair on the other side as to be facing away from the gruesome lab equipment. He then sat down, took out a candle holder, lit a new wick, and took out Volume 1 of "Devil." Then he just sat there, staring down the book as though he might re-summon Meteor should he even lift the cover. He cursed himself for stalling once again.

         It was just...bizarre. This journal, by its most technical definition, was just a series of paper sheets bound together by cardboard wrapped in leather. It was so ordinary looking, so harmless. Yet, it represented the very catalyst that would permanently upset his life in ways he could never have dreamed. The nightmare he endured, the pain that overwhelmed him, and his everlasting ruin all been reduced to numbers and notes…

         ...Lucrecia. Would he still love her after learning the truth? Could he still love her? He frowned and shook his head as the beasts inside him fed greedily off his distress. With one last thought of his friends, he took a deep breath, opened to page one, and began to read.

Chapter Text

 


 .o.

.~o.O.o~.

Chapter Three: Hana

.~o.O.o~.

.o.


 

         During the crisis, when Meteor was days away from slamming into Midgar, all the civilians living Above Plate had first priority when the city was being evacuated. White vans came and went in droves and on the day that Meteor was projected to hit, the majority of that part of the city was emptied. Meanwhile, the state issued an "official" warning to the civilians living Below Plate, but it was a warning that was given through television; a luxury that most of the slum dwellers did not have. The alarm was thus sounded mostly by word of mouth, and there was a sudden and widespread mad dash to the surface the day before Meteorfall. Despite this last, desperate act for survival, the majority of those who lived Below Plate lost their lives either the moment the city fell or in the days afterwards, trapped or crushed by slow-falling debris.

        Had those who were able to flee been given the chance to return to Midgar and see what became of their homes, they would have been met with a twisted mockery of their former metropolis, all dull without the bright lights and all quiet without the constant cacophony of people and cars. Buildings, once so tall they kissed the sky, were now collapsed in and toppled on top of each other in heaps of plywood and stone. There were no longer highways running overhead nor single streets that weaved every which way; one had to make their own path as they trekked across hills of debris. Layers of ash and concrete dusted everything in a grimy shade of grey, and the dry spell kept the air thick with it. 

        As a person who spent many a year under the plate, Tifa thought the ruins were not so much a mockery but an exaggerated rendition of what had been the Slums. The nightmare that those upplates—a name that those living below would use to refer to those living above—probably imagined when they pictured the Slums, only much brighter what with the open sky and all. Though the city looked nothing the way it used to when she left it, it managed to maintain its familiar, ominous air. As though something sinister was waiting just around the corner, just to get to her.

        "This has always been a city that never forgave," she thought solemnly, glancing towards the ever present dark clouds that were finally coasting away and pushing back the hood of her cloak, "This has always been a city that never knew mercy."

        Distracted by her thoughts, Tifa had a misstep that propelled her a little too much forward, and she would have been sent careening into a roll down a large slab of copper had Cloud not caught her by her wrist. Her face flushed red while she used him an anchor to right herself again. She needed to hurry up and get her head straight. This was the third time he's had to catch her in the past two days! She wondered if her sudden clumsiness was the reason why Cloud hasn't veered a little further away from her…

        "Thanks again." she said, looking shamefaced.

        There were no smirks. No innuendo. No jokes about the ways she could really thank him later if she wanted to. No, what Cloud did instead was smile briefly and shrug.

        "No problems."

        Tifa looked at him with a familiar degree of fascination as he began walking with the same, effortless grace that he has been carrying himself with since the day she brought him home to her bar in Sector Seven. Tifa was back in that survivor mindset that saw her through the year that she and AVALANCHE traveled the world. Seeing that same ginormous sword once again strapped across Cloud's back and being surrounded once more by uncertainty and death, she supposed that on some subconscious level, she had expected the cocky, flirtatious man she'd been traveling with them to come back as well. But no. It would not be so. This was a different Cloud Strife. A fact that she has gotten familiar with in Kalm, where Cloud was without the sword, was without the ShinRa issued uniform, and had, finally, just about all of his wits about him.

        She did not see it until the third day in Kalm, when Vincent unceremoniously announced that he was leaving that very morning. She'd been so preoccupied with Marlene, so overjoyed to be with the world's most precious little girl again, that she had been blind to everyone else. It was by happenstance that in her early morning pursuit of a pastry, she spotted three of her friends gathered in the cosy bar lounge of the lavish Hôtel de Romarin where they were staying free of charge in exchange for the CEO's right to say that the Saviours of the Planet slept in their sheets. As she came to their side, Cid was cracking jokes and making threats about keeping in touch as he wrestled Vincent into a handshake-turned-hug and Cloud...well, Cloud actually appeared abashed as he quietly told Vincent how much he appreciated him sticking around through it all before he stuck his hand out for a shake after a moment's pause. That was when it hit Tifa fully that he was no longer the companion that they had traveled with for nearly a year.

        She, of course, was not the only one to have noticed a difference. The rest of AVALANCHE all treaded carefully around the half-stranger, as though he were a lily in Aeris's church. They did not want to do or say the wrong that that might make something in that noggin of his turn loose and break him. They observed that where his laughter was once braying, boarding on abrasive, it was now much more subdued. Where he might have been testy and argumentative, he was now thoughtful and took his time with his words. His bare-tooth grin was toned down to something a little less goofy, a lot more sweet. And boy did he prove to be a bit of a loner. He hated meeting with the celebrities and politicians who would insist on seeing him and the interactions always left him exhausted. The sight of the fans that began to gather outside the hotel grounds for a chance to see the Cloud Strife made him anxious. The letters and notes that were sent in boldly proclaiming an undying devotion from a plethora of strangers absolutely baffled and overwhelmed him.

        However, despite the difference in the energy that the real Cloud now gave off, at the very core of him, his companions found that he was still very much the same. He was still the kind-hearted, good-humoured, well-meaning man that they grew to trust with their lives. Just a bit more timid is all…

        "Wait."

        Cloud abruptly stopped in front of her, looking out to his right.

        "Huh? What's-"

        Cloud held a finger up slowly and took a few steps to the right, "I think… I think I hear someone crying. From there." He walked for a moment then paused, and then walked and paused twice more before he was satisfied,

        "Definitely crying. Like they're hurt." he swallowed, "I think it's a kid."

        Tifa brought her fingers to her throat in a nervous gesture. She had been mentally preparing herself for something like this long before they set off for the trip, but she would never look forward to facing this sort of thing.

        "Do you happen to pick up anything else? Like other people?" she asked quietly, as though speaking up might drown out the child's cries and have them lost forever. Reeve gave them strict instructions to focus on large clusters of people as opposed to combing the city for every single survivor that there might be. Cruel as it might seem, they simply did not have the time nor the resources to try and rescue everyone. Still…

        "No." Cloud answered honestly, looking Tifa straight in the eyes, "But I'm still going."

        She nodded, glad that he decided to go after the child. After all, she quickly made up her mind to do the same.

        They walked several minutes towards the direction of the sound before Tifa picked up something as well. It was more of a soft groaning than crying, but the pain was obvious. The groans seemed to be coming from thin air, but it also sounded as though it were very near. Finally, Cloud cried out,

        "Hey! Is anyone there?"

        The groaning stopped. In the corner of her eye, Tifa saw something shift. She realised with horror that what she took to be bits of stone were actually a pair of feet sticking out from underneath two tented slabs of concrete. She shoved off her bags and pulled a medi-box full of vials of elixirs and potions before crouching at the front of the mouth of the little cave. Cloud crouched down on the other side as he readied a thermos bottle full of water.

        Tifa reached out and gently ran a hand over an exposed bit of leg as she began to speak in that soft voice normally reserved for Marlene's bedtime stories,

        "Hey, there. Are you hurt? Are you hungry? We can help you if you come out, okay?"

        It took a long moment and a little more coaxing from Tifa before the child seemed convinced and began to shift out of her little space and into the open. The sight of the child's bony body and the effort that it seemed to take just to move that little distance broke Tifa's heart, and she put down the medi-box to fish in her bag for a packet of applesauce. She glanced upwards when the child made it out of the hole and had to do a double take. She gasped.

.~o.O.o~.

        Her name was Hana. She was small, smaller than she should have been, he suspected, for her age. After giving her a bit of food and drink and wiping the grime from her face, he saw that her skin was the colour of the chausson aux pommes they served at L'Hotel Romarin and that her matted hair was the colour of their elderberry tarts. Her cheeks were sunken in, which exaggerated the size of her round, black eyes and flat, button nose, and her small pink lips were so chapped that when she finally parted them to speak, they split and bled strawberry jam.

        They asked if there was anyone that they should be waiting for out there but she told them that she was alone. She also told them that her family was alive, that she saw them, but when she was pushed for information as to where they were and how they got separated, she bowed her head and shrugged. They doubted that her family was actually alive after that. Shock and grief did strange things to your state of mind.

        Cloud clipped off the Buster Sword with the intention of carrying her, but she then made it clear that she did not want to touch nor be touched by him; the Buster Sword absolutely frightened her. Tifa relieved herself off her backpack, handed it off to Cloud, and spent a few minutes convincing the girl to get on her back instead, where she would be for the next couple of hours, softly slurping on her third packet of mashed fruit clasped between the teeth. If it weren't for the slight puffing of her cheeks and the sound of her eating, Cloud might have thought her fast asleep...or dead.

        He took in what features were visible under her messy sheet of hair. She was Wutainese as far as he could tell; a fact that should not have surprised him as much as it had. Snippets of memory from his time in the military came to him then, something about a district in one of the Sectors—Four, he thinks—that the locals would refer to as 'Little Wutai'. The men in his building loved eating there though the restaurateurs, normally natives from Wutai, never seemed too happy about it. Maybe that was part of the kick they got out of eating at those places; it was essentially illegal to refuse service to ShinRa military after all. Illegal to refuse service to the very men who would boast about the hits they got on the Wutainese people as they slurped away at their Wutainese noodles.

        Hana opened her eyes and looked imploringly at Cloud.

        "Thirsty again?" he asked, resting the Buster Sword upright. She nodded.

        He unbuckled the thermos from his hip, filled the cup cap, and dropped a few drips out the vial of a health potion into the cap before pressing the rim gently to her lips. This was the one touch that she would allow.

        Tifa shifted on her feet as she looked to the darkening horizon. Carrying Hana had them journeying at half the pace that they originally were going, which wasn't very fast to begin with; Tifa was handling the girl like glass, taking the utmost care not to rock or jolt her. It was a mostly quiet trip; they met with their first batch of monsters since coming here, a small pack of guard hounds that were quickly downed by Cloud. Seeing them sent shivers down Tifa's spine; to think that Hana was all by her lonesome exposed to the elements and at the potential mercy of... those things...

        "Let's go this way." Cloud said once Hana stopped drinking.

        Tifa followed him carefully for ten minutes or so before he paused, then announced,

        "Gotta crowd up ahead. Sounds like a bunch of men."

        "Could that be your family, Hana?" Tifa asked. The girl shook her head again her shoulder.

        They came to the edge of elevated wreckage and below they saw four men hauling away chunks of debris in a line from a collapsed convenience store. Tifa felt Hana's arm tighten uncomfortably around her neck.

        "Oi!" Cloud hollered.

        They jumped and looked in Cloud and Tifa's direction. In the late afternoon light, they could see that their appearances were similar to Hana's; pearl white eyes against faces that were blackened with filth and thinning bodies that suggested that they haven’t had a proper meal in weeks. To the strangers, Cloud and Tifa looked the very image of health. The sun illuminated the backs of both of them, blocking out their faces, but it also highlighted the strong and built shapes of their bodies. A goldish halo of light settled about their heads and the massive Buster Sword seemed to gleam with silver menace. Right then, with the glowing figures standing so high above them, a Cetranite or Follower of the Cetra might have believed they were witnessing a scene from The Last Days that were prophesied to come, where a pair of Cetra will return to reclaim the Planet in the final, ruined days of man.

        "Are you four by yourself or is there a camp nearby?" Cloud said once he had their full attention, beginning his descend to their level.

        "Who wants to know?" The tallest amongst them demanded. He was thin, like the rest of them, with skin as pale as snow. A mop of light brown hair sat atop of his head and the beginnings of a bright red beard sprouted from his jaw. His hollowed eyes and hooked nose were so exaggerated, they looked painted on. Tifa could feel Hana burying her head in between her shoulder blades. Biting her lip, she gave Hana's thighs a small squeeze before following Cloud down.

        "We come from Kalm on behalf of Reeve Tuesti. He's funded this trip to scout for survivors and he's designed a program to get them help."

        "Help?" he crossed his arms defiantly, eyes flicking briefly to Tifa, "Is that what you have on your back there?"

        "Supplies, because we're scouting." Cloud repeated.

        "With that giant fucking sword?"

        Cloud pointed the tip of the blade away from the strangers and held Zack's sword upright. He had yet to wipe the blood entirely off from that fight with the guard hounds, "I'm not going to hurt anyone. This was in case of the monsters."

        "That looks like a SOLDIER issued sword." One of the men called from the back, "I remember when they'd walk the Slums like they owned the place. Always with some giant fucking sword."

        "That's because it is." Cloud decided to stick with the truth, "It was passed onto me by a friend...a dear friend. He died protecting me from ShinRa," the name rolled off his tongue like a curse, "I have no lost love for them. I'm happy to say that they're no longer in power."

        "A SOLDIER that hates ShinRa, eh?" Redbeard spoke up again, "Why...does that seem so familiar?"

        "The Strife guy." another one of the cronies supplied, "I knew I recognised him! Remember? The guy who betrayed ShinRa? Used to be that you couldn't take ten steps without seeing his WANTED poster after Seven fell!"

        A light seemed to come alive in Redbeard's eyes, "So you're the Strife guy, huh? Right, right. The blond hair. The sword. You're Cloud Strife. From AVALANCHE."

        Cloud stood tall, "I am."

        Redbeard's eyes flickered to the figure behind Cloud, "And who's that then? The hafu you were totin' around? Heard about your almost execution on television. Yeah, yeah, now I remember. Something with an L?"

        Hah-what? Cloud looked to Tifa and was surprised to see that she looked absolutely furious.

        "Your hafu not allowed to speak?"

        "Yes," she said finally, "I am who you think I am. Tifa Lockhart. I'm also here on behalf of Reeve Tuesti."

        "And who's the kid with you?"

        "That's none of your concern," Tifa said coldly and Cloud was once more caught off guard by her anger. Where was this coming from? Was it that strange word this guy just said?

        Rebeard placed his fists on his hips, "It just may be that she is. One of our own ran off some days ago. Little Wutai girl. Name's Hannah or however you pronounce it." the man stepped closer, "Is that you, Hannah?"

        "She said she has family and you don't look Wutainese to me."

        "Her family's back at camp." the man scoffed, "Got some nerve thinkin' you can just up and claim her as your own when you ain't even full Wutai."

        "Being Wutainese isn't the point. The point is that Hana is clearly uncomfortable around you!"

        "That's a load of chocobo shit! Han? Don't you remember me? Come on, kid, your mother's worried sick!"

        "So you do have a camp." Cloud cut in, "Is there a lot of people there?"

        "Oh, sure. Loads of families came together after Meteor. Including," He said, glaring pointedly at Tifa, "Hannah's own. We've been surviving out there so far, but foods running low again. 'Swhy we're out here now. Supply run."

        "We can get you more food." Cloud began in earnest, "The man I mentioned earlier, Reeve Tuesti, he's been pulling the support of the Eastern Nations to finance emergency aid to these parts."

        "So why the fuck are you here? Where's the food?"

        "We gotta justify the funds. Look, I'm not sure how it all exactly works, but the gist of it is that we need proof that there are people out here who need help. Most folks have written this place off as a giant graveyard. But if we can go back and tell them that not only that there are survivors, but a large number of them, we can get you the help that you need. Let us see your camp. We can get an estimate and we'll know where to bring the food."

        He seemed to be considering this for a while till he nodded, "Just let me talk to my camp. I'll explain the situation."

        When Redbeard was back with his group and the quiet hum of their whispering began, Cloud finally turned to Tifa,

        "What's wrong?"

        She shook her head and nodded towards the girl on her back, who was carrying an air of defeat. Her limbs were wrapped tightly around Tifa, lifting her cloak and revealing the dark purple shirt underneath, "She doesn't seem too happy to see them."

        "Hana?" Cloud began gently, "Do you trust these people?"

        There was a pause before she shrugged her shoulders.

        "Is it true that your mother is with them?"

        She slowly nodded her head yes,

        "Do you...not want to see your mother?"

        Yes again.

        "Yes, you do want to see her?"

        She nodded again but then, pushing through the press of her face and Tifa's back, came the tell tale sniff of crying.

        Cloud turned to the sound of returning footsteps.

        "Group's fine with it. You can follow us back." he peered over Tifa's shoulder, "And I'll take Hannah. You two look a little...overburdened."

        "We're fine." Tifa said immediately.

        "Come on, Hannah. Quit treating me like a stranger! I'll bring you straight to your mother. She's going to be so happy to see you." Redbeard took a step closer, "You're killing her being away like this, Hannah."

        Tifa took a step back, "How dare you say that to her!"

        To her surprise, however, and mild horror, she felt the pressure around her neck leave as Hana untangled herself from Tifa's body.

        "Hana! Are you sure?" she said urgently, grasping the girl by the shoulder, "It's not problem. I can carry you. We'll find your mama together."

        Hana looked up at her, black eyes bright with fresh tears. The sight was a blow to Tifa's heart. Despite the sincerity of her offer, the girl nodded her consent and walked with a bowed head towards Redbeard. Letting go felt like a betrayal to Tifa's intuition. A glance in Cloud's direction told her that he wasn't too happy about this either, though he looked more confused than worried.

        "I'll take that again." she said quietly, pointing to the burden on his back.

        "Ah, yeah." He said, handing Zack's sword over so that Tifa could keep it from falling while he took the backpack off his shoulders.

        "We'll go after you put that sword away." The man called from afar, Hana now on his back, "ShinRa had those back clasps thingies, right?"

        Cloud merely nodded before replacing Zack's sword on his back with a click.

        They walked several yards behind the rest of the party as they weaved through rubble, high and low, till they came to an area where the buildings were, surprisingly, relatively intact. There were only small openings where the walls were broken in or where windows were shattered. Cloud guessed that this was where they must be staying. Sure enough, he thought he heard the slight and quiet hum of life within the walls, the combined nuances of shifting, breathing, scratching, and sniffling. The Background Buzz as he's come to call it. There was a ton of it in Kalm.

        "We're here! With company!" Redbeard said loudly and Tifa and Cloud paused to look around. There was a lot of shuffling. And...clicking? Suddenly, from behind them, there came a great shout,

        "NOW!"

        What looked to be a dozen and a half men and women came bursting through the holes of the walls on either side of them, and they came forth with weapons of all sorts. Some were carrying pipes and bats while others wielded axes and machetes. There were three, he saw, that were brandishing guns. And they had him and Tifa entirely surrounded. Cloud’s hand instinctively went to the handle of the Buster Sword, heart racing with anticipation.

        "Don't you fucking try it! We'll shoot you on the spot!" one of the slum dwellers screeched, "Just drop your shit and go!"

        "This is stupid." Cloud said as steadily as he could. He was downright pissed that they were even attempting something like this. Sure, he was prepared for some aggression, but did they really have to take it this far? "You don't want to do this."

        "Stupid, huh? We're the ones that have you surrounded!"

        "We don't want to hurt you." Tifa warned, "You're making a mistake. We only want to help!"

        "Oh, shut the fuck up, halfie." Redbeard sneered, "You're real funny if you think I was buying any of that bullshit. Anyone with half a brain can see that Cloud Strife and AVALANCHE were just ploys designed to get the people on ShinRa's side. And here you come, wanting to know how many fucking people are in the camp. Wanting to know where the fuck the camp is. So what? So you know how many bombs to drop and where to drop'em? I know ShinRa! And I bet Cloud Strife isn't even your real name!" Redbeard's rant was met with several sounds of agreement.

        Tifa and Cloud were stupefied, "What!?"

        "The fear-mongering? Seven collapsing? Acting like AVALANCHE was this big ol' threat just so the people could come crawling to ShinRa? I saw though the whole thing! As if ShinRa would have any trouble taking down one of their fucking own! Wasn't like you were somebody like that Wutai Hero, Sephiroth!"

        Cloud cringed at the mention of his old adversary. "Next, they're going to tell us the Planet's flat and that the whole 'round' thing is all a conspiracy." he thought. He shook his head, then pleaded aloud, "Please. Let's just talk this out."

        "NO, you ShinRa SCUM!" a woman holding a pipe barked, "Just drop the goods and GO!"

        "Fine! Fine!" Tifa shouted, "We're dropping the bags, okay?"

        "Good!"

        Slowly, Cloud and Tifa made a show of piling their bags together before standing again, back to back. They were losing light fast; they had to make this quick.

        "Now you both back out of here slowly. You try anything funny, I'm telling you, we'll shoot both of you dead!"

        "Alright." Tifa said as she slipped her fingers in between Cloud's and tapped her index finger three times against the back of his hand in quick succession. He immediately understood the gesture.

        On three…

        "Okay then," Rebeard said, triumph clear in his voice, "Now-"

        ...Tap one…

        "-you can-"

        ...Tap two...

        "-go!"

        They broke apart, launching themselves at the opponents immediately before them. These people were not trained fighters, nor were they very seasoned ones; definitely not as seasoned as the fearsome two that they had ambushed. Thus, most of them found themselves curled over and gasping for air after getting the wind knocked out of them or on their knees cradling their burning hands after having their weapons forcibly removed, whether it be by fist or foot. The force shattered bones and bent fingers at awkward angles. One unlucky sap ended up with a bone in his wrist popping out of place after an overzealous kick. Shots were fired, but they never hit the target intended and twice hit a target unintended; Cloud and Tifa were moving just too damn fast or fighting way too damn close to an ally. And pretty soon, the firearms were knocked out of hands, too. Of those still standing, a brave woman raised her ax when Cloud drew near, but he tapped her ribs with an elbow her and she fell over before she could follow through her swing. One of the pipe holders made for Tifa's head, but she knocked him off balance with a low kick. After more than half the group went down in a span of several seconds, the others began to retreat.

        Tifa and Cloud stepped back towards each other as they stared down the members still on their feet of the now stunned and moaning group. Cloud finally drew Zack's sword when he saw one of them scrambling for a dropped gun.

        "Give it up." He admonished the man, "You know that I'm far too fast for you."

        The idiot wouldn't listen or maybe he was deaf from all those shots being fired. Either way, he grabbed the gun and pulled the trigger. Cloud's arms instinctively turned and raised the blade so that the bullets deflected off it with a pong, pong, pong till the clip ran out. He swung the blade to his right before diving towards the assailant, high kicked the gun out of the man's hands, then grabbed a fistful of his shirt. He brought him to eye level so that the fool could see his mako eyes burning bright and terrible as he breathed his final warning,

        "Stop it." he shoved the man away. Cloud's eyes landed on Redbeard, who looking nothing short of horrified.

        "Is this enough for you?" he said, raising his voice above the curses and the cries of the injured, "Or are you finally going to let us talk?"

        "You bastard! I can't move my hand because of you!" the fallen man howled.

        "I have a cure materia ready to put to use right here," Tifa held up a gloved hand and pointed to the tiny, luminous green ball nestled in one of the grooves, "But I need your guarantee that none of you are going to try and attack us again."

        "This is ridiculous!" Someone from the defeated crowd cried, "Just take them to Cyril, Ezekiel! See what he has to say about'em!"

        "N-No! You know what ShinRa does! They'll just kill us!"

        "Sweet Mother Gaia!” Tifa cried, “We are not ShinRa! If we wanted you dead, you would all, frankly, be dead right now! We wouldn't even be here! We would've just let you starve out! And we certainly wouldn't have rescued that little girl if we were as bad as you keep saying we are!"

        "She's right," Cloud said, "I don't know what you've been lead to believe about me or Tifa or AVALANCHE or ShinRa, but hear this from my lips: we have nothing to do with ShinRa. Sure, I wanted to be a big-shot in their army when I was a kid. I wanted to be apart of SOLDIER because they were big heroes at the time. But that was well before ShinRa screwed me over and either hurt or killed many of the people I love." Cloud focused his eyes directly on Ezekiel-the-Redbeard, "I told you once and I am telling you for the last time that I have no lost love for ShinRa. Had I been given the chance, I would've have killed the President myself...and probably the head of the science department."

        They stared at Cloud with haggard faces and tired eyes and abruptly, Cloud felt his anger begin to cool. He always lived above the plate in his time with the ShinRa military. The only time he ever saw the people who lived down below it was when he was on patrol duty, and even then it was mostly from a distance; no one wanted to mess with ShinRa personnel. He vaguely remembers the time he spent at Seventh Heaven after Tifa found him by the train station, but even that was for a very short time. He realised that he never really got to know the Slums, nor learn about its inhabitants. He could only imagine what a desperate, terrifying existence that they lived. Sure, ShinRa transformed his life in a terrible, irreversible way, but most of the people before him probably lived under the horror of ShinRa's tyranny and oppression all of their life. He could begin to understand why they might come to the conclusion that a group like AVALANCHE or a person like him—people who were not only standing up against ShinRa, but actually succeeding— was too good to be true. Why they might believe that AVALANCHE must be from ShinRa as well. No way could a hope like that ever dare to exist.

        "Let us help you," he said gently, "Please, give us a chance to make it right."

        "Just do it." Someone spoke up, "What have we got to lose? Even if it does turn out to be a trick. Like she said, we'd eventually starve out here anyway. How much longer do you really think we can keep this up?"

        "She's right."

        "Yeah!"

        "Come on, Ezekiel."

        Ezekiel's very pale face was going very red at this point in time and his whiskers seemed to tremble with fury. But finally, finally, he stiffly dipped his head once, and told Cloud what they were going to do,

        "We'll take you to Cyril and see what he wants to do with you. But you're coming with us as our prisoner."

        Cloud looked at him incredulously. Was that a joke? He heard Tifa huff once in equal astonishment. It was incredibly ludicrous...but if that was the only thing that got them to get a move on...

        "You won't try to put any restraints on us?"

        Ezekiel's eyes narrowed, "You won't try to attack us?"

        "Again," Cloud said patiently, strapping back on the Buster Sword in a quiet gesture of peace, "We would've done so if that were our intention. We'll walk some ways behind you if that makes you feel better. Maybe… I dunno...one of your people can watch us."

        "...Fine then." He addressed Tifa, "...You said something about a cure materia?"

 


.o.

.~o.O.o~.

.o.


 

        As Barret got off the train that ran the length of Mt. Corel, he felt momentarily overwhelmed with emotion. He was breathing in the open mountain air and could see the open sky. Sky! Blue as a cornflower and as wide as the eye could see. To think that soon he would be able to call Corel home again. The fight really was over. He would wake up and step outside to see the bottom of a metal plate no more. He was here to stay...

        ...or so he hoped.

        Regardless of what he told himself, regardless of the fact that he stopped blaming himself for all of Corel's suffering, there was still a guilt that ate away at his heart. He wondered if everyone still blamed him or if they would ever learn to forgive him. He felt as though he could finally start over after Meteorfall, when he was being paraded around Kalm with the others as Gaia's heroes. But here, standing before the wood-post sign that read "North Corel," in painted black letters with an arrow pointed north, he knew that he was going to have to work a little harder and on a more personal level with his old neighbours if he was to ever feel at home again. Corel was far too isolated to be too influenced by the opinions of outsiders after all.

        Barret ran a thumb over Marlene's fingers and looked down at her pitifully. She was desperately in need of a nap. She looked back up at him...well...more glared at him, with her eyes squinting against the pervasive sunlight and her face set in the same scowl that she's been wearing ever since they left the Eastern Continent.

        "Ya doin' alright baby girl?"

        Marlene did not speak to him, opting to look away and burn a hole in the ground instead. Barret pursed his lips to keep from chuckling at the poor thing.

        "Come on, baby." he prompted softly, tugging at her hand so that she'd climb onto his side, "When we get to town, we'll find you a place to sleep real soon."

        Marlene slouched, threatening to just lay on the ground right there and then, but alas, she relented and let herself be lifted up by her Papa. It was a longer walk than Barret remembered, and for Marlene, it was never ending until finally, mercifully, a tall gate came into view bearing the words "North Corel." on a wood plank flanked by two wooden posts. As the first tented houses came into view, Marlene became antsy, anticipating laying her head on a proper pillow once again. After a while, even more buildings came into sight: there was a stable with two chocobos roped to the ground and a squat little establishment next to it that had the words "Taylor's Tailoring." written over it. She saw "Blacksmith" here and "Axes and Picks" there, but nowhere did she see any place that might have a bed just for her.

        They were a few people out and about as they went walking on; some of them slowed down as though they recognised her and her Papa, but they never stopped to talk to any of them and Papa would not say anything to them either. Finally, they passed a large building made up of a hodgepodge of woods with the old Corel insignia branded on it, and in front of the building was a large well which was surrounded by even more townsfolk. Many of them turned to look at Marlene and her Papa again, but only two in particular visibly brightened,

        "Look who's back!"

        They were two young men, each leaning on their own shovel. One was tall and lanky with skin the colour of spring honey. The other was a little shorter but just as thin, with skin even darker than her father’s. To her horror, Marlene realised that they were most definitely stopping in front of these two, and were most definitely not still looking for a place where she could sleep.

        "Max! Timber!" Barret laughed heartily and took turns clasping each man's hand and pulling him in for a bear hug.

        "You're back, man!" Max, the honey-coloured one, exclaimed.

        "Sure am!" Barret grinned. He saw, as he did with everyone who laid eyes on him since the surgery, the flicker of Max and Timber's eyes going pointedly to his gun-arm, though they looked quickly away, as though embarrassed. As usual, Barret could feel himself getting defensive, but he choked back any smart remark he might have given to anyone else who weren’t good old Max and Timber. He watched these two squirts grow up in Old Corel, and they always were on good terms with him. And if they had the decency to greet him like old times after all these years, well, he wasn't about to make a scene.

        "And who's this cutie on your shoulder?"

        "Ah, this is lil' Marlene. Didn't recognise her, huh?"

        Max's eyes bugged out, "Oh, shit, seriously!? Wow! I haven't seen ya since...ya know... your Pa..."

        "Never thought you'd be back, man, after the shit that happened last time." Timber cut in quickly.

        "Yeah! Me and Tim heard about ya last visit."

        "Yea," Barret looked sheepish, "Folks gotta get used to this million gil face, though, 'cause I'm home forreal this time. In fact, I'm gonna be meeting with Grey soon. Got good news for him."

        "Mayor Grey? Ah, he's dead, man."

        "Ya lyin'!" Barret blanched, "How long?"

        "Lil' 'fore the Meteor came down." Timber supplied, shifting his weight on his shovel, "People say he killed himself."

        Max sucked his teeth, "To hell with that, Timber. With what? There was no gun."

        "Dunno. Drugs or somethin'. I know a lot of folks who thought about offin' themselves 'cause they was too scared of being burned alive. Shiiit, I was almost one of ‘em!"

        Max shoved him with a laugh, "Like hell you were."

        "Who's in charge now? " Barret cut in.

        "Jet Jr.'s Pa."

        "Jet? Jet Moles?" All the enthusiasm that Barret went straight out the window. The Moles and Wallaces had a rivalry that dated back to a time before he was even born. He could hear his grandad now, howling and swearing up a storm about those, "Gai'damned, pig-fuckin’, wet dog-smellin’, good for shit Moles!"

        "And kind of the Peaks, too, I guess." Max continued, "Since they're the only folks in this pissin' town who still got any money."

        "Well, I need to go see them then," Barret admitted. Marlene's heart dropped to her stomach in a panic, "Got somethin’ they might be interested in."

        "Oh, yeah?"

        "Yeah. Their ears only." Barret said without a trace of venom.

        "Alright, alright." Max laughed, "But don't ya wanna rest up first? This one looks like she's about to fall over..."

        "Oh, yeah." Barret held Marlene a little tighter, "This lil' lady needs a nap! Been travelin' nonstop for 'bout a week now!"

        "Ya don't say!"

        "Yeah, man, let me tell ya, we would've been here sooner, but that ferry system they got workin' up north sucks choco-balls, man. Hey, y'all finally have an inn set up in this joint? Otherwise, I was gonna find my way to Dios."

        Max's brows furrowed, "Ain't that a bit far?"

        "Well, I plan on findin’ a place to settle in soon, but this one's gettin' grumpy and just really needs to sleep."

        "Just take my place."

        Barret suddenly felt lighter, "Really?"

        "Yeah, man. I'm at Tim's half the time anyway," Max turned towards Timber, "Ya old man won't mind."

        "Nah, man. I told you he tryin' ta replace me with ya."

        Max laughed merrily, "'Cause ya lazy as shit, man."

        "I ain't lazy. I take my time. Shiiit! There's a difference."

        Max shook his head and punched Timber's arm, "Point is, Barret, it's cool. Here, I'll take ya now."

        "Ya sure ya wanna do that? We gotta clock back in in like five minutes."

        Max shrugged, "Dallas owes me a favour anyway. Here take my shovel." Timber rolled his eyes before heaving the two shovels onto his shoulder and bidding Max farewell with a flick of his finger. Max looked at Timber's retreating figure fondly before turning soft eyes on Marlene, "Ready to get some sleep Marls?"

        Marlene put on an act, yawning loudly and nodding her head with the most pitiful expression that she could conjure up. Max chuckled and lead the way.

        "The hell you fools doin' carryin' around ya shovels anyway?" Barret asked.

        "Has it been that long, Barret? I guess it used to be different from when you was still workin' in the mines. Ya gotta call dibs on the good shovels and picks nowadays, else ya get stuck with the shitty ones."

        Barret was quiet. He supposed that he was thinking back on the years where decent picks and shovels were plentiful for everyone who wanted to work. Was Corel so hard on it's luck that it couldn't even replace a couple of tools? Barret felt his resolve set. It did not matter that most people were still treating him like an outsider; he had the means to help Corel and he was going to do it. His neighbours and friends could smile once more, and look forward to a brighter future. Memories from the Old Corel came rushing back to him unbidden. Memories of his old house, always smelling like fresh baked cakes, and situated by the little brook that two little boys and one little girl used to play in before it all went to ash...

        "Ow, Papa." Marlene whined. Barret loosened his grip and apologised to her softly.

        Max's home wasn't very far; just a walk on a downwards path that lead into what little forest they have in North Corel.  Before long they stood before a single shack half hidden in the tall grass with a door off its hinges. Max looked a little embarrassed.

        "It ain't in the best shape." He said, "Bet it's nothing like the houses back in Midgar, huh?"

        Barret snorted, "It's perfect man. Midgar wasn't all that it was cracked up to be. I really appreciate this. So...you by yaself?"

        "Oh, uh yeah. After my Pa passed, I decided that I needed my own space."

        "Sorry to hear about your Pa, Max..."

        "It's in the past," he smiled, "Well, I'll be off." he waved and began jogging up the hill.

        Barret took in the small room. The ceiling was so low, Barret would only have to lift himself up to his tippy toes for his hair to brush against it. There were four walls, all of them about the width of one and a half of the cot that was shoved in the corner of the far right side of the house. On the opposite side of the shack was a bucket, an ice-box, two wooden boxes for chairs, and a small wood table that looked roughly handmade. The floor was bare concrete save for the rugs placed around the cot and the toilet that was separated from the rest of the house by a long sheet tacked to the ceiling. Barret had a bedroll, but it was always better resting against something even a little bit soft.

        Barret stripped the cot of its sheets and replaced them with the bedroll. He settled Marlene in and asked how she liked it. She managed to breathe out something that sounded like, "good" before she was out like a light. He watched her for a moment, so at peace and unaffected by all the stares and whispers of strangers. To see Marlene back in a 'Corel' once more, sleeping safe and sound was a dream he never thought he would actually accomplish. Who would have thought this would actually happen? He has been fighting for so long...too long. And now they didn't have to fight anymore. The Planet was whole and Marlene was safe. And that was all that mattered.

        Seeing his daughter at rest made him feel a little bit tired himself. He had planned on paying a short visit to the makeshift town hall in order to get down to business, or at least try to—he did not know how he was going to get a Mole to listen to him—but suddenly, he was feeling much too fatigued to be bothered with it. He made up his mind quickly and rolled out Max's sheet on top of the rugs and rolled up a blanket for a pillow. Resting his head on the rolled blanket and keeping the images of charred trees and burning houses at bay, Barret followed his little angel into a blissful sleep.

Chapter Text


 .o.

.~o.O.o~.

Chapter Four: The Far West

.~o.O.o~.

.o.


 

        She was so close.

        She was high above ground keeping as still has humanly possible in the branches of a yellowing maple tree, which were peeking just over the high stone wall that separated the elevated  Howaitorōzu Castle grounds from the tourist district below. From a little ways away, one of the imperial guards, the one she recognised to be Nakasone Chika, was leisurely walking about the property as she made her rounds dressed in the burnt gold and blood red robes of the Elites. It was by pure luck that of all the members of the Elites, Chika was the one they chose to patrol this area; she was easily one of the most lax ninjas in the whole of Wutai. That she had been deemed capable enough to be even be considered for the Elites let alone promoted absolutely mystified Yuffie. Perhaps it had something to do with the distinguished Nakasone name. Perhaps it had something to do with the abrupt lack of shinobi after the War on Wutai. Either way, regardless of Chika’s infamous knack for slacking off, Yuffie held her breath, her heart feeling as though it were seconds from bursting, as Chika passed by underneath her. The Elite did not give any indication that she was aware of Yuffie's presence as she bobbed her head and sang softly along to the Wu-Pop tune that was playing from one of the trendy Midgarian-style cafés below.

        Riaru na sekai ni yureteru kanjou

        Maketakunai...

        Yuffie tightened the straps of her knapsack as she readied herself for take off. She thought that she was just light enough to run the length of the wiry branch hanging directly above the café that was blasting the sugar sweet music and land soundlessly on it’s roof. She wrinkled her nose once. If the smell wasn't so unappetising, she might have been tempted to pay a visit there...

        She waited until Chika turned a corner before letting out a soft "Ya!" and making the break for freedom. It seemed to be working out fine until she heard a sharp snap that sent her heart plummeting to the tips of her toes as she lost her footing. Sweet, sweet Leviathan, she miscalculated!

        "Oof!" She cried out as she slammed onto the roof of the restaurant with a great wham! Oh gods, oh gods, oh gods. Everything stung so badly. She got to her knees and swore after trying to move her right arm. She was sure that she was going to be feeling this one for a least a few weeks...

        She heard alarmed commotion bubbling up from within the café and quickly got to her feet. Sucking in a sharp breath to keep the pain from bringing her to her knees again, she leapt onto the roof to her immediate right—landing quietly this time—and dived to the ground so that she was in the alley and out of sight. The high wall was casting a long shadow that gave her the privacy she needed to change out of her normal garments and into a baggy pair of pants, a hoodie, sunglasses, and a moustache made up of a strip of tape, glue, and the clippings from her last haircut. She took a few tentative steps to lean over and examine herself in the window of a music store and grinned widely. She was a frigging genius! Sure her arm pretty much felt like it was on fire, but she was free!

        "Suckers!" She thought gleefully as she stepped out from the alley and merged with the rest of the crowd. It was a mish mosh of aristocrats who hailed from some of the oldest clans in Wutai and foreigners who likely just exited the part of the Howaitorōzu Castle grounds designated for tourists and were now perusing the shops for a souvenir or two. Yuffie shivered with disgust. She loathed Tourist Town. She hated everything from the over manicured streets and shrubbery, to the exuberant prices on goods that one could get for at least half as much in the normal market towns. But the thing that probably irked Yuffie the most, the one characteristic of Tourist Town that personally offended her senses, was the complete bastardisation of Wutainese food. Everything was modified to be more accommodating to Eastern palates with 'strange' ingredients left out entirely. It made Yuffie sick. Sometimes literally so.

        Despite the fact that just about everything in Tourist Town made her skin crawl, however, it remained the safest place for her to be in when it came to getting away from the palace. One of the benefits of being in a place full of non-natives was that there was less of a chance that someone would recognise her. Besides, it was either here or going up the Da-Chao Statue again, and not only did she get very bored very quickly up there, but it was starting to get too cold for the trip.

        She glanced around, pretending to be fascinated by all the shops that lined the cobblestone road. Her oohing and aahing was apparently a bit much, however, as one of the lower guardsmen that worked this district glanced her way and appeared to be looking a little too closely. Yuffie gulped, and in her distraction, she ran into someone.

        She swore under her breath as the body she just collided with rounded on her and looked down on her severely, beady blue eyes half hidden in folds of peachy, burnt red skin and a large, dirty blonde moustache sprouting from beneath his bulbous nose.

        "If you would excuse me!" he bellowed, "You've gotten food all over my wife now!"

        Yuffie could hear the woman aforementioned yelping as sugary shaved ice seeped into her top, "Ah, ah, ah!"

        "Oops." Yuffie mumbled, trying to conceal her voice.

        "Aren't you going to pay for that?"

        "It's useless." his wife—who was as thin as he was round, dark where he was fair, and sharp where he was curved—looked mildly irritated at Yuffie, "He can't understand you anyhow."

        The man glared Yuffie down before turning sharply away, "Worthless, backwater, piss-bucket of a country." he grumbled as he began pulling napkins from one of their many bags and wiping roughly at his wife, "The garden was nothing to write home about. Ha! 5,000 gil just to see a bunch of useless saplings and enormous stone walls? It's a shame ShinRa didn't blow this place off the map! The tourists are the only ones keeping it all afloat and pretty soon even that won't save them. The food's disgusting, the weather's unbearable, and the locals have absolutely no manners. Bloody waste of a holiday!"

        His wife mumbled something about liking the food, but Yuffie could not process it. She stood there, stunned at first, then growing hot with fury as the man's words really began to sink in. How dare he? How dare he? There was a tiny voice within that begged her to take the higher ground and walk away, but something much, much larger and more persuasive urged her to take a swing at something instead. And this six-foot mound of talking foot fungus seemed like an excellent target.

        "Hey, asshole!" Yuffie shrieked at the top of her lungs and surprising even her.

        The man rounded on the stranger once more, shock colouring his features. But before he could fully register that this strange little Wutainese man appeared not only to understand and speak a little Iciclean, but sounded a lot like a young woman, he felt a pain exploding from the centre of his face.

        "YOW!" he cried out, grasping his sure to be broken nose. Yuffie howled and jumped back, shaking her hand and hissing loudly—she shouldn't have used her hurt arm; Tifa would not have approved of the delivery of that punch. The man's face began to burn cherry red as his blood boiled with anger. He did not care if this person was a woman or not; he was going to wring the little shit's neck!

        He lunged forward, swinging his meaty arms with wild abandon, but Yuffie danced right out of his range.

        "Why don't you just get the hell out if you hate this 'piss bucket country' so frigging much?!" she shouted at him.

        So not only did this he-or-she speak Iciclean, but they spoke perfect Iciclean, "Stand still and fight like a man!" he spat, throwing his bags to the ground.

        "Steady on, Richard!" the woman squeaked as she knelt to retrieve them, "Gracious me, contain yourself!"

        "Wutai is still suffering from the war crimes ShinRa committed against it, so excuse the hell out of me if some of the trees are still young. ShinRa only tried to burn the entire place down when they were bombing us back to the Cetra Age! And manners? Ha! The Wutainese are some of the friendliest people in the world! How dare you!"

        "Gah!" the man sputtered out, looking very much like a ferocious beast with his skin flushed pink and his blood smeared across both his face and his bright blue, "Home Is Where The Ice Is" T-shirt. He made another dive for Yuffie, but only ended up eating the ground. Yuffie spat on him.

        "I'm sick of foreigners like you who come in here and pick apart this beautiful country just because it's not a stupid carbon copy of where you're from! What, by Leviathan, did you expect? Midgar?! So the food tastes different! That's because we don't believe in drowning everything in ketchup. And you know what?! Despite everything that ShinRa has put us through, we're still thriving. Wutai is still the number one country in all of Gaia! Don't like it here? Fine! You can take your stupid gil and SHOVE IT! Wutai doesn't need you!"

        Yuffie was breathing so loud and heavy that she nearly missed the light snap of a branch and woosh of leaves that she has long come to associate with leaping through trees. A chill ran down her spine.

        "Shit." she murmured in her mother tongue. Years of fighting had honed in her senses, and everything was screaming that there was danger nearby.

        "Shit!" she exclaimed and dashed away just in time as a mound of earth burst through the cobblestone where her feet had just been. She ran into a wall of dumbfounded looking civilians and tourists; looks like her little display back there drew in quite the horde of spectators. Faaaaantastic.

        "Shit! Shit! Shit!" she squeezed into the crowd and tried to weave her way towards the nearest alley and back to the high wall. She stripped off her stupid pants when she began to trip on the hem, leaving her in nothing but her short shorts, moustache, sunglasses, and oversized hoodie. There would be a small stretch of time where she'd be completely exposed, but if she could just escape back into the trees...

        Yuffie felt something hard wrap tightly around her ankle and she let out a big "Yelp!" as she began to fall forward, sunglasses cluttering to the ground. She shot out an arm to break her fall but was stopped when raw earth burst through the cracks in the cobblestone and encircled her body, pinning her arms to her chest.

        "Aaaaagh!"

        She opened her eyes and saw nothing but ground. She looked down, stunned to find that she was being suspended by solid dirt wrapped around her like a cocoon. She struggled against the prison before letting out an anguished cry.

        "Shiiiiiiiiiiit!"

        She heard the muted taps of two bodies landing in front of her.

        "We can't keep meeting like this Princess." a chuckle, "Or should I say 'Prince'?"

        Yuffie suddenly felt hope flood through her body like hot chocolate drunken on a cold December day. That voice belonged to Noboru!

        Where Chika was known for being too relaxed, Noboru was known for being too nice. He had a hard time saying no to anyone and he was eager to help everyone. His fellow shinobi would joke about his sweetness being the reason why he got promoted so quickly; all the favours he would do for other people—whether it was moving wood, saving cats, or carrying groceries—had really just been extra training. Even after losing his prominent arm in the war and having to essentially relearn how to fight, he never grew bitter or angry. In fact, impossibly, some would say that he only got nicer. And he always did have a soft spot for Yuffie. If it was Noboru as well as Chika who caught her... She had to stop herself from giggling. This was gonna be a piece of cake!

        Yuffie tried her best to sound as pitiful as possible as she whined, "Come on, Noboru-kuuuuuuunI haven't left Howaitorōzu all week."

        To the left of Noboru, Yuffie could hear his partner give a sigh and suddenly she was upright, the mound of earth adjusting around her and pinning her up straight. The sight that greeted her stole away any amount of hope that she might have had upon thinking that the other ninja who came with Noboru was naturally Chika. Nope. Not even a little bit close. Staring down Yuffie with a pair of green eyes between two sheets of chocolate brown hair was none other than Saito Sumiye. Yuffie did not stand a chance.

        "Sorry, Yuffie-sama." the kunoichi began as she crossed her arms, "But you know that these are your father's orders."

        A shiver went down Yuffie's spine. She has always been a little afraid of Sumiye. What made her terrifying was not so much the fact that she was highly skilled, but the fact that she was highly skilled as well as highly sensitive. You had to be careful with what you said around her or you might find yourself against the wall with a kunai pressed against your neck.

        You see, Sumiye was the bastard of a nameless foot soldier from Midgar, whose fair colouring gave Sumiye features that made her stand out from the typical black to dark brown hair and black to dark brown eyes of the Wutainese. Noboru told stories all of the time to Yuffie about the days when they were young schoolmates, when everyone in their class would cruelly poke fun of her looks and call her names like 'ShinRa Susan' and 'gaijin' or 'foreigner.' They learned to shut up quick however, when she trained hard enough to start giving black eyes and bloody noses to anyone who so much as looked at her funny or, even worse, dared to question her love and loyalty to Wutai. There was a rumour that got reiterated year after year at the academy that one of Sumiye's victims was still in a coma in a hidden room at the school infirmary to this day. The school might have expelled her for her misconduct if she had not proven herself to be one of the most competent and promising shinobis that the academy has seen in decades.

        Yuffie's heart picked up as she began to feel an overwhelming sense of desperation. She could not give up now! If she has to spend another minute in that blasted palace, she was going to go off the deep end. She jutted her bottom lip forward.

        "Please, please Sumiye, Noboru-kun. My old man never has to know!"

        Sumiye snorted, "You'd better believe your father has already been informed of this incident, Yuffie-sama."

        Yuffie groaned and shook her head, "You let me go last time!" she said, pleading with Noboru. He scratched his head and looked decidedly away from Sumiye.

        "Really, Noboru?" she said coolly.

        "It was only for a couple of hours!" he countered, abashed, "And I was trailing her the entire time. I was going to get her to go back eventually..."

        There was a twitch in Sumiye's lips before she pinched the bridge of her nose and took a deep breath, "Just grab her, please."

        Noboru walked forward obediently. He gave Yuffie a sympathetic smile and whispered, "Sorry." before he tapped two points in her neck that rendered her unconscious.

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

        The first thing that alerted her to her surroundings was the smell of the plum blossom tree that grew just outside of her window. Then came the pleasant tingle from the core of her being to the tips of her fingers that she recognised as the after effects of a Remedy. There was cloth underneath her; her bed. She opened her eyes to see Noboru staring down at her; above him, she saw the mobile she made with different paper lanterns when she was four with the help of Mama. Her father used it keep it in the quarters where he'd meet with his subjects, but that was before the war. A glance to her right revealed the chest that contained her share of the materia that was given to her the night that AVALANCHE parted ways after the summit in Kalm—large and midnight black with a golden rendition of Leviathan running along its corners. Yup. They were definitely in her room.

        Noboru gave her a little smile, a kind expression on his soft features, "Hi, again, Princess." He dangled the faux moustache in her face.

        Yuffie groaned. In all the other times that she woke up in her room like this, she would march straight to her father's office if he wasn't busy sleeping, let him chew her out a bit for all the trouble she's caused and all the silliness she's exhibited, and right after he demanded that she start growing up and "act accordingly to her station," she'd bow real low, assure her father that whatever trouble she caused wouldn’t happen again, pay a quick trip to the Leviathan alter within the palace to pray for self-improvement, then go back to her room and plot her next move. Today, however, Yuffie wasn't really in the mood to be fussed at again. In fact...

        "Is Sumiye around?" Yuffie whispered, mischief bright in her eyes.

        Noboru frowned, "She's reporting to Godo-sama that we've detained you."

        Yuffie rolled her eyes before smiling sweetly, "Oi, Noboru-kun? Think you could let me go this time?"

        "You're going to get me in trouble with Sumiye-chan!"

        "Sumiye?! What the heck! The last time I checked, I was the heiress to the throne of Wutai and your boss. Not her!"

        "Yeah, but you know how she's really awesome, but kind of scary, and I wanna ask her out sometime. I can't blow my chances on you."

        "I can order her to go out with you!"

        Noboru let out a barking laugh as the shoji door behind him slid open. He turned pink upon seeing who the newcomer was.

        "Godo-sama will see you now, my lady." Sumiye said in her steady soprano.

        Yuffie sighed dramatically. She was surrounded by traitors. She leapt to her feet and took her sweet time putting away her futon before grabbing her forehead protector and tying it on as she walked out of the door. In the silence, Sumiye looked disapprovingly at Noboru, but her whole air softened when he shrugged and smiled sheepishly at her.

        She snorted and rolled her eyes before slapping him on the shoulder,

        "You're such a doofus."

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

        To their dying breath, the ShinRas did not like to talk about the crimes that they committed on Wutai's soil, but the Wutainese would never forget. They couldn't forget. They would see it in the missing limb of a fellow civilian, or in the families carrying flowers and incense to the vast field at the foot of the Da-Chao Statue where the graves of fallen shinobi and civilians were erected, or in the bastard children who ran laps around the many orphanages sprouted throughout the country. They would see it in their heiress, for she was forced to grow up without the mother who was stolen from her in the deadliest raid that ShinRa ever lead against Wutai.

        That night, the Howaitorōzu Castle and her surrounding grounds were set on fire. It took over a hundred shinobi specialised in ice materia to finally douse out the flames, and thrice more to overtake the SOLDIERs who were storming through. By then, however, the damage had already been done. The destruction was extensive, taking out three of the five keeps that were stationed and heavily damaging the rest. The main castle still stood but was unrecognisable by the time ShinRa was gone, and weapons that had been maintained by the Kisaragis for generations were ruined. There were apparently instructions not to burn down the palace where the imperial family resided, but it was ravaged nonetheless. Precious items, personal journals, favourite kimonos, and one-of-a-kind scroll paintings were torn out of the residence for spite and thrown into a bonfire just outside.

        All of this was catastrophically horrible, but the heaviest blow came when the pregnant empress was viciously violated by deviant SOLDIERs, stabbed through her bloated belly, then left to bleed, like a dog, on the front steps of the palace, eyes gouged out from the struggle against her assailants and the flesh between her thighs left shamefully bare to the wind. All for Wutai to see. That was the strike that finally broke morale and drove the mighty Emperor Lord Godo to surrender.

        The Wutainese would see it, but they did not like to talk about it except in whispers behind closed doors as they speculated the sort of future that the Kisaragi brat was going to bring to Wutai. She has befriended a SOLDIER after all...

        Yuffie tip-toed around the few servants who were wiping down the hardwood floor of the long hallway that ran along the perimeter of the house, looking distinctly out of place in nothing but short shorts and the hoodie that nearly swallowed her whole. She was surrounded by a crew of women wearing plain brown kimonos who kept their expressions politely blank as they greeted their future empress, but disapproved of her dress in secret. Yuffie knew that she should be donned in one of her flowery, formal kimonos to be formally admonished by the sitting emperor, but that was exactly the reason why she wasn't.

        Yuffie made her way down the stairs and ran into a crowd of assistants who worked for the government officials of the palace, making their way in and out of various rooms. As they spotted their heiress, they would pause in their activity and bow awkwardly, keeping their eyes low to the ground and away from her long, bare legs. Totally inappropriate for a woman; especially one of her standing! Yuffie took delight in their discomfort. As much as she loved Wutai, the people here were much too old-fashioned for their own good. Perhaps one day, when she is empress, she'll designate one of the beaches here as a nude one. Maybe replace the whole Grand Council all with girls her age. Just to rile up everyone's feathers.

        She knelt down and opened the shoji door to her father's office—a beautiful, golden piece adorned with a sparse, blue floral motif—and walked across a long stretch of tamati mats for the length of three rooms. She slid open the fusuma door at the end of this walk slowly to alert him of her presence. He was sitting on a tamati chair and sucking on his favourite kiseru, tobacco smoke puffing leisurely out the corner of his mouth. Before him was a low desk table over which he kneeled slightly with sheets of paper that appeared to be scattered in disarray. Yuffie knew, however, that much like herself, her father saw order in his own chaos. Behind him, naturally, were the gardens that grew in the centre of the palace. He had the doors opened wide as to let all the light in and she could see the thick, dark trunk of the same plum blossom tree that perfumed her room above.

        She noted that he was not asleep once again. It would seem that ever since she'd gone away and helped save the Planet from certain destruction, her father regained a bit of the self-respect he lost when her mother passed away. He lifted that ridiculous ban on materia use even before it was certain that ShinRa would crumble and he was slowly but surely earning back the respect of his subordinates as well as the old shinobi clans.

         It both thrilled and annoyed her, for while she saw this as the start of a return to Wutai's former glory, it also meant that he has been on her case even more so than usual. In the past, she used to leave the palace grounds and do as she pleased all the time, but now it would seem that she couldn't even take a breath without alerting all the Elites. In the past, she would be sent to the Emperor only when she did something really bad, but even then, he would only ever want to see her when he felt like being a father and the scoldings were nothing more than a formality. But now...now she wasn't sure what exactly he was doing and where he was going with his newfound lust for an honour that was nearly lost.

        He glanced up at her upon hearing the soft shuush of the sliding door. Yuffie went ahead and jumped into the room without waiting to be prompted and slid the door shut a little harder than necessary. Just to bug him. She sat before him, bent knees together and buttocks resting on the palm of her feet. Her form would've been perfect had her hands not been stuffed in the pockets of the hoodie. Another thing she did just to bug him. Yuffie did not entirely understand why she sought out these little ways to irritate her father. It did not exactly feel good to make him upset and angry and loud, but she would try to push those buttons anyway.

        Instead of flying into his usual tirade about dignity, honour, and "acting accordingly to her station,” however,  Lord Godo only looked at her, a heavy silence between them as he took long drags from his kiseru and blew smoke out the side of his mouth. Something was amiss. Yuffie was clenching her fist in nervous anticipation when finally, her father sighed.

        "Yukiko." he said solemnly, his tone a tad lower than usual. Yuffie was taken aback. Her father only ever used her birth name during ceremonies or when he was really trying to drive a point home about her lineage. He hasn't used this name in a really long time. Wow, this must be serious...

        "Hai." she answered cheerily as to appear as unperturbed as possible.

        He did not answer back; he was staring at her again. Yuffie miraculously restrained from rolling her eyes. He always did have a flare for drama, this one. It was another thing, Yuffie would begrudgingly think, that they had in common.

        "Yukiko," he started again, "Where did you get those clothes?"

        She shrugged, "Borrowed them from someone."

        "Don't tell me you stole them?"

        "I'm borrowing. They'll get it back!"

        The line of her father's jaw tensed, "Yukiko." he began for the third frigging time, "You are going to be empress one day."

        Aaaand more silence. Yuffie raised a brow, confused by the statement. Uh, duh? And?

        "And?"

        He put down his kiseru, placed his arms on either side of his chair, and straightened his posture, "What does that mean to you?"

        "I don't-" she shrugged, squinting her eyes and trying to figure out where he was going with this, "What are you talking about? It means I'm gonna be the kickass empress of this country one day."

        The hands gripping the arms of his chair tightened, "But what does that entail for you? What do you think an empress does?" he shook his head, "You and I have been through this many times. You are brought before me and I try to point you aright, but nothing I say seems to get through to your head. You continue to run away and shirk your duties. Why weren't you present yesterday when we gave an audience to the Hayakawas? Even with sufficient warning that they were coming? This sort of behaviour cannot inspire confidence in your subjects. It is a total embarrassment, Yuffie..." Lord Godo blinked and took a moment to reign back his voice, "...to have to send after my own daughter, the one who will inherit this entire land, on a regular basis." he voice began to rise once more, "You boast about how much you love Wutai and how this country means the world to you, and yet, clearly you do not care enough to be involved in Wutai's affairs!"

        Yuffie jumped to her feet, "You got a lot of nerve telling me off about fulfilling duties and handling Wutai's affairs. Like you weren't dead to the world for years after the war!"

        "Yuffie!"

        "No! You don't get to do this! You think just because you've finally remembered that you've got a country to run in these past few months that you get to act all high and mighty like I'm the only one who's ever messed up!? Who do you think you are!?"

        "Yuffie! After you brought me to my knees in the Pagoda of the Five Mighty Gods all those months ago, I've had sufficient time to reflect. I have not been the sort of man that Wutai deserves; in that regard, you are entirely correct. But I am turning that around now. And you! You must join me in this effort! I cannot allow you to make the same mistakes that I have made."

        Deciding that she heard enough, Yuffie scoffed and turned to leave, "Yeah, yeah, Pops. Don't you worry. I won't fall on my back and lay there for years if Wutai ever goes through hard times under my rule."

        "I won't be here for much longer, Yuffie! Don't you understand?"

        Suddenly, it was as though her whole world went askew. What did he just say? She paused and looked back at him. "I...what are you talking about?" Yuffie swallowed the lump that was now in her throat, heart racing, "Are you saying you're...sick?"

        "I'm old, Yuffie. I'm an old man! I won't always be around to clean up after your mess. Don't you see? Wutai will need a leader to carry her to glory. She will need a leader that cares ."

        "I care about Wut—!"

        "No, Yuffie!" Lord Godo stood at his full height and shouted with such intensity, it pinned Yuffie to her spot, "I will not see this country fall to shambles, not after everything we have endured. Wutai is going to recover and I am going to take whatever measures I need to secure that future. So hear this now, Kisaragi Yukiko, future Empress of Wutai, you are to attend every council meeting that is held for now on. You will attend the sessions of open court and hear the woes of our subjects every day that it is held. You will sit with me every morning and learn the process of making laws and will be by my side when I converse with other government officials. And whenever you feel compelled to walk the streets of your country, you will do so with an escort."

        This snapped Yuffie out of her stupor, "I am not going to be babysat!"

        "And when you have demonstrated a measure of maturity befitting a lady of your status to my satisfaction," Lord Godo went on, undeterred, "You may travel abroad with a guard in tow. But until that day comes, daughter, you can forget about ever leaving Wutai's borders again! "

        Yuffie stared wide-eyed at her father as her mouth formed a small 'O'. Never leave Wutai's borders again? Until, what, her father has another, sudden change of heart? But that would mean never seeing the world once more, or visiting the only true friends she's ever had. The ones who talked to her without the formalities, knew her without the notoriety, and saw her without all the heavy expectation and ready doubt. Her father was staring intently at her now; probably looking for a sign that his words hit home. Then he opened his mouth to speak; did he seriously have even more to say?

        "Yuffie." he began, the volume of his voice brought down by several notches, "This has been long overdue. I have not only failed to do right by Wutai, but I have failed to do right by you. This should have been the way things were for a long time now. Instead, I let you run amok like a common street rat. Well, that happens no more. From henceforth, you are going to behave like a proper heiress and be treated as such." he took a deep breath, "Do you understand?"

         Yuffie glared at him, her flushed face turning steadily redder. The bastard. The bastard! She wanted to yell and spit and curse him till her voice ran hoarse. And so she did.

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

        The paper thin walls of the Howaitorōzu Palace were no good at containing secrets. It was hardly enough to hide away in a room and shut the door. No. The residents of this palace learned to whisper in intimate voices if they wanted confidential matters to remain confidential. One certainly did not bellow so loudly that their voice carried from corner to corner of the palace, clear to every ear within proximity.

        Servants and officials alike stood in scandalised horror as the words of their emperor and heiress rang down the halls of the Howaitorōzu Palace. The Emperor and his daughter have had their spats in the past, yes—it never took long for one to be working here before they witnessed one of them—but never have they had a fight that dragged on this long, gotten this loud, nor escalated to this level of blatant disregard for manners and respect. Then, as suddenly as the shouting started, it stopped. A moment passed before the shoji door was jerked open with such careless force, it tore off the grooves. The heiress then bolted from her father's office and made a beeline to her room, flying through the halls with all the fury of a midsummer storm.

        "Woah!"

        "Yuffie-sama!"

        "By Leviathan! Watch where you’re—oh!"'

        It was only after she slid her door close that she felt safe enough to let the lump in her throat give way to something less ferocious, more heartbreaking. She positively resented everything and everyone at that very moment. If only Noboru wasn't so smitten with Sumiye. If only Sumiye broke the rules every now and then. If only Wutai had put up a better fight against ShinRa. If only...if only...

        She shook her head. She did not like to go here with her thoughts, but it always came to this eventually on the days when she would feel especially frustrated with her father. With Wutai. With herself.

        "If only Mama had lived." she thought as the first of her tears began to roll down her cheeks, "If only Hiraku had been born."

 


.o. 

.~o.O.o~.

.o.


 

        You will come back to see me, won't you my son?

.o.

        In a small village settled several hundreds of miles south of the mountainous border that separated Wutai from her neighbours below, the sky was only just beginning to bleed orange and pink as Tseng rose from his bed. As usual, he could already hear his neighbours in the courthouse adjacent to his own moving around in their kitchen and the clucking of their chickens as they woke with the sun. He had just changed into a long sleeve shirt and jeans when Lin Mei poked her grey head through the curtained doorway with his daily cup of tea in tow. Wordlessly, she marched towards him, gait slowed by age, but he would not make a move to meet her. She had too much pride to allow that.

        "Xièxie." he thanked her as he carefully took the cup from her trembling fingers. She waved a hand,

        "Today is market day, so do not leave before seeing me! I have money to give you."

        He watches her bowed back disappear from view before taking a sip and allowing the tea—a light white peony flower brew—to warm and wake him. Today was market day, indeed, which meant venturing far enough from the countryside to get a signal on his PHS. There, his pocket would come alive as his PHS buzzed with text messages sent in from his old colleagues. Tseng both looked forward and dreaded the assault. They were a window of sorts to the life that he wanted to leave behind entirely. A reminder of the man he had once been; a man he was trying to escape. Hearing from them were the only moments that he allowed a little bit of that resolve to waver. Only then did he miss the thrills, the excitement, the dangers of being a Turk.

        No. That's not quite it. It was more than just being a Turk. He'd be caught up entirely in the rat race of life. He was driven to be better and tougher and smarter than everybody else. Climb the ladder and enjoy the view from the top. For the longest while, it seemed that he had done just that. He was the head of an intelligence agency that was run under the most powerful nation on the planet—a position that he earned and had been damned good at. He once lived in a pricey townhouse in the most prestigious district in Sector One and had money enough to retire comfortably twice over. He had come a tremendous way from that little shack he once called "Home" in a river village in Wutai and yet...

        "Does it all come down to this?" He wondered as he body grew colder and colder, his life easing out through the long wound cut open by Masamune, "Is this all that I have lived for? All my wealth and all my prestige. In the end, they would not save me."

        He was a Turk, yes, so it was understood that by the nature of his work, every field mission undertaken could very well be the last. But he was the best Turk. His record was nearly spotless, coming second only to the infamous Vincent Valentine—and nobody thought that they could touch that. He was supposed to have been clever enough to parry out of death's advances. Yet there he was, as helpless as the day he was born on a cold temple floor with only his thoughts and a panicking colleague to keep him company. And for what? For what? For ShinRa?

        It was in that space between life and death that he came to the stunning realisation that he did not want to die a Turk. He did not want to be left bleeding to death by a sword or a gun that was in the hands of one of ShinRa's many enemies. He did not want to die for ShinRa. And for the first time in his life, he thought that he finally understood Aeris and her love of precious, simple things like eating bread that was only two days old instead of three.

        After waking up in a pearly white room covered in a jumble of bandages and long clear tubes, Tseng left the hospital wing of ShinRa HQ as quickly as was permissible under the guise of temporary leave, but with all the intention of escaping the company. He could admit in retrospect that it was a stupid, risky, and highly emotional manoeuvre. For weeks following his decision, he was in a constant state of mild panic. He was sure that he was going to wake up one of those mornings looking up into the barrel of a gun and the sadistic face of Reno, sent to end his traitorous existence.

        "Hey, boss."

        Pow.

        He used to dream of the scenario again and again. But his escape would prove not to be in vain after all, for the impossible happened: ShinRa fell. Right to its knees.

         He was free; the very thought still managed to take his breath away.

        After draining his cup, Tseng went into the little house of the elderly couple next door where he sat and was promptly served his breakfast of dough sticks, a boiled egg, and a small bowl of soybean milk. Huang Yu, Lin Mei's spouse, made small conversation concerning all that needed to be done in the fields and all the shopping that needed to be taken care of as Tseng dipped a piece of dough into his milk and chewed slowly on the lightly sweet treat.

        Tseng never intended to be here; in Jianghu that is. The first place that came to his mind when he knew in his heart that he was permanently leaving Midgar had actually been Wutai. He longed to finally pay that visit he promised his Baba long ago and see how his family home had held up for all these years. Maybe even see his siblings once again if they have forgiven him for all he has done. But as the day drew nearer for him to be released from the Critical Care Unit, he began to recoil from the idea. It just did not seem right. Not after everything that happened between him and his family. Not after the Wutai War. So he opted for the neighbouring country down south and eventually came to settle in the isolated, modest, mountain village of Wu Shan. He liked to think of it as the sort of place that his Baba, who was a Jiangnan immigrant living in Wutai, grew up in based on all the stories he liked to tell.

        When he first came to Wu Shan many months prior, he arranged a deal with his now neighbours, the conditions being that he would help with the farming and have a turn in being one of the villagers that made the long monthly shopping trip to the city in exchange for a place to stay. They had an empty space, you see, that originally was their son's living quarters, but they have not heard from that man in years. And so, taking in Tseng's youthful build and evident eagerness, they complied.

        Both Huang Yu and Lin Mei thought of Tseng as an odd one since the day they took him in. He did not look as though he has spent a day working outside what with his milk white skin, and the shape of his features lead them to believe that he came from their sister country up north. His accent was off and his speech was over formal and when they inquired after his past, he only admitted to having once worked in a big city out east. They never got to know just far that "east" went. Though he gave them the name "Xuan," they would address him as “laiwao” or "foreigner" for weeks until they finally grew comfortable with him. He may have been a little strange in his behaviour and a little awkward in the way that he spoke, but he proved himself to be more than helpful and willing to learn when he messed up, and that was all that they could really ask for at the end of the day.

        Lin Mei rose first to retrieve her coin purse which she pushed into Tseng’s long fingers, reiterating over and over what they needed from the city. He bowed his head briefly to show that he understood before walking out and crossing the courtyard to retrieve a long bamboo pole with two baskets hanging on either end. Balancing the pole on his shoulders, he bid his neighbours farewell as he set off on the long road out of the countryside, making sure to stop by each household within the village to see what was needed by the inhabitants inside.

        Tseng would look forward to these walks for the peace that it offered him. All around him were fields and fields of emerald green with slow moving buffalo being dragged along the rice paddies by their smaller masters, just as Baba used to describe. The occasional motorbike would come rumbling by with school children holding on tightly to the backs of their parent or the tricycle cart full of farmers hitching a ride. Aside from the occasional rumble of engines, he would hear no noise but the pat pat pat of his feet and the whistle of the passing breeze and all he could smell was the heavy earthiness of mud.

        He would always begin to think of his father on these occasions, his father who, much like Aeris, was such a tremendous fan of life's little treasures, such as watching the sun set after a long day of work or feeling the muck between your toes on a rainy one. What would he have made of Tseng now? How would he have felt seeing his proud and stubborn son—who once declared loudly that he would grow up to be so much more than a simple farmer like Baba—running errands for an elderly couple living on the hillside?

        After an hour of walking, Tseng met a fork in the road and turned to the left-most path. Here it comes; it never failed. The PHS in his right pocket began to buzz, lasting a total of five seconds. He could remember a time when it'd go on for fifty. He wondered if there would ever come a time when it wouldn't buzz at all.

        He pulled out the PHS and opened Elena's texts first, sent a week ago. After about a minute or two of loading, a picture of her with one of her students from the dojo that she now works in Junon popped up. She’s smiling radiantly, looking more content than he had ever seen her in ShinRa's corridors. It was contagious even through the screen and Tseng smiled, too. He was honestly happy for her.

        Graduating class! Reads her text, Hope you're well... :D!

        Tseng tried to think of something to say.

        Which belt are they graduating from? he then added, I'm fine. I hope you're well, too.

        The rest were a barrage of texts from Reno:

        hey sting

        dont you wanna know why i called you that

        are you seriously not there again?

        ....!?!???!?!

        WHY DO YOU BOTHER KEEPING A PHS PLZ TELL ME I MUST KNOW THE SECRETS OF STING

        heyy asshole, when you get this text, know that your an asshole

        and your new name is sting

        sting the ASSHOLe

        Sting? Tseng shook his head. He supposed it wasn't the stupidest thing he's ever been called by Reno. He wrote back,

        It's 'you're an asshole,' not 'your.'

        In no time after that, Tseng was entering the main road that ran through several provinces across the northern half of the country and the chorus of city life grew steadily louder. Now this "city" was by no means anything like the metropolis that Midgar used to be. In truth, to even call it a "city" was a bit of a stretch. It was in a strange place between “city” and “very large town” by the docks. The locals called it Yu Zhen.

        The list of items Tseng needed to get were not much; just a lot of everyday conveniences such as matches, tubed toothpaste, extra animal feed, and a health potion for the local medicine man. He was able to get through this shopping rather quickly, for business transactions in this part of the world were very much strictly business. It was something that initially caught him off guard, so accustomed he was to the chatty, smiling sales clerks in Midgar who were generally trained not to let a customer even lift a bag without offering some assistance. Tseng thinks he's mostly thankful for this change; he got enough odd stares as it were without his bad Jiangnan being thrown into the mix through strained conversation.

        "Two bags of black tea." He told the last vendor of his trip. He was using his own gil to buy Lin Mei this tea. She was very fond of it, but did not have the funds lately to splurge on it. He looked up, noting the sun. He should be back in Wu Shan a little before noon. Perhaps she could brew the tea for supper...

        "Move! NOW!"

        Tseng turned his head towards the commotion happening to the right of him. There was someone on the ground surrounded by rolling cabbages and scattered beans. Before them were three burly men dressed in matching dark blue robes tied back with black sashes and wearing fingerless black gloves. The one standing centre was a tall, broad-shouldered man whose stature reminded Tseng tremendously of Rude. He was bearing down on the civilian,

        "Respect me now!?" He bellowed at the top of his lungs.

        Rude was never quite so loud...

        The fallen man scrambled back as the ruffian struck the ground by the civilian's crotch with his foot. The crowd began to slow down and surround the strangers; some were even protesting the harassment. But the three bullies only taunted them, daring anyone to step forward. Two young men eventually burst forth from the crowd, charging at them with raised fists. It all happened in the span of less than a minute. The trio stopped them at their wrists, grabbed their heads, then rammed it on their knees. Blood gushed forth from the contenders' noses as they fell to the ground. Then the same loud brute gave a vicious cry as he raised his foot high, then shattered his opponent's head in, bursting it open like a melon. Shrieks of protest turned into shrieks of horror as the crowd backed away from the atrocious trio and the one young man left still alive tried to crawl away in a haze. There was the sound of pleading, a shout, then a vile wet sound as the second man was murdered. Bile rose in Tseng's throat.

        "Who else?" the brute shouted, "Who else?!"

        Most of the civilians turned away in horror or fear; Tseng, however, was staring openly at the scene and stood close enough to be noticed. The brute pointed straight towards him,

        "Are you next?" he sneered, taking a step forward.

        "Shanzhao!"

        The trio turned towards someone new, another man dressed in the same garments as them, who proceeded to scold them in a fierce but low voice. He then turned to leave and they started reluctantly to follow him, but not before the monstrous one turned back towards Tseng to make a final threat,

        "The next time I see you, your head is going on a fucking spike,” he spat, “You dirty Wut.”

        And it was over.

        The buzzing in his front pocket brought Tseng out of his daze and he blinked twice. What was he doing? He stood stupidly in front of the tea vendor for a moment before fishing out some gil and dropping in on the vendor's table. The vendor turned at the sound of dropping coins then moved trembling fingers to retrieve his order of tea, but Tseng was already moving away, and with that, more of the gory scene in the streets was revealed. The vendor suddenly could not find the voice to call after Tseng and promptly passed out.

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

        "I came to this place to escape this sort of thing."

        It was only after he made his rounds and dropped off the different goods to their respective households that Tseng realised that he forgot the tea for Lin Mei. It made no difference to the old woman, who greeted Tseng as normal before heating up a pot of water and dried tea leaves and frying some fish as normal.

        Normal.

        Neither she nor Huang Yu had a clue of what just transpired in Yu Zhen. Perhaps they would hear about it soon enough as word of the event travelled from mouth to ear, then mouth to ear, until it reached this inconspicuous little place. They might even wonder why Tseng hadn't mentioned anything at all.

        "I came to this place to escape this stupid violence."

        Rarely has he ever seen death play out like that, even in his old line of work. The Turks were trained to kill neatly and precisely—ShinRa didn't like having big messes to clean up after, Sector Seven aside. Hell, even Reno knew to keep things toned down, despite being naturally inclined towards the theatrical. But what did it matter in the end? Wasn't death always a violent affair to the ones being dealt it unwillingly?

        That night Tseng laid on his bed for hours before remembering suddenly that his PHS buzzed earlier. He got up, dug through his discarded jeans, and flipped open the device to a single text.

        eat my nuts

        Reno.

        He walked to the other side of the small room where a single, old dresser lined the wall. He pushed it aside until the faux floor piece underneath came into view, knelt down beside it, then lifted the top. There it all was. Gil, one Poison materia, a Full Cure, a Shield, three Hi-Ethers, four Hi-Potions, two Elixirs, two compact handguns, and a shit ton of ammo that he overzealously confiscated.

        He was so sure that Reno was going to be sent to kill him and thus, he was prepared to fight. Every night he would shove the drawer aside, pull out a gun to sleep with, then put it all away again when he lived to see another morning. He was going to fight him, but he also vowed to himself that he was not going to kill him. He had to kill old colleagues of his who were considered a liabilities to ShinRa in the past, absolutely, but that was when he was a still a Turk.

        Tseng swallowed thickly as he switched off the safety on his gun. Would it be the same? No. No. Now he was just a man looking to defend himself and probably his neighbours. It wasn't the same.

        "You'd understand Baba, wouldn't you?" he thought, running a thumb along the barrel, "It isn't the same."

Chapter Text


 .o.

.~o.O.o~.

Chapter Five: In The Name of Science

.~o.O.o~.

.o.


 

         He would catch glimpses of her loopy, playful cursive in the reports that she would leave her colleagues and in the remarks that she would leave in the journals of her pupils. Later, when they began to really notice each other, she would leave him precious little notes, then whole letters when they weren't in the same city. It would become just another object of his infatuation. Something else about her that she did with the utmost grace. He'd recognise her handwriting anywhere.

         For hours, he was gnawing away at his mind for some sort of excuse, each one sounding more ridiculous than the last. Maybe she was tricked into writing this? No. She was much too clever. Perhaps someone took pieces from her other work and put them together here? No. Not That was just tremendously stupid. Maybe someone undertook the painstaking task of learning her script and faking her notes? But why would they have even bothered? It's not as though Hojo could have possibly banked on Vincent reading this one day. No, no. These were definitely Lucrecia's notes written by her own hand to document her own work.

         He was hunched over the desk, journal gripped in his human hand as he consciously sucked in and blew out a breath. His fingers were tearing into a page written by the woman herself.

         1133 hrs

         Subject shows no sign of breathing post-op. Advising that subject be put on respirator.

         1752 hrs

         Heartbeat detected. Proceeding with twice boiled mako injections.

         The most plausible excuse that he came to was that she was threatened. A man such as Hojo surely had a long reach and access to the sorts of secrets that undid people; ruined them. And men like Hojo had neither the compassion nor shame to keep from using those secrets. Yes, it was likely he stooped to some lowly tactic in order to browbeat her into submission.

         And yet, this excuse did not bring Vincent comfort. A large part of him still held fast to a choking resentment. Flipping page after page revealed that she worked on him for months on in. Page after page with her notes, her hypothesis, her discoveries, her conclusions. All written with a cold, detached hand. He was merely 'subject' or 'specimen'. Sometimes he died, sometimes he was "alive." Sometimes he bleed, sometimes he oozed. He did not matter. It was all about the science at the end of the day.

         Did he really mean so little to her in the end? Even as he made her his whole world? Was she really so spineless that she went through with all that Hojo demanded of her regardless? Even at the price of their love? Even at the price of her child ?

         Oh, what a laugh his father would be having at his pathetic son's expense if he could see him now. He could almost hear it, loud and mocking and echoing down the halls of the Balendin House. Then he'd lecture Vincent, as he was wont to do, going on and on and on about the 'fickleness of women.'

         The monsters were ecstatic. He could feel them straining to burst through, their presence a hundred spiked weights against the flimsy restraint of his mind. They were thumping their tails and stretching their limbs and sharpening their claws. It was painful trying to hold it all in, but he just had to. He knew the moment that he let go, they would go after the nearest living things: the villagers. Vincent hissed and buried his head in his arms. He had to fight it. He was not a monster. No. He would prove them all wrong.

         So long has he been in the company of his own beasts that he could immediately recognise which of them were making any kind of noise or speech: Hellmasker was shrill and spoke in short sentences; Death Gigas grunted single words; the Galian Beast merely growled and roared; and Chaos was always the the most sinister and provocative, as well as the most coherent. So when a new voice drifted to his ears, Vincent was immediately on high alert. It couldn't be, could it? A new sort of dread clutched at his heart at the prospect of some buried demon being awakened in light of the revelation of Lucrecia's betrayal.

         And yet...there was something strange about this voice. It did not hold any of the malice of his other demons. In fact, it sounded...disturbingly human. The mysterious voice grew louder and louder until it was right outside the door and this time, Vincent could make out every word.

         "Remember! Even if it's just Lockhart, we're kicking her ass if she's trouble, okay?!"

         There was a loud creeaak as the lab door opened. Vincent immediately sensed the apprehension of the newcomers. Regrettably, so did the others.

         "FRESH MEAT!"

         However long Vincent was sitting in that dreadful place, it was long enough for the sun to rise again, for a dim light was filtering through the grainy glass panels that ran along the top plate of the south and east wall. Thus, he could readily make out some of the features of the intruders when he looked up. Much to his surprise, however, he was met not with the sight of overalls and warm fall sweaters, but with a pair of navy blue suits. It was two of the Turks; or ex -Turks, he supposed. Reno and Rude. He stared them down in shock.

         "What are you two doing here?"

         The one named Reno appeared, at first, equally as surprised, but seamlessly recovered his cool, smiling like a rotten child with a naughty secret as he slid his free hand into a pocket of his jacket nonchalantly. The dual, blood red tattoos running along his cheeks made him look especially wicked. Vincent was sure that he, himself, bore that same, cruel grin many a time in his youth whenever he was being scolded by the nanny for taunting and teasing his sickly sister...

         "We could ask you the same question, yo." he answered smoothly as he made a show of clicking off the EMR in his other hand, "Don't you have some bad history here, Valentine?"

         The words stung him and hastened the ticking time bomb from within. He struggled against the lurch of the beasts and lifted his heavy head to glare fully at the Turk.

         "Get out."

         Reno only laughed incredulously, "Really? This is technically ShinRa's property, you know."

         "ShinRa has fallen."

         "Details, details." he said with a dismissive wave of his hand.

         Vincent bared his teeth. He tried to sound as intimidating as possible as he growled, "Get out!"

         His adversary only smiled wider, "We're just browsin', yo."

         With that he turned his back towards Vincent and Chaos demanded that he attack now. His golden claw dug grooves into the oak desk.

         "Old Rude and I were just feelin' kind of nostalgic, you know?" Reno continued as he picked up a random book from the shelf and flipped through the pages, "Real interesting stuff here that Hojo got into with that...what's her face? The second-in-command chick that was always with him?"

         "Lucrecia Crescent." his partner answered quietly.

         Heat flushed through Vincent's body. He would not, could not have them speak about her in his presence. He pinned his eyes on Rude, whose expression was obscured, as always, by his shades. Oh, how he longed to rip the tongue right out of his mouth! His own went dry as beads of perspiration perched atop his lip. He noticed a twitch of Rude's arm as he braced himself, like a rabbit readying itself to run.

         "Yeah!" Reno shouted. The sound of a book slamming was like a gunshot, "Huh. Must have sucked being her, yo. Stuck in a lab all day with nothing better to look at than Mr. Weird-Creepy-And-Ugly. I've seen a picture of her, yo. Friggin' hot. Wonder if he ever tried to hit on her." Reno shivered, "Gross, yo."

         "She was his wife." Rude answered again.

         "Seriously!?" He cackled as he slammed another book shut, "Now how the hell did he get anyone to marry him?"

         "I've heard some rumours." Rude said suggestively. His partner snorted,

         "So either she was blackmailed into marrying the fucker or she was just as fucking creepy. Seriously, yo. Or," Reno shrugged, "She was lookin' for a way to climb that company ladder fast , yo. Probably got on her knees every night to do the ol'—"

         "You will not finish that sentence." Vincent warned. His demons gave a shrill sort of cry that pecked at his eyes. He closed them as he tried to breath deeply, but his resolve was nearly spent. He was a strand away from snapping. And upon hearing Reno's next words...

         "What's the matter, Valentine? Miss out on a taste of the company treat?"

         ...it broke.

         There was the loud crack and boom of gunshots firing followed immediately by a searing pain in his right shoulder. The Galian Beast within howled with ferocious fury, the sound projecting unnaturally out of his mouth. He grasped his aching shoulder as his joints began to twist within him. A small, sane part of him cursed himself for allowing himself to be baited like this before one of his monsters stirred forth and pushed outwards, gliding around like a snake across his burning chest. He lurched forward and began to gag, feeling as though he were vomiting up a very large animal. The demon known as Hellmasker was filling his every thought, his voice digging into his ears like pin needles, screeching and wild with excitement and bloodlust. It was the only thing that Vincent could hear as darkness began to pool in his vision.

         "PEEL THE FLESH! STRIP THE BONE! DANCE IN BLOOD! MURDER! MURDER! MURDER!"

 


.o.

.~o.O.o~.

.o.


 

         Dr. Malia Mahoney was the luckiest woman in the world. She had to be! She was working a high paying job that she loved in Junon's booming Materia and Bio-Science Research Facility; she recently been invited to work on a high-profile project at said facility; and on top of it all, she had The World's Sweetest Girlfriend to come home to every night that she swears may be The One. She was a long ways away from her hometown on Cactus Island where no one would have thought her capable of accomplishing all that she has. Those terrifying moments when it looked as though she were going to lose it all with the coming of Meteor and the emergence of the WEAPONs seemed so, so far away now. Oh, she felt about as sunny as the polka-dotted dress beneath her lab coat!

         "Good morning!" she chirped, waving to a couple of her coworkers. She wasn't answered with half as much enthusiasm, but that would not damper her spirits. She busted her ass to be here, outranking classmates who were groomed for this line of work since they were small children and, damn it, she was going to enjoy every last bit of breaking the mould.

         She stopped by the conference room to microwave an hour old donut and coffee and munched away as she zig-zagged through colleagues that were zipping to and fro the facility like worker bees. She made it to the other side of the hall with minimal coffee spillage and clacked down the stairs to the wide silver door that had a sheet of paper taped high in the centre that read: "AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY." She stuffed the rest of her breakfast in her mouth, tossed her cup in the bin to her left, then wiped her hand on one thigh before wiping out her badge and sliding it into the small black card reader on the side. The door unlocked with a satisfying beep and Malia couldn't help it. She squealed! Only she and twelve others had access to this part of the lab. She basked in the feeling of smugness. She's earned it.

         The door closed behind her with a dulled click as she turned right at the first hallway and eventually stood in front of the briefing room. She had to slide her badge to get into there as well.

         Three other coworkers were already present and whispering heatedly amongst themselves. They waved halfheartedly at Malia as she took a seat and scooted it over towards the group. They quickly resumed their umpteenth debate regarding mako and materia theory.

         "And this was the material point between the scientists who were still working upstairs and the ones who were sitting below." thought Malia, "One poured as much energy into their work as they did figuring out who was seeing who while the other get genuinely upset if your personal thoughts on the Cetra fell more in line with Hojo's theory than Gast's."

         "What do you think, Malia?" Rasim asked sharply, turning towards her "Couldn't one technically make their own materia with the same or even greater potency as natural materia if they mimicked the natural conditions and used a highly concentrated form of mako?"

         "Assuming raw mako isn't illegal in this scenario?"

         Rasim rolled his eyes, "Obviously."

         Malia was spared from giving an answer when the rest of the team walked in with their boss bringing up the rear.

         Malia sat bone straight and fixed her chair as Dr Niles Pique walked in and assumed his position at the centre end of the table, just a seat away from her. As usual, he has managed to out-bright even her what with his loud neon pink-and-green bow tie and dark fuchsia spectacles that were nearly obscured by a mop of curly, dyed, burnt orange hair.

         "Morning everyone." he said as he dug into his bag. He took out a small, black, cylinder container and carefully placed it on the table.

         "Morning, Doctor." they answered in unison, eyeing the mystery item.

         "Alright." he sat up and started a slow pace from one end of the room to the other, hands behind his back, "For the better part of the year or so, we have embarked on quite a journey of discovery. We've observed many ways in which natural materia can be utilised to better the living conditions of man. We've made engines out of lightning materia. Made stove bombs out of fire materia..."

         This earned a laugh around the table. Who could forget that notorious episode?

         "...We've even taken steps to accelerate the process of reaching maximum potency in materia without using the item itself. Thanks to the combined efforts of you twelve here especially, we've come a long way. That's why you're here today. You've earned it. And I trust that with your help..." He stopped pacing and paused for dramatic effect, "...we can take things a step further."

         He took the cylinder container, unscrewed it, then dug into his pockets for a mini pair of tongs. Slowly, he reached in and retrieved a tiny vial full of a glowing, blueish-green liquid. Everyone observing collectively gasped.

         "Mako?" Malia asked in awe.

         "Yes." Dr Pique purred, grinning from ear to ear, "Raw mako. Free of any impurities. The highest grade that there is."

         "We've...it's...?"

         "Still illegal to mine and handle, yes. For the average Tom, Dick, and Jane, anyway. But this team has been given special privileges as well as a special mission: to use mako in the way that this Planet intended. Not to fuel our cars or homes or devices, but to fuel human kind. Now," Dr. Pique put away the vial and screwed back on the top of the container, "By the looks on your faces, I can already tell what some of you are thinking—"

         "That this is absolutely insane?"

         Malia turned towards Rasim, shocked to find his knuckles strained and his face twisted in anger as sweat collected on his brow.

         "I assure you that we're not aiming for anything like the SOLDIER program that ShinRa was notorious for." Dr. Pique put up a placating hand, "We're not aiming for the production of killing machines. We're looking to better the health and extend the life of the average human."

         Rasim scoffed, "Have we learned nothing from the past couple of months? That you can't just take from the Planet because it will defend itself?"

         "What does that have anything to do with anything Dr. Pique is saying?" someone spoke up from the opposite end of the table, clearly annoyed.

         "The WEAPONS!" Rasim shouted, jumping to his feet, "The things that the Planet sent against the cities. Did we forget them? Are we going to pretend that we've never heard about the cases of SOLDIER candidates who have gone mentally insane and, or became terminally ill because their bodies rejected mako conditioning?"

         "Can you even prove—"

         "Please! We are not about to argue with each other." Dr. Pique said sharply, "Now, Dr. Nagi, if you feel so strongly about the project, you are more than welcome to walk out that door and I'll get you a nondisclosure to sign before the day is out. But know that if you do choose to step down now, I will take a personal interest in seeing that you are let go permanently from this facility as soon as possible. The last thing this place needs is cowardly individuals who lack imagination."

         "With all due respect, sir," Rasim raised his voice over the eruption of applause from a handful of his coworkers, "If speaking up against something that is clearly counterproductive and dangerous is cowardly, well, then I guess I am a coward. Why the hell are we trying to justify this?! I lost my brother to a WEAPON, and now you're setting us on a trajectory to anger the Planet again? When are we going to learn?"

         "Please remove yourself, Dr. Nagi!"

         Rasim looked pleadingly to his colleagues, "Please! We can all take a stand now. You know this is wrong."

         "I'm calling security."

         Malia looked on in horror as Rasim continued ranting about the Planet and WEAPONs and mako and SOLDIER. The colleague who had been silenced earlier spoke up again to challenge him on proving the leap from mako science to total planetary destruction while another argued that using raw mako would hardly be different from using natural materia and for a moment, everyone but her and a select few others were caught up in the uproar with Dr Pique failing to silence them until he threatened to pull them all off the project. Then the guards finally came.

         "You're making a mistake!" Rasim shouted breathlessly as he was pulled away, "This is insane! We're no better than ShinRa. You're making a mistake!"

         The door was shut behind them, leaving the room in deafening silence as the scientists that remained shifted awkwardly in their seats.

         "Anyone else object?" Dr. Pique asked quietly, the exasperation in his voice tangible. Malia nibbled on her bottom lip as she thought about Rasim. The poor, poor guy! Gaia knows how she might rationalise things if she lost family to any of the WEAPONs. Though she did not agree with everything Rasim said, she did not entirely disagree either. But she, along with everyone else, did not say a word. Dr. Pique sighed loudly, "Good. Good. Now as I was saying..."

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

         Pique took the silver handle of his office door and pushed it till the lock clicked shut. He took a deep breath as he undid his tie.

         "What a day." he muttered, plotting down in his chair and booting up his computer. That little outburst from the Mideelan did not come entirely as a surprise; these things were always bound to happen in the pursuit of ambitious science. He's been in this line of work for a little over thirty years now and scandalised persons in white coats tearing off their badges in obnoxious displays of self-righteousness was not a particularly uncommon sight. Nor was it something he was about to lose sleep over. Hojo certainly never did.

         Minimising a tab of pornography, Pique opened the government software used to store confidential information. He double-clicked an icon reading "M.E.P." and browsed for the list he made of the top twenty candidates. "If Rasim Nagi wants to throw away the honours." thought he as he backspaced his name from the number eight spot and moved the next five names up for a complete set of twelve, "Then I suppose Russell Fielding will have to take his place..."

         There was a knock at the door and Pique retained from groaning too loudly.

         "Yes?"

         "It's Malia Mahoney, sir."

         He perked up. Malia Mahoney, huh?

         "Oh." He sat up a little straighter and ran a hand through his hair, "Come in."

         Had he bought into the idea of a divine entity watching over them all, he might have thanked them now for affording him this opportunity to take in Dr Mahoney's appearance in her entirety. She was just his type of woman: plump, tan, brunette, brilliant, and stylish. The sight of her has left him fantasizing about what it would feel like to get a handful of her generous flesh as he ploughed away at her on more than one occasion...

         She smiled, looking slightly abashed, "Hi, Doctor. I hope I'm not interrupting anything."

         "Not at all." he smiled back. He was pretty sure she had a crush on him, "What was it that you needed?"

         "Oh, I'm about to clock out now, but before I left, I just wanted to take a chance to thank you tremendously for choosing me as one of many to partake in this opportunity. I am so, so excited to push the limits of mako science!"

         "Oh," he waved a hand, "It's absolutely nothing. You've proven yourself to be terribly good at your job and I wouldn't have asked you to jump aboard if I didn't think you worthy." he gestured to a chair stuffed into a corner of his tiny office, "Take a seat."

         "Oh, I couldn't. I really just wanted to let you know since I didn't get a chance to downstairs."

         "So you won't be abandoning me like Nagi did?"

         He tried to play it off as a joke, but she actually looked visibly troubled, "Oh, no, sir..."

         He was curious, "What did you make of that little episode downstairs, by the way? Did you agree with any of the, well, 'points' that he made?"

         She worried her lip a bit, a sight he found embarrassingly tantalising, "I can honestly say that I, at least, empathise with where Dr Nagi was coming from."

         "Oh, yes." he cut in, "Dead brother."

         "...Right. And, obviously, it's pretty common knowledge to anyone who works this closely with any ally government of the ShinRa’s' that the SOLDIER program did have the occasional rotten egg in the dozen due to mako poisoning, but as you've stated, this isn't SOLDIER. And I do believe that with a capable team, we can utilise mako in a better way to help others. To counter the poisoning. To make a better future."

         The corners of Pique's eyes crinkled as the sides of his lips turned up, delighting in the ways her eyes grew bright with excitement, "I'm glad to hear it."

         She nodded, looking flushed and happy as a comfortable silence filled the room.

         "Well," she said after a moment, "I'll be going now. Can't let the dog starve." she giggled.

         "Oh, yes." He stood to shake her hand, "Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to working with you."

         "And I with you!"

         Her hand was pleasantly warm and he held onto it just a smidge too long. Long enough for the smile on her face to waver and for her to get out the door perhaps a little faster than she would have if he hadn’t just creeped her out. He sighed.

         "Perhaps one of these days." he thought dreamily as he contemplated the door, thinking back to the last thing she mentioned about mako.

         "A better future, huh?" He smiled as he sat himself back in his seat, fingers resting over his belly, "Hmm... Something like that."

Chapter Text


.o.

.~o.O.o~.

Chapter Six: New Midgar, Old You

.~o.O.o~.

.o.


 

          Junon and Kalm were in a bit of a bind.

          When the dust settled and the sky cleared and the rivers of Lifestream seeped back into the Planet, President Fito Silva of Junon and Prime Minister Katherine Beaufort of Kalm suddenly found themselves facing a second, monumental crisis: the hundreds of thousands of Midgarian refugees camped just outside their respective state limits. As participating members of East Nations United and the most intimate allies of what was once the Midgar state, they were burdened with an obligation that became more and more bothersome as the days went on. There were never enough tents, enough blankets, enough food, nor enough water. And those who were displaced were starting to grow just as restless as the leaders expected to do right by them.

          The proposal to naturalise a number of refugees was one that was met with fierce opposition from Junonians and Kalmish citizens alike. Midgar earned quite the reputation as a nation that rested atop a plethora of criminals. Indeed, it was not a particularly uncommon belief amongst those who only knew Midgar through television screens and the daily paper that the Slums were, in fact, an elaborate prison of a sorts. Very few people wanted to risk having a slum dweller weed their way into the general population; one must be thinking of the children after all!

          The visits on anti-immigration blogs hit record highs while the approval ratings of more lenient state officials were projected to hit record lows. It had only been a couple of days after Meteor and protesters could already be spotted camping outside government institutions with smaller clusters of counter-protesters coming out to meet them.

          Aside from the problem resting just outside their borders, the fall of ShinRa and the worldwide resolve to abstain from mako energy plunged the nations into a secondary sort of crisis.

          Old, cleaner forms of energy production had to quickly be revitalised. Wind farms were hastily reopened in Kalm while steam-powered generators in Junon sputtered to life for the first time in decades. As the nations began to make the switch as quickly as possible with only the last of their mako preserves to ease the transition, power outages became a daily occurrence in the first month. This only served to enrage an already pissed off public, whose last shreds of sympathy were quickly snatched from their hearts in light of the fact that they could no longer peacefully watch their television dramas, tinged as each hour's viewing was with the fear of a random outage.

          The annihilation of their sister state was hurting the ENU in ways they never anticipated, simply because they never dreamed that a giant like Midgar could be taken down. Not in a million years. It was once the superpower of the entire world and now it was vanished. Just like that.

          Well, no. Not entirely.

          In light of the abrupt influx of immigrants and an agitated populace of potential voters, there was an immediate rush to revive and stabilise the Midgar state, and Reeve Tuesti was quickly recognised by the ENU as the most competent and eligible candidate to oversee just that. The fact that all the other state officials who worked under ShinRa's presidency were dead, Reeve would impishly tell you, a touch of rouge dusting his features, probably played a crucial part in making that decision.

          It was thus arranged by the time that the summit rolled around that all remaining wealth, assets, trade agreements, and treaties that accumulated under ShinRa over the years were to be under Reeve's jurisdiction and handled with the assistance of the Kalmish government. He, in essence, was going to be the acting as the new president of all that ShinRa built.

          As one might expect, Reeve was totally flushed with the enormous task before him, but being the natural optimist that he was, he saw it as an opportunity for the world to really start afresh. He began to grow bubbly with anticipation as he imagined a state where opportunity was afforded to all and the wealthy could be persuaded to lend a hand in helping the poor. Where the state was no longer dependent on mako energy and those who suffered as a direct result of ShinRa's business endeavours were rightly compensated. And as he was being politely congratulated by new associates and allies who all passionately vowed to work towards a better tomorrow with him, he felt little reason to believe that Gaia and New Midgar couldn't be headed towards a brighter future. But that was before his allies and associates corresponded in secret later on to discuss how much they disliked Reeve before passionately vowing to make his life a living hell.

          Contracts were ripped apart like letters of a lover scorned and trade deals were immediately challenged the day that the ENU officially recognised Reeve as the legitimate executive head of New Midgar. Some of the more politically savvy refugees even had the audacity to hang "NOTMYPRESIDENT" signs made from newspaper clippings in front of their respective tents and new polls were created as a means of properly conveying just how much the general public distrusted him. Furthermore, the personal wealth of the ShinRas—which far exceeded the money made by the government they ran and was a sum that Reeve was counting on as he envisioned the rebuilding of the future—could not be released to New Midgar for the laws under which the ShinRas made their wills did not technically exist anymore. And according to some wisecrack, old lawyer of the late ShinRas, who reminded Reeve tremendously of his sadistic uncle who seemed to take great pleasure in purposely tripping him during family football games only to vehemently deny ever doing so afterwards, Reeve would have to first enforce the law under similar conditions that the will was originally written before he could demand the money be released to him. In essence, to get the money, he needed to be physically operating within his own nation with its own bank and treasury; a nation that had yet to be rebuilt and, ironically, could be rebuilt with the Gaia damned ShinRa money.

          It would become all too clear that aside from Prime Minister Beaufort and President Silva, Reeve had very few allies in this new world of politics...

          "That...alright, but...okay. Right. Yeah, yeah. Sure, I understand. Right. You have a good day."

          He gripped the handle of the phone for a long moment as he began to slowly count backwards from one hundred. When he got to fifty-seven, he felt calm enough to let out a deep breath and replaced the receiver on its base like a sane person before lightly pressing the palm of his hands into his eyes.

          What the hell was he going to tell Cid? They talked extensively about Reeve funding and providing the supplies for Cid's very own line of airships that he would make exclusively for New Midgar. There were even mentions of rebooting the space program in time. He just needed to contract a supplier of aluminium and steel is all. Easier friggin' said than done.

          Reeve groaned as he dragged his fingers to his lips. Was the entire world conspiring against him? Did no one really want to see him succeed? Never in his life has he ever felt so much bone-crushing pressure. Such agonising anxiety. In the past month alone, he has endured more consecutive disappointments on the daily than his entire life prior put together. He was almost certain of that! Oh, how he would gladly undergo graduate school all over again, any day of the week, just to get away from all this bureaucratic crap.

          He bared his teeth as he thought back to the snivelling, cackling man on the phone who just denied him yet another deal. He was too damn nice. That was always his problem. His first instincts were always to create solutions that appealed to as many people as possible—he was never very good at browbeating, nor did he enjoy it. Not as himself anyway. Maybe if he started making calls as his bolder Cait Sith persona...

          Bzzzzz!

          The intercom jolted him out his thoughts. He whimpered. These days, he felt very much like curling up on the loveseat situated on the far right side of this office he's been kept prisoner in and sobbing for his late, sweet Nana, who would spoil him rotten in all the ways the world would not: with love, patience, understanding, cookies...

          Reeve pressed the speaker button on the machine that rested atop of the large, cherry wood desk and strained to keep all of his ire out of his voice; it wasn't his employee's fault that he agreed to do the job from hell after all,

          "...Yes?"

          "It's your wife, sir."

          Reeve felt as though someone was winding a rubber band around his chest as he took in a sharp breath. Amira was here? His eyes flickered to the picture he kept on his desk of his three girls taken two years ago on a trip that he had to skip...

          ...Why hadn't she phoned him as soon as they reached Kalm?

          Riiing! The telephone went off and Reeve released his hold on the green "SPEAK" button that he thoughtlessly put his finger on. He picked up the phone,

          "Yes?" Why did he sound so breathless?

          "Your speaker was still on, sir."

          "Oh." Reeve said softly, feeling frazzled, "Oh! Oh, right. Sorry. Um, yes, send my wife. Her in, please. Thank you."

          "Yes, sir."

          "Okay." Reeve breathed into the receiver though he already heard a click as the phone was hung up from the other side. He slowly put the phone down and stretched his arms before him on the desk as he began to chew on his cheeks. Then he folded them when that began to feel awkward. Should he be standing up?

          He was standing up when she entered. All at once he was washed over with dual senses of remorse and longing. He took in her bobbed, dark, wavy hair that he has not run his fingers through in so long, her golden skin that he hasn't kissed, and her full, roundish figure that he hasn't caressed garbed in a cream coloured blouse and a pleated maroon skirt. She was beautiful in a soft sort of way and it still stunned him. He swallowed his nerves and smiled. Her rouged lips smiled back.

          "Hey, there." She said, sounding tired.

          There's been this perpetual tiredness to her voice for a long time now; he can fondly remember the days when it wasn't there.

          "Hey," he responded, trying to sound cheerier than he felt as he walked around the desk and crossed the distance to her. She pursed her lips as though she noticed the act he was putting on. Well, she would, wouldn't she? She has been his best friend since university after all.

          His raised his hands with the intention of putting them over her own clasped tightly in front of her skirt, but he slid them down his thighs at the last second.

          "Just got back from the trip?" He had them sent to their vacation home in Amira's hometown in Costa del Sol when things were looking dangerous in Midgar.

          "I did."

          "And the kids?" He realised that he very much needed to see them, to hold them.

          "They're at Jamila's apartment."

          "Oh?" Reeve said, brows tilted upwards as he clenched and unclenched his fists. The Kalmish government were generous enough to lend Reeve the mansion left behind by the ShinRas when the last living ShinRa passed away. He was using it as a headquarters until he could build his own headquarters, and he already designated a part of the west wing for his family to stay in when they returned from the Central Continent. He discussed this with her several times over the phone during the past month while she was staying back to look after her ailing mother. He tried not to sound accusatory when he asked, "I didn't realise that Jamila moved to Kalm?"

          Amira frowned, "She hasn't. They're still in Costa del Sol with their grandmother."

          "Oh. How is Belén?"

          Amira sighed and hugged her arms around herself, "She's not getting any better. Only a matter of time now."

          "I'm so sorry." Reeve frowned, his heart aching for her as he pulled her in for a hug, "You know if there's anything that she needs, I'm your guy, right?" He added when he pulled back to look into her eyes.

          Amira was looking down at their toes as she began to chew on her cheeks. "A nervous habit," he thought affectionately, "That she picked up from me..."

          "I'm going back, Reeve. I just needed to talk to you in person." she shrugged, keeping her eyes on the floor. Reeve felt his heart pick up as he began to panic. She only ever behaved evasively like this when she wasn't looking forward to saying something that needed to be said. The last time she was curled into herself like this and only spoke to answer his questions, she eventually admitted that she was unhappy. ShinRa was always highly demanding of his time after he was promoted to Director of Urban Development, but this past year was especially hard with his constant spying on—then fighting alongside with—Cloud Strife and his gang. Reeve hardly got to see his family at all. He missed birthdays and anniversaries for the third or fourth time this past year. Now, with his recent assumption as President of an ailing nation, he was busier than ever before.

          He missed his family tremendously of course, so much so, that he would find it hard to breathe some days. Often, when he was still employed under ShinRa, he'd sit in his office, forgoing some task he promised to have done by the end of the week, and just sit there reminiscing on days lost, when his oldest could speak to him a little easier and his second oldest still bothered to draw him pictures. There were especially many a difficult evening where Reeve would physically ache for his wife—a little dilemma he's had to take care of himself on more than one occasion. Even now, holding her close and breathing her in, Reeve felt a strong desire to take her somewhere quiet where he could ravish her properly...

          He let out a long sigh as he continued to rub his wife’s back. Reeve felt a crushing obligation to the Midgarian people, then and now. If he hadn't thrown himself into doing all that he could to secure a brighter future, hundreds of thousands of people would be permanently displaced and Reeve did not think he could rest easy with that thought on his conscious.

          Besides, he was sure—so sure—that so long as he kept pushing through, just as he had as a child; just as he had as a student in university; just as he had as a ShinRa intern; that he would be magnificently rewarded. That all the hard work and gruelling hours and sleepless nights would pay off tenfold.

          It was curious how far away all of that seemed when the woman he loved was standing in front of him, feeling miles away despite their being pressed up against each other. Reeve had the sudden and terrible sense that he's made some dreadful mistake somewhere along the line, and that he was about to pay dearly for it.

          "What is it, Amy?" he asked softly. Did she hear the defeat in his voice? Amira took a deep breath and squared her shoulders, breaking his hold and looking at Reeve fully with her wide, hazel eyes made all the more striking by the kohl that lined them. Reeve must have made quite the sight, however, for there was now pity in place of what was a flash of determination.

          "Reeve." she began slowly, "You know that I love you—so much—and that I always will..."

          He could hear his own heartbeat in his ears.

          "...but I can't." Her voice caught and she shook her head to compose herself.

          "What are you saying, Amira?"

          "I can't... live like this, Reeve. I'm unhappy and I want—"

          "Mr. Tuesti? You have a Señor Alejandro Gonzalez on line three." the intercom buzzed overhead, drowning out Amira's words, but Reeve read her lips perfectly. Loud and clear.

          A divorce.

          Then he denied it. Surely there was some kind of mistake? He must have blinked. Misread her lips. But the hard resolve in Amira's eyes were confirming his worst fears.

          "Mr. Tuesti? Should I tell Señor Gonzalez to stand by?"

          "Reeve..." Amira reprimanded gently, snapping him out of his daze,

          "Uh, oh, yes. I mean. I'll call ba—"

          The intercom buzzed again, "Mr. Tuesti?"

          "Yes!" Reeve shouted, then realised what he was overlooking. Stupid, damned, over-complicated system. Why couldn't his secretary just stick to calling the phone directly? He quickly marched over to his desk, pressed the green button, then spouted out in a rush, "Yes, put him on standby, please. Or tell him to call back later. I'll get back to him. Eventually. Thank you!"

          The secretary took a second to answer back, and when she did, she sounded reproached, "...Yes, sir."

          He sighed. He was going to have to apologise to her later….

          He took a deep breath as he braced himself to face his wife again. It all still felt like something of a bad dream. He was waiting for her to shout, "Surprise!" or "Gotcha!" or something. Anything. But there was only silence. He heard her let out a heavy sigh from the other side of the room. Reeve turned and slowly walked back towards her, his bottom lip trembling slightly,

          "...Divorce?"

          "Yes, Reeve." she whispered.

          He reached towards her, but she pulled back.

          "Amira," Gently, he laid his hands on the upper part of her arm. She allowed him to this time, though she was stiff as a board, "Darling, I know I've been away and that you and the girls deserve so much better. I'm so sorry. I truly am. But things will be different soon. I promise."

          "You could've come back," she began softly, "You had a chance to. But you chose Midgar over us. Again."

          "There was nothing else I could do. I'm the only living executive of the board left. I can't just abandon these people!"

          "They would have found a solution, Reeve." Amira said, tears bright in her eyes, "But what about us? You've abandoned us."

          Reeve swallowed and gripped her arms tightly, rubbing circles with his thumbs, "It'll get better. I know I've been saying this for a while, but just stick with me, Amira. Don't do this, Amira. Please don't do this, darling. Please don't do this to the girls." his voice grew pitifully small, "After all this time?" Amira only shook her head as she looked down. Reeve leaned in to kiss her forehead but she turned away.

          "I want a divorce, Reeve."

          "Please, stop saying that, Amira."

          "This isn't working!" Amira gasped, breaking free of his hold once more, "My girls deserve better."

          "Our girls." Reeve corrected her, a bit of anger colouring his tone, "They're my girls, too."

          "And they always will be," she said carefully, "But I don't want to be your wife."

          He stared at her stupidly. Was this actually happening? He felt as though the building just gave way; that Meteor was going to hit after all. He was confused, he was hurt, and...he was angry. Really angry. He knew that he was gone a lot more often than either of them liked, but doesn't she realise that's it's been killing him, too? How dare she even insinuate that he's willfully and gleefully abandoned them? As though he could just up and quit his obligations any time that he chose? Didn't she understand who he was? Didn't she understand how much depended on him? He clenched his fist as self-righteous fury and heartache washed over him.

          "So that's it, Amira?" he seethed, "After sixteen years, that's it? Just like that?" He snapped his fingers, "Sixteen years and three beautiful girls, and you're gonna just throw it all away!?"

          The intercom turned on again, but before his secretary could get a whole sentence out, Reeve stomped over to his desk and muted the machine, He proceeded to rip out the plug for good measure.

          "Don't you talk to me like this is easy for me!" his wife countered from behind, voice rising, "I've tried to be sympathetic and I've tried really hard to be patient. I-I thought surviving Meteor was a sign that we could start over. That you'd come back to us, Reeve! But you haven't. You're still here. I mean for Gaia's sake, when Meteor was over Midgar, you weren't even with us! Nothing's changed and I-I can't. Not anymore."

          "What about me?" he turned around, "All I've been through? This hasn't been easy for me, either, you know! But I kept at it knowing that I'd come home to you and the girls!"

          "When? When were you going to come home, Reeve?"

          "I've done it all for you, Amira! So we could have a good life! I promised you that, remember?"

          She stared at him incredulously as the tears pooling at the corners of her eyes finally began their descent in ugly, black rivulets. She wiped away at her face before she sniffed once, turned around and walked towards the door, heels clacking away on the hardwood floor. The fire that ignited within Reeve quickly burned out and left him cold.

          "Amy." Reeve swallowed thickly, "Darling, I—."

          "You'll be hearing from my lawyer." she muttered softly. The door opened and, without a second glance, she was gone. Just like that. His whole world going with her.

          Reeve felt numb from head to toe. The ringing of his PHS sounded muffled and distant, as though he were far underwater. Then he took a step back, then another, until his back hit the desk and he picked up the device, vaguely aware that it was probably Cid or Cloud or Tifa calling.

          "Hello?" he said, words operating on autopilot. There was talking on the other side; male whoever it was. But Reeve couldn't register it. It was just a bunch of mush, a bunch of nonsense. He shook his head. His mind was not in the right place for this.

          "I'm sorry. I have to get back to you." he said before hanging up the phone. He stood so still that his ears honed in on the hum of electricity that ran throughout the mansion, so he noticed the abrupt pew when the power cut off for the third or fourth time that week. In the deafening silence, he buried his face into his hands as his eyes began to sting.

          Gaia damn it all.

 


.o.

.~o.O.o~. 

.o.


 

          "Not even an inkling of a signal, yo. Tsk. I would've burned this place to the ground, too."

          Rude looked up from his side of the room and glared at Reno. Reno glanced away from his phone and rolled his eyes.

          "What? I was kidding, yo." He laid back down, giving up the search for a signal for now and whipping out a Personal Gaming Console or PGC and booted up one of his games, "...Mostly."

          Rude resumed putting on his shoes, "Did you really think it was gonna change from yesterday?"

          "Dunno." He said over what sounded like moaning and something being repeatedly punched.

          Rude finished putting on his shoes, double checked the goods that lined his jacket, slipped on an empty backpack, adjusted his tie, then looked at his partner expectantly. Whatever Reno was playing was just moaning away…

          "Ready?" Rude asked tightly. He knew he should have "accidentally" dropped that accursed device when he had the chance. Reno hadn't held on to the money Silva gave them for a minute before he found something to splurge on.

          "Yeeaaah." Reno drawled, "Just...gotta...kill this boss."

          "You can kill it on the way there." Rude made for Reno's shoulder, but Reno jolted back.

          "Rude, you're probably my third favourite thing besides myself and a good lay, but I will break your fucking fingers if you fuck this up for me, yo. My whole week's been leading up to this."

          "Just get up."

          "I'm almost do—Yes." Reno sat up, his eyes growing large and the moans sounding even more pained, "Sweet Shiva, yes. I'm so close. Yes! Yeeeeeessss! You like that? Do you, bitch?! You gonna take it?! How's it taste, huh?! You like it?! Take it! Take it! YES! YESSSS!"

          Rude sucked his teeth, "I'm leaving."

          "Wait, yo! I'm coming! Let me just get my goggles."

          Rude sighed, but diligently waited while Reno stuffed his PGC in Rude's backpack, found his goggles, then adjusted them in the mirror at just the right angle.

          "Right, right. Let's blow this joint, yo."

          Stepping into the hall, they saw a young woman in a tawny brown dress and cream apron sweeping the floor. She glanced up at the sound of their footsteps, then looked away quickly with blooming cheeks that were clearly visible what with her hair pulled back in a braided crown. She looked absolutely horrified.

          "Shy, huh?" Reno presumed as his lips split into a wolfish grin. The woman felt his eyes on her and caught them in a second glance.

          "Good mornin'." he purred as they passed her by.

          "I'm sure it was." She muttered, blushing even more deeply as she averted her eyes to the floor.

          Rude sighed loudly.

          "Aww, don't worry, my bald buddy." Reno said with his usual conceit as he patted Rude's shoulder, "You'll find some lucky gal to love on ya yet, yo. I can feel it. Hell," he leaned in, "If I was batting for the other team, you'd definitely be my first choice."

          "Gee." Rude deadpanned, "That means the world coming from you..."

          "No need to be an asshole, buddy." Reno retorted as they headed into breakfast.

          After eating a modest meal and paying their dues, the Turks made their way out of the Nibelheim Inn and towards ShinRa Manor.

          The sleepy town was awash in the warm rays of morning and the Nibelheim residents were all already moving about and starting their day. Neighbours were greeting neighbours. Lumbermen were hauling axes. Farmers were feeding animals.

          Reno shook his head, repulsed.

          After the disastrous burning of the original town, ShinRa more or less annexed the area, built new homes that mimicked the old ones, then advertised the housing primarily in college towns as "The Ultimate Escape" and "A Retreat From The Rush." and, oh, of course, his favourite, "A Return to Simpler Times." As though there was anything simple about having to wake up at the asscrack of dawn and feeling up a bunch of farm animals just for your gai'damned breakfast.

          And yet, people signed up in fucking droves.

          He knew this because he had just been initiated into the Turks when the whole thing was being sold over to the public, and one of the first bullshit assignments they made him do was screen the applicants for suspicious persons, then personally meet the "winners" of the property lottery to make them all promise that they were to totally deny anything about a "town burning" should it ever happen to come up, and, finally, justifying the secrecy by feeding them some bullshit about competitors from Junon wanting to discredit the value of the property. It made little to no sense, but with the ludicrously low house prices and ShinRa’s promise to waive the property tax for the first five years, the recipients of these homes gave little to no shits.

          Regardless of the fact that ShinRa was essentially giving these houses away, Reno could not understand why anyone would willingly live in a place like Nibelheim. He liked for things to move quickly. He liked a constant element of surprise. He liked lights and noise and people. He liked seeing a new face every time you turned the corner. And he was always very much a believer in things moving forward. Towns that insisted on staying isolated and stagnant a hundred years in the past just couldn't be trusted. They produced head cases like Cloud Strife after all. And racist assholes like his cousin.

          "Let's just get this over with, yo. The sooner we're out of here, the sooner we can get back to civilisation."

          Reno took a long drag off a cigarette and held it in as they passed by the gate of the dilapidating ShinRa Manor property. Out of habit, he whipped out his phone to check for a signal then blew out his drag as he scoffed. It was a total fucking dead zone out here. Rude swatted at his hand and dragged him towards the Manor. He was quickly shaken off.

          Even in the daylight, the old house gave the two Turks the spooks, looming over them like a thing living. Reno was prattling on and on about the renovations that he would give the place to in order to lighten it up, like mowing the lawn, replacing that hideous angel fountain out front with one of those weird naked babies that play the harp, livening up the place with a fresh coat of paint, either royal blue or dark red, and installing a fucking satellite tower. Rude mostly ignored him, opting instead to focus on the long black strand of hair that was hanging off the front door frame. He reached over and rolled it between his fingers.

          "Someone's been here." he said, interrupting Reno's rant.

          "Recently?" Reno asked, leaning over to peer at Rude's hand.

          "No dust or cobwebs attached. I'm guessing very recently."

          "Pfft. Probably just a local kid, yo. Shiva knows I'd have a ball in a big ass abandoned house like this."

          Rude shook his head, "Pretty tall kid if their hair was caught at this height."

          "Maybe he was jumping." Reno yawned. Rude looked him blankly. Reno groaned, "Couldn't be that simple, huh?" he shrugged and made to open the door, "Well, it's not like we can't handle one civilian."

          Rude stopped him, "What motive would a civilian have to come here?"

          "Because it's a nice fucking house and they want to move in? Shiva's tits, Rude. Not everyone is a Turk, yo. Or part of AVA—hey!" Reno's eye light up and he dropped his voice to a stage whisper, grinning mischievously, "You don't think it's that Lockhart chick, do you? We never did find out where she and the rest of those tree huggers went after Meteor."

          Rude did not say anything but visibly blushed.

          "This is your chance, yo! Lay the mooooves on her." Reno said rocking his hips from side to side.

          Rude cleared his throat, "I doubt it's her. This strand is much too dark."

          Reno stopped swaying and blinked owlishly at his partner. Then came the wicked smile. Rude looked defiantly at him.

          "Of course you'd know that, yo."

          "..."

          "You know her cup size, too?"

          Rude coughed loudly and flicked away the strand, "Let's just go."

          "That wasn't a no, yo! You fuckin' perv!"

          Reno laughed. The sound reverberated through the wide open foyer of the manor as they opened the door, stopping them short. This place was really fucking creepy…

          "Anyway..." Reno shrugged, "Doesn't matter, yo. We'll just be on the lookout. Nothing we can't handle."

          "That's why he hired us." Rude said softly, smiling.

          "Hell, yeah!" Reno grinned, turning on his EMR and warming it up, "Let's go."

          They stepped cautiously through the house, the only sound being the low hum of the EMR and the creaking of the old planks they walked on.

          "Shit." Reno swore. He and Rude had just gone up the stairs and to the left but ended up in some room full of dead plants, then they went back down and through a hall leading south but only ended up in the kitchen. Then they ended up in what they could only describe as a "kink room" a few moments later…

          "It's been a couple of years," Reno said, exasperated, "But I'm pretty sure the lab's this way."

          After thirty more minutes of roaming around and a few accidental brushes against the tip of the EMR, they were finally able to locate the door to the basement.

          "Shit." Reno breathed upon seeing that it was already opened.

          Rude, who's elbow still itched from where the EMR kept tasing him "by accident" shoved Reno ahead.

          "Just go."

          "Is it that time of the month again, Rude? Ah! Shiva's tits, man, I'm going! I said I was sorry, yo! Damn. Gonna make me break my fucking neck..."

          They descended down the stairs with a few more choice words for each other, primarily on Reno's end, then paused when they were faced with the total blackness of the dark corridor. The air was thick and damp and rank with the smell of mould and something metallic.

          "Don't remember it being this eerie, yo." Reno whispered, pressing down on a concave button that turned on a flashlight in his EMR.

          "Just keep walking." Rude pushed him again, but gently this time.

          "I was just thinking, yo." Reno began, "Just because the door was open, doesn't mean anyone is down here or whatever. They could've just left it open from last ti—."

          The words died on Reno's lips as he and Rude took in the image of Dark Bats that looked as though someone was trying to tear them to shreds. They were all fresh kills. So that was what that metallic smell was...

          "Shit." Reno muttered again. Gaia damn it all, he thought this was gonna be a simple in-and-out. An easy little gimme. Of course those planet humpin' freaks had to go and ruin it for him...

          They finally reached the door at the end of the corridor, bodies tense and ready for the battle that was sure to come.

          "Remember!" Reno hissed, "Even if it's just Lockhart, we're kicking her ass if she's trouble, okay?!"

          Rude ignored him; he wasn't about to lay a hand on that angel.

          Rude pushed the door open, noticing first that the light was more decent than he anticipated, then paused when he caught sight of the figure slumped over on a desk in the centre of the room, thick black hair sprawled all about them. Reno's flashlight centred on the stranger, highlighting a sliver of gold behind that sheet of black hair and folds of red cloth beneath it. His blood ran cold.

          "Looks like we found our mystery guest," thought Reno, swallowing down his leaping heart, "Vincent muthafucking Valentine. The Infamous 'Devil of ShinRa.'"

          The man peered up at them, blood red eyes looking slowly from one Turk to the next, like a beast eyeing its prey before the pounce. His voice was low and dangerous, but they heard every word,

          "What are you two doing here?"

          "We could ask you the same question, yo." Reno responded, sliding his free hand into his pocket and sounding decidedly braver than he felt. Out of all the gai'damned members of Strife's little entourage, the ex-Turk unnerved him the most. Hell, he was the only one who unnerved him at all, mostly because he just could not figure him out.

          There were plenty of horror stories at ShinRa headquarters told between fellow Turks and Vincent Valentine was a favourite feature of a lot of them, coming second probably to the twisted fetish shit that the ShinRas were rumoured to be into. He was the stuff of legends; impeccable record, an almost unnatural talent for hitting the target every single time, ruthless in his pursuit of completing a task. He was ShinRa's pride. The model Turk. Reno used to tease Tseng for aspiring to be like him. 

          What made him infamous instead of just famous, however, was the way he carried himself. He was known for being cold, aloof, never willingly in the company of others and only speaking to say strange, cryptic things. Every hot-headed rookie would gaze at him with stars in their eyes and with dreams of being the one to finally impress the unimpressed. Of being taken under his wing and quickly climbing the company ladder so that they, too, would go down in ShinRa history as being One Of The Best.

          The poor suckers never stood a chance; Valentine didn't keep friends. Valentine didn't want friends. There was only ever one Turk that Valentine could be seen with outside of field work on a semi-regular basis: a silver blond, movie star handsome, and slightly goofy Iciclean by the name of Falk. But then Falk was killed in action and Valentine walked the corridors alone once more.

          Reno would hear stupid shit, like how his burgundy eyes would shine bright red with the blood of his victims, or how he'd once been seen sucking the life out of a pretty, young science intern through her neck. Hell, there were seasoned colleagues of his who swore that the one who took Falk's life was none other than Valentine himself. And Reno would brush it all off with a laugh and a smoke, enjoying the stories for what they were: stories. Seeing Valentine now, however, well, it all suddenly seemed totally plausible…

          Despite being a bit unnerved, Reno felt confident. He thought he knew a weakness of Valentine's; there were nearly as many stories concerning his disappearance as there were concerning his time with the Turks after all. If he played his cards right, he was sure that he and Rude could get out of this mostly unscathed. He posed his question carefully, a chess piece in this game, "Don't you have some bad history here, Valentine?"

          Valentine lifted his head to glare at Reno head on, a bit of his hair falling back and revealing his ghostly pale nose and cheeks and holy Shiva he not only looked like the living dead but just as young as him and Rude. Fucking impossible…

          "Get out." Valentine commanded.

          Reno laughed, "Really? This is technically ShinRa's property, you know."

          "ShinRa has fallen."

          Reno waved a hand, "Details, details."

          Valentine actually bared his teeth, "Get out!" he demanded with finality, his voice carrying the promise of death. Reno bit back on the primal instinct to escape and instead, grinned.

          "We're just browsin' yo." Reno said, turning his back on Valentine for show and moving towards the nearest shelf, picking up a book. He trusted Rude to cover him, "Old Rude here and I were feelin' kind of nostalgic, you know? Real interesting stuff here that Hojo got into with that...what's her face? The second-in-command chick that was always with him?"

          "Lucrecia Crescent." Rude answered. He knew what Reno was doing. In the dim sunlight, Rude could see the way that Valentine's whole frame tensed up from underneath his cherry red cloak.

          "Yeah!" Reno said, shutting the book and replacing it before picking up another, "Huh. Must have sucked being her, yo. Stuck in a lab all day with nothing better to look at than Mr Weird-Creepy-And-Ugly. I've seen a picture of her, yo. Friggin' hot. Wonder if he ever tried to hit on her." Reno seemed to be contemplating the idea before trembling "Gross, yo."

          "She was his wife." Rude added smoothly. Reno laughed out loud.

          "Seriously?!" he exclaimed, feigning surprise. He rummaged through a second book before slamming it shut and shoving it back into place, "Now how the hell did he get anyone to marry him?"

          Rude shrugged, "I've heard some rumours."

          Reno snorted, "So either she was blackmailed into marrying the fucker or she was just as fucking creepy. Seriously, yo. Or," Reno shrugged as well, "She was lookin' for a way to climb that company ladder fast, yo. Probably got on her knees every night to do the ol'—"

          "You will not finish that sentence." Valentine growled lowly, holding malice in every word and throwing Reno off guard. That sounded almost inhuman. Shutting out the voice in his head that was screaming, "Bad idea! Bad idea!" he turned to look Valentine straight in the eyes and pushed on, sure that he had him.

          "What's the matter, Valentine?" He said slowly, tauntingly, "Miss out on a taste of the company treat?"

          Two shots echoed through the room and a ferocious howling ripped out the throat of the man in the centre. The sound was bestial and not unlike the cry of a wild behemoth. Valentine was grasping his shoulder where Rude pinned him, and he fell forward, knocking the stack of books that had been on the desk to the floor. There was screeching coming from Valentine, but it did not sound like Valentine at all. It was too nasally, too high pitched. Reno's stomach churned as Valentine's skin began to shed like the peel off of fruit. What rose from the folds of flesh was a skeletal-like creature with skin the colour of the weathered stone fountain out front that merged into long, ebony claws. Dark, tattered pants hung from the bony hips of the creature, disappearing into high gold boots. Long black hair, like Vincent's own, sprouted from atop of a shrivelled head wrapped in bandages where a single, glowing red eye peered from beneath the wrapping. What was the most bizarre and deadly feature of all, however, was the comically mammoth chainsaw clutched tight in the creature's right hand.

          "YOU'RE DEAD!"

          Rude put up his arms as the monstrosity leapt towards him, then howled in pain as long sharp claws raked down his arm. Reno leapt forward with his EMR notched up to full power and took a swing at the beast, but it fell back from the arch of his aim. Impossibly, it heaved its heavy weapon high over him and spurred it on. The sound of the chainsaw was deafening.

          "BATHE IN BLOOD!"

          Reno ducked as the chainsaw sliced through the air, cleaving off nothing but a few snips of his bright red hair. Rude fired at the demon's exposed face, jolting it back. In its daze, Reno flung out his left leg, tripping the beast. He then brought his EMR up once more and swung with the intent of ending this fight, but a long black claw swiped it away.

          "Fuck me!" Reno snarled as his weapon went flying. He dived to his left and towards the aisle of books while Rude ran for the lab. Reno could hear maniacal laughter behind him.

          "YOU'RE EASY PICKINGS!"

          Reno grabbed a handful of books from the side and pelted them as hard as he could towards his enemy while trying to maintain a distance.

          "FUCK OFF!" He shouted.

          It only laughed and Reno could hear the rip of paper being shredded apart. He hit the thing straight in the eye with a hardback and only just looked back in time to avoid ramming into a shelf; he heard the hack of the chainsaw ripping through the wood where he was standing just seconds earlier. That damnable thing was still laughing hysterically as Reno turned the corner.

          Hope flared in his chest as he spotted his EMR and he ran towards the item with renewed vigour. He could make it. He could make it! He could—!

          "Oof!" He abruptly felt himself being jerked back as his jacket was being wrenched from him, but he shook out of it quickly, his joints popping painfully as they were forced out through odd angles. Gaia damn, that hurt.

          "Duck, Reno!" he heard Rude bellow suddenly. Years of trust sent his body flying toward the ground and rolling towards his EMR. He grabbed onto it tightly as he heard something wet hitting his pursuer and, thinking quickly, Reno switched on the voltage once more to full blast and rammed it into the creature's gut before scrambling away. The thing began to howl and its limbs contorted wildly as it crumpled to the ground and then...

          There was silence aside from the blood pounding in both their ears and the smell of burning hair. For a moment, nothing in all of Gaia felt real...

          Recovering first from the shock, Rude counted down from thirty in order to give the safety feature on Reno's EMR a chance to shut down the device before approaching the body carefully. He nudged the blanket of black hair aside with his foot. Underneath was Vincent Valentine in human form once more and, apparently, fast asleep. Reno let out a sigh, overwhelmed with an otherworldly sort of gratitude, trembling in the core of his bones. Once the relief left him, however, anger swiftly took its place. He reared back a foot aimed for the chest and kicked Valentine as hard as he could. Valentine let out a soft "oof." but did not otherwise move. Reno ripped his jacket from underneath Valentine's clawed hand.

          "We oughta just shoot the fucker right here, yo. Do the world a favour, you know?"

          Rude laughed weakly, "And get Strife on our asses? You know he wouldn't rest till he's made leather jackets out of you and me."

          Reno looked at Rude in disgust. That was a reference to one of the creepiest cases that he and Rude had ever been assigned to investigate and he really didn't appreciate that sort of teasing in the mood that he was in. Wait, what the hell? Reno's being the uptight one who won't laugh at a joke that Rude's cracking? Sweet Shiva, they needed to get out of this place…

          "Fuck." Reno breathed, hand itching for the cigarettes in his pocket. He found that they were ruined.

          "Shit." He was about to stupidly ask Rude if he happened to have a cig on him when he took in the three large lines torn through Rude's jacket, seeping with red, "Fuck, man. How's your arm, yo? Where's the cure materia?"

          "Front left pocket."

          "Why the fuck aren't you healing yourself?" Reno rummaged for it and began to heal Rude.

          "Things are starting to really hurt now." He nodded towards his left shoulder, "He pinned me when the first shots fired."

          After a moment, "You wouldn't happen to have any cigs on ya?"

          "You know I don't smoke."

          "Yeah, but maybe you carry them for me for when my jackets been torn off me and soaked in whatever the hell you threw at the fucker."

          "Just water." then, after a pause, "I didn't want to risk getting anything dangerous on you."

          "Aw, Rude. You're making me blush."

          Rude smiled and punched him with his now healed arm, "Shut up."

          A whisper of a smile played on Reno's lips but it quickly vanished, "How much are we getting paid for this shit again?" he spat, "Nearly got our asses killed and we haven't even touched a book, yet." He glanced to the side. With the rush of the chase over, he could finally take in the wrecked condition of about a third of the library. Shelves hacked into pieces and books torn apart thanks to Valentine's chainsaw monster. Aah, damn it…

          "What if one of the books this asshole shredded is the ones we need?" Reno whined.

          "They might be right here." Rude said, gesturing towards the pile of books by the tossed over the desk. Reno's eyes widened.

          "Seriously, yo?"

          "I noticed them when Valentine was first transforming. Fell out of some bag that was out of sight. Has 'J' along the spines. Looked to be around the correct size and number of volumes. Could be them."

          Reno looked slack-jawed. That would be just too easy after those hellish minutes dealing with Valentine. It was just too good to be true.

          "Looks like Valentine did us a solid, yo." He said disbelievingly, walking over to the small clutter of books with the "J" on the sides and opening the first one. Sure enough, it was exactly what they were looking for. Huh. What were the odds?

          Rude began putting the journals in the backpack, putting them in one at a time and rearranging the books once or twice to maximise space. He was only able to put away four before Reno stopped him.

          "Wait, yo. We seriously giving him all the journals?"

          Rude glanced at him over his shades, "Aren't we?"

          "Something tells me that handing over the keys to some nutcase who wants to bring back SOLDIER ain't the best idea, yo. You really want more sci-fi rejects like Strife and Valentine running around? Or another fucking Sephiroth? Something about finding out that you were put together in a lab really seems to piss these guys off, yo. The 'I wanna watch the world burn' kind of pissed."

          Rude hesitated, the next two journals in his hand, "Mako is essential in SOLDIER and mining it is illegal now. Even if Silva managed to work outside the law for a while, seems too risky for a man of his standing, what with mako energy being overwhelmingly unpopular with the public," Rude tilted his head, "Another key to Sephiroth's strength was arguably the Jenova cells ShinRa kept in supply. No one knows if the remnants of Jenova are still around but I doubt anyone wants to mess with her anyway after what happened with Meteor, nor do I think the cells can prosper without a host. In any case, I'm sure Silva lacks the sources to back up a program like SOLDIER, especially on the same scale as ShinRa had. ShinRa had the greatest surplus of wealth Gaia has ever seen." he shook his head, "Silva just doesn't measure up. The most he can do is learn some basic training regimens and maybe a bit about materia manipulation. I mean, the man has so little pride, he let Rufus take over his entire state for his inauguration just for the cash. Remember?"

          Naturally, there were occasions few and far between when Rude would get on these long tangents where he spoke so much, it almost made up for his silences. Normally, Reno teased him for it, as he was usually on the receiving end of these tangents. Normally...when he wasn't this tense.

          "Still, yo. Like you said, all that shit about Jenova is useless, right? And that shit is like the first couple of books or so. So the last four books really ought to teach him all he needs, yo."

          "He'll probably notice some books missing. Probably almost immediately."

          "So we'll tell him they were caught in the fire or whatever. Or one of the old kooks from the village must have gotten their hands on them. A lot can happen to books as important as these in a few years, yo. The fucker can look for them himself if he's so desperate. Even if he did come down here, he'll clearly see that mess." Reno gestured to the mayhem Valentine made in his manic state.

          Rude seemed to be considering his words. Finally, he nodded, arranged things so that the last four volumes were in the bag, then paused before putting in another. He cut Reno off before he could talk, "We'll just bring him five. You're right. To my knowledge, the first three were exclusively about Jenova and Sephiroth. This should be enough for him. And this way, it won't look totally suspicious."

          Reno nodded, picked up the remaining journals and pelted them as hard as he could down one of the rows of books. He strolled past Rude to the open door and Rude followed him down the corridor and up the stairs all in silence. It was not until they were in the room adjacent to the secret staircase once more that Reno laughed and said with a toothy grin,

          "That was one hell of a rush though, wasn't it, yo?"

          Rude laughed once and nodded, humouring him. Then he followed his best friend down the stairs and out the manor door and listened in comfortable silence as Reno went on and on about the badassery and invincibility of the Turks.

Chapter Text


 .o.

.~o.O.o~.

Chapter Seven: We're Friends, Right?

.~o.O.o~.

.o.


 

         Of all the years that made up her short life, those spent in Nibelheim were, by far, her happiest. These were the memories that been particularly precious to her and were hers alone to keep. She did not confide to anyone else about the breezy life she once lived in that quaint little mountain town—she did not want to.

          It seemed silly in the grand scheme of things, pining after a time that was long, long lost when the entire world was at stake. Besides, longing for Nibelheim hurt more than anything, and she was not about to cry about it all over again for anyone. And certainly not in front of anyone; she's already spilt those tears in Midgar.

         She was certain that of all her travel companions, Aeris might have had a clue concerning the truth about her past what with her knack for being unabashedly nosy and the charm she possessed that had no one minding the intrusions. Regardless, Tifa wasvery cautious and very careful not to veer too close to home. Even as Aeris was coaxing her to share some greater detail on her past with a laugh and joke, she'd go on to paint a different Nibelheim too far from her own to hurt but close enough to feel assured that Cloud’s own muddled memories couldn't quite contradict it when Aeris would ask him about it later. Or so Tifa assumed that was what she was doing—who knew what those two would talk about when they were smiling and teasing each other.

         Tifa was also certain that Aeris was far too clever and far too in tune with the workings of the Planet and people not to see past the little farce Tifa was putting on, but she never called her out on it, and so Tifa’s memories remained safely tucked away in heart and mind. That was, of course, until Cloud decided to go and bring it up.

         He kept to his room mostly those days in the time they stayed in Kalm. Outside was busy enough what with half the nation in a frenzy over the world class heroes—or criminals, depending on who you spoke to—staying in their home state, but the hotel hosting them would get the occasional guest who coughed up the cash and stalked the many halls just for a shot at running into the Cloud Strife and one of his companions.

         Yuffie and Barret were the only ones who did not mind all the attention; who would, in fact, leave the hotel grounds without fear and walk amongst the public. The former was especially enthusiastic about meeting with her fans and could be seen on any given day in the week before the summit waltzing about the town with a league of them trailing close behind.

         Nanaki tried to be gracious and friendly, but quickly grew sick of being commanded to speak by strangers who treated him not as an equal, but a glorified pet, wanting only the novelty of hearing a being so unlike their own say a few words. Cid, too, would brave the crowds for a day or two as he refused to stay confined to one place for something so harmless as a fan, but that all backfired when an especially grabby one made for the smoke in his mouth and worked Cid into a fit of violence. To make a long story short, the police were phoned in and Cid enjoyed the rest of his stay within the confines of L’Hotel de Romarin.

         Tifa was too preoccupied with Marlene to pay much mind to anyone else until the morning Vincent left and she noticed Cloud’s softened demeanour for the first time. He has been different since recovering from that hellish time in Mideel, really, but there was something about the absence of his ShinRa-issued gear and that mammoth sword that made it all final. Cloud no longer looked like a boy playing SOLDIER.

         It was only after she walked the hotel gardens with Marlene that day as promised that she made her way to his room, just down the hall from Barret’s own. Room 568. He was right where she thought he'd be.

         Their conversations were painfully strained at the start. She went in with a rough goal in mind: to check in on Cloud’s mental state. Much like the others, however, she was afraid of seeing him go off again so soon after getting himself back. It seemed dangerous to probe into his mind after he had just set it aright. So she had nought but to talk about the safe and the mundane: the gardens outside; the grandeur of the hotel; the absurdity of Yuffie being elected Vice President of her own fan club...

         Cloud responded politely enough but didn't have much to say, for those things were the furthest from his mind. So with the last, trivial words dying on Tifa’s tongue, Cloud jumped on the opportunity to mention a wisp of a memory he swore happened in Nibelheim.

         Her instinct was, as always, to divert away from talking about the old town, but then she recognised what he was describing: the day the Dill's wayward tractor wrecked havoc in the town square. How could anyone forget? And before she knew it, she was offering her own version of the events that took place that day and as the morning eased into the afternoon, she was driving the bulk of the conversation.

         Talking about Nibelheim was so much easier than she anticipated and their afternoons would be filled with doing just that. She was so, so afraid of that old, familiar ache tucked deep within her heart overwhelming her senses and reducing her to tears. She found, instead, that her heart only bloomed as she recalled making forts out of snow, pies out of mud, and fools out of boys.

         Cloud was content enough to listen from his then usual spot opposite of her on the excessively plush duchesse brisée situated right by the balcony. The power shut off again that afternoon and the fading sun was casting that whole side of the room in warm, orange hues. A tray of fruit separated them this time courtesy of the hotel; on other occasions, it was a simple board game or cards. Or, what was Tifa’s favourite, a sampler of cheeses.

         These moments, Cloud observed, would bring out a different side to the sweet but solemn woman, a side that left him feeling both warm with nostalgia and just a little bit resentful. In many ways, it was like peering in at the Tifa of old: the cool, cheeky, confident little darling of Nibelheim who ran with the boys and couldn't seem to make it through a single summer without tearing at least a couple of her dresses on a berry bush or two. Who'd regularly run out of her house with puffy red eyes only to dive right back into the sort of trouble that had her sent to her Papa in the first place. Who obliviously managed to make him feel totally validated and yet totally worthless all at the same time.

         Hearing her recollections had that familiar, paralysing shyness and general embarrassment that was his constant companion in his youth creeping over him as her words painted in some of the gaps of his earliest memories...

         "And so then." Tifa laughed, nearly choking on a strawberry, "Because everybody was convinced at that point that some evil werewolf definitely ate Joyce, we just sort of left the woods because what could we do? And I remember we were so, so scared because, you know, what were we gonna tell her parents? ‘Sorry Mr and Mrs Reed, but we let your kid turn into monster munch?'" She snorted abruptly, "So we get back to the village, sobbing our little hearts out because number one, we let a girl die, and number two, we were terrified of our parents. I mean, surely the whooping of all whoopings was coming straight for our behinds, right? And we get there, and everyone is worried about us, blah blah blah, they ask us, you know, 'what's wrong? What's wrong?' yadda, yadda, yadda...and lo and behold! Joyce just moseys on up to us out of nowhere like it's no big deal. Says, 'Hey guys! Are we still playing?' and we look at her like," Tifa twisted her features to look equal parts horrified and disgusted.

         Cloud chuckled, "So where was she?"

         "Her house! The whole time! She just left without a word! Who does that?"

         Cloud's shoulders shook as he bit into a generous slice of mango, "Serves you right for abandoning her."

         Tifa rolled her eyes, "It wasn't our fault that she didn't know how 'Hide-n-Seek's supposed to work."

         "You know," he began after a moment, "I think I remember that."

         "Really?" Tifa asked, genuinely surprised.

         They were falling into these conversations about their old town for nearly a week now and this was the first time he had anything to say about it since the day he brought Nibelheim up. It was strange because…

         She stopped herself from voicing her next thought: "How could you? You weren't even with us..."

         "Yeah." He went on as he eyed the wedge of apple he moved onto, "I remember seeing someone running back from the woods and wondering if that was part of the game or if she had been kicked out or something. Yeah, yeah, and you were all really loud and crying I was wondering if it had to do with the girl running back."

         He witnessed it all from his bedroom window, as was often his case when it came to watching Tifa and her friends. He didn't bother to mention that he was envious; that he was lonely. That he had been wondering if running from the woods was a part of some game because he never partook in them, and so wouldn't know anything about any rules. Listening to her reminisce filled in the gaps of his oldest memories indeed, but always with a tinge of sadness and a just little bit of that same resentment.

         Tifa looked down at the tips of her fingers made sticky with the residue of the strawberry she’d just eaten and rubbed them together. Cloud read the guilt in her stance in the billowing silence.

         "Oh." She finally said lamely. Cloud rushed to appease her. Because that's what he's always tried to do.

         He can't remember the first he time that he decided that he wanted specifically to be her friend, nor was he sure why he held onto this near need for her to like him as children. That child-like desperation was no where near as potent now as it was back then; regardless, it was still somewhat present. Seems he has never been able to shake the desire to please this girl ever since he set his mind to do so.

         "Simpler times back then." He said casually, smiling. He hoped that she'd take the cue to just move on to something else. Tifa bit her lip, recognising the gesture for what it was and feeling all the worse for it.

         They were so needlessly cruel back then. "Cloud the Creep" her friends dubbed him. "Cloud the Creep" she would echo back to them between braying laughter and their "eww!"s of disgust. The freak with no friends. The neighbourhood weirdo. How bewildered they would all be to see her with him, of all people. And would you look at him now: all humility and kindness, despite all he has been through. Her face flushed pink with shame.

         "I'm done talking about me." She said softly. These stories no longer felt like a recollection of all the mischief she'd gotten into, but rather, a recounting of all the times she left out the one person who needed a friend the most, "What about you? Tell me what else you remember about Nibelheim."

         Cloud laughed once, cynical, and shrugged as he popped the rest of his apple in his mouth, "I don't have any exciting stories like you. I'd only really hang around my mom."

         "So tell me about your mother." Tifa insisted, realising she knew next to nothing about the woman who was her neighbour for most of her life. She was deemed a "weirdo," too…

         At once, Cloud's eyes grew soft and glazed over with a new sort of warmth. "Ma?" He said tenderly. He looked thoughtfully towards the space in front of him, as though he were seeing the woman in question there, "Ma...she was my rock. My whole world. One of the most selfless persons I've ever known," he thought back to the companions that travelled with him. To Elmyra. To Aeris. To Zack, "and I've known quite a few…

         "She did everything she could to put a smile on my face. And she was always be reminding me that I was loved, even when she was hurting." The space between his brow pinched as his words trailed off.

         "What's wrong?" Tifa inquired carefully after a moment's silence. The look on Cloud's face was still severe. He shook his head and swallowed thickly.

         "I can't—." He pinched the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes.

         "Cloud?" Tifa hesitated a second before she lifted the tray on the stool between them and placed it behind her before scooting closer to him. He looked as though he were in physical pain. His cheeks were burning scarlet.

         "What's wrong?" She asked once more as she sat by his side, the beginnings of panic creeping into her voice. She laid a gentle hand on his wrist. The distant sound of the bustling street beneath them was all she could hear before he finally mustered up the strength to speak.

         "I-I can't," He breathed deeply, horror evident in his every whispered word, "I can't remember my mother's face."

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

         There were lights from afar that seemed to blink in and out like fireflies. Thunder was rolling far above them, but as usual, they hadn't felt a drop of rain. As they travelled on, the hum of life steadily grew louder, and those blinking fireflies revealed themselves to be numerous bonfires that were waning to and fro as a wicked wind blew on them.

         The area they walked into might have been a maze of apartments prior to Meteor falling. The uniformed buildings surrounding them were all in varying degrees of collapse, appearing like crouching trolls in the inky darkness with a mishmash of tarps hanging over their mouths. Outside these shelters, Cloud could see, were the silhouettes of people keeping warm by their fires. The smoke that billowed into the air hung heavily over the camp and Cloud was reminded, abruptly, of the green fumes that would churn out in clockwork intervals out of the mako reactors in Midgar. This byproduct of mako was harmless—at least, that's what ShinRa would assure—but those living on the Plate suffered a kind of loss anyway: when night would fall, one never saw the stars.

         Once they came close enough, ghostly faces with eyes set aglow from the flames took notice of the return of the party from their camp and faced them expectantly,  

         “You’re back!”

         “What’d you get?”

         “Where’s the food?”

         “There was some trouble.” Cloud heard Ezekiel say from up front. When this was met with cries of outrage, Ezekiel carried on saying that he had no business with anyone but Cyril. Protests were still being made until an eerie hush fell over the survivors as Zack’s sword blinked into view with a glint of light playing off the blade. The attention jumped quickly from the sword to the man carrying it, then to the healthy looking woman close by his side. There were some gasps of recognition, some of fear—all were mutually confused.

         Cloud readied his body for another attack, straining his ears for any indication of rushed feet or the clank of a poorly concealed weapon dragging against the ground, but they passed through the camp without much incident. Ezekiel would be assaulted with questions about the food that was missing and he would repeat over and over that he would only speak to Cyril. Those who played a part in the ambush from earlier began breaking off in chunks as they found their way back to their homes. A good twenty minutes passed before he, Tifa, and Ezekiel were finally standing in front of the man who would apparently be calling the shots.

         Cloud wasn't sure what he had been expecting; a sort of throne, perhaps, cleverly fashioned from metal parts found in the debris. Maybe a small assembly of men surrounding this Cyril and acting as his guard. Or maybe even a giant of a man who was obviously eating better than the rest. Just some show of grandeur to mark his importance—just as Cloud had seen almost everywhere else. Yet, there was no such display.

         The man before him was wrapped in dark blankets and huddled next to a small, Wutainese woman so low to the ground, they appeared to be like gnomes sprouting forth from the earth. His face was blackened and gaunt, just like all the others out here, in addition to being half buried underneath a thick dark beard. The only presence about him that struck Cloud were the hardened copper coloured eyes that were zeroed in on him.

         The woman beside him gave a shout and began to work on untangling herself from her blanket. Tifa gasped sharply from his left and his eyes moved towards—of course! Hana!

         The girl climbed off Ezekiel’s back and ran towards the woman, throwing her tiny arms around her neck.

         “You found her!” The woman cried, looking to Ezekiel.

         “Yeah, well, I knew she couldn't have gone far…”

         “Thank you,” the woman’s shoulders began to shake with sobs as she squeezed Hana close, “So, so much.”

         “Where was she?” Cyril finally spoke, voice cool, but demanding, as though he were accustomed to giving orders. He hadn't taken his eyes off Cloud’s...

         “Next sector over.” Ezekiel answered resting his hands behind his back.

         “Now, did these upplates have anything to do with that?”

         Ezekiel was hesitant to look over and acknowledge his guests, as though Tifa and Cloud were some pesky mutts who followed him home, but might finally leave him be if they would realise that no one would be feeding them.

         He cleared his throat, “...A bit.”

         “Yeah.” Tifa spoke up, glaring at the back of Ezekiel’s head, “...we helped.”

         “Then you have our gratitude.” Cyril looked her up and down before turning his attention away, “Now, where’s the food, Ezekiel?”

         “T-that’s the whole thing, Cyril.” he scratched his head, “We got so caught up with rescuing the girl that we ran out of time. It was getting dark. But these two.” he pointed a thumb back, “Said they could help. With the food thing, that is.”

         “Is that right?”

         “Sure. So I thought I’d bring them over.”

         Tifa and Cloud shared an incredulous look, but neither said a word. Cloud supposed he had a good reason for... embellishing the truth...

         “But a SOLDIER, Ezekiel?”

          "Well, I—"

         “I’m not SOLDIER.” Cloud retorted on impulse, “Yeah, the giant sword on my back. The eyes. I get it. But it belongs to a friend.” he faltered, “...Belonged. This sword has nothing to do with working for ShinRa. I have a promise to keep...and this sword is a part of that promise.”

         “Yeah?” Cyril asked sceptically, “And what promise is that?”

         Cloud took a steadying breath, “...To live.”

         There was a look in Cyril’s eyes, as though he actually understood the sentiment on a rather personal level.“...Right.” He looked over to Hana and her mother then. After running an affectionate hand over Hana’s bowed head, he told the woman to go take the girl and lay down. She nodded, hauled Hana up in one arm, draped a blanket over the other, then walked towards the first floor of a partially collapsed building with black sheets nailed over the windows. Hana watched her rescuers from over her mother’s shoulders as they slowly faded from view.

         “Now.” Cyril addressed his audience, “That’ll be all, Ezekiel.”

         The redhead snapped his attention back towards his leader; he had been watching Hana disappear into the dark.

         “I—you don’t need. I mean—.”

         “I know. But you’re done here, Ezekiel.”

         He swallowed, “Right. Okay. Well, just let me know. If you need another food run done or…” He shrugged as he slowly walked away.

         Once he left, Cyril offered Tifa and Cloud to sit, and after unclasping the Buster Sword and laying it to Cloud's side, they did. They hadn’t realised the relief that their legs needed until they were finally resting them.

         “Now, what’s this Ezekiel was saying about you helping with our little food situation?”

         Tifa told him in so many words about Reeve’s plans to rescue the Midgar ruin survivors. After pressing for details as to how long it was going to take for the aid to come, Cyril sucked his teeth, shook his head, and ran a hand down his face.

         “Two weeks? Now that does us no good. No good at all. ‘Cause we're already starving. Now, even if you managed to get it our way in a week, simply put, a lot of us just won't be alive for that.”

         Cloud bowed his head and swore softly. This all seemed so simple back in Kalm. A fortnight: just the right amount of time to scour the place and spot all who needed help. That their help would be coming much too late for a lot of survivors absolutely frustrated him. They had been so hopeful, and now reality was smacking them right in the face.

         “There's gotta be something we could do in the meantime...” Tifa insisted, sounding just about as helpless as he felt. Then he remembered,

         “The food runs. When we found that Ezekiel guy, he and a couple of others were trying to dig through some rubble to get to a store or something.”

         “Is that right? Now, when did the Hana thing exactly come into play?”

         “Uh…” Oh, shoot. What had Ezekiel said?

         “Hana’s rescue came before meeting Ezekiel.” Tifa explained impatiently, “Your friend was lying for whatever reason.”

         Cyril sucked his teeth, “I figured as much, you know. That dumbass has got quite the imagination. But I’ll deal with the idiot later. Now, what are you are saying about food runs? You saying you wanna help?”

         “If we can,” Cloud answered, “Of course.”

         “Absolutely.” Tifa concurred.

         For the first time in a while, Cyril grinned.

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

         This particular dream seemed to exist in a realm of murky blackness where nothing was entirely solid and bodies were blurred at the edges. He was chasing after someone; he caught a glimpse of an arm there and the flash of something silver and massive. Though he hadn’t seen his face, he knew this person to be Zack. He kept calling and calling for him, but the man wouldn’t turn around; he would just keep running. It hadn’t hurt; it only angered him, for Cloud wasn’t after the man himself. Oh, no. It was the Buster Sword he wanted. Zack was just beyond his reach and the blade was inches from his fingers. He was sure...so sure...that he could kill him for that weapon…

          Wake up.

         Cloud’s eyes fluttered open as his body slowly roused awake. He noted that his upper back was no longer tingling with the slight pain that was beginning to develop from sleeping on the ground—Oh, what a difference a decent mattress makes.

         He glanced all around the room he was in, looking for anything amiss. Alas, there was only the bookcase that was against the wall facing him, Tifa snoozing with her back towards him about a foot away from his right, and….of course, the Buster Sword nestled into the corner farthest from him, resting. Waiting.

         He laid his head back down and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. Then, in a low whisper, he began reiterating the same mantra that he’s been telling himself every morning since the day Holy stopped Meteor.

         “My name is Cloud Strife, son of Aria Strife. I was born in Nibelheim and lived there next to Tifa Lockhart until I was fourteen years old, when I left for Midgar to join SOLDIER. I did not make it into SOLDIER. I did befriend Zack Fair. Zack Fair died protecting me from ShinRa. Zack Fair was in SOLDIER. I was never in SOLDIER.” He took a deep breath before emphasising the last bit, “Zack Fair was in SOLDIER. I was never in SOLDIER.”

         He repeated this to himself twice more being sighing and gingerly shifting his weight off the mattress, taking care not to disturb Tifa. He looked forward to the day when this little speech of his no longer felt crucial to sustaining his sanity...

         He rummaged through his bag for some clothes and an energy bar to snack on, then methodically began to dress. They were going to head to a depression about ten miles south of the camp today. The area was once home to a line of grocers and drug stores prior to Meteorfall, but has since been overrun by grashtrikes that have started to nest there. Cyril has already lost at least thirty people trying to take back the place, but now he’s looking to him and Tifa to turn that around.

         Cloud pulled the hooded cloak over his body and fastened his sword harness through the notches in said cloak. He laughed once, shaking his head. Reeve insisted on them wearing these things in case it ever rained in Midgar and brought up horror stories from their “travelling days” to exemplify his point: why get needlessly sick like they had on the road when they could prevent it? Cloud peered out of the window to watch the dark clouds that were ever present and hovering over Midgar. 

         "Maybe one of these days, this hood will come in use." he mused. The cloak did, at least, guard well against the autumn chill.  

         After tightening his harness, he looked over at the sword—Zack’s sword. The first light of dawn was casting its glow on the blade, as though it, too, were rising for the day. He approached it and laid a hand over the leather grip as if to ask for some sort of permission. This has become something of a ritual as well. He supposed he was waiting for some sort of feeling. That he was worthy; that this was alright. Or maybe he was waiting for Zack’s sword to finally feel like his own. He frowned as he thought back to the dream that woke him.

         He grasped the handle and lifted the blade—observing him, one might have thought the weapon nearly weightless. A mere toy made of cardboard and styrofoam. He’s been granted this power that few have ever known and probably ever will and it made him feel like a fraud. And as he began to contemplate on the slaughter to come today, his heart started to pound with anticipation and excitement and well, what the hell did that make him? A friggin' psychopath? He heaved the sword up, clasped it onto his back, and turned.

         Tifa was staring at him.

         What struck him more than her being awake at this hour were the light bruises around her eyes, suggesting that she hardly slept at all.

         “Good morning.” He said, his tone careful.

         “Morning.” She rasped out, voice hoarse from lack of use.

         “You're up kind of early.” Cloud was used to getting up hours before the rest of his friends save Vincent, who never seemed to sleep at all. Not in the same way that everyone else would need to, anyway. He always assumed it had to do with the mako in both their bodies...

         Tifa smiled as she began to stretch, “Yeah. It’s this bed I think. I went to sleep faster than I normally would. The Slums rarely had mattresses like this. I keep forgetting we’re technically on the Plate.” She put her arms down and started worrying the sheet, the air around her turning decidedly solemn, “So...is everything alright with you this morning?”

         She knew a little about his troubles concerning Zack’s sword. The confessions all started with him realising that his mother's face was nought but a blur in his head—a precious detail cruelly snatched from his memory. He admitted to holding this bone deep fear of never truly getting better and even losing his real self once more. Admitted to seeing Aeris die over and over in nightmares unrelenting. To feeling unworthy of wielding Zack’s sword—never his—but holding onto it anyway, for in a way it was like having Zack still around. 

         These words would pour out of him half coherent and faltering, but she stayed and listened anyway, and at least, so it seemed, attempted to understand. He was relieved to get it all off his chest and while he wasn't free of his demons, he had definitely felt lighter.

         “Yeah, I'm alright. Promise.” He added after she gave him a look like she hadn't quite believed him.

         She nodded once and swung her legs to the side, “‘Cause I'm here, you know, if you ever need to talk.” Her face flushed slightly. “...Like we did in Kalm.”

         He ducked his head. “I appreciate it, Teef. I'm alright now, though. Really. Though speaking of which,” Yesterday's events came to the forefront of his mind, “What about you? Are you...better today?”

         “Better from what?” She laughed softly as she got on her feet, “I'm fine, Cloud.”

         “The other day when that guy, Ezekiel, kept calling you a hah-something. Han-fuh?”

         Tifa lost her smile. “Hafu.”

         “Yeah…” The sudden frown on her face was making him uncomfortable, but he pushed on regardless because this obviously affected her, “What does it mean, Teef? Why were you so upset?”

         She turned towards her own bag set right by her side of the bed, “It’s really nothing, Cloud. It’s just a word people use to refer someone who looks half Wutainese. I’d get called that a lot when I was living in the Slums.” She shrugged.

         “Oh.” Wait… “But you are half Wutainese, right? Why would that make you upset?”

         She glanced over at him, eyebrows furrowed, “I’m telling you I'm not upset, Cloud.”

         Cloud blinked twice. The direction that this conversation was going was clearly pissing her off and he was starting to feel like a big stupid, jerk for pushing it. But more than feeling like a jerk, he was starting to feel...

         He hung his head and swallowed hard.

         Hurt. Really hurt, as a matter of fact. Realising how much this stung took him by surprise. He reasoned that he really shouldn't care so much. That it was absolutely her own business and within her rights not to talk about it. It was just, well... after all this time? After all they've been through? Didn't she... trust him?

         “Well... It’s like what you said.” He began, tone considerably softer, “About coming to you when I have something I need to talk about. You do know that you can do the same, right? With me, I mean?”

         She had her clothes bundled in her arms as she turned back towards him. Her top, he could see, was the colour of the wet autumn leaves that fell into puddles in Kalm. She smiled again, her voice softening as well, “That’s really sweet of you, Cloud. I’ll be keeping that in mind. Now, shoo! I need to get dressed.”

         With warming cheeks, he dutifully left.

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

         The chirps and clicks and whines of the grashtrikes hive were brewing a cacophony that drilled straight into Cloud’s brain. They seemed to be agitated by something as they scurried about in a fury, and he would've assumed it was him and Tifa but they were being paid no mind. Over the heavy musk of their emitted pheromones, there was the putrid stink of spoiled meat. Cloud thought back to Cyril’s morbid words, wondering if the stench came from grocer’s meat dug out from the stores or from the rotting flesh of those who died here.

         From his place above the shallow ravine, Cloud eventually spotted what was working the creatures into a frenzy as a couple of guard hounds were overrun by dozens of grashtrikes. This, he knew, was exactly what he and Tifa were going to have to watch out for.

         Grashtrikes did not grow up to be very big, being a somewhere between that of a small dog and a medium sized one. One on one, they were rather poor fighters, always opting to slow down their prey with a numbing poison called silk before actually sinking their sharp, venomous stingers into their victims. And even after that, one wasn't entirely helpless if the right potions were on hand, for their poison was weak and slow to immobilise.

         No, the true strength of the grashtrikes was their sheer power in numbers and their instinct to mob until the threat was finished.

         A few miles away, about a dozen volunteers from Cyril’s camp were standing by. In the happy event that Cloud and Tifa actually succeeded, they would come in and haul away whatever goods they could find and return to their camp victorious. In the unhappy event that they failed, well, those volunteers would simply become the bearer of some really bad news...

         “We gotta be quick and destructive.” Cloud was half saying to himself. His heart was pounding and his breaths were a little shallow and it had nothing to do with being nervous.

         “I'll concentrate on the north east half using my fire materia; it's open enough there, so I don't think the buildings will catch.” Tifa said as she tightened her gloves.

         “I'll run lightning from the other side.” Cloud tilted his head, “Nah. Ice. In case of a wire I can't see.”

         Tifa nodded, “With ice, we won’t have to worry about the fire spreading, either. By your side anyway.”

         “Right.” He stood up from his crouch, eager to hush the buzzing in his head, “You ready?”

         “When you are.”

         “Holler if you need me.”

         “Pfft. Only if you promise to do the same!”

         A smile fleeted across his features as he closed eyes and singled in on one of the tiny marbles of mako energy clipped into Zack’s sword. He thought of a deep freeze spreading far and wide.

         Bone-chilling.

          Fatal.

         He gasped as raw power bundled into his very core and he pushed outwards with both arms to project the energy forward. A thunderous crack whipped through the air as the ice magic ran through the grashtrikes, a thousand shrieks echoing in its wake. A smell like burning rubber followed shortly and another chorus of shrieks let loose.

         Tifa dropped to the base of the crevasse when her fire fell back and Cloud followed shortly after with the Buster Sword in hand. There was a furious clicking as the remaining grashtrikes crawled out of their holes and began to converge on their intruders. There never seemed to be an end to the grashtrikes rushing out of their homes.

         “This is gonna be a bloodbath.” He thought as he cleaved through the first wave. Yellow spillage burst from the fallen creatures as their split bodies began to twitch, “Huh. Or a gut bath. Same difference, I guess.”

         The ice spell was receding by the time he was really moving forward, swing after swing, the buzzing in his ears being cut down bit by bit. These instincts to parry and strike, dodge and destroy….were they really his own? Someone else  learned this dance, and yet, it was his blood that was putting life into it. He basked in the weightlessness he felt. The raw power in his muscles. How could he feel so liberated by something so perverse?

         “Should have been me who died on that—.”

          Focus.

         “No, you're here Zack, aren't you? You're the one who's pushing me through this.”

         Flares of fire were visible in the corner of his vision. He ought to be using more magic, too, he realised, especially given the mako running through his system. He should definitely being doing more than Tifa in that regard. Yet.

          “I don't wanna lose this rush.”

         He’d come to regret this moments later when enough grashtrikes were in proximity to spit and hiss in his direction. The silk was starting to fog down his brain. There was a misstep in his swing, the poison making him awkward. The grashtrikes saw an opening and doubled their efforts on Cloud. He was getting slow; they raised their stringers.

         Molten hot fury burned in the core of him and lightning magic pulsed through his attackers.

          CraaaaackBOOM.

          “Damn it.” He started to think, but the regret was short lived; there was nothing attacking him anymore and he hadn’t sparked any wires. It wasn’t immediately apparent from his side of the fight just how many enemies were still on their feet; from his standpoint, all he could see was a blanket of carcasses. A distant clicking told him a few were still scurrying about; he took this moment of calm to dig through the potions that lined the inner part of his cloak to counteract their poison with a vial of Haste.

         It soon became a matter of recognising which grashtrikes were still a threat and which were just bodies still twitching after death. After hacking away at the bugs for a while, there was finally silence. An almost total silence; the group they left behind were much too far for him to pick up. He relaxed his arms, really feeling the weight of the Buster Sword after that little exploit and listened to the sound of his slowing heart.

         He waited a moment to collect his breath before clipping the now filthy weapon back onto his harness then looked around for—.

         “Tifa?” he called out. There wasn’t an immediate response. He spun around slowly, scrutinising the area for a blot of dark orange against the sea of blue and green.

         “Tifa!” he shouted as a cold dread went over him. His mind jumped to Aeris without his meaning to. Oh, no, no, no, not another one, no—!

         “I'm here.” Her voice was a little ways behind him, sounding distinctly pained. He ran towards her.

         She was, thankfully, still whole, but it was very apparent that she had a rough time of that fight. She was on the ground, her cloak beside her, and was digging something out of the back of her shoulder—well, she was trying to, at least. There were pinpricks of red lightly scattered on her body that were weeping little streams of blood. Her face was pinched in pain and drenched in sweat, and it wasn’t the sort that one merely gets from exhaustion.

         “Why didn’t you call for me?” he began to admonish, hands reaching for an antidote. In truth, he hadn’t thought she would actually need to. Tifa focused her weary eyes on him, looking none too pleased with his inquiry.  

         “Because.” she answered, sounding just as irritated as she did this morning, “I was handling it. I just need help—” she raised her voice to cut off his protest, “getting this stinger out of my back. I can’t see it.”

         “You drank an antidote yet?” He asked as he kneeled down beside her, pressing the vial to her fingers.

         She pressed a palm to her forehead, sighing. “I did not.” She begrudgingly took the antidote.

         He gave her a look, “Seriously, Teef?”

         She shook her head, “I know, Cloud. I wasn’t thinking is all.” She laughed once without humour, “Probably because of the poison.”

         He took off a glove and lifted the back of her shirt, pressing his fingers to her overheated skin. Damn.

         “And probably because you were tired.” He began to scold her, thinking back to this morning as he scanned for the offending stinger, “That’s why you were overrun in the first place.”

         “They’re dead, aren’t they?” She argued, gesturing vaguely to a pile of black carcasses that were still smouldering, “Look, Cloud, could you please just take the gai’damn stinger out? Please?” Tifa bit off the cork on the vial, squeezed her eyes shut, then downed the whole thing in one go; antidotes were especially vile tasting...  

         He did as she asked, but not before giving her another look to let her know how much he didn’t appreciate her being so careless. When he finally got the accursed thing out and pulled her shirt down, he voiced his irritation a moment later.

         “This was stupid, Tifa.”

         Her jaw clenched but she said nothing. Her eyes were glued to the ground.

         “You should have said something. You said that you slept last night.”

         “I did.”

         “Then why are you so tired right now?”

         There went that same heavy sigh, “I guess I didn't sleep enough.”

         He was absolutely baffled. Was he missing something here? “Tifa.” He began, his voice incredulous and veering on hysteria, “Do you even realise how close you came to losing your life? Didn't get enough sleep? Forgot to take an antidote?” Why the hell was she acting this way? Like she didn’t even care?

         Something in her head seemed to finally click as she looked up at him, the defiance— thankfully—gone from her features. She had the grace to look ashamed. “I’m sorry, Cloud. You're right; it was stupid.” She bit her lip, “Oh, I'm so sorry for worrying you.”

         He took a deep breath and looked briefly away, “This isn’t about worrying me, Tifa. I mean… just… take better care of yourself, okay? You have a lot of friends to answer to.” He got to his feet and offered her a hand, “Including me.”

         “Because that's what we are, right?” He thought gloomily as he reflected on her guarded behaviour this morning, “Given all that has happened between us, we’re at the very least friends. Aren't we?”

         She didn’t need his help getting up, but took his hand anyway as a sort of gesture of peace. She smiled softly, “Thanks, Cloud.”

         He shrugged and mirrored her expression, then went ahead and said what he was thinking,

         “...It’s what friends are for, Teef.”

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

         “You think they're gonna do it?” The youngest amongst them piped up.

         An older woman laughed, “Are you kidding? I don't care how strong that SOLDIER thinks he is. There are too damn many of those bugs to take out. And he's just one SOLDIER.”

         “And the woman!” A black tooth man sneered.

         “Ha! Don't get me started on—.”

         “Who the fuck knows. We’ll find out in a couple of hours when we're dragging food or dragging corpses out that hole.” Called out the only other teenager in this group, who was opening and closing his switchblade.

         “Ha. Yeah, you can do that. I'm leaving the corpses alone, thank you.”

         The teen rolled his eyes.

         “Will someone remind me why we're trusting a SOLDIER and his bitch again?”

         “You know,” the smallest amongst them squeaked, “You shouldn't be pitting against them right now. That's bad energy! They might be our only hope for food!”

         “Oh, fuck them. We're all gonna die and that's the end of that. This little charade here is just to keep up the illusion that we might have a shot.”

         “If you're so convinced, why are you out here?!”

         “To get away from the camp. Not that I have to explain myself to you...”

         From their spot, they couldn't hear anything until the crackling of power boomed in the distance. Then came the chorus of screams.

         “What the hell?”

         “Ha! What I tell you? They're fucked.”

         Another boom, and, this time, a lot less screaming. There was a long moment when they realised there was nothing more to hear at all.

         “We gonna go check?” The youngest spoke again.

         “I say we go back home. They're almost definitely dead.”

         “How do we know if we don't—” said the smallest.

         “Because, you dumbass, there's no way in hell a couple of upplatey assholes can take on a whole colony of fucking—”

         “Look!”

         They did.

         From a distance they saw two figures approaching, stuffed white bags on either side of their bodies.

         It couldn't be. No way. But there was no mistaking that spikey crown of blonde. And by the sounds of the clanking contents within those bags, they could tell exactly what they were carrying.

         They stood frozen with shock for a moment, willing the image to be a mirage. The youngest amongst them gave out a loud whoop and his comrades began to echo them, uttering out cries of triumph. Of disbelief. Of hope.

         “The fuckers did it.” Said one of the survivors as tears stung the back of their eyes.

         “You guys really did it!” Another shouted when their heroes drew near enough. Someone else burst forward and rushed to hug the pair, kissing both of their cheeks and crying, “Thank you, thank you.” The blonde looked sheepish as blood rushed to his face,

         “Oh yeah, um. Sure. Here. There's plenty where that came from...”

         “We’ll bring this to camp and make for the rest.” The brunette spoke up, looking tired, but content, “We’ll need all the hands we can get to clear out that area.”

         The crowd gave a cheer, face splitting into grins or otherwise bursting into tears.

         “See, you sonsovbitches! I didn't doubt you two for a minute!”

 


 .o.

.~o.O.o~. 

.o.


 

         He was jolted awake by the hand on his shoulder that was shaking him insistently.

         “Come on, Dusty. Up boy. Before we miss our shift.”

         He heard his father’s retreating footsteps and the ziiip of their tent being opened, then closed. Dusty rubbed at his eyes but had yet to move, for his heart was still racing from last night’s dream...

         He was on an airship that Cid Highwind was piloting, sailing overhead like a great white bird, bright blue sky and vast puffy clouds racing by him.

         They were heading towards trouble—Dusty couldn't remember what, but all he knew was that Gaia’s heroes were being called on to save the day and he was going to help them do just that.  The vastness of the Planet laid out before him, blurring into patches of colour as they sped towards their destination.

         AVALANCHE were all there, looking at him with reverence. With respect. And there by his side, standing tall and proud and immaculate, was the powerful, the legendary, the hero: Cloud Strife.

         His thoughts jumped back to the last time he saw his blue-eyed hero as he climbed out of the twin-size bedroll he shared with his father.

         He was leaving Kalm; him and a party of his friends from AVALANCHE. Many had rushed down to see the departure of Cloud Strife and the heroes that accompanied him. He had been cooped in that giant hotel for the duration of his stay and was, at that point, just as mysterious as he was revered. Most of AVALANCHE, save a few had kept out of sight, actually, but Dusty had no particular interest in meeting the Wutainese or the Corellan. Dusty must have sent a dozen letters to his one, true idol and he would have sent more if paper was easier to come by. Not one of them had been answered and he hoped with all of his heart that it had something to do with the Prime Minister of Kalm intercepting them. The day that Cloud Strife left had felt like his last chance to get his hero to notice him.

         He could still recall how desperately afraid he was that Cloud would miss him entirely. He shoved his way through the crowd that was being held back by the damned Kalmish police and it seemed that every person was shouting Cloud’s name. Every person was trying to gain his favour. But no, no, he was Dusty’s hero. Didn’t they understand that? Why wouldn’t they just let them through?

         “Please, Cloud. Please.” he begged fervently, “Please look at me. Please look at me.

         Right then, Cloud turned, as though the man had actually heard him and those bright mako eyes, just a shade or two deeper than his own, landed on his through a sea of heads. Then... Cloud smiled. Smiled right at him. Just a brief twist of his lips before quickly glancing away.

         Dusty felt breathless and warm from the memory.

         The one and only Cloud Strife actually saw him and smiled. It was from that moment on that Dusty knew that he had to meet him somehow. He had to get his name plastered all over the newspaper for doing something brave, and then Cloud will have to notice him again, only this time it would be from hero to hero. Maybe he would even recognise him. And maybe, if he was really good, Cloud would ask him to join AVALANCHE.

         Then they’d be a team! Going from town to town and nation to nation. Flying the Highwind and fighting crime and killing monsters and beating bad guys and saving the world… Hmm. Maybe by his 16th birthday next year...


         His internal clock was telling Dusty that he wasted enough time daydreaming and so he hurriedly changed out of his sleepwear and into a dirty, beige jump suit and black rubber boots. He took the bowl of hot oats on the side table that his father has been preparing for him every morning since they got here and gulped it down fast.


         Having dressed and had breakfast, Dusty spared a glance outside and decided that he had enough time for one last thing.


         Falling to his chest, he dug out a tin of hair pomade from under the side table situated next to the bedroll. It was tucked behind a few books as to not be immediately obvious and taped on the front of the tin was a torn out, candid photo of Cloud Strife’s face from an old newspaper—It was the issue covering the day that he arrived in Kalm.

         He popped open the tin and placed it on top of the table, then scooped out a chestnut sized amount of the goo and spread it over his palm. He stood in front of the fragment of a mirror propped up on the table and and against the tent wall and, using Cloud’s photo as a reference, ran the grease through his hair, spiking it up every which way and getting it as close to the style that his idol wore his as possible.

         He frowned at his reflection. It was nearly perfect, except Cloud was so much paler than him, and Dusty's face was definitely much more round. His hair was also just a little bit blonder and will only get blonder if he keeps going out in the sun. The length of it was much too short here and there and much too long everywhere else. Dusty sighed. It didn't matter. His hair never seemed to want to stick up just right anyway, no matter how much pomade he put in it...


         He replaced the lid of the tin and hid it behind the books again. He then wiped his hands clean of grease before zipping down the opening of the tent. Dusty ran as quickly as he could to catch up with his father, who pointedly ignored his appearance.

         Though his son’s obsession with the glorified terrorist absolutely mystified him, he could not bring himself to squash that odd little corner of light in his boy’s life. Not after all that has happened since Meteorfall. If meeting or becoming or whatever the hell he wants to do with this Cloud Strife character was motive enough for him to get out of bed every day and work, well, he wasn’t about to argue with it.

         They made their way from the crest of the wide hill towards the foot where there were countless others of every shape, size, and age that were forming several long lines that lead into a giant tent.

         It was all part of a program that was recently implemented by the ENU to give the displaced Midgarians back a sense of purpose all while allowing them to earn some cash on the side. That was, if you took this fancy assessment test, you, too, could end up assembling machines for Junon or Kalm’s expanding energy farms for almost little to no compensation.

         The “cash” being offered were Slum wages with most jobs offering no more than a hundred gil an hour. The exception to these jobs were the ones that specifically required a degree in engineering, but even those, to Dusty’s understanding, never compensated any more than five hundred an hour. There was other work, too, mostly in food farming. Indeed, both Dusty and his father qualified for the lowest tier of that area: Harvester.

         Dusty thinks his father doesn't mind the job so much, for his life story was one of those rare cases of a slum dweller making it upplate. He spent so long under something that he wanted to be outdoors as often as possible. Dusty, on the other hand, was determined to find his way to assembling wind turbine parts for those workers all worked inside. Dusty wasn’t entirely clear on the rules when it came to transferring and what not, but he was already in the stupid program and so it wasn’t as though he needed another test. How hard could it be for them to just move him somewhere else?

         Dusty and his father were just settling into the line meant for those working in the food farm sector when his father spoke up,

         “So I hear that you can pay an extra fee to speed along the process of citizenship.”

         Dusty bit his tongue to keep from saying anything.

         “Couldn’t hurt to try, I think.”

         “Yeah…” Dusty humoured him as they approached the long tent. His father would often bring that up, this possibility and hope that they could get out the camps and actually start to live the life that they were used to in Midgar. The more his father mentioned it the less he began to believe it. Kalm didn’t want nobodies like him and his father. These “citizenship fees” and labour programs? Just a means of pacifying the refugees until this Reeve guy got his shit together while making some free money off the hopeless while they were at it. Dusty didn’t care. He was going to make some money now, then move out west to start his life training in the way of the sword somewhere in the Central Continent.

         Everyone from the east side swears that outside of places like Costa del Sol, the standard of living in the Central Continent is even lower than the Slums, but things were also said to be a lot freer. All the different towns that peppered the continent could care less about whether he was “Kalmish,” “Midgarian,” or “Junonian.” The swordsman that he was definitely going to find and convince to train him probably wasn’t going to care, either.

         Dusty and his father were finally in the tent and at the front of their line, a burly man in a white jumpsuit next to a box of tags was checking off names from a list and assigning each person an area.

         “Next!”

         Dust wiped his sweaty palms. He could do this. It was just a simple question.

         “Next!”

         It seemed too soon that he was in the front of the line, watching his father approach the officer. He gave his position and then his name and was told in a stern, mutual voice that he would be working in area “B-49” and had a tag clipped on him. 

         “Next!”

         Dusty took a deep breath and stepped forward. He hadn’t told his father that he was planning on doing this.

         “Um—”

         “Position?” Huh? Man, this guy’s Kalmish accent was thick. And the people here always spoke so quickly...

         “I-I wanted—I mean I was wondering if I could change that.”

         The officer looked at him, “Pardon?”

         “The position. I—I don’t want to be a harvester. I’d like to work inside.”

         The officer rolled his eyes and muttered something that sounded rude in Kalmish, “Look, if you’re unhappy with your position, you can take it up with Assessments over there, and retake the test. I will tell you, however, that chances are you’ll just end up right back here where they put you initially, but there’s no harm in trying. Next!”

         Dusty glanced to his right, “Assessments?”

         The officer looked blankly at him, “It’s what I said.”

         “B-But I took it already.”

         “Not my problem.”

         “And it took so long to get assigned last time. And look over there, the line’s out the door!”

         “You’re holding up this line! Now if you would move!”

         “But—”

         “Look,” he gave his hair a once over, “Chocobo boy, or whatever that is that you got going on there. I gave you my answer and that is it. Now you can either move and get in line for Assessments or you can tell me your position and name, so you can get started on your shift today.”

         Dusty’s insides twisted as he made a decision.

         “....Harvester. Travis, Dusty.”

         He needed the money as soon as possible.

         The officer rolled his eyes once more before scanning for the name.

         “Travis. You’re working in field B-49.” he wrote “B-49; 7:15-16:15” on a blank tag before clipping it on Dusty’s uniform and barking out, “Next!”

         Dusty trudged off with burning cheeks, feeling as though a giant spotlight was zeroed in on him. He could feel the stares of others; their laughs, their taunts. Distantly he wondered if Cloud would have sneered, too...

         He miraculously found his way to field B-49 where his father was already pulling up radishes and dumping them in a wooden cart. He looked askance at his son, but Dusty refused to meet his eyes. He went to the shack assigned to this area, grabbed a hand shovel and a pair of gloves and hurried past his dad to start on the row that the foreman pointed out.

         “Cloud wouldn’t be out here working like some nobody.” he thought furiously, stabbing into the earth, “He wouldn’t have taken that crap from that asshole officer, either. He would have said, ‘Do you know who I am? I’m Cloud Strife. The Planet’s hero and—and Dusty’s friend.’”

         For a moment, as he dug into the ground with the shovel in hand, Dusty could pretend he was beating down on some great, dangerous foe. The radishes he lifted were the heads of his enemies. Ha. The head of that stupid officer who just humiliated him.

         He wiped the sweat from his brow.


         The shovel wasn’t some massive sword, but he would get there. These vegetables weren’t monsters, but he would get there. He wasn’t a hero like Cloud Strife but... he would get there. He had to.

Chapter Text


 .o.

.~o.O.o~.

Chapter Eight: Predator and Prey

.~o.O.o~.

.o. 


 

          “Pique?”

         “Sir? It’s done.


.o.


         Beneath the fleshy undersides of his paws, he could feel the Planet thrumming with life. He felt the slightest of tremors from the nearby river. He felt the sharp clap of shrieking birds that flew overhead. There was a whisper of the beating of jewelled beetle wings; a groaning from old trees as life continued to sprout from them. The wet chewing of the large rodent that would be his next meal.

         He was crouched low to the ground, well concealed by a young tree that was toppled over by the furious storm that passed through some days ago. All around him was grass so dense, not a sliver of his paws or belly touched actual soil beneath him. The air was thicker here than in Cosmo Canyon and breathing it in proved a mild irritation on his snout, but it passed slowly in and out of his lungs without a peep. The rodent was seconds from death and it hadn’t the slightest clue. He took a steady step forward.

         The rodent stopped its chewing and lifted its head with eyes large and impossibly shiny, as though they were two glossy black marbles freshly wiped. It realised the danger it was in and bolted, but Nanaki was already leaping towards in a fiery streak of red. He overcame the rodent in a few short steps and sent it tripping over itself with two practised swipes at its forelegs. The creature lurched back in a clumsy attempt to correct itself and then, quick as lightning, Nanaki lunged forth and tore out its windpipe with his powerful jaws. There was a wet, gurgling sound as the creature’s still breathing lungs were filled with its own blood and then...nothing. Its death had come before it could totally fathom that it happened. Just as well. Nanaki did not believe in needlessly dragging out one’s suffering.

         As the creature grew entirely still, Nanaki felt around for a shift in the Planet that told him that a tiny blimp of life had just returned to it. He thought he felt something—a bump of conscious grazing alongside his own. He was not sure, however, if he imagined it out of his own ardent desire to hear the voices of the Planet. In any case, it would have to do. That window of opportunity to feel something had come and gone.

         He gave a silent prayer of thanks to the Planet before leisurely tearing into his meal.

         Nanaki was not entirely sure how long he has been surviving out here in the Ancient Forest. The solitude made tracking time a tricky venture and the canopy of branches above him grew so thick that in the deepest parts of this forest—where the trees were as wide as small houses and the ground was overgrown with moss lush enough to sleep on—it was never quite clear whether it was night or day.

         He has walked this Planet long enough to gain a familiarity with time that told him, instinctively, that it was at least a fortnight—maybe even a month—since he left Cosmo Canyon. A very large and persuasive part of him very much wanted to move on—to munch on something besides the jungle rats and lizards that resided here; to sleep on something besides the mucky forest floor. To hold a conversation—an honest to goodness conversation—about anything so long as it was with someone . He grew tired of the hit-and-miss attempts he's made with the Planet.

         And yet he recognised, with a flourish of embarrassment, that he was truly showing his age in this regard. It was as though the very soul of his Grandfather were residing in him: watching his every moving; laughing buoyantly at his little grandson’s impatience. That thought alone was what kept Nanaki from running back to his home most days.

         It was Grandfather’s ultimatum for Nanaki to travel the world and seek knowledge and Nanaki took this wish to heart. However lonely he might have felt, he was convinced that he could learn nothing from this Planet if he did not first learn to hear it. Really hear it. And what better place to do just that than in the total solitude of this archaic land?

         Nanaki licked away the last of the blood dribbling from his chin, satisfied with his fill. A good portion of the animal remained, for his sort were never meant to hunt and feast alone. Nanaki would not actively dwell on this thought—not normally—though a small part of him would be reminded every time he hunted for his meal. Another aftereffect of the Gi’s attack.

         There were rumours of Nanaki having cousins as far north as the Icicle region; large, feline creatures were known by locals as the Snow Miu. They were as white as he was red and had the ability to converse with humans as he did. But these were merely rumours—it was largely believed amongst the residents of Cosmo Canyon that these cousins were driven to extinction shortly after their fur was introduced to the high societies of first Kalm before spreading to Midgar, which soon had the furs trending worldwide. It became the symbol of one’s prestige and fortune and the treaty that allowed humans and Miu to coexist for centuries was cruelly tossed to the wind.

         Nanaki couldn’t remember if Grandfather ever gave an opinion on the matter—if he believed the hunt for the Snow Miu had been, in fact, their total demise. Could it be that he was depending on Nanaki finding this distant family in his travels through the Planet? Could it be that he... sensed this family through the Planet? Was that one of the many lights shining behind his knowing smiles? It almost hurt to hope. There was also talk of the Miu living in the Ancient Forest. Many believed them to be the first of Nanaki’s kind; perfect warriors with fur like black lacquer whose isolation kept them from developing human speech. They were said to be the largest of the Miu—impossible to miss for anyone seeking them out. He hasn’t spotted any such being since coming here.

         Nanaki trudged towards the sound of rushing water. He envisioned himself trekking through frozen land and happening upon a Miut with fur as brilliant as the snow around her and eyes bluer than the very centre of Cosmo Canyon fire.

         Nanaki was just about to run his tongue against the river current when chill abruptly shivered up his spine. A tremendous dread fell upon him like a heavy blanket. The hairs of his mane began to rise and his ears went flat against his head as he snarled, looking to and fro, seeing large and terrible figures in what were merely been shadows moments before. He was half expecting a great black Miu to come leaping towards him, gliding through the air like a phantom. He channelled this instinctive fear into the fire materia nestled in his Limited Moon, ready to roast the first thing that came for him.

         The minutes passed painfully by...

         A soft whine escaped Nanaki. This was entirely frustrating! This feeling… it was unlike anything he ever experienced in his whole life. The closest he has ever come was facing Sephiroth for the final time.
Sephiroth's power was tremendous and inescapable, as though Nanaki and his companions had all been imprisoned in Sephiroth's very fury. That same feeling was surrounding Nanaki now. He was surrounded; trapped. As though the very air... the very Planet was projecting this sinister energy.

         All at once Nanaki realised the truth. The Planet was crying out, like a small child who was being plunged into darkness. It was afraid—so much so, even Nanaki was sensing it. What did it all mean? What could he possibly do ? Could it be him ? Could it be that Sephiroth—Sephiroth!—has risen from the grave once more?

         Dread gathered in the very pit of his gut. He was not certain what the truth of this matter was, but he was certain that he could not possibly get any closer to that truth by staying in this solitude. He had to get back to Cosmo Canyon. He had to get in touch with the others.

         He had an awful feeling that the Planet depended on it.

 


.o.

.~o.O.o~.

.o.


 

         Rasim was staring up at the ceiling. The weight of the last twenty-four hours kept him pinned to the bed.

         He felt dazed, as though yesterday was a mere nightmare that he was only just waking from. He did not want to actually believe that his beloved workplace and colleagues were seriously proposing to work with something as damning and dangerous as mako. He began to wonder if he misheard Dr Pique. If he misunderstood his intentions. Has he been too hasty? He dragged his hands over his eyes.

         What was he going to do now?

         He was filled with righteous anger when he was booted from the premises. He was riding a storm that simmered as he drew closer and closer to his apartment, and by the time he returned to his quiet little corner of the world, the fight was drawn out of him. Going to the authorities seemed dangerous. Going to the news media seemed reckless. He couldn’t rush into this. He was already kicking himself for losing his cool as badly as he had. It’s just… well… if it hadn’t felt so personal—

         He was jolted from his trance by the sound of his PHS going off. He wondered immediately if it were one of his relatives or friends—could news of him being fired spread that fast? That made no sense. It wasn’t as though any of his colleagues has his loved ones on speed dial—even if they had, who would have made that call? No, as far as he was concerned, all of his loved ones thought he was at work right now. So who—?

         Rasim dug his PHS out of his pocket and checked the ID. He sat up straight. He was taken aback for a moment, but quickly shook himself out of the shock and answered before the ring could stop. He held the phone up to his ear, but it was as though his voice had been snatched from him. Finally, Dr Nile Pique’s voice passed through the speaker.

         “ ...Hello? Dr Nagi?

         He sounded almost exasperated.

         “Uh. Hello, sir. Good morning. This is Nagi speaking..”

         “ Why am I speaking to you over the PHS, Dr. Nagi?

         Uh...What?

         “I don’t think I understand the question, sir?”

         “ Why aren’t you at work? Why am I speaking to you over this device and not in person?

         Oh.

         Wait, what?  

         “Because you fired me, sir.” Rasim’s voice went up in the end. He was fired, wasn’t he?

         “don’t recall the word, ‘fired’ ever being said by me.

          Wasn't it? Rasim tried to think back to yesterday in Dr. Pique’s office. There was some sarcasm and even a bit of shouting done by both him and Dr. Pique. He couldn’t remember if his boss had said the word “fired” specifically. Regardless.

         “...It was heavily implied, sir.”

         “ Well, you’ve taken away the wrong impression. You are very much still employed. So, please, come into work today or you very much won’t be. When you clock in, come straight to my office. I‘ll see you in a little while—”

         “Wait! Sir?”

         There was an audible sigh. Well, sheesh, it was only Rasim’s livelihood they were talking about. “ Yes, Dr. Nagi ?”

         “Are you...am I still on the team?” he felt a twinge of anger, “Because I’ll tell you now, I still have no interest—”

         “If you’re referring to that sensitive assignment that you were removed from yesterday, no. You are not. But that does not mean this facility does not have work for you. Again, see me when you’re clocked in.

         Rasim frowned and gripped his sheets with his free hand. There was something very off about this whole situation.

         “You act as though yesterday never happened, Dr Pique. You may not have technically fired me, but there were some words exchanged—”

         “ Do you really think I’m about to have this conversation with you over the PHS? Come into work as soon as possible, Dr Nagi or, I assure you, you will hear the word, ‘fired’ from me.

         There was a click followed by a long tone. Rasim closed his phone and stared at it with equal parts disgust and wonder—as though it was transforming into a slimy, rare toad right there in the palm of his hand.

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

         Pique was a splash of neon greens and reds in his surprisingly mundane office. He rolled an equally bright orange pen in between two calloused fingers as he contemplated the computer screen in front of him.

         Rasim was sitting in the sofa chair that was stuffed in the corner of Pique’s freezing, little office, parched and perplexed.

         Since the banning of mako, the roads of Junon became uncharacteristically empty. Nearly everyone who owned a car had a model that ran on mako fuel, and so old trams that still worked on “old world” oil fuel were brought out to assuage the public until a full transition in transportation was made. The nation was still not producing enough energy or fuel to meet the needs of all of its citizens, but they were producing enough to support controlled groups of old motorised vehicles. Pedaling alongside these trams in increasing numbers were bicyclists, many of whom were very new and biked without rules. Accidents between these amateurs were a regular occurrence.

         Everyone else, naturally, stuck to walking to their destinations, Rasim included. The one advantage that Rasim usually had was leaving his apartment early enough to avoid the scorching midday sun. Being called in late gave him no such advantage and the sweat was gelling in parts of his body that made him feel itchy and repulsive and his throat felt as dry as the desert lands of Old Corel.

         After several long minutes of silence, Pique let out a loud sigh and swivelled his chair towards Rasim, his back rod straight and meaty arms resting on either side of him. A king ready to pass judgement to his subjects.

         “So.” Pique began, sitting back and forming a tent with his hands, “There is a team getting ready to make an expedition out west to the island of Sojo just off the coast of Wutai. As you might have already heard, there are rumours of some ancient materia manifesting there. It’s a five man team and the materia specialist that was on board had to drop out due to her giving birth.”

         Rasim’s eyes widened slightly, “It isn’t, Lizzy, is it?”

         Pique frowned, “Yes. Dr. Button.”

         “Is she alright?” She was barely seven months along.

         “At the risk of sounding cruel, I don’t know, nor do I think that’s very relevant to this conversation. The point is, Dr. Nagi, is that we’re looking for a materia specialist to replace Dr. Button and seeing as you refuse to partake in the mako study proposed to you yesterday, I believe you are the best one suited for this job.”

         Rasim studied Pique carefully. Lizzy had told him, briefly, about the job and he was more than a little envious listening to her. Traveling out west was one of his many life aspirations—he just never had the time or money to do so. Not ever since dad got sick. This opportunity seemed almost too good to be true. And yet… there was something off about the whole thing. Hadn’t Lizzy said there were four people going? Or maybe he misheard.

         “I’ve always wanted to go out west.” he said before he could stop himself. Pique seemed looked pleased, but there was something distinctly phoney about it. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

         “So this means you’re in then?”

         “I—” his brows furrowed, “Yes. I mean, I would love to go—”

         “Excellent.” Pique swivelled right back around to his computer and clicked away at the keys, “I’ll send an email now telling your team that you’ve agreed and—”

         “Excuse me, Dr.” Rasim raised his voice slightly. At once the clicking stopped. Pique looked over his chair, expectantly.

         “...Yes?”

         Rasim licked his lips, “With all due respect, as much as I appreciate this new opportunity, why are you giving me this? What happened to your threats yesterday?” And isn’t there only supposed to be four people going?  

         Pique stopped himself from rolling his eyes, “Look, Nagi. Yesterday, you wounded my pride. It was just a little show I was putting on, you know? I was never going to fire you. You’re too brilliant for that.”

         As excited as he wanted to feel, the tight feeling that was wedged deep in Rasim’s chest couldn’t quite unwind, “...Really?”

         Pique lowered his face so that he peered at Rasim over his glasses, “Really. Really.” he turned back towards his computer, “And I apologise for my display, but I hope we can get this behind us.” he snorted once, “Hell. I’ll buy you a drink when you get back next month.”

         “Next month!? W-when do we leave?”

         “Tomorrow.”

         Rasim’s eyes grew huge, “So soon? This is so sudden. Who is my team? What do I even pack?”

         Pique shrugged, “We weren’t planning on Dr Button having her baby so soon, but these kinds of things happen. The guys are going to be relieved to have you. Here.” Pique reached for a blank sheet of printer paper and scribbled down a list of names before handing it over to Rasim, “Her ares the names of the people you’ll be working with and it’s Sojo in the fall, so, you know. Pack warm.”

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

         He was on his way to Sojo. The sea was rolling by on either side of their ship and with the sun high in the sky, it was as though they were gliding through glass.

         He told his friends and family about the abrupt trip and they were all so happy for him. It was suffocating. He was long accustomed to keeping the details of his work a secret from his family. He couldn’t tell his loved one that he was looking for ancient materia, only that he was going to be traveling out west for his job. He couldn’t tell them about the incident with the mako. It was like speaking to them through a wall of glass—they only saw the surface of things. They didn’t get to hear the dirty little secrets.

         “Beautiful sight, isn’t it?”

         Rasim turned around.

         It was a member of his “team.” A tall, dark haired man whose name Rasim was failing to recall. Rasim hadn’t recognised any of the names on the list Pique gave him. He smiled politely and nodded.

         “This your first time travelling on a boat?” he asked, leaning against the railing.

         “Oh, no. My family—I’m from Mideel. My family’s still in Mideel but I travelled to the East Continent for school and, obviously, stayed for the work. Uh, you?”

         “Ah, yeah, all the time. Your first time going to Sojo?”

         “Yes.” Rasim couldn’t help the  bubble of excitement rising in him, “This’ll be the first time I’m anywhere near the West Continent.”

         “Ah, it’s beautiful man. You’re in for a treat.”

         They fell in companionable silence. Rasim decided that this guy was friendly enough to maybe ask a few questions. He has been nothing but cordial since the day they set out after all. He’d have to ask for his name.

         “So,” he began, hands gripping the rail tightly, “When did Liz exactly have her baby?”

         The man looked thoughtful, then, “Oh! Dr. Button? Dunno, like a week ago. Why?”

         Rasim shrugged, “I probably sound crazy, but it just seems weird. I mean, I had a disagreement with my boss and,” he scratched his head, “It was pretty bad. As in, ‘I’m gonna lose my job’ bad. But he didn’t end up firing me and now I’m here, on this trip.”

         The man’s lips twitched, “Are you saying that’s a bad thing?”

         “I mean, no. It just doesn’t add up to me. Liz was only 7 months along the pregnancy and she happens to have her kid a couple of days before I nearly lose my job? Liz? The only person on this trip I can stand in for?”

         “You sound paranoid as hell, dude. Relax. Yeah, it’s weird, but life is weird. You got lucky. You should be celebrating instead of worrying about it.”

         That didn’t make Rasim feel any better.

         “Hey,” the man began again, “We’re going to Sojo, man. It’s a great place. Got this 'untouched beauty' thing going for it since ShinRa never bothered with it. Think about that. And just look at the ocean, man. How many people would kill for this view? Just enjoy it, man. Live in the now.

         Rasim chewed his bottom lip, “Yeah…”

         The silence that came didn’t feel quite as stifling this time.

         “Hey, well, I’m going back to the cabin. Catch some ‘zzz’s. Ocean always makes me sleepy.”

         “Right, right.” Rasim smiled, “Hey, uh… I know you’ve already given me your name but, huh, can you remind me?”

         The stranger smiled back, “It’s Arnold.”

         “Arnold. Thanks, Arnold.”

         “Take care, Dr Nagi.”

         Rasim turned back towards the ocean, feeling as though a fog was being lifted from his head. Live in the now. Maybe for now. Junon’s problems can wait in Junon.

         He smiled beatifically. A sort of floaty, carefree happiness was the last thing he felt before the bullet blew out all feeling.

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

         Pique read and reread the text.

         So the Nagi problem was dealt with. Over and out. He sighed and leaned back in his chair.

         “He really was a brilliant mind.” he mused, “Such a shame that he was blinded by his own self-righteousness.”

         He has seen so many other who were lost in a similar fashion. Their deaths inevitable because they failed to keep up with the very genius of the boldest scientist he’d ever known.

         He shook away visions of rectangular glasses and stringy black hair, picked up his desk phone, and dialled a line. President Silva’s voice was on the other end in seconds.

         “Pique?”

         “Sir? It’s done.”

 

Chapter Text

 


.o.

.~o.O.o~.

Chapter Nine: Small Town Heroes

.~o.O.o~.

.o. 


 

         Mrs. Oaks was far from cruel, but she was most certainly stern. Her tidy, tiny house was a space that she took immense pride in in a neighbourhood so destitute and dull. Any mess or ruckus created here felt like a personal affront. Thus, any cards that were pulled were put immediately away once the games were done and any rowdiness could take itself right out the door.

         The very first day that Marlene stayed in her neat, little home, the youngest son living there, Forrest, had poked and prodded her until she snapped. He was thrilled by the prospect of having a new playmate. Marlene was overwhelmed by the attention, having grown used to being out the centre of it. She was even less accustomed to being around children her own age and felt a shout bubbling in the back of her throat as Forrest continued jabbering right in her face.

         “Stooop." She whined over and over, but her protests did not deter him. So she yelled and Mrs. Oaks barked out her name in a tone so severe, Marlene felt as though she had been zapped.

         As she was shooed away outside alongside the little boy, Marlene felt the beginning of tears burn her eyes. Forrest, by comparison, seemed unfazed by the whole affair. He had hunched up his shoulders and crossed his arms defiantly before grunting sharply at his mother. As soon as he crossed the threshold to the outdoors, however, he immediately flew to Marlene’s side to play, only to abandon her upon realising that she wasn’t going to be any fun. Marlene never missed Tifa so desperately since their separation in Midgar.

         In the days following, Marlene continued to keep to herself—Forrest was quick to grow tired of her silence and stillness. To keep her from becoming too bored, Mrs. Oaks had given her little chores to complete, which Marlene did not mind at all for these were activities that she was already used to. For every surface she swiped and corner she swept, she was rewarded with a smile and a kind word followed by a treat of her choosing from Mrs. Oak’s Super Secret Candy Jar. When Marlene was not working, she would sit in the rocking chair situated by the only window in the living room, passing the time with a book in her hands.

         Marlene could not read very well. It was a skill that had hardly been nurtured in her time in the Slums. Wedge would occasionally slip her a tattered old story book with loads and loads of illustrations that she would look at for hours, weaving her own tales. When Wedge had the time, he would sit and read through these books with Marlene, revealing the truth of each picture. Marlene had loved it when Wedge would read those books to her. Tifa was a very good storyteller as well, but Wedge did all the funny voices and faces.

         The books on Mrs. Oak’s shelf did not have many pictures. Marlene picked out a heavy one thinking it would contain plenty to look at, but the content was stunningly lacking. This book was a mistake.

         There was a high pitched yelp outside followed by the deep rumble of men's’ laughter. Marlene felt herself perking up.

         There was the sound of shovels clanking followed by the splashing of water, then that of heavy footsteps approaching the door until it finally opened. Timber came through first with his face shiny and wet.

         “‘Ey, Ma!” he called out in greeting. He smiled and nodded towards Marlene, “Ey, Marls. That’s one big ol’ book ya got there. Almost as big as you are!”

         His father followed him up with Forrest hanging over one shoulder. He waved at Marlene with the opposite hand,

         “Hiya, sweet lil’ Marlene!”

         Max brought up the rear, “Hey Marls!” he walked over and lightly pinched her on the cheek. Marlene enjoyed all of their company immensely, but she enjoyed Max’s especially. He leaned over, “Whatcha reading?”

         There was no way Marlene could even hope to pronounce the title, so she closed to book to show Max the cover. His brows furrowed.

         “'The First Cities: An Inner Look Into Gaia’s Earliest Known Civilisations’? ” He grinned and patted her head, “Gee, Marls. Aren’t ya a bright lil’ peach?”

         Marlene smiled, pleased that she picked this book out after all.

         Max humoured Marlene in explaining whatever he could with every graph and illustration that she found. From another room, Timber could be heard fussing with his mother, but a playful chuckle would fall from their lips every now and then.

         Lunch was being served at the table when a loud knocking sounded from the front door. The whole house stood still as Marlene’s heart leapt into her throat.

         “Max?” Mrs. Oaks said askance.

         “Yeah,” Max set down his utensils and answered the door.  Marlene gasped.

         “Papa!” she squealed and leapt from the edge of her chair.

         Her Papa had been dropping her off here at the start of each day for the past four days now. Marlene was so terrified the first day that he left, convinced that he would be gone for weeks and weeks and weeks, just like the last time he left her. But he would always come back for her before the night could settle in, visibly tired, but always with a smile on his face.

         “Papa!” she leapt easily into his arms and gave a small grunt as he gave her a tight hug.

         “How are ya, baby girl?”

         “Good!” she leaned back to peer at her father’s face and frowned. He did not have his usual smile. Well, he was trying, but it wasn’t very good. Marlene suddenly felt that same, anxious feeling she would get when Papa wouldn’t come home until late in the night, cursing ShinRa’s name and throwing punches into the walls that seemed to shake the whole bar.

         “You alright, Barret?” Max laughed once, awkward, “Ya look like you’ve seen a ghost or somethin’”

         Barret shook his head, “Got a meeting this evenin’. In town square.”

         Marlene felt a shift, as though someone had taken a bright, yellow balloon and burst it.

         “Town square?” Mrs. Oaks stood with her hands on her hips from the kitchen arch, “Whatever for?”

         “To decide if I’m stayin’ or not, basically.” Barret said lowly with anger plain in his voice.

         “What?”

         “Y’all’ll see.” Barret gave Marlene another squeeze before setting her down. She frowned deeply, “Till then, I’m gonna need y’all to look after Marlene just for a lil’ longer and bring her with y’all to town square. I just came here to let y’all know.”

         “That’s fine.” Mrs. Oaks said faintly. Marlene felt a shout bubbling in her throat again.

         “Papa?” she asked softly. He looked down at her and gave her another one of those Not-Quite-A-Smile.

         “I’ll be back, baby girl.”

         But why did he keep on leaving in the first place?

         He knelt down to kiss her brow before nodding to Mrs. Oaks and stepping back through the door.

         “Barret!” Max cried.

         “Just be there.” he said gruffly and shut the door.

         The shout in Marlene’s throat dwindled down in her chest and went tight.

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

         If you were standing atop the crown of the hill that overlooked the mines below and breathed the air in, you got a good, clean lungful. The was the one thing that Barret missed most about living in the open, country space. The air was uncluttered and had space to spread around. If you stood still enough, you could hear the chirps of small birds and the murmurs of old neighbours—men and women with tawny leather skins stretch loose over their faces with hands that had as many lines and creases in them as there were shortcuts in the road.

         The Slums were nothing like this town—the Slums had been too busy and too full of danger. One could not stop and take the time to sit still and hear their own thoughts. They were always looking out for the next funny thing that could kill them. Here, folks took the time to sit and ask after everyone’s child or watch the trees sway or get sucked into the adventures of some secondhand book that the occasional travelling merchant would pass along. Books that would, in turn, be borrowed from neighbour to neighbour to neighbour because what was yours was everyone else's around here. Even after that disastrous fire and even after ShinRa’s intrusions, the Corellans would not be veered from the quiet life they had led before. But it could only last for so long.

         Most of the young folk had no care for the prospect of mining and farming the rest of their lives and so fled North Corel in flocks to Gold Saucer with hopes as high and bright as the stars. You met all kinds of folks from all over Gaia in that sparkling, golden city and the right stranger could take you even further away from the old mining town. Some took you away from the Central Continent altogether! This left North Corel with an increasing gap between those too young to pick up a pickaxe and those who had been handling pickaxes for more than twenty years.

         Even with North Corel’s ever shrinking mining force, however, decent tools proved hard to come by. There just wasn’t enough incentive to replace the old, broken ones—coal was no longer the money magnet it had been in Old Corel’s heydey. It was a failing export even before ShinRa had proposed to plant their reactor and made lofty promises of wealth that Corellans could only dream of. Corel still exported their capital resource to small, nearby towns—the largest importer of their coal being, in fact, Rocket Town—but it was hardly enough to sustain them, even with the outlawing of mako. North Corel was an old creature breathing in its last lungfuls of life. Barret knew this and so did Mayor Jet Moles.

         Barret met with Corel’s newest mayor daily and each encounter ended more fruitless than the last. Moles was determined to drive him away, whether it be the excuses that had Barret waiting around for hours or the taunts he’d spew out in the midst of Barret’s proposals for Corel. Their latest meet-up ended with Barret’s choking Moles by the collar and Moles calling for a town meeting in order to show Barret what everyone really thought of him. It was going to be a public display of humiliation under the guise of public discourse.

         The meeting was called in the early evening with the tolling of bells after the miners had all turned in for the day but before the townsfolk could sup. A grumpy lot gathered around the large well in front of town hall as the bells rang, arriving at the sight of their mayor on the town hall steps with the old traitor not far beside him. Barret hadn’t been in Corel a whole week, and there were already rumours being worked against him. There were ears that caught wind of Barret’s involvement with the new executive head of New Midgar—no doubt from Jet Moles’s very own mouth. This executive head was never referred to as Reeve Tuesti, but as “New ShinRa,” despite the fact that Barret had told Moles over and over that Reeve was nothing like his predecessor.

         Staring out into a crowd full of faces that were already condemning him, Barret felt as though he had just walked into his own execution. The unfairness of it all made his blood boil. He might not have bothered at all if he wasn’t pleasantly surprised by the amount of pleasantly neutral and even curious faces amongst the angry ones. He actually might still have a chance...

         “Good people of Corel, gather ‘round, gather ‘round!” Moles cried.

         Moles looked very typical of a Moles man: freckled, tan skin stretched over, dark, pinched features and thinning brown hair with a very narrow widow’s peak. The air in which he carried himself was relaxed and assured. The eyes gave him away, however. Those black, button eyes that zeroed in on Barret as though willing him to be a mere figment of his imagination.

         “Now it would seem this town has a proposition on its hands.” Moles began, “Another energy deal, as a matter of fact. From the New ShinRa that’s rising out east.” Moles gestured to Barret, “Now y’all may recognise this gentlemen here, who’s come back to negotiate this deal!”

         “That’s a gai’damn lie!” Barret barked without thinking.

         Anger had always been an easy thing for Barret to draw on. It was the constant companion that carried him through all the years he was fighting ShinRa. A quick burst of energy that kept him from keeling over on the lowest days when he felt like giving up. He was so unlike Tifa, who could get just as angry as he was, but could plaster on a smile if she really, really needed to. How badly he wished that she was here now. She would be so much better, so much cooler than him.

         “It’s a lie,” Barret tried again, bringing down his tone, “And you know it Mayor Moles.”

         “Do I, Wallace?” Moles turned to the crowd, “I’ve been meetin’ with this man for the past few days now and all he’s had to talk about was making deals between this town and Midgar. Midgar, who sent a team that burned our old home to the very ground. Am I bein’ unreasonable for being overcautious?”

         There was a collective shout of, “No! ”  

         “Just get outta town, Wallace!”

         “Ya shouldn’t have come back here!”

         “Just listen! Listen!” Barret pleaded.  

         “Ya should’ve stayed gone!”

         “The ShinRa y’all knew before,” Barret tried again, “It’s dead and gone. It fell with the Meteor. I seen the ruins with my own two eyes. There ain’t no New ShinRa rising up. The man behind this deal is completely different.”

         “And why should we believe you!?” another voice hollered from the crowd. There were murmurs of agreement.

         “‘Cause I been out there fightin’ the ShinRa!”

         This was met with more scoffs and jeers.

         “You know what? Let’s get it out there! I ain’t gonna pretend that I left this town on steady ground. I ain’t gonna pretend that a lot of y’all don’t blame me for what the ShinRa had done. I know for a lot of y’all, I don’t have your trust. I know played a part. I own up to my sins. That’s why I’ve been fightin’ so gai’damn hard to make things right.”

         “Whoo! My man, Barret!”

         Barret whipped his head towards the cheer. That sounded like Timber!

         “Yeah, whoo! Makin’ things right!”

         ...And that was Max.

         Barret’s eyes settled on them, all the way in the back. Timber was hollering and clapping like a gai’damned fool. Max was leaned over then stood up straight again, hauling Marlene to sit on his shoulder. Barret met Marlene’s eyes and she waved, hard. Barret’s heart began to ache.

         “I-I hope you win, Papa!”

         She was his peace; his sanctuary. Everything he did, he did for her.

         “Settle down, everyone! Please!” Moles waved his arms about.

         “I, for one, wanna hear what this deal is. All I been hearin’ about is whether Wallace should even be here. What’s the gai’damn deal?”

         A new presence stepped onto the steps of town hall and the crowd quieted down.

         “Well, Wallace.” Joseph Peaks spoke again, “Come on, spit it out.”

         “You can’t be seriously considerin’—!” Moles exclaimed.

         Peaks gave him a hard look, “Didn’t stutter, did I?”

         The Peaks were one of the oldest families in Old Corel and one of the few rich enough to never have any of its descendants lift a finger in the mines by necessity, as they owned much of the mines themselves. Each generation they produced varied from being well like to outright despised, but no matter the popularity, they were always, always respected for their lineage and the part they have played in Corel’s history. Joseph Peaks was one of the well-liked ones. Though his air was slightly arrogant with a pride instilled in him through an easy childhood, he had a way with the people. Peaks looked at Barret with a smile peeking out from under his brown moustache and beard. Barret had to remember to buy the man a drink at some point.

         “It’s funds for a new minin’ method,” Barret began, “Folks here really even wouldn't have to change the way they work. We’d still be collecting coal, but instead of sellin’ it as it, we’d be liquefying it. Turnin’ it into oil usin’ a method Tuesti’s team has developed.”

         He had the attention of the whole crowd at this point.

         “And why oil?”

         “See, y’all just don’t know. Corel’s cut off, but I’ve seen what’s been happenin’. When ShinRa went down, so did all the mako mining. Matter of fact, that shit’s illegal most places. So places are turnin’ to other things. Like oil. The world needs oil.”

         “...And Corel could supply it.”

            “This is gonna put Corel on the map,” Reeve had said over and over, entirely enthused and sweeping Barret up in his rapture, “This is going to change Corel’s forever.”

          Your neighbours are going to forgive you, Barret, was the unspoken promise. They’ll forgive you and respect you again. Then you’re going to get your home back, Barret. You’re going to get your home back.

         “So it is a reactor!” a naysayer from the crowd cried,

         “It’s a gai’damn machine.” Barret retorted, “We ain’t diggin’ up anything from the ground that we ain’t diggin’ up already. We just takin’ what we have and turnin’ it into something else! Something that’ll make this town a shit ton of gil!”

         There were still jeers and boos, but they were blatantly in the minority. Things seemed to be clicking for most of the townsfolk. Barret allowed the hope to full bloom in his chest.  

         “And nothin’ has to change you said? No new reactor or nothing?”

         “Nope! We’d only need folks to work the liquefying is all.”

         There was a moment where everyone seemed to be considering the whole idea until Peaks spoke up again,

         “Well, gee. What the hell. You’ve won me over, Wallace.”

         “Yeah!”

         “Yeah, what the hell?”

         “Whooo, whoo, that’s my man BARRET!”

         “Are we sweepin’ the last time under the rug or something?” Moles bit out, “Y’all forget how he swayed us to take the other deal?”

         “Give it a rest, Moles!” Peaks asserted, ‘I think we’ve heard enough. Can we put this to a vote, please? I’m gettin’ hungry as hell!”

         “Gaia, he’s right.”

         “I could eat a whole chocobo!”

         “Let’s just get this over with!”

         “Alright!” Moles sneered and addressed the crowd, “All who oppose this proposal, let this be known by a show of hands.”

         A good amount of arms were raised then, shouts of "Don’t fall for New ShinRa!” and, “We don’t need that new bullshit.” accompanying them.

         “...And those who actually...support this proposal?”

         The town’s choice was clear.

         “Looks like Corel is gettin’ itself a new toy.” Peaks smiled and walked over to Barret, sticking out his hand, “Congratulations, Wallace.”

         Timber and Max were hollering up a storm and Barret gripped Peak’s hand, grinning like a fool. It was happening. It was actually happening. For the first time since Barret set foot in North Corel, he felt back home again.

         “Papa won?! Papa won!”

         The crowd was clearing quickly after the vote. A few more congratulations were thrown Barret’s way, but most of the townsfolk were eager to get home. This made it is easy for Max to flow through the bodies, Marlene in hand, laughing and bouncing with joy for her father.

         Barret swooped her up easily and tickled her till she squealed. Then he hugged her tightly and kissed both of her cheeks, feeling the beginning of tears pool his eyes.

         “Papa! Your whiskers!” Marlene laughed.

         “I’m sorry, baby. Ya daddy’s just happy.”

         “Does this mean you’re staying home with me now?”

         Barret gave an embarrassed little laugh. He did leave often, but that was all stopping now. ShinRa was gone, Corel’s rebuilding and his town was having him again, “Oh, it does, baby girl. We gonna be home for a long time.”  

 


.o.

.~o.O.o~.

.o.


 

          You are my first son. You were the first one that I loved.

.o.

         The summer heat in Wutai was especially brutal that year, so much so, that Tseng and his brothers did not veer far from the river. They were still young enough to rise after the sun had done so and after having their breakfast and teasing their sisters, they ran the few metres from their home to the slow moving, shallow waters nearby and began to play. After some hours of splashing about, the youngest brother, Xuan, suggested they play “Emperor.” Tseng crossed the body of water to the bank opposite of their house.

         “Halt!” Tseng shouted, picking up the stick he had left there from last time and waving it in the air, “If you dare cross over to my kingdom here, it’ll be the end of you!”

         “You got to be emperor last time, Tseng.” Xuan whined, “When will Yanting and I have a turn?”

         “When you cross the river without falling!” Tseng declared as he rolled his eyes, “Just like last time.”

         “But we can’t get past you with that stick!”

         “So try harder!”

         “We don’t wanna play if we don’t get a turn, Tseng. Xuan suggested it, so let Xuan be emperor!”

         Tseng narrowed his eyes at his brothers and sneered for a moment, but quickly became assuaged by a thought. He held out the Emperor Stick towards Xuan, “Fine. Here.”

         Xuan flinched before taking the stick with a smile. He climbed up on land and shoved Tseng into the river, “Haha! Now I rule over this kingdom!”

         As they began their game, Tseng immediately went on hands and knees and began to dig for stones. As Xuan swung the Emperor Stick wildly to fend off Yanting, Tseng aimed a stone at Xuan’s hand and pelted with all his might. Xuan immediately dropped the stick, stunned. Tears filled his eyes as Tseng quickly invaded his kingdom.

         “There! Now give me the stick.”

         “You're a cheater!” Xuan screeched.

         “No, I’m not!” Tseng growled, “Where in the rules does it say I couldn’t use stones?!”

         “You're a cheater!” Xuan screeched again and shoved at Tseng.

         “It’s not cheating if I outsmarted you. You big baby!” Tseng shoved back. Xuan continued to protest until his eyes zeroed in on a point beyond Tseng. He then began to cry in earnest.

         “BABA!” Xuan hollered as he ran past Tseng and leapt into the water. Tseng’s heart dropped as he chased after him,

         “Xuan, w-wait!”

         “BABA!”

         Their father turned swiftly towards his boys, nearly dropping some contents from the basket of goods in hand from his shopping trip earlier.

         “What’s this?! Who’s bleeding?!”

         “Baba!” Xuan began, “We were playing a game and Tseng cheated and hurt my hand!”

         “I didn’t cheat!” Tseng insisted fervently, deeply offended that his brother would insult him in front of Baba like this, “We had to cross the river and get past the emperor with the stick. Xuan was emperor, so I distracted him a stone. No one said we couldn’t use stones! Xuan’s just mad that I won!”

         “You’re a cheater! And you hurt me!"

         “Did you all agree that stones couldn’t be used, my dear Li Xuan?” their Baba asked gently.

         Xuan sniffed and shrugged, “I guess not.”

         “If stones were never a part of the rules, then is it fair to call Tseng a cheater? You mustn't throw these words around just because you’re upset with someone, my dear Li Xuan. Accusations like that can really ruin an innocent person’s reputation! So instead of calling your brother a cheater, challenge yourself to be even more prepared than him next time! That being said,” Baba looked between the two boys, “I think I would prefer it if sticks and stones weren’t a part of your games at all. Please try to play more gently with each other! Especially you, Li Tseng, for you are older and bigger."

         The two sons bowed their heads, “Yes, Baba.”

         “Now, go back and keep Yanting company. I think he’s starting to feel weird being by himself.”

         Xuan dutifully ran back but Tseng stayed, looking intently at Baba’s basket.

         “Baba,” Tseng began in a cutesy sing-song, clasping his hands behind his back and rocking on his feet, “Don’t you have something for me?”

         Baba looked confused, “Do I?”

         “Seriously, Baba.” Tseng smiled and held out a hand.

         “Do you think me a mind reader, Li Tseng? Out with it, boy!”

         Peering hard at his Baba, Tseng frowned. His shoulders slumped. “Ah! Seriously?”

         “Ha!” Baba laughed as he produced a folded newspaper from the back pocket of his pants. He tapped Tseng lightly with it, “Fooled you!”

         “Ah, seriously, Baba!” Tseng whined but greedily snatched the paper.

         “Hey! Where’s my payment?” Baba kneeled before Tseng and tapped his cheeks.

         “Ah, seriously. I’m getting too old for that.” despite this protest, Tseng kissed his cheeks anyway.

         “Getting too old! Says the little boy who was acting cute just a second ago!” Baba pinched his nose.

         “Baba.” Tseng whined again as he wiped at the spot that was pinched but couldn’t be upset for long. Not when he’s gotten his hand on this week’s puzzles!

         “Dry up and change your clothes before you drag water into the house, Li Tseng. And remember to leave some puzzles blank for your siblings.” his Baba called after him as he bolted inside.

         “Yes, Baba!” Tseng called back half-heartedly. He changed his clothes quickly and hung his wet ones out to dry. Then, after finding a pencil and a quiet corner to relax in, he opened the paper to the puzzle page. It was a page entirely dedicated to riddles, short stories, and number puzzles. Tseng’s eyes were drawn to the rows and rows of circles that contained some numbers with a few missing ones here and there. Within a minute of observing the numbers present and the numbers missing in the first set, Tseng worked out the pattern, lifted his pencil, and began to fill out the blanks.

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

         “There’s been talk of gangs stirring up trouble east of here.”

         Tseng peered up to look Huang Yu in the eyes, knife in one hand and a half severed cabbage in the other.

         “Oh?” Tseng answered politely before he continued sawing at the cabbage. A head burst open like watermelon came to the forefront of his mind.

         “They have apparently stationed themselves in Yu Zhen only recently. From there, they’ve been going to nearby villages and harassing the villagers for food.”

         “Wu Shan is some distance away from Yu Zhen and there are many villages between us and the city. Do you really think that they will come this way?”

         Huang Yu shrugged, “I haven’t had to deal with bullies likes this since the war between Wutai and Jianghu. I was only a small child back then, but I remember very clearly my father cursing our own countrymen who took advantage of the situation for their own gain! We will simply do what my father learned to do then: put aside food so that they will leave us alone quickly.”

         Tseng nodded and tucked a loose strand of hair behind his ear. Huang Yu cleared his throat.

         “I also understand that they’re looking for a Wut who has personally insulted them.”

         Tseng looked up again. Huang Yu’s eyes held the accusation that he wouldn’t voice.

         They never did talk about Tseng’s appearance. Tseng supposed they never had to. Even if his Jiangnan flowed as smooth as a native’s, he was sure that everyone would see him for what he was. Though he carried a Jiangnan name, he looked Wutainese in the purest sense of the word. As though he had stepped out of one of the classical paintings that lined the walls of the Howaitorōzu Palace in their sister country up north. Tseng gave a wry smile.

         “Surely I am not the only Wutainese person living in all of Jianghu?”

         “No,” Huang Yu returned his smile, “But surely you’re the only who has not gone to make their living in the city. Who has ever heard of a Wut travelling to Jianghu to settle down with poor farmers? And a young one at that!”

         Tseng scoffed lightly, “I do not feel very young.”

         After a pause, “Why are you really here, Xuan? What troubles are you running from that have lead you to our home?”

         Tseng nearly let the confusion settle in his features before he caught himself. He was still unaccustomed to the false name that he had given his neighbours. They said the name much less often than he anticipated, and whenever they did, it would almost always surprise him. Perhaps he shouldn’t had chosen something so familiar and personal. He pursed his lips and let the moment of silence play out as though he were contemplating an answer.

         “I am not running from trouble.” He began finally, “I left a life I no longer cared for. I left that life to seek a new sort of peace.”

         Huang Yu grunted, unsatisfied with Tseng’s answer, but long used to his cryptic nature at this point.

         “And have you succeeded,” Huang Yu asked him after a moment of silence, “in acquiring this new peace, you think?”

         The lie readily left Tseng’s lips, “I believe so.”

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

         In spite of the looming threat of the gangs in Yu Zhen, there was a wedding to be had and all of Wu Shan was to be in attendance.

          The villagers pooled their excess harvest and wealth to prepare for the festivities and Tseng looked enviously on. Though these villagers were not bound by blood, they came together as a united front and every mother doted on the bride-to-be as though she were their own daughter. Every father had meaningful advice for the groom. Tseng felt like a ghost passing through, come to observe how the living carried on. Despite the joy and love that went into preparing the event, Tseng could not help but to think of the upcoming wedding as shiny, bright target to draw in the gang members of Yu Zhen. The happier everyone became, the more inevitable it felt that something would go wrong. Everyone around him was waiting to celebrate. Tseng? He was waiting to kill.

         The first day of the wedding was started off with the mourning ceremony for the young bride leaving her parents home and followed by ridiculous games that the groom and his party had to partake in to prove himself worthy of a wife. The second was when the actual ceremony to bind man and woman as husband and wife took place. The bride wore red and was a sight to behold as the wailing mothers looked on and sang a wedding song. The third day was the day that the bride was to go home with the groom and the whole affair was wrapped up with a grand feast. Games and alcohol were pulled out shortly after, and the festivities went on well into the evening.

         At some point, Lin Mei had nudged Tseng suggestively, boldly stating that even a Wut like him would look very handsome in traditional Jiangnan wedding garbs before pointedly eyeing one of the young bridesmaids. He felt the weight of the gun hidden on his person and laughed at her harmless, little joke.

         He was sipping a beer and tuning out the crude jokes of the men around him when Tseng felt himself finally begin to relax. The day—and thus, the festivities—would be over in a few more hours and Wu Shan would go back to being an inconspicuous little village hidden in the mountains. Tseng’s eyes zeroed in on a movement in the bushes some distance away from everyone, wondering what poor animal has been disturbed by the ruckus.

         “What about our resident Wut, here?”

         “Yeah, how’s about it, Xuan? Which of these girls here would you like to bed?”

         “Yes! Enlighten us, Xuan! What is the preference of Wutainese men?”

         Tseng was vaguely surprised to hear himself being referred to that way. Just as Huang Yu had days earlier. Was it general knowledge that went unspoken amongst the residents here? That he was the sole Wut living out in their countryside? Was he, truly? How far spread was this fact? How many Jiangnan eyes had been observing him as the foreigner that had come into their midsts as he made his occasional trips to the city of Yu Zhen? Would the same mouths that spread the news of the Yu Zhen gangs be able to tell whoever sought him exactly where and who he was? Tseng felt a tightening in his stomach.

         “Look at his face! I think we’ve embarrassed him.”

         “Are the Wutainese really so shy?”

         “You can tell us, you know, Xuan. We won’t try to maul you. The fight between Jianghu and Wutai has long since been over.”

          "Hey! But if you pick my sister, I'm gonna have to kill you..."

         Tseng looked over and pressed his bottle into the free hand of the man next to him.

         “Hold this?”

         “Hey! Do I look like your mother?”

         “Xuan! Where are you going? We were only just teasing! You owe me a game of chess, remember? We were just about to set up!”

         “I’ll be right back.” Tseng called from over his shoulder. He willed the disturbance in the bushes to be a mere animal. It was hard to really gauge what it could be with the torches of fires that were spread about being the only real sources of light.

          “Who is there?” he heard someone ahead shout. He quickened his steps, letting gravity carry him faster down the slight decline.

         “Did you have yourself a wedding here?!” a booming voice responded, “There should be plenty of food and drink for us, then.”

         “D-Don’t be so hasty!” the first voice said back, “Let’s talk this out!”

         There was a scream and the sound of a body hitting the earth. Tseng froze alongside others who had also come to notice the commotion.

         Like demons sprouting from the underworld, one by one, snarled faces began to step into the fiery light of a nearby torch. Tseng recognised the ringleader and his two cronies from the Yu Zhen at once. Alongside the trio, there were six more gang members, two of which began to ransack the first house they were walking past and three who were carrying spears with heads that were glinted orange against the flames. The rising panic around Tseng was tangible.

          Now he was just a man looking to defend himself and probably his neighbours.

         “Hey!” He called to them and resumed his jog before they could come any closer, “Why make such a big fuss when it's me that you're looking for?” With every step that he took, he felt the light nudge of his firearm tucked into the holster that wrapped around his waist. There were ten bullets in the chamber and nine members to take down.

         The gang leader stopped short, looking surprised at first, then strangely satisfied, “You!” He continued to come closer, “So this is where you have been hiding!”

         Tseng looked to his neighbours who were backing away from the scene. He couldn't tell where they were going in all this darkness and he sucked his teeth in frustration. If they would only gather behind him! If only he could see.

         “Let's go elsewhere since your fight is with me!” He declared.

         “Who is that!? Does he seriously want to die!?” He heard someone exclaim from behind him.

         “No deaths at a wedding! Please, we’ll give your food!” He heard another.

         The ringleader looked livid, “Do you really think that you're going to make the rules here!? I'll decide where we'll fight and that's right here! You’ve insulted the Fensui enough so crushing you would be a mercy. The Fensui are going to tear you limb from bloody limb!”

         The words sent the half-inebriated villagers in a frenzy and as the Fensui lunged forward, they swung their arms to strike down anyone who stood in their way. Tseng had to forget his gun for the moment. He instead focused on the poison materia clipped to it.

         The magic swept through like a wave, leaving him feeling a little woozy, but the effect was immediate. It was as though a tremor had shaken the ground beneath feet of the Fensui—their steps were not as sure and few nearly slow down to near halts. But this magic had slowed down Tseng as well. These opponents were powerful and poisoning them all took a lot. Shaking the dizziness in his head and seeing a window of opportunity, Tseng dug out his weapon, aimed, and fired. It connected.

          The thundering sound served to stir the villagers more. Tseng could spit.

          “Seek shelter!” he cried over the panicked commotion.

          The Fensui were in a rage—the murder of one of their own seemed to sober up those who were slowed by the Poison. They charged Tseng like bulls, fueled by blind bloodlust.

          He was able to shoot down two more before he tried to sidestep an attack.

          When Tseng was first being initiated into the Turks, many of his colleagues had assumed that his speciality would be offensive materia. The assumption derived from a common misconception out East that all Westerners were born with a high affinity for magic. In actuality, Tseng was placed on the lower end of the magic spectrum in testing and thus never really bothered with it, opting to hone in his skills in marksmanship. The times that he’s had to use materia always left him a little dazed, as though he’d been spun around a bit too fast.

          The dodge wasn’t clean and Tseng felt as though a fist made of cinder block had just grazed his left shoulder.  

          Tseng swung his gun arm towards his assailant to the right and fired. Another one down.

          He back away and instinctively brought up an arm to take the impact of an incoming punch from another one of the gang members. Pain burst through his forearm and he was too stunned to avoid the kick to the side of his chest and waist. He knew from what he witnessed in Yu Zhen that their strength was extraordinary, but to actually feel it. Tseng gave a vicious shout as he shoved the firearm in the belly of his opponent and fired. A good portion of his left side felt as though it fire ants were chewing his being from the inside out. He needed some distance.

          He holstered the gun and ran for a torch as he was charged by two more men. He swung the fire around as he called on his cure materia, feeling that same nausea but cooling the burn in his left side. He lunged forward with the torch, blinding one of his opponent with fire. That’s when the felt the head of the spear slicing through the side of his gut, inches away from the scar. The one that Sephiroth had given him. The phantom feeling of flames licking his side overcame him and he nearly choked.

          He grabbed on tight to the length of the spear, lifted a leg and snapped off the head of the spear clean. He then turned swung the blade of the spear and cut open the throat of his assailant right as the tip of a second blade sliced just below the back of his left knee. He fell forward and the blade was shoved into his shoulder. Tseng rolled out of range, drew his gun, aimed, and fired. He heard the bullet connect and the body dropping.

          The pain was blinding but he had to see, he had to see. He propped himself up on his good shoulder and looked to and fro, but everything was so, so dark and he was starting to get cold. He had senses enough to realise that he had one more of the Fensui to deal with.

         Bracing himself, began to try and stand and that’s when he heard the steps behind him. It was too late. A meaty arm wrapped around his neck. He screamed as a hand dug into his ruined shoulder.

         “I told you that crushing you would be a mercy.”

         The gun was kicked from his hand and he was lifted by his clothes and thrown towards the table of alcohol and snacks and felt a pitch darkness sweep him under as liquor seeped into his open wounds. He sucked in a breath and forced his eyes open and saw nought but the distant glow of flames. Then he saw it—the silhouette of the man who would take his life. He felt a weight on his chest that pressed the shattered glass into his back.

         “But you’ve done enough damage now. This time, I’ll kill you!"

         Tseng felt two thumbs on his throat and over the beating of his own heart and out in the distance, he thought he could hear the murmur of a gentle river. The vibrant squeals of his little brothers...

         There was a crash and the pressure from his throat let up. Instinct had his hand grasping to the side to feel for any semblance of a weapon until his fist closed around the neck of a bottle. It burned—everything burned. But Tseng knew he would die if he didn’t push through it.

          He swung with all his might. The bottle turned out to be one of the broken ones, and the tip of the shard sliced deeply into the last of the Fensui’s eyes. He reeled away, hollering, and Tseng used the last of his adrenaline to follow, pinning him down with his good knee and plunging the bottle’s end down into the dark where he thought it would meet flesh. He stabbed and stabbed until he was sure whatever he was stabbing into had been reduced to gore.

         The last of the Fensui was no longer moving.

         Tseng dropped the bottle and looked out to the sea of faces glowing by the torch posts. He felt his lips mouth the word "help" before he closed his eyes and rolled onto his side, hands fruitlessly clutching his weeping wounds.

         The ground was shaking around him and he felt hands that were too warm against his freezing body. He tried opening his eyes again, but the world was in watercolour, badly smeared.

          He was floating, he realised. Floating weightlessly to nothing. This was the Lifestream, he knew at once. And he frowned, for more than anything, he had wanted to see Wutai—see Baba—one last time.

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

         There were boys who lived in cottages hidden in the forest thirty metres north up the river. Tseng and his brothers would wrestle with these boys whenever they found themselves in that part of their town as a part of an unspoken agreement that neither party needed to address. The arrangement was beautiful in it’s simplicity and those days always ended with Tseng and his brothers returning home with bruises on their arms and a smile lifting their cheeks.

         One early afternoon, however, the boys from the forest travelled south along the river to wrestle the Li brothers on their home turf and made strange remarks in the midst of their play that haunted Tseng well into the evening.

         After Tseng had cleared the table and washed his wares, he sought out his father. Baba was sitting on the front porch, chewing on a piece of sugarcane.

         “Have you come to watch the stars with me, Li Tseng?”

         Normally, Tseng did not care to do such a thing. The sky was the same as it was any other night of the week and he never saw the point of peering at it on a daily basis. Only Baba would insist that it was like watching a new act of the same play unfold itself each time. Tseng settled next to his father.

         “Baba?” he began, shaking his head at the offered piece of sugar cane that his father had stripped off.

         “Yes, my son.”

         “How come… How come I don’t look like you?”

         Baba looked aghast.

         “Don’t look like me?” He exclaimed, pinching Tseng’s nose lightly, “You have my fine little nose here, and my hair was just as dark and thick when I was your age! Promise! Though maybe not quite as long.” he tugged at a lock playfully. Tseng swatted his hand away.

         “Everyone has black hair, Baba.” Tseng rubbed his nose before running his fingers along the curves and grooves of it, “And my nose is different from yours.”

         “Is it? You need to get me a mirror, Li Tseng. All this time I had assumed that I was just as handsome as you are.”

         “Ah! Baba, seriously! None of us look like you.” Tseng fingered the hem of his shirt, “We don’t look like each other, either.”

         Baba sat back and ran a hand through Tseng’s hair. Tseng straightened it afterwards.

         “Do you really want to know? It all happened just so.

         Once upon a time before I knew you or any of your siblings, I was all alone in the world. I worked the soil and earned my keep and slept in an empty house every night. Oh, I was so lonely! So I prayed for a companion to keep the loneliness away. Several months passed and I forgot all about the prayer. Then, one evening, I happened upon a fair maiden. Oh, she was the most beautiful creature that I ever did see! I knew immediately then that she was not of this world.

         She was holding a small bundle to her chest and looked very distressed. Feeling very sorry for her, I took her back to my cottage and gave her food and drink. When she had her fill, I finally asked her why she was so upset. It would turn out that she was a goddess who had disgraced her celestial family by falling in love with a lowly human and having a child by him. The gods were enraged, but more than that, they were envious, for though the child was only half blood, he was fairer than any of them. That child was with her—he was the bundle in her arms. And how beautiful he was, indeed! Hair as black as the night sky and face that glowed like the stars.

         They meant to put the child to death, but the goddess begged for his life. She was thus sent down to earth to find a home for the child or never return to her heavenly realm.

         ‘O human!’ she had cried when she finished her story, ‘You have shown me a kindness that is worthy of this child. Will you take him as your own?’

         And I agreed and was lonely no longer.”

         Tseng blinked twice, looking incredulous, “What?”

         “Oh, my clever boy! Don’t you see? That beautiful babe was you!”

         The space between Tseng’s eyes furrowed, “So that is how Xuan and the others came to be here, too?”

         “Oh, no! Xuan was a special case. I had to wrestle him away from a kingdom of Toad People.”

         Tseng gritted his teeth as he imagined himself pushing his Baba and sending him rolling towards the river. The story of the Toad People was in the papers last week, “Baba!”

         “Li Tseng!” Baba laughed.

         “Baba, please be serious.”

         He sobered quickly and actually frowned, “Ah, Li Tseng. My brightest boy! Nothing ever did escape your notice. I suppose you are determined to really know the truth?”

         The look on Baba’s face and the tone of his voice made Tseng reconsider if he actually did. Swallowing a lump of nerves, he nodded. They looked at each other a moment before Baba sighed and moved closer to his boy. He tossed the pieces of cane, lowered his voice, and braced his hands on his knees.

         “I always wanted children. For as long as I could remember, that had been my dream. My first and only wife tried many years to give me just that, but we would always lose the child. I thought I was being punished for being so selfish. So I prayed for just one child. A son, if I dared. But it was like a curse. It seemed my wife and I weren't meant to have offspring, so we gave up the dream for a time. But my wife—she wanted it badly. She knew how much it meant to me and, oh! I still marvel at my fortune of marrying her. She knew how much a child meant to me and so wanted to try and try again. Then the year came when her belly swelled with life and it seemed for certain that our dream would be realised. That spring, however… When the child left, my wife followed.

         By then I was certain that I was being punished for my selfishness. For failing to be content with what I already had.

         Many years went by. I never married again. I did not want to entertain the idea of having a family with another woman and I was totally resigned to be alone. Then… ten summers ago, I found you and dared myself to hope again.

         You were laying by the roadside wrapped up in white sheets. You were the quietest, stillest little thing. I first mistook you for a bundle of food that someone left behind. But then I came close and saw your little face and panicked at once. Surely babies made noise and squirmed around! And I held my ear to your chest just like this and—ah!—your heart was like a war drum beating inside your chest. Strong and sure and very much alive. So I cradled you close and finally heard it; a crinkle of paper. It was a note left behind by your birth mother. I’ll never forget her words. I carried it around for days and would give it to you to hold so that you had a piece of her:

          Whoever finds this child, please, love him as your own.

          Do not attempt to seek me out.

          May the gods forgive me.

         Well, I did try to seek her out to see if there was anything that could be done so that mother could be with child. But my efforts came to nought. Then I dared to be selfish once more. I had grown very attached to you and began to greedily think, ‘Perhaps, at last, I have been granted my wish.’ But I'd squash the thought and keep on looking. I had to be certain your mother was aware of the treasure that she was giving up.

         The very last day that I looked for your mother, the old woman who used to live a couple of houses over told me that I ought to consider putting you in an orphanage. It would be best to do it then while you were too young to know what was what. And right at that moment, Li Tseng, I felt your tiny hands grab onto my finger—this finger here. And you squeezed so fiercely! You held onto my hand as though you thought you’d fly with the wind should you ever let go. And I knew then and there that I would not be giving you up. That I had found my son that I had been waiting so long to meet.”

         Tseng’s insides felt icy cold. He wasn't sure what he was expecting, but to hear that he'd been picked up from the side of the road. Alone. Unwanted. Mistaken for food.

         “Say something, Li Tseng.” his Baba whispered after a moment. His voice sounded strange. Tseng believes he’s only heard it once before. It was the summer in which the season was unusually rainy and the river grew more vicious and Yanting had fallen right in, not knowing any better. Baba had collected him in his arms after Yanting began to breathe again and whispered in that same voice for what seemed like hours.

         Tseng gasped and looked at Baba desperately.

         “So… Xuan and Mei and the others…?” He couldn’t handle being the only one.

         Baba nodded, “I took them in, too.” he chuckled sadly, “I had quite the reputation, Li Tseng. A child left behind is a very rare thing in our little corner of the world, but every time it would happen, the neighbours would say, ‘The crazy old man by the river will take it!’ And I would. Even now, being as old as I am, if I were presented with a babe who had no one to care for it, I could not find it in me to say no to a child."

         Tseng tried to think back on the years when his siblings came to be. Every time a new one was brought in, Tseng thought that they had always been his siblings—they had just been missing for a time and were finally being brought home. That perhaps his mother was sending them before she came herself. He would sometimes wonder if there were any more that were missing and were waiting to be brought here. Now that he's knew the truth of it, however…

         He felt a burn in the back of his throat and dug his hands into his knees.

         “Thank you… for telling me.” He stood to retreat to the corner of the house that he slept in with his “brothers.”

         “Li Tseng.”

         He bit his lip, willing himself to calm down because he was a nearly a man now and men stayed strong. But there was a wicked thought that was bothering him deeply. Like a great black snake that wrapped around his chest and squeezed the life out of him. And the more he tried to fight it, the more constricting it became.

          Why didn’t his mother want him? Why did she toss him by the road? Like trash?

         “Li Tseng!” his Baba said more sharply. Tseng glared down at the wood porch.

         “Li Tseng.” his tone was gentle again as he pulled Tseng forward. Tseng tried to pull back when Baba ran a thumb under Tseng’s eye and wiped at the start of tears there, “You are my son.” he whispered fiercely, “I don’t care how you came into my life; you are my boy.” Baba lifted his chin, “Am I not still your Baba?”

         “W-Why didn't she want m-me?” Tseng sputtered out miserably. The tears that pooled in his eyes were large and blinding. Baba pulled him into a tight embrace and for the first time in years, Tseng didn't lift a finger to fight it.

         “My boy, my boy!” Baba whispered as he pet his head, “You cannot think those thoughts. Sometimes… Sometimes the people who love us will do things that hurt if they think it for the best. It is not always fair and it is not always right. But we must be patient and forgive them for their shortcomings. But what’s even more important than forgiveness, Li Tseng, is understanding that those shortcomings are in no way your fault!

         Your mother… I can not say for certain what her situation was. But I truly believe that it was not so much that she didn't want you, but couldn't have you. For whatever reason. Either way, Li Tseng, please know you are well, well loved. I’m a silly old man and could never take the place of a mother, but I do hope that you will still have me as your Baba.”

         Tseng dug his hands into his Baba’s shoulders as he burrowed his face into the crook of his neck, allowing himself to feel small and safe. This man—his Baba—he did want him. He had prayed and asked just for him. No matter what, he was loved. No, it was as Baba said. He was well, well loved.

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

         When Tseng came to, it was not to the usual sight of his low, dark ceiling. He was, in fact, facing the end of a highly detailed tapestry. He lifted himself up and nearly went straight down again—the sharp ache in his muscles took him by surprise. Bracing himself, he tried to lift his body again and saw that the midday sun was pouring into the room from two sides as opposed to his usual one. When he looked to the side, he saw three more bodies laid out in mats similar to the one he was in, cloth wrapped up in one part of their body or another. Tseng looked down to see that most of his bare torso was wrapped in the same gauze-like cloth. He shivered from both the eternal gratitude he felt for his neighbours and the bone deep chill one only experiences when they’ve brushed cheeks with death and lived to realise it.

         He ran a hand over his head. His hair, he could feel, was free from it’s usual restraint, which drew attention to the fact that it lay hot and heavy against his neck. He sat up, feeling the ends tickle a point just beyond his mid back. The length surprised him; he was usually more on top of keeping it cut to his shoulders. He never did bother with it since coming to Wu Shan, has he? Preoccupied as he was with just staying the hell away from ShinRa and company.

          He fingered a strand thoughtfully. He doesn’t think he’s let it get this long since he was a child when his hair was a point of vanity. His sisters used to love combing through it on the occasional quiet evening. His Baba would tease him by tugging on it constantly. 

         He gathered it up out of habit but found the bands that were habitually on his wrists were gone. He frowned, wondering why anyone would bother with them and where they could have put them. Looking around his immediate proximity, he began to wonder where any of his things were. The holster was gone, as were the gun and materia. A quick look at his legs let him know that these weren't even his pants. If he could get his hands on his cure materia, he was sure the last of the pain would ebb away. He could even lend a hand to the healing men beside him.

         Resolved, Tseng got to his feet and began to search the room. The wrong shift of limbs shot pain throughout his body, but he endured it. Embraced it. This was something the Turks were trained to do.

         He was probably rummaging for a good ten minutes or so when he heard the door open and turned to see that the local physician was silently gauging him,

         “I see you are up and well?”

         “I am,” after a beat, “Thank you for the treatment.”

         The doctor nodded and moved to the table on the side of the room, “You were very badly beaten. We thought for certain you were dead or close enough to dying. But it felt wrong to leave you there after the way you handled those bullies from Yu Zhen. So we used whatever resources we could. I do think the potions saved your life.”

         Tseng did not know what to say so he thanked him again. Then,

         “Um. My things? Are they here?”

         “Ah. Yes. I will get them to you.” He walked over with a cup in hand, “But drink this first. Your wounds are still healing.”

         Tseng smelled the hints of health potion under the aroma of tea and nearly protested it, but politely accepted. Any help couldn’t hurt. Perhaps he’ll pay for an extra potion for the medicine man the next time that he was in Yu Zhen. The thought stopped him short—how strange that his mind should already be jumping to something as mundane and normal as shopping. As though he hadn’t just partaken in the slaughtering of nine men. With their immediate threat dealt with, he was closing the case. A mission complete. Time to go home, everyone.

         Had he ever really left the halls of ShinRa Headquarters?  

         The doctor returned with a small bundle wrapped in paper and handed it carefully to Tseng.

         “Here is the uh, weapon. With the mako stones still attached.” The physician’s face twisted in a disbelieving expression.

         Tseng took the bundle and nodded his thanks. The physician fidgeted.

         “You, uh, really shocked everyone, when you fired this thing.”

         Tseng looked curiously at him and read between the lines, “Frightened, you mean?”

         “Well, uh, yes. Frankly, though we’re thankful, some of us are a bit uncomfortable.”

         “Some” was probably a generous estimate. Tseng nodded his understanding, not in the least bit surprised.

         “Huang-Yu was very eager to talk to you as soon as you were conscious again.”

         Tseng thought that he knew what was coming, “I understand. Thank you. I’ll be right on my way, but first,” he popped out the cure materia, “If I could be of some assistance?”  

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

         He returned to the courthouse that evening. Lin Mei was very quiet when she greeted him and looked at him strangely. As though this was their very first time meeting. He supposed that it was in a twisted way.

         Huang Yu was just as quiet, but he was shaking with fury. He was only about eye-level with Tseng’s chest but the glare that he gave Tseng still cut him down to size.

         “You have been very dishonest.” he hissed as he shoved a trembling finger at Tseng’s chest, “You have been very dishonest. What I want to know is, why here? Why here? Why did you choose to come to this house? My house? Why did you choose to come to this village? We have been living happy, peaceful lives. But you! You brought your violence here.”

         He was taken aback by the accusation, yet, he could not find it in him to protest. He was living in a fantasy thinking he could wash his red hands clean by coming to the roots of his father. How dare he even taint them? It was not as though he ever truly believed that he would be free from the violence—why else did he carry those weapons with him? Why else did he keep them even after it was clear that Reno wasn’t going to hunt him down? He made his choice long, long ago. A path irreversible. What a fool he was to think he could erase the ugly bits of his past and return to the Tseng who lived in a little shack by a river in Wutai.

         Tseng hung his head and gave his apologies in the sincerest words that he knew. Huang-Yu didn’t accept them.

          “Just leave this house as soon as you can. Then leave this village alone and don’t you ever come back. Please.

         He left before the sun had fully risen the next morning and walked the familiar road, fields of green depleted from the harvest. Large and lonely buffalo staying stagnant until the work hour. The mush mush mush of his feet as they sunk into the earth.

         He turned to the leftmost path in the fork of the road and his PHS buzzed to life.

          how hard would it be to kill a president and get away with it do you think?

          asking for a friend.

          arigato in advance or whatever the fuck thank you is 

         ...Sent only a day ago.

         Tseng glared hard at his PHS before collapsing it shut, deciding he didn’t have the energy for indulging Reno at the moment. He would deal with him in time. His immediate concern was paying a visit to Yu Zhen.  

Chapter Text

 


.o.

.~o.O.o~.

Chapter Ten: Backfire

.~o.O.o~.

.o.


 

         Her visits were becoming routine. She appeared at the start of the same hour of each day as the last scraps of breakfast tarts were thrown out to the birds on cobblestone streets below. She would never appear a minute earlier, as though doing so would break an unspoken decorum and render them both guilty of some social perversion. The hour that she came kept things mostly polite to outside eyes.

         It was something that Cloud could count on, even look forward to, until one afternoon, when the routine was disrupted. It was forty-three minutes past the start of the hour and she still hadn’t appeared. Cloud began to wonder what he might have said wrong the previous day when he heard the familiar, solid clicks of his door unlocking. He turned towards her. She held a thin, wide notebook in one hand. A pencil rested atop it.

         “May I draw you?” she asked him.

         “No.” was his immediate thought.

         He was embarrassed by the idea of being scrutinised by anyone for any period of time. More than feeling embarrassed, however, he did not want to offend her. Thus, after a moment’s hesitation, Cloud consented to Tifa’s request, trying his best to reel in his blushing as he sat by the window per her instruction.

         “You can look out the window if you’d like,” she said with laughter warming her words—he was trying so hard not to fidget and it read plainly on his face. He was eternally grateful to be looking away, for he was quickly able to lose himself in thought. Allowing his mind to wander was something Cloud never had much trouble doing. The hours slipped right by.

         He looked up when the quiet scratching of pencil against paper stopped and was surprised to see that she was now the one flushing red with embarrassment.

         “I, uh.” she gnawed on her lip as she traced a finger over whatever she drew, “I didn’t always see your mother.” Cloud could feel his body tensing up as he stared at her. Tifa was looking determinedly down at what was immediately in front of her, “But I’d, um, see her sometimes. Especially when I started to ask if you’d written or anything after you left for Midgar. And I remember thinking...” she sat up from the bed and walked towards him, “...that she looked a lot like you.”

         Tifa turned the paper towards him and Cloud’s breath caught in his throat.

         It was a rough sketch of lines that made up a woman with his likeness, staring out the window as he just was, with long hair pulled back in a ponytail that rarely went undone. Her face was rounder and older than his own, the eyes tired, but knowing. Mouth smiling, but strained. Deep lines were creased on either side of a pouty lip from years of frowning. No, no, it was from years of laughter, too. She was always trying to make light of things just so that he could sleep a little easier, breathe a little deeper.

         Cloud opened his mouth to speak but found that he had not the words. He finally looked towards Tifa, regretting that she looked very unsure. Almost melancholy.

         “I’m... If you don’t—”

         “I love this.” he finally said without another thought, “I... It looks like her. I think it does. Just seeing it.” he shrugged helplessly. There was the knowledge that he may never be certain whether or not this portrait of his mother was true to the actual woman, but there was something in this sketch that made his heart feel five years old again, bursting with worship. “I think you’ve really captured her,” He said as he stared at the picture with longing and love, “I... thank you.”

         Her lips turned up slightly and she breathed out a shaky laugh. Her voice was barely above a whisper, “That’s good. I’m really glad.”

         They looked at each other a long moment as an understanding was felt in the charged air between them. Cloud tilted his head up just so before Tifa knelt down to meet his ready lips with her own.

         Words aren’t the only way to tell someone how you feel. This is what she told him the last time they made love. Under the stars and out of time with death looming on the horizon. He wasn’t entirely sure about this conversation that they were having. He only knew for certain that he found a release like no other in this act. That sinking into her warmth left him with no time to dwell on his own damning thoughts. He only knew for certain that he needed her then and would need her again. Would need this fundamental reminder that he was whole and human from someone who had known him as such well before ShinRa ripped him apart.

         “I want,” she hissed with two hands balanced on his chest. One right over his pounding heart. “Oh, gods. I want to make you feel good.”

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

         The afternoon sun was hovering high above the sheet of brewing storms by the time Cloud and the others returned. The dreariness that was ever present around the camps had not lifted an iota in their absence. No, most everyone was still cooped up in their holes and homes, certain as they were that the Ex SOLDIER and his Half Wut were being devoured by the very monsters that had condemned them all to starvation. Their realisation of the contrary and rapture happened slowly and in waves. There were first the ones moving about in the open who spotted the returning group. Then there were the ones who poked out their heads from their shelters upon hearing the whoops and cheering. Then finally there were the ones who remained cooped up inside still, demanding to know from anyone who’d listen what the hell all the fuss was about.

         On every face was disbelief replaced quickly by a desperation to get to the recovered goods. It a deadly sort of trance and a few fights broke out as bags of food were wrestled between the survivors, but the hysteria was quickly quelled by the demands that were barked out by Cyril and a few, sensible others. Cyril, who looked at Cloud and Tifa as though they were a pair of ghosts from his distant past come back to haunt him. The space between Cloud’s brow pinched.

         Was there really such a lack of confidence that he and Tifa would follow through on their efforts? Had a single person anticipated their return? Had they honestly been sent off with the thought that it was undoubtedly to their deaths?

         Cloud felt slighted—outright insulted, even. He was, by no means, expecting a hero’s welcome. That wasn’t even something that he wanted—the very thought embarrassed him. No, what truly irked him was the feeling that arose from being encompassed by these doubtful faces. A feeling that was a little too reminiscent of what he’d feel in Nibelheim, surrounded by hateful glances that presumed that the scrawny bastard kid couldn’t possibly amount to anything extraordinary.

         The food from the bags was being sorted and rationed in improvised stations. Some survivors sat in clusters scooping out goods from bottles and cans. Others crawled back to those who were guarding the food, begging in desperate whispers for more. A cautious few could be seen storing away what they were given.

         It was clear that someone would need to lead a second trip for food and Cloud gladly volunteered himself to head that excursion. His eyes immediately sought out Tifa.

         She was in the centre of one of the clusters, helping oversee that the food distribution did not break out into a bloody fight. He reached her easily enough. The crowd of slumlings would part as soon as they recognised who was trying to get through. Tifa met his eyes and gave him a little smile. She looked positively exhausted. He tried to smile back. He told her about his plans.

         “Is that right?” she put a hand on either of her elbows, “I was actually thinking of turning in for the day...”  

         “That’s great.” Cloud said, enthused, “You should be resting up. I was actually prepared to talk you out of it if you said you were coming.”

         “Is that right? Now you make me want to go if only to prove I can.”

         Cloud laughed once, “I’m sure that you could. I’m not so sure you should.”  

         “Ha. Okay, Captain Cloud.” she cocked her head, “You’re sure that you don’t need any backup?”

         “It’ll be fine, Teef. You don’t wanna pass out on anybody.” Cloud said. Only half joking.

         “It’s not that bad!” Cloud gave her a look, “Okay, so maybe it is. I am pretty tired.” she admitted quietly, “And if you’re sure you don’t need help...”  

         “I’ll see you this evening.” he hesitated a second before lifting a hand and resting it on her shoulder, “Get some sleep, Tifa.” He gave her a friendly shake. It would make him feel a hell of a lot better.

         “Okay.” she smiled, resting a hand over his own. Her thumb stroked idly and without thought. Without warning her smile wavered, looking all wrong. She appeared almost wild with something akin to desperation.

         “Cloud—”

         He had begun to pull his hand away just as she started to speak and the movement sealed her lips shut. He had only pulled back because the feelings that she’d begun to stir had no place here, out in the open. It embarrassed him and he wanted to leave before that embarrassment was evident on his cheeks.

         He caught her expression, however, before she reined her face into one of pleasant neutrality.

         “Tifa?”

         “Mmm?”

         There. He’d lost it. She was hiding again. There was a faint red in his cheeks, but he felt far from embarrassed.

         “I’ll catch you later, Teef.” he said softly, then moved once again, parting the crowd with presence alone. Tifa watched him disappear.

         “...See you around, Cloud.”

 

.~o.O.o~.

 


         When Tifa retreated back to the room that the camp was lending to her and Cloud, she kept true to her word and readied herself for bed. She peeled off her filthy clothes, wiped briskly at the grime that coated her skin, settled into the bed sheets and closed her eyes. Sleep, however, was cruelly evasive. She came to the very fringes of a deep slumber, but an awareness of where she was kept her from tipping over into numbing darkness. It prodded at her eyeballs and raked at her belly. The restlessness went on for hours.

         It was nearing nightfall when she threw back the sheets and quivered in the chill, giving up the hope for a decent sleep. She approached the paneless window to peer out at the camp, stark naked and shivering, but unafraid of being seen. She was mostly in shadow.

         She stood there, still as stone, gazing out at the wretched and damned as they scurried like ants upon a fresh kill. There was a gnawing pain in the pit of her stomach like a snake uncoiling and growing too large and sinking fangs into her insides. Spewing poison into her stream.

         “I should have never come back here,” she whispered to herself. She has made herself a cog piece in this rebuilding of Midgar. She knew this. Now that she has sunk this deep into the muck of it, she would be expected to continue. She may even end up residing in the city once more. The very thought sent nausea clambering up her throat.

         She should have stayed away. She should have stayed in Kalm. She would have been like the leaf carried in by the wind to foreign soil and crushed into the earth by the native feet until her queerness, her other, was indistinguishable to the rest of the land. She would have been quiet. She would have been happy.

         She felt sorry for the thought as soon as it came. Of course she was needed here. She was helping.

         Tifa let out a great sigh before stepping back from the window. If there were bodies scampering anew like this, at this hour, it likely meant that Cloud has returned from the trip with more food. She slipped on some clothes and went outside to investigate.

         One would think that a man with features as bright and alarming as Cloud’s own would be easy to spot in a crowd of the filthy and thin, even with the impending darkness. This would not prove so. Tifa wandered and looked, all while feeling as though her head was being stuffed with cotton. She realised that she was rather hungry herself. Hungry and tired and utterly miserable.

         Suddenly, her eyes were drawn to a shape that she hadn’t been seeking but recognised. She may not have noticed at all if it weren’t for the fires that were being lit around her. It was that slight, tiny frame of the girl, her wild black hair still largely untamed. In her twig-like fingers was what looked to be a bowl of some sort. Besides her was a second, wiry figure—that of a woman—with a hand on Hana’s shoulder. They walked until they found a rusted old barrel turned on its side to sit on and brought the bowls up to their faces.

         Tifa must have been staring long enough to be noticed, for the small girl nodded towards her and the woman looked her way and beckoned her forward with a spidery hand. Tifa moved forward with a sluggish but single-minded determination.

         The woman smiled, gesturing to an empty spot on the barrel beside Hana. She took the seat.

          “You are that woman?” She said.

         Tifa turned towards the stranger. Her voice was melodic, flowing and pausing in an ancient rhythm. Her Wutainese accent was very strong.

         “That woman who saved my Hana?” she continued when Tifa did not answer.

         “Yes, Mama.” Hana peeped up for the first time. She blushed and ducked her head when Tifa looked at her.

         “I didn’t realise that you knew.” Tifa admitted.  

         “Her father told me. And Hana here pointed you out. She does always speak of you.” the woman smiled, “I never did thank you.”

         She reached a hand over and squeezed Tifa’s shoulder. There was a layer of twill there that Tifa wished wasn’t there as she imagined the palm and fingers of this woman to feel worn, but soft. Warm. A mother’s touch. Her mother’s touch.

         “You’re welcome.” She said softly, the fight spent out of her. Then, “Her father?”

         The woman looked sheepish, “He is like a father. Isn’t he Hana?”

         Hana only shrugged, looking back down at her bowl.

         “Oh. You knew each other from before?” Tifa waved a hand around.

         “Oh, yes. I would see him around. He was always tough, but friendly. He made sure no one messed with us. Took a liking to Hana, especially, isn’t that right? Wasn’t he always nice? When the, uh, plate fell, everything was very ugly for a while. Very ugly. But Cyril cleared up the mess. As best as he could. He has been very good to us.”

         Tifa bit her lip, “It was bad, huh?”

         The woman shook her head. They would speak no more of it. Instead, the woman asked her, “You are Wutainese?” and spoke something in her native tongue.

         “Oh. My mother was.”

         The woman, again, said something in that far west tongue. Tifa shook her head and shrugged helplessly.

         “You do not speak Wutainese?”

         “I don’t.” Tifa smiled sadly, “I wish I did.” after a pause, “My mother would sing songs to me in Wutainese all the time. My father, though. He wanted Iciclean spoken in the house."

         “Ah, your mother is around?”

         “She isn’t.” Tifa’s voice went impossibly quiet. That old wound was an even older beast that lashed out its claws and tore up her inside when provoked. She would keep it chained under lock and key but every now and then that chain would burst. She felt weak enough to collapse. A warm hand gripped hers tightly.

         “She is gone?”

         Tifa couldn’t trust herself to speak. She looked down and nodded once.

         “Your father?” the woman said gently, carefully. Tifa shook her head.

         The woman let the truth wash over them briefly, squeezing Tifa’s hand again.

         “There is a saying amongst the Wutainese,” she began, her voice sounding older, richer than before “That every child is your own. That makes your mother like my sister and you,” she tucked a strand of hair behind Tifa’s hair, “one of my daughters.”

         The woman rested her hand on Tifa’s shoulder. Tifa took ahold of it; it was all she could manage. One word and she’d burst and she hated crying. The woman pressed the chipped bowl of broth and beans to Tifa’s mouth. She shook her head but the woman insisted.

         “Please, take it. I can tell you are hungry. Mother’s intuition.”

         Tifa was feeling light and just a little bit dizzy, but it was not from hunger. She accepted the bowl. And they sat there, in comfortable silence, bonded by blood and distant kinship. Tifa thought that if it weren’t for the small things that served to remind her—from the hunger etched into the lines of their faces and the smell of smoke burned into their clothes—she might have forgotten that she was back in Midgar.

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

        Cloud wanted nothing more than to clean up and lay down after returning to the camp, but someone had other plans. Cloud stood a little straighter as Cyril approached him.

         “Made it back all whole...” his eyes travelled downward. Cloud was wielding a large, dented pot. He chose to ignore Cyril’s unspoken inquiry.

         “There’s even more where that came from if others are willing to keep making the trip.”

         “We’ll get’em. We’ll get’em. Now, what I’m interested in knowing is what your plans are going forward?”

         “Moving forward from here. Seeing who else we can help.”

         “Woah, you’re in a rush to leave us now?”

         Cloud looked back. Cyril was a tall man and Cloud noted that he had yet to use that height to try and crowd and intimidate, though his copper eyes are bright and eager. They looked especially alive with fire reflecting in them. He’d resort to bullying if he thought it would help him. At that moment, however, he was giving Cloud his space, treating him like an equal. He was looking to seduce Cloud with the subtlest of flattery.

         “I’d have to talk it over with my partner, but leaving soon was the idea.”

         “You’d do a lot more if you’d stay. Now, you hear me out on this. These families? Our place here? It's been a work in progress since they left us to die out here. We've been through it all, man. We’ve travelled, scourged the city for more survivors. As far as fucking Four, man—”

         “So we’ll search Five.” Cloud frowned, “That’s only half the—”

         Cyril shook his head, “Now, listen. Five? The reason why my people only got as far as they did was because Five has been totally collapsed in. The plate? When it fell, it must have been flipped or something. It’s nothing but a wall of the Underside. Just—you can't pierce it, man.”

         “So what are you saying? That our work is done here?”

         “I’m saying it’s pointless trying to travel on. Not when there’s still help that’s needed here. That hive of bugs you took down—that’s just one problem you dealt with. There’s more food and goods that we can’t reach with monsters in the way. That’s where you and your partner can come in and help. Doesn’t that make sense?”

         It would make a lot of sense if Cloud believed it. A large part of him wanted to. It was not so much distrust that made Cloud apprehensive. Rather, it was curiosity coupled with a fear of not knowing for certain what awaited him in the next sectors.

         “The girl we found,” he began to say more to himself than Cyril, “She might have died had Tifa and I not explored the first sector.”

         “But we knew she was missing. We’d be able to tell you if someone wandered off.”

         Cloud crossed his arms, “As I've said. It isn’t just my decision to make.”

         Cyril’s copper eyes narrowed. He took a step forward, “You will, at the least, help us clear a second spot? ‘Nother grashtrike hive. Not as huge, but still deadly. Could keep us in the clear for a while.”

         “I’ll mention it.”

         Cyril picked up on the warning in Cloud’s voice and took that step back. He cleared his throat,

         “Now, I only do this ‘cause I have a promise to keep. Similar to you. You made your friend a promise to live? Well, I made a promise to these people that they’d live, too. I failed here and there, but that doesn't mean I quit. I gotta make sure they have a chance.”

         “I respect that,” Cloud responded. And he truly did, ”I’ll see what we can do.”

         “So you’re staying?”

         Cloud laughed once without humour, “I’m thinking of touching down now. It’s been a pretty long day for me. When I see Tifa, I’ll tell her all you told me. We’ll talk. I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ll let you know.”

         Cyril measured him up with his eyes again before nodding once.

         “...Alright.”

         Cloud gave a short nod back before getting out of Cyril’s proximity.

         Cloud went into that space that he and Tifa had been given with careful, quiet steps only to see that the room was empty. He frowned.

         He reasoned that she could simply be out again after taking her break.

         Yeah...

         Her gloves were still in view, though, peeking out of her bag. He dropped a bar of soap that he salvaged from the shops next to them before switching out her fire materia for his lightning. He grabbed a clean set of clothes. He contemplated leaving the Buster Sword behind but changed his mind at the last moment. Better safe than sorry.

         With pot in hand, Cloud travelled until he was on the border of the camp and a little ways beyond. He stopped when he reached a high standing slab of concrete to hide behind.  

          There were a variety of ways that Cloud and his friends would keep clean as they journeyed across the whole of Gaia, each method varying in their inventiveness and intricacy. At times they would have to be really creative or else risk one’s health or reek for miles and miles, souring everyone’s mood. Anyone whom they’d hope to turn for help when they’d reach a new town would especially be offended. They all became something of experts in the art of improv hygiene.

         Cloud would favour utilising materia whenever possible. It could prove tricky on the road when he was surrounded by a plethora of things that wanted to eat him and his friends, but travelling out to the depression, while tiring, hardly sapped his magic reserves. With the use of fire and ice, a bit of soap, and his newly acquired pot, he was able to wash off in a fashion that was considerably more gratifying than the wipes he and Tifa had been supplied with.

         Tifa was there when he returned. He hadn’t even sensed her—she was as quiet as the dead and nearly just as still. She looked up when he walked in but he had seen her, drooping over as though some something was pulling her to the floor by the shoulders.

         “Hey.” she whispered, then stretched, “Did you only just get back?”

         He held up the pot, “Just cleaned up. I borrowed your fire to do it.”

         She nodded, “That’s fine.”

         “...Did you just get here? To bed?”

         “Huh? Oh, no. No, I have other clothes under this. I just. Well, I tried to sleep for a bit. Kind of rough. So I left to get food and now I’m back here.”

         “Ah.” Cloud said, frowning, “So no go on the sleep?”

         “I can always try again tonight.”

         “Would warm water help?” he offered the pot. Tifa smiled softly as she took it from him.

         “I guess it couldn’t hurt.”

         “Found soap in the second trip.” he motioned towards her bag.

         “Oh! Great.” Tifa grabbed the bar and stood up.

         “You can manage by yourself?”

         Tifa laughed once, “I think I can handle boiling a little water, Cloud.” she held out a hand, “The materia, please?”

         He gave them to her wordlessly.

         She left him on that note. He unclipped the Buster Sword and laid it against the corner opposite of the bed. Sitting on the edge of the end of the mattress, he stared at the blade and hated, hated how useless he felt. One of his friends—a very dear friend—was hurting. Plainly. And he bumbled around the issue like a fool.

         He was not adept at “asking the right questions” or “saying the right thing.” He could cheer on his friends. He could remind them that they were brave and strong. But being soft and soothing and sailing through the matters of a broken heart? He didn’t know the magic words to fix that.

         It was hard not to wish that he were someone else.

          No, stop.

         It was hard not to wish that he had someone else with him to guide him through this. Barret might know something. Their goodbyes they gave when they were outside the ruins… he told her to let her know the moment that she needed him. Cloud failed to realise or even consider that the problems Barret might have been referring to went well beyond fighting monsters and stretching supplies. Yes, Barret probably knew something and Cloud resented the fact.

         He heard her before he saw her.

         “Still up?” She asked him. He shrugged.

         “I think you’re rubbing off on me.”

         She sat on her side of the bed, unhooked her cloak, and sighed, “Well, that’s no good.”

         They were silent for a while.

         “Cyril… he wants us to stay a while longer.”

         “What?”

         “Says there are more spots to clear out. There’s another grashtrike hive that’s smaller than the one we tackled today.”

         “What about the other sectors?”

         “He says they’ve already looked for survivors in the other sectors. And that five’s cut off.”

         “Bullshit.” She said easily.

         “You really think so?”

          "If he's been in the Slums all his life, lying probably comes natural to him." There was a thoughtful pause, "I mean, its not that I exactly blame him, either. You're an opportunity for food. He recognises that opportunity. He's gonna secure that opportunity in any way that he can. There are no rules or honour codes when it comes to that sort of thing. It's how you survive."

         Cloud was thoughtfully quiet. Then, "So you lie to live in the Slums."

          "If lying is what it takes, yeah."

          "But what if things have changed now? What if that rule doesn't apply in these circumstances?"

          Tifa laughed once, "It's not all that different from before. They're still struggling to survive. The odds are still against them. If anything, Meteor's probably given them a reason to play dirtier than they're used to."

          "...So that's how things were for you when you were living in the Slums? A bunch of lying and dirty tricks?" Cloud asked carefully.

         Tifa didn’t answer right away, though the chilly silence was nearly answer enough.

          "It was how you survived." She said, voice tired and far away. She sighed, "...Not everyone would be out to get you. There were a few that..." She paused then shook her head, "Just... You learn to stop being surprised is all. The lengths that people will go to just to get a bit of food or something warm for the night? You just stop being surprised by them."

         There was another pause as Cloud contemplated her words, horrified at the implications. How long had she been starving before 7th Heaven became home? What did she have to resort to? Just to get by? 

         Why was he only just thinking to ask these things? 

         “Even if he’s telling the truth," Tifa began before he could press her further, "You think Reeve would okay our staying here?” 

         Cloud shrugged, "I don’t think so. We could try to ask him.” Try because Reeve had so much on his plate these days and rarely answered their PHS calls on the first attempt. Or second. Or third.

         Tifa scoffed, “I say we move on. Maybe we can check out this second hive to help out, but our job isn’t to set up in one spot.”

         “I figured you wouldn’t want to stay here any longer than you had to.”

         There was a surprised silence, “...Well, do you?”

         “Probably not for the same reasons,” Cloud thought to himself, “Whatever your reasons may be.”

         “No,” he said instead, “So… we’re in agreement.”

         “Okay then.” Tifa said, hardly above a whisper, and laid down. Cloud stood up and went to lay on his side.   

         They shared this space not so much out of preference but for convenience, yet, the proximity reminded Cloud of the nights when Tifa would willingly go to him. They haven’t touched each other so intimately since Kalm.

         He wondered if it was the darkness that made them so brave then. She’d always leave in that darkness, too, dressing in a corner where he could not see her. The sex was a secret, guarded by nightfall.

         And she was always so good at it, always leading him along. It was clear from the first coupling that she’s had a lover, maybe more,  prior to him. There was a jealousy there, not so much of the faceless strangers that she bedded long before their nights in Kalm, but of the knowledge that this was another joy that he had been deprived of in his imprisonment in ShinRa Manor. His very first time knowing someone in that way had been a last, desperate act before the world was supposed to end.

         He turned towards her, the length of her back facing him. She was always leading this waltz, guiding hands here and there. And it helped him.

         He’d help her.

         When words would fail them…  

          I want to make you feel good.

         He put a hand on her shoulder then leisurely dragged the palm down the length of her upper arm, resting on the elbow. There was a pause before she lifted a hand and deliberately placed it over his own. Her thumb stroked the back of his hand. Just like before.

         Encouraged, he brought his arm around her middle and closed the gap between them. He brushed her hair back from the crook of her neck and kissed the flesh there. Kissed along the length of her neck as he ran a finger along the inner curve of her hip. He hugged her closer when she shivered.

         “Cloud…”

         His fingers traced along the hem of her panty. The very tips of them had slipped just beneath that layer of cotton, riding up nearly to his knuckle …

          I want to make you feel good.

         ...when her hand clasped over his wrist, stopping him in place.

         “Don’t.” she breathed, sounding small and frightened, “Please. Just don’t.”  

         It was as though someone pulled away the sheets and ripped away his clothes and shined a bright light over him, exposing all the ugly bits of him. He retreated immediately, turned away, and curled in on himself.

         “I’m sorry.” he rasped out. He was burning with shame, “I… I’m so sorry.”

         He heard her shift from behind him and felt, to his shock, a tentative hand on his shoulder. She stroked once with that thumb again then pressed her cheek against the space between his shoulders. Her touch was like acid. It hurt, hurt, hurt.

         What does she mean? What on Gaia does she mean? He doesn’t like this game. He doesn’t get these rules.

         “I wish…” she began.

         Cloud heard her take a long breath and mutter something against his back. No, he didn’t hear that. She only moved her lips, mouthing the words to herself. She shook her head, gripping his shoulder.  

         Four words she whispered into the still, chilly night. Ringing in his ears. Following him into his dreams. 

         "...I don’t know how."

 


.o.

.~o.O.o~.

.o.


 

         Reno was tired.

         In his previous line of work, he was used to shooting down the occasional idiot who would pull a gun on the president. He was used to beating the shit out of other, occasional idiots in a dingy grey room who openly conspired to pull a gun on the president. He’d travel abroad by chopper to oversee the inspection of mako sites and sample the local spirits while there to ensure that it was a trip well spent. He would take it upon himself to boost company morale by pulling large-scale pranks both under and above plate with clean ups that kept whole squadrons of grunts busy and, thus, gave whole squadrons of grunts meaning.

         He’d stalk persons of interest. Make fatal fires look like accidents. Fry the groins off of mob bosses and their shithead subordinates whenever they’d get too big for their britches.

         And this would all leave him tired, but it was a good kind of tired. The sort of happy, sleepy, achy feeling that follows a night of fantastic sex.

         But this? This was the bad kind tired. This was the “Play-your-heart-out-for-the-team-and-get-your-ass-handed-to-you” tired. He was unused to fighting demon ex-Turks and being stuck on long ass ferry rides with ships that were barely functioning. He must have done some fucking twisted, evil shit in his past lives to warrant a boat that broke down a total of eight fucking times with intermissions that would last anywhere from twenty minutes to four fucking hours. Or maybe it was Rude’s fault? Fucking Rude.

         “Just tell him that we’re here, man, so that we can get this the fuck over with?”

         The tall, stocky guard stationed outside of Silva’s office—Bono or some shit, Reno forgot—straightened his collar, but, otherwise, did not move. Reno clenched his fist and, for a blissful moment, imagined ramming it through the face of this oversized prick.

         “Is it because I forgot your name, yo? ‘Cause I’ve never been good with that shit. Boner, was it?”

         The line of Barros’s jaw clenched, “Look, Red. Baldie. I’ve told you once and I’ll you again. The President isn’t seeing anyone so back the fuck off.”

         “Do you want the papers? We’ll show you the papers. Baldie, show him the papers.”

         Rude refused to answer to Baldie. Barros rolled his eyes.

         “Just tell him that it’s us, yo. He’ll let us through and then we’ll leave.”

         “I don’t think you get it.” Barros snarled, looking at Reno like he looked and smelled like Behemoth shit, “It wouldn’t matter if you were the Emperor of Wutai himself. The President won’t see you. President wants the office to himself today? He gets it. Now leave. You’re really starting to piss me off!”

         Reno smacked his own forehead and dragged his hand down his chin. Rude eyed him from the side with mild concern.

         Reno has been in a bad mood all day. No. He'd been in a bad mood even before the Ferry Fiasco happened. In truth, he’s been in a mood since the run-in with Valentine. Reno was excellent at his job, Rude knew, and rarely faced down his own mortality. The rare moments where he did always left him feeling a bit disorientated and whiny.

         “Well,” Rude thought, “Whinier than usual.

          He wondered vaguely how much of the brunt Tseng was taking of this whole drama; when he and Reno were still working under ShinRa, Reno would make a habit of harassing their stern leader whenever he was especially annoyed like this. Rude could mellow him out in most cases, but there were times where he grew too apathetic to Reno's antics and it was always Tseng with his low tolerance for bullshit who would finally have to smack some sense back into the redhead. Often literally.

          Though Tseng was not physically with them, Rude would catch Reno sending vaguely threatening texts to the man every now and then...

          “I just want to get this shit over with, yo,” Reno groaned, “I just wanna drop this shit off and like, I dunno, visit Laney or something. Or grab a sandwich. Or drown in a pool of fucking ice cream because this heat is fucking offensive. I dunno, man. I’m just fucking tired of babysitting these gai’damn books.” Reno took the bag off Rude’s shoulders and shoved it at Barros, “So just give him these fucking things and we’ll send the bill or some shit. I believe he’s good for it, yo.”

         The nostrils of Barros’s nose flared as he shoved back, “No!

         Reno bared his teeth and puffed out his chest. He was spoiling for a brawl. Barros drew up his body in much the same way and it was like watching two wild-eyed animals circle each other before jumping in for the kill.

         Rude put a restraining hand on Reno and took back the bag of goods before he could do anything that they’d both regret. Then the sound of buzzing cut through the air. The guard’s PHS was ringing. He gave them both a nasty look before answering it,

         “Yes, sir?” There was a pause, “The Turks. Yes. They just came in, but I already told them—Bring them in?” Reno smiled wickedly at the delicious look of defeat and annoyance on Barros’s face, “I, uh..alright. Yes, sir. At once.”

         Barros put away his device and fixed Reno with a murderous glare. Warning.


         “The President will see you now,” he said lowly, unlocking the door and holding it open for them.

         “Thought so, bitch.” Reno pulled down the bottom lid of his right eye, stuck out his tongue, and wagged the middle finger of his other hand right in Barro’s face as he walked by. It took every last bit of Barros’s will power and professionalism not to repeatedly slam the door on Reno until he’d broken a bone or two. Rude shoved Reno along.

         “Don’t push your luck.”

         “Ah, shut up, Baldie.”

         Rude and Reno were once again in the immaculate space that was Silva’s office. All dark stained wood and polished black marble. Rufus used to keep his own office in a similar fashion, they noted with a touch of regret. Maybe there’s a connection between cleanliness, order, and a hunger for world power?

         Rude took note of the wide, empty space on Silva’s desk—a picture frame, pen holder pushed to the side there, a telephone all pushed to the side. Silva’s hand seemed to be on the knob of the leftmost drawer as he cleared his throat and stood at attention. Reno took the bag from Rude, sauntered over to Silva and placed the load on his desk. Silva blinked once as he collected himself and took in the appearance of Reno’s grinning face, mussed hair, and dishevelled clothes.

         Reno did not look very “tidy” the last time that they met, but he seemed a bit more harassed than usual. There wasn’t a trace of humour behind those smiling pearly whites.

         “There.” he said before he took a step back. Silva gave him a weary smile.

         “You will excuse Barros’s rudeness? You’re here earlier than expected, or else I would’ve told him to make an exception for you.”

         “Earlier than expected? We told you two weeks.”

         “That you did, but I guess I assumed you were being optimistic. I had imagined ShinRa’s libraries were large and well hidden. And with travelling being a nuisance without mako, well. To tell you the truth, I was ready to wait for three .”

         Reno’s smile only grew more feral, “What can I say, yo? When you hired the Turks, you hired the best.” Reno pulled out a slip of paper from his front pocket, “Almost forgot. Locations of mako plants.” Nevermind that most of them were depleted beyond use and that he only listed what he could remember. Oh, Rude helped, too, he guessed.

         Silva studied the list quietly, hummed once, and moved to open the bag. He picked up the first, dense volume of the Jenova journals. He flipped through the pages, examined the spine, then moved on to the next volume to treat it to the same inspection.


         “They appear to be in good condition… so few, though?”

         Reno didn’t miss a beat, “I was surprised too, yo, but Gast always did have some tiny-ass handwriting. Probably crammed a lot into these things. But we were thorough and this is what we found.”


         “And this is all you found?” Silva asked cooly, “The first few volumes are missing.”  

         Reno only shrugged and nodded, his arrogant expression never wavering, “Take it or leave it, yo. We found what we could and that’s the shit you see today.”

         Silva did not fight him any further, which took Reno by surprise. Seemingly satisfied with this answer, Silva buzzed in his guard and asked him to retrieve the money. Minutes of silence passed by. Reno paced the room while Silva went back to skimming through the journals. Rude kept his ever watchful eye on him.

         A moment later, Barros walked in hauling not one, but two suitcases. He placed one beside Rude and dropped the other by Reno.

         “As agreed. The rest of your payment, making for a grand total of ten million gil each. Well ,” Silva smiled, “Maybe a little more than the figure we agreed upon.”

         That wiped the smile clean off Reno’s face. Even the stoic one raised an eyebrow.


         “Ten million gil?” Reno said disbelieving.

         “Yes.” Silva’s smile grew even wider, “I know the agreed upon amount was the two point five, but you have more than exceeded my expectations. And I pay handsomely for good service.”

         “We… There's only some of the journals, though.”

         “I know.”

         He wouldn’t elaborate. He came around the desk,

         “Please, gentlemen, do not be surprised. You see, I can be very generous when I want to be. I hope this is the start of, perhaps, even more business between us?” he reached for Reno’s hand.

         “Wait, yo.”

         He picked up his share, placed it on Silva’s desk, and went to checking. Silva sighed,

         “Please. You insult me.”

         Reno put a hand up and went back to work, rubbing the right spots on the notes, and holding them to the light.

         “Are you going to check every last—”

         “ Shh the fuck up, please .

         Anger flared in Silva but he bit it back. It would only be moments now till he was rid of them.

         Reno put down the last bill… then moved on to Rude’s share.

          “Just moments, Silva, just moments!”

         Reno looked at Silva as though he’d blow away with the breeze that seeped through the window, revealing himself to be a load of smoke. A trick. Silva met his eyes evenly.

         “Satisfied?”

         Reno looked to Rude and back to Silva then back again. His voice was the closest to breathless that Silva has ever heard it, “It's all there, yo. And it's all real.”

         The deal is sealed then.” Silva looked imploringly at the two Turks.

         They stalled for a moment before making for their respective suitcases as though they’d been thawed from ice, moving slow and awkward and a little unsure. The shook Silva’s hand when he offered it and he dismissed them with a short laugh and a “good day.” For once, Reno didn’t get the last word in as he was lead out the office with his suitcase of cash.

         Suitcase of cash.

         Nine point five fucking million gil.

         “If it would suit you, gentlemen,” Barros began in monotone once they were out of the office, “President Silva offers his private car to take you to your next destination, whatever that may be. You are free to try your luck with public transportation but I’m sure you’ve experienced what that’s like.”

         “Hell,” Reno said, “Hell, why not? The gil, the car. Hell, why not? Wanna visit, Laney, yo? Buy her a gai’damn gold chocobo?”

         “Can another car be arranged?” Rude asked.

         Barros peered at the smaller man, “This arrangement displeases you?”

         “I’d be happy with a normal taxi,” A pause then, “A private car’s a bit much.”

         “Is it, Rude? I think we’ve earned it, yo.”

         “You must realise that this isn’t some ego-trip of the President? You are carrying nearly twenty million gil in cash. You want to risk that to travelling in public?”

          “We can handle ourselves.”

         This clearly agitated Barros but he gave up the fight. He paged a number and fingered his earpiece as he requested a public taxi with a privacy screen. It seemed to be taking a considerable amount of time, crossing the line from reasonable to ridiculous by a just few minutes. But they were finally off.

         They were being driven to a Mideelan eatery on the other side of town that was just a few blocks away from Elena’s neighbourhood. This was the stash point where they were keeping the rest of their gil while they stayed in Junon. The head chef and Reno go way, way back

         Reno and Rude sat in the back of the cab with twin, silver cases sandwiched between them. Reno couldn’t keep his eyes off them, his face a cross of fascination and fear. As though he were staring into the mouth of a Midgar Zolom. He eventually looked up at Rude.

         “Almost feel sorry for cheatin’ the guy, yo.” he whispered.

         Rude was quiet for a very long time. Then, “What do you think he’s hiding?”

         “The SOLDIER program?”

         “It’s more than that.” Rude said softly. Reno shrugged.

         “Dunno, yo. This is a shit ton of hush money though.”

         “Does he want to rehire us, you think?”

         “Or, at least, he wants us to stay in his good graces in the hopes that he’ll want us again. For this kind of gil. Shit! This could be our schtick, yo. Work for a rich egomaniac until he fucks himself over then move onto the next one ‘till she fucks herself over. Etcetera. “

         Rude looked hard at the cases as though willing them to give up some kind of secret, “This is just enough to shut us up. For a very long time,” he murmured, then recalled, “When we went into his office… his hand. He was putting something away.”

         “His dick?”

         Rude took a deep breath, “Something in one of the drawers.”

         “Nudie mags, yo.” Reno said simply.


         “Something that could wait for the journals, but not for anyone else?”


         “Not even the Emperor of Wutai, remember?”


         “Something’s off.”

         “Or maybe,” Reno sat back, “He was literally just stroking one off. Which I hope to hell not because I shook hands with the fucker.”

         “Could you take this seriously for five minutes?”

         “It fucking happens with these types, yo. You forget the freaky shit Old Man ShinRa was into? They get off on shit like this. Like some weird, power kink. I’m shutting out all these visitors, including fucking important emperors and shit, just to blow a load. Nah, I’m not going to just stay home and choke my chocobo. I’m gonna do it right fucking here. In my fucking public office. It’s psychology, yo.”  


         Rude looked at him as though he had grown a tail. “I think you're taking the emperor thing too literally."

         Reno rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Either way, he was probably jerking off. Or he wasn't. Who the hell cares, yo?”


         Rude fell silent. Reno looked at him regrettably and sighed, “You already know what I think, Rude. But you said so yourself that it’s not likely that he has the funds for another SOLDIER program.”


         “That was before he gave us twenty million gil for a bunch of journals.”

         Reno ignored him as he rummaged in his pants pocket for his PHS,

         “I’m gonna tell that monk we’re filthy rich now and that he’s not allowed to join us when we take all of Silva’s money because he’s a jerkhole.”

         “...You’re not referring to Tseng?”

         “Mmm? Yeah, who else? I’ve decided he’s gone full monk now. 'Cause you know how he was always kind of, you know," Reno waved a hand, "Uptight and shit? Always going, 'Oh, focus Reno! Pay attention, Elena!'—Poor Laney. So, yeah, going monk makes sense, yo. He's probably literally sitting on his ass somewhere, bald as fuck, shutting out the world through meditation and shit. Why else the fuck doesn’t he answer his gai’damn PH—huh?”

         Reno’s PHS was in his back pocket along with a sheet of paper. It was a blank copy of the mission report sheet. Wait, but if Reno had the blank one…

         “Oh, shit.” he laughed.

         “What?” Rude sighed.

          Reno grinned like a maniac and was about to answer when the taxi came to a crawl. Both Turks looked around and frowned.

         “What the fuck, yo? This isn’t our—”

         The window on Rude’s side shattered. Rude hissed sharply and gripped his shoulder. His hand came away with blood. Reno’s eyes looked around wildly and quickly, centring on the barrel of a gun being held by their cab driver. His heart sunk to his knees.

         “Fucking shit!”

 

.~o.O.o~.

 

         Silva had settled back behind his desk to rummage through the Jenova books some more when a folded slip of paper feel out from between one of the pages. He recognised it as a copy of the mission report. There was actually some writing scribbled on it with red ink. Curious, he unfolded the sheet and immediately felt flushed.

         They had not filled it out per sé; there were about three sentences of report and then, right below it, taking up a third of the page, was a giant, veiny phallus. There was an arrow pointing from Reno’s underlined name to said phallus. Next to the doodle was a much smaller, veinless phallus sporting a pair of sunglasses at the head and what appeared to be a goatee on the scrotum. “RUDE!! xD” was scribbled next to it. Silva sniffed once and folded the report on itself twice before ripping it in half and throwing it away.


         “ShinRa’s Hounds certainly are a special sort.” he muttered to himself as he picked up the phone on his desk and dialled the third line. He fiddled his fingers as he patiently waited for the line to pick up.

         “Yes?” A soft and mellow voice answered on the other end.

         “I have the journals. Some of them anyway. But it should be sufficient to start.”

         “Excellent.” the voice purred, “How many do you see?”

         Silva glanced,

         “Counting five.”

         “There should be nine at the least. But that will have to do. When will you have the others?”

         “I cannot say. The Hounds were here and back in a matter of a couple of weeks. So assuming there are no problems, I’d say by the end of this week.”

         “So at least three days. That will be fine. The Hounds’ timing really has been excellent.”

         Silva smiled, the warmth in his chest pulling at the centre of his being, “So it begins.” he said dreamily.

         “It begins.”

         Silva set the phone back on its receiver and smiled to himself. For several years he would dream of a day like this when he could finally put a program like SOLDIER to proper use. A genius like Sephiroth had been such wasted potential and sloppily handled from what he has heard. He was pumped too full of different cells that attacked like parasites feasting on a perfectly healthy host, totally wrecking his brain chemistry and rendering him insane. But he would do things differently. He would placate everything that ShinRa managed to ruin. He would see it that the world gets its perfect SOLDIERs, and once he’s rid of Sephiroth remnants like Cloud Strife before he, too, could go mad, the whole of Gaia can be at peace with their perfect warriors. And he would be revered for his efforts until the end of Gaia’s days.

         He reclined fully in his seat, basking in his fortune.

         “Oh, yes.” he whispered softly, eyes shifting close, “It begins.”